The Naming of Things
by Nancy Kay Clark
editor/publisher of http://www.commuterlit.com
MY NAME is Adam Doolittle. One day when I was 10 and just beginning to understand my incredible powers, I asked a crow whether it was true that all plants and animals had to obey me. He bowed his head yes. I smirked at him and like an idiot said: “Okay, I order two killer whales to beach themselves.”
The crow blinked at me, nodded his head again and flew off.
A week-and-a-half later, I heard on the radio that two perfectly healthy killer whales had beached themselves on Vancouver Island — to the great puzzlement of Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists. No one could budge them and despite a host of volunteers draping wet clothes on their backs around the clock, the whales baked to death in the sun.
Heart pounding, I ran out of the house and called for the crow. “Please, please tell me it was just a coincidence. I mean, how could two whales all the way out on the west coast know what I said?”
The crow blinked and replied: “The message was conveyed to them. I told a rat who was traveling on train west to Vancouver that afternoon. When he arrived, he told a gull, who went and told two whales, who accepted their fate and immediately did your bidding.”
“Holy shit!” I shouted, repeating one of my father’s favourite expletives. From then on, I was very careful about what I ordered flora and fauna to do.
I grew up to be an exterminator — an environmentally friendly exterminator because I don’t have to poison or trap anybody. I just ask them politely to leave and they do. Toronto Life magazine christened me the pest whisperer — I got a lot of business out of that moniker.
One night in August I drove to Cabbagetown to clear some bats out of an attic. It was a three-storey Victorian, scheduled for massive renovation. A metal dumpster had already been delivered — ready to receive the onslaught of reno debris. It squatted on the front lawn, crushing the grass and dandelions who whispered their pain to me as I walked by. The owners, my clients, weren’t there; they hadn’t moved in yet. I unlocked the door with the key they gave me and made my way up to the attic. As I entered through the trap door stairs, I was immediately swamped by sensations — the attic was buzzing with talk. I bowed low, as a dozen mice came to greet me. “Good evening. Sorry to disturb you,” I said.
They bowed back and launched into complaints about their neighbours — the bothersome dust mites in the old sofa, the centipedes who steal their food, the incessant buzz of the flies in the windowsills. They demanded that I do something about it — as if I were Mother Nature’s landlord. I said something noncommittal, but I warned them that if they didn’t like noise they should really move out because their home was about to become a construction zone. Then I asked them where the bats were. They directed me to a spot near the chimney.
It was a small maternal roost, probably 20 bats in total, all mothers and babies. They were sleeping, but some were stirring now. At dusk, the mothers, babies clinging to their bellies, would wake and fly out of the hole in the rafters to spend the dark night hunting. I stood and watched them for a while — they seemed so peaceful — but soon, as it always happens, I became aware of the thousands of lice humming, feeding, crawling through the bats’ fur. They made such a racket — it gave me a headache. So I went over to a window, pried it open, and squeezed through it to sit on the slanting roof and wait for dusk. There was no need to wake the bats so early. Let them dream.
I felt myself relax as I surveyed my dominion. A slight breeze had cooled the sticky air of this afternoon. In the west, the low red sun sent streaks of pink overhead through the contrails the jet planes made. The swifts skittered across the sky, catching mosquitoes on the wing. The silver maple in the backyard creaked with old age; its black squirrels scrambled over it, ignoring its complaints. It was August and the time of year that Monarch butterflies gather before going south.whole bunch of them, bouncing in the breeze, loped by the roof. I caught snatches of excited and frightened voices. “Where are we going? Does anyone know? How long will it take us?” They talked about the journey ahead of them — a journey that none had ever taken before, but which was etched into their DNA, felt in their tissues. And I wondered — not for the first time — about the ancestor I was named after, the first Adam, and how he came to name things.
Fritillary and Snow Leopard. Platypus and Newt. Sanderling and Macaroni Penguin. Bloodroot and Acacia. I love the feel of these names on my tongue. How did he think them up? Did he settle on some scientific, logical method, or was it pure whimsy? I’m not talking about the Latin species names, the science of taxonomy — but the original names Adam bestowed. Of course, he was not speaking English, but some proto-Indo-European/Uralic/Afro/pan-world language. I imagine in my mind Adam creating language as he uttered the sounds and named the world for the first time. God may have created the universe, but Adam named it and everything in it, and in doing so he cranked the key and set it all in motion.
I was sitting on the roof pondering motion and gravity, when I heard a cry. It came from my left. I half crawled, half slid over to look. It was a bird — a mourning dove. He had a sharp, thin black beak and a long tail. His back and tail were grey with black markings. His breast was pinky beige. Panting heavily, he lay on his side, a crushed wing beneath him. A bloody gash stained his belly feathers brown-red.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Damn cat. I barely made it up here,” the bird muttered — then I think he fainted from pain. I should have left him then and there, but I was curious. I settled down beside him and stroked the feathers on his head. A minute or two later, the bird revived.
“Help me!’ he pleaded.
I sighed and put my head down on the shingles — so that we could talk eye to eye. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I have a strict policy. If I help you I have to help everyone and there’s not enough hours in the day, not enough days in the week to do that. I don’t have enough resources. (Well, money really, but try explaining the concept of money to a dying bird.) I don’t have enough knowledge.”
“But you are Adam. You can speak to us….”
“Yes, but I don’t have the power to save you. I’m sorry.”
“You could tell the cats not to attack us.”
This was an argument I had heard before. “So I’m going to tell them they can’t eat? That they have to starve to death?”
He huffed and rolled his black eye, as if to say, “Oh come on like cats actually eat everything they hunt.”
True — but the principle remained. “Sorry, I can’t.”
“You could tell them only to hunt the old. I’m young. I have yet to mate.” Birds don’t shed tears — but if they could I knew this bird would be sobbing now. You could hear it in his voice.
I felt so stupid lying there shrugging, saying over and over again. “I’m sorry, no.” But what else could I do?
“You could ask for bird volunteers. Those who were too sick or old could volunteer to be eaten,” he said.
And I thought, Christ, yeah, that’ll work. I mean no one ever thinks they’re too old to live. He stopped talking. I rolled onto my back and looked up. The pink tendrils in the sky had vanished beneath a swathe of deepening grey. The streetlights had just come on and through their haze, you could see at least two of the stars in the Summer Triangle. “I have to go. I have business with some bats.”
“Don’t. At least sit with me a while.”
I rolled back on my side to look at him and settled there, knowing that I’d probably miss my opportunity to speak with the grandmother bat.
He took an hour to die — the pinks and greys of his feathers fading under the night sky, until he looked indistinct. I picked his body up and gave it to a passing owl — no point in letting it go to waste. All that was left to mark his passing was a dark spot where his blood had stained the roof shingles and his first name, which he had whispered to me just before the end. I won’t repeat it; it’s unpronounceable in English anyways.
I went back through the attic window. The bats had gone out for the night, so I’d have to catch them as they returned. I settled on the old sofa, cozying up to the mites, to wait for dawn.
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