Nathaniel Rich is the author of Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade; and Losing Earth: A Recent History, a finalist for the PEN / E.O. Wilson Literary Science Award and winner of awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Institute of Physics. His novels include King Zeno, Odds Against Tomorrow, and The Mayor’s Tongue. He is the recipient of the 2017 Emily Clark Balch Prize for Fiction and is a two-time finalist for the National Magazine Award for Fiction. Nathaniel is a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New York Review of Books. He lives with his family in New Orleans.
Studio Airport is Bram Broerse and Maurits Wouters. Together with a small team of creatives, they run a design practice based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The studio has been recognized with international awards for projects such as Hart Island Project (New York), Amsterdam Art Council, and Greenpeace International.
I SAW ONE TODAY.
I should be precise: I believe that I saw one. What is it Catholics say? If you don’t believe, no proof is sufficient. If you do, no proof is necessary. No proof was possible, in this case, because it was too dark to observe anything but her black feathers and the red circle rimming her eye. She fled from view in a manner that was distinctly secretive, to use the word favored by the bird guides. My sponsors, I appreciate, will not easily believe such a wild claim from a volunteer with no scientific training; just a few months ago, after all, I was sitting in a windowless cubicle in a business park east of Baton Rouge, charting histograms of hospital inpatient claims. My sponsors will require more substantial evidence—but I don’t. Let it be recorded that on Day 66 of my residency in the Nieux Swamp Presented by MegaMart, I saw an eastern black rail.
Perversely I have the heat to thank for this. Now that I’ve advanced my alarm to 3:45 a.m., my workday overlaps with the rail’s. According to Sibley, the pre-dusk hour is her preferred time to venture out of hiding to hunt isopods, tiny crustaceans that feed on decay. That’s when I saw her: in those final moments before sunrise, when the swamp purples.
I was walking the trails, having already toured the campsites and conducted the few experiments I can manage in darkness—boring soil samples for the land density study and unburying bags of peat for the saltwater intrusion experiment. I begin my circuit on Beryl Pass, because of the three trails it has the fewest snakes (I end, in full daylight, with Hidden Bayou, which has the most). Just beyond the first mile marker, I came around a bend and it was underfoot. If I hadn’t been frantically scanning for cottonmouths, I might have crushed her skull beneath my duckboot.
The bird froze. I froze. She must have been shocked. I doubt she’d ever seen a human being. There wasn’t a creature my size, apart from the bears, within a hundred miles. With a shudder that pinched her tail feathers, she came to life and dashed into the reeds. A beat later I heard a furious flutter of wings, likely not the rail herself but another bird alarmed by her sudden incursion into its territory.
The swamp pulses with life—it sighs, belches, moans with life. By the running tally I keep in my master log (the Beast List, I’ve come to call it), the eastern black rail is the 138th species I’ve identified since arriving at the watchtower. This encounter was unlike the previous 137, however. I felt as if I’d discovered that another person lived in my house: that she had been there for weeks, sleeping inside a forgotten broom closet during the day and emerging in the middle of the night to filch from the pantry and dance in the living room.
Though I do cherish my isolation, its gratuities of time and freedom, the encounter left me with a warm-fellow feeling that I recognized from childhood: the pillowy sensation of making a new friend. Absurd, I realize, the idea of companionship with a bird terrified of my shadow. I’m embarrassed to write these sentences, even in a journal that no one will ever read (at least according to the terms of my NDA). Maybe the heat has been working on my brain, but the aura lingers.
There were a couple lesser peculiarities on my rounds this morning—a ribboned scrap of paper that didn’t come from any notebook I owned, a rusting cage trap—but nothing that can compete with the rail. This evening I wrote her name on the Beast List in blue ink. I use a black pen for species that have always lived in the swamp; blue for those that returned after the marsh’s regeneration, such as the yellow-billed cuckoo and the redear sunfish; and green for species, like the white-faced ibis, that had never previously been seen here. The black rail was my third blue.
As I returned the master log to the corner of my desk, I was struck again by the defining strangeness of this residency. I am living in a place built by human beings but never seen by anyone else, a swamp that is newer and stranger with each passing hour. All this miracle and marvel and jungle swelter—all this life—is gathering into existence on acreage that was, less than five years ago, the open sea. On my cot in the watchtower I feel like I’m sleeping in a lighthouse. Down below the waves rise, lap, crash.
ANOTHER SIGHTING TODAY, but not of the rail.
