by Mario Milosevic
Captain Robert Fitzroy, commander of Her Majesty’s Ship the Beagle, decided long ago that he did not like Charles Darwin. It wasn’t simply that the young man was unseasoned; after all, no shame attached to anyone simply for possessing youth. Much worse, in Fitzroy’s view, was Charles’s ignorance of how life actually worked and his unnatural obsession with his damned specimens, sending back crate after crate of dead animals to England. How could one collect so many creatures and not tire of the task? Did he not ever long for conversation and a simple meal with a fellow human being? Fitzroy saw no evidence of it.
With the Beagle anchored off the coast of Tahiti for the moment, Fitzroy interrupted his preparations for the next leg of the voyage to receive Mister Darwin in the captain’s quarters. Fitzroy regarded Charles with frank distaste. “What do you want?” he asked.
Charles, for his part, did not exactly dislike Fitzroy, but he would not let the captain’s pronouncements on the natives of South America pass unchallenged. How could anyone believe, as Fitzroy had stated many times, that divine law made certain people slaves and certain others owners of those slaves? The very idea was so foreign to any notion of the equality of men that Charles found himself repulsed by the very sight of the captain, who was supposed to be the moral standard bearer of the Beagle. Charles saw to it that he was in the vicinity of the captain only under the most exceptional of circumstances, this being one of them.
“I request permission to take a small boat and go ashore to explore the mountains,” said Charles to the captain.
“Indeed?” said Fitzroy. “These Tahiti islands intrigue you?” The porthole behind Fitzroy showed an idyllic scene: Tahiti resplendent in brilliant green vegetation. It was just the sort of place that would be teeming with life, and therefore just the sort of place to attract Charles’s attention.
“The finches of the Galapagos intrigued me,” said Darwin. “They were slightly different on each island. A most curious phenomenon. I wish to investigate the island life here as well, to see if these types of subtle variations are more widespread.”
“So you’ll be collecting more specimens?”
“It is my mission aboard the Beagle,” said Charles.
“So it seems. Though I fail to understand it. God made the birds and the fishes and all the animals as he saw fit. All have their place.“
“Perhaps,“ said Charles.
“You doubt the truth of my statement?“
“I doubt that we know the soul of God completely,“ said Charles.
Fitzroy sighed. It was impossible to make Charles see the truth of things. “Very well,” said Fitzroy. “I will give you the boat and Caruthers to pilot it.”
“That won’t be necessary, captain,” said Charles. “I’d like to go out on my own.”
“Impossible. You know nothing of navigation. I will not have you as the Beagle’s first casualty. What would I tell your father?”
“I took the boat out on my own not two months ago,” said Charles.
“Ah yes,“ said Fitzroy. “Chasing finches. You got lost, as I recall. Caruthers had to fetch you back.”
Charles had no answer for that. “Very well,” he said. “Give me Caruthers.”
“You know where to find him,” said Fitzroy. “Tell him my orders are to take instruction from you.”
“Thank you, captain,” said Charles.
“And don’t dally,” said Fitzroy. “We raise anchor and sail west tomorrow.”
“But tomorrow is November sixteen. We sail on the seventeenth.”
“No,” said Fitzroy. “I have decided the sixteenth will be our lost day. We sail tomorrow, the seventeenth.”
“Yes, captain,” said Charles.
Fitzroy turned his attention back to his charts without another word to Charles.
Charles found Caruthers on the deck, studying his bible. He explained to him the day’s duty.
“We’re to row ashore so’s you can climb a mountain?” said Caruthers.
“Yes,” said Charles.
“It’s for my work,” said Charles.
Caruthers eyed him suspiciously. “Work?”
“I’m investigating the forms that life takes.”
“Life, sir? Forms?”
“Never mind,” said Charles. “Let’s get going.”
He and Caruthers lowered a small boat into the water, then climbed down and boarded it. Caruthers took the oars and rowed them toward the sandy shore in the distance. Charles shielded his eyes from the sun. He sat at the stern, facing Caruthers as he worked the oars through the water.
“We won’t have much time ashore,“ said Charles. “Tomorrow is the day that isn’t.”
“Beg pardon, sir?”
“At midnight tonight, we will skip over November 16 and go directly into November 17.”
Caruthers looked completely uninterested. “If you say so sir.”
“It’s because we’re traveling west,” said Charles. “We lose a day, you see, because we’re following the sun. If we were going east, we would gain a day.”
If the topic held any interest for Caruthers, he hid it well.
Charles looked across the calm blue sea. No ripple disturbed the surface, and no wind rustled the air. The Beagle looked tiny behind them and its sails drooped like wet rags.
