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Muscae Volitantes

July 8, 2009

“Nothing at all of this is fixed” – Alexander Calder

The Archie comic books Peel read as a child were filled in the back with illustrated ads for novelties: pocket spy telescopes, silent dog whistles, whoopee cushions and finger choppers, the sort of cheap plastic diversions that briefly delight young boys. He had coveted the X-ray glasses in particular, sincerely believing that once in his possession, the secret anatomy of girls would be magically revealed.

An expedition between sofa cushions and down to the bottom of his mother’s spacious pocketbook yielded the $1.67 needed to secure these miracles of modern engineering – think of it! Glasses that let you see through people’s clothes! Peel worried they might not stop there, for true X-rays shown straight through to the bone. It would be a letdown, to put it mildly, if all he was able to discern when gazing upon his neighbor and classmate Sue Foley with his new X-ray specs was her lousy skeleton.  

It seemed like months before they finally arrived in the mail, wrapped in brown paper. He came home from school, discovered the package there on the kitchen counter and tore into it like a kid on Christmas. Inside was a pair of thick, black plastic frames with cardboard lenses, each with a small hole through which to see, each printed with a concentric red circle that reminded Peel of the goggle-eyed look cartoon characters got when they were drunk or hypnotized.  He almost put them on right there, almost looked at his mother in order to test their awesome power but caught himself (what if they actually worked? That was a sight he did not want to see) and charged upstairs to his parents’ bedroom instead, into their closet where he flipped the light switch, put on the glasses and stepped before their full length mirror.  He couldn’t see his naked body, nor could he see his skeleton. Nothing but an optical illusion, a trick on the eyes:  two images of his self overlapping, a dark one offset from a lighter grey one, gave the impression of something bony and hard beneath the skin. Disheartened, his excitement crushed, Peel put the X-ray specs away in a desk drawer and forgot about them. His mother discovered them years later, and after trying them on to sate her curiosity, threw them away with the garbage.

The Sea Monkeys, another of those comic book curiosities, brought similar disappointment. The ad proclaimed “Instant Pets! So eager to please, they can even be trained!”  There was something so appealingly anthropomorphic about the miniature nuclear family the illustration portrayed: sister, the smallest, a baby really, tucked under her mother’s arm; brother, slightly older (about Peel’s age, in fact), with skinny arms and legs extending from a bulb shaped body and a crown of three antennae-like doo dads that grew from the top of his head; dad standing behind them, one hand on his hip, the other resting on his son’s back, with his tail swung around, strategically placed to cover what young Peel could only surmise was his proportionately small but physiologically familiar genitals. But Sea Monkey mom, she was the real reason to scrimp and save $1.25; she was the feature attraction. Sea Monkey mom was hot, sitting there with her lithe legs crossed (also hiding something, Peel was certain), her full red lips turned up in a coy, come hither smile, her almond eyes and long dark lashes, her blond bob and that ever-present red bow tied to her middle antenna.

Peel planned to raise his little, subaqueous family and observe them with an objective, scientific eye. He had his suspicions about the mechanics of intimacy, and needed to verify through direct observation. The fishbowl would be his laboratory, the Sea Monkeys his subjects, for if they truly looked like this, like man and woman modified for life beneath the waves, and if together they’d borne two children, then surely they were practiced at the mysterious art of “doing it,” as the kids at school would say. Peel had no older siblings, no younger ones either, so when it came to the really important information,  the runes of adolescence, the useful tutorial, the good stuff, he was forced to rely on whatever educational materials were at hand. Sea Monkeys seemed like his best and only opportunity to witness for himself what all the fuss was about. If the picture on the package was any indication, Sea Monkeys looked a lot like grown-up people, and so would, by logical extension, have a lot to teach about the way grown-up people interact with one another when children were not present.

It didn’t bode well that his new pets arrived freeze dried in a small foil pouch, but he was willing to suspend his skepticism for the time, willing to follow the simple instructions, wait it out, anxious to see what transpired. He wanted to believe. With his teeth he carefully tore open the pouch and emptied its contents, brown dust, nothing more, into an empty peanut butter jar filled with cold tap water. He stirred with a teaspoon. He watched, and waited.

In less than a day the water was teeming with dozens of microscopic larvae. Young Peel placed the jar in a sunny window and observed the activity within through the lens of a magnifying glass. The creatures swimming about bore no resemblance to humans at all, not even in passing. With their milky white, translucent skin, their beady black eyes and their multiple spindly legs in constant motion, they resembled something alien. “They look like bugs,” he later mumbled to his mother, affecting his standard pose of disaffection; slouched shoulders, hands in pockets, hair in eyes, prodding at something invisible on the linoleum floor with the white rubber toe of his sneaker.

Despite his discouragement, he fed them regularly and watched them grow. They were entertaining for awhile, cavorting about their makeshift aquarium, executing their limited repertoire of water-borne tricks, a standard array of formations including backstroke, crawl and the occasional somersault. He observed them having sex as well, a congress he at first mistook for fighting.  Sea Monkey sex appeared hostile and injurious, two bodies grappling one another with their manifold legs, tussling for dominance like kids on the playground. There was no telling one shrimp from another, male from female even, until some ended up with tiny sacs of orange eggs clinging to their underbellies; the eggs hatched in time, and the little underwater utopia went on like that, self propagating, until young Peel had seen enough and left them to perish from neglect. In time the water in their jar turned brackish and brown, and his mother made him flush it down the toilet.

I’ve started this story about a half-dozen times over the years. This latest version was written in February 2009; it remains nowhere near finished. “Muscae Volitantes” is the Latin term for floaters, those spots you sometimes see drifting across your field of vision. Where should it go from here? Let me know if you have an idea…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathy Whitney permalink
    July 13, 2009 8:06 am

    Sean, I loved this most recent story you posted. It was so vividly written that I felt like I was right there with Peel. Keep up the good work! As to helping you with a continuation of the story, I don’t think I can help you there. At 61 all my creative juices have just about dried up. K/M/G

  2. Jim Hill permalink
    July 15, 2009 2:25 pm

    I think the next logical step has to be the Charles Atlas Body for young Mr. Peel.

    Good stuff, Sean.

  3. Todd Whitney permalink
    July 22, 2009 8:34 am

    Sean, great story,I could relate. In my day it was either Sear’s catelog (lady’s lingerie) or national geographic.

  4. Traci Richards permalink
    August 6, 2009 6:47 pm

    Great little story! It reminds me of how hard I tried to find those darn Sea Monkeys for my nephew, Josh. He was 8 at the time. I think I ended up ordering them online. Not sure if they lasted much longer than Peel’s.

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