Food is what you need. Water’s what you need. Help is what you need. A shit is what you need. Oxygen’s what you need. A mate is what you need. A good groom’s what you need. Bit of sunshine’s what you need. Swept floor, clean hay, vet visits are what you need. Freedom. Choice. Autonomy. Is that what you need?
*Marmosets inhabit the rainforests of South America but have been successfully introduced to many areas outside their natural range. Laura joined the team – surprised as anyone that she’d got the job – the same day the marmosets were transported from a small zoo up North somewhere. Apparently, their breeding programme had been a little too successful. The animals were called acquisitions all day and no one bothered to ask what her name was. She liked the marmosets. Liked their curious eyes and weathered faces. Their ability to leap through the air, not quite flying. Always landing on their feet. While other keepers clamoured over the big cats, giraffes and elephants, Laura was perfectly happy where she was. *Marmosets are omnivores, they spend half their day looking for food. Keepers of those in captivity need to present nourishment in a way that enriches the animals. To welcome Laura, the team arranged a meal out. Her dad handed over a waxy twenty-pound note. They’d arranged it the week before payday. In the restaurant, glasses clinked, teeth gnashed, throats brayed. No one round the table looked like they ever had trouble with anything. Nobody else ended up with tuna on their pizza because they accepted the wrong order. *Subordinate females sometimes engage in brief sexual interactions with male group-extras. Craig was a group extra, invited to a housewarming party by a friend of a friend. Of a friend. Brief was the word. A hot flash of saliva and sweat and nails digging in, then a groan and seven months later, Bobby. An early thing, all angles no meat. Marnie gave birth the same month. Her tiny hands preening her twins, her eyes burning with something new. Something Laura had never seen before. Never felt before. Marnie was the dominant female of the troop. Laura moved in with her dad after tenants in her building complained about Bobby screaming through the night. *Behavioural changes are common following the loss of the breeding female. Laura breathed out through her nose and tried to trick herself that she was hungry for the salad she’d salvaged from the whoopsie aisle the night before. ‘Can I sit here?’ The new girl asked, Laura hated not remembering her name, but she couldn’t find it in the colander that her brain had become. Each hole, Bobby-shaped. Laura wondered if they’d changed the uniforms; this girl’s seemed to be a different shade of blue. Brighter. It suited her. She nodded; jaw busy on tangled leaves. The Head Keeper walked past. Laura’s shoulders tensed, the ghosts of his fingers squeezing too tight left goosebumps. They sagged when he headed straight to the other girl, the younger girl, the brighter girl; his lips uncomfortably close to her ear as he ‘checked in’. Didn’t look up as he told Laura she needed to work the late shift, and it was her turn to muck out the gorillas. *The average lifespan of a marmoset is 5-7 years, though captivity can extend this to 16. Laura chopped strawberry to the rhythm of the squawking. Marmosets scrawny, crawling across the straw, pausing to sniff the air. They sensed her. Paws pacing, jaws gnawing. Claws tapping. They didn’t care that she needed a minute. Never noticed the mascara smudges under her eyes. She thought of her son, asleep on the sofa. Solid and warm and safe, back at the house with Grandpa singing. Shushing, stroking, and hushing. He’ll be fast and loose with the lullaby words, but the tone would be right. Still soulful, still soothing. She hoped he hadn’t sung Happy Birthday yet; Bobby believed birthdays didn’t start until 6pm. Bobby believed fish fingers and a cupcake made a special banquet tea. *Common Marmosets are susceptible to several viral pathogens, these can be fatal. Marnie deteriorated fast. Fur matted, tail drooping. Signature white tufts somehow grey. Shied away, quivering in the corner, her babies on the back of another adult, chattering away, oblivious. Laura’s phone vibrated. She let it ring. Struggled to take her eyes off Marnie’s frail frame. Kept thinking about the time Bobby was sent home from nursery with a fever of 39. His white hands cold like rocks plucked from a river, his head clammy and burning. A kettle boiling over. She sometimes felt the dead weight of him, her biceps groaning with the memory. The vet came and went, left antibiotics and instructions for extra care. Laura stayed late to shorten Marnie’s isolation as the visitors trickled out and the lights went down. On the bus home, she vomited as she clocked the seven missed calls and read Bobby had been taken to the hospital. *Wild primates have been observed caring for ill or injured members of the group; standing vigil and grooming are common. Kept in for observation, Bobby was a pixie on the bed. Too small, so fragile. Didn’t look real. A bad reaction to his jabs. Laura’s dad went home to shower, to recoup, the dark circles under his eyes threatening to take over his face. Laura didn’t sleep, barely blinked. Bobby’s dozy hand nestled in her own, his skin paler than it should be. Hotter than it should be. She thought about nights dancing when her own skin was hot and sticky. She thought about Marnie’s pained expression and violent shivers. She thought about Bobby convulsing, her dad alone with him. About how she wasn’t there. Her eyes didn’t need to be closed in order for nightmares to come. *When signalling submission a marmoset uses the slit-stare. ‘You’ve just had a week off.’ ‘It wasn’t a holiday.’ ‘No, the monkeys will forget what you look like.’ *Common Marmosets reach maturity at 15 months. Marnie was a mother of six now. But the babies weren’t babies anymore. A procession of lithe bodies, less tiny, sleek and shiny crept further and further from Marnie until one night not one returned to the crook of her arm, the velvet of her fur. That’s when the males started sniffing again. Through misted glass, Laura observed the familiar dance. She’d swapped tomorrow’s shift, a beg-borrow-steal that meant she had to work the next two weekends, but it would be worth it to be there for Bobby’s first day of nursery. She hoped he wouldn’t notice the scuffs on his shoes. That the other kids wouldn’t see they were second hand. That the parents wouldn’t realise it was her who smelled of musk and straw and old fruit. *Marmosets in captivity benefit from complexity in their activities – this allows a degree of control and reduces the likelihood of boredom. ‘I’m sorry, Dad, they’ve given me the last slot.’ Laura leaned over, stroked Bobby’s fringe out of his eyes. His cheeks rosy with sleep. ‘Of course they have,’ he stared at Bobby, spoke slowly. ‘Do you definitely want the job?’ She stared at Bobby. Spoke slowly. ‘It’s more money.’ Bobby’s pyjamas had ridden up, exposing soft skin. The rise and fall of his belly, gentle silent bellows stoking the embers in her. ‘That’s not what I asked.’ Her dad left the room before she looked up. *Dominance in marmoset troops normally comes with age. An individual’s behaviour doesn’t usually affect their social rank. ‘Sorry, Laura. You were a strong candidate, but we decided to go with someone else.’ Laura returned to sweeping. The same spot again and again. And again. Careful not to move her feet while the enclosure was swimming. Marmosets multiplied in the refractions. *Marmoset territories range from 5,000-65,000 square meters. Monkey World in Dorset had an opening. Laura looked at the job description, wondered if it would be any different there. It was a long way to travel to find out. *Marmosets are considered the most primitive primates, but they still require expert care. Running late, Laura sat on the bus, Bobby’s half-eaten apple dissolving into her hand. Food is what you need. Water’s what you need. Oxygen’s what you need. Would anything more be asking too much?
About the Author
Martha Lane is a writer by the sea. Her flash has been published by Sledgehammer, Perhappened, Bandit, Reflex fiction, and Ellipsis Zine among others. Balancing too many projects at once is her natural state.