1938, along the coasts of South Africa. What seems to be a big shark is struggling with fury in the nets of a trawler. The crew is terrorized. These prehistoric shells, this huge jaw, these fins like legs… it is a coelacanth, the supposed missing link between land and sea, disappeared long before dinosaurs' extinction.
Eighty years later, the world of science is still passionate around the fish, trying to know if it is really the ancestor of mankind. But between the Comoros islands and Sulawesi, Cornwall and Paris, death catches those who knew the coelacanth. Marie, a young pregnant Parisian, discovers that her father, a scientist, was trying to solve the mystery. And she has soon to face lies, cheating… murders. Will she be able to trace the origins of mankind? Will she be able to stay alive? The world of ichthyology turns to a thriller.
Jan, December the 20th, 1938
Jan had a taste of ashes in the mouth. And he did not know why. That night, he had woken up, much before the ringing of the mechanical alarm-clock, before the stirring of his biological clock. The sun was still far from rising, but he had rushed aboard the Breda. Since then, he was endlessly hanging around. Between the cockpit and the sailors’ quarter. Tidying away a bowl. Folding a blanket.
Yet it was not in his habits to waste sleep. And today, nothing was urging him to put off to sea. Especially for a fishing day like any other. For an ordinary daily battle against the ocean.
Daily as well was the fight which had opposed him to Nina, his wife. He had loved her madly. And he only had realized it when he had surprised her, skirt up, busy with an English painter. This one came to picture cliffs, pristine beaches and grassy hills of that part of Africa. He had laid the wife of somebody else down in those landscapes. And in his bed.
Jan had been choking with anger. But Nina had yelled back:
- So you won’t have to choose between the sea and me!
Ridiculous. But it was true that Jan loved the sea.
The Breda was his trawler. The ideal fishing ship, despite her old age and her wheezy engine. She did not fear anything, neither gods nor tornadoes, neither typhoons nor leviathans. With her round hull, she floated under all winds, on all waves. Behind her, a huge funnel net attached to a steel frame scraped the ocean’s bottom. With that, Jan and his crew, six men and two boys, hauled up a whole world on deck. And that, from dawn until sunset. The men slept then a few hours, in turns, before a new day at sea. They came back forty-eight hours later only, for the opening of the large biweekly fish market of East London.
The fish, December the 20th, 1938
Despite his canonical age, there was a time he had not known. When life was not possible.
At this period, a huge mass of gas was burning, swirling in the universe. Then this mass cooled down, its heart became liquid, its surface formed a solid sphere. Rain fell on the new planet. And eruptions and flashes of lightning brought life. Bricks of the living, nucleic acids and proteins.
Was it the memory of the first waters that pushed him to be so self-assured? The nose on the bottom of the ocean, his fins keeping his balance, he was drifting. The slightest rustle, the smallest signal, and he would open his huge jaws. He was not faster than he had been, at the very beginning, millions of years ago. And the prey he chose now, in the deeps currents, had changed. But they still had not a shred of luck.
André’s diary, August the 12th, 1997
This morning, the air was rather cool. But I knew the heat would be terrible soon. The warning lights of an old red 2CV were winking, a few yards away from the corner of rue Claude Bernard and rue du Fer-à-Moulin, in front of the baker's shop. The latter was also the only one to have opened his metallic curtain. Even the costermongers would not take their stalls out so early.
Alongside the tempting shop-window, a smell of freshly baked bread spread. I had not taken time to have lunch before leaving for the LEZ – the Laboratory of evolution and zoopaleontology. Something urgent to finish off. So, croissant? Pain au chocolat?
The doctor advised me formally against this kind of food, but temptation is always there. Especially since I know what is on the shelves of the small kitchen of the LEZ, where I am used to eat in the morning.
Thus I pushed the door of the bakery. Less than one minute later, I came out with a paper bag. It was letting out a delicious smell and pleasantly heating my palm. In rue Censier, I hurried up. The impact of my feet on the uneven cobblestones resounded in the bones and muscles of my legs.
I like to walk, to have this physical feeling that my body obeys me well, despite my seventy-five years. It is a great satisfaction.
