I spent last summer crawling through The Big Thicket with cameras and tape recorder, photographing and taping two of the last ivory-billed woodpeckers on the earth. You can see the films at your local Audubon Society showroom. This year I wanted something just as flashy but a little less taxing.
Perhaps a population study on the Bermuda cahow, or the New Zealand takahe. A month or so in the warm (not hot) sun would do me a world of good. To say nothing of the advance of science. I was idly leafing through Greenway’s Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. The city bus was winding its way through the ritzy neighborhoods of Austin, stopping to let off the chicanas, black women, and Vietnamese who tended the kitchens and gardens of the rich.
The Ugly Chickens
by Howard Waldrop
My car was broken, and I had a class to teach at eleven. So I took the
city bus, something I rarely do.
I spent last summer crawling through The Big Thicket with cameras
and tape recorder, photographing and taping two of the last ivory-billed woodpeckers on the earth. You can see the films at your local Audubon Society showroom.
This year I wanted something just as flashy but a little less taxing.
Perhaps a population study on the Bermuda cahow, or the New Zealand takahe. A month or so in the warm (not hot) sun would do me a world of good. To say nothing of the advance of science.
I was idly leafing through Greenway’s Extinct and Vanishing Birds of
the World. The city bus was winding its way through the ritzy
neighborhoods of Austin, stopping to let off the chicanas, black
women, and Vietnamese who tended the kitchens and gardens of the
“I haven’t seen any of those ugly chickens in a long time,” said a voice
A grey-haired lady was leaning across the aisle toward me.
I looked at her, then around. Maybe she was a shopping-bag lady.
Maybe she was just talking. I looked straight at her. No doubt about it, she was talking to me. She was waiting for an answer.
“I used to live near some folks who raised them when I was a girl,” she said. She pointed.
I looked down at the page my book was open to.
What I should have said was: “That is quite impossible, madam. This is
a drawing of an extinct bird of the island of Mauritius. It is perhaps the most famous dead bird in the world. Maybe you are mistaking this
drawing for that of some rare Asiatic turkey, peafowl, or pheasant. I am sorry, but you are mistaken.”
I should have said all that.
What she said was, “Oops, this is my stop,” and got up to go.
My name is Paul Linberl. I am twenty-six years old, a graduate student
in ornithology at the University of Texas, a teaching assistant. My
name is not unknown in the field. I have several vices and follies, but I
don’t think foolishness is one of them.
The stupid thing for me to do would have been to follow her.
She stepped off the bus.
I followed her.
I came into the departmental office, trailing scattered papers in the
whirlwind behind me. “Martha! Martha!” I yelled.
She was doing something in the supply cabinet.
“Jesus, Paul! What do you want?”
“At the conference in Houston. You know that. You missed your class.
What’s the matter?”
“Petty cash. Let me at it!”
“Payday was only a week ago. If you can’t .”
“It’s business! It’s fame and adventure and the chance of a lifetime! It’s a long sea voyage that leaves . a plane ticket. To either Jackson,
Mississippi or Memphis. Make it Jackson, it’s closer. I’ll get receipts!
I’ll be famous. Courtney will be famous. You’ll even be famous! This
university will make even more money! I’ll pay you back. Give me
some paper. I gotta write Courtney a note. When’s the next plane out? Could you get Marie and Chuck to take over my classes Tuesday and Wednesday? I’ll try to be back Thursday unless something happens. Courtney’ll be back tomorrow, right? I’ll call him from, well, wherever. Do you have some coffee?.”
And so on and so forth. Martha looked at me like I was crazy. But she
filled out the requisition anyway.
“What do I tell Kemejian when I ask him to sign these?”
“Martha, babe, sweetheart. Tell him I’ll get his picture in Scientific
“He doesn’t read it.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
The lady I had followed off the bus was named Jolyn (Smith) Jimson.
The story she told me was so weird that it had to be true. She knew
things only an expert, or someone with firsthand experience, could
know. I got names from her, and addresses, and directions, and tidbits of information. Plus a year: 1927.
And a place: northern Mississippi.
