Zapata

A dream is the origin of all things—the first creatures, the first man, the first story ever told.

Last year, my older brothers wanted to climb a mountain with me. We are all in our old age now and some of the ones between have since passed. The idea came from our father, really, who wanted always to climb a mountain with his sons. The time never came, unfortunately, because people are stubborn and the imagined and the ideal is rarely preferred over practical matters.

But this, and this is why I am writing this, is the saddest thing about dreams. Who will be there to tend our dreams when we have stopped tending them? It is hard to believe in really anything when we stop blowing life into the fires of the invisible worlds inside of us. I for one have in my old age decided to hold fast to the dreams inside me, hold fast for dear life. When my dreams perish, I am afraid my belief might perish with them.

So this is why we went. We were far into our hundred years and admittedly it was quite a surprise to all three of us that we had made it this far. The other family members for some reason did not have built in them this stubborn durability that, long after the moment I preferred dying, kept me here on earth.

The mountain chosen was Mount Ébrus which formed over Boston for some complex geologic reason during the earthquake that shook the whole world. It is a new and popular mountain to climb for the younger generations of Americans, especially because the rocks on the northern slope form very natural steps. Before climbing, I asked David if we should scout the route digitally.

“It’s constantly updated by younger climbers,” I said.

“No, man” he said, “that’s lame. We got to forge a path ourselves!”

He made me nervous. In fact, it was the tendencies of my older brothers that made me nervous about the entire thing. There was nothing for me to fear about climbing a mountain with natural steps and that had as its track record no fatalities. I had hoped to provide myself at least some assurance by seeing the route virtually on my computer, but even that was denied me.

Nathan was silent, because those we have discovered who live longer than all the rest suffer from strange processes. Nathan’s mouth had slowly been covered over by a thin layer of skin which unfurled from his lips like drapery untied. He communicated with writing and mumbles that were easily understood as either “yes” or “no.”

If you wonder why he did not get some surgery to fix this, like all the rest of the young Americans seem to be getting these days, he had. He had gotten the surgery and his lips like drapery were tied back up again, only for them in his sleep to fall back over his mouth and bind with one another in the center as a hard, keratin knot. I will spare you remaining details about this anomaly, as well as the biological errors incurred by me and Dave’s protracted senescence. It is not a testimony for nature but a testimony against nature that with decline we gain bonus features that in no means supplement our functionality. We have known this about age for a long time, but it is always presented to us as some natural fixture. In fact nature acts quite unnaturally in my mind and in the case of Nathan’s lips, overrides the purpose of a structure once invented.

Mount Ébrus and Grant State National Park

In order to go get to Mount Ébrus—may it live long, that mighty giant that with its heavy base swept the floor clean of human accretion—we had to go through the swamp that is Grant State National Park. Now Grant State National Park, a nature preserve managed jointly by the state of M———- and the Big State, used to be one of the most beautiful parks in America. It still provides a tremendous view of the Atlantic. And we saw the green waters rise in pyramidal waves as if someone had slammed a fist on the table and shaken the water in the cup of the ocean.

Now Grant Park is a swamp because of the waters that rose after the earthquake that shook the whole world. People do not go there anymore, except zoologists to inspect the zapatas that have overrun the place.

People did not know zapatas existed before the earthquake, nor now that we know do we know where they came from. I have a personal fondness for the things and our trek through Grant Park was the first time I had ever encountered them.

The swamp water of Grant Park came up to my shins and I had to wear rain boots over my hiking shoes in order to get through. But the zapatas were everywhere in the water. I was afraid of stepping on them. You could not see all of them, because of the yellow of the water. The oaks and the maples shook their dying branches above us. Their half-naked branches provided little shade and the zapatas hid under the shade provided by the combovers of submerged long grass.

Natural History of Zapata testimoniensis

No one knows the real origins of Zapata testimoniensis. They just showed up in the park one day. They have no real predators besides the feet of hikers making their way to Mount Ébrus. You really do try hard to be careful and not smash the things under your feet, but you also think to yourself, “The loss of two or three zapatas never hurt a fly.”

Indeed, it would do the flies some good, because that is their primary diet.

Zapatas look like little winged turtles. They have four long, transparent wings that come from under the curve of their shell which resemble those of a dragonfly. They are, however, quite longer and make a huge racket. When they get water on their wings, it’s no big deal. The water is cast quickly off their wings during flight, spitting droplets everywhere.

