"Primitive Life"

a novel
Louise Richardson

(a work in progress)

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It's the first day of class at Centex State and Roy's off on one of his tangents because Hal Rodriguez makes the boner of referring to cows as more "primitive" than humans.

"So basically, a primitive mammal like a cow, say, has most of the same organs, bones, DNA that we have."

"'We?,' Mr. Rodriguez?"

"Well, yeah."

My "Uh oh." streams from the back of the classroom.

"This brings up an excellent point. What is primitive? In terms of comparative anatomy, I mean."

Like Alexander the Great marching through Persia Roy takes possession of the chalkboard, as smug as he gets, dividing the green slate into two columns. He thumbs through the biology text to prepare his next assault.

"Okay. Name some primitive traits...Miss Pollack."

So I decide to play his game and answer, "A tail," which he chalks up under "Primitive" and "No Tail" under "Advanced".

"What else?...Miss Barnstone?"

"Four legs...like a quadruped," she says, like a mouse taking the cheese, and he lists it on the board then crosses to the textbook, pages through and dog-ears a second page.

"Anything else? Yes?"

"Hairy body."

"Paws instead of hands."


"Egg laying."


"Color blindness."

"That's plenty," Dr. Roy "I know everything" Nordstrom announces at last, slapping the chalk dust from his hands, surveying the stack of words before him, and ending with a self-satisfied "Interesting."

And just as I knew he would he goes for the loaded text.

"Mr. Combs, read Paragraph Three from the top of Page 194, would you?"

Roger Combs fumbles through the text as always, then finds his place.

"Paleontologists digging in Argentina have found what they believe is one of the earliest dinosaurs yet discovered. As many experts have predicted, the creature seems to exhibit traits thought to be 'primitive' to all lines of dinosaurs."

"Please list those traits, Miss Pollack."

Luckily I've found the page too.

"These traits include bipedalism, s-shaped neck, generalized carnivorous teeth..."

"What was first on the list, Mrs. Sharp?," he interrupts.

"Bipedalism, Dr. Nordstrom," emphasizes the older black lady with the shock of gray at her widow's peak.

"So in dinosaurs walking on two legs is the primitive state...Let's go back to page 82, shall we...Mr. Chattergee?"

Mohandas Chattergee is Johnny-on-the-spot. "Pentadactyl hands being primitive for tetrapods such as amphibians..."

Roy pounces once more with, "And what do we mean by 'pentadactyl' hands, Mr. Rodriguez?"

"Five fingers?"

"And how many fingers do you have on each hand?"

"Five...as it happens."

"Is that about the class average? I thought so. Therefore, we might say that we humans are primitive tetrapods based solely on our finger count."

"But it's more complicated than that."

"Yes it's much more complicated than that, Mr. Rodriguez. You are absolutely right. What I'm trying to show here, though, is the trap we fall into by assuming one, that common language and scientific language mean exactly the same things and two, that there has been some sort of evolutionary progress leading to humans. That's just not so. We are one of the latest species to come along and we have inherited billions of mutations piled upon billions of mutations, rendering some of us capable of writing operas, performing brain surgery or calculating lunar trajectories. However, cell by cell, your friend the cow is just as sophisticated as you and me, all of us."

He relishes this sort of thing too much.

"Does the cow have a five-fingered hand? No, it has hooves. But it's descended from creatures with fingers and toes. Hooves are a local adaptation in ungulates such as cattle, deer, antelopes, etc., which make covering long migratory distances much more efficient than flabby fingers and toes ever could. Are cattle more or less evolved than fish? Mr. Chattergee?"

"I would say more so."

"I believe you said color blindness is a primitive trait. Do cows see color?"

"I don't think so."

"That's right. They may see some shades of some colors but very little...Do fish see color?"

"Probably not."

"Actually, they do, Mr. Chattergee. And reptiles and birds and insects and all manner of non-mammals see vibrant colors. The rule of thumb is if you see a colorful animal, it probably has color vision. Color communicates danger, sexual maturity, health and vigor, aggressiveness, all sorts of signals necessary for survival. Among the mammals only primates have re-evolved color vision to distinguish which fruit is ripe and otherwise safe to eat."

He could go on like this all morning and he has when I awake with a start to see him hovering over me.

"Miss Pollock, may I see you after last class?"

"You can say it now, Roy. And you can call me Leah. Nobody's here."

"I think it's run its course, don't you? Summer school is over, time to end summer flings."

"Is that what your wife thinks?"

"Fay doesn't know about us and I want to keep it that way."



"Will she be with us on the field trip next month?"

"It's over, Leah."


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mrs. Nordstrom

I get home first so I make the sandwiches or the roast or the pasta. Well, he'd better not mind sandwiches. I've had a long day teaching as well. And Roy's the Ph.D. He has all of that struggle behind him. I work all day, fix his meals, and work on my dissertation until the wee hours. No, he'd better not mind sandwiches. Besides, they are a work of art. There. The final cut: toothpick and olive, toothpick and olive. Toss the salad. Whoops! Tossed it a little too far. A little oil and vinegar. Fresh ground pepper, croutons...Damn, I do good work!