I went down rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and entered rue Cuvier. Above my head, someone was toasting bread. The odour, mixed with that of coffee, tickled my nostrils. I sped up. In front of my eyes, a steaming cup and a plate of Vendean brioches began to float.
Vendean brioches? Why? I have not eaten some for years. And the last time, it was with Alice.
Alice. Her breasts. Her thighs. Her farewells.
The steaming cup and the buns flew away.
Mechanically, I introduced my key into the lock of the door of this dear LEZ, just opposite the Practical institute for biological research, behind Jussieu university. I thought then to the letter I have to write for my lawyer. I tried to sift through my motivations. Strangely enough, I have not done it before.
What did I want to say with this letter? "See how you have always been part of my life?”, "See how I have not forgotten that I have a family? Or "I wanted things be different? Or "I want you to remember me”?
The broad and waxed staircase led me to the first floor.
There, behind the main storage room, thousands of jars expose as many corpses or pieces of corpses. At the end of the corridor leading to the offices of the current director, is mine. I feel almost more at home in here than in my small apartment of rue Clovis. So much time already...
Yet this morning I did not stop there. I climbed the narrow spiral staircase which leads to second floor. To chase from my thoughts the Vendean buns and the girl who brought them to me for breakfast, years ago, I needed a good coffee.
It was not even seven in the morning.
Jan, December the 20th, 1938
That night, the first crew member had arrived while Jan was in the hold, checking the nets. One after the other, men came on board. The moon was fading away in the night. The waves were splashing against the hull in smoothly curving silver lines. Jan fired up the Breda’s engines. And the ship headed northwards.
On the deck, the men bustled. As the boat moved away from the coast, the wind grew stronger, the night turned pale, as if the first drove the second out. The ocean went heavier. Matthias, the oldest boy, made tea and coffee for everyone. The semi-nocturnal drinking was Jan’s initiative. Because he needed it himself. Since Nina left. And this morning, the coffee worked again, chasing the shadows of the night and the smell of ash from the captain’s mouth.
The breeze calmed down. The sea glittered like a promise, the one of a glorious hunt. The day would be hot. But the seamen would be among the privileged that would eat up the space with each sight. And they would have the feeling to accede to true freedom. Where soul and body meet, between sky and ocean.
The first gulls appeared. They implied tons of fish and crustaceans, those who sell fast on the market, which pay a lot. There would be no tiger sharks, no hurricanes, no water-level reefs.
They were forty miles away from shore. Ahead of the ship, thousand of hakes over nearly half a mile wide. It was exceptional. The water began to bubble under the pressure of the scales-armoured bodies.
The trawl went down. The ocean was not serene anymore, disturbed by the noise of the engine, the screams and laughter of men in front of the providential manna. The net went up, enclosing the fishes in its deadly gaol. The men rushed to lift it. They were breathless, sweating against the stirring magma.
The pulley creaked, the bottom of net opened. Hakes dripped into the opening. A fortune.
The boat drew a semicircle. The net came another time. The circle closed, went a third time on its track. The white and silver bellies of the fishes piled on deck. But they were scarcer. Jan waited for a while, his hand on the helm. He had to find another spot.
To the west, the mouth of the Chalumna river. Jan paused. There, the bottom was sandy, for about seventy yards deep. Sometimes, it was possible to fish abyssal sharks. They had been driven away from their extreme habitats by upwelling, frequent in this place.
The fish, December the 20th, 1938
Did he keep in the folds of his flesh memories of the first multicellular organisms? Of this unique and vast ocean that surrounded the super continent? Of the disintegration of the lands, of the birth of primordial invertebrates, the first fishes, with no bones? Because his origin was there, in the millennia of evolution, in the family of the first vertebrates, of the first osseous animals.
And since that time, nature has had the opportunity to refine his exceptional faculties. From the bottom of the cave, three hundred yards deep, he could not hear the noise of the engine. But he felt it. Like a strange rustling coming from the light he could not see, up there, across the waters. This was not the first time. He would wait a bit and then go out. He was still hungry. His night drift had not been fruitful.
