Genus and Species

LES­LIE BECKMANN

Room Magazine - - BECKMANN -

It had started silently, like a heart at­tack, when No­rah was a dumpling baby, round and not yet walk­ing. The worry. Other moth­ers told her it was nor­mal. But surely not a worry like this one? That grew al­most in lock-step with No­rah her­self—egg to zy­gote to fe­tus—evolv­ing like a liv­ing thing it­self. Ellen thought about it as she watched No­rah, all six years, forty-two inches, and forty-two pounds of her, dwarfed there in the hos­pi­tal bed, penned by the metal rails, sleep­ing the fe­ro­cious, sweaty sleep of the grow­ing child, her skin ev­ery­where hard and puffy, ev­i­dence of the af­ter­noon’s bat­tle with a nest of yel­low­jack­ets.

Yel­low­jack­ets, of all things. Species name Ve­spula ma­c­ulifrons, from the Latin for “lit­tle wasp, white spot­ted fore­head.” Ellen re­treated to bi­ol­ogy in times of fear. It, at least, was or­derly. She leaned for­ward on the orange leatherette chair to smooth the damp blond bangs from No­rah’s fore­head, care­ful not to touch the hard white welts—lit­tle wasp, white spot­ted fore­head—that, even af­ter ep­i­neph­rine, were march­ing to­ward one another, like egg whites heat­ing, hard­en­ing on a hot pan. “Mummy?” No­rah asked in her sleep.

“I’m here, sweet­heart.”

“Mummy,” No­rah said again. Fol­lowed by a sat­is­fied sigh. Ellen mar­velled that, even af­ter to­day, her own prox­im­ity still seemed to sig­nify safety.

It had started in the ravine be­hind the house. She had been a ter­ri­ble mother, had quite un­in­ten­tion­ally led No­rah right into harm’s way. An af­ter­noon ad­ven­ture. Ellen and No­rah ad­ven­tured fre­quently: on long sum­mer af­ter­noons when there were daisies to be picked and drag­on­flies to be heard as they zoomed, loud as he­li­copters, over­head; on grey win­ter af­ter­noons when the Vancouver skies rained un­re­lent­ingly and earth­worms re­quired res­cu­ing from the pave­ment. No­rah would gasp with plea­sure at the drag­on­flies’ aero­nau­tic prow­ess, would croon to the worms as she picked them up, pink and wrig­gling, as­sur­ing them they were safe and head­ing to a gar­den where they could eat and poop and make new soil. No­rah, daugh­ter of a bi­ol­o­gist. Ellen’s child with­out a doubt.

The ravine was Au­gust-dry and dusty with leaf rot. They were noodling along, No­rah half a step ahead on the nar­row dirt path. They were talk­ing earnestly about how motes in sun­light looked like fairies. No­rah had just fin­ished turn­ing half way around to look back at Ellen, had just fin­ished say­ing “A good name for a fairy would be Zithala,” and Ellen, charmed, had be­gun to ask why when No­rah’s foot slid down and off the side of the path and into a yel­low­jacket nest built in a hol­low log, life reusing old spa­ces as it al­ways did. The winged horde rose as a swarm, en­velop­ing No­rah, sting­ing her again and again to pro­tect the wrig­gly white lar­vae that lay sud­denly ex­posed be­neath No­rah’s sneak­ered feet. Ellen thought about the wasps again. Like most mem­bers of Or­der Hy­menoptera, the ma­jor­ity of each yel­low­jacket colony was fe­male. This fact some­how made it harder for Ellen to hate the sting­ing lit­tle shits. Even af­ter No­rah had been stung by forty-seven of them. Forty-seven. Ellen had counted each round white welt, a tiny red bulls­eye in the cen­tre where the stinger had punc­tured the skin.

Ev­ery­thing af­ter that had been a col­lage of sen­sory snip­pets: snapshots on a dark­room line; ran­dom sound files; bro­ken per­fume sam­ples; pieces of sand­pa­per rough against her mem­ory. No­rah, so wide-eyed that the whites were vis­i­ble above and be­low her green irises; the squadron­buzz around Ellen’s ears, louder than a weed whacker; the im­pos­si­ble light­ness of No­rah’s body as Ellen scooped her up and started to run; the cologne—Polo—cling­ing to the strap­ping, too-young EMS tech as he took No­rah—silent, breath­less, barely re­spon­sive—from Ellen’s arms; the taste of Ellen’s own blood in the back of her throat, raw from run­ning; the feel of the cold metal grab bar as she sat in the back of the am­bu­lance, watch­ing the tech ad­min­is­ter oxy­gen with a hiss.

