Skip to Content

Monkey Brains

Photo of Elysha Chang

Elysha Chang

monkey brains

Look, this is how a heart works. The right atrium receives blood from the legs and arms and pours it into the right ventricle. The right ventricle pumps that blood into the lungs, and then the lungs give it back to the heart, to the left atrium specifically. This new, oxygenated blood passes through the left ventricle, through a network of tubes, and then through your anus. Your lungs fall out the same way. And then your kidneys and your stomach. The rest of your organs follow suit until you’re just a sallow, fleshy tent ballooning with air, supported by a scaffold of bones. Air because you know how when you pour some viscous thing out of a bottle, a bubble levitates to the top to fill up the space you made? Air because of that.


I met a man in Cairo last year. His name was Abed. He was tall and handsome and incredibly near-sighted. In the U.S. he’d have to get papers; letters to prove he was disabled, dangerous behind the wheel or when operating complex machinery. Sometimes Abed liked to go out without his eyeglasses on just to see if he could survive without them. He would do something simple, like buy stamps or cigarettes from the store. He’s stepped in a lot of dog shit, he said. I saw him step on a small dog once.

Abed joined the Libyan army when he was fifteen. And when he was seventeen he was ordered to marry the Colonel’s personal dental hygienist—a plump woman of fifty-one with dry, fuzzy lips. Abed refused to marry her. He was already in love with the pale-faced girl who served plates at the small Turkish restaurant near his father’s house.

For disobeying the Colonel, Abed was sent to prison for two years, and after that, fearing further repercussion, he moved to Egypt. He never saw the Turkish girl again. Sometimes I asked him about it, when there was nothing good on television or when we were waiting for the coffee to brew. I would ask something vague: “What was it like?” and he would decide what ‘it’ was. He told me that jail was not so bad. He told me he met many friends there. “Good people,” he would say, before fumbling with a napkin or rubbing the handle of a mug.


Abed had hired me through an online au pair agency to work as a nanny to his son, Cyrus. After a clumsy phone interview facilitated by a representative from Au Pair International, I received an automated call letting me know that I had been hired and that my host family would be in touch. Before my arrival in Cairo, Abed was often in touch. He called frequently, sometimes simply repeating the same blocks of conversation: scheduling and logistics, Cyrus’s moods and habits, the Egyptian political landscape. He sometimes handed the phone over to his son, who alternated between taking long, wet breaths and, like his father, asking me long-winded questions with seemingly little interest in the answers.

Abed did not have a left arm. Not at all, barely even a stump. The cut-off point was far above where his elbow would have been. I was surprised when I fell in love with him. The idea of it repulses me—loving a man with no arm. Just a sick, pink nub. On his right biceps were four raised scars. Parallel lines. They formed a set of mountain ridges. On the first night we slept together, I asked Abed what the scars were from. They had caught my eye as his hand shuttled from one of my breasts to the other, unsure of which one to attend to. “Oh.” He paused to look at the scars, at his body, and then glanced at the clock that blinked on the nightstand. “My life before. You know? It was full of colors.”


I lived in the small, bright guest room for only four months. In the mornings I helped Cyrus brush his teeth and dress for school. As I prepared Cyrus’s bagged lunch, Abed sat at the breakfast table and performed mirror exercises. He would set his right arm on the table and place an oblong mirror where his left arm would have been. Watching the reflection in the mirror, he clenched and released his right hand as if it were his left. He flexed and curled his fingers, drummed them faintly against the wood of the table. He watched his phantom arm do other things too. It wrote to-do lists. It dialed the phone. He thought it was funny to lean forward and rest his head on his arm, smile goofily like he was posing with a celebrity or a long-lost friend.

“You try it,” he said to me once. “It’s a very unusual feeling.”

“I don’t know if it will have the same effect on me,” I said.

He handed me the mirror. “Oh. Try it. You will get to know me better this way.”

So I set the mirror out, made the motions that I had seen him make, wiggled my fingers and tapped the table. I felt my face flush as he watched me perform the small mockery. I tried to peel an unripe banana that had been sitting in a fruit bowl on the table but instinctively gave up and brought my left hand in to assist.

Abed laughed, leaned in and kissed me, “See? Easy. Now you know me.”

I did find small ways to know him. I liked to catch him in accidents or doing things the wrong way. He called me Saya one night. It was low and gruff, a foreign sound between us. He didn’t seem to notice, and I went on as if it hadn’t happened. The mistake pleased me. It was like walking in on a person getting undressed and stepping out before he noticed you were there.

Saya was Abed’s girlfriend who worked as an anesthesiologist at the hospital downtown. She had thick, lively eyebrows and heavy breasts. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, she worked night shifts at the hospital, leaving just after dinner and slipping back into Abed’s bed at dawn. On those days, I was relieved of my cooking duties. Saya and Abed liked to cook together while Cyrus and I played cards or acted out character scenes in the living room. I could hear them in the kitchen as I waited for Cyrus to finish shuffling and stacking the deck with painstaking care. I strained to hear them talk, and when it was silent, I imagined the two of them brushing against each other in the narrow kitchen, like Abed and I did when she was not there. In my mind, their moves were fluid, perfect choreography set to song. She chopped and diced vegetables, while he performed the one-armed duties (stirred, ladled, tasted).

One evening, I walked into the kitchen and saw Saya standing close behind him, her chin resting on his shoulder as he kept an eye on the roiling contents of a saucepan. Saya was touching his scars, the mountain ridges. She ran her fingers along them one at a time. Her eyes were closed, and she had this look on her face like she was hearing music from the next room. I backpedaled before they saw me and pretended not to hear Cyrus’s call for me to join him in another round of War.

