The Vicious Ecosystem
Story by Mark Swartz
Drawings by Susanna Harwood Rubin
The last one of anything appeals to me, especially living specimens, so when I heard that the last R. rousselia had been spotted in the jungles of south B____, I immediately booked a flight. This peculiar species resembles an ordinary garter snake in all respects except diet, for it refuses all nourishment except one singular item. It dines exclusively on eggs of the endangered H. mathunia hummingbird. And not just any egg, but eggs that contain a blue and orange mathunia just hours before the chick emerges. It is well known that only one in nine of this species is born blue and orange. A cornucopia of other edibles could be offered on a silver platter, and this snake would choose starvation.
Matthunias were vanishing at an alarming rate. In fact, the last fertile female mathunia had been spotted that fall, and, by a fantastic coincidence, she had laid exactly nine tiny eggs the night before my arrival in south B____. To protect her unhatched brood from an unseasonably cold and damp October, she flew off in search of the precious leaves of the all-but-extinct G. perecis tree, which was found in vast forests throughout the region before the great frost of 1971. Now there was only one, and the mathunia would settle for nothing else. She would rather let her children freeze.
My old friend and colleague, the esteemed arborist Darcel Muchamp, was initially reluctant to grant the mathunia access to his perecis, but some kind words and a bottle of rare Bordeaux broke down his resistance. At least, I thought it was the wine, but after a few glasses Darcel confided to me that the perecis was not in as fine health as it appeared. For the tree could not survive without the ministrations of an insect not seen in B____ for many moons.
I happened to know that the gray-green beetle of which he spoke, the R. grilletid, had been successfully bred in captivity by Torothea Danning, a reclusive entomologist who happened to be madly in love with my twin brother Quaymond. According to one report, Torothea, suffering from a bad case of malaria, had babbled something to her doctor about a single tiny grilletid emerging from its egg sac.
It was not difficult to disguise myself as my brother. With the help of an eye patch, a gold tooth and a neck brace, the resemblance was uncanny. “Quaymond!” exclaimed Torothea as I burst through the door of her laboratory. “My darling,” I mumbled, in imitation of my brother, who had suffered quite a number of unfortunate accidents. “Is it true? The grilletid?” The dear woman swooned in my arms. After being revived by a glass of icewater in the face, she led me to a dim terrarium where the newborn beetle awaited.
“This bug,” she intoned, “will die before midnight. Unless.”
“Unless what?” I asked, though I knew the answer.
“Unless we can dose it with the venom of the rousselia.”
My heart stopped as my eyes urged her to continue.
“The venom can’t be extracted without euthanizing the snake.”