“Though,” said Charles, “if you think about it, any day could be the lost day, couldn’t it? The captain simply picks a day and names it the lost day. Why not today? Why couldn’t this be our lost day, stolen from the stream of time?” He turned from the Beagle and looked at Caruthers. “That’s a thought, isn’t it?”
“It is, sir,” said Caruthers.
The sun was very warm. Perspiration popped out on Charles’s forehead. It seemed hardly possible for the air and his clothes to become so hot so quickly. Caruthers seemed to waver in the air in front of him. Charles looked around. Where was the Beagle? Where was Fitzroy’s ship? It had been there a second ago and now it was gone. Charles turned quickly to scan the surface of the ocean around him. Suddenly they were adrift in the open.
Or rather he was adrift: Caruthers was nowhere to be seen. And as for the beach and the mountains, they had also disappeared. Charles felt ill, as though he had stepped through a magic looking glass into some strange world.
Where were all the features of his world?
He looked for a landmark, any landmark. He saw nothing familiar but did spy a tiny dot far on the distant horizon. He stepped gingerly over the boat in a slow motion trance and, in the absence of Caruthers, took up the oars himself and managed to aim the boat in the direction of the dot. Whatever it was, he was determined to try to meet it.
After what seemed many long hours the dot grew in dimension and acquired a more recognizable shape. It was a vessel. No sails or mast. It was long and low, with a pitched roof, in the fashion of a house. It was unlike any ship of Her Majesty’s navy, and yet it did have a certain familiarity. He had seen such a ship as this in books of bible stories when he was a young boy.
He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Was it possible?
Somehow Charles Darwin was rowing to a vessel that looked like Noah’s ark.
The thought should have filled Charles with awe. He had always believed every word of the bible, holding the truths it contained to be infallible.
A small breeze rose up and an odor of excrement wafted toward Charles from the direction of the ark.
A figure appeared at the rail of the ark. He had a long white beard and held a staff in his hand. Charles waved at the figure, then went back to rowing. He was so tired he could hardly wrap his hands around the oars by the time his boat bumped into the side of the ark.
He looked up the side of the ark to the man, leaning over the rail to look back at him.
”Ahoy,” said the man.
“Ahoy,” said Charles with great weariness.
“My name is Noah. Who are you?”
By this time three other figures–much younger men–came to stand beside Noah. These, thought Noah, must be Shem, Ham, and Japheth, Noah’s sons.
“I am Charles Darwin,” said Charles. “A naturalist. I collect animals.”
Noah looked puzzled. “Are you the voice that has been directing me?” said Noah. “Is it you who have lived in my head and bade me build this ark and fill it with animals?”
“No,” said Charles.
Noah appeared to listen for more, but Charles had no energy to say anything else. Noah then directed his sons to help Charles aboard. They dropped a rope ladder to him, as well as a length of cord to secure his boat. Charles tied the cord to the bow of the boat, stowed the oars in the bottom, and took a deep breath before slowly beginning to climb the rope ladder. The sons of Noah, seeing his laborious efforts, pulled the ladder up with Charles clinging to it for dear life and brought him up in a few seconds. Charles clambered over the rail and sprawled onto the deck.
“May I come aboard, captain?” he said.
Noah impatiently motioned for him to stand. Charles got up on his knees then rose to his feet. The sons stared at him. Charles tried not to stare back.
“I never expected to find myself on the ark,” said Charles. “Though I am happy to find any sanctuary in this void. Thank you for receiving me.”
“You have been separated from your own people?” said Noah.
“Yes,” said Darwin. “Some trick of time has put me here. That is, as best I can determine.”
“You say you collect creatures?” said Noah. “Are you like me? Did a voice tell you to build an ark? I would be happy if I was not the only one.”
“No,” said Charles. “I am assigned to the Beagle.”
“A ship of Her Majesty’s navy. We are circumnavigating the globe and studying the life of the world. I have collected many thousands of creatures,” said Charles.
“Then this Beagle must be as big as my ark,” said Noah.
“No. I don’t have them all on board. I kill them and send them back to my homeland.”
Noah looked horrified. “Kill them?”
“Yes,” said Charles.
“I thought you said you were studying the life of the world.”
“Yes,” said Charles. “I am.”
“How do you understand life by studying dead animals?”
“I study species,” said Charles, “not individual creatures.”
Noah looked doubtful. “Why have you left your own vessel?”
“I got lost,” said Charles. “I don’t know where anything is. I don’t know how to get back.”
“It is not the case that they banished you?”
“No sir,” said Charles.
“You are not some criminal, enduring a punishment? I do not wish to invite wickedness onto my ark.”
