Animalia — K. S. Phillips
Animalia, a fragmented epic of rhymed verse in 124 lines, is all that remains of the lost masterpiece of Coleridge McClintock Eng, navigator and poet aboard the Mischief, Lord Alfred Russell Wallace’s specimen-collecting frigate that plied the waters of the Amazon River Basin from 1848-1852. On the return trip, aboard the Helen, as is known in the imperial record, all of Wallace’s specimens and the bulk of Eng’s verses burned in a fire that sent the ship to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea off Cuba. Trapped in an open boat for 10 days, Eng worked to restore the manuscript he had been drafting from Portsmouth to Rio Pedro in Brazil, some 60,000 or more verse lines of his epic, an amount that would have positioned Animalia somewhere between the 15,693 lines of The Iliad and the 90,000 of The Mahabarata, a comparative that bespeaks its grandeur. It is said that upon their arrival in London, Eng and Wallace were so distraught at their losses that the former gave up poetry forever and the latter abandoned the Western Hemisphere for the archipelago of Indonesia, where he would make his mark on history by slaying orangutans and drawing the Wallace Line that bears his name. As for Eng, he was quoted in the Royal Geographic Society’s convocation of 1858 as saying: “My greatest regret is that I survived three bouts of malaria, a half dozen poison dart frogs, and a significantly onery fer-de-lance, only to watch my life’s ambitions swallowed by a sea more blue than Her Majesty’s Royal Doulton.” The poem that follows is a fragmentary assemblage of Eng’s vision, its coherence forced, even as its genius has been diluted by the loss of multiple thousands of verses. It is said that Eng retreated to his farm outside Potter’s Bar where he toiled about with his gardenias until the end of his days.
1. Once upon a time, etc. The brackets convey a lacuna in the source text. The fragments of Eng’s masterpiece, cobbled together by water-damaged journals retrieved posthumously from the ancestral credenza of his mother’s cottage outside Warwickshire. In none of the fragments is there anything approaching such bald and uninspired text as what I have provided here, simply by way of establishing context. In the gap preceding “Furry badgers and bunnies” we can assume a missing contextual apparatus that would have granted the reader access to the complexities and subtleties that follow. Eng was nothing if not fastidious. See his gardenias for proof.
6. The capitalization of Piranhas is suggestive of the prominent position of these fish in the expedition of the Mischief, during which it has been recorded—in later journals provided by Wallace, now on display in his former residence in Lombok, Indonesia—that several porters and one quartermaster received wounds or minor amputations as a result of “drowsily dragging their limbs through the water in the reverie of days.”
9-11. It has been suggested that Killian Justin, editor of Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, inserted these lines from the original Wallace text, either due to a mix up at Macmillan and Co. press works, whose rotary maintenance contract had expired in 1869, prompting widespread publication errors, including, notoriously, the replacement of Yeats’ “In April’s prime (Swallows were flashing their white breasts above / Or perching on the tents, a-weary still / From waste seas cross’d, yet over garrulous) / Along the velvet vale I saw him come” with “In April’s prime (His hands were much covered with hair, his fingers strong and short) / Along the velvet vale I saw him come,” a faulty interpolation drawn from The New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (“Beethoven, Ludwig Von”), which offered an unduly sexualized reading to the Yeats original, or, as a direct indictment of Wallace’s treatment of the Raja of Lombok, whose crowded and resource-depleted kingdom was taxed further when “the crown man,” stole “the very orangutan pelt off the king’s back”, as his former host, Inchi Daud, reported. In this context, the addition of “Animal families” in the above verse represents a grave insult to the Raja’s imperial dignity.
25. beneath the Earth so deep. Eng, well-known proponent of the Hollow Earth theory, was said to have been so taken with “where gardenia bottoms come from” that he commissioned a digging project on his ancestral estate that reached “as far down to the inner sea as a man can be.” When he was buried, as his nurse, Biedel Darlow, records, the mortician had to excise the pumice and sea salt from his skin and hair, a process requiring a proliferation of days, in order to make his body suitable for public viewing. In the end, he was buried in a closed casket, due the “uncanny emptiness of his eyes.”
