At nightfall we lit a lantern to begin our search. We do better with lanterns; they give a quieter, gentler light; I am convinced that the filament of a flashlight makes a sound. (Not much of a sound, mind you, but there are creatures out there that can hear it.) We were in particularly fertile territory now, the wild thickets below the bog. Still, I had my doubts about this; we seldom hunt as a family and we were making altogether too much noise. The ground was dry; nevertheless, within a week of a rain can be a dangerous time to hunt. My son and daughter were carrying the torches as well as a broom and shovel. My wife was staying close to me in the circle of light from the lantern. The dog was making most of the racket, pulling the cart behind us with the washtubs. I felt a foreboding and misgiving about all of it. I listened to the cicadas, to the frogs, to the resin in the crackling flames. The children had gotten somewhat ahead of us and I found myself watching the interesting shadows they cast. My daughter, especially, likes to carry a torch. “You like carrying a torch!” I said to her when we caught up again. But she is at a sullen age and I received (and expected) no reply. Whether she understands me or not, I could not say.
In addition to the lantern, I had my Luger and the newly modified prong, on which I have welded a sharpened, vee-shaped block so it won’t slide so much on the vertebrae. The pockets of my jacket were stuffed with the egg cases of some Stelacens, the tense embryos nestled like pearls in the leathery pouches. I shelled a few of them out with my thumb as I walked. They are good to snack on: slick, vaguely iridescent, mainly skull but soft. Eaten alive they are almost gummy; floated in cream they remind one of blueberries; but best of all is the way I had prepared them tonight: toasted slightly, with butter and salt, the skin dried close to the bone1 and giving a nut-like flavor.
I looked up at the new moon, the narrow rim as fragile as ice in the night sky. Inauspicious, it seemed to me. This was not a good time to be moving about; the air itself seemed to be holding out on us. I thought of those millennia past when the planet was lonely and the bulk of life was large, of the incredible saurians rumbling through this landscape, huddled against the emptiness and stars. It was an agony then, perfectly terrifying to be alive. Years ago, I used to tell my students:
“When you think of a Tyrannosaurus rex, gentlemen, nineteen feet tall and eight tons in weight. Think bluff, gentlemen! Think bluff!”
My son had stopped now and raised his hand for silence. “Bring the lantern, Frank,” he said. (My children call me Frank.) He had found the first one. Then I saw it, too, at ground level, the silver-red discs of its eyes reflecting.
What a night! We caught three washtubs full and afterward had to hurry home to put the corrugated covers on top of them. As the creatures around here warm up, they become more active and begin to gnaw and scratch at one another. In fact, we had hardly finished putting the covers in place when I began to hear their skins scraping against the galvanized zinc of the tubs.
Soon afterward, there was an intermittent fierce whacking (Whack! Whack! Whack!) from the third tub which left dents and protuberances in the metal that were sobering to look at. There is a slope behind the cabin and this particular tub suddenly began to nudge and slide down it. The animals seemed to be boiling inside. There was a great banging and rattling of the handles and I saw a couple of the smaller creatures slither out from under the corrugations of the tin. I shot twice with my Luger but missed both of them and watched their tails bumping out of the circle of light.
Then I tied the tub to a stake.
We have appetites, this family, but cook as fast as we could, we were four days getting to the third tub. I then found that we had made a terrible mistake. There was only
one creature left inside, his body swollen like a tick, his skin so tight it seemed about to change color. He had evidently eaten every other animal. There was not one bone left, not one scrap of skin. He lifted his head toward us and opened his mouth wide. He had no shell but the way he maneuvered his body in rotation reminded me of a turtle.
I stuck the gig in and nudged him experimentally. He snapped the head of it clean off. (It was the old-style gig with the wooden handle.) Is this the whacker, I thought, or is this what ate the whacker?
I looked deep into his bloodshot and obdurate eyes. “Careful,” I said.
