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A Short Story by Marshall Riggan

How dramatically different our view of the world would be if I had been chosen by Captain FitzRoy for the second voyage of the HMS Beagle rather than that feckless wastrel Charles Darwin. I grant you, he was a pleasant enough fellow during our Cambridge years, but more of a dreamer than a naturalist. He was a terrible student, spent most of his time wandering around in the woods with his beloved Fanny Owen, fishing and collecting beetles. Although the beauty of this free spirited girl intrigued me, I would not say Darwin and I were rivals, certainly not for the affection of Miss Owen, who only had eyes for the beetle collector.

However, Darwin and I did have sharply contrasting views on the origins of life. He, borrowing on the theories of Lamarck and Goethe, viewed the development of life as a process of natural selection, in which organisms best suited to survive in their environments passed on these survival traits to their offspring. It was a process not requiring the participation of God. On the other hand, my belief followed the Aristotelian notion of spontaneous generation, a miraculous process actually set in motion by God , a primal force Aristotle called “The Unmoved Mover.” I also disagreed with Darwin on his notion that whole species had become extinct in the past. My own view was that God would not bring a species to life and then destroy his own creation. While I had dedicated myself solely to the natural sciences, Darwin leaned this way and that, now toward medicine, now toward the clergy and now toward various other gentlemanly pursuits his famous father could finance. 

I suppose there is a great deal of envy in what I write. I don’t deny it. I envy those long ago hours he spent in the woods with Fanny Owen doing Lord knows what. And certainly there is a great deal of frustration that Darwin’s views ultimately prevailed and mine have not found favor in the scientific community. However, that is about to change. For in the Java Sea, south of Borneo, we have discovered a life form so miraculous that it will make Darwin’s theories of the origin of the species untenable. 

We found the creature in the third year of our voyage through the islands of the Southern Oceans. It was several years after the Beagle and Darwin had returned to England. I had been offered a berth as the expedition’s naturalist on the HMS Excalibur, under the command of Captain Percival Mobley, a position that I, Jonathan Meriwether, now occupy. Our mission was and continues to be the collection and study of marine organisms. So far we have collected more than 4,000 species that have never been catalogued before, including the seahorse Hippocampus Meriwether that I discovered in the Sumatra Sea. In addition, we have been able to demonstrate for the first time that life exists in the ocean to depths of more than 550 meters.  

Unlike the Beagle that was ill equipped to make undersea explorations, the Excalibur boasts a diving bell that enables me to observe marine specimens in their natural habitat. Although diving chambers had been in use since the time of Aristotle, its design has been little changed. Ours is simply an iron, open bottomed bell that can be lowered and raised by a tether attached to the ship’s windlass. In order to stay down longer, weighted barrels of air can be lowered to replenish the chamber’s air supply. It has a window through which a crew of two can observe the wonders of the undersea world. We have been diving above the mollusk beds because mollusks filter sediments out of the water, rendering the seas above the beds clear as air. 

On the day we first encountered the creature, I was accompanied in the diving bell by the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Alphonse Rousseau, himself a noted naturalist and my mentor at Cambridge. It was on his recommendation that Captain Mobley selected me for the expedition. The day was fair, the seas calm, and we were both eager to experience once again the mysteries and delights of life beneath the seas. 

The bell was hoisted over the side and lowered into the sea until only the crown remained above the surface. Alphonse and I leaped into the sea and swam down and then up into the bell. Inside was a bench facing the window and shelves on which we had previously placed our notebooks and sketching materials. Outside the window was a weighted line with knots signifying different depths. A second line reeved through a block and into the bell enabled us to send pre-arranged signals to the surface.  

“Are you ready?” I asked Alphonse. He nodded, I pulled the signal rope and we began to descend slowly into the fairyland of the sea. When we reached four fathoms, I again pulled the signal rope and our downward motion stopped and we were suspended in the clear water like specimens in amber, spinning slowly, once again surrounded by a beauty that each time we descended took my breath away. As I watched the strange and familiar creatures, fish every color of the rainbow, undulating cridaria with their long and delicate streaming tentacles, and many bizarre life forms that had probably never before been seen by men, I felt both humble and reverential, as if I had entered a great cathedral.

