The wombat stood on its hind legs, four feet tall, eyes set wide on its head. Its whiskers twitched as it waited for me to invite it into the apartment, dark brown fur matted in places and twined through with leaves and nettles in others. The animal smelled faintly of fish and vodka.
“So who are you then?”
“My name is Parasch Zee,” the wombat said, its voice full of gravel, and pushed its squat muscular body past me into the apartment. “You will call me P.S.”
“Parasch Zee? That’s a strange name.”
“Not strange for a wombat. Would you rather I be called Craig or Anthony? Now that would be fucking strange. Anything to drink?”
I closed the front door, walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. “Bottled water, chrysanthemum tea, grapefruit juice, and an open bottle of Perrier Jouet.”
“How old’s the Perrier Jouet?” the wombat called from the living room.
“Vintage is 1995, but it’s been open for, I don’t know, six months or so? At least since my divorce was finalized.”
“All right, fetch it here.”
I brought the champagne into the living room, and the wombat snatched it out of my hand. It sat on the couch upright like a person, instead of the expected way: on its belly, like a dog or some other pet. It guzzled the bubbly in great gulps, polishing it off in less than a minute.
“Shit,” the wombat said. “Pure shit, but it’ll tide me over until we can find something better.”
“So, aren’t you a little far from home?”
“Yes. That’s so observant. What an observant monkey you are.”
“What did you say your name was again?”
The wombat sighed. “Just call me P.S., like I said.”
“P.S.? Wouldn’t it be P.Z.?”
“Right. And, uh, are you a boy or girl wombat?”
“That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard. You’re stupid.”
P.S. then lengthened out along the cushions and yawned widely, showing me a better view of its rodent-like front teeth. It spread its fingers and stretched, revealing nasty-looking dark-colored claws caked with mud. “Get me a pillow,” it said.
“There’s a pillow right there,” I said.
“No, you idiot, that’s a couch pillow in the shape of a hamburger. I want a real pillow. Bring me it.”
I kept an extra pillow in the linen closet in case of guests, and carried this over to the wombat, who stuffed it underneath its head.
“Fine, now fuck off, I’m sleeping.”
“But I wanted to watch TV. One of my favorite shows is on now.”
The wombat growled and bared its teeth. “Fuck off, I said.”
I hurried back to the bedroom, banished. I read several chapters of a novel before my eyes began crossing. I dozed for a bit, and when I woke it was dark outside. My stomach gurgled. Tiptoed into the living room, frosty since the wombat had turned the thermostat way down, and picked up the phone quietly to order a pizza, but the wombat opened its eyes and looked up.
“What are you doing?”
“Ordering a pizza.”
“No,” it said. “Pizza is shit. You’re shit. Take me to the mall. We’ll get Greek food. I also need a phone card.”
“But I didn’t want to go out tonight.”
“Fuck that, we’re going. Greek food. Phone card.”
“Grrrrrrreeeeek foooooood,” it growled. “Now.”
“What does a wombat need a phone card for anyway?”
“Shut up. Let’s go.”
The ride to the nearest shopping mall took only fifteen minutes in my Mini, but the wombat fiddled with every single button and lever and switch, adjusting the air conditioning, changing the radio station presets, flicking the lock back and forth, activating the hazard lights, switching on the windshield wipers, honking the horn. It couldn’t keep still, and refused to wear a seatbelt.
“This car is stupid,” it said. “You’re stupid.”
At the Mediterranean food stall in the mall food court, the wombat stretched up on its back legs to be seen over the counter and ordered a gyro with extra tzatziki sauce. I opted for a falafel pita. P.S. tried to eat its food right there at the counter, but I grabbed the tray with one hand, told it to find a table, and paid with the other hand. It chose a circular six-seater near the center of the food court, and was snapping at a white family of five who had approached the table at the same time, making this strangly barking noise and calling the blonde twin girls a couple of cunts.
“Sorry,” I said, approaching, “when it gets like this, there’s not much you can do. Sorry. There’s another large table over there by the fake palm tree.”
“Cunts!” barked the wombat. “Fuck you, you’re all stupid.”
“Would you knock it off? Here, eat your damn Greek food.”
The wombat ripped off great chunks from its gyro and chewed with its mouth open, uttering soft ummph ummph sounds as the detritus of toppings piled up on the floor around it. P.S. had stopped talking as it ate, and I took the opportunity to tuck into my falafel. Crunch and the soft green of chickpeas.
As it finished the last of the gyro, its mouth smeared with gobs of tzatziki, it said, softly, “Him.”
“Him, not it. You called me an it. I’m a him.”
“I’m going to find a phone card. Let’s go, stupid.”
“But I just started my dinner.”
