Chapter Eighteen: Birdwatching
SouthCoast of Mauritius
The days passed by slowly on their stranded shore, becoming weeks, and now nearly two months. Pam Miller, her companions Dore and Gerbald and the survivors of Redbird's crew busied themselves with various projects to increase their comfort and safety. The sailors used the tools recovered from the shipwreck to improve their shelters, Dore and Pam gathered the fruits and nuts they were sure were safe to eat, while Gerbald searched for game-birds (with Pam's rare blessing for such activities) and fished the bay along with the sailors. They were all alive and in reasonable physical health; staying busy was what they did to remain sane. Despite these various distractions they all felt the world was leaving them farther and farther behind with each passing day.
Old Fritjof had taken it upon himself to be Pam's caretaker. He had cut all the underbrush out from under her stilted hut and made sure that there were no creepy-crawlies lurking there. He cleared a sandy trail from her door down to the beach and swept it clear of leaves and debris every morning before she woke up, but not before leaving a coconut bowl full of cool water from the spring on her porch. Pam was embarrassed by the attention and told him he didn't have to go to all that trouble over her but the white-haired gentleman just shyly nodded and continued to look after her anyway.
"It is no trouble for me, Frau Pam. It is good for a man to have work to do and even better when it is in the service of a fine and important person such as yourself. Don't fret now. You have the princess' work to do. Just call on Fritjof if you need anything. I will be there for you."
Pam was touched by his eagerness to please and thanked him profusely, asking if there were anything she could do for him. Fritjof smiled with his few remaining teeth, his blue eyes still bright and sparkling in his long lived and wind wrinkled face.
"No, no, I am a simple fellow and have few needs. But, if it were no trouble to you, one day when you meet again with Princess Kristina I would be greatly honored if you would pass my humble respects to her. That would be a true kindness to a faithful servant of the Vasa such as myself."
Pam promised to do so, and didn't say it aloud but intended to make sure that on that future day Fritjof would be right there with her to give his respects himself. That would be a real treat for the old guy. I'm going to make that happen. He can get that precious photo autographed in person! The thought gave her a very warm and pleasant feeling. She realized that she had grown very fond of these stouthearted men of the north and that it was a blessing to be caught in such trying circumstances with such trustworthy people around her. Some day I might even look back on this castaway life and miss it . . . but not too much.
One overcast morning Pam and Gerbald, finding they were stocked up with enough food to last several days and utterly bored with life at camp, decided to follow the river into the interior. They had been too busy to explore further since the triumphant discovery of coffee a few weeks prior and Pam was absolutely itching to get back to her search for the elusive dodo.
The going was fairly easy. They passed through a corridor of grassy meadows between the river and the forest's edge. The sun burned the clouds off around eleven, at which point it became hot enough to chase them into the shade of the woods. The forest floor was clear of thick underbrush, a mossy parkway through ancient tree trunks. Pam kept her eyes open for new birds along the way, occasionally stopping to observe and sketch one of the myriad species that inhabited the island. She had decided that her best bet on finding any dodos was to simply stop looking for them, contenting herself with the many other amazing birds that inhabited these isolated forests. She wondered how she would ever manage to catalog them all. It would take ages to do it right . . . but then again she might have that kind of time if they couldn't find a way off this mysterious island. If she could find natural substitutes to replenish her diminishing paper and pencil supplies.
That thought made her mood sour despite the beauty of the venerable groves and soon she was just slogging along in a funk, not really paying attention to her surroundings at all. Just as she was sinking into a really bad mood Gerbald let out the low whistle that meant "Look at that," one of the signals they had developed in their years spent birdwatching in the wilds of the Thüringerwald. Pam froze, carefully scanning the tree limbs for a choice specimen. Gerbald gave her a nudge with his elbow and pointed downward with a small movement of his head.
