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The Capybara

It’s hot. Not South America hot because you are not in South America, but still, over 24 degrees is hot for North Wales and people are dressed accordingly, in shorts they shouldn’t be wearing with figures like that, strapless tops held up by rolls of sun scorched fat. There’s a man with no shirt on leaning over the wooden railing, flicking the electric fence right next to the sign that says ‘do not touch: electric fence’. He’s joking with his friends, girlfriend or whatever, and you hope he gets a shock, hope his finger fries and he cries and leaves you in peace, leaves the park. You are wearing jeans and a t-shirt. The lack of deodorant you forgot to spray with this morning because you weren’t intending or expecting to be in public means you already smell. But you are sitting down, not crammed on a train with your arms raised to hang like a monkey from the nylon straps, so no one will notice. You are in partial shade, legs crossed and work shoes getting scuffed. You shouldn’t be wearing them on a Saturday, but then no one told you this morning you’d spend the afternoon at the water gardens watching a capybara you didn’t know was kept here slowly masticate its way through a branch of sycamore leaves in the sun. Somewhere your wife and child are wandering about, giving you space, leaving you to sit and watch, to spend some sacred time with an animal that doesn’t recognise your existence, or if it does, isn’t changed by that recognition. And that’s kind of the point. The shirtless man has discovered that the fence is not switched on, is now walking away, pointing to a fancy hen with thick white speckled feathers around its legs that remind you of old fashioned bloomers on a fat girl. ‘Look at that chicken Trace’ he’s saying, and you want to tell them it’s not a chicken, it’s a hen. A chicken is an animal kept solely for meat production, usually in a big factory, caged and squashed and fattened quickly for profit. It’s a hen. An egg laying, free range hen. A fancy hen. And probably not very fat or meaty beneath the decorative feathers. But back to the capybara. He is just chewing. Hasn’t blinked at the sight of a half naked man, is staring into the middle distance with Mayan eyes that seem to be outlined in ancient charcoal. You watch it chew and feel the rhythm in your core, the tenderness of each torn leaf and steady pace of jaw on jaw. The sun is the same as the one that shines on this creature’s wild relatives, and you imagine them dodging crocodiles in the shallows, too stupid to get out of the last dregs of water in the droughts that turn the water into thick concrete mud. Mummified. The sun is burning your bald head and you hold both hands over it, make a hat of intertwined fingers as more people come to stare and discuss the capybara.

‘Look at that funny pig’ you hear someone say, her arms like slabs of raw meat above a floral playsuit. ‘Is it a pig or a bear?’ She has melting make up and a melting ice cream. She asks again what it is, this dark beige shape with scant, coarse hair and no tail. It has webbed feet, tiny round ears and an arched face topped by a scent gland it can use to rub its oily secretions onto the trees and posts of its enclosure. You try and see it from their point of view, to imagine never having heard of a capybara before, never having seen a picture or watched a documentary. They are not rare, but hardly native to this area. But it’s clearly not a pig. And if they could read they would see a sign describing the semi-aquatic mammal as a rodent, the largest in the world. You see it sit and close its eyes in bliss or ignorance as the woman with raw meat arms tries taking a photo of it with her phone. The capybara doesn’t know she is taking a photo, and so doesn’t care. The woman is cursing her phone, ‘it’s useless’ she says, ‘the camera is rubbish’. You want to contradict her. There is more technology in that phone than was used in the first space mission. If all else fails it could still have uses, be a paper weight, a missile of defence. It’s not useless, it’s just pointless. There is no need to record this moment, only live it. The capybara knows this and isn’t aware of it. You watch it stand, its own weight a steady fact on its equally feasible legs. It walks through shade and light as if they are the same temperature, steps into the water and becomes its other self without knowing, nose closed, ears flat, an agile shadow in the dark pool, creating swirls of silt in its wake. A small boy likens it to racing car. You can see it is still a capybara, just the other kind of capybara it can be. You don’t move to try and video its movements, you don’t need to. The fact it is moving is fact enough. It’s no more necessary to digitally archive this moment of capyness as it would be to film it sleeping, or walking, or shitting, or breathing. It is just being a capybara. When its face half emerges from the brown water and its ears open for the important sound of birdsong and the pointless sound of people you consider smiling, consider that it might be looking at you and sharing a moment of knowledge, of timelessness and philosophy that no one else here understands, but you smile instead knowing that it isn’t, that you are no more than another shape in its periphery that will not be here tomorrow, and that is more important right now. Knowing you don’t matter. It doesn’t get any better than this. The heat and long grass and the smell of fetid, sun heated water, and the moments of noisy silence when the other people have walked away and its only that rowdy cockerel somewhere in the hedge behind you getting the time wrong, and the distant drone of cars means people you don’t know are going places you don’t care about and you are here. You are here and watching the capybara step out of the water, watching gravity claim its agility and return it to the steady bumble of its land self as it walks back around the tree and sits back on its half bald rump in a position you’ve seen a hundred times on Google image searches. It steams gently in the warmth, it can feel the heat but doesn’t need to understand it. Somewhere your wife and child are negotiating ice creams, overpriced toys from the gift shop, the price of a bag of duck food versus the chance of the over-fed ducks needing food at this time of day after so many visitors throwing seeds at their feet. The capybara blinks. You blink. Nothing else is important. Nothing is important.

Philippa Holloway has previously been published in Bukker Tillibul and has given a number of creative and critical papers at writing conferences over the years. She is currently teaching Creative Writing part time and trying to write the rest of the time.