Bottle Gardeners

   “How do you get all the plants in those little bottles?” He was filthy, covered in old ice cream or something; maybe eight. At least he didn’t smell.

   “Well, you use a funnel for the dirt, and a stick for the plants. But you can’t just stuff the plants in there, or they’ll die. You actually have to dig a little hole for each one in the dirt. But that’s how you make a new one. These ones have all been growing for a while. The plants were all a lot smaller when I put them in.”

   “Did you put any bugs or snakes in”?

   “The bugs usually invite themselves. Big animals might suffer or die, since there’s not much food for them.”

   “What about small animals? They’d need less food, right?”

   “Look in there. They’d have to be pretty darn small.” He peered into one nearby, appraising room for tenants. He was quiet a long time…for a kid.

   “Wow, it looks like a whole world in there!”

   “It is.”

   I was used to these kinds of questions after half a day at the fair. There’s a magical aura about bottle gardens; the plants so close to each other; the condensation on the glass. The teeny plants that usually get overlooked in the wild reveal their beauty and elegance, put on intimate display. That’s how I’d convinced Joan to let me use some space in her booth, trying to sell them.

    She painted animals and landscapes as a hobby, and sold them at the yearly crafts show. She, too, liked the bottle gardens I’d made for Christmas last year, and we decided that other folks might like gazing into them as much as we did, seeing them grow, over time, and might like them enough to pay for one. If not, they still looked good, interspersed among her paintings of trees and tigers and such.

    I’d certainly met a lot of interesting people today, but they mostly asked the same questions about the wares, and by late afternoon, after being on our feet all day in the heat, it was just so much routine. Answering the questions helped the bottles sell, of course, and almost every kid had at least one original question. Just as often, dozens.

    “Hey, what’s that little stone?”

    “It’s just a rock I found in my yard. If you look close, you’ll see that it’s got little pieces of metal in it.” The kid rolled the bottle around a bit in the sunlight, catching the glints.

    The rock is from my yard. But it didn’t start there.

   “Hey, wake up! Get up!” Kevin was shaking me.

   “Wuzzuh? Aww....lemme sleep.”

   “C’mon, wake up! Didn’t you hear that thunder? Get up! I think we got hit by lightning!”

    “Lighting? Well, so what? We got trees everywhere...I’m sure one of them took it.” I rolled over, to get back to...

    “Get up!” she said, shaking me again. “One of the trees did take it. The old maple, I think. Check outside.” I fumbled my way out of bed and looked out the only window with a view.

    “Damn! It sure did. Aw, shit!”

    “Yeah, the carport,” Kevin confirmned.

    The big dead branch, the one I’d vowed to remove before winter, was down. And it had taken a corner of the carport next door, and maybe got a fender.

    “At least I don’t have to worry about that branch falling anymore.” I could see the damage clearly in the pale moonlight, since the winds had worn the bark off long ago. The few pieces left had busted off when … moonlight?

    “Hey! It’s not raining. How could we get lightning?”

    “What else, then?”

    I looked over my shoulder at her, shrugging. “I don’t know.”

    “Then let’s go look!”

    When ‘we’ got there, I saw lots of little charred pieces laying all over the patio next to the tree, smoldering a bit, like little ghosts dancing on the cement. I stepped on one to crush it out, but it didn’t crush. I could feel the heat through the slipper.

    Kachina, our golden retriever, got a whiff of smoke from one of them, and did a little sneeze-sniff. I bent down to get a good look at mine, and it was just a little black thing, seemingly fresh from the fireplace.

    The tree was a mess. There was a smoking hole, right in the crotch where the main branches separated, about the size of a dinner-plate. And though the toppled branch had crushed only a corner of Hartsuff’s carport, it had knocked it around a bit. It might be totaled. And one car was definintely ‘dinged.’ I’d never liked that ugly carport, and he’d destroyed my lilac bush, building it, but seeing it trashed didn’t give me any pleasure. I wondered if lightning/dead-branch strikes were covered by the insurance....

