Don't be fooled. These are the soulless eyes of a kidnapper.

The time I was a monkey hostage.

I grew up in an area that, by the standards of my home state, wasn’t exactly affluent. Nonetheless, we had the good fortune to be located near a main road that ran from a major city, through my town, out to several areas that were considerably richer than my neighborhood. This street had some really neat shops — excellent restaurants, fantastic consignment and thrift stores, and even a store dedicated entirely to dollhouse miniatures. (I used to go there to get things to outfit the stable my grandpa made for me for my model horses. The man is a wizard with a saw.)

One of my favorite shops was a pet store. It had a room full of friendly, inquisitive parrots of every description, another full of exotic fish and anemones, and plenty of other cages full of exotic animals — hedgehogs, a toucan, I even remember a kinkajou. The shop was run by a very nice family, and, as far as I know, staffed entirely by the owners’ children. All of the animals seemed to be healthy, well cared for, with the kind of outgoingness that comes from regular handling.

My family wasn’t very well off, so going to this pet store was an outing just as much as going to the zoo might be. We rarely bought anything more than a bag of cat or dog food, but it was fun just to walk through and look.

I remember going one year when I was around four or five, maybe six. It was winter, and cold enough that I had on a lavender knit cap, a matching puffy coat, and a set of mittens on a string. I was walking past a row of cages, peeking in to see what my wide tiny child eyes could see.

Capuchin monkeys!

The cage was large, especially to me, and I don’t know how many it housed. They clambered over the branches suspended between the bars, spun rainbow-colored blocks strung on a jute rope, and sat watching the passing customers with their shiny, shoebutton eyes and fistfuls of half-chewed monkey biscuits in their paws.

Don't be fooled. These are the soulless eyes of a kidnapper.

Don’t be fooled. These are the soulless eyes of a kidnapper.

I don’t remember how it happened — I wasn’t actually that close to the cage. All I remember is turning away to look at a group of guinea pigs, and seeing a long, slim, black-haired arm snake into my view. A split second later, pairs of tiny hands pulled my hat down over my eyes and yanked me back against the bars. In the tiny sliver of light at the bottom edge of my hat, I could see more pairs of hands, arms, and even a few tails holding my coat.

“Um.” My mouth immediately went dry. I had the sneaking suspicion this would somehow be my fault, and I was almost as afraid of yelling and startling the monkeys into starting up a cacophony as I was of my mom spotting me and starting one at home. “H-help?”

I couldn’t see much, and my arms were stuck out like the kid in A Christmas Story. I was starting to panic, but also worried about struggling and accidentally hurting a monkey. Their little arms looked so spindly and fragile — deceptively so for something capable of restraining an entire kindergartner. I would’ve felt guilty for the rest of my life if I accidentally hurt one. I had also seen enough “U BREAK IT, U BUY IT” signs in other stores to foresee this ending badly. I didn’t know how much a monkey cost, but I knew we couldn’t afford one.

Help.”

I could feel the panic rising. What if I didn’t manage to get free? What if they stole my hat and I got in trouble for losing it? What if the monkeys tried to eat me? I turned my head frantically, hoping I could clear my vision enough to spot another customer, one of the employees, anyone whose attention I could try to get to help me out of my incredibly dumbass predicament.

Was this a hostage situation? Would they let me go for a banana? I didn’t even know monkey ransom was a thing, let alone had the foresight to bring anything I could use to barter for my freedom. I didn’t think my mom did, either, unless the monkeys were willing to negotiate for some Trident wrappers and half a pack of Marlboro Lights.

HELP.”

It took awhile for my mom to find me. Baffled, she started trying to pull me free before giving up and going to get one of the owners. It took both of them and the work of several patient minutes of prying away tiny fingers to free me, while monkey bedding and the remains of chewed-up biscuits rained down on us. The capuchins seemed to think this was hilarious.

In the end, I did (perhaps unsurprisingly) manage to get free. No monkeys were harmed, and my hat was only slightly unraveled. We still went to that pet store for years afterward, but I did stop wearing hats there.

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Let’s Read: Remedios Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings

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varoI don’t know if I can express how much I wanted this book using actual, intelligible language words, as opposed to some kind of excited dolphin noise.

Saying “I love Remedios Varo” would be a little… not actually disingenuous, but small. I find her work inspiring. I love plumbing the depth of detail in her paintings. I’m fascinated by her life. If we had lived around the same time, in the same place, and there wasn’t a language barrier, I like to think we would have been friends (assuming she could get past my overly-eager fanning, but whatever). We could’ve had sleepovers, written letters to people we picked out of the phone book, and rearranged crocodile skulls, pipes, and armchairs together.