And then ad­mis­sion and ep­i­neph­rine and in­tra­venous flu­ids and an air-con­di­tioned ER cold be­yond be­lief, thing af­ter be­wil­der­ing thing, un­til now. This room where the doc­tors fi­nally told her that No­rah was go­ing to be fine, her tiny body just mop­ping up now, re­ally. They said it to put Ellen’s mind at ease. White blood cells do­ing what their Latin name— phago­cytes— said they did: “en­gulf­ing.” They were lit­tle mob­sters, putting the venom mol­e­cules in lit­tle ce­ment over­shoes. “Get some sleep,” they said to Ellen, the late night doc­tors. “Get some sleep, No­rah’s out of the woods now.”

Be­fore No­rah could walk, the fear was small and name­less and Ellen could fool her­self into be­liev­ing that she was the boss of it, that she

could keep No­rah safe from it if No­rah was in her snug­gly, at­tached to Ellen’s body like a baby mar­su­pial in her mother’s pouch. Ellen thought about them now—about mar­su­pi­als—as she watched No­rah search, find, cud­dle her teddy bear in her sleep. How did we re­tain such ac­cu­rate pro­pri­o­cep­tion in our sleep, Ellen won­dered, a tan­gent on a tan­gent.

Kan­ga­roos be­long to Fam­ily Macrop­o­di­dae. From the Latin “big feet.” Sci­en­tists stat­ing the ob­vi­ous. They live in so­cial groups—kan­ga­roos, not sci­en­tists—called mobs. Even the lit­tlest of the Big Feet, the pademel­ons. Genus Thy­lo­gale, from the Latin “sac weasel.” Ellen had seen many Macrop­o­di­dae dur­ing her un­der­grad­u­ate field­work in Aus­tralia’s north­ern rain­forests. Es­pe­cially the lit­tle thy­lo­gales, over­bold for their weasel size, as they moved through the evening camp. They were “trap-lin­ers”—like bats and rats and pos­sums and but­ter­flies— trav­el­ling the same route ev­ery day in search of what­ever it was they were in search of. They swept through the re­search camps each night like a soft, slow, grey wave, crest­ing and then gone. First the scouts, and then the young sin­gle­tons, and fi­nally the moth­ers, their young-ofthe-year hop­ping around them like elec­trons around a nu­cleus, deliri­ous with free­dom. More scouts brought up the rear.

Ellen had watched the moth­ers es­pe­cially, the way they eyed the world in which their joeys bounced and sprang with such plea­sure. The moth­ers were alert to the slight­est rus­tle, play­ing the an­cient moth­ers’ game: let­ting the joeys spool out like bait on a fish­ing line un­til at last an in­vis­i­ble bound­ary was reached and an alarm went off in their ma­ter­nal brains. They be­gan to fid­get, to creep, to close the dis­tance be­tween them­selves and their off­spring—feet and tail, feet and tail, like strange three-legged stools. And then, at last, it was too much: they would chirrup—a de­mand—and their joeys would come tear­ing back, would dive head­first into pouches, would scram­ble to right them­selves, the pouches stretch­ing like Silly Putty, and the moth­ers would seem al­most to sigh. Not with the heavy weight of their off­spring, back against their belly, but with re­lief. This had mys­ti­fied Ellen, these hy­per­vig­i­lant crea­tures small and low on the food chain, but af­ter No­rah’s birth, Ellen had un­der­stood. Had felt like that. Re­lieved, when she could put No­rah back on her own body.

By the time No­rah could tod­dle, the shape­less pademelon-fear had gained form. That No­rah would be kid­napped. Ellen knew it was il­log­i­cal;

stupid, in fact, to the point of ridicu­lous­ness. She knew that strangers took small chil­dren only very in­fre­quently. It was ac­quain­tances and fam­ily friends and es­tranged spouses that did the nap­ping, and even that was rare. Mostly it made head­lines to sell news­pa­pers. And still Ellen couldn’t shake the grow­ing fear, now de­vel­op­ing colour in­side the black lines, vivid in her mind. No­rah in a dark room. No­rah fright­ened and alone. No­rah cold. Ellen had dreams of hack­ing through a for­est with a ma­chete, had dreams of sub­ter­ranean tun­nels and empty in­dus­trial waste­lands. In them she was al­ways search­ing, al­ways shout­ing. “I’m com­ing! I’m com­ing! It’s okay. I’ll find you. I prom­ise.”

