May 1930: Clearwater Marsh, Wisconsin.
Rand began at dawn, with the peat. Ten years ago the state had dredged the marsh for farmland, but it had grown nothing but summer fires. Now burns scarred its dry bed. Their black roots reached all the way to the bedrock.
Peat was basal. Before the war, at boot camp in Madison, his bunkmate had revealed this to him. Huddled in a haymarsh trench, John had pressed Rand’s fingers to the wet brick of it. Peat was power, he’d explained with his easy farmer’s confidence: the black battery of decades, sometimes centuries of rot. Well cared for, it could feed generations of bulrushes and wading birds. Once consumed, it could not be replenished easily.
Now Rand replenished it. Following the Bureau of Ecological Restoration’s protocols, he spread his senses through the marsh’s burned floor. Layering rushes with water, he mimicked the cycles of decay that press plant into peat. A fragile warmth bloomed around his boots, and he thought of the BER’s instructions: make the marsh forget it was ever burned.
As he worked, he plucked the aspen saplings that had colonized the dried peat. Aspens grow fast, John had explained at boot camp, and since they’ve got rootstalks, they’re tough to kill.
What’s a rootstalk? Rand had asked, and John had laughed, Schoolboy.
But the next summer in France he had shown him: rootstalks, the ghost-fingers linked beneath the shelled poplars. Tough to kill, but not impossible.
Rand did not know how the BER intended to keep the peat wet or the saplings at bay, once he had finished his job. This was his first assignment as a Restoration Officer, and his last; he had been fired yesterday. He would not see how Clearwater fared once the BER was done with it. Five years ago, he would have assumed they had a plan.
The generals must have a plan, John had said, before they went over the top.
Noon was too late for birds, but since the war Rand had hated silent forests.
The sadness discernible in some marshes comes from their once having harbored cranes, John had recited as they’d lain together beneath the charred trees of Belleau Wood, awaiting the German barrage. He’d read slowly; it was the only book he owned.
How can a marsh be sad? Rand had asked.
Because it remembers what’s missing, John had replied softly, into the silence.
To cheer him, Rand had pointed up, towards a far-falling whistle.
What bird is that? he’d asked, and John had listened just long enough to seize him and shout, Down!
Now Rand plunged his senses into the new-laid peat, drawing up saplings from the bog at the marsh’s northern edge and dressing their frail arms with bark. He chose trees to attract the singers: tamaracks for the chickadees; black spruce for the kinglets; blueberry shrub for the waxwings, who called in soft, high voices like the ringing after shellfire.
On the low flats at the water’s edge he seeded cranberries, because he knew their fruit would feed cranes.
In the hospital after the armistice, before Rand had learned to walk again, he and John had lain together on his cot and browsed an Audubon guide leant by a BER recruiter. Across its plates bowed a tall white crane Rand had never seen before.
Whooping crane: Grus americana. Omnivorous, pair-bonding. Nest on swampy islands in piled reeds. Mate for life.
If we joined the Bureau, could we—? Rand had asked.
No, John had signed clumsily, his tin jaw rigid as a bird’s. Too few left. Less than one hundred in the wild.
The BER had a policy against resurrecting extinct species. Rand had never understood this, even after four years of university and five more of the Bureau’s training program. Standing before the instructor, his thigh aching in its girder and John’s face fixed and silent, he had asked why. Why not restore everything we’ve destroyed? We could still save the cranes. They’re not even gone yet.
Frowning, his instructor had explained that some things were irreplaceable; others, not so much. The BER only restored what would be missed.
Missed by who? asked Rand.
Is that what you mean by restoration? John had signed.
On Clearwater Marsh, Rand’s hands worked. Cupping his palms, he summoned the golden crown, the white eyebrows of a kinglet. He breathed on the memory, and the little bird dashed into the spruces.
Kinglets had been gone from Clearwater for ten years now. As far as the marsh knew, they were as doomed as the cranes. Yet here one was, picking at a cone. Rand wondered if the marsh remembered it.
He cupped his hands again. One by one the singers took wing: black-capped chickadees, cedar waxwings, clouds of chatty whitethroats. The new trees filled with song.
Restoration? The instructor had asked, once Rand had translated John’s question. Yes, yes, that is exactly what we mean.
When they had received news of their assignments, a year after completing the training program, they had been practicing stairs. Rand’s balance was still imperfect.
Lift it a bit higher, John had signed.
Randolph, you’re headed to Wisconsin, the placement officer had announced. John, you’re for Oklahoma. Congratulations, boys, on becoming contributing members of society.
But I’m from Wisconsin—I don’t know anything about the plains! John had said, his strong hands working angrily. Why there?
