Sunday, September 14, 2014

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: Today's the DAY!

Flash Fiction Challenge Links

Links to other stories written for this year's one and only Flash Fiction Challenge, are followed by my own story sparked by a painting by Polish-American illustrator, W.T. Benda. Thanks so very much for participating.

Prashant C. Trikinnad - The Confession

Elizabeth Grace Foley - The Letter

John / Pretty Sinister Books - Come Like Shadows

We're a small group but we're select and famed for our exclusivity. 

W.T. Benda 

A Simian Fairy Tale

“Monkeys, who very sensibly refrain from speech lest they should be set to earn their livings.” Kenneth Graham, ‘The Golden Age’

In one of London’s finer neighborhoods, on the top floor of a darkly decaying Gothic house, in a smaller room set aside for servants years ago and now used mostly for storage, a woolly monkey named Percival LaFarge sat idly atop an old trunk, enjoying a brief respite, munching on a filched banana tart. Happy enough not to be wearing the inelegant cap, velvet jacket and plus fours he was obliged to cavort around in five afternoons and one evening a week, he scratched his plump belly and used the end of his long tail to destroy several ancient spider webs clinging to the draped furniture.

When the dust cleared and he’d finished sneezing, the monkey spotted an old metal box whose lock appeared ripe for the picking.

Most of London by now, knew of Percival LaFarge’s incredible gift for human-like gab, never suspecting that the seemingly impossible trick was NOT due to the cleverness of his master, the reclusive Hugo Hicks, whose gift as the finest ventriloquist – a talent he claimed to have picked up from a band of roving gypsies - in all Europe was an absolute fabrication. This secret was known only to himself and his sister Harriet (called Harry) who lived with him, their peripatetic parents having been killed by bandits in Egypt years before, leaving the siblings impoverished.

Needless to say, it was essential no one realize that Percival LaFarge’s speaking ability was the real thing lest he be removed from the brother and sister's care and shut up in a laboratory to be studied or worse, dissected.

Afternoon teas with Percival at which the monkey discoursed on a variety of subjects at five pounds a head (10 pounds for High Tea) had become so popular that Harry had happily quite her job and given herself over to designing outfits for an occasionally reluctant Percival to sport – he loved the jaunty red fez with black tassel best and it was often difficult to get him to switch hats to accommodate the rest of his stylish outfits.

Very important talks were currently in the works for Percival to star in a stage production WITH music – Cole Porter had been approached - as well as an illustrated book, a project which had captured the interest of Salvadore Dali. The brother and sister had also exchanged exploratory telegrams with film star Charlie Chaplin. Though of course, silent film would defeat the whole purpose of Percival’s chatty charm, but Chaplin felt this could be overcome in some way.

How this fairy tale came about:

Percival LaFarge realized very early on that humans being what they are, keeping his gift of gab a secret would be paramount to his continued good health. But when he’d first stumbled through a broken window and into the lives of that sad, woebegone pair of humans living in that big empty house near the Thames, it had seemed like fortune had finally smiled on him. The kind-hearted young woman who’d found him battered and bruised, wounds incurred while fleeing from a bunch of raucous boys down a dark alley, gasped with horror at his condition. The quick-witted simian was no stranger to rough handling, but it seemed a good idea at the moment to play up his condition for all it was worth.

After much lamentation, ‘Oh, poor thing, poor thing,” encouraged by Percival’s (slightly exaggerated) piteous cries, the young woman gently treated and bandaged him.  “Oh look how thin he is, Hugo. He must be famished, poor thing.”

“Yes, so you said. Someone’s pet, do you think?” said a tall young man in a frayed dressing gown. “Or maybe a runaway from the circus?” He gave Percival an assessing look. “Didn’t we see some handbills recently? DeWhite's Circus of Incomparable Delights.” But at the sound of the dreaded name, the monkey had let out a shriek and covered his eyes – piteously. He had found that with humans, ambiguity never did any good.

“Oh my goodness, Hugo That must be it. That horrible circus. We can't send him back. Look how he shakes.”

“Well, we can’t keep him, Harry. He’s a Woolly Monkey. Class: Mamalia, Order: Primate, Family: Atelidae, Genus: Lagothrix, Species: Simia lagotricha. It’s not as though he were a dog or even a cat.” He adjusted his eye glasses and looked more closely. “Not a bad specimen of his type, I’d say. They keep a stuffed pair at the museum.” 

