Mary Anning

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Mary Anning was the leading Paleontologist of her day, but her era didn't include women. Undaunted, she found a way to persevere. Along the way, she found a helping hand from an unlikely source. It all happened one day...

Submitted: January 26, 2016

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Submitted: January 26, 2016

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MARY ANNING

The sun had not quite risen on this, the longest day of the year. Summer solstice had arrived, and so had Nigel Wallace’s long awaited journey to the south of England. A glance at the brightening sky let him know that yesterday’s clouds found somewhere else to go. Today would be his - his to explore the hidden vestiges that lay encased for millions of years, deep in the layers of rock found along Britain’s coast.

He walked to his washstand and poured a basinful of water from the ewer that sat beside it. As he examined his middle-aged face in the mirror, he couldn’t help but feel the ambivalence that followed him here to this moment. He could not contain his excitement knowing that he would soon be  scouring the soft clay  strata that bore the evidence of the mammoth beasts that once roamed this land. Nor could he expunge his elation emanating from the fact that he would be guided by the foremost authority on Ancient Creatures, as they were called. Yet, each shudder of glee found itself being balanced by the sobering affect inherited by most men in Nigel’s place. He is a wealthy aristocrat, it’s 1825, and his guide for today is a woman.

As he prepared the lather for this morning’s shave, he thought of the first time he heard about the ‘Queen  of  Fossil Hunters’, as they now referred to her. Her real name was Mary Anning. To the outside world, she was unknown and of little consequence. She was nothing more than another nameless, faceless soul doomed to the mercy of death, and death alone. But within the hallowed walls of the Royal British Paleontology Society, she was a treasure, as important a find as the fossils she uncovered near her home at Lyme Regis, on the south shores.

Nigel’s attention was drawn to the gentle knock on his door. It was the innkeeper’s wife letting him know that his breakfast was ready. Having traveled the day before, Nigel was less than a quarter hour from Lyme Regis, and Mary Anning’s home. The roar of the ocean’s surf, a short distance away, enticed him to pick up his pace as he finished dressing, and packed his chisels and brushes, tools of the trade. He made his way downstairs to the dining room where an ample  sampling of country cooking was set upon a large oak table.

After sating his hearty appetite on buttermilk scones and strawberries, eggs and sausages, tea and lemon water, he made his way to the inn’s livery, where a horse was made ready for the last leg of his journey.

“Just follow the main road and take the first junction on your left. Miss Anning’s is the only house between here and there. You can’t miss it, my lord.”, instructed the innkeeper.

“I’m in your debt, Master Innkeeper. I’ll make my return after dark.”

“I’ll instruct the Misses to keep a warm meal till then.”

With a nod of appreciation, Nigel Wallace turned his steed onto the old dirt road that looked as though it had seen its share of journeys. With the sun now fully above the long horizon, it seemed to lack the intensity of the season. He pondered the day that lay in its entirety before him.  ‘Good tidings indeed.’, he thought. A day free of  inclement weather and oppressive heat was more than he could have hoped for.

After a short distance, he came upon a less traveled pair of ruts that turned left from the main road. His eye followed the path until he could discern the outline of what appeared to be a house. Since this was the first structure he saw since leaving the inn, he assumed it was his destination, and coaxed his horse to move in its direction. As he neared a rise in the land, he could see the body of water that separated his country from someone else’s. He watched the endless queue of waves, waiting their turn to make land on the rocky shore, and  wondered about the secrets they’d unearth, allowing his eyes to be the first ones set upon them since their unfortunate incarceration. 

He took a deep breath and continued toward the house that was now making its own antiquity known. In spite of the warm weather, a continuous wisp of smoke poured from the stone chimney atop the roof, which bore the scars of ocean side life. There was a small window on each of the walls, and the front porch was in need of repair. Chickens ran amok within a wired confine that was both bent and rusted. A small lee sat behind the house where a cow held residence, and an old nag was tied up to a rail in front of an a pile of hay and a tub of water. Nigel steered his horse to the rail and dismounted. After tying the horse off, he made his way to the  house.

The front door was open wide, and Nigel peered inside without knocking. He took note that this abode was the complete opposite of the one he lived in. It was small, sparsely furnished, and seemed inadequate to combat the elements when they were at their worst. Cautiously, he stepped inside, as if fearing that his next footfall would penetrate its fragile floors. Turning  a corner, he elicited an involuntary gasp as he caught sight of the fossil display that sat upon some makeshift shelves. His uncontrolled excitement was enough to stir the figure behind the door that separated the two rooms. As the curtain parted, Nigel caught sight of her. 

Mary Anning had developed a reputation - of her own device - which preceded her to this moment. She was known as someone familiar to bitterness, and suffered no inhibition in showing it. Her complexion was pale, made more dramatic by her dark hair which was pulled back into a tight bun. Her face was angular and  cross. She bore no pretense of a smile as she made her way across the room, and although not completely free of beauty, was someone who would not have warranted a second look from Lord Nigel Wallace, had he merely passed her on a street. She wore a blouse that was clean and freshly ironed, but showed its age around the fringes, and a long apron that stretched to the floor.  She curtsied in a peasant-like manner.

“Your servant, Lord Wallace.”

“Your servant, Miss Anning.”, he replied, bowing with practiced grace. “Please accept my apologies for entering your home this way. Your door was open and I caught sight of your collection.” Mary stared for a moment at her guest, studying his face and attire. His eyes lacked the stress inherent to those who toiled from day to day. His clothes, though ready for the occasion, were impeccable in their tailoring. And a quick glance of his hands let her know that he was completely free from labour.

“Apologies are not necessary, my Lord. As a guest in my home - unsuitable, though it may be - feel free to have it as your own.”

“Miss Anning, your home is...”

“Not what you’re used to, my Lord?”, she interruped.  Nigel found himself looking at his shuffling feet, unable to answer. “Lord Wallace, we have been brought together today in the name of science, and science is about truth. May this be at the heart of all we do.”

“Very well, Miss Anning. Truth, it will be. I’m not only here as an amateur fossil hunter, but also to assay those in the Society who think I’m missing out on something, never having made your acquaintance, nor basked in your knowledge about a subject dear to my heart.” Nigel’s words, though tempered, betrayed the indignation he was trying to hide. It brought a wry smile to Mary’s reddening face.

“Very good, my Lord. When one digs through the layers of time, and finds a fossil - the remains of something that died long ago - it’s important to be able to tell the difference from one animal to another.”, she said, in an even, measured way.

“Madame, why do I get the feeling that your words go deeper than the tools you use in your vocation?” 

“There is nothing so deep about me or my work, that the sea didn’t wash away long ago.” Mary looked out the window at the Cobb - the break-wall that protected the harbour of Lime Regis. Throughout her life, it was the only true protection she had ever known. “The ebb and tide of life and time has stripped away any secrets that lay beneath our surfaces, my Lord.”

“You sound as though you have regrets of this cleansing.”

“Just one.”, she said, the early morning sun catching her eye as it danced on the water’s surface.

“And what would that be, Miss Anning?” Mary turned to look at the aristocrat who stood before her, her expression mirroring the chill she felt within.

“My womanhood.”

Nigel found his feet again and stared at them with some shame. It was as though she’d read his mind without his consent. Invaded his thoughts the same way she invaded the cliffs that lay below them. He would need to find another measure of care with his intentions and beliefs this day. He lifted his head as his eyes found the fossil collection once more. It was difficult for him to hide his admiration for the pile of artifacts that littered the shelves and tables in the corner. 

