Fiction from NER 43.1 (2022)
he excavation of Patagotitan mayorum, the largest dinosaur ever uncovered, took over eighteen months. The video that plays on a loop at the Museum of Natural History shows a swarm of paleontologists going at the pale red rock like workers in a quarry. They wield shovels and pickaxes and jack hammers and chisels. Some kind of crane-like machine, with blunt teeth, heaves mouthfuls of rock up from the site. One man uses a push broom to sweep debris from an enormous femur. Bulldozers are brought in to clear a road through the rocky, scrubby barrens of the Patagonian Desert to carry the bones off the site. In the lab, beneath the light of a magnifying lens, men apply what look like dental instruments—tiny drills, or maybe cleaning devices—to the fossilized bones. In the lab, notes the outback-voiced narrator, any remaining fragments of rock are chipped away.
I like to think about this as I sit staring into the hull of the Patagotitan’s rib cage. Some 223 different sauropod bones were exhumed from layers and layers of sediment, the mudstone and sandstone chipped away from them, the dust brushed off. Eighty-four of the bones could be pieced together to form the titanic skeleton that rises as high as forty-six feet and extends for 120. I like to think about this. I don’t know, though, what Miles is thinking when he sits here on this black bench that, in the dim light, is almost invisible against the equally black wall striped with shadows of the Patagotitan’s enormous ribs. He will sit here and stare for a while, sometimes a quarter of an hour, hunching his small body in the inexplicable cold of the room, his soft face solemn and close-lipped.
Miles and I come here, to the museum, on Fridays. It’s marginally less crowded in the late afternoon of a weekday, after I’ve picked him up from preschool. He and I always enter the museum from the subway, which makes the whole trip seem somewhat covert, as if we are secret agents who must avoid the exposure of the streets. Miles and I step from the subway not out into the light of day and the enlightenment of knowledge promised on the Teddy Roosevelt memorial facade, but into the windowless basement of the museum and, then, by stepping into the vacuum tube of an elevator, toward the dinosaur bones. He and I sometimes visit the other halls, the other floors. The Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians on the third, Birds of the World on the second, North American Forests on the first. But we always drift back to the dinosaurs. Most days, that is the only place we go.
Miles doesn’t say what it is he likes about the dinosaur bones. Is it the overwhelming scale of the big ones, the spookiness of their skeletal silhouettes, their faint resemblance to the familiar characters in his picture books? Is it their silence?
Miles has never quite stuck by my side in the museum. Even when I first brought him here, he wandered the saurischian and ornithischian halls on his own, and I followed at a tentative distance, like a one-person surveillance team. We enter the museum together—he knows he needs me to flash our members’ pass. We ride the elevator to the fourth floor together. We exit the elevator together, both of us turning right. But Miles enters the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs on his own, beneath the silent flock of seagulls suspended above. He might pause at the glass-encased skeleton of the Diatryma gigantea, a flamingo-like creature posed in profile, or at the gigantic skull of a T. rex, its hollows poured full of what looks like concrete. I follow, at a distance, careful not to appear obvious about it. Mostly, he seems indifferent to my presence, but if I get too close, make a conversational foray, his shoulders tighten and he soon wanders, silently, away, and I feel like a clumsy spy who has just been made.
When we began coming here, I at first tried to crouch beside him, exclaim over the size of the bones, the rib cages like rusted-out hulls, the long whip of the apatosaurus’s tail, the enormous display claws in their glass box. Sometimes I would read an especially thrilling didactic to him. “The Mysterious Giant Arms of Deinocheirus,” I would intone, like an over-excited host of Vincent Price Presents. “These enormous arms were all that was found of Deinocheirus.” I would point at the Giant Arms, dangling from the ceiling like two morbid windsocks, and ask him what he thought.
But he would shrug off these ham-handed ice breakers of mine, exposing the falseness of my kid-friendly tones. And he would wander off again on his own, maybe to stare at the empty-eyed skull of the T. rex in its stalking position.
He tends toward corners and alcoves. The display case containing fossilized remains of archaeopteryx specimens, impressed onto slabs of stone. Their tiny, contorted shapes are like mosquitoes squished on a patio tile. Or the wooden bench against the wall behind the extended tail of the T. rex. Here, I have seen him sit, cross-legged and hunch-backed, just watching. I sit at the other end of the bench, trying to see what he sees. The smooth vertebrae of the T. rex trail down to the tip of the tail like polished hinges, intersecting the looming view of the apatosaurus skeleton across the way. If I talk, ask him questions, he might shrug away. So I am quiet, have learned to be. A few people stroll by, as they will when you’re on a bench in the park—but not many. Children’s screeches ricochet off the high ceilings and walls. Everyone’s voices reverberate.
Once, Miles crept into the space between the stair railing and the rail surrounding the bullish Triceratops skeleton. He crouched down, making himself even smaller than usual, into the crevice beneath the platform above. I must admit I watched instead of retrieving him. I wanted to see how long it took for any sort of guard to spot him and scold him. But no one ever did. And when I said, very mildly to him, that he really wasn’t supposed to be there, he shrugged me off but crawled under the railing to the stairs, away from the squat backside of the triceratops, away from me.
All around us, adults and children mill about, faces turned upward, pleasantly agog, then downward, frowning at the translucent plaques of the didactics. The sounds of different languages echo around us. French. German. Maybe Chinese. Something Scandinavian-sounding. The saurischian hall is a dull roar of human voices, punctuated by the high pitch of children’s. Miles’s, though, is not among these.
Miles and I usually stay until we are forced out. At roughly 5:15, the overbearing loudspeaker sounds. Your attention please, your attention please, comes the prim tones of a robotic female voice, the words blurred by the swimming-pool-like acoustics of the place. The museum will be closing in thirty minutes. Any security guard can direct you to an exit. We hope you have enjoyed your stay. The announcement is then repeated in ten or so other languages, all of them barely discernible. This lasts for just over two minutes. No one pays it much mind. Twenty minutes later, a nearly identical message will be repeated, in all ten or eleven barely discernible languages. Like a large herd of animals that has learned to recognize a tone, people begin wandering toward the exit signs. Ten minutes after that, the final salvo will fill the mostly vacant hall. Miles usually presses his hands to his ears but otherwise doesn’t move.
At the moment, he is staring at the display case of ankylosaur armor, spread out like a mosaic. The armored dinosaurs, or ankylosaurs, were covered in bony plates, horns and spikes that formed a suit of armor from head to tail, reads the didactic. Different kinds of ankylosaurs had different patterns of armor on their bodies. Next to the display case, a special round container invites visitors to touch a finger-print-sized patch of a sixty-five-million-year-old armor plate. The small spot on the single dark plate within the container has been polished to a high, impermeable-looking shine by years of fingers briefly touching it.
I touch the pad of my own index finger to the smooth, hard plate. I try to feel the awe of making contact with something from sixty-five million years ago, but all I feel is the hard plate.
Your attention please, your attention please, comes the final warning at last. The museum is now closed. The voice reverberates terribly, distorting each sound of each word. Miles presses his hands to his ears. As I always do, I try to make out the language of the final iteration, but can’t . . .
To read the rest of “Paleontology,” subscribe to the print edition of NER 43.1.