The Animal in the Garden
By Chan Ziqian
Sightings of this creature are clearest at dusk in the winter, when the tree it is perched in has been reduced to nothing more than a few dark strokes on the sky. It was on one of those evenings, as I stood staring out of my window, that I first noticed what seemed like a large cat or bird among the branches. It could have been a lion or a swan, a menace or a blessing that had lighted upon this garden, but I did not run to call the police or to inform the other tenants of my discovery. The animal, though as real as a tree, inhabited an entirely different world, a space in which telephones and neighbours did not exist. Standing in my room, listening to the muffled voices and footsteps from the rest of the house, I knew it could not touch me.
Stray cats and birds have wandered into the garden but this creature was nothing like them. Drawn to its full height, it would probably be as tall as me, too large for the rectangular patch of grass and the perimeter of brick. It clearly belonged elsewhere, a place it carried along with it even in this garden, this tree. An open field appeared when I looked at it, flattening the surrounding houses that had been built in a clutter of brick and concrete.
Two years have passed since that first encounter and it is still there, visible from my window, although its form remains unclear. On summer days like this, it is obscured by sunlight and bright leaves. Still, I have realised that it is neither cat nor bird but a cross between the two, the same creature that has appeared twice before in my dreams. Even when I was a child living in a different house, it had made itself known to me.
Both times, I had walked (in my dream) to the window where I saw hundreds of birds on taut wires, and among them, a creature ten times their size. With the head of a parrot and body of a tiger, it did not exist in any book or picture I had ever seen. Everything else was exactly as it was in real life, down to the chipped tiles of the neighbour's roof. Although I would later awake frightened from the dream, I was not startled then. I only stood by the window gazing at the peculiar animal as it looked straight back at me. Perched on the wire with the grace of a trapeze artist, it displayed the same ease there as it would years later in the tree.
It was in those dreams that I saw the animal most clearly. Around its eyes were thick lines like deep wrinkles, and on its body were intricate orange and black patterns I do not remember now. I would observe the design more closely if I had the chance but the dream has never returned to me. These days, in my waking hours, I see only an outline that swells and shifts with the wavering shadows and leaves. Masked by branches, it appears in a shade of black that is nothing like the ink of a pen or the shimmering feathers of a crow. The closest I have come to replicating it is by shutting my eyes and wishing everything away – this house, myself, the universe and the dark space it holds.
The other tenants seem oblivious to it but perhaps they think the same of me. At times I have been tempted to point it out but how ridiculous it seems. Once I had tried to mention it over breakfast but as I began to speak I realised how impossible it was. We were surrounded by bread and spoons and half-empty trays of eggs. I said something about a stray tabby I had fed the other day instead. There was no way to talk over instant coffee about a creature half-parrot, half-cat. It had to be left outside in the garden, not dragged into this space where we cooked and ate. Just as a bed could not be brought into the kitchen, there were words that could never be uttered there.
On the few occasions I shared my bed, I reached for the curtains and drew them apart, hoping to disclose my secret without articulating the absurd words. But each time, my companion only commented on the plants or ignored the window completely. I would then let him hold me and wait to fall asleep. I have never brought it up otherwise because there is no way to speak without irony, even to someone in the same bed, about the animal in the garden. I am not sure it would ever be possible to talk sensibly about this. As I attempt now to describe the animal on paper in the plainest and simplest manner, I am afraid it will be taken as a hallucination or a metaphor.
Even as a child, when one could have conceivably depended on one's parents for unconditional support and comfort, it had been impossible to talk openly about this. Instead, I made up a more plausible nightmare about hungry ghosts and allowed them to laugh that away. The fantasies of children are generously indulged by parents, but this was a fear of an imaginary animal from a dream. They could not have been expected to take it seriously, and if they had, how foolish they would have seemed.
I have thought about renting a room elsewhere but I remain in this house. Moving away would not change anything. I do not need to see the animal to remember its existence, and I would not be surprised to find it on a rooftop or in another tree. It has followed me across the country from my parents' house, across the many years, across the line that divides reality and dream. And while it frightens me, I have woken up every morning and known that I will be safe. Although we are animal and human, there is no relationship of hunter and prey between us. I have stepped out into the garden and returned indoors unharmed. I have sat under the tree, mindful of its presence above like a overripe fruit, and walked away unscathed. But there are times at night, after the other doors in the house have clicked shut, when I am tempted to throw myself at the foot of the tree. I would gladly give myself to the animal enthroned above if it would take away the sound of teeth being brushed, of fingers smoothing cream over cheeks, of responsibility relinquished as eyes are shut against the world.
It would not be any different if we were locked in a crowded city or camped under the clouds. We are still alone in cages, we are just as unsheltered. On such nights, I have looked out the window and realised there is no distinction between animal and tree, the two fused together in the darkness so that the branches and leaves are petrified feathers. Each time this happens, I have been saved by the windowpane and my curtain with its faded yellow checks, their physical presence keeping me on this side of the window. Once or twice it has been necessary to turn on the light so that a reflection of the room displaces my view of the animal. The faint image on the glass reminds me of the sturdy wardrobe behind me, the shelves of books behind me, the bed that will receive and warm me for all the nights ahead I allow. Because of this I have been safe all this while, but I know the day will arrive when the protection of glass will fall away.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005