I turned to Alphonse and asked, “How can you say that God had no hand in this?” 

He was busily sketching. “You are a man of science, Jonathan. It is not your task to find God. It is your task to find truth.”

It occurred to me as the creatures, including several dolphins, gathered to peer into our window, that I was an intruder, an alien specimen and they were the observers.

“How can your theory of evolution explain all this diversity?” I asked. “Just outside our window there are thousands of differing living things. How could they all be descended from a few simple life forms?”

“I believe there is an innate life force,” he answered, “that drives a species to become more complex over time.”

“Couldn’t that life force be God?” I asked.

“No, John. You know better.” It was an old argument. And I did know better, but still.

Just then, something swept through the outer limits of my vision. It was large and silver, an illusion, perhaps. Then it again soared into view, a winged creature, unbelievably swift and unbelievably beautiful. For a brief moment, it came close and peered into our window, its large green eyes filled with curiosity and, perhaps, mischief.

“You saw it?” I managed to ask Alphonse. My heart was beating almost out of control.

“Yes,” Alphonse breathed, his pencil furiously trying to record what he had seen. “If I didn’t know better I would say it was a mermaid.”

“But she had wings! And a face as lovely as a goddess. And those eyes!”

As we watched for the creature’s reappearance, we wondered if we could have imagined what we had seen. Maybe the oxygen content in the bell was running low. That would explain why my heart was beating so fast. We both knew that oxygen starvation affected reasoning and led to confusion and a bending of reality. Quickly, I signaled for the crew above to send down a barrel of fresh air. As we waited for the air, we discussed the creature. It was surely female, had well formed breasts with prominent nipples, a narrow waist and a navel halfway between the head and the flukes. Her lower body was that of a dolphin, with the dolphin’s urogenital slit where the human female’s vulva would be. I was embarrassed to admit to Alphonse that although I had examined the sexual apparatus of the female dolphin, I had never even seen what a naked human woman looked like.

Having had the benefit of medical training, Alphonse said that the creature’s sexual parts did indeed resemble those of the human female. “However she does not have mammary slits like the female dolphin, instead, as you have seen, she has human-like breasts.”

“But is she human?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Alphonse replied. It was the first time I had heard him say such a thing.

“And what of the wings?” I asked.

Before he could answer, the weighted air barrels arrived and we manipulated the web of lines that positioned it beneath the bell. Then I signaled the crew above to open the valve that released a rush of sweet, fresh air into the bell. For a while, we breathed deeply, each alone with his thoughts. Keeping an eye out for the return of the creature, we turned to our sketchpads in order to record what we had witnessed. Alphonse was a gifted artist, yet I noticed that the image that began to evolve on his sketchpad was far different from the life form I had seen. While my image resembled the romantic mermaid of folklore with a slender body, long flowing hair and a beautiful face with large expressive eyes, Alphonse’s sketch reflected a creature more fish than human, with coarse facial features. Only the eyes were the same.

Soon she returned, seemed to hover some fifteen feet from the window, staying in place with slight movements of her tail and the tips of her silver wings. Now I could see that her long hair was nearly white and her upper body was beautiful to behold, although not having seen an actual naked human female, there was nothing I could compare her to except paintings, yet she was far more beautiful than any of those. It must have been beauty I was observing for it gave me pleasure and filled me with a sense of wonder. Then with a small movement of her wingtips, she drifted close until she was right at the window, her slender hands on the glass, her green eyes staring into mine and we were separated merely by a thin pane of glass and perhaps several million years. Then with a powerful beat of her large silvery wings, she was gone, leaving the diving bell rocking in the turbulence of her wake.

When we were back aboard, I pleaded with Alphonse not to tell Captain Mobley what we had seen or show him our sketches. “We need more time to make sense of this.“

Reluctantly he agreed. “But sooner or later,” he insisted, “the Captain must know.”

We retired to the cabin I shared with Alphonse in the stern of the ship, above the Captain’s quarters. It was a remote part of the ship, seldom visited, and we felt it safe to spread our sketches out on the surgeon’s desk.

