|When on Earth
© Feech -- all rights reserved
I grip the metal rail of the great, white boat and look down. Frothy whiteness and speed confuse my vision of the dark water from here, so I again move my gaze to the ocean that spreads far and wide around my transportation.
Many others ride this ship with me, and though I do not know many of them, one is my companion and will stay with me all the way to America.
Lani stands next to me, and I can hear her long, black hair move in the wind. Her presence makes me calm on this voyage; I would not know what to expect otherwise. I have been on a boat before, but only for a short time, and I have never been to America.
It is their "turn" with me. I know that sounds thoughtless, as though the scientists and doctors are just using me for their own curiosity's sake, but I am not treated badly. They are compensating me for the time and the tests and the travel. I do not know where else I would go, anyway. I do not know who I am.
Oh, I know who I am now. In Australia they named me officially, because I needed records and passports and things. I remember everything from the time I walked over the grasslands to a ranch in Tasmania, and was given a first name by the lone man there because I could not remember my own. So now I am Hannah Merle, but you can call me Anne.
Anne was the only way I felt comfortable pronouncing my name at first, before I was more skilled at controlling my voice. I still have a sort of whispery voice, and am working on it. Lani has a beautiful voice, and helps me to practice. I may not see her again after we get to Hawaii and the mainland beyond, but in all the ships and cabins so far on this trip she has been near, and helped me. I will have someone to meet me, and a short trip on a plane. I don't know what that will be like, except that the doctors were worried about it. I am making most of the journey on ships because they were concerned about my being claustrophobic, maybe unpredictable. So I hope I can conduct myself well on the plane. Lani stays on the west coast of the United States, and I go to the east coast. I am going to college.
The university in question wanted to study me, same as the institutions in Australia, but the Australian scientists kept me in their care for two years. I have been learning to use my body and behave in society and take intelligence tests, until I am now ready to continue my education elsewhere, and the scientists are satisfied with their study of my body. Now the Americans at the University of Egypt, Massachusetts, have decided on a plan of compensation so that Australia will trust me to them and I will be well provided for. I guess the school is some kind of private institution, but quite prestigious, as the doctors tell me, and with an excellent record in the study of marsupial creatures from Australia and Tasmania. So there I go.
I watch for sea creatures from the deck of the ship. I have no fear of falling, although the rails seem skimpy and my paw-hands are all that keep me balancing when the water builds up suddenly under the boat and flings us down and forward. Others seem to be less fascinated, but I can understand that. I have, the scientists are guessing, eighteen empty years to catch up on and I am trying my best to attend to every detail. Although sometimes I would rather be in a cabin alone, where no one can bother me. When I start coughing instead of speaking coherently, Lani knows I am on the edge of getting too nervous and she takes me where I can avoid everybody. On the deck I am usually okay. In the dining rooms and such, though, I never know ahead of time when someone is going to bump into or brush against me. All the smells and sounds are in the same place and it's almost impossible to predict. I can stand it pleasantly for about an hour before I need a break.
I hope to get better with time.
The college will be paying for my room and board, and as I am a human being with rights, although we do not know what human being, they are adding free courses in my chosen field for the years I am studied there. They hope that in this way they will be shown to be generous and caring, even though they are getting something out of it. Of course, I had no idea what I wanted to study. First I said, to the Australian doctors, when they told me where I was going, that I thought I would study the Tasmanian wolves. They were very nice about telling me that there are no courses for that sort of thing, even though the university I will be attending specializes in marsupial biology. I knew why I was going, but I had not been aware that no one studied my species especially. After all, I had heard that they studied long-extinct species like the brontosaurus and other dinosaurs, and I thought there might be a marsupial class like that. But it seems there isn't.
They took me into a room that smelled overly clean, and showed me a seat where I was to "get comfortable". Only they forgot my semi-rigid tail, and there was no gap in the back of the chair. I didn't say anything, still being very shy, even though I had been having treatments and therapy to try to awaken my memory. A search had been made for my family, including a tracking of all people who had entered Tasmania through airlines and travel companies, but so far there had been nothing. I was an unknown. They decided to proceed with satisfying their own desires in regards to me.
For all the scientists knew, I could have been an old man or something, or a woman, living alone in the wilderness until lost from my own home when my memory was erased. I have SCABS. That is really all they know about me as an individual. I could have been young, old, or in the middle, but I am now eighteen-year-old Hannah and as a Thylacine they know a lot about me.
On that day that they began to deal with me in this new way, the doctors wanted to explain that museums and research facilities would pay to keep me housed and fed and educated, as if they were my family, provided they could have the chance of studying the Thylacine. The marsupial wolf.
I did not mention the unsuitability of the chair, but sat sideways on the floor in front of it.
"Are you comfortable, Hannah?" a woman doctor asked.
"Anne," I corrected her quietly, and she nodded.
"Anne, if you like. Are you comfortable? We would like to explain some things to you."
I nodded. "'kay." I wanted to tell her to get me a new chair, and to ask her whether this meant they would search no more for my past, and to explain that I liked the name Hannah fine but was still not able to say it well, so wanted others to do it my way. But at the time I was still a very bad talker so I stayed silent.
The other doctors, four in all, entered the room in their white clothes and rainbow nametags, and fiddled with the controls on a television that had a black video disc player attached. One man patted me on the head, and I looked up, but he was already looking at something on his clipboard and did not see my reaction. I felt a little odd. Scientists, I found, are not like teachers. The machinery and the notepads matter more than the person. But they will still pat you and speak nicely to you. They just quickly forget they have done so.
"Now, Anne," said someone, I think the one with the odd-smelling hairspray, whose name I forget now even though I learned them all... I can only beg excuse due to my confusion and the newness of their approach. They were going to use me, I could tell, but I did not think it would be unpleasant. They seemed sincere. "We have some things to show you, since you are in our care and it seems that no relatives of yours can yet be found."
