The Psammophile

By Maria Dahvana Headley

Illustration by Linda Saboe

Tea time by Linda Saboe

Tea time by Linda Saboe

My Dearest Sir,

With all thanks I return to you today your illuminated Catalogue of Entomological Oddities along with its accompanying and Explanatory Catalogue of Oddities, Etymological, which Intriguing Document contains several surprises regarding the nature of psammophilic insects, and the naming procedures required when encountering same. It was a novel notion to me, though perhaps it is not to you, that arthropods are named not with impunity by the scientists who first describe them, but according to the natural laws and wishes of the insects themselves. In this case, dictated by the quantity of quartz particulate in said psammophile’s blood, as well as the speed and savagery with which said particulate, combined with Venom, degrades parchment, most especially when used as ink in encrypted and poisonous correspondence. (I hasten to note: we’ve no such poison here, between us two!)

As well, I enjoyed the lithophilic insects detailed in the Catalogue, those crack-dwellers diving in drops welled up from the depths, and the procedure of their naming, according to the type of gemstone preferred — (and oh, My Dear Sir! the footnoted section regarding the lithophile’s caverns in that Great Ruby, the notion that such rock dwellers continued to colonize the stone even as it dangled, pigeon-egged from the throat of She, that Queen of No Country, that Bride of Never, that Woman Who Refused All, With Pinched Mouth and Diamond-Inset Fang, and the notorious morning those insects swarmed from her jewel, and delved into the new caverns of her gum-arabic painted pores!) If perchance you’ve not committed to memory the contents of the Catalogue’s footnotes on scorpions, sir, you would be well-served to do so, and to climb quietly the library ladders of their nerves, taste with your tongue the glucosinolate chitin of their skeletons. I had, until your generous loan, no notion that a scorpion’s skeleton might be used to sweeten my beverage, but now, now.

I shall shortly, Dear Sir, smash a scorpion with my spoon, and dissolve him, in all his magnificence, in my teapot.

I make bold to present you in return with a List of a Collection, which I may justly assert you’ve not viewed before. It is, I say shyly, an account of a rarity, only recently unearthed by my own apprentices, from the shelves of a room buried in a landslide of bone china dishes. It would seem (I tremble to tell you this, in fear that you might, by some mischance, have prodded this hillside with your own walking stick, but I lay that fear to rest. The mountain was inviolate, and had been so since its inception) that a factory devoted to the decoration of plates had, a thousand years before our first correspondence, slipped down a hillside, and shattered itself upon the roof of the building. The mountain of plates became, with time, a hidden hillside of shards planted with the type of moss which gleams with the iridescence of green beetles, and the mountain itself was covered over with a small forest of jagged white trees, each one like the tooth of a monster. It was only by happenstance that my apprentice stumbled upon this miracle of mimesis, his foot snagging on a relic, and there, he found a plate skillfully painted with a set of initials. As he rooted about in the undergrowth, he discovered another, marked with a second monogram. Upon further examination, it became clear to him that the items he’d been convinced were plates marked with the monograms of their commissioners, were in fact, something quite other than plates.

These fragments, were, as I will reveal, only the beginning of the contents of the hill, and upon my summoning to the scene, I brandished my spade, and delicately removed layers of botanicals to reveal the following items of a Catalogue, the contents of the room beneath the mountain, for this hill of beautiful bones was mere smoke blown in the face of the scholar, to obscure the treasure hidden beneath.

My dear Sir, the individuals who amassed the collection detailed below are themselves antiques, as are their treasures. I detail a portion for your pleasure and present to you this:




Dies Natalis Absconditus


  1. A novel in manuscript, slightly foxed, bound in the laminated skin of a whale, handwritten in squid ink, illustrated with color plates. Said novel purports to be the history of a young girl’s journey into a warring world above the clouds, and contains discourses on throat-singing, and the shedding of skin for the purpose of resurrection. Dedication inscribed with an assortment of parentheses and symbols.
  2. A novel in manuscript, slightly foxed, bound in the skin of a ghost, intermittently invisible, but readable beneath strong light, when the volume is held out into the pouring rain. The full title cannot be read, but shifts, disappearing and reappearing at seeming whim. Novel is indiscriminately lined with slashes of blood-red ink, and said slashes are occasionally accompanied by sequences of x’s, thought to be magical symbols.
  3. Large glass tank, glass wavy with age, containing tremendous articulated wooden fish, 7m in length, with hollow core, missing only its eyes, presumed to be in another collection. The purpose for which this fish (with its astonishing complement of interior benches and oarlocks) was assembled is now unknown.
  4. Slippers, two. Goatskin, men’s. Lined with fleece, golden.
  5. Heart, human, female preserved in the classical Egyptian manner, the interior of which may be viewed through a small window. Containing vast landscape of one set of male eyes of indeterminate and shifting color, staring out at the observer, and blinking.
  6. Pen(s), Ivory. Set of ten. Carved of the finger bones of two long-fingered hands, each of which is tipped with a wickedly pointed hollow nib.
  7. Vial, blown glass, purpled with age, containing a dark, tarry liquid, which, when used to fill the chambers of Pen(s) may be used to write permanently in the air.
  8. Photograph, much faded, of a woman’s smiling face, looking up.
  9. Photograph, much faded, of a man sleeping in a bed, wrapped in white sheets, a lipstick print on his shoulder.
  10. Library of books, spines broken, pages folded, and bearing two sets of fingerprints.
  11. Teapot, scented with bergamot, and stained with the impression of tea leaves.
  12. Tooth, wisdom, set in necklace of silver, and scrimshawed.
  13. Mattress, in which there are no indentions for two bodies, but only a large indention in which two people slept on their sides, leaving a hollow, which was then cast into—
  14. Plaque, two sleeping bodies entwined, cast first in plaster, then in bronze.
  15. Human Skeleton, female, complete, made of bone china, each bone marked with the afore-noted monogram, excepting the bones of the ribcage, which are marked with the other afore-noted monogram, and which are hinged to open from the center.
    1. Enclosed within ribcage, the skeleton of an Erithacus rubecula, wings spread, feathers intact, including red-breast.
    2. Discovered beside left wrist, bracelet of tarnished silver, containing a hinged box which hides a tiny scroll upon which is drawn a demon.
  16. Human Skeleton, male, complete, made of bone china, each bone marked with the second afore-noted monogram, with the exception of the bones of the ribcage, which are marked with the first afore-noted monogram, and which are hinged to open from the center.
    1. Enclosed within ribcage, the skeleton of the nectarivore Panterpe insignis, wings spread, feathers intact.
    2. Discovered beside skull, several tentacles, cast in metal, of a young cephalopod.
  17. Love letters, collection, in language now obscure. Upon initial inspection, thought to have been written in an imaginary language, but upon chemical analysis, proven to be constructed in an ink which has encoded itself over centuries. Two distinct hands. Marginalia consists of fingers interlaced, invented insects, and various entwined beasts, all in the act of adoration.
  18. More and various items, to be revealed upon a physical inspection of collection, in person. Location of collection to be revealed.


