The Mythical Slug

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“They live in the mysterious depths,” I said.  “The deep depths.”

“That’s pretty deep.”

I grinned and whipped a soggy fry in Rodge’s direction.  We were sitting across from each other in the seaside diner we’d found on our first night on the island.

“Worried we might awaken some terrible entity that’s been sleeping in our waters for eons?”

“There’s a lot of water on our planet, Dyna.”  Rodger wiped the fry grease off his nose.  “A lot.  And a lot of things could be hiding in those ‘deep depths.'”

His expression grew suddenly serious.

“But what’s the point?” he said.

I paused for a moment.  “Of what?”

“Of finding this thing.”

“What’s the point.”  I adjusted my glasses and peered at him.

I should have been used to that question.  This particular trip was different from the other times I’d traveled on someone else’s dime in the name of discovery.  But I’d done it before—the answering of such questions—when I worked with my old boss.  I’d won him research funding from wealthy patrons and the odd venture capitalist.  I’d learned to explain the point.

Of course there must be a point.  A return on their investment.  I kept forgetting though, to think the way my benefactors did.  I kept thinking the way a basic researcher thinks, the way I believe a classic academic thinks, in time horizons that span decades, even generations.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  I can accept that I won’t be the one who benefits from the return on my investment of time, effort, and the bit of expertise I’ve gathered over the years.  But our patrons were buying something that they wanted to see in the here and now.  In their own lifetimes.

Rodge’s questions triggered old frustrations.  And with a deadline looming, a deadline that seemed long but was not actually all that long considering what we were being asked to do, I found myself asking familiar questions, reaching for familiar arguments, and wondering familiar thoughts.

“You want to know what the point is, Rodge?” I said.  “The immediate significance to humans you mean?  The potential applications?  Is that what you mean?  Then there is no point.  No point at all.  We’re like the explorers of old, hunting a mythological creature.  And my only regret is that everyone doesn’t a get a chance to do something like this if they want to.  Exploration should be an option for everyone not a luxury.”  I took a breath.  “But if you mean, what’s the point in the grand scheme of things, then you might have a wait a few years, or a few hundred years.  I don’t know.  I just know that our efforts aren’t wasted.  Not in the very long run.”

Rodger, my research partner…my long-suffering research partner, I should say, who had done me a huge favor by coming with me, crossed his arms, propped his elbows on the table and leaned toward me.

“I’m…puzzled as to why you always seem to think that I’m the one who’s asking,” he said.

I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut in mild shame.  “Rodge, you’re the best.  None of us mere mortals deserve you.”

You don’t deserve me,” he said.  “Everyone else I know is nice to me.”

“Point taken.”  I opened my eyes and found him grinning at me and claiming all my fries.  Rodger knew all the answers to the questions he was asking me.  His purpose in asking was to remind me to focus.

“What does it do anyway?” he asked.

“Same thing we do, Rodge,” I said.  “It exists.”

***

I don’t know much about slugs.  I’m a molecular kind of gal.  I was supposed to be on my way out the door, leaving the Institute for paths unknown.

I didn’t have anything lined up.  But after my boss left his position (amicably) for a university with the kinds of facilities and equipment he needed, some of us followed him, some of us moved to other projects in the Institute, some of us left for other jobs elsewhere, and a few of us just floundered.  I was in that last group.  Even after spending six years in college and three years doing research, I had no idea what kind of work I could or should be doing.  Corporate positions sounded demanding and boring.  I’d applied to a handful of government jobs, but those took a long time, sometimes several months.  The vetting process was…thorough.  I mean they wanted to know stuff like the name of the dog of my best friend from second grade.  And I had no idea which box my dad had stowed my high school diploma in before putting it in storage.

The molecular division wasn’t the only one experiencing shake-ups.  The Institute’s marine sciences division had been phased out over the past few years, and was officially in the last stages of shutting down.  There were some loose ends that needing tying up.  Among them were some papers that were in progress.  The research papers would be completed by the researchers who started them and then submitted by the Institute on their behalf.  But there were some other odds and ends, including an article that one of the junior researchers had drafted for a popular science magazine.  The Institute still wanted to publish it, but the researcher was long-gone, and there was no one available to finalize the draft.  One of the administrators thought of me.

