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The Origin of Species

At first, it was just this hazy glow on the horizon, but then it got brighter and took on more of a definite shape. It was almost as if—it’s weird to say it, even now—it was looking for us.

Johanna Skibsrud is the author of The Sentimentalists, which won the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her most recent novel is Quartet for the...

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For the most part, everyone who’d actually seen it agreed that something had happened. Just what exactly was more difficult to say. At first, the reporters had come in droves, but then, just as quickly as they came, they went, and after the official report was printed in the Silver City Tribune, only the lunatics continued to talk about what had happened that night. Only a few weeks later, nearly everyone seemed to agree that nothing unusual had happened, or was ever likely to happen, in our little town.

But I remember. At one time it was very, very real. And it was headed toward us. Everyone who saw it stopped whatever it was they were doing and piled into their cars, just like Fernie and me. There was a great big line of us, our taillights streaming, heading together out of town. Out past the last gas station and Fulton Wash. It wasn’t a decision we made; it was more like an instinct. Like the way that your head turns without even meaning or wanting it to toward a highway accident as you’re driving past.

Out past town, the land gets hard and flat and there’s no mesquite even. It’s just dirt out there, some scrubby creosote, and nothing, not even a rock, for twenty-five miles till the flat-top range. It’s true, the mountains look closer than that. It looks like you could just walk out and be at the base of them in something less than an hour. It’s funny how the eyes can play tricks on you: that the first known thing on the horizon, whatever it is and no matter the distance, seems close. But at night, there aren’t any mountains near or far and darkness is the closest thing, interrupted only by stars, which, with nothing to compete with out there, are no longer points of light, like in town, but sort of leak out into the rest of the sky. You get this feeling that darkness is just a problem of distance, and that if you could just see a little farther there wouldn’t be darkness at all.

*

Fernie and I had been sitting out back of my mother’s place. It was just after dark, and Fernie had come by driving Marty’s car, a beat-up Impala with the left window blown. We were smoking cigarettes, leaned up against one another, and Fernie was saying something about how nuts it was that you wouldn’t know something and then once you did you wondered how you never knew it before.

We were all set to get married that summer—had been engaged by then almost three years, ever since we were sixteen. Living at our parents’ places, she at hers, me at mine, and trying to scrape up enough money to leave town. She had learned a new word just that morning, she said, and seen it three time since. She asked me if I knew the word. I don’t remember now what it was, but whatever it was I was thinking seriously on it. It was one of those words that you thought at first you knew for sure, but then the more you thought about it the more you realized you didn’t know what it meant. I was just realizing this, and Fernie was just in the middle of saying, “I guarantee you, now that I’ve said it, you’ll see this word all over the place, I guarantee it”—when we saw the lights. At first, it was just this hazy glow on the horizon, but then it got brighter and took on more of a definite shape. Fernie said, what the hell, and we both sat up and looked at each other and then back at the sky. Then the light sort of flattened out, and spread itself toward us. It was almost as if—it’s weird to say it, even now—it was looking for us. There was a moment when it came so close that we actually ducked. Both of us. And closed our eyes, so we missed it: the actual moment when whatever it was passed right over our heads. I really can’t say what would have happened if we hadn’t have ducked. If the thing would have hit us or not. If it really was that close, I mean, or that bright, or that real. All I can say is that it felt that way, and that—when we saw it coming—we had no choice but to duck. It was our bodies that made the decision, not our minds. If it had been up to us, we would have continued to stare up at the sky, at that great big ball of light heading right at us, wondering what in the hell the thing was, what was happening to us. Even if it killed us. We would have just sat there, gaping, with our mouths half-open, like fools. That’s the way the mind works, don’t ask me why.

Then Fernie said, again, what the hell, and I shook my head and we turned and looked behind us where, in the distance, we could still see the light. It didn’t retreat as quickly as it came. It sort of lingered in the sky, and where before it had spread itself out in a single plane, now it seemed to be pressed into the shape of a ball, hovering just above Lucky’s Tavern at the far edge of town.

A siren wailed. Then another. Fernie and I looked at each other, then headed back to the house.

My mother was inside. She was sitting at the kitchen table with the newspaper open. Doing a puzzle, I guess, or scanning the swap column for something we didn’t need. She didn’t appear to have noticed anything.

“We’re going out,” I said. I tried to make my voice sound light, but it came out high instead. I had this feeling in my throat like something was pressing on it from the inside and if I didn’t get moving fast, I was going to explode. But my mother still did not appear to notice anything, and I wonder if, after all, there was nothing unusual in how I sounded. If that was instead the way I always sounded on nights, otherwise just like that one, when Fernie and I got it into our heads to go out together and just drive around.

