At dusk the woman stands at the edge of the island to watch the birds in flight above the lagoon. Hers is not a usual, distant, appreciative watching; she has a trained eye, and she looks for signs in the birds' flight, for the slow, imperceptible markers of evolution.
She is in a place where evolution can be witnessed in a bird's lifetime, not far from the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Two generations of Dutch and Portuguese explorers transformed an uninhabited fifteenth-century paradise into a laboratory for naturalists for centuries to come. There were the plant and animal species they brought: tamarind, eucalyptus, banyan, casuarina and flame trees, sugarcane; cats, dogs, mongooses, rats, asses, monkeys. Humans. There were the species they destroyed or endangered: entire forests, the habitat for hundreds of small wild creatures. Their most famous victim: the dodo bird, Rapphus cucullatus.
The woman's name is Fran, a sturdy, practical name, like the woman herself. She has been studying the evolution of birds all her life. She is a trained naturalist, a behavioral ecologist, efficient and unsentimental. She accepts the inevitability of death but refuses the inevitability of extinction. She is closer to fifty than to forty, an unpopular age, although for her, age is a man-made convenience, a sort of Linnaean classification system used to facilitate assumptions. She sees aging in more Darwinian terms, and her own age troubles her only for its childlessness; the years have given her a wise and youthful strength. She is sun-hardened, life-hardened, life-ripened, with short graying hair, and sharp blue eyes that can spot a kestrel a mile away. She is a woman with an instinct for the coming hurricane and a loneliness like a bastion, impregnable.
Now she turns, and the young man is there. Ah, you've finished unpacking, she calls. A friendly statement, formal nonetheless; she does not know what to say to this stranger in her domain.
His name is Christian; he looks older than his thirty-some years. He is unmarried, perhaps childless, sunburnt, burnt-out, life-shattered, a gentle lad with brown eyes behind wire frames, a small neat mustache, and a shock of dark hair, a shock of dark experience. Christian is Swiss. He used to be a delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and he had tried to save humans. He had been trained to believe in the inevitability of war, but his experience left him with a deep scar of failure: as if he were witnessing his own extinction. A survivor from a land of refugees, he has been driven to the island to survive himself, to seek protection behind this woman's knowing fortress---although he does not know this yet. He believes he is seeking refuge among the birds, to work with Fran on Egret Island.
Egret Island lies half a mile off the coast of Mauritius: a hatchling of coral reef, separated from its mother island by a lagoon swept daily by the trade winds of the Indian Ocean. Egret has been designated a nature reserve by the Mauritian government; Fran is the field worker charged by an independent foundation with returning the island to its prehuman condition. She will replace the exotic with the endemic; she will restore birds and small reptiles to their natural habitat. And she will try to save the mourner-bird from extinction.
There are no egrets on Egret Island. After the Portuguese and the Dutch came the French and the British, and the egrets, too, vanished.
Copyright 2004 by Alison Anderson