Vespa sat looking at the scenery around. The late afternoon sunlight streaming through the trees cast an orange glow on everything. Yet, the river was bright blue. Vespa wondered if there could be any truth in what Grandma had said. No, it was impossible. She must be turning senile.
Yes there were those mythological tales about humans who all intermarried and traveled across the globe over three thousand years ago. But how was that possible? They were just silly stories to entertain babies.
Vespa knew she could not go to the Tustan industrial district a mere 1000 miles away, or she would die of suffocation. The air there was almost gray with smoke, but the people there had evolved to tolerate it. Their noses were hairy and their chests were huge.
They did not, however, have the blue tinge to their skin like Vespa’s people did, and they could not drink the water from the river Vespa was staring at. This particular river, in the agrarian district of Laoseer, had a very high concentration of copper sulphate, from the pesticides used on the farmlands in the district. Vespa’s people had evolved to be able to drink and bathe in the water without any severe consequences. They considered it beautiful.
There were many such pockets of people all over Earth who had adapted to the local conditions. Some had a high tolerance for sulphur dioxide, others for heavy metals, and still others for UV radiation where the ozone layer had a gaping hole. They communicated with each other electronically of course, but visiting each other happened only in case of dire need, in proper protective gear. Living in a different territory was unfathomable.
That humans should have travelled frequently across the globe long time ago, seemed incredible. Surely the ability of humans to travel could not regress. After all they were the masters of the planet, making every aspect of it bend to their will.
And the mythological tales of intermarrying, why those were plain stupid. What if the baby inherited a combination of genes that were not suitable for either territory? That was the most foolish thing Vespa had ever heard. Yup, Granny's age was definitely catching up to her.
This was the end of the flash fiction piece I had originally written, but the idea fascinated me so much, I decided to extend it to a short story and perhaps some day a novel. So here is the short story.
Vespa got up. It was getting late. Granny got cranky if Vespa was late for dinner. Vespa ran northward along the river bank, hurrying to reach home. She was almost there, when she tripped. As she tried to get up at catch her breath, she noticed the thing that had caused her to trip. She backed away and screamed. But no one was close enough to hear her. Retreating further, Vespa tried to calm herself down.
No! How was this possible? Who was this guy? Why was he here? Suddenly it occurred to her that the man may be dead. She would have to check. The idea made her nauseous. Gingerly she stepped closer to him. That’s when she noticed the blue vomit a few feet behind the bush next to his body. Okay, so now she was pretty sure he had passed out. But he would need medical attention.
How long had he been lying there she wondered. Stupid man. But more importantly why was he in her part of the world? She hunted around for clues and soon she found one. A shiny metal badge with the logo of the Global Association of Scientists (GAS).
Oh, of course! They were having their annual conference at Laoseer this year and loads of specially distilled water with artificially introduced minerals had been made for them. This one must have been exploring. Vespa rolled her eyes. The GAS people were terribly curious and it often landed them in trouble.
Vespa rushed home and told Granny all about the man. Granny nodded gravely and then took out a bottle from the medicine cabinet. Together they returned to the unconscious man.
“Where is he from, Granny?” Vespa asked. She had never seen one like him before.
“Hmm, let’s see. Tall so probably from up north, but not quite lacking pigment, so somewhere where the ozone is depleted, and oh my, small pox scabs. He is from Serabi, the only place the small pox virus exists. It emerged from under the permafrost when it first melted long long ago. The population was almost decimated, but the few that survived evolved to be able to fight it.
Vespa looked at her grandma in awe. She did not understand what Granny was talking about, but Granny seemed to be far more knowledgeable than she let on. May be she should find out more about those mythological tales before writing her off.
Granny had managed to get some of that medicine in to the man’s smelly mouth. Vespa was relieved Granny hadn’t asked for any help. Then she suddenly remembered. Granny used to be a nurse once upon a time.
The man was finally coming around. He was blinking. As he took in his surroundings, he looked scared. “Who are you? What happened to me?”
“I am Vespa. This is my grandma. Are you capable of getting up and walking. Our house is just a hundred yards away. We can explain everything there.” The man nodded and the trio walked to the nearby house at the border of a farm.
“Our house in on our potato and spinach farm.” Vespa told the man as they entered the house. The man seemed to have run out of energy and collapsed on the couch.
“Was what I ate poisonous? Am I going to die?” The man asked as though resigned to his fate.
“You are not going to die, but how can you be so stupid as to eat something unknown in a foreign land?” Ganny scolded. “You are lucky that I used to be a nurse who specialised in ancient remedies.”
