The Weekend Read

Animalia Paradoxa

By Henrietta Rose-Innes



12th Apr 2019

Animalia Paradoxa
‘He was a thin child…’ Read ‘Animalia Paradoxa’ by Henrietta Rose-Innes..

Île-de-France, 1792

 

‘In Cap d’Afrique,’ I tell Michel, ‘the cattle are more beautiful than the French varieties. Great spreading horns. Red or grey, or speckled.’

Michel grunts. He watches me with suspicion as I rearrange the bones on the long table in the Countess’s orangery.

Through the glass doors and the dome above me, I can see bats flitting in the evening sky. A few lamps burn in the upper rooms of the chateau across the terrace. The

Countess is no longer here. After the recent troubles in Paris, she left with her retinue for the countryside, perhaps even for another country. I did not speak with her before she departed. Perhaps I am simply shunned. Perhaps she is see- ing other suitors, charlatans selling her the usual curiosities: misshapen bears, dull tableaux of common birds, amusing scenes of mice and foxes.

It is a cool autumn evening, but inside the orangery the weather is warm, even tropical. For a moment the expanse of glass makes me feel observed, as if I am placed here for display.

Michel is very slow, and has no feeling for the material. He is an ancient village soul, accustomed to the creatures of the old world. He knows how they are put together: four feet, two horns, milk below.

‘This cannot be one animal,’ he says. He is laying out the long-bones, and indeed there seem to be too many of them, and oddly sized. Everything is in a sorry state. Some of the more delicate items have crumbled to dust in the sea-chests. ‘Linnaeus himself does not account for all the creatures of the world,’ I tell him. ‘Not of Africa.’

Michel lets a femur clatter to the table. ‘Monsieur,’ he says. ‘I am leaving now. You should go too: it is not safe.’

But I cannot go, of course I cannot, not when I am so close. Late at night in the lamplit orangery I work on, fitting femur to radius, long bones to small. Boldness, I think, boldness and vision are needed here. But the bones will not do my bidding. They do not match up. They do not create a possible animal.

The streaks of light fade from the sky; it is that slow cooling of the day, so different to nightfall in southern climes.

I miss the boy’s quick hands, quick eyes.

I remember the shape of his head. Jacques, Jakkals.

He was a thin child, dressed in nothing but ragged sailor’s trousers, held up by twine and rolled to the knee. Hard- soled feet, skin tight over ribs and shoulder-blades. All of him shades of earth and ochre, but flashed with white, like the belly of a springbok as it leaps away. Ostrich-eggshell beads at his neck, teeth like Sèvres porcelain. And that round head, close-shorn. One could imagine the bone beneath. When I first saw him, tagging behind as our party struck north from the Cape, I thought: there are men in France who would like that cranium in their collection.

A pretty piece to cup in the palm.

Shadows gutter on the ceiling as the last of the lamp-oil runs out. Outside I see points of light and at first I think they are stars, burning low to the ground: the sky turned upside down. But no. They are flames, moving up the hill from the village, torches lighting faces in the crowd. The voices build.

The last time I saw Jacques his skull was crushed on one side, the front teeth gone, face caked with blood and dust.

I imagine he was buried with the usual native rites.

Sitting upright, as I have heard it is done, in the old hide blanket, with nothing to mark the place but a small pile of stones. The vitreous black stones you find there in the north, in that dry country.

 

Cape of Good Hope

 

Venter was a chancer from the start. I met him on the church square; he was selling skins and ivory. With what was left of the Countess’s money, I was procuring oxen, muskets, what men I could afford.

‘I hear you’re coming north,’ the Boer said, his face shadowed by a leather brim. ‘I hear you’re looking for animals.’

‘Special animals,’ I nodded. ‘Rare ones.’ I had been in the Cape a month by then, and my own rough Dutch was improving.

‘Visit with us,’ he said. ‘We have a hell of an animal for you.’

‘Ah. And what kind might that be?’

