The bird stands at least a foot taller than any of the other birds on the rocky outpost. It’s head and shoulders bolt upright, a prophet in black and white. It’s large razorbill beak, as big as its head. We take it alive, the three of us, we think it will fetch a better price from the collector.
None of us has seen her like before. She is clumsy on land; her wings are small and useless in air. God made her body sleek and seal-like to flow through water. So we are told.
The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) … a large, flightless diving bird thought to have once numbered in the millions (Birkhead, 1993).
I stand on the small shingle cove. As the waves sigh and retreat, I can feel the pull of the deep earth, shifting outwards beneath my feet.
She tries to escape from Phillips and Carter. She dodges and hops away, but then stops and is torn between defending her lone egg, nestled on the rocks that protrude the shoreline, and escaping her pursuers. Carter and Phillips stumble and curse as their feet twist on the uneven boulders, and puffins and gulls scatter. I chuckle at the busy little nun-like creature eluding them.
I guard the shoreline, to stop her escape. I think of the money and my own want. The bird makes a bid for the sea to the side of me. In my haste to head her off, I don’t notice where my feet are treading. I stumble along the boulders and on to the lone large egg. Thick cream-coloured fragments, with waves of black patterning, scatter as the egg breaks under my heel. The yellow yolk and embryonic blood smear my boot. As I stare at the mess, I hear the bird emit a strangled cut-off cry as Phillips grabs her and the two men bind her feet, her wings and her beak with rope. Carter looks at the glop on my boot and curses me. The egg would’ve also fetched a hefty reward.
The great auk was distributed around the North Atlantic and … also bred on islands off Iceland and Scotland, and was found throughout Scandinavia … with evidence of bone finds existing as far south as Florida and in to the Mediterranean (Fuller, 1999; Grieve, 1885).
As we set off, to return to the big island, the bird is placed in the bow of the boat. Her black orb eye glinting in the shadows. ‘Cover her,’ says Phillips, ‘She is cursing us.’ But Carter refuses, he doesn’t want her to suffocate before we’ve been paid.
The outpost we have just left is still within sight and already the waves crash over the bow of the boat. The remnants of foam hiss on the deck before disappearing. Phillips eyes the gathering dark clouds as the wind gets up and the waves rise. The gulls’ harsh cries carry on the wind. The voices of drowned sailors, some say. Omens of death. We all avoid looking at the bird.
Around 1500 AD intensive hunting began by European seamen …. Towards the end of the 1700s, the development of commercial hunting for the feather trade intensified exploitation levels.
The storm gathers. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the bird twitching. Turning her head to watch us. After a while she is still, except for an occasional blink of her eye.
We can feel the storm’s power growing. The rise and fall of the boat become higher and lower. More violent. The white-topped waves begin to crash over us. We brace ourselves and try to keep our course. The trawler drops like a stone into the trough of a wave, only to face another wall of water in front. On and on. I say a silent prayer. I can taste the salt on my face. I hardly notice I am wet and chilled to the bone. Every muscle is taut. I blink the stinging sea out of my eyes.
Eventually Phillips cries, ‘It is that thing,’ indicating the bird, ‘That maelstrom-conjuring witch.’ The bird watches us, reflecting back our own blank, dark terror.
The last reliably recorded breeding pair were killed in June 1844 on Eldey Island, Iceland.
We tell it to stop, but it looks and looks with its wild twitching black eyes. The rest of it still all bound with rope. We are afraid to cover it now.
The bird is too weak to struggle much as Phillips grabs it around its neck and squeezes. It’s eyes and body now twitch in spasms of terror (and something else – pity?). There is a long moment, that stretches through time, as its spirit leaves its body. It is seared into my heart, into my memory, my being. My own cowardice and avarice make me sick to my stomach.
It is too late now.
We are compelled to stare at the dead bird, whilst holding on for dear life. Until Phillips can bare it no longer and picks up the lifeless piece of feathers and meat and drops it overboard.
Into the constant roiling sea. Carter tries to stop him, and Philips nearly throws him overboard too. ‘Dead men can’t spend money,’ Phillips shouts into Carter’s face. Carter sinks to his knees with his head in his hands. He could be praying but I suspect he is in despair, thinking of his large family.
The bird haunts us. The sea is a constant agitation, until, at last, the harbour comes into view.
… the harvesting rates required to cause the extinction of the great auk would not be considered excessive even by modern standards.
None of us speak a word, even as we dock and tie up the boat. The next day I leave the island for the mainland. Still I see the bird. Its presence is constant. As is the overwhelming sense of dread and grief that chokes my spirit and blights my life from here on.
Lisa Blackwell writes short fiction, poetry and plays. Her short fiction has appeared in the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2019, MIR Online, TSS, Reflex Press and Hencroft Hub. Her plays have been produced at Rich Mix, London and the Chiswick Playhouse, London. Twitter: @lisablackwelly.