The Secret Animal: A Tale


Richard Devroe became fascinated with little things when he was four years old and his parents died.  His Aunt Rebecca told him to sit quietly in the entryway of the house before the memorial service, and all he knew was that his mother and father had gone up into the air in an airplane and disappeared.  Sitting in a hard, dark chair, he vaguely construed the scene as one of waiting for his parents’ return despite what his aunt had told him.  She had said that they were “never coming back,” but waiting here alone like this, Richard began to take that as meaning that they were somehow invisible now, that they would come back but he might not know it.

He tried to recall his parents’ faces and hands.  He could almost conjure up the feeling of being spoken to and touched in a comforting way, not like now with Aunt Becca, whose perfunctory affection only momentarily reeled him in from wherever he was drifting.  His parents’ presence had always put him solidly in place in the world.  Now there was nothing but this chair drifting in a narrow room, and the experience of his own yearning to be elsewhere, where they were.  While the clock on the wall behind him clicked off an eternity of seconds, he stared at a shaft of sunlight that came in through the window in the door and made a small golden pool of light on the floor near him.  If his parents were invisible, they must be even smaller than the dancing motes of dust in that shaft of light.  Then Richard Devroe tried to wish himself as small as things would be if they were never coming back but nonetheless returned.

Though Aunt Rebecca was not cruel, she was extremely high-strung and self-involved and could thus be brutally dismissive, and she considered child-rearing a process of enforcing quiet, polite behavior.  Thus, in the months that followed Richard’s moment of enlightenment, he had plenty of time to meditate solemnly on modes of existence unavailable to the untrained eye.  Lying quietly awake during one of his endless nap-times, or sitting quietly outdoors in the wisteria bower when his aunt locked him out of the house so she could recover from one of her endless headaches, he imagined that whole worlds of tiny, invisible creatures were carrying on wars and celebrations in the back corner of the drawer in the table next to his bed or in the crevices of some gnarled vine where his parents’ airplane had landed, safe, but so small as not to be seen.

Over time, these worlds became so heavily populated with fantastic figures that his parents receded into the background and ultimately flew on to some other little place.  Then in reckless moments, Richard carefully selected the smallest implement or stick he could find and quietly poked at or excavated the little places, heedless of the possibility of harming their whole invisible population.  After all, his parents were safely elsewhere, and the little creatures were getting out of hand at night, when they loomed large and threatening in the dark.

Richard had what he called “bad animal” dreams, nightmares so excruciatingly terrifying that he often refused to go to sleep, and if he did sleep, he invariably woke up screaming and clawing hysterically at the air.  Aunt Rebecca was so exasperated with what she called his “nonsense” that she threatened to send him away.  The thought of such exile reduced his screams to barely audible whimpers and then to a horrified silence in which he lay awake until he exhausted himself.  During this time, he worked hard to get things down to manageable size.  Ultimately, the whole host of magical creatures condensed into one figure, that of the “secret animal,” whose outlines and essence were unclear–threatening and fantastically appealing at once.  The secret animal was always behind things, though he could come out if he wanted to.  Things were as they were simply because they were really otherwise, held together, kept in place by an invisible network willed into being by the secret animal.  Once Richard knew for certain that the secret animal kept things going and that it was best just to leave him alone to get on with his secret life, the nightmares ended.  Richard retained, however, the privilege of entertaining himself at any opportune moment with fantasies of anticipated presence.

When Richard was old enough to be interesting to his aunt, she taught him to draw and paint.  She thus endowed him, perhaps a bit late, with an acute sense of the colors and contours of the visible world.  In a few years, he realized that the power to represent what he saw amounted to the power to represent what nobody could really see, which was how things felt.  By the age of seventeen, Richard was an agreeable, wry-humored, rather reticent young man who had an uncanny knack for painting ordinary things as if they were on the verge of abstract or fantastic transformation.  Indeed, Richard usually felt rather “on the verge” himself, and if he had not learned to paint, he might have lost his mind.  As things were, Aunt Rebecca soon went nervously to her grave feeling personally responsible for the scholarships that would send Richard through art school so she could rest in peace.

