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Hunting unicorns - Part I

From the LabLit short story series

Henry Gee 15 September 2013

Wouldn’t we rather dissemble, and say that it was a species of something as yet unknown to science, or even a fraud?

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the first episode of a two-part story by Henry Gee. Use the navigation tool above right to access Part II.

In such conditions,” I read, “we would be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was. We know that such and such an animal with a mane is a horse and that such and such an animal with horns is a bull. But we do not know what the unicorn is like.”

How very like Borges to put his finger on the problem, I thought, as I put the printout of his essay Kafka And His Precursors on my nightstand and curled up under the duvet, trying – as I always did – to imagine the postdoc down the hall from my cubbyhole in the University Zoology Museum with no clothes on. Anything to fight the constant Cambridge chill. Alice, her name was. I was in the first year of a Ph.D. She was a junior postdoc, so she was four or five years older than me. More experienced, no doubt. Lovely smile. Not conventionally pretty – which only made her sexiness more – well, sexy. Absolutely unattainable. My brain took a stroll through the possibilities. Warmth claimed me.

I found the rogue specimen in just another drawerful of fossils. My doctorate supervisor had collected the material back in the 1960s. It all came from a layer of loam three or four metres down the side of a drainage channel they were excavating in the fens, spread over a section more than a kilometre long. It had all been catalogued and curated, long ago, but my supervisor had never quite gotten round to describing it. That was my job. Or part of it. The rest of it was looking at a lot of other collections in museums up and down the country. Making large-scale connections about ecological change in Britain, deep in the Last Cold Stage.

As far as I could tell, all but a hundred of the fifteen hundred or so specimens came from an extinct species of bison, Bison priscus. You could tell from the horns. A lot of the other bones were hard (read impossible) to tell from the bones of the aurochs, the ancestor of modern cattle, but some valiant souls had come up with some characteristics, some metrics. Subtle differences in proportion. Will-o’-the-Wisp differences in shape between this articular facet and that.

It often amazed me how hard it was to tell the difference between the bones of bison and aurochs, both species with plenty of well-known relatives alive today. Working with dinosaurs must be a pig. And some of those creatures from the Cambrian, more than 500 million years ago, that looked like nothing on Earth. Literally, like nothing on Earth, as if they were alien. Hallucigenia, named after nightmares. Opabinia, a shrimp threaded through a vacuum cleaner. With teeth. Sly, enigmatic, Cheshire-cat calling cards from the deep past. How little, how very little, we really knew about the past. Even the past that was close to home, no more than, say, 50,000 years ago. Sounds like a long time ago, no? Take the notion of recorded history and stretch it to its limits. Then multiply it by ten. But to a Cambrian specialist, the Ice Age is so much topsoil.

What of those remaining hundred specimens in the collection? Those that weren’t bison? Eighty were shed reindeer antlers, all but one from bull reindeer – showing that herds of reindeer spent the autumn and winter in the Lapp-like tundra that was now Cambridgeshire. The final twenty relics were in the bottom-most drawer. This was hard to get at, and squeaked horribly when I pulled it out. It had been a long time since anyone had oiled the runners, or looked at the specimens within. I remember the whiff of glycerol hardening agent that wafted forth when I succeeded in wrenching the drawer free. I loved that smell. I knew I’d remember it evermore as the smell of museums.

Sixteen of the twenty specimens – tiny, delicate bones, stained by time to a gorgeous nut-brown shade – came from one exquisite skeleton of a wolf, Canis lupus. That left four specimens, each in its own pasteboard box, and they were, in order of catalogue number:

The left half of the jawbone of an arctic fox, Alopex lagopus, containing a canine and an incisor.

A single second phalanx (toe bone) of a wild horse, Equus ferus.

A single lamella (plate) from a tooth of a woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius.

A fragment of a molar tooth of a woolly rhinoceros, Coelodonta antiquitatis.

