Volume 34, Number 2

The Dodo Lives

Marshall Geck

My stomach couldn’t handle any more moss. It threw a temper tantrum in protest, twisting into knots and lurching the insubstantial greens back up my oesophagus. I had little choice. The earthy, stringy clumps of fibre were among the few edible things in the pit. Even so, they were a poor source of calories. I felt weaker and more drained of energy every day. Along with the oppressive heat and soupy humidity, my diet made for utter misery.

I sat with my legs bent and my back against the vertical granite walls, staring blankly at the clouds floating above the mouth of the pit. The most beautiful Mauritian birds flew overhead throughout the day. I saw speckled kestrels, brilliantly pink pigeons, emerald-feathered parakeets, scarlet-headed fodies and little silvery cuckooshrikes. These were the avian wonders I had travelled 6,000 miles to see. They should have left me awestruck. Instead, I was bitter. It was as though they were taunting me; flying free through the air while my best mate and I were trapped in a barren rocky pit. My camera shattered upon impact from the fall, so I couldn’t even take photographs to add to my birding collection if we ever managed to escape our captivity. Eventually I could only groan at the sight of anything that soared above us.

“Frank,” said my fellow pit dweller. “I’m so terribly thirsty. Do you think it will rain soon?”

“We’re in a tropical rainforest, Jamie,” I said, my throat still raw from days of calling for help. “It’s guaranteed to rain again. But there’s too much blue sky today.”

Jamie sat against the pit wall beside me, scratching at an indentation in the rocks where water had pooled during a shower the previous night, but had since evaporated.

“I can’t stand lapping up rainwater like a dog for one more day,” he said. “Christ, this is so stressful, I think I’m losing my hair.”

“Oh, come off it. You started balding during our Uni days,” I jested, hoping to lighten the mood.

Jamie smiled. “Yeah, well you were greying before you even got there.”

“It was just a few strands here and there. They were more like natural highlights.”

“Sarah once told me those flashes of grey were the first thing she noticed about you when you first started dating. She must be gobsmacked by that tuft of silver you have now.”

“Good hair can’t save a marriage,” I snapped, my mood to banter evaporating at the mention of Sarah. “Nor will it get me custody of my son.”

Jamie straightened his back and patted me on the shoulder. “Sorry mate, I shouldn’t have brought her up.”

“It’s fine.” I waved my hand as if to brush away the topic.

We shared an uncomfortable silence for a moment. A flush of guilt came over me for lashing out at him like a pouting child. It wasn’t Sarah herself or even the divorce that aggravated me. What irked me was that I had flown as far away from London as I could for the sole purpose of distracting myself with beautiful birds. Instead, I ended up trapped in a pit, besieged by thoughts of my crumbling marriage.

“Hey,” Jamie started again. “Do you think my mobile battery will get a small charge if I rub it against my shirt?”

“You’d know better than me. You’re the science teacher,” I said. “Anyway, even if you get a charge, there’s no signal down here.”

Jamie sighed and rubbed the sweat from his temples.

“What about that gap in the rocks? Could we pry it open with something and make it big enough to squeeze through? Maybe there’s a way out on the other side?”

“I don’t think it’s worth the energy. You’d need a wrecking ball to make that gap bigger. Besides, it’s completely dark in there. For all we know, it’s just a cave with a dead end.”

“Well, I’m just trying to think of ways to get us out of here, Frank,” Jamie huffed and looked away from me. “Six days, it’s been. Six bloody days! And I don’t hear any ideas coming from you.”

I sighed. The lack of sustenance made it hard to control my moods, leading me to be short and negative with poor Jamie all too often. I wasn’t acting like myself. I felt as though I was sinking into the lichen-covered ground, lightheaded and exhausted from despair.