Mary seized the moment and walked over to the nearest fossil, a feathery like embossment, creamy in colour, and picked it up.

“Do you know what this is, my Lord?”, she asked, as she handed it to him. Nigel studied the piece as he gently ran his fingers over its edges.

“I can’t say I’ve ever seen this one before. Am I correct in assuming that this is a tail?”

“You have a good eye, my Lord. It is a tail, but from ‘what’ is still a mystery.” Nigel became visibly excited at the prospect of having an undiscovered, unnamed creature in his hands. Very few men found themselves in this position. He’d only met one other man who had a ‘first’, as they called them. Nigel would beg this gentleman to tell him his story of discovery over and over again. Now, in his grasp, were the bones of his own story.

“Is there more? I mean, in the ground still? That you know of, that is?” Mary was not above enjoying the upper hand, when  presented to her. Her contempt for the men who ran the Paleontology Societies throughout Europe, begrudging her the acclaim she had earned, was without limit. She had two of the most important ‘firsts’ in her young life, and was on the verge of another. Yes, the upper hand was sweet, indeed.

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps? Are we going there today?” Nigel lost any sense of dignity that he may have arrived with. He was like a child going to the circus for the first time. His voice grew high, and even cracked on occasion. He found himself  starring deeply into Mary’s eyes, beseeching her assent to further the joy he now felt. Mary savoured the moment.

“Well, I was going to take you to a spot where I am uncovering another Ichthyosaurus. It is proving to be larger than the first one I found. Have you had the chance of viewing that fossil, Lord Wallace?”

“I  visited with Mr. Henry Henley many years ago. I was barely out of my teens, and was traveling with my father. Is that the fossil you speak of?”

“It is one and the same, my Lord. I’m honoured that you had the chance to spend some time with it.” Mary couldn’t help but feel a sense of self congratulation at times like this, rare as they were. “But perhaps we could go to the spot where I’m looking for the rest of this one.”, she said, as she pointed to the tail in Nigel’s hands. 

“Oh, Miss Anning, I can’t tell you what it would mean to me to spend my day digging up a new species. I would gladly double your fee for such a rare opportunity.” 

“Well, I’m quite anxious to get back and see what has happened to Blackie this week.”

“Blackie, Miss Anning?”

“Oh, forgive me, my Lord. Blackie is my nickname for this one. I give them a name until the Society renames it for me. This one I’ve found near Black Ven.”

“I see. Thus Blackie.”

“Okay, Lord Wallace. Your conditions are agreeable to me.”, Mary said, as she reached behind her and undid her apron strings, and removed the cover to reveal that she was wearing a pair of black trousers.

“Miss Anning! Surely you don’t expect me to accompany a lady dressed in man’s attire, do you?”

“You are not accompanying me anywhere, my good sir.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Simply this. To accompany me would make us some kind of equals. We’re not. I’m the guide. That makes you the follower. While we’re at it, not only will I wear these pants, for they have saved my life before, but I will gladly don a corset if you promise to do the same.”

Nigel stood silently, in disbelief. The pants were astonishing enough, but the tone taken with him, was something he was unaccustomed to. Not since he was a boy, and he’d been caught on a part of the estate forbidden to him, had anyone talked  in such a manner. For a moment, he considered a full retreat. What could possibly make him stay? 

Sensing the situation she had caused, Mary picked up the tail she called Blackie, and offered it to Nigel. As if hypnotized, he lost himself in its wonder.

“Lord Wallace, please forgive my harshness. But I’ve been victim to these cliffs more than once. I spent my entire seventh summer in bed with a broken leg. It happened when a clay ledge gave way and caught my petticoat, dragging me into a crevice. It took my father and several of the town’s men to dig me out. Two months later, when I was ready to head back to the cliffs, my father tossed me a pair of my brother’s trousers. He said to me, ‘Mary, don’t let anyone tell you that the cliffs are no place for a woman. But it is no place for a woman’s clothing.’ 

Mary fell silent as she let the moment pass. She desperately needed the money she would earn this day, but it had to be her way. She knew better. She watched as Nigel continued to study the fossil. He turned it around several times and then set it down on the table.

“All right, Miss Anning. You win. But only if we dig up Blackie. Agreed?”

“That sounds fair, my Lord.”, she said, as she extended her hand to Nigel. He took it in his and noticed how calloused it was. These were the hands of someone who’d spent her entire life working and toiling. Her firm grip lent itself to giving him a strange confidence, something that would be needed as this day wore on. 

Mary picked up a leather bag that contained her tools, and wrapped the straps around her shoulders. Then she disappeared into the kitchen where she picked up another bag that was filled with the food that they would need for the day. She handed this sack to Nigel.

“If you please, Sir, this will be yours to carry today.” Nigel didn’t protest. He placed it next to the one that he brought and put both of them on his back. Then he followed Mary as she made her way out the front door and started down the path that headed to the sea. Nigel followed, needing to pick up his pace from its usual speed, and caught up with Mary Anning, Queen  of the Fossil Hunters, as she led him toward an adventure that would change his life - and mind - forever.

 

 

The wild grasses that grew atop the mesa of land they now trod upon, blew gently in the wind. Hidden within the waist-high fescue was a foot path that marked the way toward the cliffs which ringed the jagged coastline, proudly displaying its ochre hue. Nigel  stopped to watch a small flock of cormorants as they made their way down to the water’s edge, seeking some morning sustenance  - smelts, shellfish. Soon, he’d be down there too, scouring the tide bed for sustenance of another kind. 

Eventually, the long grasses gave way to shorter, sparser foliage, as the path made its way closer to the cliffs that they would need to descend. Mary stopped, took a hat out of her backpack, and put it on her head. It had a wide, firm brim which explained her pale complexion, protecting her from both the sun and falling rocks.

“How much further, Miss Anning, if I may be permitted to ask?”

“Another half hour, my Lord. A little longer for the tide to go out.”

“Is Blackie to be found on the tide floor?”

“Most of him, it appears.”

“Is that common? I mean, do  you find parts of the same beast in different areas?”

“More often than I’d like, I’m afraid. The sea is to blame for that. After an animal died, it would stay intact until its carcass rotted away. Then the sea would  move it about. Sometimes, I’ve been lucky to find most of the beast in the same place. Usually, I’ll have to scour the area to complete a find.” 

“And Blackie?”

“Well, my Lord, I’ll let you discover that for yourself.” Mary smiled to herself. She knew that the most exciting part of fossil hunting was what  you found with your eyes, not what you heard with your ears. She wanted  her customer to experience the full impact of his adventure. Repeat business was an important commodity. 

The path began to lose any trace of flora whatsoever. It wound around a bend, where they came upon a switchback. Mary stopped and put her pack on the ground as she surveyed the tide floor. There was still a good deal of water covering the flood plain, but far less than when they started.

“Another fifteen minutes or so and the tide will have left. But I must warn you, Lord Wallace, the footing from here on in is perilous with every step. The path down to the bottom is solid enough, but if one was to fall, well, it’s a long way to the sea floor. There have been many serious injures - and worse, I’m afraid - since I first came here.”

“I will step lightly, Miss Anning, but rest assured, I am solid of foot.” The arrogance in his voice was far from hidden, leading Mary to assume that it was more from confidence than defensiveness. 

“Forgive me Sir, I would not have assumed otherwise. It’s just that, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t point out the dangers ahead of us.”

“Forgiveness is not necessary, Miss Anning. I’ll consider myself forewarned.”

