The Solitaire

Professor Aldershot took full responsibility.  He claimed that she died from complications caused by a respiratory virus.  The cremation was meant to prevent her further indignity.  Under house arrest, he himself was dead within the year.  Now it is me in the old man’s laboratory, sleeping with the samples, grafting and splicing.

I could have stopped him.  I was only thirty-two, in perfect health.  He was one hundred and seventeen years old.  Not ancient by today’s standards, but still.  Old.
I adored Aldershot.  He’s the reason I became a genetic engineer.  Each new paper he published was an event.  His pioneering work with fossilized DNA.  The fabulous projections he made.  Of a resurrected Sinosauropteryx.  A reborn Therizinosaurus.  An original, synthesized dinosaur, the Aldersaurus, trampling the Earth for the first time. 

He was a god.  Literally. 

On loan myself from London’s Natural History Museum, barely fledged, packed and shipped across the pond alongside those Pezophaps solitaria bones, I crossed that cavernous warehouse, flanked by creatures I’d never before seen, some live, ruffling and nickering from their cages, others stuffed, silent and motionless, staring coldly and unblinkingly from their platforms.  The ammonia and sulphur rising from the floor flattened the hairs in my nose.  Imagine creeping through the Creator’s waiting room. 

There was a garage-sized glass box at the far end, festooned with stiff, yellow grasses, a stunted palm tree, and a few faded vines garlanded here and there.  Banks of powerful lights overhead simulated the sun.  A pipe fed and replenished a pool of water in the centre of the space. 

She sat on a cradle of reeds, next to a single, lavender orchid, gazing from her frame like an avian Mona Lisa.  The Rodrigues Solitaire, of the Columbidae family, Raphinae subfamily.  Extinct by the middle of the eighteenth century.  Close cousin of Raphus cucullatus.  The Dodo.  

Frontispiece - Pezophaps Solitaria

I was the last to see a living specimen. 

She raised her knobby head when I touched my nose to the glass.  A brow of black velvet cresting her beak produced a continual frown.  I squinted, she frowned.    About the size of a full-grown wild turkey, smaller than a Dodo, but still an imposing figure for a species of pigeon.  She was smoother and plumper than a turkey, with downy, grey feathers covering her breast.  No tail feathers.  Vestigial wings. 

You should know that Solitaire pairs are, or were, intensely territorial.  The male and female team up to drive off intruders from a single egg nest, striking with their blunt beaks and the cudgels above their thumb-bones.  This Solitaire, or Sophie as her zoo handlers had named her, didn’t even get to her feet as I approached.  She just sat there. Waiting. 

Aldershot inhabited a second glass enclosure, adjacent to the one housing Sophie.  It was cluttered with stacks of computers and monitors, burners and coolers, synthesizers and sequencers; a menagerie of genetic engineering machinery.  In the midst of it perched the professor, high up on a swivel stool, one eye attached to a microscope. 

Fifty one years ago and these are the peculiar details I still remember.  There was a cot stuffed into the corner.  Beside it, a digital alarm clock flashed “12:00 AM”.  There was a coffee maker and a hotplate on the counter next to the refrigeration units.  The professor kept soggy boxes of chop suey and leftover pizza slabs in those fridges, right next to the tissue samples.  I don’t think he’d been out of the lab in months.  

“Put the fossils next to the assembler,” he said, without looking up, his hundred-year old voice a strained treble. “Return from whence you came.”

That was how he greeted me.  My idol. 

I stood speechless, like an errant schoolboy, crimson-cheeked and grinning, shifting from foot to foot.  Each time I tried to form a response it would dissolve in mouth and I would grin again.    
Finally, the old man lifted his face to appraise me.  His eyelids, ravaged from a century’s worth of gravity, fell away from their sockets.  He wept perpetually, dabbing at tear ducts with a handkerchief wedged between his rigid, arthritic fingers.  I found it difficult to look him in the eye.

“My dear fellow,” he said, preening the cloud-white tuft of hair above his ear with an electronic stylus, “it’s nothing personal.  The tissue samples are necessary.  You…”   His upper eyelids descended and his head dipped.  “I prefer to work alone,” he concluded, finally.

“But Professor,” I said, “the museum sent me.”

Again, he raised his wallowing eyeballs. 

“To facilitate and assist in this collaboration between our institution, MIT, the UNEP, and yourself,” I added, or some such soft soap.  I kept to myself how, pending successful completion of this project, I’d be made the chief curator of the museum’s new Lazarus exhibit, a showcase of species restorations, with live Solitaires as a centrepiece. 

“I’m to oversee the samples.  To supervise.” 

Aldershot squawked.  He affixed the eyepiece back to his orbital bone, resumed his scrutinizing and said nothing else for the rest of the day.  I spent that afternoon snooping, acquainting myself with the operation, looking in on Sophie.  Around five, I locked the specimens up in the secure storage at the university and went home to my billet.

Each morning for three months, I would show up at the converted warehouse, specimens in tow, to spend the day with Aldershot in near silence as he muddled and cultured, cross-linked and catalogued.  He didn’t pause except to nap, make coffee, or nibble at some leftovers; only for the most necessary biological functions.  I assumed the old man must be uncommonly focussed on our project.  Even so, he never once asked for the materials I had brought.