I’d followed Hidden Bayou to the eastern boundary of Nieux Swamp to investigate an emerging lobe. You can chart the age of the land here by the height of the cutgrass: the farther from the shore, the higher the grass. The land has formed so quickly that for a moment I thought I could see it rising underfoot.
The floating clumps of mud I’d observed on my first tour of this lobe have coagulated into sandbars and shoals. They rise from the swamp like fingers from a bathtub. It appeared that some of the fingertips had fused with the shore. I was testing this hypothesis gently, with the flat edge of a shovel. I must have been pretty absorbed in the labor because it wasn’t until I left that I noticed the disturbance.
A path had been trampled from the edge of the open swamp. I followed it, scanning for scat or other indications of its maker. As the cutgrass rose to chest level, it grew treacherous—they call it cutgrass for a reason—and I gave up. I couldn’t identify any pawprints, but the width of the path suggested a culprit larger than any of the common swamp rodents. It might have been made by a bear, otter, or perhaps a hog, though I couldn’t convince myself of any of these either. The trail did not meander, as everything in the swamp does, but advanced in a straight line. Only one mammal is brazen enough to move in straight lines.
For the second time in as many days I had the feeling that I was not alone. There was no warmth in the realization this time, just a chill. I hadn’t felt anything like it since last winter—since before I’d learned that I’d been awarded a MegaMart Residency at Nieux Swamp, back when I lived in a two-story house with insulation and appliances and internet access, with an overfed cat who loved me, and a wife who didn’t.
I slapped my neck, bursting a blood-swollen mosquito and with it my spree into catastrophism. Even if you put aside the near impossibility of a trespasser entering MegaMart waters undetected, it would be madness for anyone to target such a difficult-to-reach location. And nobody would willfully trample through rising cutgrass. I had to remind myself that such flights into paranoia had been a recurring motif of my residency. There must be some biological impulse that fires during periods of prolonged isolation, summoning the specter of a threat to keep the mind alert.
The trail dead-ended at a stand of black willow trees. Beyond bulged the marsh: banana spider webs, dangling black moth caterpillars, nooselike vines, dead-eyed alligators, and the rest of the swamp’s haunted house paraphernalia. In the black water invisible creatures spun whirlpools. I didn’t run all the way back to the watchtower, but I did run.
I WOKE UP even earlier this morning, ahead of the alarm, anxious to see her again—or at least hear her. The guides spoke of the rail’s “kicker” call, which tends to be transliterated as “ki-ki-kerr” or “did-ee-dunk.” If I couldn’t see her, I could try to hear her. But as soon as I hit the trail, I realized the impossibility of picking out a “ki-ki-kerr” from the din of the bubbling swamp. It’d be like trying to isolate a single clarinet line in a symphony orchestra—if, that is, you’d never heard a clarinet but only read that they make a sound like “hu-du-hu-hu-dju-dju.” I heard plenty of “kis” and “kerrs” and even some “ki-ki-kerrs” but for all I knew they might have emanated from cricket frogs or a squirrel.
As I scanned the shadows, I forced myself to answer the question: Why the black rail? Among the two dozen endangered species listed in the Nieux Swamp Presented by MegaMart’s Training Manual, the black rail does not distinguish itself. The diamondback terrapin is cuter, the red knot more beautiful. The brown pelican serves a far more critical function in the ecosystem. The red-cockaded woodpecker faces worse odds for recovery, for which it has only itself to blame, with its fussy insistence on nesting in six-year-old pines infected with red heart fungus. The rail is only conspicuous in its inelegance. It cannot fly gracefully, but flutters briefly, legs dangling, until it can drop back into cover. It has a drab appearance, though its red eyes, set deeply in its black head, imbue it with a pleasingly demonic quality.
I decided it was the bird’s character that had seduced me. Ornithological descriptions inexorably hang on the same adjective: “as secretive as a mouse” (Sibley); “extremely secretive” (National Geographic Society); “essentially secretive” (Leahy); “the most secretive of the secretive marsh birds” (Center for Conservation Biology). Secrecy implies more than the universal instinct for self-preservation. Secrecy draws from a strong, even jealous, sense of self. Secrecy requires cunning. It’s said of pathological liars that they’re soulless. But it’s the opposite. You can only dissimulate if you have a soul.
I was reminded of the moment I told Freya that I wanted to apply for the residency. She thought I was making a joke—a cynical, mean-spirited joke. We were in the kitchen: I was chopping celery for a stir-fry and she had just dropped her pocketbook on the counter. She whipped around so suddenly that her hair lashed her face.
“How’d you hear about it?” she asked. “Were you reading my email?”
