This part of the country was degenerate before the first Snopes ever saw it. This road hadn't been paved until the late fifties, and it was a main road between two county seats. That didn't mean it went through civilized country. I'd traveled for miles and seen nothing but dirt banks red as Billy Carter's neck and an occasional church. I expected to see Burma Shave signs, but realized this road had probably never had them.
I almost missed the turn-off onto the dirt and gravel road the man back at the service station had marked. It led onto the highway from nowhere, a lane out of a field. I turned down it and a rock the size of a golf ball flew up over the hood and put a crack three inches long in the windshield of the rent-a-car I'd gotten in Grenada.
It was a hot muggy day for this early. The view was obscured in a cloud of dust every time the gravel thinned. About a mile down the road, the gravel gave out completely. The roadway turned into a rutted dirt pathway, just wider than the car, hemmed in on both sides by a sagging three-strand barbed-wire fence.
In some places the fenceposts were missing for a few meters. The wire lay on the ground and in some places disappeared under it for long stretches.
The only life I saw was a mockingbird raising hell with something under a thorn bush the barbed wire had been nailed to in place of a post. To one side now was a grassy field which had gone wild, the way everywhere will look after we blow ourselves off the face of the planet. The other was fast becoming woodspine, oak, some black gum and wild plum, fruit not out this time of the year.
I began to ask myself what I was doing here. What if Ms. Jimson were some imaginative old crank whobut no. Wrong, maybe, but even the wrong was worth checking. But I knew she hadn't lied to me. She had seem incapable of liesgood ol' girl, backbone of the South, of the earth. Not a mendacious gland in her being.
I couldn't doubt her, or my judgment, either. Here I was, creeping and bouncing down a dirt path in Mississippi, after no sleep for a day, out on the thin ragged edge of a dream. I had to take it on faith.
The back of the car sometimes slid where the dirt had loosened and gave way to sand. The back tire stuck once, but I rocked out of it. Getting back out again would be another matter. Didn't anyone ever use this road?
The woods closed in on both sides like the forest primeval, and the fence had long since disappeared. My odometer said six miles and it had been twenty minutes since I'd turned off the highway. In the rearview mirror, I saw beads of sweat and dirt in the wrinkles of my neck. A fine patina of dust covered everything inside the car. Clots of it came through the windows.
The woods reached out and swallowed the road. Branches scraped against the windows and the top. It was like falling down a long dark leafy tunnel. It was dark and green in there. I fought back an atavistic urge to turn on the headlights. The roadbed must have been made of a few centuries of leaf mulch. I kept constant pressure on the accelerator and bulled my way through.
Half a log caught and banged and clanged against the car bottom. I saw light ahead. Fearing for the oil pan, I punched the pedal and sped out.
I almost ran through a house.
It was maybe ten yards from the trees. The road ended under one of the windows. I saw somebody waving from the corner of my eye.
I slammed on the brakes.
A whole family was on the porch, looking like a Walker Evans Depression photograph, or a fever dream from the mind of a Hee Haw producer. The house was old. Strips of peeling paint a yard long tapped against the eaves.
"Damned good thing you stopped," said a voice. I looked up. The biggest man I had ever seen in my life leaned down into the driver's-side window.
"If we'd have heard you sooner, I'd've sent one of the kids down to the end of the driveway to warn you," he said.
His mouth was stained brown at the corners. I figured he chewed tobacco until I saw the sweet-gum snuff brush sticking from the pencil pocket in the bib of his overalls. His hands were the size of catchers' mitts. They looked like they'd never held anything smaller than an axe handle.
"How y'all?" he said, by the way of introduction.
"Just fine," I said. I got out of the car.
"My name's Lindberl," I said, extending my hand. He took it. For an instant, I thought of bear traps, sharks' mouths, closing elevator doors. The thought went back to wherever it is they stay.
"This is the Gudger place?" I asked.
He looked at me blankly with his grey eyes. He wore a diesel truck cap, and had on a checked lumberjack shirt beneath his overalls. His rubber boots were the size of the ones Karloff wore in Frankenstein.
