A good deal happened after the fire devoured half the mountainside. People whose homes were now ash and rubble fought with their insurance companies over replacement or hired lawyers to litigate on their behalf. I had my own ideas about how these professionals operated: quietly evaluating how much each house was worth, talking in four-syllable words they thought their client wouldn’t understand, which they mostly didn’t, and throwing in some Latin.
Every so often, someone would come out fighting like a boxer in the ring, demanding a fair settlement, and all the pens and pencils would stop for a moment, and all the talking heads would turn in wonder, an offer would be typed up, but it would be quite insufficient, and the insurance companies and the lawyers would resume their idle conversations.
You’ve got to hand it to them. They are all in business. And who are we to be criticizing their talent for capitalism? Why shouldn’t they make a profit like any other respectable business person? It’s not like what you see in the movies. That’s pure fantasy.
—You still with me? Good, because my story is about to begin.
It was a pale moon that night, and all the townsfolk had settled in, my house had quieted, and the dogs were in their kennels sleeping. I gazed upward and looked deeply at the handsome face of this lunar orb pocked with teenage acne, dangling in the sky—this ball that wanders around the earth giving us different shapes, a meagre, thin bead of light on certain days and brighter, rounder on others. It strained through the trees leaving glints of light splashing off the rim of the cast-iron patio table. There was just enough light coming in from that pasty, old moon for me to make out the trunk beside me. Its lid was slightly ajar, and I knew it would be a long night.
Something moved in the garden outside the big picture window that distracted me. No, it wasn’t a reflection. I made out a round, humpy creature waddling across the lawn; butt in the air, nose in the grass, sniffing the ground as if searching for a diamond missing from his master’s cufflink. He looked like a giant rodent or a super-sized guinea pig. I wondered what he was up to at this hour of the night. Had he escaped from his tribe, intent on enjoying a frolic on his own? Where had he come from? Was he lost? Or had the hand of Providence guided him to this plot of milk and honey?
The television was on most evenings, and I heard the news, watched the weather predictions of heat waves and thunderstorms, and half-listened to silly shows like Pimple Poppers.
—Have you ever heard of anything so disgusting?
I learned a lot. It was on the TV that I’d heard about a capybara that had gone missing from the Wildlife sanctuary. They had shown pictures of the hairy animal, and, the more I thought about it, the fella out on the yard had the shape and height of a capybara. Could this be him? The wildfire had displaced so many animals it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a kangaroo out back.
—Huh? Asking what a capybara is ranks up there with asking what an erhu is. Oh, you don’t know what an erhu is? I’ll be up front with you. I don’t know what an erhu is either, except that it’s some kind of weird musical instrument of Chinese origin.
A familiar noise out in the garden brought my focus back. A quail had been aroused, his grey feathers reached out from his secret perch in the cedar and, having been detected by the sparrows huddled in a group nearby, swooped out and quickly ducked into another shrub. From a large pine tree in the neighbouring yard, a colony of crows that had set up housekeeping cawed something fierce. The birds were restless. A squirrel scurried across a wire. A mouse poked his head out of the hedge and sniffed. It seemed the yard was on high alert. They smelt fear. They knew that at any moment the stranger in their midst might spot them and come yipping and nipping at their nest.
But Capybara was a cool operator. He was like that chill millennial in your school that always had weed; the Big Lebowski of the animal realm; someone you would nominate for class president—a person who might actually be able to talk his way out of a rumble. He poked his thumbs at something of interest, rolled on his back in the dewy grass, wiggled back and forth as if he needed to satisfy an itch, and stretched his hindquarters as one who is just waking up from a long sleep.
Suddenly, he stopped, popped up on all fours; the hair on his body puffed up like a frightened porcupine, and he held his blunt nose up in the air as if something caught his attention. The air was still and hushed. I listened too but only heard the creaking lid of the trunk as it opened, as if it too were cranking its ear to hear.
I let my thoughts wander back to the time when Louise had looked that way, her face blazing, her frizzy mane spiraling out of her head like Medusa’s snakes, and her head bobbing back and forth around her husband inquisitively sniffing for a forbidden scent.
—You remember Louise, don’t you? The pampered vixen who tossed me out on the street? She gives me the collywobbles to this day!
Capybara resumed his search in a methodical fashion covering all the ground until he discovered the vegetable bed. Oh, oh. I could hear his incisors munching on a ripe squash and knew there would be all hell to pay in the morning. Oddly, through all of this, the two bull terriers were not disturbed.