Mary refocused her attention to the  sea below. The tide was moving out quickly, and though it would be many hours before its return, time was of the essence. She replaced her bags and headed down the path.

There were many switchbacks on this section which followed the natural   shape of the cliffs. Layers of limestone provided the  stability lacking in the sandstone and clay. The two people made a careful trek along the steep embankment which eventually came upon a flat landing, very distinct from the rest of the cliff structure. 

“What is this we’re standing upon, Miss Anning?”

“It’s called a landslip. It used to be up there.”, she said, as she pointed to the top of the cliffs. “This part fell about two hundred  years ago. That’s what happens when you’re exposed to the elements like we are. They say that there are more land slips to come. Bigger than this, and closer to town.”

“Let’s hope that one doesn’t happen today, Miss Anning.” There was no arrogance in Nigel’s voice this time. He was looking at the visual proof of Mary’s warning, and how fragile the cliff sides were. He’d be sure to mind his step the rest of the way. 

They walked along the narrow path until they came upon a ledge that looked barely large enough to support them. Mary stopped and turned toward the cliff.

“We’ll need to shimmy along this part. It’s not wide  enough to walk on. There’s a small ledge up here where you can hold on with your hands.” 

The span that required a climber’s skills was only thirty feet or so. Mary headed across it first. After a few paces, she stopped and turned toward Nigel. 

“Like this Sir. It’s best if we go at the same time.”

Nigel turned toward the rock wall in the same manner  as Mary. He reached up to grab the ledge causing the support under his left foot to give way, sending a shower of rocks cascading to the shore below. The shock to his system was instant, though he wasn’t sure if it was caused by his sudden predicament, or at how quickly Mary had a hold of his wrist. She held him with a firm grasp that reassured him that he wasn’t going anywhere. He moved his feet until he found more secure footings and inched his way in Mary’s direction. Satisfied that he was safe, Mary released her grip on his wrist, smiled warmly, and began to move again.

Nigel was sure to remain within an arm’s length of Mary the rest of the way across the narrow ledge. Reaching the end, they stepped onto a large expanse of rock that offered a safer place to stand. Nigel was still visibly shaken, but Mary knew not to speak of it. Instead, she changed the subject as if nothing had happened.

“Over there is the Cobb, as we call it Sir. Is it something you’ve heard of before?”

The Cobb was a manmade break wall of stone and mortar. It created the harbour that allowed ship building and commerce to exist in Lyme Regis. As well, it protected the fleet of boats, moored along its jetty, from the unkind elements of the ever pounding sea.

“Yes I have. We studied it in a history class I took at Oxford. It’s been around a long time, hasn’t it?”

“Hundreds of years, in one form or another. It’s not as useful as it once was. Most of the ship building has moved from here to Liverpool.”

Nigel thought about the Cobb’s change in fortune and wondered about his financial portfolio. Didn’t he have  stocks in the ship building company that moved to the deeper harbour of Liverpool? 

“Now it’s not much more than a jetty for small fishing boats, and for tourists to see, now that it’s been written about by Jane Austen.”

“In her book ‘Persuasion’ I believe.” Nigel noticed Mary’s frown. He wondered if she had access to any books, let alone a frivolous novel such as this. 

“We better  go.”, Mary said. “The tide’s almost all the way out.” She led the way over the face of the rocks and soon, they were on another path that led its way straight to the beach. The white sand stretched endlessly in front of them. As they walked away from the shore, and toward the sea, the land grew wet beneath their feet. The last of the tide was still receding and taking layers of top sand with it, revealing a great deal of hidden treasures beneath. 

Nigel’s attention was captivated by all of them. As he stopped to look at some of the shells that lay in a small puddle, Mary shouted to him.

“My Lord, if we are going to dig up Blackie today, we’ll need to hasten our pace, if you’re begging my pardon.”

“Yes, yes, Miss Anning. My apologies. There’s just so much to see.”, he said,  moving his head as if on a swivel. Mary stood and watched as Nigel made no pretense to hide his childlike glee. She allowed him to wallow in the moment, remembering that she felt the same way, even all these years later. She watched this same reaction from many of her customers - people who came to experience the wonders of fossil hunting. But, tide and time wait for no one.

“Now, Lord Wallace?”

“Now, Miss Anning.”

The two smiled and Mary turned toward the site that she’d been working on. It took only another five minutes of walking before they came upon a large tarp that had been weighed down so as not to be moved by the current. A large pile of sand had been deposited on it. Mary took her shovel from the knapsack and began to shovel the sand away from one of the edges.

“My Lord, if you could take your shovel and start digging on the far corner...”, she instructed. Nigel did as he was asked and began to remove the sand in the manner that Mary was. Before long, the entire tarp was exposed, as were the rocks, and iron steaks holding it in place. Beneath this shroud lay the reason for Nigel’s trip. Everything he’d hoped for was now separated from him by a thin canvas sheet. 

Mary began untying the ropes that were feathered through the eyes of the iron rods. Nigel began to do likewise. One at a time, each rope was untethered and thrown back across the tarp. Soon, there was just one rope left. Mary stood up and looked at Nigel.

“Well, Lord Wallace, how would you like the honour of removing the last of the tie downs?”

“Oh, Miss Anning, I would like that very much.”

“There is one condition, first.”

“What’s that, Miss Anning.”

“You stop calling me ‘Miss Anning’. Around here I’m called Mary.” Nigel straightened up and smiled at his guide. 

“Very well, Miss Anning. Mary it is.” Mary nodded toward the final cord that kept her secret hidden. Nigel undid the rope and stood up. Mary walked over to where he was standing and crouched down. Lifting the corner of the tarp in both of her hands, she carefully pulled it back until, slowly, the secret beneath began to see the light of this beautiful day. Inch by inch she moved the tarp back revealing bone after bone lodged in a bed of clay. 

The fossil was close to nine feet long and six feet wide. The main body and neck appeared to be in tack, but there were several broken rocks with other bones imbedded in them. Nigel looked on in astonishment. Never had he seen anything like it, especially not outside of a museum or private collection. He stared at the neck, which was easily as long as the rest of the body. There was no sign of a skull.

“How much is missing, do you think.”

“Well, my Lord, the tail you held at my house. And the head is still buried. I’m sure it’s here with the rest of the body. But I won’t know for certain until I excavate the entire creature. You see, this is a first. No one has made this discovery before.”

Mary fell into silence allowing the gravity of the moment to find its way into Nigel’s thoughts. Few of his colleagues could imagine such a moment. He studied the bones carefully, drawing on his knowledge of anatomy to help structure a more complete picture in his head. The bones were white, where the rock was chipped away, and curved in a manner that suggested the great beast was somehow folded at the neck, which was perfectly intact.  The rocks beside it had traces of limbs, but needed further work before one could discern correctly their function and placement.

But the most intriguing aspect of this new find, was the part that Nigel couldn’t see. Its head. The body was uncovered to the point where the neck would have been connected to the cranium. That part was still buried in rock-hard clay. It commanded most of Nigel’s attention.

“Have you done much excavating?”, Mary asked.

“Yes, yes I have. I’ve been to the sites in France run by Georges Cuvier. Do you know of him?”

“Monsieur Cuvier and I have not seen  eye to eye over the years. He’s questioned everything I’ve done, and believes that I was too young and too female to have made the discoveries I did.” Mary looked at her recent find, still in its final resting place, and wondered if this one would be the one to change his mind. “What do you think, my Lord? Do you think me too young and too female to be of any value to this field?”

