Sunday, June 3, 2012

First Chance to See (Part 1 of 2)


The interpreter was sitting by himself on a wheeled chair on the stage of a small auditorium in the brand new Biodiversity Museum at the university.  The desk in front of him was curved and innervated with cables and push buttons.  It was the helm of a starship.  He was proud of himself; in no time at all he had figured out where to insert the memory stick.  The computer was waking up and the projector, which angled out of a gap in the ceiling, appeared to be pointing correctly at the screen.  All was going well in this latest step in “Stacey’s Plan,” which was what he called it.  What she called it was “Life after Interpretation.”
  
The login screen popped up on the monitor, and also on the screen above and beyond the interpreter’s left shoulder.  It wanted a username and a password.  He would have to wait for someone with appropriate clearance to come along and provide these.  He was early.  It hadn’t taken as long to walk to the museum as he had expected.  This was okay.  It was better to arrive in ample time than burst in fretting and sweaty.

To kill time, he was reading and commenting on an alphabetical list of girls’ names scrolling past in the palm of his hand.  There was an app for that.  As of that morning, he had known that only the pink pages were relevant.  Stacey could continue wasting time on the blue pages.  That was fine with him.  When the ultrasound technician asked if they wanted to know the baby’s sex, Stacey had covered her ears and cried, “No, no, no!”  The interpreter didn’t argue.  He just looked more closely at the screen.  He could come up with four or five solid female names while she compared the relevant merits of Thomas, Ewan, Arthur, or whatever. Pick Chad.  Or Thad.  Or Tad. Or Moot.  It didn’t matter.  No Y-chromosome was involved.
    
He began at the beginning, A-names.  Abbie, or Abby.  Short for Abigail. Naw, too cutesy.  Adair.  That was a name? It was a place...or a brand of appliances.  Addie.  That wasn’t a name.  It was a nickname for something.  Addison. Oh yeah, for that.  Adeline. Too French.  Adelyn. Same, and with dumb spelling. Adie. Not a real name. Africa.  A continent. Afton. Huh?  Aggie, a football player.  Ainsley.  Nope.  Aithley.  Definitely nope.  Alberta.  A province.  Alchemy.  Really?

A door, stage left, opened and a zoologist walked in.  He was wiry, mid 50s, greying, bearded, and overall unkempt.  That hadn’t changed.  The interpreter closed the app.

The zoologist greeted the interpreter and introduced himself.  His name was Kevin Elliott. He was the amphibian specialist the interpreter had, on Stacey’s insistence, cold-called, the person who had immediately recognized filler for a gap in a speakers’ schedule.  “Come give a talk to the group about it,” he said.  He was referring to the Conservation Biology Discussion Group, which met every Wednesday at 4 PM.  That was two months ago.

“I think I’ve pretty much figured this thing out,” said the interpreter.   He almost bragged about finding the USB port on his own.

“Seems to be right,” said Kevin.  He leaned past the interpreter to type in the required codes.  A Windows desktop appeared.

“Please tell me it has PowerPoint,” said the interpreter.

“Not to worry.  Open your file.”

He scrolled down through the directory and double-clicked mysterybone.  There it was, larger than life.  He clicked off the projector, to maintain a sense of mystery as the participants arrived.

Kevin Elliott was apologetic: after twisting the interpreter’s arm two months earlier, it now seemed there might not be much of a turnout.  This was the last talk on the schedule, and with classes done, several of the usuals had already left for their field seasons.  It didn’t help that it also was the first truly warm, sunny day after an eternity of grey.  The beach below the bluff might be too strong a draw for some to resist.  He hoped the dramatic title might work in his favour.

The interpreter wasn’t worried about a small audience, which would scale nicely with his confidence.  It had been a long time—years—since he had spoken to a university group.  Early in preparing his presentation, he had wondered if it should be he apologizing in advance, knowing his talk would not be up to grad-seminar standards.  He wasn’t testing a hypothesis, or analyzing data in a cleverly novel way.  It included not a single quantitative morphometric or environmental datum.  In truth it wasn’t much more than a travelogue through creeks and waterways of the Coastal Mountains, with a somewhat ambiguous ending.  In an early draft he had started with a disclaimer,  to downplay expectations.  Stacey pounced on that.

