Night the Animals Talk, The

Chin and Liang’s family owned a pet shop near Bailey’s Crossroads in Virginia, which they’d opened only two years after first coming to America. The children helped out in the store after school, and were friendly with all the animals. It was a pet store just for small animals, not dogs and cats, who were too numerous already at the animal shelters. The store made money, although never enough to just throw it around, so the family celebrated Christmas very modestly, with just a few presents and mostly going to their church. There were so many new people from so many countries living in Virginia at this time, that some churches would have three services for Christmas, each one in a different language. Chin and Liang spoke good English that they’d learned at school, and their parents, who had no time to go to language classes, practiced with cassette tapes of English at the store, where they kept a small tape recorder next to the cash register.

Now Christmas Eve approached, and the pet shop was very busy with people purchasing pets – and gifts for pets. One customer joked with Chin, who was helping at the cash register. “You know the legend that the animals all can talk Christmas Eve,” he said. “Must get pretty noisy around here!”

Chin had never heard this legend before. “We must stay up to hear them!” she said to Liang. The two children went to their father and asked to stay in the store overnight. Since the family lived in an apartment one floor above the store, it wasn’t so far away from their parents. Their father agreed, but he was doubtful.

“I have been in the store late on Christmas eve, keeping the accounts,” he said, “and I have never heard the animals speak, in English or Chinese.”

Liang had an idea. “Give me a new cassette,” he said, “and I will tape the animals talking, if they do, so that we’ll have proof.”

“And we can use it as a science fair project in the spring,” said Chin, “where I think it would win a prize, if we can prove that the animals talk.”

The parents liked to indulge these children, who worked so hard much of the time, so they got the children a new cassette for the tape recorder which they kept in the store to practice their English. Later Christmas eve, after they’d had their baths and read a story together and been hugged goodnight, Chin and Liang cuddled up in their sleeping bags and extra blankets and pillows next to the main counter, just across from the parakeet and canary cages, tape recorder ready, and waited for midnight.

All the animals could have waited until midnight except the fish in the aquariums. Around 11:30, Chin and Liang heard a bubbling and bumping and squeaking, as the angelfish and catfish and goldfish all began chatting. Once the fish were started, the others took it as their cue, and immediately two canaries started a debate, continued from the Christmas before, as to who was the best singer for the animals’ Christmas carols. They kept breaking off into song to demonstrate a bit of virtuoso technique, but when they were talking, Chin and Liang found that they could understand every word. And they placed the tape recorder, which had a built-in microphone, as close to the bird cages as possible.

The parakeets began practicing for a Christmas prayer, with a great deal of head bobbing and fluttering around the cage. “I shall lead,” cried out a bright blue one in a perfectly clear voice. “I shall start, and the rest of you come in at my signal,” and he sat purposefully in the middle of his seed dish, scattering seeds everywhere, in order to get the others’ attention.

At midnight, all the animals held a Christmas eve service in the pet shop, quite noisily, and afterward they all talked long into the night to catch up on conversations from a long year before. Not everyone was friendly – two fighting fish, kept in separate bowls next to each other, spent the whole night trading insults, swimming endlessly in circles and flashing their tails at each other. And the gerbils, at the end of the store, were terrible gossips and told all kinds of scandalous stories from the year that had passed, until the mice hid their heads under the wood shavings in embarrassment. Chin and Liang caught most of the gerbils’ stories on tape, until they were interrupted by the eldest gray rabbit, a permanent resident at the pet shop, who had once belonged to an elementary school and was well educated.

The rabbit recited poetry into the tape recorder well into the early hours of the morning, until Chin and Liang sat dozing on the floor, heads resting against the cages, the tape recorder having long before shut itself off, where their parents woke them Christmas morning.

“It is true, it is true,” cried Chin, and Liang busily rewound the tape recorder.

“We have scientific proof,” he said, “Just listen.”

But when he played it back, the canaries were just singing canary songs, with no language that he could understand – although he knew he had understood their argument the night before. And the Christmas eve service was very noisy, with all the animals squawking and singing and talking at once – but none with anything that sounded like human language, even though Chin and Liang had understood every word the night before, as clearly as from their teacher in the classroom. Even the rabbit’s poetry, at the end of the tape, had become merely the softest of squeaks, although they were squeaked in perfect iambic pentameter. Chin and Liang had tears of disappointment in their eyes. “It did happen,” said Liang.

“Something happened,” said their father. “I have never heard such an uproar in the shop.”

“Perhaps,” said their mother, “the customer was wrong, which does occasionally happen, and he had the legend backwards. Perhaps the animals can always talk, but only on Christmas eve can we humans understand what the animals say. And so your tape cannot be understood as speech today, for now the sun has risen, and it is Christmas day, and the miracle time for listening is over.” The father kept the tape, and would play it sometimes for special customers, as a curiosity. And once a week Chin came down to the shop, before bedtime, and read to the eldest rabbit from books of poetry which she brought home from school.

Copyright 1996 Teleweb Tools & Toys