This was during the period in which I tried practicing restraint. “Did you get an email about the job?”
“I get emails about any opening in the field. But everyone knows about that job. There’ve been articles.”
I had read one: an item in the Advocate about the billions that MegaMart (or technically the MegaSmile Foundation, its philanthropic division) had invested in what was called the world’s most ambitious climate change mitigation project: a series of engineered diversions of the Mississippi River, designed to flush billions of gallons of sediment-rich freshwater into the deteriorating wetlands. The sediment, over time, would cohere into new land, in imitation of the natural process that had created the Gulf Coast eight thousand years earlier.
This particular article had been occasioned by a startling discovery: less than a decade into the plan, the diversions had already been wildly successful. They had created fourteen thousand acres of land: fifty percent more than the most optimistic models had predicted. These early returns had encouraged the Foundation to launch the project’s next phase: the hiring of field biologists to document the broader ecological consequences. As the land grew, which animals and plants were returning? Did Nieux Swamp resemble the original deltaic marsh, before it had been ruined by sea level rise, shipping canals, and pipelines? Or had the Foundation’s engineers created an alien landscape? The implications were profound. Could humanity recreate what we had destroyed, or only create nightmarish simulacra of what had been lost?
Applicants would be asked to spend at least three months in isolation in the southern swamp at the height of hurricane season, during what would inevitably be the hottest summer in human history, without an internet connection or even a reliable means of communication to the outside world. They would live in watchtowers elevated on stilts, to minimize impact on the virgin territory. They would also be required to sign nondisclosure agreements. The Advocate noted that the Foundation had struggled to fill these positions.
“There’s another reason nobody wants those jobs,” said Freya. “Did you get to that part of the article?”
“Sure. No matter how effectively the new swampland defends the coast from hurricanes, activists don’t like that a major corporation is bankrolling the project.”
“Not just any corporation,” she said. “The actual devil.”
“I get it: the government should rebuild the swamp, not a crass multinational retail chain that makes its fortune undercutting family-owned businesses.”
“Yes. And we should tax the hell out of MegaMart to pay for it.”
“But we won’t.”
“We can’t, because lobbyists from corporations like MegaMart have spent decades working to gut regulatory oversight…”
My mind went blank, the jargon evaporating into the steam of the wok.
“No serious academic will take their money,” she concluded. “No one would dare.”
“Makes sense,” I said.
“I’ll be curious to see who they hire.” Her eye glinted darkly, as if she were already plotting to destroy the career of any scholar willing to sell out for MegaMart cash.
When I was offered the residency, I figured it was because of my connection to Freya. Even by the degraded standards of the applicant pool, I could not have stood out: an actuarial analyst in a regional hospital system whose experience with wildlife biology was limited to volunteer opportunities in campaigns directed by my wife and the institutions she led. I’m only unsure about the degree of cynicism in their calculation. Did they think that hiring me would insulate them from further public scorn? Or was their selection designed to provoke the high-minded academics who refused to confer credibility on their mission? Or perhaps to provoke Freya herself?
If so, they were too late. A week before I was named a “Conservation Volunteer Associate,” or CVA, and a month before an airboat escorted me through a spidery network of bayous to my assigned sector of Nieux Swamp, Freya left me. When I accepted the residency, I told her I would be going off the map and she wouldn’t be able to contact me. She didn’t take me seriously. I suspect she never had.
I DIDN’T FIND the black rail this morning but I did see a man.
He did not see me. I was hiding. It was cloudy but the muffled glow of the moon cast enough light to grade the darkness. Minutes earlier, near the end of Beryl Pass, I’d glimpsed, in the shadow of a stand of roseau cane, a small wedge of blacker night bopping in a determined manner. I crept to the edge of the path, pressing my back against the branches of a box elder. I knelt to have a direct line of sight but no matter how I strained I could not fix the bird in any detail. I was considering a more direct approach when, just above the cacophony, I heard footsteps. I stayed in my crouch and prepared myself. Reflexively my hands formed fists.
The stranger walked briskly, as if late for an appointment. He carried an item that resembled an oversized toolbox, enclosed within a canvas case. He wore field attire: long sleeves, cargo shorts, boots. He looked, in other words, like a professional. But I was the only professional licensed to be in the swamp, at least within a radius of ten miles. I prepared to spring from my crouch, fists flying, but he hurried past without noticing me.
For a half hour I followed him in the pearly light. On either side of the trail vague unfinished shapes coarsened the darkness: nest-clusters, bundles of hanging moss, stalagmitic cypress knees. I expected the sight of the watchtower at the end of the trail would stop him in his tracks. It would provide a good read of his motives: Would he grow anxious, realizing a person lived in the swamp? Would he be tempted to enter the building? Stab its occupant?
