by Patrick Nevins
The Ambulocetus slinks toward the river’s edge, spine flexing upward into a conifer’s lowest boughs, knees weary with walking, snout scenting spent needles and brackish water. He does not hesitate as he breaks the plane of the water’s surface and disappears from terra firma. In the shallow water, his back undulates in great arcs, his forward motion fueled by thrusts of his webbed feet. His small forelimbs steer him. He’s hungry.
He swims the width of the river and settles in the muck of the opposite bank so that his great snout is just submerged and aimed landward. He waits for prey. And waits.
A small mammal ambles into his field of vision. It pokes at the muddy shore for prey, crunches an insect in its jaws. The Ambulocetus knows that the creature remains vigilant even as it chews its food, watching and listening for that which would flip it from predator to prey. But the Ambulocetus is deathly still until the moment he strikes, launched by his webbed feet from the soft bottom. His jaws collapse where his senses told him the prey was—but the creature is dashing from the bank on its hooves, skittering through conifers for safety.
The Ambulocetus sinks back into the river; there is no point in giving chase in the forest. His squat, splayed limbs are no good at moving his long, quarter-ton body with any grace or speed on land. On land, he is a terrible hunter. Worse, he is terribly vulnerable to predators—enormous, clawed mammals who stalk the forests for flesh.
He retreats from the murky shallows into the deeper, clearer water in the middle of the river. Here, he is the top predator, his long jaws opening to ensnare fish. Here, in the cool give of the water, not the humid grip of land, he is the picture of grace, his great weight lightened and moving with stealth and precision. He eats until he is full, darting to the surface occasionally for breath. White surface, black bottom. Telling sounds of fish and calls of other walking whales to either side. The Ambulocetus finds peace in the water.
But as he swims, he has the same dream we all have fifty-million years hence: the dream of better versions of ourselves.
He closes his eyes and relaxes his body. His pointed tail, good for balance when he walks but of little use in the water, splits at the end, and each half flattens, so that when his back undulates, his new tail propels him. The burden removed from his hind limbs, they wither. His forelimbs, relieved of their duty to give him stability on the ground, melt into flat appendages like his tail. He need never return to the shore!
He opens his eyes. His senses return to him his long tail and short limbs. He exhales in resignation. Surfaces and breathes. Submerges himself. And dreams.
Patrick Nevins is Associate Professor of English at Ivy Tech Community College in Columbus, Indiana. His fiction has appeared in Gravel, The MacGuffin, Jabberwock Review, and other journals.