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 crewbusied 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 Thuringerwald. 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.”

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