An illustrated novel for children.
Read the first two chapters below and contact me for more info.
Un roman illustré pour (grands) enfants. Lisez les deux premiers chapitres (en Anglais) ci-dessous et contactez moi pour plus d’infos.
by Cécile Simonis
Through the Liopleurodon’s ribs, you could see her sleeping bag lying behind the column, wedged in that tiny space by the thickest stone wall. Next to it, a camping cooker and a clean plate, knife and fork. Yesterday night’s dishes. And piles of big sheets of paper in vague disorder.
After a couple of weeks, it had started to feel like home. She liked it a lot now, even though it was a bit cold at night, even in June.
The big skeletons hadn’t been covered yet. Maybe the maintenance and conservation team wouldn’t need to do it. She wasn’t a splashy painter and the museum director seemed to trust her with that, as with everything else. She had told him that she would prefer seeing the skeletons uncovered rather than big white ghosts peering at her from underneath the sheets. It would have felt wrong not to see them: After all, the work was about them. ‘Of course, of course’, the museum director had said, his round eyes getting even rounder. His high voice reverberated from the metal poles holding the plesiosaur. ‘We must not do anything that would hinder your inspiration! Under no circumstances! I am with you, my dear. With you!’ He was a bit funny, she thought, fearing the beginning of a headache. But she was glad for the support.
Under his direction, the glass cabinets had been pushed towards the middle of the room wherever it was possible, giving her easy access to the walls. And the scaffolding had already been in place before she arrived. Everything had been done to help her do her work. Apart from the lack of an advance payment, it was perfect. And on that subject, the museum director was supportive too: ‘Unfortunately out of my hands, my dear. Finance.. you see what I mean’ he had said with a broad, theatrical swipe of the arm and a seemingly sincere air of sorrow. ‘But not to worry’, he brightened up ‘not to worry, the accountants are not forgetting you, I promise.’ His surprisingly long arms neary managed to hug one of her shoulders as they carried on their walk through the main hall. Her hall. She wasn’t worried about the payment or anything else, and she barely listened to his explanations and comments. She was eager to start.
The first disturbance came from the well-meaning paleontologists.
Her drawing had been appearing rapidly on the walls.
Meters and meters and meters.
Legs, claws, tails, jaws, volcanoes and ferns. Rocks and swamps, grainy coastlines, pebbles, feathers, scales. Bent muscles and relaxed muscles.
Meters of wandering and encounters, quick looks and crashes. Of course, sometimes a creature was eating another (that was unavoidable). But most of the time they were just having a stroll, or gliding in the hot air currents, basking in the sun, rolling in the water.
In a fast succession of panels, funky worms and determined newly-vertebrated wanderers suddenly grew teeth, flippers, fins, feet, frills and unbelievable necks. Huge eggs, queer habits, a sneaky look behind palm-like trees. Fur, punk tusks, iridescent feathers, acrobatic flights. In a rush of lines, suddenly they were there. Claws at the ready and eyes wide open.
She had been careful to keep a good balance between all the families and species, and not to forget any of the museum’s big stars. These familiar fossils and assembled skeletons were now gathered in the center of the room, waiting rigidly to see their nonchalant past selves appear on the wall.
The painter was quite pleased so far, actually, looking at it. It was still early, but the mural was taking shape very well.
(Of course, she would never have dared to say so out loud: As all painters know, that’s how you jinx it. So she smiled at it silently).
When the first drawing had been done on the plaster, the paleontologists and researchers started to come timidly to have a look. They were always really polite and would bring her cups of coffee and say ‘Sorry to intrude’, ‘May I’, ‘Would it possibly be ok to have a look’, and all these sorts of things.
They were quite shy too. And impressed. Maybe a bit moved to see the subjects of their research look at them like that, proud and bold, from such great heights. They would not have dared, the scientists. It was like jumping on the stegosaurus’ high plinth and shouting their latest discoveries directly to the crowds. They would never have dared.
They blushed, some of them, when they looked at her drawing on the wall.
They were really really pleased.
