By Fraser Calderwood
What metaphor will we use for things hidden beneath surfaces when there are no icebergs left?
He and Kiki had flown to Newfoundland—stayed a minute in St. John’s with his folks and then shot up to a Fogo Island village called Tilting—to sit and watch the icebergs go by in the Labrador Sea and not think about work. Malcolm’s work mostly. But the sea ice had broken up early that year and the Official Opposition in Alberta had made it impossible for Malcolm to take vacation at the peak of viewing. Some were still drifting by when they looked out from the saltbox house they rented, shifting white topographies like faint memories of islands. Mostly the couple sat out in the wind as long as they could, scanning for whales. The bouncing pods of dolphins were regular enough that sometimes Malcolm didn’t grab the binoculars. Humpbacks were becoming rarer. He and Kiki spied only one, but when it jumped it hovered in the air longer than was even possible, floating out of space and time like a zeppelin or some planetoid possessed of its own gravity. “There won’t be whales for long either,” Kiki lamented. He told her to stop being fatalistic. She liked that a thing like a whale jumping could put him into this ecstasy. The bed squeaked like the bed in a comedy where the parents are in the next room, but they had this house to themselves so they were loud. That’s when it must have happened.
The flight home to Calgary was mostly men, leaving a row of women and children at security like frustrated pursuers. The few women and children were met in Calgary by men who looked exactly like the men getting off the plane. An icy fog had made it impossible for any inbound planes to land in St. John’s that morning, but their flight got off the ground. The air solid and cold; it was hard to believe the planet was warming. He knew it didn’t work like that but it was hard to conceive of, harder to convince voters. The cab dropped them and he only had a couple hours with Kiki before he had to drive back up to Edmonton. It could have happened then, too.
Before dawn he’s on the road. Phantom shapes of the last Edmonton houses only take solid form as he passes. The light’s purple at first and the leaves already yellowed, though it’s only August. Here, they go yellow the first chill night and come right off early. No cheery autumn brilliance, each tree a little sun, like he grew accustomed to when he was studying at York or in his short-lived stint in Ottawa. He came out to Alberta to elect the first progressive government and stayed. Malcolm and Kiki met on the campaign. She’s begged to go see the Nodosaur at the Royal Tyrrell Museum since they first read about it. It was uncovered by a machine operator in one of the gaping pit mines where rubbery bitumen is scooped up and then separated from the sand with superheated steam. There was a proposal in the 1970s to hasten this process with a nuclear bomb underground. The Nodosaur’s supposed to be really something, skin and guts all preserved.
When he pulls in to her place—their place—all the lights are on and she looks as if she has not slept. He doesn’t say anything. All the way to Drumheller they hardly say anything. Clay foothills drop off into uniform prairie, pale yellow hayfields and neon yellow canola fields. The Red Deer River and the sudden rains cut away hunks of the land into tortured shapes, water wanting to go where it has always been—where it remembers a great sea. Kiki sleeps from Beiseker on, lurches awake as Malcolm slips the little hybrid into the crevice between two trucks. The chill morning feels like a vanished era of the world; the heat mirrored off the new white cement is dry and intense like an electric stovetop. He can see it.
Kiki walks ahead into the gloom of the museum. “Two,” she says at the ticket counter, gesturing to include Malcolm. “And I’m a university student.” Malcolm follows, staring at her hips. They are part of her fear about this. She is such a petite person, true—narrow shoulders, the ladder of ribs visible when she twists her body—but he thinks her hips are wide enough. His appraisal: she would be fine. If she wanted.
They’ve known for a few weeks now. Kiki suspected earlier of course. She might already have booked her appointment at the Kensington Clinic; he’s been in Edmonton all week and they promised to talk about it only in person. They don’t want words misinterpreted. It’s fraught enough without that. Malcolm can’t get past the question she asked him last weekend: “Is it moral to add another human to the earth?”
Malcolm catches up and pulls her into the gift shop. “I know what to do,” he says with more surety than he feels about anything. “If you mostly want to see the Nodosaur, let’s go backwards and we’ll reach it sooner.” Surrounding them are dinosaur books and dinosaur sweatshirts and plush dinosaurs, kits to glue together skeletons from balsa wood and kits to click together skeletons from glow-in-the-dark plastic. A small girl is screeching because the model Tyrannosaur has feathers and her dad looms over the golf-shirted teen at the till saying, “I bet y’have some in the back that’re just regular T-Rexes.” Malcolm and Kiki slip into the Pleistocene epoch.
He hasn’t said anything, yes or no. It’s not his body that’d be affected. He’s fought enough far-right lunatics that there’s no room to tell her what he wants to tell her. It’s her decision. He doesn’t want to be a hypocrite. But maybe Kiki ought to think about it longer. Maybe she’d want it.
