The heavy spool of cable on the man’s back hung up on the lacings of underbrush, flipped, and wobbled down the hill into the thorny confusion below for the third time that afternoon. The man cursed in a singsong brogue, and let his bulky telegraph cable-hauling rig flop into the weeds.
“It’s all well and good to run a bloody cable from China to this godforsaken rock, but then there’s some bloody welp like me’s gotta string it up on this feckin’ hill!”
He dabbed the sweat runnels on his forehead with his baggy shirtsleeve, and slumped onto an earthen ledge.
The man took the raspy, mournful bird call as his cue for a break. He pulled a flask from his sodden vest, took a pull of whiskey, and bemoaned his assignment to this remote outpost. It was July of 1885 on the Korean island of Komun, and the air in the valley was a thick, subtropical miasma.
Callum Ward, a wayfaring Scotsman, had been living a comfortable life as a telegraph operator in Hong Kong for several years before being pressed into service to wire up the tiny island, a four-hour sail south of the Korean peninsula. Komun had recently been rebranded Port Hamilton by the British Navy, garrisoned there in an act of “preventive occupation.”
Callum deftly packed and lit a clay pipe and took a hearty puff. He surveyed the steep green hill for several minutes before he realized that not only was he was sitting on a grave mound of some kind, but that he was being watched. He turned then flinched, his pipe dropping from his mouth, as he stared into the bug-like eyes of a three-foot tall stone carving. The lurid gargoyle depicted was pot-bellied and pin-headed with a long neck, a half-animal deity worshipped by the shamanistic islanders.
“Feck,” he chuckled, and retrieved his pipe.
Callum’s chuckles were answered with laughter from the hill above. A rumpled old man picked his way down towards him. He wore the horsehair hat and simple greyed hemp robes of a Korean elder.
“Oh, OK, go on then, laugh it up. Your little friend scared me, is all. Come on over, have a pinch with me, then, and we’ll discuss gettin’ this damned spool up your hill here.”
Callum waved the man over with his tobacco pouch, which injected some speed into his gait. The man, who introduced himself as Haedam, the island’s shaman, put his rough sack down and joined Callum for a smoke. His English was impressive, as learned from his nephew, who was a scrounger for the Royal Navy’s garrison. Haedam complained about the rats that had swarmed off the British ships, and the two chatted about tobacco, the weather, and their shared ambivalence towards being governed by the English.
“You not like Bictoria? Heh? Your queen! Queen Bictoria?”
“No, look, I’m from Scotland, and she’s not really my queen. Anyway. We’ve had our own share of collie-shangles with English queens, hey.”
“Oh, an’ I’m sure sorry for sittin’ on your grave here,” Callum patted his earthen perch, then mimed a dead body — eyes closed, tongue protruding.
The eerie trill again rent the humid air, much closer this time, a bassy rumble in Callum’s chest.
“No no, not grave! This for…him!” Haedam smiled and pointed his pipe at the stone grotesque, and then to the source of the call, a thicket of bamboo.
“Hey, what’s that then? What you on about, matey?” Callum said with a note of anxiety, and turned towards the bamboo. Rustling in the underbrush echoed through the labyrinth of stalks.
Haedam extracted a dead rat from his sack, and flung it into the leaf litter near the bamboo. He cupped his hands to his mouth and did a decent imitation of the mysterious trilling, followed by clicking sounds. The rustling increased, and approached.
“Darwin’s feckin’ ghost…”
Callum stood and took a shaky step backwards. A massive, upright bird materialized and clattered its way through the bamboo. It was a Christmas goose of nightmare proportions, just two or three heads shorter than the Scotsman, with the leering cadaver face of a Punch doll. Wrapped in short, dirty grey plumes, it had the stocky legs and body proportions of the fantastic thunder lizards Callum had seen at London’s Crystal Palace.
The hideous creature snatched up the rat and lumbered closer with a steady, audacious gait, its fearsome spade-like bill opened wide. It circled, sizing up Callum with orange demon’s eyes.
“Kenchana, OK, you OK,” Haedam steadied Callum with a reassuring hand across the chest. He peeled another rat from the sack and held it at arm’s length. The huge bird choked it down with alarming dexterity, then retreated.
”Ahhh, so tam-yoksela-eun. All day he eat the fruit, apples, berries, but he tam-yoksela-eun.”
“I know that one — greedy,” whispered Callum, who was paler than a mainsail. “…that’s a feckin’ Dodo bird! Yeah, I seen them at Crystal Palace too! They’re all dead and gone though, like the thunder lizards, yeah?” Callum repeated his ‘dead’ gesture.
Haedam sucked his teeth. ”No no! You see him!”
Haedam touched his chest, then gestured to the Dodo with a grin. “Me…same same!”
He then tapped Callum, and wiggled a rat between gnarled thumb and forefinger.
“You. Same same.” he said, grimly this time.
“So tam-yoksela-eun. So greedy, British,” he snorted.
The hulking bird took a step towards Callum, mouth gaping aggressively.
“Hey! No! Wait! Wait, later, later. Ahhh, so greedy,” Haedam sighed, then waved his hands, which caused the bird to skitter back through the bamboo.
Haedam reached over and put his elbow on the statue’s face, holding his arm out like a beak. Callum numbly realized that the statue was the spitting image of a beakless Dodo.
“It’s…beemil? It’s secret, OK?”
The shaman reached in and helped himself to more of Callum’s tobacco, waggled his pipe and chirped “Thank you!” He relit his pipe and shuffled off, humming a tuneless song.
Matt Poll has spent most of the past decade living in South Korea, and has written a memoir about the shenanigans involved with being a foreign birdwatcher there, as well as a thriller/fantasy novel set on Korea’s DMZ. He has also started writing a series of bizarre stories about birding.