“What are you doing?  You’re telling them you’re about to waste their time.  That’s a hugely dumb way to start a talk.  Oversell it if you have to, and let them figure that out later.  Never ever start by apologizing for being lame.  They’ll mentally leave the room as soon as you do that, and as soon as the lights are back on, they’ll bolt."

He beheld her in wonderment, this woman with the swelling belly.  He used to tell her how to construct talks.  How she had grown since her ascension from interpretation. 

He found the talk difficult to construct.  Back when he started as an interpreter, he was numerous times told to “dumb it down,” to talk and write at a grade 5 level.  Now he was trying to do the reverse, to smarten it up—to where he used to be.  He would have a hard time ascending.  At some point during the past half decade he had stepped into fresh concrete and dozed off.

Gradually the audience dribbled in, graduate students in singles and pairs.  They scattered themselves among the lower rungs of chairs.   A tall, skinny guy with a starter beard was seated with a pretty dark-haired girl.  The interpreter guessed they were in a relationship.  A few rows back was a beefier guy with blond hair and round, rimless glasses.  He glanced angrily at the couple, and sank into his seat. Loser in a love triangle, the interpreter supposed. He remembered the stresses of grad student life, its unrelenting insecurity, at an age when finding a mate was the overwhelming back story.  Graduate school was hell on relationships, and relationship strife was crippling to graduate work.  The mutually destructive distraction from opposing sides was relentless, and the reward was continued uncertainty and poverty.   Was it worth it? 
   
It hadn’t been worth it, not for decades, if ever.

The students avoided eye contact with him, were unwilling to admit him into their closed world. Their message:  If we don’t know you, or of you, you don’t exist.

Fair enough.  The interpreter skipped ahead to the Ds.
Daxia.  Isn’t that a car? Dabney.  Actor from the 80s with a moustache. Dacey. Meaningless rhyming word.  Dacia.  No, that one’s a car. Daffodil.  No ditzy flower names, might as well just name her “Ditzy.” Dafydd.  Welsh for Daffodil.  Dagan. Dr. Who or Hitchhiker’s Guide.  Dagmar.  Bleah.  Dagny.  Hangs out with Dacey.  Dagon.  See Dagan. Dahl.  Giant Peach, not appropriate.  Dahlia. Ditzy!

His fruitless search was interrupted by an introduction from Kevin.  He closed the app and sat up straight.  Kevin, half-reading, rambled through the interpreter’s ancient academic credentials, and then scratched his head, wondering what else to reveal from the backgrounder sheet the interpreter had provided.  He said, “More recently, he has been working for the regional parks, becoming an expert in the ecology and distribution of the fauna of the Fraser Valley.”  He scratched his head again.  “Especially the herpetofauna... including, ah, well, you have to see this to believe it.”  For a while he held the paper at arm’s length, into a beam of light.  From the seats it looked a blank, a prop, a nothing.  He re-focused, found something on the page to work with.  He said, “So here it is, “First Chance to See: The Black Alligator of BC.”  He waved the paper in a circular motion that washed over the interpreter.  Then he walked out of the light and for all anyone could tell, out of the auditorium.

The interpreter stood up, and said, “Thank you.”  After that, there was nothing else to do but sit back down and push the projector button.  These days professors didn’t get to strut around and lean on a pointer.  Long gone were the days when they could triumphantly stride back and forth with their thumbs in their lapels. Nowadays, professors sat on a wheelie chair and moved a mouse.

The first image was the bone.

He told them that it wasn’t a single bone, that rather it was fragments of several bones fused together, obviously a portion of a skull—of something large, and, as indicated by the high degree of fusion, an adult.  It was shown in his hand, a calcium boomerang.  
   
At the rear of the auditorium a door opened, and two men entered, briefly silhouetted.  They settled near the back.