Her question was point blank, and caught Nigel off guard. He was still lost in the moment of his own discovery.

“I don’t believe that you are too young at all, Mary.” His evasiveness did not go unnoticed.

“And what of my womanhood, Lord Wallace? Tell me honestly, do you find me to feminine to be active in such pursuits?” Nigel stood up and took a deep breath. ‘If she had asked me that question one hour ago...’, he thought to himself. He returned his gaze to the treasure that drew him here and smiled.

“Mary, you have shown me something that no one else in this world has ever seen. At this moment - and during this time - your womanhood is not an issue with me.”

“Ah. There is not a small amount of politic in you, Lord Wallace. From my work with fossils, I’ve learned to see from what is not there. And in life, I’ve learn to hear from words not spoken.”

Nigel tipped his hat towards Mary and gave a conceding nod without saying another word. He was struck by her candor, in addition to her ability to read between the lines. There was more to this fossil hunter than he would have been willing to admit prior to this moment. Mary sensed Nigel’s willingness to acknowledge her abilities and refocused her attention to the matter at hand.

“Have you ever uncovered a head, Sir?”

“No. I’ve worked mostly on vertebrae.”

“It’s sensitive work. More so than the rest of the body.”

“Why is that, Mary?”

“Mainly, it’s because I don’t know what the head looks like. Vertebrae, wings, legs, they are somewhat similar from find to find, and have some consistency to them. If you look at this neck, for instance, the bone structure is not unlike many of the fossils you’ll find around here. But the head - like the Ichthyosaurus  - I thought I’d found some kind of reptile, because of the way the head was shaped. The body proved to be far easier to dig up.”

“Tell me, Mary, what was it like to find that unique head. Especially so young. How old were you at the time?” 

“I was ten. But I have a confession that I don’t often share. You must keep it to yourself, if I tell it to you. Can you keep a secret?”

“I’m nothing, if not discreet.” Mary’s faced turned red as she took her bonnet off and looked at Nigel.

“I didn’t find the head. My brother Joseph  did.” Nigel gave Mary a curious look.

“Really?”

“Yes. He found it a full year before I went looking for the rest of it. But he didn’t care, nor did he want anything to do with it. I begged him to admit the real story, but he made me promise not to. He wanted to be finished with fossils - he considered it a waste of time - and go into the carpentry business, like our father. I vowed to keep his secret. I had to excavate the head - along with the rest of the body - but he  saw the head first.”

“Does anyone else know about this, Mary?”

“Sure. Everyone in Lyme Regis knows. It’s more to protect my brother’s wishes than anything else. Besides, that happened fifteen years ago. But I’ll tell you this, I’m happy to have this one to call my own. And speaking of this one, we better get started. Can you show me the tools you brought, please.”

Nigel picked up his knapsack and removed a bundle of tools. Mary inspected them closely and noted that they had been used quite a bit. She took a small chisel, hammer and brush, and handed them to Nigel. She put the rest back in his bag. 

“If you use this chisel at the far end of the rock - the part furthest away from the neck - and remove the rock in the direction of the neck, you’ll keep from separating it from the main body.”

“I see. You chisel towards the body.”

“Precisely. I’ve left plenty of room for what I believe will be the actual size of the fossil’s head.” Nigel made himself comfortable on his knees (easy enough to do in soft sand) and began the task of removing the top layer of rock. Mary watched as Nigel proceeded with some skill. She noted that this was not the first time he’d done this, and that his hands had the gentle nature to them required to perform such delicate work. He was quite different from the other people she was hired to escort here. 

Mary took her own tools out and knelt down beside Nigel. There was no comparison in their abilities. Mary’s firm, pale hands moved with the grace and confidence of an artist. Nigel watched as she found different angles to the same piece of rock. She surrounded her spot with constant chipping, never making a mistake or a slip.

She took her brush and swept the fine debris away while blowing at the same time. This made sure that the dust that was stirred up, went away from the fossil, and, just as importantly, away from her.  Nigel took heed of this new lesson and began to work in the same manner. 

Nigel managed to lift a large piece of rock away from its foundation. He looked beneath it to see that there were no bones to be found. Mary took note of his progress. The piece of rock he moved was six or seven inches in length. Mary looked bewildered.

“There’s nothing under there, my Lord. I was hoping that the head would be here with the rest of the body. There should be some sign of it by now.” Both people allowed their eyes to follow the outline of the beast that lay in the tidal floor, bared for all to see, save for the final piece that would make this ‘first’ complete. Not since Mary found the rest of Ichthyosaurus had she anticipated a find with such intensity. Now, all signs indicated a major delay. 

“If the head isn’t here, Mary, where will you look?” Mary stood up and made a three hundred and sixty degree turn, as if surveying everywhere that her eyes could see. 

“It could be anywhere. The most likely place would be up on the cliff somewhere. You see, after a landslip, parts of the same beast might be washed away with the falling debris, while the rest of it remains atop the cliff. I was hoping that this time I’d have luck on my side.” The strong, mid morning sun forced Mary to put her bonnet back on. “I’m sorry, my Lord. You didn’t come all this way to hear about my disappointments. If we don’t have any luck here, I know of several other fossils you’d be interested in.”

“Not at all, Mary. But shouldn’t we exhaust this one first?” No, he wasn’t like the others who she guided for. Lord Nigel Wallace was like any other man in this day and age - within his station of course. But as a fossil hunter, he wasn’t easily deterred. His gratification could stand its share of deferment. 

“Very well. Let’s keep at it, shall we.”, she said. The two people went on with their work in silence for quite some time. Little by little, they removed bits of clay and rock from their find, their concentration broken only by the occasional cries of the gulls overhead. 

“Lord Wallace, may I suggest that we take a quick break for lunch. I know of a cave just around the point. Food and some cool air will replenish our energy.”

Nigel took a pocket watch from his vest and studied its face. “Why, it’s noon already. The morning has passed quickly. Yes, yes indeed. Let’s nourish ourselves.” He stood up and worked the kinks out of his knees and shoulders, then looked at the rock that he’d been  removing. There was a significant pile of debris. “We’ll come back here after lunch, will we?”

“I’m losing hope that we’ll find the rest of it here, but yes, we can leave our tools and return to this spot.” Mary removed her hat and began walking towards the shore. After a short distance, they came upon a point that jutted away from them, revealing a small cave on its far side. The cave’s ceiling was high enough for them to stand inside, and was rather large in size. There was a noticeable pile of stones in one corner. Mary walked to the pile and began to remove them. Beneath the stones was a small piece of wood that Mary lifted up to reveal a waterproof leather bag, tied tightly on one end. She undid the rope, opened it, and began to remove cups, plates and silverware. 

Nigel watched in surprise, not expecting this result. 

“I guess you can dig up anything after all, can’t you Mary?”

“This was a trick I learned from my father. He believed that hunting fossils was tiresome enough without having to tote this stuff back and forth everyday.”

“Your father must be a clever man.”

“Was.”

“I’m sorry. How did he die?”

“Tuberculosis. When I was ten.”

“That’s a shame. To be so young, I mean. You know, to lose one’s father.”

“It was the worst day of my life. One of many, I’m afraid.” Mary began to remove the food  she’d prepared earlier in the day. Bread, dried pork, preserves, butter, muffins and cold tea. “I spent a great deal of time with my father here in this very cave. You see, he was a fossil hunter as well. He taught me everything - everything except how to live without him.” Mary became quiet as she set the food on plates for the both of them.

