Noah Tries to Fit Five Million Animals onto the Ark
And what exactly is a cubit, anyway?
Holy Writ is a collection of satirical and loveable fictional short stories (this one’s satirical), reimagined from the world of the Bible. Email subscribers never miss a story. Subscribe today for free!
Note to readers: this story contains just the right amount of swearing. If that’s not your deal, feel free to skip this one. Otherwise, gird your loins!
For the life of him, Noah couldn’t figure out what a cubit was. “What the fuck is a cubit?” he said to no one in particular.
“Language,” said Mrs. Noah, not looking up from her book. “Think of the children.”
“The children are one hundred years old,” said Noah.
In truth, he didn’t normally go in for foul language. But he was about to become a sailor—a sea captain, in fact. He figured a little salty language could help round out the image.
“Says here a cubit is the length of the king’s forearm, from his elbow to the tip of his middle finger,” said Noah. “That can’t be right.”
“Mmmm,” said Mrs. Noah.
“Must be a tall king, with great big long arms,” said Noah. He spread out both arms and twiddled his fingers. “I’ve only got 300 cubits to work with.”
“That’s nice, dear.”
Noah had done the math. 300 by 50 by 30 cubits gave him a cubic cubage of 450,000. That sounded fine until Shem pointed out that there were approximately three million species of animals in the entirety of creation. “Take away maybe half a million water-borne species that don’t need a boat,” Shem had said, leaving Noah vaguely hopeful. The numbers were going down. “Of course,” Shem continued, “You’ve got to double the remainder, because it’s two of each. Call it, say, four and a half—maybe five million animals total?” Noah felt less hopeful. Shit, thought Noah. He cast a guilty glance around for Mrs. Noah.
“Five million animals?” asked Ham, Noah’s second oldest son.
“And that’s not counting food,” said Shem. “I’m thinking we’ll be in the hundreds of millions of cubic cubage by volume, for food alone. And of course, then there’s—”
“All right,” said Noah, cutting in. He was beginning to suspect that math was bad for morale.
“Maybe,” said Japheth, Noah’s youngest son, “we could get the animals delivered sort of—hibernated. Then we could fit them together, like that game with four squares arranged into different shapes and you rotate them to—”
“Well that’s just ridiculous,” said Shem. Shem was the naturalist of the family.
“Not more ridiculous than getting them delivered in the first place,” said Ham. “It’s not like Dad’s going to be out there catching mastodons with a net.”
“Dammit, I forgot about mastodons,” said Noah.
“Language,” said Mrs. Noah again, as she licked a finger and turned a page.
“My point,” said Shem, “is that they’ll never fit, even without the food. Look, I don’t think you understand what five million animals really means.” He felt a metaphor coming on. He decided to go with it.
“Just think about Wal,” said Shem. Wal was the next town over. “They’ve got that market.”
“They call it a Mart,” said Japheth. “From the old Akkadian. ‘A place for trading or exchanging goods and services.’” Japheth had weird hobbies.
“Fine,” said Shem. “A mart. I’ve paced it out, and our ark is about the same size. Try parking your camel there on a Day-Before-The-Sabbath-Day. And that’s just an average mart, not even one of the big ones. Now get your mind around it: two of every kind of creature on earth—five million of every kind of living thing that runs and jumps and slithers and crawls—all fit into an average-sized Wal Market.
“—Mart,” said Japheth.
“—Average-sized Wal Mart,” said Shem.
They all considered it.
“Maybe we could get them shrunk down really small,” said Japheth, mystically. “Elephants the size of ants, and ants the size of—” he blinked. “Whatever looks like an ant to an ant.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” said Noah.
“Or here’s a thought,” said Ham, gesturing at the Holy Writ. “It says here that we have to take two of every kind of animal. But it doesn’t say what a ‘kind’ is. So instead of two of every kind of dog, we bring, say, a wolf and a chihuahua, and split the difference. They’d all repopulate eventually.”
“I think that’s cheating,” said Noah. Noah didn’t see how you could take things literally if you weren’t willing to go all the way.
“Even if it isn’t cheating,” said Shem, “—even with a couple thousand animals on the ark, it’s completely impossible. No two individuals contain the genetic diversity inherent in an entire species, let alone dozens or hundreds of species. We’d need every single animal to have a genetic makeup that doesn’t exist, and would kill them if it did. Then we’d need millions of years of reproduction to allow earth’s natural biodiversity to return to its present-day levels—and maybe not ever, given the inherent improbability of sequential genetic mutations in perfect repetition over the span of eons.”
He had lost them, he could tell.
“Look, either we’re shrinking down millions of animals onto an ark, or shrinking down millions of years into a few generations. It’s equally ridiculous either way.”
“And therefore equally probable,” said Noah, reverently. “We’ll just have to ask. I’ll add it to the list.” He muttered to himself as he pounded out the cuneiform.
The following months were a blur, and not just because Noah was working from dawn until dusk. Looking back at it, he could never quite remember how they’d managed everything. He recalled going to look for one of the Nephilim kings, to see if he could measure his cubit size (“Not the nicest of folks,” he had told his wife, “But they sure are easy to find.”) This, he now suspected, had helped expand things considerably, but still far less than Shem deemed necessary. After that, he honestly couldn’t recall. All he could say was that one by one, the problems were solved, and two by two, the animals came aboard.
Forty days passed at sea. Noah was just trying to remember something important, something having to do with mastodons, when he heard a loud thunk.
“What was that thunk?” said Shem.
“We’ve been hit!” yelled Ham.”
“Mt. Ararat?” asked Japheth.
“Another boat!” cried Noah. He looked out the hatch. “Good God! Another boat! Right over there, a boat!” It was big and boxy and wooden, just like theirs. Faintly in the distance, they could hear human voices, speaking an unknown language. Noah couldn’t understand what they were saying, but even so, he could tell that someone was cursing like a sailor.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Noah, without looking up. “I expect that that’s either Atra-Hasis or old Utnapishtim. Possibly Manu or maybe even Deucalion, though I think for him the timing’s off.”
They all stared at her until she stopped reading.
“They’re all the ones with boats and floods that I can think of at the moment, anyway.” She turned from one surprised face to another, landing at last on Noah. “You’re in a folklore, darling. I’m sorry, I thought you knew.”
“So that means that we—?”
“I don’t think that’s—”
“How did you—?”
“Well,” said Mrs. Noah, “I spend a fair amount of time at the library, while you all are working on your little projects. Though it turns out that wasn’t entirely necessary. Just before we left I found an inexpensive copy of Gilgamesh at a trading booth in the next town over. Brought it home and set it where you couldn’t miss it, dear. I figured you’d be interested, given the similarities. It is an epic, after all.”
There was bewildered silence. Mrs. Noah lay the book onto her lap and gazed into nowhere, as if conjuring deep wisdom. “You know,” she said slowly, “It really is amazing what you can find at your local Wal Market.
“—Mart,” said Japheth.
“Right,” said Mrs. Noah. “At your local Wal Mart.”