Author’s Note: The following is taken from the “Happenings” column in the Shaw’s Hill Times. It was posted on January the 15th, 2051. “Happenings” is written by Sarah G. Glennual (Pronounced Glen-wal). It is primarily a place where she reports on human-interest stories. This particular entry has been reproduced here due to its importance to the ongoing situation in Shaw’s Hill. Before this particular entry, Happenings’ readership consisted of a Barista in CWE, two cube-mates at Great Plains Bank who constantly talk about it in the break room, and a stray cat who figured out how to open the newsstand so it had a place to sleep when it rains. After this entry, however, Miss Glennual (Glen-wal) became a household name. It seems that the story of the Smooth-Tailed Urban Newt is more relatable than anyone suspected.
“Let me tell you something about the Smooth-Tailed Urban Newt.”
“This is a newt species that is very important to me personally. When I was in middle school, I was climbing a tree in my backyard in Vandeventer, a suburb of Shaw’s Hill. When I reached the top of the tree I saw something bright blue dart through my periphery. I followed it out onto a branch, and beheld this beautiful creature. It was about as long as my hand, and had two tiny, silver eyes with black streaks to look slotted. I was stunned. Its colors stood out so brashly against the brown bark and green leaves that surrounded us. I took out my phone to take a picture. What a gorgeous picture. When I got this office, I had it printed on glass and it hangs right there.”
I double-checked my microphone and recording software. I could feel in my gut that this would be an important interview.
“Anyway, I uploaded that picture to a biologist forum, and asked around to see if anyone could tell me what kind of newt it was, and nobody could. Eventually I was contacted by a biologist from Jefferson University in Shaw’s Hill. Even though I was a kid at the time, I did have memories of driving past the experimental greenhouse off of Forsyth Blvd and seeing how the glass building stood out from the red-granite castles that made up most of campus. Now I’m lucky enough to have an office overlooking that very greenhouse, see.”
She walked over to her window and drew the blinds. She seemed lost in thought for a moment so I walked over to join her, bringing the microphone with me, just in case. She sighed loudly.
I didn’t know what to say.
Professor Jemima (Jimi) Buckley sent me an email at 3AM on Saturday, December 31st. We at the Times went on hiatus from Dec 16th to Jan 9th, so the earliest I could schedule a meeting with her was last Wednesday. She wrote:
Dear Miss Glennual,
I was walking to work today when I stopped at a newsstand to get a copy of the Times. I didn’t want to disturb the cat sleeping in there, so I took the copy that had been propped up against the wall, which was opened to your column, Happenings. To be more specific, your report on the community of crows, ravens, and jays living in the now-abandoned Olive Blvd warehouse.
I believe I have a story you will be interested in, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jemima (Jimi) Buckley
I set up a meeting with her right away. I’d never gotten a note from the public before, and to be fair I’ve only been writing Happenings for a few months, and as I’ve said before on this column, this is my first job out of college, and I came to the Times because it has a small staff, but it’s quickly becoming a paper of record for the United States
“That newt became my life’s work that day. I made national news, I was offered scholarships, I had my fifteen minutes of fame. Now when I read those articles I laugh about how quick the reporters were to point out that I was a black girl, but it worked out for me in the end…”
She continued to stare out the window. I cleared my throat and she snapped out of it.
“Anyway, my story.”
She sat back down at the desk, and I joined her.
“I ended up studying biology in college, I was able to leverage the fact that I discovered a new species at 13 to get in to this school. I worked hard and was able to get into the Ph.D. program here, and that’s where my story takes place. I think I’m lucky to have discovered my passion so early, most academics don’t get that. Anyway I was doing my dissertation on the specific adaptations of my newt to an urban environment. You see, there are a lot of species that have adapted to thrive in cities, but it’s rare to see amphibians in these roles because they’re generally so sensitive. They have permeable mucus membranes over much of their skin, and oils and pollutants from the urban environment can wreak havoc on their systems and make them sick. Yet, sightings of the smooth-tailed urban newt have increased since their discovery, and they seem to have spread to other cities in the midwest. Citizen science platforms have received pictures of the newt from Kansas City and Chicago, and a few even as far away as Denver.”
