The Chimera and the Saint

by William Han

When my wife and I heard news that the City Zoo had recently acquired a chimera, she said we should go see it.

I shrugged. I had been either indifferent or reluctant to her every proposal for the past six weeks, and now was no exception. “C’mon, it’ll be interesting. You do realized how rare chimeras are?” Sourly I acknowledged their rarity. “Honey, what’s with you? You’ve been in this melancholic funk for weeks. What’s eating you? All right, all right, I won’t pry if you don’t want to talk about it. But look, come see the chimera with me. If not something pleasant, at least it’ll be something different. It might even cheer you up.” I wanted to say that I didn’t wish to be cheered up, but instead I acquiesced. Whether we went or not didn’t particularly matter either way, I thought with mere inertia. And in that it was just like everything else.

But once I agreed to go I remembered that passage by the medieval Chinese poet Han Yu: “It is universally admitted that the unicorn is a supernatural being and one of good omen; this is declared in the odes, in the annals, in the biographies of illustrious men, and in other texts of unquestioned authority. Even the women and children of the populace know that the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this animal is not one of the domestic animals, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification. It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. And therefore we could be in the presence of the unicorn and we would not know for certain that it was one. We know that a certain animal with a mane is a horse, and that with horns is a bull. We do not know what a unicorn is like.”

I had encountered the same passage years ago by way of Borges, who had quoted it in one of his essays, in which he posited Han Yu as one of Kafka’s precursors. Except when I looked up the original Chinese I decided that the translator of Borges’s copy had misinterpreted the Chinese character 麟 as “unicorn,” leading to the curious assertion that a unicorn was “not like a horse.” Even women and children of the populace know that a unicorn is a lot like a horse. No, I decided, 麟 is more properly translated as “chimera,” even though it has long been conflated with the Western unicorn, and even though it is admittedly difficult to match mythological creatures from different cultures. In any case, this was why I remembered the passage when I told my wife that I would go to the zoo with her.

That same night I looked up the original passage again and discovered that Han Yu had said a bit more about the chimera than Borges decided to quote. The chimera always accompanies a saint, Han Yu wrote, so that “whenever you see a chimera you can be sure that a saint is also nearby.” This thought excited me more than I cared to admit, and I spent the night tossing and turning next to my wife, who slept soundly.

The following day we went to the City Zoo. The chimera, being rare and also a new addition, was the star attraction, even more so than the panda. We had to line up and wait in the sun for what seemed like the better part of the afternoon before we were let into the viewing area. We filed in awkwardly, pressed against the heavyset Russian woman in front of us and harassed by the noisy high school field trip behind us. But when the chimera came into view, even the rowdiest school boy hushed. It was a beautiful animal and majestic, quite literally unlike anything I had ever seen before — unlike the bull, or the horse, or the wolf, or anything else. And yet there was not a sliver of doubt in my mind that this was, in fact, a chimera. A spontaneous conviction seemed to arise within me, from the viscera and subtle as vapor, so that I could recognize even that which was strange and previously unknown. I could tell that all around me everyone felt the same way. Slowly the chimera strolled around its enclosure, parading its monstrous amalgam of a body. But it did so with an aristocratic nonchalance, as though merely indulging our prurient interest. When it looked straight at me, its eyes of infinite depth gave me vertigo.

But then a zookeeper interrupted our silent communion with the mythical beast. “All right, folks, you gotta move it along now so other folks can see it too.” With that the magic was broken; the big-boned woman snorted disapprovingly and muttered something nasal and Slavic. Adolescent chatter started behind us again. Eventually people began shuffling slowly towards the exit. Suddenly I remembered what I had hoped to see. Panic-stricken, I began scanning the faces of everyone around me in search of holiness. But I found none. Soon my wife and I were straggling behind the pack, and the zookeeper told us again that we had to move on.

“But sir,” I pleaded. “You don’t understand. If there’s a chimera here, then there must also be a saint nearby. And I have to find this saint. Can’t you just let me stand in the corner so I can see who comes and goes? Please, it’s important.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “But I don’t need to. A lot of folks have come through here since we shipped in the chimera, and a lot of them have asked to stay longer, stay all day even. Although you’re the first one to say something about a saint. In any case — no can do; rules are rules. But look, if it’s a person you’re looking for, why don’t you just wait right outside the exit, and maybe you’ll spot him on his way out. I promise you I make sure everyone who comes in here leaves through that door. There’s no other exit except the way you came in, and we don’t let anyone go back that way.”

So that was what I did. I waited on the other side of that threshold muddy with the soles of a thousand pairs of shoes and examined every person who came through. The sun leaned west, and the day grew chilly. With time the crowd thinned to a trickle, until eventually it was time the zoo closed. The zookeeper came out through the door whence the saint was supposed to come and threw up his hands. “Sorry, my man, that’s it for the day. We’re closing, and there’ll be no more people coming through. I suppose you can come back tomorrow, but honestly I doubt whoever you’re waiting for is coming.”

I sank into a deep depression, feeling even worse than before my wife suggested that we go to see the chimera. “Cheer up, darling,” she said as we headed home. It was sweet of her to try to console me.

“But where was the saint? There was supposed to be a saint. It is written — wherever the chimera appears, a saint must be nearby.”

“Maybe Han Yu was wrong. Maybe he was lying. Or maybe ‘unicorn’ is the better translation after all — didn’t you tell me there was a confusion in the translation? — and we’ve simply been waiting by the wrong animal.”

“I thought you were trying to cheer me up.”

“All right, well maybe the saint was there but left before we arrived. Or maybe you actually saw him but couldn’t recognize him. I mean, isn’t it possible that saintliness is not supposed to be seen? It seems to me not only possible but actually quite likely. Surely you weren’t expecting to see a halo over someone’s head. Maybe it was one of those annoying teenagers, or maybe the saint was a she and she was the big Russian woman in front of us. Maybe the zookeeper was the saint — he seemed pretty nice. Or — fantastical as this thought is — maybe you’re the saint, and you should have been looking into a mirror.”

She fell silent, and I said nothing either for a moment. She took my hand, and I squeezed it. “Or maybe you’re the saint,” I said. She gave me a kiss.

The chimera is still there in the City Zoo, if less of a novelty now than when it first arrived. Naturally I haven’t been waiting outside the viewing area all this time. But once in a blue moon I go down there just to catch another glimpse of it, as though reassuring myself of its existence, or the existence of something else, something strange and indescribable so that even in its presence I may not recognize it for what it is.


William Han works as a lawyer in New York City and previously wrote for Time Magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore. His fiction has appeared in Eclectica, and his story, "The Island," appeared in Issue #34 of The Cafe Irreal.