When Frank made the mammoth, it was in a room that pulsed with reds, purples, and orange-flavored pinks -- kept at twilight 24 hours a day, and so warm the staff worked in tank tops and sundresses. Outside, the Northern California Spring was muggy, cloudy, and gray. The skies hung heavy with rain, threatening rolling thunderstorms that marched in from the sea to invade the continent. When Frank walked outside, he had the sensation of emerging from a universal womb. The bodily jolt of coming from the dark-red warmth to the wide-open grays and greens disoriented him.
“There’s no reason we should have spent so much designing the lights, or keep this damn place so warm. It’s a fetus. It’s in an actual womb. What does it care?” His medical technologist Alice would say this every day, as she picked at her kale salad in the hermetically sealed staff break room. Alice was on the paleo diet -- she was only allowed to eat things her primitive ancestors could have picked, foraged, or killed with rocks. It was supposed to be a better genetic fit with the body, reverting you back to a time before agriculture ruined man by introducing him to things like pasteurized milk and pancakes. She knew it was bullshit, that the main point was her ancestors could never have gotten their grubby little hands on the insane selection of fruits and vegetables, weird South American grains and fish caught in Asia, that she could buy at her local grocery store. Those starving, mongrel cavemen would not have been able to eat 3 solid meals a day of whatever they wanted. If they ate one meal a day, they were lucky.
“They might as well just tell everyone to go on a starving African diet, that would be the most effective. I should market that. I could send out tapeworms with the videos,” she joked. But Alice had married a man who was much more attractive than her, and consequently spent most of her meal times gulping down potions and spells, trying always to shed the extra thirty pounds her Polish ancestors fought so hard to ensure their children could have, to survive the long winters. Frank had married nobody, and sometimes he wondered, watching her push a chickpea around her plate with a bamboo spork, if he might have married Alice had he met her early enough. She was smart and relatively pretty at the peak of various diets. Frank’s sister used to call that particular blend of blowsy, broad features a “peasant face”. But Alice had a capacity to believe in fairy tales ,despite knowing better, that he found hard to swallow. A marriage between the two of them would have ended with him as the bad guy.
“An interesting way to look at the paleo diet is to see that it really means condemning the entirety of human advancement,” she told him one night, as they were getting drinks after work. “Basically, we’re saying that everything we've created since we stopped living in caves, and started planning food supplies, and building farms, has been poisoning us. We wouldn't have science or art, any kind of culture, if we hadn't started staying put in one place and building a stable structure for ourselves. But apparently, that’s when the downfall started. And now we want to have it both ways. I don’t know if that’s possible. It seems like it shouldn't be, morally. All I want to do is lose weight and have good skin, because of the society we've built. The cavemen didn't care about good skin.”
“It’s important to my world view that I not be the bad guy,” he said.
“That’s an incredibly unachievable goal,” she replied.
Elephants take 22 months to gestate, so the team guessed a mammoth wouldn't be too different. They had used an African elephant as the surrogate mother. They used a zoo-bred one, hoping that an elephant raised on man-grown corn and municipal water would pass along to the calf some genetic hardiness to the new world. The effort of the labor was horrible, the calf was breached and nearly split the surrogate’s pelvis in half. There was a Cesarean, but the poor creature died shortly after the birth, quietly bleeding out despite the veterinarian's best efforts. The zoo was incredibly mad at them. But overall, it was a success, because now they had Judy.
Judy was a 200lb miracle -- a ready-made ghost of the ancient past, and the only one of her kind to breathe a modern atmosphere. The first mammoth to see buildings, and electric lights; the first to hear English spoken. She looked like a children s’ toy, with a comically large domed forehead, and small ears close against the side of her head that had never evolved to keep cool at noon on the savanna, or flap the tsetse flies away. She talked constantly, making deep bellowing noises from inside her baby chest that sounded like a hundred bullfrogs singing. She loved to be scratched in the thick, wiry mats of hair behind her ears, and around the white stumps of her growing tusks.