My mother said only, “All right. Be careful.” Without even really looking up, and just in the way that she always said it.

So Fernie and I got into Marty’s Impala and headed out toward Lucky’s. There were plenty of cars on the road by the time we got out there, and everyone was shouting out the window, “Do you see that? What the hell—?” and beeping their horns at cars that were going too slow because they had their heads hung out the windows, watching the sky. From time to time, a police car or a fire truck screamed past and all the cars pulled off the road and waited for them to go by. It must have taken us the better part of an hour to drive what otherwise would have taken no more than twenty minutes. By the time we got to Lucky’s a dozen or so cars were already pulled off the side of the road. The desert is as hard and dry out there as a parking lot, and one after another, cars pulled off the road behind us and everyone piled out and just stood there, or sat on their hoods, and looked up at the great big ball of light, which hovered almost directly above us in the sky. It’s sort of funny looking back to remember the lines of police and fire vehicles, and how the cops and the firemen when they got out had nothing to do but what all the rest of us were doing. Once in a while you could hear the static buzz of a radio, but for a long time there was nothing to report. Fernie and I sat beside one another, perched on the hood of Marty’s Impala. From a distance, we saw the Honey twins who were in our same graduating class. Glenn raised his hand in a wave, which Fernie and I returned. For some reason we didn’t feel like talking to them, or anyone. Everyone knew everyone else, but for some reason people kept to themselves or stood in little groups of two or three, and were mostly silent. We were waiting for something. What, we didn’t know—but there was a sort of shared respect for whatever it was, this thing that was happening that we could have in no way anticipated and didn’t understand.

Then, slowly—so slowly at first we were not even sure if it was happening—the ball began to descend. Someone pointed and shouted and then there was a sort of murmur of confusion as people tried to decide if anything had happened, or if it was going to, and what they should do if it did. When it became clear that the object had, in fact, moved, and was heading slowly toward us, the policemen grabbed their loudspeakers and told everyone, “Back up, back up!”—but no one moved. The ball, though descending, still seemed far enough away that even our bodies remained riveted, and after a while the cops stopped speaking through the megaphones and we all watched, together, in perfect silence, as the strange ball of light made its first contact with the earth.

*

I had my heart set on marrying Fernie since the very first day I saw her, at the beginning of seventh grade. She and Marty had just moved from California and Marty had started Desert Trophy, a taxidermy business in the old labour hall off the highway. Sometimes, around town, I say to people who know: “Never dreamed, when I asked her to marry me, I’d get stuck with Marty instead.” I say it as if it’s a joke. The way Fernie would have said it, I imagine, if the same thing had happened to her. Sometimes that’s the only way to treat things. It makes the people around you more comfortable. They think to themselves: good thing he can laugh about it, at least; good thing he’s not taking it too hard.

After Fernie was gone—just a few months had passed, six months at most: we were still looking—my number came up. Just like that, it turned up in the first draft lottery of ’69. If Fernie had still been around we might have gone to Canada. We’d talked about it, anyway, but just in the way that you talk about a thing that will probably never happen—or at least you figure it won’t. It’s nice—a strange sort of comfort—to think that things would have been different if Fernie had still been around, but I wonder sometimes if it would have made much difference, or if I would’ve come, in any case, to the same conclusion in the end: it was just easier to go.

*

We had nothing to do the rest of that summer after Fernie disappeared, Marty and me, except wait around for someone to phone us—Fernie, or somebody to tell us about Fernie. But they never did. I started helping Marty out around the shop, more or less to pass the time, and before long I had learned pretty much everything there was to know about stuffing dead birds and polishing antlers and sewing on glass eyes.

It’s good work. And genuinely scientific. A lot of people don’t know that. Or this: that if Charles Darwin hadn’t been a taxidermist as well as a scientist, the ship he sailed on to the Galapagos—where he made all his famous discoveries—never would have taken him onboard. Who knows? If Darwin hadn’t known how to slit open a dead bird then sew it up again, we still might think we were moulded from clay, or fell out of the sky.