The scientists did not have the accents of my teachers and the man who found me. I have learned that they come from many countries, and that I may expect the institutions in America to be the same way. The accents all overlap once they are in white coats, it seems. Though Lani says it is not always that way. She has been to several countries, so I guess she knows. But there is so much catching up to do!
"This video," one of the men explained, "will show you a little about the kinds of studies we might do. We have also included a movie of the last marsupial wolf kept in captivity, so you may get a better idea of the way your species looked in the wild. We want to keep you informed of any details we think are significant. This could be very important to us, and to you, as this is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for study of an extinct species. You are part human, and many of the Thylacine characteristics will no doubt be affected by this, but nevertheless we feel from records provided by museums that you have enough physical characteristics of the species to perhaps lead to a better understanding of their past existence and, in the future, to a development of a man-made replacement species, as has been considered in recent years. Do you follow me so far?"
"Extinct?" I asked quietly.
"Yes, Anne. Extinct. As in no longer living as a species. Are you familiar with the term?"
"The Thylacine is an extinct species. For this reason, we wish to study you to learn more about them. The animals themselves are no longer available. They have all been dead for some time. All right? Now if you'll watch this video, it should explain--"
I sat, not breathing, for a moment as a white-clad person touched the "Play" button. Then, before the disc could start, I interrupted them: "All the marsupial wolves? They're not dead. I'm a wolf. Right? Didn't you say..." My voice was not exactly right but I needed to clarify. Something was hurting me and I began to feel afraid, although of what I cannot say.
"You are a SCABS Thylacine, or marsupial wolf, or Tasmanian wolf," a doctor said, mostly patiently. "It is important to understand that, although you cannot remember your past, you were human until the Martian Flu affected you. SCABS is capable, for reasons we do not understand, of changing a person until that person has some or all of the characteristics of another species, even a species that is extinct. You would not necessarily have had to come into contact with a Thylacine in order to be one."
"I know," I said slowly, "but why do you say they have all died? When did they die? Where did they go?"
The scientists sighed, collectively. They thought I had progressed past such elementary questions, I know that now. But I could not make them understand what I felt. I still don't know, myself. All I know is that I was upset and it did not make sense to them.
"Anne," they explained, "the marsupial wolf died out over a hundred years ago. We have here a movie of the last one kept in captivity. Ready to watch?"
Two sets of hands moved for the video controls but I interrupted again. "A hundred years ago? A century?"
"Yes, that's right."
"But that's-- impossible." I knew, somehow, that that was impossible. I ached. I have ached since then. Forgive me... I cannot explain it. "I came here a few months ago. When did they all die? Not a century--" my voice gave way to quiet, nervous cough-barking and I knew I was beaten. Beaten by my own inability to understand and articulate. Yet. I still want to learn. I wanted to, then. And I knew these people had my best interests at the center of their actions. Still... Something was wrong. Something is wrong.
The researchers waited a moment for me to calm down, then without further conversation they began the presentation. I was supposed to watch so I would understand the things they wanted to do, so I would know whether I agreed or not. But I decided I trusted them, and looked at the screen without giving the decision much effort.
Then the Thylacine came on.
The movie had been made a century ago, they said. It was in tones of black and white and little harsh squiggles dragged my eyes this way and that while I focused. The wolf circled anxiously in a grey cage and his stripes were black and his eyes sharp and smaller than mine, and I threw myself at the television. I did not speak, but held my face to the screen for the few moments that the creature could be seen. The doctors did not try to take me away, and I settled back anyway when the movie switched to something about research facilities.
"Sorry," I rasped, quietly.
"Are you all right?"
"Extinct," I replied, and looked up at my benefactors. They seemed to notice something about me that disturbed them. Their smells changed to those of reluctance and compassion.
"Are you sure you want to be involved in this? There are institutions where you could stay."
"No, educate me, please." I could not think where else I would go. And their scents were honest.
"We will continue the disc, then."
I nodded. I tried to pay attention. But I kept seeing other things, not before my eyes. Memories? They could not be. But sometimes I still have them, still see them, especially at night, in my dreams. They are black-and-white like the long-dead captive wolf. They are like nothing I have seen since emerging on the outskirts of that man's ranch. If I am imagining them, I do not know what to call them. If the visions are real, they must be happenings I have experienced. But that makes no sense. I see in color.
I looked down at the fawn hairs on my paw-hands, comparing to the aching vision of the filmed Thylacine. I knew my eyes were large and dark and liquid, and I knew that under my clothes my stripes were as a Thylacine's, halfway down my back and over the rear of my legs, although I walk upright like a girl. And I turned my slightly rounded, oddly wolfish ears to the television speaker and listened. But shadows and sounds from somewhere else in my mind kept interfering.
The ocean wind can ruffle even my short, coarse, fawn-colored coat when it blows roughly enough. Lani stands next to me and laughs pleasantly, noting my eager nostrils and straining ears as I scan the vast water for signs of life.
"Anne," says the tall, dark-skinned biologist, "what are you looking for? Are you like a mermaid? Do you belong to the sea, and are looking for the merman who will rescue you? You are so dramatic."
"I am looking for whales," I say.
"Well, I must say I agree with your interests. Do let me know if you see one."
I nod. I know what it is I want to study, at the University of Egypt, Massachusetts. If anything can live in these enormous blue and black spanses, I want to know it and see it. That is so much better than politics, or psychology or those other societal things I have to keep my mind on all the time. I am trying, I want to try, but I would rather keep a lookout for whales. Or seabirds. I have seen a few creatures, such as a school of large fish that flashed their sapphire sides and leapt near the boat, swimming with us for a time. I want to see more. I wish I could speak their language, as well. Seems I should be able to do that, with all the work I have put into English. And I am doing all right.
