by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
I’d been waiting for Leonard LaSalle for more than an hour. Waiting inside in a little gas station built onto the dock. Waiting more than an hour for the boat. I could hear it now. I stood and picked up my bags and went outside.
The boat was flat bottom and pushed by a giant fan; no propellers to foul, no centerboard to run aground. The entire thing was painted dark green so it was hard to spot skimming across the slimy water.
What drew my eye to the craft was the man driving it. He was dressed in white, sitting in the elevated seat; wearing a white lab coat over a white shirt and dark pants. The professor was tall and reminded me a little of John Brown the abolitionist, most especially the painting by John Steuart Curry that depicts John Brown as a wild-eyed maniac.
The pocket of the professor’s lab coat was filled with shotgun shells, with a few pencils and pens shoved in to keep everything vertical. He had a shotgun to go with the shells; the shotgun horizontal, tied across one of the seats, held down by camo-pattern stretchy chords. The air boat pulled up alongside the dock. The fan stopped spinning. The professor jumped over, holding a line.
While fueling his boat the man in the coat explained things.
“We’re out pretty far. There’s TV and a pool table. There’s an air conditioner too, but it doesn’t help all too much, though at least it’s bearable at night. You have your own room. There ain’t no reason to spend your evening takin’ my company, we ain’t gonna have no Brokeback moments if you catch my drift. We can play checkers but that’s about it. I’ve got work I’m at most of the time, and you’ll be busy almost as much as me. All I ask is, if you want to quit, tell me. I promise to ride you back here with no questions asked. Takin’ the skiff and running away ain’t a good idea.”
I wanted to ask what it was I was going to be doing, but figured I’d know soon enough. It took more than an hour to reach the facility, the boat following a secret trail that seemed to close behind us. The longest log in the water turned out to be a snake; a lot of the vines overhead, his children. We passed a barrier of drooping, moss-covered trees and then saw our destination: a tiny house on piers and a barge the size of an aircraft carrier towering up behind it.
Professor LaSalle took us past the house and circled the grounded beast. The air boat slid alongside the barge, we circled it counter-clockwise, the green steel side like a cliff to our left. I yelled over my shoulder; asking the obvious question.
He told me it tore loose from a tug and rode in on a tidal surge.
I was impressed with the power of nature. Not then knowing there were stronger impressions to come.
* * *
The barge contained silt. Fine particles of mud vacuumed from the bottom of a creek near the ‘Big Muddy’. The barge had been part of a dredging operation, and had only been partially loaded, when the wind came and the barge snapped cables and slipped from anchors and followed the river south, and then went out to sea and slowly turned, its passage a big circular journey that almost carried it home.
“When I heard about its location and contents I was thrilled.” He said. “I’ve been looking for the right volume of silt, the right materials — materials isolated by era, the right solids and fluids — solids separated into strata; and for a way to contain it. You’ve probably heard of Alexander Cairn-Smith; his theory about silt, about life emerging from silt.”
I hadn’t, but didn’t admit I hadn’t. LaSalle kept talking.
“Out here we didn’t have to do much besides sink some concrete and move some boards. We built the house near the barge, the university happy to get me off campus for a year or so. The house didn’t cost anything much, compared to what it was going to cost to build the container for the process.”
After a night of listening to an air conditioner fight for its life, we were on the air boat again; secured to the barge with rope. The side of the barge had a pipe sticking out. We were carrying big tanks of exotic gasses: acetylene and banned fluorocarbons and some army surplus mustard gas. Through the un-capped pipe we were spraying some very dubious ingredients. I could hear a strange hollow grumble coming from inside the barge. I put my ear up against the thick metal. It was early in the morning but already the metal was hot.
“Sounds like indigestion,” I said.
“Wait till the sun gets high,” he said, looking up at the bright morning sky. “You’ll see the whole barge twitch with stomach cramps.”
“Are you sure we’re legal?” I asked.
“Science,” he said.
