Bones Placed in Apposition

~ A. P. Howell

Featherstonhaugh glanced upward at the old State House. Lukens’s new four-sided clock was an impressive feat of engineering, but there was something to the criticism of its legibility at a distance, especially when the sun was bright and the viewer’s eyes less sharp than a young man’s. The steeple’s white paint stood out brilliantly against a cloudless sky, and the clock confirmed Featherstonehaugh was on time for his appointment. He crossed Chestnut Street, avoiding horse droppings with an ease borne of extended periods of urban living.

He stood now in the heart of Philadelphia, which was—or at least had been—the heart of the new country. On the corner, City Hall bustled with the thousand and one tasks necessary to maintain a city of eighty thousand souls. When Featherstonhaugh had first arrived in the city, the Supreme Court had but lately relocated to the new capital, and the locals had often lapsed into calling the building the “old courthouse” or “new city hall.” Across Fifth Street sat the Library Company of Philadelphia, soon to be celebrating its centennial.

Featherstonhaugh’s destination was a brick building standing proudly beside City Hall on Fifth Street: Philosophical Hall. One of many noble institutions shepherded into existence by Franklin and like-minded contemporaries, the American Philosophical Society was a jewel of American intellectual life. It was devoted not merely to the acquisition of learned volumes, in the manner of the Library Company, but to expanding knowledge on all manner of subjects.

This was a worthy goal in general, but particularly necessary in America. An entire continent of mysteries laid waiting for discovery and documentation. As rich as European intellectual society might be, correspondence could go only so far. Home-grown intellectuals were needed to advance knowledge, solve problems particular to the United States, and make use of its natural resources.

“Good afternoon!” Hays called as Featherstonhaugh stepped inside. He waited on the second floor, leaning against the banister and looking entirely comfortable in this temple of learning.

“I am most happy we found a mutually agreeable time.” Featherstonhaugh did not whisper as he ascended, but pitched his voice politely low. A murmur of voices from behind closed doors indicated a university class in session or some other consultation. The other man had not precisely been rude—especially if he happened to know the other conversation was of little consequence—but Featherstonhaugh chose to err on the side of propriety.

Hays was a medical man in his thirties. Featherstonhaugh understood he had formerly been involved in his family’s East India trade, but had apparently found himself ill-suited to the work. He had developed something of a name as a natural scientist and had literary ambitions, having already produced writing in the medical field. He was unmarried, a fact Featherstonhaugh could not help but look upon with a hint of suspicion and pity. He wondered a bit at the temperament of a man who had not yet settled into matrimony.

By Hays’s age, Featherstonhaugh had been a new father, married for half a decade. Memories of Sally still pained him. Thoughts of his boys brought forth painful details of the girls’ final days. Instead, he considered Charlotte, her genteel upbringing and charming Virginia accent.

Languages had always been among Featherstonehaugh’s interests. If not for his fascination in the subject, he would not have come to America, would not have settled here (settled: that was true, and infinitely safer than met Sally). He would not have met Charlotte with her charming accent and the youth that was lost to him, and would have neither needed nor found a second chance at domestic life.

Thoughts of mortality brought him round to the reason it was Hays ushering him into a second floor room, and not the author of the article that had caught his interest.

“I am sorry to have missed Godman’s lecture, and sorrier for his passing,” Featherstonhaugh said. “He had been ill for some time, I believe?”

Hays nodded. “But though it did not come as a surprise, he still passed too young. He will be missed. His mind is a great loss to the medical community, and to America’s natural historians.”

“His Transactions paper piqued my interest. A new genus and species of elephant . . . it is a bold claim.”

“So Harlan says,” Hays noted. “He also believed he described Lewis and Clark’s Iowa fossil adequately, before I corrected his work with my Saurodon. He cannot be said to understand reptiles, for all the words he writes on the subject, much less mammals. And were Godman here, I am certain he would remind you of the man’s plagiarism.”

Featherstonhaugh shrugged, suspecting that Godman would have a good deal more to say on the subject of Harlan. Philadelphia’s natural historians’ opinions about one another were no less passionate than their opinions on scientific matters. “That is why I wish to see the specimen myself. As masterful as Peale’s illustrations may be, there is something to be said for direct observation.”