In his last year of school, Richard fell in love with a fellow student named Anna Taylor, and they moved into a warehouse studio together.  Charmed by Anna’s exuberance, Richard loved her deeply, and gradually he came round to feeling all sorts of things.  Anna’s forte was an instinct for humorous incongruities between style and substance, and she did intensely colored Rivera-like murals, mostly privately commissioned, depicting massive heroic persons engaged in trivial or absurd activities.  After a couple of promising shows, Richard himself had stopped seriously painting altogether.  He amused and supported himself now by turning out miniature versions of famous paintings for doll houses and doing whimsical trompe l’oeil decorative details for much larger houses occupied by people who had money.  Richard and Anna themselves always had just enough money to get on with living and working, but then, they were in love, and that made the world a solid place in which misfortunes seemed almost as manageable as pleasure was.

Nonetheless, when he was twenty-six, Richard was suddenly beset by a series of disconcerting dreams in which existence came to him as something unpredictable, grotesque, and terrifyingly unreal.  One morning he awoke from a dream in which household objects were flying in a frenzy round the ceiling while outside whole freeways were sliding off into a boiling ocean where downtown Arcady was now underwater, upside down, and somehow on top of Anna and his parents, who were disguised as very small cheetahs.  Feeling helpless, unhappy, and angry all at once, Richard got up and went to sit in the kitchen, which was really a sort of cooking nook near Anna’s worktables.  After the sun rose, he found himself staring at a shaft of light and wondering for the first time in many years what the secret animal was up to.

After a moment of absolute panic, he went and sat next to the bed to watch Anna sleeping.  Her hands were thrown back next to her head on the pillow as if in a gesture of surprise, a perfect emblem of the good-natured openness with which she greeted everything, good or bad.  He noticed for the millionth time that her fingertips were slightly spatulate, as if her body needed to touch more, feel more than other people.  Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by a sense of the unmanageable concrete clutter of the world, which seemed to mock and threaten everything he had learned to love.  Things were looking pretty shaky and ugly.  He was furious with Anna for sleeping so well.

When Anna came into his workspace and asked him what was wrong, he didn’t even look up at her.  He just kept picking things up from his table and throwing them on the floor or against the wall.  When she asked him to stop, he started screaming crazy things about “getting real jobs and living in a real house.”

“But we are real,” Anna said.  “We have real work, we live in a real place.  I’m real, you’re real.”

Then she tried to put her hand on his arm, but he drew away from her and said, “You don’t understand.  Just leave me alone.”

“I’m going out,” she said.

He sat with his head in his hands while she dressed.  When she slipped out the door, he stood up to go after her.  He had never raised his voice before in his life, and he was really sorry now.  But then he was angry again, and everything was so on-the-verge that he was paralyzed.  He stared at the floor for a long time.  Then he thought he would have to go find Anna and fix things or the world really would fall apart.  He was pulling his jeans on when there was a knock at the door and a policeman told him that Anna had been the victim of a hit-and-run accident two blocks away.  There was no place small enough for Richard Devroe now.  When he got to the hospital, she was dead.  He said, “What color was the car?”

Through everything that followed–throughout the funeral arrangements, through the open grief of friends and Anna’s family, through sorting out her things in the studio–Richard was obsessed by the color of that car.  Witnesses recalled a “red sedan,” but they couldn’t agree on what color red–one said “cherry red,” one said “apple,” another said “fire engine,” and the last one described something that sounded sometimes like carmine and sometimes like burnt sienna, which took the possibilities into a whole other range.  Richard was furious that no one could specify the color, and the world was full of red or reddish cars.  He made a mental note of every red car he saw, for any one of them could be the car that killed Anna.  But he knew there was another red car somewhere, the one that had really killed her.  That was the car driven by his own feelings.  That one was still driving recklessly, endlessly about, running stop signs, killing pedestrians, ruining people’s lives.  He could not forgive himself: he felt that he himself had killed the only person he had ever really known and chosen to love.  Maybe he had killed the others too.