Having eaten his fill, the natural body cycle called. Capybara hunched over and grunted, his rump shaking without shame. Right there in the garden, between the thimbleberries and red topped turnips, he left an enormous pile.
—I’m telling you, it was all I could do...
In the gray zone between night and day, Mike got up and left the house. I could hear the rumble of his big diesel truck start up in the garage and the overhead door as it swung open. The terriers were yawning and stretching, and Pamela was getting ready to leave for an early swim at the community pool.
The rest of the morning I spent amusing myself and dozing, after all, I was tired from watching the mischief on the yard all night. The dogs had gone outside and examined their territory thoroughly, discovered the new smell, scratched at some leaves and left their own threatening samples. The younger one, Pablo, trotted around like a Lipizzaner stallion, kicking his hind legs back, and jumping over imaginary hurdles. They came in panting and sweating, but they were quieter than usual for which I was grateful. I took my hat off to them, though. They didn’t freak out over the obvious intrusion.
A lot can go through your mind when you’ve nothing much else to occupy the space. When you are a chair and cannot move your arms and legs like normal people, you’re left to hatch up your own stories. Like what would happen if Pamela caught sight of the capybara eating her vegetables? Like where did he hang out during the day? Had he gone down to the creek to submerge himself in the water? Would he come back tonight? Or, was he fated to be captured and returned to captivity? These were important questions that equaled Pablo’s greatly refined look for: Hey mom, where’s my treat?
That night, I waited for the moon to come up. I waited until the sounds of the house told me that all earthly life was asleep. I listened for the chirping sound of Capybara and the gentle noise of the trunk lid opening. I hadn’t to wait long.
The milky moon was braver, pouring its sliver of light onto the grass and casting shadows that left black smudges and streaks. I had kept quiet about the doings in the yard as the human voice of critical reason was prone to discount folklore and fantasy. Who would believe me if I said that that very night Capy was back, his snout testing his olfactory glands, ignoring the fecal plot left by the terriers, devouring cucumbers and radishes?
—You’d have to be certifiably, bat-shit loony to believe a talking chair.
Frankly, I’m delighted something out of the ordinary was happening. Nothing like The Capster had been on the yard before.
—Notice, I had already begun to call him nicknames like Capy, or The Capster.
I had to realize he’d be a novelty for a few days and then everything would return to normal because, I have to say, it’s rather boring with Djinn not around. Since the fire, he’d been reclusive, sulking in the shifting sands of his world. I figured if he’d stop by, he’d find Capy’s appearance on the scene interesting to say the least.
I remember quite clearly how the Capster came up to the window, cocked his head back and closed one eye as if winking at me. He studied me carefully. His body puffed up like an animal balloon, and he snorted in a laughing sort of way that made his belly jiggle like a water-filled bladder. I wondered what he found so funny that he was not telling me. Then he got that puzzled look on his face again, like I’m the first chair he’d laid eyes on. From somewhere down in his sacred soul I sensed a low-voltage wave length and knew he wanted to connect with me, to transmit in a language I could understand.
I heard noise in the hall behind me, out of my sight. Pablo had a new habit of climbing up onto the primary bed in the night, rubbing his body against the warm flesh, pressing his weight into the mattress and generally hogging the blankets. He was highly skilled at parent manipulation and knew they would rather succumb than do battle in the middle of the night. But there it was again: a thrashing and a squeak. Whatever the noise was, it frightened Capy. The spell was broken and he was gone, slick as a whistle.
I was exhausted having been up until four o’clock in the morning. During the day I exhibited early symptoms of narcolepsy; at night I was an insomniac waiting with high anticipation for Capy to appear. That night, the next night and the night after that, somewhere around midnight, he would show up. First thing he did was pitter-patter onto the patio stones and look in the window.
I smiled and said, ‘Hello’.
Capy’s eyes wandered, looking for the source of the voice, then locked on me. I could sense he wanted to tell me something.
‘Right here, Capy. Yes, it’s me talking. No. You are not a lunatic. I am a chair, but no ordinary one. Can you hear me?’ I was probing into his subconscious.
He gave me a little snicker. Finally he responded, testing the mellow tone of his voice that he hadn’t used before. He understood a lot more than I thought. I could tell by the way he held his head when he looked at me that we were going to get on like a house on fire. Oops. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used that expression.
‘I must say, you speak the language rather well,’ I told him.
“Isn’t it annoying? When you want to speak to people, they ignore you. But they expect you to be cute and curious whenever they’re around.”