They were so pleased that they soon started considering the painter one of their own. She was a museum dweller too now, after all. The main difference was that their offices were in the new build 1950’s extension, just by the corridor. And her place was in the beautiful old hall, with its thick walls that kept the air cool. They liked taking refuge in her hall when their small rooms got stuffy under the thin flat roof, and their students started knocking at their doors too much as the academic year came to an end. The painter’s hall was still, airy and old. Its implacable columns and wooden floor, its high ceiling and her calm manner helped them settle. There, they could remember how much they liked contemplating, and just waiting, really. How much of a scientists’ life should be spent in silence, moving papers around, crossing and correcting, slowly, as she did. But of course, they couldn’t help chatting to her, disturbing the peace and making noise, because she listened so well. And at first, she didn’t mind at all.
As the paleontologists grew fond of her, with their offerings of coffee started to come erupting muffins and carefully home baked crumbles. Primordial soups of crunchy dough and blackberries. Then marbled cakes with sedimental layers of chocolate, separated by airy sponge. She was touched (and often quite full). Who knew paleontologists were such good bakers? And nice company too!
Without noticing, she started to speak a little bit like them. In long sentences that would slow down and stop, and then start again in a rush, following a fast moving idea.
Her forehead felt longer, and more prone to creasing. Her ears got more mobile and tingly.
Then came the finely moulded cookies on Professor Otger’s tray.
And, with the cookies, the first shy professional confidences and suggestions.
Once his tray was securely put on the painter’s stool, Professor Otger, a plump and bouncy paleontologist, came fidgeting. One sign of excitement in Professor Otger, the painter discovered, was this habit he had of clicking his pen while having a particularly interesting conversation. And that day, the pen was clicking hard and fast. He had just discovered that the plates on the back of the Dacentaurus had in fact been big spines. (There wasn’t exactly a consensus on that just yet, but his paper would be published next month and him and his team were expecting their research to be broadly accepted very soon after). They didn’t know what the spines were for, if it was defence, heat regulation, mating fanciness. But surely, they were bound to find out soon.
‘Do you think that maybe we could, I mean you not we of course, you, you know what I mean, But I don’t want to cause any trouble, I mean, if we could show that maybe, perhaps..’
How exciting, thought the painter. And she quickly changed the shape of the beast, guided by the scientist’s enthusiastic clicks and thorough descriptions.
The day after, it was Professor Afan’s turn. A stern and athletic looking woman in her fifties, Professor Afan had just captured a clipboard with data she didn’t like on it. She decided to look at it later. Instead, she came to see the painter with a blueberry crumble and two double espressos. She wanted to share new discoveries on and old favourite of hers, the Graciliraptor.
It now appeared to have had feathers all over (probably purple, probably iridescent) and a sophisticated tuft at the back of its head. It should be more muscular too, she said.
The painter changed it straight away and made a note on the colour plan. Iridescent purple! She would have to change the sunset’s hue as well. That was going to be quite a show.
The paleontologist smiled at the result, and couldn’t help but give a rare small shriek of approval.
Showing science as it happened, sharing it with the world while it was still hot from the oven (so to speak) was such a privilege. The painter loved the conspiratory tone of the scientists, letting her know the latest news from the past, making themselves taller to bring their hushed voices to her ears. It made her fur prickle a little on the back of her neck and her ears blush as she grew a bit smaller to hear them better.
And it made the shadows of the columns grow longer in conspiracy, brushing their secrets against one another as the evening slid in.
The painter walked silently on the floorboards, avoiding the ones that creaked, at the end of the day’s work. She surveyed her panels. As she got to know the creatures she was drawing better, she felt a higher sense of pride and ownership. On the wall, the graciliraptor rolled his muscles and ruffled his feathers. She streched her neck and, straightening her broad back, walked on with a smile. This was going to be a great painting. This time, she nearly said it. Had she said it out loud? Had she?
Of course, once some paleontologists had lead the way, all the other ones came too. A crescendo of revelations. The Gilmoreosaurus needed to stand on its rear legs. The Sphaerotholus may have had an anti-gravity gland (although that one was controversial, so could she make it hover just a tiny bit, as a sort of nod to the people in the know, if you see what I mean). The Noasaurus had a split tongue, which it might have used to clean in between its two smallest claws (could we show that instead of the egg scene?). So many thrilling discoveries. So many excited scientists. So many pen clicks. So many pieces of cake.
But, after three weeks, it appeared that the painter was getting thinner and dangerously smaller, pushed down. Fading away. Crumbling, maybe, like her tired erasers.
Everything changed constantly, slipping away from her, a receding tide of strange uncoverings that changed the very shape of the sea. She felt as if her feet were disappearing, and her painting too, shrinking to a crushed pile of details.