    The hole in the tree was a good fifteen feet up, and I could see a faint glowing in the center. It was deep red, like a little cauldron, covered with smoke that went wispy in the breeze near the edges. The wood was all splintered, too, but it wasn’t charred. It seems like lightning would burn the wood. And there were hardly any clouds!

    “What the hell?” I asked the dog. She just looked at me like she always does.

    I looked at the little chips on the patio, again, since the smaller were now out of smoke. I picked one up, but it burnt my fingers before I could get a good look at it. There were about twenty of them around me in the gloom. I got a ceramic flowerpot from the table, and flipped some of the bigger ones into it with a stick.

    Kevin was in her bathrobe, yawning, as I brought them inside. “How bad is it?”

    “Pretty bad. Hatsuff’s carport is pretty bad. The tree might be terminal. See what it scattered around?” I held out the flowerpot with the chips, and she peered into it.

    “Charcoal. What did you expect?” I looked in my pot full of charcoal. Some of the pieces were rounded. “Hartsuff’ll be real happy about the carport,” she predicted.

    “I don’t think it’s all charcoal, though.” Kevin picked one out, and then dropped it suddenly. “Shit, that’s hot.” She went over to the sink, to cool her fingers. I handed her the pot with the chips.

    “If it was burning, it’d be smoking,” I thought aloud, as she rinsed the whole batch, to cool them.

    “They seem kind of heavy for wood.” Kevin picked out another, and examined it.

    I got a steak knife and chipped at one. “Look!” I said, “There’s bit’s of rock in these.” The blade screeched as I scraped, revealing a light gray material.

    Kevin looked over my shoulder. “That’s weird.”

    It was meteorite.

    The cops showed up, about the carport, with Hartsuff, who was livid. He had a good reason to be angry, I suppose, but he didn’t have a chance to really get in his groove, since Coleman, our nosy neighbor across the street, showed up just after, to ask what the commotion was. After a bit of explaining, we went outside, to survey the carnage again.

    Coleman suggested it might have been a meteor, and we should see if it was still lodged in the tree. I got up on Hartsuff’s fence, to look, and saw a split in the wood on his side, but I didn’t see a rock that had gotten through.

    One of the cops made a report on his walkie-talkie, and heard back that there had been some UFO sightings recently. Someone gasped.

    “UFO sightings? That thing might be a space-ship? With aliens inside?”

    “No, nothing like that,” explained the policeman. “Most UFOs turn out to be perfectly normal things; Airplanes, satellites passing over head, distant fireworks, that kind of thing. Venus is the cause of more ‘sightings’ than any other thing, so it’s not uncommon for a UFO to turn out to be a meteor-trail. If this thing you got is a meteorite, UFO sightings mean some people saw it coming down, they just didn’t know what it was.

    Then the news people showed up, for crying out loud! I suspect Coleman called them, when he saw the cops’ flashing lights. Once the news van arrived, more neighbors came by, to see what the story was, and pretty soon we had a little crowd on the patio. We didn’t get back to bed until four in the morning, explaining, and showing, and explaining again, as more people arrived, attracted by the lights, or maybe the original noise.

    “I ain’t never seen a real meteorite, before.”
    “I wonder why your place got hit, Chuck?”
    “What about my carport?”

That thought was punctuated with a glare at me, as if I made the damn thing fall. I thought the carport sucked, but that doesn’t make it my fault.

    The next day, a couple researchers from the college came by, to ask if they could see it, and we started getting offers, from museums all over the world. Good ones, too, for just a piece of rock, free from the sky. We ended up selling it to the college, for the price of the carport, and car repair, plus a little extra for us. They paid high, because there were bits of metal in it, even though it was one of the softer types. The softer types only get all the way to Earth if they start out really big, and they don’t usually have metals in them. They even took out the maple for us, and they let me keep a piece that broke off, when they were disemboweling the tree.

    I still had the chips I’d collected, too, but I hadn’t mentioned those. My thought was to make jewelry out of them, or give them away as trinkets or gifts. The big piece went in the ‘propagation tank,’ just for looks.