At this, Percival was seen to role his eyes. Piteously.

“I don’t care,” said Harry, “he’s in a terrible state. We don’t have much, Hugo, but what we have we can certainly share with this sad creature. I insist.”

When it came to his sister, Hugo could be amiable and if it pleased her to keep a monkey in their dark gloom of a house, then so be it. It was the liveliest he’d seen Harry in months. He went down to the kitchen and returned with a crust of bread and a bit of fruit which the monkey, with squeaks of ecstasy, quickly made a feast of.

“It’s best not to get too attached though, someone will probably come looking for him.” said Hugo and left the room. He still had several hours of work to put in, studying notes he’d brought home that afternoon. His part time job at the university cataloguing rare species of lichens for a book the head of the department, a famous botanist, was currently writing, only brought in the barest minimum of income but it suited Hugo's meager talents. His love of plant-life and the decrepit greenhouse up on the roof were the reasons he fought tooth and nail with their creditors to keep the family home from being sold. To that end, Bianca had been forced to take a job as companion and general dogsbody to an old and rather unpleasant French countess.

Percival LaFarge to the rescue:

LaFarge had always been extremely cautious while in captivity, but he now realized that perhaps, the time had come to do something with this cumbersome talent of his. After his escape from the brutish circus animal trainer who’d bought him from a seedy first mate who’d stolen him from the cabin of the deceased sea captain who’d captured him in Brazil, the primate was looking for a change of pace.

Essentially a pragmatist with the occasional bout of optimism thrown in for good measure, a tight-lipped Percival had, for a full week, observed the fatigue and worry which plagued the brother and sister and resolved to do something to repay their kindness to him. One evening, having decided on a course of action, he shocked the pair almost out of their wits by introducing himself and commenting on the terrible weather.

After much swooning (on the part of the sister) and incredulous sputtering (on the part of the brother) a plan was hatched at the wily Percival’s instigation.

The monkey was happy enough now to pretend that his chatter was all due to Hugo’s manipulation.  The story would be given out that the young man’s incredibly realistic and heretofore undiscovered ‘talent for ventriloquism’ was something he’d never revealed before simply because he had not thought it necessary.

With the cunning of his species, Percival knew that their intended audience would want to believe him to be speaking but choose to think that it was all due to Hugo even as their eyes and ears told them otherwise – humans, he’d found, were always ready to deceive themselves. No one would suspect a monkey might be truly capable of speech. In fact, if questioned, Percival himself would have shrugged his little shoulders and pretended that no one else in his large jungle family had ever spoken a word - the truth being quite the opposite.

Six Months Later:

Word about the monkey’s propensity for charming conversation while sitting prettily at a tea table (he had his own petite china tea set) in a red fez, bow-tie, paisley waistcoat, little tweed jacket and corduroy plus fours, soon got around and before too long, even the Queen herself had requested a special Percival performance. The brother and sister’s success was thus assured. The benefits of a reigning monarch’s approbation were incalculable – the Queen was actually heard to titter. “We are amused.”

The architecturally gothic horror of a house was saved from the indignity of being sold at auction. Hugo and Harry paid their bills, renovated the greenhouse, brought in comfortable furniture, had the walls replastered, papered and/or freshly painted and settled in, for the first time in years, to enjoy their lives. There had even been enough left over for Hugo to purchase the rare plants he coveted.

The plot thickens:

Matters would take an unexpected turn when a year into their ruse and the public having showed no inclination of tiring (children throughout Britain were now often spotted carrying Percival monkey dolls and sales of Percival monkey clothes had never been better), the crafty simian attracted the attention of Martin Cavendish, a suspicious reporter who, in the guise of a gentleman began courting the naive Harriet, attempting to insinuate himself into the lives of the brother and sister, promising his editor a front page exclusive.

Harry, in the first giddy days of imagining her spinster status coming to an end, talked freely (perhaps too freely when prodded by a glass or three of champagne) about Percival LaFarge and what the dear monkey meant to her and her brother.

One evening when a tear in the hem of her gown necessitated Harry’s leaving the room for a few moments and Hugo had just excused himself to fetch a bottle of brandy  - brother and sister being understandably reluctant to hire much staff – Cavendish used the time to investigate the large salon (in which the family received company) for any interesting papers, photos, notes or journals. Surely there must be something, some proof. He had, as yet, been unable to search Hugo's study. 