Frank liked Judy. He felt bad for her, all alone growing up in a closed pen. There was nothing natural about her existence. The first month of her life, she consumed a mixture of proteins and acids that had been designed to mimic the nutrients she would have consumed in the Pleistocene era. The temperature was dropped as her hair grew longer, to recreate the high Asian steppes of her ancestry. The air of the lab was kept heavy in CO2, remembering an Earth that was much wetter and thicker. Frank was a research assistant, and he monitored the little calf’s microbiome, the composition of bacteria in her mammoth guts -- which little creatures were living in her intestines, building their microbe civilizations in her stomach. When he took the daily mouth swabs, Judy looked him woefully with big, brown eyes, an expression only herd animals have mastered, of both confusion and acceptance. She took to butting her lump skull against his arm to try and stop him. All babies have the charm of insistence.
He tried to talk to her while he collected his samples, He would tell her what his bike ride to work had been like that morning. This morning there had been a strange, old Japanese man selling watermelons right outside the entrance to his apartment complex, who had cursed at Frank in a thick, fluid tongue as he rode by. Frank couldn't understand the cursing, didn't know if it was personal or general. Maybe the old man was just cursing the world as a whole.
“In fact, I want it to happen again, so maybe I can try and memorize what he’s saying, and ask Akihiro what it means. Am I going to grow horns? Flippers? You can’t underestimate strange men, Judy, or their cursing.” And it was true. Frank was not religious, but he believed in intention -- through the course of any organism’s existence, all the pains and joys it experienced, all that energy of emotion, could build up and remained stored away in forgotten parts of cells. The more a creature had suffered, the more seriously one should take its cursing. He snuck Judy carrot sticks he had pirated from Alice’s lunch, letting her grab them delicately one by one with the end of her trunk.
Despite her isolation from the natural world, Judy was certainly not kept from the unnatural world. After it became clear that she would live, that there would be no laying down and dying without warning in front of the school children of the world, the lab set up several cameras and feeds to share their discovery with humanity. It didn't seem to outwardly affect Judy, nothing in her routine changed. But Frank wondered if she couldn't feel the psychic energy of all those people watching her. After all, her body was from a time period before wireless filled the air, her cells were tuned to different vibrations. How could 6,000 year old cells be prepared for wifi? Or even the vibrations electricity must make, surging through the wires and ground, and all around her into machines trained to be focused on her at all times. Did she feel that? Was it just a slight uneasiness she couldn't articulate or shake, the sense of someone watching? Herd animals had to have a heightened sense of being spied on if they wanted to survive, he would think.
He regularly checked his apartment for bugs, but never told anyone.
Frank would sit at the end of the day in front of the window to Judy’s pen, watching her rolling a huge rubber ball around all by herself. There was no one to play with, Alice had gone home. He caught himself thinking about what it would be like to be Alice’s husband forty years from now, watching her die. There would be a lot of pies at the funeral, and he wouldn't eat any of them.
Frank pictured Judy’s death happening as if she had only a certain amount of breath the universe had granted her - the last allotment of air her dead species was allowed, the very dregs. Suddenly she breathes it out like a sad, old dog, like a clockwork toy running down. She lays her head down on her knees, in that submissive folding grace animals have when they know their final moments have come. An animal doesn't feel they should struggle against the inevitable. They hide away and accept it without regrets or apologies. Their body has simply stopped working, and they have no choice, never had a choice. She collapses in slow motion on the smooth concrete floor of the lab that is the only home she has ever known, and it’s over.
He knew he was still thinking about Alice.
She aged too fast. her telomeres were short, though of course they had nothing to compare them to except modern elephants. The lifespan of the original woolly mammoth could have been three years or thirty, they had no way of knowing. Judy’s lifespan, at its current rate, was five years. There was a moment, almost overnight, where she went from a bumbling calf to a fully grown behemoth, with a long, shiny coat and heavy, dangerous tusks. She suddenly had the quiet dignity that comes with being unable to communicate with anything around you, the bearing of a queen about to be beheaded. Slowly, the company stopped wanting photo ops. Slowly, the school children stopped watching.
