Wednesday
Oct102012

Birds with Teeth

Amber Sparks


 

Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night, certain there is nothing underneath the stars.  Sometimes I wake certain I have dreamt this soil, this body, these bones underneath—this whole miserable planet and the things we do to one another on it.

 

He is thinking about Cope's skull. His rival issued the challenge publicly: let us compare sizes! Let us see whose brain is bigger at last! But Marsh doesn't like the idea of his skull floating about the university labs, unmoored from its lonely body. Let Cope live on, headless with his challenge; Marsh will go to his grave a whole corpse.

He mourns alone in the breakfast room, slicing hard-boiled eggs and sprinkling them with pepper, watches dots darken the white landscape like locusts over clouds.  He lifts the skull out of its mental casket, imagines Cope's grin stretched across like a rictus.

Your rope trick: you used to take out your own false teeth, grinning like a skull to entertain the Indians, to earn their trust. You were a beautiful fool. Everyone loved you, even my own research assistants, everyone but me; I could not afford such a love. There is no room for love in a boxing match, no room for affection in a street brawl.  No room when the score was always so close.

 

But years ago, there was room for friendship. They talked for hours at Haddonfield, grinning in helpless academic passion and exclaiming at their own twin hearts. They ate breakfast together on a heap of rock in the marl pits, black bread and coffee as the sun swam into the sky. Cope in shirtsleeves, a boy's face, looking more like Marsh's son than his contemporary.

I was a child once, and yet in so many ways I was never a child. I was a farmhand, and my father's only use for me was as a simple body, up before dawn to milk the cows, feed the pigs and chickens, muck out the stalls and troughs. I don't remember playing. I think now that I never played. I think now that I was never a child.

 

Cope was solid wood, and he, Marsh, the scraps left near the workbench. Old bones rattling in a rusty iron box. Cope, the child prodigy, cutting up lizards and snakes; Cope, the child-man, the passive Quaker with his 'thees' and 'thous' and the broad smile Marsh hated, even as he longed to crawl under its canopy. Cope smiled too much. He was too open, like a pilgrim sleeping on the road.

 

Raw boy, with your Hadrosaurus foulki, coming out of your first triumph; you were soft as a baby. The pits were still rich with fossils then. You cannot blame me for seeing that you needed hardening. You and your smiles needed steeping in sap, needed polymerizing. You needed preserving, green shoot. This was a cutthroat business. This was a bone rush.

 

There were roses the day she left. Toppled over in the fight, petals scattered across the tiled floor. It looked like a love scene, not a fresco over the fringes of violence. She gasped and gasped like her life was falling away, like it was pouring out of her, a waterfall of hurt and astonishment. Stop breathing, he said, again and again. Stop breathing. Stop breathing.

 

You came to the Continent, full of rage and sadness that you twisted into a hunger to learn. We loved each other instantly, I think we did; I showed you Berlin and you told me about the trip to Boston when you were seven, about the whales and how you'd drawn hopeful pictures of the harpooners at work. You'd wanted to see what a whale hunt looked like.

I told you about the cows and pigs and the way my uncle saved my life, appeared suddenly like Athena to Perseus, offered a world outside that small island. You told me about her, how your father didn't approve, how he sent you to Europe to keep you out of her clutches as much as the War's. We drank together and ate together and debated together, and we stepped on one another's words in an eagerness to get them all out. And when we returned to the States, we remembered. You named an amphibian fossil Ptyonius marshii, after me, and I named a new serpent Mosasaurus copeanus, after you. I think we did love one another. I think we did. 

 

Both discovered pterodactyls on their first trips out West. Marsh took measurements, sketched it, pushed it into the pages of the scientific journals. Dry bones on a dead thing. Cope, though, gave the monster life. He was one of the first to do so, to bring these New World fossils a stunning, vivid sense of existence. "These strange creatures," he wrote, "flapped their leathery wings over the waves, and often plunging, seized many an unsuspecting fish; or, soaring, at a safe distance, viewed the sports and combats of more powerful saurians of the sea. At night-fall, we may imagine them trooping to the shore, and suspending themselves to the cliffs by the claw-bearing fingers of their wing-limbs."

In the area where the square states converged, there on the high prairie, we staked our claims for the glory of the thing. And now it's a mess, that's all, an unholy mess. Tell that to anyone who starts talking about the glory.