“So your interest in all of this comes from him?” Mary sat up straight and allowed herself a smile, as her mind drifted back to another time.

“I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old when he brought me here for the first time. I remember picking up a Coade ammonite over near the Blue Lias cliffs. I rolled it around in my hands as I stared at its shape and lines. My father picked me up in his arms and told me that I found my first treasure. I still have it at home. But it was the feel of being in his arms, and sharing something that meant the most to me.” Mary  shook her head as if coming out of a trance. “I’m sorry to be boring you with this prattle, my Lord.” She picked up one of the mugs and filled it with tea, handing it to Nigel.

“Not at all, Mary. I’m a curious man. Tell me, what did your father do for a living?”

“He was a cabinet maker. A fine one too. He had his own shop where I’d meet him each day to go fossil hunting. I’d stand and watch as he’d work and shape the wood into beautiful ornate pieces of furniture. You know, I don’t remember his face, but I can tell you every detail about his hands. When he finished, we’d head here to the cliffs and look for fossils. And when we were digging, he’d teach me about anatomy, the tide, the different kinds of rocks. He knew so much.  But he didn’t know how not to die. None of us do.” Mary fell silent again as she smeared a muffin with apricot jam. 

“What became of his shop?”

“Mother sold all of his tools one by one. We had no other means of support. One day, my brother and I had the idea that people might be interested in fossils. Buying them, that is. So we set up a table outside of our house and tried hocking them to the tourists and other locals as they passed. That’s when we met the Phipot sisters. They are very wealthy and like to collect fossils as well. They called  them, ‘curiosities’. So we made a sign with that name on it and started to make it bit of money. It wasn’t much, but it helped. About a year after father died, I found the Ichthyosaurus and was paid enough money to avoid having to sell my father’s workshop. That’s where we  sell the fossils now. My mother is working there while I hunt.”

“Tell me Mary, do you make a living from these sales?”

“Barely.  I was paid well for the Ichthyosaurus, but the museum that displayed it made much more. When Father  died, he owed a great deal of money. Up until three years ago, we never really recovered. We relied on the parish a great deal. And then, a miracle.”

“A miracle? How?”

“For years I guided a man named Lieutenant Colonel, Thomas James Birch. I sold him a number of fossils for his collection, as well. One day he showed up to go on a dig with me. At least, that’s what I thought was going to happen. He sat me down and opened up his travel bag. He took out a large sum of money and handed the bills to me. I didn’t know how to react. I asked him what he was doing with all this money. He said, ‘Mary, this is for you and your family. I held an auction and sold off my entire fossil collection. This 400 pounds is the end result. I want you to continue your work. I hope that this will help.’ And then he left.” A tear found its way to the corner of Mary’s eyes, as was the case each and every time she told this story. 

Nigel  helped himself to a piece of the dried pork. Its sinewy hide was pleasantly flavourful, and not too tough. He washed it down with some tea and picked up a piece of bread. The cave was silent save for the constant breaking of waves off in the distance. 

“Until that point, we struggled everyday of our lives. Do you know what it’s like to be hungry, Lord Wallace?” Mary’s demeanor changed dramatically. It was as though she was angry about the philanthropical gesture bestowed upon her and her family.

“No Mary, I don’t.”

“I didn’t think so. I know that you’re a man of wealth, and that you came by your lot by having it passed down to you. I also know that if you had unearthed the treasures that I did, you’d have created your own wealth, by virtue of being a man. My problem is, Lord Wallace, poverty I can endure. Inequality, I can’t.” ‘So those were tears of anger, not gratitude’, he thought. 

“One would think you to be more grateful, Miss Anning.” 

“Grateful? How do you come by that, my Lord?”

“Well, so far I’ve seen that you have a roof over your head, plenty of food to sustain you, a cow, a horse, a shop to sell your fossils. You’re not without clothing - men nor women’s - you have the tools for your trade - which just happens to be your passion as well - and you have the time to come here a follow your life’s work. Without interruption, without guilt, without the responsibilities of motherhood or catering to a husband. I think you should stop and take stock of what you are and what you have, and stop brooding over the things you don’t have.” 

His words were sharp and measured, yet without threat. Mary had heard this dissertation before, but it never had the same sobering affect that was finding its way inside her this time. Nigel continued.

“You might think that privilege is free from the chains that bind  you. You might also think that being born into the kind of life I was born into is desirous and deserves your envy. And if you do indeed think these things Mary, you’d be wrong. I might not have to worry about where today’s food is going to come from - or tomorrow’s for that matter. No, my efforts are concerned with providing for a day that I never can see, nor imagine. And I have to worry about it the same way that you do. But when I’m taking care of that day, I’m not doing it with my passion, or my interests. I’m doing it in the manner that I was born into. As a Lord. As someone who can’t afford the time to dig up the antiquities that lie beneath this clay and stone. I have to do it in boardrooms, and with the exchequer. I have to do it for hundreds of people I rarely  see. And I have to do it with a title that wears just as heavily on me as your title wears on you. There’s not much difference in being a Lord and a woman when your stomach is full, and the rain is kept at bay.”

Silence. They ate the rest of their lunch without further debate. Finally, Mary stood up.

“You’re right my Lord. I know much less about your world than you do  of mine. It is another disadvantage. But we share one world in common. And it waits for us, but not for long. We have but five hours left in our day. I suggest we make haste.”

“Truer words have rarely been spoken, Mary.” After returning the lunch implements to their original place, the two people made their way out of the cave and onto the sea floor. The sun was much hotter than before lunch, or at least it appeared to be, and the walk was a little less brisk. They arrived at the site to find it undisturbed. Mary bent down and picked up her chisel and hammer.

“My Lord, if you would like to continue where you left off, I’ll start at the neck and work my way in your direction. I don’t like doing it that way, but I need to know soon, if the head is here with the rest of the body.”

Nigel began to remove the layers of clay and rock from the part that he’d been working on all morning. He found something soothing about the repetitious  nature of fossil hunting. The slow process of discovery was a contrast to the fast paced life of a financier and member of the House. As well, using his hands was a rare activity these days. His quiet concentration was ended by a gasp from Mary.

“What is this?”, she asked, as she lifted a small piece of rock from the top of the neck. Beneath it, she found a bone that ran perpendicular to the line of vertebrae that it was connected to. She looked at the area that Nigel was uncovering and measured the rock that remained between the two points. Ten inches. “That can’t be.”

“What, Mary.?Can’t be what?”

“There’s less than ten inches from where you’re digging to where I just found what looks like the base of the skull. But how could something this large have a head that small. There must be something missing. Keep digging in this direction, and I’ll work towards you.”

The two people picked up the pace as the level of excitement increased. Nigel’s heart began to pound as each tiny  piece of sand dislodged from its resting place. Mary continued to remove the rocks lining the bone she just found. Both of them repositioned themselves, being drawn closer to each other until their shoulders were touching. 

Nigel was aware of their proximity - Mary wasn’t. She was fully engrossed in her task. Nigel took advantage of the moment to look closer at this woman, this Queen of the Fossils. He studied her profile as small beads of sweat formed on her brow. The sun was behind her head now, which softened the look of her face. Her chin was strong, yet bore the feminine hue of a woman. She possessed full lips that moved with the rhythm of her work. His eyes traced the outline of her small nose which pointed slightly upwards towards her sharp blue eyes, the eyes that made some of the most important discoveries to date. 