I was not overly excited. Already I had received several offers of specimens. There had been enough European adventurers in these parts for the locals to imagine they knew what we sought. On the docks, a hunter had thrust a brace of speckled fowl at me, their bodies stinking in the heat. In a tavern, a wrinkled prospector had produced a pink crystal, its facets glinting in the candlelight. But the Countess wished for something she had not seen before. The foot of a rhinoceros, a pretty shell — these would not be enough. One of the slave-dealers had promised more exotic sights, native girls with curious anatomies, but this, too, I had refused. I was looking for something spectacular, something to cause a sensation; but not of that kind.

‘It’s big,’ said Venter.

‘Like an elephant? An ostrich?’ I said. ‘Perhaps a whale?’ ‘All of those things,’ he said, and tilted his head so that

his pale eyes caught the sun, colour piercing the hues of hide and roughspun cloth. He was a handsome man, tall and with a strong jaw under his yellow beard, grown very full as is the habit of the farmers here. ‘It’s all of those things, God help us.’

I tried not to smile at his ignorance. ‘Come now, it must be one thing or the other. Fish or fowl.’

He shrugged. ‘It flies, it runs. Here,’ he said, leaning forward and pulling off his hat. A waft of sweat, a herbal tang, the coppery hair compressed in a ring. ‘That is its skin.’

I did not wish to touch the greasy hat, but he pushed it into my hands, pointing at the hide band. Spotted, greyish yellow. It might have been hyena fur, or harbour rat for all I knew.

‘Keep it.’ He spat his tobacco into the dust. ‘You are welcome on my land. Ask for Venter. Up north the people know me.’

It took me several weeks to gather what I needed for the expedition: oxen, two wagons, a donkey, the firelocks, the powder and lead. I could not afford slaves in the end, but employed ten bearers of the race they call here Hottentotten. The arsenical paste for the preservation of the specimens I had brought with me on the ship from France. My collecting trunk, which fitted perfectly into the back of the larger wagon, was a gift from the Countess, made by her own cabinet-maker, and had her initials inlaid in brass on the lid. Inside were dozens of ingenious drawers and racks for glass jars and flasks. I had also with me my fine brass compass — although the little hinged sundial did not work as it should, down in the south — and my most prized possession: my copy of Systema Naturae.

The donkey I disliked. It looked exactly like any donkey in any part of France, and was every bit as doltish and mutinous. But the oxen were splendid animals. I was glad to see the mountain growing smaller over their lurching shoulders as our party took the coastal track to the north. Happy to

be away from that town, with its hot winds, its slave-drivers from every filthy corner of the world, its rumours of plague and war.

We turned inland. Game was plentiful and we did not lack for meat. It lifted my heart, to be out on those grasslands, with no sounds but the steady hoofbeats of the oxen, the wagons’ creak and the good-humoured talk of the men in a language I did not know. Clucks and kisses in it, impossible for my mouth to shape. At times people appeared out of the bush to meet us on the road, and spoke to the men in their own tongue, perhaps asking news of the Cape. As we travelled further north, the land became dryer, flatter, broken by pans of salty mud cracked in honeycomb patterns and pink with roosting flamingos; elsewhere by tumbled piles of glassy black and olive rock. It was wild country. I had high hopes of finding some striped or spotted beast for my lady yet. Indeed, one night we heard a throaty rumble from beyond the firelight. Lion, the men whispered. But it did not approach.

The bearers were easy company. The boy, in particular, was useful; he brought back small animals and interesting pebbles, bird’s nests, snakeskins. As we travelled, he was constantly darting into gullies or turning over stones to gather up a feather, a piece of wool, a beetle carapace.

Nothing extraordinary, but I saw that he understood my purpose. When we board-mounted a little bat, he very neatly fanned the wing for me to tap the brass tacks in, without needing instruction. It was hard to tell his age, seventeen or eleven, he was so thin. I think he ate better with me than he ever had in the town. Where he came from, I was not sure. He was not one I hired myself, but seemed to have come along with the older men. Jakkals, they called him.

