“I will give; I will enrich; I will return to the world this beauty.” — Virginia Woolf, The Waves
We had planned since December to drive to Saskatchewan at the end of the term to see the mammoths. We had saved every spare credit. We were not wealthy, doing whatever jobs could be done between classes and studying. By May we had enough. I purchased the subsonic from my uncle; he builds electric replicas of ancient gas-guzzlers, and offered me the white and turquoise 1958 Bel Air. The body and the colors met with the approval of the others and the engine specifications appealed to me. We made inn reservations well in advance, budgeted for food expenses, and set aside an emergency fund. We set a date, the fourth of June. I would drive the subsonic, picking up Cardie and Etha in Muskegon, then collecting Rota in Traverse City.
On June third I visited uncle Willy; I wanted him to go over the car one more time, see how the tires, brakes, and wiring looked. I arrived while he was making a sale on a Firebird replica to an older couple in wide-brimmed hats.
“Business good?” I asked when he’d finished. He assured me that people were still eating up the replicas. He was right, and it showed in the way Willy lived. The shop was a steel and glass framed job, unassuming, with rusty auto memorabilia going back hundreds of years. Although the shop seemed quaint I knew some of that memorabilia was worth thousands of credits, and his home was just as well-furnished, built in the gleaming Googie style.
“No art in a modern car, Jasper. All black and copper bullets on wheels. 1900s, 2300s, those people knew a few things about bodies. You biologists think you know everything about a body. You say everything we like about a woman, her hips, tits, rosy red cheeks, are all a just sign she’s healthy; it’s all selection. Maybe. When you see the way that Bel Air shines in the sun and you know it’ll get you to cross a continent and back. But there’s something more than that too.” His point trailed off as he opened up the mouth and looked inside. I nodded, a little uncomfortable with the comparison of women to cars. He began explaining the process again, of visiting museums, remnant landfills, three-dimensional scanning.
“You replicate the parts in a steel-printer from the scanned model, piece them together and do a paint job. Only thing missing in the end is the way it sounds, and you can get a whisky-burner if you want to hear it roar.”
Willy inserted two metal objects the size and shape of an eye in the front under the hood, and two below the back tires. These performed a diagnostic. My uncle preferred using his own eyes, but some parts of the car cannot be looked into without the aid of science. He rubbed the tips of his fingers against his shirt and pulled a screen from his pocket, shielding it from the sunlight with one hand while he viewed the readout from the metal eyes. Of course, there were the brakes, which he tested himself, and the tires, which he rotated, all the time explaining how each piece was cast in metal, hundreds of years ago, by men in long lines, pulling the levers of massive machines, hours and hours of labor, building one after another after another.
“They had a dream, and we live half in it, and half in another. They hoped they could handcraft machines to craft for us. Now we have so we can attend to the work no machine can rightly do.” He handed me the key.
That night I resented my life-long inability to sleep before a trip, before a date, before Yule. The adrenaline, mixed with the activity of planning inside my brain, forced my eyes open. My thoughts turned to the lecture hall when I first heard the story of the mammoths. I knew that we, with spears and dogs, had helped drive them from the earth. Blasts of cold preserved others, and a warming world held no place for them. Thousands of years later, in the days of those original cars, we used the earth without care, spread life from one extreme location to another, and thus spread death. We awoke to our carelessness with the sharp guilt of a pressurized morning after a drunken night to find the number of lifeforms had sharply dropped. Dr. Larson had said it was in the dawn of this human hangover, in April 2015, that we pieced together the genome of the mammoth, the gargantuan symbol of all we had done to the earth. Then we chose to ignore.
We lost nearly every frog, every rhinoceros, so many cats, until at last the Russians, the Americans, and the Canadians began to apologize to the mammoth.
Slow, gradual changes, insertions of DNA sequences, selective breeding of Asian elephants over hundreds of years produced a small population of genetic woolly mammoths.