I turn to see a mother and her small child walking on the deck, in my direction. I know they are intending to continue on by me, so I keep my long, brown tail out of the way and press my torso against the rails. Lani glances at me, just to see that I am conducting myself properly. I give her a little grin, knowing not to open my mouth to its full gape around sensitive public. I just wrinkle my lip. She smirks happily at me.
The child is passing, his small hand held by his mother's, and as he looks up at me he says, "Mommy! Hello, Doggy!"
I smile at him, too, but a sudden scent of mistrust wafts from his mother and she hurries his little body along. "I don't think that's a doggy, Honey," she murmurs, shooting me one glance of what might be a sort of pity.
I am not a "doggy". I look over at Lani.
"What do I look like to you?"
She shades her eyes and takes a careful look. She has done this many times, of course, but this time I asked her to. "Anne, to me you look very pretty. It is a shame that you can't show your stripes. Your tail is very smooth and stiff-- I think that is what confuses people."
"No," I say. I have figured this out. When looking at my tail, people wonder, but they do not look away. "It is my face. I have never been seen. I make no sense. I am nothing but a wolf, and a wolf who is not quite right for a wolf looks wrong. I know. I have been thinking about it."
"Maybe a few uneducated people have mistaken you for a Dingo, and then thought you didn't look right, but you are a beautiful Thylacine, Hannah Merle."
"Well." I don't know what to think. The ocean distracts me from visions I am not sure I am even supposed to have, and so I soak its color in through my large eyes. I am silent.
I turn towards my companion again. I wait to see what she will do or say, but as the researchers in the lab when I was shown the film, Lani does not continue. Instead, she gazes at me sadly.
I watch her eyes and she watches mine. Hers are black and small, but I begin to sense my reflection in them. Her gaze becomes deeper, and more and more sorrowful.
I wonder... Where that sorrow comes from.
The ache inside me must be kept away, for I am a person I do not remember, and I must do right. I break the gaze we share and look desperately out over the moving water again.
The ship travels on, and I know its course from globes and maps I have been shown. I can see the point made on the page in the atlas, where I will be going to school. I do wonder what they will learn about Thylacines from me.
I think I hear a cry, high and short, calling, eager, but as I prick my ears to the ocean, the only place from where it seems it could have come, I hear...
I go to a church in Boston, my first day out on my own.
Oh, another student is with me, really, as she escorted me as far as the city on this trip and is staying nearby, but here am I, no one walking beside me, and with a watch to tell me what time to meet Mattie for an early dinner. I go to a church. I saw it on my way to the historically important parts of town, from the bus window. I showed it to Mattie and she said, "All right. If you want to explore, just meet me by four thirty at the bus stop where we get off for the museum. Here, you had better borrow my watch-- I'll find clocks to use, and you'd best not have to depend on strangers for directions or time."
Mattie had the authority to do this, as the University staff decided that I was safe enough on the streets in my own behavior that I would not endanger the school's reputation. I have also not had too much trouble with people who don't know me, yet. They look at me strangely, but I smell no malice in them towards me. Sometimes towards each other, though. Just when I'm walking by on the street.
I don't like smelling anger of strangers towards each other. When these things happen, I act nervous or I say something and Mattie or the other student who helps me, Brina, takes me home where I can sit in my room in the dorm. But today I know I can handle the excitement and grey-blue strangeness of Boston, and I am proud to be on my own. I have a job to do. I have to remember. I feel I must, somehow, the way people look at me when we work on marsupial research and talk about where I came from.
I keep my mouth shut about that, lately. The doctors know these things. I dream and don't say anything. They said it is not all that unusual to dream every dream in black and white, when during the day you see in color, and that it is probably from how I lost my memory... I may have gone full-morph in the Tasmanian grasslands, and lost my memory, and my brain may not store colors.
But it does store colors. I have all the shorebirds in Massachusetts memorized, and I know my favorite shirt is green (with pink stripes, narrow, across the breast), and I recall the fish schooling with our liner on the way to America were a dark sky blue. I looked them up. They are a kind of fish called a dolphin, not to be confused with the mammalian dolphin.
Not to be confused with red, or green, or pink. But I keep my mouth shut. It hurts to see them look at me and reflect something they swear comes from my eyes, something hurting, and not know how that could be. I am confused, I say. I cannot understand how this can be true.
You are diseased, they say. It stands to reason that your mind will fill in the blank spaces with memories that are not true. You need the stability. We will tell you your true self, and maybe someday you will learn to remember, too. You will not recover from SCABS. But your memory may recover.
Then they show more slides to the students, some of whom are my friends, and explain my diet (some kinds of marsupials, but they are not sure other than wallabies and kangaroos-- here and now I like Chinese. But that must be my human side, whoever I was, as my companions point out).
School is the best thing to engage in.
I am saving my allowances, which the University of Egypt, Massachusetts, gives me as if I am a member of their family, for I need wages to keep dressed and satisfied, and they can schedule me for studying and sampling any time they like. I save the money and buy clothes at the bargain sales, with Mattie or Brina, and try to eat in the cafeteria as often as possible-- though eating out is fun. I want to go on a whale watch. I have been on one and it was more exciting and fulfilling than anything we have done so far for the classes I myself am studying between being studied by the other classes. The whale watches are expensive and I will not be able to go often, but I save for them. I am grateful to the school for the money and the home.
Boston is a big city. More closed-in than the even larger cities I spent some time in while in Australia, and so, to me, bigger. The stones and bricks are old and brown and bluish mossy grey and outlined in black iron fire escapes.
Some places here are modern, glass and green trim and shined as glistening as the surface of the ocean I study, but in this large, deep neighborhood the sidewalks are newest. I can smell old, old, old on the outsides of the buildings, even under a grime from automobiles. Long-ago old, like the moving picture Thylacine. Some of them are less old. And one of these is the church.