    When I first started making bottle gardens, a few years back, I’d go collect all the weeds and moss and such that I used for each one. To save time, and preserve favorites, I finally just converted a ten-gallon aquarium into a little vivarium, and just put whatever seemed good into it. Then I collected the plants for the bottle gardens out of it, instead of roaming the countryside, hoping to find something I liked. A bottle garden is just a small terrarium, and for a plant to be suitable, it must stay somewhat small, tolerate low light, grow somewhat slowly, prefer humid conditions, and not die at the end of the year anyway. The propagation tank let me test new candidates, and preserve acceptable ones.

    That tank was a hobby in it’s own right. I put in weeds, wildflowers, crocuses, fish, snails, slugs, spider-plant sprouts, ladybugs (which always escaped), or anything else I though might find some food, as long as it was small. If something took over, I’d just prune it back a bit. The meteorite looked great in the moss, all shimmers, making a nice contrast with the bland sandstone next to it. What else do you do with a meteorite, anyway? If you put it on a shelf, it just gets dusty.

    That tank was always getting strange stuff in it. Mushrooms I’d never seen before would come up once in a while. It became totally infested with teeny silver bugs the summer I originally set it up, but since they stayed in the tank, and didn’t seem to damage the plants, I didn’t worry about them. My pal Gary said I should learn what they were, so I could get some predators for them, but I didn’t care that much.

    My attitude was, if something survived, it belonged, and if it died, it didn’t. If something showed up on it’s own, it probably knew better than me. I lost some things that way, of course, but I thought of the whole tank as a sort of pet, so I wasn’t attached to any of the individuals, so much as the entire block of life that used the aquarium as it’s home.

    Kevin thought I was kind of obsessive, but I enjoyed playing with it, which meant staring at it, finding new details, or adding stuff, then waiting to see if anything new happened. The meteor seemed like a natural addition. They’d been falling on plants and dirt for years, after all.


“Do you ever hear noises coming out of that thing?” Kevin asked one day, about a week after I’d added the stone. “Like squeals, or chirps?”

    “No, should I?”

    “Well, you’ve added every bug and worm you’ve ever found. You’d think at least one of them would make some kind of noise.”

    “Maybe they make noise when we aren’t here, scaring them. This is a pretty loud house.”

    “You read up here all the time, not five feet from it, quiet as a ghost for hours at a time. If they were talking, don’t you think you’d have heard them by now? I think we should get some crickets, so they’ll chirp, for atmosphere.”

    I didn’t bother. But she did. Went to the pet store and bought a dozen or so, usually meant for snakes or turtles or something. She knew I wouldn’t mind, but it was novel, her adding stuff. Gary was always bringing things by, some odd bug or fungus he’d found, but Kevin never took more than a passing interest in looking at it, but there she was, dumping a dozen crickets in. I wondered what they’d eat.

    But they chirped. Sometimes.

    “Hey Kevin,” I hollered downstairs. “I think all the crickets are gone.”

    She came upstairs to look. “They are? It’s only been a few days. What happened to them?”

    “Probably got out. Remember the frog and the ladybugs? I don’t think anything ate ‘em. The salamander died a while ago, and the biggest thing left is the snails.”

    “Oh, that’s a shame. I’ll get some more this afternoon.”

    “They’ll just get out again.”

    “So what? I liked the way they sounded. It helped me sleep. Besides; it’s lucky to have crickets in the house.”

    But she’d also put some a roly-poly in there the day before, I remembered. Were those lucky? And for most of the last week, she’d been the one turning the light on in the morning, and off at night. That was unusual, but, heck, if she wanted to look after it, great. It’s not as though a lot of work is involved, but it’s still less stuff for me to worry about. I went back and forth on caring for it, because it mostly took care of itself, but it did suffer a bit from neglect…well, certain specimens did. I sat down and opened my book.

    “I wouldn’t mind a bigger one of these.” Kevin was holding her chin in her hand, looking at the tank. “Maybe a fifty-gallon this time. What about it? Then we could put bigger plants in there, maybe some real fish, not just guppies. We could put it in the living room, in that corner between the windows.” She looked at me with a sparkle in her green eyes, and I knew my opinion had little to do with it.

