The Monkey in the Cornfield

I want to tell you what happened to my grandfather, what I know of his disappearance at least. The Judge, everyone called him, which wasn’t all that creative since he was actually a courtroom judge before retirement. My mother called and said that the Judge wanted to see me, ‘You’ve been summoned’ was the joking way she always put it. The Judge was my grandparent on my father’s side and mom had always found him intimidating for his stature in the community and the legal world. I hurried to his apartment in the city on the tail of a nine-hour shift. The truth of it was I was feeling a little bit frightened about what he might want to see me about. The large, hale man who was my grandfather had lost vitality shockingly fast in the last few years since my grandmother passed, and he stopped working. Every time someone called me about the Judge, I couldn’t help but think that at some point that call would be to tell me his health had taken a final turn for the worse and he was gone, and all his wisdom, stories and generosity would have passed out of reach forever.

We had always had a connection. My mother said when she’d handed me to him as a baby, I had turned silent and all I could do was stare at the creases on his face. It was a common joke in the family that I was his favourite grandchild, even though he had so many to choose from. The Judge was well-known to be a bit eccentric. For all his gravitas in the courtroom, when he played with his grandchildren he could be just as enthusiastic and imaginative as a young boy. I was studying Law in an attempt to follow in his footsteps but that was only one of the things we seemed to share in common.

It was dark as I reached his apartment building. His residence was in one of the oldest and most developed parts of the city. You could hardly see a single tree or touch of green in any direction from the stoop. He buzzed me up and I found him sitting by a window overlooking the street, dimly lit by a reading lamp. He offered me cocoa and we sat, facing one another, from a pair of high-backed antique chairs. The expression on his face was grave and as serious as I’d seen him since the day my grandmother died. The nagging concerns about his health started at the back of my mind again.

“When I was a boy, my favourite thing to do was to walk through my father’s cornfield.” He said, face still serious.

My grandfather never talked about his childhood. It wasn’t something everyone would notice but I had seen it from a young age. Whenever one of my cousins would ask him if he had ever been as young as them, or what things had been like back then, his look would get far away and he would change the conversation. When someone would ask where the family line had started he would start muttering and gesture vaguely to the west. I’d asked my father about it once and he’d said the Judge had a difficult relationship with his parents, who hadn’t wanted him to travel to the city and study. They had wanted him to stay on the farm, grow corn and follow in his family’s footsteps, and the disagreement had fractured their relationship right up until my great-grandparents’ death. Somehow, I’d always known that wasn’t the full story. It was just things my father had gleaned over the years and pieced together in a narrative that made sense to him.

“When I was a boy, my favourite thing was to walk through my father’s cornfield.” The Judge said, “I’m sure the farm was nowhere near as big as it seemed back then. It’d be nothing compared to your industrial farms today. But to me, as a child, it seemed endless. And in those endless, green stalks all pressing down on me at once I thought there were endless possibilities. I could be a jungle explorer, cutting through thick vines with my trusty machete, looking for a fabled lost city of gold. I could be-, at the bottom of the ocean, I could be underground, I could have crash-landed on some alien planet, not sure if I was hunting some strange beast or it was hunting me. Sometimes, I would just enter on one side of the field and try to walk in the straightest line I could through to the other side, concentrating on every step and trying to make it as straight as possible. Never could understand how I would still come out crooked on the other side, sometimes dozens of feet from the row where I started. I was sorry every harvest season that they ever had to cut the stalks down.”

“When I was about eight years old-, the spring when I was eight, there was a problem with the crops. A couple of late frosts and some kind of plant disease, I’m not really sure. I’ve forgotten almost everything I ever knew about corn farming. But you could see it, it was obvious, the stalks were limp and withered and you could see too much light between them when they should have been densely packed together. I overheard my parents talking about how one bad harvest could mean the end of the whole farm. So I went walking through the cornfield trying to imagine them fuller and healthier, trying to make it real with my mind and wish all our problems away. I don’t know how long I was in there before I realised I wasn’t alone. Something was there in the corn with me. It was silent and I don’t think I would have seen it moving if the crops had been healthy as they should have been. But I realised there was this-, dark shape, moving through the rows alongside me.”