“I know, I’m sorry Jamie,” I said, dropping my face into my hands and fighting the urge to cry. “If I hadn’t convinced you to come on this disastrous trip, you wouldn’t be stuck here with me. Damn it, why did I chase after that Mauritius bulbul? I should have stayed on the trail. I should have taken my eyes out of the damn binoculars and watched where I was going.”

“Come on, mate, it’s not your fault. You couldn’t have known there’d be a pit hidden in the middle of the jungle.” Jamie looked back at me, this time with empathy in his eyes. “Besides, I ran off the trail, too. If I wasn’t always just a single step behind you, maybe I wouldn’t have gone over the edge as well. Maybe I could have gotten help long ago. And I chose to come on this adventure, so don’t feel guilty. You need to do what I tell my students every day: stay positive. Knowing my wife, she probably called the Mauritian authorities and arranged a search party the first day after no texts from me. It’s probably only a matter of time before they find us.”

“God, I hope so,” I said, wiping at a tear with the back of my hand.

Silence again. Broken only by the occasional screech from a distant monkey or the grumble of two twisting stomachs. I lifted my face out of my hands and leaned back against the cool rock wall. It was our only reprieve from the humid air, which was slowly taking on the consistency of bath water. After so long in the pit, I no longer bothered to wipe away the sweat bubbling up on my forehead. I just let it drip down my nose. My white T-shirt had turned a filthy yellowish brown from constant perspiration. A disgusting film of dirt covered my skin.

Jamie too had the appearance of a homeless man. Brownish grit made every wrinkle on his face appear deeper. The sparse white hair that clung to his head around a receding hairline was discoloured and sticking up in every direction possible. Both of us were terribly sunburned. There was nowhere to hide when the sun shone directly over the pit during midday.

I watched Jamie as he reached down and picked up a black wriggling creature. He examined it for a moment, and then hesitantly put it between his teeth. His jawbone rolled from side to side as he ground it up.

“What did you just eat?”

“An ant,” he said. “They’re not bad. A bit spicy.”

I smirked and allowed myself to chuckle. I then closed my eyes, rolled them into the back of my head, and drifted off to sleep.

I’m not sure how much time passed while I dosed. All I know is that a Christmas roast suddenly appeared before my eyes. There I was, inexplicably at home, overlooking a table covered with plate upon plate of glorious Christmas dishes—Yorkshire puddings, roasted potatoes, mince pies, stuffing, braised red cabbage, gravy, cranberry sauce and glasses of champagne. Figures sat in the chairs around the table who, although blurry, I knew to be my mother, father, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew. Even Sarah and my son Matthew were there, but I somehow didn’t mind. I was just relieved to see so many familiar faces. Fairy lights glowed from a Christmas tree in the corner of the room. Outside, snowflakes drifted softly onto the windowsill like feathers. A fire crackled in the hearth. Everything emanated warmth, comfort, and love. Beaming with gratitude, I picked up a knife and began carving the roast.

A strange rustling sound interrupted the meal. It grew into a rumble, escalated into a thunderous crack and then culminated with an ear-splitting screech. The roast and everything before me vanished with the suddenness of an exploding bomb.

My eyes, shaken out of deep sleep and strained by the incoming daylight, shot open just in time to see something thud onto the floor of the pit. A cloud of dust ejected into the air and a bushel of branches and leaves snapped upon impact. My legs went straight as boards. The adrenaline from the rude awakening sent me springing up and shuffling backward against the granite wall.

Jamie, too, was jolted awake from the commotion. He jumped up with me. For those first few seconds, it was chaos.

We stared at each other in bewilderment, heaving as if there wasn’t enough oxygen to sustain our panicked lungs. Slowly, I began to regain my senses. I looked at the mound of debris on the ground in front of us.

“Jesus,” Jamie managed to spit out, “what just happened?”

“Hell if I know,” I rasped.