The next day, Cyrus was in school and Saya was at the hospital, and Abed came home from work during lunch. He bent me over the arm of the couch, and later we smoked cigarettes together in the bathroom. We leaned against the window ledge, half-sitting, with our knees touching. I looked at him, stared at the exposed nub, the runt growth jutting from his left shoulder. Abed saw me looking and pulled me closer to him.

I’d never touched it, I thought. Had never even dreamed of touching it. In fact, until now I had hardly thought about it, averted my eyes when I could. It made me wonder about Saya. Had she closed her eyes and kissed it? Pressed her unruly breasts against it? All manner of tender moments and sweet caresses, depraved sex acts and fetishisms came to mind.

I flipped the stub of my cigarette, still smoldering, out into the street. A gray, squat woman shuffled by. The cigarette bounced on her head, and the ashes twinkled before they were snuffed out in her hair. She lurched and her head jerked up toward us. I hid behind the curtains. Abed chuckled and stood his ground.

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” he waved to the woman, flashed a regal smile. I peeked through the wispy curtain. The woman, her hand pressed against the crown of her head, spat on the wall of our building. Abed looked at me and grinned, “You’re a coward!”


Saya never said anything outright, but I knew from her coldness that I was no longer welcome. Cyrus had always preferred her to me anyway. When I told Abed I was returning to the states, he was reading a book with a mirror propped in a way that allowed him to glance up occasionally and see his left arm turn a page. I had put on some makeup for the occasion, which I now felt embarrassed about. Cyrus was asleep.

“Okay, I see, yes.” He looked down at his book, open in his lap. “Well, what would you like me to do? Something is wrong?”

“No, nothing is wrong,” I said.

“Is it alright? Are there troubles at home?”

“I’m moving in with my sister,” I continued. “She’s waiting for me.”

“But what is the matter?”

“Should I tell Cyrus tomorrow, or would you prefer to?”

Abed’s gaze was dim now, like a thick snow had fallen somewhere behind the iris. His nub was covered by the shirt he was wearing. After a silence, he raised his eyebrows in that way that people do when they are anticipating tears. He spoke without looking at me, “Never mind, yes. I will help arrange for your travels, of course.” Then, withdrawing his attention, he returned to flipping pages, watched his imagined arm move left to right in the mirror.


When I got back to New York, my sister took off work to pick me up from the airport. Mitra is an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. She works with marmosets in her neurobiology lab, playing music and sound clips to them and recording their eye movements and electrical impulses from their brains.  She loves them—the monkeys. She is a regular monkey enthusiast. She sends me emails with links to videos of them bathing or nursing or making funny faces. She cuts away at their scalps, and thins their skulls, and probes at their brains and loves them.

My arrival had been somewhat unexpected, but Mitra, ever obliging, told me I could stay at her apartment indefinitely, until I found my own place. She sent me double rations of marmoset videos. She reassured me with kind words about the human brain’s resilience, its plasticity. She even found me a job at her lab. Her PI hired me as a lab technician, a position usually offered to ambitious undergraduate students. It was my job to clean up after the monkeys, trade marshmallows and dried fruits in exchange for a few unmolested minutes to sweep up feces and old, uneaten things.

The marmosets respected me because I fed them and because I moved slowly, reverently. When I entered the habitat they followed me, keeping at a respectful distance, hoping to catch my attention without having to act out. They were dignified—patiently waiting for me to address them.

Some of the monkeys at the lab had screw-on skulls. That is, the scientists, like Mitra, had cut a small, circular piece from the backs of their skulls and replaced it with a plastic window that screwed on and off like a bottle cap. It provided convenient and frequent access to the brain. I was charged with cleaning the heads of monkeys, to keep the wounds from becoming infected. And to keep them from healing, lest the scar tissue seal over the screw top. One marmoset was particularly fascinated with his screw-top skull. He picked at the scabbing flesh, put bits of it in his mouth. Sometimes he sat on his haunches in a daze, running his fingers along the raised plastic edge that fit unevenly against his skull.

After a few months, I became known as the monkey whisperer, the human ambassador to the lab’s marmoset world. I fed them, I cleaned them, and I ferried them back and forth between their habitat and the lab.

Once, Mitra asked me to fetch one of the monkeys. “Doesn’t matter which,” she said. “Any one with a brain.” That’s how we referred to the ones with bottle cap heads. We were the wizards who had given them brains. I slid as usual into the habitat with a pocketful of raisins and walnuts. As the animals stirred, I noticed the monkey who always toyed with his skull. He was distracted with something, uninterested in me and the food I was carrying. I moved closer. He had managed to unscrew the cap from the back of his head. He was playing with it, clapping it in his hands and knocking it against the ground. He bit the plastic and nibbled at the crumbs of scalp that had grown along the edges. I stood above him and saw his brain glistening in the yellow light, shiny and wet.

I knelt beside him, waving a handful of food in his line of vision. He inspected my offerings. The other marmosets rushed for the raisins he tossed to the ground.

I picked him up, cradled him in one arm, careful to keep the opening in his skull facing upward, as if his brain might spill out like water from a glass. As we walked away, I held the palmful of nuts and raisins just within his grasp. He hugged his screw cap with one arm, and with the other hand, he picked at the food, nibbling at some raisins and casting arbitrary others behind us.

About the Author

Elysha Chang

Elysha Chang is a writer from Virginia. She received her MFA from Columbia University, and is currently at work on a collection of stories. She lives in New York. “Monkey Brains” was a finalist in our 2013 Literarian Short Story Contest.

This story was originally published in Issue #15 of The Literarian.