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  • Writer's pictureBulb Culture Collective

Resurrectionists by William Woolfitt

You secure a research grant, you fly to Newfoundland and invite me to fly there too, join

you at the airport. You say that you’ve missed me, that we should get together again, do some

catching up, see what happens. I try to hug you at the baggage carousel but you’re already

looking elsewhere, stepping around me to collect my backpack, and so we don’t touch, we orbit

each other like clumsy square dancers. There’s a hired motor dory for us at Seldom-Come-By,

there’s data you want about the extinction of great auks on Kettie Waike Island, there might still

be auk bones if we dig for them. As we motor northward, you ramble about their flightless wings

and awkward gait, black plumage and fish diet and social habits. I know you want me to reply

with enthusiasm and so I do, the sea is smooth glass and you call it a good omen, there is no fog,

you are breezy and animated and gleeful until we step ashore.

That’s when you look gloomy, ashen, like you’ve seen a ghost, maybe many ghosts. I

feel the sinking in you, the crumbling, as we place our feet—carefully, carefully—as we find our

way among thousands of screaming seabirds, thousands of chalky-blue eggs and blotchy tan eggs

and a chaos of chicks underfoot. I think that you look lost as you stand for the first time on the

sea-washed, wind-scoured, ice-hammered bare rock that sailors and mackerel fishermen called

Kettie Waike—their words for the cry of the black-legged gulls who flourish here.

In a way, there’s still too much of everything here. We both hate human crowds, bright

parties, babbling commotions—maybe these bird colonies remind you of all that, make you fold

in on yourself. You pinch your nose, cover your ears. I reach for you, squeeze your hand, but you

don’t respond. Centuries ago, the colonists told each other that Kettie Waike was a place of foul

smells, of paralyzing fears. I’ve studied shale barrens and serpentine barrens for years, done my

fieldwork mostly alone, joked that my only love was the buckwheat sending its long roots down

through fissures in the olive-drab slates—and I thought I would be ready for an ecosystem like

this, ready to connect with you again, give us a chance. But there’s a desolation here, a severity,

that has me crumbling too. The land has a story of ache and loss that laps over me, clings to me.

You tell me that the gannets here sometimes eat murre chicks. Too many fires burned, too much

bloodshed. I wasn’t expecting a sadness as heavy as this.

Everywhere we walk on Kettie Waike—near the cliffs, over the narrow gulch—we find

the gray of granite, the gray of ash, the gray of fulmars, brackish puddles, rock and more rock.

The cacophony of birds never leaves us, a continuous and grating squabble, a whirr of wings

over our heads. When we breathe, we wince at the reek of excrement and rotten eggs and

decayed fish. Your shoulders droop, and your eyes look tired, and your face loses color. I try to

focus on the gannets who still nest here, blanketing the bare stone like great patches of dirty

snow. I tell myself that if I keep looking, I might see more gannets in the grassy areas, and

razorbills in the crevices, thick-billed murres and fulmars cramming the ledges, and herring gulls

mewing to their chicks as they feed them, and a mercy of puffins burrowing in the rocky dirt.

I unfold the map, tell you that we need to keep moving. You say nothing. We unload the

dory at Gannet Head; we carry our cooler, water jugs, gear that we tied up in heavy-duty garbage

bags. You grunt when I ask you if you like the campsite I’ve found. Scowling, you spread the

ground tarp, drive tent stakes into the lumpy dirt. I connect the fuel tank, light the stove while

you strike something solid, tiny, pale. One something, then several, then your hands are full, too

many to count. What is this, you say.

Do you think they’re a great auk’s gizzard stones, I say. I reach out my hand, but you’re

not ready to share. I say, they remind me of quartz, do you think the Beothuk tribe used them for

a game, or held them during ceremonies?

You pack the gizzard stones in a container, scold me for my sunny outlook. Why are you

forcing a happy story, you say. McDonald and some other white catchers wanted blood, wanted

the great auks for themselves; they fired shots at the Beothuk at Funk Island.

Maybe those Beothuk were the uncles of Nancy Shanawdithit, I say.

After she died, Carson sent her skull to London, you say. And Nancy is the name her

captors gave her.

She drew the Englishmen with a gray crayon, I say. I wonder what she was thinking.

You would wonder that, wouldn’t you, you say, sounding like you want to humor me,

also want me to stop talking.

At times like this, there is no middle ground for you. You’re mercurial, prickly, somber.

You may take after your father—an ornithologist who grew up in Scotland, a lover of migratory

birds and islands but not humankind—or you may improve the traits he passed to you. He was

stony; you’re softer. He stayed in the same bleak slump all summer; you swing between highs

and bottoms, dreamy anticipation and sour disillusionment, back to soaring dream. I know from

my study of you. After living with you two different times, after phone calls in the middle of the

night when one or the other of us can’t sleep, after hiking in the Great Smokies and a summer in

Costa Rica, I think that I’ve gotten understanding you down to a science. You soar and plummet,

fluctuate between two moods, cotton candy high and wet sock low, and if I favor one, you

scramble after the other, and that means you also scramble away from me.