“It’s because it’s more acceptable to keep a baby in a prison, you can call it a nursery,” Alice said, gnawing on a piece of raw sweet potato as she watched the video feed. Frank got up out of his chair, walked over to her desk and pulled her roughly up. He stared at her for a minute before he kissed her, memorizing how there was no protest, how she simply folded into his arms and responded to his motions. He could taste the fibers of sweet potato in between her teeth.
“Stop, someone will see us,” she protested in his ear as he slid his hands up her plump thighs, underneath her stretch-tight skirt. So he stopped.
He called off the next day, and drove up to Oregon to look at farms. No one cared that he called off, except maybe Alice. The Judy project was slowly winding down, the budget was on death watch. Humanity had moved on to repairing other sins, the Yangtze dolphin and the Dodo, far less ambitious projects that didn't interest him. She was, in the end, just another elephant with fur. She wasn't an ongoing salvation. If they set her free on the steppes, made a herd of other mammoths so they could repopulate the snowy mountain tops, the bulk of them would be poached immediately. People were still poor and opportunistic. The only thing that stopped her from being a rug was her singularity in the world.
Frank felt a guilt deeper than his bones.
He went back to work, and didn't talk about it. He ignored her baleful stares, ignored both of them.
Outwardly, nothing in his environment changed, but he could feel the tension of a coming action buzzing in the air. Judy could feel it too. She paced and stomped when he walked right past her pen every day, quickly going home every night to sit in his rented room and think about how weird it was to watch his species, to watch himself, serving a ghost. A loser in the evolutionary wars. Not pretty enough or fast enough to survive. Once they had hunted Judy to extinction, driven her off cliffs to butcher her for meat and bones, and now they worshipped her as a miraculous sign. He was complicit in this. He had fathered a creature, brought it into a world where it would be alien and alone, for no good reason except he wanted to.
On the right day, he rented an animal trailer and came at 5am, before the PI came in. The only staff was an undergrad tech who could barely keep his eyes open at the end of his overnight shift.
“I’m taking her across the deck to Allen’s. There’s something about her sleep cycle that’s bothering him, and he wants to hook her up over there and take a look. After all, mammoth R.E.M. cycles, you know Do they dream of prehistoric men? Do they dream of stars or sabertoothed tigers?”
The undergrad nodded sleepily. He didn't care. He had a final in two days and rent was due.
Judy fell in step with Frank as soon as they left the enclosure, step by step. The look in her eyes was one of complete trust, because what had she ever feared? The trust of a herd animal, of one bred to link tusk to tail and follow directions, the confidence that comes from having a leader when one has been leaderless -- it came off her in waves and infected Frank with a sense of righteousness.
An hour up the 101, Frank got a call from Alice.
“Frank, I was trying to see if you were coming in today, and then Paul told me you took Judy to Allen’s, but I called Allen and he hasn't seen you. I figured Paul got it messed up.”
“I’m sorry to put you in this position, but I can’t tell you what to do here. I’m not coming back. And I’m not going to hurt her. But I’m not coming back.”
“Shit, Frank, are you kidding? What are you going to do with her? Are you selling her?”
“No, of course not. But who knows how much time she has left, and she’s never even been outside. If she died in that lab, I would never forgive myself. I would never forgive you.”
Alice was quiet. He wondered if she had hung up to call the PI. Maybe she had already done that, and they were tracing the phone call.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here,” she said, finally. “I don’t understand why you didn't just ask Harry if we could let her outside. Instead you took something that wasn't yours. That’s massive theft, that’s grand larceny. The company is going to to send people after you, she’s a proprietary formula. This isn't going to blow over.”
“Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll be glad for the budget room. If they ever want another mammoth, they have an entire back stock of pickled mammoth DNA. Maybe they’ll give up faster than you think. Especially if you give me a head start. Is anyone at the lab with you?”
“No, Paul went home,” she sounded calmer, his righteousness was infecting her too. He pictured her all alone in the lab, thinking about him, wondering where he was.
“Do you want to come with me?” he asked. It was a gesture instead of a question. It was as offensive as slapping her ass. But she didn't know that.
She hesitated again, but not as long. She was smart, he could already hear her brain figuring out the next steps. He didn't ask her what they were, he wouldn't be there so what did it matter? They were not in this together.
“ No, I don’t. But I’ll do what I can. I’m not falling on a sword for you though, I don’t think you know what you’re doing.” Alice tried to sound authoritative and stern, but Frank could hear she was buying the fairy tale already -- him, the renegade hero, Judy the princess in distress. She would never admit that for that particular myth to be true, that made her one of the villains. She was good at doing things like that. So in the end she would do something to cover for him.
“You weren't going to say goodbye to me?” she asked.
“Why say goodbye when I’ll see you every night in my dreams?” he replied.
“Shut up, that’s so stupid. You’re so stupid.”
He waited for her to say something else, so that wouldn't be the last thing she remembered saying to him. But when she didn't, he threw the phone out the truck window.
The farm was nestled high up on the side of a mountain, where the clouds could gather and touch. It was a small, neat shack and a big barn, all surrounded by a high wooden fence. The new wood of the fence smelled sharp in the rain, and glowed a dark wet gold. The fence made him uneasy, the whole point had been to take Judy somewhere with no walls. But at least there was grass, air, real birds. At the very least it was something new. Besides, there was always the possibility that like a dog who has grown up in a cage, no walls would have made her herbivore brain uneasy.
He spent his mornings out there with her, watching her graze in the field, trying all the new plants, their tastes and textures. After a week, her coat began to develop a thick layer of insulation and grease in response to the non-programmed cold and wet. Her tusks were stained and sharpened against tree trunks. Her dirty hair became matted and tangled, and she went from an artist’s rendering of a mammoth to an actual full-blooded real-life mammoth -- articulated in full scale, ripe and threatening. Frank was proud of her statuesque profile and heavy dignity. A mammoth that could breathe the modern air, eat the plants that plants had become, drink the poisoned rainwater and live. He hadn't realized it before, but this was always the only way to end the project, to see if the thing he had made could really live. To see what an actual mammoth really looked like.
His victory was short-lived. Within a month, she was dead. She lay down in the middle of the hillside, curling her trunk around her. She gave an ever so small sigh that made her belly rise and fall, and then she died.
It was probably the plants she was eating. Or maybe the air after all. The composition of the water, or the noise of electricity, the waves of data filtering through her ears, the plastic remnants in the ground, the deadly sunlight coming through the ozone. Maybe just the weight of being alone.
It was worth noting, Frank thought, that an alien can only survive a month in our atmosphere.
Frank left her body out there to decompose. Why tell anyone? Someone would just make a rug out of her. He couldn't tell if he was being disrespectful. Elephants had graveyards after all, there were rituals. But he didn't know what they were, only the elephants knew. He wondered what they would think if he brought Judy’s body back to them on the Plains of Africa, on the Steppes of Asia. How they might have marveled at their ancestor in front of them, a past that had only lived in their pachyderm dreams? Then how they might have looked at him, the invader laying the corpse of a miracle at their feet. What does elephant condemnation look like?
So let her body lay there and be buried, let it be forgotten and not stuffed on display in a museum somewhere. Let no one make carvings of her tusks, or molds of her skull. Let her tail disintegrate with her toes. Let no one break up her marriage. Let whatever intention she carried in her genes dissipate like smoke into the clouds. Please let it be enough to try and be good, he whispered into her little ears. Let the curse not catch him till at least Canada.