Click on some cool jazz, wonderful. Hmmmm. A nice sip of chilled white wine would be just perfect right now. Let's see what's in the fridge--as if I didn't know. Perfect. "Made from Texas' finest Johannesburg Riesling. Dry but with a hint of fruitiness." To the cabinet. Wine glasses...glasses, glasses, glasses. Top shelf. Nice. Quick rinse in the sink. Pouring the white-amber liquid as it catches the last rays of sunlight. Sipping as the golden hour melts into the dusk of mauve skies. I've waxed poetic. You have to wax it or it'll go dull on you. Ha! Nice nose. The wine, that is, not me. Well, I have a nice nose too. Paid enough for it. The wine...is cool and sweet yet mildly tart to the tongue, and I am mellow and calm and peaceful...Where'd all the wine go? More peaceful and mellow is wanted here. Ah, cool and sweet and brute--that's "dry," you know--just as I remembered. I need to rest a while.

To the sofa with me. I don't want to go to the sofa, well appointed as it is. There's a folder of geography test papers on the coffee table. Don't want to grade; want to peruse Architectural Digest for my dream house; want to sit and sip and take in the nice sweet music in the air. I'm starting to wax again. Okay, I'm plopping down on the sofa. Maybe just one test paper for now. Jimmy Joe Doyle! No, the Sudan is not "one of the largest nations in western Asia." Am I teaching these kids anything? I dread to see the other papers. What's that? The purr of the mighty Mazda lilts from the driveway. My sweet is home. Goody. Just one more sip. Damn good wine, though!

I hear his footsteps on the outside stairs! He's approaching the door! Be still my heart. The apartment door creaks open and...it's only Roy. Why can't it be Harrison Ford just once?

"Glass of wine, Darling?"

"A bit early, isn't it, Fay?"

"First glass of the day...second bottle but first glass...just as the golden hour melts into the mauve of dusky skies, or something like that. A bit late, aren't you, Dear?"


"Oh traffic...I'll just gather my test papers and I'm off to the bedroom for a little exercise in ignorance and futility...Join me?"

"Maybe later."

"There's a nice turkey sandwich and salad in the breakfast nook. Help yourself."

"You're not eating?"

"I'm filled with the warmth of the finest Johannesburg Riesling Texas has to offer. Who needs food?"

Well, that's another evening ticked off the calendar. Hope I can stay awake long enough to finish grading these jokes. Screw the dissertation for tonight.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In another millenium there was a beach they had found practically deserted on a hazy-warm pre-Memorial Day lark. Hand in hand, Fay and Roy left their slight footprints in the silty sand to be lapped away by the surf. The coastal Texas sky was a bluer shade of silver than the water, which was, in turn, a more silver shade of brown than the beach. It was a limited spectrum but gorgeous in its monochromatic way. The beach-surf-sky was as eternal as that day and that moment. A hapless shrimp boat had been beached in the shallows, forever distant, never to be reached. Not a soul did they meet on their stroll, and when the diffuse sunlight eventually faded out, they ducked behind the sand dunes and made love until the piercing stars hung at arm's reach.

Fay awoke eye to stalked eye with a ghost crab. She let out a sharp scream and the crab scurried to the safety of its hole in the sand. A line of pink strung along the ridge of the dune and a yellow eggyoke sun bubbled out of it, rising higher in the sky, dividing blue above from silver-brown below and switching on the sounds of surf and seagulls.

She pulled her beach towel tightly around her and sat up. Roy was down on the strand cooking eggs and bacon on a gallon-sized coffee can he had fashioned into a stove.

"Can't you read the signs? They say no camping and no fires," she said, approaching him from behind.

"Shut up and eat," he replied affectionately, handing her a plate of breakfast.

"Where did you get the grub?"

"There's a bait and grocery store just over the dunes."

"You're sure this isn't bait."

"Can be. I caught blue crabs with bacon on a string when I was a kid."

"Tastes edible."

"You lie. It is veritable ambrosia!," he proclaimed, kissing her chewing lips, "Coffee?"


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dr. Llewellyn

What time is it? Oh. Six-Oh-One...And half a dozen of the other. Shit. Look at this place...It doesn't look any worse than the office. Maybe I can get a student intern to sort that out for me. Nah. Don't want to open another can of worms. Hell. I've got tenure. Why shouldn't I have a crack at department head? I've got at least twelve years on Wally Parkinson and Roy, the Viking God. Sure he's neat and well-kempt--if that's the phrase--but this ain't no beauty contest...Or is it? Yes, his office is immaculate, he doesn't do any work. Oh he teaches and reads, and publishes drivel--rehash of real scientists' work. But Harvey Llewellyn does the research around here. I study the little buggers and measure them and note their location and watch their behavior for hours, days at a time, my precious amphibians. I am noted as one of this state's foremost authorities on newts and salamanders. I even discovered the tree frog Hyla llewellyni. The goddamned thing's named after me. Years before he kicked the bucket didn't Chairman Jackmon practically tell me I was his choice of successor? But I'm not the flavor of the month fair-haired new kid on the block. I've published dozens of monographs in real science journals, and this...blond "wunderkind" writes some pop-science crap of a book that gets on the New York Times Best Seller List, gets his picture on Page 14 of last November's Scientific American, plus a back page write up in the local newspaper...So suddenly Nordstrom takes on two extra classes 'cause the little callow student bastards clamor for his received wisdom, and allumni divert some of their cash in his name to the Biological Sciences Department, funds previously ear-marked for football gratuity, and...It's Six-fucking-twenty-three and I've got a General Biology Lab to teach at 7:00. I'll put a breakfast burrito in the microwave while I shower. No time to shave. I'll just have to look like Don Johnson in Miami Vice...If only I could pull that off...I was in shape once...When Don Johnson was in Miami Vice...Still, I shouldn't be more than ten minutes late. The young gits won't get a chance to walk.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Leah Pollock and her little sister Sarah drift on the cold, dark-green, shady Comal River on their Schlitterbahn inner tubes. Leah is daydreaming. Sarah is restless.

