The Wilds

Free The Wilds by Julia Elliott

Book: The Wilds by Julia Elliott Read Free Book Online
Authors: Julia Elliott
minutes left until the class ended and my planning period began, so we hustled to get his laptop hooked up to my digital projector. As we searched for the right cable, rain beat against the flat, tar roof of my ancient portable. The children murmured and sniggered and pinched each other. Cryptic undergroundsmells oozed up from the vents. Dr. Vilkas asked me to cut the lights, and I stood in the humming darkness with my arms crossed over my breasts.
    “Well, now,” he said, flashing his first slide (a diagram of the canine nasal system). “We don’t have much time, so I’m going to jump right in.”
    Dr. Vilkas rubbed his palms together and smiled at the students, his chin receding.
    “While the human nose contains about five million scent receptors,” he began, “the average dog snout boasts over two hundred million.”
    After pausing to let the drama of his opener sink in, he launched an incomprehensible lecture, describing the receptor neurons and olfactory epithelium of the vomeronasal organ, its dark, squishy, fluid-filled sacs, its mucus-slaked cellular microvilli, which absorbed innumerable odor molecules. As he descended deeper into thickets of technical jargon, his sentences became endless, his accent heavier.
    The children could not take their eyes off the odd man. One by one their mouths popped open. They sat stock-still in their cramped desks. By the time the bell rang, Dr. Vilkas had not progressed past his first slide. Rather than darting from their chairs, the students filed out slowly, glancing back at the evolutionary ecologist before slumping out into the drizzle.
    We stood alone in the dark room.
    “I had a film I wanted to show them,” Dr. Vilkas said.
    “That’s too bad,” I said. “I would have loved to see it.”
    “Well, you could. I mean, we could watch it right now. If you’re free.”
    The classroom smelled pungent, with a trace of something coppery that I could almost taste. Who knew what chaos of desperate, pheromonal signals my poor caged students pumped out, day after day, in our dank little portable as the beauties of the world glimmered beyond their reach in the mythical places they watched on screens. We sat in their tiny desks toward the back of the room, in the territory of the football players, where a turbulent energy still seemed to hover.
    The film, a montage of hundreds of individual canines caught in the act of sniffing, had no sound. We watched one silent dog after another thrust its snout toward this or that reeking object: a pile of dung, a dead cat, a battered Nike tennis shoe. We watched dogs take long, contemplative whiffs of each other’s anuses. We saw them snorting hectically at each other’s genitals. Male dogs patrolled invisible borders, adding their own messages to the mix. Female dogs snuffled their fragrant nurslings. Old dogs nosed their bodies all over for signs of doom.
    Halfway into the film Dr. Vilkas started talking about the different kinds of pheromones: territorial scentmarkers creating boundaries, alarm pheromones warning of looming dangers, male sex pheromones conveying the special genotype of each species, female sex pheromones announcing optimum fertility, and then there were comfort pheromones, released by nursing females to calm their worried young.
    “The world is a tempestuous tangle of significant odors,” said Dr. Vilkas. “And humans are blunt-nosed fools.”
    “Is it possible for us to pick up some of the dogs’ messages?” I asked him. “Without knowing what we’re picking up?”
    “We don’t really comprehend the human vomeronasal organ,” he said. “Scientists are just beginning to understand a little about human pheromones, how they give us very particular impressions about each other.”
    The film ended and the room went dim, gray storm air glowing outside the windows.
    “Sometimes,” I said, “before a dog pack appears, here at school or at my house, I get this special tingling feeling.”
    “Where?”
    “I

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