Coraghhessan Boyle - Extinction Tales

Coraghhessan Boyle - Extinction Tales - In T. C. Boyle...

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Unformatted text preview: In T. C. Boyle 1998. The collected short stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle. New York: Viking, pp 424—29. THE EXTINCTION TALES I will Show you fear in a handful of dust. ~T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land He was in his early fifties, between jobs, his wife dead ten years. When he saw the position advertised in the Wellington paper it struck him as highly romantic, and he was immediately attracted to it. LIGHTHOUSEKEEPER. Stephen Island. References. Inquire T. H. Penn, Maritime Authority. He took it. Sold his furniture, paid the last of the rent, filled two duffel bags with socks and sweaters and his bird-watcher’s guide, and hired a cart. Just as he was leaving, a neighbor approached him with something in her arms: pointed ears, yellow eyes. Take it, she said. For company. He slipped the kitten into the breast of his pea coat, waved, and started off down the road. Stephen Island is an eruption of sparsely wooden rock seventeen miles north— west of Wellington. It is uninhabited. At night the constellations wheel over its quarter-mile radius like mythical beasts. The man was to be relieved for two weeks every six months. He planted a garden, read, fished, smoked by the sea. The cat grew to adolescence. One after- noon it came to him with a peculiar bird clenched in its teeth. The man took the bird away, puzzled over it, and finally sent it to the national museum at Welling- ton for identification. Three weeks later a reply came. He had discovered a new species: the Stephen Island wren. In the interim the cat had brought him four- teen more specimens of the odd little buff and white bird. The man never saw one of the birds alive. After a while the cat stopped bringing them. The Extinction Tales 425 feet wide. The Union Pacific Railroad had connected New York, Chicago and San Fran— cisco, Ulysses S. Grant was stamping about the White House in hightop boots, Jay Gould was buying up gold and Iared Pink was opening a butcher shop in downtown Chicago. PINK’S POULTRY, BEEF AND GAME The town was booming. Barouches and cabriolets at every corner, men in beavers and frock coats lining the steps of the private clubs, women in bustles, bonnets and flounces giving teas and taking boxes at the theater. Thirty-room mansions, friezes, spires, gargoyles, the opera house, the exchange, shops, sa- loons, tenements. In the hardpan streets men and boys trailed back from the fac— tories, stockyards, docks, their faces mapped in sweat and soot and the blood of animals. - All of them ate meat. Pink provided it. Longhorns from Texas, buffalo from the plains, deer, turkey, pheasant and pigeon from Michigan and Illinois. They stormed his shop, the bell over the door rushing and trilling as they bought up everything he could offer them, right down to the scraps in the brine barrels. Each day he sold out his stock and in the morning found himself at the mercy of his suppliers. A pre-dawn trip to the slaughterhouse for great swinging sides of beef, livers and tripe, blood for pudding, intestine for sausage. And then twice a week to meet the Michigan Line and long low boxcars strung with dressed deer ', and piled deep with pigeons stinking of death and excrement. Unplucked, their r_ feathers a nightmare, they filled the cars four feet deep and he would bring a boy S along to shovel them into his wagon. They sold like a dream. When his supplier tripled the price per bird Pink sent his brother Seth up 0 the nesting grounds near Petoskey, Michigan. As Seth’s train approached Petoskey the sky began to darken. He checked his pocket watch: it was three in he afternoon. He leaned over the man beside him to look out the window The yky'was choked with birds, their mass blotting the sun, the drone of their wings and dry rattling feathers audible over the chuff of the engine. Seth whistled. Are ' oSe—? he said. Yep, said the man. Passenger pigeons. rlap sack. They were not alone. The grove was thronged with hunters, hun- eds of them, drinking, shooting, springing traps and tossing nets. Retrievers ked, shotguns boomed. At the far edge of the field women sat beneath para- ' With picnic lunches. In 1945, when the Russians liberated Auschwitz, they found 129 ovens in l the crematorium. The ovens were six feet long, two feet high, one and a half 426 i T. CORlGHESSAN Boyla Iared stopped to watch an old man assail the crown of a big-boled chestnut with repeated blasts from a brace of shotguns. A grim old woman stood at the man’s elbow, reloading, while two teenagers scrambled over the lower branches of the tree, dropping nestlings to the ground. Another man, surrounded by dirt- faced children, ignited a stick of dynamite and pitched it into a tree thick with roosting birds. A breeze ruffled the leaves as the spitting cylinder twisted through them, pigeons cooing and clucking in the shadows——-then there was a flash, and a concussion that thundered over the popping of shotguns from vari- ous corners of the field. Heads turned. The smoke blew off in a clot. Feathers, twigs, bits of leaf and a fine red mist began to settle. The children were already beneath the tree, on their hands and knees, snatching up the pigeons and squab as they fell to earth like ripe fruit. Overhead the sky was stormy with displaced birds. Iared fired one barrel, then the other. Five birds slapped down, two of them stunned and hopping. He rushed them, flailing with the stock of his gun until they lay still. He heard Seth - ‘ fire behind him. The flock was the sky, shrieking and reeling, panicked, the chalky white excrement like a snowstorm. Iared’s hair and shoulders were thick I with it, white spots flecked his face. He was reloading. There’s got to be a better _r . _ , way, he said. a ' Three weeks later he and his brother returned to Petoskey. They rode out’ t ‘ the nesting grounds in a horse-drawn wagon, towing an old Civil War cannon behind them. In the bed of the wagon lay a weighted hemp net, one hundred feet square, and a pair of cudgels. Strips of cotton broadcloth had been sewed i I the center of the net to catch the wind and insure an even descent, but thenet fouled on its maiden flight and Seth had to climb a silver maple alive with crep tating pigeons to retrieve it. They refolded the net, stuffed it into the mouth, the cannon, and tried again. This time they were successful: Seth flushe ‘ birds from the tree with a shotgun blast, the cannon roared, and Jared caught them as they rose. Nearly two thousand pigeons lay tangled in th their distress calls echoing through the trees, metallic and forlorn. The brothers stalked over the grounded net with their cudgels, crushing the heat the survivors. When the net had ceased to move and the blood had begun t tle into abstract patterns in the broadcloth, they dropped their cudgels a braced, hooting and laughing like prospectors on a strike. We’ll be ric shouted. _ He was right. Within six months PINK’S POULTRY, BEEF AND GAME was , over as many as seventeen thousand pigeons a day, and Jared opened .a' and then a third shop before the year was out. Seth oversaw the Petoskcy tion and managed one of the new shops. Two years later Iared opened rant and a clothing store and began investing in a small Ohio-based ‘ 6, company called Standard Oil. By 1885 he was worth half a million doll living in an eighteen-room mansion in Highland Park, just down the; his brother Seth. The Extinction Tales ,_,7,4§j On a September afternoon in 1914, when Jared Pink was seventy-two, a group of ornithologists was gathered around a cage at the Cincinnati zoo. Inside the cage was a passenger pigeon named Martha, and she was dying of old age. The bird gripped the wire mesh with her beak and stiffened. She was the last of her kind on earth. The variola Virus, which causes smallpox, cannot exist outside the human body. It is now, as the result of pandemic immunization, on the verge of extinction. Numerous other lifeforms have disappeared in this century, among them the crested shelduck, Carolina parakeet, Kittlitz’s thrust, Molokai oo, huia, Toolach wallaby, freckled marsupial mouse, Syrian wild ass, Schomburgk’s deer, rufous gazelle, bubal hartebeest and Caucasian wisent. George Robertson was infused with the spirit of Christianity. When he ar- rived in Tasmania in 1835, the island’s autochthonous population had been reduced from seven thousand to less than two hundred in the course of the thirty-two years that the British colony at Risdon had been in existence. The original settlers, a group of convicts under the supervision of Lieutenant John Bowen, had hunted the native Tasmanians as they would have hunted wolves or rats or any other creatures that competed for space and food. George Robertson had come to save them. Picture him: thirty, eyes like rinse water, hair bleached white in the sun, the tender glossy skin showing through the molt of nose and cheekbone. A gangling tall man who walked with a limp and carried an umbrella everywhere he went. He was an Anglican clergyman. His superiors had sent him to the island on a mission of mercy: to save the aboriginal Tasmanians from extinction and perdi- tion both. Robertson had leaped at the opportunity He would be a paraclete, a leader, an arm of God. But when he stepped ashore at Risdon, he found that no one had seen a native Tasmanian—alive or dead—in nearly five years. Like the thylacines and wombats, they had withdrawn to the desolate slopes of the interior. The one exception was a native woman called Trucanini who had been cap- tured five years earlier and integrated into colonial life as a servant to the gOVer- nor. When John Bowen had organized a line of beaters to sweep the bush and exterminate the remaining “black crows,” the drive had turned up only two Tasmanians—Trucanini and her mother, who were discovered sleeping beneath a log. The others had vanished. Trucanini’s mother was an old woman, blind and naked, her skin ropy and cracked. Bowen left her to die. The day he landed, Robertson limped up to the back door of the governor’s manor house, umbrella tucked under his arm, stepped into the kitchen and led Trucanini out into the courtyard. She was in her early forties, toothless, her .CORAGHESSAN Boyls It took him four years. The governor had declared him legally dead, his mother back in Melbourne had been notified, a marker had been They were shy, tractable people, awed and bewildered by their white redeemer, and they did their best to please him. There was one problem, however. They died like mayflies. By 1847 there were less than forty of them left. Twelve years later there were two: Trucanini, now long past menopause, and her fifth hus- band, William Lanne. was a cauldron of flies. Seven years later Trucanini died in bed. And George Robertson gave up the cloth. Concerning the higher primates: there are now on earth circa 25,000 chim- panzees, 5,000 gorillas, 3,000 orangutans, and 4,000,000,000 men. Didus ineptus, the dodo. A flightless pigeon the size of a turkey, extinct 1648. All that remains of it today is a foot in the British museum, a head in Copenhagen, and a quantity of dust. The Extinction Tales 429 Suns fade, and planets wither. Solar systems collapse. When the sun reaches its red—giant stage in five billion years it will flare up to sear the earth, ignite it like a torch held to a scrap of newsprint, the seas evaporated, the forests turned to ash, the ragged Himalayan peaks fused and then converted to dust, cosmic dust. What’s a species here, a species there? This is where extinction becomes sublime. Listen: when my father died I did not attend the funeral. Three years later I flew in to visit with my mother. We drank vodka gimlets, and I was suddenly seized with a desire to visit my father’s grave. It was 10 P.M., December, snow fast to the frozen earth. I asked her which cemetery. She thought I was joking. I drove as far as the heavy—link chain across the main gate, then stepped out of the car into a fine granular snow. My fingers slipped the switch of the flash— light through woolen gloves and I started for section 220E The ground stretched off, leprous white, broken by the black scars of the monuments. It took nearly an hour to find, the granite markers alike as pebbles on a beach, names and dates, names and dates. I trailed down 220E the light playing off stone and statue. Then I found it. My father’s name in a spot of light. I regarded the name: a three— part name, identical to my own. The light held, snowflakes creeping through the beam like motes of dust. I extinguished the light. (1977) ...
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This note was uploaded on 09/25/2011 for the course ANTHROPOLO 111 taught by Professor Scott during the Spring '11 term at Rutgers.

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Coraghhessan Boyle - Extinction Tales - In T. C. Boyle...

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