I gave her my copy of the Greenway book. I told her I’d call her as soon as I got back into town. I left her standing on the corner near the house of the lady she cleaned for twice a week. Jolyn Jimson was in her sixties.
Think of the dodo as a baby harp seal with feathers. I know that’s not
even close, but it saves time.
In 1507, the Portuguese, on their way to India, found the (then
unnamed) Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean-three of them a few
hundred miles apart, all east and north of Madagascar.
It wasn’t until 1598, when that old Dutch sea captain Cornelius van
Neck bumped into them, that the islands received their names-names
which changed several times through the centuries as the Dutch,
French, and English changed them every war or so. They are now know as Rodriguez, Reunion, and Mauritius.
The major feature of these islands were large flightless birds, stupid,
ugly, bad-tasting birds. Van Neck and his men named them dod-aarsen, stupid ass, or dodars, silly birds, or solitaires.
There were three species-the dodo of Mauritius, the real grey-brown,
hooked-beak clumsy thing that weighed twenty kilos or more; the
white, somewhat slimmer dodo of Reunion; and the solitaires of
Rodriguez and Reunion, which looked like very fat, very dumb lightcolored geese.
The dodos all had thick legs, big squat bodies twice as large as a
turkey’s, naked faces, and big long downcurved beaks ending in a hook like a hollow linoleum knife. They were flightless. Long ago they had lost the ability to fly, and their wings had degenerated to flaps the size of a human hand with only three or four feathers in them. Their tails were curly and fluffy, like a child’s afterthought at decoration. They had absolutely no natural enemies. They nested on open ground. They probably hatched their eggs wherever they happened to lay them.
No natural enemies until van Neck and his kind showed up. The Dutch,
French, and Portuguese sailors who stopped at the Mascarenes to
replenish stores found that besides looking stupid, dodos were stupid.
They walked right up to them and hit them on the head with clubs.
Better yet, dodos could be herded around like sheep. Ship’s logs are full of things like: “Party of ten men ashore. Drove half-a-hundred of the big turkey-like birds into the boat. Brought to ship where they are given the run of the decks. Three will feed a crew of 150.”
Even so, most of the dodo, except for the breast, tasted bad. One of the Dutch words for them was walghvogel, disgusting bird. But on a ship three months out on a return from Goa to Lisbon, well, food was where you found it. It was said, even so, that prolonged boiling did not improve the flavor.
That being said, the dodos might have lasted, except that the Dutch, and later the French, colonized the Mascarenes. These islands became plantations and dumping-places for religious refugees. Sugar cane and other exotic crops were raised there.
With the colonists came cats, dogs, hogs, and the cunning Rattus
norvegicus and the Rhesus monkey from Ceylon. What dodos the
hungry sailors left were chased down (they were dumb and stupid, but they could run when they felt like it) by dogs in the open. They were killed by cats as they sat on their nests. Their eggs were stolen and eaten by monkeys, rats, and hogs. And they competed with the pigs for all the low-growing goodies of the islands.
The last Mauritius dodo was seen in 1681, less than a hundred years
after man first saw them. The last white dodo walked off the history
books around 1720. The solitaires of Rodriguez and Reunion, last of
the genus as well as the species, may have lasted until 1790. Nobody
Scientists suddenly looked around and found no more of the Didine
birds alive, anywhere.
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 woods-pine, 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 who-but no. Wrong, maybe, but even the
wrong was worth checking. But I knew she hadn’t lied to me. She had
seem incapable of lies-good 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 knowany of the Gudgers myself. That’s while we was living over to Water Valley.”
“You an insurance man?” asked Mr. Krait.
“Uh … 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
“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
“I’m a-uh, bird scientist. I study birds. We had a sighting-someone told
us the old Gudger place-the area around here-I’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
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
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
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
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 sometimes-I 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
music-a 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, transfixed-even 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 1599-one 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 places-wandering 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
things-some said pigeons, some said rails-were 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.
· · · · ·
The service station I called from in Memphis was busier than a onelegged man in an ass-kicking contest. Between bings and dings of the bell, I finally realized the call had gone through.
The guy who answered was named Selvedge. I got nowhere with him.