Hays unlocked a cabinet. “The vertebrae, ribs, and bones of the limbs are available for your examination as well, and may be of interest since illustrations did not accompany Godman’s article. But you are no doubt here for these.” Hays carefully transferred the skull and jaw fragments to a table.

The largest intact section of the upper jawbone was seventeen inches in length. Five inches of upper tusk rested within their sockets, with another twelve inches exposed on the right side and ten on the left. A good seven and a half inches in circumference where they emerged from the socket, the tusks did not begin to narrow to a point until the final four inches of their length. The patterns of wear had been represented to a fair degree of accuracy in Peale’s illustrations.

Featherstonhaugh paid particular attention to the lower jaw, the formation of which had so strongly captured Godman’s attention. It was indeed dramatically elongated at the extremity, the angles more rectangular than the curvature he had observed in other mastodon specimens. A full three inches of tusk rested in the socket; the exposed portion, about one inch in length, was covered with black enamel and ended with a spiral twist. He pressed a thumbnail into dry, grayish bone of the tusk and felt it yield.

“It is similar to the mastodon,” Featherstonhaugh said, “as Godman himself noted. The wear upon the milk teeth reveals only surface enamel, as in the mastodon, not the elephant . . .”

“Not any elephant heretofore known,” Hays said.

Featherstonhaugh continued to examine the lower jaw. “They are, without doubt, milk teeth. Godman is certainly correct in his assertion that this is a juvenile animal.”

“Yes, that is quite clear.”

Featherstonhaugh frowned, more at the prickliness creeping into the other man’s tone than at any feature of the long-dead animal before him, and squinted at the sockets of the tusks. “The elongation of the jaw is indeed interesting.”

“If I may.” Hays reached into a pocket to produce a pair of spectacles. “These may be of some use.”

Featherstone set the jawbone carefully upon the table. “Do you mean to insult my observations? Or have you invented lenses to ease the work of natural scientists?”

“More the latter,” Hays said, in pale imitation of Featherstonhaugh’s attempted jocularity. “I seek to work at the forefront of ophthalmology. Our eyes fail, whether through disease or age or mischance. But with research, skill, and the proper diagnosis and intervention, what has gone wrong may be put right.”

Featherstonhaugh took the spectacles, always interested in the state of scientific advances. The frames were wire, functional, and sturdy; though hardly fashionable, neither were they unnecessarily unattractive. The lenses themselves appeared well-made, which was unsurprising with the resources at Hays’s disposal. With a casual examination, Featherstonhaugh could not discern the lenses’ intent; there was none of the distortion one might expect in a pair of spectacles made to correct either far-sightedness or myopia.

He hooked them over his ears, expecting the blurriness of wearing another’s spectacles, but his vision remained unchanged. If not for the visible wire of the frames within his field of view, he would not have known he wore them. He wondered if this was some joke of Hays’s, or if the man’s skill did not extend to lens-grinding. But Featherstonehaugh’s concern about politic statements were rendered moot.

Hays lifted the upper and lower jaws, one in each hand. This seemed unnecessarily cavalier: though the lower jaw was only one foot in length, the upper jaw was half again as long and further unbalanced by twelve inches of tusk. Featherstonhaugh wondered if he was to play witness to a careless loss to natural history and a strike to Hays’s reputation.

But Hays proved dexterous and settled the jaws together as they would have met in life. The right side of the head was, as promised in Godman’s text and Peale’s plates, in excellent condition. Held together, Featherstonhaugh could see the animal as it would have been in life, a youngster more kin to elephants than mastodons, and utterly (if subtly) distinct from all other known species. Tetracauldodon mastodontoideum.

He imagined layers of muscle and flesh and fur, tendons snaking between bones, those jaws opening and closing. He extrapolated the rest of the body, and after that the effects of maturity. But for whatever mischance had killed the beast, it would have grown to adulthood. He could picture it striding across the continent with its fellows. This one had died in Orange County, and why would it not have roamed Featherstonehaugh’s old estate? Tromping over hills and fields yet to be planted, a place where one day a house would be built, sheep imported, fields tilled . . .

