On Navarino Island off the coast of Chile, Marta mops outside the tyrannosaurus habitat as the tourists press in to see the dinosaurs.
They come with their reluctant children in tow. They weave their fingers through chicken-wire fences and gaze down into open pits while the kids tug at their legs and demand ice cream. Outside the tyrannosaurus pen, the children snub the King of Lizards and chase the gulls instead.
For these children, there has never been a world without dinosaurs.
Inside their sunken habitats, the thunder lizards browse among replica ferns and preen their plumage, geneticist’s pride and janitor’s bane. At night Marta descends the slopes and collects feathers by the binful.
As the tourists wend their way toward the exit, the parents will confess to one another that the dinosaurs were not what they expected. Not the green-scaled dragons of their youth, which they shaded in coloring books and treasured on T-shirts and on lunch boxes. Not the wise-faced apatosaurus with artful vegetation clenched in its jaws. The beasts were extraordinary, they will add, but they were not otherworldly. It is as if they have revisited a childhood home and found the rooms shrunken, the lawn fenced, the woods dispossessed of sprites.
In the resurrection of the dinosaurs, something else has gone extinct.
As Marta mops outside the tyrannosaurus enclosure, the elderly zookeeper guides her tour through the exhibit, expounding upon prehistory in rapid English. Marta feels within herself a deep pining, an intense ache, a desire for more than dung and plumage and discarded gum.
In Russian, there is a word for this feeling, toska, for which there is no perfect translation.
Opportunities are scarce for natives on the island. Marta’s mother spends her days making traditional Yaghan baskets for tourists who want something exotic for the mantle at home. Her father wears a reproduction loincloth and squats in a reproduction shelter in the Heritage Village so that visitors can understand what Charles Darwin meant when he called the Yaghans savages. Darwin couldn’t comprehend how civilized people slept naked in near-freezing temperatures.
Marta takes her lunch in the employee break room, where a flyer has been taped to the wall. Open interviews on Monday morning for the retiring zookeeper’s job. Marta asks a coworker to translate the last line for her: Candidates must speak English.
She wants the job more than she’s wanted anything, and knows there is a way. Last month, an uncle paid for a new procedure which promised instant fluency in any language, swapped his Yaghan for French and moved to Europe. Language, the ads claimed, is a lattice of paths through the tangled wilderness of the brain. If you didn’t mind erasing the map, losing your old tongues, you could learn any language in the company catalogue almost overnight.
She does not wish to lose the Yaghan language, but Marta feels the future closing around her like the glassed-in walls of the pterodactyl habitat. In the mornings, she winches herself to the roof to polish off the dust prints where they throw themselves at the glass all night.
In German, there is a word for this feeling, torschlusspanik, for which there is no perfect translation.
Two days, the ads promise, and you will speak your new language fluently. Just two days.
Outside the tyrannosaurus habitat, the old zookeeper wraps her coat a little tighter and shivers beneath the heaters that warm the dinosaurs. Marta mops in short sleeves and thinks nothing of the chill. Her grandmother said Yaghan blood runs a full degree hotter than the blood of white people, but that wasn’t the secret to living naked in the cold.
It was the fires, said her grandmother. They lit fires up and down the coastlines in the shelter of the rocks, and when the sailors passed near our shores, they called it Tierra del Fuego, The Land of Fire, and wondered at the perpetual plumes of smoke rising in the night, as though it were the abode of dragons.
On Friday evening, Marta arrives for her appointment thirty minutes early. She pages through a book on velociraptors she bought at the zoo’s gift shop. The cartoon lizards are green and scaled and featherless in deference to the sensibilities of the older patrons. She thinks of velociraptor bones in museums around the world. What would their ancestors make of the resurrection? Of the cages? As if summoned by her thoughts, a featherless raptor steps from her shadow and nips her hand. Marta drops the book in surprise.
The nurse calls her name, gazes straight through the raptor. Marta searches the lizard’s black eyes for an explanation, but finding none, she abandons it in the waiting room. The nurse places something like a spherical cage around her head. When the doctor touches the button, it is as if a fiery ball smashes deep into the surface of her brain, throwing up a screen of dust so that all her thoughts are thick and blurred.
After the procedure, Marta stumbles alone into the rapidly descending night. The cold assaults her from all sides. Shivering, she lifts her chin and sees smoking bonfires strung like beacons along the dirt road that leads to her grandmother’s home. The velociraptor darts from her shadow and bolts toward the fires, and feeling an answering tug in her navel, Marta follows. As they reach each fire in succession, the flames sputter and die out. Always fire ahead, always darkness behind.
The ground is thick with mud. Their feet leave indents with each step, but when she looks back, she sees only the velociraptor’s delicate, birdlike impressions. At the final bonfire, Marta staggers to a stop. She cannot see what is beyond–whether the road continues, or branches, or falls into nothingness. In the rapidly failing blaze of the last fire, she gazes into the velociraptor’s strange, beady eyes, and suddenly it is as if they understand one another perfectly.
Marta thinks, There is a word for this in Yaghan.
Previously published in Crossed Genres, 2014. Reprinted here by permission of the author.