A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (3 page)

I don’t know how best to break this to you, but Noah was not a nice man. I realize this idea is embarrassing, since you are all descended from him; still, there it is. He was a monster, a puffed-up patriarch who spent half his day grovelling to his God and the other half taking it out on us. He had a gopher-wood stave with which … well, some of the animals carry the stripes to this day. It’s amazing what fear can do. I’m told that among your species a severe shock may cause the hair to turn white in a matter of hours; on the Ark the effects of fear were even more dramatic. There was a pair of lizards, for instance, who at the mere sound of Noah’s gopher-wood sandals advancing down the companion-way would actually change colour. I saw it myself: their skin would abandon its natural hue and blend with the background. Noah would pause as he passed their stall, wondering briefly why it was empty, then stroll on; and as his footsteps faded the terrified lizards would slowly revert to their normal colour. Down the post-Ark years this has apparently proved a useful trick; but it all began as a chronic reaction to ‘the Admiral’.

With the reindeer it was more complicated. They were always nervous, but it wasn’t just fear of Noah, it was something deeper. You know how some of us animals have powers of foresight? Even
you
have managed to notice that, after millennia of exposure to our habits. ‘Oh, look,’ you say, ‘the cows are sitting down in the field, that means it’s going to rain.’ Well, of course it’s all much subtler than you can possibly imagine, and the point of it certainly isn’t to act as a cheap weather-vane for human beings. Anyway … the reindeer were troubled with something deeper than Noah-angst, stranger than storm-nerves;
something … long-term. They sweated up in their stalls, they whinnied neurotically in spells of oppressive heat; they kicked out at the gopher-wood partitions when there was no obvious danger – no subsequently proven danger, either – and when Noah had been, for him, positively restrained in his behaviour. But the reindeer sensed something. And it was something beyond what we then knew. As if they were saying, You think this is the worst? Don’t count on it. Still, whatever it was, even the reindeer couldn’t be specific about it. Something distant, major … long-term.

The rest of us, understandably enough, were far more concerned about the short term. Sick animals, for instance, were always ruthlessly dealt with. This was not a hospital ship, we were constantly informed by the authorities; there was to be no disease, and no malingering. Which hardly seemed just or realistic. But you knew better than to report yourself ill. A little bit of mange and you were over the side before you could stick your tongue out for inspection. And then what do you think happened to your better half? What good is fifty per cent of a breeding pair? Noah was hardly the sentimentalist who would urge the grieving partner to live out its natural span.

Put it another way: what the hell do you think Noah and his family ate in the Ark? They ate
us
, of course. I mean, if you look around the animal kingdom nowadays, you don’t think this is all there ever was, do you? A lot of beasts looking more or less the same, and then a gap and another lot of beasts looking more or less the same? I know you’ve got some theory to make sense of it all – something about relationship to the environment and inherited skills or whatever – but there’s a much simpler explanation for the puzzling leaps in the spectrum of creation. One fifth of the earth’s species went down with Varadi; and as for the rest that are missing, Noah’s crowd ate them. They did. There was a pair of Arctic plovers, for instance – very pretty birds. When they came on board they were a mottled bluey-brown in plumage. A few months later they started to moult. This was quite normal. As their summer feathers departed,
their winter coat of pure white began to show through. Of course we weren’t in Arctic latitudes, so this was technically unnecessary; still, you can’t stop Nature, can you? Nor could you stop Noah. As soon as he saw the plovers turning white, he decided that they were sickening, and in tender consideration for the rest of the ship’s health he had them boiled with a little seaweed on the side. He was an ignorant man in many respects, and certainly no ornithologist. We got up a petition and explained certain things to him about moulting and what-have-you. Eventually he seemed to take it in. But that was the Arctic plover gone.

Of course, it didn’t stop there. As far as Noah and his family were concerned, we were just a floating cafeteria. Clean and unclean came alike to them on the Ark; lunch first, then piety, that was the rule. And you can’t imagine what richness of wildlife Noah deprived you of. Or rather, you can, because that’s precisely what you do: you imagine it. All those mythical beasts your poets dreamed up in former centuries: you assume, don’t you, that they were either knowingly invented, or else they were alarmist descriptions of animals half-glimpsed in the forest after too good a hunting lunch? I’m afraid the explanation’s more simple: Noah and his tribe scoffed them. At the start of the Voyage, as I said, there was a pair of behemoths in our hold. I didn’t get much of a look at them myself, but I’m told they were impressive beasts. Yet Ham, Shem or the one whose name began with J apparently proposed at the family council that if you had the elephant and the hippopotamus, you could get by without the behemoth; and besides – the argument combined practicality with principle – two such large carcases would keep the Noah family going for months.