Though that was not his true name, I think. I started to call him Jacques, privately, when we worked on the specimens together. A sentimental impulse: it was the name of my own little boy, lost now these twenty years. With the men I called him Boy.

 

Some days into our journey, we were passed by a group of riders, also heading north. The commando, as such posses are called, were after a baster gang: thieves and runaways, they said, causing havoc on the farms. A rough bunch themselves, these vigilantes, guns slung across their backs. They peered at our party with suspicion — it was not usual to a see a solitary white gentleman in those parts, certainly not a Frenchman. I mustered my best kitchen Dutch to persuade them on their way.

The commando disturbed my men. After the riders left, kicking up dust to the horizon, they murmured uneasily to each other.

Later, I asked the men about Venter’s beast, and handed the hat around the fire. They went silent. Between puffs on their long clay pipes, they said the name of the animal. Gumma, gauma, gomerah. Rasped in the back of the throat, in a way I am incapable of reproducing.

‘So it is real?’ Hums of assent.

‘What does it look like?’

‘It has wings, very long.’ One man held out his arms. ‘Black feathers.’

‘And a head like a lizard, with lion’s teeth.’ ‘Very dangerous.’

‘It can eat forty, fifty sheep.’

The oldest of the men, a greybeard to whom the others deferred, pushed tobacco into the bowl of his pipe and said in his cracked voice: ‘It will look at you. It has the eyes of a man.’

I smiled, to show I did not mind, that they made fun of me in this manner.

The hat was passed to the boy. He did not usually speak in front of the older men, but now he touched the hatband with the tips of his fingers. ‘Ghimmra.’ He said the name differently, with an altered emphasis, and when they heard him the others grunted and nodded approvingly.

‘I know this,’ said the boy. ‘It is from my place. I am from that place.’

Yes, I thought, that may well be. He has the look of a Bushman child. I wondered how he had come to be in the town.

The quiet authority in his voice, and the gravity of all the men, made me think that perhaps there was truth in Venter’s story. This was, after all, a new world. Things were different here. Animals may yet exist of which Linnaeus had no knowledge, I mused. Look at the wonders they have found in New Holland: beasts with both fur and eggs.

The commando was already encamped when we got to Venter’s homestead. Not much of a farm at all, just a poor dry tract of stones and sand and a mud cottage. No wife, no children. Some way behind the hovel was a domed skin hut where Venter, it seemed, kept a native woman. The riders were gathered at a fire on the packed earth before the house, drinking brandy; the woman brought them a new cask when the old ran dry. My men made camp some distance away, but I accepted a dram of the harsh white liquor and talked for a while with Venter and his companions.

‘So, Mijnheer,’ I said to Venter, ‘where do you keep this animal you speak of? This – is it right? Geema, geemera.’

He looked at me a little oddly then. ‘Where did you learn this name?’

I smiled. ‘I am a naturalist, my friend. My task is to learn such things.’

‘Come,’ he said, quite drunk already and putting an arm around my neck. ‘I will show you the proof of it.’

Venter drew me warmly into his tiny house. There was almost no furniture in the single room, just a chair and a bed covered in skins. On top of a wooden trunk sat a weighty old Bible. He set this aside and opened the lid of the chest, then proceeded to bring his precious items out into the lamplight, one by one.

I very nearly laughed out loud. Nothing but ratty pelts and dried-out bones, drawn from a dozen different carcasses. He held up the butchered wing of vulture, then what seemed to be the skull of a large bovid. At least he had not gone to the trouble of stitching it all together into a single beast, as I have seen done in fairground wonder-shows.

I would not have been surprised if the man drew out a bolt of flowered cotton cloth and tried to tell me it was the hide of some fearsome predator.

‘Sjeemera,’ he said. His way of saying the word was different, more sibilant.

