Featured Image by Toni La Ree Bennett
In my study, at the bottom of a box marked “Family,” is a fossil. It’s a tiny fish, no bigger than the end of my thumb, imprinted on a rectangle of tawny sandstone the size of a domino. Someone split the stone so perfectly that it opened like the pages of a book to reveal a miniature form. There are slight abrasion marks around it, where the stone has been filed smooth. You can see the outline of the fish’s minuscule curved spine, its tail fin, and the bigger, darker imprint of its head. On the back of the stone are traces of other once-living things, almost imperceptible: tiny plant remains, and a curving line that looks like a jointed worm of some sort. The whole thing fits in the palm of my hand.
I found it while going through papers in my father’s desk after he died. I have no idea how it came to be there, because it was originally mine. I bought it in Barcelona in 1999. So it wasn’t wrong to slip it in my pocket instinctively, although I should have asked my mother if she minded me reclaiming it. Seeing it reminded me of another, bigger fossil fish that I bought at the same time, as an impromptu present for my father. Standing at his roll-top desk, it suddenly felt very important that I find that other fish, too, the one I had given him. I remembered buying it so well. I rummaged through the drawers, trying to be methodical, although the contents were anything but organized: a jumble of old bank statements, used checkbooks, membership cards to conservation groups, leaky pens, old coins, correspondence, ink bottles, letter openers, photos, paperweights, blotting paper, brochures for care agencies and nursing home directories. No big fish to be found. I’d have to settle for the little one.
Where does this story start? How far back should I go? My little fossil fish could be as old as the Devonian period, 416 million to 359 million years ago, known as “the Age of Fishes.” The earth was a warm place in those days, and thousands of fish developed in the Devonian seas, named after Devon, in England, where the old sandstone of that era was first studied. Or my fossil could be from later in the Paleozoic Era, or even from its end, when the Permian Mass Extinction wiped out 95% of all living things on earth.
Should I start with the word fossil itself, which, like all words, contains a series of layered meanings stretching back over time? It originates with the Latin verb fodere, to dig; some thousands of years later it became, in English, “anything dug up,” and eventually fossil, “the geological remains of a plant or animal” by the mid-sixteenth century. But it’s not, apparently, related to “fossicking,” to rummage around in, to search for gold or gemstones in a place that’s already been mined. It sounds like they should be related, and maybe, distantly, they are. Fossicking is what I’m doing here, though: rummaging through the past, trying to find what’s precious.
Does this story start with my father as an undergraduate, studying first Natural Sciences and then switching, after two years, to Archaeology & Anthropology? Or with the way he always used to notice stones, always knew what they were made of and when they were formed? Does it start with him picking up flints on our walks over the chalky hillsides of the South Downs near Epsom, when I was maybe five? He always pointed them out, always looked to see if they’d been chipped into blades, always showed them to me. Flint, he’d say, was something you found in lumps, always formed in chalky seas. “A kind of hard, sedimentary quartz.” He talked that way even to a five-year-old. I also remember him picking up Devil’s toenails out of the ploughed furrows of my uncle’s fields in the Fens, the flat, marshy lands in the east of England, where my mother had grown up. Rather gruesome hunks of rock they were, humped as the nails of an old man, and vaguely reminiscent of deformed snails. He’d point out the growth bands still visible in the stone. “A kind of oyster,” he’d say. “They lived on the sea bed in the shallow waters that covered the whole of England, the whole of Europe.”
My father was always looking for evidence of the past, the strata laid down over time. I remember him taking me badger watching one summer evening, as a child of six. I was excited to be up late, out at dusk, and walking down a narrow path that Dad explained was an old Roman road. There was a veiled excitement and marvel in his voice as he said it. I could almost feel the press of the past there, as if I might hear the tramp of legionaries’ feet if I just listened hard enough. And as our family chronicler, Dad was farsighted. He knew how time passes and identities get lost. He wrote the names, date, and place on the back of every photograph he ever took, as if he knew that after he was gone, someone would eventually look back and wonder Who are these people? When was this taken? Where are they?
