By Reema Rao-Patel -
The day Christopher was terrorized at the zoo, Abimanyu knew God was real.
Until then, Abimanyu only prayed when he wanted something. A desperate faith. He’d stitch his eyes and forehead together; clasp his small hands, knuckles white as Himalayan peaks; point his chin up, wondering where in the sky God might be that day. Then he’d begin, Dear Hanuman. It made sense that God, so incomprehensible, could be a monkey.
He prayed, more than once, for Christopher to stop taunting him in front of their entire third-grade class. From his desk, Christopher spit the words at Abimanyu – monkey worshiper – like paper wads through a straw. That’s why you eat with your hands. Hairy lips, just like a monkey.
Once, Christopher wrote a note: For a monkey worshiper, you suck at monkey bars. Their classmates sniggered at Abimanyu, a creature on display, as they passed the paper down the row; they may as well have pointed fingers. Their teacher, Mrs. Heinrich, rarely did more than “tsk” over her shoulder from the whiteboard. But that day, she asked Abimanyu to stay after the bell.
“Honey, you know those words only hurt as much as you believe them to be true.”
“But it is,” he said.
Did he not eat soft chapatis with his hands or count the hairs sprouting along his lip? Did his parents not kneel before a monkey, decorated and framed in their temple? Yes, he did suck at monkey bars. What was so wrong about any of it being true?
The day of their class trip to the zoo, Abimanyu prayed on the bus – a plea repeated like a verse: Dear Hanuman, don’t take us to the monkey exhibit. It was their first stop.
“Here we have the gray langurs, often called Hanuman monkeys in parts of South Asia because it resembles the Hindu god,” a guide droned.
Christoper salivated. “Hey everyone, look! It’s Abimanyu’s family and his god.”
Abimanyu balled his hands, little crescents cutting into his palms, while the class chittered. But one student stumbled backwards, mouth agape.
The largest langur had descended behind Christopher. The thud shook the trees, leaves fanning. It huffed into the glass barrier, forming breathy halos around its face. Then it let out a mighty screech.
The students matched its shrieks and swarmed the guide, tugging at her sleeves and pant legs. Mrs. Heinrich too. The chaos magnified as other monkeys started leaping from their branches and scraping at the glass. Their bodies shadowed over Christopher, a mess on the floor. He wailed like the small boy he was.
Only Abimanyu remained transfixed. Like in deep worship amidst the cacophony of temple bells. He kneeled in front of the langur, both palms pressed to the glass. As he did, the langur slowed its tantrum and bent to the ground too – their two bodies fitting into each other’s reflections.
Abimanyu didn’t need to search in the sky today.
“You heard me,” he said, straight into the langur’s golden eyes.
Reema Rao-Patel is an Indian American writer from Chicago. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Moot Point Magazine, Avalon Literary Review, The Wayne Literary Review, and The Lipstick Politico (amongst others), as well as longlisted for The Masters Review 2022 Summer Short Story Award. She has had the honor of being selected for workshops with American Short Fiction, Key West Literary Seminar, Chicago Asian Writers Workshop, and was awarded a scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center. Currently, Reema is working on a short story collection and teaching her dog to roll over. You can find her at reemaraopatel.com, @reema.rp on Instagram, and @finding_reemo on Twitter.