The real tragedy was that we had not gotten a better look at the other animals inside. The wife took my place and kept the whacker distracted while I slipped around behind him. He moved forward slowly and pressed his claws against the metal. Then I managed to get him though the neck with the prong. I drove his throat against the wall of the tub and bent his head backwards over his spine. The pressure I was exerting began to smear his pig-like nose and awful wedge of a mouth. Then he twisted and began to buck on me. The wife stabilized him with another gig in the left leg while little-Frank ran to get the mallet. Meanwhile, I drove the prong steadily into his spinal column, the sweat plastering my shirt, my left arm beginning to spasm from the strain. Suddenly, the stake pulled loose and the tub began to slide on the smooth dirt. My great fear was that this guy might be able to jerk loose and flip out onto the ground. His huge mouth was open now and I could see his long recursive teeth and the glass-like ridge of his jaw.
“You’re about to slip, Frank!” my son said.
He was right. Fortunately, this new prong won’t slide. As I drove the final blows through the cord, the whacker’s neck folded like a thick towel and he made a series of convulsive movements with his limbs. He seemed to smile at me upside down. It was perfectly obscene, this smile, more of a smirk I should say; it reminded me not so much of one of your standard animals, as one of those fat, triangular-headed kids that one sometimes sees in drugstores.
In hopes that he might have swallowed a few of the smaller creatures whole, we cut him open on the spot and turned his stomach inside out. But there was nothing identifiable inside, not a paw.
It was malicious the extent of this mastication.
We made haste to cook him immediately. Indeed, his eyes had scarcely glazed over when we began our prayers. Unfortunately, in our rush, we grabbed too small a pan and his legs, which overrode the rim, were charred rather badly in the flames.
Not bad, it was, this meat; and, despite some fibers, not really so tough either, a bit like pangolin or anteater. Unfortunately, my children are sloppy and stingy eaters. During the prayer itself my daughter grabbed all the claws.
“She got them last time!” little-Frank yelled. But before we could stop her, my daughter had put two of them in her mouth and was crunching them, bones and all. The others we could not pry out of her fingers. My wife said nothing but smiled with the corners of her eyes.
(It seems my daughter cannot get heavy enough to suit my wife.)
The problem with this “whacker”-a Rhynochelon, I ended up calling him-was that there was nothing appropriate to go with such a lean and fibrous meat. In addition, there wasn’t nearly as much to him as one might have expected from the circumstances. At the end of the meal, none of us were truly full. What would have been nice would have been a skewer of scalatoids but I kept very quiet about that.
I watched as my daughter put her fork down and began looking at me from across the table. My wife and little-Frank soon did the same.
“How about a platter of gills?!” I said, getting up and taking my dishes to the sink. (Scalatoids, their eyes were saying and I didn’t want to go through it again.)
My decision about the scalatoid matter is final, as far as I’m concerned-but the story, perhaps, bears repeating:
Scalatoids2, though filling, are not really large. They are of a size with or perhaps slightly smaller than hedgehogs. Their appearance is considerably different, though. Looked at ventrally, they are very like platygasters (or platygasts as we call them, a very common little creature hereabouts) but the stomach is not nearly so flat and they are not as good for sautéing. I had given up cooking scalatoids years ago; there was far too much fat in the things which I found impossible to render out. But working secretly, and entirely on her own, my daughter discovered a way to prepare them. What she accomplished was a good deal more than a culinary miracle; it seemed to defy all reason. One afternoon, she allowed us to watch her at work. Even afterward, though, the mystery remained; there was no essential difference in her technique or spices. The difference in flavor was amazing.
(From the taste alone, I would have said it was a different animal.)
It took me some time to find out what she was doing. Scalatoids, you must understand, are nearly tongueless and incapable of making a noise. She was throwing them in a tub of water and letting them churn there for a week. They are by no means good swimmers, scalatoids; it was sheer desperation that was keeping them afloat. Hour after hour, day after day, they treaded in that water, silent, frantic, indomitable, constantly attempting to climb up on one another. I was in my daughter’s room, one afternoon, looking for my razor, when I made the discovery of five of them in a washtub at the foot of her bed.
I hope never again in my life to see the like of what was in their eyes. It would be impossible to overestimate their fear of water and drowning. Scalatoids are vaguely globular creatures, full of surface and other tensions; and, forever after this, they seemed to me to be the embodiment of pure will.
(This, of course, was her way of burning up the excess fat.)
I put a stop to it immediately. Still, I must confess, I rather miss the things. There is no doubt about it: the struggle improved the flavor.