While Aldershot puttered, I studied Sophie. 

Leguat sketch of the Solitaire.

There was little to observe.  Snoozing.  Grooming.  Roosting.  Now and then a stroll, to peck at sunflower seeds and figs, to scoop water from the faux pond, to stretch her stumpy legs.  And to watch.  We spent long hours staring at each other.  Quietly, no flinching, no blinking.  It became a meditation.  I would focus for long stretches on one of her large, monocular eyes, black as a bottomless well, until the iris itself expanded, a swelling, glassy pool that I could dip myself into, submerging into its emptiness, deeper and deeper, until I was on the other side, inside that feathered head, under that furrowed brow.

My journeys spanned long somnolent afternoons, across hundreds of years and thousands of miles, tracking from the rainbow coral of one coast, into the dark hardness of the ebony grove, through the steamy vault under the forest canopy, up onto the arid palm savannah of the plateau, and back down the leeward slope to the opposite coast, surveying the Rodrigues Island of 1690, before the arrival of the French Huguenot refugees.  Along the way, I paused to pluck a carmine petal from a madrinette, to strike and split the fruit of the ancient tambalacoque, to rub against the Jumellea orchid and to breathe its fragrance, to pick out the kestrel’s shrill from the farrago of bird call.  None of these exist today, of course, but they were there, vivid as a postcard, engraved into the double helix of Sophie’s genetic memory.  At least, I imagined they were.

Aldershot must have assumed that eventually I would give up and go away, leaving the specimens behind.  But the museum paid me.  I found myself tasks. 

Sophie’s feeding schedule was regular.  Twice a day, at eight and six, Aldershot would emerge from his enclosure to fumble with the containers.  On the fifth day of the second week I pre-empted his routine by a couple of minutes, and presented Sophie her breakfast myself.  She followed me with her inky gaze but didn’t rise as I entered and laid out the guava sections.  Afterward, returning to my usual seat at a makeshift desk not far from her aviary, I stole a glance at the professor.  He stared, showing no expression, except to pat a white handkerchief at his strained eyes. 

The next day, I did the watering.  I cleaned the day after that.  I rejuvenated the palm, misting and fertilizing.  I brought in a new collection of orchids.  The glass was made invisible by my washing it inside and out.  I’m not sure who showed more indifference to my activity, Sophie or the old man.

One day, I exited the aviary after arraying Sophie’s breakfast of figs and seeds and Aldershot was outside of his lab, next to the door, teetering on his crutches.  It was the first time he had emerged since I had taken over Sophie’s care. 

“They’re good eating,” he said, “especially the young ones.  Leguat was first to mention it.”

Aldershot gestured to the chair.  I nodded and pulled it out for him.  He hoisted himself into it, pulled a book from the gaping pocket of his smock, and threw it down on the desk.  There was a gold frigate embossed into the centre the slim volume, sails and flags at full stretch. 






The Voyage of François Leguat

The Voyage of Francois Leguat. 

“Before Leguat, and before the Arab sailors from Sohar and Muscat, and the Phoenicians before them,” he said, “the island must have been thick with them.  Like pigeons in Trafalgar Square.”

Inside the book there are maps, diagrams, and a rendering of a Solitaire, before a thin tree bearing pear-like fruits.

“Of course, we rediscovered it, didn’t we?” he said.  “The taste.”

I was still so surprised to hear his reedy voice after consecutive days of silence, I had no response.  I couldn’t take my eyes from the velvet wattles hanging from his chin, trembling from the palsy. 

Aldershot recalled the first time.  It was the Dodo they wanted him to resurrect.  The public could get behind the Dodo.  No-one had heard of a Solitaire.  But the Dodo specimens were too incomplete, too corrupt.  In 2032, they found five Solitaires in a cave on Rodriguez, miraculously preserved, mummified.

“Yes, I remember,” I said, finding my voice.

“You were born?” he asked.

“I read the accounts,” I said, blushing.

Those five contained all of the necessary DNA material.  Unfossilized.  Complete.  They applied the polymerase chain reaction, they incubated in a Broad Breasted Bronze, the largest turkey they could find.  And after two hundred and twelve attempts, they had viable clones.

As he spoke, Aldershot wiped at his eyes and drew the handkerchief across his slack bottom lip.

There were thousands of them, he said.  In 2049, on the Mauritian reserve, they counted over eleven thousand.  A stable population, increasing genetic diversity, eco-tours and educational programs.  Reborn from the ashes.

And then they decided there were too many.  Easy hunting, good eating.  It began with limited kills and a controlled hunt.  And redeveloping of the reserve.  There was the recession and the war.  People lost interest.  Cats and rats got the eggs.  Poachers got the rest.

Sophie was the last.

“Yes, but that’s why we’re here, to bring them back, again…” I started to say, but Aldershot was back in his booth.