P.S. rolled his eyes. “I’ll be right back. Give me money.”
I handed the wombat a ten-dollar bill, and he looked at the paper as if it was a turd.
“This isn’t enough,” he said. “Give me more.”
Another ten, and the wombat ambled off in the direction of the shops without even a thank-you. Once he was out of sight, I inhaled the rest of the falafel and snuck out to the car park. I started up the Mini and drove home before I could think about it too much.
Back at the apartment, couch reclaimed, and I watched a Discovery Channel rerun about giant man-made structures. Apart from the TV, the room was quiet. The wombat had left the pillow on the couch, and it was smeared with a brown that I could only hope was mud. I’d take care of it later. I exhaled in relief, reveling in my restored solitude.
But before the show was even over, there was a knock at the door: the wombat.
“Idiot,” he said. “You think I couldn’t find my way back here? Don’t fucking do that again.” He pointed back behind him. “And take care of this.”
A taxi idled at the curb. The wombat stepped into the apartment, said “This is stupid,” and turned off the TV. I paid the cabbie, then went back inside.
When I woke the next morning, an ocelot was curled up at the foot of my bed. The shock of the big cat in such close proximity startled me into a huddle, blanket up around my face. At the sudden movement, the ocelot awoke as well, looked at me sleepily, and performed a full-body yawn. Were ocelots carnivores? I couldn’t remember, but its canines were certainly sharp enough.
“Damn,” it said in a throaty female tenor, “I’d just gotten to sleep. Why’d you do that?”
“Where the hell did you come from?”
“Where do any of us come from? I started as atoms, accreted into molecules, cells, nerves, muscles, limbic system, all that. There’s not much difference between you and me when you think of it that way.”
“No, I mean, how did you get into my apartment? Into my bed?”
The ocelot yawned again. “Look,” she said, “I’ve been up all night. Ocelots are nocturnal. Can we maybe talk about this later?”
“Later,” she said, her tone short with finality, performing a maneuver with her paws that looked as if she was kneading dough for biscuits, then she turned away and promptly fell back to sleep.
I crept out of the bedroom and closed the door as quietly as I could. Into the living room, hoping that the wombat had disappeared in the night, but no; all over the walls P.S. had scratched out rambling and incoherent phrases, carving them into the drywall. It must have stayed up all night to do this. Also, most of the living room furniture – sofa, end tables, lamps, coffee table – had been pushed against the front door, a makeshift barricade. Standing now to the right of the television, patiently embedding its thoughts, its fur covered with dried dirt and mud, and it looked up at my approach.
“Hey, the ignorant monkey is finally up. Get me some food.”
“What . . . what the fuck—”
I needed to go to the grocery store. All that was left in my pantry was a packet of bacon-flavored crackers. A tentative sniff: they still seemed to be okay. I brought the crackers out to the wombat; it started to eat, noisily, cramming handfuls of crackers into its mouth, four or five at a time, crumbs everywhere.
“Him,” the wombat said. “You’re still thinking of me as an it. Idiot.”
I looked closer at his most recent scrawlings.
1:34: Stupid apt claustrophobic. Take walk thru neighborhood.
1:50: Followed by cop car for three blocks. Working with DHS?
2:03: Cop says something in squawk box. Run. They chase.
2:15: Dig a tunnel from one random lawn to another. Lawns are stupid.
2:30: Cops gone. Lost them. Two drunkfucks walking home. They know. Run again before they can report position. Don’t wanna go back to GB.
3:15: Back at apt. Front door not secure. They know where I am.
The wombat finished the crackers and ate the foil wrapper as well. I was worried that all the noise would wake the ocelot, but there was no indication we had disturbed her. He belched, then wiped down his whiskers; I hoped he would extend the cleaning to the rest of his body, but he seemed comfortable with the layers of filth.
“Not enough,” he said. “Pancakes. I want pancakes.”
“I’m going to lose my security deposit, you know.”
“Fuck you. Pancakes.”
The IHoP down the street was crowded with the morning rush, and we had to wait twenty minutes for a table, the wombat all the time picking at a large grey scab on its left leg, rimmed with yellowish pus. Escorted to a booth in the back corner, and the wombat ordered a Western omelette; just coffee for me. Sat in silence as families and construction workers and corporate types broke their morning fast, the din of conversation making it difficult to think. The omelette arrived and the wombat ate with its bare hands; I didn’t even bothering reminding him about the fork and knife right there in front of him.
Back at the apartment, and the wombat locked itself in the bathroom, muttering loud enough to himself that I could hear through the door. After ten minutes or so, he called out, “Don’t you have a stupid job to get to?”
“No,” I said. “I was fired yesterday.”
“Do you really care?”