When we first moved to this area, it took me some time to realize that this is no ordinary place. Animals can be killed here but nothing dies naturally. It is a very special locus built on a confluence of singularities. The electric atmosphere plays subtle tricks of energy. On an otherwise bright day a bolt of lightning can condense itself out of the air. One can feel the static even in the soil itself, which has special properties. Part of the area may have been an island at one time, despite the largely sedimentary rock. There are signs, too, of a previous habitation (some fruit trees, for instance, not local to the area).
What is incredible is the extent the soil is layered and honeycombed with dormant animals. Having started from a slightly different angle, they have begun estivating through the millennia and running, somehow, parallel to death. They are tangled in places, clumped, like earthworms. In heavy storms they sometimes wash out of themselves. Fortunately, precious few of them are terribly large. The thought, though, of how they are layered here gravely bothers our occasional guests. My wife and I invariably hear them whisper to one another far into the night.
On first arrival, I paid little attention to the animals. I was so sick of academia, dazed and overrun that I did not want to expend any energy thinking. I ignored all implications and ate whatever was handy. I had worked too long and hard in a single line and it was as though I had wakened in the midst of a dream. Furthermore, much about these creatures was unfamiliar to me. Evidently there are evolutionary lines tangled here which did not proceed. I think there was a level at which I did not take them seriously; I expected them to fade, tooth and claw, at sunrise.
That was years ago. Now, I am fascinated once more. I have returned to my books and manuals and vowed never again to eat anything without a name.
Such persistent and single-minded endeavor is not without its dangers, however. One evening, not long ago, based on no more than intuition and a low mound, little-Frank and I discovered a large animal in the bog below the lake. We dug it out together. We were rather pleased with ourselves and each grabbed two of its legs in order to carry it back. Little-Frank, I persist in calling him, though at this point he is taller than I am. (In fact, the whole way home he complained that he had most of the weight.)
I was anxious to flip it over to see what was going on with its reproductive system; but by the time we got to the basement we were both too exhausted.
(It had three eyes and I knew it had to be a rather early specimen.)
Our basement gets very cold at night and I figured it would be safe there till morning. I couldn’t begin to decide what to call it. This was the first one I’d ever caught and, in my ignorance of its strength, I looped a chain around its neck of scarcely more than half-inch links. When I went upstairs, the wife was already in bed. The windows were shut and the lamps were lit. We augment our illumination with kerosene lamps. In fact, we keep one lit at the foot of the bed at all times. Our electricity is not reliable and I feel it is best to have a bit of light instantly available, being as what we are surrounded by out here. “Honey…” I said, but lost my train of thought.
I began wiping my feet together over the side of the bed. I couldn’t get the thing out of my mind; it seemed to have scales; it definitely had claws; I was not altogether happy about it. The lamp on the nightstand had just been extinguished and there was a pale glow of red from the wick.
“It might not be a reptile,” I said.
At three in the morning, I woke up. It sounded like there was something in the basement swacking around with a four-by-four. I got out of bed immediately. But my son was already in the room. He turned up the lamp till it smoked. The light was swinging, the whole cabin shuddering at each blow.
“Frank, it’s loose!” he said.
(I began fumbling around on the night table for my glasses.)
“It’s loose, Frank!”
I slipped on boots, got my Luger out of the closet, grabbed the prong and the gig and went out the back way, tripping on the stairs. I ran around to have a look in through a basement window.
I have a workshop at one end. The creature had dragged through the tools for that, tangled himself in the cables for the arc welder and begun chewing on the vise. A piece of the chain was still attached to his neck. I got around to the closest window, broke out the pane, and, using the flashlight, began firing down through all the orbital foramina. The dog was barking hysterically. I reloaded the Luger five times and emptied the entire last clip down its throat.
Then I stopped and waited.
My daughter stood by, watching.
It took two full days for all motion to cease; the meat, when cut up, would not lie flat or lose its muscle tone. Even after being cooked, it seemed to positively creep on the plate. Never have I so underestimated a metabolism.
We got a total of seven pounds of thyroid tissue out of the thing, most of which, admittedly, may not have been active. The entire gland was goitrous and cystic and took a lot of chewing to get through.