It has yellow brick, and what caught my curious eye through the bus window was the Jesus figure hanging on the flat wall outside. Facing the street, but looking down, exhausted, I think, from dying. Bronze-dark-brown, on the Cross as-- it's called a Crucifix. Yes. I have seen a church service on TV. Not in person.
I know Sundays are the traditional days of the church services for those of the people who worship this Christ, Jesus, and this is not Sunday, but I think I will visit the House, anyway. That is what I have heard people call it, and they smell respectful. A little of the Holy Bible has been read to me. Also, other Holy Texts. But this is difficult for me. So much to society! And all those bodies, during a service. Touching and brushing and who-knows-what when. Seeing it on the screen is all right. Maybe I will remember my old body and get better about strangers contacting me unexpectedly. But an hour in such close quarters, how would I learn anything? I hear some of the services are all day long. I do not know if they sit so close in those religions. Well. I want to look inside this church. Now.
The doors are two beside one another, yellow and with steel handles rubbed by layers and layers of hands having pulled them for years. I think the last person to imprint the steel was a man. I am always checking these things, even if they mean nothing to me.
Jesus looms, and looks down at the sidewalk. I smile-wrinkle up at him, statues always make me do that, as if their expressions are real. I said so to someone, and they laughed at me. Said I was still growing up, all over again. Maybe I said it wrong.
Cool, comfortable air comes forth from the main area of the church. There seems to be no Lobby, like in motels or museums; there is only a square opening into the seats and the spot where the priest performs his duties.
In one upper corner of the entryway wall there is a surveillance camera, like they have in stores. There is no one out here but me, however. I draw my tail quickly in through the doorway and the seam comes flush again behind me.
"Is there anybody here?" I call, softly, in a voice that you could almost call normal except for its soft huskiness.
No answer. I walk further into the church.
There is a small glow from within a red lantern at the far end of the building. Two doors leave, that I can see, in opposite directions, and there is a platform that seems to be the focus of the way the seats are facing.
In the front, maple-colored bench, on an end, sits a deep green pot with a rose bush inside.
The bush is red-flowered, some opened wide, and leafed thickly with forest green. It appears to be well taken care of. I have seen some of the potted plants in the dorms where I live. They are not, sadly, so full and glossy.
Beyond the rose bush, beyond the doors and the platform with its rock altar, is an entire wall tiled to form a picture of the Christ. This time, he is looking up, solemnly, with his golden hands held out wide. The tiles are put together in intricate detail to show his eyes, and hair, and a glow around his hair, and then the robes and a sky beyond. The side walls inside this place are plain yellow paint on brick-- the picture wall is the only decoration, but it is big. Small, compared to the city outside, though. I go in to sit down.
I think, it can't hurt, can it? If I learn to sit in these places alone, maybe things will come to me, little things about who I am. With an escort I can only think so long before we begin to talk about something. My dorm room is always the same. So I will try to be out, alone, like so. Maybe I can become used to the church, too. Then one less thing to worry about, if I ever attend a service. One less thing besides the bumping and claustrophobia. I get better every day.
Maybe the forests and the grasslands spoiled me. I do not recall. I sit down on a smooth-backed bench and reach for a book, kept in a rack in the seatback in front of me. Hymns. I read the words.
I look around, in between reading the tiny-print words in the newsprint pages. The air moves enough in an indoor breeze through this building that the leaves of the shiny rose bush rustle slightly, and I can ripple my nostril just a bit to catch its raspberry-tea scent. Pretty.
The smell of print and closed book rises from the "Missalette", as it is called on the small magazine-like cover. I would rather smell the rose, as it comes to me over the tile and stone and water essences here, over the scent of many individuals, clumped into one space for the services, gone now but lingering on the benches and in the air. I close the small book of hymns. I close my eyes and try to remember some of the words.
The tingles on the back of my neck are unfamiliar.
Something about the place, the Christ and the tile, is soothing, if a bit odd and out of place, being so empty in a city like Boston, and I stay seated with my lids over my large eyes and think. I try to remember things. The rose cannot be aware, I think, but I am smelling its self strongly. The strangeness continues. My hands burn slightly where I held the book. I look down, for a brief instant, but there is nothing to see but the bit of peachiness to my fingertips that may have come from lights in the ceiling, manufactured and not like the light outside.
My eyes shut again and I see the Christ walls, both of them, and then grey things from before the scientists told me to try to stop.
I do try to stop, to do as they say, but I see things I cannot make go away. Cries, but not cries like those of people in pain. Dark, light. Dark. Light. Ripples. Breeze. All in shades of grey or tricklings of the most faded of rainbow colors into white and black. My ears turn to catch the mind-sound of the yipes or cries, but I have trouble getting them to do so. I must be distracted by the newness of the church and my thoughts-- my ears are oddly immobile. I think and think and the smell of the rose fades away. I hear a rustling, but it becomes a sound effect, like on television, for a form in a vision. My hair and face feel strange. I have to get out of here.
My eyes snap open and see the rose, closer than before.
I know I must be imagining things, so I nod to the rose-- I feel odd. I feel I must acknowledge something. I sense strange things. The rose bush in its pot seems out of place, a plant not explained by the building or people or my own eyes. I next try to nod politely to the tiled wall-picture of Jesus. The one of not the Crucifix. I want to pay my respects, as to a host, and in this House there is no host. Except God, I think.
I think some people say that animals don't have spirits. Christ. Are all the wolves in Heaven? Or not? I still do not understand this. Everybody tells me something different. Finally I asked a professor, straight out, "If the Thylacines are dead, all dead, a century ago, where did they go? Did they not go to Heaven?"
The professor looked at me. I still don't know. The answer she gave was overshadowed by one of those not-possible visions. I have not yet asked her again.
Truthfully, I do not think she knows. I wish to ask someone who knows. But that is hard to find. Someone who knows, and who can tell you they know so your sense feels right and the words and the person feel right. So they know, and I know they know.
