Protected Contact
  Seven Stories by Julie Stielstra
  1  Protected Contact
2  Posthumous
3  Little Deaths
4  Begin with Lilies
5  I Never Saw the Sea
6  The Heron
7  Requeening
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  November 2017 Fiction Issue
 

Protected Contact

For a long time it was warm and dark, though there were no words for it. There was motion, sometimes a gentle rock and sway, sometimes a heave and a lurch. Sometimes there was noise, a pattering or braying current of sound from somewhere else, and rumbles and thumps that could be felt. That was all. Until there began pressure, a forcing, a shoving that could not be resisted, and a sudden expulsion into cold and brilliance. He did not know how to breathe.

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The calf hit the concrete floor in a crashing cataract of blood and slime. Anya startled, recoiling from the computer screen. She had not been allowed in the pen for the birth. Only Roy, the head keeper, and Joyce, the vet, were there, standing in a dimly-lit corner. They wanted nothing unfamiliar to disturb the laboring cow elephant. Anya stared at the inert, gelatinous mass on the floor behind the cow, willing it to move. No one moved. The cow stepped gingerly aside, her ears fanning tentatively. She touched the calf, sealed in its envelope, with her trunk. She nudged it with one foot, then kicked it. It stirred and the cow backed away. Her ears were fully unfurled. The calf shifted feebly on the floor. The cow raised her trunk. Even Anya could see she looked alarmed. A barred partition began to move, swinging smoothly above the calf on the floor, and the agitated cow was penned. Then Roy and Joyce and another keeper Anya didn’t know were on their knees with the calf, ripping apart the sticky membranes, raising its head, moving its limbs.

“Wake up!” Anya cried to the screen. “You are born now, wake up!”

The calf twitched and strained, stretching its legs, then gave a convulsive gasp, its mouth agape below the tiny trunk. Its eyes were blank. It gasped again and again. Roy was wiping, toweling, cleaning out the mouth, rubbing the ribs. The other keeper was sweeping the river of blood away, down the drains. Joyce propped the calf up against her knees as Roy toweled. It tried to hold up its heavy domish head, waggling weakly. The other keeper was talking to the cow, who stared over the barrier at what had emerged from her. Anya found the zoom function and closed in on the calf. Roy wiped a thatch of dark hair from its eyes. The keeper switched on an overhead heater. As the calf began to dry, Anya could see the fur. The calf was furred like a collie puppy, a pale sable color, with tiny bearlike ears barely unbuttoned from its skull. Roy suddenly looked straight up into the camera at Anya, ran his fingers through the ruff down the calf’s chest and grinned. Anya began to cry. She had never seen anything born before.

Twenty-two months ago, a Japanese scientist had given them an egg. An endocrinologist in Washington DC had monitored blood levels and the cow began to turn angrily away from anyone who reached for her ears. A woman flown in from Berlin had climbed up on a stepstool and injected the egg into the uterine lining of the elephant now fidgeting behind her fence. Tonight, in southern California, an Asian elephant had been delivered of this creature. Anya picked up her cell phone and thumbed up the list of people in Japan, in Germany, in Washington, in St Petersburg, in France, in Michigan, in the Netherlands, and spelled out: “Mammoth baby born.” Send.

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They coaxed the cow with apples and carrots. With distraction, discipline, restraints and reassurance, she allowed the calf to nurse for three days and then no more. When he shuffled toward her, like a clumsy child in leg-braces, she stamped and fanned her ears, crashed her hips into the sides of the chute. It was not safe for anyone. The calf was removed to the quarantine room, and they upended gallon jugs of formula round the clock, concocted with the help of an elephant orphanage in Kenya. Anya called someone she knew who had worked on the milk proteins in the stomach of a frozen baby mammoth carcass unearthed in Siberia. This was why she was here, a sort of liaison among the multinational group who had engineered this animal’s birth. Born in Russia, she spoke French well, English better and could get by in German a little. She had cataloged fossils at the St. Petersburg Zoological Museum while in school, written copy for display labels, learned some conservation techniques. Her mother liked to tease her about their first visit to the museum, when Anya was five. The towering mammoth skeleton in the prehistoric animals hall had terrified her: she buried her face in her father’s chest until he had carried her quickly past and set her down where she couldn’t see it. She made herself look at the reflection of it in the glass of other display cases, then sneaked swift peeks when it wasn’t looking at her. By the end of the afternoon, she stood gripping her father’s hand in front of the mammoth, staring fiercely at the sinuous tusks. She mastered the mammoth, and the giant sloths and dire wolves and woolly rhinos and lithe little proto-horses. A recommendation from Timoshenko, head of mammals at the museum, for a fellowship brought her to California, to work on specimens from the tar pits of LaBrea. So she was on the spot when the zoo’s female elephant was chosen, with the enthusiastic cheerleading of the zoo’s director, to bear the egg stuffed with the DNA of a mammoth. She knew mammoths, she knew the languages, and over the years she had met at least briefly some of the participants in this experiment. She rounded up the scientific papers on the milk proteins and sent copies to the vet, to the zoo nutritionist, and to Roy.

