As the river delta began to disappear into the rising sea, Dr. Fortier noticed an unusual phenomenon: the greshes were building their nests right on the dwindling shores of the delta’s countless islands. With their characteristic alternation of patient foraging and strutting territoriality the male greshes went about gathering twigs and weaving their little wigwams, but now instead of the safety of the thick reeds they built them in mere divots of the delta silt, where egg and nestling alike would be exposed to jackals and alligators and finally to the rising waters of the foamy, polluted sea. How would such a strategy help these builders attract female greshes when the time came for the ritual displays of clucks, calls, and fanned plumage? Dr. Fortier was not a biologist and didn’t know how to account for it.
“At your greshes again?” said Dr. Brill, emerging from the Quonset hut behind her. He took the binoculars from Dr. Fortier’s hands even though the strap was still around her neck. He clicked his tongue several times, almost in imitation of the gresh he was looking at, then handed her back the binoculars, relaxing the pinch of the strap. “Correlation is not causation, Dr. Fortier,” was all he said as he disappeared into the latrine tent. He was possibly the most insufferable person she had ever met, but he was very good at what he did, both inside the hut and out. He still called her Dr. Fortier even though last night he had had his face between her thighs.
Several weeks passed. The male greshes went through their ritual dances and the dun-colored females now plumply brooded in the exposed nests. The males, however, seemed to have abandoned the vigilance that marked their reed-dwelling days and were nowhere to be found within the perimeters of the territories they had so zealously staked out. Sometimes Dr. Fortier woke in the dark to hear squawks, the crackling of dried reeds, splashes. In the morning where a nest once stood she would find just a scatter of twigs and feathers.
In the early days of the project she had considered emailing back to the States to put the question of this behavior to a biologist of her acquaintance. The phenomenon was interesting enough, she sensed, that he might come out himself to investigate. They had been lovers, she and the biologist, back in graduate school, and they still made a point of seeing each other from time to time if one of them had a conference in the other’s town, hinting in their hotel pillow-talk afterwards that it was only the great distance between their respective institutions that kept them from being together on a more permanent basis. The biologist was very handsome and full of poetry in the face of nature, while yet remaining a rigorous empirical scientist. In every respect except this last, in fact, he was the very opposite of Dr. Brill, who was ugly and arrogant and held an instrumental view of nature. She suspected that Brill was employed not only by a research institute but by a government agency. She continued to think of him as Dr. Brill even though last night he had had a pair of fingers in her anus during part of their intercourse.
One morning Dr. Fortier was watching a snake swallow a gresh egg when she felt the sudden presence of Dr. Brill. The hen gresh stood in a muddy inch of water a short distance from the snake, eyeing the reptile’s breakfast with what seemed to Dr. Fortier an unaccountable fatalism, and Dr. Brill – she knew without looking – stood several feet behind her up the slope where the Quonset hut was situated. Without making the least sound he was telling Dr. Fortier that it was time to get their gear and proceed to the worksite, where their expertise might usefully fulfill the obligations of their research grant. She retreated to the latrine tent.
As she squatted over the pit she knew he was there, outside the plastic curtain. A corner of the curtain lifted and Dr. Brill took a step inside. He unzipped his fly, brought out his penis, and aimed a stream of urine into the pit between Dr. Fortier’s knees.
At the worksite Dr. Brill left her alone with one of their assistants, a local youth who always appeared thunderstruck by Dr. Fortier’s sun-bleached hair. Dr. Fortier returned her instruments to their case and pushed the youth against a mound of earth, loosening his belt. As she took him into her mouth she saw Dr. Brill watching from the rise.
The greshlings, when they emerged from the few nests that had not been scattered or raided, appeared stunted and bandy-boned. They wobbled around on the exposed strand before being carried away by marauding gulls.
Dr. Brill became more voluble. “Your period is late this month, Dr. Fortier.”
“How do you know that, Dr. Brill?”
“Because it’s well over 28 days and I still haven’t smelled it.”
A few of the greshlings survived, however. Squat and scabby – their feathers looked more like lizard or fish scales – they nonetheless seemed to be robust, and enjoyed splashing in the foamiest, most livid patches of the rising waters. Intelligent, too: at one point several of them surrounded an invading snake, and ended up swallowing it in almost equal portions.
The Difference Between Strategy and Tactics
Over drinks I did my "valediction on the absolutism of the young" bit, while Doreen did a kind of cha-cha that showed off her new vintage gown. To say nothing of her calves, still firm as the belly of a trout! Young Charlie Vance chipped the decanter stopper; we found the shard later in the blood he vomited. It was then that the soldiers arrived. “Looks like we’ve been here already,” joked one when he saw the table. Sophie threw up her hands.
We were prepared to find them all brutes but soon we envied their urbanity. One of them knew how to mix a whole menu of novelty cocktails with sexually suggestive names. He handed them around with suggestive looks. The soldier with Grizzled Veteran embroidered on his epaulets told us how the word “shambles,” originally a place where pigs were slaughtered, came to signify any scene of wreckage, even blood-free wreckage. “I’ve always wondered, myself,” said Doreen, placing herself on his knees, “about the difference between strategy and tactics.” Sophie looked daggers.
Then Pryde came in and everyone fell silent, soldiers and dinner guests alike. Her chair was vacated instantly without anyone having to say which. Nonetheless it seemed to take a geologic age for her to drag the great train of her shawl across the rug, so that by the time she had lowered herself – majestically, agonizingly – onto the cushion, shafts of dawn had backed the cringing shadows to the wall.