the water buffalo – by Shaun Tan

when I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot  at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed. He slept most of the time, and ignored everybody who walked past, unless we happened to stop and ask him for advice. Then he would come up to us slowly, raise his left hoof and literally point us in the right direction. But he never said what he was pointing at, or how far we had to go, or what we were supposed to do once we got there. In fact, he never said anything because water buffalos are like that; they hate talking.

This was too frustrating for most of us. By the time anyone thought to ‘consult the buffalo’, our problem was usually urgent and required a straightforward and immediate solution. Eventually we stopped visiting him altogether, and I think he went away some time after that: all we could see was long grass.

It’s a shame, really, because whenever we had followed his pointy hoof we’d always been surprised, relieved and delighted at what we found. And every time we’d said exactly the same thing – ‘How did he know?’

One of the stories in Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan.

I’m reluctant to unpeel this story at all, to interpret, but I should say a little about what I see in it. One thing I like about these tales, like most of the stories Shaun Tan has created, along with his amazing art work, is the presence of the alien, the other, the unnoticed, almost-invisible other. There is a wisdom in that water buffalo, but we don’t want it. In a sense it connects with The Three Princes of Serendip – all around there is information, insight, but we don’t see it.


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