But he did not appear to register the tower. This seemed impossible, since it stood in the middle of a ragged clearing on beams of reinforced cement twenty feet high, a large A-frame structure with the familiar double-M logo inlaid in the eaves and roof ridges. Without hesitation—without so much as an upward glance—he sidestepped its base, as if he were navigating trees in his own backyard. Beyond the clearing he slipped between a pair of cypress saplings and disappeared.
IT FIGURES THAT it was only when I began tracking the stranger that I found the black rail.
I’m going to continue to call her a rail though she doesn’t match the guides’ descriptions in one crucial aspect: her flight is not at all clumsy. When I surprised her on the trail, she zipped to the crown of a water tupelo. After a brief hesitation she whizzed toward the open marsh, out of sight. I admit this casts serious doubt on my identification, even if the black rail is, per the Center for Conservation Biology, “one of the least understood species in North America.” The poverty of her flight is fundamental to her identity, the reason for her secrecy, limited diet, and nocturnal habits. It’s why she is going extinct. When the sea floods the marsh, she can’t fly away.
But I think there might be another possibility. I know from Freya that threatened species have recently been observed to undergo sudden evolutionary changes. Faced with competition from invasive lizards, the Carolina green anole’s toes elongated grotesquely in the span of fifteen years, allowing it to climb higher trees. As warmer winters inhibited snowfall in Norway, the tawny owl changed its feathers from gray to brown. If the owl and the anole could change with the times, why not the cunning black rail?
Perhaps the Frankensteinian qualities of the man-made marsh had given the rail an evolutionary nudge. The Foundation might have suspected that something miraculous was occurring—that species were undergoing rapid bursts of evolution—but needed eyewitness confirmation.
If true, the Foundation would have a major success story to tell donors, the press, Congress. They would be able to prove that a novel ecosystem could do better than restore what had been lost. It could encourage species to become better, more resilient versions of themselves.
Just as the swamp was encouraging me to be a better, more resilient version of myself.
THE STRANGER AND I came around a corner on Beryl Pass at the same time and nearly bumped into each other. We both mumbled apologies, as if we were coworkers in an office corridor brushing shoulders. Though I suppose that’s what we are: coworkers.
I was stunned less by the surprise of meeting the stranger than by his face. It looks like mine. I don’t mean to suggest that he is a doppelganger or phantom. The resemblance isn’t exact. But we are two of a type—not a common type in southern Louisiana. (Freya calls it Jew-out-of-water.) We share the same Ashkenazi coloring, darkened an extra shade or two by excessive sunlight; the prominent nose that appears to have suffered a hairline fracture that never properly healed; the wavy brown hair, pompadoured by the humidity. We have the same height and build and hazel eyes. He even walks with a similar herky-jerk gait, a lateral sway with each step. He held the unwieldy canvas-tented toolbox I’d seen the other day. It occurred to me, in that brief lapse between shock and resolve, that he would either run or attack. But instead he contorted his face into a smile.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Who are you?”
“You must have some idea,” I said, “because you’ve seen where I live.”
He broke, ever so slightly. “You’ve noticed me, huh?”
He raised his hands in a placating gesture. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m a little embarrassed. Hold on.”
He gently lowered the toolbox and reached into his pocket. He must have seen me flinch.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “Just grabbing my identification.”
He produced a laminated card on a coiled lanyard. Gilbert was his name. His title was “Wetlands Rejuvenation Supervisory Officer.”
“Call me Gil,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Let me explain—”
“I thought I was the only employee in this sector.”
“You are. Most of the time. My job is to survey the entire swamp. Make sure everything is all right.”
“All right how?”
“That the experiments are getting done, that the watchtowers are in good condition, that the walking paths are swept, that the CVA is healthy and does not have any pressing needs.” He gathered confidence with each sentence. “I was over at the Caernarvon lobe last week. Next week I’ll be at Baptiste Collette.”
“They never mentioned anything about a supervisor.”
“Supervisor is misleading,” he said, smiling. “I’m more like an auditor. I’m supposed to be invisible, but I guess I’ve botched that.”
I knew what that felt like, to botch.
“Just try to ignore me as much as possible,” he said. “I’ll be gone in a couple days.”
I nodded. “So what’s your assessment, then?”