Nigel suddenly realized that he was staring. He quickly diverted his attention back to the task at hand, as they worked feverishly to uncover the last remains of a new  mystery. That’s when he felt something different beneath his chisel. He brushed away the loose rock and ran his fingers under the ledge created by his last attempts. He could feel something that was pointed, something different from the debris he’d removed up to now.

“Mary!”, he shouted. “I think I might have found something. Here, feel this.”

Mary moved closer. Now their legs were fully abutted against each other. Mary took no notice. Instead, she reached down and ran her finger along the same spot that Nigel showed her. Her face contorted into a mixture of happiness and puzzlement. 

“If this is its entire head, then it can’t be more than five inches long. A five inch head on a nine foot body? How can that be? What kind of creature is this?” 

Mary sat back on her legs and looked Nigel in the eyes. Her face bore no trace of the bitterness and resentment that marked her just a short time ago. Her blue eyes seemed  bluer, her complexion, not so  pale. The very air that she breathed, meant only for her. Mary Anning had been destined to live moments of greatness from the time she was born. This was one of those moments. And Nigel Wallace was there to witness it. Nigel, he realized, was uncovering more than fossils this day.

“Do you know what this means, Lord Wallace? It means that we are not just uncovering something new. We’re uncovering an entire new  genus. A separate  category will have to be created for this beast.” Mary’s eyes were aglow with sun-like brilliance. Her voice contained the conviction and emotion of any discoverer on the verge of realizing their quest. At once, Nigel realized, she ceased to be Mary Anning, and became the ‘Queen of the Fossil Hunters’, a title both earned and deserved. “Quickly, let’s finish before the tide sends us home.”

Mary went back to work and Nigel followed suit. The two of them chipped and hammered until it was clear that the entire head lay beneath their tools. Soon, enough of the skull lay exposed, and they were able to discern its outline, which was delta shaped, its mouth coming to a fine point. Two eye sockets were close to the center of the skull which widened at its base. 

The two worked frantically, yet carefully, as the sound of the waves  grew closer and closer. Soon the tide would force them to seek higher ground, but until then, they would remain until the last possible moment. Little by little, the  skull began to reveal itself for the first time since... Mary reached into her bag and found a measuring cloth, a crude invention of her own. She placed its end at the tip of the snout and drew the cloth to the base of the skull.

“Five inches. What kind  of creature had a body that large with such a small head. Its brain must have been quite useless.” Mary was thinking out loud as she poured over the new breed before her eyes. Soon, she  stood up to get a full look at her new discovery. Nigel did likewise. The full view gave them a clearer look of what its appearance must have been so very long ago. “Well, Lord Wallace, what do you think of your day so far? Is it all that you hoped...or feared?”

“Mary, in my heart of hearts, I could not have imagined such a day. You’ve allowed me to exceed my expectations ten fold. And as far as my fears are concerned, well, let’s just say that by facing them, I’ve come away with a different perspective, if you catch my meaning.”

“Yes, I think I do.”

Mary looked to the encroaching sea. It wouldn’t be long before water  overtook their place on the tidal plain. “We better finish up here, my Lord. It wouldn’t do us well to linger past our welcome.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Nigel’s words were spoken in resignation, not agreement. He looked at the remains that lay before him in the primordial clay. The bright sun shed its beacon upon the whitened bones that once stood upright, covered with skin, able to move, to breathe, to exist. How long ago, he couldn’t know. But he did know that there was little time left to spend within its company. Soon it would be covered by the return of a sea that cared little for his sentiments, hiding from him, once again, secrets that would wait until another tomorrow came along. 

Nigel bent down and began to help Mary fasten the ropes and secure the tarp. He did so, reluctantly. He felt like he was a child forced to re-wrap the greatest of all birthday presents after opening it, and seeing just enough to whet his appetite. He looked at Mary who showed no such signs. Her face was content, pleased. Of course, she’d be back again. And again. How Nigel was beginning to envy her. 

After the skeleton was safely encased once more, Mary put her tools in her bag, removed her hat, and smiled at Nigel.

“My Lord, are you ready to return?” 

Nigel merely grunted and nodded his head.

“Is there something wrong, my Lord? Are you not pleased with this day?”

“It’s not today that’s upsetting me. It’s tomorrow.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Dear lady, how could you? Tomorrow, I’ll be making the long trip back to my world. London. This is not London. I’ll have cares too endless to mention. People, problems, issues, decisions. And what will you need to worry about tomorrow, Miss Anning? The tide? Once that problem is solved, you’re back here again. Here.” 

Nigel became quiet as he looked at the tarp that would soon be covered by water. He desperately wanted to peer under it one more time. To look again at a sight never  seen by anyone but he and Mary. He began to realize what this moment really meant. This creature wasn’t his, nor Mary’s. It was theirs. The simple death of a simple beast brought these two people together, here and now. Nothing else could have accomplished such an unlikely feat. 

Nigel turned to Mary and gave her a respectful bow.

“Please forgive me, Mary.”, he said through a pleasant smile. “I’ve never  been so moved. Nor have I realized how tight are the ties that bind me. And if I was being truly honest with you, I’d let you now how envious I am of you and your life, and that this is the most shameful thing I can be. There should be no room for envy in a life such as mine. Please, I beg you, say you’ll forgive me.”

“Lord Wallace, the only thing I’ll need to forgive you for is my drowning when those tides trap us against the cliffs.”, Mary said as she smiled toward her guest.

“Fair enough, Mary.” 

Nigel picked up the two bags and put them on his back. Before they left, he bent down and picked up some of the clay that they removed from the fossil. He reached inside his bag and took out a small, white satchel and put the debris inside. 

“There,”, he said, as he put it in his pocket, “now I have something else to remind me of this day.” The two people turned and headed toward the cliffs, and the path that wound its way up to the top. It was late afternoon, and the sun was beating down warmer than it had all day. Nigel had to stop several times to catch his breath and to wipe the sweat from his face. Mary, on the other hand, seemed to float gracefully up the steep embankment, only stopping to allow time for Nigel to catch up. After a spell, Nigel sat down, seemingly spent of energy. Mary walked back to where he was resting.

“My goodness, woman, how do you do it? I’m quite proud of my physical well being, but you, Mary, you climb this altitude as if you were actually going downhill.”

“I was raised on these cliffs. I can’t tell the difference between up and down anymore.” Mary reached  down to pick up a blossom of Queen Annes’s Lace. As she did, the sleeve of her blouse rose up, exposing, for a moment, a jagged scare on her forearm. 

“Mary, if it’s not too personal a question, how did you get that scare on your arm?” Mary stood up and lowered her sleeve, rubbing her arm at the same time.

“I was a baby. One year old. My mother was busy with a new born at the time, and father was doing well enough to hire a nurse maid to help  out. She was taking me, and two other children who lived next door, to the circus that was passing through Lyme Regis. We were half way there when a great storm blew in without warning. The nurse maid, not knowing any better, huddled us under a tree, and waited for it to pass. It didn’t. At least, not before lightning hit the tree and killed the nurse maid and the other two children. I was the only one to live.”

Nigel listened in horror to the story that Mary told. His mind tried to reconstruct such a scene in his head, but he suffered nothing in his life that could help make such an image as to do it justice. Mary continued.

“Father was the first one to find us. I guess I was unconscious and he thought that I too had died. He held me in his arms, grieving his loss, when I started crying. Obviously I was too young to remember this event, although I’ve been told about it countless times, but on rare occasions, I think I can remember my father holding me that day. Its more of a feeling than anything else, but I truly believe that part of me has some recollection, a memory of some sort. Anyway, that’s how I got the scar. And until recently, I’ve been know around town as the girl who lightning couldn’t kill.”

