The Golem Blog

Photograph by Paul Morriss

Here Lies the Elephant Bird

Running across a story about a shrimp-like creature that survived where few thought anything could live, the Golem recalls the time he hunted the Aepyornis.

4:53 p.m.

I must confess to being a pushover for stories like this one. And for the name Lyssaniasid amphipod.

A little on the nose, you might be thinking. Unexpected creature survives, apparently for generations, in unlikely, hostile environment; is exposed in mass media.

Well, I’ve never been one for subtlety. But the Antarctic discovery evokes the memory of a creature with even less subtlety than myself.

Enter the Aepyornis, the vorompatra, late of Madagascar.

The Portuguese sailors would bring me ashore—or I would bring them, as I was the one rowing—for the usual reasons: collecting wood, collecting food, and endless repairs. The early vessels generally weren’t built for transoceanic travel, and you wouldn’t believe how often those nets broke. Once I had done the requisite cutting, twining, and patching, they sent me into the wilds in search of edibles. Dense, humid forests were no barrier to me. Fresh water they collected themselves; I had difficulty telling pure from impure, and was likely to ruin the good stores with water polluted by animal urine or feces.

I would emerge from the jungle after perhaps two days of foraging, covered in mud and spider webs and the occasional red-legged millipede. The sailors relished my return, because no matter how many horrific beetles or scorpions clung to me, I never failed to discover a new flavor.

For amusement, one man would describe plumage of outlandish colors and a pattern of his own imagining. The others bet on whether I could bring back such a bird. In those days, when the birds moved in flocks that could change the air currents and rip the foam from the whitecaps, I had a high win percentage.

Also, I was the only one who could haul the vorompatra.

The first time I saw one, we had ranged down the eastern coast to where the soil becomes rocky and the beach turns to bluff. The forest there is more temperate and gives way to a dry, dusty plateau further inland. I saw the fattest trees I had yet beheld, all trunk, and thrumming with water. Some looked like they had been wrapped in burlap. I didn’t wander as far as the desert—I was done with deserts for a while—but I discovered a few swampy groves.

I sat on the ground and watched the flowers that only spread their petals at night. It felt nice to be absolutely still again. Insects made their way over me. Then the crunches began, and a neck emerged from the bush. Most of the life in Ampatres was on a small scale, and even the bigger birds and mammals disguised themselves well enough to confuse their true size. But there was no hiding what I saw nuzzling the mud.

Picture an ostrich crossed with a draught horse. Its limbs were thick and solid. Agility did not appear to be one of its strengths, though I would be proven wrong soon enough. At short tasks in a small space it lumbered, and the mere act of turning around made a disaster zone, scattering legions of fauna. When it had eaten, it made a sound that seemed to combine all sounds, sucking up the regular night animal noises and ripping them apart. I tried to imitate it years later, on my own in a very different forest.

That call opened a crack in me, invisible, and I thought briefly that the bird was saying my true name, but that was vanity. I only wished it were my name. More likely it was celebrating its own name, which I conceded, because it meant that I might yet hear what Hashem had named me—something equally splendid, something that might not even be a sound as we imagine sound.

Or maybe the thing just belched.

On subsequent voyages, the men were less and less hesitant about hacking through the bush, and of course, once they realized how docile the enormous birds were, they wasted no time in killing them. At first it was easy. The Atandroy tribesmen wouldn’t touch them, and they had become unused to men. But they learned quickly, and they knew where to hide. The rare time one appeared in the open, you had one shot, because they’d be more than a mile away before you could reload. For the excitement of family and friends back home, the hunt became a struggle for life and limb with birds that could eat elephants. In truth, it was a game of distance and stealth and I was forced into my role.

We believed we would encounter the Aepyornis elsewhere. And then we arrived at the point on the map where we’d started, and suddenly there were no more places to look. The sailors would search out a nest and send me into it. With a man hidden close by, I would wait until an angry hen returned. They were even louder when upset. One time the bird found the gunman before me, and that man never walked again. But usually the bird rushed at me, exposing its flank to the shooter. I was the only one who could stand the blow. It was a stately power, elegant. With each kick, I was helpless, just for a second. (I was careful to shelter my forehead with my arms, so don’t email me.) I’ve had my share of blows, and no living thing has ever rendered me so helpless. No single living thing, anyway. Plenty of individuals joined together and overpowered me. The zealots of the Hakham Zevi. The men who got Judah. The multinationals, in a way.

It wasn’t the shooting that did them in, it was taking the eggs. One egg could feed a man for days, and an egg can’t run. Even when the Malagasy told us there were no more birds, we didn’t really believe it, because we had found the ostrich and the rhea and, eventually, the cassowary, and they were near enough to make the old salts declare that somewhere in this edgeless world of unfurling magic we would find the vorompatra again. Why not? The fact that they existed at all was miracle enough; finding more would be nothing. Maybe in the land where men had three heads.

It has been suggested that progress forced magical beasts from the world. I believe progress extended their lifespans, to a point. Until we learned about endemic species and adaptation and the hands-off approach of Hashem, we believed we would encounter the Aepyornis elsewhere. And we pushed on, eternal optimists. And then we arrived at the point on the map where we’d started, and suddenly there were no more places to look.

The first time I saw dinosaur bones, I swelled with hope. I filled with something. I touched my belly where the kicks had landed so many decades before. Here were the birds that held the power of Hashem. If they wanted revenge, I deserved it. They had survived. Something had survived.


Of course, there are the miraculous recoveries: the coelacanth, thought dead for eons, discovered anew, making the leap forward in time. Hooray for the coelacanth. Hooray for the Lyssaniasid amphipod. Hooray for all of them.

The Golem began life in Toledo, Spain. He has lived in many places. He currently resides in a North American city. Email him here.More by The Golem