He was right about the cramps. I could hear the barge shifting all day. The rotting silt and the interplay of gasses barely confined by the thick steel.
We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner; each meal some of the best canned food I’d ever had in my life. We threw our trash right out in the swamp. Looking down into the dark water I could see little flashes of light, tin surfaces asking for rescue.
Between meals, LaSalle did calculations; working out confined gas pressures and non-explosive Pascal mixtures and attempting ancient alien atmospheres while in his mind relating our current situation to a vast conspiracy of clever chemicals wanting us, also, to be as clever... chemicals hoping we might decipher for ourselves (and the college), the energized emerging enterprise of early nature, using for our variables and fixed quantities, a small sample of the cold silt of the river... like it was plaque scraped from God’s heart or oil melted from the fat of the Earth itself ready to be burned in our lamp to illuminate our way.
LaSalle was making primordial soup; throwing in everything but the oyster crackers.
Once an hour he took readings from a thermometer he had nailed to an outside wall. It just kept getting hotter. Ice taken outside would have disappeared like Styrofoam fed to gasoline. Around five-thirty the temperature peaked. One hundred twenty eight degrees. The frogs in the area were beginning to think they were in the sad story about frogs being boiled.
Three hours later the sun was setting and as part of the porch was covered with netting, I walked out and looked at the big steel cauldron of soup behind the house. A dozen mosquitoes put their feet in the mesh and made noises like a straw sucking up the last of a chocolate shake.
Holding a glass of iced tea LaSalle wandered outside.
“I get the part about ancient atmosphere,” I said. “Trying to match a place where oxygen was rare... and I understand the heat... are you sure we shouldn’t be allowing sunlight inside?”
“You’re thinking of the surface — and most people think of the surface — but I think life started deeper than that, that it crawled up, that it started like it will eventually end. Worms. Muck. Ooze. Decay.”
Not many sit-coms in LaSalle’s past, I guessed.
“To science...” he said. And he toasted the barge with tea.
It was weeks later that we climbed the thing. Iron rungs went from bottom to top in four different places. On top we were level with the trees. The barge was even bigger than it looked from below. There were ten large lids running the length of the vessel. All had been welded in place. There was a door. Like a door on a submarine. With steel bars locking into steel slots.
LaSalle had a weight and string and a big plastic bottle with a lid.
We opened the door.
Gas rushed out and it smelled like a dead moose and he dropped the weight into the silt and we retrieved a sample and slammed the door shut; only it was hard to close the door because of the pressure and the escaping brown gas.
Later he looked in the microscope.
“Yes!” he said, looking at the slide.
“Progress?” I said.
“The past is coming nearer.” he said.
* * *
We stopped adding gasses. We started taking samples of the trapped air. Oxygen emerged. Very faint. Very reluctantly.
We started hearing different sounds. Bumps. Something dragging along the barge’s insides. The pulsing and surging of silt.
The next time we climbed up high it was because of a noise at midnight. It sounded like an elephant calling for a mate, only from inside a tin drum. LaSalle had the shotgun. We both had flashlights. I had half a pool cue; the heavy end.
In his white coat I could make out where he was standing. He’d already spun the lock. He was facing me, his back to the door. He said, “As soon as I open the door you look inside, but don’t stick your head inside because if I hear the least bit of...”
The door sprang open... the metal edge slamming into LaSalle. Out of the dark confines poured three things.
A white spider.
A grey dragonfly.
A series of black segments and legs.
The spider was fast. And huge. His legs like the legs of a snow crab. His belly the size of a beach ball. His eight eyes were white and milky, leading me to think he might be blind.
A dragonfly that just barely fit through the open door. It made a noise like a gas-powered plastic P-51 model airplane I once owned, and I remembered a plaque I’d seen at a museum that said, “The dragonfly flying across your yard was once a yard across,” talking about the Cambrian period, I believe.
Crawling out was a long line of black bowling balls, all stuck together like a necklace or chain, with churning legs that clicked like castanets, and it was past us and crawling down the side using the same ladder we’d used coming up.