“I assure you,” said Charles, “that I am a completely honorable man.”
Noah seemed to consider the statement for some time.
Noah’s sons leaned close to him and one whispered in his ear. “Yes, yes,” said Noah impatiently, then, to Charles: “My sons tell me I am not being a good host. Would you like some food? Wine?”
“I will respectfully decline the wine,” said Charles, who made it a habit to refrain of drink of any kind, “however, I could use a good meal.”
“Very well,” said Noah as his sons scurried away into the hold of the ark. “We will have something for you soon. Then we can sit down and eat and you can tell me about this endeavor of yours, learning of life from death. It is very intriguing to me. I feel as though we may be kindred spirits, both collectors of animals, but I must hold off on that judgement until I hear more from you.“
“Indeed,“ said Charles. He tried to concoct in his mind an explanation that might satisfy Noah’s curiosity about his activities.
“While we wait, let me take you to your quarters.”
“Quarters?” said Charles. “I did not come to stay.”
“You cannot leave now,” said Noah. “It will be dark soon. And besides, you said you were lost. How would you get back if you don’t know the way?”
Noah descended a staircase to the decks below. Charles followed. Torches lit every step of his way. They passed stalls housing animals of all description, some Charles knew about, others he had only heard of, and still others he thought were only imaginary. The heat from the animals was overwhelming. The ark could have sailed through the coldest of waters and would never lack for warmth.
Noah showed Charles to an empty stall lined with straw. Charles had never seen anything so inviting. He stepped into the stall and sat in the straw. He felt like an animal himself. The sensation was not in the least unpleasant.
“We’ll come back for you after you’ve rested,” said Noah, and then he was gone and Charles was alone.
Charles did not stay long in the stall. He could have slept but elected not to. Instead he walked the decks of the ark and stared in at the animals who stared out at him. Each stall held a pair. They watched him with studied disinterest.
He stood in front of the lion’s stall, which was outfitted with strong bars on the front. A male and female lion looked like they wanted to eat him. “You would have no difficulty with killing me, would you?” said Charles. “No. You would happily kill to eat. Do happily kill.”
He moved on from the lion stall to other stalls. All these creatures chosen by some divine intervention to come aboard this ark. Amazing!
He stopped before an enclosure of finches. Several species flew about the cage. Others perched on wooden slats. Charles noticed they all had exactly the same beaks. How curious. So different from the Galapagos, where finches on each island sported their own unique beaks. He leaned against the cage and put his finger between the slats of the cage. He hoped a finch would land on it. None did.
He heard a voice behind him. “They are very beautiful, aren’t they?”
Charles turned around to see an old woman. “I am Namaah,” said the woman. “Noah is my husband. Will you come up to eat now?”
“Certainly,” said Charles.
They ascended the stairs and arrived at the dining room of the ark. Noah and his sons were already seated. Namaah took her seat opposite Noah and Charles sat across from the sons.
“Welcome,” said Noah.
“Thank you for having me,” said Charles.
Noah said grace and then the six of them dug into the meal of bread and roasted lamb.
“Now,” said Noah. ”Please tell me more about your enterprise.”
“I am more interested in your enterprise,” said Charles. ”Please tell me how it is operating this vessel.”
“You appear to be avoiding my inquiries,” said Noah.
“Not at all,” said Charles. ”It is just that animals intrigue me.”
“Evidently,” said Noah. “But my animals do not want to stay on the ark.”
“Truly?” said Charles. “Why is that?”
“I suppose being cooped up in here is not to their liking,” said Noah. “Many have tried to escape already. They may be losing their minds on the ark. So many animals are born to run or fly and they can do very little of either here.”
“I see,” said Charles. “What are you going to do about it?”
“There is nothing I can do. It is God’s will to keep them here. I must try to do as God commands me. What else can any of us do? It is through me that God is ensuring the future of life.”
“And if they escape,” said Charles, “then all life on the planet will perish.”
“Oh, yes,” said Noah.
“Oh, please,” said Namaah.
“My wife doubts my word,” said Noah, “but it is so.”
“God would not entrust the future of life to you,” said Namaah.
“My dear wife,” said Noah, ”I did hear the instructions of God. He did speak to me.”
“Oh, nonsense,” said Namaah. “Life is all about the fishes.”
“The fishes?” said Charles.
“Do not listen to her,” said Noah.
“And other sea creatures,” said Namaah. “They all hold the secret. None of them were ushered aboard this ark. Is it not curious? God chose a flood to destroy the world, but a flood does not harm water animals. They are still all in the ocean, as many as ever. Is it not so?“
Charles had to admit that it was so.