“Always room in this world for surprises!” I said, somewhat lamely, when it was over, though nothing truly big is ever getting inside this house again in one piece.
The experience was terrifying, though the animal itself was, on the whole, rather straightforward. Not like everything we find here. Consider the one I discovered some years ago while planting the fig tree: He was about a yard long, completely legless, with a distinctly submarine-like shape and something of a beaver-like tail (the tail turned vertically, though). He had two close-set eyes and a single upturned nostril.
(The nostril, in fact, was the part of him I came upon first.)
The problem was that there was no way he could be placed on the ground that he would either balance or sit level. I kept playing with his cold body in the cold sand but he kept tilting or rolling over on me. Finally, I became frustrated and tossed him, end-over-end (he was as stiff as a log) into the lake. I thought no more about him. But, two years later, I found what was evidently the same guy, very much alive, placidly sculling around in the backwaters, keeping that single nostril above the surface of the water.
“Blah!” I said, suddenly very disappointed in myself.
(I felt then, as I do now, that his aquatic nature should have been obvious.)
The truth is, were that lake drained, that creature would not be the most interesting thing in it. My feeling is that the denizens of its depths must scarcely eat anymore. It contains a virtual stew of life-forms which have been coasting through that liquor for millennia. Such a collection is marvelously edifying, of course, though truthfully, what one has here, as in all evolution, is variety more than improvement.
(I have eaten plenty of the modem animals and they simply don’t taste any better.)
Occasionally, I go fishing in the lake, most often with the wife or little-Frank, though at the last outing it was my daughter that wanted to accompany me. We keep a small steam launch at the end of the dock. My daughter insisted on riding in the very back of it and adorned herself, perfectly inappropriately, in a flowing dress and a straw hat with purple ribbons. (So that’s it, I thought, she wants to wear her new hat.) It took her some time to arrange her body on the cushions in the stem. We went chugging out slowly, with my doing all the stoking of coal and adjusting of valves. I locked the tiller and busied myself screwing down grease cups, the vapor and smoke settling around us on the black water. There was a disquieting calm within the lake and in the huge trees that overhung it. Every time I looked back at her, I found my daughter watching me, those purple ribbons trailing behind.
(Some of her proclivities I worry about.)
We-or rather I-fished all day but caught nothing interesting: a dozen catfish, a few trout, and a small amphibian which resembled a hellbender. While chugging back, the pump to the condenser broke which put us another forty-five minutes behind. It was nearly sunset when we got home. It was then that I found we had only one fish in our tank. I was furious considering the total effort expended and demanded to know what had happened to the rest of them. Surprisingly enough, my daughter did not hesitate to say:
She had been poking their eyes out with her hat pin and releasing them into the water.
We walked to the cabin with a dreadful silence between us. I didn’t know what to say. The worrisome thing about my daughter is that she will do anything she thinks of. This is a trait she gets from her mother, who, when she is in a bad mood, has been known to clean an animal alive. Our pathetic catch-one short and rather fat catfish-I carried in myself, holding it by the tail. I was disgusted and didn’t even bother to kill or clean it. My wife has a tin-lined copper pot which holds eight gallons. When placed on the stove (which is where I put it) the pot appears huge and overlaps two burners. I filled the bottom of it with water and watched my fish swim in circles inside. I sliced some wedges of lemon (two of which it gobbled whole). Then it began to nibble at a third. Afterward, the fish seemed to notice some shadow of itself reflected in the bright tin and thereupon began to make what seemed to be threatening, territorial gestures toward it.
“Blah!” I said, slicing another lemon. “The fruit of our labors!”
The fish circled and returned to its illusory companion. I watched it more carefully. The movements began again. Perhaps they were not territorial at all; perhaps they were gestures of courtship.
“Who knows?” I said, lighting both of the burners.
The anger and fire in the eyes of animals is not unrelated to the motion of the body. If one holds them perfectly still, there is a vulnerability which appears in the pupils that one can look deeply into. We found this out largely by accident thanks to a method we sometimes use to marinade creatures while they are still alive. (We bind them with ropes to wooden boards and platters.) Even in the most vicious the look will be there. In the mammals it is very obvious; in others, it can be obscured by a surface glitter. I have come to think of the pupil as a two-way mirror, a dark portal both reflecting and opaque. I know not what the brain behind it makes of us, but always before I make ready the pots and sever the cord, I bow down at the point of focus and offer myself as if to a god.