"Wanna go to the other side of the park and ride the tall slide again?"

"I like it right here, Sarah."

"You're no fun anymore."

"Just wait 'til you grow up a little, pip-squeak. You'll be no fun anymore either."

"Why don't you go find your boyfriend, then? I saw him in the lagoon."

"Barry and I are through."

"Does he know that?"

"None of your business."

"Being so grown up doesn't seem like fun to me."

"Fun isn't everything, Sarah. Life is not all fun."

"Let's go back to Mom and Daddy in the wave pool. Then you can go off and mope on your own."

"I'm not moping, just contemplating."

"What's that?"

"Thinking, to you."


"Okay, I'll dump you with the folks. Just let me relax a while."



Leah closes her eyes seeing only a fading dapple of sunlight filtered through the cypresses and cottonwoods, but before she can nap, Sarah breaks her repose.

"Can I go with you?"

Leah tries to stay relaxed. "Go where?"

"To Corpus."

"We're going to Galveston Island, not Corpus. It's a hundred miles or so up the coast."

"They have a Schlitterbomb there too."

"It's called Schlitter-bahn, not bomb. It means slippery road or something like that in German. It's mostly a made up name, I think."

"Then how do you know it's not Schlitter-bomb?"

"Anyway, it's on South Padre Island, a couple of hundred miles to the South of where we're going. Besides, I've been there. It's not the same. No river, no trees, no shade, just another water park."

"So can I go with you?"

"No. It's just our college biology class."

"I can collect bugs too."

"We're collecting crabs and jellyfish and fish, not bugs."

"I can do that."

"You can't go."

"Is Barry going with you...and your handsome teacher?"

"Barry's not in the same class."

Leah can see the truth of that Freudian slip. She splashes her sister to change the subject. Sarah screams, laughs and splashes back at her. So the splashing war begins. The barage of cold water takes them back to the time when they both were younger, not so long ago really.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


A note for the new book...It is 5:24 on Friday, August 24nd, first week of the Fall Semester. Ms. Alvarez, please type a transcript of this minitape and save it in the folder "Book Notes" on my C: Drive.

Lost my train of thought. "Derailed," Dr. Llewellyn would say, with his tendency toward puns...Don't type that...Much is made of upright posture in discussion of human evolution, but man is not the first creature...Strike that...But man did not invent bipedalism...and he has not yet perfected it, whereas...long ago birds and their dinosaur ancestors before them took it in their stride, so to speak...Now I'm talking like Harvey...Strike that last comment, Ms. Alvarez. I'll think of a better phrase later...To continue: If upright posture in humans predated large brain size, does that make our chimp-like cousins of the time less advanced and less human?...Damn phone again."

Oh hello. Yes I'm working late again. You know me, Harve. I hate to leave loose ends... Working on a new book on university time? Not me...Yes big day Monday...The new chairman? To tell you the truth, I haven't given it much thought...Whether it's you or Parkinson makes no difference to me...Oh I suppose I'd choose you, if it was up to me. Don't tell Wally I said that...You too. 'Bye.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mrs. Nordstrom

I'm actually proud of him. Yes, he's a jerk, he's a man. I guess I haven't been exactly supportive lately. All that will change now. And I know I drink too much. I can change that too. After all, now that I'm the wife of the Chairman of the Biological Sciences Department I'll have new responsibilities. There will be certain social expectations. I've done it before. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory is the code of academic politics. I can play wifey again, the hostess with the mostest. I really can.

Doesn't he look handsome in his new blue suit, that tasteful red and black tie? The knot is now officially straight. "There." Just look him over. Nicely turned out. Of course, this one would look good in peat moss. That's why I married him. Swept me off my feet. I can remember those times. Maybe they're back again. As chairman he won't be able to screw around. I'll do my part if he'll do his.

Look at me in the mirror there. I'm not so bad myself, youthful yet sedate, the perfect consort. "Fasten my dress, darling?" Gorgeous gown. He's actually touching me again. I've almost forgotten how it feels, his hands along my back...

What a couple. Together we'll knock their socks off. Make way for Roy and Fay Nordstrom, you lucky world! Dare I think it? It's Jack and Jackie Kennedy all over again. Okay, so maybe I'd settle for Bill and Hillary.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dr. Llewellyn

Shit, that should be me up there toasting with the Dean of the College of Sciences, the President of the University and the Board of Trustees. It's all fucking politics.

It's a goddamned wedding reception, and those two just fell off the cake. If the powers that be wanted married I could've married again. I know at least a couple of bimbos who would do.