    “You want help setting it up?” I figured I should offer, since I set up the small one, but I knew she’d decline. After 6 years married to her, I could recognize ‘project mode.’

    “That’s all right," she called over her shoulder. "I want the new one to be my creation.”

    Kevin came home that evening with a huge tank.

    “I didn’t know fifty gallons took up so much space,” I chided, as we carried it through the breezeway into the foyer.

    “They don’t. This one’s seventy-five.”

    “It’s kind of … big. What are you planning on putting in here, the kids?”

    “Ha ha. I thought it would be nice to have lots of different areas, all in one container. It’ll seem more like a real place that way; you’ll see.”

    “Much bigger, and it would be a real place. It won’t be a garden, it’ll be a landscape.” She’d once told me I was obsessed with the things. “Isn’t this kind of extreme? You’ve never been that interested before. What changed?”

    “Something wrong?” she asked, grinning. “Afraid I’ll make a better one than you, the big expert? You should enjoy the fact that I’m into your hobbies.”

    “Sure, sure, but you wanted to do this on your own, remember? That’s fine with me, since it’ll be some work to keep it looking nice. Oh, there’s no need to pout. You know I don’t mind. I’ll even enjoy seeing you play with it.”

    “Good,” she said, as she headed to the garage, to get the material and tools for it. I went back upstairs, back to the latest of Tiger Danson’s bestsellers.

    I was shocked out of my story by a shrill scream; bolt upright, my heart already pounding.

    When I flew down the stairs, Kevin looked like I felt..

    “Oh, I’m okay,” she said, patting her own chest, eyes wide and alert. “Just startled, by something hiding in the dirt.” She exhaled and looked at the floor of the tank. I relaxed against the doorjamb, relieved.

   “Yeah, there’s all sorts of disgusting creeps that live in there.” Kevin’s an ‘environmentalist’, one of the few things we disagree about, but like many eco-pagans, she often gets squeamish around actual live things.

    “So what’d you find? A centipede? A slug?”

   The new tank was mostly set up. She’d already transferred some of the dirt from the small tank to the new one, where there was a big, wet pile of mud on top of fresh topsoil. That old dirt is chock full of bacteria that render various wastes into fertilized soil.

   You can purposefully make a ‘rotting’ tank, stinking like the foulest of swamps, full of dead vegetation, mold, mushrooms, and fungus-rich soggy logs. More often such results are a mistake, and lots of plants suffer in the anaerobic conditions, chemically similar to booze fermentation. Rotting gardens stink, compared to the fresh, moist, rainy forest smell of most tanks, or the rich, summer-laden smell of swimming hole that healthy aquariums have. It helps to inoculate bottle gardens with dirt you know is healthy…no matter how big they are.

    “Whatever it is, it’s in the big tank now. He was hiding in the last glop of mud I dropped in. I didn’t notice him, because he blended right in, dark and slimy. But when I plopped it down, it must have startled him, because he sort of flipped around a couple times. That’s what spooked me.” She looked down at her shirt. “Ug, he got me.”

    Specks of mud dotted her tee shirt near the neck. Some was on her neck, too. The walls of the new tank had quite a bit splattered, but that could have all been done by just plopping that muck down. “What did he look like?”

    “I hardly saw. Dark, like I said, and slimy, but that could have just been the mud on him. I was using my hands, so he must have been basically soft, or I would’ve noticed him, when I picked up that glop and moved it over.”

    “What was he shaped like?”

    “Oh…kind of flat and round. I blinked when he flipped over, then I saw his tail slipping away into the dirt, so I didn’t get a real good look. He couldn’t have been too big; it was only a double-handful of mud.”

    “How big is ‘not too big’?”

    “Say…five inches long?” She looked at her out-stretched fingers, estimating.

    “You said flat and round? Which was it?”

    “Well, flat one way, like a ruler, but round on the ends.”

    “Like a giant flat worm?”

    “I guess…or like a miniature whale.”

    I cocked my eyebrows and smiled. “A sub-terrarium whale, huh? Let’s see if we can find it again.”

