PUERTO DEL PASADO — Artifacts from the Archives | Joel Hans's "First It Was the Brushfires"
For our next post in the archives series, Puerto del Pasado—Artifacts from the Archives, I revisit Joel Hans's "First It Was the Bushfires" from the Spring 2018 issue. Hans imagines a dystopian world with few species left, positing harrowing and removed questions about life, memories, and the consequences of our decisions.
— Emily Radell
First It Was the Brushfires
Go ahead, push the button. Start everything all over again.
For those too young to remember: first it was the brushfires, and then the world flooding. It was the expanse of peoples, how they tried to make fertile every new possible land.
We begin in the end, because I can’t let anyone forget.
We begin in the end, with a question: What is it like to kill the last of a thing?
On the twentieth day on my pursuit of the Snares Island fernbird, my yacht, following a course it preordained and maintained without my input, approached a bloom of jellyfish. Even then they were the one last thing that could truly thrive in the new ocean, deeper and hotter than ever. The unwanted always survived. Life reversed the function. My yacht churned through a patch of them so thick I couldn’t see ocean. Opalescent swimmers so thick they filled in each other’s absences.
I said something I can’t remember, and Firuzeh laughed until she cried. Or maybe it was only crying.
What if I said I was going to Mars, she said.
I’d wish you a good tailwind both ways.
What if I said it was a one-way trip. Firuzeh pointed out the moon, crescent bowl, as though hanging on to its shadow. Would you go, if you could?
I knew what she meant, she knew what she meant.
I said, There’s nothing there for me.
You mean there’s nothing there for your collection.
At least as far as we know, I said.
Maybe I’ll find something for you and send it back.
I’d be happy with some sand.
Maybe I’ll say something into it.
Part of me did wish for that; she was my best lyrebird. She could mimic the function of so many other things. I believed for a long time, until I believed the opposite, that it would be a wonder to open the seal and put my ear to the opening, listen to the last I would ever know of her.
My ribbon-tailed astrapia came via my friend, Xavier Bingham, who toured the world finding specimens for me, who visited Papua New Guinea under the guise of a poacher, only to steal the live bird into burlap and board it onto a private jet under my hire. It was the most beautiful bird to ever exist.
Its tail feathers were three times longer than its body. The iridescence around its neck, the broach of its chest. How at some angles it would look black, at others, aurora-green.
I named it Bentley, after Firuzeh’s car.
Xavier, when he hugged me and asked after my health, this thing with my blood we never did have enough respect for to name, he smelled of airplanes.
If you push the button here, you’ll see how we’re back to the beginning of the fossil record. You’ll see, just here, the different pathways we’ll follow, first into the vertebrates, the bipedal and the quadrupedal, the difference between reptile and amphibian. The origins of everything with which we are most familiar.
Please don’t lean over the railing like that. Yes, you.
Please don’t use flash photography. It hurts the bones.
Please don’t speak too loudly.
Please control your children.
Please don’t run or play near the museumpieces.
Please don’t spoil what’s to come for the people who are behind you, or slower to read, or more patient to experience.
Please don’t rush ahead. The order matters.
The last time I saw Xavier was in Vienna, somewhere along the Stephansplatz. I thought I would someday donate my collection to the natural history museum there, but when I spoke with the curators and the executive staff, they said they had no more purpose for a collection of fossils, of preserved tissues. Of birds and all their colors. The industry was shifting toward galleries of experiments for children to entertain themselves on. Physical traces were being locked in climate-controlled archives for safekeeping alone.
As I left, one of the curators whispered to me, I know it’s difficult, to be young, to believe you matter.
The sand never did come, the handful that Firuzeh promised. In a message, she claimed she sent it. If it survived the long journey, and fell through the atmosphere as the sight of a shooting star—if it was just a matter of her missing the calculations—then I’m happy enough to believe that in one of many possible futures, someone had stumbled into the capsule and wondered.