My Dear Sir, My Dearest Sir:

I hope that this brief accounting serves to entice you. Consider it repayment for the sweetness of your scorpion, which, even now, I drink, sip by careful sip, having procured a sample from our colleague in Prague. Consider this catalogue a birthday gift, in return for the loan of the catalogues you sent me. I cannot, alas, adequately compensate you for the hourglass you sent with them, filled with foraminifera, the star-shaped sand you knew was necessary to complete my spectrum of the world’s most exquisite beaches. I know (of course!) that you collected it yourself in Okinawa, and with it, the magnificent insect that slips from end to end of the hourglass, counting the hours until we meet.

Nor can I repay you properly for the other insect you sent, the tiny lithophile, encased as it is inside a stone, so that I can hear it singing only when I place it tightly against my ear. You sent me, as I am certain you are aware, two insects who are named for the nature of their strange and livelong joy.

Even now, as I compose this gift to you, this brief catalogue of the lost possessions and bones of lovers neither you nor I have ever met, I watch the psammophile making its way from the bottom of the hourglass to the top again, stretching itself through the particles that compose its universe.

I read once, Dearest Sir, of an hourglass filled with powdered eggshell, inside of which the shells realigned themselves one afternoon into an egg, perfect, gleaming. An hour after that, there was heard a cracking, and the shell opened to reveal a singing bird, and an hour after that, the bird cracked open to reveal a bee which flew to the upper chamber. An hour later, the hourglass dripped with honey, and then the hours passed more slowly than they had done before.

An hour passed for an entire day, and as it passed, the orbit of the earth slowed as well, and both night and day were made longer by twenty-four times. The earth gazed in bewilderment at itself, spinning in place, around a sun that looked back, as stunned as the planets that orbited it.

In the room where this hourglass tilted, Dearest Sir, two collectors who had until the dawn of the longest day never met, sat at a desk with their volumes, their pens, their papers, and as the hour passed, they moved closer and closer, until, as the last drop fell to the bottom of the hourglass, they fell into one another’s arms.

My Dearest Sir, that was the end of the volume, though I scoured the footnotes and primary sources in a vain attempt to find the moment the world spun back into orbit, or failing that, the moment the hourglass shattered. It was, I concluded — this was in my student days — a case of Fabulism miscategorized as Science. But now, in this room, I watch the glass and your gift, the sand-loving insect, climb, carrying particles in his pinchers. He has no regard for hours already passed, nor for hours yet to add themselves to the tally of the world. Back he goes, and back again, ferrying his stars from the bottom chamber to the top. As he travels, I feel time moving around him, the lines in my face less, then more, the silver hairs on my head golden one hour, and white the next.

As I write this, I am old and nearing the end of my life, and you are far away and nearing the end of yours. Tonight, when the sand has been brought to the top of the glass, and the little insect you sent me crouches in his habitat, his slender legs folded, his gleaming eyes gazing in satisfaction over his work, I’ll be young, and you will be young as well, young enough to board a ship, to sail over an ocean, to join me here, at my desk.

Together, then, at our desk, we may contemplate our catalogue, and perhaps, Dearest Sir, you’ll take my hand in your own. Together, we will watch our psammophile, as he ferries his sand back, and back again, so that the moment of our first meeting, and the setting sun, the dawn, the twilight, will all combine into a long day and a still longer night.

And then, Dearest Sir, someday far in the future, long after our little insect has curled himself into his hourglass, and closed his jeweled eyes for the last time, another collector’s apprentice may discover us two, here in our collection, our skin become paper. The apprentice may press his ear to our joined hands and hear the lithophile encased inside them, singing still.

By then, there will be in this room a thousand psammophiles. They’ll be making their way patiently, in and out the window, carrying our bones to the sea, making sand of us. Beloved Sir, this future catalogue, this trove to be discovered, will then shift swiftly to the bottom of the ocean, battered by elements.

All that will be left, in the end, will be these letters, in which I declare myself utterly Collected, Catalogued, and Your Own.

The Psammophile © 2013 Maria Dahvana Headley
Tea time © 2013 Linda Saboe

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