I smiled and thanked him and said that this was all most interesting, and that I would be glad to inspect his collection more carefully in the daylight. So as not to offend him, I picked out one or two small items — a few dark quills, a shed snake-skin. If I wanted the bones, he intimated, I would have to pay. I quickly made my goodnights.

I left the fire and the drinking, choosing rather to lie in my own tent, close to the soft snorting and warmth of the oxen. Still, I could hear the men of the commando talking and laughing late into the night.

Jacques, who slept at my feet inside the tent, spoke into the dark: ‘The animal, Mijnheer.’

‘Yes?’

‘I can take you to its place. I know where is its cave.’’ I was silent for moment. ‘Is it near? Can we walk?’

‘No. It is still a day from here. We must take the wagons.

We should go tomorrow, early.’ ‘How do you know?’

‘This is my place. My people are here.’

That night there was a great storm, wind lashing the tent, the oxen bellowing. Something shrieked like a child in the trees down near the river. Later, we heard the calls of some large animal – but with a yelping, yawning quality, quite unlike a lion’s.

I covered my head with an oily sheepskin kaross and thought of France, the motionless winter trees, the pale light touching the branches as delicately as gilt on the curlicues of the Countess’s cabinet of marvels.

In her reception room, I had sat balanced on the spindliest of chairs as she showed me her celebrated collection: birds’ nests, curious stones and the skeletons of small animals, arranged in their specially built case of bevelled glass and ornate wood, all lacquered white. Light spattered off the touches of gold leaf, off the sunburst wings of the suspended hummingbirds. A thoroughly unsystematic approach, I noted, Mammalia mixed in with Aves mixed in with Fossilia.

‘Is it not pretty?’ she asked.

‘Indeed, very pretty,’ I agreed. High in her powdered hair, among the silken bows, another iridescent hummingbird was pinned. The blue flattered her eyes.

She noticed my gaze and touched the stiff little bird. ‘From India,’ she said. ‘Do they have such things in Afrique?’

‘If so, I shall endeavour to discover them, Madame.’

‘Hm. I think not,’ she said. ‘From Afrique I want something … magnificent. A new kind of elephant?’ ‘Perhaps something not quite so large …’

‘A tiger!’

‘I believe they lack the striped kind there. I will try for spots.’

‘Oh but I like the stripes. In the Jardin du Roi they have a leaping tiger, suspended in the air. It is quite wonderful. See what you can do.’

‘Madame.’

That had been months before, but it felt like a hundred years. My mission now seemed laughable. How could the Countess have thought that a spun-sugar cabinet might contain any part of this elemental land? In my half-asleep state, it came to me that I had done things altogether back to front. All her pretty shells and pebbles … I should have put them in my pockets, brought them with me on the ship. And then set them free, here in this world of ancient stones and long horizons.

 

In the blue dawn, the oxen stood shifting and blowing steam. The men packed the wagons quickly and quietly.

It seemed important to leave before the commando stirred from their drunken sleep, although no doubt that would break all this country’s laws of hospitality. The armed company had made us nervous, and even the oxen seemed to tread softly for fear of breaking the chill and fragile silence.

I was pleased when the little grey house dipped out of sight as the ground rose, as earlier I had been pleased to leave the town behind. As I had been glad to leave France, too, if I were honest, the dark wave sinking the shore in our wake. Always onwards, to new things. Away from old sadness. New wonders, I told myself.

We found ourselves creaking up the start of a long mountain pass marked by stones. As the wagons ascended and the broad, brightening plain fell away below us, so too my spirits lifted. The track was edged with tiny white and yellow flowers. I thought about collecting them to press, but I did not want to halt our progress. And Regnum Vegetabile had never delighted me quite like Regnum Animale.

At length we came out onto the neck of the pass, where Jacques indicated we should outspan. Above us was a rough tower of boulders.