One such possibility: when the rainforest finished being razed over complete and a beige-cloaked man arrived to survey the future sugarcane fields, it was there among the shredded undergrowth, the shredded bodies of birds. A treefrog lingered on a stump and marveled at the directness of light, the overwhelm of blue.
Even at eighteen, I ran around the house looking behind paintings for the sound of my mother’s being gone. Like the estate’s thirty-one rooms each held a record of her. I took portions of the sea in my hand like she was waiting to shout up from the deep below.
Firuzeh sent me a message from her new planet: I never knew lonely until I left you, or you left me. She asked me to name something after her.
I looked at a globe and tried to find the most remote place in the world.
If I went there, maybe I could find a new species, give it her name.
It was the same day Xavier called me, told me he had a line on the Snares Island fernbird.
The difference between finding and naming, and killing and preserving: I hope she can forgive me.
There, yes please, push the button to see just how many twenty-five thousand really is.
The tundra swan in real size, and all twenty-five thousand individual white feathers.
Can you imagine trying to keep all of them orderly?
Can you imagine trying to name them?
Can you imagine the responsibility of that—no, nevermind.
Can you ask your child to take her finger off the button, please?
Yes, sir? Well, what I had wanted to say was, can you imagine the responsibility, if you were to die, you would be not just losing your capacity to breathe, but you would be starving the world of twenty-five thousand individual white traces of beauty.
To discuss extinction is to discuss everything in the nature of going-away: death, absence, history, regret, agency, forgetfulness, brains, domesticity, pain, taxonomy, power, darkness, obligation, preservation, horror, archeology, empathy, generosity, sharing, foresight, species, language, and, of course, memory. It is just a matter of which we decide are most critical to the nature of who we have been, and what we are always becoming: monsters, perhaps, or memories. There is little in the way of middle ground.
Look here, children, don’t forget the button: before the oceans rose the continents were much larger than they used to be. This gulf, it used to be a wide swath of prairie. This shallow part of the ocean used to be an island. There used to be so much more room for these most massive of creatures. All this open space. Here, the African elephant.
How many of you children have a toy in the shape of one of these?
Does it look different than what you thought it would?
Yes, it’s much larger.
It is said an elephant never forgets. You all could do the same, if only you tried.
What’s that? Yes, I mean, you could never forget. It’s a choice, after all.
Tortoises live well past one hundred, depending on the species.
Bowhead whales can streak into a third century if they would like, all based on the coldness of their blood.
A macaw might make eighty.
A Snares Island fernbird could live to six years, with good fortune.
I wasn’t supposed to make it this long, surely, but I have, with good fortune.
An African elephant could to be 70, or more, and with the females fertile until their deaths.
The Turritopsis dohrnii performs an act called transdifferentiation, in which it denatures its jellyfish body and becomes a polyp, cells transforming into children, and in doing so it can live, effectively, forever.
All of these subject, of course, to outside threats.
When I breakfasted with my mother on the main terrace, with the Alborz range in the distance, Tochal wearing the white skirts of winter, the following scene:
Me, age eighth, asking, What’s the word for someone who runs a zoological museum?
A zookeeper, dear.
No, that’s the name of the person who takes care of animals in a living animal zoo. What about a museum?
My mother, silencing, You’ll take over your father’s banking business. That’s your future. If you really want, you can be the docent in your free time. Or you’ll be the rich man who runs the tours. It’ll be charming.
My mother, she never did tell me the word I was looking for, and she is dead now: cancer of the uterus. Of course the word is curator. My mother had the kind of laugh that hid beneath carpets.
There are no mountains here.
The truth is that I made a museum in my home country because I became tired and afraid of things being forgotten: their bodies and their names.
And the truth is that everything decays along unique clockways.
Bones can be slow, or near-permanent, depending on the nature of the soil, the lack of water, the acidity, the temperature, the lack of fungi, the lack of trees lending down taproots, little nozzles of greengrowth apologizing through all the underneath on their way down.
