The thing about an ammonite fossil is that it’s all right there, in front of your eyes. Whorls of growth and attempted growth, a last pirouette frozen in grey stone the size of a hockey puck. I should tell you I’m Canadian, but I’m more comfortable with analogies that take their cue from the cold than the cold itself. I grew up in it, but that’s not to say I’m used to it. What kind of body could be? Certainly not the smooth effigy that sits on my desk, my little ammonite from the Devonian, who lived when things were steamy, fecund, slippery with matter still evolving.
I bought the fossil in Seattle, with Henry. It was our first time away together, a sweet-ish interlude where we explored personal taxonomies on our way to the next level, relationship-wise. That morning, we strolled through Pioneer Square and stopped at a little shop whose window displayed the dead or, rather, their remains, hollows of flesh or shell now filled with stone. Trilobites, crinoids, ammonites the size of dinner plates.
Which was when I learned that Henry was a—what’s the word?
“Creationist,” he says. “But that’s not to say I don’t like science.”
We are hand in hand, and the sun is hard on our backs, so hard it could break glass. I’m poised over the threshold, the door’s open, and people are starting to stare.
“This is a fossil place,” I say. “Do you know that?”
“We’re letting the cold in,” he says, behind me, pushing me a little to get me all the way into the store.
“Do you—um—believe in fossils?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says. “I just don’t think they’re as old as people think they are.”
I can’t tell if he is joking.
There’s something of a polar bear about Henry—curling white hair, silver beard, massive, benign face. The demeanor of a hunter who’s run out of targets or ammunition or both, who’s stuck waiting. He was waiting when I met him, waiting for a bus, of all things, and I say that because in the town where I live, you don’t see people like Henry on the bus. He’s too big for the seats. The driver mistakes him for an inspector and straightens up, becomes profuse with the turn signal. Henry’s office equipment business went belly up months ago, right before we met, right after the Office Depot opened. He’s still waiting for a job to evolve.
In the fossil store, he bends over a glass case filled with agate jewelry, not the ten buck necklaces that hang from a stand on the counter, but the expensive stuff for which the clerk must unlock the case. As I run my hands through a basket of ammonoids (five dollars each), Henry examines a necklace of polished stones. The clerk lays it on a dark cloth, against which it glows blue-green as if from the floor of an ancient sea. The earth was once covered with shallow, brilliant oceans spooling with phosphorescent life, but now all we have are shells, stones, reminders of the before-world. Henry weighs the stone necklace in his hand, lifting it to the light as if to read its meaning.
He turns and holds the necklace against me. “It looks good on you,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say and turn away. I stopped wearing jewelry like that—big, splashy—ages ago, but how was he to know?
After the clerk put the necklace away, Henry still lingers at the display case. His fingers trace a line across the glass, and I think of those Manitoba bears that scrape the land cruisers’ windows with blunt claws, stretching up their necks and sniffing for a handout because somewhere, deep in their ursus brains, they know they’re being left behind, they’re not changing fast enough, they’ve been cast adrift, their future forming, not in snow, but in stone.