He mistook me for a real estate agent, then a lawyer. Now he was
beginning to think I was some sort of a con man. I wasn’t doing too
well, either. I hadn’t slept in two days. I must have sounded like a speed freak. My only progress was that I found that Ms. Annie Mae Gudger (childhood playmate of Jolyn Jimson) was now, and had been, the respected Ms. Annie Mae Radwin. This guy Selvedge must have been a secretary or toady or something.
We were having a conversation comparable to that between a shrieking macaw and a pile of mammoth bones. Then there was another click on the line.
“Young man?” said the other voice, an old woman’s voice, Southern,
very refined but with a hint of the hills in it.
“Yes? Hello! Hello!”
“Young man, you say you talked to a Jolyn somebody? Do you mean
“Hello! Yes! Ms. Radwin, Ms. Annie Mae Radwin who used to be
Gudger? She lives in Austin now. Texas. She used to live near Water
Valley, Mississippi. Austin’s where I’m from. I …”
“Young man,” asked the voice again, “are you sure you haven’t been
put up to this by my hateful sister Alma?”
“Who? No, ma’am. I met a woman named Jolyn…”
“I’d like to talk to you, young man,” said the voice. Then offhandedly,
“Give him directions to get here, Selvedge.”
I cleaned out my mouth as best I could in the service station restroom, tried to shave with an old clogged Gillette disposable in my knapsack and succeeded in gapping up my jawline. I changed into a clean pair of jeans, the only other shirt I had with me, and combed my hair. I stood in front of the mirror.
I still looked like the dog’s lunch.
The house reminded me of Presley’s mansion, which was somewhere in the neighborhood. From a shack on the side of a Mississippi hill to this, in forty years. There are all sorts of ways of making it. I wondered what Annie Mae Gudger’s had been. Luck? Predation? Divine intervention? Hard work?
Selvedge led me toward the sun room. I felt like Philip Marlowe going
to meet a rich client. The house was filled with that furniture built
sometime between the turn of the century and the 1950s-the ageless
kind. It never looks great, it never looks ratty, and every chair is
I think I was expecting some formidable woman with sleeve blotters
and a green eyeshade hunched over a roll-top desk with piles of paper
whose acceptance or rejection meant life or death for thousands.
Who I met was a charming lady in a green pantsuit. She was in her
sixties, her hair still a straw wheat color. It didn’t look dyed. Her eyes
were blue as my first-grade teacher’s had been. She was wiry and
looked as if the word fat was not in her vocabulary.
“Good morning, Mr. Lindberl.” She shook my hand. “Would you like
some coffee? You look as if you could use it.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Please sit down.” She indicated a white wicker chair at a glass table. A serving tray with coffeepot, cups, tea bags, croissants, napkins, and
plates lay on the tabletop.
After I swallowed half a cup of coffee at a gulp, she said, “What you
wanted to see me about must be important?”
“Sorry about my manners,” I said. “I know I don’t look it, but I’m a
biology assistant at the University of Texas. An ornithologist. Working
on my master’s. I met Ms. Jolyn Jimson two days ago …”
“How is Jolyn? I haven’t seen her in oh, Lord, it must be on to fifty
years. The times gets away.”
“She seemed to be fine. I only talked to her half an hour or so. That was…”
“And you’ve come to see me about?…”
“Uh. The … about some of the poultry your family used to raise, when
they lived near Water Valley.”
She looked at me a moment. Then she began to smile.
“Oh, you mean the ugly chickens?” she said.
I smiled. I almost laughed. I knew what Oedipus must have gone
It is now 4:30 in the afternoon. I am sitting at the downtown Motel 6 in Memphis. I have to make a phone call and get some sleep and catch a plane. Annie Mae Gudger Radwin talked for four hours, answering my questions, setting me straight on family history, having Selvedge hold all her calls.
The main problem was that Annie Mae ran off in 1928, the year before
her father got his big break. She went to Yazoo City, and by degrees
and stages worked her way northward to Memphis and her destiny as
the widow of a rich mercantile broker.
But I get ahead of myself.
Grandfather Gudger used to be the overseer for Colonel Crisby on the
main plantation near McComb, Mississippi. There was a long story
behind that. Bear with me.