The Judge paused and took a sip from his mug, which was already going cold. I realised mine was as well, as I nursed it between my hands. He looked worried, and I couldn’t remember seeing him worried like that before. The web of shadows on his face made his look very, very old. For a man who’d always been a pillar of unshakable confidence all his life, both in his professional field and his family, he suddenly looked afraid that I would stop listening to him.

“It was a monkey in the cornfield-, or at least I thought it was.” He said, “I suppose it was more like a chimp or a very small gorilla, or something like that. I’d only seen them in comic books and one time at the circus that passed through town as a child. But I just thought of it as a monkey, this small, furry shape that moved like a chimp and was roughly half my size even at eight years old.”

I waited for the twinkle in his eye or the sly smile on his lips to tell me we were nearing the punchline of this strange story. It would have been out-of-character but not outrageously so for the Judge to go so far for a practical joke of some kind. Neither came, and in spite of the turn the story had taken my grandfather looked just as serious, even haunted.

“I know how this will sound, some of your cousins I’m sure would make jokes about me losing all my marbles, but-, I expect you’ll know better. If you leave here thinking your grandpa needs to be committed that’s one thing but I swear everything I have to tell you is true.” The Judge said, taking another sip from his mug, “My first thought, naturally enough, was that the monkey had escaped from a circus or some kind of traveling zoo. It seemed to know it had been spotted, and it smiled. And it wasn’t one of those horrible primitive sneers that primates make to show off all their teeth, although it had plenty of those-, teeth that is. It was a real smile full of warmth, or so it seemed. As you can imagine my young mind was already going wild with thoughts this monkey was going to become my best friend and we would go on all sorts of adventures together, perhaps after rescuing him from a cruel and crooked circus ringmaster. I’d be the boy with the monkey for a best friend, but then-, it spoke.”

Still there was no change in his expression. The Judge knew exactly how crazy what he was telling me sounded but he wanted to get through it, “It said hello and it asked me what my name was, and I was so stunned I just told him. It asked what I was doing in his cornfield and I just-, I told him that it was my father’s cornfield not his. I knew I had something amazing here, even more amazing than being the boy with the monkey for a best friend but I-, all I could do was talk as if we were having a normal conversation. He kind of shrugged off when I said it was my father’s field, and when I asked where he had come from he seemed to shrug that off as well. I asked, ‘Why can you talk?’ and he said, ‘Why can you?’ and it just went on like that. I don’t know, we might have talked about other things as well.”

“When I asked if he wanted to come into the house he said no and then-, ‘What do you want most in the world?’ it said. I asked whether it meant like-, wishes or that sort of thing, and it said not quite but maybe we could make some kind of a deal. So I said I wanted my family to be rich, and lucky, and happy, and for the corn to all grow healthy. The monkey-, this talking monkey, he said he could do it but there would be a cost. He seemed happy about it though, like it was no problem to give me any of those things. He seemed happy so I was happy, and I was getting more and more excited now that the shock was wearing off. We kept talking and when the monkey slipped in something about the deal I just agreed to it without even really listening. I wanted the monkey to come back to the house but it said he wouldn’t leave the cornfield, but it would be waiting for me there and we would talk again soon.”