The mammoth calf guzzled it up, and a few days later broke into a foul diarrhea. More phone calls and emails; they tweaked and jiggered the recipe. Anya arrived in the elephant house to find the calf chuted and Roy carefully shaving his throat through the bars. Joyce was unwrapping an intravenous catheter to place in the jugular vein. The calf stood meekly. His hindquarters were thick with shit-coated wool. He stank. Roy meticulously swept up the shorn fur and sealed it an envelope. “Good to save everything,” he said to Anya. He glanced over to see that Joyce wasn’t listening and then murmured, “Not to mention what I could get for it on eBay.” Anya was shocked.

The catheter in place, Joyce announced they needed to set up a schedule for the calf’s fluids, vital signs, and meds, round the clock. Roy groaned.

“Sheila’s on maternity leave,” he said. “I’m short-staffed.”

“Can I help?” said Anya.

“You’re not trained on elephants.”

“He’s not an elephant. And he’s just a little one.”

“Have you handled livestock? Cows? Even horses?”

“My friend had a pony. I rode him sometimes.”

Roy shook his head.

“That’s no good.”

“He’s not much bigger than that pony. I have insomnia. I don’t sleep much. I could watch him during the night. Show me what to do. You let me feed him a few times. I can put medicine in the fluids.” She reached through the bars and stroked the calf’s forehead. He raised his trunk and touched her, eyes half-closed. “I can do the night shift. No one else wants to. I will call you if anything happens.”

He let her.

“But remember the contact rules. You are outside the enclosure all the time, period. Okay?”

Okay.

It was warm and quiet at night. The other elephants shuffled and dozed. The calf mostly slept. When she fed him, he wrapped his trunk firmly around her shoulder and held her there as she held the jug for him. He caught his breath when it was empty, braced himself and blew another current of sludge down his back legs.

“Poor mamontyonok,” she murmured. Anya walked around and closed the chute barrier. She filled buckets of warm water and began to clean him. He stood motionless as the filthy water drained and pooled at his feet.

Near midnight the phone in Roy’s office deedled. It must be Roy, checking up on her.

“Elephant house, Anya speaking.”

“Um, this is Tom at the east security gate. There’s a gentleman here, says he’s here to see the mammoth.”

No one had seen the mammoth yet. There had been a triumphant press conference, of course, with the zoo’s director beaming and promising that as soon as they were sure all was well with their new “little miracle of science,” he would be introduced to the public in due course. Marketing was already ginning up the usual schoolchild contest for a name. But then he’d gotten sick, and the director was fretting, and daily asking when they could “get this show moving.” He’d issued invitations to experts around the world and needed to let them know when they could come; they were very busy people, you know, and this was just huge for the zoo.

“Who is this man?” Anya asked. She heard Tom say something and a rapid accented voice replying.

“He says he’s been invited by the director, says his name is… just a sec… Sir? Tell me your name again? Dwanyay?”

Douanier. Bertrand Douanier. They called him Monsieur Mammoth. A biology teacher at a lycee in southwestern France, he had spent all his summers for decades in a Siberian shack, looking for — and finding — mammoth bones. It was said every room in his house was filled with them, that the furniture was made out of them, that his wife had left him because of them and he was glad to see her go so he could use the kitchen cupboards to keep his collection of molars in. It was said he could smell mammoth bones as he strode across the tundra. He loved them. And there wasn’t an academic scholar of Mammuthus who didn’t have his phone number in their contacts list.

“It’s all right,” Anya said. “I will come meet him. He must have just arrived early.” She had been introduced to him once, at a conference.

He was bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet at the gate.

“There you are! Thank you so much for coming!” he cried. “Please, I am Bertrand Douanier and I came as soon as I could. I am here to see him.”

“Bonsoir, Monsieur Douanier, I am happy to meet you, but aren’t you to see the director first?”

“Yes, of course, and I am meeting him tomorrow. But I could not wait. I flew here and took a taxi straight here. You can let me have one look, can’t you? I will tell no one, I promise. How is he? I heard he might be ill. I know you, don’t I? Haven’t we met?” He was shaking her hand, and then held it as he peered at her.