I was game.  I was game to do anything that would buy me some time (paid time, that is) while I figured out what my next move should be.  The article was supposed to have been fact-checked already.  All I had to do was revise for language, proofread the text, and clean up a few of the images.

The article was about sea slugs.  Having no expertise in marine biology, and definitely no preexisting knowledge of sea slugs—a thing I didn’t know existed until that point—I approached the article like a citizen scientist.  Naturally, I became fascinated with what I read.  I say naturally because marine biology—marine anything really—is a beautiful mystery to me.  All field-based biology fascinated me.  I’d been a lab rat through all my schooling and career.  The closest I got to going out in the field was in freshmen biology when we went to visit tide pools at the local beach.  For my class report, I made drawings of starfish and sea urchins.

I would never have guessed how beautiful sea slugs could be.  I’d never seen a garden slug, but I’d seen plenty of snails in my life.  I thought they were strange-looking, cool-looking, but not beautiful.  Not like the gorgeous gem sea slug with its flat almost disc-shaped body whose edges could ruffle in movement and were rimmed with stripes of color, and whose main body was adorned with brilliant blue and purple dots over its surface, sporting its two charming antennae at the front, and carrying a delicate train of appendages behind it.

Not being a gardener, I’d never thought of slugs as pests.  I’d always thought of them as delicate and sometimes in need of a helping hand.  So I was surprised to learn that some sea slugs were venomous.  Like the stunning but deadly blue dragon sea slug that consumed venom from one of the deadliest sea creatures known, the Portugese man o’ war, and concentrated that venom in its tiny body into a far more potent poison.

I was able to find information on all of the several slugs the article’s author described save for one.

The elemental slug.

***

The elemental slug was extinct.  Or it had been declared extinct back in the mid-1800s by an aquatic naturalist who analyzed the findings from a survey of the seas where the slug had once thrived.

This naturalist never saw one himself.  He’d had it described to him by native fishermen of the very Mediterranean island where Rodger and I had traveled, Galene Island.  The fishermen had a different name for the slug, which the naturalist had difficulty pronouncing or reproducing in writing, but based on their description of the animal’s attributes, he dubbed it the elemental slug.

The slug seemed to possess qualities of the four classic elements known to humanity: fire, earth, air, and water.

The slug often floated on the surface of the waters at night and glowed a ghostly gaslight blue, thus its association with water.  It was purported to produce electricity like the electric eel, thus its association with fire.  It contained bladders within a ridge of cone-like appendages along its back that helped it to descend and ascend in the waters, thus the association with air.  And its body collected and condensed material in its environment to produce faceted pearlescent stones under its skin, thus its association with earth.  The naturalist described seeing many carvings in the large stones of the island that depicted slugs, particularly the elemental slug.

From classical descriptions, the elemental slug looked little different from modern slugs like a genus called Chromodoris with their long bodies resembling stretched taffy striped with vivid blue, black, and orange.  But the elemental slug was also described as having a more rounded wormlike body shaded orange and magenta and lined with fine fur-like appendages, and sporting two feathery orange antennae.

The article veered at that point, away from how many modern peoples make sense of the natural world—through science—and toward the way that many ancient peoples made sense of the world—through mythology.

The slug was revered as one of the most humble and yet most powerful heralds and agents of the old gods on the mortal plane.  These were nature gods worshipped by the ancient peoples who inhabited that particular island.  The slug was purported to have the powers of transformation.  To link the worlds of the gods with that of mortals, and the realms of sky, earth, and water, whenever they floated near the surface of the waters and fluoresced.  The shocks and stings they dispensed upon being handled were proof of their power against those creatures of the world who were far bigger—and supposedly wiser—than they were.  They provided a taste of the power that the gods could wield against mortals.  And the great beauty of the slugs, was evidence of the gods’ favor and the gifts that they might give to mortals.  The slugs were said to have the power of transformation, from a wormlike body streaked with warm colors to a disc of blue painted with wavy stripes of dark vivid pink to a flat, salamander-like body with four main appendages, and gleaming silvery “eyes” protruding from two stalks.

The naturalist heard and recorded the myth of how the slugs came to be the gods’ heralds when they alone dared to answer the gods’ request for a go-between that could serve in their realm as well as the mortal plane.  The slug once looked like the sea worm, but once they started serving the gods, their bodies were stretched and pressed from the pressure of straddling the two realms.  But the presence of the mighty and magnificent gods also made the slugs beautiful and powerful despite being among the smallest of creatures on the earth.