“The monkey told me to keep our deal a secret from my parents or it wouldn’t come true. I was grinning from ear to ear for days afterward. Before my parents seemed to catch on though they had their own reasons to be happy. The corn made a turn for the better, you could call it miraculous. Almost every day it looked healthier and greener, and by the time harvest rolled around it towered over my father’s head by more than any crop I could remember before or since. I kept my secret and I didn’t see the monkey again but I used to imagine his face at my window at night and I’d talk to him about my day or whatever was on my mind as if he were really there. As I grew up, I guess it became all the same. I convinced myself that the monkey was some imaginary friend I’d had as a child, that I-, that the day in the cornfield was just some particularly vivid dream and not a real memory. What I didn’t realise until years later though was that even once the crop got full and healthy-, I didn’t go back into the rows to play. Not that spring and maybe not the year after that or the year after that. I didn’t even like to look at the cornfield from the windows of the house or pass too close by it. Much as I told myself I’d seen something amazing on that day-, part of me didn’t want to risk having that conversation with the monkey over again. Part of me was frightened to look too hard and see movement between the stalks, and shatter some part of the illusion I’d built around the encounter.”

“When the harvest came there was no place for a monkey or anything else to hide. By the time I was eighteen I hadn’t thought about it in years, even when our crops grew best in the county year after year, except perhaps to remember what an embarrassing little idiot I’d been with my imaginary monkey friend. We were reaching the last part of the growth cycle and I had my chores to do. I was thinking about graduation though, and what I was going to do afterward. Even then I didn’t want to stay where I was forever, in that little town, but I wasn’t sure what my other options were. To put my mind off it I decided to wander into the cornfield. I hadn’t played those boyhood games of imagination in years of course, possibly not since that spring when I was eight. Still I used to do that one game now and then, when I would try to walk in the straightest line I could from one side of the cornfield to the other, once the stalks reached a height where they had grown over my head. I’d never worked out why I always came out crooked, judging by the markers placed around the field. I’d walk through as careful as a tightrope walker trying to keep one row on my left shoulder and one on the right. Would enter with the scarecrow on one side and cheat by looking up and judging where I was by it, but still somehow I’d come out somewhere other than where I’d planned to be on the other side. Anyway, the point was I went deep into the cornfield and there he was. My monkey.”

“He was-, nothing like I remembered him, and yet I recognised him straight away. Over the years thinking of him as just my nameless imaginary friend I’d changed his appearance in my mind. His fur was much darker than I’d remembered it and he had no tail-, I already told you it was much more like a chimp than an actual monkey. It was his face though that I had gotten the most wrong, it was so much more human than I remembered. Fringed with hair and grey-skinned but it was-, human or uncomfortably close, and full of intelligence. Its mouth was very wide and its eyes-, I don’t know how I’d forgotten those eyes, intelligent and amber and very, very bright, like shiny pennies, but so bright they were almost like looking at the sun. Do you know the word homunculus? Yes, well, I think that’s what I would have described him as if I’d know the word then, or as an imp or something. Still much like a chimp, covered in dense fur, but far more human than I’d realised. I didn’t want to recognise him, I didn’t want to even acknowledge that I could see him sitting there, but I couldn’t move. He was still only about as tall as my knee, crouched over, and we just stared at one another in the middle of the corn. ‘It’s only a few days until our deal is closed’ he said, like he was picking up on the end of a conversation we’d had only minutes ago instead of years.”

“I should have run screaming, I suppose, but-, do you remember when you were a boy and you had that imaginary lizard in the basement you kept wanting to feed all your leftovers to? Imagine if your imaginary friend just showed up right in front of you, as real as I am to you right now. He said, ‘You do remember our deal, right?’ and when I still didn’t say anything there was-, sort of a throat-clearing noise and I realised there was another one there with us as well. It was more of a ginger colour and its eyes were blue, but they burned just as bright. It looked older than the first monkey and it seemed-, angry with him. It gave me a moment to recover and said, ‘This one has broken our rules in making a deal with one as young as yourself. However, as the deal was struck all the same there is nothing I or the others can do. So we are here to give you a warning instead.’ at least, it was something like that.”