Of course, it didn’t work out like that. After a few weeks there were complaints about getting behemoth for dinner every night, and so – merely for a change of diet – some other species was sacrificed. There were guilty nods from time to time in the direction of domestic economy, but I can tell you this: there was a lot of salted behemoth left over at the end of the journey.

The salamander went the same way. The real salamander, I
mean, not the unremarkable animal you still call by the same name; our salamander lived in fire. That was a one-off beast and no mistake; yet Ham or Shem or the other one kept pointing out that on a wooden ship the risk was simply too great, and so both the salamanders and the twin fires that housed them had to go. The carbuncle went as well, all because of some ridiculous story Ham’s wife had heard about it having a precious jewel inside its skull. She was always a dressy one, that Ham’s wife. So they took one of the carbuncles and chopped its head off; split the skull and found nothing at all. Maybe the jewel is only found in the female’s head, Ham’s wife suggested. So they opened up the other one as well, with the same negative result.

I put this next suggestion to you rather tentatively; I feel I have to voice it, though. At times we suspected a kind of system behind the killing that went on. Certainly there was more extermination than was strictly necessary for nutritional purposes – far more. And at the same time some of the species that were killed had very little eating on them. What’s more, the gulls would occasionally report that they had seen carcases tossed from the stern with perfectly good meat thick on the bone. We began to suspect that Noah and his tribe had it in for certain animals simply for being what they were. The basilisk, for instance, went overboard very early. Now, of course it wasn’t very pleasant to look at, but I feel it my duty to record that there was very little eating underneath those scales, and that the bird certainly wasn’t sick at the time.

In fact, when we came to look back on it after the event, we began to discern a pattern, and the pattern began with the basilisk. You’ve never seen one, of course. But if I describe a four-legged cock with a serpent’s tail, say that it had a very nasty look in its eye and laid a misshapen egg which it then employed a toad to hatch, you’ll understand that this was not the most alluring beast on the Ark. Still, it had its rights like everyone else, didn’t it? After the basilisk it was the griffon’s turn; after the griffon, the sphinx; after the sphinx, the hippogriff. You thought they were all gaudy fantasies, perhaps? Not a bit of it. And do you see what they had in common? They were all crossbreeds.
We think it was Shem – though it could well have been Noah himself – who had this thing about the purity of the species. Cock-eyed, of course; and as we used to say to one another, you only had to look at Noah and his wife, or at their three sons and their three wives, to realize what a genetically messy lot the human race would turn out to be. So why should they start getting fastidious about cross-breeds?

Still, it was the unicorn that was the most distressing. That business depressed us for months. Of course, there were the usual sordid rumours – that Ham’s wife had been putting its horn to ignoble use – and the usual posthumous smear campaign by the authorities about the beast’s character; but this only sickened us the more. The unavoidable fact is that Noah was jealous. We all looked up to the unicorn, and he couldn’t stand it. Noah – what point is there in not telling you the truth? – was bad-tempered, smelly, unreliable, envious and cowardly. He wasn’t even a good sailor: when the seas were high he would retire to his cabin, throw himself down on his gopher-wood bed and leave it only to vomit out his stomach into his gopher-wood wash-basin; you could smell the effluvia a deck away. Whereas the unicorn was strong, honest, fearless, impeccably groomed and a mariner who never knew a moment’s queasiness. Once, in a gale, Ham’s wife lost her footing near the rail and was about to go overboard. The unicorn – who had deck privileges as a result of popular lobbying – galloped across and stuck his horn through her trailing cloak, pinning it to the deck. Fine thanks he got for his valour; the Noahs had him casseroled one Embarkation Sunday. I can vouch for that. I spoke personally to the carrier-hawk who delivered a warm pot to Shem’s ark.