    This was actually pretty cool. It’s been a while since I discovered anything really new in the tank. Lots of stuff lived in the dirt; you could see that through the glass, from roots of all kinds to the tiniest of creatures, only visible if you shine bright lights on the dirt behind the glass. I’d never gone mucking around in it, though, exploring.

    Years ago, I’d started scooping up chunks of dirt from different places I visited. Places similar to the tank. Places full of seeds and spores and eggs and roots, just waiting for an opportunity. Evidently, something found one. I got a stick from the small tank, to poke around with.

    “Don’t hurt him,” cried Kevin, reaching for the stick, “He didn’t do anything wrong!”

    “What are you worried about? Why would I hurt it? Whatever it was, it could have been living in the old tank for who knows how long, and he hasn’t caused any trouble. I just want to see it. Maybe the salamander didn’t die. Maybe he we just laying low.”

    “Salamanders don’t crawl around in the dirt!”

    “Sure they do.”

    “They crawl around in marshes and swamps! In mud!”

    “It is mud!” We both looked at the tank. The big blob wasn’t really muddy anymore, just a layer of wet dirt on less-wet dirt. “Ok, so maybe it’s not the salamander. I know one way to find out.”

    “Wait” Kevin commanded. I looked at her.


    “It’s glass. Let’s just look, first.”

    We peered around all sides of the tank, looking into the dirt. We only saw dirt.

    “The bottom”?

    A seventy-five gallon glass tank supporting a big, wet pile of dirt is fairly fragile. We took our time. When we tilted it sideways, to rest it on the ottoman, some of the dirt slid over, leveling out some as we tipped. We both saw it: a little ripple of dirt, as something moved from the center, toward the deeper dirt. Inspection of the underside revealed nothing. We tipped it back to the floor, and the dirt slid a bit, again, but stayed sloped against the side.

    I dug the stick down, near where we saw the ripple settle. I found the bottom of the tank, and started dragging it along, making a rough trench as I went. I found him once, and felt the stick wiggle as he wriggled away. I hardly saw the faint pulsing movements in the soil.

   “C’mon, dude, I just want to look at you,” I muttered.

    I tried to sneak the stick underneath him, twirling it a bit, drilling through the soft loam without displacing it, so I wouldn’t alarm him. Maybe I could flip him up to the surface if he didn’t have any warning, and I was quick enough. I was just about to flick him into the daylight, when I saw movement at the opposite end of the tank.

    Kevin saw it, too; I saw her turn her head. We both saw a shark-fin poking up out of the dirt. It was flat and dark, like a fin, but as we watched, it kept slipping up, out of the dirt like a tongue sticking out to catch a snowflake. It was black all over, and curled a bit away from me. I squinted my eyes, staring, and saw that it was covered with fine, sleek fur. Like the tip of a dog’s ear, it was, but long. Then his eyes popped open.

    Just as quickly, he closed them, and the dirt jumped. He’d zipped away so abruptly that I didn’t notice any one spot where the dirt had rippled. It had all shook, then all was still.

    “Well, he’s probably harmless enough. I guess we know where the crickets went.”

    “That’s it?” said Kevin, frowning at me, almost shrieking. “Didn’t you see that thing’s eyes? They were blue! What the fuck was that? A flat mole? A dirt bat? Whaddya know?” she changed to a mocking tone. “Sorry about the crickets? Don’t you care what it is?”

    She was being a little hysterical, I remember thinking. “Relax. There’s lots of stuff in there I don’t recognize. It’s not that big of a deal. I’ve been surprised before. That was a pretty odd critter, though!”

    “So how did it get in there? Wouldn’t you remember putting that weird thing in there?”

    “No, not necessarily. He might have hitched a ride as an egg on something.”

    “Since when do furry things grow from eggs?”

    “Well…Platypuses hatch from eggs…”

    “Big eggs…”

    “Okay, fine. Maybe he hitched a ride as a baby.”

    Kevin called Nikki and asked her over. Nikki had majored in zoology, and Kevin figured she’d be the closest thing to an expert on strange creatures that might show up in a vivarium. I’d experienced a lot of bottle gardens, but hadn’t really studied the individual denizens, learning their names or the specifics of their chemistry or lifestyles, the way real scientists had.

