I used to think the term “living fossil” was a pejorative way of referring to the elderly, that is, until a local brasserie started serving coelacanth – a species of fish once thought extinct that has evolved nil in the gills since appearing on the fossil record 450 million years ago. The ancient fish went unseen for 80 million years until a fisherman plucked one from the east coast of South Africa in 1938, a discovery that bolstered Charles Darwin’s stock, which had suffered some from the monkey business of the Scopes trial (we forget that the teacher was convicted and fined $100 for teaching evolution, though the verdict was later reversed on technical grounds by the supreme court).
“Living fossil” is Darwin’s coinage, a vestigial phrase from his The Origin of the Species, which first appeared 150 years ago, hatching another phase of the “chicken or egg” dilemma (i.e., did God create man or did man create God?). The notion, of course, is an infinite regress (in more ways than one), which is both vicious and tiresome. Even the word “chicken” seems to have gone out of fashion, at least around these parts. Haughtier drafters of our local menus have discovered that they can add a sawbuck to a poultry entrée by upgrading to the loftier synonym “hen.” Ditto the phrase “living fossil,” which appeared italicized in the restaurant’s description of the coelacanth (apparently grilled and served with a tartar sauce). Since I’m allergic to most seafood,
I encouraged my wife, the Contessa, to order the ancient fish so that I might stew in vicarious decadence.
“Is it endangered?” she asked the waiter.
“A fish that hasn’t evolved in 450 million years, endangered? Sister, apparently it’s evolutionary
perfection. Eat up, they’ll make more,” he chided.
I nodded in agreement and added, “Plus, they can hide for 80 million years at a time. That’s some serious hide-and-seek. I know I couldn’t do that.”
“No, because your attention deficit disorder kicks in after about a minute-and-a-half and you’re out wandering around.”
The Contessa’s words were lost on me – I was too distracted by the view of the kitchen afforded my table. Between sweeps of the kitchen doors I could spy the coelacanth, laid out on a stainless steel table as if were about to undergo an autopsy. I excused myself and ambled closer, made a friendly nod to my pal the chef and dodged through the kitchen doors.
Coelacanths put the “ick” in ichthys as the Greek in me might say (if I had any left). I could see my reflection in its shining black eye, which suddenly blinked. That’s when I realized that the hulking fish was still alive. It gasped, for air, or water, or – as it suddenly seemed in this moment – words.
I glowered back a moment before I realized the fish wasn’t insulting me.
“Eat of my flesh,” the fish elaborated.
“No. I’m allergic.”
“Drink of my blood.”
“Like that’s more appetizing.”
Nearby, the chef sharpened a knife with such alacrity that persistence of vision made it seem as though an “X” levitated between his hands. The fish looked over and sighed as if its pending butchery was routine, a bloodbath played out over millennia, more a nuisance than a death sentence.
“Makes you want to rethink that 80-million-year peek-a-boo game doesn’t it?”
“Not in the least. Been pronounced dead before and will be again. Remember, scribe, I’m a creature of time immemorial, you’re the flash in the pan.”
The chef’s blade fell with swift, merciful accuracy and I exited the kitchen for fear of losing my dinner before even eating it.
Later, while the Contessa savored a filet of the coelacanth, curiosity got the better of me.
“What does it taste like?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders.