The First Animal by Kandace Siobhan Walker

At the end of the world, there is a beach. The giant monkey who lives there likes to watch the waves come in and go out again. The waves’ reliability is therapeutic. Especially for an animal who lives at the intersection of the universe and its apocalypse. It is for this reason, being on the edge of everything, that the monkey never walks or turns or glances backwards. That’s the end of the world. It’s scary. We can’t even imagine.

When foreign objects wash up on the beach, the monkey must determine whether or not the object is safe to play with. The objects aren’t always safe. There was once a sword. The monkey wounded itself.

If the monkey decides that the object is safe to play with, it plays with the new thing. It does not always know how the objects work, but throwing and fetching is a safe bet.  When playing is over, the monkey walks up to wherever the waves are at — among many other things, the monkey doesn’t have a word for “waterline” — and places the object back in the water. The waves will carry the thing back to where it came from.

But there are times when the waves just carry the object further down the beach. There are times when the object is too heavy to be left, all casual, at the water’s edge. Then the monkey has to do the legwork of pushing the thing back out, which is tedious. Sometimes, the monkey will let the new object sit there in the wet sand for days, even for weeks. Sometimes, the monkey forgets the object altogether.

Forgotten in the wet sand are a plastic water bottle, which just kept floating back, a big wooden globe, its brilliant colours now fading in the sun, and an old seismograph, which the monkey didn’t think was safe.

Of course, the monkey has no words for these things, instead allowing its limited vocabulary to name the objects: cup, ball, machine. Other things have been forgotten too, now buried deep in the sand dunes, but they aren’t important. What is important is that the monkey wasn’t always alone.

Even now, the monkey will tell you that the best thing to ever wash up on its beach was the kid. It was early morning. Everything had that early morning blue thrown over it. The waves were far out, but coming in. The monkey was watching something disappear below the water. It was a VW campervan. The monkey had called it “machine.”

At first, the monkey had tried to eat the machine. But it was hard and tasteless. Soon the monkey realised that the van had doors and that the doors opened, allowing the monkey to climb inside what it called “the hold,” because, living on a beach, the monkey is familiar with sea vessels. The “machine” became a “ship.”

Now the ship was sinking. The monkey was wondering if it wasn’t a ship, after all. Lost in its thoughts, the monkey didn’t see the new thing that had washed ashore, farther down the beach. The arrival of the kid was declared by a sudden spluttering cough, which startled the monkey to its feet.

What the monkey saw was a black-haired doll in a shiny blue coat and a single red boot. The other foot was clothed in a dirty once-white sock. Toy dolls and shop mannequins made frequent appearances on the beach. So the monkey approached with care but a little less caution, knowing that dolls were more or less safe, although some were ugly. On coming closer, however, the monkey saw that this doll was both ugly and strange. Its body was making small, horrid movements: a hand jerked, a leg twitched, its back rose very slightly and then fell and then started to rise again.

It was breathing.

The monkey screamed.

At that the weird doll came alive, all its limbs springing into action. It coughed again, water gushing from its mouth, its nostrils. Realising that this doll was possibly unsafe, the monkey put a safe distance between itself and the doll.

The doll came to its knees. It sat back on its heels, wheezing as it attempted to brush the wet sand from its wet clothes. Fruitless. The monkey realised the doll, though dangerous, wasn’t very smart. It looked right at the monkey, and then its vision panned left and right and up and down. It looked all around. Then the doll spoke.

It said, “Hello?”

And the monkey, who was used to thinking aloud, said, “This doll can talk!”

And the doll, who was really a child and who had never met a talking animal before said, “What? Why are you wearing a gorilla costume?”

“This doll thinks I’m a gorilla,” said the monkey, irritated but completely unsurprised at the doll’s wrongness, having already decided that this doll was quite stupid, despite its being alive.

“I’m not a doll? I’m a kid!”

So, that’s how the monkey met the kid who washed up on its beach.

Happiness is always a for-a-while kind of thing. That’s what makes it good. And the monkey and the child were happy, for a while. The monkey learned many new things from the child. Most of the discoveries were minor, like the names of the things that washed up that the monkey had no words for. Except for the things the kid didn’t know about like the dildo and the French press. There were also objects that didn’t come from the sea, like fruit roll-ups and skip rope and tinned spaghetti-o’s and a microwave to cook the spaghetti-o’s. Because whatever the kid imagined would appear nearby, miraculously.

Every time the kid performed a miracle like this, the seismograph would go haywire. At first the monkey didn’t know what to make of it. Things popping up out of nowhere, not coming from the sea like usual, and the machine recording earthquakes when the ground was perfectly still. It was a power, the monkey decided, of the kid’s being from somewhere else.

Now this was the monkey’s first major discovery: there was a place called “the world,” where everything that washed up on the beach came from, probably. Including the kid.

The monkey found out by asking, “Where did you come from?”

The kid replied, “Llanigon.”

“Clan-igon?” repeated the monkey.

Llanigon,” repeated the kid. “It’s in Wales.”

“What’s Wales?” asked the monkey.

“A country,” said the kid.

Naturally, the monkey’s next question was, “What’s a country?”

“A country?” the kid hesitated, having previously taken for granted the definition of a country. She walked over to the dunes, instructing the monkey to follow. There, she relocated the old globe and spun it until the place she was looking for faced the midday sun. She pointed to Wales, “A country is a place in the world.”

