MacAlastair’s Marvelous Photosynthesizing Hominid

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Quill 178 MacAlaister's Flying Plantman Image 1 Final Alt“I don’t want you getting disappointed, but the creature isn’t real.  Trust me.  I looked into it.”

Frida MacAlastair momentarily pulled the phone away from her face and shook her head at her cousin’s words.  This was why she had wanted to meet her cousin in person.  She had wanted to watch his face, gauge his expressions, look into his eyes, and judge whether or not he was bending the truth just to protect her from some danger she wasn’t authorized to know about.  Her cousin had resources that she didn’t have access to.  He had warned her he would not be able to go into details about those resources.  But she was holding something back from him too.  She had it right there in front of her.  Her ancestor’s—their ancestor’s—journal from the expedition that ended his belief in the fantastic.

That man was no scientist, but he was captivated with his era’s discoveries of fossil bones belonging to species that were human-like but not human.  One hundred years ago, he introduced the world to a most extraordinary creature.

“You’ve told me there are strange things in this world,” Frida said.  “Things from the depths of our past and things beyond our imagination that are real.”

“This isn’t one of them.”

Frida was silent for a moment, debating whether or not to tell her cousin about the journal.  Maybe if he knew about it, he might be able to find out more.  But she hadn’t looked at it herself yet.  She had found it three days ago and hadn’t dared to do much more than read the first few words written within.  Those words had triggered a swell of emotion within her.

She wanted to go over all of her notes again before she read that journal.  She wanted to put together a narrative of her ancestor’s life, the life of the man who was responsible for the considerable MacAlastair fortune.  She was his namesake.  He was her great-great grandfather, Alfred MacAlastair.

Though Frida was his direct descendant, she and Alfred were so different.  Beyond his white skin and her brown.  Beyond his being a man and her being a woman.  Beyond his being gregarious and charming and her being private and introverted.  They were so different.  Yet something had always drawn her to him, even as a child seeing his portrait hanging in the mansion of her better-off cousins.  She had always felt a connection to him.

When she grew older, she heard the rumors of his days as a confidence man and a circus barker.  And it only made her want to know more, but the family was strange about the founder of their wealth.  She had to grow old enough, strong enough, and diplomatic enough to convince her family that she could look into Alfred without disgracing him, or them.

She said goodbye to her cousin and hung up.  Her cousin was some kind of ghost-hunter or the like.  He sometimes consulted for a legitimate government organization.  She hadn’t been holding her breath that the government would share any discoveries if it had any to share.  Not about something as extraordinary as the creature her great-great grandfather once claimed to have discovered.

Alien, fairy, cryptid, hoax.  The creature was referred to by many terms over the course of its infamy in the annals of human history.  But Alfred MacAlastair didn’t give it a term.  He gave it a name.  He gave it a title, a rather flashy title.

MacAlastair’s Marvelous Photosynthesizing Hominid.

And then he made it famous.

***

Long before he became an iron ore mining magnate, Alfred MacAlastair had a passion for the sciences.  He wasn’t the only one.  It was the turn of the century, and the country was fascinated by new discoveries.  There were books on botany and microbiology, filled with drawings of newly discovered species.  There were paintings of the cosmos above and the mysterious seas below.  There were exhibits of archaeological artifacts, dinosaur bones, and human fossils.

MacAlastair found a partial skeleton of the most extraordinary hominid species yet uncovered.  For some reason, he did not report his find to a scientific institution or his government.  Rather he saw an opportunity with the circus freak show and he simply begun displaying the fossil bones around the country.

He displayed them along with what looked like magnified sections from handwritten notes drafted by the discoverer of the bones.  This original discoverer of the fossil bones and fossil impressions perished from an illness he contracted on his way out of the unnamed jungle in which he found them.  Perhaps he was stung by something, perhaps he grazed a thorn of some deadly tropical flower.  Before he lost too much of his senses or his strength, he packed away the bones, along with all his notes and journals, and sent them to the one person he believed he could trust, an old friend.  Alfred MacAlastair.