“Again, I know how this all sounds but it went on to explain that in three days the deal would be complete and I would be-, forfeit. Payment would be due on the deal I had made as a boy and there was nothing that could be done about that. It was all very-, officious. I was too deep in shock to move or speak. But I realised the warning was giving me a sort of-, loophole? The other monkey-, creature, whatever it was, made it very clear that I needed to be there for the payment to be taken. I would have to return-, I don’t know if it was that exact spot or return to the cornfield, or just be anywhere on the farm, but if I wasn’t there of my own free will in three days then the payment couldn’t be taken.”

“When I started to get over my surprise-, well, I didn’t know what to believe. I could hardly remember this deal or what I’d asked for, and I couldn’t remember what payment had been promised, and-, this was supposed to be my childhood friend, wasn’t it? Even if I’d only imagined most of that-, friendship, I felt some sort of attachment to the first monkey. It wasn’t until I looked back at the monkey, my monkey, that it hit home. I expected it to be angry about what the red one was saying. Angry that it was being accused of breaking the rules, that it’s deal was being interfered with or that I was being given a loophole but-, it wasn’t. I’ll never forget the look on its face. It was-, empty, calm, there was no recognisable emotion on it whatsoever. It didn’t care about me, or this, it was just waiting for the conversation to end and it would-, what? When the other one was done it said, ‘I’ll see you soon.’ and that was it, they were both gone.”

“Some decisions you make straight away or you don’t make them at all. I was still in the middle of my chores but I tore back to the house and I packed up a suitcase of my things. I scraped together what little money I had. Three days-, I didn’t feel like I had three minutes, I got out of there as quickly as I could. I hitchhiked into town, was picked up by a neighbour who I told some story about going to visit a sick aunt, and I got the first bus out. Next station I wrote a letter to my parents and mailed it while I was waiting for the bus into the city. I told them-, I couldn’t explain why I had to leave but it was alright, I was safe and I’d talk to them again soon. I couldn’t tell them what I’d seen or about the deal, or how I couldn’t come home again.”

“I know your father-, I know he thinks I didn’t get along with my parents. That they disowned me when I decided I wanted to study Law and moved to the city. That’s not really true, I wrote letters back and forth with my mother for a while and I agreed to meet them, several times. The first time my father was angry, they thought I’d gone crazy of course. I couldn’t explain to them why I’d had to leave, I knew that the monkey in the cornfield would only come to me, somehow. But after a while they did come to accept my decision even if they couldn’t understand it. They couldn’t drag me kicking and screaming back to the farm so they tried to keep a relationship with me whatever it took. Maybe that was unusual in that day and age, I don’t know, they were good people.

“I had to bury them when I was not much older than you. It was a stormy night on the road near their farm, it wasn’t anyone’s fault exactly-, a little bit the fault of the truck driver, a little bit the fault of my father, just an accident on a wet, slippery and dark country road. The coroner told me they were lucky, they both died instantly in the crash. The only time I went home was to bury them and that was only as far as the graveyard on the outskirts of town. Family I’d never seen before or since were there, and people from town whispering to each other about the horrible son who’d snapped and run for the big city to become a burnout hippie. I stayed only for the funeral and made sure I was out of town before nightfall, not that I’m sure night or day would have made any difference. I sold the farm through a proxy to a neighbour who wanted to expand, and I believe he was later bought out by a large corporation, and then their land was absorbed by a larger conglomerate. It’s all industrial farms there now, corn for biofuels, no room for little family farms. I was told he paid far above market price. It gave me the money to start a family earlier than I might have otherwise, more comfortably. I never went back to see what became of the farm but I’ve seen the area on the-, computer map, on the internet, out of curiosity.”

“I’m getting off the point I guess, I’ve never told anybody else this story, not your grandmother or anyone else. My parents and-, everyone, they would have thought I was insane. Sometimes I envied the insane. Sanity has its own drawbacks, the crazy always seem so convinced they’re right, the rest of us have to make do with the reality we’re given. The thing of it is-, I don’t remember what I promised the monkey exactly. I’ve lain awake a lot of nights, you don’t know how many nights, for longer than you’ve been alive, trying to remember what payment I promised the monkey when I was eight years old. I can’t, and I was too stunned to ask on that second time when I was eighteen. I don’t-, remember, I don’t know what payment is actually owed if I ever returned to that cornfield.”