“Anya Tchenskaya,” she said. “Yes, we met at a conference…”

“Yes, of course, in Cleveland! You gave a nice little paper on growth plates in woolly rhinos.”

She fell in love with him instantly.

In the elephant house, she set his bag in the office. She gave him a clean coverall, and showed him where the rubber boots soaked in a tray of disinfectant outside the quarantine room. He pulled on the smallest pair. He was a taut, feline man who had been given the large brown eyes of a spaniel. His hands were shaking as he pulled the zipper of the coverall.

“He is in here? He is ill, then? He cannot be with his mother?”

“The mother refused him,” Anya said. “She was afraid of him. And yes, he seems to be ill from the formula. He has diarrhea. I tried to clean him, but…”

She closed the door behind them, and he walked slowly, slowly, toward the somnolent calf in the pen. It smelled awful; she had not had time to hose down the floor. He stood just outside the bars, gazing at the calf as though he must fill his eyes and his mind for now and forever with the sight.

“May I…” he said softly, but before she could respond, he reached through the bars and gently laid both hands on the calf’s shoulders. He ran his hands along his back, stroked his head, felt his elbows and ribs. He caressed the little ears. The calf raised his trunk and Douanier cupped the tip in both his hands, puffed a gentle breath into it and kissed it softly.

“Pauvre petit,” he murmured. “How do you feel? What do you need, little one? Are they taking good care of you?”

“I have to give him some medicine now,” Anya said. She injected the syringe into the intravenous line. “Antibiotics,” she explained, “and something for the gut, to soothe it.”

As she capped the syringe and dropped it in the waste box, Douanier walked around and opened the barrier. He slid in beside the calf, embraced him around the neck and laid his face into the musky wool. He whispered something Anya could not catch. Then he briskly stepped out and left the room.

He dropped the boots in the tray, shrugged out of the coverall. He stared at the floor for a moment, then raised his face to Anya and said, “I think…I think maybe we should not have done this.” He shook her hand, kissed her on both cheeks and left her.

Antibiotics, probiotics, antidiarrheals, antispasmodics — or maybe, finally, it was the slurry of saline and dung from one of the other elephants, tubed deep into his colon by enema. A few nights later, Anya woke Roy at one AM to joyfully describe the firm, glistening loaf of manure the calf had dropped on the floor. She shoveled it into a bucket, and Roy sealed a scoopful into a dated, labeled Tupperware and put it in the freezer. She wondered if he saved a scoop of it for himself.

The calf — they began to simply call him The Woolly — felt better. He began to gain weight again. He made little huffing noises when the keepers came into his room and eagerly caressed them with his trunk. He was afraid of the big red rubber ball someone found for him, but he seemed to like picking up an orange traffic cone and throwing it. Anya, off the night shift now, began to watch and document his activity. He cried when left alone sometimes, trunk reaching hopefully through the barrier. Then she would go to him and talk to him, murmuring in Russian. He spent a lot of time lying down, sighing and wheezing as he dozed. She discovered he loved to be combed. He leaned into the steel bars with half-closed eyes as she tugged a wire brush through his long woolly fur and sometimes she felt a small, deep pulsing in the air, like a silent purr.

The paleontologists were summoned, the zoo director and curator of mammals paraded them into the elephant house, and sometimes Anya interpreted. Then there was another press conference, and a gala day planned for when he would be allowed to go outside for the first time, in a yard off public view. The yard was carefully swept and cleaned, the water tank scrubbed and disinfected, bushes and trees all cut back or removed.

They coaxed him down the aisle, to the open door. He stopped dead, huffing nervously. He peered out the door, looping his trunk in the air. Then he saw the other elephants, in another paddock at a distance. He cried out with a voice like a toy horn, and shuffled across the yard to the fence. His surrogate mother pivoted and hurried away, out of sight. The other cow stared at him, ears wide, then she followed. He stood at the fence and whimpered. The cameras whirred and snicked. He rambled around in the dust and sneezed. Someone brought out his traffic cone and he ignored it. Then he just stood there. The journalists went away. They brought him back inside, and when Roy fed him, he clutched at Roy so fiercely that Anya had to help him loosen the grip.