Pam followed his gaze to a large, odd-looking bird standing just six feet away from them. It had sturdy yellow legs and cracked a nut with its grotesquely large and powerful bill. The bird regarded them calmly with a bright yellow eye turreted in a beak that covered nearly all of its head. Overall it was awkwardly-shaped and a bit comical looking, with fluffy white tufts of feathers puffing out at its tiny wings and arched tail, just as it was in all the illustrations she had seen. It stood a bit more upright and was slightly thinner than it had been portrayed in art. Pam's eyes were wide as she marveled at the living creature here, its breath moving the downy gray feathers of its chest, its ponderous beak clacking softly as it swallowed the nut. It was the strangest bird she had ever seen, a bird she had once never hoped to see, a bird lost forever in her former world. It was the poster child of the doomed and extinct, now, now alive right in front of her stood the dodo.
The three of them stood there for a very long time, content to stare at each other. At last the dodo gave them a dismissive coo (just like a dove!) and dipped its plated head to search for another nut. It found one and the powerful beak anchored on its large skull effortlessly crushed the shell with a satisfying crack, sending the meat down the gullet. Pam felt her face grow hot and wet, she was crying, crying the tears of joy a child might if through some happy magic she found herself in the living presence of a real Santa Claus, stepped out of the chimneys of legend in jolly flesh and blood.
"It's so ugly!" she said softly with a laugh in her voice "And it's also the most beautiful thing I've ever seen!" She took Gerbald's hand for confidence, then together they took first one, then another step closer to the dodo, which simply ignored them as it continued its nut-cracking. At last Pam reached out with trembling fingers to gently touch the downy gray feathers. "It's real." she whispered. "This is really happening." She gasped as she saw two more dodos foraging nearby, blithely paying no attention whatsoever to the humans among them.
"Congratulations, Pam," Gerbald told her in the solemn tones of one who has witnessed something wonderful. "Now we know they still live and our sacrifices were not in vain. One way or another we will find a way to save the dodo. Your mission will be a success, Pam, I swear this."
Chapter Nineteen: Dodo Do's and Don'ts
The news of Pam finally meeting the elusive dodos face to face was met with cheers back at the camp. The sailors understood that finding those odd birds was very important to her and to their princess even if they were still a bit cloudy on why. They offered whatever services they could give in supporting Pam's efforts to study the dodo although Pam couldn't think of much they could do beyond the daily task of making sure they had enough food. Pam knew that the men were growing more and more frustrated with their isolation. She realized they were keeping quiet about it in order to give her time to study the dodos now that she had found them, waiting for her to satisfy her needs before making any attempts to leave their encampment in search of the colonists and possible escape from the island. For her part, Pam felt guilty at letting her desire to observe the dodo supersede looking for the very likely captured colonists, but it was a guilt she decided she would accept, just for a while. They had, after all, come all this way! Rationalizations well in hand, Pam and Gerbald marched off into the woods daily, enjoying their prize.
Pam was in a state of bliss as she began her studies. It was as if some beloved cartoon characters from her childhood had come to magical life before her eyes, going about their daily habits for her sheer joy and entertainment. She sometimes shook her head in wonder that she was actually seeing living, breathing dodos. Finally, something good about time travel! Following quietly along behind the humorously waddling creatures Pam observed their behavior with delight. Their rare cries reminded Pam of young geese and they also chuckled to themselves while foraging, a sound much like a pigeon makes. Increasingly Pam thought they might be descended from or perhaps cousins of pigeons.
"Pam, are the dodos eating pebbles?" Gerbald asked, no longer bothering to whisper as the dodos completely ignored their presence. As long as they didn't make too many sudden movements the dodos were unconcerned at having large primates in their midst.
"They don't actually eat them, they swallow them down into their gullet to help digestion. The stones aid in grinding up the food, making it easier to digest," Pam answered, watching a young specimen in hot pursuit of a stumbling beetle.
"I should try that the next time we have dried squid," Gerbald mused.
The dodos could move surprisingly quickly in pursuit of scuttling prey. Like many bird species they were opportunists, consuming whatever they could manage to get their ponderous beaks around. A sudden lunge and the dodo's sharp bill might snap up a juicy frog or wriggling worm. Pam was sure that amazing appendage could deliver a nasty wound if a dodo was provoked and stayed well clear of it, always moving calmly and not getting too near its business end. As far as the dodos were concerned, Pam thought they must consider her and Gerbald tremendous bores. They were ignored totally as the clucking, contented dodos went about their endless and not too difficult search for food.