‘It’s galling. I’ve gotten used to the idea that people accept that I am a chair, but that they don’t recognize my exceptionalism is bizarre to me.’
"Yeah, sod the trolls. You’re cooler than any one of them. Do what I do: Stay calm and Capy on.” He flashed his buck teeth and grunted.
‘I know, but some people just have to pee in your cornflakes every morning. There are people like that, you know.’ I realized I had confused the Capster. I’d wanted someone to talk to for so long that I forgot he might not understand the lingo.
“The way I see it, people should know what it’s like to be a moth. Touch ‘em and their skin’ll turn to dust. For dust thou art and to dust you will return.”
If that just don’t beat all. I hadn’t figured on Capy being so clever. Seeing him at the window, his nostrils flaring slightly, talking with such adult vocabulary, I wondered whether he would catch the joke if I replied, ‘Over my dead body.’
“Well, I gotta bounce.” He gave out a low, slow whistle as if he was ogling a female, and winked at me as he waddled back out to chew on some grass.
A breeze moved some branches and three little birds shivered on a naked wire that stretched across the garden. They were waiting for the right moment when they could launch themselves onto a passing current and float along like a balsa plane. They broke free. Two landed on Capy’s back and hung on for the carnival ride of their lives.
The Capster disappeared into the vastness of the city’s shrubbery. I listened until the sound of his body faded off and became only a memory. Birds returned to their nests, and quiet settled on the yard.
Something was strange about that night with the moon’s imperfect face peering down on all living things, as though searching for our stories and bemoaning the fact that no one was sharing. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the moon had a peculiar effect on me. I was hypnotized by the stars flickering dimly beside it and fell into a very deep sleep for that last hour of night.
It was the night a black moon rose over the land, its face impudently hidden from me. It was the night all the lunar deities and pagan superstitions were in full bloom. A black moon, they say, is a special time when spells and rituals are most powerful; a time to turn up the cosmic juju.
I could barely make out the trunk lid wide open and inquiring. Though the celestial light of a thousand stars lit up the heavens, it wasn’t enough to penetrate the atmosphere of the earth below. The only sound I could hear, other than the ringing in my ears, was when the furnace kicked in and the rumbling of air forced from the bowels of the house flowed up through the vents. Then, a knob twisted, a floor board squeaked, and I heard the sound of someone’s lungs pumping. I felt the walls closing in around me. O bosom black as death!
That night, I couldn’t see Capy out on the yard, though I knew he was there. Except for the yellow light cast on the window from the garden lantern illuminating white powder smudges on the glass, the yard was pitch-black.
The somnambulant Capy had begun to plod off in the direction of the main road. The night air had grown still, and I could hear his toes clicking steady on the pavement in a slow rhythm, not at all bothered, as one simply sauntering out for a morning coffee. There was no hurry.
What first caught my eye was the flicker of headlights bouncing off the trees as a car roared down the hill. The motor revved and sped up as it reached the flat stretch.
I breathed in deeply, letting my cushions fill, and took a long look at the world beyond the window. My heart pounded, and I heard a high-pitched ring in my head. It reminded me of when I was first cast out onto the street, abandoned and made homeless.
I told myself over and over that Capy was alright, that no harm had come to him. I imagined the Capster had nonchalantly carried on in his back-woodsy way, unaware that the car and his body were likely to intersect at the spot on the road not far from our house. I tried to convince myself that he had scurried away in the eleventh hour. I became impatient to know, hoping I’d be wrong.
In the mystic world of djinns, there are those who are good and those who lurk amongst the evil spirits and align with the devil. It is said that the devil djinn has unlimited power over the wind and sea, of birds and beasts, and the sun and moon. But a wolf they fear and, of all things, iron and steel.
Born of the smokeless fire and a hot wind, Djinn had developed a natural horror of being rendered powerless by fire and falling under the command of an evil djinn of higher ranking who would force his obedience and make him a slave. It explains why, during the intense wildfire, his rescue efforts were so fraught with confusion, his spells so dumfoozled. Since the beginning, Djinn had been motivated by love and felt no desire to cause disaster like the evil djinns. And his love meant nothing if he couldn’t be spared the senseless ruination and disruptive behaviour that governed so many of his darker ilk. And so, the darker they became, the brighter he glowed.
Yet he had felt awkward and unhappy seeing his love, safe from the wildfire’s clutch and having to come to terms with the reality of the situation. So, he had faded out and fled back to the desert.