‘Here,’ said Jacques, and started up the scree. He went lightly, leaping barefoot from rock to rock. I struggled behind, sweat soaking my linen shirt. My face was flaming, even shaded by Venter’s odorous hat. Below us, the men set about making camp.

In the shade beneath the rocks, the sand was cool. I took a moment to catch my breath. Jacques was crouched close to the base of a boulder, peering at something. At first I could not make it out, but then I saw: an image painted on the stone, about two hands tall. An upright red body with a long pale face like a deer’s or a hare’s, but the finely muscled legs of a running man. Tiny white dots on the torso.

Despite my flush, I felt myself grow cold. ‘Is this what you have brought me to see, this … hocus pocus?’

He patted the floor of the cave. Was he smiling? The white sand was scuffed with a multitude of indistinct tracks, including our own. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Here is where it puts its eggs.’

‘But this is no real beast,’ I said, angry. I felt more deceived by this primitive display than by Venter’s skullduggery. ‘This is nonsense, Jacques! Why do you wish to trick me too?’

He did not answer. Instead he squatted and pushed his fingers into the sand, digging away several inches. Under the top layer the soil became damper, darker. A smooth white curve emerged. For a moment I thought it was a human skull, but he shovelled his hands down around it and, after some heaving, forced a gigantic egg to rise from the ground. It was bigger than his head, much bigger than an ostrich egg. When I bent to help him raise it, I felt its weight. It was smooth and cool to the touch, and very heavy, as if full of molten metal. I took my water-skin and poured a little out; washed free of sand, the egg glowed like a great pearl, with a bluish cast.

‘What is it, Jacques? What kind of bird?’ He spoke quickly, tongue clicking. ‘What? I cannot understand.’

He sighed and closed his eyes and his arms floated upwards. Then his head jerked back as if in a fit, ribs jutting tautly. I stopped forward in alarm, then realised: it was a pantomime. This was for me, so I could see the nature of the animal. His hands flapped and slapped his sides. Feet scuffed the sand, tracing a circle. He bowed his neck and kicked at the ground, arms out like wings, then opened his mouth very wide and groaned. Teeth like the white quartz in the rocks, not porcelain at all. Teeth bared as if in pain.

‘That’s enough.’

At once he stood quite still, as if I had slapped him. I ran my hands over the slick surface of the egg. ‘Tell me truthfully, now. Is this creature real?’

The boy nodded, although his eyes were cool. ‘Then find me one. Find me one to shoot for my

Countess. I have not time for make-believe.’

I wrapped the egg in a piece of oilcloth and put it into my leather bag. Its weight hung awkwardly off my shoulder. As we walked back down the scree slope, I saw below me the two small wagons, the men lounging in the shade. It occurred to me for the first time that they might easily drive off without me, as I had heard happen to other adventurers. Once this thought had struck, it became harder to look away. I felt I needed to pin the men in place with my eyes.

I thought of their uneasiness these last days, their murmurings to each other. The boy, I thought; they would not leave the boy behind. But perhaps the boy plans to flee, too. This is where he comes from, these hills.

The men greeted me civilly, but distrust had entered my heart. I sensed their alertness when they saw I carried a prize. The old man came up to me quite boldly, reaching out a hand as if to touch my bag, but I turned away from him, holding it closed.

I laid it next to my camp bed, where I curled up almost immediately, exhausted from the climb. Falling into slumber beneath the odorous kaross, I felt, for the first time on this journey, a longing for home, for walls around me, for the close skies and low ceilings and mossy damp enclosures of the old country. Rather than this bleak kingdom of stones, this Regnum Lapideum, roamed by unnameable animals.

The bright sky woke me like a slap. Blue, so blue, it filled my eyes to the edges and beyond. I lay staring up at it for some minutes before I realised what it meant. The tent was gone.

They had taken the horse, the oxen, the wagons, the muskets and ammunition. And Jacques, Jakkals, the boy: gone too.