Friends sent him to see a “grief counselor” who suggested that he go to church, get involved in community activities, and take up golf or bowling.  But with a diabolical instinct for designing his own punishment, he chose instead to get a job as an illustrator at the Dowing Advertising Agency.  He moved to a small apartment, and life simply wore on while he drew Mr. Freddy Kilo-Watt in several hundred ridiculous, repetitious poses just so he could draw his paycheck at the end of the month.  He became so stubbornly protective of his solitude that his friends finally stopped phoning or dropping by.

At first, everything reminded him of Anna, and then nothing reminded him of anything.  Still, he dreamed intensely real and ordinary dreams of Anna.  Sometimes they were in the studio together laughing about some nonsense.  Sometimes they were lying in bed reading the Sunday paper like everyone else in the world when their hands would accidentally touch and then they’d kiss.  And sometimes the red car cruised slowly around the block while they were safe inside and in each other’s arms.  He always awoke with an unspeakable grief swelling in his chest, and then he stood in the shower, just leaning his head against the tile because Anna would be dead for the rest of his life, and there was nothing, nothing he could do about it.

He spent his spare time working on three by three canvases scored off into locular sections containing dark circles in which he painted fantastic miniature landscapes.  When he finished a few paintings, he simply turned them over to Bonita Bois, Anna’s old agent, and asked her to deposit a check for him in a special account if they sold.  Actually, the paintings were selling quite well, but Richard did not really care one way or the other now.  Bonita had arranged a few shows, but Richard refused to attend the openings, and he threw away without reading the reviews she brought him in which his “weird dark landscapes punctuated by fantastic unworldly trees behind which the unseen lurks” were described as “meditation scenes,” “paintings that do not ‘read’ as much as they read the viewer, who, confronted with a scene whose only definable context is its doubled (squared and circled) frame, fills the frame in as he will.”  Richard did not care one way or the other that his paintings were being described as “obsessively repetitious emblems of both fanciful and pathetic anticipation” or that they were thought “to restore the lost conditions of the life of the imagination.”  All he wanted were predictable days, and solitary nights in which he could paint endless variations of scenes rife with the possibility of the sudden appearance of a spectacularly diminutive but powerful ally or enemy.  All he wanted was finally to paint a space in which the secret animal would show himself.  He had something to ask him now, but he wasn’t sure yet what it was.

One day in April, Richard was walking aimlessly down a main thoroughfare near his apartment when he noticed a very small sign in a window.  It said: “Living 1/4s and Business 4 Sale.”  Because the sign was too strange and small not to be important, Richard rang the bell and soon met Mr. Kevin O’Mare, a boisterous sign painter who was anxious to retire to Mexico and leave his steady clients in worthy hands.  He was quite literal-minded about this last part and carefully inspected Richard’s hands before inviting him into the ground floor workroom, which was littered with papers, cans of paint, large sheets of plywood and posterboard, and a crudely painted, ambiguous advertisement for “Mel’s Meet Market.”  On the second floor was a ramshackle apartment with a large room overlooking the street, and on the roof was a deck with a small collection of exquisite bonsai–a curved white pine, a very small ornamental plum, a magnificent quince, and what could only be described as a forest landscape containing five cedars, each less than a foot tall.  When O’Mare said, “I’ll be leaving these with you too,”  Richard simply accepted his fate.

The next day, feeling in a weird way as if he were O’Mare’s son and heir, Richard went to the bank and discovered more than enough money in the painting account to pay O’Mare outright.  Then he called his office and said he wouldn’t be coming back “for personal reasons.”  He and O’Mare sealed the deal and drank tequila half the night.  A week later, he made another man’s business his own, moved into a new life in another man’s place, a position that made him safer than ever in his constant retreat from his own.