She had lost the overview. She could only see sizes of claws, shapes of scales. The wall got darker underneath her nervous networks or hesitations and corrections, pushing and pulling one another. This wasn’t good.
She was now definitely more nocturnal.
She worked after hours, when they were all away at home, maybe baking their big news for the next day. During the day, she hid behind a column, or behind the plesiosaur, scribbling tiny tentative sketches, and hiding them in her pocket. Her shaky arms looked too long, too heavy, trying to stretch out to impossibly small features high up, near the ceiling, where no one would ever look at them. She tried, in the poor evening light, to finish some silhouettes. Fix them before they became obsolete in the morning, in that knackering cycle of excitement and suppositions.
Was it overwork? She was perhaps getting a bit delirious. Seeing the lines moving, the colour notations shifting, writing things back at her. ‘It is hopeless’, the lines on the walls would say. ‘You’ll be here forever’. She was startled by the faintest noise. The rogue pigeons in the eaves russling their feathers. The big and gentle maintenance worker coming to catch them. She used to say hello. Now she hid.
Her paws shaking, she tried to drink some coffee someone left there for her, with a note asking for a lengthening of tail. It was a miracle the cup hadn’t been smashed to tiny pieces yet. Her breathing sounded like hiccups.
She bent over, holding her stomach, as a nasty cramp tightened its grip under her ribs.
As a solitary worker, the painter had expected to be left alone with her wall and the distant past of which she had been given a sort of visual custody. But it hadn’t happened that way. And soon even more creatures started to take an interest in her work. Not unlike the scientists, they had previousy been left alone, in a quiet-ish room, looking at specs of dust descending peacefully on their thoughts. But things had changed. The painter had come to their hall, dusting off centuries of relative immobility. It wasn’t surprising that it caught their eye, that it made them alert.
And from the glass cases and on the plinths, the fossils and skeletons, huddled together, were watching her with intense interest. Particularly the fossil number eleven, a Rhamphorhynchoid Dimorphodon pterosaur from Lyme Regis, who proudly recalled having been discovered by Mary Anning herself. The fossil claimed to have bitten her as she was chiselling around a piece of rock, maybe to catch her attention-or just so, on a whim. As revenge, it had been swiftly excavated. The other exhibits were not quite sure that they should believe that story. But Eleven was adamant, and very persuasive. Eleven’s eyes rarely left the painter and her drawing on the wall.
In the painter’s audience were also a cynical spinosaur who thought the painter was never going to finish her work at that rate, and that it would end up being painted over in a couple of generations anyway, so what was the point?. There was a slow sauropod, who was feeling old, all of a sudden, and would have liked to have been covered with a big white sheet, just for a month or two, as it had orignally been planned. There was an arty ichtyosaur fossil, itching to draw, who wanted her to put some colours in already. Particularly that sort of marine teal and light green he liked. A liopleurodon skeleton (nearly complete), worried that the seas were looking too quiet in the drawing so far. If it was going to be boring, she didn’t want to be in it. The archaeopteryx fossil didn’t care, as long as the feathers didn’t end up being all flat and dull, as it was often the case, sadly, in this type of work (or so he had been told). The Stegosaurus armatus was reserving her judgment, trying to be ‘reasonable’ as always, the other ones would sneeringly comment, ‘Acting all superior’, ‘talking all proper’. The theropods couldn’t agree on anything, and neither could the brachiopods (a sign that things really never change). The trilobites were laughing at it all, defiantly. The Tarchia was grumpy and couldn’t hide it anymore. He wanted to go back on his plinth, in his quiet corner, where he could think. Why was she taking so much time? The Dimetrodon too felt restless, and so did the Parasaurolophus. And obviously, the Triceratops was refusing to even look, as he couldn’t see his kind on the drawing (he had unfortunately been moved just behind a cabinet that was hiding a couple of finely drawn specimen from his view).
Amongst them all, the ammonites had the best spot: their case was the one closest to the left side of the scaffolding. They could see everything and had taken on the role of discribing it to the big ones behind. They felt really important and, for the first time in millenia, fully awake. They liked seeing all the tiny trilabites on the wall, all the little creatures, joyfully scattered here and there, looking exactly like them. It brought them close to remembering things, to nearly picturing what it was like, back then.
The fossils and skeletons were of course all shouting suggestions and, sometimes encouragements to the painter. But it seemed she couldn’t hear them at all.