Featherstonhaugh blinked hard at an incipient headache. He removed the spectacles and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them, his vision was doubled. Two identical sets of bones, one belonging to an elephant and one to a mastodon, were superimposed upon one another.

He blinked again. His eyes began to focus properly, as though a film had been removed. Hays still held the bones, but they were only that: the bones of a long-dead creature, shattered and incomplete. They told a story to those who knew how to look at them, but not nearly so interesting or vibrant a story as the one he had just seen.

He folded the spectacles closed and placed them on the table. Though dizzy, he did not fall.

Hays watched him with evident concern, but Featherstonhaugh was not prepared to assume the other man had his best interests at heart. “The right side of the head is, indeed, beautifully preserved.” There was a tremor in his voice. He swallowed and the action or the pause proved helpful.

Hays set the bones down once more. “Do you wish to continue your examination?”

Featherstonhaugh followed the other man’s gaze, not to the bones but to the spectacles. He had the inkling that Hays cared little for his opinions of the ancient animal. “No, thank you.” His voice was steadier, at least. “Having seen the specimen, I will look at others to compare. Perhaps I will return later.”

“Viewing evidence with fresh eyes is valuable,” Hays said.

With an effort, Featherstonhaugh refrained from shuddering and beat a passably dignified retreat. He kept one hand on the curving banister. He was lightheaded, as though untethered. He feared that he might slip and smash open his skull, or that he might float away entirely.

Hays, chatting politely, seemed infinitely more embedded—in his body, in this city, in this reality. It was a preposterous illusion, of course. Featherstonhaugh was no less real than the man beside him. And though he had been born across the ocean, though his family was not part of Philadelphia society, though he was only part of New York society by virtue of his marriage, he had no less right to occupy this place than Hays.

And yet it was Hays who remained within Philosophical Hall, and Featherstonhaugh who walked away.

The State House clock showed how little time had passed, how little time was necessary to shake the foundations of one’s world. But the clock also served as a reminder of its maker, Lukens, and his crusade against Redheffer’s spurious perpetual motion machine. It had taken time and effort for Lukens to build a machine that proved Redheffer’s a fraud, but prove it he did, and in this very city.

Featherstonhaugh took a steadying breath. He did not know what Hays had done—yet. But he had some guesses as to why he had done it. The cliques of Philadelphia’s intellectual community were well-known, and those alliances could be stronger than the allegiance to truth which every man of science ought to hold dear. Misguided loyalty was bad enough; engaging in fraud was far less forgivable. Featherstonhaugh was not by nature a particularly forgiving man, and he had no intention of letting Hays win the game he played.

It was not merely an affront to natural history, but to Featherstonhaugh personally. To conjure forth a nonexistent creature, to suggest that it had walked the same hillsides as Featherstonaugh himself . . . The image was, suddenly, quite unbearable. He could almost feel the erasure of some essential, if hitherto unknown, aspect of his old estate. A juvenile mastodon, that was right and proper. That belonged to the far-distant past of the place where he had raised children and imported the best agricultural products.

Featherstonhaugh meant to prove that elephants had never meandered across his old estate, or any other part of the continent. The days of Tetracauldodon mastodontoideum were numbered. He was a geologist, well-positioned to argue the truth of the matter.

As he walked, his determination and confidence grew. He had no destination in mind, but took great comfort from the cobblestones beneath his feet. No matter what he had seen—or thought he had seen, or been forced to see—the stones were real. The very bones of the continent were real, and he meant to understand their true shape.

Knight of Cups

 

A. P. Howell lives with her spouse and their two kids, sometimes near a lake and always near trees. She has a master’s degree in history and her jobs have spanned the alphabet from archivist to webmaster.

Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including Daily Science Fiction, Little Blue Marble, Martian: The Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles, Translunar Travelers Lounge, In Somnio: A Collection of Modern Gothic Horror (Tenebrous Press), and Los Suelos, CA (Surface Dweller Studios). She can be found online at aphowell.com or tweeting @APHowell.

 [ issue 7 : summer 2022 ]