The brain goes early to proteolysis, protein losing their holds, denaturing into liquid, which is most easily lost.
Names are the most variable, sometimes before the thing is gone and sometimes after, sometimes within a day and sometimes not for centuries.
Feathers are among the slowest: same as skin, same as hair, same as toenails, same as corneas.
It gives me comfort, at the very least, to think the dead are not robbed, at least for a while, of their capacity to want to touch, or brush their own hair. Or fly. Or see. Or the feeling, upon being discovered again, of hearing their own name once more.
On the twenty-ninth day on the yacht, the day before my arrival at Snares Island, I huddled down in the cabin, and I made the label I would affix to the bird’s ankle. No matter how many times I said its name aloud, the Snares Island fernbird, my lisp made itself known once, twice, a third.
A question I asked myself, am I more or less a man, or am I more or less an omen of saltwater held together, horrifyingly, by surface tension alone?
In my fingers, an anklet, an anchor. Binding of the metal loop loose. The way a thing rattles. Teek, teek, a longing of you.
A group of young men pulled me and Firuzeh out of her Bentley—some pinned her to a nearby wall while others delivered me a beating. If she had been on her back, I would have liked to believe the power of her eyeshadow would have help up her tears. I wanted to share the word hydrophobic with her. The men called me faggot, they directed their fists and knees into my body, they asked her why she spent her time with someone like me, when she could be with any of them. They said I was an aberration, a thing destined to die, and why not now. Why waste the time.
Firuzeh said she spent time with me because she pitied me, that it was a charity for my sake, and maybe that was true: we were never lovers, I never did have anything to offer her. My body propped against hers always, using her shape to hold mine up. The men laughed; they left us only after one threw the keys to her Bentley onto a nearby rooftop.
The darkest part of me was grateful to finally be acknowledged for what I am.
The hardest part of me imagined the future beauty: the latticework of bruising, burst capillaries like rivers and their deltas.
The lightest part of me broke, but not in the way of bones.
The longest part of me traced a migration that would take me far from this place to an enclave that had once been an island, before the ice melted and the oceans swelled, until old coasts became reefs, until old inland became coastline.
The brightest part of me memorized the sound of her footsteps coming back to me.
An exhibit reminds me, in secret, of my own old dream: in the dark waiting, a thousand thousand little natural prizes, birdskins and butterflies and desiccated specimens of lizards, beetles and blue-spotted eggs to hold their yolks that have turned to stone, yellowed eggs so new they might still carry a newborn if held under lamplight, remain of things still struggling and remain of things already gone, skin of some Alligatoridae that crumbles between fingers into the consistency of ash.
Once, for a magazine, I rode on top of my Aldabra giant tortoise to show how they could be tamed, to show how carefree I was. It was a magazine fr the cultured, rich youth of Tehran. I was only ever young and rich, but my father believed it could win me over a woman.
I could feel the tortoise buckling under even my meager weight.
When published, the magazine’s small photoshoot of me circulated widely, within the city, and mostly online, and people started calling the house at all hours of the day, wishing for my death. Wishing for parts of my body to be cut off, thrown into the Caspian Sea.
I could feel the tortoise urinating.
I held out my hands to anyone who asked. Take them, I would say. I held out my head to the butcher at the market. I held out my hands to Firuzeh, who just laughed. I am still waiting to be cut in part.
On the fifth day onboard the yacht I passed the ruins of Mumbai, skyscrapers lilting out of the ocean. I tried to imagine: bones down below, fish living inside old eye sockets. Cables of a bridge still holding. What had come of the swallowed. If the world really was capable of taking back. The people, they spread inland against the rising oceans, but still, so many died.
I passed by a skyscraper, looked inside the broken windows. There were seagulls on the desks. Clutching paper in their talons. Pens in their teeth, like they were looking for privacy by which to write their memoirs.
On the twelfth day on the yacht I came to abhor the sunsets, wide as they were. They made me consider the multitudes.
To think, there were once fifty living birds for every human. Some four hundred billion in number.