Leaving me what? The donkey, presumably out of some chivalrous impulse: I could ride it in shame back to Venter’s. The egg: it perched on the sand, balanced on one end. They had not wished to take it with them. And my collecting trunk. It stood askew on the ground, spilling its drawers   into the sand, preserving fluid leaking from a corner. Its tiny compartments lay open to the sky, its intricate systems mocked by the boundless land. Carefully, I slid the drawers home, checking for broken jars and vials. Of course I could not move it on my own.

At my feet, the dry mud was cracked into hexagons, marked only by the points where the tent-pegs had been sunk, the impress of the cooking pots, the cold firepit and the long churned wake of the oxen. I put on Venter’s hat with its fancy band and stood in the small puddle of my own shade.

I would have stayed there perhaps indefinitely, staring at the donkey staring at me, if there had not come some time later — I cannot say how long — the reports of many hooves on the dry earth. It was Venter and the riders. They slowed as they came alongside, and the man nodded a greeting. He seemed amused, hair glinting in the sun as he doffed his new hat. The others barely looked at me; they preferred to read the story directly from the earth. It was not a difficult tale.

The men wheeled their horses around me and took off to the north, faster now, chased by their shadows. That was what the commando was there to do, after all: pursue miscreants, thieves, absconders.

I followed on foot to the top of the pass, where the land fell away. I saw where the wagon wheels had gouged a track, a steep descent back and forth to the plain far below. It was even vaster than the one we had crossed the day before, pale yellow like a scarred old lion-skin, sparsely veined where darker bush marked the watercourses. Far off were flecks

of white and gold: a herd of springboks. Their heads were raised at identical angles to watch the slowly fleeing wagons, which churned in their wake a creamy plume of dust that hung in the air like blood in water. My runaway men were heading for a line of pale-blue hills. They did not seem to have gone very far, although the distances were so great it was hard to judge.

Directly below me, more dust rose, marking the far faster progress of the commando. The riders had reached the bottom of the pass and were striking out across the plain. As the two trails converged, I realised that, despite my losses, it was the wagons I was urging on. But the riders were remorseless. A few minutes later, I heard the dull concussion of the first shots. In the long-echoing stillness of the desert air, the buck leaped into the air and away, hanging for a moment on each bound like low-flying birds.

I turned away and walked back to the immobile donkey. I stared up at the blue sky, letting Venter’s hat fall from my head. Very high up, a large bird was wheeling, but I could not make out its markings. I could not identify it at all.

 

In the evening, they found me waiting back at the house. Venter let the boy’s body tumble from the back of the horse onto the ground. So light it barely stirred the dust. So bloodied that at first I thought an animal had slain him. But then I saw his head. Musket-ball, I thought. I’d seen that kind of wound many years ago, a boy myself, in the Spanish wars.

‘We lost the others in the hills,’ Venter said, shouldering past me into the house. The stench of powder and sweat and blood. ‘Godverdomme. Brandy.’

Outside in the raw sun, I saw the kitchen woman come, not with brandy but with an old kaross in her hands, dark and creased as a tobacco leaf. She knelt to fold it around the boy’s body, tucking it close with tense thrusts that made the muscles stand on her lean arms. At the last, he looked like a seed in a pod, a bat wrapped in its wings for the night.

 

South Atlantic Ocean

 Already on the ship I could tell the specimens were rotting, that my techniques for preservation had failed in some or all of them. Perhaps the dank air in the hold had affected the formula, or seawater breached the wax seals. Not trusting the seamen with the delicate objects, I had chosen to keep them in the cabin with me. I lie on top of my trunks like a dragon on its hoard. I found it kept the seasickness at bay, despite the smells of meat and arsenic, to press my cheek to the cool wood. I dreamed the sea-chest beneath me was a coffin lid, with beneath it Jacques’ face, lips drawn back from broken teeth. But Jacques was buried under stones, hands clutched around his ankles. Far from the sea.