At the precise moment when he looked behind a large Matisse portrait of Percival LaFarge, feeling for hidden crevices, the hall door opened and Percival sauntered in holding, with as much disdain as it was possible for a monkey to express, an egg yolk yellow waistcoat, “Harry if you expect me to actually be seen in public in this execrable - !” But he got no further, caught off guard, the monkey took one look at the startled Cavendish and let out an intense oath (learned in his sea-faring days). 

A white faced Cavendish, in his turn, found himself leaning against a wall for support all the while pointing a finger and gasping, “I knew it, I knew it!”

What happened next, happened so quickly that by the time Hugo and Harry returned, out of breath, alerted by the commotion and scream, it was all over.

“What is the meaning of this!?” said Hugo attempting calm, glancing up at Percival who, wearing nothing but blue jodhpurs, was at the moment hanging from the chandelier by one long arm and an even longer tail. The monkey squealed in agitation and did his own pointing - at a large sack which had been flung on the floor.

“That bloody creature bit me!” shouted Cavendish forgetting there was a lady in the room. “He bit me. Look!” He held out a hand and showed them a jagged scratch on his thumb.

“Oh, Martin, I'm so sorry. I can’t imagine – “ she stopped, her look of initial concern turning to suspicion. “Where did this come from?” she asked, picking up the burlap sack.

Percival’s screeching rose to a crescendo and Hugo suddenly realized what the monkey was trying to tell him. “Okay, Percy, I've got it," he said. The monkey instantly quieted down though an unintelligible muttering could still be heard roiling about in his throat. 

"What about the sack, Cavendish?" asked Hugo. "Harry did you bring a sack in here? I certainly didn't."

"No," said his sister in a barely audible voice.

“It was on a table," said Cavendish. "Maybe I knocked it to the floor when the monkey attacked me. Monkey bites are nothing to laugh at,” he added when he noticed Hugo’s grin.

“You’ll have to do better than that, old chap.” said Hugo.

“Never mind,” said the disgruntled reporter gingerly wrapping a handkerchief around his wounded hand, “That bloody monkey can talk. Try and get out of that one. I heard him. Just now. Clear as day."

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Harry, folding the sack mechanically, giving her hands something to do.

“Please watch your language, Cavendish.” Said Hugo coldly, don’t make me have to knock you to the floor."

The crystal teardrops on the chandelier tinkled softly as Percival swung back and forth, keeping a close eye on events below. This was a side of Hugo he’d never seen before. It was interesting.

“I'm sorry, Harriet," said Cavendish,"but this is news. I suspected there was something strange about that b – that blasted monkey all along and I was right. All right, here’s my proposition, I want to be the first to write the story. Give me an exclusive and I'll see that my paper pays you both plenty."

“How could you, Martin, how could you?” said Harry in a choked voice.


W.T. Benda - source

Slightly shame-faced, Cavendish mumbled a few words but Hugo interrupted. "I don't know what you think you heard here today but whatever it was, it was certainly not a talking monkey." He poured himself a brandy. “Look, why don’t we sit down and talk this over calmly.”  He made himself comfortable on the sofa and gave the appearance of a reasonable man making a reasonable request.

“You can’t fob me off," said Cavendish, "I know what I heard. You will have to give him up now anyway." He held up his injured hand. "You can’t keep a dangerous beast in the middle of London. So let me write up my story, interview the three of you and then we’ll see what’s what. You’ve had a good run. But you can’t stop the truth coming out now.”

Percival let out a screech. Startled, the angry reporter looked up and said, “Come down and tell me that to my face, you ugly little freak. They’re going to lock you up and probably cut you open and won’t that give me a laugh."

“Martin!” said Harry with an anguished cry.

Percival swung from the chandelier to the top of a bookcase and out through an open window, grabbed at the vines and climbed up towards the roof.

 “Aren’t you going after him?” asked Cavendish making a movement towards the window.

“There’s no need,” said Hugo. “We couldn’t catch him if we tried. I don’t think he’ll go far.”

“Hugo, do you think I ought to – ?” asked Harry, giving Martin a dark look of loathing.

“Oh yes, you wouldn't want to lose your meal ticket,” said Cavendish with a sneer. At which point, Harry stepped forward and slapped his face, hard.

