The Feather Wall

Dog would eat anything. That was a comfort. If Martin had had to starve the poor bugger he might have thought twice about keeping quarantine, because the only other alternative was unacceptable. At some point, hunger would likely have pushed Dog to break his training and go for the kakapo, and the two of them had worked too hard on Resolution to see that happen.

There were staples enough in the ranger hut to last the season, if he stretched them, but no chance of restocking from the mainland any time soon. He checked the radio every day, calling out in case the plague was over, in case anyone had survived, but there was never any answer. Perhaps that meant it was safe to go back, perhaps the thing had burnt itself out, but if it hadn’t . . . .

Martin wouldn’t have minded if it had just been himself. It wouldn’t be much of a life anyway, the last man alone or as good as, at the arse-end of the world where no-one was likely to come along. There’d be no-one left behind to grieve for him but Dog, and even knowing that he’d laid awake at night, stroking the soft head and wondering if a bullet wouldn’t be kinder. He promised himself he’d do it, if he felt the sickness on him. Better a quick end at the hand of the human who loved him than slow starvation and loneliness.

He dreamed of it sometimes.

Sickness on him, and sweat. Huddled in his bunk, and in his dream he could never find the gun and Dog was by him always, pressed against him, trying to keep warm and comfort. Growing thinner over the days, because Dog would never leave his human to try and find food, no matter how much Martin cursed him away and tried to make him go. Dog’s ribs like toast racks against him, and the fever burning him up until it broke.

Dog licking the salt off his face and that face getting less red and less wet. Dog going to sleep beside him, curled in a hard and bony ball, pushing his nose under Martin’s hand. Dog waking to the sensation of cold weight against him, and no pat.

Dog nudging him and whining, Dog taking his fur between his teeth and pulling, Dog licking a face that wasn’t warm any more . . . .

The dreams came often, and less often when he checked the gun of a night, placed it carefully under the bed so that it was in easy reach if ever he lost strength enough so that he couldn’t even walk across the room. That was how it happened, he’d heard. The quiet incubation period, the sudden loss of strength. Massive contagion, massive mortality, and him and Dog away from it all, on an island they tried to keep predator-free because there was such a thing as conservation even now, and the kakapo would have died without it.

He’d always loved them, dozy as they were: giant flightless parrots on islands full of flightless birds, fat and plentiful until the people came. And the moa died, and the takahe nearly, the kiwi and the kakapo close to as well. Bad enough the human hunters all too eager to take kakapo for trophies, but the daft things couldn’t stand against what the humans brought with them—rats and cats and ferrets, creatures that could stalk the kakapo to its burrow and make an end of it, and did so in their thousands. Their tens of thousands, until only a handful remained, and two dozen of those on Resolution.

The island was a good enough place for stragglers to wait out the end times—the ranger’s hut was small but well-insulated. It needed to be, because the weather was always shit and Martin didn’t know why they’d bothered to put solar panels on the roof because there was never any bloody sunshine anyway, but there was an axe and plenty of wood and he cut some every day, enough to see him through the night and some put away for winter. There was cookware and bunks, a table, a fireplace. Water enough nearby and a tank for storage, a dunny out the back. He could dig a new one when it filled. A few books, not that he was much of a reader, but they’d belonged to one of the other rangers and so had the fishing kit, and he’d made more use of that.

Apocalypse was nothing like Martin thought it would be. Not that he’d ever given it a great deal of brain space, the only times he’d really considered it were superficial ones and in response to a movie usually, or a book. In those the problems were always resources, and he’d always felt a certain sense of smugness at the trouble and conflict it caused. Armed groups scavenging supplies from a local supermarket, warfare over water . . . it all seemed hysterical to him, and not the funny hysterical either. The land was easy enough to live off if you knew what you were doing, and he did.