"Naw, I'm Jim Bob Krait. That's my wife Jenny, and there's Luke and Skeeno and Shirl." He pointed to the porch.
The people on the porch nodded.
"Lessee? Gudger? No Gudgers round here I know of. I'm sorta new here," I took that to mean he hadn't lived here for more than twenty years or so.
"Jennifer!" he yelled. "You know of anybody named Gudger?" To me he said, "My wife's lived around here all her life."
His wife came down onto the second step of the porch landing. "I think they used to be the ones what lived on the Spradlin place before the Spradlins. But the Spradlins left around the Korean War. I didn't know any of the Gudgers myself. That's while we was living over to Water Valley."
"You an insurance man?" asked Mr. Krait.
no," I said. I imagined the people on the porch leaning toward me, all ears. "I'm a
I teach college."
"Oxford?" asked Krait.
"Uh, no. University of Texas."
"Well, that's a damn long way off. You say you're looking for the Gudgers?"
"Just their house. The area. As your wife said, I understand they left during the Depression, I believe."
"Well, they musta had money," said the gigantic Mr. Krait. "Nobody around here was rich enough to leave during the Depression."
"Luke!" he yelled. The oldest boy on the porch sauntered down. He looked anemic and wore a shirt in vogue with the Twist. He stood with his hands in his pockets.
"Luke, show Mr. Lindbergh"
"Mr. Lindberl here the way up to the old Spradlin place. Take him a far as the old log bridge, he might get lost before then."
"Log bridge broke down, daddy."
"Well, hell, somethin' else to fix! Anyway, to the creek."
He turned to me. "You want him to go along on up there, see you don't get snakebit?"
"No, I'm sure I'll be fine."
"Mind if I ask what you're going up there for?" he asked. He was looking away from me. I could see having to come right out and ask was bothering him. Such things usually came up in the course of conversation.
"I'm auh, bird scientist. I study birds. We had a sightingsomeone told us the old Gudger placethe area around hereI'm looking for a rare bird. It's hard to explain."
I noticed I was sweating. It was hot.
"You mean like a goodgod? I saw a goodgod about twenty-five years ago, over next to Bruce," he said.
"Well, no." (A goodgod was one of the names for an ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the rarest in the world. Any other time I would have dropped my jaw. Because they were thought to have died out in Mississippi by the teens, and by the fact that Krait knew they were rare.)
I went to lock my car up, then thought of the protocol of the situation. "My car be in your way?" I asked.
"Naw. It'll be just fine," said Jim Bob Krait. "We'll look for you back by sundown, that be all right?"
For a minute, I didn't know whether that was a command or an expression of concern.
"Just in case I get snakebit," I said. "I'll try to be careful up there."
"Good luck on findin' them rare birds," he said. He walked up to the porch with his family.
"Les go," said Luke.
· · · · ·
Behind the Krait house was a henhouse and pigsty where hogs lay after their morning slop like islands in a muddy bay, or some Zen pork sculpture. Next we passed broken farm machinery gone to rust, though there was nothing but uncultivated land as far as the eye could see. How the family made a living I don't know. I'm told you can find places just like this throughout the South.
We walked through woods and across fields, following a sort of path. I tried to memorize the turns I would have to take on the way back. Luke didn't say a word the whole twenty minutes he accompanied me, except to curse once when he stepped into a bull nettle with his tennis shoes.
We came to a creek which skirted the edge of a woodsy hill. There was a rotted log forming a small dam. Above it the water was nearly three feet deep, below it, half that much.
"See that path?" he asked.
"Follow it up around the hill, then across the next field. Then you cross the creek again on the rocks, and over the hill. Take the left-hand path. What's left of the house is about three quarters the way up the next hill. If you come to a big bare rock cliff, you've gone too far. You got that?"
He turned and left.
