In the first telescopes, they had documented men-like forms. There were heads, it seemed, accompanied by limbs-two above and two below. The proportions, too, seemed plausibly human-a spacing, approximate, which the court scholars had inferred, using their best math.
Through the primitive lenses, no further detail could be discerned. Artists, nonetheless, made their best speculations, adding clothing and tasteful hats. The council, directed by the pontiff, incorporated these discoveries into the Roll of Evidence, in support of the existing doctrine. There are men-only men, read the sacred scrolls. And nothing else has ever existed...
They built, quickly, the first sky ships, which would pursue what the telescopes had seen. Within a decade, the first voyage returned. The captain, deeply traumatized, could not be persuaded to testify. I don't remember... he said, in a hollow way.
The voyage's chief scholar, by contrast, was effusive. He brandished his sketches excitedly. He distributed minor specimens: bones and hair. In his report, before the council, he said, Much is new! He named, with foreign inflection, the inhabitants of the three distant provinces that they had visited: Chimpanzees! Gorillas! Orangutans! He distributed a new map-it was rather like a river, he said, which branched into four distributaries. He concluded, with a passionate whisper: They are not men!
After several weeks of interrogation, the scholar was persuaded to recant. Gaunt and bruised, he mounted the public square. His manacles clanked. Before the assembled crowd, he stated, simply: There are only men. As he descended the steps, he re-recanted, in a more private tone: And yet there are others...
In a ceremonial fire, the heretical sketchbooks were burnt. These events informed a new generation of scholars, who were determined to be more cautious. Mounting their own sky ships, they navigated towards more distant provinces. Here, they constructed new maps, arranged according to a less intuitive model (there were, they said, no "branches"). To the specimens they collected-increasingly bizarre and self-evidently non-human-they ascribed a range of explanations. According to one theory, the apparent differences were merely birth deformations (symptomatic, in turn, of some nutritional deficiency). In other theories, climate was the culprit: various monkeys, in particular, may have been stunted and reshaped, as the result of excessive heat.
As data collection continued, these theories became less tenable. New specimens arrived, drawn from increasingly far-flung provinces. One team presented several rodents to the council. Each was distressingly minute. Their ears twitched in a facile way, disturbingly inhuman. Another team, proceeding from another direction, brought a dolphin, which they had laboriously encased in a waterproof cask. Already sick, the creature died on the floor of the chamber, after a senior council member, angry and shaken, demanded its removal. (Walk, fiend! he had said, prodding the body with his ceremonial staff. Walk!)
In private circles, the heresy became widespread. They are not men! declared the intelligentsia, at their dinner parties. They chatted glibly over the secret, extended maps, which were arranged as a single river, divided into many branches. (Distances were marked using astronomical units; locations were defined, in a more absolute sense, with reference to various stars.) In public, the intelligentsia communicated these convictions in a more subtle way, using ribbons that were inscribed with the secret maps. In response, the council staged several prominent trials, which culminated in a handful of burnings. These were desperate, ugly acts, however, conducted rather grudgingly.
With the arrival of the first birds, something of a crisis broke. There was a shift in the council room, accompanied by the genesis of a new theory. They are inanimate! became the new mantra. It was doctrinally acceptable, and yet it remained somewhat uncomfortable. Many of the birds' behaviors-squawking, flapping, eating, and so on-still seemed inconvenient. Euthanasia orders, issued discreetly, rendered the theory slightly more palatable. Upon the non-living specimens, anatomists performed intricate autopsies, searching for clockwork pieces or winding gears.
In subsequent decades, with the arrival of fungi specimens, these pronouncements became more confident. They are inanimate, declared the council, implacably. Scholars, thus directed, divided their observations into two kinds of records. In their official reports, they described only the specimens' shape. In their private papers, they included more heretical descriptions, such as mating behavior and rate of growth.
The discovery of trees, some years later, gave particular pleasure to the underground intelligentsia. The trees' profile suggested a pleasing metaphor, which would come to guide their map-making. Each sketch, now, contained a single trunk, which split, at top, into a leafy profusion of branches and twigs. The sketches, in turn, represented a vast-and expanding-universe, composed of distinct provinces. Within this universe, non-men were increasingly prominent.
For the scholars, manning the starships, the intelligentsia coined a new term. Combining the Greeks words for race (phylon) and sailor (nautes), it was deliciously heretical. At each starship launch, the intelligentsia formed a smirking contingent. They yelled churlishly: Farewell phylonauts! Beneath the sound of the ships' propulsion, they were, of course, inaudible.
At the same time, secret changes where also instituted in the practices of the council. On the surface, the council worked to consolidate its own model: at the center of the universe, there were men (some perfect, some deformed); on the outskirts, there existed a vast diversity of inanimate objects. On a deeper level, however, the council was deeply troubled. A new malevolence-aimless, irrational-began to shape its policies. Following the scholars' presentations, the specimens were often subjected to hidden interrogations, over which the pontiff presided. Rage at the specimens' responses-or at their lack-led, sometimes, to burnings. The fumes, containing novel flesh, tempted the council members into a still weirder set of practices. Conflictedly, they sampled the remains of what they had burnt, enjoying the unprecedented flavors. Doctrinal justifications, hastily penned, helped to blunt their guilt; at the same time, they were too ashamed to publicize the practice.
To the trees, the council members devoted a particular malevolence. To their delight, they found them rather ideally suited to burning (if less to eating). To the flames, council members first fed the twigs and branches. This left, by the end, only a smooth trunk, which was devoid of symbolism. To the ash, they said: You signify nothing.
Increasingly, as the map expanded, scholars made a great push to explore the provinces that lay in one particular direction. Regions near the predicted "root" of the tree had proved very difficult to access; the way was impeded by belts of rogue rock, which had destroyed many ships.
Eventually, one ship charted a workable path, though not without injury. Its hull, upon return, was severely dented. From its cargo bay, scholars unloaded trays of vials. Each was labeled by collection site-as best, at least, as the ship's damaged instruments had been able to ascertain it.
Inside of the vials, there was nothing. Water! laughed the pontiff, relievedly, as he sloshed the contents against a vial stopper. Water! snorted a cardinal. A whisper, half giggle, circulated among the lower council members: It will not burn...
In a soft little voice, a scholar approached the desk, gesturing with a new instrument. It was a bristling hodgepodge of glass and metal. You must magnify it... the scholar suggested. His tone, however, lacked conviction. After depositing the instrument, he slunk back timidly.
When the council had finished its review, it coined a new mantra. There is nothing there, it declared, implacably. The crowds repeated the pronouncement. Their tone was bright and nihilistic. There is nothing there!
Upon their star maps, clerics scribbled extensions, using dark ink. With thick strokes, they created a sea of utter black. It formed a definitive border, framing everything that had ever been characterized. Outlined in this way, the appearance of pattern was cleverly minimized. What remained was simply a profusion of diverse forms, superficially intriguing. They existed, merely. No heterodox meaning could be inferred from them.
In the margins, in triumphant flourish, the clerics wrote: There are only men.
*Thanks to Allen Rodrigo, for coining the term "phylonaut;" thanks also to Karen Cranston, whose work on The Open Tree of Life inspired the coinage.