The doctors, the teachers, tell me what is right, and for that I am grateful. I must not cross what they say, unless I have a reason. And there is only one of me. All of them say the same thing-- "You are a person, so don't worry about it. And do not hinder your progress by dwelling on these dreams you use to escape. Everyone has a different opinion on animal souls. We want to help you as a person. Do not fear; humans with SCABS are still humans. Concentrate on your studies, and who you are, and let us concentrate on the marsupial wolf. We will keep you informed. You are an asset to science."
I know. But I still ask about animal souls. And even as I get better at this society and University life every day, I do not try to escape with my discolored dreams. They come, every day, every night. If it is wrong, I had better keep quiet, because I will yet learn to suppress them, and I will not be kept from free days like today.
The freedom is a little scary. I almost wish for Mattie beside me, instead of at the bus stop in forty-five minutes. I could tell her I am feeling weird, a little off, with all this thought and the new space of the church, and she would see me to a safe place.
The church is safe. But I must get out. Somewhere else, I may come back to myself and be collected by the time I meet Mattie.
Whales. I curl the edge of my lip in a tiny smile at the thought of their washed, dark selves waving to us from off the side of the boat. Soon I will be able to make such discovering trips alone. Perhaps as soon as I have the money saved, even.
Not that I don't love the horseshoe crabs, and the fishes, and all of the creatures we seek and find in the sand in Egypt. I try to pay close attention to films in class, too, though the teachers' speaking is better for me to gain knowledge by.
It is that the whales choose to come see us.
I wonder if there are other such beings, and other such visits, taking place elsewhere.
The wide, rimmed doorway to the place of the steel door handles. I pause in my slight confusion at a bowl of water, two bowls, placed one on either side of the entryway.
On the way, I pass the one on my right, and stop over it. The brass-hued holder seems empty at certain angles and in certain light, as I turn my oddly itching head this way and that, and upon closer inspection the water turns dark.
In the circle is a girl, or perhaps a woman, of blue eyes shimmered brass by the back of the water, and black hair curved at all the tips over her shoulders. I have never seen her before. I glance at the pale skin and solemn expression, then pull back and blink at the double doors beyond. Light. In the street is light, from the sun rather than fixtures in ceiling tile. I decide to go out.
Pushing the right-hand door, I break the seam and release myself onto the street. I have done well, I think, for a first time practicing, and I will come again to this building when I can.
For now I need to sit down. A bench, sunshined and made with slats, not solid and smooth like those in the church, curves its back invitingly across the street. I check for cars, but the street seems particularly quiet today. I cross to the bench.
My head still feels weird. I shake a little, and close my eyes. The tingling turns to burning, as if I have been sitting in one place too long, and then a tight ache-- then it is gone.
I look up. Jesus looks at the sidewalk across from me.
Someone walks by, steps scuffing along unhurriedly, and I wait for that glance that will say, oh, a dog, no, a-- and then that strange scent and look of nonrecognition, and the quickening of steps. People do like to have things defined. I know at least that much about our society, so far!
Mattie. The bus stop. I get up from the bench and go to meet her, as the passerby sees the SCAB, thinks, is confused, and discards. I ignore the walker and move in my own path.
I check the watch Mattie has loaned me. I seem to be doing well for time. In the windows of the shops I pass, I see clothes and jewelry, and my face. The thinly furred ears, cupped to trap vibration before me, as though my reflection might make a sound, and black nose tipping a tan muzzle, pointing at the face of Anne. Peering back at herself, looking in store windows in Boston.
From Tasmania to Australia, Australia to the west coast of the United States of America and from the west coast to the east coast. Egypt, Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts and now, Pennsylvania. It can be mind-boggling. I don't know how people do it, sometimes... I have only travelled to those few areas on the globe and already I go to my room at night and open the atlas, pinpointing the place where I stand-- as near as I can from the maps, anyway.
My comfort with a place only comes when I know where that place is in relation to everywhere else-- except on boats. Somehow, looking over the sides, I know the ocean is as open and honest a place as one could ever find-- it still amazes me that creatures live there, and I have been studying them with a fervor that impresses some of my teachers... They say that if motivation decided progress, I would be outstanding in my field. I am still a little slow, though. I am always getting sidetracked by life. And, of course, there are others who desire to learn about my physical self as much as I need to learn about society.
Some say the ocean is deep and secretive... In my mind, at least it is present now, and that is more than can be said for the me that was... or the Tasmanian wolves. They still say they are dead a hundred years. And still I ache. It is an ache of confusion, of time. Sometimes in the grey flickers of images over my vision I recall the months that passed between my appearance on the ranch and the discussion with the doctors in Australia, and I know something is not right. Something... What it is, I will probably never know. It is as they have said. I am confused. Lost my memory. So I do not relate the memories I have, anymore. But still, something comes to me. Did I go full-morph in the grasslands? If I stay here, and do as I am told, does it matter?
What if I have a family somewhere?
I have these thoughts everywhere, and the images will not be suppressed, as is proven by the fact that I am distracted from the questions being put to me right now.
I am sitting in a pleasant room, clean, but smelling of disinfectant sprays, warm plastic electrical equipment, and colognes. My chair is plastic, but accommodates my stiff tail nicely with a curved opening at the back. Much better than lecture-hall chairs or waiting-room chairs.
"What do you like to be called, Miss Hannah Merle?" The groomer asks gently, for the third time, and this time I turn my large, round eyes to him and wrinkle my lip in a smile.
"Sorry," I say huskily. "I am distracted... And I have never... done this before."
"I understand that, all right," says the groomer, marking something on the file he is supporting against the panelling of the room. His own smile is slight, but genuine. In fact I like the way he smells, despite the shiny smock that obscures most of his clothing and some of his natural scent as well. He seems trustworthy. I decide to pay attention to him and do this right. After all, I can't make a bad name for my university while visiting MacLeod.