They have a comfort with each other across vast public spaces like this. They detach and scan opposite walls of Eocene creatures, but an invisible rope holds them. Malcolm always has a sense of where she is. He tries to focus on the exhibit and not the thing he can’t say. He stares at a large leathery thing. Reads the knee-level plaque. Stretching down the wall is a diorama of a knobbly-faced mammal called Uintatherium. “Members of a group that failed to adapt.” It is posed gnawing on primordial flora, looking just like a rhinoceros with its horn missing.
No. He’s seen that. A rhino, stump bleeding where its horn was sawn off, flanks pocked with bullet wounds. Rhinos are nearly all gone, their bodies piano keys and dagger handles and powders to cure cancer and impotence. As though the human species wasn’t potent enough! Jesus, what a narrow window they’d conceived in. Kiki hadn’t been on anything, or she had run out. It was fine—it was the last day of her period, Kiki had said. It had just been so long since they thrilled that much to one another. The three hundred kilometres bit at whatever it was that sustained them. His Instagram is all nature photographers. He loves that stuff. The photograph of the rhinoceros he saw on a break from writing press releases for the ministry. This or that about the progress of the pipeline, the prosperity Alberta workers would gain from shooting this thick tar down a tube into the ocean. He looks up for Kiki, who must be in the next exhibit—or a previous one—and then his gaze returns to defunct mammals. The recollection of gaping at his phone screen, the mutilated face, almost makes him sob right there for poor Uintatherium.
The small mammals of the Paleocene go ignored. Malcolm rushes past light boxes of teeth and the scant other traces they left to locate Kiki. She’s framed by feathered creatures of the late Cretaceous, some birds and some not yet birds. The array of animals looks in motion, a sprint from Velociraptors to squat alien-eyed Troodons, to some sleek-beaked intermediate chimera, and at last to recognizable birds. At the close of this period, asteroids or volcanoes made the place all but unliveable and whole clades of beings perished. Birds remained. Malcolm pictures them hovering above the earth until it is safe. He puts an arm around Kiki. Families with whole troupes of kids traipse in the other direction, following the correct chronology. Toddlers awed by toothy mouths and sickle claws keep bumping into Malcolm and Kiki as they trudge further back in time.
Another plaque informs him that chickens are the birds that most genetically resemble dinosaurs. Malcolm recalls an article about how vastly it would cut down on animal cruelty if everyone just went off chicken. As well as eggs, of course. He is willing to do these things. He avoids pork already because he read that pigs are clever enough to play video games. Malcolm’s no good at video games—grew up without Nintendo, running the street in sight of the shore playing Pirates or Vikings—so he figures that makes pigs pretty smart. Fish he’s also cut out, which was weird at first as a Newfoundlander, but the weight of depleted, plasticized oceans was too much on his conscience.
So if he does all these things to look after the place, can he not increase its total lives by one?
They’d make a good kid. He’d read to it every night.
After she first told him, Malcolm found an article online about how pregnancy was good for some women’s health. He thinks it was the visceral terror of being ripped open, more than anything, that made up Kiki’s mind. What could he say? “I read a study that said …”
They enter a room like a darkened cathedral. Where the altar or the reliquary would be there resides a long glass case, luminous, and along its bottom lies the mud creature. Pilgrims mass around it like on the first trip he and Kiki took together. A crazed thing to do. The summer after the vote. She wanted him to relish Paris, knew for him that meant a checklist of every important site. The heat was incomprehensible—a record high—and when they got to the correct room of the correct floor of the correct wing of the Louvre (unhelpfully, the signs only said “La Joconde”), the throng around the little da Vinci portrait was so enormous, and their hunger and swampy bodies so distracting, that they left, not having glimpsed it, and ate McDonald’s soft-serve by the Seine.
After that first trip they made rules. They were serious about each other. Too much of Kiki’s life was in Calgary for her to move to the provincial capital with him. She chose some of her things to adorn the Edmonton apartment; he kept a shelf of books in Calgary. They understood, in separate cities, that things could happen. Trysts were permitted. So it wasn’t really cheating what happened a few weeks before they flew to Newfoundland. The trip was booked even before that, but it helped, he thought, to get away with her. Reclaim.
Kiki charges right up to the gargoyle in the case. She slips between bigger bodies to get what she came for. His eyes follow her darting. She’s wondrous. He thinks of saying, “You’re gorgeous, and brilliant, and I’m alright … and I think you should keep …”
Or should he say nothing? They’re so young. She’s younger than he is. He sort of answered her if it was moral to add a person to the seven and a half billion. “Everyone thinks,” he began, “Everyone thinks their kid’s gonna be a real treat and better than the others.” He agrees it’s selfish. He still thinks together they could nurture the kind of human being every single person on the planet ought to be. He holds both thoughts.
