“Big Fish” by Laura Didyk, Sharpie on paper, 2015.
You secure a research grant, you rent a dory at Seldom-Come-By, you want data about the extinction of great auks on Funk Island. You ramble about their plumage and diet and social habits, the sea is smooth glass and you call it a good omen, you are animated and gleeful until we step ashore. I feel the sinking in you, the crumbling, the let-down, as we stand on the bare flat rock that seafarers called the Funks. Everywhere, the cacophony of birds, a continuous and grating squabble, the whirr of wings, and when we breathe, the reek of excrement and decayed fish. Your shoulders droop, your eyes look tired, your face loses color. Murres still nest here, covering the ground like great patches of snow, and black-legged kittiwakes who chatter to their eggs, and a mercy of puffins. You drive tent stakes into the lumpy turf while I light the camp-stove; you strike something solid, tiny, pale, one something, then several, then your hands are full, too many to count. Gizzard stones, I say; maybe the Beothuk tribe feasted here, used the stones for a game. You scold me for my sunny outlook. Sleeping on a massacre site, you say. At times like this, you are mercurial, prickly, superstitious, swinging between highs and bottoms, dreamy anticipation and sour disillusionment, back to soaring dream. I know from my study of you. You have two moods, high and low, and if I favor one, you go scrambling after the other, and that means you also scramble away from me.
Two centuries ago, the Beothuk paddled their birch bark canoes here, killed the great auks for meat, dried the yolks of their eggs, made puddings and cakes from the egg-powder. We are surveying the island, lowering ourselves into a gulch. I provoke you so that you will counter me, forget to mope. I say, some might argue that the Beothuk were as ruthless and inhumane as the Europeans. You look over your shoulder, frown at me. Think about the colonists and sealers, you say. Stopped here when their provisions were low, butchered and barreled the fatty auk-meat with salt. And the cod-fishermen who stoned the great auks. And chopped them up or snatched auk chicks for hook-bait. And the eggers of Labrador who tramped through the auks’ nesting grounds, and ensured the freshness of their product by crushing all the eggs beneath their heels, and then returned a week later to gather whatever eggs were newly laid. And the feather hunters who ripped feathers from living auks and let them bleed to death, or clubbed the auks and drove them into stone corrals. Boiled them in kettles to loosen their feathers. Used their oil-rich carcasses to fuel the kettle-fires. Gathered their feathers for mattresses. That was cruelest, I say. Flightlessness cost the auks dearly, you say. And trust in humans.
In the dome tent, both of us cocooned, poured out, limbs around trunk, haunch against shank, curled together like snowberry creepers, like blood-vines. You are cheery when I wake, energetic, whistling, you offer me French press coffee and oatmeal and half a tangerine, you tell me that your auk data will help you brainstorm strategies for the survival of the animal kingdom. Many or most species, you say. Even our kind. At the dig, I set out brushes, scrapers, and picks; you mark a square foot, bite your lower lip, take a trowel, gently run the long edge over the packed earth, the lightest of pressures, loosening a few granules and bits, a few more, and I feel the tender in you. The bright angle in you, the stony road. If you come up empty-handed, I will tell you that there’s a flyaway chance, light as sweater fuzz or stray hairs, for creatures to come here and hope. The vagrant black goose, for one, and the naturalists who came, bringing kegs, clam-hoes, arsenic soap, labels, and gauze. We both call out when you find our jackpot, sunken in the guano and ash, bones, more bones, thousands of bones.
William Woolfitt teaches at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. He is the author of two books of poetry, Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014) and Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, forthcoming). He is also the author of a fiction chapbook, The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014). His poems and stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, Threepenny Review, Tin House online, and elsewhere.