The graduate student from the University of Egypt who has been including me in his presentation on extrapolation of characteristics of extinct species from known fact has been invited to present at MacLeod University, and I came with him. He claims I am the best visual aid he could have, and should help to maintain interest in the topic. My supervisors gave consent, provided I can handle being on stage in a strange place. I will practice that later, before the students arrive for the presentation, much as I sat alone in the church in Boston.
I really am not an entirely accurate representation of a Thylacine, I think as I inspect the thin fur on my wrist. But anything to improve the project, as the student says, and so here I am to be groomed. I must admit that even I can see the sense in this. I really do like to look my best when confronted with so many unknowns.
"Anne is fine," I reply to Angelo, quietly, and the groomer nods, evidently writing this name next to my legal one.
"Anne, then. Nice name. Now, the people from your university said they wanted you to get spruced up for a presentation someone is doing. What would you consider 'spruced up,' Anne?"
I look at him. Red hair, small earrings-- I never wear that kind of thing myself, but they fascinate me on other people-- relaxed position as he waits patiently for my next answer. He wants to know. What do I consider 'spruced up.' Of course, it's my groom. I am doing it for the school, but... "Well, I don't know... Something to enhance the Thylacine, since I am one on two legs, mainly..."
He looks at me, now. And something crosses his scent and his expression, but is gone before I can truly catch it.
"Anne," he says, businesslike but friendly, "Why don't we go ahead and get started, and when I get the basics done and you have taken your shower, we can decide on any details that might please you. How's that sound?"
"Okay." I say, getting the slightest of impressions that he is somehow testing me. I adjust myself for comfort in the seat and look down at the old clothes I wore for the appointment, having been instructed not to wear anything that might be ruined by hairs and lotions and such. Really, I am only truly comfortable in old clothes anyway, I have gotten so used to them. This is just one of my regular outfits. It's already been through seawater and chemicals and whoknowswhatelse. Angelo turns away, setting the file aside and taking up some metal object that I cannot quite identify right away, then reaching over to a black CD player as if this is part of his daily ritual and turning it on before returning to me.
"Hope you don't mind music-- if it bothers you, we can turn it off," says the groomer. I nod, and when he is within range, I indicate my willingness to begin the grooming procedure by extending a hand-paw towards him.
Again that indefinable look, but Angelo smells very much as if he has discovered something utterly unexpected. He takes my hand, and shows me the metal tool. "Guillotine clippers," he says. "I'm just going to shave the tips off your fingernails and see how it goes. In my experience, all species and ages of animals have differently textured nails, and in your case this could take a bit of experimenting-- I have never groomed a Thylacine before."
At the appearance of yet another smile across the man's face I relax and try to forget the sound of the clippers snapping as they trim my claws, instead swiveling an ear towards the black CD player on the window sill. The musical sounds are harsh, but not unpleasant; the lead singer has rather a screaming voice, but the volume is not too loud and I listen closely out of mild curiosity.
I have been scraped, examined, taught modesty and then had it blithely violated, yet having a relative stranger touch my hands and feet still makes me jumpy. Oh, well. I sigh, I hope inaudibly. No reason to behave as if I don't trust the friendly Angelo. After all, the first thing he did during this appointment was ask my opinion. I am, for these few hours, free of the doctors' and researchers' decisions. It is rather soothing.
"What music is this?" I ask, quietly, trying not to move the limb he is currently working on.
"Guns'n'Roses. Popular years back. This was their best album, in my opinion."
"Is that a violin?"
Angelo pauses and reaches into a nearby plastic cart for an emery board. I place my hand in my lap as soon as he lets go, then raise it again when he faces me. "Thank you, that's perfect," he says, and begins rasping the edges of the trimmed claws. "I think later on in the album there's a violin, but I'm not sure. Is the music disturbing to you?"
"Oh, no," I assure him. I watch the progress on my nails for a moment, but again find it more soothing to glance away.
Angelo notices. "Does the nail trimming make you nervous?"
"Now that is odd," he informs me, and again that curious demeanor is evident in the groomer's posture and eyes. "Do tell me if anything else makes you nervous."
I got back to my dorm room after seeing the church and taking dinner with Mattie, and I flicked on the TV for awhile, just to make a smooth transition from the activity outside my private space to the quiet inside. I looked in the mirror.
Same, fawn-colored wolf-headed girl I always knew-- that is, always since the first time I saw a human being, although I must have known many I cannot remember. The rancher showed me myself in his looking glass, hoping to spark some memory with what I could see there, but I just nodded, unable at that time to speak his language and picking up on the body language that meant "agreement" in his evident communication.
Something about that reflection, back in Tasmania, confused me deeply, and I recall a pained expression on the rancher's lined face, as though I said or did something to sadden him, but I do not remember now what that was or why I became upset myself.
I am reminded of the filmed Thylacine that I was shown in the Australian research center. Perhaps I did something like that-- pressed my face to the mirror, connecting with an object nonexistent. All I know is that I nodded, and with that the rancher seemed determined, I suppose to find my identity and return me, a poor lost girl, to her family. I obeyed whatever he, and later the doctors, said, and I learned again to speak the language they say I must have left behind... Although they do not really know for certain what nationality I might have been.
I looked in my mirror in the dorm room, and considered the happenings of my first day free, on my own. It had been interesting, but I still could not be sure I was doing everything correctly.
I slunk tiredly over to my bed and flopped, belly-down, onto it, leaving the thin white curtains open so the last of the sun could soak through the windowpane. I believe I slept... At any rate, I went into a sort of torpor...
When I awoke, it was dark except for the glimmer of street lamps bouncing off the glass of my dorm room window. I felt dry and sweaty at the same time, and knew something was wrong when I felt the stick of sweat around my neck and chin. I only sweat on my palms and feet.