Should he say it at the museum? He wanted to in the car but she dozed. Here she can retreat, hide in another epoch until she’s ready. In the car would be private but awkward.
The crowd thins and Malcolm sees a way in. Only as he approaches does he understand what a marvel he’s looking at.
Kiki wants an abortion. Abortion. Abortion. ABORTION. She cannot abide euphemism. All the way from Calgary in the car she knows what he wants to say. Knows he can’t get it out. Will they have an argument amid these suspended skeletons? She feels like she’s read about this too many times, studying drama and creative writing. In stories, men always want it “taken care of” (aborted), or they sweet talk a girl into finding some unlicensed doctor for the “simple operation” (abortion) or offer pay for a bus ticket out of town for “a procedure” (abortion). But she knows what Malcolm wants to say is that he wants it. A kid.
All around her are children. She should have thought of that. It’s late August. The real attractions of summer have all packed up but these loud broods have not yet been carted off in school buses. They scuttle underfoot like this is the creep scene in her personal Indiana Jones movie. They surround her in the gift shop, noisy and wanting and brushing against her uncaringly because they have that child sense that they’ll be forgiven any rude act.
When she was in St. John’s meeting Mal’s family—the whole town is related to him!—his sister and three cousins and a young aunt each had a child in diapers, most red and round and jerking like beetles thrown on their backs, one or two up and bumping their faces on everything and then shrieking at their victimization. She was handed a baby every ten minutes from when the plane landed to when they struck out by themselves for the northern outport. And then finally she was at peace, with only Malcolm, whom she loved.
They are out of the rows of colouring books and into the Ice Age. She knows really nothing of this prehistory, only what is called the “Little Ice Age,” when winters were cold enough in Europe that the Thames in England and the canals of the Netherlands froze over, and all the things she cares about were written or painted or performed. Her family are Dutch citizens, but they don’t look anything like the skaters in a Brueghel painting. Born in Curaçao, she was still an eight-kilogram engine of shit and vomit when Shell Oil transferred her father to the drear north. She does not speak to him. She relates him only in legends: once to avoid a DUI he sped down Deerfoot and then into the neighbourhood, a growing armada of cop cars tailing him, and pulled safely into their driveway, only to smash the garage door. He went inside and when the doorbell rang came out looking sleepy and surprised. It was only nine at night. But he’d clicked the trunk button instead of the garage door opener and several constables were holding up empty bottles, critiquing his wine selections.
Malcolm slips an arm around her waist. His hand worms around to rest on her belly. Maybe he’ll finally say what he thinks. He doesn’t.
In abortion stories, you know the couple is breaking up. This is juvenile, thinks Kiki. If the operation is ordinary, the choice simple, it ought not to be a cataclysm—they should go on. There are enough cataclysms. That’s some of the reason. Calgary flooded; Haiti and Puerto Rico and other, smaller worlds nearer her birthplace were and are annihilated by hurricanes; Mal sends her pictures of animals so near extinct that if they have this child it will never live in a world with them. What Kiki wants is Malcolm as her partner. And yet, she can’t let him in her anymore. Or, not currently. Last weekend she lay with him and watched him handle himself. When he was near finishing she took him in her mouth. A thing she loves to do for him. She lay with her eyes shut for what felt like several minutes after, trying to suppress nausea.
Maybe the aversion is because he did this to her. She has stalked off by herself, looking absently at bird skeletons. But in that moment on Fogo she growled at him, out loud, “Come in me.” He loves when she orders him to.
Probably that needed to happen. They needed a new mark of intimacy, after David.
As Malcolm hunts for her among the exhibits she can see this battle in him. (She has no idea if she’s moving backward or forward through time.) His politics won’t allow him to tell her what to do here, but he wants to do just that. Malcolm’s politics have suffered a great deal in his job in Communications for the ministry. He lived on a party member’s couch for the five weeks of the election, worked twelve-hour days seven days a week. Drove all the way to this place to help drag it out of the Dark Ages, drove here again with all his possessions to work for a government he thought had a plan against climate change. Something other than everybody’s kid here and everybody’s kid from out east going up to Fort McMurray to shovel tar so it can be melted and then burned. But he’s been in politics since he left university; he knows its Faustian pacts. So he’s a cheerleader now for pipelines and tailings ponds and toxic runoff choking the Athabasca River. He explains it over and over. He has to promote these things because it will be considerably worse if they lose the next election.
When she first slept with David, what drew her to him was how uncompromising he was. She sees others only when Malcolm is in Edmonton. He can too, if he wants.