She paused for a moment and offered me a cup of coffee. I offered to make it so she wouldn’t be able to stall any more.
“I’m sorry I keep stalling, I’m just worried that you’ll think I’m crazy. I guess it doesn’t matter. Whether you believe me or not, I mean.”
“You have no reason to have called me out here just to lie, and everything to lose. Of course I’ll believe you,” I told her.
This seemed to shift her mood. I went back to brewing the coffee. She had an electric kettle and an Aeropress. I didn’t really know how to use it, but I think I managed to guess my way through most of it. I poured a scoop of ground coffee into the chamber and turned on her kettle. The kettle was set to 212 degrees, so I assumed this was her preferred temperature.
“Okay, I was on an expedition in the residential neighborhoods of Clayton. I had found that the newts liked some of the man-made ponds around the Seminary school, so I was walking around with my camera. I looked down by the pond and saw two little newts embracing on a lily pad. This fascinated me, as all of the sightings I’ve examined were of newts solo, and I thought about how lucky I was to see mating behavior. I took out my camera and adjusted the zoom lens, and took pictures from afar, as to not spook the newts. “
I poured the hot water into the device and set it up over a cup. I didn’t wholly understand the markings on the outside of the chamber, and when I pushed the plunger down, the coffee overflowed onto the saucer. I wiped it up and prepared a second cup.
“The newts spotted me, even from afar. They stopped mating and scurried off, not into the pond, but overland, toward the road. This was even more fascinating to me, most amphibians in this situation would seek shelter underwater, and definitely wouldn’t try to run such a long distance, even toward the road. I quickly switched my camera to video mode and started taping them. I followed them, carefully trying to keep them in frame.”
The second cup pulled cleaner, so I handed it to her, and took the messy one for myself.
I sat down across the desk from her. She sipped her coffee.
“Anyway, I followed the newts to the seminary, and down one of the access roads. I saw them scurry into a hole under a garden shed. This was fascinating to me, the idea that the urban newt burrows! Burrowing behavior hasn’t been observed in any salamanders, so this would be yet another unique feature of the urban newt! I was so excited I started investigating right away, but the groundskeeper caught me and asked what I was up to. I explained to him the situation, and he said it was okay with him if I dug out the burrow.”
“He brought me a shovel and left me to go tend to the tulips or whatever, and I stuck it into the ground beside the burrow. It all collapsed under me.”
“I woke up trapped in the hole. I guess the groundskeeper had gone home without noticing the hole, or maybe didn’t notice me covered in dirt lying down there, but nobody was up top. I could see the stars. I’d say I had fallen, 8 feet? Definitely too high for me to climb out. What really shocked me though, was that the hole seemed to extend under the shed. Not only that, but it sloped downwards softly. Maybe it was a collapsed basement, I thought, so maybe there would be a way out?”
“I took out my phone, the battery was still almost full, but I had no service. I guess the hole was small enough to block the signal. I turned on it’s flashlight and saw that the hole went on beyond the horizon of the beam. Feeling like I had no other option, I walked along the cavern.”
“I walked for what felt like forever, when I thought I saw a light blue glow in the distance. It disappeared as I got closer, darting off into the darkness. The cavern was starting to widen and I was beginning to worry that this wasn’t some seminary catacombs I was trapped in. I wondered what had formed this tunnel if it wasn’t a human structure. Just as my fears started to crystalize, the ground changed to stonework. The tunnel opened up into a vast chamber, with a cistern. The light from my phone didn’t quite illuminate the whole chamber, but I could see deep, dark water pooling in the center, with a knee-high railing between the pathway and the abyss. When I pointed my flashlight back up from the water, I saw little dots of blue light scatter into the dark side of the room.”
“I continued to look around the room, the walls were covered with writing, but not any kind I recognized, and the ceiling was maybe 10 feet tall. The stonework opened up in a circle, like there was once a well poised above the cistern. Now it was plugged with dirt. I had been exploring the room, examining the writing, for about a half hour before I realized something about the chamber that truly horrified me. There was no entrance except where I had come in. I shuddered and dropped my phone.”