“You really are an incompetent fuck,” he said. “Don’t forget to put all that shit back against the door. We’re not safe.”
I had moved the furniture out of the way so that we could leave before, and I now pushed it back into place. It wouldn’t keep anyone out if they really wanted to get in, but I did have to admit that it made me feel a little more secure.
Suddenly exhausted, the coffee apparently not having done its job, I stepped into the bedroom. The ocelot still slept on the bed, but had moved up more toward the middle, aligned along its length like a person would sleep. There was just enough space for me to lie down. I sat gently and rolled over onto my back. The ocelot went mmmmm, but gave no other indication of waking up; her body was warm and comfortable next to mine, and her soft purring put me quickly to sleep.
I dreamt of the ocelot. We were in bed together, as in real life, but she had removed my clothes and was licking me all over with her rough cat tongue, my face, my neck, my chest, my arms, my legs, and all my secret places. Purring loudly all the time, and me intensely aware of her carnivorous teeth, close enough to rip into me if she wanted, and I shivered, the fear adding to my excitement. She did things with her tongue to make it not-so-rough, and began licking my genitals.
At one point, she lifted her head and said, “By the way, my name’s Edie,” and I realized this was no longer a dream, that it was happening for real. She licked and licked and licked, and I shuddered and exhaled, and then she licked me clean.
“There,” she said. “Feeling better, are we?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how to feel about that.”
“You could say thank you.”
“You know,” I said, “I haven’t been able to have sex for almost a year.”
“I hate to point out, sweetie-darling,” she said, “but you still haven’t.”
“My ex-wife Alice hated it for some reason. It was always such a chore. Even when we were actively trying to get pregnant, it was just something to get over with. It’s one of the reasons we split up. After a while, I got tired of begging, and my libido just sort of went away.”
“Fascinating,” Edie said. “Look, I’m famished. You wouldn’t have any crickets, would you?”
“Crickets? No. Why?”
“Never mind. Be back in a little while.”
She climbed off the bed, and padded out of the room. The sound of breaking glass. I soft-footed out to the living room, still naked. One of the two front windows had been broken, its hole vaguely ocelot-shaped; a breeze drifted lazily in, stirring the hairs on my body.
“What the fuck was that?” the wombat yelled from the bathroom.
Several hours later, I don’t know how many, the ocelot hadn’t returned yet, and the wombat opened the bathroom door. I’d been staring at my reflection in the television screen, and the sudden sound made me jump, my heart quick-thumping, the base of my skull crawling with imaginary ants. I still hadn’t dressed. My legs wobbled as I got to my feet. The wombat stood half in view, the rest of his body hidden behind the door, tapping absently on the wood with his dark claws.
“Come here,” he said.
Filling the entire space inside in the bathtub was an enormous creature, the size of a bull, covered in bright pink scales like a fish, its head hanging downward and obscured by a frill of stiff blond bristles that surrounded its neck like a collar. The smell of the creature was incredible, as if a sewer main had been opened directly beneath it. It sighed heavily and the smell intensified; breathing seemed laborious. Irrationally, I wanted to hug it.
I turned to P.S. “What . . . what . . ?”
“A catoblepas,” he said, scratching at his nose. “He won’t talk to me or tell me his name. Stupid fucking beast. Cunt!” The wombat ambled out of the bathroom and shouted, “What the shit did you do to this window?”
I sat down on the lid of the toilet and stared at the catoblepas. It emanated waves of sadness along with the stink. It sighed again and said, in a stentorian tone, “Please, close the door.”
I did so.
“What’s your name?” I said, hand over my nose and mouth.
“We don’t have names,” he said. “Only initials.”
“Like P.S. out there?”
“No,” he said, “not like that. His initials stand for something. Mine does not.”
“So what are your intials?”
“Why are you so sad?”
“Because I cannot lift my head. Were I to look you in the eyes, you would instantly drop dead, a cruel trick of fate. Catoblepasi are peaceful and compassionate, we wish no harm on anyone, and yet we are cursed to never lay eyes on a single living being lest we cause their death. Does that seem fair to you?”
“No,” I said. “It sounds horrible.”
“All I can do is look down to the ground, avert my eyes, stay out of the way. I have forgotten what the sky looks like. The whole of my vision consists of grasses and insects and rocks, and it fills me with ennui.”
He sighed again. I didn’t know what to say.
“Actually,” he said, “I lied just now. I do have a name.”
“What is it?”
“I thought that was the name of a Chinese soup with lots of ingredients. Shark fins, abalone, ginseng, sea cucumber, dried scallops, dried mushrooms, Chinese herbs, that kind of thing.”
