The silent monkeys came from the Karakoram mountain range. Four or five men would sit around a table with chisels and lumps of soapstone. At the beginning of the day, they would chat as they worked. But the gaps in their conversation grew longer until all that remained was the sound of their tools.
The thing about soapstone was that, in the right light, it could almost pass for jade but was far easier to carve. Once the men knew their patterns, the work went quickly. Drill a hole in the bottom of the stone and fix it on a peg. Scoop out a V in front, a graded wedge on each side, a triangle between the arms and neck, notches under the knees. The trickiest parts were the fingers, toes and face; the stone gave way almost too easily there.
With enough experience, a carver could turn out three monkeys an hour. That could mean a complete set: the blind monkey, the silent, and the deaf. But not all monkeys were equal. Every carver soon learned that the silent monkey could, for some reason, be sold on its own.
The British soldiers they met gave various explanations:
“It’s the Monkey God blessing us, isn’t it? You lot should know.”
“It will pray when I can’t. For you and me and Queen Victoria.”
“It’s the only quiet thing in this whole bloody country.”
The carvers still didn’t understand, but they knew their market. Little bands of silent monkeys formed at the ends of their tables.
As it happened, the whole wise-monkey business had started out as a Japanese pun: zaru, meaning “do not,” and saru, meaning “monkey.” How would we say it in English? “Don’t macaque the mistake of listening to gossip!” And “The langur you go without looking at nasty things, the better!”
Never mind. The carvers didn’t know about this anyway; they were mainly Muslims, and those in Xinjiang had been told to hate Japan. Their monkeys didn’t clamp their hands over their mouths to keep words in; they folded them to a point in front of their closed lips.
One carver had been a schoolboy when the Chinese had retaken Xinjiang. His new teacher had told the class about the great Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the workers who had made an underground world for him to enjoy after death. After fashioning terracotta soldiers and officials, birds and horses, and musical instruments, the workmen themselves had been buried alive; their bones formed the final part of their leader’s tomb, absorbed into the glory of united China.
The boy, like all the bright pupils, had kept quiet after that; but he had wondered how those men had spent their days, knowing they would not live after their task was finished. Had they tweaked a terracotta button here, or a feather there, in the hope of leaving their mark?
Now, in the workshop, he would ask himself these questions again until one of the older men snapped, “Are you going to spend all day on that one?”
“Sorry,” he would say, but he would linger just a few seconds more, giving the monkey tiny toenails or making its smile a little wider.
Walter Robinson went to war because the white-feather women started sneering at his fiancée. Albert Cushway went to war because the government had promised that married men would be sent to the front last. Marjorie Pinsmail went to war because her father finally gave in, said it was clear he’d never be able to marry her off anyway, so she might as well earn her keep as a nurse. Francis Horner went to prison because he was a Quaker.
At the station, Walter’s fiancée pressed a silent monkey into his hand. She tried to speak but only sobbed. She no longer cared about the other girls’ stares.
Francis was struck by a whim while packing and picked up his monkey from among the collection of stones and shells on his chest of drawers. “I like him,” he later wrote to his mother, “because he doesn’t barricade his mouth for fear of what might come out. He chooses to be silent because it is the better path.”
Marjorie’s younger brother, the one with the club foot, sneaked into the drawing room when their father wasn’t there and gave her the monkey he used to carry in his pocket. “It brought me luck in my exams,” he whispered.
Albert bought his monkey from a peddler shortly before getting on the boat. It would be something to show his little boy when—yes! when!—he came back.
Why a monkey? Well, why any good-luck charm? But even soldiers who had ceased believing in luck found that a small statue in the pocket helped. Its familiar shape reassured them they were still alive and still themselves. The chaplains loved telling them how a Bible had kept a bullet from some fellow’s heart; perhaps, just perhaps, a bit of soapstone could protect an artery or testicle. And when shelling stopped for a moment but its noise remained, a soldier could turn to the little monkey, a companion with no need to be heard.
At Tsingtao, some of the British met their Japanese allies. They smiled and nodded over cups of strange perfume-like tea. Eventually, an English soldier, searching through his pockets for a saccharin tablet, took out his silent monkey. A Japanese soldier beamed, reached into his pocket and took out a silent monkey of his own. They held the two creatures face to face.
Marjorie kept her monkey on her mantelpiece and made it a character in the stories she told her granddaughters. Francis brought his to the meeting house every week. “He’s better than any of us at silent worship,” he said. Albert put his monkey in a box with his medals and never mentioned it again.
The soldier who prepared Walter’s body took his monkey from his pocket and had it sent back to his fiancée. He was from a different district than Walter and had never heard of the monkey custom. But there were some traditions he was familiar with. He let Walter keep the blue beads that had protected him from bronchitis.