On his first day as O’Mare’s successor, Richard sat down at a cluttered desk in a corner of the workroom to review O’Mare’s accounts, almost two dozen long-term accounts, several recent ones–all restaurants, markets, shops, and laundries–as well as some seasonal work and special projects.  Aside from routine repairs and revisions of signs that were routinely alliterative and idiosyncratically spelled and punctuated, it looked as if O’Mare worked very hard for about three months and tinkered for nine.  This was fine, of course, for Richard, who had already set his easel up upstairs where the light was better, and who didn’t plan to change a thing, not even the misplaced apostrophe in “Dori’s Bay Cafe,” which was owned by Doris Beecham, or the “10 min./lb.” notation on the sign for “Arleeta’s Automatic–60c lb. washfold.”  Even “Cafe Trinidad! a place! to meet! and eat!” was going to stay just as it was.  Changing things would mean getting involved, and getting involved was the last thing Richard Devroe wanted to do.

Richard had turned from O’Mare’s records of his accounts to mull over a peculiarly fantastic sketch (mermaids, a sequoia forest, a flock of doves) that O’Mare had recently proposed for the bar wall of Maxies’ Club De Luxe, when the street door suddenly flew open and a strange character stepped in.  Standing well over six feet tall, arms wildly akimbo, looking as if he’d just rushed in with news of a spectacular fire or the landing of a spaceship, the man announced in a big booming voice that he was Henry J. Landman and that he would work just as hard for “Ricardo Devlin” as he had for “Mr. Mare.”  With great solemnity, he said, “You can call me Henry J. and  I’ll call you Mr. Dev,” and he held out the great paw of his hand in greeting.  Not knowing what else to do, Richard shook his hand and murmured, “What, exactly, do you do for Mr. O’Mare?”  Then Henry J. Landman rambled thoughtfully around the workroom, as if to make certain that everything was in place, reeling off as he went a meditatively intoned list of tasks: “Paint.  Sand boards.  Load signs, unload supplies.  Fix things.  Hammer, saw.  Clean brush, sweep–Mr. Mare’s a mess.  Tools in right place.  Telephone.  Bonsai.”  Completing his inspection, and apparently, his introduction, with this last word, Henry J. promptly lumbered toward the stairs and headed up to the roof deck.

Henry J. was standing on the deck, turning in a slow circle, as if surveying his plantations.  Finally, he turned to Richard, grinned, said, “This is like heaven.”  Suppressing a pressing question about how Henry J. had become acquainted with the celestial regions, Richard said, “Yes.  I guess it is.”  But Henry J. didn’t hear him, engrossed as he was in collecting bonsai tools from an absurdly elegant little box that Richard had never noticed beneath the low bench that ran round the periphery of the deck.  When Henry J. began to snip and pinch, Richard simply sat and watched him move from tray to tray, tending the trees with a deft gentleness that one would not have thought an attribute of his wild hands.  And there in the bright morning, sitting in the midst of a borrowed life with its own strange schedules, scenes, and personae, Richard was suddenly at peace.  He did not have to be anywhere but here, listening to Henry’s low, reverential incantations as he worked.  In honor of “Mr. Dev,” Henry J. moved the quince to the far end of the deck and set the forest planting on the central platform.  “I’ll put in special new moss,” he said.

Later, Richard recollected that he had indeed heard O’Mare mention Henry J. a few times, always with great affection, always referring to him as “my friend.”  It hardly mattered now that O’Mare, with that wisdom common to people who are about to depart for places where there are no telephones, had neglected to mention any standing arrangement with Henry J.  In the days that followed, this arrangement became clear.  Henry showed up more or less promptly at ten every weekday morning except Wednesday and worked until three; and every Friday, Richard sent him home with a check made out to his mother, Mrs. Dora Landman.  If there were no minor repairs to make or routine painting to do, Henry J. puttered around the workroom finding things to do that would later have to be undone, or he tended the bonsai.  He had indeed found “special moss” for the forest landscape, which now had a regular field of something rather like minuscule winter wheat.  Sometimes he simply sat in the workroom while Richard worked.  No matter what he was doing, Henry J. entertained Richard with strange tales of the things he had seen or done–he would talk to anybody and do just about anything–on the way to or from work.  He could amuse Richard for the greater part of the day with the mental circumambulations of his attempts to sort out the deeper mysteries of life such as how bus drivers knew to follow the same route day after day or why there was a pink neon “cold beer” sign in the window of the shoe store across the street or why someone had scrawled “I AM AN INSECT” on a nearby billboard advertising twenty-four hour banking information and bearing the legend “How may we help you?”