“Oh my god! I need a bathroom.” The man looked around desperately scanning the room for signs of one.
“Don’t be such a drama queen. Go out in to the fields and throw up. It’s good fertilizer for the crops. I don’t want to have to clean up your puke in my toilet.”
The man rushed out, and Vespa and Granny could hear loud retching sounds. The man returned after a quarter of an hour with specs of blue vomit on his beard. There was some dry vomit stains on his forehead too from the time he had vomited before passing out. But he still looked more cheerful and a lot less sick
“Great. Most of the poison should be out of your system. Now, go wash up there.” Granny said clamping her nose with one hand and pointing to the bathroom door with the other.
At the sound of the tap being turned on, Granny shouted. “Don’t drink any of that water. It will make things worse.
A few minutes later the man returned dabbing his face with a white handkerchief. “Could you please explain what happened to me?” He asked. “I thought it was safe to eat the fruits here. Don’t you export them?”
“Yes. We export the ones we cultivate. But that doesn’t mean you can just eat anything in the wild, you bungling moron.”
“But I saw one of the locals eating it from his snack box at the conference.” The man whined taking a sip of water from a bottle, that had been attached to his belt.
“My goodness. You are a scientist. You know all about adaptation. Exercise some impulse control man. Curiosity is great but you are not a child.”
“So what were those?”
“Those were blackberries.” Vespa volunteered, grinning.
“What’s wrong with blackberries? And why were they blue?”
“Think about it man. Why are we blue?” Vespa snickered. It was fun to see Granny yelling at someone else for a change.
“Oh! I see. They grow really close to the river. So they have a very high concentration of copper sulphate and you have developed a tolerance. “
“Finally!” Granny threw up her hands. “Call yourself a scientist!” She muttered. Vespa giggled.
“So what was the ancient remedy you gave me?” The man asked.
Ah, he is clever, Vespa thought. He knows how to mollify Granny. This was her favourite subject.
Granny’s expression softened. “You see we did not develop our tolerance all at once. A long time ago, as the concentration of copper sulphate steadily increased in the water, our people started getting very sick. The doctors then concocted a potion made of some plant extracts and minerals to deal with the symptoms and neutralize the excess copper sulphate in their system, but it only works for occasional exposure in small quantities. In the long term, only those who had the appropriate genes survived and procreated eventually resulting in a local population that has a high tolerance for copper sulphate. Although we have a high tolerance for copper sulphate, the tolerance is not unlimited. Since we live so close to the river, I keep some of the potion for those who over indulge on those berries.”
The man was taken aback. “What do you mean, your people got sick? People here have always been able to tolerate higher concentration of copper sulphate. You don’t actually believe all that stuff about ancient people traveling the globe and inter marrying, do you? That’s just propaganda by the fundamentalists who want us to believe in some impossible utopia of the super humans of the ancient past so as to suppress progress.”
“And yet you escaped death, because of a medicine I have you based on my beliefs.” Granny remarked, her eyes flashing.
“But your medicine may have been developed to deal with copper sulphate poisoning among your people, like you said your tolerance is not unlimited. And then someone just added the silly story you told me.” The man retorted ignoring Granny’s stony expression.
Vespa thought Granny would throttle the young man. But her anger abruptly deflated and she sighed. “I hoped, as a scientist, you would be open to reason and unconventional ideas.”
“I would be, but you are just spouting the impossible magical nonsense those fundamentalists tell us.”
“Am I? Do I sound like a fundamentalist?”
“No, not exactly. But you are saying similar things.”
“You are a scientist. Shouldn’t you have an open mind and analyse what I have to say and point out flaws in my theory if any, rather than dismissing it because it has some commonality with what fundamentalists spout. After all crazy fundamentalist theories are often built on some garbled version of the truth.”
“Okay Granny. I’ll listen. So what’s your theory?”
“My theory is that people in different regions were not so different to start with. Anyone could live anywhere and yes, even inter-marry.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Consider our biological differences that limit us to particular locations. They are not limitations imposed by nature. The river here for example, is full of copper sulphate from our pesticides but there must have been a time when there wasn’t too much pesticide in the river. Your people have depleted the ozone with various chemicals. But the ozone was probably not always depleted there as it is chemical waste that caused the depletion. The high concentration of carbon dioxide in Tustan comes from their industries, but it wasn’t always so. We can assume this because the peculiarities in atmosphere, ozone or water can be tied to human activities.”
