Monkey Army

He’d called the office and asked how he was supposed to rid the excavation site of monkeys. ‘For good,’ they’d said. The instruction was curt and final: ‘You know how to do it.’

Darmin opened the supply closet, took out an air rifle, pumped it, loaded the bullets, tiptoed to the window, cracked it open, and peered out from behind the curtain. There were a few monkeys in the yard. Macaques. Two of them were fighting over a plastic bag, the others just milled around. He looked for the biggest and found it sitting near the bushes, watching over his troop. Darmin got in position. He could hear himself breathing. He aimed at the monkey’s chest, but at the last moment raised the rifle just a hair or two above the monkey’s head.

The shot rang out. He saw the big monkey startle and run, heard hoots and screams as the troop fled into the thicket, reaching for twigs and clambering up branches.

He went out of the house, still carrying the rifle. The monkeys were gone from the yard now. They’d been a problem for weeks. A rifle shot could scare them away, but they always came back. It was annoying, but it was his job.

He stood watch in the yard in case the creatures returned. He could still occasionally hear their shrieks, but there was no other sign of them.

The residential units for the workers consisted of a few bunkhouses each. They stood in a row looking out on a small yard, which also functioned as a dirt road, and a ridge beyond that. Three bachelors lived in the house on the right, but they’d all gone out that morning to inspect a line-up of excavators. The house on the left had been for the company doctor, a middle-aged man who’d arrived with his wife and small daughter. But the child couldn’t bear the monkeys and so they’d moved back to the city. Now the doctor came and went every day, about an hour’s drive. Darmin lived alone. A kid fresh out of college had been rooming with him, but when the monkeys arrived, he’d gone back home without a word.

The monkeys here were mercilessly stupid. Their brains had been braised by the sun. They had watched the huts being built along the slope of the hill, hundreds of workers arriving with their trucks and heavy machinery. When the trucks roared and whined, they should have known to withdraw further into the jungle. Instead, they came in gangs, baring their teeth in wide grins. They thought the humans would be threatened. Darmin lifted his rifle and shot into the air, and they scattered.

But the animals were too stupid to stay away. They came back again. People had started digging up the earth and, slowly but surely, the hills had been flattened and new valleys had been created. For months now the revving of engines had replaced the rushing of wind and the splashing of water, and bright work lights glared all night long.

The monkeys were disturbed, and it seemed as though they had to disturb the humans in return. It had reached new heights a few weeks ago: a child in the Unit XII settlement had fought with a monkey over a bag of peanuts until another monkey came and the pair attacked him. The child suffered bites on his cheek and arm. The company sent the kid to the hospital. There were no signs of rabies, but the incident had aggravated the workers who lived in the bunkhouses. As time passed, the monkeys kept growing bolder. Then a foreman was riding his motorcycle when a monkey suddenly attacked from above, leaping down onto him from a branch. The bite wasn’t bad, but the man lost control of the bike, was thrown into a ditch, and broke his arm. A truck driver sleeping in his cabin was attacked too. Deep scratches across his face left him scarred, and partially blind from a ruptured eyeball.

That was when they called the forest police and filed a report with the local military headquarters. Neither the police nor the military took them seriously. Instead they said, ‘You guys can take care of this monkey business yourselves.’


More than twenty years ago, Darmin had lived in a settlement on the edge of a teak forest that belonged to the government. He didn’t do much back then. He would cut down teak in secret and sell the poached timber to a middleman. If the forest police caught him, he would have to split the profits – later he also shared them with a soldier from the military office. He lived alone. Five years earlier, his wife had died giving birth to their child, who didn’t survive either.

One day there was a commotion. People were angry with the old witch doctor. He knew the guy lived in the neighboring forest. Villagers with strange ailments would go visit him, as would folks wanting other kinds of things – to have a child, to make someone suffer. Darmin had never really thought about him one way or another until that day, when the extent of his crimes was revealed.

The witch doctor didn’t just heal all kinds of illness. He also used magic, and many had died at his hand – at least, that’s what people believed. He was long rumored to be lecherous, but when word got out that he’d robbed a local girl of her virtue, the people’s anger erupted. A throng had gathered outside his house, armed with machetes and spears, but no one dared actually go inside and grab him.