Ada was in the back of the charity shop making weak tea. Elaine, who liked to call herself the “senior volunteer,” was sorting through a box of new donations. Jimmy was getting ready to take the van to a house clearance; he wandered around the shop with an A-Z in his hand. He stopped by the counter where Maria was arranging leaflets. “Any idea how I would get to Carnation Road?” he asked.
“Sorry, no.” Maria didn’t drive and she didn’t know the area. She had only moved to London a few months before. She shouldn’t even have been volunteering without a work visa, but she didn’t know that yet.
The chimes on the door jangled, and Mrs. Stopforth clumped in. She had wrapped a dead weasel round her neck, and its ravaged tail dangled in front of her polyester jacket. “What’ve we got today?” she said.
“Just going through the new lot for you,” said Elaine. She put the box at the end of the counter, and she and Mrs. Stopforth bent their heads over it.
An old woman had come in behind Mrs. Stopforth. She stood by the till, holding her bag with both hands and biting her lip.
“I wonder if you could possibly help me,” she said. “I’m going into sheltered accommodation next month—”
“Oh!” said Maria. “I’m so—”
“And I can’t take most of my things with me, you see,” the woman continued. “I’ll only have two rooms. I mean, I’ll have a garden as well. A share of the garden. And I can go to the dining room whenever I like. But to keep things in, only the two rooms. And I’ve got a houseful of things. Could you—”
Elaine hurried down from the end of the counter. “House clearance, is it?” she said. “They won’t go up and downstairs, the drivers. You’ll need to have everything on the ground floor. And it all has to fit through the front door or they can’t take it.”
“Nothing in the drawers, either. You’ve got to take everything out first. Any chests of drawers have got to be empty. And—”
Maria stepped away.
“Pushy, ain’t she,” Jimmy muttered to her. “Barging in on your conversation like that. Jewish, you know, that’s the trouble. This place is full of Jewish ladies. Ninety percent of the volunteers.”
“Oh,” said Maria.
Ada brought the tea on a thin, flowered metal tray. Maria sipped from it and put it aside. She knew it would have a quarter inch of sugary sludge at the bottom.
Mrs. Stopforth straightened up. “Just a load of old rubbish in here,” she said. “Wasn’t worth my coming in.”
“I said, ‘ANY STAINS ON THE MATTRESSES?’” Elaine bellowed. The old lady’s chin was beginning to tremble.
“Look at that,” said Mrs. Stopforth, pointing a finger into the box. “Souvenir of Hawaii. My little grandson could make that. If you gave him some nasty plastic shells. And this monkey. Speak no evil. What’s the use of that one without his friends? Not even well carved. Though he’s got toenails, I suppose. You’ll be lucky to get a pound for that.”
“I’ve got a pound,” said Maria. “I’ll take him.”
Another thing about soapstone is that if you hold it long enough, with love or fear or simple loneliness, it picks up your own warmth and radiates it back into your hand.
For the past few days, Apolonia had thought about the story of Cadmus. She couldn’t remember much, only a drawing from her old book of Greek myths: the hero sowing dragon’s teeth into the earth. A great city had sprung up from that.
Nearly every sieve Apolonia brought up from the dirt held a rattling load of teeth. But these were human, splintered and smashed. Other objects came up too, but these were just as monotonous: more empty eyeglass frames, more buttons, more cheap earrings. More toy balls, dice, dreidels.
Apolonia closed her eyes and leaned back. She was meant to find it mundane, she reminded herself. It was what the Germans had wanted. They’d covered their tracks well here. Nothing left but a clearing in the forest. Deniers didn’t even waste time denying Chełmno; they knew the public’s forgetfulness would do that for them. That was why what she and her colleagues were doing was so important. Her shoulders hurt.
Małgorzata approached with a tray of steaming tea glasses. “Looks like I’m just in time,” she said.
“Thanks.” Apolonia took a sip and let the taste of raspberry juice linger in her mouth.
“You’ve done very well,” said Małgorzata. “Take a break for a while. When you’ve finished your drink, come and see some of the things they’ve found in Pit Four.”
The items from Pit Four were set up on two long tables under a tent. At first, they seemed to hold yet more monotony: the remains of shoes, sets of tailor’s shears, medicine bottles, more teeth. Then distinguishing characteristics began to appear. Medals and badges displayed their messages: Bund, 1897; Awarded in recognition of his achievements by the Minister of Industry, Craft and Trade; Disabled War Veteran/Wohngebietder Juden. Drinking glasses and cutlery proclaimed the occasion for their use: Holy Sabbath, Pesach. There was a medallion of Schiller. A motorcycle club prize. Toy animals of every description, some in pairs, some on their own.
“Now this,” Małgorzata said, gesturing toward the end of the last table, “is truly extraordinary. Nobody can figure out what it means. It’ll go in the write up for sure.”
Apolonia looked closer. Arranged in formation were row upon row of tiny stone monkeys: some carved well, some crudely, most shiny and worn from handling. They gazed out at the researchers, their hands folded in front of their mouths.