Authors Note: Where Garamond and Agency fonts are used, in italics, they are meant to represent American Sign Language. Where dialogue tags are used, it is meant to indicate orally spoken English.
When I decided to study paleontology in college and graduate school, it was because the world of bones is silent. It was because the words that a dinosaur speaks are words that can be interpreted by brushes and metal picks, by observing curvature and decomposition, by noticing whether a skeleton was found in a tar pit or under a sand dune. Sound was never a requirement to interact with my academic interests.
I had never imagined that my study of paleontology would ever bring me close to a living, breathing specimen. I never thought that I would have to find a way to communicate with the creatures whose bodies I had spent so long preserving in quiet laboratories and dusty dig sites. To be honest, like everyone else in my field, we knew that our subject was dead.
My Deafness had never been a challenge among the bones of the long dead creatures who once walked this earth.
But a year ago, I took a job. It was an unusual one. The ad on LinkedIn looked for scientists with discretion, and a deep-seated love in their hearts for the study of fossils. While I’d long wanted a prestigious position with a museum, this would find me amongst my peers faster than ever before—and it brought me to this moment, nose to nose with a velociraptor, with only a pane of glass between the two of us.
Suddenly, my inability to hear my objects of study was a problem, one that I would need to solve to succeed in this position that paid more than I could ever dream in a field which relies on dust and bone.
She is beautiful. Feathered, not like the velociraptors you’ve seen in Jurassic Park, but delicate little feathers that almost look like scales from this distance.
The enclosure is so big I can’t even see to the back, wooded with forestation and tall brush that would catch fire if it were left outside. The glass dome far above the ground allows for the sun to keep time, for the velociraptor to keep its natural hours. I’m not sure how the Owen Corporation managed to get the space, but they’ve managed it. It… No, she, according to the medical chart by the window—she has plenty of space to run, to hunt, to play. But she is alone. Like me, she has no one in this building to communicate with her.
I am drawn towards the glass like a moth to a flame: her eyes are black, deep pools of carnivorous hunger which entrance me completely. Unbidden, I press against the glass, my fingers leaving prints, my breath hot against cool surface underneath. I’m caught in a hunter’s gaze, and hard as I might try, I cannot tear myself away. It shouldn’t be a surprise when she strikes hard at the glass, claws and teeth rushing at me in the pursuit of prey. Is this what mice feel when facing down a snake? I wonder in the midst of my shock. Is this how it feels like to be a prey animal? I’ve never felt this before.
These creatures who I have studied all of my life, they were our predators, meant to eat us, to hunt us, to kill us. To destroy our bones and flesh.
Knowing this, knowing that she can trap me in her gaze, it doesn’t dissuade me from the true desire in my heart, wanting to stand in that enclosure and learn about her, learn from her.
She stalks away into the trees, the camouflage cover they have provided for her within the enclosure. When I turn around, after lord only knows how many minutes of waiting to see if she will come back, I can see my colleagues are laughing at me. Some of their laughter comes through in my hearing aids, a distant echo that barely registers as anything more than white noise.
Turning back to the men, I nod to my interpreter.
Let’s go. I sign to her. I should finish that NDA paperwork.
She nods, knowing that we have nothing to say to these men who are amused by my first interaction with the dinosaur. They think my status as prey is funny, possibly because that’s how they see me, too.
They don’t know what I know. They don’t know that all I have ever wanted in my life was to meet a dinosaur, and that I will work myself to the bone to get inside that enclosure.
The prey-shape is untouchable behind the unseen, hardened air. Sharp-Claw hisses, bouncing back from a failed attack, the shallow ache of impact tracing her muzzle. She stands a moment, her body taut as she tastes the air. No new scents: just the musk of turned earth and sap from the trees and her own territory marking. The prey-thing watches her. It doesn’t scuttle like the others: this one waits like a hatchling confused by not-nest ground. It would be easy, if not for the barrier.
The chirruping of dead-prey sounds, and she turns and stalks into the trees. The heatless arm—the prey-things call it a “crane”—drops slaughtered goatmeat into a trough. She eyes the crane as it withdraws. She’s tried to bite it and failed.
She is trapped in this segment of land, and she cannot hear any pack-calls. There are only the prey-things in their unseen caves. They squawk and shriek, and the sounds anger Sharp-Claw. None of the prey-things are hers.
