Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope

by Dixon Chance.

“The Murmurous Paleoscope” was originally published in THE THREE-LOBED BURNING EYE and can be read there. The story accurately reflects a few elements of 19th century fossil hunting culture: the importance of shales; the early women fossil hunters (including Mary Anning, for whom the Lens in the story is named); and the fossil “Bone Wars” of Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope, which really did get violent and excessively paranoid.

DIXON CHANCE is the “just for the joy of it” pseudonym of David Ellis Dickerson, a regular contributor to “This American Life” and other public radio shows, and the author of the memoir HOUSE OF CARDS (Riverhead 2009) about my career as a writer at Hallmark. My work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Gettysburg Review, and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

Your reader this week – Christiana Ellis – Christiana is an engineer, writer and podcaster currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the creator of “Nina Kimberly the Merciless” and “Space Casey” along with many non-fiction podcasts, all of which can be found at ChristianaEllis.com!

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“The initial scanning would have seemed slow progress to an outside observer, for the Boiler makes for hot work, and we are already in the desert, and we must take breaks every twenty minutes to allow the device to cool down. It is, as you know, far too expensive to replace! (When the stage arrives next week, I will be sure to request more and larger crates of ice—if any are to be had; and if Eccleston has not outbid us.) Such patience is surely worth it. For whatever progress Eccleston makes with his battering and cutting, he cannot have found what I have: I call it Anomalocusta, for it resembles no lobster science has ever seen. And best of all: it is intact.

It remains in the rock, of course, and removing it thence will be the Lithotome’s job. But for now I can see the entire fossil through the Lens and here is my first attempt at a description: it is a long jointed-plate arthropod rather like a lobster or a shrimp, but larger than either, exceeding three feet from head to tail, making it far and away the largest Cambrian creature ever recorded by science. Unlike a lobster, it has no claws or other limbs. In its body shape it resembles a large trilobite whose segments have been flattened and stretched and transformed into underwater wings. Its head is the most disturbing feature, for it has a demonic shape, and possesses—I should say possessed—two large hooklike fangs over six inches long, which look capable of cracking open shells and armor, and it boasts two large compound eyes on stalks—but unlike the tiny beady eyes of the lobster, these are large and pale and eerie, resembling searching headlamps. Finally, and most disconcertingly, it has a thin, needle-like proboscis that extends from between the fangs. This proboscis looks long, soft, and prehensile—an odd thing indeed to see coming from such a stiff armored creature. The Anomalocusta must have undulated through the primoridal seas with great speed and indifferent grace, like some mechanical insectlike manta ray—but what could it have fed upon? I would send my rough drawings of the Anomalocusta, but I do not want to risk the mail being waylaid by Eccleston’s agents. I will send them when I judge myself to be in a more secure locality.

In case you are wondering why I have not appended a species name to this creature’s taxonomy yet, it is just this: after years of sending you dozens of new fossils, which you have been only too happy to classify and take credit for, I feel I have earned the right to some modicum of recognition for my tireless work. I know that I am but a modestly educated woman, and no proper scientist as the Geological Society recognizes such. Yet from my childhood by the shore I have shown, have I not, for over two decades that I understand the care of fossils, the reconstruction of organisms, the importance of a subtle eye and a care for stinting detail. And I have reliably sent you all my latest finds for a dozen years when your rivals have offered me bribes and other inducements to send them elsewhere or to lose them entirely. I have resisted, not only because of the esteem in which I hold your work, but out of loyalty to you, for first recognizing that I was more than some mere girl playing at the beach.

This new fossil will be studied for a millennium, and if I am ever to achieve even the merest hat-tip from the academic community, it would be an honor to have it attached to this discovery. I hope you will consider naming it Anomalocusta cardanelli—or, if you should choose to name it after yourself, that you would allow me at least the honor of publishing the paper, so that my name, too, will appear with it always: “Anomalocusta grandhaveni (Cardanell 1888).” Does that not look elegant, both our names in equal balance for the first time?

I hope that you will give my request all due and serious consideration.”

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