As for me, there were things that, after the wildfire’s tempest was thwarted, at first I didn’t understand. I had felt lonely while everyone around me had something to live for: to rebuild what they had lost and celebrate what they had not lost, to fight for their insurance and speak to their lawyer, to shore up the slopes against mudslides, to clean their windows. They were so preoccupied with recovery they hadn’t time to think about much else.
Djinn stood now, over by the window, still sleepy-eyed, shaking his head as if the yard was crawling with tarantulas, his eyes, big as a burrowing owl, staring right into the soul of the world. There are rules for summoning a djinn, he had told me. But I hadn’t cared to heed them. Heck, when there’s a tough job to be done, you get your best man to do it. I was desperate and a bit of djinni gerrymandering would go a long way, I figured.
—Hot diggity! Am I glad to see you!
One thing can be said, Djinn was a loyal friend. Had he not come, after all, at my urgent summoning pulling him away from some distant land? Had he not heeded my call in this, my hour of need? Yes!
He came over and squatted beside me, rocking back and forth on his heels, taking great interest in the texture of my brocade fabric. It appeared he had recovered from the emotional trauma he had experienced during the wildfire. His face was alert and cheery, and he had shown a healthy bounce in those glistening particles that arose out of the trunk and took the shape of a man. Furthermore, he didn’t have the disposition of one who resented being roused in the night.
“I’m panting with thirsty desire to recognize what has your mind all crazy. Wallah, I swear to God, I must be helping my friend.”
—Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t like a three-wish thing, but I sure could use your help.
“I’m having two ears open.”
I began to pour out my story, shedding any modesty and embarrassment for being sensitive. I wasn’t able to stop talking until I had said all that I had seen and heard about my sweet Capy.
—You think I’m nuts don’t you? I asked trying to be calm.
Djinn had listened attentively, and I might even say sympathetically. He didn’t say much after I finished. He just rocked some more on his heels then slowly raised himself up, grimacing at the cracking bones. He twisted the hair of his drooping moustache and muttered in a thoughtful tone, “Is good.”
I was frantic and all he could say was, ‘Is good’? Someone as all-powerful as Djinn should be able to see through everything, right through to the last house on the street. He wouldn’t even need sorcery to find the Capster. I collapsed down into depression again, and all I could hear was an awful noise racing through my head. If things weren’t bad enough!
Djinn passed a shop window and caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure of a man, his forehead wrinkled, slightly hunched over at the shoulders, arms dangling at his side. It wouldn’t do to go on feeling blue, frittering away his days wandering the globe, days on end when no woman so much as looked at him. Seeing his reflection, he could understand why they avoided him. He resolved to improve his stature and restore the good-natured, lustfulness of youth on his next return.
What Djinn saw next were several people in a variety of shapes formed reverently in a circle on the sidewalk. They were squinting solemnly, looking down. He squeezed in beside the onlookers. At this point he grew very alarmed. There he was, decidedly unglamourous, splayed out on his back; hind feet pointing east, front curled up, looking like he had had a rough night. Someone reached down and gently closed his eyes and placed a long-stemmed rose across his chest. Could this possibly be the capybara of Red Chair’s story?
A passerby stopped and asked, “What’s his name?”
“Sure, like every wild animal has an engraved SPCA tag around his neck,” someone scoffed back.
Spontaneously, as if it was a well-known fact that everyone should know, a woman stated, “Garfield. His name is Garfield.”
“Garfield.” A man dressed in black jeans and denim shirt repeated the name in a tone as though he recognized it. “Is that his first name, or last?”
—Seriously? I mean, who knows their milkman’s name...and he’s someone who comes by twice a week?
People seemed to love atrocity pictures. The want-to-be professional photographers crouched for heroic camera angles trying desperately to capture the award-winning photo—or rather to avoid their image looking like a taxidermist’s blunder—and hoped to see their artistic achievement hung in the national galleries, alongside bleak portraits of animal corpses and candid shots of the wildfire’s carnage. Others shared their photos with their friends on social media, adding their own ‘Get Well Soon’ captions about Garfield. One bright person had taken the trouble to mount a black and white picture of a gentle, live Garfield behind a white mat and black frame, and prop it next to the resting ground of the dearly departed creature.
A motorcycle slithered along the road and came to an abrupt halt before the gathering crowd. The noise was bothersome as the man behind the handlebars left the engine throbbing as he swung his leg over the saddle and flicked the kickstand down. The driver cleared his throat and looked absently at the lump on the ground as if it were a sight seen every day.