Ellen thought about those dreams and won­dered about dogs. And horses and cats and any other crea­tures that hu­mans bred and traded like base­ball cards. How did they feel when their pups and colts and kit­tens were taken away? Was it just the empti­ness of ab­sence or did they miss them, want them back, need to go out search­ing for them? Id­iot hu­mans al­ways seemed so sur­prised that an­i­mals could count, but of course they could. How else could birds keep track of their goslings and cygnets and owlets? She had watched them in rook­eries and trees and city parks: they hunted and honked and ruf­fled and clucked, anx­ious par­ents all of them, un­til the al­lot­ted num­ber of nestlings were un­der their wings for the night. Corvi­dae es­pe­cially—crows and ravens and jays and mag­pies—they had prodi­gious mem­o­ries. They could even re­mem­ber hu­man faces, re­mem­ber them af­ter years had elapsed, bring­ing bright trin­kets to kind hu­mans and re­pay­ing the stonethrow­ers with well-aimed ex­cre­ment. Of course an­i­mals re­mem­bered their own off­spring. Of course they missed them when they were gone.

Ellen thought again about what had hap­pened this af­ter­noon. In the am­bu­lance—ca­reen­ing, lurch­ing, ca­reen­ing again—Ellen’s fear had ripened to dread. No­rah could die. Ellen had long ago pre­pared her­self for No­rah grow­ing up, mov­ing away, even­tu­ally see­ing her less and less. But No­rah gone com­pletely? Erased?

Ellen thought about the rac­coons she’d seen last spring. Pro­cyon lo­tor, the “wash­ing proto-dog.” She’d been out, had left No­rah at home with a babysit­ter on guard. She was driv­ing home late af­ter a movie on the con­struc­tion-split boule­vard, con­crete bar­ri­ers di­vid­ing east­bound from west. And in the dis­tance, on the other side, four rac­coons—one big and three lit­tle—in a pic­ture-book line cross­ing the night-time road. The kit­tens couldn’t climb the me­dian so the mother turned them back. A string of them, like duck­lings or pearls, head­ing back the way

they had come. And an ass­hole in a BMW, out of nowhere and head­ing straight to hell, sped up at them. Clipped the last one in line. Killed it. The mother rac­coon took the other two kits to the side­walk and then went back out there. Long fin­gers pok­ing, a des­per­ate squeak­ing, a univer­sal grief. Ellen had driven around the block—to what? Help? How?—but the mother needed none. She had dragged her dead baby off the road and be­yond a chain-link fence. Ellen stopped the car on the curb for no rea­son at all ex­cept that she felt that some­one should wit­ness the pas­sage, there at the side of the road: the sib­lings sniff­ing death, the mother pat­ting the body, pac­ing away, cir­cling back to pat it once more. Mur­mur­ing. Whim­per­ing. Keen­ing with grief.

Ellen tried to imag­ine what it had been like for the rac­coon mother, now that No­rah’s dy­ing was part of the pan­theon of fear. Not tonight, of course. Tonight, Ellen re­minded her­self, No­rah was out of the woods. But some night. Maybe some night be­fore Ellen her­self died. Ellen’s mind balked, stalled, came up at last with the mem­ory of the night her flash­light had burned out. Be­neath thirty feet of wa­ter.

It had been a rou­tine night dive. Nor­mal and as mag­i­cal as al­ways, the clos­est she would ever get to the weight­less­ness of outer space. And then it was sud­denly dark be­yond be­lief—be­yond vel­vet or pitch or un­con­scious­ness. In that black­ness Ellen hadn’t been able to see her bub­bles rise, hadn’t been able to feel the pull of grav­ity so that she might know up from down. Ut­terly dis­ori­ented, she had kicked for the sur­face and in­stead hit the bot­tom head­first. She was, in that mo­ment, like an en­gine rac­ing in neu­tral, shak­ing with the cold of an adren­a­line rush, suck­ing at her reg­u­la­tor for air that didn’t seem to come fast enough. Fi­nally she had thought to drop her weight belt and risen, cork-like, to the sur­face. She had not been deep enough to bend, but she could not touch the mem­ory with­out feel­ing like throw­ing up. That was what los­ing No­rah would feel like.

Now that No­rah was older—was grow­ing strong and able to speak up for her­self and look both ways at the cross­walk—Ellen could mostly check her fear. But af­ter tonight she knew it would never go away. The fear that No­rah could be hurt, would be hurt, and there would be noth­ing Ellen could do to stop it.

