PRW Runner-up Tour: Monkey Qi, Monkey Do by Scott Hughey
I probably should have kicked Monkey out of my study the instant I found him. After all, the last time I saw him, he’d tricked me into granting him immortality. Never let a lower primate see your books. Nor for a second did I believe he cared about Miao Song, a woman who apparently couldn’t smile. But then, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.
A panicked minion summoned me from my study. Trouble was brewing in Hell, specifically in the Fifth level.
Someone had replaced the usual blend of molten tar and pitch with boiling olive oil. To be sure, the new oil scalded and burned the miserable souls well enough, but it wasn’t right. The second I materialized in front of the pits, a more pleasing aroma than necessary assaulted my senses.
I could barely smell the sulfur anymore. Souls in the nearest pit screamed and writhed in agony, but without the usual amount of enthusiasm.
I called the guài to me. “Explain.”
He wrung his hands, like a demon in fear of torment. Which, come to think of it, he was. “When we started cleaning the pits-”
“Cleaning? Why would you do that?”
“Forgive me, Yen-Lo-Wang,” the spirit monster said. “Because you ordered it.”
I opened my mouth to deny this, when the alarms sounded. Someone was not only at my door, but had broken it down. Only one being in all creation had the audacity to do such a thing. After all, he’d done it before.
“Fix this,” I said to the guài, and sent my essence through the Qi, back to my study.
“Monkey,” I spat. He sat at my oak desk, with one of the life books spread open in front of him. The candlelight made his shadows jump and flicker.
“Yen-Lo-Wang,” Monkey replied. He wore nothing but spectacles, and even they were for show. Gods see everything, after all. Or nearly everything.”You look like Death warmed over.”
“You’re already immortal, you stupid ape. What more could you want from me?”
He drew his attention back to the book, licking his fingers and turning the pages. I wished I’d brought some of the burning oil with me.
“Oh, I’m here for a friend,” he said. “Maybe you’ve heard of those? They’re companions, or confidants. I know some that’d die to meet you.”
My face grew redder than usual. I clenched my robes at the waist. When dealing with this trickster god, losing one’s temper only made it easier for him to get away with- whatever he wanted to get away with.
“I’m no longer as merciful as I used to be, Monkey. Why are you here? And speak plainly.”
He heaved a tremendous sigh, like he was the one being put upon. He pushed the spectacles to the top of his head.
“True love brings me here. Well, not so much brings as guides. And, I suppose, it’s not so much love as fondness, or do friends tell each other they love one another? I’ve never had one before. Let’s call it fondness. True fondness guides me here.” My eyes narrowed more and more the longer he spoke. “Do I need the qualifier, ‘true,’ do you think?”
He ended the soliloquy by spinning the book around, and tapping an entry with his meaty finger.
“You’re making even less sense than usual. Who’s that?” He glanced over his shoulder.” No, you fool. On the page.”
He shrugged. Some of his more human mannerisms made him appear foolish. This was one of them. “She doesn’t have much time.”
“What’s that got to do with you?” I reached into the Qi energy surrounding us all, and wished for the book.
“Mine,” Monkey screeched. He grabbed on the book with both hands, but it whisked through the air towards me anyway. Monkey flew with it, his flailing legs knocking over every single item on my desk.
“Don’t you want my help?” Monkey asked. He dangled in the air from the hovering book.
“With what?” I checked the entry. “You’re right. She hasn’t got long. Who is this Miao Song to you?” Asking this was a mistake. Anything that allows Monkey to linger is a miscalculation.
“As I said, a friend. I thought nobody listened like the dead. Isn’t that a saying?”
“You’re rambling, and I’m losing my patience.”
“Just hear me out. Say, why do you smell like you’ve been cooking?”
I raised an eyebrow in suspicion. Was the olive oil one of his elaborate pranks? I had to know, which meant playing along. “Tell me everything.”
“Really?” He dropped to the ground. “Okay. But she doesn’t have that long, so listen quickly. In the beginning, chaos exploded and it made a really big mess. The chaos that didn’t get turned into creation kind of gelled together into- some call it Qi, others lifeforce. I’ve visited some universes where they call it dreamspace. I think that describes it better than ‘Qi,’ don’t you?”
“Keep wasting my time, ape,” I said with deliberate annunciation, “and I will figure out a way for a god to die.”
“I’m not an ape. And you’re the one that wanted to know everything.”
“You’re better than old jokes, Monkey.” I grimaced. It was the first compliment I’d ever paid him. The realization made me feel faint. I sat down. The chair Monkey had been sitting in across the room materialized beneath me.
Monkey spun around me, and climbed on my back.
“Off,” I said, my voice calm as the grave. “Miao Song. Tell me about her. Now.”