MacAlastair had started a small mining company and it was doing well enough, so he had some capital.  As such, after receiving this posthumous package from a man he had not heard from in many a year but who had once been the closest of friends, did what any decent man would do.  He unpacked the bones, and he hired scientists to try to put them back together, study their properties, even deduce what the creature might have looked like in life.

According to MacAlastair, the scientists found marks on the bones that suggested the creature was feathered.  The creature appeared to be half-bird and half-human, leading to not a few harpy jokes among the scientists, who in those days would have been studied in the Greco-Roman mythological classics.  The harpy was a terrible monster, half-woman and half-bird.

The creature from the jungle would have been the size of a modern human toddler.  The scientist found what they thought were the remnants of plant material that might have been preserved alongside the creature or perhaps was eaten and partially digested by the creature.  They later realized from their studies of the fossil impressions that the plant remnants were part of the creature’s skin.

There weren’t too many details.  But somehow, the scientists, or perhaps MacAlastair himself came to the conclusion that the creature was able to do something that no animal was known to do…it could photosynthesize.  It could convert the raw energy of the sun into the energy it needed to fly and run and do whatever else the creature did.

With all of the other extraordinary attractions available, one might think that a few bones and illustrations wouldn’t really catch the eye of a thrill-seeking circus-goer.

But it did.

MacAlastair may not have been a scientist, but he was intelligent, and well-spoken, charming, personable, humble.  He was sincere.  He was also a talented artist.  It was he who drew the pencil sketches in his exhibit of what he imagined was the site of discovery and the fossils found in place.  It was he who drew renditions of the bones themselves, in a series of clever line drawings that showed the bones moving into position until they formed the shape of the final creature, with faint lines representing the bones that were not found but were extrapolated.

The first part of his act consisted of him building up the audience’s anticipation with the sketches and stories of the fossils’ harrowing discovery.  In these stories, which MacAlastair admittedly embellished, the fossils’ discoverer didn’t perish from an insect sting or some disease.  He perished from poison on the tip of an arrow that had been fired upon him by the native peoples of the jungle for trespassing in their realm.  They hadn’t know he had also taken the bones, else they might have chased him.  MacAlaister was known to pause at that moment and scan the audience.  He would grow sober and question the morality of a deed that might be no better than grave-robbing.  He spoke of the struggle in his conscience between his duty to return the bones and his duty to show his fellow man evidence of the incredible diversity in their own form.

“Perhaps you can help me to decide,” he would tell the audience.  Then he would drop the curtain on a small glass case that stood on a pedestal beside him on the stage.  Within the glass case were the bones.  (They were actually replica bones as the real ones were locked away so they wouldn’t be stolen or damaged.)

As the audience strained to take a look at the admittedly unexciting bones of a tiny skull and a few limbs, MacAlastair would step away from the case and draw their attention again.

“Are you curious as to what this creature would have looked like in life?”

Of course they were curious, and they would say so.  He would drop another curtain.  This one covered a painting in vibrant color.   An image of the creature, a calm and otherworldly expression in its eyes, looking out at the audience, large flight feathers covering his thin delicate arms.  Its skin a lovely shade of moss green.

Under the figure was the name of its species.  MacAlastair was no scientist, but this name too, he had chosen.  Homo chloropinnae.  Chloropinnae for “green wings” or “green feathers.”

The first few times, MacAlastair worried about how the audience might respond to this revelation.  He wondered if they would laugh.  Throw popcorn at him and his beautiful display.  He feared they would sit aghast, confused, and then shuffle out silently.

None of his fears came true.  The audience would gasp.  They would sit aghast, all right, not in confusion, but in wonder.  Their eyes would widen.  Many would smile.  A few even fainted away.

***

Alfred MacAlaister and Homo chloropinnae were mostly ignored by anthropology experts, who didn’t want to taint their field with the salacious sensationalism of the circus show.  But MacAlastair began to draw the attention of the press.  Specifically, his creature began to draw their attention.

The press called it the Flying Plantman.

A flying man would be hard enough to believe.  A man with green skin would be hard enough to believe.  But a man who was both?  The press was intrigued by the outlandish claims and the magnetic personality of the man who made those claims.

MacAlaistair would invite members of the press to come on stage with him and ask him any questions they wanted.  Some of them became quite captivating discussions, such as the time a well-respected journalist of the era, who often covered topics of scientific interest, engaged him.