To think, that before we existed, there were an infinite number of living birds for every living human.
I settled into one kind of restless sleep or another, my rifle knocking back and forth against the walnut accents as the yacht rolled between waves.
If someone wouldn’t mind, the button for the pangolin—what’s that? Would I put in this museum any living creatures discovered on another planet? Are you talking about the expedition to Mars? Well, I wouldn’t say no straightaway, if given the opportunity to consider something that grand. It would be a conundrum. This is a museum devoted to the chain of life on this one planet, this one large ecosystem. A contained experiment. It is a place to remember, not to discover.
Learning is a part of remembering, sir. Yes, sir.
Would I put an astronaut here, if they were to die out on Mars? What a strange question. No, no, don’t apologize for your daughter. I haven’t thought of that. But it’s true—sometimes people deserve to be remembered, too.
I think I would display them out on moonwalk, freely floating in the middle of the exhibit, with two twinkling points on the opposite walls: one for Earth, and one for everything else.
I crawled my way to the top of the hill, grasses aching for the skin of my neck, my bare forearms, and I found myself looking down on an atoll and the last corpse of trees on the island, the others having been swallowed by the sea, high tide saltwater leaving bleached-white rings I could see from a distance, the leaves still wavering in the wind before, I figured, someday soon, their veins would become brackish and varicosed-yellow, and would fall, and would join the other ruin at the bottom of the ocean, but for a moment I wondered what it would mean to die here, to turn the gun against myself and punch clear the envelope that is me, to die here and have my body turned into bones, to have the fernbird watch my death instead of not watch its own—what would it think: a sense of relief, the disappearance of that terrible sensation of being watched; a sense of horror, coming to understand there never will be a lover or a brother; a sense of openness, a better meaning of the stars—but instead I slid the rifle from my back and to my shoulder, my eye to the scope, the unreal view in infrared—blue meant quiet, resd meant a killing—until I found the punch of color among the branches, my lonely little singsong darling, and I nuzzled my finger against the trigger, and began to ask myself a question all over again—what is it like to kill the last of a thing, against the backdrop of the universe, where does that put one, where among the future accounting, the corridors where judgement will walk and observe, when we are all made museumpieces; from a distance, I could even hear its call: you-teek, you-teek, in time opposite the ocean.
I don’t remember how she and I met, but I know it happened when our mothers brought us to the same neighborhood bakery on one morning or another. I don’t remember much of our earliest times together because we were so young. I remember trying to chase her eight-year-old memory through her parents’ estate and feeling like my muscles and my bones were at binaries. I remember when her heart was collapsed, by her own doing or that of others, or when mine was, and how we shared in grief. I remember the shape of her body the first time she showed me, and her mine, and how nothing ever came of it or even seemed possible, it was the kind of thing children do. I remember her showing me constellations, I remember her wishing for darker spaces. I remember her taking photographs every time we visited the beaches of Bandar Abbas, tracking the ocean’s yearly rapid rise as the poles shed their ice. I remember her wishing to break an orbit. I remember her telling me about the daydreams she was having, the ones of me drowning in the ocean. I remember I remember her trying to explain gravitational waves to me, and how, at whatever the distance, we were sending them toward each other, raptured in the middle they always became, coming back to us in old dizzied forms reflective of our respective memories of the other, our way of speaking, of knowing. I remember the day she left. I remember how she told me to search for higher ground, always, to not become the fernbird on the bow’s railing, to not become the thing odd as a bird so tired it pants. I remember how she said I should try turning toward the stars and compact my body—knees to chest, arms wrapped over, head curled inward—to make my gravity as centered as possible, to make it stronger, so that she might be able to feel it at the distance. I remember the day she left. I remember all the one thousand messages we have sent each other between planets. I remember her regretting she would never have a child. I remember the sound of her coming back for me. I don’t remember how we met. I don’t remember how she learned my name, or me hers.
I am sorry—
I am sorry, for this most incomplete of records.