    “...and the eyes were kind of buggy, and upward-looking, like a flounder,” Kevin was telling Nikki, as they came in the side door.

    “Are you sure they were blue, not gray, or maybe black, with a reflection?”

    “Oh...maybe. We didn’t see it for a real long time.”

    “You want some coffee or something?” I asked.

    “Can you make it while we look?” asked Nikki. “I’m anxious to see this thing.”

    “Ah...yeah, sure. You want sugar, or what?” I had a vague feeling she shouldn’t be poking at him, so I found myself trying to distract her. That seemed kind of stupid, when I thought about it, since I’d always been moving stuff around, hassling the inhabitants, when the tank was upstairs. Thinking about it, as I made the coffee, I decided that it was uncharacteristic of me to just give up on it last night. I brought the coffee into the living room, where they were talking.

    “Let’s call Skip, then. He’s the expert in this region, anyway. Just ‘cause I don’t recognize your description doesn’t mean he won’t. Also, Chuck, what’s the farthest afield you’ve gone when you collected for the old tank?”

    “I’ve thought about that, and it goes back and out pretty far, ultimately. I didn’t classify or catalogue anything, just found them, and put 'em in. As far away as Florida, Michigan, California, New York. The whole country, really. I started playing with it more than a decade ago. See that plant?”

   She looked where I pointed, to a two-inch tuft of dark red leaves in the small tank. “Yeah?”

    “I had that in an aquarium, with fish, 11 years ago.”


    “What’s the difference?” asked Kevin.

    “No big deal,” explained Nikki, “just that collecting from farther afield means a better chance that Skip won’t know it either. Also, whatever it is, it might have been lurking - and growing - for possibly 11 years. It could be anything.”

    “So let’s find him now, and you can see for yourself.” Kevin already had a stick.

    “That’s alright, I want to hear what Skip thinks of your description, first.”

    “Huh? You’re worse than Chuck. Aren’t you curious? The thing has blue eyes! You were all bug-eyed a minute ago.”

    “I guess I was, wasn’t I? Just now I was thinking that I’d probably forgotten most of the stuff I’d learned back then, anyway, and he’s probably just some mundane thing that everyone has in their backyard.”

    “Nikki," I asked, "do you have a vague feeling that you shouldn’t mess with him? Like fear, maybe, or respect?”

    “That’s funny you should say that. I do. Why?”

    “That kind of feeling came upon me last night. I didn’t analyze it then, but maybe it means something.”

    “Like what?”

    “I don’t know. Maybe it has powerful pheromones,” I suggested, after a moment.

    “Do you remember when you felt that way?” Nikki asked.

    “Yeah, just after I saw him.” Nikki twisted her mouth, considering that.

    “So maybe he’s poisonous or dangerous,” she offered, “and we have some kind of instinct to stay away from it, once we recognize it. People who have never even heard a rattlesnake instinctively know to avoid it.”

    “Maybe it’s empathic.” whispered Kevin.

    “An empath? Like it reads other minds?”

    “Or feels them…or influences them.” Kevin’s eyes got real big.

    “Now you’re just trying to spook us with ghost stories,” Nikki accused, rolling her eyes.

    “No, I mean it. How would I know it liked crickets?”

    “It was unusual for you to go buy a tank, let alone that monster.” I pointed out. “Maybe you weren’t being yourself."

    “Hold on,” said Nikki, “you were the one that wanted to poke at him just now. Why would something want you to poke it?”

    “I know! But here’s the thing: That feeling of respect you were talking about? I only noticed that feeling when it stopped: yesterday, after it spooked me. Ever since then, I don’t care if we keep either tank or not. What the hell did you make in there, Chuck?”

    “Now I have the heebie-jeebies,” said Nikki, hugging herself.

    “Okay, let’s be real, before you two go creeping each other out,” I said, in my most reasonable-sounding voice. “There’s no such thing as a mind-bending animal!” But why was I feeling, well, not scared…more like … expectant? Maybe it knew I was on the right track. Then again, maybe I was just letting my imagination get to me.

    “So let’s figure out what it is, after all,” said Kevin.