Still, Roy the Viking is a comer. You can't fight a tidal wave. Hell, he probably has his sights on Dean of the College. Dean Morganhoff does look a bit old and frail over there. Who knows? Within a year or eighteen months the Viking could be Dean and I would be the natural choice for Chairman. Wally Parkinson, the boob, is nowhere in the picture.

Raise your goddamned glass for the toast, Harvey, you overworked, overlooked bastard. "To the new Chairman!"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"Listen! Listen up! As the coaches say. Everybody listen! Is everyone here? I only count ten. Okay there's the other two. Listen. We need to pitch the tents before it gets dark. Set up the men's tent about...here, not too close to high tide. Mrs. Sharp, show the guys where you want the women's tent. I know you're a student but I appreciate your taking roll and keeping tabs," Roy directs the action.

"Happy to help out, Dr. Nordstrom," she says, "I was a teacher for twenty-five years. I know something about taking roll."

"I know our students are adults and don't need chaperones," says Dr. Roy, "but your parents will appreciate our taking a head count once in a while."

Sheryl Kirk and I watch the guys struggle with the women's tent. Between the two teams of tent pitchers, I think we got the second string. Not that they are any less the assholes the "A" team is--are? They're just more inept. We might have pointed out women are just as capable as men even in erecting temporary shelter, but then we'd have to do it. The way things are going, we'll need to make adjustments anyway, so why not let the dudes have their fun and glory?

I know Mrs. Sharp is the religious type. I'm surprised she's even taking field biology. If I was really interested, I'd ask her. Since I'm not, I'll just let it go. I hope she's not one of those vacation bible school chaperones. Not that I plan to get into any trouble. It's just the principle of the thing.

Looks like the first string is done already. They've started on the campfire.

"Weenie roast, Sheryl," I say, "lets haul some driftwood. Not too much. Just a token."

"Okay," she says. What do you know? I'm a leader.

It's not a particularly cool night. In fact, its quite warm. It's almost October, for God's sake. But I like the fire anyway, even though I dropped two hotdogs in there and burnt my first marshmallow to a cinder. Some of the guys have gone for beer. I'm sticking by Sheryl, although what I really want is to be screwing Roy in the surf From-Here-To-Eternity-style.

"After Dr. Llewellyn drives up to meet us in the morning, right after breakfast and a trip to the jetty, we're taking the nets to the madflats to do some collecting," he itinerizes. Well, it's a word now. I have declared it so.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ancient History

It was a beautiful day in the Great Rift Valley. It was always a beautiful day in the Great Rift Valley but was more beautiful now that the rainy season was here. The drought had been relatively mild this year and the community, who had lived thirty years in the vicinity of the remains of the twin towering baobab trees, had only lost three members: a sickly newborn, his mother, and Dim the Alpha Male of the walking chimps. Well, Dim's death had less to do with the drought than his own foolishness and bravado. That's what Gray Mama thought, anyway.

Dim had sort of inherited the mantle of Alpha Male from his father Skinny the Nervous, probably the least likely A.M. Gray Mama could recall. Skinny had ingratiated himself to previous leaders. Oh he was a master groomer. No one else could pick knits or fleas or bits of dried skin with quite his level of obsequious fastidiousness. But Gray Mama, for one, never would have thought of him as a leader. Nor did she hold his predecessor Red Wrinkles in high regard.

Red was a real back slapper and he could hoot with alarm better than any chimp in the troupe. For Gray Mama his hoots were false alarms for phantom dangers which Red pretended to banish with so much show and fanfare. She never trusted his motives and wondered how the others could fall for this obvious overacting. And how could someone of his age not even sprout a single tuft of gray fur? He was brown to the point of redness and wrinkled to the point of absurdity, given the reddness, so she thought of him as Red Wrinkles.

After years of service to the more influencial elders of their band, Skinny the Nervous graduated from being the one who prostrated himself before rival troupes, thus giving them a false sense of security, until the contemporary alpha and his fellow bullies could fling sticks, rocks and dung to gain the day and the watering hole or the choice berry bush or the best shade in their constantly shifting territory. Under Red he was the right-hand chimp, not really a powerful position as it turned out, but the one just a heartbeat away from power. Skinny was the consumate insider and took to his role of consoler-in-chief. Whenever someone died he would be there representing the Alpha Male. Skinny would perform the social grooming but no one doubted it was on behalf of the A.M.

While Red Wrinkles blithered his way toward eventual oblivion Skinny the Nervous picked and nibbled fleas and dandruff to soothe the bereaved, while Dim frolicked, ate and drank and beat around the bushes as he and his brother Quick had done in their youth as the privileged offspring of the Chief Prostrator and future Vice-Alpha. Only, Dim was grown now and still frolicking, whereas Quick had become a more serious and responsible chimp. Even back when the rest of the community was caught in a prolonged struggle against a more gracile species of walking chimps down by a distant stretch of river where the wild rice grew, Dim managed to frolick himself away from the hopeless conflict.

Gray Mama never had much use for either of the beating-around-the-bush boys, but if she had to pick one as a likely leader, it would have been Quick rather than Dim. That's how she thought of them: quick and dim. Quick at least had the light of understanding in his eyes and he was alert and quick to catch onto what was happening around him. On the other hand, Dim was a little slow on the uptake, which would have been fine with Gray Mama except for the fact that the others were always so willing to excuse his blunders. Where Dim led, many a foolish chimp would follow. Gray Mama feared Dim would lead the fools right off a cliff or into quicksand one day. And no one but Gray Mama would see it coming.