Henry J. was not exactly retarded, but he was simple-minded and easily excited.  These defects, or virtues, had given him a life full of trivial complications and mysterious signs, a buoyant and cheerful disposition, the face of a man half his age, and the license to say just about anything he pleased.  He knew all of Mr. O’Mare’s clients and vendors well, and since he always went out with Richard to negotiate jobs, make deliveries, or pick up supplies, he served in a way as the absent O’Mare’s representative.  Mr. O’Mare had apparently been something of a joker, and Henry, sensitive perhaps to Richard’s reserved manner or perhaps even afraid that Richard might alienate clients by being too subtle, tried to take up the slack.  He needled Doris (of “Dori’s Bay Side”) about the procession of drunken cooks that filed almost week by week through her kitchen, for example.  And, with even greater mirth, he reminded Loretta Quick (of “We Are Innocent,” which, oddly enough, was a maternity shop) of the time Mr. O’Mare goosed her as she bent over a box of “fresh arrivals.”  Everyone knew Henry J., who was wont on particularly thrilling days to give men and women alike bear hugs and even joyous kisses, as if life itself were cause for constant celebration.

Infected by Henry’s attitude of perpetual wonder, Richard himself was beginning to have feelings again, though he was aware of this only because he found himself trying to contain them in manageable proportions.  Nonetheless, he would find himself crying with laughter at Henry’s nonsensical jests and obscure gibes, and when there was no work to do, he would sometimes take Henry J. down to the pier for a day of fishing, just for the pleasure of his company.  Lately, he had not been able to paint, but it seemed not to matter.  When he wasn’t working, he was perfectly content to read mystery novels or travel literature or sit up on the deck staring at the bonsai.  He felt he had somehow been given a reprieve, and, feeling that the world would hang together without too much fretting on his part, he took great pleasure in his simple life.

Then in August something happened.  Henry J. had been getting around town alone on the bus for well over a decade, but being easily distracted and confused by the unfamiliar, he occasionally missed a stop or couldn’t identify a landmark and consequently got lost.  Thus, from time to time on account of some other passenger’s amazingly intricate hat, or a new billboard, or a defaced road sign, Henry went on a regular odyssey, sometimes tracing and retracing every line in the network of the transit system within a ten-mile radius far from where he wanted to be.  Henry always recounted these misadventures repeatedly and at great length for several days afterwards, articulating his amazement with his massive hands as he told of the places and people he had seen, for all the world as if he had taken a trip to Xanadu.

One perfect afternoon, then, Henry J. took a simple trip down Broadway to fetch some things for his mother from a drug store.  But a crowd of high school students got on the bus, and Henry was so fascinated by their shrill chatter and wild clothing that he missed his stop.  Several stops later, he realized this, got off, and crossed the street to retrace his path.  But on the street perpendicular was a bench bearing a familiar advertisement, so he went there instead and took the next bus.  Several hours later, he was waiting in the dark at a bus stop down near the docks.  A car pulled up, and a man asked Henry J. for directions he couldn’t give.  Then two men got out of the car, beat him up, and took what little money he had.  Later, Henry J. could remember everything about his journey but what the men looked like and what kind of car they had been driving.

Mrs. Landman called Richard the next day, and he drove to a hospital across town where Henry J. was “being held for observation.”  The last time Richard had been in a hospital was when Anna died; just the smell of it made him feel as if the world was coming unhinged.  Henry’s face was so badly bruised and swollen that he hardly looked like himself.  Richard was terrified to see him this way.