“Mary, I don’t know what to say. Such an event, and to live to tell about.” Nigel thought about all that Mary had discovered and the vast knowledge she was passing on to the scientific community. What would they have lost if events had turned out differently that day? Being aware of how close she came to death gave Nigel another reason to be thankful for the woman sitting next to him. After all, her life was linked to his now.

Mary looked at Nigel. She could see that his mind was reeling after hearing her perilous tale. His face expressed a concern that could certainly do no good now. Mary felt flattered. She noticed how his brow was sun burnt and covered with dust from the day’s dig. His hands looked much the same. She was satisfied that she’d done her job well. Yet, it was the look of concern that pleased her most. 

After another short while, they were at the top of the bluff, looking down at the sea that now covered the place where they had worked. As Nigel gazed at the spot where Blackie rested, he was overwhelmed at how daunting a task it was to find such treasures. It took, he deduced, more than a keen eye to unearth the secrets that hide beneath its surface. It took someone with a single mindedness to find the graves of these wondrous creatures. Someone who could forsake everything else in order to meet this quest. Someone like Mary.

They covered the distance to Mary’s house quickly. Both of them were feeling the effects of the late afternoon sun. At the back of Mary’s house, there was a pump for water. Beside the pump sat a basin and towels. Mary drew  some water and offered it to Nigel, who washed his face and hands, and enjoyed the refreshing calm that came over him. Mary did likewise, and then turned to her guest.

“My Lord, it would honour me if you would stay for a bit of dinner. You must be famished. I know I am. Did you have other plans?”

Nigel thought about the meal that would be waiting for him at the inn.

“No, no I don’t have plans. The honour would be mine Mary.”

Mary hurried into the house and soon had a small feast on the table, that seemed to appear from nowhere. There was a fresh salad of greens, onions, radishes, spring peas and beans, all from the garden that grew behind the house. From her root cellar, she retrieved a small cauldron of stew - prepared the day before - and heated over  the fire that she managed to rekindle. There were  sweet buns and apple chutney, strawberries and fresh cream, and, to Nigel’s pleasant surprise, a home made draft of stout. Nigel tasted the beer and smiled over the top of his mug at Mary.

“Am I to understand that you are the brewer of this beverage, Miss Anning?”

“I must confess, I am. I have a pallet that finds this taste pleasing, on a regular basis. It was my father’s concoction.”

“Well then, if I may, a toast. Here’s to your father. For having achieved a wisdom that only comes with a knowledge shared. To fossils and stout.” Nigel reached his mug across the table. Mary smiled and did likewise. 

“To my father, fossils, and stout.”, she repeated, as she gently tapped her mug against Nigel’s. The two drank, satisfying both their pleasure and thirst. Mary placed her mug on the table and stood up. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment.”, she said, as she disappeared into the other room and closed the door behind her. Nigel took another deep swallow of his draft. 

“You know, Mary, this is a very fine stout. Your father taught you well.”, he shouted toward the closed door. “If you ever give up fossil hunting, you’d make a fine brewer.” Mary re-emerged dressed in a clean blouse and modest skirt that reached the floor. She took her hair out of its tight bun and allowed it to fall over her shoulders, which gave her a more youthful look. Nigel found himself staring at her newly framed face.

“Lord Wallace, the world will have to do without my stout, for I will never be anything but a fossil hunter.”, she said, as she sat down at the table. “Please, help yourself to the dinner before it chills.

Nigel filled his bowl with the beef and vegetable mixture offered him. He took a slice of bread, buttered it, and proceeded to dunk it into his stew. Realizing his indiscretion, he stopped and looked at Mary. “Please forgive my manners.”, he said, looking rather sheepish. “It’s just that, I am  still a small boy  sometimes, this being one of them.”

Mary smiled as she took her own bread and plunged it deep into the stew that sat in front of her. “Well then, my Lord, it’s a good thing you’re dining with a girl who has yet to grow up.” The two of them laughed as they ate without the usual protocols called for at the dinner table. Both of them had a hearty appetite from the day’s work, and when they had their fill, Mary poured another glass of stout and suggested that they sit outside where the breeze was cool. 

Behind the house, a foot path ran beyond the trees and shrubs that dotted Mary’s land. It wound its way to the edge of a steep cliff, that led down to the channel below. Sitting near the edge were two chairs and a table, all beautifully crafted from wood. Nigel looked at the outdoor furniture with great admiration. 

“These chairs are exquisite, Mary. Where ever did you find them?”

“This was my father’s design. You can find the same style in many of the wealthy homes throughout Lime Regis.”

“Your father must have been someone worth knowing. He seemed endowed with many skills.”

“He was.”, Mary replied, equal parts pride and sorrow within her voice. “But tell me Lord Wallace, about your family. I’m curious by nature as well.”

“I inherited my Lordship after my father died, ten years ago. He was Lord Robert Alcott Wallace the third. He chose not to name me after him, so the full title ended there.”

“Were the two of you close?”

“Not like you and your father. We were close enough alright. Just enough for me to learn the family business, and how to honour the title I would  receive. No, I was closer to my mother. Still am, I’m happy to say. I have three brothers and two sisters - all younger than I. Like most proper families, we get together when we’re supposed to. Christmas, Mother’s birthday, that sort of thing. But we have little in common.”

“Do they all live in London?” Although Mary would not care to live anywhere else, her fascination with London was unending.

“Oh yes, within earshot of each other. As a matter of fact, they’ll all be together tonight to celebrate this, the longest day of the year.”

“My Lord, do you not feel the need to share this day with them?”

Nigel put his mug on the table and turned in his chair to look directly at Mary. 

“After the day that I have had, Mary Anning, I would be hard pressed to come up with one other place, in this world, that I’d rather be. Or another person that I’d rather be with.” Nigel held Mary’s stare as the setting sun softened her face with hues of tangerine and candlelight. His smile was warm and thankful, and Mary wallowed in its full impact. He continued. “Before I came here today, I, like the others at the Paleontology Society, referred to you as the ‘Queen of the Fossil Hunters’. But I must confess, my use of that title came with derision and spite. Not with the respect  shown by those who’d met you. I’m afraid I was one of those ones who disbelieved that a ten year old girl could make the single most important discovery ever. I guess that hadn’t left me...until today that is. I came here hoping to learn the things that you know. Instead, I’m coming away realizing how much I don’t know.”

“Then you’ve learned the most important lesson of all, Lord Wallace.”

“And what would that be?”

“The lesson that shows us how to remove the layers that time has thrust upon us. Fossil hunting isn’t about death - it’s about life. The life that has covered these beasts with blankets of sand and rock. It’s the living entities that hides their bones. Just like ours. Each day finds another veil covering who we really are. If we’re not careful, those veils grow into a thick cover, hiding our true selves and what we’re about. It’s a lesson I learn everyday I’m here. Yes, I know I’m bitter - I’ve been given plenty of reason to be. But when it’s just me out there, no one standing between me and Blackie, then my layers are removed too. I’m in touch with the real me, and I understand ‘why’”.

The last of the day’s sun was giving the land one, final glow. Crickets sang in the distance, along with the frogs that lived in the pond across the way. Mary and Nigel continued to chat about their day, about Blackie and what kind of creature he might have been. They spoke easily with each other, and an uninformed observer might conclude that these two people were long, and intimate friends. But even the longest day of the year must come to an end. Soon, the sun was fully hidden behind the western horizon, and the Summer Triangle emerged. Mary watched as the twinkling stars took the stage.