LaSalle fired; cutting the last ten segments from the giant millipede. He fired again, missing the dragonfly.
The spider was homesick having been out in the real world for so many moments and it circled around. I swiped at it with the wood I was carrying, breaking one of its legs, which made it angry, and it spent a moment reared up on its hind legs and hissed at me and then came ahead like a radio-controlled car. I backed up and backed up and the back of my shoe found the bottom edge of the opening and I fell backwards tumbling down into the barge.
Silt is a soft experience.
Have you ever squished your toes through mud, or had one of those mud baths at a spa? Have you played with wet clay or run your hand through lots of flour in a bowl?
Mud is what you want to land on, if you ever find yourself falling into a stranded barge being used as the container for an experiment.
I couldn’t have fallen into a more forgiving medium. I landed on my back and was glad I hadn’t broken twenty bones. The top layer of silt was warm but the deeper into it my experience edged, the colder it got. I stood and shook off enough clay for ten college art classes and only after remembering my place started screaming.
I started yelling “Rope!” even though I knew we hadn’t brought any. I found my flashlight and wiped the muck off the lens. I aimed the light everywhere twice and then pointed it back up at the door, six miles up and tiny.
“I’ll get help.” LaSalle shouted down.
“YOU help!” I shouted up.
“I think my arm’s broken.” He said.
“Don’t go anywhere.” I yelled.
“Here.” He said. The gun fell at my feet. It started to hail shells for the gun. I found about half the shells he dropped. I heard a creaking noise and looked up as the door overhead closed. I heard the lock being used. I backed up to the corner, the gun in one hand and the light in the other.
I was scared.
A lot more scared than the time a bee was in my car.
Very slowly I began to examine my position, first looking at the area around my feet. Clay and mud and ooze. And I started looking a little higher. There were little sprouts growing out of the muck, white sprouts that made me remember sprouts at the Pizza Hut salad bar, only these were white. And then something moving caught my eye and ten feet from me I saw something crawling and I wanted to shout “Turn off all the trash compactors on the detention level!” and I actually did start saying,
“DUH DUH DUH DA DA....”
the song used when Darth Vader enters a room... and the moving thing swam up and turned out to be a trilobite or a horseshoe crab, ’cause I always get those things mixed up.
And then I started to look around. There weren’t just sprouts there were huge pale ghostly veggies; ferns and bulbous plants and tendrils and vines; some of the plants were swaying, some moving forward like chittering triffids or opening and closing big pod-like attachments, like the pod parts were trying to say, “Feed me, Seymour.”
I pumped a response into the gun and leveled it at the grey greenery, thinking I could intimidate lettuce.
Outside I could hear LaSalle’s scream. Maybe the centipede hadn’t died. Maybe the spider was feasting. Maybe the dragonfly wasn’t cool with being used for target practice.
With my hand shaking I raised the light even higher. Now I could truly judge the scale of my predicament. Being inside a barge is like being inside a gigantic cave. In scale, it was like I was an ant in a shoebox. It took time for my light to reach the back wall, and before it got there it saw: giant spider webs, flocks of foaming-at-the-mouth bats, and jungle growth and spectacular ferns and five dimetrodons; those things with spines on them.
And on the back wall of my new home, something huge and grotesque: like a cross between an octopus and a mountain of snot. It made a sound like Velcro as it pulled itself from the wall. It started forward so fast it was like it was sneezed at me.
I started firing the gun. The booming shots echoing fifty times off each wall; so it was like all the artillery ever used anywhere in the world was coming to my assistance. The smell of cordite filled my corner of the room, replacing the smell of swamp and wet clay. The muzzle flashes blinding me, making me glad my opponent was so big I didn’t have to aim.
The pellets didn’t have any effect.
Death was almost on me.
At the last moment I turned off the light.
I didn’t have the stomach to watch.
It was bad enough just hearing what happened.
Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith