Every Hidden Thing
1. THE ELASMOSAURUS
I WOULDN’T SAY MY FATHER was a violent man, but he wasn’t afraid to talk with his fists. And I was glad of it. Because if he hadn’t belted Professor Cartland that night in the Academy of Natural Sciences, I wouldn’t have had the chance to see Rachel’s eyes up close.
When I first saw her in the lobby, I didn’t even know her name. She was just an ordinary-looking girl, dowdily dressed with all the flair of a cabbage moth. Her nose and jaw were too big to make her face delicate. Fair hair, quite fine, reddish tinged, parted severely in the middle and pulled back from her face.
She stood out because there were only two girls in the entire lobby—and the other one was Anne Atkinson. I’d glimpsed Anne several times before. She was the oldest young person I’d ever seen. Bowed and strangled in bonnet and lace. Rickety as the aging uncle she steadied during monthly meetings.
And then there was Rachel. I wondered who she’d come with.
She left the crowded lobby, where people were talking before the lecture, and wandered into one of the galleries. Behind the giant Irish elk and prehistoric turtle was Hadrosaurus foulkii.
It was still an impressive brute, no matter how many times I’d seen it. Just sixteen years ago Joseph Leidy had dug it up. The first dinosaur skeleton unearthed from American soil. Mounted on its rear legs, it stood fourteen feet tall. Twenty-six feet long, head to tail. Forelimbs gripping a fake tree added for support. You could go and stand right underneath the rib cage.
She was staring at it intently, a vertical line between her eyebrows.
“Never seen it before?” I asked.
She only half turned, just enough to glimpse me, and then directed her gaze back to the hadrosaur.
Just no. “You’re not from here?”
Since it went up several years back, the hadrosaur had become such a popular attraction that the academy had cut back its visiting hours and started charging admission. I figured everyone in Philadelphia had seen it by now.
“We’re visiting from New Haven.”
“Ah.” She didn’t seem at all interested in me. Most girls were. I wondered if I smelled like the pickle I’d eaten with dinner. More likely she was just shy. I wanted her to turn and look at me properly. “Those aren’t the real bones,” I said.
“I know. They’re just plaster casts.”
I studied her anew. “How’d you know that?”
“I read an article.”
I looked around to make sure Professor Leidy wasn’t nearby. Whispered anyway. “They never found the skull, so they had to invent one.”
“They based it on an iguana.”
She was getting more intriguing by the second. And then she looked at me straight on for the first time. Her gaze was frank. No flirtatious lift of an eyebrow, no smile. I got the feeling she’d be just as happy without me. Happier maybe. For a moment I couldn’t think of anything to say. Unusual for me.
“That’s a very pretty hairpin,” I lied.
“No, it’s not.” She gave a little sigh, like she was disappointed in me.
I’d never met a girl reluctant to talk about her hair ornaments. I chuckled. For a second I thought she might too.
I added, “I just thought it was . . . unique in its . . .”
“It’s just a regular hairpin,” she said, touching it.
The tip of her left thumb and index finger were both stained with ink.
She saw my gaze and answered before I asked. “I draw my father’s specimens for him.”
Tonight, everyone crammed into this building was a naturalist of some sort. Probably her father was just another gentleman dabbler.
“He’s a collector?”
“Yes. And he’s quite exacting in his drawings.”
“You must be very skilled.”
There was no one who didn’t like being complimented, but she
showed no sign of pleasure, only tilted her head slightly and said, “It’s very challenging. I hope to get better with more practice.”
“My father’s speaking tonight.”
She looked genuinely surprised. “You’re Michael Bolt’s son?”
I nodded at the large display case against the wall. “That’s his Laelaps aquilunguis in there.”
My father might not have been the first to discover a dinosaur in America, but he was the second. What he found was only a partial skeleton, but I’d memorized every bone: mandible; clavicles; both humeri; femur; tibia; fibula; phalanges; lumbar, sacral, and caudal vertebrae. The pieces were enough to let him guess its size and weight and eating habits. And win him the right to name it. Eagle-clawed terrible leaper. A carnivore, with a curved claw to do its slashing and killing.
“There’s talk of making a cast and mounting it one day,” I said.
She walked over and looked solemnly at the bones. Completely absorbed. I worried she might’ve forgotten me altogether.
“You seem very interested in dinosaurs,” I remarked.
Still not looking at me. “I am. I know more about snakes, though.”
“I keep several,” she told me.