Darmin heard all this. He knew the girl they were talking about. He would often pass her in the mornings, when she was on her way to school, and she would always greet him, ‘Good morning, Uncle.’ He was in fact no relation to her, but her warmth always made him imagine what his child might have been like if she’d lived. The thought of the witch doctor taking her honor made his chest feel hot. Without saying much, he charged toward the man’s house.

There he saw faces full of rage, which he recognized, and fear, which disgusted him. Were they afraid of the man’s power? That’s bullshit, he thought. He didn’t believe in magic or witchcraft. He grabbed a machete out of someone’s hand, kicked down the door and strode into the house.

Once inside he saw the man right there, peering out through a crack in the window. His wife was huddled over, crying into her hands. The witch doctor turned in surprise. When he met Darmin’s gaze, his eyes were pleading.

Darmin walked toward him, the machete raised high in his clenched fist. The witch doctor cupped his hands together at his chest, begging for mercy, but Darmin didn’t feel compelled to show any. His fist flew down. A powerful swing from a hand accustomed to wielding an axe that chopped down teak trees. The blade struck the witch doctor’s neck. Blood gushed. His head sagged. When she realized what was happening, the wife let out a piercing scream. With one more slash the witch doctor’s head was severed from its body. Darmin carried the head out into the yard by its hair, then threw it to the ground.

The police arrested Darmin. For weeks, in jail, he kept asking himself: What have I done? Why did I kill him? Where did I get the nerve? He shuddered to remember it. Someone from the local military office came to visit him, to comfort him. The soldier said the villagers had finally mustered up some courage. They had slit the throats of a dozen other witch doctors. He didn’t know exactly how many, but people were talking about it. He was surprised there were that many in the village.

‘The newspapers will all write about it for a few months, but those guys will still be dead,’ the soldier said. ‘And they deserve to be dead.’ The judge sentenced him to seven years, but he was only in jail for three months and a few days. One day the warden brought him to the exit door and whispered, ‘You can go.’ Darmin returned to his house and the villagers treated him with great respect. He didn’t need to steal teak anymore, the villagers did it for him. Logs piled up behind his house. A middleman came with a guarded truck and hauled the timber away. For years, until the villagers’ respect wore thin, he didn’t need to do a thing.


The next day a monkey came to the mining site and bit an excavator operator, leaving a gaping wound in his neck. The doctor had to transport him to the hospital, praying he didn’t die on the way.

‘What a bother,’ Darmin thought. He’d started to miss those boring days when he hadn’t had to do anything.

Now he was responsible for worksite safety. The company did get some help from the army and the local youth organizations, but he was the one who had to travel from the bunkhouses into the teak forests every day, ensuring everything was all right. Sometimes an environmental group came on behalf of the river, which was badly polluted, or the hill that had been blasted away and collapsed, or most often on behalf of the people, who were poor. There might be some commotion then, but – though it wasn’t easy – you could still talk it out, you could still reason with them. And if words didn’t work, money usually did.

Unfortunately, you can’t reason with a monkey.

‘You have to kill at least one of them,’ said Agus Maulana, a fellow worker who was always neatly dressed. ‘And that’ll be a sign to the others.’

‘No,’ said Darmin. ‘We just need to keep chasing them all away.’

It still bothered him, the thought of how he’d killed that witch doctor. He didn’t understand how he could have done it. When he was in prison he’d vowed he would never hurt anyone again, and not just another human being. He’d told the people in the office too – he was willing to stand guard, but he wasn’t going to kill the monkeys.

He’d handed out some air rifles, just in case, but warned the workers not to shoot at the animals. They should only shoot into the sky. That way the monkeys would be scared away, and no one would get shot accidentally. But the incident with the excavator operator had proved that at least one of the monkeys was no longer afraid of the sound.

Darmin finally went into the forest. Agus Maulana went with him.

‘I still say it would be good to kill just one, before they kill one of us.’

‘There’s no way a monkey could kill a human,’ Darmin said. ‘Anyway, we’ll wind up on the news if we start killing monkeys.’

‘No we won’t,’ laughed Agus Maulana. ‘No one would know.’

‘Aren’t the monkeys protected? I’ve never seen monkeys like this in my village.’