“So what are your initial impressions Doctor Rousseau? Is this a new species?”

“Maybe it is a remnant of an extinct species, a species wiped out by some environmental catastrophe.”

I considered the notion of extinction and once again doubted that God would destroy what he had so famously created. Then a concept began to form in my mind, a concept that was so thrilling and outrageous, yet so plausible, that it raised goose bumps on my arms.

I tried to hide my excitement as I told Alphonse my idea. “Or, think about this. Suppose she represents the very pinnacle of evolution, a transmutation of three of the world’s most successful and highly developed species. The first two are dolphin and human.”

Alphonse raised his eyebrows. “And what is the third species?”

“Angel,” I said. “You saw the wings, the beauty. She is a transmutation of human, dolphin and angel.”

Alphonse looked at me oddly. “Jonathan, my friend. “I am as confused and confounded as you. But we have to stay grounded. There is much more we need to know, so much to learn. But we don’t have much more time to observe the creature in its natural environment.”

“Why not? We have at least a year before we return to England.”

“No. Let me tell you what is going to happen. But I’m sure you must know.”

“What do you mean?” I think I did know and my heart fell, actually seemed to tear away from the walls of my chest.

“We will have to collect the creature, Jonathan. It is what we do, collect and study.”

“You mean put her in a jar of alcohol? Pin her like a butterfly to a display? I won’t have it, Alphonse! I will not let that happen!”

“Listen, Jonathan. Once Captain Mobley finds out what we have discovered, he’ll see it as a way to upstage Captain Fitzroy and Darwin. He will be bringing back to London the greatest biological find of the century. He will not leave the creature behind. He will demand we capture it.”

“What then?”

“It can be collected humanely. The creature is curious about the diving bell. It is bound to come to the window again. At our signal, the crew can drop a weighted net over the diving bell and then bring the creature up with the bell.”

“Then what?”

“In the meantime we create an environment for it on the ship. Of course, it will have to be restrained because of the wings. And sharp teeth. And we have no idea how dangerous this creature might be.”

“I saw no sharp teeth.” I looked down at the doctor’s sketch and, indeed, he apparently observed a different dental structure than I had.

Alphonse continued. “Perhaps we can fill the dinghy with salt water and keep it there.”

“We don’t even know that she can breathe air.”

“I saw no evidence of gills. I’m certain it breathes air like we do, like dolphins do.”

“And angels?”

Alphonse did not reply. He merely shook his head and looked back at his sketches.

“So we tie her up and put her in a dinghy full of salt water. What will she eat?”

“I believe its primary diet is mollusk and fish. We can collect all it needs from the mollusk beds below the ship.”

“And once she gets to London, if she survives that long, she becomes a circus sideshow.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way, Jonathan. With your help and your obvious concern, the creature can be made comfortable as we study the behavior of the species, how it evolved, perhaps learn if there are others of its kind.”

Part of me was furious that I would take part in such a conversation, much less be involved in her capture. The other part of me was humiliated that I was so powerless to interfere. Alphonse was my mentor, a fine scientist, a good man. The Captain was powerful, he could destroy me with a few words to the right people. I said nothing and was ashamed of my silence.

“I understand how you feel, Jonathan.”

“I wonder if you do. You refuse to refer to her as anything but it or the creature. It’s ignoring the evidence of your eyes. And I saw no sharp teeth.”

“What would you have me call it?”

“I don’t know. But she’s a living breathing, sentient being, as close to human as any other species I’ve ever seen.”

As we stared down at the sketches, Alphonse asked why I thought our recollections of the creature were so different. “It’s as if we saw two different creatures.”

“I believe you purposely misrepresented what you saw to make her seem less human. Maybe it was a means of stripping away any emotion you might feel, to protect yourself from losing your objectivity.”