    “Well,” I started, “It’s all from parks, beaches, and back yards. Every bug, every plant, every rock, every...”

    “Not every rock!” Kevin said as she grabbed my hands. I was suddenly very curious about that meteorite, then just as suddenly, afraid to look.

    “Nikki,” I said, as casually as I could, “see that sparkly rock in the little tank? Will you get it out?”

    “This one?” she asked, pointing. I nodded. She reached in, and picked it up. “What about it? Did you get it on some trip or something?” Nikki turned it over in her hand, feeling the rough surface with her firngertips.

    “Not exactly. Do you see anything unusual about it?”

    “It seems like some kind of lava, the way it’s all convoluted. Oh, look, there’s a hole in it. Are you thinking he came from there? Where did you get this one?”

    “We don’t know where it came from. It’s a meteorite. If he came from there...”

    I dug a hammer out of the tool drawer, put the rock on the counter, and busted it open. That hole led to a small chamber inside, lined with dried tendrils of...something.

    “I can’t believe we’ve got some animal from space,” said Kevin.

    “Tell you what,” I said, “if it is from space, and it can influence the way people think, the best thing we can do is kill it. We know it can live in Earth’s dirt, and live off crickets and who knows what else. If it were to get loose, and...”

    A crash interrupted me. We dashed back into the living room, where the lid of the new tank had smashed on the floor. A flutter caught my eye, and I got a brief look at him flying, eyes open, ‘wings’ rippling, before he went through the front window, destroying it, too.”

    “Great, Chuck, you scared it,” said Kevin, as we headed out the door.

    It was dead. The glass had cut it all over. It was still whole enough to interest Skip, though, who was confident there was no record of an animal like that in any survey. Covered with mole-fur, he was shaped like a narrow manta ray, but short tailed.

    “New species are being discovered all the time,” Skip cautioned, “so the idea that he came from a meteorite is pretty far-fetched. Something probably just burrowed into the stone. Carbonaceous Chondrites are pretty soft, after all, and whatever nutrients they contain hadn’t been used, yet, so it may have been fairly attractive to something. What are the chances that some creature, able to survive in outer space, can also survive here? Almost none.”

    He said we’d probably get to pick a name for the new critter, though.

    Suppose it it did come from a meteor? If it happened once, it can happen again, or already has, many, many times. There are lots of life forms that suddenly appear out of nowhere in the geologic record. Usually, it’s blamed on an incomplete record. Others suggest the formation of harder bodily structures, which increases the likelihood of fossils surviving.

    Life’s history is full of near misses when everything faced extinction. Life might have ended very early on, when every life form required complex molecules to survive, but no one knew how to make them. No mechanism existed to build them. Photosynthesis evolved just in time, it seems, but with every solution comes a new problem: Oxygen was poisonous to most life, what we now call ‘anaerobic.’ And our ancestors figured out how to breath it.

From one cliffhanger to the next, life struggles on.

    But maybe it wasn’t just evolution. Could be, new ones just show up now and then. Earth as a bottle. That’s why I like to put those little chips in my bottle-gardens. If that meteor was carrying that blue-eyed dog-eared dirt-ray, it certainly wasn’t the first time that kind of thing happened.

   It could be a selling point, for that matter. How many people can say they have a meteor in their garden, let alone ET?

    “Mom, can I get this one?” The kid was tugging on Mom’s shirt, interrupting her conversation with Joan. “Please, Mom? Look, it’s sweating on the inside I don’t even have to water it!”

    “Just a minute, Timmy. It’s rude to interrupt,” she answered, with infinite patience, smiling at Timmy, and looking at me, over her glasses. I just smiled.

    Timmy held still for about twenty seconds. “Mom, they’re only five dollars, and you like plants, too. Can I pick one out? Just one?”

    Kids sure can be annoying sometimes. I gave him one for free, since he was a clever kid, and since Mom bought one of the paintings. He was looking into it as they walked away, wondering, as I was, what he’d find.

    And I still don't know if I decided that I shouldn’t worry, or whether I was told.

Copyright 2003, Tom McWilliams, Jr.