a deer on mars

OctoberFicFest Day 10: Glide

It snows, more than she’s seen in a long time, and they stay indoors all day, reading and talking and watching old movies.  Scully tends to the hydroponic garden and slow-simmers apples for applesauce.  Mulder follows through on his promise and teachers her how to make latkes.  The whole house is filled with the warm scent of apples and potatoes.

They enjoy each other late into the night, generating more heat than the little radiator.  In the morning, the snow is frozen over, dry and crisp.  Mulder tromps out into the snow and comes back with a grin and a sled, one of the long plastic ones that’s big enough for two.  

“Should we?” he asks.

“Mulder, I can’t believe you’d even ask that,” Scully says, crossing her arms.  

For a moment, his face falls, and then she relents.  “Because the answer is obvious,” she goes on, “we absolutely should.”

They go out into the winter world with its knife edges, protected by their puffy coats and their sunglasses.  Mulder drags the sled and gallops through the drifts like a child, crunching as he goes. She follows behind, stretching her legs to step in his footsteps.  The rest of the surface is smooth, marred only by deer tracks and the flurry of feathers where the birds dove for berries lofting above the snow.

Scully braces herself between Mulder’s knees and they push off.  He wraps his arms around her.  The hill the cabin is built on is steep; they start out slowly, but gain speed quickly, flying across the driveway and through a path in the trees.  There’s no good way to steer; leaning helps, but it isn’t particularly effective. Scully doesn’t care though she knows she should.  Any number of things could happen to them on this sled: concussion, broken bones, breath knocked out.  None of it matters in the moment.  They are as close as she will ever get to flying under her own power, whipping through the woods on a way made smooth for them, for once.

She finds herself whooping,and Mulder hollers behind her, and the birds startle away from them.   They slide all the way to the end of the driveway, the wind whipping past them.   Mulder nearly crashes them into the mailbox.  Scully laughs until she falls into the snow.  Mulder clears the powder out of the hood of her jacket and rights the sled as Scully checks the mail.  They don’t open it, but she’ll put it in a bin when they get back.  There’s nothing addressed to them, of course, or even to their pseudonyms, but they keep it all together.  She tucks it into a pocket as Mulder drags the sled back up the driveway. 

“Again?” he asks.  

She sets the mail at the edge of the porch.  

“Take me flying, Mulder,” she says.  

I’m sifting through all my fossil teeth, bones, and imprints and thinking a lot about biology and geology and chemistry. Sometimes, it strikes me as a little odd, how something scientific can have such a deep, spiritual resonance for me. But it does. 

The knowledge that I am made of millions, if not billions (the human brain cannot truly conceive such numbers), of tiny, disparate atoms which come together to form molecules that chain into keratin, collagen, the water in my saliva, the hydrochloric acid in my stomach, the ATP whose splitting and reforming powers the actin and myosin proteins in my muscles… all of those infinitesimally small pieces are as ancient as the universe itself, and as individual as they all are, they bond together to form a complex, sentient, sapient organism who has a hard time imagining itself (herself) to be anything but a singular entity… That knowledge staggers me.

And though I sometimes feel like a failure, or that I’m not good enough, I only exist because of the successes of millions upon millions of years of my evolutionary ancestors. My own immediate family is no less important, but I cannot forget my more ancient ancestry.

H. floresienses. H. neaderthalensis. H. heidelbergensis. H. ergaster. H. habilis. Down through the eons. Australopithecus. Kenyanthropus. Paranthropus. Further still. Nakalipithecus. Ouranopithecus. Oh, but the mammalian lineage–my lineage–goes back further than primates.

My ancestors–Eozostrodon, Megazostrodon, Sinoconodon–walked with dinosaurs. Tiny, unobtrusive creatures with the size and look of modern mice and shrews, they went ignored by the mighty, stomping, sprinting royalty around them. They quietly burrowed in the brush and snapped up small insects to eat, and doubtless lived in constant fear of being ground into the dust by an inattentive sauropod or becoming the meal of some slightly-less-minuscule raptor. 

We, a species that considers itself the owner and and ultimate conqueror of the planet and the most important beings in the universe, had such modest, humble beginnings.

But evolution demands prototypes: A new species, a new order, cannot simply appear overnight. To have a mammal, you must have a proto-mammal.

My great-grandparents, my oft-forgotten ancestors, were the therapsids, the mammal-like reptiles. Cynodonts, dog-toothed reptiles with fewer jawbones than their parents. Funny little reptiles that look like a cross between a spaniel and an alligator. They are in my family tree, long-lost relatives of the sort that you really only see at those once-in-a-lifetime family reunions that bring in every living relative whose name you’ve never even heard before but who still, in some way or another, share blood with you.

But they aren’t just my own relatives. They are kin to tigers and elephants, opossums and woolly mammoths. Every creature who has hair and a body temperature kept stable by its own metabolic heat, every organism that gives birth to live young and nourishes them with milk from its own body, can thank the therapsids for successfully surviving. 

With this in mind, who am I–who are we–to say that anything non-human is lesser.

But those ancestral proto-mammals had to come from somewhere. Synapsids. Reptiles who came from amphibians, who came from bony fishes, who came from jawless fishes, who came from the countless invertebrates who swam the Cambrian seas (vibrant and exploding with life), who were the children of tiny single-cellular specks in the water who photosynthesized the light of a young sun and filled the skies with oxygen.

I am a tiny speck in the incomprehensible ocean of the universe, and the tiny specks–the atoms–that make me up once made up one of those tinier specks in the slightly-less-tiny oceans of planet Earth.

There is iron in my blood and iron in the lumpy deposits I pick up off the beach. The fossilized shark teeth I’ve plucked out from their bed of countless grains of silicon dioxide (beach sand, crumbs of quartz and all its colorful variants) are made of apatite–the same calcium phoshate that makes up my own. I have something in common with a fish that lived and died twenty million years ago? The mind boggles.

There are those in this world who say that evolution runs contrary to their own spiritual beliefs, and I feel a little sad for them. What must it be like, to feel so disconnected from the world? To believe that, rather than sharing a common, tiny, primordial ancestor with all living things on earth, from pine trees to parakeets, you were created as you are and are distinct, are separate from them? Lonely, I imagine.

My religion of evolution, my worship of natural and sexual selection, my veneration of change, fills me with such a sense of kinship to everything around me, to all things seen and unseen. There is iron in my blood, and iron in Calvert Cliffs, and iron in the M-type asteroids in the belt just beyond Mars. I can look at a deer or a raccoon or an eagle or a corn snake or a forty-foot maple tree and know that although our species all evolved to fill different niches, we are all on this planet together because we can trace our lineages back millions upon millions of years, through unimaginable numbers of successful generations, to the same tiny specks in the ocean.

I am never alone. Everything on earth that respires is my distant cousin, made of the same ionic and covalent bonds between billions of tiny, ancient pieces of matter. And I embrace them all. 

Perhaps this is why I’ve fallen in love with collecting fossils. It’s my own little way of meeting my long-lost relatives. A fossilized family reunion, happening here on my bedroom floor.

What a world.