Colonel Crisby himself was the scion of a seafaring family with
interests in both the cedars of Lebanon (almost all cut down for mastsfor His Majesty’s and others’ navies) and Egyptian cotton. Also teas, spices, and any other salable commodity which came their way.
When Colonel Crisby’s grandfather reached his majority in 1802, he
waved good-bye to the Atlantic Ocean at Charleston, S.C. and stepped westward into the forest. When he stopped, he was in the middle of the Chickasaw Nation, where he opened a trading post and introduced slaves to the Indians.
And he prospered, and begat Colonel Crisby’s father, who sent back to South Carolina for everything his father owned. Everything-slaves,
wagons, horses, cattle, guinea fowl, peacocks, and dodos, which
everybody thought of as atrociously ugly poultry of some kind, one of
the seafaring uncles having bought them off a French merchant in
1721. (I surmised these were white dodos from Réunion, unless they
had been from even earlier stock. The dodo of Mauritius was already
extinct by then.)
All this stuff was herded out west to the trading post in the midst of the Chickasaw Nation. (The tribes around there were of the confederation of the Dancing Rabbits.)
And Colonel Crisby’s father prospered, and so did the guinea fowl and
the dodos. Then Andrew Jackson came along and marched the Dancing Rabbits off up the Trail of Tears to the heaven of Oklahoma. And Colonel Crisby’s father begat Colonel Crisby, and put the trading post in the hands of others, and moved his plantation westward still to McComb.
Everything prospered but Colonel Crisby’s father, who died. And the
dodos, with occasional losses to the avengin’ weasel and the eggsucking dog, reproduced themselves also.
Then along came Granddaddy Gudger, a Simon Legree role model,
who took care of the plantation while Colonel Crisby raised ten
companies of men and marched off to fight the War of the Southern
Colonel Crisby came back to the McComb plantation earlier than most, he having stopped much of the same volley of Minié balls that caught his commander, General Beauregard Hanlon, on a promontory bluff during the Siege of Vicksburg.
He wasn’t dead, but death hung around the place like a gentlemanly bill collector for a month. The colonel languished, went slap-dab crazy and freed all his slaves the week before he died (the war lasted another two years after that). Not having any slaves, he didn’t need an overseer.
Then comes the Faulkner part of the tale, straight out of As I Lay
Dying, with the Gudger family returning to the area of Water Valley
(before there was a Water Valley), moving through the demoralized
and tattered displaced persons of the South, driving their dodos before them. For Colonel Crisby had given them to his former overseer for his faithful service. Also followed the story of the bloody murder of Granddaddy Gudger at the hands of the Freedman’s militia during the rising of the first Klan, and of the trials and tribulations of Daddy Gudger in the years between 1880 and 1910, when he was between the ages of four and thirty-four.
Alma and Annie Mae were the second and fifth of Daddy Gudger’s
brood, born three years apart. They seemed to have hated each other
from the very first time Alma looked into little Annie Mae’s crib. They
were kids by Daddy Gudger’s second wife (his desperation had killed
the first) and their father was already on his sixth career. He had been a lumberman, a stump preacher, a plowman-for-hire (until his mules
broke out in farcy buds and died of the glanders), a freight hauler (untilhis horses died of overwork and the hardware store repossessed the wagon), a politician’s roadie (until the politician lost the election).
When Alma and Annie Mae were born, he was failing as a
sharecropper. Somehow Gudger had made it through the Depression of 1898 as a boy, and was too poor after that to notice more about
economics than the price of Beech-Nut tobacco at the store.
Alma and Annie Mae fought, and it helped none at all that Alma, being the oldest daughter, was both her mother and father’s darling. Annie Mae’s life was the usual unwanted poor-white-trash-child’s hell. She vowed early to run away, and recognized her ambition at thirteen.
All this I learned this morning. Jolyn (Smith) Jimson was Annie Mae’s
only friend in those days-from a family even poorer than the Gudgers.
But somehow there was food, and an occasional odd job. And the
“My family hated those old birds,” said the cultured Annie Mae
Radwin, née Gudger, in the solarium. “He always swore he was going
to get rid of them someday, but just never seemed to get around to it. I think there was more to it than that. But they were so much trouble. We always had to keep them penned up at night, and go check for their eggs. They wandered off to lay them, and forgot where they were. Sometimes no new ones were born at all in a year.