Hugo pretended nothing untoward had occurred. “Don’t worry, if I know Percy he's just feeling a bit sulky. He'll be back."

With a hand on his cheek, Cavendish sat on the nearest chair, “Why don’t I wait with you then?”

“I think you’d better leave,” said Harry, steely voiced.

“No, I don’t think so, Harry, my dear. That gabby monkey of yours will make for the biggest sensation the world has ever seen. After this I’ll be able to write my own ticket.”

“An excess of hyperbole,” said Hugo as he poured a brandy and handed it to Cavendish. “You can’t prove a thing.”

“Maybe I’d better not drink this,” said Cavendish with raised eyebrows. “I wouldn’t want it to cloud my senses.” He poured the drink into a vase of flowers and watched the water turn a reddish purple.

"How melodramatic you are," said Hugo, grinning. "You don't supposed I'd try to poison you?" 

But Cavendish just lit a cigarette.

The explosive denouement:

Upstairs, Percival opened the metal box he’d found weeks ago and retrieved the object he’d known would come in handy some day. He did what needed to be done with a few deft movements of his long thin fingers then climbed out the window and  back down the way he’d come.

In the salon, brother, sister and craven reporter made for a cheerless evening tableau.
“This is so preposterous,” said Harry after a few minutes. “No one will believe you no matter what you write. Everyone knows that Hugo is a wonderful ventriloquist. Percival is one of the most beloved animals in all England. But. He. Doesn't. Really. Talk."

“How stupid do you think I am? Yes, you had me fooled at first,” said Cavendish with a nod. “But some things here and there didn’t make sense to me. I have a good reporter’s nose. And what I heard this afternoon – with my own ears – proved that I was right. I'm staying here until I get the truth."

Two shots rang out.

“Percy, what have you done?!” cried Harry jumping up from her chair.

“He tried to put me in a sack,” said the monkey, placing the derringer on a table top.

"I'd better go find a shovel," said Hugo.


17 comments:

  1. I am sorry that I can't complete this assignment in time. Too many health problems, including allergies, making it hard to work on this and type a lot.

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    1. Don't worry about it. I hope you feel better asap. :)

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  2. Ha! It reminds me of something Conan Doyle might write in a Tales of Terror mood, only a bit more humorous. Perfect for the picture.

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    1. Thanks Elisabeth. I had a lot of fun writing it. I wish we'd had more bloggers on board, but hey three is a great number.

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  3. Who can resist a story as charming as this. Loved it. So full of wonderful period detail.

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    1. Thanks so much, Patti. I wondered if anyone would get the period details but I shouldn't have worried. :)

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  4. Yvette, just spied your picture Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?" Lewis Carroll luved it.
    Dave

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  5. Yvette, this is a cleverly and superbly crafted story. I liked the way you built the narrative around Percival LaFarge, more human than monkey, from start till end. In fact, as I read the story I'd to remind myself that Percival was a simian and not a stage actor. I could actually picture myself in the midst of Percival and his minders, Hugo and Harriet, watching them from the sidelines like an amused spectator. Thanks for this opportunity, Yvette.

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    1. Thanks SO much, Prashant. You're most welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it as I enjoyed writing it. This was a fun challenge.

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  6. I'm a day late, Yvette. We took off on a bike trip yesterday and didn't get home until 10 PM. Finally got a chance to polish up my little tale of whimsy and post it today. Here's the link:

    Come Like Shadows

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    1. Read and linked. (Finally - apologies once again for my computer woes.) I'm mad for whimsy you know. Ha. Yeah, I did say that you could go beyond the original total - maybe you missed that. Anyway I thought your story was just right.

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  7. Mad and whimsical, Yvette! And a lot longer than I thought we were allowed. Far outshines my modest effort. I picked the same painting, BTW.

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  8. Wonderful stuff Yvette - brava! And a great contrast to John's take on the same illustration at Pretty Sinister Books: http://prettysinister.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/flash-fiction-come-like-shadows-so.html

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    1. Thanks, Sergio. I'm back to blogging and all is well. My daughter took care of things. She's a wonder.

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  9. Definitely good writing with an underlying wit, so good.

    You should make another career out of writing fiction.

    And, thankfully, your daughter is a high-tech genius.

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    1. Yes she is. :) Thanks, Kathy, glad you enjoyed the story.

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