He laughed. “Of your work? I’m not allowed—”
“Yep.” The upper branches of the cypress tree cast a speckled shadow across his face that made him look conspiratorial. Just two guys in the swamp with NDAs. “But since we’re breaking rules,” he added, “you’re doing swell.”
I couldn’t help but like this guy.
“Do you have complaints?” he asked. “Trouble with the gators or anything?”
“I’d take better air-conditioning. I mean, doesn’t MegaMart sell air conditioners?”
“At least you have a window unit. I got nothing.”
“There’s one thing, actually. Not a problem. Just an oddity.” I told him about the black rail. “But I’m not an ornithologist or anything.”
“I’ll keep an eye out.”
“See you around,” I said.
“I hope not.” With a wink he continued past me.
It occurred to me that I had no idea where Gil was sleeping. I wondered if there was some hidden section of the marsh that had somehow escaped me, a secret swamp within Nieux Swamp. Swamps within swamps within swamps.
IT’S BEEN SEVENTY-TWO hours. Gil is still here. I run into him once or twice a day. We nod but exchange few words, straining under the mandate to ignore each other. I think he must be sleeping somewhere beyond the lengthening spit of land that I’ve taken to calling the Eastern Lobe, perhaps hiding his airboat behind one of the islets rising off the coast. I don’t mind the companionship, if you can call it that: unobtrusive, undemanding, but present. Gil mainly keeps to the paths, though I’ve noticed a couple of tracks through the reeds and footprints in the mud. The footprints are the same size as mine, only my boots are rounded at the back and his are flat. Today on Hidden Bayou he gave me a high five. His hand was soft, like a pad of moss.
ON BERYL PASS this morning, scanning the darkness for the black rail, I had the sudden impression that he was watching me. I pictured him standing knee-deep in the recesses of the swamp, shielded by hanging vines and the vapor that lay heavily over the fetid water. From that vantage I would appear as a shadowy form shuffling blindly, arms outstretched in apprehension. I can’t tell whether the idea of his watchfulness angers, unnerves, or excites me. I suppose it does all three.
ALMOST AN HOUR after I’d finished my final task—pulling several dozen clumps of purple-flowering, marsh-ravaging salvinia from MegaPlus Bayou—I heard boots tramping up the watchtower’s wooden stair. In my chest a dragonfly unflapped its wings. He hesitated slightly on the landing before he knocked. When I opened the door the midday haze rushed in. Through the glare there extended a hand clutching a damp can of beer.
“This is getting ridiculous,” said Gil, swiping his forehead. “Mind if I share your AC for a minute?”
I carried my desk chair over to face my cot and hastily pulled up the sweat-stained sheets. I doubted that he had been asked to grade the orderliness of my personal space but I didn’t want to appear slovenly. The beer was cold and delicious. I told myself not to chug it.
“What’s the point in playing games?” he said. “You know I’m here. You know what I’m doing.”
“Actually, I don’t know what you’re doing.”
He laughed. “Nothing important. Inventories, basically.”
“That’s what I do.”
He smiled in commiseration. “I figured we might as well break bread.”
Gil hadn’t held the job long. Like me, he wasn’t a biologist by training. He had worked as a park ranger, most recently in the De Soto National Forest, which despite standing only a couple hundred miles north might have been another planet, a rolling terrain of pine ridges and hardwood dales. He’d never even owned duckboots.
We’d already finished the beers. I walked to my desk and pulled open the bottom drawer.
“I hope you don’t mind it warm,” I said. “And neat.”
In the sputtering sink I rubbed grime off two glasses. I hadn’t drunk from anything but my water bottle for weeks—had lost the desire. Gil eyed the whiskey approvingly. I poured us each a triple.
“You ever see that rail again?” he asked. “Or whatever it was.”
“No,” I said. “You?”
He shook his head. “Probably a different species.”
That gave me an idea. I opened the glass door to the tall cabinet bookshelf and removed all five bird guides. I butterflied them on my bed, opening each to its entry for the black rail. The descriptions were interchangeable: “This tiny skulker of the grasses … slaty black back with small white spots … declining in coastal marshes … brutally difficult to see … typically walks or runs rather than flies.” The illustrations matched too. I showed him what I’d written in the master log, beside the entry in the Beast List: “About five inches, black with white flecks, keeps within shadow.”
Gil nodded thoughtfully. “‘Often confused with all-dark chicks of other rails,’ it says here.”
“Sure. But do other rails fly?”
He shrugged. “How’d you end up here, anyway? You work in a park?”
