Genus and Species
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.
Ellen startled from her reverie. Norah was the tiniest bit awake, was watching her.
“Mummy, go to sleep.”
Ellen laughed. “Yes, sweetheart.”
“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.