The angler’s kit was basic enough but the water was full of hapuka, of blue cod and gurnard, blue nose and blue-fin. He was able to keep himself and Dog fed, and he knew enough about the local vegetation to keep scurvy at bay. That was how the sailors did it, back when Captain Cook was exploring New Zealand. Back in 1773 it was, in Dusky Sound which was only a stone’s throw from Resolution, really. He’d brewed up rimu leaves for a sort of spruce beer, old Cook, but it had been too bitter and so he’d added manuka leaves to soften the flavour. It wasn’t exactly craft—Martin found it a bit foul, really, and even Dog didn’t do much more than sniff at it, but it was better than loose teeth and open sores, a deficiency of vitamins.

It wasn’t keeping himself alive that was the central problem of apocalypse. It wasn’t even loneliness, he’d found, because he had Dog and the kakapo, and it wasn’t a life for social butterflies anyway, ranging. The Department of Conservation had enough isolated huts that there was always room for rangers to spend weeks, months sometimes, with little enough for company but other DOC rangers, the odd tramper. There’d been two others on Resolution with him, but they’d had families, and at the first radioed hint of trouble they’d left, had promised to come back when it was over.

It was over, and they hadn’t come back. Martin was pretty sure their promises hadn’t been broken on a whim.

No. The worst thing about apocalypse—and he’d had some weeks now to think it over—wasn’t food or change or abandonment. It was loss of purpose.

Martin was under no illusion. Most people, back when there were enough people to make “most” an adequate descriptor, didn’t have any sort of lofty goal. It was get through the day mostly, pay the bills, raise the kids if you had them. Be a good mate, maybe leave things a little better than you found them. And if that was a small purpose it was a good one, or good enough. It was the same kind of thinking that sneered at small purpose that made hysteria the primary response to apocalypse, he thought.

“We’re an operatic bloody species,” he said to Dog. “Always so convinced there’s a need for high drama. That it’s best, that it’s living.”

Dog’s tail thumped against the wooden floor as if he understood. He probably did too, Martin reckoned, because dogs were pretty operatic themselves, and he’d certainly seen Dog get all over excitement at the prospect of bones.

Now that his purpose was smaller than ever—catch some more fish, feed self, feed Dog, check the radio—it still seemed good. It was that which kept him tethered to Resolution.

“Oh, there’s fear in it too,” he said to Dog, out of habit more than anything, and because there was always comfort in a good listener. Dog was the best listener that he knew, and the most intelligent. He could spot a lie, could Dog, and Martin liked to work things out with him because it was difficult to look into those intelligent eyes and lie. “I’m not a brave man,” he said. “I’m no bloody hero, mate. It’s easier to believe people are still out there than to go look and find otherwise. And what would I find, eh?” Corpses, probably. Lots of them, and madness to follow no doubt. “Oh, I’d hold it together. Check it out and come back here, probably, hunker down. And spend the rest of my nights dreaming about what I found, and what I couldn’t change.”

He dreamed enough about that, and Resolution comforted him because there were things there he could change, still.

It was the kakapo kept him there. And maybe that was his own little streak of operatic, right there, the lone man holding out against inevitability, but he’d heard the booming come back to Resolution, and it made the large things seem possible, somehow. He heard it at night. Short deep bursts, the sound made when blowing over the mouth of a beer bottle. Not all of the males were booming—he could only distinguish two or three of them—and there was no guarantee that any of the females would respond to the mating call, but it was better than silence. “Used to be a time you could walk through Fiordland and hear the booming from every corner,” he said to Dog. But that was long before his time, long before his granddad’s even. Only old stories now, about how kakapo had been plentiful, and there’d been a time when he’d hoped his work would be one step on the road to making them so again, but apocalypse had put paid to all that.

The other predator-free islands, Codfish and Little Barrier . . . there was no guarantee that any other ranger survived, no reason to think they’d stayed on the islands if they had. Martin had no family left, but most people did; they might have left to go to them like his mates on Resolution had. No guarantee, either, that the predators would stay off them, that one day a clinging rat wouldn’t wash up and go hunting for eggs. All the work would mean nothing then. It’d only be a matter of time. And the rats would be growing—a population explosion come from feeding on the bodies of the dead. Possums, as well, with the pest control down to nil and an entire country full of starving pets looking to decimate what was left of the birds. Feral moggies, feral dogs.