32. Buzby the chinchilla (var. busby). In the early days of the Mischief, first mate, Henry Bates, was so afflicted with syphilis that his daily tinctures of mercury and sassafras ulcerated his mouth and departed his remaining teeth. In the village of Pará, the tribesmen recommended he wear a cap of chinchilla fur in order to “nurture the fevers in his brain.” After the ill-fated Helen’s sinking, Bates returned to Europe with “naught but the cap on his head.” Unfortunately, the syphilis took the tip of his nose and left him immune to the charms of women for the rest of his days. His career as importer of fine chinchilla busbies thrived, however.
48. [After many hours they came to the shores of a vast ocean.] Refer to 25 above.
57-60. Suddenly Rose had a notion, etc. Eng’s gift for rhyme is uncharacteristically shaky in this quartet. However, the lines themselves offer a cornucopia of political riches for the so inclined. “Rose’s notion” may refer to The Battle of Bosworth, concluding skirmish of the War of the Roses, during which Eng’s Lancasterian ancestor had the notion of singing “The Rose of England” from the rear of the vanguard. His attempts to dissuade the army from direct engagement by means of mellifluous song-craft rival Eng’s attempts to preserve his epic from the waters of the marching sea. That both efforts resulted in disaster in no way diminishes the men’s bravery. to Paco she did confess. Although “confessing to Paco” later came to signify British apologies to the liberated members of their former Commonwealth (“On the steps of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, Her Majesty ‘confessed to Paco’ for the crimes of Lord Carnarvon”), the line here refers to the benevolent importation of Catholicism to the indigenous ranks of the unsaved. Upon his back, etc. Although history has impugned la fréquence esclave of the line, Eng refused to recognize both the accusation and the institution as a whole, noting, with his typical aplomb, that “what separates a slave from a porter is a quid and a quarter.” The web referred to here can be read as the British Empire itself, whose many strands collect the Earth’s riches in its filaments.
66. Pesto’s skin got hot… The reference here is weighted by the post-expedition records of one Dr. Arbutus Rasher, who testified, following consultation with Eng, that several of his poison dart frog envenomations resulted in gangrenous conditions in his extremities and the disgorging of bile, both described by Eng as “Pesto-like” in color. Alternatively, literary scholars have postulated that the line is a veiled sexual reference to his Italian wife, Francesca, who has been captured in the epistolary record as referring, rather winkingly during her husband’s many absences, to the deliciousness of the sauce in her beloved Napoli region. “Come home, my love. I’ve just discovered another use for the sauce that you must come taste.” In no other regards is Francesca on record as either a gourmand or knowledgeable about Italian cuisine in any way.
93-96. It is perhaps too obvious to ascribe Tashia in this section to Tessa Fowlis Eng, Eng’s sister and former drawer for the Tyneside Pit Works. When asked about her work in the mines, Eng quipped, “How would you feel strapped to a coal cart and shoved down the throat of Satan?”
124. Whatever. It is said that this is the first recorded usage of the word as a dismissive irrelevance. Forced rhyme perhaps, although Eng’s otherwise masterful use of rhymes throughout would suggest otherwise.
129. it was a journey they could keep. Although there is no indication that this is the last line of the epic, it holds resonance here given the calamity of the Mischief expedition. Some have viewed the line as uncharacteristically trite, notably Professor Schoenfeld of The Oxford Institute of Poetics, who has written: “If this were truly the last line, it were better that the Helen had tipped over and drowned it first.”
