Sunday, November 15, 2009
ABNER, THE WILD MONKEY OF THE SMOKIES
On cold mornings like this one when the last leaves of autumn are riding a chill wind through Rhodes Cove, I sometimes think of Abner, the wild monkey of the Smokies. It was mornings like this when I used to hear stories from folks in Deep Creek or Big Cove who claimed that they sometimes heard a knock and opened their doors to find a little shivering monkey on their porch.
“I used to find him out their in December,” said Billy Conseen. “When I’d let him in, he’d climb up in the rafters where it was warm and he usually stayed up there for a day or two. He loved biscuits and doughnuts. He also loved bananas, and sometimes the two of us would ride down to the IGA and buy a bunch.
According to Billy and a half-dozen others who played host to the old monkey, he never stayed long. “If the weather warmed up, he was ready to leave. If you didn’t open the door and let him out, he would turn mean… crap in his paw and throw it at you.”
How did Abner end up in the Smokies? Well, according to Carl Lambert, a noted storyteller (and former director of the Cherokee CETA Program), Abner came to the Qualla Boundary one October with the Indian Fair. “There was a bunch of monkeys in one of them side-shows, and I noticed this one that was laying in the corner of his cage whimpering. The guy that ran the side-show said the poor critter had diarrhea and was probably going to die. Well, I bought him for five bucks, wrapped him in an old towel, put him in the bib of my overalls and took him home. Fed him fatback, cornbread and bananas. In two days, that monkey was swinging in the rafters. I named him Abner.”
Lambert said that for a while, they got along fine. “He used to set on my shoulder at night while I read or played My guitar. He would check my head for fleas and lice, and then, I’d do the same for him. I read a lot of westerns, you know … Max Brand and Zane Grey, and it was nice setting by the fire, listening to the wind whistle around the eaves. Sometimes, Abner would set in the window and watch the snow fall outside and that was sort of unnerving. I mean he looked like he was thinking - like he was pondering what it meant to be a monkey ... alone and in the Great Smoky Mountains.”
Of course, the good times didn’t last. When spring came, Abner took to leaving. “He’d be gone for a couple of days, but he always came back. I don’t know what he done out there, but mostly, I think he ran squirrels and ate berries. I bought him a little Rebel cap in one of the craft shops, and he was real partial to it. Folks sometimes seen him up in Smokemont Camp Ground where he stole stuff. Hot dogs and beer, mostly.”
Lambert said that in the summer he got accustomed getting up around midnight to open the door when Abner rattled it. “Sometimes, he would bring me a beer,” said Lambert. Word got around that Carl had a monkey and people would drop by to watch Abner swing in the rafters. Then, a few years back, the trouble started. He took to tormenting hunting dogs down in Deep Creek. They would be hot on the trail of something ... a coon, a fox or maybe a bear ... and Abner would come swinging through the trees. The dogs would start tracking Abner. They'd end up treeing that Monkey! Then, Abner'd drop down on the back of a big redbone or a blue tick hound just like a jockey. He'd wrap his legs around that dog's belly. Make that dog run by biting his ears. He'd ride that dog til it was half-dead and then he'd get another one. A bunch of angry hunters come up her one night looking for Abner, but he wasn't home. Hell, they acted like it was my fault. They said they intended to shoot him the next time he showed up.
Abner played dog jockey all summer. Then, as if things wasn't bad enough, he paid a midnight visit to Willard Hoskit's Chicken Farm. He didn't kill a single chicken, but he plucked them. Spent all night catching 500 white leghorns and pulling all of their feathers out. Willard said that he went to feed them the next morning, the woods around his big chicken house looked like there had been a snow storm. Big clouds of feathers blowing and drifting. He said he got there in time to see Abner setting on a rafter in the chicken house pulling the tail feathers out of a rooster. Acted like I owed him money. Wanted to know how he was going to keep all them naked chickens warm.
"A few nights later, a hunter in Hazel Creek claimed he shot Abner. Maybe he did, and then, maybe he didn't. Now, that leaves two facts: Nobody brought in a dead monkey, but Abner never came back either. I miss the little devil. He was good company."
Carl Lambert once told me that he saw Abner one last time. He claimed that he got lost in the Smokies while he was fishing and while he was blundering about in dark coves and laurel hells, he came on the "Gall Place." That is the name of a magic lake that is sometimes sighted on the Tennessee Side of the Smokies, and then it shows up on the North Carolina side. Carl said it moves. People who blunder on it usually see it in the morning. It is a great foggy lake with purple-tinged waters and it is encircled by huge water oaks. It is here that old and injured creatures come to be healed. Bear and deer wade into the water where they are "restored." Wounds heal and youthful vigor returns. Carl claims he saw animals coming and going to the Gall Place. Great hawks and eagles nested in the towering oaks ... and yes, Carl said in the lofty heights of one of those trees, he saw a little capering figure wearing a Rebel hat. Now, for what it is worth, that is what Carl Lambert, the Cherokee storyteller, said.