November 9th 2015: Extreme eating
The White Monkey
, by Chris Dean

Blackened hunks of finger curled up above the steaming red mush. Pepper smell and potato wafted from the wooden bowl, the horrifying scent of flesh lingering within. Charley retched. He pressed his hands to his stomach and turned away from the low table. As he shifted his butt over the horse hide rug, pointy shafts stabbed through his thin trousers and he winced. Then another cramp came, in his left thigh this time. He wasn’t used to sitting cross legged. As he massaged his leg he considered telling the headman that he only wanted to offer a greeting and be on his way. For a brief moment Charley was invigorated by the possibility of fleeing from that filthy tent and the stink of dead monkey, escaping away into the night.

But Aalam’s strong voice lashed out from the other side of the table like a wave of wind, “The white monkey is a delicacy.” A long, brown hand fished a dripping chunk from the bowl. Aalam slurped it into his mouth with relish. “Only on the highest plateaus can they be found.” Charley cringed at the power inside that voice. It would brook no reluctance for tradition. Food was scarce in the mountains and the offer to break bread at a man’s table was almost a sacred gesture. To refuse the headman’s hospitality would invoke a harsh response.

Steeling himself against his revulsion, Charley gingerly retrieved a dripping piece of flesh from the bowl. His knuckle brushed one of the fingers as he did so and his stomach turned. Suddenly angry at his squeamishness, he stuffed the quivering morsel of meat into his mouth and swallowed. There was no sense in his reaction to the meal. Charley was well aware the tribesmen in northern Pakistan ate monkey, camel, and God knew what else. This was a place apart from the rest of the world and if the sight of a few monkey fingers in his dinner was going to shock him then he had no right being there.

“Good?”

Charley watched Aalam’s dark, omniscient eyes for a moment. He answered honestly, “It is new to me. But the flavor is good, yes.”

A knowing smile spread over the angular face. “Americans.” The headman chuckled silently. “You have particular appetites.”

“We do.” He tore a hunk from the flat brown bread that covered one side of the table. Munching it, he said, “We enjoy bread.”

“It is so!” Aalam laughed sharply.

The rest of the meal went well. Charley scooped just once more from the bowl, shutting his eyes demonstrably and gulping. The headman was amused and his gesture was enough. He allowed Charley to fill up on bread and a dish of bitter root salad without further comment.

When the dishes were cleared and it was time to speak of important things Charley opened the conversation casually. “This is a safe place for your people. The terrorist groups leave you alone here?”

“Taliban?”

“Yes, but there are others. Jaish, Sipah-i-Sahaba, and al-Qaeda. All the displaced guerilla outfits flee into these mountains.”

“Not so,” Aalam corrected gently. “Not here, at the roof of the world. It is very defensible, as you say.”

“It is a good place to live.” Charley glanced at the shadow on the other side of the tent. Here, the headman’s three wives dwelt in silence. “You have a large family?”

The headman snorted in disgust. “My seed is tainted. Five daughters and not one son to take my place. God has blessed me with all else and in this, He has cursed me.”

“His will be done.”

Aalam nodded his appreciation at the traditional idiom. “His will be done.”

After a few seconds, Charley asked, “The men I seek, do you know of them? Have they visited this place?”

The headman’s sallow cheeks puckered with distaste. “None of your people come to my village. The air is too thin and the peaks too dangerous.”

“Have you heard anything of them? There were two. An American reporter named Rainey and a British. The Englishman’s name is Arthur Andresen.”

“Why do you ask me this? Howl to the stars if you wish an answer. I know nothing of these men.”

He phrased his next question delicately. “Are there other villages further up the mountain? I will not stop until I find these two.”

“Search in Gilgef or Mashuj for men such as these. You will not find them here.”

“I tracked them to Mashuj. One week ago they passed through there.”

Anger flashed in Aalam’s eyes. “Then look at the base of the mountain where they have surely fallen to their deaths.”

Mindful of the gleaming scimitar propped against the tent pole behind the headman, Charley said, “That may be their unfortunate fate.” Though harming a peaceful traveler without good reason might bring unwelcome attention from the outside world, he knew his life could be in danger if Aalam became incensed.

“Why do you seek these men? Are you American intelligence?”

“No. Thomas Rainey is my friend. I am a reporter like him.”

“And the other man?”

“I do not know Andresen. They travel together, that’s all I know about him. He is a climber and I believe he is acting as Thomas’s guide.”

“A British? No mystery that they are lost if a Britisher is their guide.”

“He has traveled these lands before.”

“They are fools to come here. As you may be.” Aalam glowered with irritation. “I know nothing of these men.” He thrummed his thick fingers over the scarred tabletop. “Why do you risk so much? For a friend?”