“An office park.” Flattered by the suggestion that I could pass for a backwoods grunt, I gave him the whole sob story: the humiliations of my actuarial career; Freya’s abrupt professional success and my reflexive, shameful, hostility to it; the failed efforts to conceive; her ripening anxiety; our slick descent into indifference, and its successor, hostility . . . “In short,” I said, “I accepted the offer.”
“I don’t hold with marriage,” he said. “Can’t stay anywhere too long or I get the crawlies.”
He sketched his own history as a roving park ranger. His longest commitment had been a three-year term as a fire lookout in the Escudilla Wilderness, where he lived in a structure not dissimilar from my watchtower, with a picture view of twenty thousand square miles of forest, desert, and sky islands. The final year he shared his circular chamber with a botanist with modern views on coupling who had made it abundantly clear that she considered him a placeholder. He hadn’t had much romantic luck in the middle of the De Soto Forest, unsurprisingly. He missed the company of women.
I nodded sympathetically.
“I feel like an idiot sometimes. I mean, I’m not that unattractive.”
“Of course not.”
“You’d think I’d shack up with a woman in some small town, maybe on the edge of a forest. That’d solve it, right?”
“Depends on the woman, I guess. And the forest.”
He laughed. “Yeah, well I’ve tried that. I get bored. Next thing I know I’m on another bus, feeling sorry for myself again.” He laughed.
“Nobody wants to hear it,” I said. “Least of all, Freya.”
“I figure if you can make it in a swamp for months at a time, with no obligations more pressing than trail maintenance, life can’t be too bad. Even if you get lonely.” He paused. “And even if there’s no internet.”
He finished his glass. I finished mine—a little more than a generous sip was left—and refilled.
“I don’t have internet,” I said. “But I did think to bring a couple things with me.”
I retrieved my laptop from the desk and set it on the cot. I opened the video folder. It had nine videos in it. I’d grown bored of them: according to the file folder I hadn’t opened any of them in two weeks.
Gil gave the slightest nod. I clicked one of the videos at random: a husband filming his wife with a young stranger, rendered with the slight graininess of authenticity.
He laughed. “Think I’ve actually seen this one.”
“I can turn it off.”
Gil didn’t respond, his gaze impassive but woolly. For a moment I thought he was going to fall asleep. I watched the screen too, though my attention was directed peripherally, where I observed his hand fall over his lap. He brushed himself a couple of times, as if absent-mindedly, and then the brushes took on a more intentional aspect. I froze. He didn’t redirect his gaze, but he must have taken my indecision for acquiescence because a few moments later he stood and loosened his belt.
The thin mattress sank beneath his weight. I moved the laptop to the chair. We sat together facing it, thighs touching.
We were naked a few minutes later. On the dusty floor: two sweat-stained T-shirts, two unbelted pairs of cargo shorts, two pairs mud-stained socks, and two pairs of boots, one rounded, one square.
I reached over. “You mind?”
“I don’t mind.”
Later we dozed. When I awoke, the sheets were in their regular clammy state of disorder. The air was damp and sweet with rot. There was a scurrying on the roof, squirrels chasing their tails. Gil was gone. I thought it was morning but my watch reported it was 7 p.m. When I rose to look out the window, the horizon was glowing.
I brushed my teeth and showered. I savored the coolness of the air on my skin as I stepped out. I brushed my teeth again. I was ready to collapse but I forced myself to write this entry, removing the journal from its hiding place in the tall cabinet bookshelf, tucked into the jacket flap of Wetland Ecology: Principles and Conservation. I knew my memory of the afternoon would be even blurrier by the time I finished my rounds tomorrow; besides, Gil might come back then.
Did I want him to return? Did I want more? Did I feel regret, shame, satisfaction? I had no idea, not yet. First I had to make a record of the event, fix it in language. Later, perhaps, the answers would come.
Not long after I began writing—when I went to copy the exact wording of my note about the black rail—I realized my master log was gone. My subsequent search was thorough but half-hearted. I’ve never removed it from my desk, except to show it to Gil. I’m certain he took it.
I rushed out of the tower and scanned the swamp from the landing. I raced down the stair and across the clearing, figuring he had most likely escaped through Beryl Pass, but I found no sign of him.
I did, however, spot five black rails. In plain daylight there was no mistaking them: it was as if they had flown out of the laminated pages of the bird guides. They cried in alarm—“ki-ki-kerr, ki-ki-kerr, ki-ki-KERR”—and, with a sharp flap of wings, jetted above the canopy. Their flight was elegant and swift. They looked like they could fly all night.