Without pack, she is not whole. She is alone.
Cranking my hearing aids up to the highest level that I can stand, I approach the lab after dark. The loudness will alert me if any of my colleagues show up while I am busy and don’t notice them. My wristlet unlocks the doors for me at any hour, on any day, because you never know when inspiration will strike. One guy can be found at 3am in his lab, staring down the barrel of a microscope at tissue millions of years old, hoping to understand the makeup of a dinosaur’s structure.
The only rule is: don’t enter the enclosures alone. Usually, a researcher goes in with an armed guard, hazmat suits, and tranquilizers. They never try to be defenseless, they never want to be human. I’ve watched how they do things for months, found the correct remotes that control access to meat, studied how the raptor responds. (And the other dinosaurs in the lab, oh, the others… The majesty of an Apatosaurus is not something to miss if you can help it.)
But the velociraptor seems like the smartest of them, the one who could come to understand what I need from her. What I need is to interact with her alone. The Tyrannosaurus is too hungry, her metabolism too fast to leave her time to think about more than her next meal.
Closing and locking the laboratory door behind me, I can hear it click with a tinny thud. It sounds almost too close with my aids turned up this high.
Approaching the glass, I lower myself onto a stool, raised high enough that my feet dangle, but at the right angle to look the dinosaur right in the eye.
I wait. I’ve seen her stalk out of the woods before, her head slunk low, searching the rise for something to eat. I’ve turned off my wristlet that tells me what time it is, when I should go home, how many steps I’ve taken in a day, if I should drink a bottle of water. I’ve turned it off so that I can concentrate on the only thing that matters, and when she comes out of the forest, I very slowly begin to sign.
Hello, palm outward, fingers splayed, a gesture from the right side of my head. My name is Ellery. My sign name is the letter “e” signed with both fists, which fly into the shape of a book. A joke, because there are famous authors with my name. I know she doesn’t understand these words, but the next ones are the ones I want her to learn.
When she launches into the air to attack me through the glass, I sign two words.
Please. A flat right hand, turning clockwise.
Stop. Left hand extended toward her, right hand open, thumb up, placed at an angle in the center of my left.
Even as she attacks the window, I keep signing. I am Ellery. Please. Stop.
And when she stops, and looks at me, probably confused by the window, and not by my words, I sign one last thing: Trust, before I drop a hunk of goat meat by the window.
Even after she has wandered away, I watch, I wait, stay far into the night, and long after the sun has risen over the glass windows of the enclosure.
Within the trees, Sharp-Claw lifts her head and caterwauls when dark comes. Her voice echoes back to her but there is never an answer from pack-mates. Each night she tries again. Each night, nothing.
She scratches at her belly plumage in frustration. Why is she here with only prey-things she cannot hunt? She leaves torn feathers in small clumps around her nest hidden in the lee of a great mushroom-rotted stump. If pack-mates come, they will scent her distress. She is not afraid of other predators.
Restless, she prowls back towards the unseen rock face. She’s heard prey-things call it “glass.”
Tonight, there is one prey-thing waiting behind the glass. There are no other moving shapes inside the cave beyond her territory. It is alone, and it is vulnerable. She lunges, instinct bright in her blood. Loner-prey this small is easy, and she must always take what is available in case the crane stops bringing meat.
Sharp-Claw bounces off the glass and growls.
The prey makes shapes with its fore-limbs. Not the flailing of panic, or a scrabble to run-flee-escape. No, the prey repeats the movements. Is it trying to communicate with her?
She watches a moment. Then, the small hatch in the glass opens and a chunk of meat falls out. She snatches it up and gulps it down. The prey continues making slow, steady motions. They are the same each time.
Sharp-Claw turns and lopes back into her trees, puzzled. Prey-things have shrieked at her before, have yowled in fear-tones, and some scented of challenge. But the one behind the glass, that prey-thing is silent.
She curls up in her nest, and dreams of the prey-thing who makes signs.