“And they got so ugly. Once a year. I mean, terrible-looking, like they
were going to die. All their feathers fell off, and they looked like they
had mange or something. Then the whole front of their beaks fell off, or worse, hung halfway on for a week or two. They looked like big old
naked pigeons. After that they’d lose weight, down to twenty or thirty pounds, before their new feathers grew back.
“We were always having to kill foxes that got after them in the turkey
house. That’s what we called their roost, the turkey house. And we
found their eggs all sucked out by cats and dogs. They were so stupid
we had to drive them into their roost at night. I don’t think they could
have found it standing ten feet from it.”
She looked at me.
“I think much as my father hated them, they meant something to him.
As long as he hung on to them, he knew he was as good as Granddaddy Gudger. You may not know it, but there was a certain amount of family pride about Granddaddy Gudger. At least in my father’s eyes. His rapid fall in the world has a sort of grandeur to it. He’d gone from a relatively high position in the old order, and maintained some grace and stature after the Emancipation, and though he lost everything, he managed to keep those ugly old chickens the colonel had given him as sort of asymbol.
“And as long as he had them, too, my daddy thought himself as good as his father. He kept his dignity, even when he didn’t have anything else.”
I asked what happened to them. She didn’t know, but told me who did and where I could find her.
That’s why I’m going to make a phone call.
“Hello. Dr. Courtney. Dr. Courtney? This is Paul. Memphis. Tennessee.
It’s too long to go into. No, of course not, not yet. But I’ve got evidence.
“What? Okay, how do trochanters, coracoids, tarsometatarsi, and beak sheaths sound? From their henhouse, where else? Where would you keep your dodos, then?
“Sorry. I haven’t slept in a couple of days. I need some help. Yes, yes.
Money. Lots of money.
“Cash. Three hundred dollars, maybe. Western Union, Memphis,
Tennessee. Whichever one’s closest to the airport. Airport. I need the
department to set up reservations to Mauritius for me….
“No. No. Not wild goose chase, wild dodo chase. Tame dodo chase. I
know there aren’t any dodos on Mauritius! I know that. I could explain.
I know it’ll mean a couple of grand … if … but …
“Look, Dr. Courtney. Do you want your picture in Scientific American,
or don’t you?”
· · · · ·
I am sitting in the airport cafe in Port Louis, Mauritius. It is now three
days later, five days since that fateful morning my car wouldn’t start.
God bless the Sears Diehard people. I have slept sitting up in a plane
seat, on and off, different planes, different seats, for twenty-four hours,Kennedy to Paris, Paris to Cairo, Cairo to Madagascar. I felt like a brand-new man when I got here.
Now I feel like an infinitely sadder and wiser brand-new man. I have
just returned from the hateful sister Alma’s house in the exclusive
section of Port Louis, where all the French and British officials used to
Courtney will get his picture in Scientific American, me too, all right.
There’ll be newspaper stories and talk shows for a few weeks for me,
and I’m sure Annie Mae Gudger Radwin on one side of the world and
Alma Chandler Gudger Molière on the other will come in for their
share of the glory.
I am putting away cup after cup of coffee. The plane back to
Tananarive leaves in an hour. I plan to sleep all the way back to Cairo,
to Paris, to New York, pick up my bag of bones, sleep back to Austin.
Before me on the table is a packet of documents, clippings and
photographs. I have come half the world for this. I gaze from the
package, out the window across Port Louis to the bulk of Mt. Pieter
Boothe, which overshadows the city and its famous racecourse.
Perhaps I should do something symbolic. Cancel my flight. Climb the
mountain and look down on man and all his handiworks. Take a pitcher of martinis with me. Sit in the bright semitropical sunlight (it’s early dry winter here). Drink the martinis slowly, toasting Snuffo, God of Extinction. Here’s one for the Great Auk. This is for the Carolina
Parakeet. Mud in your eye, Passenger Pigeon. This one’s for the Heath
Hen. Most importantly, here’s one each for the Mauritius dodo, the
white dodo of Réunion, the Réunion solitaire, the Rodriguez solitaire.