It was my father who bought the eight-year-old me a Persian leopard, this so-blue baby. The whites were blue, the blacks were blue. He never did say from where it came, or how much it cost.
It adhered to my voice in a half-hour.
It tried to suckle on my big toe.
It learned to listen to my promises.
It learned to eat strawberries out of my hand.
What I named it isn’t important. I knew it was young, even then, because its eyes were still, like everything else, blue.
I spent a lot of those first few years after Firuzeh left tracing the stars, searching for Mars among the many, trying to imagine I could salute her from afar, but there were always other functions at play: a gravitational slingshot, some fact having to do with seasons, the way orbits wobble. Sometimes, the planet hid beneath the horizons. Sometimes, all I had was my imagination.
Even now I like to imagine her taking up sand in her suited hands, carrying it inside, pouring it on the floor, taking off her suit and working her toes into it.
Even now I like to imagine her imagining I’m doing the same thing. One beach 225 million kilometers apart.
You, please, hit the button. Turn on the lights.
Here is my very own leopard, taxidermied in his favorite pose.
Yes, it’s the very same one. He liked to crawl up the wire fencing of his enclosure, slink to the ceiling and cling to there with his claws, belly to the sky. Still it’s hard to say whether he was trying to sunbathe or salutate the idea of the outside.
Well, that sale happened twenty years ago, but he was long gone by then.
I would have liked to own the body of the last one, of course, but it was bought by some Russian nobility, and oil money always beats out museum money.
Feel free to take a moment, and then let’s keep moving.
The Snares Island fernbird survived as long as it did because of its relative distance to human civilization. It loved on this small knob of an island out in the Pacific. Long ago some birds made it there, and never left. Tracked a lifespan all their own.
Once, some fernbirds tried to make an escape. When the oceans were rising, slowly cultivating their habitat, pulling all but the island’s highest points underwater. One island, two, three. An archipelago.
A half-dozen landed on the bow of a Kiwi schooner, tried to drink some fresh water the people offered, and then died. The schooner’s occupants gave them a burial at sea. Feathers take surprisingly long to pull in water, let the body begin to sink.
My leopard, he ate a ribbon-tailed astrapia, one of the world’s last, and it was hard to forgive him after that. This new red circling his mouth, hairs smooth as vellus. It shouldn’t have been so unexpected when I scolded him and looked him in the eyes and realized they had changed. No more blue, instead something like amber, something like camouflage. What surprised me most was not knowing: had the change happened before, and I failed to notice, or had it changed just then, in the act of killing.
—am still not—
sure which is worse.
Here, look—would someone mind pushing the button, yes, right there, the red one?
The Snares Island fernbird. The island on which it lived doesn’t exist anymore. I was there when I was twenty-seven years old, which was a long time ago.
It seems like it could just up and fly away at any moment, doesn’t it.
How did it feel? Like pulling a trigger, like my bag had gotten 35 grams heavier.
Why? I think everything you’ve seen today is an answer to that.
Of course, the bathrooms are that way. We’ll wait for you. No, the velociraptor was quite a way back—how did you miss it? No, I would prefer if you didn’t go backward in time. No, I don’t expect you to celebrate me. Yes, we’ll come through the gift shop before returning to the lobby again. Yes, the panda is just ahead, around the corner. Yes, I feel guilt. No, I don’t feel guilty. Please be patient.
Wait, not quite yet. We’re not done here yet. Look at the loose barbs of its tail feathers. The chestnut cap. Look how prominent the supercilium, pale as it is. Look at it for a little while longer.
All I’ve been trying to say is, maybe it’s best not to know with any certainty which moment, among the catalog of our moments, we would want to be displayed as representative of us, if we were to be preserved someday.
Would someone mind pushing the button again, just one more time?
Joel Hans has fiction in West Branch, Yemassee, Booth, The Masters Review, Redivider, and others. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and previously served as the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife and daughters, and is currently at work on a novel about light pollution and forgetting.