I WOULD CALL the Foundation. I actually powered up the satellite phone, which I had never used, since it was designated for emergency use only. I turned it off when I realized I didn’t know what I would say. I spent a sleepless night thinking through the possibilities and none seemed right. I rose an hour before my alarm and began my rounds out of some kind of muscle memory, but after taking a salinity reading of MegaPlus Bayou I realized it was pointless. I had developed a few theories of what had happened with Gil and none of them supported continuing the experiments. I don’t even have a log in which to enter the data.
I guess it’s possible Gil acted alone—that his MegaMart ID was forged, that he’s an undercover ecoterrorist or an unhinged weirdo … but why go to such lengths to steal a data log? None of the information I’ve collected is revelatory, nor would he have any reason to suspect it was. It only confirms what MegaMart has announced publicly: that the regeneration of the swamp has succeeded beyond all expectations.
The theft would make no more sense if Gil was, in fact, a “Wetlands Rejuvenation Supervisory Officer.” Why steal a log that I intended to submit to the Foundation? I could come up with only one explanation: it held information that I would ultimately decide to leak to some antagonistic party. It contained information that I do not now realize to be dangerous, but will soon.
I mentally reviewed the log’s contents. Were they after the sediment core experiments? The radial measurements of accreting shoals? The flora surveys? Then I saw it with the blunt clarity of all obvious things: the Beast List, with entry 138 in blue.
In dense darkness I hiked to the Eastern Lobe. I slung my duckboots around my neck, the heels knocking with each step. I knew I wouldn’t see Gil, but I hoped to find some evidence that might help me understand the scale of my victimization. He would have left in a hurry. Perhaps something revelatory had fallen loose: another ID badge? Pages torn from the log? A cell phone?
The marsh whirred and peeped and caterwauled. The lobe had expanded a full finger’s length from the marker I’d set down just two days earlier, and I felt a compulsion to update the missing log. I sought out the original trampled trail. It was faintly visible, but only because I knew where to look: the cutgrass had already unfolded toward the sun. I sidestepped a cottonmouth and glimpsed, on a newly tufted islet about six feet from the shoreline, the rusting cage trap I’d spotted a few days ago. It was large enough to hold a small mammal.
I changed into my duckboots and stomped through the muck to investigate. The rusting was light; it might have been there for a month or a year. I didn’t see anything significant in the cage, but I was far enough from the hubbub of the bank that I could hear with greater clarity, and the sound was unmistakable:
“Ki-ki-kerr, ki-ki-kerr, ki-ki-kerr.”
It came in chorus, several calls overlapping. I trudged farther into the swamp. There extended a rambling archipelago of islets, the crests of a single submerged shoal. I hopped from one mound to the next, trying to avoid getting a boot stuck in the mud, until I found it.
Them, I should write: six gangly juveniles in a metal trap. They were perched on a bloodied, shitstained mat of their own feathers. The cage tilted on the slope of an island about the size of a pitcher’s mound. When the birds saw me, they went silent. Several twitched. One plucked a feather out of her puckered breast, letting it fall to join the others on the cage’s matted floor. It was jarring to see so many together, in full sight—I felt like a starving wanderer arriving at an elaborate banquet. But they were the starving ones. I loved them. My disbelief at their existence yielded to disbelief at their condition. What kind of psychopath would condemn these wise, crafty creatures to such a sordid captivity? It was difficult to look at them but I felt, very intensely, that turning away would make me complicit in their suffering.
I set about trying to free them. The cage was the shape of a shoebox, only about twice as large—the same shape as the box Gil had carried, minus the canvas cover. On one end was a spring-loaded metal door. I had only to flick a latch and the gate would fall. It was the kind of cage used to trap and release stray cats, or possums.
Trap and release. The birds hadn’t been trapped, at least not in Nieux Swamp. You couldn’t catch five birds in a single cage. Someone, I realized, must have shuttled them into it. The rails were meant to be released. They would have been released, that is, had Gil not been forced to flee.
It took me a moment to piece it together but once I did it locked tight, no matter whether I turned it upside down or rattled it.
The Foundation hadn’t hired an actuarial analyst out of spite for Freya or because no qualified biologists had applied. I was hired because I could be trusted to collect basic data without noticing that the swamp had been populated with monsters.
This, it seemed, was the new phase of the restoration plan. The Foundation required secrecy because with this phase it had breached a critical boundary. Restoring an ecosystem was acceptable, even if the imitation did not exactly match the original. It was even acceptable to make improvements: if the recreated land was larger than what had been lost, or supported greater biodiversity, all the better. You could put old things back—but you couldn’t create new things.