· · · · ·
The house had once been a dog-run cabin, like Ms. Jimson had said. Now it was fallen in on one side, what they call sigoglin (or was it antisigoglin?). I once heard a hymn on the radio called "The Land Where No Cabins Fall." This was the country songs like that were written in.
Weeds grew everywhere. There were signs of fences, a flattened pile of wood that had once been a barn. Further behind the house were the outhouse remains. Half a rusted pump stood in the backyard. A flatter spot showed where the vegetable garden had been; in it a single wild tomato, pecked by birds, lay rotting. I passed it. There was lumber from three outbuildings, mostly rotten and green with algae and moss. One had been a smokehouse and woodshed combination. Two had been chicken roosts. One was larger than the other. It was there I started to poke around and dig.
Where? Where? I wish I'd been on more archaeological digs, knew the places to look. Refuse piles, midden heaps, kitchen scrap piles, compost boxes. Why hadn't I been born on a farm so I'd know instinctively where to search?
I prodded around the grounds. I moved back and forth like a setter casting for the scent of quail. I wanted more, more. I still wasn't satisfied.
· · · · ·
Dusk. Dark, in fact. I trudged into the Kraits' front yard. The toe sack I carried was full to bulging. I was hot, tired, streaked with fifty years of chicken shit. The Kraits were on their porch. Jim Bob lumbered down like a friendly mountain.
I asked him a few questions, gave them a Xerox of one of the dodo pictures, left them addresses and phone numbers where they could reach me.
Then into the rent-a-car. Off to Water Valley, acting on information Jennifer Krait gave me. I went to the postmaster's house at Water Valley. She was getting ready for bed. I asked questions. She got on the phone. I bothered people until one in the morning. Then back into the trusty rent-a-car.
On to Memphis as the moon came up on my right. Interstate 55 was a glass ribbon before me. WLS from Chicago was on the radio.
I hummed along with it, I sang at the top of my voice.
The sack full of dodo bones, beaks, feet and eggshell fragments kept me company on the front seat.
Did you know a museum once traded an entire blue whale skeleton for one of a dodo?
· · · · ·
THE DANCE OF THE DODOS
I used to have a vision sometimesI had it long before this madness came up. I can close my eyes and see it by thinking hard. But it comes to me most often, most vividly when I am reading and listening to classical music, especially Pachelbel's Canon in D.
It is near dusk in The Hague and the light is that of Frans Hals, of Rembrandt. The Dutch royal family and their guests eat and talk quietly in the great dining hall. Guards with halberds and pikes stand in the corners of the room. The family is arranged around the table; the King, Queen, some princesses, a prince, a couple of other children, and invited noble or two. Servants come out with plates and cups but they do not intrude.
On a raised platform at one end of the room an orchestra plays dinner musica harpsichord, viola, cello, three violins, and woodwinds. One of the royal dwarfs sits on the edge of the platform, his foot slowly rubbing the back of one of the dogs sleeping near him.
As the music of Pachelbel's Canon in D swells and rolls through the hall, one of the dodos walks in clumsily, stops, tilts its head, its eyes bright as a pool of tar. It sways a little, lifts its foot tentatively, one then another, rocks back and forth in time to the cello.
The violins swirl. The dodo begins to dance, its great ungainly body now graceful. It is joined by the other two dodos who come into the hall, all three in sort of a circle.
The harpsichord begins its counterpoint. The fourth dodo, the white one from Réunion, comes from its place under the table and joins the circle with the others.
It is most graceful of all, making complete turns where the others only sway and dip on the edge of the circle they have formed.
The music rises in volume; the first violinist sees the dodos and nods to the King. But he and the others at the table have already seen. They are silent, transfixedeven the servants stand still, bowls, pots and, kettles in their hands forgotten.
Around the dodos dance with bobs and weaves of their ugly heads. The white dodo dips, takes half a step, pirouettes on one foot, circles again.
Without a word the King of Holland takes the hand of the Queen, and they come around the table, children before the spectacle. They join in the dance, waltzing (anachronism) among the dodos while the family, the guests, the soldiers watch and nod in time with the music.