Some people would call what I am about to do stupid. Or brave. Or bravely stupid. But I just can’t stop thinking about the dinosaur. Tossing and turning in my sleep, thinking about how she can read what I say with my hands, thinking about how she watched so intently. She has to be intelligent. She has to be capable of learning how to interact, to be approached. Before I can stop myself I’m in my car and on the way to the lab. Before I can talk sense into my own head, I’m walking through the silent corridors of Owen Corp and using the key codes I’ve been swiping with glances over desks and around computer screens I am not supposed to be looking at. But after so long of looking at V-5 through the glass, it is time. I am going to meet this dinosaur in the flesh.
The numbers slide off my palms swiftly, the beeps confirming I’ve entered the correct code inaudible, but the green flash on the keypad is visible to my eyes.
The glass door slides open. A rush of damp, humid air pushes through, invading the cold and antiseptic lab I’m standing in. I don’t even care that I could get caught. I step through, the soft grassy ground so different under my feet than the lab tile that it is like literally stepping into another world. And I am. I am stepping into a world that was around millions of years ago.
I step forward, looking around, breathing the humid air. That’s when she sees me. V-5.
She approaches me at rapid speed. I start signing. My heart pounds in my chest. My mind screams at me to run. The dinosaur keeps coming. Her jaws opening with a horrific scream. I keep signing my name.
My hands ultimately flail into stop. And the dinosaur comes just short of me. She sniffs once…
I can’t stop myself, I run. Slamming headfirst into the glass sliding door, which, of course, closed behind me when I entered. Precautions for the safety of the world.
My fingers scrabble at the keypad, trying to keep an eye in my periphery on the dinosaur who is stalking me like prey. I cannot hear her approach, cannot do anything more than hope the green blinking lights let me know before it is too late.
When the glass door opens, I collapse through to the other side, and press my back against the cool, safe glass between myself and V-5. When I turn around, she’s staring at me through it, and I try to sign again. She doesn’t strike the glass. But her breath fogs the glass with an intent that I can only see as malicious.
Sharp-Claw watches the human behind the glass. She tastes the sharp fear-tang scent lingering in the air. Something twitches in her belly, a reminder when she ate an unknown seedpod out of curiosity and it sickened her.
The prey signed with forelimbs again, and in the same patterns.
But the human is still prey. Prey is food, not kin. She snorts in frustration and turns away once the human is out of sight. The confusion still lingers like the seedpod in her gut through the morning, when she finally sleeps.
After the night when V-5 almost ate me, I took a few days off, but then I found myself coming back, drawn again to the dinosaur who came so close, who could have killed me, but for some reason, at the last moment, didn’t. I know that I cannot approach her until I know for certain that the ASL takes, until I know that she truly understands. For that to happen it will take time, and patience. The e-mail comes in on my wristlet shortly after I leave the lab for the third sunrise in a row.
It’s brief, just indicating there have been some concerns with the velociraptor not eating as much as usual and asking for people to begin logging their feeding times and visitations with the dinosaurs. Heart pounding faster than even when V-5 first pounced at the glass, I realize this is about my visits with her.
I knew no one had figured out who was the one going in to visit the dinosaurs late at night, after all, and no one would suspect the Deaf scientist of sneaking in to commune with the specimen.
By day, I dust off bones, I look at the physical structures of the dinosaurs, and map them against what we’ve assumed the dinosaurs looked like, changing specifications and definitions based on what we know now that we have them right in front of us, living, breathing, hunting.
By night, I try to teach the velociraptor my language.
Tonight, I sit cross legged up against the glass, deliberately teasing the dinosaur with my still frame, giving myself prey status by remaining below the dinosaur’s head, beneath her gaze.
I’ve learned how to watch for her, and when my eyes adjust to the darkness of her enclosure, I can pick out her patterned feathers long before her form is fully visible. V-5. I’ve got to give her a better name, I think to myself as she approaches the window, like she does every night.
When the lithe creature aims to strike, I sign stop deliberately, repeatedly, slowly, with purpose, without fear or fright showing in my face, even though terror courses through my spine and my veins like electric wire. If my nervous system were hooked up to medical trackers, it would be lit up like a Christmas tree.
But on the outside I am calm. I have to be. Eventually my life will depend on it.
The prey is trying to communicate. Sharp-Claw blinks and tilts her head, watching the hand movements repeat, like a hatchling’s chirrup.
Her muscles tense.