***

The naturalist was skeptical of the myths, though he believed that a number of ancient slugs might have existed whose forms were all mistakenly recognized as belonging to a single slug.  He thought the slugs might have been battling it out when the ancient peoples saw them and mistakenly believed they were seeing one creature transforming into the other.  However, there was evidence that the people knew the slugs were fighting, for their myths included a story of how one slug did not wish to serve the gods, rebelled, and was cast out, not just out of the gods’ realm, but out of the slugs’ natural realm of waters.  This slug could only wander the land, serving as a pest, and slowly losing its colors and shapes until it became the common-looking creature that in modern times would be called a garden slug.

But then, the naturalist found fossil evidence that the elemental slug actually existed.  Fossil evidence was rare considering slugs were soft-bodied animals.  But the accretions, those pearly faceted stones of many hues, had been preserved in some cases, and they demonstrated the outline and shape of the slugs.  And those shapes and outlines varied.  They varied greatly.  It was possible the slugs were undergoing metamorphosis.  It was unlikely that the experienced naturalist would consider all those different-looking slugs as one species unless he had found some compelling evidence, probably in the fossils he observed.

The Institute didn’t have any such fossils of the elemental slugs.  But the notes on the article I was proofing had a list of the few places on Earth that might have more.

And I found myself staring at the list every now and then.  I found myself wondering how long a flight it would be to get to each place.  Where I would stay.  Whom I should contact to serve as a guide.  And why I was entertaining even the thought of going.

What was it that I intended to do?

***

I never thought I’d find myself on the hunt for fossils of an animal from myth.  I finalized the article and handed it off.  But I didn’t feel that I was yet finished with the slugs.

Without a marine biologist spearheading the proposal, and without the marine biology division, the typical sources of funding for an excursion like the one I was proposing were not available.

While working for my old boss, I had found another source.  Beyond institutions like the government, academic entities, and corporations, there was one more lucrative wellspring…wealthy private citizens.  I had reached out back then with the aim to procure supplemental funds for my boss’s project.  Being a nobody in all the various circles that people, especially wealthy people, traveled in, I had a hard slog of it.  It took months of phone calls and trying to get past the gatekeepers to find someone who could get me access, or at least someone who was sincere about passing on my message.  But finally, I got through to one person.  A twenty-something who’d just been granted access to a trust and wanted to give it all away to various causes.  I convinced him that we should be one of those causes.

I got lucky.  Our potential benefactor was looking for a scientific project to support, something that would make people’s lives better.  And my boss’s project was right up his alley.  It was an important project.  One I’m proud to have played my bit part in.  My boss was working on a shelf-stable, quick-synthesis adaptive flu vaccine.  A vaccine that didn’t need to be refrigerated or injected.  A vaccine that could be made quickly enough to keep up with the changing identities of the viruses it sought to stop. It worked out for all parties.

Now, for the present proposal, I started with our previous benefactor and then made my way through the contacts I’d made while working with my old boss.  I had no expert, no clear purpose or hypothesis.  I just had what I hoped was an intriguing story…about a slug.

I found someone who had donated regularly to the Institute’s marine biology division and had been disappointed to see if go.  This potential patron understood that neither Rodger nor I had the requisite experience or expertise to see an actual research project through.  But we could certainly manage a quick trip to find some interesting fossils, and gauge what the local scientists knew.  I convinced him.  For a split second, I wondered if I had taken advantage of our benefactor’s sentimentality toward the old marine biology division.

And then I was suddenly hunting for my passport still wondering what in the blazes I thought I was doing.

***

Our patron had given us ninety days to “find something,” before he rescinded the promised funds.  If we didn’t get anywhere after that, the legendary elemental slug, if it existed at all, would be left for someone else to discover.

Once we arrived at the island, though, I realized I was nothing much more than a tourist, hoping that the locals would take me out on the water and help me spot a rare creature.  Something in that article about slugs had called to me, compelled me.  There was something there to guide me to the next step in my career.  But as much fun as it was to be there with my friend and colleague, to go out on the ocean and marvel at beautiful sea creatures, I wondered if this trip was a misstep more than a next step.