‘What the hell does it matter, brother!’ said Agus Maulana. ‘In this country, people are so easily killed – hundreds of thousands of people have been shot to death, maybe more. What’s so bad about killing a few monkeys?’

Darmin still didn’t believe the problem could be solved that way. Humans had choices. They could choose to dig up the land, raze the forest, send their filth into the rivers and the oceans. It didn’t matter why. For progress. For the millions of stomachs that had to be filled up with food. They could also choose to leave nature as it was. Monkeys didn’t have a choice. They lived where they lived.

Darmin had always been able to scatter the monkeys. They would hear his warning shot, get scared, scream, and run away. But they wouldn’t disappear forever. They would change their routine temporarily, be gone for a day or two, then suddenly reappear to attack another worker.

There was one hillside still filled with towering trees. Over its peak was another bare expanse, primed for excavation. So it was likely the monkeys were there, on that hillside.

Behind his glasses, Agus Maulana’s eyes scanned the foliage. He turned to one side and then another. Darmin thought the youth wasn’t really suited for life in the jungle, nor a bunkhouse, nor an excavation site. His slight build was made for walking down a city sidewalk, carrying a briefcase. Even so, Agus Maulana seemed to enjoy the opportunity for adventure.

‘There’s a group of them, brother,’ Agus Maulana called out.

Darmin had seen them too. They were clustered in a tree, filling its branches, staring back at them. Sensing a threat, they were starting to shriek and grin, displaying sharp canines. Darmin lifted his rifle and shot up into the air. The monkeys were startled, and as they started to move, the tree began swaying violently. They jumped to the branches of another tree, which started to rustle and shake as they landed, then settled in a third.

Darmin chased after the monkeys, again aiming his rifle up at the empty air. He pulled the trigger, a shot rang out. The monkeys again went swinging and leaping farther away. Their chaotic screams were answered with more, from somewhere in the distance.

Darmin chased the monkeys as far away as he could. In between the excavation sites, there was a kind of corridor of trees that stretched out far as the eye could see. Darmin wondered if they could lead the monkeys all the way down that corridor, chase them back to a part of the jungle that remained untouched.


There was another thing Darmin regretted: punching an old man in the face – a really old guy, in his eighties. He did what people told him to do. He was a machine.

The old man had been the last holdout. He’d refused to sell his fields, which were right in the middle of where the reservoir was supposed to be. They were building a dam. They’d tried all the different ways to convince him to go, including offering him twice as much money than the other landowners had gotten. He didn’t care about the money.

Someone high up in the company had thrown up his hands and suggested the man should simply be killed. Darmin wasn’t sure why they thought he should be the one to do it. When they asked him about it, Darmin cursed them. No, he would never kill anyone ever again. They didn’t try to force him, especially not after the man was interviewed on television. They just ordered Darmin to find some other way to take care of it. Frustrated, and out of ideas, Darmin had finally walked up to the old guy and punched him in the face.

Word was his jaw was fractured. Darmin was embarrassed – not of what he’d done, but that it didn’t even solve the problem. For a few days they’d been targeted by the media. Twice Darmin had to go to the police station.

Agus Maulana came to help. He tracked the old man down after he was discharged from the hospital, and he brought a kyai with him. The kyai spoke to the old man.

‘What did he say?’ Darmin asked, weeks after the fields had been surrendered and submerged.

Agus Maulana chuckled. ‘The kyai said this life is nothing but a game. A diversion. Eternal life comes in the hereafter, so why get so caught up in the concerns of this mortal world?’

After that they had often worked together, at different places. A few years ago, the man who got him out of prison had connected them with the company. They dug coal mines in two districts, and nickel at the last place. Moving from project to project he had seen men paving wide roads, building long bridges that connected two islands, constructing underground trains, ports, airfields. He might never have seen any of it if he’d kept leading his old life at the edge of the teak forest.


‘Fuck!’ It was the first time Darmin had ever heard Agus Maulana swear.

‘Fucking dog! Devil! Bastard!’