We were silent for a long time while I was trying to absorb the story. Eventually the Judge said he’d told me because he thought I was the only one of his children or grandchildren who would understand, but I admitted I didn’t really understand at all.

“Do you remember what I said? What I asked for?” The Judge said, “For my family to be rich and lucky, and for the corn to grow back. I worked hard to get to where I was before I retired, as I’ve encouraged you to do, but-, how much of that was due to chance and hard work and how much due to-, luck? I have such a large family and we’ve always been-, lucky, in investment, property, careers, and rich in prospects, money and children. How much of that could be due to the natural course of events and how much to a deal made with a creature I didn’t understand when I was eight years old? And what kind of-, snapback, might there be if the deal isn’t completed?”

“Some deals there aren’t any backing out of, my boy. Some debts demand to be paid. I’m getting old, I’m not going to see another harvest-, oh, there’s nothing specifically wrong exactly but I can feel it. The biggest killer of men is retirement as they say. You might go out from here and tell the rest of the family I’ve lost my mind to dementia and old age, but I hope you don’t. I’m sorry, I don’t want to burden you, but I wanted to tell someone. Just an old man who wants to get it all off his chest before-, he goes.”

A week later my grandfather, the Judge, disappeared from his city apartment without warning. They found his BMW several states away, on the side of the highway with the keys still in the ignition. The road was surrounded by an endless sea of corn, an industrial farm that produced biofuels and seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. It was as if he had just pulled over to the side of the road, gotten out of the car and then wandered into the rows. The search for him went on for weeks. Lines of volunteers and people from the local sheriff’s office combed through the massive cornfields, moving so close together they were almost touching through the dense rows so they wouldn’t get lost. State police came in with body-sniffing dogs and found nothing. Eventually, they allowed the company that owned the land to harvest before their crop was ruined and they swept over the blighted landscape that was left behind by the harvesters as well to no avail. The popular theory was that the Judge had been picked up by the side of the road, although investigators never found anyone else who had been in the area.

It turned out the Judge had a busy week leading up to his disappearance, not just the talk he’d had with me. He’d had dinners every night with his sons and daughters, and my many cousins. He’d had lunches and drinks with old friends and colleagues from the legal world. Someone had visited my grandmother’s grave, leaving fresh flowers and cleaning up around the plot. No one pieced it together until after he’d vanished. The Judge had left detailed instructions behind, on his desk, on what to do in the event that he disappeared, like a kind of living will. I tried to tell them after a while to give up, to stop searching, but I couldn’t tell them why.

That was a year ago now, the last harvest. He left me his apartment and more than enough money to get by without working while I concentrated on my studies. The rest of the Judge’s considerable assets were divided among the rest of the family.

I drove out there to the spot where they had found his BMW near the anniversary of his disappearance and arrived near nightfall. The town had been mostly siphoned away by the industrial farms, so much so that it almost didn’t show up on maps anymore. The farmhouse where my grandfather had grown up had been razed to the ground. It was just a few bumps of the foundation in a clearing off to the side of the road. The cornfield looked truly infinite, wave after wave of husks moving gently in the fading purple light.

Stopping by the side of the road I waited until the sun had fully slipped below the horizon, but at the last second I looked away from the field. I turned on the ignition instead and kept driving. Some decisions you make all at once or you don’t make them at all. I’d been over the story the Judge had told again and again in my head, every word of it, but never come to an absolute decision of what it meant and how it fit his disappearance. At that moment though, I decided I didn’t want to look into the cornfield and risk seeing a pair of very, very bright amber eyes, like shiny pennies, looking back at me.

— Sean E. Britten 2016

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