She can’t scent the prey, but there was the faintest whiff of something not-dead and not-crane on the meat earlier. And the prey’s body is still, lower to the ground. Vulnerable.
She readies to leap, and the prey gestures again. She hesitates, relaxing and stepping back a pace as she considers. NOT ATTACK, the prey’s hands say. NOT ATTACK.
Sharp-Claw utters a curious growl. This prey is different. Not afraid. Perhaps it is not entirely prey? If so, she might not be alone. It is a strange body-feel, this idea. It is not pack but if it is not prey, then what is it?
She lifts her foreclaws and mimics NOT ATTACK.
Then she turns and trots back into the trees.
They find me one morning at sunrise, watching the sky turn pink as I doggedly signed the few words I needed her to know. I hadn’t planned on telling Owen Corp about my research until I had solid proof she understood me, but mistakes get made when you don’t sleep enough. This was a mistake that could cost my career. I hadn’t paid attention to how the schedules had changed with the change of the seasons, of course feeding time would be earlier when the sun rose earlier. Of course, they would feed her with the change of weather, and time. I am smart enough to know when the jig is up, and in addition to myself, and my interpreter, I bring my research.
The beginning of the meeting is tense. He demands that I show him all my data, all the information I have gathered about how creatures like dinosaurs (parrots are my best example) can learn.
But when it turns to what it is I want to do… Let’s just say the conversation does not go well.
My interpreter (who isn’t supposed to react to anything that she translates) cannot wipe the astonishment off her face, as I try to patiently explain to Dr. Trent (my supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor) what my plan is. That I plan to teach a dinosaur how to sign in an adapted form of ASL.
“Dr. Trent, please understand, I’m not trying to make a mockery of your program, I’m trying to expand it.” My interpreter’s mouth speaks the words I am not able to, giving voice in a world where it’s needed, even though my hands can do the talking for me well enough if only these men in their lab coats would learn.
Dr. Crimshaw, Dr. Trent addresses me via my interpreter, I’m just not sure that the animal is smart enough to understand—and even if it is…
I have to control my face. I know that Dr. Trent is using the word “it” to detach any sort of anthropomorphizing from V-5. To de-humanize my relationship with the dinosaur.
“You’ve seen how she reacts to the food button. We know she can learn.” My interpreter continues for me. I feel frantic, my hands make only shapes to him, not words that will make an impression. They are words to me. I wish I knew if she’s conveying the level of passion that I have for this, the level of conviction I carry with the air between my hands. “Just give me a chance to try, Dr. Trent. If something happens to me—which I don’t think it will—then it will be on me, on my body that the sacrifice is made, not someone else’s.”
You have a lot of faith in a million-year-old creature, an animal that we don’t understand, he says, his eyes locked on mine, unable to look away from what I assume he sees as an irresponsible scientist.
I trust in my research, Dr. Trent, I sign, while making full eye contact, never noticing my interpreter’s mouth moving alongside my hands movement. And I trust in her. She knows what the word stop means, I imagine she’ll learn more. Just give me six months. Just six months to prove that I can get inside the enclosure, that I can teach her to treat me like one of her pack. If I fail at the end, you can fire me.
When I leave his office, I have what I want, but if I fail… If V-5 fails me, then I’ll have nothing. No job, no insurance, no security.
My wristlet beeps with the new security codes, my own codes to the enclosure. My time starts now.
Sharp-Claw begins to relish these moments with her human behind the glass. This one moves like pack, sure and graceful. She speaks in the movement of limbs and offers food; she stays by the glass through the nights. The human is called Gray-Eyes, and she is also alone.
There are no other pack-mates or predators to play with. Sharp-Claw practices the human’s signs, both when she sees Gray-Eyes, and when she is alone in her trees and nest. It gives her something to do with her claws instead of plucking out her own plumage.
Yet even though she is learning a new language with Gray-Eyes, there is still glass between them. Sharp-Claw has not yet found a way around that impossible barrier.
I wear a sundress and combat boots with my lab coat. If I’m going to die, I want to die comfortable, at least. We’ve tried a few test runs, with the door open, with V-5 (or Velma, as I’ve come to call her) far away, paying attention to goat meat on the other side of the enclosure, but I’ve never stepped inside her domain before. I’ll do that today, in front of an audience. Dr. Trent. My interpreter. A few of the investors from the Owen Corporation. Because of course, if I’m right, if Velma can learn, then Velma may only be the beginning.
