You were vigorous back then. Clear water sloshed between your fingers, fingers of sediment and bone, like blood glissading through capillary junctions. You dipped your hands in hot lava for warmth, dabbing your eyelids with glowing bits of slag just to wake yourself up. You had no way of knowing whether your stromatolite masterworks, those sandcastles you cemented together from bits of microorganisms, would end up the master keys of scientists or hopping surfaces for children and lovers, but this was before the existence of the afterlife, and belief in the afterlife prevents ending up at all.
You had 450 days in a year, and photosynthesis allowed you to skip meals, so you created your own clothing line. But the belts looked best on white, so you turned the Earth into a snowball. The anaerobes died from oxygen poisoning. They were your least favorite neighbors—reticent, arrogant in their stillness—but you dwelt on them for the rest of that year, a particularly complicated year.
You gave up the belts for rings. Ovals of ice fit snugly around your thumbs and toes. You wanted someone to talk to, so you invented sex. But your experiments were conducted within the warm cavern of your bedsheets, the same way stromatolite-hopping children would later create entire worlds beneath tents of blankets and quilts fastened to cream-white walls with Scotch tape. By the time you'd finished, the ice had melted. You ditched the rings and ran naked through the brand new tulgey stalks, brown and unbreakable.
“Old Life,” the Greeks would name it. But it was new to you. You felt the changes inside you, fluids fueling your arteries, red organs blooming in blood rapids. You were adventurous then; you woke up each morning with Love scribbled in the numbered calendar box. You wretched seashells and dark fluid after too much partying. Aristotle was dazzled at the pieces of you: they reminded him of home. Da Vinci, subverting expectation, agreed.
The sauropods and theropods developed vocal chords and soon learned to sing. You began to recognize everyone not only by footprints, but by deep vibrations, jovial cackles, sepulchral hums. You sat on a stone-freckled sandbar, the smooth surface moist against your haunches, and you harmonized, crooning over the saltwater, breaking only to laugh, your laugh a magma-soaked trill on the air. This was before anyone needed to know where the sun got its energy, how to measure the depth of the ocean, or how many light years it would take to reach Jupiter in a tin box.
You remained until high tide, when the water beat against the shoal and the sand puckered around your ankles. The theropods sang a chorus. These were the conversations you liked best.
Permian-Triassic Extinction Event
Azolla/Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction Event
You watched the first flowers open. You heard the music of Laurasia and Gondwana cracking apart at the bottom of the sea, watched the last of the bivalved mollusks close up. This was before the ring of flames. Even you couldn't have planned for that.
Once the ashes settled and the screaming stopped, you cupped your hands and scooped up the remaining seeds.
I. You ride the schoolbus and have an assigned spot by the window; you delight in the fact that you are tall enough to crush your knees against the blue rubber seat and recline like a fetus. When you meet your bus-mate, he is holding his left hand in front of him with his index finger spiked upward. The finger is clumped with gravel and wet with dog blood. “My dog was hit by a car,” he says, his eyes welled and red, a red you do not recognize. He is looking for sympathy, and you know this. With his right hand, he blows a kiss to his finger.
II. You make it to Grauman's Chinese Theatre when you are old enough to appreciate it. You crouch at Marilyn Monroe's block on the forecourt. Efer Blondes. You remember when you recognized everyone by footprint, and you wish Marilyn had stepped out of those high heels before sinking her feet into the cement.
III. While running on the treadmill, you set the television to the science channel. Today, you learn that the sun will one day expand into a red giant and incinerate Earth. You imagine a group of adults at a cocktail party, all in black suits, red roses peeking from pockets, sipping champagne. They ask one another, Where were you when Earth burned?
You turn the knob until the treadmill's rubber coil allows you to catch your breath. It is a slow process.
IV. After untangling yourself from the skein of unwashed sheets, you throw on normal-people clothes and bike to a lingerie shop you've never patronized. You have a wonderful conversation with the cashier, a blonde woman with a smoker's voice, a wedding ring on the hand that grips your receipt, and an arthritis bracelet set around her wrist. When she's finished cashing you out, you both realize that although you want to keep talking, you're professionally done with one another, and some kind of invisible current sluices you away, despite the fact that you are mid-sentence. But you can only sign your receipt so slowly before the folks behind you start stamping their boots, and even if no one else was there, neither you nor the cashier would forgo your own stoicism and offer to continue the chat when you no longer inhabit these roles.
You leave the shop, poke headphones into your earholes, and make believe the draft from the nearby gutter is a salted breeze rolling off the surface of the ocean. You'll never come here again. You know better than to get attached.
You sit atop the first “O” in the Hollywood sign. You warm up your voice.
Richard Hartshorn lives in southeastern New York. He was the recipient of the 2011 Richard Bausch Short Story Prize, and his work has appeared in various publications including Drunken Boat, Our Stories, and The Dirty Napkin.