*

Later, I got a chance to look at the scatter plot of the December draft numbers; the birthdays ran along the vertical axis to the right and the lottery numbers ran horizontal, underneath. All of us, all the guys that got called up, were blue dots, kind of like stars scattered every which way across a blank sky. Some people complained at the time, and afterward. They said the lottery wasn’t fair—how they did it, you know. It wasn’t random enough. Too many November and December guys got called, they said—because of the way their numbers didn’t get mixed in properly, so were still just sitting there, right on top. But when I looked at the scatter plot—all those blue dots floating every which way—it looked pretty random to me. Also, my own birthday is in June, right in the middle of the year. At least from my perspective, you can’t really get any fairer than that.

I was the first person in my family to join the service since my great-great-grandfather had fought, and been killed, in the Battle of Antietam, during the Civil War. My father was born with a hole in his heart, which kept him out of the service back in ’42. He went to college instead, then came home and worked at the bank and resented every minute of it. See, he found out, not too long after the war ended, that the hole in his heart had healed up, and had probably been healed for a while. The medical screeners had been looking at his old records, and that was why he hadn’t been allowed in the war.

He was angry all the time, because of it. My mother would say, you ought to be grateful, but my father would have gladly turned in every one of his days spent in our small town for a single hour in the service—just enough time to get himself blown up in exactly the way that my mother warned him he should be grateful he had not. Sometimes I wondered, if my father had not had a hole in his heart and had instead gone to the war, if he would have been as glad as he thought he would have been, or if, more probably, he would have resented getting killed just as much as he resented not getting killed. Some people are just like that.

Anyway, by the summer of 1967, my father was dead and not from any hole in his heart. He had been killed in a car accident, driving home from work one day—a distance of six miles. My mother hardly spoke or left the house after that, except to go to bingo or to church, both of which she attended regularly.

In a way, now that I think about it, it was because of my father—how much he regretted not getting himself killed in the Second World War—that I didn’t sign up right away to fight in Vietnam, like nearly everyone else I knew. I didn’t want to want anything that my father wanted—but then I didn’t want what he didn’t want either. So where did that leave me? More than anything else, though, it just didn’t seem to make much sense to me, going all the way over to the other side of the world when there were girls like Fernie to marry back home. If my father had still been around, I wonder if he would have given me hell for not joining, and I wonder if that would have made me more likely to join, or less. But my father never mentioned it, even when he still could have. As far as he was concerned, there was only one war, and that was the one in which he should have got himself killed.

*

By the time I got back, no one talked about the lights and hadn’t for a long time. Even the few T-shirts that had been printed, with cartoon alien faces and space ships, saying, “I survived the UFO landing of 1967,” were all in the discount bins, and it was only ever referred to as a sort of a joke.

But Marty and I would still talk about it sometimes. Even though he hadn’t been there (he couldn’t have been; we’d borrowed his Impala that night), he used to ask me to describe what we’d seen. It was always difficult to know exactly what to say. Once I said, “Have you ever seen a beautiful girl walk into the room and you know that your life has been changed?”

He must have known I was talking about Fernie, but at first he pretended not to. He chuckled and said, “Sure. Least a dozen times.” So then I said, “Well, then, no, that’s not what I mean.

“It’s like,” I said, “it’s like all of a sudden you think that maybe we aren’t just put here for the heck of it, though it seems that way most of the time. And it just sort of—surprises you, knowing this all of a sudden, so you can’t think straight for a little while.”

Marty was looking at me with this funny half smile on his face that after a while turned sad.

“Well, anyway,” I said, looking away. “It was like a beautiful girl walking into your life, and you just know that things aren’t ever going to be the same.”

*

I heard a lot of guys in Nam talk about death—or near death. Almost everyone had a story to tell. And it was always the same. This bright light in the distance they were either approaching or that was moving toward them.

“No shit,” they’d say, “just like they always tell you.”

I remember thinking how terrific it was that in the end it all turned out the same for everyone—white guys and black guys, Baptists, Jews. That it didn’t matter. You could get shot in the jungle one morning, or slip away, all pumped up with morphine, in the middle of the night, and it would be “just like they tell you.” But as comforting as it is to think about that way, it’s also a little unlikely. I don’t mean anyone was ever lying, exactly, about what they saw, but just that somewhere along the way all the nuance got lost.

Just as it got lost for all of us back in 1967 when an unidentified object touched the earth. And a light, or a feeling—or something else we hardly had the ability to perceive, let alone to understand—shot through us. Even if we didn’t believe we’d “made it all up,” whatever we’d witnessed that night was so strange—so absolutely unprecedented and unknown—that whenever we spoke of it afterward, we did so by using only the most general terms, and most of us preferred to say nothing at all.