“She’s lovely. For a human. Maybe the loveliest that ever lived. Imagine the opposite of yourself in every way, and you’re halfway to what she looks like. Her suitors span far and wide. I think it’s animalistic urges.” He scratched himself.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Monkey continued. “She’s more than looks, but most people don’t notice that. She fell in love with a peasant boy, name of Bao Hai. He wasn’t rich or clever, but he was both handsome and kind. Even better, he was blind as a baby panda.”
I couldn’t help but ask, “Why was that a good thing?”
Monkey plucked the book from the air. He danced for a second, possibly unaware that I’d allowed him to take the book. He sat on the ground with it.
“He loved her, but couldn’t see her. She knew he saw her inner beauty. Her words, by the way, not mine.”
Monkey flipped through the book again.”So there was one other guy. Pretty powerful, in his own circles. He wanted Miao Song for himself. And definitely, it was because of those animal urges. Miao and Bao tried to run off together, and so the other guy had Bao killed.”
He turned the book around again, and pointed to Bao Hai’s entry. “Looks like I’ve already collected him.”
“Last week. And now, she’s married to the other man.”
“Why in the name of the Jade Emperor would she do that?”
“Women,” Monkey said, in a tone that suggested this was a wise answer. “Who can say?”
I was missing something. Worse than that, or so I believed at the time, Monkey’s continued presence irritated me. That may have led to asking the wrong question.
“Tell me how to get rid of you.”
“Bring back her love.”
“Bao Hai?” He nodded. I frowned. “You know that once a soul is collected and passed on, there’s no going back.”
“There’s an exception to everything.”
“Only in your world, Monkey.”
“That’s where I spend most of the time.” He jumped to my desk. I knew I’d be cleaning hair off it for hours. “Maybe I haven’t been clear-”
“Not from the moment I met you,” I said.
“She deserves happiness. I don’t suppose you’d take the Emperor instead?”
I nearly passed out at the thought. “To even suggest a plot against the Jade Emperor’s earthly vessel-”
“Fine. Spare me the theology lesson. But I’m not leaving until you do something to help her out. Miao Song needs a friend. I’m all she’s got.”
I chuckled. “Are you smitten by her beauty too?”
“I’m a Monkey. Trust me, she’s not my type.”
I read the entry again, just to be sure. “Her line ends tonight,” I said. “I will not change that.”
“Come on, Yen-Lo-Wang. What’s the point of being a death deity if you can’t bend the rules? Give me some leeway. I can’t stand the thought of her escaping the Emperor, just to meet your scowly face.”
“What are you not telling me, Monkey?”
He picked a bug from his chest hair and popped it in his mouth. “She’s special. Can’t explain it. I’ve felt her in the Qi.”
“That doesn’t explain anything,” I said. But clearly, I wasn’t going to get rid of him without offering something. “How about if I lend you power over her? Let a friendly face collect her soul tonight?”
“Perfect! I’ll make a great Grim Reaper! Not so much grim, nobody does that like you, Wang. But I could be the Grinning Reaper. Think of the t-shirts!”
I didn’t ask what that meant. Monkey’s visited lots of other universes, and collects strange ideas there. “I’m already regretting this.”
“Don’t go back on our deal. Today, olive oil,” he warned with bared teeth. “Who knows what I’ll come up with tomorrow?”
“I knew it!”
“It’s this, or spend eternity listening to my ideas on improving Hell. What do you say?”
I shuddered, and that’s saying something. “I’ll be watching you.”
And I did.
Miao Song shuffled down the corridors of the imperial palace. On every side, she was surrounded by gold and precious jewels.
They didn’t touch her mood.
I saw how truly Monkey had spoken- a thought I never expected to pass through my mind. Miao beamed beauty. Neither the ornate tapestries, nor the immaculate statues in the corridors could match her looks. The gown she wore melted into her slender figure. Her eyes were so deep and dark, you could swim in them.
She looked good enough to wake the dead. For a fleeting second of insanity, I wondered if that was Monkey’s plan.
Okay. Obviously, I could go on and on. This lowly human would have taken my breath away if I weren’t a death god. She was appropriately named too, for Miao Song sang as she made her way down the hallway.
Even her voice was so lovely, it took a few seconds to make out her mournful song. She sang a dirge.
A servant hustled down the corridor, calling her name. She did not turn, but halted her slow progress and waited for him to catch up.
“His Radiant Highness requests your presence in his chambers within the hour. He desires that you wear a smile.”
“Then even the Anointed of the Gods can be disappointed. I have no smiles left in me.” Without waiting for a response, she continued her shamble towards her own bedchambers. She wore a look as regretful as my own.
This changed everything. I’d given Monkey power of the Emperor’s bride. I did not fear the man, but the deity behind him. If the Jade Emperor sensed any of the lesser gods mingling in his chosen’s affairs, it might invite his wrath. And anything Monkey did while cloaked in my power would point back to me.
How much trouble was I in?
I kept watching as Miao Song closed the door. She laid face down on her bed, not bothering to draw the silk sheets back.
