blackbirdonline journalFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Grammar for Seraphs

My grandfather once convinced me the world as we know it is upside down. Long ago, he said, soil carpeted the sky, the shrubs and grasses growing thick as trees stretched down, their limbs like bony fingers enticing little earthlings. In those days we walked on clouds, the mist always disappearing beneath our feet. Nobody knows how or when the world turned itself this way, but we’ve all forgotten what once was.

My grandfather heard this from his grandfather and probably his grandfather before him. For a poor Utah farm boy whose crowning achievement was being the three-time Davis County champion cherry picker, the thought of fruit dangling in the skies just out of reach must have been nightmarish. I remember his weird calisthenics in the basement, the strange contortions of his body he hoped would make him taller just in case the world decided to drift back into its natural inversion.

Whether Antoine van Leeuwenhoek enjoyed cherries is unknown, but he did place a drop of lake water under a microscope and was the first man to see the invisible worlds of bacteria and protozoans, a moment that might have felt like having the world turned upside down. Van Leeuwenhoek was a successful Dutch merchant, a specialist in buttons at a time when the Dutch Republic was an overcrowded wetland lacking mineral deposits and grains and fanaticism. But the nation trafficked in curiosity, and Van Leeuwenhoek was its patron saint.

The microscopic world remained invisible for so long because, before Van Leeuwenhoek and his contemporaries, few experimented with the riddling substance that is glass. Common green glass could be blown in any village, but to manufacture the translucent cristallo needed to magnify invisibilities required a sensationalistic tale of exile, assassination, espionage, treason, impersonation, and superstition. Soda from the Levant and Salicornia shrubs from Spanish salt marshes found their way to the remote island of Murano in the Mediterranean where they were heated into ash, mixed in clandestine proportions, then cooled, then heated again, and blown into glass, that strange fixed fluidity imitating ice and water, traveling a thousand miles to quiet Delft and into Van Leeuwenhoek’s hands where he heated broken bits under a lamp in order to draw out thin threads which, when twirled as they melted, would form spherical globules at the ends which could be grinded and polished into lenses. Van Leeuwenhoek had unlocked the secret: smallness to magnify smallness. The haberdasher spinning invisible worlds from fragile glass threads.

He subjected all manner of substances to the magnifying eye. Rainwater, phlegm, blood, semen, even the plaque scraped from between a neighbor’s teeth, thick as if ‘twere batter. What he discovered in the puddles and dental grime was a dizzying array of life at the edge of the visible. Floating particles spirally wound serpent-wise. Tiny creatures fashioned like a bell stirring leisurely. An unbelievably great company of animalcules very prettily a-swimming nimbly, their bodies bent into curves. What bliss, no doubt, to be microscopic and free. But then we would have to be nearly invisible and invertebrate, like prayers.

In 1702, Van Leeuwenhoek sprinkled a pinch of dust from his roof into a vial of boiling water. Placing it under the microscope, he witnessed a semi-translucent creature, eight legs with tiny claws at the end, the scrunched folds of skin hiding its face. From time to time its telescopic mouth would extend to suck juice from moss, algae, and lichen. Nearing the end of his life, we have no idea whether the father of microbiology was horrified or enchanted by this tiny monstrosity tumbling, somersaulting, swimming, floating with relish, plodding along without a care in the world. It would be nearly a century until a German pastor dabbling in zoology saw their likeness again and nicknamed the specimens “water bears.” But the name that stuck was tardigrade, Latin for “slow steppers.”

Despite measuring less than a millimeter, the tardigrade is ubiquitous throughout the biosphere, the Ryan Seacrest of the microscopic world. From Japanese hot springs and sub-zero Antarctic ice to Himalayan peaks and deep-sea caverns—the tardigrade lives and lives and lives. Starve them. Freeze them. Boil them. Fire them out of a gun at two thousand miles per hour. Pressurize them at levels that normally liquefy cell membranes. Bathe them in ultraviolet radiation that easily rips apart DNA. Jinx them with the avada kedavra curse. They live. The only known species to have survived all five mass extinction events.

Perhaps it was curiosity, or jealousy, or savagery when scientists decided tardigrades should be honorary cosmonauts. There were other unwilling aeronautical animal predecessors—chimps, rats, ducks, geese, eels, Laika the poor space dog, and the unfortunate geckos mummified during Russia’s microgravitic sex experiments—but only the tardigrades returned from direct exposure to the vacuum of space unscathed. Which might explain why nobody was very worried when tardigrades turned accidental castaways after a recent Israeli spacecraft carrying a host of experiments crashed on the moon. Are they alive? Probably, but unlikely to be organizing the Confederacy of Lunar Slow Steppers.

