L E I G H   C A M A C H O   R O U R K S

But First, the Manatees

Before any of the rest happened, the manatees died.

            

The massacre went largely unnoticed. There was a moment—a second—of national panic. A Facebook uproar, Twitter hashtag, the president knifing her callused hand through the air. Theories. Promises. 

The second passed.

                                A good-sized female Trichechus manatus, a cow, can come in

                               at over 1,300 pounds. Bigger than your average horse.

                              Three and you have yourself a decent car. 

The first time, there were twelve grey, lumped carcasses nestled between flowering trees in an orange grove, over a hundred miles from the coast and maybe eighty from the furthest inland habitat that Anton’d ever studied. 

Each female. Each missing her huge lungs. The split, double diaphragm.

A local reporter interviewed Anton. Snapped cellphone photos of grizzly things with sweettart smelling petals stuck in their jelling blood. 

                              Soon, Anton and his students found more.

The reporter came back, eyes watering at the site of grey flesh split and bloodied. The smell of it all.

                               Manatees lungs are special. A unique adaptation to

                               a hostile alien environment. 

Each article after the first was edited down, shorter, shorter. Buried deeper on the website.

                               More.

But the second of concern passed. Soon other things happened. 


                              The nuns disappeared. 


                               Gros Piton split, crumbled. 

Those poor people in Arizona.

The Everglades. The explosions. Fires.


                               The strange, flat things no one wanted to call ships.


The ships.


                               The taking.


But before any of it, before all of it, Anton connected dots, spotting a constellation where everyone else saw only stars. He may have been the first. May have, early on, been the only human to know. His conclusion: a Hollywood nightmare too insane to tell. Anyone. 


Not his grad students. Not his colleagues. 


                                 Not Javi.


Not even when, sweating, moaning, he woke, Javi looking at him with sleep caught in scared eyes, his hand on Anton’s head corpse-cold from the air set way too expensively low. Javi always insisting they slept shivering. It’s fucking Florida for godsake. 

Not even then.

He knew it sounded— 

                                  There were no words for how his ideas about the

                                  slaughtered manatees sounded.


His students measured, murmured, clustered, hmm’d, mm’d, finally joking the way frightened people do. Grads’ mouths full of words like “might,” “could,” “maybe,” “if.” Chewing them slowly, the syllables tough sea grass in their working mouths.

                                  Roughly 3,600 years and twenty miles from the place his

                                  mother wrapped him in a blanket before fleeing their

                                  homeland, humans bloodied their hands building Arkaim,

When Anton looked upward, the student with the pale pink hair asked if he searched for the god that would let this happen. 


                                 an archaeoastronomical site mirroring the spinning,

                                 turning, living universe. That’s about 60 times older than

                                 his mother when she died, mostly happy in America. 

“Not God.”

                                 About 85 times his own life.  103 longer than Javi’s.

Across Earth, humans always, eventually look up.

The rest of the manatee dumpsites were not so dramatic. Spread out. Anton found them by edging the department’s boat through areas dense with water weeds. 

After the first, always and only on the banks of water. As if someone had learned how to help people not notice. Make them just tut-tut over dinner before taking another bite. 

Anton kept looking upward. Wondering if Orion’s Belt had always tilted so deeply. If Venus should be visible right now. If there were too many stars. 


                                Or, it began to seem, too few. 


Sleeping at his desk, eyes sanding over as he scoured the literature. The news. Crackpot conspiracies. Religious texts. Google alerts.

Javi brought him tea, sandwiches, pastelitos he baked himself, told him not to work too hard. Javi always proud.


                                 A man who weighs 200 pounds on Earth would weigh

                                twelve on Pluto. He’d weigh 468 dying under the crimson

                               neon rain of Jupiter. And on Saturn, nearly the same as he

                               does standing in his own backyard, grilling fish and  

                               looking down at a bullfrog inching ever closer to the dog’s bowl.

This is where Javi was when Anton didn’t laugh at his halibut pun because he was thinking about manatee lungs. Where Anton left him to do more calculations before dinner. 


                                  A manatee at rest can hold his breath for 20 minutes.

                                  It doesn’t matter how long a man can. 

Javi.


                                  Thermobaric explosions are very good for making lungs

                                  not matter. Eating the oxygen around them so quickly and

                                  with such greed that, fallen from a great flat ship, a

                                  vacuum shudders into existence and ruptures 


Javi.


                                  lungs. Ruptures everything.


  

 

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Leigh Camacho Rourks is a Cuban-American author who lives and works in Central Florida, where she is an Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at Beacon College. She is the recipient of the St. Lawrence Press Award, the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize, and her work has been shortlisted for several other awards. Her fiction, poems, and essays have appeared in a number of journals, including Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, RHINO, TriQuarterly, December Magazine, and Greensboro Review.