“I won’t deny that possibility,” Alphonse answered. “But it is highly improbable. What I sketched was what I saw. And what I saw was what is real. It is incumbent on the scientist to remain objective at all costs. When we met at Cambridge I recognized your love for science and your insistence that it would be the scientist who would move the world into a new Golden Age. We discussed all the giants in the field, Galileo, Kepler, William Harvey, Isaac Newton. And those in our own time, John Dalton, Georges Cuvier, William Herschel. I saw these men in you in those days and I still do. I need you, Jonathan. We have in our hands one of the great mysteries of the ages. I need your skills and your intellect to help solve the mystery. But in order to solve the mystery, we must collect the specimen. We must bring the creature aboard and study it as we have studied so many other species we have collected over the years.”

Over the next few days we made several more dives in the bell into the clear water above the mollusk beds. And each time, she made her appearance she appeared more magnificent. And each time she drew near to the window I was aware of the hint of curiosity and mischief in her emerald green eyes. I will have to admit the scientist in me became more and more intrigued with the possibility of learning more about her. Did she possess language? Was it possible we could communicate in some other way? Did she sleep and did she dream? And I wondered about the wings. It was obvious they propelled her through the water, but how about through the air? Was it possible she could fly? And as the days went by, I came to understand that these questions could only be answered if we were to trap her and bring her aboard.

On the fourth day after we discovered the creature, Alphonse told the captain what we had found and showed him the sketches. Captain Mobley was stunned by the drawings and our description and what the discovery might mean to science and, certainly, to his future in the Royal Navy. He immediately began making preparations for the capture of the creature. The carpenter’s mate began building a cage. The Boatswain and Midshipman’s Mate began designing and directing the fabrication of the large net weighted with chains that would be used to entrap the creature. Alphonse prepared his surgery for the creature’s arrival, including his instruments and a vial of a newly discovered anesthetic called chloroform. “It might be necessary,” he said, “to render the creature unconscious for its safety and ours.”

As I look back on those days, it is difficult to characterize my state of mind. In a sense, I was sleepwalking through the hours, facing the coming capture torn between excitement and dread. Each time I would begin to realize the magnitude of what we were about to do, begin to feel the exhilaration of discovery, I would see again her marvelous eyes, with their unfathomable depths, and I would be brought down again, not a scientist with broad knowledge of the Universe, but merely a man with absolutely no understanding of himself.

We continued to visit the mollusk beds and each time it seemed the creature became more emboldened. It was as if she was there waiting for us and she now stayed longer at the window, watching us making our sketches and notes, her eyes following our conversation. And then we would leave her there and return to the deck of the Excalibur and the final preparations for the capture.

When everything was in readiness and I knew the time of the capture was upon us, I pleaded for Alphonse to allow one more visit. But this time, I told him, I wanted to go alone.

To Alphonse’s credit he did not ask me why. I think he knew that I wanted to say goodbye. To say goodbye to a fantasy to make room for the very real work we had to do. When I made the request, Alphonse was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “I will allow this because you are my friend and I know the depth of your feelings. I envy that aspect of your character that I admit is lacking in my own. But I ask you to be careful. Say your goodbyes and then return ready for the great work we have to do.”

As I expected, she was waiting. She seemed surprised that I was alone, some slight change in the light in her eyes. She came to the window and placed her hands against the glass. Her fingers were not webbed as Alphonse had sketched them, but were long and slim, the hands of a pianist. Her hair was a silver cloud, her neck long and elegant, her face perfect as a carved ivory cameo, her great wings the color of pearl. I placed my hands on hers, only the glass between us, and we held each other’s eyes, and I reached for her spirit, for some sign that we were connected through the glass and through time. It was then I felt an overwhelming sorrow and tears formed in my eyes and the creature watched them fall, her head cocked slightly to the side. How beautiful she was in the golden half-light sifting down from the surface.

Now she watches me write, finishing this letter I have been writing to Alphonse, the letter beginning with my very unseemly comments about Darwin. Soon I will seal it and place it on the shelf where Dr. Rousseau will find it. Then I will signal for the crew to raise the bell. But when it reaches the surface it will be empty. Where will I be? That is the great mystery. But we will be together, she and I, if only for the length of a single human breath, or, God willing, forever.

Art by Jim McBeth

Story first published in the Thema Literary Journal. If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you would enjoy my recent novel, “The Lost Caravan.”