Her face was an old photograph.
It was concealed with layers of grime, framed with sallow wrinkles cracking from ages of dust lined inside. Gross, thought Kurt, then felt remorse upon his impromptu thoughts. All the same, he couldn’t help feel an impending sense of horror upon the woman’s approach.
She stood a little apart from him, from a child who understood little about what the books and binoculars he cradled in his hand meant and what it was like to live in a world in which all the odds were permanently stacked against you.
Then, live with excitement that the her weary face could not betray, she began the incessant chatter of a dusty century-old recording. " Are you one of those last bird scientists? Please say yes. Oh no, I see, you definitely are one-- you carry one of those things. Ohhh, how blasted lucky I am to meet you--just at this moment, too. You will not believe-- I'm not even sure if I believe--"
He was at ease now. "Ivory-billed Woodpecker, is it now?" Kurt queried, suppressing a chuckle.
She snorted in amusement. Kurt joined in, feeling comfortable. "Talking fairy tales now, are we! I hope you didn't actually think I was stupid enough to believe in something everyone knows was made up outta thin air!" She rambled on amiably. "No, I'm talking about those brown birds over there!--" an excited wave in a vague direction.
Allen didn't feel like correcting an enthusiastic beginner birder today. The IBWO could suspend its reputation for a moment. "You.... mean the..... Whimbrels?" A callous gesture towards the right.
"Goodness, you knew this for how long? Gosh! Are you sure!?"
"Nononono, I need you to be 100% sure."
"Yes. I am. You see those crown stripes? Those differentiate the Whimbrel from the similar looking Long-billed Curlew, and --"
Loud, raucous laughter. “Heehee, you're a funny one aren't you. Ivory-billed Woodpecker and now Long-billed Curlew! At least the curlew existed. But! I guess anything is possible! Those Whimbrels over there--ohmygod--this has to be the most exciting moment of my life!"
"I'm glad you think--"
Her red pupils dilated and she edged closer to him, until they were pressed together like two lovers. "We have to report this to the UOS right away---right away--before anyone does away with these birds. You wouldn't want that to happen, would you? Would you?"
“The UOS? W-w-hat’s that?” Kurt was paralyzed, conscious that any sudden movement he made would shatter the woman’s fragile body into a million tiny fragments.
Anna said nothing, remaining crushed against his body for a moment.
Her body did not move. Only her face contorted as a single tear blazed its way down her dirt-laden cheeks.Kurt felt her body lift away. A few minutes later, Kurt found himself wishing he hadn’t taken that one extra sleeping pill last night as his eyes bored into the spot where the woman had existed just a second earlier.
And then, with a great dread, Kurt realized. Something from deep within the recesses of his gut had stirred the moment his eyes had laid on on her cracked and broken figure, odd clothing, slight accent he couldn’t quite place a finger on--- now he remembered the year when he had founded the Underground Ornithologists Society, seven years ago, a time when the concept was a ludicrous failure. He saw now how the world was destined, how the classrooms of the children whose parents had failed to run civilization and smooth the ailing planet would look, what life would forever be condemned to.
When he arrived home, he took two extra sleeping pills and forgot the incident ever happened.
Two-hundred fifty years later, Kurt still sometimes stirred with remembrance with a world lush with green when funny-named birds like spoonbills and---were they called sandpipers?---were not just figments of a fevered imagination. If there had been a day, seventy-five years ago, when he had last seen a Whimbrel, he could not remember.