He described the source of the bone.  It had been found on a mudflat near the mouth of a tributary of the Fraser River by an employee of the regional parks department.  It had been passed to the interpreter as a stumper at a job interview, to see what he knew, and how well he thought on his feet when he didn’t know the answer.  “Normally, not very well in such a situation,” he told them, “but this time, by pure chance, I recognized it, because of a fully articulated skeleton—what you might call a bone of contention—that used to take up scarce counter space in the lab room I shared for four years with a paleontologist who specialized on tailed amphibians., which is to say giant salamanders.

The next image was the bone in situ, tinted orange and superimposed on a peculiar, flattened skull, seeming to fit in place.  And then up popped the owner of the skull in its entirety, a massive wide-headed, flat-bodied salamander, a ghost of the bone showing through faintly.

“And these beasts live among us,” said the interpreter, “at least are known to in parts of China and Japan.”  The image switched to a similar salamander, the length and girth of a basset hound, clasped across the chest of an Asian man standing in a concrete tank filled several feet deep with murky water.  He was wearing chest-waders, and was bending backwards to support the weight of the creature, which was a Chinese Giant Salamander, Andrias, one of the living cryptobranchids

Using additional pictures, most borrowed from the internet, he provided background on the diets and habitats of the Asian species, and also those of the single North American representative of the group, the magnificently-named Hellbender, denizen of Appalachia,  or of what remained of its riparian ecosystems.  He said, to seem properly skeptical, “We were pretty sure there was no such beast in British Columbia, that the bone was a weirdly convergent piece of something else, or that, if it was a salamander bone, it had probably been brought from Asia, possibly as a potential food source.  Was someone trying to farm them here?

But then someone directed him to a cryptozoological website that included a historical description of a large, dark, salamander-like creature spotted in the same watershed, what came to be known as the Black Alligator of British Columbia.  He put up and read aloud a quote describing one encounter with the animal, which had been made by loggers working their way inland from the Fraser River in the 1920s. 

"It came at his partner from behind a stump. It snapped onto his ankle hard as a bear-trap. Only a pounding with an axe-head released its grip. It growled like a large dog. The men fled by boat and vowed never to return to that place.”

There was no further independent information, only additional citations of the same quote, and vague paragraphs about occasional sightings of such an animal, invariably described as “a small alligator or large salamander.”  There was nothing to do but forget about it, dismiss it as a legend, a hoax, or go out and actually look for the creature.  He said, “The bone in hand was what tipped the balance.  We got use of a truck, and what passes for a canoe in some circles.”  The image switched to the reviled Banana Slug, a scow-like flat-bottomed plastic canoe—yellow with black foam sponsons—that they had borrowed from Stacey’s cousin.

He showed a map of the south coast, a fractal pattern of endlessly forking waterways leading up and away from the great river.  “The bone was found somewhere near here.”  A yellow stick-pin appeared on the screen.  “So this watershed was where we started.”  He swirled the cursor over a daunting wedge of mountainous forest.  The streams gradually filled with colour, charting the progress of the hunt as the interpreter clicked a series of edits of the same map.

“Did we find it?” It was a rhetorical question.

“I doubt it,” a male voice answered. 

Everyone laughed, including the interpreter.

“Whoever that was, was correct,” he said.  “But we did find a bunch of these things.”  He clicked to a picture of a gill-bearing, mud-brown salamander draped across his cold-reddened palm, 9 inches from snout to tail-tip. And then he showed another, darker and smaller.  And then another, paler and larger.  These were the aquatic adults of Dicamptodon, coincidentally and somewhat ironically known as Coastal Giant Salamanders,   Ironic, because compared to what they were looking for, these things were small fry.  Large for average North American salamander, but tiny compared to the object of the quest.

He showed a new version of the map, this time with streams populated by green dots, like roads online with smooth traffic flow.

Someone in the audience couldn’t contain himself.  He erupted, “Holy fuh!”

The interpreter stopped, and looked out into the dark.  “How’s that?”

“How did you find so many Dicamptodon?”  It was the skinny, half-bearded guy beside the dark-haired girl.  “They’re notoriously difficult to find in my experience.  They’re supposed to be extremely rare.”

“Oh,” said the interpreter.   “First of all, start by looking for something else.  The world is perverse that way.”

There was a loud laugh from the back.

“Seriously,” said Skinny.

