The monkeys popped into my head, as if they’d been waiting for the right moment to swing down from the tangled jungle of my subconscious. I’d last seen them many years ago; a row of thumb high wood carved chimpanzees that sat on my father’s desk. One held his hands over his eyes, another over his ears, a third covered his mouth. See no evil, hear no evil, say no evil.
As a child I’d been fascinated by the mystical figurines. They’d lived in my parents’ bedroom, a private sanctuary into which I was rarely invited. Half-toy, half-talisman, the monkeys didn’t match my father’s personality; at the time he was consumed by work and the stress of supporting a large family. The fact of them suggested there was a wormhole into another playful and mysterious dimension to which my father had access, or at least once visited, clutching the monkeys as a souvenir.
I was of an age, and in an age, when certain behaviors and specific objects held magical powers. I truly believed that if I stepped on a crack the act would impair my mother’s back. A cut off colored rabbit’s foot mounted on a key chain brought luck, as did four leaf clovers, for which I periodically fruitlessly searched. When an elementary school classmate warned me that if I touched the large mole on another boy’s back he’d fall dead on the spot, I didn’t doubt it for a moment.
The Wise Monkeys, as the triplets are called, originated in 16th century Japan. Statues of them at crossroads honor Koshin, the God of Roads, conveying the importance of prudence and purity, with the slogan “mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru” – no seeing, no hearing, no speaking – a pun on saru, Japanese for monkey. In Europe, some figurines depict the first two monkeys as peeping and listening, the third with a finger on his lips, reflecting the Middle Ages proverb “hear all, see all, say nowt.” Statuettes of the monkeys become popular in the United States in the early 20th century, carried as lucky charms by World War I soldiers. Their meaning became sarcastic, calling out selfishness, cowardice, and willful ignorance of wrongdoing.
On a recent visit to my parents, I asked my 87-year-old father if he still had the monkeys. He said he did and told me he’d received them from his father, new information that reinforced their potency. They were sitting on a different desk in a different bedroom, having been moved at least twice since I first encountered them in my elementary school home.
Though far from childhood, I felt a familiar tug as I entered into the forbidden sanctuary of the master bedroom. And there they were, the same three monkeys, in the same pose, sitting on my father’s messy desk. See no evil, hear no evil, say no evil.
Except they weren’t the same at all. The monkeys had aged. They were shriveled, chipped, and looked depressed. Worse, they sat on a platform with a large hostile slogan, “Don’t Monkey with Anything on This Desk.” I hadn’t recalled this element. It was like encountering a tortured Jesus, nailed to the door of a closet, alongside a sign that said, “Bless These Clothes and Stay the Hell Out!”
Grownups are familiar with the feeling that things, or people, first encountered in childhood are sometimes much smaller than remembered. It’s a trick of perspective. When we’re little the world around us is super large. It wasn’t just that with the monkeys, though. It was as if the burden of carrying their message, plying their magic, over two lifetimes – my father’s and grandfather’s – had worn them out. More than a century worth of evil to block out, to not speak of. It was too much, made worse by their mundane unscripted duty of guarding the desk against intruders.
At least that’s what I prefer to believe. The monkeys are enchanted. Perhaps, as time continues its ceaseless flow, evil will subside, the chimpanzees will be able to open their orifices to see, hear and chatter about the goodness in the world. They’ll grow back to my memory’s size, maybe even larger.
Why, though, had the apes leapt into my consciousness? A clue might be my father’s revelation that the figures had been his father’s, though he didn’t know how he’d acquired them. Perhaps they’re part of a patrilineal line, handed down, metaphorically or otherwise, through the ages, magical effigies to remind each new son of whatever message the primate trinity have to offer.
Three chimpanzees, collectively covering one set of eyes, one set of ears and a mouth. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost? Harmony, resurrection, and completeness? Together they are one, with complete faculties. Maybe so too, are my grandfather, father, and me. I am the monkeys, and they are me.