I was delighted. “We have a tortoise at home. Horatio. He roams around. We also have a Gila monster.”
She turned to face me. “Does he roam around too?”
“She. No, we keep her in a vivarium. She likes raw eggs and getting her head scratched. She’s venomous, of course.”
I usually got a dainty squeal when I said this, but she simply nodded, wanting more.
“We have a fernery in our back room with tree frogs and salamanders. Our housekeeper complains. She keeps finding them in the sink.”
This time she actually smiled. “I adore salamanders.”
“Did you know they can regrow lost limbs?”
“Yes,” she said, which was a bit disappointing, since this was the one good thing I knew about salamanders.
“I know a fair bit about them,” she said. “Of course, there are over four hundred species, so there’s a great deal to know.”
We talked about salamanders. She got fairly animated, and I think I did too, because I liked this kind of talk, and it was rare to have with anyone my age—and never with a young woman. I’d never been more aware of a girl’s scent—not just the pleasant floral of soap, but the smell of her hair and heat of her skin. To my horror, I felt myself stiffening between my legs, and I silently counted backward from ten. Which usually worked, but didn’t now, so I imagined Mrs. Shaw, my former history teacher, which always worked.
It did, but slowly. To distract myself—and her, in case she looked down—I asked how she’d gotten interested in the natural sciences.
“I spent a lot of time looking into puddles,” she said.
That made me laugh. And then she told me how she got her first magnifying glass early on. I liked the way she talked, very direct and honest. For such a plain girl she was extraordinarily
interesting. She asked me what sparked my scientific interests.
I shrugged. “I guess I had a knack with bones. No shortage in my house.”
“Your building blocks and jigsaw puzzles,” she said with another small smile.
“My father taught me their names. By six I could put a foot together. At eight I did a whole squirrel. Sometimes at parties he’d drag me out in front of everyone, give me a bunch of bones, and time me. Once I put together a raccoon in three minutes. I can put pretty much anything together.”
She said nothing, then abruptly, “Well, I look forward to your father’s lecture.”
“Maybe we’ll have a chance to talk afterward.”
“Excuse me,” she said, walking away, and I wondered if I smelled like pickle after all.
• • •
I went to the ladies’ lavatory and splayed my fingers against the cool marble counter, waiting for the color to leave my cheeks. It was unusual for a young man to talk to me, especially such a handsome one, but I knew exactly why he had. I was the only young woman in the room, and no doubt he was bored and wanted to try his charms on someone. Certainly he was charming, and knew it. And all that talk about how fast he could sort bones: so boastful.
Still, he did not condescend when I revealed my interest in salamanders. I liked that very much. Our conversation felt like one between equals. Almost. That was rare.
He was tall, with a mop of wavy, coarse hair. He looked like one of those puppies that hadn’t grown into its body yet but gave all the signs of its full size to come: the paws, the huge eyes. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a more perfect nose. It sloped at just the right angle, with a perfect set of nostrils at the end. How nostrils could be perfect, I didn’t know, but his were.
Darwin talked about advantageous traits, how they’re all divvied up and it’s all random—and my portion did not favor physical beauty, and there was no point pretending it did. In the mirror I saw the perpetual disappointment that was my face. Every day, all around me, I saw beauty blooming in fields or flitting between trees or frozen in marble in an art gallery or simply walking down the street. But the closest I came to it was drawing it, line by line, in ink.
You fool. You felt bathed in the warmth of his eyes, but they’ve practiced that look on many girls, no doubt, that easy smile. He just wanted a bit of attention, and you would have to do.
There. My pulse was calm; the blotchy redness had left my cheeks. No more nonsense. Easy as slamming a gate.
When I returned to the lobby, I found Papa looking for me, could sense his impatience in the angle of his domed head. Everyone was going into the lecture hall.
“I saw you talking to a young man,” he remarked.
“He’s Michael Bolt’s son.”
“Ah. The spawn of our illustrious speaker.”
And then we were inside and taking our seats. I casually looked around the hall but didn’t find the boy, and then the
chairman of the academy came out to give a tedious preamble and make the introductions.
“And now please join me in welcoming Professor Michael Bolt.”
“Professor,” my father whispered mockingly. “Difficult, without a university post.”
Plenty of times I’d heard Papa complain that Bolt had no formal degree. That he was mostly self-taught, an amateur with no teaching position. In fact, I was quite certain my father had just rejected Bolt’s application to teach at Yale, where my father chaired the paleontology department.