The interpreter shrugged.  “Pick a fast-flowing, shady, first order stream and check it several times, from the top and from the bottom, sticking your hands under logs and overhangs.  If you don’t find anything, and your fingers aren’t completely numb, check it again.  Just because you don’t find one the first or second time doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

“I’ve searched several of those very same streams top to bottom, and found nothing,” said Skinny.

The beefy guy piped up behind him, “Yeah, well, that’s his point.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

The interpreter responded to Beefy.  “No, absence is evidence, but it’s relatively weak evidence.  Like when you’re looking at an ultrasound image of a 22-week-old fetus, trying to discern evidence of boy bits, wondering if you’ve not yet gotten a view minus a loop of the umbilical cord or one or other of the other appendages.  Check the stream four or five times and don’t find a Dicamptodon, you have evidence it isn’t there.  Stare long enough, from as many angles as possible, and you still see no for-sure boy bits, all your evidence is absence, but still, evidence is you have a girl.”

This was met by confused silence.

He realized, although probably no one else did, that he was arguing himself out of explaining why he found no giants in those streams.  He regrouped.  “But eventually you have to accept ‘no’ for an answer.  There were no cryptobranchid giants in those streams.   So we started removing the habitat requirements that limited our searches.  We moved downhill, to second and third-order streams.  We went from cold, fast flowing, high dissolved O2 to cold, slow flowing, relatively low dissolved O2.

“But first we had to reclaim our canoe.”  It was a picture meant for comic relief, the large black bear that had parked itself in their beached canoe when they were working a stream.  The interpreter’s Ray-bans dangled by an earpiece from its mouth.

“And we started checking places like this.”

He showed a picture of a flatwater stream, its bank overgrown with elderberry.

“And this.”

It was another stream, its opposite bank mostly obscured by a fallen cedar.

“And this.”

At the bend of a river, the twisted, rusted frame of an ancient overturned pickup truck, half-swallowed by gravel.

“And finally this.  The overhang.  This is the sweet spot.”

The next image showed him from behind, waist-deep in a river, wading toward a muddy bank, trailing a curling ribbon of inky silt.  Slashes of white streaked the air and tiny splashes flecked the flat brown water.  “Notice the rain,” he said.  “It’s what prompted me to make a critical mistake.  As I advanced on the bank, I suggested to my partner that she stash the camera to keep it dry.  This, just as I was about to engage in what I have since learned is a competitive sport in parts of the United States.  I was about to reinvent catfish noodling, which is an activity requiring that you leave your common sense on the shore or in your canoe, and submerge all or part of yourself in murky water, using an arm or leg as bait.  I placed one hand on the bank, leaned down, and reached underneath as far as possible.”

He described the tug, the slicing pain, the pull, how he fought to keep from being dragged into the space beneath the overhang, of hearing Stacey shouting, “Hold still, I’m trying to get the camera!”

He switched to the next image.

“This, unfortunately, is the best shot.  It shows a giant salamander releasing its bite on my hand, sliding back into the water.”  It was about as convincing as the famous sasquatch still—blurred and out of focus.  He clicked again.

“And this is my hand, punctured by its teeth.  Note the strings of slime hanging from my wrist.”  He said, “I was tempted to try again, but I was bleeding pretty hard, as if the slime contained an anticoagulant.  So we called it a day.  After that, the autumn rains set in.”

He finished with a three-part plan for further work. 

One: Capture and thoroughly measure as many specimens of the species as possible, and take tissue samples for systematic comparisons with other salamanders.  Designate a type specimen, and publish the description.  Release the specimens where they were found.

Two:  Quantify environmental parameters, and describe as fully as possible the habitat of the species.   

He was looking for one or more collaborators to help with the field work, because, he said, “My previous collaborator is now 22 weeks pregnant and getting pregnanter by the minute.”

Three: Go through whatever steps are necessary to obtain protected status. He spoke directly at Kevin, and at another grey beardie seated next to him whom he recognized as Professor Barry Dunn, a bat specialist. Perhaps some of you already on governmental action committees could be involved in that.”

He said, “But first, I need a new canoe.”  He ended with a picture of what the bear had left behind in the Banana Slug.