Gerbald managed to find out just how powerful those beaks could be when he accidentally stumbled through a dodo nest. The nest was a rather unimpressive shallow depression dug in the mulchy forest floor, lined with a bit of down and twigs, but it was home to a magnificent white egg as big as softball. The mother of said egg, who was eating some nuts nearby, let out a shockingly loud whistle like a kettle on the boil and charged Gerbald with credible speed, her beak clacking loudly and gray, downy feathers fluffed out to give her a more menacing appearance. She was a lot larger than a turkey if not nearly as big as an ostrich and her head rose nearly to his abdomen. Gerbald shouted "Yikes," one of his many American TV-isms, and backpedaled away from the angry creature.
Pam watched all this from the safety of a nearby tree. As soon as the ruckus started she had gone up the nearest one, standard procedure for non-climbing critter attacks in the Thüringerwald, good for wild dogs and boars but not much help against bears. As Gerbald turned to break into a run the outraged mother stretched her neck out farther than Pam would have guessed possible and closed sharply around his booted ankle. Gerbald yelped even louder, then managed to shake the dodo loose with a twist. Pam thought that the bill's sharp tip might have pierced the leather. The dodo seemed satisfied at having exacted her toll in flesh and doubled back to make a big scene of stalking around the nest while squawking loudly, a clear message that anyone else wishing to disturb it was going to get the same thing that guy had. By now Gerbald himself was up a tree, massaging his ankle.
"Jesus crippled Christ on crutches cut from the cross!" he cursed in an accent that was more West Virginian than German, his voice full of annoyance. Pam wouldn't say her friend had been afraid during the encounter. Gerbald didn't do fear, but this was as discombobulated as she had seen him in a long time.
"Good gawd, where did you come up with that bit of blasphemy? Dore would pop a vein!"
"Thanks. It's a Gerbald original. That hurt like hell! Mother Dodo put a hole in my boot and even broke the skin!"
"Consider it a sacrifice for science. Ya know, I never would have gotten to witness that nest protecting behavior without you because I'm not dumb enough to actually piss one off." Pam started laughing despite herself. The whole thing, from her safe vantage point, had been nothing short of hilarious. "Channel Thirteen Mega Monster Afternoon Presents: Gerbald the Fearless Dinosaur Hunter vs the Menace of The Mad Dodo Mama!"
Gerbald laughed along with her. It was only his pride that had been in any danger. The dodo, despite its bluster and fearsome beak, hadn't been any kind of real threat to him.
They stayed in their trees for a while, watching as the mollified hen settled down on her lovely big egg, from which vantage point she favored them both with stern glares until, ruffled feathers at last relaxing into their normal softness, she fell asleep.
On their way back to camp that evening, Pam looked back on the mother dodo's defense and began to feel sad. Gerbald had been caught off guard, but if he had really wanted to he could have dispatched the creature with ease. She realized now that all his actions had been to avoid having to injure the dodo rather than to protect himself. Pam now felt embarrassed at having teased him. Even an inexperienced woodsman, say a sailor or a farmer, would ultimately prevail against the big flightless birds.
A darker thought came then, something she knew she must eventually face. Even if she could control human depredations against the dodo, there was still the danger posed by introduced species. Humans had killed their share of the poor things, creatures evolved with no natural predators present and completely unequipped to deal with any serious threats. But from all Pam had read and surmised, the major threat to the dodo's future would be the foreign animals that would inevitably arrive with humanity, whether by design or not. Yes, she would try to stop that invasion and she would make some difference. After all, she had not allowed her colonists to bring along any mammals other than some horses, cattle and sheep, but the rats would be on that ship, too. Even immaculate Redbird carried vermin, despite her and Dore's efforts to eradicate them. How many rats had swum ashore during the wreck? Would they find today's nest and break that pretty shell into a hundred sticky pieces while the poor mother squawked and chased them about in vain?