You don’t have to believe me, of course; but what do your own archives say? Take the story of Noah’s nakedness – you remember? It happened after the Landing. Noah, not surprisingly, was even more pleased with himself than before – he’d saved the human race, he’d ensured the success of his dynasty, he’d been given a formal covenant by God – and he decided to take things easy in the last three hundred and fifty years of his life. He founded a village (which you call Arghuri) on the lower
slopes of the mountain, and spent his days dreaming up new decorations and honours for himself: Holy Knight of the Tempest, Grand Commander of the Squalls and so on. Your sacred text informs you that on his estate he planted a vineyard. Ha! Even the least subtle mind can decode that particular euphemism: he was drunk all the time. One night, after a particularly hard session, he’d just finished undressing when he collapsed on the bedroom floor – not an unusual occurrence. Ham and his brothers happened to be passing his ‘tent’ (they still used the old sentimental desert word to describe their palaces) and called in to check that their alcoholic father hadn’t done himself any harm. Ham went into the bedroom and … well, a naked man of six hundred and fifty-odd years lying in a drunken stupor is not a pretty sight. Ham did the decent, the filial thing: he got his brothers to cover their father up. As a sign of respect – though even at that time the custom was passing out of use – Shem and the one beginning with J entered their father’s chamber backwards, and managed to get him into bed without letting their gaze fall on those organs of generation which mysteriously incite your species to shame. A pious and honourable deed all round, you might think. And how did Noah react when he awoke with one of those knifing new-wine hangovers? He cursed the son who had found him and decreed that all Ham’s children should become servants to the family of the two brothers who had entered his room arse-first. Where is the sense in that? I can guess your explanation: his sense of judgment was affected by drink, and we should offer pity not censure. Well, maybe. But I would just mention this:
we
knew him on the Ark.

He was a large man, Noah – about the size of a gorilla, although there the resemblance ends. The flotilla’s captain – he promoted himself to Admiral halfway through the Voyage – was an ugly old thing, both graceless in movement and indifferent to personal hygiene. He didn’t even have the skill to grow his own hair except around his face; for the rest of his covering he relied on the skins of other species. Put him side by side with the gorilla and you will easily discern the superior
creation: the one with graceful movement, superior strength and an instinct for delousing. On the Ark we puzzled ceaselessly at the riddle of how God came to choose man as His protégé ahead of the more obvious candidates. He would have found most other species a lot more loyal. If He’d plumped for the gorilla, I doubt there’d have been half so much disobedience – probably no need to have had the Flood in the first place.

And the smell of the fellow … Wet fur growing on a species which takes pride in grooming is one thing; but a dank, salt-encrusted pelt hanging ungroomed from the neck of a negligent species to whom it doesn’t belong is quite another matter. Even when the calmer times came, old Noah didn’t seem to dry out (I am reporting what the birds said, and the birds could be trusted). He carried the damp and the storm around with him like some guilty memory or the promise of more bad weather.

There were other dangers on the Voyage apart from that of being turned into lunch. Take our species, for instance. Once we’d boarded and were tucked away, we felt pretty smug. This was, you understand, long before the days of the fine syringe filled with a solution of carbolic acid in alcohol, before creosote and metallic naphthenates and pentachlorphenol and benzene and para-dichlor-benzene and ortho-di-chloro-benzene. We happily did not run into the family Cleridae or the mite Pediculoides or parasitic wasps of the family Braconidae. But even so we had an enemy, and a patient one: time. What if time exacted from us our inevitable changes?

It came as a serious warning the day we realized that time and nature were happening to our cousin
xestobium rufo-villosum
. That set off quite a panic. It was late in the Voyage, during calmer times, when we were just sitting out the days and waiting for God’s pleasure. In the middle of the night, with the Ark becalmed and silence everywhere – a silence so rare and thick that all the beasts stopped to listen, thereby deepening it still further – we heard to our astonishment the ticking of
xestobium rufo-villosum
. Four or five sharp clicks, then a pause, then a distant reply. We the humble, the discreet, the disregarded
yet sensible
anobium domesticum
could not believe our ears. That egg becomes larva, larva chrysalis, and chrysalis imago is the inflexible law of our world: pupation brings with it no rebuke. But that our cousins, transformed into adulthood, should choose this moment, this moment of all, to advertise their amatory intentions was almost beyond belief. Here we were, perilously at sea, final extinction a daily possibility, and all
xestobium rufo-villosum
could think about was sex. It must have been a neurotic response to fear of extinction or something. But even so …

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