There came a time when Red Wrinkles, the old Alpha Male became too blithering to lead anyone anywhere. Gray Mama discovered him one morning bathing in a stagnant pool where dead leaves collected, turning the water a reddish brown reminiscent of the A.M.'s fur. There was a connection there somewhere but Gray Mama couldn't quite put her finger on it. In the past, Red would have leapt out of the puddle embarrassed upon being caught acting strangely. This time he paid Gray Mama no heed and went on happily splashing away like an infant.

As the Beta Male, Skinny the Nervous just happened to be sucked into this vaccuum of power, and even though there were stronger and smarter candidates for A.M., most of the community gravitated toward him because he was a familiar face and had always picked the fleas so well from the most influential elders. And he rewarded those elders so well when he took power. Skinny made certain that the influential ones got the first and freshest berries, nuts, duiker meat, and the choicest reserved spots at the nearest watering hole. As for the rest of the community, the leftovers would eventually trickle down to them.

For a time, all seemed well enough. The rains were generous and no other bands of walking chimps intruded on the lives of the community. Most were content to get the leavings of the privileged. Eventually, though, there was a bad dry season. It wasn't the worst in memory. Gray Mama and her contemporaries had all lived through the Great Drought, afterall. But the younger generation had never really experienced real scarcity and the Skinny the Nervous recession was bad enough, and the well-off were eating as well as ever.

Then, as luck would have it, a smaller but more aggressive species of walking chimps encroached on the territory of the troupe who lived in the vicinity of the twin towering baobab trees. Skinny the Nervous rallied the able-bodied while his offspring Dim continued to frolick.

The Alpha Male of the other band was notoriously nasty. He bullied his own group mercilessly. Skinny and the gang felt no regret in beating the intruders to a pulp, even killing some of them, leaving their corpses to the hyenas, vultures and the maribu storks. The interlopers were so thoroughly routed that many in the troupe wanted to chase after them and kill Nasty once and for all, but all the fighters were tired, so they withdrew to their side of the trickling river.

Skinny the Nervous drew such prestige from the battle that most of the chimps forgot about the lack of food. At least what they had was secure. However, in time, Skinny's approval ratings began to drop and a younger and stronger challenger came forth. Gray Mama thought of him as Randy.

Where Skinny had groomed the well-to-do into a constituency, Randy appealed to the common majority of the chimps. He seemed genuinely concerned with their plight while the influential ones were thriving from their privilege. Randy's tactics were simple. He would take from the rich and give to the poor. Whenever he saw the uppercrust feasting on a big pile of fruit or monkey parts he would grab an arm load and redistribute it to the masses. When he saw someone hogging a prime watering spot, he would bring in the thirsty to share it. Suddenly, the scarcity seemed to disappear. Everyone had enough to eat and nothing was wasted. Gray Mama liked Randy. He was so kind to her and the other elders, the youngsters, and even to the Omegas, that when she pricked her finger on an acacia thorn she thought he could feel her pain.

The new A.M. was not without his faults. Aside from a tendency to overeat, Randy's main flaw was that his sexual appetite was insatiable--which is of course why he was "Randy"--and he seemed to prefer any female to his own mate Pushy. However, theirs was more of a friendship and alliance than a pair bond, so Pushy looked the other way when Randy misbehaved. Besides she was busy helping run the community.

Randy's reign was prosperous and relatively uneventful for twice as long as Skinny the Nervous had been in power. As always, another troupe would make trouble from time to time and Randy would take a squad to deal with the situation. But casualties were rare on the community's side because they mostly threw their stoney missles from a great distance.

Eventually it seemed to Randy he could retire and leave the administration of the troupe to his sidekick Stiff, an able if unexciting Alpha Male candidate who Randy had made the most influential Beta chimp the troupe had ever seen. No one would have guessed when Randy took over that the venerable Stiff would be successfully challenged by none other than Skinny's slow and oafish offspring Dim, with the help of Quick and nine privileged elders. Stupidity ruled and then things got really bad.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Mrs. Nordstrom

"Nobody is to leave the island until further notice," he says, "and nobody is to touch anything until we've sifted all the evidence. If you can afford to stay in a hotel for the duration, that's fine, but inform either myself or one of my deputies here in advance. Until we've finished here on the beach nobody is to touch anything in any of the tents. Do you understand me?"

We understand everything except what has happened. Roy is dead and I can't understand that at all. I'd asked Harvey Llewellyn to drive me up here as a surprise. I was the one who was surprised, horrified. Who would want to kill Roy? Other than me, of course. And I did want to as soon as I saw him balling that girl in his tent. I shouted and took a forced hike down the beach but I didn't kill him. I certainly felt like it, but I didn't. I shouldn't have lied to the sheriff, though. I said Roy must have been dead when I got here. I suddenly felt guilty, like I did it, but I don't think I did.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dr. Llewellyn

Son of a bitch, what an opportunity. Harvey, old boy, you're the next chairman of the department. What a stroke of luck.