A pile of dust, leaves, and branches lay in the middle of the pit. Tangled amongst the jungle brush was a small boulder. Through the greenery of the foliage, I observed the rock’s oddly rippled texture. Layers ran obliquely along its edges, in some places shining white in the midday sun. Gradations of grey and brown divided it into distinct segments. I scratched my head, wondering if this strangely coloured stone wasn’t a meteorite from outer space rather than a rock that had tumbled down from the Black River Gorges mountains. My leg jittered as I stepped forward to get a better view. 

The boulder let out a high-pitched screech and started trembling. What appeared to be claws emerged from one side, kicking and thrashing about. I threw myself back against the wall again, curiosity transforming to terror. We weren’t dealing with a boulder. We were dealing with an animal.

The creature rolled over, planted its feet on the ground and stood up in front of us.

"Oi, what is that thing?" Jamie said.

“It looks like a bird,” I replied. “And a big one at that.”

A wave of relief swept through me as I realized our new pit mate was probably harmless. My inner bird watcher took over. I shifted from fight-or-flight mode to identifying the avian oddity in front of us.

It was one of the most bizarre birds I had ever seen, that much was certain. And yet, this was all I was certain about. Big as a medium-sized dog and measuring up to my waist, it stood on scaley orange feet the size of my hand. The bird gazed at me with big, bulbous yellow eyes, which appeared glassy and dazed from the fall. A large, amber-coloured beak curved at its tip and marked the end of its face. Smooth, greyish-brown feathers on its back and a milky white underbelly gave it the appearance of a giant pigeon. 

The stocky fellow stuck out its wings and flapped, as if trying to shake itself out of its stupor. There was no chance of this Christmas turkey taking flight. As if its clumsy fall into the pit wasn't proof enough, it was clearly too heavy to fly.

It’s definitely a flightless ground dweller, I thought, but far too big to be a pheasant, quail or Guinea Fowl. Perhaps it’s a young emu or an ostrich that escaped from captivity? It doesn’t look like either though.

I had studied the birds of Mauritius and Black River Gorges National Park so intently before our trip that I sometimes felt like a walking ornithological encyclopaedia. But whatever stood before me resembled no Mauritian bird in the books or on the web pages.

Except for one. The mere thought of this sent my adrenaline re-surging like a geyser.

It can’t be that one, can it?

Perhaps in my starving, dehydrated state, my mind was playing tricks on me? And yet, I couldn’t think of any other explanation for the creature standing in front of us.

"Jamie," I whispered. "I think that's a dodo."

"A what?"

"A dodo!" My voice echoed off the pit walls as I shouted out my disbelief. "That bird you see stuffed in science museums! The poster child of extinct animals! A bloody dodo, Jamie!"

The bird jumped at my sudden outburst but held its ground.

Jamie looked at me like I was a raving madman. "Bollocks, there's no way."

"I've got no other explanation. It fits the profile perfectly. You tell me what else it could be!"

"I don't know, but not that. Haven't dodos been extinct for a long time?"

"Only since the 1600s. But I’m telling you, that's what I think we're looking at!"

I beamed like giddy schoolboy who had just been told that one of the schoolgirls had a crush on him. It was my first smile in days.

"Well, whatever it is, it's stuck down here with us now." Jamie’s tone left no doubt that my excitement was not shared.

We went alert again as the dodo took a step towards us. I stiffened as it waddled right up to me and stuck its big bill against my dirty clothes like a sniffing dog. Awestruck and jaw dropping, I felt an irresistible urge to pet it. I hesitantly reached down, rested my hand on its head and stroked it gently. The bird jerked away, unsure about the sudden intrusion. But no sooner had it done this than it leaned back into my hand as if begging for more.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like a scene from a dream. I felt like I was floating on a cloud of glee as I caressed the friendly feathery critter.

“Would you look at that, I think it likes you,” Jamie marvelled.

The dodo closed its eyes and leaned against me, seemingly transported to a state of bird zen as I pet it.