“Altair, Deneb and Vega.”, she said, as Nigel looked toward the sky.

“Let me guess, your father taught you that?”

“He did.”

“So did mine.” Another layer removed.

Soon, the sky darkened as it filled with countless points of light. It was Nigel who broke the silence.

“I’m afraid I must be heading back to the inn, Mary.” Neither person had to say it, nor would they dare, but both of them would have given anything for this day to continue. They stood up and walked back to Mary’s house. Once inside, Nigel took a small bundle of money from his pocket and handed it to Mary.

“As per our agreement.”, he said. Mary seemed reluctant to take the stipend, but knew better.

“Your company proved to be far better compensation than any money could, my Lord.”, she said, as she walked over to where his coat lay. She stood for a moment with her back to Nigel and then finally turned around, handing him his tweed jacket. 

“As was yours, Mary. Would it be impertinent of me to ask you to stay in touch? About Blackie, I mean?”

“As my work continues, you’ll be the first to hear. I promise you that.”

Nigel bowed and headed out the door. Mary sat in a chair by the fire, and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. There she remained for most of the night, unable to cease the thoughts about the day she’d just endured. Usually, at times like this, she’d be consumed with thoughts about her fossils, but not tonight. Tonight, she allowed herself to think of a man. Not just any man. Lord Nigel Wallace. She thought about his eyes and his hands, about his shouts of exuberance and his words of reality. Mostly, she thought about how he was making her feel.

 

Nigel dismounted his horse and handed the reins to the inn keeper.

“We’ve kept some supper for you, my Lord.” Nigel thought about the meal he’d just finished.

“My apologies sir, but I’m much too tired to eat at this time. Please pass my thanks on to your good wife.”

“Not a problem, my Lord. Looks like you had a full time of it today.”

“More than you could know. If you please, I’ll say goodnight.”

“Goodnight sir, and rest well.”

Nigel closed the door to his bedroom and walked to the chair that sat in front of the window. He sat down and gazed at the sky for a long while. Finally, when he felt he could no longer keep his eyes opened, he stood up and walked to the bed. Before he removed his coat, he put his hand in one of the pockets. There, to his surprise, he found an object that was not put there by him. He removed the item and looked at it under the lantern. It was a Coade ammonite, just like the one that Mary had, the one from her father, the one that was on the shelf in her....

 

Three months had passed since Nigel’s trip to Lyme Regis. In that time, he received five letters from Mary, each one updating her progress with Blackie, among other things. A sixth one arrived earlier this day. Nigel had the letter in his pocket as he sat with members of the Royal Paleontology Society as they were about to meet for the first time since adjourning the previous spring. The meeting began when Lord James Marlborough stood up and addressed the membership.

“Welcome my Lords and Masters. Welcome to the beginning of another year of our esteemed society. There is much to talk about so I won’t waste our time with idle banter and niceties. As usual, at this time of year, our first order of business is to turn these proceedings over to our new chairman. Before I do, I want to thank all of you, one more time, for the support you’ve given me in this role over the past year. It has been an honour to lead this assembly into a new era. But now, we will be led by much younger legs, and I’m sure you’ll show him the same support as you’ve shown me. I give you this year’s chairman, Lord Nigel Wallace.”

After the applause died down, Nigel began his address.

“Gentlemen. First of all, I want to express my gratitude with your selection for chairman this year. I am honoured. I will try to fill the shoes left me by Lord Marlborough, and see that we meet our mandate. 

“It is tradition that the new chairman sets the first agenda for our opening session, and I have taken the liberty of fulfilling this requirement. There are a number of items on the new agenda. All of them, save one, is old business, and we can discuss those items later. The one new item I’ve slated for discussion, I feel, is of vital importance to us all. It’s about Mary Anning.

“Most of you have been in her company and have impressed upon me, my need to see her as well. I did just that, this summer. I spent a day with her on a dig that is going to change paleontology the way her Ichthyosaurus did. Perhaps, even more so. I was able to assist her in finding the last part of an animal that none of us has ever seen. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It’s completely new. An entire new genus. I believe that its importance cannot be over stated.

“I have, in my possession, a drawing of the beast, that Mary...er, Miss Anning sent to me this very day. I took the liberty of pinning it to the board behind me. So, without further delay...” Nigel stepped to the board and removed its cover. There, drawn to scale, was Blackie. The other  members of the society gave a collective gasp. Nigel had not exaggerated his claims. They all stood up and walked over to the drawing to give it a closer inspection. 

“As you can see, gentlemen, this is a brand new discovery. And I can attest first hand to its existence and authenticity. I was fortunate enough to find the head.”

Many questions ensued as the men stared at the drawing in disbelief. There were many guesses as to its origins, diet, gender, habitats. There were questions about Nigel’s involvement and what it was like to make such a discovery. Finally, the queries died down and everyone returned to their seats.

“There is no  doubt that this is a great discovery. One of the most important. But in spite of that, I learned something even more foreboding. It has to do with its discoverer. Mary Anning.

“Are there any among us who can doubt her importance to our cause? Can anyone disprove or invalidate her findings? I saw her work - like many of you - for myself. She is a tireless champion in the field of paleontology. Yet, she lives without the rewards that are due her. There is little or no recognition, outside of our small circles, for her contributions to our body of knowledge. If it wasn’t for Mary Anning, we wouldn’t have a body of knowledge, not as we know it anyway. 

“She has barely been recompensed for her efforts. Outside of people like Major Birch - and the tourists who buy her curiosities - she lives on next to nothing. I fear that if she doesn’t get help with her dilemma, she’ll lose the energy it takes to do this fine work. And that would be a tragic loss, a loss who’s blame would have to be shared by all of us.

“Therefore, as our new chairman, I’d like to make the first proposal, if it pleases the membership. I would like to propose that we, the Royal British Paleontology Society, delineate an annual income that befits the appropriate living conditions of Miss Anning and her mother, as  compensation for her continued contributions to our endeavour.”

Nigel looked around the room hoping to find the support needed to pass his motion. There was, for the first time, a good deal of silence as the society members looked to each other as well. It was Lord Marlborough who stood up first.

“You are a good and noble man, Lord Wallace, and I support your intentions by seconding your proposal.”

“Bless you, my Lord. Support from someone such as you means the world to me. Well then, we have a seconder, let’s put it to a vote. All in favour of providing an annual income to Mary Anning, please, raise your hands.”

Nigel looked around the room as hand after hand was extended into the air. It was unanimous. Nigel smiled broadly. He knew that there would be rough times deciding on the conditions of his proposal, but the hardest hurdle was cleared. Mary would not have to worry again about the basics of her life. She would be free to devote all of her attention to learning about the lives of long lost creatures, animals that roamed her world long before her, her father, and Lord Nigel Wallace. 

 

A great deal of what you’ve just read is true. I’ll not try to fill in the blanks for you - like any good fossil hunter, you can do that yourself. But I’ll tell you this much: if it wasn’t for Mary Anning, we would have been forced to wait for someone to come along who was just like her. I, for one, am glad we don’t have to. Mary is a hero and an inspiration to anyone who seeks the truth about our past. And when we look at the part of our past that Mary was forced to live within, there are other truths - some rather ugly ones - that shackled intelligent minds simply because of gender. How much brilliance was lost because of social conditions, and are we still losing it today?

Mary Anning’s greatest contributions may not have been about the past, but about the future.

 


© Copyright 2018 Norman K. All rights reserved.

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