Professor Bolt bounded to the stage. He was very tall and had feet so large his shoes must have been specially made for him. He was in every way an overgrown version of his son. Or I supposed a grown version. He had an eager forward lurch, a sway of the shoulders that made him seem off balance. But he didn’t stumble; he rocked and rolled. He had a well-tended beard and a slim jaunty mustache, which gave him the look of an eager fox, especially with his ample hair spiked out to either side like alert ears.
And when he spoke, Professor Bolt was a mesmerist.
He began by telling us how a series of crates had arrived from a certain Dr. Hawthorn from Kansas, a dentist by training, but an amateur naturalist. How he’d opened the crates like the Ark of the Covenant and drawn out, one by one, the bones hastily wrapped in newspaper. They were still burdened with the chalk they’d been dug from. Bone after bone, each of a size that promised a creature of huge proportions.
I was on the edge of my seat. This was exactly the kind of discovery I dreamed of making myself one day. But when I glanced at my father, he looked decidedly unimpressed.
And then Professor Bolt plunged the audience back in time, to the early history of the world, when Kansas was an inland sea, inhabited by creatures that no longer traversed our oceans. Much of this I knew already, but I’d never heard it described so vividly. In the skies wheeled creatures that we would think of as dragons now, pterodactyls like the ones they had recently found in Europe. And how, when all these creatures died, their bodies settled to the bottom of the sea and were covered by sediment that became stone that preserved their bones for millions of years until Mother Earth heaved up the continent and the ocean drained, and later glaciers scoured the softer rock away to reveal the bones of these vast serpents.
Then, with a dramatic flourish, Bolt had the curtains pulled back to reveal the elasmosaurus itself. Set out on a series of tables, the skeleton of this amazing sea serpent was thirty-five magnificent feet from head to tail: the ribs, its platelike fins, its surprisingly tiny head.
Applause reverberated through the hall, mine with it, but when I glanced over at Papa, his clapping was very tepid. A strange, smug smile was on his lips.
After he’d talked about the anatomy of the elasmosaurus, Professor Bolt invited comments and questions, and Papa wasted no time. I had the uneasy feeling he’d come fully prepared.
“If I may, sir?”
“By all means,” Bolt said, with a tight smile.
“An impressively long chain of vertebrae, yes yes—prodigiously long.”
Papa had a rather unfortunate verbal tic of saying “yes yes” in the midst of his sentences. And it rarely meant he agreed with you.
The two men chuckled together mirthlessly.
“The tail,” Papa said, “seems twice the length of the neck.”
“Naturally,” Bolt said. “This creature, I believe, propelled itself primarily with its tail, with some assistance and stability from its flippered forelimbs.”
“Remarkable,” said my father.
“If I might just come forward, sir, it might be easier to illustrate my query.”
This was not typical, and there were a few whispers in the audience. I felt my toes clenching inside my shoes. I wished Papa would sit down. But Bolt, with a rigor-mortis smile and a little wave of his hand, said, “By all means, by all means.”
Helplessly I watched. Papa walked with his deliberate, almost prissy, little steps. When he reached the table, he clasped his hands behind his back and tilted slightly over the bones.
“It’s completely understandable, Professor Bolt, that you would assume the creature’s neck is shorter than the tail, as this is the case with lizards—which I believe is really your primary area of expertise.”
I felt my face heat at my father’s barely veiled insult.
“Well, Professor Cartland, it’s true I’ve written many papers
on herpetology, but they constitute only a small proportion of the one hundred and forty-six I’ve written in total.”
This, I knew, was a very sore point with Papa, for he himself had published nowhere near this number.
“Might I finally suggest,” Papa said forcefully, “that what you have assumed is the creature’s neck is in fact its tail?”
Audible mirth bubbled up from the audience, and bolstered by this, Bolt chuckled.
“You might suggest it, Professor, but I’m afraid you would be disappointed. The creature would be out of all known proportion. As well, a neck of such length could not be practical or even functional.”
“But let us not forget yes yes, that this creature is aquatic, and its long neck would not require the same muscular support as a terrestrial animal. Indeed, one might surmise that such a long neck might be advantageous for snapping up fish from below, unawares.”
“These are interesting musings, I grant you,” Bolt said, “but I think they might have been made just as well from your seat.”
“I’m sorry,” Papa said, “to try your patience, Professor Bolt, but we are all friends here. Truth is always our common goal. Please don’t take my questions personally.”