David told her about his vermiculture compost and his band that only plays venues he thinks are ethical: organic produce, fair labour. She wanted it for a long time but she moved slow. With a new partner she still considers herself the ugly troll she was in high school, a tiny monstrosity like one of the Burgess Shale creatures. It helped that she was so drunk when she asked to see his worms.
That week of iceberg watching with the icebergs gone, Malcolm so goddamn giddy about whales, she was sure about him. He does kind things but in weird ways. When she said they should come here, she was in a poetry writing class and the Nodosaur seemed like a beautiful static thing to write about. Does he think she’s going to write a poem about it today?
She thinks they’re in the right place now. She cannot make out the shape of the gargantuan thing in its cramped terrarium. The spaces between onlookers are just wide enough for her to steal through, the one benefit to this small body. These Canadians talk about how polite they are but she just finds them hierarchical. It’s assumed white men get to go where they want, so when they yield space—only ever to white women—they feel like Knights of the Round Table. Parents with their children in strollers act like they’ve done a noble thing for humanity—reproducing—and run over your feet without apology. That was another thing she liked about David. Though he finished school in the pale stucco suburbs of Calgary—his parents arrived when he was very small, like hers had—he was too, too dark to ever be absorbed. It’s funny to her that he plays in a hardcore punk band. She’s only seen him wear tight black jeans, a white V-neck, and a blue denim vest with a patch on the back that says the band’s name: Photo Negative. Both times she went home with him he was wearing exactly this.
A good or bad thing about Malcolm is how reliable he is. He texted when he left Edmonton this morning, so she had three hours to get home. She felt like her body wasn’t hers anymore and she just needed to make a decision for it. David made her come all three times. The last time she whispered to him, “Come in me.”
That is not permitted, even if she really can’t get pregnant right now.
The Nodosaur’s head is lowered in surrender to its fate. It is so complete it doesn’t look dead. Its neck is bowed and the bovine snout rests on the petrified clay, but Kiki still will not be surprised if at any moment it staggers to its feet and lumbers off through the museum. The tank treads of armour plating stretching up its back—unbelievably undamaged after one hundred million years—are stunning not only for being intact but for being startlingly, unexpectedly, just as she imagined a dinosaur or a dragon would look when she was eight years old. She pictures what it would be like to be eight and looking up at such a thing.
At some point she’s looking less at the Nodosaur and more at Malcolm looking at the Nodosaur. He can’t quite get into the space beside her. He’s too tall, shoulders too square, but mostly Mal is too thoughtful to steal from children the opportunity to stand so close to a dinosaur. Or maybe he keeps slightly out of the spotlights around the Nodosaur because his eyes are already wet. The thing he wants to say has vanished from his face. He looks so overcome, more like marvelling at the arc of the whale’s body in the air than blanching at the photo of the rhino. She loves him this unguarded. At the very middle of him is kindness, and that is not true of David. She saw the second time. He was matter-of-fact about their continuing to hook up, about other hook-ups. The bar where met him in the first time, he says he fucked one of the waitresses a while back. “Those loose high waist pants y’all are wearing now,” he said. “Can’t make out anyone’s shape. Naw, won’t be having that one over again.”
When she pulled Malcolm inside after they saw the humpback, when she tugged off the layers of clothing he wore against the wind, told him she needed him right then, not to go rooting in drawers for dried-out condoms, was she already saying this was a man whose child she would have?
Malcolm steps behind one group of onlookers and then slips apologetically in front of another, over to where Kiki has rooted herself. She’s looking at his reflection, not the original. Is he about to say what he wants to say? At his mother’s house, every time someone handed Kiki a baby she thought she’d drop it. Not right then, like a klutz. But at some point. More than her body being torn open, or lifeless seas rising to swallow deforested continents, she fears the damage she could do to a child. He’s right that it’s up to her but she wants him to say, "Have it,” not let it hang over them unsaid. She wants him to voice something this selfish. To fight.
A series of panels around the Nodosaur display suggest a tragic story. The Nodosaur waded into a shallow sea to feed. The muck must have swallowed it in one gulp. It dug down and could not find bottom to push off of. Any living thing could be lost like this. Giant reptiles. Children. The earth was a thrashing, wounded thing, and could eradicate them. By heat or cold or poison gas, it had emptied itself before this. Can she not try to live a good life with just Mal? No children to keep from tar pits, quicksand. The Nodosaur eyes her from its case. Just one eye cracked, it does not drag its head from the hard earth. If it peers out at her, she thinks, it will see this tall thing—Malcolm—leaning over to speak.
Fraser Calderwood is a writer and teacher from Calgary, currently an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph. His fiction has appeared in Ambit and Event, and is forthcoming in FreeFall magazine. He is in Toronto working on his first novel.