The following is a first person, death’s-eve account written by the unnamed editor of Eng’s fragmented masterpiece. Inspired by Eng’s explorations in the 19th century, the unnamed editor traveled the world searching for adventure. That he met his demise on a train somewhere west of Ohio is a fitting end for one who overshot his bounds in his search for manly glory. As with Eng’s unfinished masterpiece, the completion of this text required the efforts of numerous scholars and editors. The initial fragment was located on the unnamed editor’s person at the scene of his death.1
La dee da. Fuck you, Steve. Because of you, I’m sitting on this train in Ohio…Indiana…who gives a shit…writing in the first person. Eng on a lifeboat, me on a train… If I could write in verse, like Eng, I would, but the danger of actually doing something, actually fucking achieving something, sets a high bar, so I will not condescend. You got my woman, but I can still craft my memories.
Lake Tanganyika Adventures. You remember that little booth in Abu Dhabi? Your precious tour company? I do, especially how stupid you looked in that pith helmet. If I hadn’t just found Eng in the archives, I never would have come, but I was feeling cocky, so I did, and so did she, my master sportswoman piece of shit.
“Do it,” she said to me at the time. “You’ve always wanted to do something like that.”
Watching the looped video in the booth, of rhinos, wildebeests, and lions seizing up with pain and toppling over, I wasn’t so sure. But what was I going to do: disappoint her? Besides, if Wallace could blast a dozen orangutans a day in 1850, just for science, I could at least try to drill an impala, for love. So I booked the big game hunt that instant and made love to her in a palace that night. I wonder if she told you that part, Steve. Probably not, but she sure tells me, on an endless looped video in my dreams.
The hunt was shit, no matter how many times I studied Wallace’s orangutan-baiting technique.
The first shot I took popped a hole in our guide’s fedora. The next shot ricocheted off a baobab and drilled through three safari vests hanging on a line in camp. I wonder if you know all this. I wonder if you care. If you’re like me, you divide my life into pre-manuscript screw-ups and post-manuscript glory. I was months away from delivering the fragment that would complete the 12th edition, but I suspect you could feel it coming, like a future-loaded train barreling down an empty track.
Back to the hunt. “Get that damn cheetah!” she said to me, pointing at the beautiful, lithe cat we’d spotted lounging beneath an acacia tree. “That one, dammit! The one with spots!”
I took aim, clicked it left, and scared the shit out of a turkey vulture.
“It’s almost like you wanted to miss,” she observed, and God love her, she never missed anything.
A round of: “For fuck’s sake, Ed got a baboon!” “Fucking Christina stabbed a cattle egret! She fucking snuck up on it and STABBED IT through the fucking heart!” and “Did you see Rolf? He leapt from the roof of a moving jeep onto that wildebeest fucker’s back and shot it right in the fucking brain!”
Honestly, on a train outside of Gary, Indiana, I have a hard time remembering what I saw in her.
She was my Wallace and I was her Eng, but now she is nothing. No more sportswoman. No more Steve “The Poachman” van der Kloot. I can still hear both of you laughing at me, like the time that rhino scared me into throwing away my gun and running down to the river, but it [stings]2 less knowing that I delivered, on time, the manuscript of one of the world’s great classics of literature.
La dee fucking da indeed.
The following passage attempts to reconstruct the missing pieces of the previous fragment. It is the editors’ hope that the spirit of the original has been maintained, if not its accuracy. The terms within the brackets have been footnoted in order to highlight the uncertainty of their truth-value.
And that’s when it happened.
A truck carrying ten thousand bees had stalled on the tracks, somewhere west of Gary. The train ploughed into it and, like a bullet off a baobab, skipped the tracks and whipped its way through the trees.
The unnamed editor remembered (one assumes) watching his cowboy boots in fascination as they lifted into the air and kicked sparks off the ceiling.
Then he was out. All his shame and memories snuffed out like a wildebeest with a marksman on its head.
He woke outside, stumbling. He’d lost his hat, his satchel, and his safari vest had coffee and egg salad stains all over it (later blood and viscera).
But he was alive. He had survived. Take that, [ ]3 Steve!