They would cheer when the paleontologists made discoveries that made them look more like they really used to, and protest when they suggested preposterous things (which was often the case). They also spent a lot of time accusing each other of encouraging inaccurate alterations that made them look more stylish than they ever had, and rejecting characteristics that they had never liked, back then. Every night was a mess of bickering and accusations. ‘Don’t listen to Professor Vicar! He’s useless!’ ‘I was much bigger than that’. ‘I hate purple! I would never have had purple feathers’. ‘What would my mother have thought of this’. ‘Oh come on! Of course you did! I remember it very well’. ‘But you’re from the Devonian, you idiot! There is no way you could even have been there!’, ‘Can you guys even see colour? ‘Of course we can, what do you think we are, trilabites?’ ‘And what’s wrong with being a trilabite, may I ask’, ‘Oh no, not professor Pine, he’s obsessed with me and this stupid ‘Peaceful way of life of the smaller theropods’’. ‘Is that the crested title of his paper?’ ‘Oh poor you’. ‘I can’t take this anymore’. ‘Can she just not make up her mind and that will settle the matter? How many times is she going to change that frill? Whatever she paints, I don’t care! I just want to go back to my column’. ‘But you can’t be serious! If she listens to this charlatan, we’re all going to look like weaklings with jelly limbs!’ ‘No we won’t. You’re always dramatising’. ‘I won’t put up with being represented like this big war tank. I am a pacifist and always have been’. ‘How could you say that! You ate my great uncle!’ ‘‘Oh shut up!’ You’re just making it up’. ‘You can’t remember anything, admit it! Your brain has been gone for thousands of years, and just been replaced with gunk and shells and rotten things and..’. ‘I will not been talked to in this manner by some half imprint of a banal herbivore’..
And so it went, well into the night, as she was making slower and slower charcoal marks on the wall.
The painter eventually always fell asleep on the scaffolding, with her charcoal in her paw. And they would stop talking to look at her in silence, lovingly. They wished that they could wrap her in a blanket. They would have wanted to shelter her from the damp night that would soon stiffen her joints, as it stiffened theirs. But, of course, they couldn’t. So they fell asleep too. One by one, bone by bone.
Except for Eleven.
Eleven never slept.
Eleven was busy trying to focus.
Trying to remember.
Eleven remembered liking volcanoes and explosions, the thrill of it. They remembered liking touching the water too, with their pointy tail. Eleven remembered having a pointy tail. With a spike, maybe? Yes. There must have been a spike. A long one.
Eleven remembered flying. And this was the best thing, their absolute favourite thing. Wings, they had. Thin and wide, and strong. And hands on them. Claws. Claws, Eleven remembered, also on the feet. Sharp ones. Pterosaurs were sharp.
And teeth, definitely. Sharp too. And eyes, yellow, for looking far, and in the dark. And nostrils that moved.
And pockets too, under the wings, to keep a few useful things like bones and small fish for snacks.
Eleven hadn’t been drawn much yet by the painter. Just a rough outline, in an unnatural flight position. They suspected that the painter was planning on having their image quite far in the background. Even worse, it was probably going to be against the sun, out of focus.
Eleven wasn’t at all pleased with that. Not at all.
They remembered having fur on the tummy and liking making it big and fluffy when it was cold. And Eleven thought that they must have been a fast and ferocious animal. Someone to be feared. Yes. Pterosaurs should be feared. That was a good thing to focus on.
Eleven couldn’t remember if they had been a male or a female pterosaur, but that didn’t really matter. Maybe a bit of both. Or maybe something else. They couldn‘t remember how they had become trapped in these sediments and fossilised either. But that was a thing of the past and not something that interested them anymore.
Eleven couldn’t exactly remember what colour they had been, but they decided it would be good to be something dark, like the bats that would come near the windows of the great hall, sometimes, and that people would say were ‘spooky’. Spooky was good, for a pterosaur. And so they focused on that.
They focused on that and everything they could remember and decide on. Night after night. Day after day.
Eleven knew they had time, as time was what they had always had. But they had recently grown impatient, and felt that impatience very acutely every time they looked at this unsatisfactory, tiny, blurry outline on the wall that was supposed to represent them. That wasn’t good enough. And Pterosaurs should never settle for not good enough things.
So Eleven focussed.
All rights reserved, ©Cécile Simonis