The endless dying with so little visible birth contributes to the melancholy atmosphere in this place. We have cold and snow, heat and rain; but no winter or spring, no face to the seasons here. Far more than the times are out of joint; there seems to be some fundamental dislocation to life itself. I find myself wondering on occasion, “Why isn’t there any central trunk anymore? Why is everything out on a limb?” Sometimes in my despair, I will turn to the invertebrates, gaze at a cluster of eyes on stalks and ask: “Where did we go wrong?”
In our den I have started a museum of sorts of a taxidermic nature. I spend much time in the basement, too, rubbing arsenic into skins. In order that nothing go unappreciated, I have been working on a book with some recipes. My wife thinks this an egregious waste of time. However, it was thanks to this particular endeavor that I discovered the possibilities of the thip-lo.
“Gentlemen!” I used to tell my students. “Never underestimate the principles involved! Most of life has nothing to do with living!”
(Cooking is but chemistry, after all. Here is what I found.)
The thip-lo3 is quite a local animal, dull grey, and reminiscent of a tadpole. It is limited to four ponds nearby which are scarcely larger than mud puddles. Thiploes are naturally sluggish but when placed in fingerbowls of wine they begin to move faster and afterward become very active in the light. The alcohol doesn’t seem to harm them; they swim in loops, it is true, but the motion itself is colorful in its way. They dress up a table, like parsley. As individuals, they are curious-looking, with a single median eye, lidless, in the pineal area, though there are also vestigial rudiments of other eyes, appearing like tiny warts in front. (Thus there is a sort of pseudo-face on their anterior aspect.) The mouth is very ventral so that, like skates and rays, they can’t really see what they are eating. They are toothless but this is perhaps a degenerate state as they seem to have well-developed little gums. Though very limited in their habitat, they nevertheless reproduce surprisingly rapidly. (Indeed, they always seem to be interested in one another.)
As an experiment, I kept several in cold water and out of the light over the length of a summer. Under such conditions, they can grow to a hideous size. They are tougher then, somewhat stringy, a double handful: much more slimy, too, and rather difficult to catch.
Far more interesting, though, is a another change:
When small, I would not say thip-loes are cute, exactly, but there is a definite sadness to them. If ever there was an animal completely “at the mercy…” The change that comes with increased size is not alone of dimensions but of character: something evil seems to come out in them.
I consigned my bloated experiments to the furnace, dropping the heavy iron lid on their noiseless writhing in the flue. Thip-loes make mainly passive sounds in flames, a vicious bubbling and hiss. Nevertheless, the whole experience was disturbing to me. I felt very much like the alchemists of old at morning: haggard and sleepless.
There can be no catharsis in work doomed mostly to fail.
Fortunately, none of this affected my appetite for the smaller form. One can toss a dozen in a huge brandy snifter of an evening and let them loop for hours in the yellow wine. I hope it is not blasphemous to say so, but very God-like I feel with a bowl of thip-loes by the fire. Even a small snack gives much to chew upon. How quickly they exit the living state! They make a distinct pop when chewed, not unlike caviar, and are best, I think, with a good thick cheese dip which keeps them from flipping about so much. Occasionally, I will find myself turning one so it can see me-or what is eating it, as the case may be. No more than a bubble, it seems, a rubbery pop.
But I suppose the least of the dead know the secrets of death.
Sometimes, I think a good part of what I have is akin to an archaeological interest. I imagine myself in Pompeii or Crete and the first to find an ancient mosaic on a floor. A sweep with my broom will reveal a ridge of horny scales or skin, the curve of a tail, possibly an eye, which after being uncovered will begin to look about.
“Gentlemen! (as I used to say) What you are truly trapping in field-biology, is perspective, not consciousness!”
One must always separate the creatures from the soil. They can’t be reliably killed in situ. Indeed, it is often difficult to know when they are dead. Many of the animals have to be pried up with a crowbar and I cannot sufficiently emphasize the importance of trying to estimate the full extent of the perimeter and account for all appendages before beginning to lift one out.