It enjoyed my affection for several minutes before slowly opening its sulphur-coloured eyes. Contorting them in every direction like a chameleon, it glanced around the various corners of the pit. It stepped back from me and shuffled away along the vertical granite walls, bobbing its head and intermittently pecking at things on the ground as it went. When it arrived at the gap in the rocks on the opposite side of the pit, it examined the hole and attempted to stick its head between the opening. Realising that fitting through this passage was a fruitless exercise, it continued to walk along the pit walls until it made a full circle and arrived back at me and Jamie. It looked up at us with cocked head, as if expecting us to explain the way out.

“Poor thing has just figured out it’s trapped in here, too.” Jamie said. “Cripes, it’s off-putting the way it’s not afraid of us.”

“They were… er, they are… notoriously unafraid,” I said. “It’s one reason that led to their downfall.”

“Well, clearly it wasn’t such a downfall after all.”

My mind flew in a thousand directions trying to process everything. We had stumbled onto the discovery of a lifetime. The dodo lives, and Jamie and I had the living, breathing proof. History books would tell of the lost hikers who rediscovered the supposedly extinct bird for the ages. I would be on the cover of Birder Monthly or perhaps even National Geographic once we got home, to say nothing of the international newspapers and magazines. I would be so busy with talk shows that there would be no time for Sarah and her sleazy divorce solicitors. It all sent my heart racing with excitement.

But it was not long before my thoughts sank back down to the subterranean depths of reality. Our miraculous discovery might die and be buried in the pit with us if we were not rescued soon. At the rate we had been going, no one would find our corpses until the heat, maggots and jungle fungi had rotted us into indecipherable piles of bones. And with my camera smashed, I could not even photograph our fluffy new treasure to preserve the evidence. The dodo would fade back into oblivion along with Jamie and me. My eyes watered at the thought. That familiar tingling despair swept through me all over again.

“Damn it all, Jamie, we have to get out of here!”

Ignoring Jamie’s advice to preserve my energy, I spent the midday screaming for help, much to the wonder of the dodo. The response was the same as it had been every time before: silence, or at best, distant jungle noises. Finally, my throat parched and my body defeated, I slinked back down into my crouch against the granite walls, where Jamie sat shaking his head in disapproval. The dodo toddled over and examined us, its head bobbing about and the yellow orb of its eye looking up and down at our depressed, dishevelled figures.

It walked closer to me, puffed out its grey feathers and cuddled up against my side to nap. It was as if the friendly bird took pity on me and came to comfort me in my desperate state. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude, eventually allowing myself to dose off.

The clouds above the pit turned to turmeric yellow as late afternoon approached, eventually taking on a rosy-pink tinge. As the evening set in, so too did starvation.

My hunger came in waves. Sometimes I coasted along as though my lack of sustenance was little more than a nuisance. Other times, it was so severe that I could not think about anything other than food, food and ever more food. That evening was one of those times. My gut felt like an empty pit within an empty pit. It contorted in ways I never thought possible, each time more excruciating than the last.

Jamie must have been in a similar state. He became silent and glum. The only time he spoke was to bemoan the inadequacy of ants and assert that he needed a “real meal.” He was so distracted by hunger, he did not even react when the dodo left my side and tried to cosy up to him the same way it had done to me. It was not long before the bird took the hint that it was not welcome and returned to my cradle.

The pit dimmed as the sunset turned the sky to ruby red, announcing that we were about to spend another foodless night underground.

"Frank," Jamie broke the silence. "I'm not sure how much longer I can go on like this. We'll surely starve if something doesn't change soon."

I looked up groggily from petting the dodo, still napping by my side. Jamie’s eyes were pink, wet and puffy. All the upbeat feelings from earlier in the day seemed to have drained away during the afternoon.

"You think I don't know that? I'm dying here, too,” I croaked. “What are we supposed to do?"

Jamie sighed and leaned towards me, his sky-blue eyes stern and unwavering.