“But if people could travel and intermarry, why would they give it up? It seems ridiculous.”
“I don’t believe they had a choice. I believe they polluted the environment to the extent that it was making them very sick.”
“But why wouldn’t they stop polluting the environment, if that were the case?”
“Because they became so dependent on their pesticides and technological comforts, they could not go back, even when they saw it was costing them their lives.”
“I see. So what do you believe happened next?”
“I believe that a large fraction of the population died out. But the small fraction that remained stuck to their small localities and evolved to adapt to local conditions. But now again we are growing in numbers. We retained their technological progress so our development was more rapid than the first wave of civilization.”
“Hmm. There may be some evidence to support your theory. Recently, archaeologists have found an excess of fossils dating back to a few thousand years ago and they are at a loss for explaining what caused such a carnage.”
“I am aware.”
“You are? How come?”
“I am guessing I have read the same paper you have.”
“You have read research papers in these fields?” The man seemed surprised.
“Yes, of course I have. They are publicly available to anyone who wants to read them. It’s the one thing all localities co-operate over. It’s why you people have a conference every year.”
“I know that. I just did not realize you were doing real research. I thought you were, well crazy.”
Granny glared at him.
“Why don’t you tell me what led you to think along these lines?” The man continued.
“I used to be a nurse and my curiosity led me to explore ancient remedies and from there history and ancient cultures. I was already familiar with evolutionary biology as a part of my nurses training. So sing the information and ideas I had gathered from various fields I put this theory together.”
“Okay, so I must admit that it seems like is an interesting idea. Why didn’t you ever publish it?”
“I wasn’t exactly a scientist and it is difficult for an outsider to get a journal to publish their theory, especially if it seems bizzare on the face of it. It also took me a while to convert ideas, intuition and strange connections between completely disconnected fields of study, in to a coherent theory.”
Vespa had been looking at Granny and then at the man and back, like some exciting tennis match. She had heard Granny mention her theories, but seeing that Vespa had no patience for them, she never went in to details. This was the first time she heard Granny present them so logically and coherently.
“Yes that would be difficult. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you email your theories to me and I’ll go through them in detail to check for any glaring issues. If all seems in order ,I’ll forward your reasearch to an approriate journal with my personal recommendation. If your theory can stand up to rigourous academic scrutiny, it may revolutionize the way we think about our past.” The man extended his hand. “No matter what comes of this endeavour, it is a pleasure to have made your acquaintance ma’am. My name is Evertotan.”
Granny was tearing up and Vespa could not believe what she was hearing. “Not Ever-- Everto -- totan Goulapitite, the fa-famous Phy-Physicist, are you?” Vespa stammered out in shock.
“The very same.” He smiled and Vespa could see the resemblance to the pictures she had seen, except that the beard threw her off.
There was a thud and Vespa turned around to see that Granny had fainted. She rushed to get the smelling salts from Granny’s ancient remedies kit. Together Dr. Goulapitite and Vespa managed to revive her, but perhaps it would have been kinder to leave her uncoscious until the physicist had left.
“I called you a bungling moron.” Granny was motified. She hid her face in her hands in shame.
“It’s okay Granny. I deserved it. Besides you did save my life. I owe you one. But I really think you may have an interesting theory here. It is not my field so I can’t be sure, but it sounds logical to me and it seems like you are well informed. If I can’t find anything glaringly wrong with it, I will send it to the right people.”
Granny looked up. She had a hopeful expression of a child. “I can’t believe it. After all these years of people calling me crazy,” she shot Vespa an accusing look and Vespa was smart enough to look contrite, “I have an actual chance of being taken seriously.” Granny smiled and her eyes shone.
Vespa was thrilled for Granny.
“But Granny, didn’t you ever consider a career in research instead of nursing?” Dr. Goulapitite asked.
“I did young man. But 50 years ago it wasn’t really an option for a woman, was it? One living in an agrarian district in particular.” Granny raised her eyebrows and looked Dr. Goulapitite in the eye.
“No. It wasn’t.” Dr. Goulapitite conceded.
Granny had shot up in Vespa’s estimation from senile old lady to a genius. Vespa resolved to continue Granny’s research. It did sound rather intriguing and Vespa had inherited, not just her grandma’s high copper sulphate tolerance, but also her creativity and insatiable thirst for knowledge.
The entire short story was first published as a guest post on my friend Lavanya's blog here. Thanks Lav for all your encouragement.
The photo was obtained from https://stocksnap.io/photo/Q7STENMU1K and used as a prompt.