Even a week later when Henry J. was in his own bed at home, had started to resemble himself again, and was able to speak as well as ever, his eyes were still somehow spiritless, his voice flat and weak.  Richard visited often, always bearing some trinket or treat and some bit of news about the business or the bonsai, but Henry J. seemed turned wholly inward, as if he were looking there retroactively for his own defense.  Richard found himself trying to mimic Henry’s own exuberance when he visited, but even in the midst of this impersonation, Henry would simply smile weakly and drift off to sleep.  “Don’t you worry,” Mrs. Landman said.  “I know my boy.  He just has to dream to find his spirit now, and he’ll be fine, you’ll see.  You don’t look so good yourself, Mr. Devroe.  Maybe you need some rest too.”  But despite Mrs. Landman’s words and the considerable evidence of Henry’s own body, Richard was convinced that those two thugs had somehow beaten the life out of Henry J.

Richard Devroe stopped going to visit Henry altogether and started instead to drive around town for hours on end.  He put a “closed” sign in his window and unplugged his phone.  He would get up early in the morning and drive around and around, slowly circling in by midafternoon toward the fateful bus stop.  He was looking for the people who had hurt Henry J.  He was looking for a red car.  The longer he drove, the more his confusion took on the aspect of rage, and the more the sound of his engine, even the sound of the traffic around him, became the sound of his own fury.  He felt at first that he could not face Henry J. again until he could deliver some healing word or sign, but gradually he thought only sporadically about Henry J.  What he really wanted was for everything that hurt people or made them die or disappear to stop and stop and stop.  If he had been a violent man, he would have been about as dangerous as he felt.

On the third day of this, he noticed a sleazy bar near the bus stop, parked his car, and went in.  The place was dark and heavily populated, mostly by sailors, local toughs, and blank-eyed girls.  Feeling weirdly at home, sitting alone at a table, drinking a beer and wondering if Henry’s assailants might in their Zen-like but wicked way be here now, he noticed a woman who bore a remarkable resemblance to Anna.  He must have been staring, for she came over to his table and sat down.  She promptly started trying to talk him into taking her to “a club down the road,” but she really needed to stop by her apartment first–it was on the way–to change her shoes.  Richard responded to her chatter in an ambiguous fashion because her hair looked so much like Anna’s that he was overwhelmed with anguish, loss.  She moved closer and put her hand on his knee.  His reverie of Anna disrupted, he looked down and realized that it was not a woman’s hand.  Looking up in alarm at her face, he realized she didn’t look like Anna at all.  Then he knew in one horrible, stunning moment that he had really been looking for Anna all this time, not just in the last days but ever since her death.  “I’m sorry, so sorry,” he said.  Then he fumbled through his wallet for no reason, laid a twenty on the table, and fled.

She caught up with him out on the street and started a whining speech about “making a living” as opposed to having “a real job.”  When she continued to dog his steps, he whirled round and did something he had never done: he slapped her hard in the face.  As she stood there, somehow flimsy in the afternoon light, with her hand to her face, her mouth in a silent, gaping “O,” he hissed, “Damn you.  Damn you.”  Angry, and weeping for the first time in his life, he ran back to his car and drove off into a different world.

Things at home were humming and looked subtly but grotesquely awry, as if the intricate invisible networks that made substance appear to be substantive had succumbed to some strong, invisible wind.  The colors of things in the workroom were all wrong, their tones thrown down a pitch to a kind of audible rumbling muddiness.  The clutter upstairs seemed rearranged in some maddeningly imperceptible way, and it, too, had its own noise, which alternated between a susurration and a high-pitched buzz.  Desperately, he rushed upstairs to the cool air of the roof, where he leaned against the railing, gasping for breath, feeling as if his body was falling to bits and rearranging itself into some monstrous, cubist thing.  On his knees, then, he was whispering over and over, “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”  And then the bonsai forest caught his eye.

It was the moss that got him.  By now it was late afternoon, and a sudden stray ray of sunlight shot down through the branches of the tallest cedar in the miniature forest and lit up a tiny patch of bristling, bright green moss where something really small and momentous was going on.  He stared at it until he was in it all alone, looking around at a magnified alien landscape devoid of any sign of life.  It was true, then, that if you got small enough, everything got big and solid again.  He looked down at his hands and they had turned to brown-furred paws.  Then he began to roar.  As the sound came effortlessly, endlessly from him, he had leisure for a thought: it really did not matter that he was so ferociously angry, for he himself was the secret animal, and he was very, very small.

. . .

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