I jumped up, and a sort of dizziness unsteadied me, and I felt a brushing of fur against my shoulders where it should not have been. My nose and ears were solid, useless. I tried to stretch and realign my jaw and could not. It all felt like that strange sensation that had overcome me in the Christian church, but I had thought there that it was a matter of having been out in strange places too long, coupled with my ongoing confusion. I knew now that it was physical, and strong, whatever it was, and I stifled an urge to flee.
Running out into the halls, sick and confused, would be foolhardy until I knew where to go for help, who of the members of the college I could trust.
I staggered to the mirror, no longer dizzy but frightened, and stared.
The reflection was of a woman, dark-haired and blue-eyed, and I knew in an instant I had seen her before-- once. In the water placed in bowls at the church. This was me! Except that I knew, once and for all, it was not. The girl with curved black hair, melded with the Thylacine body I had grown accustomed to, was an utter stranger.
I screamed-- or, more properly, I let out a high-pitched "Yip!" that could certainly be heard down the hall, then fell into a coughing fit such as I had not had since first travelling to Australia following my discovery.
I only cough lately when I am dreadfully nervous. I had made up my mind to hide, curled under the sink in my room, until recovering myself again, but Brina in the room three doors down was approaching her own room, and heard my cry.
"Anne! Anne, are you all right?"
I coughed, and Brina pushed the door open-- I am always forgetting to lock it-- and came to sit beside me on the floor. "Anne! How do you feel? Look at yourself-- the SCABS has changed your face back. Are you okay? Why did you yelp like that?"
I shook my head. I couldn't work up more than a whisper at first, then managed: "Stripes."
"What, Honey?" Brina placed an arm cautiously around my shoulder and squeezed gently. I did not object. At least she was known to me. "What's wrong, Anne? What are you saying?"
I coughed again and was silent. I had the distinct impression that I had said something silly, and felt it best to shut up once again. Anyway, the images like old film were piercing my consciousness again, so much like memories I could have sworn... But I just curled up next to Brina on the tiles of the dorm floor, and said nothing.
Brina stayed with me. The next day a photograph of my human face was sent off by computer to Australia, so the search could begin anew for my family, if I have any. So far, nothing has come of it. Two days later my face reformed with another bout of dizziness and tingling, and with my trusted sense of smell and my typical body back, I began to feel much better. It was with immense relief that I looked back into the mirror at a Thylacine, no matter how odd the species, and with my usual wonderment that I attempted to fathom the emptiness of my deep brown eyes. They keep telling me I have the biggest, lonesomest eyes-- that it "spooks them out". But all I feel is a question. Maybe they are mistaking aching confusion for sadness. The same way they confused panic with excitement, when my face shifted like that.
I listen to the experts, and I try to make myself better doing what they say. They help me with my learning. But still no one really tells me where the wolves have gone, and why I do not recall ever having seen that woman's face in the glass. Therapists only succeed in bringing forth more of the Thylacine, and concentrate instead on my education as a new human being. Well, fine... I do not remember who I was, they won't let me, and I might as well be new as anything else.
I spend a lot of time at the shore, not just during class projects, and jog along looking for horseshoe crabs and other animals.
I talk to them, sometimes. Is that strange? Talking to animals, I mean.
I have thought of asking my professors, and I know some people talk to domesticated animals, giving them commands, but I tire of the confusing replies to my questing and I am not certain I have seen anyone but my own self talking to crabs. I watch, I scent the air and listen, and here and there I pick up something that is taught to me unwittingly. Sometimes I think that is the best way.
"Nice, coarse hair," Angelo murmurs, running his fingers over the top of my head. "If you're going to be trying to impress upon people the true nature of the Thylacine, I really hesitate to detract from it. What say we just spot-clean you, and use plain water otherwise. In your case, we don't want 'fluffy'."
I nod, listening, but also listening to the music and watching the movement on the street outside. Angelo gives me a small bottle of translucent gold shampoo.
"I would like you to please wash the sides of your face, and your arms and hands, with that, and also the soles of your feet, since you say you sweat there. The shampoo is hypoallergenic and very gentle... I see you have been using human shampoos, which is not a good idea with your skin... This shampoo is safe enough for you to use in the corners under your eyes, too, but otherwise I want you to rinse off real well with water only. Then we'll use the blow-dryer, okay?
"Towels are on the rack next to the tub... Towel-dry yourself as much as you like, with circular motions so we don't break any of those nice hairs, all right?"
I wrinkle-smile back at the smiling man and enter the next room, which has been made over to accommodate any kind of SCAB bath needs... Except possibly the very largest of creatures, although there is only so much Angelo must be able to do with a smallish place like this. I proceed to rinse carefully in the spray from the shower. From the other room comes the muffled sound of Angelo idly singing with the CD player while he organizes his equipment.
It doesn't take more than a few minutes to spot-clean and get water through my entire coat, as instructed, and I towel-dry to the point where I can change comfortably into my other set of clothes-- also old. I notice a dryer in the bath room, but with my short hair I do not need to do anything but towel off thoroughly before reentering the vacuumed and wiped-down grooming area.
I go back over to the chair and arrange my tail. Angelo brandishes a white plastic dryer and a very finely toothed comb.
"Okay, now that you're clean, we'll make you perfect." He grins at me and flips the switch on the dryer.
I start. It's right there, whining, by my sensitive ears. I draw my head away to the side, trying not to show my discomfort. Angelo turns off the machine.
"Anne," he says casually, as if he planned for this pause and it does not in the least inconvenience him, "If you don't mind my asking a personal question, when did you come down with SCABS?"
"Oh," I say, just as casually, "A... couple years ago, down in Tasmania..."
"In Tasmania," he says. He steps back and looks at me, not for the first time. "That's unusual, to say the least, isn't it."
"How-- how so?"
"Well. I don't know of many people who go swimming and then turn into SCABS sharks, or go to Borneo and become orangutans. It doesn't seem to depend on the place the individual is at the time, does it."