*

The official explanation was that it had been a simple trick of the light. Similar incidents had been reported for centuries, they said. In Texas, there were the “Marfa lights,” for example, visible on nearly any calm, cold desert night just outside of that town. The whole thing could be attributed to a sort of optical illusion.

After the report came out, only the lunatics continued to talk about what we had seen as if it had really been “something.” If it ever came up in public, we would say, “Oh yeah, wasn’t that weird.” One of the Honey twins—Neil—ended up with a Medal of Merit during the war, I remember. He had dragged a buddy of his across half a mile of enemy territory, saving his life, and he got interviewed about it afterward, on the national news. When where he was from came up, the interviewer said, “Home of the alien landing, right?” and Neil had just laughed. I remember feeling angry about it at the time. So what made you jump into your car that night? I remember thinking. What made you go racing off with your brother to that exact spot in the desert, where all of us were waiting, too? What made you stand there with all the rest of us, with your mouth open, looking up at the sky?

*

There was no note when Fernie left, just a week before we were set to be married. Not then, and not later. No telephone call from the side of a highway somewhere. When we’d run out of places to look and several months had gone by, Marty asked me if I thought, by any chance (he hesitated, an expression on his face like he was apologizing, in advance, for whatever it was he was going to say), there could be a connection between what had happened that night in the desert and Fernie all of a sudden being gone.

Already it was mostly a joke, what had happened, but there were still some pretty wild stories going around. Manny Duncan—who everyone knew had been high on amphetamines at the time—had a particularly intimate one, and that, of course, was the story that got circulated most.

I told Marty no. “What happened that night was just … light,” I said.

But then I thought about it some more. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I figured after a while that it had everything to do with Fernie leaving—and Marty knew it even better than me. He’d sensed it somehow, and that was how come he’d continued to ask me about it, even after everyone else had forgotten about it, or explained it away.

To say “light” was just the closest we could come to describing a thing that was bigger than us, that could have been anything, and that we didn’t understand. And that was why I knew then that, despite what I told Marty when he asked, that it had everything to do with why Fernie was gone. She must have just known something then. I don’t know what. She must have seen the way her life had taken, or was just about to take, shape. Known that whatever it was or was going to be was going to be different from the life she had so far known.

And me and Marty, we didn’t have any part of it.

So, what about what I knew? How I had felt when Fernie had walked into the room at the beginning of seventh grade and I just “knew” all of a sudden: who Iwas, and what my life was going to be about, and the fact that nothing would ever be the same? I still wonder about that sometimes, and the closest I can come to making any sort of sense of it is to assume that it’s possible that both feelings were—and continue to be—true.

*

I sit in Marty’s studio with the animals all around me, peering at me from the corners and from the high shelves. Some of them are just not finished yet, but others are those that, for various reasons—if they got botched somehow, or the order fell through and we never got paid—we just kept. I know they can’t see, but there’s something about the look they give me when I glance up sometimes from my work and see them staring back at me that makes me feel like they know something I don’t. Even though that’s impossible. I took them apart and put them back together again. The eyes that they look out at me with, I placed those myself. I extracted their skull and their thigh bones and made replacement parts out of galvanized wire. It’s an art, see—a lot of people don’t think of it that way. And I pride myself in the fact that, for the best of them, there is no way of telling that their original structure has been cleanly removed from inside.

*

When I’m not working, I’m waiting for something. Not for Fernie any longer, but for something.

Maybe that’s just life, maybe that’s just being alive. Or maybe, because of what happened that night—August 12, 1967, which to this day, despite the official report, no one has been able to fully explain—I just keep half expecting something like it to happen again. And really, when you think about it, the odds are pretty good. I mean, what are the chances that something like what happened that night would happen just once and once only, exactly when and where it did, in our little town, where nothing has ever happened? It seems to me more likely that these sorts of things happen all the time and we just don’t notice them. Because—I don’t know—we’re distracted by other things, are momentarily looking away, or don’t believe in what we saw.

Other times, though, I prefer to think that what happened really did only happen once. That what we witnessed in the hour we stood out there, watching and wondering what would come next, was the pinnacle of achievement of some distant race, after some unimaginable period of time. That there was no motive, no message, and that the brief moment of contact—in which all of us who had driven out to that exact spot in the middle of the desert stood, mouths gaping, staring up at the sky—was all that it was ever intended to be.

This story appears in Johanna Skibsrud’s forthcoming collection Tiger, Tiger, which will be published April 3, 2018, by Hamish Hamilton Canada/Penguin Canada.

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