“Thank you.”

There was a smattering of applause.  He killed the projector and someone switched on the house lights.  A couple of hands went up.  Closest was that of the skinny, partially bearded student.

He asked, “What do you suppose such an animal in BC would eat?”

The interpreter noted the use of the conditional.  He answered, “Fish?  They must pig out during salmon runs.  At other times, perhaps they snatch hapless shore creatures coming to the bank for a drink, alligator style.”

A female student farther back asked, “The murky water.  The sit-and-wait behaviour.  Are you sure it wasn’t a large catfish?”

“They’re not found here,” someone else answered her.

“It could have been introduced.”

Another offered, “Maybe it was one of those Asian fish market invasives.  A snakehead.”

The interpreter said, “It wasn’t a fish.  It had legs, and digits.  Fingers and toes. I saw them.  I watched them scrabbling against me.”  He added, “Plus there are no fish with teeth like that.”
           

Skinny hemi-beard asked, “How could it breathe in slow, silty water with low O2? All known cryptobranchids live in clear, fast-moving water with high levels of dissolved oxygen.”

A concept, a mathematical relationship from a third year course long ago popped into the interpreter’s head.  He said, “Modify one or more of the anatomical or biochemical parameters that are expressed in the variables in Fick’s equation.  A physiologist could have a field day puzzling that out.”
  
Either they were stymied or had completely lost interest.  Silence ensued.

“Well then.”   Kevin trotted to the front and announced that there would be beer at the pub in the student union for those who wished to continue the discussion. 

The graduate students were already standing, gathering their belongings, discussing whether or not to go.  There would be free beer and snacks.  Kevin approached the interpreter.  He said, “I’m not sure you convinced them, but you certainly got their attention.”

He sighed.  “I half expected this.  Part of the problem was that until I found the thing, I also didn’t fully believe it existed. It’s hard to be fully invested and geared up for a snipe hunt when you’re 99 percent certain the bird doesn’t exist.”

“Maybe one or two will get involved, the more adventurous ones.  I’m sure they’d be happy to learn how to find a Dicamptodon.  If nothing else, you have a gift for that.”

If nothing else, thought the interpreter.

And then two men walked down the steps out of the dark at the back of the room.  The interpreter recognized the Caucasian one.  The slightly older, Asian one was unknown, and coming straight at him. “Very good talk!” he exclaimed.  “Very enjoyable!”  He reached to shake his hand.

Kevin, who had disappeared, now reappeared to provide introductions.  “This is Ivan Tsang, executive producer of The Animal Update ,and you probably recognize the host of the show, Dr. Derek Coulter.”

Derek Coulter winced a bit at that.  He extended his hand and said, “Hi.  Exciting stuff.”
   
“Fascinating!” said Ivan.

Kevin was hopping from foot to foot, either in dire need to urinate, or giddy in the presence of a television personality.  He said, “They’ve left the Centre of the Universe to come out west on a scouting trip.”  He meant Toronto, where The Animal Update was produced.  “They’re on the hunt for new TV talent, some kind of species-at-risk expert who has on-camera experience. I applied, but apparently I’ve got a face for radio, ha ha, so they’ve been working their way through the department, harassing our best and brightest students, and they asked to check out your talk too.”  

“You come highly recommended,” said Derek.

“Me?”

“You are famous,” said Ivan.   He handed the interpreter a business card.  It said, “Ivan Tsang, Executive Producer,” and it listed the names of three television shows, one of which was The Animal Update.  These programs were on a continentally distributed cable system that ran several shows at least tangentially related to science.  Many prominently featured things being blown up.  The interpreter and Stacey referred to the station as “The Destruction Channel.” 

“We should talk,” said Ivan.

“We should?”

“About your amazing giant salamander and other things.”

“Uh, I’m supposed to go to a pub with the gang here.”

Derek said, “We’ll come too.  I don’t think anyone will mind.”  He looked toward Kevin, who had reluctantly stepped away to battle the pull-down screen, uncertain of the secret that makes it jump back up into its shiny cylinder.  “Hey Kevin, Mind if we tag along?”