André’s diary, August the 12th, 1997
On the second floor of the LEZ, among countless storage rooms and multiple small laboratories, the tiny kitchen is probably the most popular place of the building, and that since its installation in the 1920s. Unfortunately, after this date, improvements have not been a major concern.
As usual, I looked at the shelf that runs above the cracked yellow sink. Cereals for intestinal transit, crackers without, vacuum packed coffee, honey in a pot with a stuck cap, sweetener.
I know the owners of all those things. Fernand, the director’s assistant, left us a month ago for a better world. And since then, real foods disappeared.
I could not help but think to the beautiful Martine, virtuoso for writing disturbing scientific articles… and who has serious problems of transit. Fortunately I had my pain au chocolat. I dropped it on the kitchen table, in his paper bag, and came back to my office.
Since a few months, the book in which I record my personal notes took an awkward turn. As if the most futile details managed to sneak there without I was fully aware of it. The most futile details. As the Vendean buns. I do not know what this could prove. Probably nothing. Senility? Or the need to finally tell the daily movements of my life? Because I have never been able to do it so far? The need to hang on this life, even through its most trivial aspects? So much so that I delayed my frugal breakfast of retired scientist... who can not detached himself from his job.
About André, August the 12th, 1997
André Darsan closed the note book, slipped it in the central drawer of his desk and turned the key supposed to protect his secrets. And he came back to the kitchen.
His stomach was rumbling seriously. Concentrated on his future breakfast, André did not notice that the tiny sliding window above the shelf was closed. It was unusual, especially during a hot summer.
He rinsed the coffee machine, put a new filter, poured three full measures of coffee powder, half a cup of cold tap water and pressed the little red button. The gurgling came almost immediately. In less than one minute, an odour just as tempting as the one he smelled in the street spread in the small room. Andre raised his hand to choose a cup on the shelf, next to the cereals.
Suddenly, he heard a slight noise. He stopped his motion, turned the head. The stairs leading to the second floor were creaking. Strange. So early in the morning. He listened for half a minute. Nothing. He had been dreaming.
He put the cup next to the coffeemaker, took a sugar in an iron coloured box, caught a move on his right. A blow struck him on the nape of the neck.
He fall full length on the floor like a rag doll that would have been dropped. He had time to smell a strangely familiar odour that had nothing to do with coffee.
Before the door of the small kitchen abruptly banged, before night fall on him for ever, he had a final thought for the Vendean buns.
Jan, December the 21th, 1938
In the North, it was Durban. Still further, Sodwana Bay, and then Mozambique. The captain had long felt the urge to throw nets there. The tribes said that local fishes were extraordinary. Joshua, who had been his second for ten years, was from this region. He was prolix about the bay. But he had been washed away by a ground-swell. He left a little boy who, without family, went from one crew’s member to the other. With a preference for Jan. The kid was lovely. Sometimes, he was as well a burden. And today, Sodwana was still far away, almost as much as Mozambique, which anyhow was forbidden. Go there would have imply a longer trip. And a Portuguese passport.
The sun was setting. Jan spotted a quiet cove north of the Chalumna. They casted anchor for the night.
At five o'clock in the morning, the engines were roaring again. Matthias prepared the distribution. Coffee. Tea. Biscuits. The Breda turned south. The weather was still calm. The men let the net down. Seagulls were back, chipping in circle above the ship.
All of a sudden, a tremor shook the rear of the boat, the framework of the trawl. Jimmy Howard, the first mate, rushed.
- What’s happening?
The net was not full. However, it did not come up again. The winch jolted. There was something there. Jan Howard called.
- Hey, Capt'ain! Come and see! I think we’ve caught a big one.
Jan stopped the engine. The wind was almost nonexistent, the sea flat. He ran to the rear of the ship, stared at the net splashing about in the water.
- A shark, Capt'ain?
- Maybe. Or a big seal... or a dolphin. Get ready to cut. It's tough.
Funny. Jan did not recall having caught sharks here. As the net came back, the moves of the prisoner were more and more rough. And water was rising in front of the vessel. Jan felt nervous. The men looked worried. Barn, the youngest boy, shrieked with fright at the violent upheavals that stirred the trap. Jan bid him to shut up.
- Stop acting like a child and work!
Controlling themselves, they began to bring the net back. It was difficult. Exhausting. With the weight of the fishes, the meshes were almost as dangerous as a saw. They had to raise it all together. To catch it a little lower. To take it up. And the jerks inside did not help. They had hoisted almost half the burden when a new saccade surprised them. All of them dropped the net. Except Amos, the second boy, who tried to catch it again and plunged his hand inside... too far, while the whole burden went down sharply towards the water. His fingers were caught between the meshes and the fishes inside. He yelled.
Blood spurt. Amos tried to escape. His bones had been crushed already, but not enough to get him free. He was dragged into the fall of the net. Handling the hoist, Jan was about to react, when the boy toppled over into the crawling mass of hakes. Which dived into the ocean and disappeared.
When finally the men were able to take the fishes out of the water, to pour them on the deck, they found what was remaining of Amos. Dying hakes had crashed him, crushing his face, his chest and all tender parts of his legs and arms in a filthy pulp. Already removing some flesh from the skeleton.
Then, under the boy’s corpse, a huge fish appeared, struggling madly in the middle of dead congeners. And suddenly, it was alone on the boat.
Not a seal, not a shark, not a dolphin, not a whale. Just a blue body shining under the sun. Huge. Insolent.
The fish, December the 20th, 1938
His revolt was as enormous as sudden. Why? All this past. To be here now.
He, the Osteichthyian, with the internal skeleton and the bony divided skull, such as embryos. He, whose group was parallel to those of sharks and rays. He, the Crossopterygian, with the fringed fins. And that, since the dawn of time.
But then, he felt life drifting away from him.
Four hundred million years ago, his family had spread in all the waters of the planet. The ancestors of worms had then ventured out of the water. Followed by some insects and some crustaceans. At that period, he was the only creature with a skeleton.
It was no longer the case today. And those who were murdering him represented a tiny and recent part of the evolution only. So. Why?
Jan, December the 22nd, 1938
The creature was leaping in all directions. The large jaws were snapping. The oddly lobed tail was sweeping all fishes, lobsters and crawfish that came within reach. It violently crushed a piece of red coral, sending a tiny branch on Jimmy’s cheekbone. The man brought a hand to his face. Looked. Red coral. Red blood. In a new convulsive movement of the animal, Barn was swept against the cabin. His thigh began to bleed through his torn trousers.
Jan approached carefully. He saw the large rough scales, the eyes becoming glassy, the trembling fins, which looked like legs. He quickly setback when the blue body made a jump toward him. For a while, he thought it would dive into the water. But the fish seemed to calm down, perhaps to die. Jan leaned over it, held out his hand to come into contact, suddenly curious about whether it was cold or hot. As if all his references were vanishing. At this point, the large body bent again. It wrung the head and its jaws opened in an incredible angle, trying to snatch the captain’s hand.
Jan hurriedly stood up.
- Well, we go. Put everything in crates. Take Amos in the hold. As for this one, let it croak on the deck. And stay away.
He started the engines again and the ship turned. A flock of gulls followed.
It was a strange trip back. The sky and the sea remained serene, despite the squawking birds. The heat was rising. The men were working. And they carefully avoided coming near the big fish, even if its convulsions became weaker, with only, now and then, last outbursts of violence. One of the boys whispered:
- It is as if the devil himself came to tickle it before the big jump. As if this bloody beast was trying to escape one last time.
And during the four hours of the trip back, during the never ending dying of the big blue fish, all of them talked in a low voice. In an early wake.
About André, August the 12th, 1997
The kitchen’s door opened again.
Someone pushed the metallic slide of the small window. A hand opened the windowpane, rinsed out and dried the cup, the coffee machine, and came, hesitant, on the paper bg of the pain au chocolat. The pastry disappeared into a large beige pocket, behind the diaries already inflating the linen. On the desk, above the open drawer, remained only the notebook. With the latest reflections of Dr André Darsan.
Just behind the small window, sparrows nested. On that day, they were the only ones to hear the sound of Dr Darsan’s heels, bouncing in the spiral staircase. Lifeless.