He went outside by himself every morning. They began to put out flakes of hay — alfalfa, timothy, clover. He dabbled his trunk in the hay, picking up wisps and dropping them. Sometimes he got on his knees and lipped up a mouthful, then spat it out again and lurched to his feet with an effort. He burbled around in the water tank, sticking his whole face into the water. He didn’t seem to like being hosed off, shaking furiously till the water flew in sparkling arcs. Every time he cried after the other elephants, they hid from him. After an hour or so, he would pace at the gate, wanting to come in again.

Then he had trouble getting up. He levered his legs under him and grunted. Once up, he stood with bowed head, almost panting. There was snot running from his trunk and his eyes were gunked and teary. Joyce announced a fever. He coughed.

Another IV line, more antibiotics. Anya went back on the night watch. She arrived one evening to find Joyce swinging her stethoscope in one hand with Roy and the curator of mammals huddled outside the pen.

“I don’t like the heart sounds either,” she was saying. “I think we better get an ultrasound.” A cardiologist flew down from UC Davis. Definitely pneumonia, it seemed, but the heart wasn’t right, a valve or a chamber or something Anya didn’t understand wasn’t formed properly. Her notes confirmed how he had often seemed short of breath, especially when he was upset. He stood in his pen, ribs pumping quickly even standing still, his long-lashed eye rolling and roving. More meds in the IV line, more than Anya could manage; Joyce rustled up two other vets who dropped in and out to listen and tweak and confer. Anya wrote the daily updates that the director’s office approved for sending to the paleontologists.

He stopped eating, mouthing the nipple tiredly and turning away. They tried applesauce, baby food jars of strained pears, anything to get him to nibble on something. More additives in the IV solution.

Roy called her one morning and woke her.

“I think you better come,” he said. “He’s down.”

He lay on his side, gasping. Vets, the director, the curator, Roy, other keepers were clustered outside the pen. Joyce knelt beside him, tapping the corner of his eye, which did not blink. She shook her head.

“He’s agonal,” she said.

Oh, help him, Anya said inside her head. Help him, help him. Don’t let him be like this.

“I don’t think there’s anything more we can do for him,” said Joyce. “He hasn’t responded to anything. He’s in tamponade.”

“Let him go,” said Roy.

“Are you sure?” said the director to Joyce. She looked from him to the other vets and back to the director. She shrugged.

The calf gasped. He was not breathing, only heaving.

“Please,” said Anya. No one heard her. Joyce stood up and picked up a syringe.

“Okay?” she said. The director nodded, his face dark and angry, his hands jammed deep in the pockets of his coveralls.

Joyce inserted the needle into the hub of the IV line and pushed. And pushed. It takes a lot. The gasping stopped.

No! wailed Anya suddenly inside her head. No, wait, don’t!

The director marched out of the room. Everyone else stood very still for a long time.

“Do you want to say goodbye to him?” Roy touched Anya’s shoulder. Joyce left the room.

Anya sat on the floor. She leaned down and pressed her face against his temple, fingers wound deep into the fetid wool that smelled of infection. She hugged him and hugged him. She kissed the tip of the soft, loose trunk. She tried to twine it around her neck but it slipped off.

She had never seen anyone die before.

The director called everyone personally.

Anya called Bertrand Douanier. She managed to say to his voicemail: “You were right. Forgive me.” His message back to her said: “Pray God will forgive us all.”

She did not accept his suggestion that she come to his Siberian dacha for the summer.

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The necropsy confirmed several abnormalities of heart development. Tissue samples went round the world for study. The LA museum of natural history would mount his skin; the director was driving negotiations with two museums in Japan for the skeleton. The necropsy had also found osteodystrophy in the bones of his forelegs, the growth plates malformed and incomplete. He had probably been in pain.

Anya heard the Japanese lab had more ova in development, and the search was under way for other elephant surrogates. Before she left the zoo, Roy called her aside and handed her a small jeweler’s box. She opened it uncomfortably. It contained a russet-colored double circlet of tightly braided hair that fitted around her wrist. “I know a woman in Oklahoma who does these with horsehair. I didn’t tell her what it was,” Roy said.

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Anya looked up from her worktable, stretching her neck and shoulders. The dry Nebraska sandhills rippled away outside the window. She dipped her brush into distilled water and painted the little mandible in her hand. The stony crust went dark with water, and she took her dental pick to it, carefully scuffing it off the tawny bone. It was a beautiful little jaw, set with a row of teeth like lobed pearls. They weren’t sure what it was yet — maybe a new species of early horse, or perhaps a juvenile of another. There was a lot of work to be done here at this site. Twelve million years ago, a volcano had filled the plain with an ash of ground glass and the animals had all inhaled it and died. She would be busy here for a long time.

     
  © Julie Stielstra, 2017

   

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