He heard the buzz before the sting, the buzz he thought was a police helicopter.
Then it got louder, the stings got more frequent, and he realized the cloud around his brain wasn’t his troubled mind but bees, a giant cloud of buzzing, stinging bees.
He screamed and started running, like he always seemed to do when confronted by wildlife. Dizzy images of twisted trains and dazed passengers swam before his eyes, before ZAP! one of the [ ]4 got him on the eyeball.
The bees followed, stinging, zapping, buzzing, burning, as he ran into the woods.
Why me? he probably wondered, as part after part of him swelled.
Then he remembered: Water! Must find water!
Of course there was no water. Come to Gary, Indiana. It’s as arid as the [ ]5 Serengeti.
He saw her face then, (we can be sure), although it could have been the mass of swollen skin shuddering over his eyeballs.
Smack! He got one. Felt the tender husk of it flatten beneath his palm. And then Smack! he got another, juices squirting. Running through the woods, he found his rhythm, beating [ ]6 the bees, left and right. He felt the sting in his palms with each blow, hunk-of-meat hands pounding the [ ]7 to nothing.
After a while, he stopped running. Or maybe he couldn’t run. He held up his hands in the twilight, like two [ ]8 grapes with fingernails.
“La thee tha,” he said, to test his tongue.
He laughed then. Long and hard. He laughed for his woman and Rolf and Steve “the Poachman” van der Kloot. He laughed for Africa and Indiana and his crazy, stupid life, a life built on a manuscript a better man had written. He laughed for dead bees and stingers and the moon sitting like a cattle egret in the trees.
[ ]9 he said, cocky and alive.
He’d just slaughtered ten thousand bees with his bare hands!
Slumping to the ground, he considered his options. Medical care could wait. Maybe he’d go back to Africa, maybe he’d actually look for another job instead of living off his savings, maybe he’d Skype her and remind her of his publishing triumph. Maybe, maybe, maybe…bees, bees, bees…all buzzing in his head.
He used his fingers to open his eyes.
Grunting, snuffling, the bear approached.
Of-—[ ]10-—course, he thought, as it stood on hind legs in front of him, paw drawing back like a slingshot.
He shook his swollen head and sighed:
“La thee [ ]11-—”
Here ends the final account of the unnamed editor of the 12th Edition of Coleridge McClintock Eng’s Animalia. It has been doctored and treated with the care it deserves, rendering unto it a unity of vision and experience that it might not otherwise have possessed had it passed through a single pair of hands.
All mistakes, interpolations, and crudities are, of course, the fault of our editorial staff alone. It was a journey we could keep.
1 The insertion of “personality” into the man’s words and deeds should not detract from the austerity of his preoccupations with sexual impropriety, imperialism, moral peccadillos, textual scholarship, and animal behavior, concerns raised in the textual apparatus accompanying Eng’s manuscript. Although some scholars question the veracity of Eng’s commentary based upon the existence of the unnamed editor’s text, it is the opinion of our editors that the former could only have been written by the latter, despite their stylistic distinctions.
2 Retroactive editorial insertion
4 little fuckers (possibly bees)
6 the shit out of
7 little fuckers
9 “Thab that in the heart, Christhina!” Other than variations on “La dee da,” it is difficult to know what the unnamed editor said during his fateful ordeal. This is an approximation based on our best editorial judgment.
K.S. Phillips is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English—-Creative Writing—-at the University of South Dakota. He has an M.A. in Classics from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in Fiction from Louisiana State University. He has lived and worked in Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates. His fiction and essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines, including The Bryant Literary Review, CC&D Magazine, Hippocampus, The Dangling Modifier, and most recently, The North American Review (Torch Prize Winner 2017 for “Eight Hours, with Cow”). His novel-in-progress, The Mother of Dust, earned a finalist position at the Words and Music literary festival in New Orleans. His work deals with storytelling, home, and migrant spaces.