A young girl looked up at the driver and said politely, “Please be quiet,” because a scene such as this required veneration and it was discourteous to not be respectful. She was holding an unlit candle cupped in the palms of her two small hands. The driver pulled a lighter out from a pocket in his black, leather jacket and scratched the flint. He bent down and held it over the candle until the yellow flame came up steady and sure. The girl smiled showing her freckles and missing front teeth and then knelt down and placed her candle on the sidewalk next to a fat one that was sheltered by a hurricane glass.
Slowly, she stood up, and the motorcycle driver, standing close beside her, patted her on the head and stroked her cheek. She said mournfully, “I’m so sad about Garfield.”
The driver took her hand and pulled her toward the idling cycle. He swung his leg back over the saddle, and she jumped on behind and put her arms around his ample belly, hugging him close. He put the bike in gear and the motor spluttered and roared as they took off down the road leaving the grieving bunch to continue their watch.
Well, well, if the vigil hadn’t caught the attention of an orchestra musician who stopped by with her violin. A slight young woman with shoulder-length, shiny, black hair gently removed the precious instrument from its case and placed it under her chin. Her elbow high, her fingers poised, she drew the bow over the strings, thoughtfully, slowly, using the exact amount of bow for each note, and each note floating on an angelic cloud. Reminiscent of Gregorian chant and exalted religious pathos, strains of Ave Verum Corpus dissolved into the midst of melancholy spectators.
A man stumbled up to the performer. “Why, I thank you miss. That was...that was...freeeee-kink good.” And he staggered back into the audience, swayed and shook his head trying to clear his thoughts, then off he went in a crooked line up the sidewalk mimicking the finger and hand movements of the violinist.
Throughout the day, a procession of mourners, excluding family members, of course, came by to pay tribute to the critter. They left cards or wrote words of condolences in the cards.
About this time, Djinn remembered Red Chair and his thoughts became instantly more disheartened. He would have to explain all that had transpired on the street. How far could he stretch the truth?
Sometimes in life, nothing is as it appears to be.
The moon-faced clock hung on the wall above the window indicated ten thirty in the evening. The house residents were already preparing for bed. The black moon roamed silent somewhere in the sky and wouldn’t show itself again for the whole night. There wasn’t a sound to be heard on the yard. I peered out into the impenetrable blackness. There was no humpy shape moving across the grass. I was getting more and more anxious that Djinn wouldn’t show up. He’d been gone the entire day, but, of course, he wouldn’t want to appear when the adults were around. He was probably sitting out there in the cool dark waiting for the lights to go out, or curled up, warm in the trunk.
Ah, ha! Eventually, just after midnight, the trunk lid creaked, and the metal hinges groaned as Djinn released himself into the room. I could see that his face was flushed, and his eyes had an imploring but earnest look. I lit into him anyway.
—It’s about time you got here! I’ve been absolutely miserable waiting! You don’t care about my feelings one iota.
Djinn ignored my rant. Instead, he began telling his own form of woeful parable, his voice sincere and steady.
Most people are susceptible to superstition of some kind or other: wearing an amulet, finding a four-leaf clover, throwing coins in a well, carrying a rabbit’s foot are all good luck signs meant to ward against evil spirits or make your dreams come true. But, life has its own way of balancing these actions, so on the night of the black moon, the powerful and evil forces of the djinn went about seeking to demonize all that was good.
It’s all very topsy-turvy, you see. What you think are dreams and fantasies might in fact be really happening, and what you think you see might just be dreams.
Djinn went on to tell me I had had a dream—or perhaps he meant mental breakdown. There was no such visitor as the capybara, he insisted. And I definitely had not had conversations with him. It was all the evil djinn at work.
What was going on? I’m third generation chair—not all were red like me—and could not have been mistaken about my intelligence. To think I would invent clumsy escapades such as the Capster is absurd. I’m not a fool, after all. Was Djinn trying to hornswoggle me? Or, had I truly lost my mind? Had all those sleepless nights made me lightheaded? But, Djinn wasn’t stupid by any means either. He was a world traveler with such accumulated profound wisdom, how could my infantile brain be challenging him?
—Oh, such confusion! I don’t know any more whether I am a chair, a stool or a folding table. I swear, I’ll never tell my analyst any of this!
Djinn’s eyes twinkled and there was a little twist to his lips as he tried to explain—it was all the fault of the black moon!