Preservation laws were passed immediately. “We had to be reminded of all we had taken,” Dr. Larson told us. That day the sun was streaming in from the east, blinding some, and casting a hard glare on the professor’s face. His thin white hair seemed luminous, the wisps he’d forgotten to comb were like angel wings. He imparted to us the good news: harming a mammoth was punishable by death. A tooth for a tusk. “Pachyderms reproduce extremely slowly, and woolly mammoths even more so because of the longer gestation periods, often having only five offspring in a lifetime. We knew naturally building a sustainable population would require centuries more. Only now is the public allowed to view the mammoths in their feeding grounds in southern Canada.”
The seed of pilgrimage was planted inside me. The hope and excitement pushed me toward the slender, platinum-haired girl across the aisle. I learned her name was Rota, and she knew my friend Etha, one of the “poets in love,” as I called her and Cardie, my friends from the humanities. That connection was too perfect and so we made the pact.
Oak and birch forests, lined our drive along the western coast of Michigan. We played word games, pointed out ruins of factories and hotels, remnants of the logging industry and tourism. We spent the first night at an inn in Duluth, under the shadows of ancient pines. We split one room. We drank cider and wondered how large the mammoths would be compared to us, if they were really exactly the same as the mammoths of 20,000 years ago. I kissed Rota for the first time.
I spent the second day of the drive in a rested high of what I knew to be oxytocin. I smiled. I laughed at every joke shared. I insisted we played music. The Pop tunes of Nicholo were beamed down to us from satellites orbiting low in space.
The way you look tonight
The way I feel tonight
Just you and me tonight
O tell me who-oo-oo
Tell me who
who brought the love gods down?
Etha laughed. “Not a big vocabulary that one. But̄̄⎯⎯⎯”
I smirked and chimed in, hoping to incite Etha and Cardie into a full deconstruction. “When you feel the ‘oo-oo-oo’ you don’t need words.”
Except that was true and I felt oddly certain that, as generic as the lyrics were, I and I alone was seeing through the mask to Nicholo’s true self. I knew it is a feeling shared by anyone driven by hormones: attraction, a feeling of centrality and singularity in the Universe. Now, because I was the one feeling it I could no longer blame the bad writing. Surprisingly, neither did Cardie.
“It’s really quite clever what he’s doing there, Jasper. You think he’s being sentimental, the whole classical thing: Cupid and Venus have descended and the room is bathed in their presence and of course he’s feeling these feelings.”
“But that’s wrong,” added Etha.
“Wrong?” asked Rota.
“Right, because good old Nicholo said it’s ‘just you and me.’ Really he is referencing Shakespeare. ‘If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer: his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods.’ Nicholo, brilliant Nicholo, goes beyond that. The two do it all on their own. They literally brought down the love gods in a Wagnerian triumph.”
“Seems bleak,” said Rota.
“Not really,” Etha replied. “We’re capable. We’re self sufficient. We’re celebrating these wonderful feelings.”
“But then heaven is empty.”
“Sure, but all the angels are here.”
The preserve is only accessible by a narrow dirt road which veers north and west from our second night’s stay in Regina Saskatchewan. The park extends west, in a wide swath of prairie and spruce sandwiched between Edmonton and Calgary, until it meets the Pacific Ocean. We were assured that the mammoths kept themselves within the eastern portion and had been spotted by area biologists only the other morning.
Although unfenced, the preserve is gated and guarded at all its roads and monitored by satellite. At the gate Rangers searched the Bel Air and passed us through the gate. The subsonic crawled along the road and the light of the sun went dim as it passed under the high and ancient second growth spruces and firs. I had been driving quickly for too long but now I could enjoy the view, the way the trees absolutely towered. Rota’s long nose was pressed against the window, her lashes brushed over the glass and she smiled.
The ground began to sink down and the trees became more sparse. The sun was tipping into its afternoon descent. I held Rota’s hand and searched for the glint of light off some body of water as we drove in the seemingly endless space. I knew the word for what I was feeling, longing, one of the words that signifies that perhaps we are more than chemicals and wiring. What survival benefit is there in longing to see the mammoths? I could think of none.