Does it start with our inability to be close? His impenetrable distance, my withdrawal? With the way he threatened to leave the imprint of his hand on my backside when I wasn’t obedient, when I answered back? Or does it start with his letters: three decades of them, to me in college, then in Spain, then in America? Every week or two, he wrote me a letter listing the family’s latest activities, his affection never expressed but shown—I realize with hindsight—by his constancy as a letter writer.
Does it start with what damaged him—a father who only survived starvation in a series of Japanese POW camps because he was a natural scientist, a botanist, who knew which plants carried the most vitamins? Who didn’t die, and died, at the same time? “We were virtual strangers,” Dad said, “all our lives.” Where do the strata of compressed pain in our family begin?
The only reason I remember buying the fish is because I wrote about it at the time. I even typed it up on my laptop, and I must have stored it on one of second-generation computer disks—the 3.5 inch ones that are now extinct—because I have the fragment still. It’s a valuable relic, because my journals for the year in Barcelona in 1999 got lost at sea: I packed them into big cardboard boxes and mailed them back to the U.S. the slower, cheaper way, but the box with the journals arrived mostly empty, a battered shell, a relic. I was heartbroken, imagining my journals in the hold of some ship, waterlogged, or spilling onto the floor of one of the many vans they traveled in, rendered anonymous and worthless, tossed in a garbage can. One of the few memories of that year that survives is the fish, but the memory itself is a fossil, a remnant of an era that is past and gone, never to return—my young adulthood, my dad recently retired, Spain in its EU boom years. Me in Barcelona, with my American husband in tow, and my world in shards: trying to write my way out of a recent, unplanned pregnancy which had ended with a frantically arranged abortion just before we left, trying to take the helm of my life and wrench it around in an entirely new direction.
The main train station in Barcelona, the Estació de Sants, was close to the apartment I shared with my husband in the Barri de Sants in 1999. It was an unlikely setting for an antique dealer: new and clamorous, with gleaming fake-marble floors littered with cigarette ends and a low ceiling that amplified the sound of voices and footsteps and the roar and screech of trains arriving and departing from the platforms below. It was often hard to hear the announcements of train times and destinations, in a recorded female voice that echoed from the loudspeakers in Catalan and Spanish. The noise ricocheted around the varnished surfaces, acquiring a shimmering consistency of its own. The air was vitiated by smoke and engine fumes, but the sunlight streaming in through the big glass doors was pure Iberian gold, full of promise. Travelers and commuters were always hurrying for their trains. Young foreign tourists wearing backpacks milled around indecisively, causing eddies in the flow of bodies, like heavy branches snagged in a river in full spate.
There was a lot for sale in the warren of little businesses in the station. One I sometimes stopped at was a place that sold crunchy slices of Cataluña’s signature pa amb tomàquet (toast drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with garlic and a fresh tomato), and croissants glazed with sugar water; but there was also a newspaper kiosk, a currency exchange office, a candy store, a jewelry store, a tattoo parlor, and a public locutorio where you could sit and make a phone call in relative peace. You had to be assigned a cabin by one of the bored, scarlet-taloned girls at the counter, and you’d walk into a glass closet stinking of stale tobacco and acrid red wine, and pick up the phone. You paid for your call after you were done. When calling my parents in England, I used to go there instead of trying to call from a phone booth on the street, which gobbled coins at a sickening rate and had a nasty habit of cutting me off mid-sentence. I felt slightly less likely to be fleeced by Telefónica in a locutorio, and I had a better chance of being able to hear properly.