Zapatas take flight from under the water, or rather, they jump out of water for a moment and immediately begin their zinging zip into the sky. It is lovely to hear one or two take flight, but to hear hundreds take flight ceaselessly, like it is in certain parts of Grant Park, is a terrifying and loathsome thing to witness.

A mature zapata can weigh a little over one pound, but sproutlings might weigh when they are birthed a mere ounce. Male zapatas are longer than their female counterparts and are about three inches long. Females, on the other hand, never get longer than two inches. The main body of a zapata is like a long, scaled lizard, but with a big shell resting on its back in apparent comedy.

Males are darker in color. A deep gold goes down their backs from their beaks to the ends of their stubby tails, surrounded by a dirty brown. Their shells are dark brown, almost black, and have little red spots on them as if someone had flecked a bunch of red paint at them from a distance with a brush. White markings in humanlike geometry define the segments of their shells.

Females have smaller shells that are much less interesting. They are plain old brown, but their bodies however are a gorgeous white, whiter than any mom on earth could bleach them. When they fly, males and females alike, they make their tails rigid and extend their squat fingers outward.

Their beaks are elegant, but short. No one has seen a zapata hide inside its shell. As a result, we do not know if it is possible for them to get their bodies and their wings to fit inside their shells. It might merely be that zapatas are not as shy as other turtles, or as defensive. They have no need to hide inside their shells, because they are never threatened and to be frank, as I mentioned, their only predator of human feet will not very much be stopped by their thin shells.

It is a terrible sound to hear the crackle of a zapata’s shell when you step on it. The guilt that washes over you is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. I feel so bad about it. I never look down, because I fear what I will see, but I do always apologize. It is typical for young climbers going through Grant Park to cross themselves whenever they hear that crackle.

Nevertheless, even though we feel guilty about it, zapatas themselves are not pitiable and weak things. They are quite aggressive. Of course the personalities will vary even within a given population, but in general, zapatas go out with much gusto in pursuit of their primary food of flying insects.

Zapatas can chomp with their beaks, which hurts like hellfire, but they catch their food primarily with their long, quick, sticky tongues. The tongues of a chameleon. This is why it is customary for climbers going through Grant Park to wear full masks and long sleeves, because there is nothing like the lash of a zapata tongue against your skin. Many climbers have come out of Grant Park partially blind because some tongue stabbed their eye. You really have to go into Grant Park wearing the getup of a beekeeper, though you are not keeping bees, but trying not to step on turtles. Unfortunately, there is no other way to get to Mount Ébrus unless you got flown in.

Like I said, not much is known about zapatas. We do know even at a glance is that they have a kind of symbiotic relationship with the picnic tables in Grant Park. They use the tops of the picnic tables as communal nurseries where all the little sproutlings with their thumbtack-sized shells bask and grow from the sun rays and where they are easily accessible to their parents who feed them. They crawl all over each other and, though they cannot fly with their curled preemie wings, can get across the table with rapid movements.

I made a huge mistake in the first few moments we got into Grant Park. I really did not want to step on them, but I could not see just how many of them were in the water. Luckily, zapatas seem to recognize the presence of approaching feet and so it is usual that dozens of zapatas might take flight right in front of you. Others seem to be more stubborn, or don’t care to move anyway, and those are the ones you step on. If you were really careful, you might splash the water in front of you in hopes that they all get out of the way, but you really can never be too sure. For they dig themselves under the soft mud of the swamp and are hid quite well with their dark shells.

Anyway, a zapata flew right towards me bit me on the arm. I jumped onto one of the picnic tables, not knowing that the little ones were there, and stepped on a number of them. That only aggravated the zapata mommies. They had apparently been watching in scores from the water. All the sudden, I was surrounded by them and they were shooting their rigid tongues against me. The bruises they left were extraordinary.

I finally jumped off the table and the mothers left me alone, but that is a story I will never forget.

Zapata testimoniensis is so named by the natural theologians.

I do want to mention before I leave what I feel is the lesson Zapata testimoniensis teaches us. And that is that they are not a testimony of nature, but a testimony against it. For nature seemed to say, “Turtles cannot fly.” And the first zapata said, “Watch this.”

It seems like God formed them not out of the dust of the earth, but out of swamp itself. God seemed to say, against nature, that this simply must exist.

It is strange how nature seems to be against itself, how it presents to us some general pattern for our consideration and then in other moments those within nature, the zapatas and humans and all the others who shock us, say, “No, not this time.”

But I need to go now, it is time. May someone contemplate the significance inherent here and may this entire story be a testimony to the potency of dreams.

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