I think I can follow the Foundation’s logic. A faithfully restored swamp would inevitably suffer the same fate as its predecessor. Without rapid, even constant, tinkering, the entire project was doomed to fail. With stronger storms and warmer seas, the swamp would deteriorate even faster than before. This was broadly accepted—it was why the Foundation was granted permission to build river diversions powerful enough to outpace sea level rise. But the Foundation had taken it upon itself to go further. It had applied the same strategy to the swamp’s inhabitants. The native species would have to evolve. Many were evolving already. But they could not evolve quickly enough to avoid the fate of their predecessors. Endangered species, in particular, didn’t have dozens of generations to adapt to the new realities. If a crucial adaptation could be engineered in a single generation, wasn’t it worth trying? Was it not our responsibility to try?
The Foundation knew that no conservationist, environmental ethicist, or regulatory body would condone stocking the swamp with genetic mutants. The fear of unintended consequences was too high. Any upgraded species would, at the very least, outcompete its clumsy genetic ancestor, hastening the original’s extinction. The Nieux black rail, in other words, would achieve the exact outcome that Nieux Swamp was designed to stop: the extinction of the eastern black rail.
The Foundation’s engineers were willing to take such risks in its pursuit of a sustainable ecosystem. They just didn’t want anyone to know about it, at least until they could be assured of their success. So they hired me.
The eastern black rail couldn’t cut it in the Louisiana swamp, but the Nieux black rail is thriving. I reminded myself that these birds were imposters, alien creatures masquerading as eastern black rails to win our trust and sympathy. They were designed to help usher in a novel, MegaMartian ecosystem. How many species on my Beast List are not originals, but new and improved editions? Surely the flying black rail wasn’t the first species to be engineered. It was just the first I’d identified. And Gil, going about his rounds with his cages, had noticed my noticing.
Only one piece doesn’t fit neatly. That business with Gil … was that part of the act? Had he planned some gambit to win my confidence? Had he expected me to fall asleep so that he could sneak off with the log? Or was that interlude the only honest thing in our encounter?
The one thing I was certain about was that I didn’t have much time to kill the birds. Gil had removed my evidence. Soon the Foundation would remove me.
The easiest method, I figured, was to drown them. The swamp was not deep enough where I stood, so I carried the cage farther from the shore. As I plodded in my duckboots, trailing recalcitrant tangles of salvinia, the birds perched lifelessly on the bars of their cage. They appeared exhausted to the point of apathy, as if having already submitted to their fate.
When the water rose to my knees, I lowered the cage. A couple of the birds trembled as the water covered their tiny talons. Freaks, I told myself. Test tube monstrosities. I couldn’t begin to imagine what Freya would do if she discovered what was going on out here. There would be press conferences, lawsuits, congressional investigations…
It wasn’t the birds that were trembling, I realized, but my arm. End it quickly, I told myself. Push them under and be done with it. It was the right, moral thing to do.
But I couldn’t. Instead I carried the cage out of the marsh, flicked the gate, and watched as, one by one, the birds took flight.
Since then I’ve been at my desk, waiting for a knock on the door, writing this.
A DAY LATER. Nobody has come. Without my rounds I have nothing to do but read the textbooks and the pulp novels in the watchtower bookshelf. This afternoon, in broiling heat, I took an abbreviated tour of the trails. I did see a new species of frog. I couldn’t identify it in any of the field guides. I doubt it’s in any field guide.
I’VE FIGURED OUT their game. They’re waiting for me to fire up the satellite phone and report a robbery. They’ll claim ignorance of Gil. If I mention the black rail, they won’t try to dissuade me. They won’t have to: nobody will find me credible. I’m an associate actuary for a regional hospital system.
I don’t want to leave. I was hired to measure the boundaries of the swamp but it was a trick assignment. The swamp has no boundaries. Once you can engineer new land and new ecosystems and new animals there are no limits to creation. The perforated riverbanks continue to flush mud into the swamp. Shoals mature into islands into coastlines. Species go extinct and are reborn stronger, hardier, fitter. The call of the Nieux black rail fills the night sky. I’m not an experimenter—I’m the subject of the experiment. I’ve started a new master log to monitor my progress: this is it. I have dozens of blank pages left and there are five additional journals on the shelf identical to this one. I just hope Gil comes back someday.
Read More Stories from Vol. 4: Shifting Landscapes
Our fourth print volume navigates this moment of great change, loss, and possibility, offering a multisensory ode to the transformations unfolding all around us. Spanning 275 colorful pages, this issue is our most photographic to date, bringing to life stories that bear witness to the Earth’s changing face.
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