Thus endeth the catalogue. No specimens missing, none out of place. This was curious in itself, for over the course of almost half a century, you’d expect some specimens to have been borrowed, put on exhibition, whatever; some to have been mislabelled, miscounted, misplaced. I’d seen dozens of collections, and there were always anomalies, errors, boojums, scraps, things that couldn’t be identified. This collection proved no different. For, hiding at the back of the drawer was one specimen that didn’t have a label, and wasn’t in the catalogue. It was the distal-most thirty centimetres (that is, the pointy end) of the straight, tapering horn of … something. It lay there, in a long, narrow, government-issue pasteboard box, ivory white, twisted in a tight helix. I swore it shone at me.

I took the specimen in its box out of the drawer for a closer look. This is something I’d take upstairs to my office – away from the hidden depths of the zoology museum stacks, and into the cool light of day.

But first I had to do the necessaries. Having been trained in the propriety of such things, I tore a leaf from my notebook, wrote details of the temporary removal of a specimen, signed and dated it, and put it back in the drawer. I also made a note in the catalogue, of a specimen without a number, distal segment of horn or antler, unidentified species, unknown provenance.

As I scribbled, it occurred to me that writing a note about the removal of an uncatalogued specimen without any details about its identity or where it came from was rather like saying that I hadn’t seen the Invisible Man. In formal terms, a specimen without a label is useless to science. Borges would have seen through this utilitarian slogan. He’d have asked whether an uncatalogued, unprovenanced specimen really existed. If a specimen is uncatalogued, removed, and its removal subsequently noted, does it exist any more, or less?

Specimen in hand, pointing in front of me like a magic wand, I climbed the concrete back stairs to the austere ground-floor corridor of the Museum, towards my office. The corridor was narrow. Waist-high bookshelves on one side with noticeboards above made it even narrower, so people couldn’t pass one another without physical contact unless one of them stopped and flattened themselves against the wall.

I bumbled along, looking at the specimen, not where I was going, and brushed against Alice, coming the other way. I felt the sudden, soft recoil of female flesh, a curl of hair against my face, saw the flash of a smile. “Careful where you point that thing, tiger!” she said, and she was gone. My spotty skin flushed to the roots of my greasy hair. I resolved to start eating better (late-night lab sessions relieved by hurried snacks from the kebab van were beginning to take their toll) and looked round just as Alice flitted round the corner to her own office, which, entirely by coincidence, she shared with my supervisor.

And him? He was a sixty-something Professor who had lately taken more of an interest in active research after years of seeming indolence. He tended to stay late in the lab, anyway. It hadn’t gone unremarked that since Alice had arrived, he didn’t invariably disappear after the three-thirty tea break.

I sighed and turned away. I’d spin out the memory of the fleeting press of her body for many nights of comforting fantasy.

As a mere rookie graduate student, I was lucky to have an office all to myself. In truth, it could only ever have accommodated one person, and then, only just. It was afterthought more than office, a narrow space wedged between two larger rooms. The pipes and ducts that ran across the bare ceiling spoke to its origins as more of an inspection chamber than as a place for academic contemplation. It had no window. It was, however, warm, which more than made up for the dust and the dark. I cleared a place for the specimen from the usual drifts of paper and clutter on my narrow desk. I swung the low-power binocular microscope around for a better look. The specimen looked just the same, only bigger. The same mystery, in sharp relief.

I twisted the specimen in the bright, slanting light next to the microscope stage, my eyes following the helix as it wound from its broken end, ever tighter, towards the tip. As I did so, I reflected on Borges. We all think we know what a unicorn is like, but our sources are unreliable, medieval bestiaries and fairy stories. Would we be able to recognise one, if we came across it in reality? And what if we had just a piece of a unicorn, even if that piece were its diagnostic, signature feature – its horn, an object of fabulous price by virtue of its supposed medicinal properties? Would we be able to look at the thing and say, straight off, that it was a unicorn? Wouldn’t we rather dissemble, and say that it was a species of something as yet unknown to science, or even a fraud? How much evidence would we need to be convinced that we’d found the unicorn of legend? As Borges says, we don’t really know what a unicorn is like.

