Kage Baker was, as all her friends and fans know, an avid collector of strange “found objects”. The tendency of classical art and music, legendary writings, extinct animals and hitherto unsuspected entries into common genera to suddenly pop back into the world forms the bedrock of her Company series.
She started collecting these peculiar stories in the 1970’s; together, she and I amassed entire file boxes full of them. Our friends and family have gotten into the habit of sending them on to us when they find them, too. Thank you, all of you!
“Lost” musical pieces, plays and historic documents tended to get pride of place back at the beginning. Kage was always eager to see what had been misfiled in the Bodleian Miscellany, or found written in the margins of a quarto First Folio discovered in the 3rd story water closet of a estate house in Kent. My especial interest being biology, I concentrated on the resurrected woodpeckers, revenant fish and brand new rats that are still found in unexplored corners of the globe.
As Kage remarked, when the enormous and gaudy saola was discovered in Vietnam in 1992, “You’ve got to be searching in the corners of a globe to miss this thing for thousands of years!” The saola, also called the Vietnamese ox, is actually a gazelle. Or maybe a deer. Maybe even a primitive bovine – no one is sure. But it’s as big as a cow and a rich chestnut colour, with symmetric white streaks on its face like makeup in a Noh play. It has two straight horns but it’s hard to tell if they are effective defense: they curve back over its shoulders like pompadoured unicorn horns. It exudes musk from long slits in its cheeks, which it flaps open and closed like gills. It’s beautiful. And weird. And not even the local people knew it was there, amid the muntjic deer and the water buffalo …
Searching the corners of a globe became Kage’s catch-phrase for how the these things all get found. Those corners are where Mozart hid his finished Requiem, where Liebnitz forgot the conclusive proof that he invented calculus before Newton; and it’s where Orson Welles stashed his lost, first film Too Much Johnson. That last one, by the by, surfaced only recently in an Italian warehouse – the hilariously titled work will debut in October of this year, at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Hardy har har, eh?
It’s been a busy few weeks for these Company drops. The acquisition of treasures they store away doesn’t make the news, of course. The entire idea is to remove them from the abrasive flow of Time, so they can re-emerge at some safer, happier, more lucrative time. With things like films and documents, there is not too much trouble for the operatives who collect them; you have to provide a safe and undisturbed cache for these things, but you don’t have to worry about feeding them. You don’t have to muck out the stalls for the liturgical masterpieces, or make sure the unknown masterwork of a gifted novelist meets an unknown masterwork of a comparable pedigree, so as to breed more of ’em.
Some rare animals can be trusted to increase and multiply in the wild, under minimal supervision. Somewhere in the cloud forests of Ecuador, insanely cute little mammals called olinquito have been happily thriving in the jungle canopy. They’re small, fuzzy, cousins to raccoons and probably scrumptiously munchable – and somewhere else in the cloud forest some hermitage-inclined operative has been watching over them until the Smithsonian would get its act together and come “discover” them. And if they are almost hand-tame for the eager scientists, and if they’ve been bred to maximize their adorableness – well, it gets boring out there in the cloud forests, with nothing to do but keep the harpy eagles from eating too many olinquito.
The operatives who specialize in unknown fuzzies like this are known to the other Operatives as “The Teddy Bear Squad”. Their lives are lonely, and full of exotic hair balls.
So, live animals are tough to handle. Orson Welles’ maiden effort was safe in its can all these decades (aside from being viewed by a few fascinated operatives, I am sure). However, whoever is working on maintaining the lobster population of the US Eastern Seaboard must have been having a hell of a time. Keeping the lobsters alive is hard, even though the lobster fishing industry is a pretty well-ordered one. Keeping lobsters plentiful on site is harder, when you have to occasionally take an entire crop of, say, 2-year old lobsters and clandestinely sow them along the New England coast, hoping they will promptly start breeding.
Where have you been growing them until they mature? They have to be kept separated, or they eat each other. I have visions of plastic honeycombing in some unhappy operatives shower stall, each pentagon housing a single lobster like a really cranky Irish monk in his cell.
One thing for sure. Since the main job of this program is to make sure the lobsters don’t go extinct and the fishery doesn’t fail, the breeding stock is encouraged to go at it lustily. This brings all sorts of recessive genes to the fore, which may be the reason that orange, green, blue, yellow, pearly white, sooty black and outright freaking calico lobsters have been showing up in the traps. It’s been Skittles lobsters out there in recent years. Let’s hope a giant annoyed one doesn’t show up in Boston Harbor.
One of the calicos – black spots on an orange background – was pulled from the sea only this week, in fact. She will not be eaten, but rather donated to a life of ease and (hopefully) wild crustaceous sex in the Mystic Aquarium. Her name … is Katie.
You can’t make this stuff up. Not all of it, anyway.