by Sara Jenkins
Hordes of people in the park. As noon approached, many of them migrated toward the road by the cricket fields for the main event of the day, a parade of all species. A bird’s-eye view would have shown human creatures coalescing into a swarm, bonded by a sort of collective surface tension into the crowd lining the parade route.
A middle-aged man stood between his five-year-old daughter and their dog, holding the hand of the one and the leash of the other. The dog was said to be a lab-collie mix, to put the best face on a guess, though something in its grin suggested shepherd-chow. The little girl was wearing a chimpanzee mask, which she shoved onto the top of her head so she could lick her ice cream cone. The man looked down at his daughter. The round-eyed chimp face looked up at him. The dog licked ice cream drips from the child’s hand and shoes.
The man would rather have stayed home. Crowds were not his thing, nor animals, particularly. His expectations for the event were slim to none.
No fanfare, no drumbeat, no loudspeakers. The parade began with elephants and camels, zebras and giraffes, tigers and orangutans—big animals, circus animals, African animals, storybook animals, familiar symbols of the exotic, standing for the so-called Animal World (as opposed to the so-called Human World).
An all-species parade. Not that literally every single species was there. But with a good turnout among those large enough to be seen and a few representatives of those not so large, from well over a million identified species and God only knows how many others—who’s counting? It wasn’t a countable kind of thing.
The procession was not as orderly as that assembled for Noah’s ark, nor as unpredictable as a cattle round-up, say, or even a fox hunt, or a school of mackerel, or people on a picnic. Legions of rodent relatives scampered in a mostly forward direction. Ants walked in a wiggly file between prancing poodles and a flock of sheep, who, exhibiting a previously unrecognized sense of humor, brought along a shepherd. Chameleons flashed coordinated colors to an applauding crowd. Spiders, subject to urges to go elsewhere to pursue other activities, were led on silvery filament leashes by a sedate tarantula. An armadillo and an anteater ambled along side by side in cousinly solidarity.
In some cases there were throngs of individuals from one species, in others a single representative of an entire Genus or even Family or Order or Class. Participation depended not only on logistical concerns, but on social inclination and temperament. Declining were sloths, mules, moles, mole-voles, and bats, along with certain misanthropic breeds of bears. The primates, as expected, responded with enthusiasm, their numbers including not only the sportive lemur of Madagascar but even the shy aye-aye, as well as the slow loris and the potto.
The potto, the man recalled from a picture in his college zoology text, was an appealingly big-eyed creature, known in its own habitat as the softly-softly. He started to tell his daughter about the softly-softly, but she was singing to the dog and he didn’t like to interrupt.
The parade was hardly a model of consistency in classification, but then taxonomists themselves don’t agree on exactly who belongs with whom, in what degree of relation. It was more a demonstration of the vast, messy jubilance of nature. Nevertheless, the taxonomic enterprise was ubiquitous: each animal or group had an identification tag, with the common name in capital letters followed by the genus and species.
- COTTONTAIL RABBIT Sylvilagus floridanus, spectators read in awe.
- GROUND SQUIRREL Xerus rutilus rufifrons
- GAZELLE Gazella subgutturosa (An aria could be sung to those syllables!)
- YUCATAN VESPER RAT Otonyctomys hatti
- OLD WORLD BADGER Meles meles
- SNOW LEOPARD Uncia uncia
- And, in glorious triple redundancy, GORILLA Gorilla gorilla.
The Regent of the Parade was a newly discovered species of mite, as yet unnamed, housed in a small ventilated glass box with beveled edges that cast rainbow sparkles.
“Daddy, I can’t see,” said the little girl. The ice cream had melted, and she had given what was left to the dog.
The man lifted his daughter to his shoulders. “Okay, Lattlebratton?” he asked. He had been reading Finnegans Wake, his third time through. “Do you see any of those sissymusses and zozzymusses?”
“Oh, Daddy,” she said in an exasperated tone. “Those aren’t real.”
A down-to-earth child, he reflected. Was he himself down to earth? He wondered. Can you be obsessed with James Joyce and be down to earth?
An oncoming float transported the smallest of all creatures, the viruses. Members of a realm that is classed as neither animal nor plant, neither living nor nonliving, their very existence calls into consideration a view of creation that is without boundaries. The viral culture, viewed through an electron microscope image projected onto a large screen, was flanked by examples of the species’ “hosts”: animals, plants, and people harboring viral infections.
As for creatures of the seas, gulfs, lakes, lagoons, rivers, streams, ponds, and puddles, their multitudes were represented only by a goldfish in a plastic bag carried by a seven-year-old boy. His twin sister carried her shellacked conch shell, a gorgeous if long-uninhabited reminder of the seventy thousand or so species of mollusks.
The little girl on her father’s shoulders wriggled with excitement at seeing the children, creatures like herself.
The largest contingent, bearing the uncontested title of Most Populous, were the insects. The few mishaps at the parade almost all involved insects, as some unruly individuals found their way into hairdos and ice cream cones. Most were well-behaved, though, and beetles, horseflies, houseflies, ladybugs, lacewings, cabbage loopers, moths, fleas, and many more crawled, hopped, and flitted in grand procession. The cucurachas (as they wished to be known), wearing bow ties and bright scarves, performed their traditional ethnic dances. Beneath a banner identifying them as True Bugs came stink bugs, squash bugs, and chinch bugs; a smaller banner acknowledged in absentia the water striders, water treaders, and backswimmers. A swarm of bees flew aeronautic maneuvers overhead, accompanied by a rousing band of cicadas and another of crickets in a premier performance of “Dueling Arthropods.”
A more modest musical effort was mounted by the earthworms. They waved from a compost heap atop a wagon, swaying back and forth to an old show tune, which became the unofficial slogan of the day:
Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you,
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me . . .
The music arose as the float approached and died away as it passed, in the way of parade music, leaving behind a pensive silence within which were heard oohs and aahs and shuffles and clops and snorts and hisses and an occasional squeal, along with a steady murmur of tentative human vocalizations of the more seductive zoological names, which were not so much whispered as felt—subtle, intricate shifts in some ongoing vibration, a nonverbal chanting of the infinite names of God.
The last group in the parade was the quietest of all: a cloud of butterflies. In a deep hush, their ranks appeared, each higher than the last, drawing the crowd’s attention upward to a fluttering dot far above—a skylark from which a faint, final tune tumbled into the awed stillness below.
The man who hadn’t expected much was looking up toward the distant birdsong and crying.
As the end of the parade passed by, the spectators stepped down from the curb, and the streets filled with all manner of HUMAN BEINGS Homo sapiens sapiens, the single subspecies of the single surviving Genus of the Family Hominidae. A good number of examples were present from the three or four or five (or thirty or forty, depending on your taxonomic inclination) subgroups called “races.” Individuals resulting from crossbreeding were noted to have particularly attractive physical features. Among H. sapiens,differences between the sexes appeared subtler than generally thought—more obvious, to be sure, than in seals and mice, but less so than in lions and peacocks, with a substantial number of indeterminate individuals.
The man was stunned by a sudden sense that the whole world was present and accounted for, though in no way explained. He wondered if, among the people who had witnessed the parade, many would quit eating meat. He pondered whether there might be a sudden decrease in the number of hate crimes, and hypothesized that a few people would change their minds about capital punishment. Some pets would be allowed to go outdoors for the first time in their lives, he felt sure, and Radio Shack would sell out of their $9.99 pocket microscopes.