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The Trouble with Trilobites

Published on February 20, 2018 3:02PM

Fiction • by Steve Sabatka

Barney was a dachshund-beagle mix — and my collar-jangling, Obi Dog Kenobi, hipping me, in his own shaggy-bearded way, to “what-if?” story ideas as we stomped our sandy side of the Pacific Rim, from Yachats to Long Beach, in all kinds of weather.

Barney was. He is no more. Because just about a year ago, we all but tripped over what would have been the first chapter of the greatest Oregon Coast novel ever — take that Brian Doyle! But then, sadly, tragically, as the old sci-fi movie trailers used to say, something went terribly wrong! It was all Barney’s fault, and I was so enraged that I felt compelled to resolve the situation. With extreme prejudice.

It was another cool, misty morning at the stony south jetty of the Columbia River, not far from the rusted ribs of the Peter Iredale. Barney and I prowled the sharp, black boulders, he sniffing and scratching and marking his turf, me swinging a silvery driftwood stick that had the approximate length and curve of a katana sword, and both of us leaving our respective footprints in the coarse sand.

There were no other living beings in sight, save, briefly, for a line of cormorants, five of those black, long-necked birds, dotting the sky in an intermittent pattern that looked for all the world like musical notes on a page — five notes, of some pentatonic, Kabuki melody.

As I listened to that exotic track and waited for the story juices to bubble up from the haunted currents of the Pacific Graveyard, hazy sunlight glistened on a wet exoskeleton, caught my eye, and stopped me dead in my size-12 tracks. And then there it was, something so shocking, so astoundingly out of time, as to totally rock the world of science.

You might not know what a trilobite is — or was — especially if you aren’t a lifelong dinosaur nut like me, who learned to read by sounding out words like “bron-to-saur-us,” and who started an epic slap fight between my grandmother and a librarian who thought that, since I had checked out all of her dinosaur books, maybe I should expand my bibliorizons so that nobody would think I was some kind of Mesozoic oddball, or something.

Trilobites were three-lobed arachnomorph arthropods that looked a lot like horseshoe crabs. They have never, ever been seen by human eyes, at least in non-fossilized form, because they’ve been extinct for 250 million years. Until I almost stepped on one, that is.

“No way.” For one very strange moment, I wondered if maybe the breakfast burrito I had shared with Barney that morning had been laced with some kind of Oaxacan hallucinogenic spice — or if my dog and I had just stepped through an invisible, Ray Bradburian portal into the Paleozoic Era. But when I reached down, picked up the ravioli-sized trilobite, held it in my hand, and then watched as it curled in my palm like a frightened pill bug, I knew it was the real deal, that I was about to be the richest high school teacher in the state, write about the experience, make the bestseller list, and then quit. Take that Teacher Standards and Practices Commission!

I looked around for another primordial Lazarus, thinking, hoping against hope, that maybe a sub-ocean vein of hibernating creatures had cracked open, and that I had to put the grab on as many trilobites as I could before hightailing it to either the Maritime Museum in Astoria, or the Hatfield Center in Newport, to start the bidding war. But apparently, the archaic mystery, slowly opening in my palm, now — trusting me — was the only one of its kind.

I couldn’t keep this discovery to myself. “Look what I found, boy!”

As Barney sniffed at the trilobite, the thought, the mental image, of me, a semi-evolved hominid, displaying a prehistoric bottom feeder to a domesticated canine that had been named after a cartoon caveman, blew my mind. And I guess I was still reeling to such an extent that my reflexes weren’t quick enough to snap my hand away before Barney snatched that poor trilobite up, and wolfed it down without so much as a please and thank you.

The last thing I remember about the trilobite before my dog ate it:

Einstein-Confucian eyes, blinking with Yoda wisdom, as if to say, “Hello! Much to tell you I have!”

I watched Barney for the next 24 hours, not out of concern for his health, but to save his doody, and any trace evidence of the antediluvian creature that had survived the dog digestion process — fragments of legs, feelers, etc. — in a Ziploc bag.

I kept that bag. It’s still in my freezer. Barney, on the other hand…

When my lemon-head nephews came out from the Valley to visit me, I told them that Barney wasn’t really a coast kinda dog, that I had given him to a friend, and that Barney was on a farm, somewhere on the other side of the Summit, happily running through some golden meadow with all those other dogs and cats that got sick or hit by cars or tore up expensive couches. I think they bought it.


Last week, I went to Prehistoric, a combination fossil gallery and dinosaur emporium in Lincoln City, and bought a fossilized trilobite. It was smaller than the real one I had found — and dead, of course. I wanted to tell my trilobite story to the guy behind the counter, or ask if he wanted to quote me a price for a plastic bag of modern day trilobite remains. But he seemed to be a practical sort, and I knew he would think I had become that Mesozoic oddball. On the way home, I stopped at a sushi restaurant, ordered tempura shrimp — and couldn’t help but wonder, what would batter-fried trilobite taste like?

Steve Sabatka’s young adult novel, “Mister Fishback’s Monster,” is available from Black Bed Sheet Books.

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