I'm not saying it's not a tragedy: blond good-looking Norse god-like young man with a bright future but we could say he probably got what was coming to him. I don't know who's gonna be arrested for this but it won't be me. I've covered my tracks, just in case. I didn't stick around once the deed was done. Who's to be the suspect? I'd put my money on one of the girls. She changed her mind about bonking the teacher and he wouldn't stop. I can understand his point of view: she was eager at first and reneged on him, so he felt he was entitled to go through with it. And then she clocked him but good, so she did the real damage. I don't know which one she was. It was too dark. I saw the chaperone take her into the girls' tent, probably clueless anything happened until this morning. Anyway, nobody's talking, least of all me.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"Like I said, I heard a woman shouting and I woke up. I didn't make out what she was saying because I was asleep. It must have been after midnight. I didn't check my watch. I heard shouting...and then something metal ringing. I told you about the metal...didn't I? It was a minute or two after the shouting. Then everything was quiet and I fell asleep again. It wasn't like a bell. It sounded...dull and heavy. A minute later there was a sound just like it, only louder. That's the best I can do. What was your other question? Right. I don't know if anyone was missing from the women's tent. I didn't check. It was just some noise. Whatever the shouting was about and the clanging, I figured was none of my business. It was late and I was sleepy. You took down my name and address, right? 'Pollock', P-O-L-L-O-C-K...'Leah', L-E-A-H. There. It's on your list already, and yes, that's my home address...and my dorm and room number...phone numbers...It's all down there in your notebook. If I remember anything else, I'll let you know."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dr. Llewellyn

"I found it sticking out of the sand," I tell the deputy, "the minirecorder, at the edge of the surf. It's probably ruined. It looked like the one Roy dictated into all the time, so I picked it up to bring it to him. When I got to his tent everyone was gathered around saying he was dead and that someone should call the police...I was just walking on the beach. I drove Mrs. Nordstrom here from Centex State. I was coming anyway and she wanted to surprise her husband. She went to his tent and I took a walk down the beach. Then we found out he's dead."

Shit, it's mostly the truth. I did find the little recorder in the sand, after I dropped it there and pressed it into the beach with my bare foot. I tell the deputy it couldn't possibly work but it does. It may be a nice bit of evidence, maybe even a bit of damning evidence for someone. Not for me. I was still on the road when it happened, according to that little device. That little beauty will be my alibi. That plus my gasoline credit card receipt from 9:47 last night. I couldn't possibly have gotten here before ten o'clock. I was too far away.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mrs. Nordstrom

"I'll play it for you again," the sheriff said, "and maybe you can tell me what your husband was saying. It mostly makes sense up to this point."

"...which are, of course, the jellies and comb jellies. The need area...ten oh four...," Roy's voice said on the tape, some of his words digitally clear with unnatural gaps of silence you could drive Harvey Llewellyn's SUV through.

"Comb jellies?," the sheriff puzzled, "it doesn't make any sense." Then he says, "By 'jellies' he means 'jellyfish', correct?"

"Yes," I said, "comb jellies are creatures closely related to jellyfish. I've learned that much from being a biologist's wife. He was dictating notes for his next book, that's all."

"Okay," mused the sheriff, "but it sounds like he was about to continue at 10:04 and then something stopped him. Maybe 10:04 A.M. was the time of death."

"You think so?," I heard myself dissembling.

I wept uncontrolably. I wept because my husband was dead and all I could think to do was distance myself from the crime. I wept because somehow I felt guilty because I screamed at him and minutes later he was dead, but it wasn't ten o'clock. It had to be after two because I saw him alive around then. The wife is always the prime suspect in these matters. If somebody heard me yell, it might look like I had a motive. And even if I did have motive, I didn't do it. At least, I don't remember doing it.

"But then what in the hell was the 'need area'?," he continued, "something to do with jellyfish? Doesn't exactly compute, now does it?"

"Perhaps he was referring to another matter. He often switched subjects when he thought of something he forgot to do. Maybe he was interjecting something about a departmental issue and then went back to his book dictation."

"Well, thank you Mrs. Nordstrom. You've been very helpful. We'll get back to you if we have any more questions."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Mrs. Sharp is still comforting Keisha Cummings. The poor thing is still in shock. I wonder if I would be in any better shape if I'd found him dead. Mrs. Sharp is a fine motherly type, and besides, I guess black folks feel the need to help each other at emotional times like this.

I remember it was after eleven in the morning and we were all sleeping in, and Keesha got up to ask Roy about our missing the trip to the tidepools or something like that.

"Dr. Nordstrom?," she called outside his tent.

Come to think of it, she sounded more nervous than usual, and then she opened the flap and let out a weird sort of scream. It wasn't so much a scream of shock so much as a scream of hopeless realization, if that makes any sense. I don't know why I left that out of my deposition to the sheriff's deputy. Well, I guess because it was more like a feeling than anything I could put my finger on, and I've only just now been able to define it for myself. I also didn't say I'd given Roy a big fat slap on his face last night when he propositioned me to come around to his tent for a little tequila later. The nerve of the man. First he calls off our affair because he's being the responsible adult all of a sudden, and then he wants to grope me when he gets horny in the middle of the night on the beach in the moonlight. Well, I didn't want him to die, not really, but maybe somebody had even more reason to be pissed off at him.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The sheriff is mulling over all the testimony, his feet propped on his cluttered desk. He rubs his chin. He scratches his head. He takes a sip of black coffee, glances at his portable rabbit-earred Samsung, and catches up on the morning T.V. news. A jet has struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. He takes notice and watches the live video in the same state of shock and disbelief shared by millions of his countrymen, by billions of his species. Man, what a horrible accident. Maybe hundreds of people were killed. Was the pilot drunk? At least the building is still standing. The jet didn't even shake it. There is now another jet. It slices the other tower in two. These were not accidents. He thinks he has a murder to sort out? Wait a minute. His son, his faggy son, as he thinks of him, is in New York. Wants to be an actor. Will always be a waiter, if he's lucky. Works at what restaurant? They haven't spoken for so long the sheriff forgets. "Windows of.." something. "Windows On The World". Windows on the World Trade Center! But it's early morning. He wouldn't be there yet. Would he? Goddamn. He'd better call Jan. Jan can still call her son. The phone rings and the sheriff answers it. Jan tried to call New York already but can't get through. Goddamn.