“How do you know that the bones aren’t a mix that don’t belong together, at least not on one creature?” the journalist asked.  “We’ve seen that happen before.  The head could have been that of a child.  The forearm bones could have been a large predatory bird, and the remains of the plant material might have come from an ancient tree that fossilized long before the other elements showed up.  Horrifying as it might sound, perhaps a large raptor carried off a baby or a small child and brought it to its nest.  The plant matter could have been used to make the nest or carried there along with the child.  Sure the bones look like they fit together, but we have no test we can conduct to link all the separate parts.”

MacAlastair smiled.  “Perhaps not today, but someday we will.”

“Why would this small hominid be able to photosynthesize?  How is that an advantage?  Trees and plants sit still.  They abide in one place and stay there for hours upon hours, not expending nearly the amount of energy that animals do.  A small hominid wouldn’t be able to do that.  It would have to keep moving, hide from predators, away from the open light.”

MacAlastair pointed his finger to the sky.  “But that’s where the creature’s flight comes in.  The two qualities work together.  The hominid still ate the way animals eat.  But it had this additional way of creating energy, and according to the bones of the forelimbs, their wings were quiet large and powerful, like a modern raptor’s.  They could stay up in the air for hours.  Why, some scientists believe that birds are able to sleep a bit while their flying.  I’ll bet this hominid did just that.  Sleeping, gliding, and photosynthesizing.”

“All right, then.  Say you’ve convinced me that this creature actually existed and worked the way you’re saying.  How did it come into existence?  How did birds and mammals and plants come together to make this thing?”

“You’re saying that backwards, friend.  There weren’t three different living organisms coming together to make this thing.  There were three different living organisms that arose from this one being.”

There was a raucous commotion in the audience then.  Some scoffed or laughed aloud, refusing to believe what they judged to be a preposterous notion.

“Such a complex being arose bearing all the gifts that the separate beings on the earth now possessed?  If that’s so, where has it been hiding all this time?”

MacAlastair laughed cheerfully.  “You just answered your own question.  Your real question is ‘why haven’t we found it until now?’  The answer is that they have been hiding from us.  Willfully.  And why not?  Our cavemen ancestors were brutes.  They probably would have hunted, killed, maybe eaten these poor creatures.”

“So you believe there are still living members of this…new species, or rather old species?”

“Possibly.”

“Do you believe that modern man is now mature enough to perhaps commune with such folk as these?”

“Modern man, modern woman…I’m not so sure about modern children though.”  Here, he glanced at a little boy and girl sitting in the front row and winked at them.  He waited for the chuckles to subside, then he looked up at the audience.

“If they don’t want to be found,” MacAlastair said.  “Then we should leave them be.  Let them judge when we are mature enough.  And hope that we get there before their species does go extinct.”

“That’s an awfully convenient answer, Mister MacAlastair.  To admonish your fellow men from going after the very evidence that would support your discovery, or disprove it.”

***

It was inevitable considering the growing popularity of the Flying Plantman in the public conscious.  An expedition was being mounted, with or without Alfred MacAlastair, to explore the jungle where it was believed the fossil of the Flying Plantman had been found.  The aim was to find more evidence of the creature, if there was any to be found.  MacAlastair would have been remiss if he did not join it.  They followed the notes and maps of the man who had brought out the fossil of Chloropinnae.

The expedition was meant to last for six months give or take.  The party of explorers was gone a year.  For half that time, they lost contact with the outside world.  By the time they emerged from the jungle, every single one of them alive and well, it had been thought they were lost for good.  Search parties had been sent into the jungle and had found some evidence of the expedition party’s camps, but no trail to follow.

The explorers were confused, for after they lost contact, they began to leave markings and clues to their whereabouts, and notes assuring any searcher that they were well.  They figured that despite their cautions, the animals of the jungle, and the rain and humidity had wiped away all such clues.

Everyone assumed that the expedition had failed, because of how dejected MacAlaister seemed in the days following the party’s return from the trip.  And because there were no announcements of any major findings.  All of the other expedition party members seemed to be walking on eggshells trying not to say that they had seen and found nothing, at least nothing they sought to find.  The jungle itself was an ordinary jungle.  They had taken samples of the soil, plants, and insects, so the expedition would not be a complete waste.