I found a river and began to follow it. Moose drank from the river; geese, vultures, and a pair of swans flew over us. The river bent around, picking up speed as the sun sank faster. All time seemed to be speeding as we moved up toward the crest of the hill.
They looked like dark cairns from the distance. Lumps of shadow. We parked at once and exited the car. Rota, who had kept the binoculars on her lap, raised them to her face. She laughed and let her mouth hold open before passing the lenses to Cardie, then to Etha, and at last myself. Before I put the binoculars up to my face I did my best to make out with my weak student’s eyes the shape of the head, the slope of the back. Rusty haystacks. Probably two hundred mammoths were moving slowly away from us toward the northwest.
Through the lenses I focused my vision on a large female. I began to notice the details: her tiny ears, the dexterity of her trunk as it curled around the woody wildflowers and yanked them up toward her small mouth. I shifted to the right. Several mothers and calves were crossing the stream, which frothed and clung to their fur, not so thick as I had imagined. The coat was almost glossy, a summer length. The young ones were bright eyed and trotted up to the water before gingerly crossing, urged on by the gentle pressure of the mother’s tusks.
We sat on the hood of the Bel Air, sharing food and water, watching the whole herd go past us on the crest of the hill, until the bulls, massively tusked, brought up the rear, russet fur radiant in the sunset. The last one moved beyond our vision and we exhaled.
The ride back to Regina was spent mostly in silence as was the next day’s drive to Duluth. I was driving slower. We played music until one of us was annoyed, then we would wait and try again. Rota, affectionate the whole trip before, now hugged the binoculars and constantly glanced out the window, only occasionally placing her hand on top of mine. It had not been disappointing, only incomplete.
We stopped for dinner in a small regional diner, eating, in silence. Afterward, as we started for the subsonic once more, Rota grabbed my sleeve. “Look! Can we see it?” She was pointing at a sign high above the road: Jefferson’s Grotto. I looked at Cardie and Etha. They shrugged. “Sure.”
The grotto was a bit to the north, the result of volcanos, glaciation, and a river. Eventually, the river had gone another direction, leaving a pool fed by rivulets. I walked around to the base of one of the walls, cautiously following the water’s edge. There were falls somewhere. I heard Etha sharply call “Cardigan Applebee!” and I turned round to see Cardie taking a swig from the remaining cider. He shrugged and passed the bottle to Etha who rolled her eyes and drank. Rota had already walked into the water. She dipped her hand into it and placed it against a dry patch of rockwall.
Within an hour or so we were all tipsy. We began to talk about the things we had seen. We joked and splashed and cussed and blessed the mammoths. We painted ourselves with mud and drew outlines of our hands with bits of wet sandstone.
Dusk turned into darkness and we didn’t want to leave. Rota ran back to grab a light. I saw her shriek and fall and scream out one clear expletive. I was beside her, helping her up. Cardie drunkenly maneuvered his way to the subsonic and returned with a light. A sharp rock cut a gash along Rota’s shin. She looked at it and laughed, wiping her fingers along the cut and tapping them together until they were tacky.
“I’m fine. I’m fine. There’s a first aid kit in the trunk?”
I nodded my head and Cardie went back for the kit.
Rota squirmed away from me like an otter and moved back to the wall, leaning against it, running her finger over it, using her blood to paint a shape. A mammoth. She bent down, taking more blood to fill in the outline. Etha came to her, using sandstone to draw two calves following behind. Cardie returned, cleaning and bandaging, Etha soothing her with art.
I watched and understood what the anthropologists mean when they talk about worship. Wonder must be digested and replicated. I must admit, before I saw the mammoths painted in blood, I would have agreed with Plato: art is a shadow on the wall of a shadow on the wall, only a measure of one’s talent to copy. My uncle’s cars, the mammoths— simply reflections of things which had been and passed away. Now I see they are something more. They are the work no machine can rightly do, a response, higher than admiration, something like gratitude. God was beauty; art was worship.