Incidentally, she was absolutely weird and I could not be more here for it.

See, what excited me about this book is that my Spanish is execrable, and her letters, notes, and other private writings aren’t widely translated. And by “not widely,” I mean that I’m pretty sure this is the only time they have been.

Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is short, but understandably so — it’s not as if she set out to have her notes compiled into a full-length book. It’s also extremely intimate, including details from several of her dreams. The first section comprises her letters to others (Gerald Gardner, who popularized Wicca, among them). Some of the recipients were complete strangers, and the letters were signed with fake names.

Anyway, this is pretty much all just preamble to my favorite bit: “The Observers of the Interdependence of Household Objects and of Their Influence Over Everyday Life.” I’ll let her describe it:

“This group, active for quite a long time now, has already made important verifications that make life easier from a practical point of view. For instance: I move a can of green paint some five centimeters to the right, I stick in a thumbtack next to a comb and, if Mr. A… (an adept who works in tandem with me) at that same moment places his book on beekeeping next to the pattern for cutting out a vest, I’m sure there will come about, on Avenida Madero, the encounter with a woman who interests me and whose origin I’ve been unable to determine[.]”

There are more descriptions of the private “solar systems” of the members of this esteemed (and, as far as I’ve been able to determine, imaginary) group. Armchairs, velvet shoes, skulls, a pipe inlaid with fake diamonds… All of them are described as laid out in a ritualistic arrangement, though it’s never explained exactly why each particular object has significance.

The Surrealist movement has some very strong ties to witchcraft and the occult (a topic I’d like to get into more deeply with a book focused on the subject). So, it’s unsurprising that Varo had her witchy tendencies, as well. The aspect of the practices of T.O.o.t.I.o.H.O.a.o.T.I.O.E.L. that surprised and intrigued me the most was their interdependence. Varo explains that new members of the group are limited in the objects they may use, and the manner in which they may move them. She goes on to describe committing an infraction:

“I permitted myself to add […] a dried hummingbird stuffed with magnetic dust, all of it well tied with cord, just as mummies are wrapped, using red silk thread. I did so without warning my colleagues, a very serious transgression according to the regulations of the group. Only our leader, with his long experience and his high degree of knowledge, can do something like that without bringing on grave consequences. What’s more, I intentionally put the can of green paint under a beam of red light that was coming through the stained glass pane of my window[.]”

She blames this course of action for a change in her paintings (the sudden, irrepressible desire to paint otherwise placid sheep with staircases coming out of their backs, for one), the ruining of a shirt, and the sudden appearance of a large deposit of salt in her bedroom.

Despite existing in discrete systems of their own, under the care of each member, the objects are all interrelated. Moving one affects things in the homes of other members, and doing so without warning is a serious thing. It put me in mind of crystal grids, and the way they (like all magic) can be used to influence something very far away — you don’t need the patient in front of you to work a healing spell, for example. Only, in Varo’s case, the movement and placement of ritual objects in other homes influences the ritual objects in hers, which, in turn, influences her everyday life.

Only two of her letters discuss this practice at all, which is a shame, because I find it fascinating. Even if she made it up entirely, even if there never was a group of Observers, the description of these magical tableaux conjure up a captivating mental image. The rest of the book is a collection of dreams, a pretend archaeological resource on Homo rodans, a few recipes for inducing specific types of dreams (erotic dreams require, among other things, “1 kilo horseradish, 4 kilos honey, and hats to taste”), and notes on her paintings. It’s a short read, like I said, but was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon that’s left my imagination invigorated.

 

 

The baby got locked in the car, and then an exorcism broke out.

I wasn’t always self-employed. Did I ever tell you that I used to work retail?

If not, this is why.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad gig — I learned a lot, especially about nutrition. The management was often a nightmare, but the work was decent enough to keep me doing it for several years.

I also had a number of customers who seemed to think I was pretty neat. One lady managed to avoid putting down her son’s dog after I made a dietary recommendation (he had been medicated for severe allergies of unknown origin, then needed phenobarbital to counteract the seizures his medication gave him. It turned out to be a severe allergy to corn). One couple straight-up told me that, when I changed stores, they would continue shopping at whichever one I ended up working at.

Those times were nice. The other days, though? Ho-lee crap.

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