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The Behemoth in the Barn

by Steven C. Levi

George Brown didn’t know what to think of the jet-black, scaly, leathery sphere he found under his prize laying-hen in the 60-year old, dilapidated, red and white barn. When he reached under the hen and his hand closed on the orb, he jerked back involuntarily as if he had laid his hand on a bald rat. But then it couldn’t have been a rat, he realized quickly. Not with Gertrude sitting on the nest so calmly. Chickens killed rats; they didn’t smother them with the heat of their bodies.

Reaching back under the hen, he felt the orb again, rolled it around in his hand gingerly and then drew it out for inspection. Yes, indeed, it was not a normal egg in any sort of way that the word “normal” could be applied. That it was an egg was open to dispute as well. It was shaped like an egg, yes, but it sure was not an egg. Gertrude? His first thought was “Who’s she been sleeping with?” But that was a human thought. Chickens didn’t sleep around.

Where this strange egg came from he did not know. But he knew what he was going to do with it. He was going to break it open and see what was inside.

He walked out of the barn, across the chicken coop and into the kitchen, where he showed the leather egg to his wife and daughter. They both looked at the orb in amazement. George’s wife also wanted to crack the strange object open immediately, but Priscilla, a staunch environmentalist with a university degree in journalism to prove it, disagreed.

“It’s nature’s way of mutating,” she said knowledgeably. “Just put it back and see what hatches.”

“We know the hen didn’t lay the egg,” George told his daughter. “So we don’t know what did lay the egg. If it hatches, we might not like what it turns out to be.”

“That’s life,” snapped Priscilla, echoing the words of her favorite journalism professor, who had not worked at a newspaper in two decades.

“But we don’t know what we could get,” George said. “I mean, it could be a dinosaur.”

“In Iowa? Come on, Dad. Get real. Even if it is a dinosaur, the barn’s big enough to handle it.” She laughed. “What do you think, Mom?”

George’s wife didn’t have any objection to letting it hatch, so George took the egg back out to the barn and carefully placed it back in the nest. Gertrude cackled a bit, unused to having an egg smuggled back into her nest, but she settled down quickly and went back to sleep.

If George thought the egg strange, Gertrude did not. Day after day she sat on that leathery orb without any indication of concern. George checked the egg each day and watched the leathery sphere slowly develop into a small reptilian form.

Unlike a normal egg, this one developed from the shell inward. It had no shell, unlike a chicken’s egg. Rather, the outer surface of the egg slowly changed as the creature developed. Day by day, heavy plates of the exoskeleton appeared and thickened, each plate rising to a peak above the soon-to-be animal’s back, which ran around the egg like the spine of a mountain range. Then legs became visible, tucked beneath the leather armor, and translucent eyes began to clear alongside a long snout.

“What the hell is that?” George asked the biologist from the University of Iowa and pointed at the reptile as it crawled around in the nest.

“Hell if I know,” responded the biologist and asked one of the news photographers to snap a photo he could send to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

“No problem,” replied one of three dozen reporters and camera people from stations from as far away as Tallahassee and Los Angeles. “The whole world wants to know what this is and how it came to be found here, under a laying hen, in a barn in Iowa.”

But no one at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology knew what this strange new organism was. Their guess was that it was an ancient relative of an alligator, but they were not sure.

Of one thing the news reporters were sure: when the reptile, dubbed “Fossil,” was born, it was an instant media star. Fossil appeared on every national magazine cover and in most large newspapers across the country. The tabloids, of course, went wild with photos of the prehistoric beast following its mother, Gertrude, around the barn. All of the other chickens gave Fossil a wide berth, but Gertrude walked proudly. “Though he be of leather plates and long snout, that’s my son,” her strut seemed to say.

George Brown didn’t mind the publicity. He sold more pumpkins that year than he ever had before. The profit offset the loss he took when camera trucks and news vans crushed his cornfield to pulp. It was worth the publicity, though, for he was able to sell his story to a national slick and clear a cool $15,000. Other magazines paid for follow-up stories and interviews as Fossil grew. George was suddenly making more money off publicity than he was off anything he had ever grown.

But with his fame and fortune came problems. Once Fossil made national news, the SPCA stated that it was cruel to keep Fossil in a dusty barn and demanded that George put in a small running brook through the structure. Further, unless he wished to face a court fight, he was to remove chickens other than Gertrude from the barn, vegetate the floor and walls like a dense forest and hang festoons of rapidly-growing greenery to give the impression of a jungle environment. This was not particularly easy for George but, considering the publicity he was receiving and the money he was making, it was a modest expense.

But that was only the beginning. The State of Iowa Division of Animal Control informed him that if he intended to keep the reptile, he would have to follow the guidelines for “exotic” pets. As George could not prove that Fossil was not “exotic,” the Division labeled Fossil as such and gave George a pile of forms to fill out. In essence, they stated officially, if George wanted to keep the pet, he had to establish himself as a private zoo.

Further, with regard to the “exotic” specimen, a collar had to be made for Fossil, with an identifying tag “to protect his identity from other similar species.” The identifying metal was euphemistically known as a “dog tag” but the press referred to it as a “Croc Tag” and were quick to point out the pun to their readers.

As George was filing out that paperwork and building a suitable and legal habitat for Fossil, the United States Department of Community Health appeared with a court order requiring George to have a water purification system at the end of his stream to make certain that no “exotic” bacteria infiltrated the water table.

The Division of Public Safety also made its appearance. That administrative arm of the State of Iowa made it clear that Fossil was a danger to the community at large and a security guard would have to be posted “in the vicinity of said danger,” and around-the-clock surveillance was demanded by court order.

Further, two sets of fences had to be erected, in the words of the pinch-faced bureaucrat who carried his own coffee cup on his belt, “to keep the unwary public from the public danger and the public danger from the unwary public.”

Thereafter, a veritable alphabet soup of federal and state agencies descended on the farm. Customs wanted to know the source of Brown’s exotic pet, which must have been imported. The Environmental Protection Agency demanded an environmental impact statement for the jungle now overgrowing the barn. And the Bureau of Land Management appeared with a court order for purification of the barn air — now referred to by BLM as “Iowa’s only jungle environment” — and, at the same time and by the same courier, the Iowa Department of Parks appeared with a cease and desist order for any “alternation in the unique habitat heretofore referred to as George Brown’s barn.”

All this was very confusing to George who, until two months earlier, had been a small truck farmer and chicken rancher. Suddenly he was standing on his toes nose-deep in a bureaucratic sea of ink and court orders.

But he was not to suffer long. Suddenly, unannounced and unexpectedly, the Attorney General for the State of Iowa filed a claim of eminent domain, reasoning that George’s enhanced, unique, jungle environment and “exotic” denizen therein were part of the state’s cultural heritage and thus not the property of any single citizen.

George and his family were escorted off the State of Iowa’s latest real estate acquisition, given $15,000 as fair market value for the farm, and told that if they wished to view Fossil again, they would have to pay $5 apiece, just like everyone else who was expected to visit the newly-established Iowa Fossil State Park.

As George Brown and his family walked down the road towards town, his only consolation was his last memory of their farm: a gigantic pile of bureaucrats, fighting each other writ and claw, struggling for control of a 60-year old, dilapidated, red and white barn.

Copyright © 2014 by Steven C. Levi

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