“Hey, not at all.  You can buy the first round.” The screen rocketed home.

Ivan said, “We’ll buy the second round.  I want to make a couple of calls.”

Seven students and the interpreter wandered across campus to the student union building.  He learned a few of their names.  The skinny one was Leo, and his girlfriend was Ingrid.  Beefy boy was named Mark.   The pub was down some stairs and at the end of a concrete tunnel.  It had a low ceiling and a sticky floor.  Mid-week, during exams, business was slow with most students studying, writing, or gone.

“Sit wherever, push a couple tables together!”shouted the guy behind the bar.

“How ‘bout over there?” the interpreter pointed to the far side.  They pushed two tables together end-to-end, and the interpreter found himself with one almost to himself.  And then the two students sharing his table turned their backs to join the other table’s conversation. 

The interpreter said, “So here we are, nice and chummy.” He would wait for the other grown-ups—Kevin, Derek Coulter, and Ivan Tsang.  In the meantime he went back to work.  He picked a letter. K.  Kaawa.  A noise a crow makes.  Kabecka.  What “Becky” is not short for.  Kabibe.  How many syllables is that?  Kabili.  Capital of somewhere.  Kacela.  A bicycle?  Kachina.  An ocharina.  Kacia. So you put any consonant in front of “acia” and it’s a name. Kacy.  Not how to spell Casey.  Kade.  Nope, not a name.  Kadience.  Absolutely nope. 

He discovered a server standing next to his shoulder, the students staring expectantly.  The order was up to him.  It made sense.  He was the elder, the one who would have money for such things.  Recalling how much he and his former lab mates would drink, he ordered three pitchers.  He didn’t think to order snacks.  Eyes around the table went large and the students looked at each other.

“Where’s Kevin?” the interpreter asked.

“Likely not coming,” said someone, a male whose name the interpreter didn’t know.

“He’s not?”  The interpreter was disappointed.  The main point of this phase of Stacey’s Plan was the networking with faculty, wherein lay the hope of something further.

“He had to leave to pick up his daughter from after school care,” said another without a name, this one a female.

The interpreter asked, “He has a daughter in after school care?  How old is she?”

They looked at him suspiciously.  It was none of a stranger’s business.

The interpreter waved his hand.  “Never mind.  I just would have expected his children would be older.”

“Seven?” said the male.

“Yeah, seven,” said the female.   To answer an unasked question, she added, “She’s from his second marriage.”

“Third,” said the male. 

“Third?” said the female. 

“He’s a serial former student marrier,” said another.

The interpreter asked, “What’s her name?”

“His wife?” asked one.

“Which wife?” asked another.

“His daughter,” said the interpreter.

“Uh, Candace,” said Ingrid. 

Candace.  It was a good name, nice sounding, pretty without being prissy.    

Wait—it could be shortened to Candy.

Nope.

The server returned, precariously balancing the pitchers on a tray, and the students watched the interpreter empty his wallet.  Once that had been accomplished, Derek and Ivan arrived.  Derek said, “Hope we haven’t missed anything.”

Part 2

8 comments:

Susannah Anderson said...

Yay! A new story!

Hugh said...

Thanks Susannah. I hope you have the time to read it...it's, uh, even longer than the last long one.

pattib said...

I'm with Susannah...Yay! Particularly loved the sentence, "At some point during the past half decade he had stepped into fresh concrete and dozed off." !!!!

Hugh said...

Thanks, Patti. That bit kind of wrote itself for me. I hope you like the rest too.

pattib said...

Oh, yes! Absolutely do. Like where you're going with the interpreter and have enjoyed all your stories...they just keep getting better and you always get a chuckle out of me!

CN said...

One of my favs so far--ties in so much of the earlier ones!...

Carol Brown said...

Holy Smokes! There's a whole SERIES of Interpreter stories? Sorry to be late to the party, but I've only recently discovered your blog via another gardening/writing blog. Thoroughly enjoyed this 2-part piece. I'll be snacking on the others soon.

Hugh said...

Hi Carol, thanks for dropping by, and for the comment. I hope you enjoy the others. If you start from the beginning, they gradually evolve from small, disconnected pieces to a series.