I’ve heard of people being able to interact with the Qi, while still existing on the physical plane. Usually, that province was reserved for the gods, and I always had my doubts that a mortal could tap into this spirit realm.
Yet, I felt Miao’s essence brush past me. Beyond the physical, her soul’s eyes opened. She was inside the space of the gods.
“Are you here?” she asked and for a moment I wondered if she meant me. Then, much to my non-surprise, Monkey spoke up.
I fully shifted into that realm of dreams and energy, though I kept my presence hidden from the woman. “What are you playing at, Monkey?” I asked. “You didn’t tell me who she was.” I crossed my arms. I’d send Monkey to Hell for this, if I could find a way.
“My hairy friend,” Miao said, oblivious to our side conversation. “This is the last time I’ll visit you. Dream sweetly of me.”
Monkey held out two smelly arms, and took her souls’ hands. “Then I’ll just visit you.”
“Do you believe in soul mates?” she asked.
“That old conversation?”
“The Emperor wants m-”
“Eek! Don’t you let that old bag of bones tell you what to do.”
She gasped at the audacity. So did I, glancing around to see if the Jade Emperor was listening.
Not even the gods dared speak against the chosen servant. Not any, except for the Trickster.
Monkey spoke in a lower voice. I’d say it was calming, except nothing he did had that effect on me. “How long have we known each other?”
Miao Song considered her answer. “In truth, only a few weeks. But when I’m here, it feels like ages.”
“When you’re here, it is. Time doesn’t work the same in this realm. You’ve shown me more kindness than anyone. And you’re so beautiful.”
She huffed. “You sound like everyone else.”
“I don’t mean your repulsive face. The Emperor doesn’t deserve you. There’s an old saying. Something like, if you love something, and someone else squashes it under his foot, you shouldn’t bow to him in respect anymore.”
“That’s a saying?”
Monkey grinned. “It loses something in translation.”
She laughed. “How is it you make me happy, even when I’m so empty?”
“I think it’s called friendship,” he said. I scoffed.
“I call it soul friends,” Miao said. But only here, in this dream space. And only for so long. The Emperor will not have me. I’m killing myself tonight.”
So that was why her life’s line ended here.
Monkey screeched, then clamped a hand over his mouth. “Sorry,” he said, “but you’re not.”
“I will never belong to that foul man. I’ll die first.”
“No, but you will meet your death. For one night only, that’s me.” He squeezed her hands.
Monkey appeared on the physical plane. Miao vanished from the Qi the instant he did. By the time I joined them in her chambers, she was already sitting up on the bed.
“Oh! You’re a talking monkey!” She took even this is stride.
“No. I’m The Monkey.” He strutted around the room on his hands, clearly showing off.
“What are we doing here?”
“Yen-Lo-Wang made a deal. I’m your personal servant of death. I get to decide where you go.”
My eyes narrowed. Perhaps he did all this, because Miao had a foul heart, and he wanted her to go to Paradise.
“Trust me?” he asked.
“You never told me you were an animal,” she said slowly.
“You never said it mattered.”
She leaned back on the bed. “Take me.”
Monkey spoke the word of death I’d taught him. In the physical realm, Miao Song fell to the bed and never moved again.
Monkey disappeared to the Qi. I followed him.
Miao Song breathed in deeply. “Oh! I’m so light!” Monkey beamed at her, jumping up and down. He seemed so excited, I feared he’d start peeing and throwing feces all over the place. “Do I get reincarnated now?”
Monkey halted in mid flight, which only worked in the Qi. “No five flavored tea of forgetfulness for you. I’m taking you to my jungle.”
That’s where I drew the line. I appeared in a flash of thunder. Miao Song moved behind Monkey. She knew who I was. Everyone did in this realm.
“She must be judged,” I said. Miao’s eyes widened, though I didn’t sense terror.
“My gods,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied. To Monkey, I added, “If you will not judge her, I will.”
“You gave me dominion over this mortal. I judge her my best friend.”
I laughed. “What does a trickster like you know of friendship?”
“Only what she’s taught me. I’d like to know more, if she’ll let me.” He took her hand. It seemed as platonic a gesture as two primates holding hands could make.
“Where to?” she asked. Her voice sounded melancholy. Her eyes, so easy for a god to interpret, sparkled with both sadness and wonder.
“Tomorrow,” Monkey said. “And then, forever.” She smiled. They vanished further into the Qi.
Jade Emperor hadn’t shown up. Maybe my fears of a thousand torments at his hand were baseless.
I materialized back in my study, and picked the life book off the floor. For a moment, I marvelled.
Monkey actually did something for someone else. It didn’t entirely abide the rules, but if he of all creatures could learn altruism, then perhaps it was worth one soul slipping through the cracks.
I placed the book on the table, pleased that even a death god could learn new ways to look at life. And at monkeys.
The Jade Emperor appeared as I picked up the debris from Monkey’s visit. He demanded to know where the beautiful girl’s soul had snuck off to.
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