Just to the side of my audience are men with machine guns. They smell of oil, and sweat. Their tactical gear reminds me that if Velma makes one false move, if she so much as puts one claw out of line, it’s not just my life that’s in jeopardy.
It’s hers, and she’s more precious and a lot rarer than I am.
My hearing aids whine with the stress of being on their loudest setting, but as an extra precaution, I want to be sure I can hear her coming if she tries to sneak up on me. With a deep breath, I open the door, and step through, closing it behind me.
Inside Velma’s enclosure, it smells of damp grass and the indescribable scent of rotting goat flesh in the background. The heavy air of a manufactured rainforest almost drips with moisture.
I spot her. She’s waiting in the underbrush, eyes glittering with hunger, and suspicion.
Stop. I sign, keeping my breathing easy, hoping that I don’t smell of fear and sweat. Trust Ellery. I sign.
Then, the all-important sign that she knows is a peace offering: Pack.
Today is wrong. Sharp-Claw smells Gray-Eyes, which is good. But there are other prey-things by the enclosure, and they hold machines smaller than the crane that stink of heat and oil. She does not like them.
NOT ATTACK, Gray-Eyes signs. TRUST GRAY-EYES.
Sharp-Claw watches the prey-things behind Gray-Eyes, her body motionless. Sharp-Claw stays silent. Her human has never harmed her nor invaded her territory; she leaves offerings and stays when other prey-things flee. It is… comforting.
Closer, closer. Gray-Eyes’ scent is soothing warmth and friend-like. A bit of fear-smell underneath, but the human’s expression is calm, and her hands are steady. She must fear the other prey-things and their oily cranes.
GRAY-EYES, Sharp-Claw signs. I WILL NOT ATTACK.
She is not afraid of the other prey-things, so long as they do not approach. They do not belong, but Gray-Eyes does.
She takes a step forward, wary yet excited now. Gray-Eyes is near enough to pounce. She stretches one palm out.
PACK, Sharp-Claw signs, and when she does, she stretches her neck out until her muzzle brushes Gray-Eyes’ hand.
It has been too long since Sharp-Claw has nuzzled any pack-mate. She lets Gray-Eyes pet her spine, and purrs. Neither of them is alone now.
PACK, she says again. GRAY-EYES AND SHARP-CLAW ARE PACK.
Her feathers are so soft. That’s the first thing I notice when Velma lets me stroke her spine. The ridges of her spinal column are so delicate. Her breath is so warm. Her claws are so sharp.
She is so real, but the cognitive dissonance of stroking the spine of a long dead creature is almost impossible to reconcile, even as she signs my name. She’s real. She knows me.
When I exit the enclosure, I never feel my legs give way, just the sensation of the cool floor. The terror I suppressed floods my nervous system at the same time my pride at being right does.
The last thing I see before I pass out is Dr. Trent applauding, in ASL, hands raised, waving back and forth.
Since the funding came through, I’ve been in Velma’s enclosure every day. We’ve been working together, learning each other’s languages. Soon, she’ll have a pack of her own, more velociraptors to hunt with, to enjoy life with.
She’ll be able to raise hatchlings, and I won’t be her only friend. I’ll miss these days, of just the two of us communicating together. I’ll miss the unfettered knowledge that I can protect her too, because once the world knows that dinosaurs are able to do more than eat humans, once they know that they can communicate with humans, we’ll never be able to protect them.
The joy of discovery, of learning, of learning together is swiftly fading, replaced instead with the mourning, the knowledge that the world will treat Velma much like it treats me—like an object to be observed.
But for now, Velma and I will enjoy the silence together, our fingers and claws adept at communicating our feelings and thoughts.
Neither of us able to speak orally, but both of us are fluent in a common language, one that will tie us together forever.
© 2018 by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry & A. Merc Rustad
2 Responses to “By Claw, By Hand, By Silent Speech”
Absolutely blown away by this story. Favorite so far in this issue. It really spoke to me and I could feel what the protagonists were feeling.
Really loved this story – beautiful and hooked me from the beginning. Thank you for sharing.