He knows, or has a suspicion of, something I don't. At least, there is something he is not saying, almost as if afraid I might not want to hear it. What has the groomer been noticing about me? I decide to ask him a question, to see if he is as open and trustworthy as he seems.
"Angelo? Where did all the wolves go?"
"What wolves, Anne?" The song on the Guns'n'Roses CD changes, and we both listen to the next song's beginning for an instant. I keep one ear on the slow, yet wailing music and one on the man before me.
"All the Tasmanian wolves," I say.
"No, not like..."
Something in the music half catches my attention, but after one wondering moment I dismiss it. It was nothing, I guess. "Not like me," I continue. "Not human. Extinct. Just as all the researchers say. Extinct."
"Hm. Well, if they're gone, then they are gone to Heaven, if you ask me, which you did. But tell me. What do you remember."
"Nothing. I don't have any memory of anything that happened before I saw a rancher who helped me."
"Really? What happened? Didn't anybody claim you?"
He still has thoughts he's not voicing, even though he smells perfectly honest under that smock. He hangs the dryer back on a hook on the wall and picks up a small, yellow towel. "We'll use this," he says, and demonstrates the towel's super-absorbency. "No one knew who you were?"
I begin to understand. He will listen to me. I look up at him eagerly from under the towel.
"I dream in black-and-white," I tell Angelo.
"What do you dream of?"
"Thylacines. I smell in my sleep, and I smell them. And sometimes I remember--" Yes. I remember, no matter what anybody else says, "-- waking up on the first day after I left my mother, and feeling so sick I could not eat. And my body got larger and I got hungrier and--"
Angelo listens raptly, in evident fascination, and rather suddenly the song on the CD dips into a quiet part, so quiet I pause and shift my ear to listen. The music falls into a building rhythm. A rhythm like the loping, not so fast but inevitable and able to go all night, of a wolf or two following one animal of prey to its inexorable death. I listen. And then I jump out of my chair, and press my ear to the machine, even though the music is too loud when up close, even though I know there are no Tasmanian wolves in there-- or, they say, anywhere, though I know better than that.
"Angelo," I rasp, "listen to this."
It is the exact note of the contact call. I would know it anywhere. Here, on the electric guitar or whatever it is, the sound is too drawn-out, but this is it. We are loners, or working in pairs, but as a family or a pair there is a voice for keeping track of the others' whereabouts. "Listen to this."
Angelo listens from where he stands. He seems the slightest bit afraid of me, for an instant. Spooky, I realize. He had not thought his CD called to dead animals. I am beginning to get the idea of what is frightening to others, when I think about it carefully. Still I keep my ear pressed to the black plastic machine.
"What is it?" Angelo inquires.
"It's them," I say, knowing as usual that my words do not necessarily make sense. "If it was short and sharp..."
"Ah, I see." And he does! He really does.
"I don't know what to do," I admit.
"You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. But if everybody else assumes..."
"Yes. I guess we should tell some people, the researchers, the students, the important people."
Angelo chuckles. "I knew my gut instincts would be correct. They almost always are, when it comes to clients. But in your case I had a hard time believing myself."
I nod. The song ends and I lose interest in the music.
"I had just started out on my own," I mutter quietly.
"Well." Angelo scratches the back of his head thoughtfully. "They won't believe you, you know. Do you know where they can find the other Thylacines?"
I nod emphatically. Now that I'm allowing the images in, of course I do! "I could lead a party to them. Although they will be hiding."
"You make a great human," he says, seeming to know what kind of encouragement is called for right now. I know my Thylacine self, but suddenly the human thing is slipping. I need to know I am not a bad one, even if I am due to--
"Angelo," I say suddenly, "What about--"
Again he knows, before I finish speaking. "My opinion. This is religious, so if you don't--"
"Okay. Well, I have SCABS myself, and I used to be a woman. I am completely male now, though I too have memories from before. And as for the soul, Darling, if those eyes mean anything, and if I know anything about SCABS, a virus does not create a soul. It comes with the territory and cannot be defined, made nor destroyed by a disease. And that's my two cents for the discussion today."
I let my human side take over and I hug him.
He seems pleased.
That rose is in the same place in the church in Boston. I enter quietly, during a weekday as before, because I have had about enough lately of poking and prodding and questions and discussion. Let them go to Tasmania and find out. I am going to school.
The rose rustles in the breeze of the indoor air system, and as I pause before the tiled representation of Jesus in what I hope is a respectful fashion, something occurs to me. Just as it does, just as the thought begins to cross my mind as I soak up the solitude of the church, another person enters the church.
The man genuflects as he comes in the door, and I can hear him dip a hand in the water even though my focus returns to the altar area. He steps quietly to the front pew, and slides in next to the rose bush, nodding to me as he does so, seeming to want to be friendly in case I am new here.
I slip into a pew off to the other side. I keep one eye peering at the rose and the man, and see the man lift a black folder from the pew, one that I know he did not bring in. It must have been sitting there already.
The man slides closer to the huge rose bush's pot, and touches one of the blossoms. The branch does, indeed, curl around the man's wrist.
I decide to pay attention to trying to learn to pray, but I can't help being interested in the interaction taking place in the front pew. I knew it. Maybe something of Angelo's intuition rubbed off on me during my stay with that graduate student in Pennsylvania.
I wonder if she spends a lot of time here, or whether, like me, this yellow brick church is a haven for short stretches of time before going back to the pursuit of-- well, of what depends on the person, but the pursuit of something important to the rose.
It occurs to me that the rose may have been a human, or may have been a rose, but it should not matter now. If Angelo is right, and a disease cannot create a being, then we all have equal invitation to be here.
That's why they always leave the door open.
I bought a Guns'n'Roses CD. "November Rain" is my favorite, of course, but I still don't want to go back to Tasmania-- not yet.
I have twenty-five Washingtons to go before my next Whale Watch.
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