Here’s to the Raphidae, great Didine birds that you were.
Maybe I’ll do something just as productive, like climbing Mt. Pieter
Boothe and pissing into the wind.
How symbolic. The story of the dodo ends where it began, on this very island. Life imitates cheap art. Like the Xerox of the Xerox of a bad novel. I never expected to find dodos still alive here (this is the one place they would have been noticed). I still can’t believe Alma
Chandler Gudger Molière could have lived here twenty-five years and
not know about the dodo, never set foot inside the Port Louis Museum, where they have skeletons and a stuffed replica the size of your little brother.
After Annie Mae ran off, the Gudger family found itself prospering in a
time the rest of the country was going to hell. It was 1929. Gudger
delved into politics again, and backed a man who knew a man who
worked for Theodore “Sure Two-Handed Sword of God” Bilbo, who
had connections everywhere. Who introduced him to Huey “Kingfish”
Long just after that gentleman lost the Louisiana governor’s election
one of the times. Gudger stumped around Mississippi, getting up steam for Long’s Share the Wealth plan, even before it had a name.
The upshot was that the Long machine in Louisiana knew a rabblerouser when it saw one, and invited Gudger to move to the Sportsman’s Paradise, with his family, all expenses paid, and start working for the Kingfish at the unbelievable salary of $62.50 a week. Which prospect was like turning a hog loose under a persimmon tree, and before you could say Backwoods Messiah, the Gudger clan was on its way to the land of pelicans, graft, and Mardi Gras.
Almost. But I’ll get to that.
Daddy Gudger prospered all out of proportion with his abilities, but
many men did that during the Depression. First a little, thence to more, he rose in bureaucratic (and political) circles of the state, dying rich and well-hated with his fingers in all the pies.
Alma Chandler Gudger became a debutante (she says Robert Penn
Warren put her in his book) and met and married Jean Carl Molière,
only heir to rice, indigo, and sugar cane growers. They had a happy
wedded life, moving first to the West Indies, later to Mauritius, where
the family sugar cane holdings were one of the largest on the island.
Jean Carl died in 1959. Alma was his only survivor.
So local family makes good. Poor sharecropping Mississippi people
turn out to have a father dying with a smile on his face, and two
daughters who between them own a large portion of the planet.
I open the envelope before me. Ms. Alma Molière had listened politely to my story (the university had called ahead and arranged an
introduction through the director of the Port Louis Museum, who knew Ms. Molière socially) and told me what she could remember. Then she sent a servant out to one of the storehouses (large as a duplex) and he and two others came back with boxes of clippings, scrapbooks and family photos.
“I haven’t looked at any of this since we left St. Thomas,” she said.
“Let’s go through it together.”
Most of it was about the rise of Citizen Gudger.
“There’s not many pictures of us before we came to Louisiana. We
were so frightfully poor then, hardly anyone we knew had a camera.
Oh, look. Here’s one of Annie Mae. I thought I threw all those out after Mamma died.”
This is the photograph. It must have been taken about 1927. Annie Mae is wearing some unrecognizable piece of clothing that approximates a dress. She leans on a hoe, smiling a snaggle-toothed smile. She looks to be ten or eleven. Her eyes are half hidden by the shadow of the brim of a gapped straw hat she wears. The earth she is standing in barefoot has been newly turned. Behind her is one corner of the house, and the barn beyond has its upper hay-windows open. Out-of-focus people are at work there.
A few feet behind her, a huge male dodo is pecking at something on the ground. The front two-thirds of it shows, back to the stupid wings and the edge of the upcurved tail feathers. One foot is in the photo, having just scratched at something, possibly an earthworm, in the new-plowed clods. Judging by its darkness, it is the grey, or Mauritius, dodo.
The photograph is not very good, one of those 3 1/2 x 5 jobs box
cameras used to take. Already I can see this one, and the blowup of the dodo, taking up a double-page spread in S.A. Alma told me around then they were down to six or seven of the ugly chickens, two whites, the rest grey-brown.