In my reports, I detailed my discoveries, drew pictures of the new species, the shape and size of the bones. You wrote about the desolate wilderness, about how ancient seashells littered the ground, about how the jawbones of monsters hung hungry from the limestone cliffs. You always were a better writer. You always had a bit of the showman in you.

 

This is love for me, she said. I am not a good woman, she said. I am the end of all things, she said. This was at the beginning.

I shook my head. You are life, I said, and I invite you in. You are the first demon on my doorstep.

She twisted her bracelet and smiled, thin gold band over those sweet white wrists traced with blue. Like Lillith, she asked? She had the thinnest skin, like paper; it was, she said, passed down from her mother, an Irish whore who birthed her in a brothel. I marveled at all that had been handed down from mother to daughter, all that was seeded and grown in the offspring: the thin white skin and the high blue veins and the gold hair and the talent for being the wrong kind of woman. No wonder your father had chased her away. She was the kind of sickness a man would give anything to feel.

I wanted to see the graves of monsters, she said, mouth pointed downward, when I said I could not take her on the next expedition. I said no, many times, until she put her perfumed hand over my mouth. Because I am not quite a lady, she asked?

Because I am not quite a gentleman, I answered from under her sweet palm, and she flung her arms around me and I could feel her smile press my check.

I will stay here and build you a new throne in the woods, she said. I will grow it in my garden, and chase out the snakes and crawling things until it is safe and solid for you. 

 

Aug 31 1880

My dear Prof. Marsh,

I received some time ago your very kind note of July 28th, and yesterday the magnificent volume. I have looked with renewed admiration at the plates, and will soon read the text. Your work on these old birds on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last twenty years. The general appearance of the copy which you have sent me is worthy of its contents, and I can say nothing stronger than this.

With cordial thanks, believe me yours very sincerely,

Charles Darwin

 

We were still young when we set about proving we were superior to the gods.

 

The West is full of a new kind of wild freedom. How can that compare with paved streets, a good restaurant, a vast library, a beautiful woman waiting in one's bed come moonlight? The West is full of painted skies, of impossible blues hanging over a sepia landscape. The West is full of vibrant cruelty, of dangerous and beautiful things.

 

Our bodies were burning like lamps, bones underneath rattling with the force of the explosion. At the climax, she puffed her cheeks out and smiled with her mouth and eyes squeezed shut, like she was holding her breath. Later she told me she was. An old trick, she said, that she learned from a"friend" long ago. It makes it better, she said. More powerful. She was still shuddering as if to demonstrate the truth of this. 

A pink foot poking out from beneath a sheet. A bosom rising and falling. Golden hair on a white pillow.

You see, there are bad women who like good men, she told me.

I'm not good, I said.  I just prefer a quiet heart.

I would prefer a new heart altogether, she said, and her eyes were like old stars as she spoke; echoes of stars burned out eons ago.

 

It really began at Haddonfield, after he pointed out Cope's dreadful mistake with the Elasmosaurus platyurus. The head is on the tail, he told them in private. He knows how it looked, knows how Cope and his temper took it. But he didn't intend to embarrass him, truly, though it was the beginning of the end. It was something too much for Cope, a needle in the throat, a martyr's blood collected in a bowl. The blood would always be meant for Marsh, now. It would always be a poison meant to drown his heart.

 

All the nights spent with her wrapped round his chairs, round his sheets, round his tall, portly body. All those nights covered in dewy flesh, in violets and jasmine and glasses of wine. Nights of open windows, of soft air in waves, of dreams punctuated by crickets and faint piano wafting up from the dance hall.

He knows what they say at the club, at the university, at the dig sites in the Badlands. They say he cannot love.  They say he is impossibly cold. They would be astounded to learn what music his nights are made of, how he has learned to love a fallen woman like a fallen angel. How he has learned that they are nearly one and the same.

 

Cope spent far more time than Marsh did away at the digs, glaring at the bleached white, the bones an open puzzle. With him always: an obsessive, complete journal of Marsh's misdeeds. Every one of them recorded faithfully in that terrible, cramped handwriting. Cope never had the handwriting of a naturalist, despite all his training.

Marsh thinks they are related to birds, he wrote.

Marsh has stolen another discovery.

Marsh has bribed my men to turn over the larger fossils to him.