Ellen had seen other peo­ple she loved get hurt: her mother when her fa­ther had died; her sis­ter when she’d fallen from a tree and bro­ken her leg in three places; her hus­band when he’d al­most lost his fin­ger to

a saw blade. But none of it had pre­pared her for the help­less, sear­ing, suf­fo­cat­ing, fight-or-flight pain of watch­ing her child ache. Even in those first few weeks when No­rah was still a stranger, fresh from the womb. The sur­prise of it had hit Ellen like a huge­ness be­yond imag­in­ing—an os­trich, a croc­o­dile, an ele­phant, a blue whale—some­thing seven­teen hun­dred times her size, give or take. Some­one once said that we live for our part­ners but we die for our chil­dren. Ellen knew it to be hor­ri­ble but true.

She ran her hands through her hair, lank with the af­ter-ef­fects of per­spi­ra­tion and ter­ror. It was self­ish, all of this wrestling with her own ache. She knew this. It wasn’t about her, it was about No­rah. No­rah was the one who had been hurt here. And No­rah would sur­vive. Al­most ev­ery sin­gle child did. It was how Homo sapi­ens had made it to seven bil­lion on the planet. The bro­ken bones and stitches, the eter­nal in­sults, the re­peat­ing slings and ar­rows, the same ruf­fles and pains and heart­breaks, gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion, counted in mil­len­nia. No­rah would get hurt again and again be­cause life did that—it hurt. Ellen was a mem­ber of the ensem­ble only in the drama of No­rah’s life, and her part would be smaller and smaller as time went by. Ellen would do the right mother things, would be the wall­pa­per, al­ways there, al­ways reli­able, ready with arms when they were needed. But that was it. She was an ac­tor in a sup­port­ing role now. She would need to be like a vol­un­teer at a bird sanc­tu­ary re­leas­ing wounded terns, their wings reknit af­ter in­jury, into the sky. Sterna par­adis­aea, the great­est mi­gra­tor ever, trav­el­ling seven­teen thou­sand kilo­me­tres from Arc­tic to Antarc­tic to Arc­tic again in a sin­gle year. Named “heav­enly breast­bone,” for the strength in the ster­num and wings. Toss them up, gen­tly, to the sky, a ris­ing par­a­bola. They reach the top and be­gin to fall back, like a roller coaster, caught by grav­ity, be­fore re­al­iz­ing they’re okay. Then, wings wide, they rise up, wheel off, fly joy­fully into the sky.

Nor would even a quar­ter of No­rah’s life be hard­ship. Watch­ing No­rah grow, Ellen could see the woman No­rah would be­come. Even now No­rah thrilled to the beauty and won­der of life, went for en­joy­ment like a sea­soned trav­eller goes for the best seat on the bus. She danced with aban­don to ev­ery­thing from Abba to Split Enz. She put rasp­ber­ries on her fin­ger­tips, like lit­tle thim­bles, and ate them like ice cream cones, savour­ing the rich red taste. She ran through sprin­klers and bounced on tram­po­lines and asked “why” and bub­bled with laugh­ter like car­bon­a­tion fizzing from a bot­tle just opened. She was

preter­nat­u­rally wise and would have her fair share of hap­pi­ness as well as hurt be­cause she would find it and make it and be sought by it, like fil­ings drawn to a mag­net. No­rah would fly de­spite the days of pain-com­ing. The days when the dog died and tests were failed and peo­ple broke her heart. The days of pim­ples and lost mit­tens and lost friends and de­pres­sion and stubbed toes and self-loathing when Ellen would want noth­ing more than to make it all bet­ter for No­rah, would sell her soul for it, even when she knew that let­ting No­rah crum­ple and hurt and mend her own breast­bone— sterna par­adis­aea— was what mother wall­pa­per should do.

“Mummy?”

Ellen star­tled from her reverie. No­rah was the tini­est bit awake, was watch­ing her.

“Yes, sweet­heart?”

“Mummy, go to sleep.”

Ellen laughed. “Yes, sweet­heart.”

“Now.”

“Okay, sweet­heart,” Ellen replied, ris­ing to re-tuck the blan­kets around No­rah, to kiss her on the nose.

“I love you, Mummy.”

“I love you, too, peanut.”

“I know,” No­rah said smil­ing.

Ellen smiled back, took an ex­tra blan­ket from the foot of No­rah’s bed, wrapped it around her­self, and set­tled to try to sleep. “Night-night, starshine.”

“Night-night, mum-shine,” No­rah said, asleep again al­most be­fore she fin­ished speak­ing.