He dreamed of it sometimes.

Dog coming back to the hut of a night, limping, scrawny. Dog coming to sit beside remains that wouldn’t answer—Dog drooling, sometimes, but he never dreamed of being eaten, of his remains going down that friendly gullet. Partly because the thought of what would happen to his body didn’t bother him, even in waking hours, and partly because he shied away from thinking how Dog would need to be, how lost and starved and desperate, before he began to feed.

He was a good mate, was Dog. If Martin died he’d be a last resort—something to be devoured only if Dog was too weak or too sick to catch his own food, and maybe not even then.

But mostly it was because there was something more horrifying to dream about than his own dead self, and that was dead kakapo. He dreamed it near every night—Dog, overcoming training before love, and his mouth stuffed full of parrot. And all the parrots gone, eventually, because they could never escape Dog, stupid feathery things that they were, all whiskers and no brain, and he’d been trained to hunt them down.

That was their tragedy. Kakapo could never escape anything.

Funny, that. In most places the sudden absence of humans would be a shot in the arm to ecosystems. No more poaching, no more pollution. The climate might even get a chance to stabilise—that’d be a good thing. But here and there would be species, remnant populations, dependent on intervention, on protection. “What’s going to happen to them, mate?” he said, stroking Dog’s floppy ears, and Dog gazed up at him, eyes closing under strokes. “What’s going to happen to the kakapo without us to look after them?”

A matter of time only. He knew it, and it wasn’t enough to make him go away. He knew every one of those two dozen birds. Knew them all by name, knew their personalities, the way they’d waddle up to him for attention and bits of treat, their great green faces trusting, wistful. Resolution gave him a duty and a purpose, and if apocalypse had taken everything else it hadn’t taken that.

Martin wasn’t a religious man, but he’d come to feel as an anchorite might, he thought. Wedded to a place, to a purpose, a world made small and the knowledge that there might be someone, someday, who would come and take their place. Maybe. “Too much for us, eh?” he said to Dog. Matters of faith were beyond him. He preferred tools he could hold in his hand: the axe, the traps. Nothing prayerful about them, they were simple and they worked.

It wasn’t a difficult job. Meticulous, yes, because he had to check the traps every day, make sure there was nothing in them and reset them if there was. Mostly there was nothing. That was lucky in a way, but it always made Martin wonder if rats had made it back to Resolution and had simply avoided the traps. He set out as many as he could, spent the evening light building more from odd bits of plank, from leftover wire and hinges. But mostly he relied on Dog. They tramped Resolution together, he and Dog. When he’d caught enough fish for the day he’d cook some up, leave the rest for dinner and they’d head off walking.

Dog’s nose was better than all the traps combined, and a good thing too. Martin saw the telltale behaviour one afternoon, the whine and hunting pose, and they were off through the bush, slower than he would have liked, for it was mud all through after rain, and it always rained on Resolution. He tripped and slipped behind Dog, gun slung over one shoulder, hoping for a clean end. If it was a stoat, if it was a ferret, and he couldn’t find it before dark there’d be no guarantee the kakapo would last the night. Not all of them, anyway, for the mustelids had a blood wish, sometimes, and killed more than they could eat for the sheer pleasure of the killing. Kakapo, big and plump in their burrows, wouldn’t be a challenge. He’d find them cold in their entranceways, the beautiful feathers dull and the features uncomprehending. “Find it, Dog!” he cried, mud all down his front and his waterproofs all slick with rain. “Find it!”

Dog was muddy too, his fur damp and with rivulets running off, but there was an eager gleam in his eyes, in the way he scampered along, more stable on four feet than Martin on two. But for all he was a good tracker there wasn’t much fight in him, though he bared his teeth and growled willingly enough when the stoat was back up against a corner of rocks. In other circumstances, Martin thought, as he shoved Dog aside and took aim, he’d enjoy the beauty of the little beast. For they were beautiful, in their way—the long sinuous bodies, the sharp little faces—and they moved like a dream, not like the poor waddling kakapo, who had at best pace a bastard mix of shuffle and scuttle.

