A very special and unique place.

The Once And Future Shrimp: Brine Shrimp
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

In T.H. White's, The Once and Future King, a young boy called Wart — who will grow up to become King Arthur — is tutored by the wizard, Merlin, who lives backwards through time. Merlin, with his talking owl, Archimedes, teaches lessons by turning Wart into various animals.

"Quiet, boy. This is a difficult spell. Hmm. Let's see. Was it 'Artemus monolus'? No, that's not right. Drat!"

Wart knew better than to interrupt the wizard at a time like this. His spells had a way of going wrong at the best of times. But he could not help asking, "What am I going to become this time? I hope it's something big and fierce. Last time I almost —"

"Shush! I've got it now."

With a wave of his arms and a strange incantation, Merlin and Wart, along with Archimedes the owl, suddenly found themselves in a place that looked very strange to a boy used to England's lush greenery. They were standing on sand, in a vast expanse dotted with greyish shrubs. Directly in front of them a blue lake stretched away for miles, with hundreds of birds swimming on its surface.

"Oh, Archimedes," Wart said, "I don't think we're in England anymore."

The wizard laughed and the owl hooted. "Shades of Dorothy and Toto," Merlin said.

"Who?"

"Oh, never mind. That movie won't be made for centuries yet. We better get on with our business here."

Wart was about to ask what a movie was, but his attention was caught by movement in the lakewater.

"Look! There are little wiggly worms in this water. Gobs of them!"

He dipped his hands into the lake, but the half-inch long creatures slipped away.

"Taste some of the water," Merlin said.

Wart gulped down the water in his scooped palms. And quickly spat it right back out. "Pah!"

Merlin put a hand on Wart's shoulder. "Salty and bitter, isn't it? This is Mono Lake. A long, long way from England; you're right about that. But a good place to learn another lesson. Are you ready?"

"I — I don't know. Not if I'm going to become something that swims in that horrible water."

"Don't judge a place before you understand it." And then Merlin crossed his arms and began to chant. "Artemia monicus, alakazam, brinicus wigglepus, flibbityjam."

Suddenly Wart felt himself shrinking. His backbone turned to jelly. The bones in his body dissolved and he began to grow new limbs: one, two, three...he counted 11 arms on each side before the process stopped. As his head shrank, his eyes grew bigger and bigger. Like some bug-eyed monster, he thought. He found he could see in all directions at once, because his eyes stuck out so far from the sides of his little head. And then he discovered his tail.

It was great! The tail was almost as long as the rest of him put together. When he thrashed it to one side, it made his upper body swing in the opposite direction. It was tricky to move around, coordinating the 22 legs as oars, and the tail as a rudder. He found himself swimming in loop-the-loop circles and then upside down, staring up at the light sparkling on the surface of the water.

It was then that Wart realized that he felt no need to surface and take a breath. And while he was digesting that fact, he also became aware that he was steadily digesting food. He had been constantly swallowing bits of tiny plants as he swam.

"Well, boy, what do you think?"

"Wha —? Merlin, is that you?" Wart looked closely at the feathery-looking creature swimming beside him.

"Hold still, boy, you're making me dizzy watching you. Not that you swim any less crazily than the rest of these brine shrimp."

"Is that what I am?" Now swimming in more of a straight line, Wart noticed that the water all around was crowded with shrimp. "Merlin, what are those couples doing? Is that a dance?"

Merlin chuckled. "You might call it that. Hmmm. You're a bit young for this part of the story. Let's just say that when a male and female brine shrimp, um, get married, they swim around together in a sort of dance, sometimes for days."

"I'm not so very young. I'll bet the round things inside the clear pouches on some of the shrimp are eggs. Right? Those are the lady shrimp, huh?"

"Good deduction, boy. That lady will probably give birth to babies from that pouch soon now. Odd thing is that later this season she'll have more eggs, but she'll just release them to sink to the lake bottom. They'll lay there until next spring before hatching out, all on their own."

"How will the babies find their mother, then?"

"Never will. Won't need to. In fact, all the shrimp you see here will live their full lives before another spring comes."

They swam together in silence for awhile, until Wart said, "Merlin, we're in Mono Lake now, right? Why doesn't it taste awful anymore?"

"Because you've become a Mono Lake brine shrimp; something unique, even within the illustrious family of shrimps. One of the only creatures on earth that can stand this salty, alkaline —"

"Alkaline? What's that?"

"A solution high in hydroxyl ions, such —"

"Oh, don't confuse the boy." The new voice belonged to Archimedes. Wart looked up and saw the owl gliding above the water surface. He appeared oddly distorted, seen through the water. "'Alkaline' is 'soapy,' Wart. That's all you need to know. You're in a big soapy soup. Not many creatures can stand such water."

"Not many? Why there must be thousands of us just right here close by. And the lake looked enormous. If —"

"I mean not many kinds of creatures. In fact, you brine shrimp and some flies are the only animals found in this lake. You can have it, too, to my mind. When are we leaving here, Merlin? I'm getting salt-spray in my feathers."

"What's that?" Merlin, asked, absentmindedly. "I wasn't...drat, where'd Wart get too? Archimedes, can you see him?"

"No. There are so many of you swarming around that it's hard to keep track of who's who. Why don't you just use some magic and...WATCH OUT!"

Wart had wandered off, following a female shrimp, hoping to find some way to talk to her, when suddenly a dark shadow blocked the sun. He looked toward the surface and saw two giant bird legs kicking through the water. And then the female he had followed was suddenly gone, grasped by an enormous beak. Wart back-pedaled furiously, trying to avoid being caught by that massive beak himself. The bird pecked again and again at the water. Dozens of shrimp disappeared as he watched in horror.

But there was safety in numbers for Wart. Realizing that, he calmed a little. Even though the bird had eaten so many shrimp, the water around him still looked crammed with others. It was as though the loss of a few individual lives meant nothing at all.

Suddenly Wart felt very lonely. It dawned on him that he no longer heard Merlin's voice. He called out, "Merlin! Come get me out of here. It means a lot to me if I'm eaten. I want to be a human again. Merlin...!"

"Well, you almost did it that time," the owl said, scolding the wizard. Wart looked up at the familiar voice. He was lying on the sandy beach, dripping wet. The wizard, also wet and bedraggled, was wringing out his long beard.

"Oh, blast and be bothered! If that gull hadn't swallowed me whole...do you know how difficult it is to cast a spell from inside a gull's throat?"

"Merlin," Wart said, "I didn't like being just one little shrimp among millions."

"Well then, you learned something. Good! You know, there are more than 'millions' here; about 4 trillion, to be exact. That is 4 followed by 12 zeroes. Yet, oddly, someday people who drive by this lake will look out their car windows and think the whole place looks dead."

"Drive? Car? What —?"

"Never mind. It's time to go. Stand up, Wart. Are you ready?" He crossed his arms, preparing to cast the spell.

"I guess." Wart turned for a last look at the lake. "All those lives," he said quietly. "I wish I could have talked to her."

And then the three visitors disappeared. And the shore of Mono Lake was quiet once again.

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