The past future perfect | LJ Moore for The Last Menagerie
It was an old and greatly-respected museum, which meant that its façade was new, sleek, airtight glass and steel. Beneath and behind these revisions lay its strata of peeling layers of lead-based paint, dry-rotted acoustic tiles, and basement-level windows that had once been square but now resembled parallelograms.
It was through a gap in one of these windows that the bat slid, taking a few moments to rest, hanging upside down from the transom. He had come to see Martha.
The bat had spent a lot of time watching TV: mostly classic horror flicks and the National Geographic channel. This is how he had learned to read and understand several languages. This is also how the bat had learned about Martha, the last passenger pigeon to exist. She had died in Cincinnati on September 1, 1914, was shipped in a 300 pound block of ice to the Smithsonian Institution, thawed, stuffed, and mounted on a branch, and had sat for decades in the museum next to a plaque that read EXTINCT.
The bat had watched the show about Martha with increasing hope and agitation. Her kind had once been the most abundant bird in North America, dimming the skies in flocks that took hours to pass by, which is how she had earned the name Passenger pigeon. It had taken only a century for those billions of birds to be displaced, destroyed, and devoured. Now, National Geographic told him, a recipe for resurrection had been discovered. A diagram explained it all: within her dusty feathers and brittle bones lay the language of her name in an endless series of repeating letters. These letters would be read and translated, and put into the eggs of modern pigeons. When those eggs hatched, the pigeons that emerged would appear to be modern pigeons, but within the alchemy of their bodies a change had taken place: inside each of their eggs lay Martha, waiting to hatch again into the future.
Illustration by LJ Moore
Martha had never really been dead, a scientist explained: not to the Smithsonian, and not to National Geographic, and not to her very matter, which could always name her again. Our MAGE machine can read and write DNA, a young scientist explained, we get to rethink extinction: it’s like getting unending lives in a video game; we can go back and fix our mistakes.
The bat wanted to fix his mistakes. In particular, he wanted to fix the mistake of language. Since the moment he had, so may years before, crawled through a similar window to the one he was suspended from now and found himself trapped in someone’s living room when the window was shut. He had hidden there, living off what bugs made their way in, awake night-after-night when the owner of the house fell asleep with the television left on. He remembered how it had begun: how he had first noticed the images on the television, the strange prickling sensation all over his body when he had connected the sounds emanating from the box to the images. How he had begun to understand. All of this had been tolerable, even strangely satisfying- like a new sense he had not known existed. But then he began to remember his life before, feelings and sensations he now had names for: dry moth powder stuck in the throat, the returned handshake of the air as he hefted himself wingbeat by wingbeat, humid flavors of other bats and concrete in the dark space under the bridge where he had been born. As he remembered it all now, it was no longer possible to rest in the silence of the knowing. A new part of him, a part of him he did not want, relentlessly close-captioned his existence into a stream of words and observations. This self-conscious hell, he thought with the melodrama of his media influences, was not worth the schadenfreude of being able to watch Project Runway.
The bat had nearly given up on the idea of being able to stop self-reflecting. He had tried everything- not watching TV, not listening to TV, hiding all night under the bed. But the TV was no longer the source of the noise and the images, and no matter what he did, he could not find a way to ignore himself. When he had been learning language, the word he’d had the most trouble with was forever. Now he finally knew that forever was knowing that all the discomfort of now would continue as now into the now.
Now though… now, there was a chance he was wrong. If the past was not irretrievable, if it could be inserted anew into the future… maybe he could find his way back to that former version of himself he had lost. An original now, not a like-I-was now, but a blissful now and now and now.
A voice reached him through the darkness of the museum basement. It was slightly muffed.
The bat released his claws from the transom latch and followed the echoes of the voice, hurtling around sharp corners and banking to avoid doorways and desks. He did this silently, in darkness, aware of that new compartment of his mind that watched himself as if through an omniscient camera. Here he is, entering the frame, gracefully bending his course around a glass case of pinned Luna moths, and hurtling out of view, only to be picked up again from a new angle, this time from above as if seen through a cutaway of the building where the walls and ceiling were transparent. TV had taught him to “see” this way, to think this way. Bats are not blind, a voice said in his mind. They use both vision and echolocation, depending on the available light. It was his voice, but it came unbidden, narrating his every action. If he had to go on this way, it would be a forever without quiet. He blamed TV for all of it. Martha had lived and died before TV. She had not yet lived again, so there was still a chance for her. Maybe they could help each other.
The voice reached him again, still muffled but now very close: this way!
He saw a dim light ahead and curved to follow it. It was a table lamp, sitting atop a large metal filing cabinet. The voice was coming from inside the middle drawer. Though he scoured its rusty surface on all sides, there was no gap large enough for him to crawl inside. Exhausted, he clung nearby to the torn edge of a poster thumbtacked to the wall. It showed a lushly-rendered drawing of an arrangement of leafy plants and flower sprigs held in a crystal vase. Various finely-rendered animals perched among the leaves and stems and crowded the tabletop below the vase, peering out expectantly from among the symbols of the naturalist: a jar of pickled skinks, a whitened Canid skull, an egg decorated with the handwritten script of Darwin’s century, and above all these words: revive & restore: genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species. The bat recognized, perched upon a broad green leaf, a Passenger pigeon.
That’s not me, came the muffled voice from the drawer. Close your eyes, Martha said, it’s the only way to really see me anymore.
That prickling sensation he had first felt when he began to understand words swept over the back of the bat’s skull and down between his scapulae. He had learned there was a word for this: frisson. He had also heard it referred to as autonomous sensory meridian response, or a goose walking over your grave. There were moments, he admitted, that he would miss words.
The bat saw nothing for a moment but the houndstooth patterns of phosphenes. Then a form began to take shape. It was a very large egg, smooth, fawn-colored, and speckled with darker brown patches. The egg began to glow from within, until the light made the walls of the shell grow transparent. Inside was Martha, fully grown, her neck bent at an awkward angle. She was upside down. Her feet, curled as if to encircle a branch, pointed upward, gripping emptiness. She stared out at him intently, her red glass eyes like pomegranate seeds. Paper tags dangled from each of her legs detailing her name and the dates of her birth and death in cramped, faded ink.
Is that what you really look like? the bat asked.
No, Martha said. I don’t exist anymore.
I’m not sure I understand, the bat said.
I look like your idea of me, she said. But I’m also dead.
For a fraction of a second, the bat didn’t know what to think. During that very brief moment, he forgot about himself. And then, inevitably, he became aware of having just experienced the forgetting.
I’ll be laying an egg that I’m inside of, Martha said, matter-of-factly. The muffled quality of her voice had disappeared. She was speaking from directly inside the bat’s head.
So it’s not TV that did this to us, the bat thought.
What’s TV? Martha answered.
L.J. Moore was a 2010 writer in residence at Headlands Center for the Arts, and in 2013 sailed on a tall ship around The Arctic Circle with a group of artists during 24-hour daylight. She is currently working on a series of illustrated short-short stories that you can read on her website: ljmoore.wordpress.com