Marsh does not properly document his finds. He does not keep his books separate as he should.

Marsh has stolen her, now. I hear she has stopped seeing other clients. Another set of bones once mine, now his.

The sap and smoke and soot waft down the river in Hartford, and Marsh pours another glass of brandy. It is his fourth tonight. He has tired of reading about Cope's latest expedition. He will ask her to come to him. She will open him up and suck out the hurt, like a snakebite.

 

We were on a large liner at sea, the black sky falling on us like a blanket. I dreamt of hipbones and sockets, of locks and keys. She drew her dream for me: she was lying in bed, when a great wall of water swept over her and dissolved bedding, nightgown, underthings, left her naked in the salty damp of the water's wake. She tried to move but the wall of water returned, it hurt, it scalded, and she was trapped like a fly in amber as it hardened, as it cooled and cracked. And there you were, Othniel, she said, there you were, chipping away with your hammer and chisel, trying to free me, and when you did my body was ruined, blackened, nothing but burnt bones. And you put me back together, pins through my bones, and stuck me in a case at your museum.

I put my hand on her shoulder, but she twisted away, whispered, God save your soul.

I almost think she meant it. 

 

Then there was the time the two teams came upon one another in the Como Bluffs and threw insults, then stones, until their ears and fingers bled. Until they were covered in bruises and little red stars.

 

We gave the same damn species thirty-some names. You published 76 academic papers in one year. I acquired so many fossils I'll never have time to look at them all, to open the crates and unpack the bones. Later, after we died, they would call it "taxonomic carpet-bombing." We called it love. We called it obsession. We called it the rush to greet our long-last dead.  

 

She left him, the only way she knew. She was losing her insides by then, scarlet flowers in all her white handkerchiefs, so she went out West, where he had always promised her they'd go. Only she went alone, and she never came back. The only thing that did was a telegram from a sanitarium in Arizona.

He heard that Cope's wife and daughter had left him, also. One of the side effects, evidently, of their mutual hunger for bones. He tried one more trick: to take Cope's fossils, to commandeer them for the government. It was the end of the end for Cope. For both of them, really. The thin line, finally crossed, finally stomped over and out until only the faintest chalk marks remained.

 

So many beautiful remains, packed away in trunks in the attic. Too much discovery, too many spoils. Too much, too much, and with her gone? Too much time left for the living.

 

And then Cope turned over his catalogue of Marsh's misdeeds. The headline: SCIENTISTS WAGE BITTER WARFARE. Congress investigated and eventually saw an opportunity to eliminate the department of paleontology at the Geological Survey, along with Marsh's position as its head. Woe and wickedness, said one of Marsh's assistants, and he cried as they packed up the lab. Then he went to work for Cope, until Cope ran out of money, too.

 

That ass in the Congress shouting about birds with teeth, birds with teeth, and the other jackals taking up the cry, protesting taxpayers funding such ventures. It has me in a black and dangerous mood, the brandy not enough to keep the devil from my tongue tonight. The Great Dismal Swamp, she says, and laughs. She found out my nickname, down at the club. She thinks it is a great joke between us. Her pink face goes white for the second the sky lights up, her eyes flash a fire and you can see her bones right through the skin.

Don't tell me I cannot make you merry, she says, and she says it with such naked desire, such a throaty, breathless throb, that I want to bite into that sweet rosy mouth, to drown in that golden hair. I fold her into me and we are almost dancing. We are almost dying of our want.

 

He eats the last of his egg, finishes his coffee, and reads the rest of the obituary. Small pleasures now, small hurts, too. He dabs at his beard with a napkin, feels his own breath come shorter.

My own coffin will be ready for me soon.

 

I have heard about your nightmares, he almost wrote to Cope, years ago, but he tore the paper out of the notebook and balled it up till the ink was smeared through. Nightmares where the bones of the dead assemble themselves, where they dance and gambol and knock their joints together in his ears, eternal ringing sounds and terrifying laughter. Nightmares where the creatures they discovered hover over his camp bed and keep watch like vultures.

I have heard about your dreams, he tried then, and put his head down, suddenly old, suddenly tired down to his own weary bones.

 

Sometimes I long to go West again, to watch the prairie grass ripple and the wind blow back the past. Like we could take it all back, this whole nasty business of living, and just fall into dust. As I suppose, one day, we will.