“Then this is what I think is going on,” said Namaah. “Should my dear husband fail in his task, that is, should the ark capsize or be destroyed and all the creatures aboard die, well, then, God will repopulate the world with fish.”
“But how can that be?” said Charles. “No land creatures live in the sea.”
“Not in their present form,” said Namaah, “but with God’s assistance anything is possible. Fish will crawl out of the sea and live on the land.”
“I can scarcely fathom such an eventuality,” said Charles.
“I admit,” said Namaah, “that I have not worked out all the details, but I do believe he will use them as some kind of rudimentary material, transforming them into other forms.”
The very idea was so outlandish that Charles sat silent and astonished.
Noah snorted. “My wife is crazy,” he said to Charles. “Have you ever heard of anything so foolish?”
“It is,“ said Charles, “a particularly amazing sort of idea.”
“Perhaps,” said Noah. “I am six hundred years old. Not much amazes me anymore. Even when I was directed to build this ark, I was not amazed. You know, Charles, I thought perhaps you were God when I first saw you on the open ocean.”
“Why so embarrassed?” said Noah.
“I am the furthest thing from God,” said Charles.
“And yet you play at being a god, killing creatures at your whim.”
“Not whim,” said Charles. “It is for knowledge. To understand the world.”
“Surely such an impulse is the most whimsical notion of all,” said Noah.
“Understanding the world, as you say, what does it do for your well-being or the well-being of your family? Indeed, how does it help anyone?”
Charles heard echos of Captain Fitzroy in Noah’s words. Fitzroy also doubted the value of Charles’s enterprise.
“I believe that knowledge for it’s own sake has value,” said Charles.
No one at the table was convinced. Perhaps not even Charles himself.
“I’ll tell you what’s good for its own sake,” said Noah. “This bread and this leg of lamb.” He turned to Namaah. “Thank you, my dear for preparing it.”
Namaah acknowledged his gratitude with a nod.
The sons murmured their thanks. Charles joined in. Namaah smiled at them all.
Later that evening, Charles slept fitfully. He tossed on the straw and called out in his sleep. Animals opened their mouths and called back to him, all in their own languages. They recognized his sounds as the fearful wails of one far from home.
Sheep bleated. Frogs croaked. Mice squeaked and tigers roared. They all raised such a ruckus that the ark fairly shook. Charles awoke in the dark, thoroughly frightened by their calls. He rose from his bed on the straw and ran out into the corridor. For a moment he was unsure of where he was. The ark was a foreign vessel. Where were his quarters on the Beagle? Where was the crew?
He reached blindly to his side and grasped a torch. He pulled it from the wall.. The flame scorched his nose and eyebrows.
He screamed and put his hands over his face. The torch dropped to the deck.
The animals went silent at his screaming. Charles staggered back. Flames ignited the straw and heat shot up from the deck. He walked blindly around the corridor, then felt arms at his shoulders, shaking him.
“Charles. Charles, you fool!”
He opened his eyes. Fitzroy stood in front of him. His eyes were wide and his face red.
“You are sleep walking,” said Fitzroy, anger evident in his voice.
“Sleepwalking?” Charles slumped against Fitzroy’s arms. He looked around for flames. He found none. He was in his quarters aboard the Beagle. Behind Fitzroy stood Caruthers, a concerned look on his face.
“What happened?” said Charles. “I thought we were going to the island.”
“We were, sir,” said Caruthers. “But you fainted from the heat before we could beach. I brought you back here. You was delirious.”
Charles looked back to Fitzroy, who regarded him with a measure of contempt, as always.
“I apologize, captain,” he said. “I did not wish to make such a scene.”
“Apology accepted,” said Fitzroy. “Next time don’t go out in the sun.”
“Yes sir,” said Charles.
“What was all that talk about, anyway?”
“In your sleep, and your perambulations, you spoke of fishes.”
Yes, fishes. Namaah had given him the insight he needed. Creatures did not arrive fully formed. They were fashioned from previous creatures.
“It is the key to a new way of thinking,“ said Charles. “A new way of understanding life.”
Fitzroy took a step back. “I will never understand you, Charles Darwin,” said the captain.
“I barely understand myself,” said Charles. “But eventually everyone will.” He looked at Fitzroy. Such primitive thoughts running around that head of his. How long would it take for him to see the truth of the world? How long for anyone?
“Including you, captain,” said Charles.
Fitzroy raised his chin, incredulous at the thought.
“Oh yes,” said Charles. “Including you.”
Mario Milosevic’s fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov’s, qarrtsiluni.com, and others. His website is www.mariowrites.com.