In 1697, as the Dutch Republic began to crumble, Van Leeuwenhoek met with the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, to discuss the invisible world. They spoke of blood and eels and glass, but probably didn’t talk about the indestructibility of tardigrades and definitely not about Koschei the Deathless, that beloved antihero of Slavic lore. Unlike the tardigrade who flaunts his impervious biology, to remain immortal Koschei removes his soul and hides it far away from his body. In a needle inside an egg inside of a duck buried in an iron chest on an island out at sea. As far as we know tardigrades tell no fairy tales of their own but, faced with inhospitable conditions, they perform a different kind of magic than poor Koschei and curl their plump bodies into a dehydrated husk, lowering their metabolism and secreting a protective gel over their organs until it turns to something akin to glass. In this hypnotic suspended animation known as a tun state, the tardigrade can survive months, decades, even centuries, waiting like Sleeping Beauty to awaken from its cryptobiotic slumber.

Tardigrades did not ask for such an elusive gift. Who would? Gilgamesh wandered the underworld but never found immortality. Paracelsus never divined the philosopher’s stone. Even now the so-called transhumanists scheme a human/android fusion so we might all dream of electric sheep. But there goes the lowly water bear, plodding slowly without a respiratory system thinking only water . . . water . . . water . . . oblivious to the magic that is its biology.

Three score and ten is too few to live, the scientists say, so like alchemical neophytes they’ve probed the humble tardigrade, peeled back its skin, harvested its fluids hoping it will reveal its invisibilities, hoping that with the tardigrade lie the secrets to making obsolete a world of prayers. Maybe this is why the tardigrade remains small. Maybe he believes his gift is a curse and is hiding from us, wary of spilling his secrets. After all, immortality is sad and perhaps the tardigrade curls into his little Zen-like trance praying to be fragile. Perhaps he’s heard rumors from those Arctic tardigrades about snowflakes so delicate they sublimate under the weight of themselves. Indestructibility has its virtues, but there are more fragile things in the world than indestructible ones, and thankfully so. Even Superman has kryptonite reminding us how delicate this human costume is.

Like amoebas, hyenas, and hummingbirds, the tardigrade has no word for God. But an omnipotent deity with a case of stage fright is not a requirement for there to be supplications, intercessions, and other cosmic pleas. It’s possible chupacabras, yetis, and snallygasters have such a word, because they are either the refugees of God’s laboratory or hiccups of evolution, but until we find such cryptids and decipher their alphabets we’ll have to go by faith.

Which is to say, in my experience, curling things pray. Why else would they curl? Not for fun. To curl is to seek. Few things willfully desire holiness, and in my experience, holiness is an act of contortion. Without that bending, that warping, that twisting that makes the bones ache, the body is upright, stiff—common. Which is to say, picture the tetrapod. With that strange middle ear that can hear terrestrial sounds her cousins cannot, now she lifts her head out of the water and steps cautiously out of the tidal flats. Now she slithers, stumbles, tries to walk, painstakingly turns fins into wings, loses limbs. Now she gasps, choking on air without lungs, swallowing that poison until her gut learns the trick of absorbing oxygen. Picture thirty million years in this contortion, this in between when she is neither this nor that, this fraction of a geological moment when she is most fragile, this is when the sounds leaving her lips are like a grammar for seraphs.

And while we’re addressing celestial entities, let’s return briefly to the moon which is a sad place, whether for angels or tardigrades. Gray, cratered, and sterile. A lifetime of shedding, a lifetime making its life from debris. Suspended in their rapturous tun state, the tardigrades shipwrecked from the Israeli spacecraft will never see the moon fountains. They will never see ionized sunlight sweeping across the lunar surface stirring up dust particles, ejecting fickle electrons causing the dust to lift into the sky in radiant columns, the dust slowing descending as the electrons return home before being orphaned once more, starting the cycle all over again. Rising and falling, falling and rising, servants to the light. Then again, tardigrades don’t need to see lunar electrostatic levitation because as castaways they are now part of that strange luminiferous ballet. Scattered among the dust they too pulse, pulse, pulse.

If my mother speaks of the moon, which is not often, she tells how her grandmother, too poor to buy her a birthday gift, sewed a dress from scraps of old dresses. She spent every day she could in that dress feeling like a princess. I can almost see when she washed it the first time, now snatching it from the clothesline before it was dry, now running through the neighborhood unaware the dress was coming unstitched at the seams, a little here a little there, and now my mother naked, Even the moon was laughing at me, she said as the Wasatch winds blew the scraps yard to yard, the fabric slipping between her fingers, as if they were only threads.

She will probably still be remembering this five billion years from now when the sun becomes a red giant, melting this corner of the universe and decaying the moon’s orbit which will cause that lonely dustbowl to spiral closer and closer to the earth until it is ripped apart into a ring of debris. Around that time the tardigrades will likely awaken, not with a kiss but with a sigh as they tumble upside down into the next immortality.

Until then they wait, dreaming of moss and snowflakes and all the other ephemeral things: pulsing, pulsing, pulsing, as they pray to awake one of us, one of the fragile things.  

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