Gawd, Pam, she thought, there is no point in fretting about this now. We haven't even gotten from Point B to C yet in this mess and here you are worrying about Y. She smiled, deciding to chew on the problem a little more anyway. Well, it's going to come up eventually. Might as well have a plan.
Dogs, cats, pigs, rats and, according to the books, monkeys would be her enemies in the future and she would have to come up with ways to control their populations on the island. She shook her head, knowing that if she lived to see it the day would come when she would find herself in the role of island animal control officer and did not relish the prospect much. Getting the bats out of the Baptist church had put her off dealing with mammals of any sort. She had been able to manage that episode humanely without resorting to killing the poor things, but it would be otherwise with stray invaders on Mauritius. She would have to be ruthless.
Satisfied with her initial studies, Pam began her next project, painting portraits of the dodos. This was for scientific purposes, of course, as well as the genuine pleasure the art gave her. The problem was, despite their general appearance of ungainliness, the big birds covered a lot of ground in a day, sometimes traveling many miles on their sturdy, yellow, four-toed feet. Upon finding them in the morning she would get her bamboo easel, a hand-crafted gift from the bosun, and her precious watercolors all set up in a nice, sunny clearing, but before she could even finish the initial sketches the dodos would plow through the area's edible matter and then wander off, leaving Pam alone to repack her gear and follow. This happened again and again, she was beginning to get frustrated until she hit on an idea.
She and Gerbald spent the next morning gathering nuts, seeds, fallen fruits, beetles and whatever else they could find for dodo treats. After they had a sizable store in hand, they caught up to the dodos at their latest hangout. Overall, the birds seemed to move in a very loose but discernible flock, groups and subgroups working over their various territories in what Pam thought must be a slow, weeks-long, loop, allowing the foraged land time to replenish before coming around to it again. Pam sat up her paints and got to work. A while later, just as the dodos were about to move on, Pam reached into her bag of goodies and threw a healthy hand full of dodo treats across the clearing to the ever hungry birds.
"Here you go, sweeties! Eat it up, yum, yum!" Pam called and cooed while Gerbald rolled his eyes toward the heavens. The dodos looked at Pam with their uncanny yellow eyes, then looked at the treats scattered at their feet. With what Pam felt for sure was a shrug of their tiny wings, they began pecking at the unexpected offering.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Gerbald muttered. "Didn't you say we don't want to make pets of them?"
"I'm not! I'm just feeding a few pigeons in the park, that's all! Just look at this sweet afternoon light. This is great for painting!" Whistling a merry tune, she went back to it. A quarter of an hour later, the dodos had eaten all of Pam's treats and were beginning to move off again when Pam called out a friendly "Yoo-hoo!" and threw them yet another double handful. This time without a pause, the dodos began to eat while Pam went back to painting. After several more repetitions, Pam beamed at what was turning out to be a fine painting. It might even be the one to use for the happy little chapter she would add to her book, Birds of the USE, detailing how the dodos would not be going extinct in this world, thank you very much.
After several hours, Pam decided that anymore work on the piece would just be fussing, so she set about getting her gear ready for the hike home. The dodos were finishing up their latest treat as she woke Gerbald from the nap he had been taking, not part of his standard bodyguard and look-out routine, but then back in Grantville they hadn't been out in the field every day, all day, either. Deeming these woods safe enough and Pam having as nearly a good an eye and ear for intruders as his own, Gerbald got some extra sleep in the way of old soldiers from time immemorial, wherever and whenever he could.
"Come along, Rip Van Winkle. It's almost the eighteenth century. Let's get back."
"Wake me when its the twentieth century or as soon as every European owns a colored TV," he mumbled sleepily from beneath the wide and warped brim of his floppy, mustard-colored hat. He rose languidly to his nearly six feet and stretched like some gray-whiskered, but still deadly, jungle cat. Pam marveled at his ability to sleep anywhere as she finished packing up her gear. As she made ready to leave the clearing, she noticed that the dodos, although finished with their snacks a while ago, hadn't moved on. Instead, they all stood around staring at her.