After returning, MacAlastair stopped exhibiting the Chloropinnae fossils publicly.  He put them in storage in a private vault, along with his journals from the expedition.

Some wondered why he should have expected anything more.  For they believed he went searching for the very creature that he himself had created.

MacAlastair began to claim that he never truly believed in the photosynthesizing hominid.  He only hoped it was real.  But he did believe in something.  He believed in the trusting and open-minded natures of most folk.  He had not aimed to cheat them.  He had aimed to engage them, to have them go home and be enthralled with the sciences.  He had always wanted to be a scientist, but the best he could do was be a showman.  So he did what he did best.  There were many interviews in the papers upon his return.  Many hard questions for MacAlastair to answer.

“Do you feel guilty at all, for fooling all those people for all those years, into believing this apocryphal creature was real?” he was asked.

“It was real,” he answered.  “It was real in their imaginations.  And that’s real enough, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well, that’s all good and well, Mister MacAlastair, but what I mean is that they were unwilling participants in this imagination.  They didn’t know they were imagining.  They thought they were witnessing.”

***

The story faded over time.  The Flying Plantman was forgotten.  MacAlastair was not, but he was in the news for very different reasons.  More respectable reasons, some said.

Frida didn’t have access to the fossils, if they still existed in the family vaults.  Or if they ever really existed at all.  If she could get them, she could have all the modern-day tests performed.  DNA testing.  Molecular profiling.  Radiocarbon-dating.  MRIs, CAT scans, radar, or whatever kind of imaging made sense.

Her great-great grandfather’s sudden turnabout after the expedition was suspicious.  She wasn’t the first to think so.  There were some who thought he’d made a noble sacrifice.  He had found flying plantmen in the jungles and decided that he needed to protect them.  He had decided to make certain they would not be harassed by modern man coming to visit them and to traipse carelessly through their home.  He and the other members of the expedition must have vowed to keep it secret.  Or perhaps the other members of the expedition hadn’t seen what MacAlastair saw.

Or maybe he had fooled everyone including himself into believing in Chloropinnae.  And the expedition was like a bucket of cold water to the face.

Frida thought she needed the fossils.  If she could find proof one way or another, she would know what kind of person her great-great grandfather was.  Or maybe she didn’t need the fossils.  Maybe the answers she sought were in his journals.  She was afraid to read the journals.

All the other documents, interviews, pamphlets, essays, and the like, were documents that he knew others might see.  But his private journals were only for his eyes and his kin’s eyes.  They would contain the truth.  So Frida hoped.  So Frida feared.

He hid the journals in plain sight.  Along with stacks and stacks of identical books that were marked as ledgers from a century past.  Frida was the first to have taken the effort to flip through the books.  Everyone else just assumed that the journals of his life and his expedition were lost.

So three days ago, when Frida identified and opened his expedition journal, she was the first to look upon its pages since Alfred MacAlaister himself.  She received a chill upon seeing the first few words.

My child, these words are for you.

Her eyes filled with tears, though she knew the words weren’t actually for her.  They must have been addressed to one of MacAlaister’s five children, likely the eldest, a son whose name she couldn’t remember in the moment.

Frida looked at the old pictures of her great-great grandfather, one of them taken just before the expedition that changed the course of his life and the fortunes of his family.  They both had dark hair and thick neat eyebrows.  But otherwise, they looked completely different.  They were so different.  But she longed to find out how they were the same.  And she longed to solve the mystery that he had longed to solve.

Whether it was something wonderful or terrible that he found in the jungle, he obviously sought to keep his fellow man away.  But he must have known that people would eventually return to the jungle.  So maybe he was only trying to buy time.

Most of his detractors might have felt vindicated and smug upon his return in failure.  Others perhaps felt pity.  No one needed to return to the jungle when the man who was most eager to find something said there was nothing to find.  If there was something, anything, even something that wasn’t quite a real discovery, surely MacAlaister would have returned with it.  His reputation as an exaggerator served him well if his aim was to keep people out of that jungle, at least for a time.

