Different from all the rocks on the beach
Lightning has struck me all my life. Just once was it real. I shouldnt remember it, for I was little more than a baby. But I do remember. I was in a field, where there were horses and riders performing tricks. Then a storm blew in, and a womannot Mampicked me up and brought me under a tree. As she held me tight I looked up and saw the pattern of black leaves against a white sky.
Then there was a noise, like all the trees falling down round me, and a bright, bright light, which was like looking at the sun. A buzz run right through me. It was as if Id touched a hot coal, and I could smell singed flesh and sense there was pain, yet it werent painful. I felt like a stocking turned inside out.
Others begun pulling at me and calling, but I couldnt make a sound. I was carried somewhere, then there was warmth all round, not a blanket, but wet. I knew where I was because it was water and I knew water - our house was close to the sea, I could see it from our windows. Then I opened my eyes, and it feels like they havent been shut since.
The lightning killed the woman holding me and two girls standing next to her, but I survived. They say I was a quiet, sickly child before the storm, but after it I grew up lively and alert. I cannot say if theyre right, but the memory of that lightning still runs through me like a shiver. It marks powerful moments of my life: seeing the first crocodile skull Joe found, and finding its body myself; discovering other monsters on the beach; meeting Colonel Birch. Other times Ill feel the lightning strike and wonder why its come. Sometimes I dont understand, but accept what the lightning tells me, for the lightning is me. It entered me when I was a baby and never left.
I feel an echo of the lightning each time I find a fossil, a little jolt that says, Yes, Mary Anning, you are different from all the rocks on the beach. That is why I am a hunter: to feel that bolt of lightning, and that difference, every day.
An unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious
Mary Anning leads with her eyes. That was clear even the first time we met, when she was but a girl. Her eyes are button brown and bright, and she has a fossil hunters tendency always to be looking for something, even when on the street or in a house where there is no possibility of finding anything of interest. It makes her appear vigorous, even when she is still. I have been told by my sisters that I too glance about rather than hold a steady gaze, yet they do not mean it as a compliment as I do with Mary.
I have long noted that people tend to lead with one particular feature, a part of the face or body. My brother, John, for instance, leads with his eyebrows. It is not just that they form prominent tufts above his eyes, but they are the part of his face that moves the most, tracing the course of his thoughts as his brow furrows and clears. He is the second eldest of the five Philpot siblings, and the only son, which made him responsible for four sisters after our parents death. Such circumstances will move anyones eyebrows, though even as a boy he was serious.
My youngest sister, Margaret, leads with her hands. Though small, their fingers are proportionately long and elegant, and she plays the piano better than the rest of us. She is given to waving her hands about as she dances, and when she sleeps she throws her arms above her head, even when the room is cold.
Frances has been the only Philpot sister to marry, and leads with her bosom which I suppose explains that. We Philpots are not known for our beauty. Our frames are bony, our features strong. Moreover, there was really only family money enough for one sister to marry with ease, and Frances won the race, leaving Red Lion Square to become the wife of an Essex merchant.
Excerpted from Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Copyright © 2010 by Tracy Chevalier. Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
The captivating story of an unconventional New England family.
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