“It is?” He sounded as if he might start weeping, heavy breaths hitching in his large chest. “I’m named after soup? Oh, when will the indignity end?” And at that, the sobs did come, heavy gut-wrenching sounds, like he just lost his entire family to the bumbling aggression of invading soldiers. I stood and exited the bathroom.
Parasch Zee had stuffed a blanket into the hole in the window; he had also replaced the living room furniture, but none of it was in the right location. The sofa was turned away from the television, toward me; on it sat both the wombat and the ocelot; Edie held a small tub of ice cream between her front paws and nuzzled at the mint chocolate chip inside. I sat down between them.
“What’s wrong with me?” I said.
P.S. snorted. “You want a list?” He jumped off the sofa and waddled back into the bathroom. Edie licked her jowls, placed the ice cream down on the floor, and followed the wombat in. I dipped my fingers into the cold cardboard tub, took a taste, ignoring the ocelot saliva. Not bad. When was the last time I’d eaten this?
I looked up, and the wombat and ocelot had helped the catoblepas out of the bathtub, supporting it under its front legs. It oozed tears onto the floor, leaving a slimy trail on the carpet. Had I a camera I would have taken a photo of the trio. Were they even really there? The air became heavy, syrup for my lungs.
“Sweetie-darling,” Edie said. “I’m afraid it’s time.”
I nodded my head. My tongue felt thick in my mouth, but I didn’t want to say anything anyway. From the corners of my vision on both sides, in crept: a duck-billed platypus, a blue antelope, a brown-and-white striped quagga, a pig-footed bandicoot, a golden lion tamarin, a Javan tiger, several long-tailed hopping mice, a sleek solenodon. A Madagascaran aye-aye crawled into view and pointed its long bony middle finger directly at me.
“Swift as a shadow,” I said. “Short as any dream.”
Edie and P.S. and all of the other strange animals in my living room, with some effort and lots of grunting, hefted D.’s heavy head in my direction. Mini Buddha jump over the wall. Its eyelids pink as its scales, sparkling, beautiful really. And the eyes themselves—
I lifted my mountainous head, neck muscles creaking and crackling from disuse. Turn it to the left and to the right, crack the vertebrae. The other animals let go, and my head stayed where it was, though the muscles in my neck and down along my spine quivered with the effort. I drew a deep cavernous breath. Exhale, and the room filled with the scent of plum blossoms and jasmine.
P.S. ambled into my vision and held my gaze. “Fuck me,” he said. An exclamation, not a command.
I closed my eyes quickly, afraid that the momentary look had killed the wombat, the foul-mouthed paranoid annoyance that had led me to salvation. Squeezed my eyelids so tight that it produced elegant spots and twirling amorphous shapes like pulsars dancing. I could hear the rustling of the animals around me, could smell their fear and their wonder, could hear racing heartbeats, could taste their insecurities and ambitions and need for companionship. The last of their kinds, excepting the ocelot and the wombat, and so lonely.
“Hey,” P.S. said. “It’s okay. Open ‘em.”
I did and he stood there, still alive, scratching his flank with his filthy claws.
“Was it a lie?” I said.
“Not exactly,” he said, and motioned to the couch. The human, still naked, was slumped down, eyes and mouth wide open, not breathing. His almost skeletal body completely hairless, and I shivered in sympathy, the motion starting at my shoulders and shivering the scales all the way down to my hoofs, a wave, a ripple that dislodged dust and depression and disease and desire from my body. He looked so small sitting there, a candy bar wrapper without its chocolate, and big slimy tears oozed from my eyes.
Edie licked the side of my head, her scratchy tongue a comfort. “Shhh, now. It was what he wanted. He was ready.”
“What about me? Will I be ready when the time comes?”
She sniffed the air. “It’s hard to say. If you prepare yourself, maybe. Maybe not. I’m not an authority on these things, you know.”
“So,” I said, clearing my throat, stretching my vocal cords, testing the deepness of my voice. “What now?”
“Up to you,” P.S. said, placing on a gentle hand on my shoulder. “It was always up to you.”
All the wonderfully weird animals around me, waiting patiently, sitting with stoic silence, my new family, of sorts. Where would we go? What would we do? What adventures could a mythical beast and his motley assortment of mammalian companions get up to? The answers, I realized, were limitless.
The wombat smiled and gave an encouraging slap to my back; I hadn’t known wombats could smile, and certainly not this one. “Lay on, monkey man,” he said. “We’re right behind you.”
Through the windows, the evening sky was a patchy purple, dotted with a range of small cumulonimbus clouds, like stepping stones across a velvet lake. How would the world look from up there, I wondered. What did humanity have to offer from such a lofty vantage point? I had been afraid of heights, before. But now— I was eager to find out. Easy as one two three.
I took a step.
I took another.