I leafed through Leguat’s journal and found the pages dedicated to the Solitaire, comparing his romantic impressions with the melancholy bird before me.  He wrote that the feathers of the craw are whiter than the rest, the neck elegant and fine like that of a beautiful woman.  And that the Solitaires walk with such grace you cannot help admiring and loving them – a fact that often saves their lives.  And that the Solitaires will never grow tame.  As soon as they are caught, they shed tears without crying and refuse all sustenance until they die.  So claimed Leguat.

Sophie did nothing but eat and sleep. 

I intercepted Aldershot on his way back from the toilet.  He stood and swayed between the two glass enclosures as I read to him from the book.

Aldershot’s cheeks crinkled into the suggestion of a smile.  He turned back into his lab and waved me in, my first invitation.  Once inside, he asked that I open the cabinet, pull out a box from the bottom shelf and open it.  It contained a dozen bottles. 

“Pull one out,” he said. “Uncork it.”

I lifted a bottle and read the label.  Macallan scotch whiskey, 2061, twenty-five years old.

“They gave me a case of it when I retired,” he said, “Untouched.”

Aldershot slid a pair of two hundred millilitre beakers along the shiny, obsidian surface of the counter.  He told me to pour and to be generous.  I half-filled the beakers and we each took a draught.

“It’s one thing to duplicate DNA,” he said, mopping the excess from his mouth with the handkerchief bunched in his hand, “we’ve known how to do that for almost a century.  Generating an embryo from scratch and bringing it to term in a suitable host, that’s relatively straightforward.  But to produce from DNA fragments a complete animal, a whole animal, encompassing all aspects of a life:  physical, psychological, emotional, cultural – to coax that potential from the genetic record, that’s the trick.” 

The Solitaires he resurrected sixty years ago, he told me, had no sense of themselves.  No connection to the millennia of evolutionary culture that went into shaping them.  No elders.  No inheritance.  You can’t mix identity in a sink.  Solitaire 2.0 was docile and domesticated, born of a turkey.   

Aldershot picked up his beaker between the tongs of his two crumpled hands and appraised the caramel colour as he spoke.

“A species gets watered down with each successive resurrection,” he said.  “Pour again.” 

And yet my imagined tour of her ancestral homeland was so vivid.

I refilled us both and we sat for a while in silence, drinking.  Sophie ruffled and stretched and sat.  Aldershot, having spoken more in fifteen minutes than in all of the previous two months, now preoccupied himself with the rotation of his glass as it swished.  My questions about how they settled the birds in the Mascarene Islands, how they adapted and monitored them, and how they disappeared again, echoed off the glass walls.  Aldershot’s drinking decreased in step with his reticence.  Mine increased with the growing sense of futility.  A quarter of the Macallan remained. 

At length, he asked me to bring in the museum’s specimens.  The project would begin at last.  I rushed to wheel in the crate, open it, and we examined its contents.  Aldershot was still for so long I thought he may have gone to sleep, flimsy eyelids unable to close.

“Into the incinerator,” he said, finally.

I asked him to repeat.  He did.  I asked again.  The same three words kept piping from his brittle vocal cords.   

“What do you mean,” I asked, “you can’t be serious.”  Just the notion put my job at risk.  “It’s a prank. You’re drunk.” 

I searched his swampy eyes a moment looking for signs of amusement or mistake but there were none.  These long decades of fluorescence and preserving fluid, of deprivation and deficiency, they have caught you up, I thought.  Your exquisite brain is eroding as we sit, poached in scotch.   

I leapt up, causing a sheaf of papers to flutter to the floor.  I paced and kicked at the ruffled mess.  “It makes no sense,” I said, “it’s unethical.” 

He said nothing. 
“What about Sophie,” I asked, shattering my beaker against the cabinet.  He slid a second one along the counter.

“Fetch another bottle,” he said.  I poured two more beakers, to the lip this time. 

He had spent the last three months requesting all available Solitaire material from every international source – fossils, samples, DNA records – destroying it.

“There are copies,” I said. 

“But I hold the patents on most,” he said, “I have exclusive access.” 

The Solitaire doesn’t deserve such ignominy.  Expunged and recombined, twice-diluted.  No more extinctions.  Let Sophie be the last of the last.  That’s what Aldershot said.

There was still more than enough genetic material to accomplish the task.  One of another many genius engineers could have been assigned to the project.  The DNA sequences could have easily been rebuilt, the strands regenerated. 

I could have stopped him. 

I didn’t. 

While the old man propped the cast iron door with one of his crutches, I tossed each of the preserved birds into the furnace. 

Finished, we sipped from our beakers, and peered into the aviary.  Sophie, sensing our presence, extricated her egg-shaped head from the plumage of her flank and raised her permanently consternated eyebrow, her nap cut short.  I stumbled on a knot of reeds as I entered the enclosure.  She stood.  She waited.  The black disc of her eye pooled, admitting everything and emitting nothing.  In my stupor, it continued to expand, to engulf the lab, the warehouse, the professor, myself, a swelling void.  I tumbled down into the centre of it to the beginning of time.  It is a terrible thing, playing god – terrible and irresistible.

Leguat had something right.  Sophie’s neck beneath my clumsy grasp – nothing could be so yielding, so delicate.