Fire and Flood

Gray Mama gathers three babies and flees the blazing twin towering baobab trees. The innocents tightly grip her fur for dear life but she ignores the pain. She and the other female walking chimps and some adolescent males evacuate the small ones. They don't stop running in the drizzling rain until they reach the east river.

They cannot cross the flood. They don't need to cross the flood. They have enough distance from the fire now. They watch their beloved towers fall in pieces. They are too far away now to see any detail. That is all for the best. Gray Mama knows there were walking chimps in those trees, some on lookout, some enjoying a morning climb. She knows there were friends, family members in those trees, and under them when they fell in conflagration, even as the downpour began. She saw many familiar faces high up there as she collected the tiny ones. She saw the resignation on the faces as chimps leapt knowingly to their deaths to escape the flames.

She and her helpers have tried to keep the babies from seeing all this. She will never be able to keep the nightmares away from them. She will never be able to bring back the mommies of some, the siblings and playmates of others. She would not have been able to explain what happened, even if the walking chimps had evolved language. She does not know, none of the walking chimps knows, that lightning struck one tree and spread to the other. She does not know why the grown males are all off to the edge of the territory.

None of the males know at first, themselves. Even Dim the dim Alpha Male does not know at first. His Beta Male, Creepy, pulls him along until he can see where they are going. But they all follow Dim to find Nasty and his troupe. They will kill them all for burning their beloved baobab trees, and of course, their beloved community members. Why Creepy blames Nasty and his henchmen Gray Mama will never understand. Walking chimps know nothing of fire. It will be three or four million years before Prometheus or somebody discovers that, not only does fire come from the heavens, but that mortals can make it themselves. But even millions of years later strangers, foreigners, will be easy scapegoats for those in power. Hating strangers can keep them in power.

But Gray Mama knows strangers can be kind. She was once like these innocents clinging to her fur, a victim of disaster. And when her own family gave her up for dead, it was strangers who raised her as one of their own.

It was a flood far worse than the one before her now. After a prolonged dry season the plain in the vicinity of the twin towering baobab trees had become a shallow but rushing and churning sea of mud, water and debris. The community was trying to cross it before it got any worse. It got worse when Gray Mama's mother and her older brother, and she in her mother's arms, were fifty yards from the near bank. Many a walking chimp was swept along with the torrent. Her brother was. Her mother tried to reach him but he disappeared just before the bend downstream.

Gray Mama, who was Tender Baby way back then, schreaked when a wall of flood slammed her mother and herself to the sandy bottom. She schreaked louder when a thorny acacia limb rapped the back of her mother's head and scratched Tender Baby's tender browridge. She gulped muddy water trying to squeal when the next wave tore her from her mother's arms. Her mother lunged for Tender Baby and caught her little fingertips. Trying to stand against the onslaught, her mother turned for the near bank with her regained little prize. Then, just when they were about to her mother's arm's length of the way from the bank, the flash flood broke through its temporary natural dam upstream and flushed the entire valley of the towering twin baobab trees, fanning out across the plain and splitting mother from daughter against the anvil of a hidden boulder. The spreading flood took her mother downstream and Tender Baby to some higher ground at the edge of the bank.

Tender Baby grasped a bush and a clump of grass in her strong baby-chimp grips and held tight, coughing and vomiting muddy water, and finally squealing for her mother who had washed away beyond her sight, beyond her life. She felt strong mommie arms take her up and pull her from the flood's edge. It was her mother! No, it was a stranger, a kind stranger who apparently had trouble walking because she could not take a step without touching the knuckles of her free left hand to the ground.

Tender Baby cried a silent chimp cry for her mother. She screamed in desperation. She hooted for all she was worth, but her mother could not hear her now as her rescuer joined half a dozen knuckle walkers ambling away as fast as feet and knuckles could take them to higher ground and far away from the flood, Tender Baby's mother, and the community of the twin towering baobab trees.

Now Gray Mama sighs for her lost mother even two generations later as she sets down the heaviest of her three charges, a four-year-old whose mother has just appeared, joyfully kissing and stroking the child and his sister, now handed over to the relieved female. The kind mother reaches out for the still-clinging baby who is reluctant to release her vice-like grip on Gray Mama's fur. Finally, she coaxes the infant away from Gray Mama. The vice-like grip is transferred to the kind mother's fur. Gray Mama knows the infant's own mother was crushed by fiery falling branches of the venerable baobabs. She knows the kind mother, will raise the infant as her own, if the baby can survive without mother's milk.