The gun echoed over the island. “Got you,” said Martin. “I’ve fucking got you.” The small sleek body was warm in his hands, still. He thought he might try skinning it, not that it had a coat like a possum’s but it might be useful someday, and it would be something to do of an evening. He stroked it, admiring, and a little sad as well. A brave little thing, but he couldn’t be truly sorry.

He went out again the next day, used Dog’s trained nose to track down eight of the kakapo, found the other five the day after that. They blinked at him when he found them, all of them hale enough, and it left him weak in the knees that he’d not let them down, that they hadn’t been left a ragged pile of feathers with a broken body beneath.

“No, I’ll not leave you,” he said, stroking one of the big soft heads. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.” They were as good as quarantine, were kakapo. It was as if Resolution had a wall around it of feathers and expectation, a thin wall and a flexible one but one that kept him in regardless. And there was nowhere else for him to be, really. His biology had been ecology and conservation more than anything, his university experience a series of field trips punctuated by lectures, and if there was anyone left out there looking for a cure for plague he’d be pretty bloody useless. Better to stay with the birds and hope that Resolution was isolated enough to keep him healthy, hope that if he caught sick anyway the species barrier would protect them.

They were still, he thought, the more precious population.

“It’s a funny thing, yeah?” he said to Dog. “We’ve been trying to keep those fluffy little bastards alive for so long. For years.” There’d been a time when the population was less than a hundred, and DOC had an almighty battle pulling them back from the brink. “Now there might just be more of them than there are of us.”

It was almost a cheerful thought, though it never lasted. Kakapo were still wavering on the edge—several hundred only, and slow at the breeding—but the establishment of predator-free islands like Codfish and Little Barrier kept them safe from ferrets, from cats and rats and other introduced species that spread over the southern lands like a plague. Resolution was the newest of the refugia, but it wasn’t too far off the mainland and rats could float over to it occasionally still, if the tides were right.  

The days were a round. Trap, hunt, fish, and the routine of it, the purpose, kept him from feeling alone even though he was.

Then the radio went off, and he was reminded. “Would you listen to that, mate,” he said to Dog, a wondering hand resting on the back of Dog’s head. “We’re not alone after all.”

Scientists, more of them, coming in from field work even more remote than his. Isolated, like he was, while the plague burned itself out.

“I’m out on Resolution Island,” he said. “With the kakapo.” He couldn’t leave them.

Turned out, they didn’t expect him to. The voice on the radio was almost broken with relief. “They’re alive?” it said. “I mean, we sent someone to Codfish, most of them seem alright, we got there quick enough.” Little Barrier had fallen. “I know it seems stupid to worry about birds, but, well . . . .

They weren’t about to throw everything over because of apocalypse either. “Seems a bit much, doesn’t it?” said the voice. “Better things to do than fight, am I right?” There were plans to retrieve the New Zealanders working at Scott Base, down in the Antarctic. “Some of the penguin guys are shifting over to kakapo.” It wasn’t as if penguins needed the help. Millions of the bloody things. “We’ll get someone over to spell you soon as we can.”

“I’m good,” said Martin. “I want to stay. Wouldn’t say no to some more supplies, though. Pretty sick of fish.”

They were setting up in Dunedin, the rest, over on the other side of mainland. “I belong on Resolution,” he said. “Me and Dog and the kakapo.” Because they’d weathered an apocalypse with him, even if they were too thick to know it, and he wasn’t interested in leaving them behind.

“I suppose it’s not the first one they’ve seen off,” he said afterwards, to Dog, as they made their way back out into the bush. Their world had ended once, too.

The kakapo that were left, they were the survivors.

mm

Octavia Cade

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. Her stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Shimmer, amongst others. She attended Clarion West 2016 and loves post-apocalyptic stories and science. One of her bucket list goals is to see a live kakapo (at time of writing there were only 148 left, but their numbers are slowly rising).

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