The monkey was now a little bit wiser, knowing that there were small places that were countries within a big place called “the world.” The monkey’s discovery of the world sparked the monkey’s curiosity.

“Did the cup come from the world?” the monkey asked.

“Yes,” said the kid. And then, since there was no good reason for a grown monkey to go on not knowing the most basic nouns, she added, “Also, it’s called a bottle.”

“Not a cup?”

“No.”

“Ah,” said the monkey. “A bottle.” This is how the monkey found out the names and functions for all its many mislabelled machines, like the seismograph. The monkey kept calling it a “machine.”

The kid learned new things, as well. The monkey taught the kid about the beach, about the way things washed ashore, about how this was the end of “the world,” previously referred to by the monkey as simply “the end.” The monkey revealed that the beach had but one law: “Don’t ever turn around.”

“Or what?” said the kid.

“Or what?” screamed the monkey. It had never considered, or what? It balled its fists and beat its chest. The thick, shuddering thunder of it made the kid wince. The monkey kept screaming, “Or what! Or something terrible! Or the end will swallow you up!” The kid was afraid. She shrank a little. The monkey sank to its knuckles, feeling sorry.

It said, “Just don’t. Don’t even look.”

“Okay,” said the kid. “I won’t.”

After the monkey’s revelation, a terrible idea popped into the kid’s head. It started to occur to her that she was dead. This didn’t occur to the monkey, who had never known anything to exist in any states other than alive and not-alive.

The kid started to figure it out: the things that washed up here, as she had, were invariably lost. Some of the objects were impossible, too: double-decker airplanes rent in two, classified government documents, pirate ships. Not to mention the objects that the kid could conjure like miracles, simply by wanting them. And she had been here a very long time. Longer, the kid worried, than anyone had been anywhere.

Her last memory, before being hurled about by the tumultuous sea, before waking up on the beach… was the face of a woman, blurred with love and terror and now many years. The sensation of falling, her legs suspended in air, her arms useless against the forces of gravity. The sound of rushing water behind her, a heaviness pulling her into the dark.

Her hunch became a stark realisation when the monkey told her the story of her birth. (Onto the beach.) Because the kid had seen a wrecked campervan, before.

When the monkey’s ship had returned to Llanigon, Wales, it ran aground in the middle of a playground. It screamed across the tarmac, coming to a skidding halt, then keeled over. Parents were called, the pupils sent home. The area was sealed off. An expert noted that the deep silver grooves on the right door appeared to have been made by the teeth of a prehistorically large ape. The school was closed for three glorious weeks.

But the arrival of the VW campervan from nowhere was already legend when the kid was in primary school. Yet the way the monkey told it, the van was sinking right when the kid was beaching. That’s when the kid knew: she was at the end of the world.

The kid became listless. At night, when she couldn’t sleep because she didn’t need to anymore, she was haunted shards of memory. Her mum would’ve looked for her, she realised. Would’ve dragged the river from its source to its mouth. Would’ve searched and never found her. Just a single red wellington boot, maybe.

The kid’s grief would’ve been understandable to anyone who understood death, so it was unfathomable to the monkey. The while of the two’s happiness came to an end.

As the kid and the monkey were watching the waves go out one evening, she made up her mind. She said, thinking aloud as she’d gotten used to doing, “Pink sky at night, sailor’s delight.” The beach’s sky was not pink; it was blue. It was never any other colour.

The monkey scoffed. “A pink sky? I don’t believe you.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” said the kid. “You’ve never even seen a sunset.” The kid picked up a withered lemon that was miraculously there. “When it’s almost night, the sun is like a dim yellow fruit instead of a bright burning one but you wouldn’t know that, Monkey, because we just sit here all day in this afterlife and watch the waves come in and play games and we let the sun set behind our backs.”

The monkey protested, “We don’t just sit here.”

But it knew, by now, when something was a lie.

The kid’s expression softened. She was suddenly weary with the weight of millennia. She said, “Dear sweet Monkey, what have you seen of the world beyond this beach? This isn’t even the world, you know, but the end of it.”

The monkey was getting a bad feeling. This bad feeling had been building up since the kid’s big realisation, for roughly five thousand years, without either of them knowing it. The monkey stood to its full height, bared its sharp, yellowed teeth. It screamed, “Kid, don’t forget how long I’ve lived! Ages, epochs, ga! Millennia are as grains of sand to me. I am the oldest animal in the world, the most ancient, the first: I would’ve seen a pink sky, if that was a thing to be seen.”

The kid sighed. “You hadn’t seen a lemon until right now.”

The monkey knew she was right, and was afraid. It was suddenly clear what she was about to do, and the monkey couldn’t understand it. Neither could the kid. She was afraid. The monkey sank to its knees, the warm sand grazing its long knuckles.

The kid stood.

She turned. She kept turning.

The monkey screamed, in anguish.

The kid was disintegrating. Her skin began to melt, the right side of her head half-crushed by the sudden vision of whatever she’d turned her back on. In the dunes, the seismograph’s needle was going off the charts. All this time, the kid had never looked. She wondered who would be there now, if anyone, if anything; would there be migratory birds and dancing and homework? Would the woman be there, undistorted? Would it be what she wanted, what she imagined?

 

KANDACE SIOBHAN WALKER is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. Canadian-born, Welsh-raised, she lives in South London. Since completing an MA in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths, she is currently writing and directing a short film in collaboration with the ICA and Dazed Media, as part of the STOP PLAY RECORD programme for young filmmakers. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, New Plains Review and Obsidian, among others.

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