The Halloween Project 2021 - Story 3: Witness to the Execution
We are now into the thick of the Halloween season. My horror spark comes from the most unlikely of places. The truth in this story is, by far, the scariest part. It's also quite horrific but in no way gory. Prepare yourself nonetheless.
Dr. Marcus was the campus comet, quoted on PBS, featured in the N.Y. Times, and seen on Nightly News as an expert commentator. If you had a question about Zoology that the public needed to hear, he was the man. In his mid 50’s with more degrees than a thermometer, his face, words, and voice showed up constantly on media everywhere. Unmarried, a bachelor with long credentials and countless books and publications his peers wondered why he hadn’t left for greener collegiate pastures long ago. Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Northwestern had all come calling but the answer was always the same.
“Tiny pond a perfect life for a single duck,” and he stayed for 22 years at Concord College in Midwestern Massachusetts. During lengthy sabbaticals he had ventured to every continent, manned submarine investigations of the Pacific, climbed many Himalayan peaks, climbed into the canopy forests of Ghana and Costa Rica. He was stubborn, electrifying at lecture, opinionated, loved a verbal joust, and handsome in a professorial manner. Students flocked to his classes and in the auditorium sat almost 200 undergrads wishing his lectures were longer.
“So,” he pronounced to the class, “We have come to the last class of the semester! Congratulations! Every single one of you has passed this course!”
General shouting and loud applause echoed in the amphitheater classroom. Marcus loved it and always encouraged Socratic dialogue, even with dozens and dozens of students.
“But, but, but…let’s not be too hasty. There were six D’s!”
Laughter all around and more applause.
“But, I feel as though I have failed you.”
“No’s” rang throughout the room, with one more polished “Never” and one last careful, “Hell Damn No!”
“I have entertained you. Informed you. Challenged you, perhaps even educated you.”
Marcus walked around to the front of the podium close to the edge of the raised stage. There he leaned back and with a booming voice launched, “But I have not changed you!”
Students, now silenced, squirmed a bit caught between slightly amused and rather nervous.
Stalking to the edge of the dais Marcus looked out across the faces gathered. He slowly made his way from one end to the other, stopping in front of this student or that, nodding or smiling. A paper dropped would have been heard. Students knew that Dr. Marcus always delivered.
“Here, in our last class, I will change you. Guaranteed. After this class, you will never be the same again. If this prospect frightens or offends you, please, leave now with my blessing. And rest assured, your grade will not change.
Thirty seconds of quiet grew to a minute. Three students stuffed their backpacks and left discreetly. Another, then another, and another trickled toward the exits at the back of the room. In all a dozen left.
“Fine,” Marcus announced, “Fine. And so we are almost 200. Ready for change? Let’s continue. You have studied Zoology all these months. You know a great deal about the animal kingdom. Consider our topics. Embryology, evolution, classification, distribution, extinction. Let’s consider that last topic. For the last few weeks, we have discussed extinction exclusively. Debated and considered and projected and re-considered,” he stopped.
“But you’re not changed. It was just another chapter, a momentary pause, like attending a concert or accepting a Tik-Tok challenge.” Light laughter rippled.
“So I will change you. Now.”
“I see laptops everywhere. Keep them open. In fact, please take out your phones. You may need them, if not now, then after. Film this, if you like. It would be wise. And now I would ask that you look up the Ivory-billed woodpecker. Here, I’ll write it on the whiteboard with a photo attached.”
“Quickly now, tell me everything. What do you find? Shout it out and I’ll add it here. Students always loved this foray into call and response with Marcus.
“Extinct!” several shouted.
“Yes, obvious, right?! What else?!” Students' voices began to punch across the large room.
“Habitat – North Carolina to Texas!”
“Environmental disaster. Natural forest clear cut!”
“Last seen undetermined. Perhaps 1940’s, again in 1950’s!”
“Excellent! What else?” Marcus asked.
“Led to Endangered Species Act – 1973! No person may ‘harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect.”
“Yes! More! Dig deeper!”
“Wait!” a young curly-haired man called loudly. The room quieted, “It was seen again in 2004. In Arkansas!”
“Excellent! Let me stop you there. Now listen carefully,” Marcus stated.
“In 2004 a kayaker was paddling around some wetlands, a birder in fact, and heard a very distinctive call. He stopped, listened, listened some more, and then saw…the Ivory-billed woodpecker.” Students watched in silence as a series of photos danced to the large screen. “It caused a sensation. A species back from oblivion, back from the beyond of life, back from extinction. Of course, I went as well. All manner of scientists descended on the backwoods forests and waterways of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. It was sighted a few more times and then…” his voice trailed off.
“Extinction!” another student called out, “Just two weeks ago. It and 22 other species were declared extinct.”
“Yes, a number of birds, mostly Hawaiian, some freshwater mussels. Gone forever. But are they? I also went to the south. I spent a semester among the mangroves and trees. I searched and searched. And finally…” his voice trailed off and he moved away from the podium. Near the back side of the stage was a door. Marcus exited and then returned pushing a large cart draped in a brown cloth. Chirping and long calls emanated from within. He stood and looked at the enraptured students, cell phones high, lights aglow. With a flourish he pulled the draped cover on the large birdcage. There in full splendor and view were four Ivory-billed woodpeckers. Red, black and white flashing on their feathers. Majestic, regal, alert.
Students sat enthralled. Hushed whispers were tossed about. A smattering of applause.
“But now for the lesson,” Marcus stated. He donned a pair of thick gloves,
pulled to the elbows.” He opened a small door and reached inside, his hand encompassing one of the birds. He held it aloft, its eyes darting across the room. With a deft, precise movement, wrenched its head, breaking its neck, the bird immediately falling into a flopping rag of feathers.
Screams blurted. Choruses of “NO!” “What! “Jesus Christ!” “Stop!”
Marcus took a second bird and performed the same act.
“Stop him! Stop! Dr. Marcus!!” students jumped from their seats, ran for the exit doors, stood, yelling, hollering, screaming, crying. Distraught. Unbelieving.
Dr. Marcus took the third of the four birds. Held it high aloft, displayed it for the shrieking crowd. And then swiftly snapped its neck.
“There it is,” he spoke although barely heard over the hysteria, “The last of the Ivory-billed woodpecker. The very last one to ever exist. For as long as it exists. And there will never be another. And what will you do…about extinction.”
“And now you are changed.”