I would have been okay with a misstep if Rodger and I had come on our own, maybe as a vacation.  But we were using someone else’s money.

***

Rodger, being a cell biologist, didn’t know anything about slugs either, but he had far more friends and connections than I did in the various sub-disciplines within the biological sciences.  I had brought the money to the table.  Rodger had been tasked with bringing the expertise.  He’d found a marine ecologist.  Someone who wasn’t just locally based, but who was a local, born and bred.

That’s who we were waiting for while we ate our fries and fish sandwiches.  Midway through our meal, when we had moved on to more personal topics, Rodger suddenly stopped and looked up.  He was facing in the direction of the diner’s entrance.

“It’s him,” Rodger said.  He smiled and waved a hand as I turned around in my seat to look.

A smiling man in a short-sleeved green shirt printed with a repeating pattern of orange mangoes all askew strolled toward us.  Rodger and I rose, and we all introduced ourselves and shook hands.

We sat back down and we got to know the Professor as he was called by the other patrons of the diner.  He was delighted at the prospect of looking for fossils of the legendary sea slug.  He confessed to us that he’d always wanted to search for the slug, especially after local fishermen in the area had occasionally claimed to have seen them floating just under the surface, groups of several slugs that matched the vague descriptions and drawings from mid-nineteenth century texts.

As we’d hoped, the Professor had more to add to the story of the slug.  According to stories he’d  heard, those accretions that existed as tiny bits all around the elemental slug’s body combined as it aged, condensing further and migrating toward the center of the body, where they coalesced into a single large “pearl.”  The Professor thought there was certainly some significance to the pearl.  The obvious guess might be that it was used in jewelry or other adornment, or as currency, and the stones might be misidentified as other precious stones.

But here, the Professor set aside science and indulged in myth.  For the slug held the power of all the elements.  And though the records of both myth and history from ancient times were fragmented, and the carvings of slugs on the island’s stones much-faded, he believed he could extrapolate a worthy end to the tale of the elemental slug.  In that “pearl,” he posited, was contained all the powers of the slug that made it, the powers of lightning and venom, of floating, of descending, of bridging the worlds of gods and mortals.

“This slug is special,” the Professor said, nodding.  He laughed a deep and melodious laugh and left myth behind, shifting back to science.

He spoke of how the slug’s mythical powers could be explained.  Rodger and I had in fact thought of many of the things that the Professor mentioned.  Other sea slugs used air to control their movement in the water.  Other sea slugs contained deadly venom.  The elemental slug might have possessed—or gotten possession of—a venom that was particularly painful, causing burning and blistering like the wound from a fire.  And its powers of transformation, if not due to some natural metamorphosis, may have simply been an illusion produced by some innate ability to shift its coloring and a particularly flexible body form.

He spoke of how the slug’s existence was indeed confirmed in the local fossil record, and that it might have been hunted to near-extinction for the powers of that “pearl.”  But it may not have gone completely extinct.  It just became hidden to human beings.  In time, the population began to increase.  And they started being sighted again, but only on rare occasions.

Speaking with the Professor, hearing him tell the stories I’d been reading about, and explain the intricacies of the local marine ecosystem and how it fit in with the planetary marine ecosystem, it got me excited all over again.  Hearing him toss the occasional friendly scolding toward Rodger and me for choosing other scientific disciplines to study, considering that the planet was mostly water, reminded me that the world was indeed more than molecules.

And all the while, I kept wondering and hoping.  I hoped we would find some good fossils, though on that front, I had an unspoken confidence.

Fossils would be enough.  Especially if there were lots of them.  We could do a lot with fossils.

But the part of me that wondered and hoped the hardest wanted to see what the Professor longed to see.

I wanted to see that slug.

And more so, if it really still existed, I wanted the rest of the world to see that slug.

Maybe most would shrug.  Some would criticize.  Some would support.  But a few…a few would feel what I felt when I first read a colleague’s article on sea slugs.  A few would gaze in wonder at the pictures.  A few would marvel at the myths.  A few would be curious enough to turn the page, to scroll down, to read further, to look further.

And maybe in that way, the greatest powers of that slug would be proven.  The powers of transformation and of bridging the worlds, not of gods and humans, but of the known and the unknown.

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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