The truth was unacceptable, Charley knew. If he told Aalam that, like Thomas, he was interested in the influx of weapons brought to Pakistan from the north, the headman would react violently. It was an important story but the tribal leaders in the area were resistant to its propagation. They feared the Pakistani government would try to interfere with their way of life if the truth were known. And they were probably right.

Charley said, “I seek only my friend Thomas. He is late in contacting his editor, also a friend.”

“And does the American CIA seek him also?”

“I do not know them. I am a man who seeks only his friend.” Charley reached into the breast pocket of his khaki shirt and extracted the folded photograph. He displayed it on the table. “This is a picture of Thomas and I when we were in school together at Columbia University.” In the picture he had his arm over Thomas’ shoulder and both of them were laughing. Charley’s blonde hair was much shorter now and he wondered if Aalam might comment on the change. The headman remained silent and Charley added, “He may be wearing a class ring.” He extended his left hand. “Like this.”

Aalam squinted at the red stone for a moment. “It is a ruby?”

“No.” He smiled. “Only a sentimental value for the wearer.”

“Let me hold this ring and I will show it to my people. I will ask for you if any have seen your friend.”

Charley hesitated, unsure.

“Come,” Aalam urged jovially. “You have my assurance that you will not leave my village without it.”

He slipped off the ring and relinquished it. “I will trust you then.”

“I have no proof such as this ring, but I too attended school many years ago.”

“Your English is very good. Much better than my Urdu.”

“It is to be expected.” Aalam’s wide mouth drew into a smile. “You are an infidel after all.”

“I am.”

Aalam looked at the entrance of the tent. “And now, I tire. Morning swiftly rushes toward us. You will be cared for.” He gestured and a woman dressed in traditional black garb appeared in the opening. Only her bright brown eyes shown over the niqab that covered her face.

Charley rose stiffly. He staggered toward the women on shaky legs.

“Peace be with you, my friend.” Aalam’s voice was rich with affection.

“Peace be with you.”

When he got outside the air was cool. Charley followed the woman along a row of tents and disheveled huts to the outskirts of the village. The woman pointed to a low tent. “Sonay kee koshish karhoo,” she said. Try and sleep. He thanked her in Urdu and went inside.

His pack was already there. Charley searched through it in the darkness, grateful that nothing had been stolen. He stretched out on the camel hides at the rear of the tent and fell asleep almost immediately.

Shouting woke Charley up a few hours later. Several loud voices outside the tent. Angry voices. He roused himself up and was amazed to find a woman lying beside him. She sobbed something and ran out. The same woman who had shown him the tent he was sure. Why had she snuck back when he’d been sleeping? Alarm shot through him as he followed her outside. He knew she would be chastised severely by her people for lying with a man that wasn’t her husband. Why had she done it?

There was a riot going on outside. The woman was being dragged away by two tall men. An old woman in a ragged gray dress hounded her, wielding a stick. The old woman was screaming invocations as was the crowd of angry people gathered. The woman being dragged shouted something. An accusation. Charley’s heart grew cold as he recognized the phrase, “Ismat dury.” Rape.

He began shaking his head. “No. It’s not true!”

Aalam strode out of the crowd, his face resolute. “You would desecrate my family!”

“No. Please!” Charley was terrified! “I didn’t do anything wrong, I swear.”

“Infidel!” Aalam shouted. He turned to the imam, an old man with a long gray beard, and said something too low for Charley to hear.

“I never touched her,” pleaded Charley.

Stroking his beard, the old man grimly ordered that Charley should be seized.

Two strapping young men swiftly came up and grabbed Charley’s arms. He shouted and sobbed but none of them would listen. The two men forced him down on the ground, pinning his face into the cold earth. Charley struggled, but they were too strong to resist. His eyes caught the glint of silver and he stared in horror at the deadly sword clutched in the hand of the thin man who approached. Charley screamed, “NO! You can’t do this!”

The sword raised high.

Charley desperately shifted his neck and sought the face of the headman standing nearby. “Aalam,” he shouted. “Do not do this thing! I have done nothing.”

Air screeched as the sword came down. In his last moment Charley saw the indifferent expression on Aalam’s face as he fingered first one, then the other ring on each of his hands. Their red stones glimmered in the morning light and Charley knew the truth. There was no white monkey in the mountains.

*

A native of Cicero, Illinois, Chris Dean heard plenty of ribald Capone stories growing up. Traveling in the American west, Chris has worked as a gold miner, truck driver, concert promoter, and sales manager. Currently Chris farms near Chicago; when cold hits it’s off to Nevada for the poker tournaments.


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