(The animals are often mud-colored themselves and it’s easy to be misled by a close-set pair of eyes.)
Altogether, our days are not unpleasant; life is not fundamentally different in this place, only more concentrated. What is most interesting is that the hierarchy within our lake doesn’t work out as advertised. Of course it is probably unfair to have all the animals in the same pot, so to speak, at the same time. Still, it is sobering to see how quickly one of your stupid old crossopterygians can chew up a teleost.
The black water of the lake and the slick calm of its surface belie how much one can learn within and around it. Every day is a discovery and an experiment. I am no longer certain that it is only in humans that the religious practices can become part of the life cycle. There seems to be a great piety in the shallows here among the diplocauli with their upturned eyes. The truth is quite a few of the early creatures look very worshipful to me.
It is children that are inherently irreverent.
I must confess that, lately, I have been thinking along that line. Babies may exhaust a woman but they keep her from being moody. And there is no doubt my wife has been cantankerous recently. Just last week, we were digging near the bog with a hoe and potato rake. Despite the cold we were doing rather well, working on our second wheelbarrow-full, when suddenly she said she was not going to clean all these things. She would wait till I had found a vein of them.) I was down on my knees now, yanking them loose from each other and the dirt. Where their skins abutted they were wet and slick as salamanders. I lost patience and began yelling at her:
“It’s not just food we’re after! We’re completing the fossil record!”
(I heard nothing in response. After a while, I stood up and turned.)
She had thrown down her hoe and stormed off.
It was anger that had made me speak thus. In truth I know the record cannot be completed.
“Gentlemen! (as I would say, of old) There is nothing in between! It is like an organ pipe! Only certain modes can be supported! An ascending tone is not music! And what you see in the animals is the equivalent of chords!”
The truth is, I don’t miss any of it. It was all too cumbersome and slow. How much of evolution is given over to the correct spacing of eyes?
Nevertheless, I can still reel off the lectures in my mind:
“Gentlemen! The environment’s role is akin to tuning a circuit! It is akin to adding acid to precipitate something out of solution! The animal must be made uncomfortable in nonexistence!”
My wife is disgusted with me.
Sometimes I think we have no right to eat anything; that the goal of a good man should be to become a good skeleton, to have one’s silent bones swept, disarticulate, amongst the rocks and minerals. In the meantime, I persevere; I am convinced of the importance of it all. With my gloved hands, I rub in arsenic in order to preserve some trace of the skins. I feel that the pursuit of knowledge is not incompatible with appetite. I look deeply into the eyes of the creatures we are preparing to kill, pray constantly, and arrange around us the food we have eaten. I work, perhaps, in the spirit of the great Wallace who ate blue macaws for breakfast. I don’t know who will appreciate all of this. The truth is visitors are horrified by our den and by the leftovers in our refrigerator. They reproach us, I know.
What they think, I cannot imagine.
Still, I keep up my spirits as best I can.
My book of recipes is a major consolation. “Leviticus, Too,” I plan to call it. When demoralized, I think of it as a discreet series of challenges. About the other (the paranoia, I mean) I really should not complain.
I suppose I am not the first father to feel his family is in conspiracy against him.
In order to get away from them, I began digging a new cistern. Day after day I worked at it, finding enormous relief in the sheer physical activity. To my surprise, I found absolutely nothing in the way of creatures. Then, at a depth of maybe twelve feet, my shovel struck something soft.
What I had hit, I seemed to have hit near the tail. I began to uncover the animal quickly, then afterward more carefully and finally at the full length of my broom and shovel. I could not bring myself to look at what I was doing. With what became a sudden appreciation of a great fear, I scrambled out of the hole and did the rest of my looking down at it. I had never seen the likes of the thing. It was huge by our usual standards, buried deeper, too, perfectly stupefied with age. Fully exposed, it was almost too nauseous to contemplate; it rattled my faith in everything I have ever believed in. There seemed to be flippers; there seemed to be claws; the five eyes were disturbingly arranged.
The creature looked frankly incomplete.
(If it were organized at all, it was in ways I never dreamed possible.)
I dug into the side of the cistern and fixed boards in a steep ramp to drag it out onto a tarpaulin with a block and tackle. It was nearly sunset and I was hesitant to leave it uncovered. I had my Luger, of course, but it does absolutely no good here to shoot anything until it moves. There was hardly any wind but the air was getting cold. It was supposed to snow during the night, so I hung the tarp on a rope between two trees.
Then I looked down again:
The eyes, which were not closed, were fixed forward, blankly. There was no obvious pupil to them. They resembled balls of granite.
The earth itself might have been staring up at me.
I returned to the house very slowly, lost in thought. It was true my academic era was over; still, in my heart I knew I was making daily what were great discoveries. I could not shake an abiding suspicion that I had been eating for years what I should have published. I saw, too, that what I had taken previously to be an occasional ugliness in animals was a complete illusion; I had vastly underestimated the power of symmetry.
“Gentlemen,” I said (of a sudden, to an imaginary classroom in my mind), “we are not bowing low enough! We have prayed overlong to a two-handed God!”
I slept fitfully, if at all. Nevertheless, by morning I thought I knew the answer. True, this creature was odd to begin with, but what it is is dead; what it is is dead and partially decomposed. At such a level, the character of the soil may be somewhat different.
(Still, I reasoned, the meat itself might be good.)
I went outside. The air was bitterly cold and indeed it had snowed in the night. In my musings, I had almost passed the trees when I noticed that the tarpaulin I had hung up yesterday evening was missing. I looked around now and became much more hesitant. Then I went forward to the pit, crunching in the snow.
No, I thought.
The tarpaulin was in disarray at the bottom.
The animal was not dead. Evidently, it was a female, too, possibly of some vaguely mammalian inclinations. She had done her very best with the tarpaulin and her awkward flippers and claws to protect her babies from the cold. I could see them suckling in long rows beneath her, their thin skin almost translucent in the grey dawn. The blue ice had caught alike in the folds and ridges of canvas and their lidless and vulnerable eyes.
The snow of centuries would fall upon them now.
I looked down for some time. Then I returned to my bedroom. I brought out a blanket and took it to the pit, and, with a long stick, arranged it so that it wrapped and sheltered all of them. I cannot know whether the creature herself saw or understood me but she made no effort to move.
I walked back silently, very deep in meditation.
“This can destroy us,” I thought.
In front of the cabin, my daughter was working on a huge form in the snow. “Hoo!” she said, when she saw me. She is a little too old to be making snow creatures. Moreover, her sense of proportion is flawed. There are some that would say it’s because my daughter herself is fat. That is no matter; it will not be long now; she is some two years older than our son.
As I walked, I thought of the creatures sleeping beneath my feet, and how these were being shown unto us and how pleased we were with them. A more bountiful cornucopia could not exist. I cannot hope to understand what brought our little family to the midst of such plenty. It is more than I can do just to name these animals.
My wife was by herself in the house. It seems the two of us, alone, were to share a late breakfast. As she moved about the kitchen, I watched her smiling eyes, slightly yellow in the light. Evidently I am forgiven. She is in an amorous mood. We must have some more children soon. She had sautéed a platygast and stuffed it with raisins and slices of apple. I poured the syrup over the thin and purple-looking skin and, like a wave, an unexpected happiness came over me. Verily I say unto you, I have never been more content. I made a joyful noise and bowed my head in prayer:
“Bless this food, oh Lord. Bless all food, living or dead. Bless our children and the metamorphic world in which they live. Forget us not in our strange homes and forgive us our curious prayers, for in our souls we know the one point behind the eyes is central to all. Allow some considered share of thine infinite blessings to fall gently upon this house. This we ask in thy name, oh Lord, and in the name of whatever love or wisdom beats within the vastness of thy three-chambered heart.”
“Amen,” I added, picking up my fork.
1 “Bone” is the correct word here (amazingly enough) not cartilage. Intramembranous ossification begins almost immediately in Stelacens-which, despite some superficial resemblances, are definitely not Elasmobranchii.
2 Something of a common or popular name. (The teeth, though extremely tiny, are step-like.)
3 Popular name. Sold in baitshops locally. Difficult to classify but almost assuredly amphibian.