Once, in the swift cold waters of Ge­or­gia Strait, Ellen had seen a nest­ing oc­to­pus. Class Cephalopoda, from the Latin “head-foot.” En­te­roc­to­pus dofleini, the gi­ant Pa­cific oc­to­pus, big­ger than Ellen by half. The Latin name meant some­thing unattrac­tive about size and limb for­ma­tion, but the crea­ture her­self was beau­ti­ful, there in her cave. Her im­age, caught in the split-sec­ond flash of Ellen’s dive light—a dif­fer­ent, working light—had been seared on Ellen’s retina. Was there, even to­day.

Ellen had first learned about oc­to­puses in com­par­a­tive anatomy from Pro­fes­sor Jo­hannsen who, that un­der­grad­u­ate day, had been lec­tur­ing from a stand­ing po­si­tion on top of a wide lab bench. He was dem-

on­strat­ing am­bu­la­tion in ter­res­trial ver­te­brates, bound by the laws of grav­ity. Walk­ing, he had said, is merely a con­trolled fall. Like life. Oc­to­puses were un­bound by grav­ity, neu­trally buoy­ant in the sea. They did not know how to fall. Oc­to­puses, he had also vol­un­teered, apro­pos of noth­ing, were the smartest in­ver­te­brates there were. Prob­a­bly even smarter than ver­te­brates. In­clud­ing hu­mans. Ellen had won­dered if these things—grav­ity, in­tel­li­gence, and back­bones—were cor­re­lated. Or in­versely cor­re­lated. And with­out grav­ity, she had won­dered— with­out the abil­ity to fall—what did they think or fear?

There, in forty dark feet of wa­ter, it had been ob­vi­ous. Ellen’s dive light had raked across the en­trance to the oc­to­pus’ cave, star­tling the hen—that’s what the fe­males are called—in­side. The oc­to­pus had flushed briefly white, and then red, be­neath the blade of her light: fear, then anger. Ellen could re­call ev­ery de­tail even now. The hen, soft and weight­less, rock­ing gen­tly in the ocean cur­rent. Her ten­ta­cles wo­ven through an egg mass: a dozen creamy che­nille fronds hang­ing from the rock face above her, each bump in the frond an egg sac, each egg sac a tiny baby oc­to­pus. Maybe forty-thou­sand lar­vae in all. She was stroking them with the gen­tle end of her pink-white ten­ta­cle, like a harpist’s fin­gers pluck­ing strings. She was clear­ing out the muck, keep­ing the al­gae at bay. Her siphon, the thing most peo­ple knew as a ram jet used to pro­pel her from dan­ger, was a rounded o, puff­ing fresh wa­ter softly through the eggs, breath­ing them to life. Her in­scrutable goat-pupil eyes took in Ellen and the red flush said she would fight to the death to pro­tect her eggs.

Ellen had seen too, in that flash of light, the scabs on the oc­to­pus’ skin. Like most cephalopods, she was semel­parous—she had mated and laid her eggs once. This would be all. She had been here per­haps five months now; hatch­ing was a month away. In all this time she had been guard­ing them, tend­ing them, wait­ing for them to bud and break free. In all this time she had been starv­ing, slowly, to death. Of her le­gion, maybe four hun­dred would make it to adult­hood. Maybe fewer. She would not see that day. She would die soon af­ter the last hatch­ling was gone on the cur­rent.

Oc­to­puses have three two-cham­bered hearts. Six cham­bers in all. Two more than hu­mans. What did she hold in each of them, there in her cave, Ellen won­dered. Were there, in any of those cham­bers, dreams of shrimp and hap­pi­ness for her hatch­lings? Did they hold hope for hours

of build­ing nests and play­ing with shells in the sea? Did it hurt in any one of those three hearts when she thought about how many of her sprogs would be star­tled by boats, man­gled in traps, eaten by fish and birds and seals and whales? Were they break­ing as she waited, those six cham­bers? Or was she just re­lieved that on their hatch­ing she would die and the fear of help­less­ness would end with her?

No­rah made the suck­ling sound of nurs­ing—she did it ev­ery so of­ten even six years on—mem­o­ries of in­fancy in her sleep.

Ellen watched her sweet, sweaty child in the hum of the hos­pi­tal room. So much hurt com­ing, and so much joy. And Ellen was the wall­pa­per, the hands to lob No­rah gen­tly back into the sky. That was all she could do.

Lit­tle white spot­ted fore­head. Life. This tiny bird, fledg­ing. Hatch­ing meant break­ing eggs.

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