“I take them personally, sir, because you suggest my incompetence.”
“Not at all, not at all.”
The strain in the lecture hall was thick now. Someone called, “Please sit, Professor Cartland. So others can ask their questions.”
“My apologies,” said my father. “I am nearly done, but if I might just beg your indulgence one last time, Professor?”
Bolt nodded curtly. “Go on.”
“I am just yes yes wondering,” said my father, and the crowd gave a small gasp to match my own as he plucked up the elasmosaurus skull, “if the skull might just”—and he walked the thirty-five feet to the far end of the table—“fit more naturally”—and he picked up the final tail vertebra and slotted it inside the base of the skull—“right here.”
• • •
There was a loud click. Maybe just my imagination, but it was like two puzzle pieces snapping together perfectly.
Cartland held them high. “Which would indicate to me, Professor Bolt, that the tail is in fact the neck, and you have built your dinosaur backward, sir.”
I felt like some important part of my chest had busted loose and plunged into my stomach. The stricken look on my father’s face confirmed my worst fear: Cartland was right.
Father rose to his full height. “I will ask you to retract that comment, Professor Cartland.”
The scoundrel rocked smugly on his heels. He was much shorter than my father, solid as a potbellied stove. Sparse hair began way back on his shiny head. His mustache took a sharp downward turn, obscuring the sides of his mouth, which I think was curved into a triumphant smile. I hated him. He’d come onto the stage to humiliate my father, to squash his reputation.
“Alas,” Cartland said, “I cannot retract.”
Father’s eyebrows were askew. His eyes, never pacific at the best of times, were fierce. His left eye had a slightly wayward angle to it and made you think that he wasn’t quite looking at you—or that he was possibly deranged. Right now he absolutely looked deranged.
“Then, sir, I will ask you to put down my fossils and step outside with me.”
Cartland laughed at this, but there was a pinch of alarm in his voice when he replied. “I will certainly not step outside with you.”
“Put. Down. The fossils.”
“There you go,” said Cartland, placing them down. “Will you assault me here?”
Amused titters from the audience—but only from people who’d missed certain monthly meetings in the past.
I was already half out of my seat when Father punched Cartland. It was a good strong box to the eye—can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I doubted Cartland was as practiced a scrapper as my father, but he was denser, and I almost shouted at Father to watch out, because he was too cocky. With a forward lunge Cartland buried his fist in my father’s stomach, doubling him over.
I vaulted onto the stage. A chorus of disapproval rose from the audience.
“Not again, Bolt!”
“Sir!” someone called out to my father. “Are you not a Quaker!”
“I am, sir!” my father panted. “But not a very good one today!”
And he took another punch at Cartland’s face, which the other man dodged quite nimbly.
“Father!” I took him by the arm, but he shook me off.
“That skull,” he panted to Cartland as the two faced off, “was found near the vertebrae I selected for the neck. My prospector was most clear in his notes!”
“That may be,” Cartland said. “Nonetheless, they were caudal vertebrae, not cervical !”
He managed to seem calm and somehow dignified, standing still as my father fumed and circled. Like he knew he couldn’t be struck down, because he was right.
“Father, stop!” I yelled again.
He lurched in close for another jab at Cartland, too close, and the cast-iron professor stamped hard on my father’s oversized shoe. He’d paid a cobbler in Chicago a fortune for those shoes. Father jackknifed with a whoop, then butted against Cartland’s belly with his full weight. They both toppled over, each trying to thrash and claw his way atop the other.
Suddenly the girl from the lobby was beside me, cheeks blazing. I’d never seen anyone look fiercer. She grabbed my father’s ear and twisted like she was trying to yank a turnip from the earth.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Easy!”
“Get him off my father!”
Stupidly I looked from Cartland to the girl. “That’s your father?”
“Well, maybe you should remove your father from my father,”
I bellowed, and pointed down to the writhing mass: Cartland now had the upper hand and was strangling my father, who was drooling slightly.
We each took hold of our struggling parents and shouted and tugged. In all our grappling, her hands and mine got tangled briefly.
She looked at me, and I couldn’t look away. Her eyes were extraordinary, not just for their piercing blue—it was the white and amber markings in her irises, like shooting stars and the aurora borealis radiating from the blackness of her pupils. I felt like I was witnessing the birth of the universe.
It took me completely by surprise: With absolute certainty, I knew I’d fall in love with her.