Then the vision fades, and the afterimage of a flickering fireplace and a dodo remains.
· · · · ·
The dodo and its kindred came by ships to the ports of civilized men. The first we have record of is that of Captain van Neck who brought back two in 1599one for the King of Holland, and one which found its way through Cologne to the menagerie of Emperor Rudolf II.
This royal aviary was at Schloss Neugebau, near Vienna. It was here the first paintings of the dumb old birds were done by Georg and his son Jacob Hoefnagel, between 1602 and 1610. They painted it among more than ninety species of birds which kept the Emperor amused.
Another Dutch artist named Roelandt Savery, as someone said, "made a career out of the dodo." He drew and painted them many times, and was no doubt personally fascinated by them. Obsessed, even. Early on, the paintings are consistent; the later ones have inaccuracies. This implies he worked from life first, then from memory as his model went to that place soon to be reserved for all its species. One of his drawings has two of the Raphidae scrambling for some goodie on the ground. His works are not without charm.
Another Dutch artist (they seemed to sprout up like mushrooms after a spring rain) named Peter Withoos also stuck dodos in his paintings, sometimes in odd and exciting placeswandering around during their owner's music lessons, or with Adam and Eve in some Edenic idyll.
The most accurate representation, we are assured, comes from half a world away from the religious and political turmoil of the seafaring Europeans. There is an Indian miniature painting of the dodo which now rests in a museum in Russia. The dodo could have been brought by the Dutch or Portuguese in their travels to Goa and the coasts of the Indian subcontinent. Or they could have been brought centuries before by the Arabs who plied the Indian Ocean in their triangular-sailed craft, and who may have discovered the Mascarenes before the Europeans cranked themselves up for the First Crusade.
· · · · ·
At one time early in my bird-fascination days (after I stopped killing them with BB guns but before I began to work for a scholarship), I once sat down and figured out where all the dodos had been.
Two with van Neck in 1599, one to Holland, one to Austria. Another was in Count Solm's park in 1600. An account speaks of "one in Italy, one in Germany, several to England, eight or nine to Holland." William Boentekoe van Hoorn knew of "one shipped to Europe in 1640, another in 1685" which he said was "also painted by Dutch artists." Two were mentioned as "being kept in Surrat House in India as pets," perhaps one of which is the one in the painting. Being charitable, and considering "several" to mean at least three, that means twenty dodos in all.
There had to be more, when boatloads had been gathered at the time.
What do we know of the Didine birds? A few ships' logs, some accounts left by travelers and colonists. The English were fascinated by them. Sir Hamon L'Estrange, a contemporary of Pepys, saw exhibited "a Dodar from the Island of Mauritius
it is not able to flie, being so bigge." One was stuffed when it died, and was put in the Museum Tradescantum in South Lambeth. It eventually found its way into the Ashmolean Museum. It grew ratty and was burned, all but a leg and the head, in 1750. By then there were no more dodos, but nobody had realized that yet.
Francis Willughby got to describe it before its incineration. Earlier, old Carolus Clusius in Holland studied the one in Count Solm's park. He collected everything known about the Raphidae, describing a dodo leg Pieter Pauw kept in his natural history cabinet, in Exoticarium libri decem in 1605, eight years after their discovery.
François Leguat, a Huguenot who lived on Réunion for some years, published an account of his travels in which he mentioned the dodos. It was published in 1690 (after the Mauritius dodo was extinct) and included the information that "some of the males weigh forty-five pounds. One egg, much bigger than that of a goose, is laid by the female, and takes seven weeks' hatching time."
The Abbe Pingre visited the Mascarenes in 1761. He saw the last of the Rodriguez solitaires, and collected what information he could about the dead Mauritius and Réunion members of the genus.
After that, only memories of the colonists, and some scientific debate as to where the Raphidae belonged in the great taxonomic scheme of thingssome said pigeons, some said railswere left. Even this nitpicking ended. The dodo was forgotten.
When Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland in 1865, most people thought he invented the dodo.
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