The trunks were my fortune. I’d bartered every other thing I owned to get that damned Boer to haul me and my cases and jars back to the Cape with its hellish summer winds. With every mile my monies bled away. The oxen, the guns and the wagons, the servants … all those seemed now like outrageous riches, as opulent as the Countess’s silver dinner service.

I’d even sold Venter my precious Systema. He had put it next the Bible on his chest carved of yellow wood. I doubt very much the man could read either book. But it comforted me that Linnaeus’s pages were not blowing through the veld, catching on thorns, being used to light pipes around camp-fires. At the last, the scoundrel pressed his piteous collection of pelts and bones upon me; that at least was something.

Neuroptera, Mineræ, Muraena, I breathed through my nausea. If I turned my head towards the blue porthole,

I might glimpse a long head turned towards me, obscured by the slow flap of a leathery wing, riding the hot wind from the Cape. At other times, the creature followed beneath the ship. Once, in the early morning, I heard a deep boom shiver through the body of the vessel and I knew: it was pounding its head against the keel.

But when I went on board later that day, the men explained: ‘Cannonballs. Did you not realise? But we are safe now, by God’s grace.’

Corsairs. I laughed, and the sailors looked at me strangely.

In my notebook I tried to scratch a sketch of the creature I saw in my dreams, its serpent neck, its gaping jaws. Amphibia, Vermes, Hydra. The words were fading from my mind. The pen skittered away from me, the inkpot spilled.

In the third week at sea, the captain, a melancholy Swede, red-eyed, came down to complain of the smell, and insisted that the skins be turfed over the side. I was too sick to resist. Each drawer of my wooden cabinet was filled with corruption and shame: all lost, all for nothing.

But still I had the bones, and the egg in its wool-packed box. If I pulled aside the wool and laid my finger on the shell, I fancied I could feel some movement, a flip or shift in the sac of fluid within. Could it be alive? One storm-rocked night it escaped its nest and rolled elliptically across the deck. I scrambled after it, trapping it with my body.

At times I thought: this will be the making of me. It will be a sensation.

At other times I thought: it is my ruination.

 

Île-de-France

I have given up on the bones. All I have left is the bluish egg, heavy as a cannonball. It was cool when we found it, but here in the orangery I can feel it has gained warmth, like a quickening thing. Palms pressed to its curve, I close my eyes; the last thing I see in the gloom is the egg’s pale glow, like seashells, like bone, like quartz. I try to remember the shape of the painted creature on the rock, those many months ago. The red flanks, the calves and thighs, the long muzzle. The sheen of the wet rock behind it. A wonder.

Outside, shouts and the sound of breaking glass. The windows of the chateau. I think of the famous white cabinet, rocking on its ball-and-claws. The mob is coming closer,Vive la Révolution, and now the egg trembles against me as if in answer to that roar. Flames on my eyelids, an orange campfire light.

Breaking glass again, and closer, and all around. A wrench inside the shell. A black blast, a roar of heat: shards of glass strike me and as I topple back I feel the great egg crack in my arms, and something blood-hot and wet and writhing clambers from my grasp. As the walls of the orangery shatter around me, the newborn opens its wings.

When I wake I am on my back, staring up at the dark sky. The dome is broken. The chateau burns, and orange-lit smoke obscures the stars. It is too late for fear.

High above, the great forms hangs with wings outspread. Lizard-jawed, fish-scaled, coal-feathered, impossible. It pulls back its neck and screams. I cry out: something wordless, for it has no names that I can say.

It hears.

Looping its serpentine body, it turns and drops towards me. A hot rush of wind, and for a moment I see its giant eye.

It is a human eye, and every other kind besides. It is like no living thing, and yet contains all living things. It is animal and mineral and angel, and every being yet to be invented, all creatures of the coming age.

It rises up again, on wings of smoke and fire.

 

From  Animalia Paradoxa by Henrietta Rose-Innes (Published 2019 by Boiler House Press)