It finally hits Gray Mama like the flood that tore her from her own mother's fur that her almost grown son, Climber, was one of the first burning bodies to drop, like baking fruit, from that north tower. Had he lived, he would have proved a prime candidate for Alpha Male. Gray Mama did not see her younger son, Drummer, among the ashes. Perhaps he has escaped. Perhaps not. She will not know until the survivors of the community gather by the shore in the sunset. At least the fire is out and the rain has stopped for now.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ground Zero


Keisha was arrested! Keisha Cummings, Stacy. Guess it's always the quiet ones. It doesn't figure. Practically everyone there gave a different time for the commotion. The sheriff's office is certain it happened around ten, though. Hit him with a frying pan...It could have been me. There were times, plenty, I could have bopped him in the head with any loose object handy. So was he seeing her all along? So she's why he broke up with me? He said he was going back to his wife! I might have bopped him up side of the head that night, myself, if I'd known. But Keisha? And Mrs. Sharp confessed, trying to protect Keisha. Turns out she's her mother. It never occurred to me...She remarried after Stacy's father died...Said she caught Roy groping Keisha around 2:00 A.M. Hit him with the pan, took Keisha back to our tent, pretended to discover the body later. The police didn't buy all of it. They knew it happened at ten. Stacy, they placed Keisha with Roy...Evidence...Semen, Stacy. Got her dead to rights. It could have been me, Stacy...Well, I probably wouldn't have killed him. Who knows? Given the right circumstances. Makes you think, right?...The sheriff's office released the rest of us. I'm going back tomorrow. We need to be available for the trial, whenever that happens...Poor Keisha. The bastard probably deserved it...Maybe not to die, but certainly to get smacked...Maybe she can claim self defense or accidental homicide. I don't think she'll get the needle, maybe a few years and out for good behavior...Yeah, I'll be back in class Monday. Too much excitement for one field trip, Stacy. First all this and then the World Trade Center. Should go now. Gotta recharge the phone. 'Bye.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sheriff Henderson

Heal, Gert! No sign of Dennis. Why didn't the little faggot run off to San Francisco instead? Shit, no earthquake was ever like this. Wholesale slaughter, that's what it is. Right in the middle of Manhattan and it might as well be Mount St. Helens. Don't choke on the concrete dust, girl. Heal. Good dog.

Block after block of make-shift bulletin boards with pictures and memorials and pleas: "Have you seen my wife?" and "Jack, if you're alive, please call home." and "Doris was a grandmother, a sunday school teacher and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica." And I've seen more grown men just break down and cry than I ever hope to see again.

God-damned rag heads! You can't just blow up your own part of the world; you gotta bring us into it. I don't care if you do hate the Jews. Keep it to yourself like the rest of us. Sure, Dennis would say I'm unfair. He'd say there are good and bad people in every group. Sensitive little queerbait! Well, maybe he made it to a hospital. Maybe he was able to get down the stairs or he was on the elevator and made it back down in time. Which tower was he in, anyway? When he gets a chance, he'll call his mom. I'll check with Jan tonight from the hotel. There's our search detail. Come on, Gertie, maybe we'll sniff out some live ones this morning.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Welcome to Field Biology 201, those of you from Dr. Nordstrom's class. I am Dr. Harvey Llewellyn. We shall attempt to move beyond the recent tragic events both local and national, and to reconsile our combined ciricula. Therefore, we will continue with our survey of invertebrate phylla. When last we met, for those of you just joining us, we were comparing and contrasting the Ctenophora and and the Cnidaria. I'll write them on the chalk boared for you. 'Ctenophora' spelled 'c-t-e-n-o-p-h-o-r-a' and 'Cnidaria' spelled 'c-n-i-d-a-r-i-a'. You will notice that they each begin with the letter 'c'. Why? You'll have to ask the ancient greeks. Charles Moya, tell us about the cnidarians."

Charles Moya stands with text book in hand. "The cnidaria," he says in a scholarly manner"are characterized by cnidocysts or stinging cells which they employ to capture their prey."

"Could someone who has not memorized the text give us some examples of cnidarians? Margaret Howard, tell us," Harvey says.

"Corals, jellyfish, hydroids, sea anemones..."

"Thank you. Diana Nguyen, define the ctenophores for the class."

"Yes, Dr. Llewellyn. The ctenophores are the comb jellies. They have comb-like cilia along their bodies."

"Excellent. Do any our new class members know the main difference between how jellies and comb jellies capture their prey?" Harvey thinks he sees Leah Pollock raise a hand. "And you are...yes you in the denim vest."

"Me?" Leah fumbled,"Well, we were assigned that chapter but with all the...the tragedy...I...didn't have time to read it...but I do remember Dr. Nordstrom was writing something about them in his new book."

"Was he? Alexy Podgorny, what can you tell us?" Harvey moves right along.

"The main difference," says Alexy,"is that jellyfish have the stinging cells but the comb jellies have some sticky substance on their tendrils to catch their prey."

"Essentially correct but..."

Leah zones out as Harvey Llewellyn parses biological details but she has a feeling of déjà vu. She has heard something about cnidaria and ctenophores in the news about the murder trial. But it wasn't about biology, was it?