Wati, a young woman from the office in the city, had come to the mine for the monthly audit. She’d spent the night in a bunkhouse with two coworkers and that was her last night on this earth. The monkeys had attacked as they slept. The three women were set upon by dozens of them. Two suffered scratches and bites, but Wati ran out of the house screaming. The monkeys chased her. They caught her, scratched and bit. They clung to her arms and her clothes. As the girl was running, staggering and swaying, one monkey clambered up onto her face and grabbed a fistful of her hair. She slipped and went sliding down a steep slope. She fell forward and her stomach was impaled on a sharp rock.

Agus Maulana had been fond of her. Apparently the feeling was mutual. Darmin had seen them eating in the work canteen together, gazing into each other’s eyes. Secretly he’d hoped that the two would be happy together. He understood why the young man was swearing. He understood when Agus Maulana snatched up a rifle and rushed toward the forest. Darmin took his own rifle, and his bullets, and hurried after.

Darmin heard Agus Maulana’s shots. When he approached, the youth was shooting blindly into the trees. There was a troop of monkeys in the branches and they scattered in a cacophony of shouts. Darmin realized the young man was a terrible shot. Not even one bullet had landed.

‘I’ll kill you all! You dogs, you pigs, you fucks!’

The young man didn’t look at Darmin, just kept pacing. Every time he saw the foliage move, he would lift his rifle and shoot. Sometimes it was just a squirrel, or a bird. He didn’t care. If he saw a monkey, his eyes would flash and he’d start shooting wildly again. Again and again. But not even one bullet met its mark. The young man threw himself down into the grass and sobbed.

‘You’re useless, brother,’ he murmured through his sobs. ‘You hold a rifle, and you can shoot, but you don’t even have the guts to kill a monkey.’


The next morning, as Wati’s corpse was being loaded into the car that would take it back to the city, Darmin went out on his motorcycle, a rifle at his back. He rode slowly, away from the main road, following a small footpath into the forest.

‘You’re useless, brother.’

The words seemed to echo through the forest, bouncing off the cliff walls and reflecting off the surface of every leaf. He stopped riding only when the path came to a sudden end. He dismounted and left the motorbike lying there in the grass. He continued on foot, pushing through the brush. He could faintly hear monkeys yelling and chattering. He walked toward the sounds.

Soon he saw them. Did it really have to be this way? Did they really have to die for some lumpy mounds of dirt that had been dredged up from the bowels of the earth?

‘You’re useless.’ Again the words echoed. ‘You don’t even have the guts to kill a monkey, brother.’

He watched the monkey troop closely. He took note of the biggest, who was also the slowest. The animals seemed to become aware of his presence. They started yelling louder, screaming, baring their teeth. Darmin raised his rifle. He pointed it at the big monkey, which he took for the alpha, their chief. He aimed for the head.

‘Shoot, brother!’

He heard himself exhale, then retrained his eyes on the biggest monkey and realized: the monkey was pregnant. They looked at each other. The monkey scratched its stomach, as if to make sure the little monkey inside its body was all right. Darmin’s finger began to tremble.

His vision blurred. The monkey let out a strangled cry and went flying. Darmin could hear its body crashing down through the thicket, landing on the dirt with a thump. Seeing the dead body, its head exploded, the other monkeys took flight in earnest. Their screams were no longer threats, but were filled now with powerlessness and fear.

Darmin turned, his rifle still raised, and followed them, shivering. The whole time he saw nothing. His entire body had gone cold except his head, which was smoldering.


That day Darmin killed nineteen monkeys and strung them all up from the branches.

But that didn’t keep the monkeys away. At night, they came to the bunkhouses, and kept everyone awake with their screams. A few of them pissed on the shutters. Their numbers seemed to grow.

Darmin killed more of them. A dozen. This time he skinned them and strung their corpses up by their ankles.

The next day a worker who forgot to lock his window was attacked by a pair of them in the middle of the night. His face was badly gouged out, and one of his ears ripped clean off.

Darmin shot twenty-three more monkeys. He chopped off their heads, then impaled each on the tip of a spear. Then he lined the spears up along the edge of the forest.

The monkey army kept coming.

After a while Darmin stopped counting. Every week the company delivered more bullets with the provisions.

A month or two later Agus Maulana came out of mourning. He asked Darmin, ‘Brother, is all this really necessary?’

‘It’s annoying, brother,’ Darmin told him. ‘But it’s my job.’


Artwork by Iabadiou PikoBlue Predator, 2022.
Courtesy of D Gallerie.

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