The officer had stared blankly until Rand translated. Then he’d glanced sidelong at John’s tin jaw.
Lots of tourists in Wisconsin, he’d said. Oklahoma, not so much.
He’d turned to Rand.
We’ve got a big job for you, son: Clearwater Marsh, freshwater jewel. The state dredged it ten years ago. We need you to restore it. We’re putting some signs up, maybe a Center. Show visitors we’re serious about conservation.
As the sun slipped down the afternoon, Rand pressed his hands to the peat. From its soft bed he drew up cattails, bulrushes, and sedges in five species: all the plants that, once piled, would make good nests. In the dark water he shaped hummocky islands, shaded by grasses so that eggs laid there would be well hidden.
He wished he knew more about migration routes, what might signal to a pair of white wings coasting far above, stop here. But such information was not part of BER training.
In silence John demanded, But what will I do in Oklahoma?
Why can’t you just deploy us together? begged Rand.
The placement officer had frowned.
Not very grateful, are you, boys?
As Rand’s shadow lengthened over the new rushes, he tapped into the water table below the bedrock. Refilling the marsh had been his core mandate. Put the water back where it was, the Bureau’s brief had said. Add whatever species you like, whatever looks natural, so long as it’s not too extinct or too ugly. Remember, we’ve got brochures to print.
Now as Rand drew, Clearwater refilled. Rising water steeped in the peat until it poured like tea around the waiting rushes.
Flicking his hands, he filled it with perch and minnows, frogs and mollusks. Omnivorous.
They must really trust you, John had written from Oklahoma, a week after they’d parted. Lucky. They want me to re-loam thirty acres for a bison preserve. But the dust storms from Texas keep burying it. My supervisor gets angry, but I can’t control Texas. Land isn’t just one place, you know?
reassignment to o.k. impossible, the Bureau’s reply to Rand had read.
repeat: reassignment impossible.
Two weeks later the placement officer had written personally.
Say, son, you want this job or not?
Do you have the cough now, too? John had written, four months after his first letter. They were getting shorter, the writing more erratic. I’m wondering if the gas is finally catching up with us. Wouldn’t mind a new jaw as well. Too much grit in this one.
Thigh cramping, Rand leaned against a spruce. Though his knee’s joint was worn, he could not apply for a replacement. His BER insurance would only last another year, and it depended on completing Clearwater to Bureau specifications.
Massaging his leg, Rand looked out. Beyond the bulrushes rose the drumlin where the future Center would stand. Ideal nesting ground, he thought.
repeat: reassignment impossible.
At dusk, Clearwater fell silent. Hidden in their trees, the dawn chorus slept; below the water, midges bedded against the spring chill.
This was the hour, Rand knew, when the whooping cranes would have danced, bowing their red heads, leaping in unison, lifting their white wings like ghosts summoning the night. Later, their bugles would have welcomed the coming dawn.
Grus americana: pair-bonding, mate for life. Rand had never seen cranes on the marsh. Yet its sadness still seemed theirs.
Do you remember how things were, before? John had asked in his last letter, a month ago, before they stopped coming.
This time the placement officer was angry enough to call.
That’s it, son. After this job, you’re through. The Bureau won’t tolerate whiners. Finish that marsh to spec, then you can walk to goddamn Oklahoma if you please. And don’t you dare try to pull a fast one on us. The BER only restores what would be missed.
On Clearwater Marsh, Rand raised his hands and swept down a sinuous line. White feathers followed.
Do you remember?
In Belleau Wood, trees planted by France’s Bureau were sprouting in the trenches: fast-growing species, poplars and black alder. Their rootstalks filled the shell holes and buried the bones.
Do you remember?
On the plains to the west, BER officers fought the dust storms that billowed up from the exhausted soil. They planted prairie tallgrass, high enough to cover the failed farms, bison skulls, whole nations of people.
Do you remember?
need last known location of sgt. john moore, Rand’s final wire to Oklahoma had read. am traveling south from wi. 3rd request. please reply.
Do you remember?
The crane loped away from Rand. Its white wings lifted, and it swept trumpeting into the sky.
Raising his hands, he made another.
Story copyright © 2020 by B. Pladek
Artwork copyright © 2020 by Kat Weaver
B. Pladek is a literature professor and writer based in Milwaukee, WI, who tweets occasionally @bpladek. They’ve published fiction in Escape Pod, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere, and are currently completing a novel (very) loosely based on this story.
Kat Weaver is an artist who sometimes writes and a writer who sometimes makes art. She has previously published written work in Luna Station Quarterly, Timeworn Literary Journal, Lackington’s, and elsewhere. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Minneapolis with her wife and their two birds.