"I think we've been given a lifeline today. One that could buy us time until rescue arrives. You're not going to like it. It's a horrible choice, but it has to be done." He tipped his chin at the dosing bird by my side.

I gasped, skin flushing hot, as I got his meaning.

"You don't mean we should..."

"Eat the dodo. Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying"

"Forget it. Not a chance."

"I'm serious, Frank."

"I'm serious, too!” I shouted. “Do you have any idea what an incredible discovery this is? The dodo lives, and we are the ones who found it! This is a godsend, and you want to just kill it?”

"It will go extinct again anyway if it dies down here with us."

"What happened to all that ‘stay positive’ talk from earlier?” I scoffed. “You of all people—a bloody science teacher!—should understand the significance of this.”

"This is about as positive of a development as we could wish for,” Jamie stated in a low, assertive tone. “We may not get another shot. We can't ignore the solution staring us right in the face."

"Just watch me ignore it.” I waved him away, my rising blood pressure stretching every vein in my body. “Besides, I couldn't bring myself to kill this bird if I wanted to."

"Fine then. I'll do it." Jamie picked up a rock the size of my foot and stood up, his jaw clenched, and his eyes locked on the dodo.

"Oh no, you won’t!" I shot up and blocked his way, puffing out my chest and clenching my fists. “This damn bird went extinct once because of people. I'm not going to let it happen again!"

The dodo, roused from our sudden activity, rustled its feathers and shook its bill from side to side as if trying to wake itself up.

“Look Frank, you’re my best mate, but you’re being dangerously irrational,” Jamie pointed a threatening index finger at me as he spoke. “There’s no sense in us dying down here if we don’t have to.”

“We’re not dead yet. We can hold out longer. You’re the one who’s being irrational!”

“Frank, I have kids to get home to. Hell, I still need to put them through Uni! That bird might be precious, but it’s not worth dying for. And it's definitely not worth devastating my family over!”

“Spare me your family sob appeal. I won’t have any of it.”

Jamie furrowed his brows and flared his nostrils. Desperation was making for a nasty conversation between two old friends.

“Admit it, you just want the fame of finding the dodo so you can go on hiding from all the reasons that your life with Sarah and Matthew fell apart. No wonder they left you. You, my mate, are unbelievably stubborn and selfish! That’s why you don’t have a family anymore!"

My fist met his face before another thought could pass through my brain. Jamie staggered back and dropped his dodo-murder rock. A dribble of shiny red blood oozed from his lip. His face went pale, and his eyes wide with shock, as though he could not believe I had actually hit him.

Then, shock transformed into rage.

He snarled, charged and tackled me to the ground. His weight landed on me like a bulky sack of potatoes, knocking the wind out of my lungs. We rolled around on the rocky ground—swinging, blocking and fighting for the upper hand. It was an awkward, furious jiu-jitsu match between two dirty, desperate, and famished souls.

The dodo went into all-out panic from the frenzy, squawking and scuttling to whichever side of the pit was farthest from our scuffle.

Jamie and I climbed to our knees and grappled to a deadlock, each trying to toss the other to the ground. His face was crimson, his eyes glazed over with madness. He wheezed heavily, like an asthmatic fighting for air. A primordial, saliva-spitting scream erupted from his throat.

I struggled against his renewed strength. A waterfall of sweat poured down my face, burning in my eyes. My head pounded as though it had been split by an axe. I felt myself losing consciousness as the final fumes of my energy reserves drained away.

I was about to pass out when a cascade of white light, so bright it may as well have been from the gates of heaven itself, fell upon us. Blinded, confused and exhausted, Jamie and I let go of each other. We covered our eyes and looked up at the strange luminous intrusion at the opening of the pit.

"Francis Graham and James Cox?" a voice from above called.

I pushed up onto my knees—dizzy, panting, and eyes pained by the strange vortex of white light.

“Hey! Yes! We’re down here!” Jamie shot up to his feet and manically waved his hands in the air.