“It bounced into the cistern, and the room went black.”
I realized I was leaning forward in my seat. I leaned back to regain my journalistic decorum.
“I started seeing little blue lights wander into my vision. I started to cry, I sat on the railing to try and regain my composure, but I couldn’t, one of the little blue lights was approaching me, and I was truly terrified. I started hyperventilating. But then, the little light was close enough for me to see. It was the Smooth-Tailed Urban Newt! They were bioluminescent! The new discovery overwhelmed my feeling of being trapped. But that discovery was about to be overshadowed by a bigger discovery.”
She took a sip of her coffee and paused for a second.
“What’s wrong” I asked.
“Well, before I go on, I want to make sure you know, I’m absolutely serious. I’m not trolling your column, I wasn’t on drugs, etc. Even with all that, I suspect that you won’t believe me.”
“You’ve read my column, I’ve seen some weird things myself. The lynching of Richie and Ruben Ito, that man who killed himself last year whose girlfriend claimed he was eaten by a celestial snake, weird stuff happens in this town. I suspect there’s very little you could tell me that I wouldn’t believe. Besides, you’re a credible source, I mean, you’re a scientist, and you have nothing to gain from telling me, but everything to lose.”
“You’re right, you’re right.”
She sighed and sipped her coffee again.
“I heard a loud whooshing sound coming from behind me. I spun around quick to see the face of a gigantic, glowing blue newt.”
I tried not to react to this.
“It opened and closed its mouth at me, and I’m not ashamed to say I screamed and ran in the direction I thought the tunnel was in. I heard a moaning noise, and I looked back to see a flood of little blue lights following me, scurrying after me. I ran like my life depended on it. It was terrifying. Looking back, it was more than just the existential horror, the thought that I would die that scared me. There was something more to it, the fear of the unknown. I had just witnessed so many things that I’d never seen described by science, or even archeology, before.”
“Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m a scientist, I had spent my whole life in search of knowledge, to understand as much as possible about amphibians, and my best friend is an archeologist, who had never described to me anything like the writing I saw in the cistern. Maybe if I wasn’t the foremost scholar on these newts that were chasing me, I wouldn’t be as scared, I wouldn’t have had to face that fact that my life’s work, the scientific study, had never indicated that the world might be this way. Yet one day digging in the seminary had dropped me, helpless, into the belly of the beast.”
She stared at the wall again.
“Oh, sorry. I made it to the entrance. But I still couldn’t escape. I stood there, staring up at the stars through the hole. I had outrun the wave of newts, but I was still going to die here, unable to tell my story. The doom forced a tear from my eyes. I could see the newts coming, and I sat down to accept my fate. I closed my eyes. I was anticipating the feeling of their tiny slimy bodies enveloping me, killing me in some horrific way I was yet to understand. I awaited the feeling of a thousand tiny, cold feet over my skin, but the newts never came.”
“I opened my eyes and the newts were standing back a few feet into the tunnel, and a ramp had been carved into the wall of the hole, presumably so I could walk out. I was flabbergasted. I was so shocked I almost forgot to leave. I walked out of the hole, and turned back to see that the ramp was already filled in behind me. All that was left was the tiny burrow that had been there before I dug it out.”
“With no cell phone, I walked back to the University and slept in my office. It was a Saturday, so when I woke up I took a bus home, showered, and then went out and bought a new cell phone. I spent the whole day in shock, trying to decide what to tell people. I had disappeared for a full 24 hours, and I couldn’t tell people the truth, at the time I’d certainly lose my job for it. Now I’m a tenured professor so it doesn’t matter what I say in the paper, but then, I’d be laughed right out of academia.”
I honestly had no idea what to say to her. I shook her hand, told her the story would be printed this Sunday, and went to a nearby cafe to write the copy. The Blueprint cafe is my cafe of choice in this part of town. I walked down Main Ave. of University Town and saw the coffee shop’s sign in the distance. I stared at it as I approached. I noticed something.
Right there, sitting atop the sign, was a bright blue newt.
I called a cab and went to my own neighborhood coffee shop to work.