One Monday, as I emerged tired and sweaty from the grimy depths of the metro at the end of the day, I saw something new: an array of trestle tables set up in the middle of the station. In the middle, a small, middle-aged man with dark hair and wire-rimmed spectacles sat perched on a stool, hunched over, reading a book. He was there again on Wednesday and Friday. The weeks went by and I got used to him being there, in the midst of the cacophony, three times a week. He rarely seemed to have any clients. I was always in too much of a hurry to stop and look, until the day my father came on a visit. Coming back from our sight-seeing trip, he veered away from me and made a beeline for the tables, characteristically not pausing to ask if I was interested. His fine, white hair was sticking up as usual, like thistledown in disarray, and he was discordantly clad (in that city of exquisite dressers) in a khaki army vest with dozens of pockets, his walk stiff-backed and pugnacious. I followed, half-frustrated, half-intrigued.
The man was selling an odd assortment of things: old books with coarse, yellowing paper and small, faint print; second-hand philosophy and sociology texts with preposterous titles; best-selling novels from the fascist era, with energetic heroines who never give in to tears and end up marrying aristocrats; sepia photographs; motley collections of crystal and silverware; brocade ball-room purses; old brooches and costume jewelry; a pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses; gilt china vases and African wooden carvings; peacock feathers; atlases; a picture of a pot of pansies with a woman’s name beneath, all made out of human hair mounted under a convex glass frame; out-of-date encyclopedias; round, whorled ammonites, priced according to size, some as small as a thumb nail; and a thousand-year-old fly, perfectly preserved in a cube of amber.
My father paused excitedly over the fly, but then he was drawn to something else. He picked it up and examined it reverently, as if weighing it, his big, rough fingers suddenly gentle. He held it out to me, his face alight with enthusiasm: a complete fossil fish, a hand span long, lying clean and whole on a mass of soft grey stone, which must once have been primeval mud. The man with spectacles looked up from his book with sudden respect and told me its estimated age, but I instantly forgot whether it was tens or hundreds of thousands of years old. Over a thousand I get disoriented. Incalculably old, it was also homely, exactly like the fish I saw in silver mounds in the nearby Sants market. It had a plump body like a large sardine, with every scale intact, the outline of its fragile tail and dorsal fins perfectly preserved. The price was not exorbitant, but certainly enough to give one pause. My father held it for a long time, turning it over, stroking its scales, excited and wistful like a child outside a shop window. The way he touched it gave me a pang. He would never spend that much on himself, but he couldn’t put it down.
As he exclaimed to me about its age and beauty, I was struck by how that stone fish freed something in him, making him come alive, spontaneous, trusting, and full of boyish exuberance. We continued on our way, but once we got to the apartment I made some excuse and hurried back. Panting, I caught the antique dealer just as he was packing up. He seemed surprised and gratified. I asked him for the big fossil and, on impulse, also a little tadpole-sized fossil minnow on a rectangle of sandstone, as a keepsake for me. He took my money, wrapped the big fish up in layers of newspaper, and gave me a little card in a plastic container showing its age and name in copperplate script. I carried the package home to give to my father, aware of my heartbeat, aware that I was holding a piece of stone so ancient it was holy. Carrying the sedimented past with awe.
When I gave it to him, he was back to his usual, guarded self. He was surprised and clearly pleased, but faintly stunned and hesitant, as if unschooled in receiving gifts, not sure how to react. He didn’t, of course, gush over it, or hug me, always wary of revealing too much. He didn’t say very much at all, actually. But it made me happy. It was the only time I’d intuited a yearning in him and felt moved to meet it, the only time I glimpsed him as he must have been as a boy, before he was my father, and the weight of responsibilities began to turn him into the stony man at the heart of our family.
I’m guessing the fossil I gave him is somewhere in my parents’ house, in his chest of drawers upstairs, perhaps, which my mother still has not had the heart to touch. I have the little one, though. I suddenly remember that it was my father, the big fish in our household, who taught me to swim, a gift that’s enriched my whole life. It fostered strength, independence and often joy in me. Will my love for my father—and now my son—last as long as the little fossil in my study, I wonder? Will it be forgotten, or will it leave traces that future generations will be able to decipher? There’s no way to know, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. Love just goes on accumulating silently, falling, drifting to the bottom, buried in time.