The Twelve Zodiac Animals Visit

/ Ivy Du (Writer), Helen Huang (Illustrator)

Fiction8 min reading time

No. 5

Illustration of a girl sitting on a checkerboard floor with a snake, a tiger, a dog, a horse, and an ox forming a circle around her.

Here it is. The dawn, cusp, hammerspace-bud before another year can blossom.

You’re in the old nursery, where your sister’s friend slept before she turned five. Now, it’s been repurposed into a storage room, with a rocking chair in the middle. You sit on it and face the shivered glass window, staring through it at a waving image of the moon. In this space, you have nothing but time; these moments are the ones reserved solely for the countdown. It begins in the next room: the dining room, where all your family members and family friends are batting oil away from the surface of hot pot soup and wishing one another preemptive congratulations. Any moment, and a new year will flip on its back, exposing itself for the world to see. The countdown in the dining room sounds like a mumble; random cacophonies of sound made purely for ritual purposes. Any moment, now. Any—

Different festivities divide your focus, but this is one of those countdowns that cannot be reset. No alarm clocks with snooze buttons readily available, which always seem generous enough to allow just five more minutes. No. Something is going to happen. Regardless of the celebration, the noise happening outside the room. Nothing was meant to steal you from the significance of this cosmic time commitment.

So you try not to think about what everyone else is doing right now.

It’s been an eternity, maybe, since you’ve lost count. The twelve animals have appeared, but they make no sense.

Illustration of a goat. A rat stumbles off the head of a bull, which bucks backwards and kicks down a set of obsolete bead mazes. A horn pierces a picture frame on the wall, narrowly missing the acrylic print-heart of a young girl, her arm around her sister, but with her fingers so tense you can tell it took the wizened convincing of a professional photographer to get her in that state. Instead, the glass comes down to the floor— invisible, but clattering as if charged with an electrical force. The goat is next; you’re certain this isn’t the order it’s supposed to be in. Everything is stochastic. It’s been a decade since you last stepped into that Sunday Chinese school, the last time anyone would remind you of the importance of these holiday traditions without a long pause and a sudden, solemn whisper: So what’s next? Are you finally going to do something with your next year? The goat swivels its great horns while the rat runs a lattice-pattern between its legs, ducking for cover. It slams itself against a bookshelf entombed with dust, blankets and blankets of it. The blankets fly off, and the spiderwebs that have settled in the interstice between hardcovers feel themselves tear to pieces with this renewed motion. Illustration of a monkey. While the goat bucks and trots a quick lap around the small room, the monkey and pig take turns trying to climb on each other's backs, each trying to make their grand entrances at one another’s expense. The monkey dangles a tanghulu skewer in front of the pig and slings one calloused hand over its back. Properly irritated, the pig slumps to the ground after trampling a plastic toy phone, leaving a slime trail of drool in its wake. The monkey should, somehow, know that tanghulu meant something to you. It was your favorite snack, back at the old apartment your family lived in, when your mom would come home from her cashier job, whip some up, and recite you Mandarin picture books that you couldn't read a word of. When she liked to smile with moon-shaped eyes while cupping your face. You can no longer describe the taste except to say that it must have been overwhelming sweetness, and your mother no longer works. The monkey flings the tanghulu into a corner, where lint and gray gnats will congeal on its sugar-sticky surface. Illustration of a pig. The snake comes in through the line of light under the door, stringing its way up the lamp by the rocking chair, continuously smashing its head on the lightbulb, as if biologically programmed to batter brightness. The horse dashes through the room multiple times, its eyes on a vast and rolling valley beyond the walls. You’re forced to abandon the chair for the corner of the room, where the countdown noises from outside might be quieter if you hold your hands over your ears. Metal hoof-marks crater the uneven floor. The rocking chair, and its accompanying ottoman, have been reduced to jagged wood and pouring styrofoam innards. The rabbit sniffs and chews and gags at this unnatural material, then wags its tail and blinks. The material is old; the rocking chair once belonged to your family, back in that apartment. When your parents slept on the same frameless air mattress as you and prayed you might one day make enough to buy each of them their own house, with their own peony bushes and wooden animal carvings out front. The cushions were softer back then, less bogged down by old age. Degraded from a lifetime of celestial events, in such quick and endless succession that it seems like everyone is just stacking countdown after countdown, year after year, allowing time to gather speed exponentially and without mercy. Illustration of a snake. The dogs that pull a red sledful of firecrackers in shiny garbage bags begin to mistake the counting for long-distance friends. One by one, they howl along with the sound that ripples through the wall. Reminding you: it’s there. It’s happening. One dog, flop-eared and frenzied, chases a rooster, sending old foam tiles into the air, so the letters on them read like a number of unintelligible sky banners. Illustration of a rabbit. The rooster must be choking on something. A foam tile, or even some dessert it pecked up in the dark corners no one else is paying attention to any longer. Its neck is an indistinguishable shape: shifting, amorphous through the crowded circumstances. The tiger’s entrance only adds more chaos; a glitzing, glamorous roar and snap of the teeth. The other animals must feel this primal echo in their prey bones. It bounds towards the shivered window— the window with the rippled surface, in which all things through it appear amorphous and unresolved. It crashes through, glass-wound blood skating orthogonal to its royal stripes. The symbol of your sister’s year is free, now. Free, like she grabbed your shoulders and told you she would be after college, with a better degree and a more brightly-lit future than you. You can still see her soaring, or even hear her voice if you wish, through the wall you’re leaning against. Leading the ritual. You kick aside remnants of the ottoman. The dragon blows steam through its double-barreled nostrils. It does figure-eights, quad-lutzes, and whatever other skating terms you can think of, along the ceiling, disrupting the old brass chandelier. Grazing against the bulbs, its scales glow sunset portraits in their cloud gong texture, and make the sound of big city fireworks that reverberate through a cave formed before the beginning of time. But there is a time tonight; you have found yourself in an era where people gather once an Earthly revolution for the sake of temporary joy. You have found yourself in a state where time voids all other existence, and enters you wearing everything else as skin. Where the seconds come as years, as animals, as dust, as heavenly bodies, as a chant composed of numbers that keep winding down. So the scales scrape to a simple melody: Illustration of a rooster.

A-three, a-two, a-one—

It’s all noise. You hold your head in your hands and try to breathe. The animals have passed through this hoarder’s den. Somewhere, a dark object has passed over a source of light, and the temporal event has happened. Then the ceiling light buzzes, as always, heard through the wall. Only the rat remains, gnawing on the salvaged foot of a rocking chair when the pig finally departs, its coiled tail bouncing along with it, as if moved by the same divine force that moves flowers to bloom in spring.

Right. It’s the rat’s year again. Your year. Marking twenty-four years of living with your parents. A meager year since you regained the energy to pull yourself out of bed and allow the job hunt to begin. You have tens of applications sitting in inboxes, unread; even the reviewers embrace their families and shut down the bleaker, more arduous parts of their lives for a holiday. More than enough rest before a potential miracle. The celestial events add one to the snowball-count, and yet there’s still that slim, bright-eyed, bleary belief in the Year of You. You hear the tapping nails of the small creature that remains to survey its territory— an intrepid sound piercing soft celebration. Maybe it has succeeded in sniffing out remnants of lint-dusted sweetness, which have somehow, you believe, made it through the noise. You release your ears and rub your eyes. The countdown is over; it’s time to begin counting up again.

One, two, three—

Illustration of a rat.