Confronted with this specimen, though, I could at least identify more prosaic targets for elimination. The record of large mammals in Britain during the Ice Age is spotted with oddities – horns of various kinds of gazelle, antelope and wild goat, whose place in the great scheme of things had not been adequately settled, mostly because they were unique specimens, and too fragmentary for a proper comparison.

Perhaps this specimen came from one of these. If this sounds unlikely for the Ice Age, note that the Ice Age covered a multitude of climates. Though Britain was mostly fairly cold, there were some dramatically warm interludes, when lions chased elephants across what is now Trafalgar Square, and hippos basked as far north as the River Tees. So, yes, there was time and space enough in Britain for all kinds of exotica nowadays confined to warmer parts of the world, or entirely extinct.

Back downstairs in the museum basement was a kind of common room-cum-informal lab where the lab technicians usually hung out. Along one wall was a huge rack of hunting trophies, mounted horns and antlers, relics of a more imperial phase in the Museum’s acquisition strategy, when the collection policy for very rare species was to go out and shoot one before it became extinct.

I resolved to take a look, there and then. Happily, I didn’t bump into Alice, or anyone else, so nobody minded my ferreting around in the trophy collection, even climbing on a chair to get a better look at some of the more inaccessible specimens, mounted high up on the wall and out of reach. After half an hour of sweating, straining, climbing up and down, removing specimens and replacing them, the enormous snouts of elk and bison threatening to dislodge me from my precarious perch, I decided that my specimen did not come from anything in our very extensive collection.

It did not come from any addax, nilgai, topi or kob; any gnu, bok, kudu, pudu, anoa, gaur, saiga, kouprey, nyala, impala or oryx, nor indeed any member of the extant fauna whose names were probably more familiar to scrabble players than most zoologists. In fact, it looked qualitatively different from any ungulate horn in the collection. I’d had a long-standing appointment with the Natural History Museum in London to study their more extensive collections, ostensibly to chase down the identity of a mysterious half-million-year-old fossil horn known as Caprovis savini, discovered a century ago and never studied since. But in my heart, I knew this wasn’t that, either. So, where next?

It was then I had a brainwave. This horn – its straightness, the evenness of its coils – I felt I’d seen something like it before. And I had, in a wildlife documentary. It could be the horn not of anything that lived on land, but of a narwhal, a kind of whale that lived in the Arctic Ocean.

Back in my office I made myself a brew, sat back in my threadbare chair and let my fingers do the walking. A quick google dug up more than I ever wanted to know about narwhals – even that their long, helically coiled horns were often sold as unicorn horns in ages past.

But they weren’t horns, they were tusks. Hugely extended canine teeth. This explained why my specimen didn’t seem quite the same thing as an antelope horn, and why it shone. Being, basically, a tooth, it was covered in shiny enamel, which antelope horns never are. (As for unicorn horns – who knew? They could be made of solid gold, for all anyone could say.) The web gave me a wide selection of images of narwhal tusks, but none seemed to fit the specimen in my hand. The pitch of the thread of the coil in my specimen was much tighter than the leisured twirls of narwhal tusks. But narwhal tusks varied hugely in size, shape, and, indeed thread. I needed to see a representative selection of real narwhal tusks. A search of our museum’s online catalogue showed that we had none. The Natural History Museum in London had some, but I really needed to see a lot more than a few. But even then, the Borgesian voice in my mind seemed to say, how many narwhal tusks would you need to eliminate the narwhal from your search? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? Could the specimen not be just an odd kind of narwhal? I was stuck. There had to be another way.

On my way home I called in at the kebab van. Later, I found – not for the first time – that a semi-digested doner with chili sauce makes for a lumpy mattress. So, rather than subsiding into the desired Alice-related fantasy, my sleep was confused by dreams in which I scaled a mountainside of bones and antlers in search of something I couldn’t describe. I woke up just before I’d put my finger on it. A cup of tea in the dawn’s light settled me down considerably. Ah, Alice.

And then it hit me. I sat up. She could be the key to all this. She could help me find the answer. Ah! Alice!

To be continued…

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