Besides this photo, two clippings are in the package, one from the
Bruce Banner-Times, the other from the Oxford newspaper; both are
columns by the same woman dealing with “Doings in Water Valley.”
Both mention the Gudger family moving from the area to seek its
fortune in the swampy state to the west, and telling how they will be
missed. Then there’s a yellowed clipping from the front page of the
Oxford newspaper with a small story about the Gudger Farewell Party
in Water Valley the Sunday before (dated October 19, 1929).
There’s a handbill in the package, advertising the Gudger Family
Farewell Party, Sunday Oct. 15, 1929 Come One Come All. (The
people in Louisiana who sent expense money to move Daddy Gudger
must have overestimated the costs by an exponential factor. I said as
“No,” Alma Molière said. “There was a lot, but it wouldn’t have made
any difference. Daddy Gudger was like Thomas Wolfe and knew a
shining golden opportunity when he saw one. Win, lose, or draw, he
was never coming back there again. He would have thrown some kind
of soirée whether there had been money for it or not. Besides, people
were much more sociable then, you mustn’t forget.”
I asked her how many people came.
“Four or five hundred,” she said. “There’s some pictures here
somewhere.” We searched awhile, then we found them.
Another thirty minutes to my flight. I’m not worried sitting here. I’m the only passenger, and the pilot is sitting at the table next to mine talking to an RAF man. Life is much slower and nicer on these colonial
islands. You mustn’t forget.
I look at the other two photos in the package. One is of some men
playing horseshoes and washer-toss, while kids, dogs, and women look on. It was evidently taken from the east end of the house looking west.
Everyone must have had to walk the last mile to the old Gudger place.
Other groups of people stand talking. Some men in shirtsleeves and
suspenders stand with their heads thrown back, a snappy story, no
doubt, just told. One girl looks directly at the camera from close up,
shyly, her finger in her mouth. She’s about five. It looks like any
snapshot of a family reunion which could have been taken anywhere,
anytime. Only the clothing marks it as backwoods 1920s.
Courtney will get his money’s worth. I’ll write the article, make phone
calls, plan the talk show tour to coincide with publication. Then I’ll get
some rest. I’ll be a normal person again; get a degree, spend my time
wading through jungles after animals which will be dead in another
twenty years, anyway.
Who cares? The whole thing will be just another media event, just this
year’s Big Deal. It’ll be nice getting normal again. I can read books, see
movies, wash my clothes at the laundromat, listen to Jonathan Richman on the stereo. I can study and become an authority on some minor matter or other.
I can go to museums and see all the wonderful dead things there.
“That’s the memory picture,” said Alma. “They always took them at big things like this, back in those days. Everybody who was there would line up and pose for the camera. Only we couldn’t fit everybody in. So we had two made. This is the one with us in it.”
The house is dwarfed by people. All sizes, shapes, dresses, and ages.
Kids and dogs in front, women next, then men at the back. The only
exceptions are the bearded patriarchs seated towards the front with the children-men whose eyes face the camera but whose heads are still ringing with something Nathan Bedford Forrest said to them one time on a smoke-filled field. This photograph is from another age. You can recognize Daddy and Mrs. Gudger if you’ve seen their photograph
before. Alma pointed herself out to me.
But the reason I took the photograph is in the foreground. Tables have been built out of sawhorses, with doors and boards nailed across them. They extend the entire width of the photograph. They are covered with food, more food than you can imagine.
“We started cooking three days before. So did the neighbors.
Everybody brought something,” said Alma.
It’s like an entire Safeway had been cooked and set out to cool. Hams,
quarters of beef, chickens by the tubful, quail in mounds, rabbit,
butterbeans by the bushel, yams, Irish potatoes, an acre of corn,
eggplant, peas, turnip greens, butter in five-pound molds, cornbread
and biscuits, gallon cans of molasses, redeye gravy by the pot.
And five huge birds-twice as big as turkeys, legs capped like for
Thanksgiving, drumsticks the size of Schwarzenegger’s biceps, wholeroasted, lying on their backs on platters large as cocktail tables.
The people in the crowd sure look hungry.
“We ate for days,” said Alma.
I already have the title for the Scientific American article. It’s going to
be called “The Dodo Is Still Dead.”