Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Code

The interpreter was beneath enormous, curved jawbones.  He stood still, his neck craned, for a long time.

Eventually Stacey asked, “Ah, what exactly are you looking at?”  They were in the atrium of the university’s new biodiversity museum. Suspended overhead was the skeleton of a blue whale.

“Those bones there, at the back of the skull, underneath.”  He pointed. “The coat hanger-looking one and the pair of bean pod-shaped ones.”

“What are they?”

“Hyoid apparatus,” he said. 

“What are they for?”

“I’m trying to figure that out.  Muscle attachments for the tongue?”
A few minutes later he said, “Or maybe they have some functional connection to how they balloon out their buccal pouches when they feed.”

“Excuse me?” 

The interpreter turned to find himself standing next to an elderly man who was wearing thick, goggly glasses.  Stacey was nowhere to be seen.  “Ah, no, excuse me,” said the interpreter.  “I was previously standing next to a sparkly-haired young woman, talking to her.  I guess she wandered off.”

“It happens,” said the elderly man.  “And it will happen increasingly often, you will find.”

The interpreter exited the atrium and entered the collection of the biodiversity museum, where she must have gone.   

It was a peculiar place.  The cabinets were black and sleek and orderly.  No other collection he had been in resembled this one.  As a graduate student he had dug around in many—at his home base the ROM, but also at the AMNH, CAS, NMNH, MCZ, MVZ... he could list at length the acronyms of those ancient, hodgepodge natural history museums.  Nowadays the new or revamped ones were called centers for the study of biodiversity, or something similar.  They had to have the b-word in their name.  This one had adopted that trend, and had gone a step beyond by being open to the public, albeit for an admission fee.  The old ones were for academics only.

What made visiting (and paying) worthwhile, was that among the many rows of floor-to-ceiling, locked cabinets, which contained thousands of pickled, dried, or otherwise preserved specimens, were lighted display cases, or glass-topped drawers that could be pulled open, which allowed close inspection of some of the more dazzling or aesthetically appealing specimens, but without the stale artifice of old-style dioramas.  Most had collection and accession labels still attached, and clearly visible.  Not only was this exhibition of biological diversity.  It was also an exhibition of what taxonomists did.

Sometimes he lost track of Stacey at the grocery store.  He would walk quickly back and forth at one end, looking down the aisles, hoping to spy her mid-aisle at some point, maybe reaching for a pickle jar.   Of course there was always the chance she would be behind the shelves at the far end as he passed, and he would miss her.  He would repeat the process.  Eventually it would occur to him to phone her.  This had not yet happened in the museum.  He walked the length of the single, warehouse-sized room, glancing down the aisles. He got to the coelenterates, the jellyfish and their kin.  There he paused and said, “Aha,” and fished his phone from his back pocket.  Before he pushed anything, a young man, likely a university undergraduate on summer employment, appeared from an adjacent aisle.  He had very tidy hair and was wearing a blue vest and a nametag that said “Simon.”  Below that it said, “Interpreter.”

“Hello,” said Simon. “I’m an interpreter.  Can I help you with anything?”

The interpreter said, “No thank you.  I speak English reasonably well.” He had always wanted to do this.

Simon didn’t roll his eyes.  He said, “I’m not a language interpreter. My job is to explain exhibits to visitors.”

“Oh, I see,” said the interpreter.  He turned to look at the nearest exhibit.  It was a cabinet housing several large jars of jellyfish.  Prominently positioned was a Portuguese Man o' war with its float bumping the lid, tentacles coiled below within cloudy fluid.

Simon said, “The Portuguese Man o' war looks like one animal, but it is actually a colonial species made up of hundreds of individual animals. One acts as the float while others are specialized for reproduction and others perform digestion and others are for food-catching and defence.  Those are the stinging tentacles.”

“Yes,” said the interpreter, “and the tentacle ones are mean.” 

Simon said, “The stings are rarely fatal though unless you have an allergic reaction.”

“They still hurt like hell.”

“You’ve been stung by one?”



“On my forehead and on my hand.”

“No, I mean where were you?”


“That must have been nice, Bermuda I mean, not the sting.”

“I was there for work, but yes, it was nice.”

“What’s it feel like, being stung?”

“Like being injected with acid, which obviously is bad enough, but when it comes unexpectedly when you're in water over your head, literally out of the blue, it’s a tremendous and dangerous shock.  It’s hard to swim when you’re screaming your lungs out from the pain, lashing around, looking for what just stung you, afraid of being stung again.”

“You were in deep water?”

“Worse.  Very rough, deep water.” He then remembered he had been about to call Stacey.  He looked at his phone.


“Oh.  Well, I was with my buddy, a local Bermudian guy, and we were working one day on a small out-island, about 10 acres, and since we had a few hours to kill we decided to snorkel all the way around it.  We waded in at the only nice beach and set off.  About halfway around there was a place where there was a smaller chunk of island about 30 feet from shore on the exposed, wavy side, and you had to swim really fast through a surge channel, timing your swim with the surge otherwise you could end bashed against the rocks.  Almost the entire shoreline of Bermuda is rough, eroded limestone, mostly high cliffs, and you definitely don’t want to be hurled up onto that stuff.  So we paused at the approach, treading water, waiting for the right swell, and then he said, ‘Go!’ and we swam like crazy, him slightly ahead, and then suddenly he started screaming.   My head was underwater and I could hear him screaming through the water.  I swam to him.  He was floundering, screaming like mad.   Then I saw what he was doing, trying to rip tentacles off his neck.  One of them hit me on the face and then on my hand when I brushed it away.”

“What happened to your buddy?”

“He made it to the outer rock, the one that was the outside of the surge channel, and he clambered up and clung there screaming and then shouting, and then, after a while, swearing coherently.  I was still in the water, being bounced around, trying not entirely successfully to keep away from the rocks, watching the purple man o’ war float drift away.  I thought about climbing up the cliff onto the island and fighting my way back through the forest to where our boat was anchored and drive back for him, but he told me not to in case he lost consciousness, and so we waited there in that precarious situation until he thought he could swim again.  He slipped back into the water.  He said, ‘You have to swim in front, boy, ‘cuz if I get hit again, I’ll sink.’   So I did and we got lucky all the way back to the beach without any more man o’ wars.”
“Was the other guy okay?”

“He lay on the beach for a while covered in welts, swearing up a storm, but within an hour or so he bounced back.”  The interpreter shrugged.  “It worked out okay.”

“Nevertheless a pretty intense experience,” said Simon.

“It happens,” said the interpreter.  “One minute all is fine, the next all hell breaks loose.”

They fixed their eyes on the brainless yet crafty thing in the jar.  

The interpreter said, “Did you know that when a Portuguese Man o' war gets stranded on a beach, in the hot sun, the float writhes around in slow motion?”  He moved his hand to demonstrate.

Simon said, “No.  I’ve not seen that many jellyfish.  Just the little red ones you see at the docks in the inlet.” 

Cyanea,” said the interpreter.


“Lion’s Manes.”

Simon said, “I guess so, but inverts aren’t my thing. I’m more into birds myself.  Are you a birder at all?”

“Somewhat,” said the interpreter.  “But I’m not a lister or anything.”

“I am,” said Simon.  “I’m actually doing a big year for the province.   I’m up to 312.”

“Impressive,” said the interpreter.

“It’s not bad, but Jay Kerr, you know him?”

The interpreter shook his head.

“He’s already up to 329 or 330.  I’ve got some catching up to do.  I’m hitting the south Okanagan next week.”

“Well good luck with that,” said the interpreter.  He again looked at his phone, but instead of dialing asked Simon, “Have you seen a blond-haired woman, about five-four, in a blue t-shirt, walking around in here somewhere?”

“Yes,” he said.  “She was in aisle 7 or 8.”

“Thank you,” said the interpreter.

“No problem,” said Simon.

Aisle 7, part of the disproportionately large avian section, was where the interpreter found Stacey. She was reading the labels in a display case that contained taxidermied representatives of the major bird families of the world.  He came up behind her and said, “With a bit of a spruce-up, that one would look like a Cahow.”  He pointed at a scruffy-looking, grey-and white seabird, a Mottled Petrel.

“Like a what?”

“Cahow.  The Bermuda Petrel.”

A young man’s voice said, “Believed extinct for almost 400 years, rediscovered in the early 20th century.  One of the rarest birds in the world.”

They turned to look at Simon. 

The interpreter asked, “Are you following me?”

Simon shifted his feet.  “Um, I wanted to make sure you weren’t a creepy stalker guy.  I shouldn’t have told you where she was before I made sure you had no ill intent.   I was being cautious.”

Stacey said, “Thank you, but it’s okay.  He’s with me.  He just got distracted and fell behind at some point.”

“Okay, ah, good,” said Simon.  But he didn’t leave.  He stood there next to them.

They looked at him again.

He said, shaking his head, “Cahow.  Oh man, would I like to add that one to my life list.  But what are the chances of that? There’s probably less than a hundred left on earth, and they live in totally inaccessible places.”

The interpreter said, “True, there aren’t very many, but I’ve seen one.  Actually, more than that, I’ve been touched by one.  I once had a Cahow perch on my knee.”

Simon blinked.  “No way.  They’re nocturnal and they only nest on tiny, uninhabited islands.  They nest underground and spend the rest of their lives far out at sea. How could you ever even see one?”

“Well, I was in Bermuda.  That helped.”

“Yeah, but you can’t just go there and see one.  Most of the time they’re not even there.  And when they are, they don’t drop from the sky and land on you.”

“It didn’t land on me.  I was sitting cross-legged and it walked out of its burrow and climbed up onto me.  It was a fledgling, and it needed a perch where it could flap its wings to strengthen its flight muscles.  It flapped around for a minute or two and then it dropped off me and ducked back down into the burrow.  They do that for several nights in a row, come out and flap around for a while, and then one night they take off, fly off to sea, and don’t return until several years later as adults.”

“How did you get near their burrows?”

“You know the guy I told you about before, my buddy, with the Portuguese Man o' War?  He was an ornithologist.  It was his job to monitor the Cahow nests.  One night he took me out to one of the small islands where they were nesting.”

“What kind of luck is that?”

The interpreter said, “Almost the worst.  It turned out to be more of an adventure than I had anticipated.   It was my turn nearly to die.”

Stacey said, “What?”

“We went out in a little motorboat with an outboard engine in the pitch black, my ornithological buddy and another guy I didn’t know very well who was driving the boat, and me.  It was probably two hours after sunset.  It was pretty choppy and the boat-driver got us close to a rocky ledge, a relatively flat spot amid a shiny-wet wall of knives, but still not a place a normal human would consider as a reasonable choice to step onto from a moving boat, and suddenly my buddy taps me on the shoulder and says, 'You go first. Jump! Now!'  Part of me wanted to jump, but most of me didn’t, seeing as how I had never leapt from a small bouncing boat on the ocean in pitch blackness onto a shoreline that looked like evil spikes.  I sort of part-jumped, which is basically the same thing as falling over, and I ended up splayed lengthwise on the gunwale of the boat, but hanging down seaward a bit, more out of the boat than in it, as a swell was about to introduce me to the rocks, hard.  My buddy yelled to the driver, 'Abort!' but he had tilted the engine forward so it wouldn’t hit the rocks, and the propeller was pointing mostly upward, spinning in only a few inches of water, providing no push whatsoever, and so I was pretty much a half-second from becoming a boat bumper, which probably would have crushed my ribcage.  I felt I had but one choice, let go, fall into the gap between boat and rocks, hoping there wasn’t something worse underwater.  I would swim under the boat and come out in the clear.  But the exact split-second I let go, and I most definitely did let go, a hand gripped my upper arm and hauled me back into the boat.  My buddy likely saved my life.  The driver lowered the engine enough to wheel the boat around for a second try.” 

“When was this?” Stacey asked.

“The same year I went to Anguilla,” he said.  “A month earlier.”  The interpreter added, “The second attempt went much more smoothly.  I had a better sense of what was required and nobody died or almost died and we saw the bird.”

Simon asked,   “Do you have, like, a life-and-death story for every animal I make a comment about?”

“He probably does.” Said Stacey.  “He's older than he looks.”

“Thanks,” said the interpreter.

She said to Simon, “Take him to the bovid section and mention a cow.”

Simon was confused. “Bovid section?”

“Cattle and related animals,” said the interpreter. “It’s back near the front somewhere.  I saw it, walking in.”

Simon pondered for a moment.  He asked, “By any chance, would your name happen to be Simon?”

“No,” said the interpreter, “that would be too much of a coincidence.”

Simon unclipped his nametag and handed to him.  “Pretend it is. You’re better at this than I am.”

They watched him walk away around the end of the row of black cabinets.

“Good luck in the Okanagan,” the interpreter called.

There was no reply.

Stacey said, “You never told me that one before.”

“Because that story-button was never pushed before.”   The interpreter held the nametag in his fingertips, reading the name and the word beneath it.   He said, “I spoke too much.  I contravened the Interpreters’ Code.”

She laughed.  “What code?”

“You shut up on another interpreter’s turf.  Let him or her do most of the talking.  I hurt Simon’s feelings.”

She said, “No, it wasn’t like that, and even if it was it’s not your fault.  You just can’t help yourself in a place like this.  You walk into a room full of dead stuff, and you naturally come alive.”



Victoria said...

I really enjoyed reading this - your interpreter stories are very entertaining! Was he by any chance at Beaty?

swamp4me said...

Thanks for starting my Sunday off with another entertaining Interpreter story. I enjoy your stories so much and always get a little thrill when I see a post begin with the words "The Interpreter..."

Hugh said...

Victoria, Thanks. I'm glad you like the stories. Re Beaty...sort of.

Hi Swampy, You're welcome, and thank you for letting me know you enjoy them.

Dave said...

Great story Hugh - looking forward to your book....

Urban Wild said...

Very entertaining! Thanks for your stories!