Two centuries ago, the Beothuk loaded ballast stones into their birchbark canoes and

paddled here, killed the great auks for meat, dried and powdered the yolks of their eggs, made

puddings and cakes and sealskin sausages from the powder. We are surveying the island,

crossing another gulch, looking for a good place to dig.

I remember you mentioning that auks had lived on the Scottish island where you

summered with your father, that three sailors captured the last one on a sea-stack, tied it up and

penned it for three days, and when a storm came, they beat it with sticks. They thought it might

be a witch. I wonder if you also want to go there and dig, but I don’t ask. Your past is a touchy


Because you’ve told me more than once, because I’ve read on my own, I know that in the

nineteenth century everyone wanted auk eggs and auk skins and auk bodies preserved in spirits.

Princes, rich men, merchants, apothecaries, naturalists, men who worked for museums and

auction houses—they would pay a hunter as much as a year’s wages for each auk he brought

them. I know, and I keep everything you tell me, but I still ask you all the questions I can think

of so that you’ll forget to mope—so that we’ll both forget. The more you talk, the less I hear my

inner monologue of gloom. I’ve been letting myself think there’s nothing here for me, you don’t

love me, you’re closed off and volatile, self-destructive.

We’re still looking for a dig site. I say, Tell me about the greedy white settlers again.

How long did it take Europeans to wipe out the great auks?

You look over your shoulder, frown at me. You say, before the colonists, there were cod

fishermen, sealing crews, a long line of white men who plundered here and at Funk Island, Fogo

Island, the Bird Rocks—devourers with bottomless wants. Some came when their provisions

were low, stoned the auks, strangled the gannets while they slept, butchered and barreled the

fatty auk-meat with salt. And pickled the gannets. And snatched auk chicks for hook-bait.

And the eggers tramping the low places where the auks and the gannets nested, and

ensured the freshness of their product by crushing all the eggs beneath their boot-heels, returning

a week later to gather whatever eggs were newly laid.

And the feather hunters who camped all summer on Kettie Waike. who ripped feathers

from living auks and let them bleed to death, or clubbed the auks and drove them into stone

corrals. Boiled them in kettles to loosen their feathers. Used their oil-rich carcasses to fuel the

kettle-fires, so many fires that parts of the island were buried with ash. Gathered their feathers

for mattresses and pillows.

And the fertilizer speculators who hauled away the guano, the soil that the dead auks

became when their bodies rotted, and shipped that auk-soil to wealthy families in Baltimore who

used it in their flower gardens.

Didn’t they dig up a few bodies, I say.

Not every auk rotted, you say. You stare at me. Imagine seeing an auk mummy. I’ve read

they were dried, flattened, featherless and mummified.

So many cruel deeds, I say.

You nod at me. Flightlessness cost the auks dearly, you say. And trusting humans, you

mutter as you tie your shoe, slide your finger over the ground.

In the dome tent that night, we turn off our headlamps and undress, wait a few minutes

and right when I think you’ve fallen asleep, we wordlessly reach for each other. A gannet near

our tent softly calls grog grog. You smell like orange peels and sweat. We fall asleep with

fingers in hair, nose to nape, limb around trunk, haunch against shank, curled together like

snowberry creepers, like blood-vines.

You are cheery when I exit the tent in the morning, you are energetic, whistling, you

offer me French press coffee, a joe frogger cookie with pink icing, tangerines, you tell me you

hope your auk data will help you brainstorm strategies for the survival of the animal kingdom.

Many species, you say. Even our kind. You say it’s not too late to slow down the Anthropocene.

We walk over a low grassy hill, pass through a mob of gannets who greet us with raspy

moans. We pass hut ruins, a granite cairn where the auk corrals had been, come to the crest of the


At the dig, I open my backpack, set out brushes, scrapers, and picks. You seem even-

keeled today. I watch you mark a square foot, bite your lower lip, take a trowel. Then you gently

run the trowel’s long edge over the packed earth, the lightest of pressures, loosening a few

granules and bits, a few more, and then more, and I feel the tender in you. The low blue flame in

you, the wider scope.

If you come up empty-handed, I will tell you that there’s a flyaway chance, light as

sweater fuzz or stray hairs, for creatures—creatures like us—to come here and hope. The vagrant

black goose, for one, blown here by unseasonable winds, or perhaps confused by its poor

navigation skills. And the puffins who came after the auks were gone and burrowed down into

the bone-filled earth and decorated the openings of their homes with piles of auk bones.

And the recently arrived fulmars. And the naturalists who schoonered to Kettie Waike in

search of remains, bringing rubber coats and southwesters and breakers of water, kegs, clam-

hoes, arsenic soap, labels, and gauze.

We both call out—or a harsh guttural cry is pulled from us—when you uncover our

jackpot. Sunken in the guano and ash, in the pebbles and egg shell bits, bones, more bones, the

bones of great auks, so many battered bones.

Originally published by r.kv.r.y. 2016

William Woolfitt is the author of several forthcoming books, including Ring of Earth (short stories) and Eyes Moving Through the Dark (essays). A native of West Virginia, he teaches writing and lives with his family in Cleveland, Tennessee.


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