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Tales from Outer Suburbiaby Shaun Tan
If they are standing in the middle of the street, its easy enough to drive around them, as you would a piece of cardboard or a dead cat. Turning your sprinklers on will discourage them from hanging around the front of your house; loud music and smoke from barbecues will also keep them away. They are not a problem, just another part of the suburban landscape, their brittle legs moving as slowly as clouds. They have always been here, since before anyone remembers, since before the bush was cleared and all the houses were built.
Adults pay them little attention. Young children sometimes dress them in old clothes and hats as if they were dolls or scarecrows, and are always scolded by parents, whose reasons are unclear. ‘Just dont, they say sternly.
Some older boys take great delight in beating them with baseball bats, golf clubs, or whatever is at hand, including the victims own snapped-off limbs. With careful aim a good strike will send the head — a faceless clod of earth — flying high into the air. The body remains passively upright until smashed to splinters between heels and asphalt.
This can go on for hours, depending on how many the boys can find. But eventually it stops being amusing. It becomes boring, somehow enraging, the way they just stand there and take it. What are they? Why are they here? What do they want? Whack! Whack! Whack!
The only response is the sound of dead branches falling from old trees on windless evenings, and random holes appearing in front lawns, dark sockets where clods of earth have been removed during the night. And sure enough there they are again, standing by fences and driveways, in alleyways and parks, silent sentinels.
Are they here for a reason? Its impossible to know, but if you stop and stare at them for a long time, you can imagine that they too might be searching for answers, for some kind of meaning. Its as if they take all our questions and offer them straight back: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?
The Nameless holiday
The nameless holiday happens once a year, usually around late August, sometimes October. It is always anticipated by children and adults alike with mixed emotion: its not exactly festive, but still a celebration of sorts, the origin of which has been long forgotten.
All that is known are the familiar rituals: the laying out of ones most prized possessions on the bedroom floor; then choosing one special object — exactly the right one — and carrying it carefully up a ladder to the roof and leaving it under the TV aerial (already decorated with small shiny things such as chocolate wrappers, old CDs, and the tops off tubs of yoghurt, licked clean and threaded with string, tied with special slip-knots).
Then there is the traditional midnight picnic in the backyard, front lawn, or any place with a good view of ones own roof — across the street if necessary, which is why families sometimes gather by the roadside on blankets. Here are born fond memories of freshly baked gingerbread crows, hot pomegranate juice as tart as a knife and small plastic whistles, inaudible to the ears of both humans and dogs. Not to mention all that excited chatter and giggling, all that polite shushing, everyone struggling to observe the convention of silence.
Those who stay awake long enough are rewarded by a momentary sound that never fails to draw a sharp intake of breath — the delicate tapping of hoofs descending on roof tiles. It is always so startling, so hard to believe at first, like a waking dream or a rumour made solid. But sure enough, there he is, the reindeer with no name: enormous, blind as a bat, sniffing under the TV aerial with infinite animal patience. He always knows exactly which objects are so loved that their loss will be felt like the snapping of a cord to the heart, and its only these that he nudges tenderly until they become hooked onto his great antlers. The rest he leaves alone, leaping gracefully back up into the cool darkness.
What a remarkable, unnameable feeling it is, right at the moment of his leaping: something like sadness and regret, of suddenly wanting your gift back and held tight to your chest, knowing that you will certainly never see it again. And then there is the letting go as your muscles release, your lungs exhale, and the backwash of longing leaves behind this one image on the shore of memory: a huge reindeer on your roof, bowing down.
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