The search lights of our rescuers? I dared not believe it.

I staggered to my feet, too. “Help us, please!”

“We see you. Are you injured?” A group of Mauritian men with construction helmets poked their heads over the mouth of the pit. They wore orange and silver reflective vests. Their faces were silhouetted against the evening sky, which was now red and black like flowing lava.

“We’re starving and dying of thirst,” Jamie responded, “but we’re not injured, I reckon.” 

He wiped the blood from his lip and looked down, examining his body as if unsure whether he had answered correctly.

“Let’s get you out and give you some food and water,” one of the men said. “We’re going to toss down a rope and harness to pull you out. Please stand clear!”

“Oh, thank you! Thank you!” I sputtered with tears in my eyes. Just like that, fury gave way to elation as I realized it wasn’t a dream this time. The nightmare was nearly over. I gazed up at our rescuers with delight. My body loosened, like a muscle finally allowed to relax after days of tensing.

“Oh! But watch that you don’t hit the bird when you drop the harness!” I gasped as I suddenly remembered our avian treasure.

“Bird? What bird?”

“The dodo!” I shouted with a hysterical smile. “You won’t believe it, but there’s a dodo down here with us!”

The Mauritian men turned their heads to each other, eyebrows raised and faces bearing amused smirks.

“I think the jungle air has gone to your head, old fellow,” one said. “There hasn’t been a dodo around here in over 400 years. Come on up, and we’ll have the medic examine you. Don’t worry, they can check both your body and your mind!”

The men laughed.

“I’m not crazy!” I huffed, angered by their mockery. “Can’t you see it yourself from up there?”

I planted my foot and turned to point at the other side of the pit where I last saw the dodo scurrying about.

Nothing but a mossy rockface stood opposite my index finger. 

My stomach plummeted, jaw dropped and breathing stopped. The dodo was nowhere to be seen, even though it had nowhere to go. I might as well have been struck in the face with a club, I was so stupefied. I stood like a statue in my pointing pose, as if not allowed to move again until I had figured out what just happened.

“Right, now stand clear, the rope and harness are coming down,” one of our rescuers called out.

Two clumps of rope, straps and metal clamps landed on the ground in front of me with a plop and a clink. Another rope led up out of the pit towards where the men stood.

Jamie bent over and handed me a harness, with a sympathetic look in his eyes that seemed to say, “Come on, mate, it’s time to go.” Did he even share my consternation at the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of our dodo? 

The men instructed us to step into the leg holes and clamp the straps around our shoulders. I did as told in pensive, zombie motions. My head spun with confusion, grasping for explanations of where the dodo could have gone, but too agitated and weakened to think clearly.

Then, our feet left the ground of the pit for the first time in nearly a week. I went limp as the Mauritians slowly rappelled us up. I had imagined this moment would be euphoric. And yet, both my and Jamie’s expressions were as gloomy as if our rescuers had never shown up at all. Bizarrely, part of me didn’t want to leave. What peace could I find if I spent my remaining days wondering what happened to our beautiful dodo? Why rush back to London to continue my divorce proceedings with Sarah and custody battles over Matthew? Maybe our little hole of solitude in the middle of the Black River Gorges tropical forest wasn’t so bad after all.

“Frank,” Jamie addressed me for the first time since our fight. “I’m sorry.” 

I looked at him, nodded, and sighed. It was a deep, exasperated sigh that touched the bottom of my lungs.

My gaze sank as we dangled from our harnesses; the ropes squeaking as we inched up little by little towards freedom.

That’s when my eyes happened upon the little gap in the rocks that we had once foolishly imagined as our escape route. There, on the rocky ground below that narrow black opening, lay a pile of feathers. Evidence of a struggle to squeeze through. Amid my scrambling emotions, the smallest hint of a smile emerged at the corners of my lips.

Somewhere out there, the dodo lives. I'm sure of it.