***

Frida was ready now.  She flipped carefully through his expedition journal, before she even began reading it.  She found symbols and drawings that should not have been there, representing scientific discoveries that had not been made, or not been made public at least in her great-great grandfather’s time.  On one page was a drawing of a right-handed double helix shape with lines linking the helix so it looked like a ladder.  That was DNA. On another page was a letter “H” with a superscript that looked like a zero.  She thought it was some variant on the symbol for the hydrogen atom until she did an internet search and discovered it was the symbol for a sub-atomic particle that hadn’t been proposed for several decades after the journal was written, and had only been discovered in Frida’s time.

There was a single sentence on the last page.

I don’t know what the symbols mean, but perhaps you, in your time, will know.

Frida felt the chill again and raised her brows.  Then she flipped back to the front and began to read.

If you are reading these words, I beg of you.  Do not venture where I ventured.  There were both wonderful and terrible things there.  I believe my friend, the Chloropinnae, was one of the wonderful things.  And I regret that he or she came to a violent end here, my flying plantman.  I used to despise that name that the press gave to my friend.  Flying plantman.  I thought they meant disrespect.  Perhaps some did.  But others perhaps meant it with affection.  I regret all the more knowing that my flying plantman may have been one of a kind.

I wish I could remember the details of what happened.  I know there was another being, just as strange and extraordinary as Chloropinnae.  I know I spoke with this being.  And it, she or he, spoke with me and explained things to me that I cannot remember.  What I do remember is having a profound understanding.  I remember being afraid, afraid because there is more unknown to us in this world than we care to admit.  Perhaps we were better suited to live among these unknown things when we were primitive.  Before we built the cocoon of civilization within which to lie in relative safety.

I have felt uneasy ever since returning.  Though my sense of wonder has not diminished, it is accompanied by an equal sense of dread.  I had hoped to discover that our species has the potential to become wondrous, beautiful, and self-sufficient beings.  That we can fly without aid of machines.  That we can drink the light of the sun and abide without the need for food.  How much more resilient we would be.  How much more beautiful if our forms were truly varied.  Some men with wings.  Some with tails.  Some with fur.  Some with feathers.

I cannot describe the being I spoke with.  I wrote down as much as I could after the encounter.  I was the only one who remembered it, because I was the only one who took that extra step.  Did time stop for the others while I spoke with this being?  I’ve read many a story where the author writes, ‘It was like waking from a dream.’  I have always scoffed at that remark.  Never again shall I deem it ridiculous, for it was like waking from a dream.  I could not remember details that I swear were vivid and obvious only moments earlier.  

I only remember clearly the warning.  It was not a threat, not directly in any case.  It was a warning.  There were dangers there that we did not and could not understand.  And if we chose to venture further, and if we survived and returned to civilization, we might carry those dangers, as an ill man can carry plague, and spread that danger through our modern world.  

I have recorded some symbols and markings that I do not understand.  I sincerely hope that simply writing them down does not invite this unknown danger, in the way that written symbols could invoke demons in the old stories.

Do not think, my child, that because I have abandoned this quest that I have abandoned the cause of exploration and investigation.  It is not so.  We must continue to explore, to strive towards an understanding of our world and ourselves beyond what we understand today.  But we must know that there are limits.  We are flesh, bone, and blood.  That will not change until the day of our bodily deaths.  There is only so fast a man can run.  Only so much he can lift with the strength of his arms.  There is only so much food and drink he can consume without bursting.  So too there is only so much knowledge we can hold in our mortal minds.  There is only so fast those minds can think and therefore comprehend.  

There are beasts in this world that can rend our bodies apart.  There are beings in this world that can rend out minds apart, and perhaps even our very souls.  But there are also beings that can heal our minds and our very souls.  

Chloropinnae, Frida thought.  And she beamed.  Her eyes brimmed with tears.  She read on.  She imagined her great-great grandfather’s voice.

I hope to meet my friend in some other world, not as a fossil, not as a figment of my imagination, but as a living being.  I hope to look him in the eyes.  I have no reason to believe he was good, or that he was or could be our friend.  I only felt it.  As different as he was, he was a friend.  And he was marvelous.

 

Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel

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