CL 2018 Fiction Contest finalist: 'Living Fossils'
"Living Fossils" by Jeremy K. Fisher
Hunched beneath the lamplight, my son thumbs through his book filled with paintings of garishly colored dinosaurs. He blinks silently at page after page of imagined landscapes: hidden lagoons sheltered by towering conifers, vast deserts unfurled beneath endless, cloudless skies. Within each scene, scores of multihued beasts commiserate with absurd calm. An ochre hadrosaur bends itself to sip from a mangrove swamp, indifferent to a purple and snarling Allosaurus prowling nearby; both seem equally undaunted by a volcano bursting in the middle distance.
My son asks me to read each creature's name, its taxonomy, its geologic period, as his hand moves over their images like a faith healer who means to raise them breathing from the page. I comply as best as the blended whiskey metabolizing in my blood will allow, tripping languidly over words like Desmatosuchus and Kitadanisaurus and countless others. My half-finished glass waits for me downstairs, the incentive to complete tonight's last parental obligation as efficiently as possible. I cringed when he pulled this particular selection from the shelf instead of some Early Reader board book that I could have dusted through in a minute or two before shepherding the boy to sleep. The big dinosaur book required effort, effort which was delaying my evening of scrolling through my newsfeed while sitting across from my wife scrolling through her newsfeed. Then, at some point, we would both sigh and shake our head and speculate about what horror we would find waiting in our newsfeeds the next morning. The whiskey helped this process immensely.
Still, despite its demands, the dinosaur book had the ability to cast a spell over the boy that was easy to enjoy vicariously. The italicized binomial floating above each animal's portrait seemed a fragment of some hidden knowledge, a reminder that they were figments once flesh. Their names were no easier to say when I was a boy and reading this same book, the monsters' strange pigments seeming to glow in the fading light from my bedroom window. I had always tried to memorize their names, as if this would grant them some reality beyond remembering. I would draw my own versions of the animals on chunky sheets of construction paper, coloring in their margins using a shade of crayon selected with the utmost deliberation. Their shapes and teeth and bone structures were fixed and immutable, but all else was a mystery for which no interpretation could be dismissed. The temperature of their blood, the sound of their calls, whether a Tyrannosaurus was orange or pink or alabaster. By choosing, I felt as though I myself were involved in their creation, their world now subject to my whims but still tantalizingly alien. The light would shrink behind the woods outside my window, and it was as though all sense of demarcation shrank with it, and even my world seemed boundless and impossible and full of strange, radiant creatures whose names I could learn if only I could find them.
Now my son's finger lands on the haunch of a stocky reptilian creature poking its beak through the underbrush. I mumble its name, Psittacosaurus, not knowing if the "p" is silent or pronounced, but opting for the former. Plant-eater, Cretaceous period. The same vacant expression that all of the book's plant-eaters are given, their docility paling against the wild-eyed ferocity of the predators that stalked them. The meat-eaters had focus. Their motives were clear and vicious, and that was why plush T-Rexes would always outsell a plush Psittacosaurus.
I wait for him to prompt me to read another when I realize that he has paused, and has turned to look at me. The book rests open on his belly, his index finger holding the page open as he gazes at me with some terrible expectation of an answer to come. For the first time he asks what happened to them all, why they disappeared. I have no particular desire to explain that there were other books that could describe how these animals roasted to death from volcanoes or asteroid impacts or wildfires or some ungodly catastrophe beyond reckoning, that one morning millions of years ago a family of Psittacosauruses craned their necks at some unfamiliar sound and waited in solemnity as a wave of flame and ash rolled towards them. Those books would come later, when I was ready to read them and he was ready to hear them.
Instead, I tell him they are all gone because their world was changing and they did not understand how to stop it. "Brains the size of a chicken's," I say.
The boy nods, slowly, and I can see that he already understands that one day there would be gaudy paintings of the two of us in the books of whatever creatures would find our bones compacted into the deep forgotten layers of the earth.
He wonders what color they will make him.
Jeremy Fisher is an attorney and occasional writer who lives in Atlanta's Lake Claire neighborhood with his very noisy family.