about the author

Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.

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Anthropocene Moves  

Robert James Russell

Illustrations by John Vestevich

Titanis walleri

Bring back the terror bird.

We’ll put it on dude ranches, charge admission fees to witness its massive beak—bones fused together, resilient, ready. The birds will strike at time-released prey, kicking up dust and chasing it into circles in a round pen made up of raw cedar timbers. Yes, we imagine green, snow-capped mountains in the distance—we’re in the outskirts of Vancouver, perhaps.

We’ll marvel at its stature: Over eight feet tall, over three hundred pounds! We’ll ask, “Can we ride them?” We’ll ask, “Do we eat them or fear them, now?” Because, see, we asked these questions once before, when we were young. Our family gave us a parakeet—blue-dyed, it looked, tiny, soulful black eyes and its head swiveled marvelously. We named it Spike, we wanted to let it fly about the house but we were emphatically told No. We asked, “Do people eat these birds?”

And our family laughed, laughed right at us. And our grandmother, knee-hobbled, pin-drop-eyed, croaked at us, said, “I’m scared of birds. Scared of all birds. I think we should kill it.”

Fear, we know now, begets malice—an equation we have seen throughout our lives. But back then we cried, we didn’t understand such cruelty. Two days later, when we woke, eager to feed the bird, to replenish its trivial cage with fresh water, we found it at the bottom, stiff among the newspaper liner, its own waste and cracked seeds, nutscraps. Cursed, we thought. Grandma cursed it!

And everyone laughed, again. We wrote about it in our diary, and they passed that around, too, for months. Showed relatives the drawing of the dead bird lying with its feet straight up, Xs for eyes, tongue out. It was an approximation, colored hurriedly in neon blues, a blue blob, between labored crying fits. What they did with the bird, we don’t know. We know only what they told us, that while we slept they went out and buried it, put it in an old Reebok shoebox and laid it in our sour earth. We didn’t believe them then, we don’t believe them now. Our Grandma said it was a good thing, better for all. We were never allowed to have a bird again, left only to study them in old books, in our old copies of National Geographic. We dream still of colorful birds, ones so big they can’t be killed. And yet, we’re desperate to cradle them, to give them great care.

American Lion

Bring back the North American Cave Lion.

One of the largest felids that ever existed, the largest subspecies of lion—bring it back, release it across the Great Plains of America again. Let it shade under bur or blackjack oak, sun itself in the prairies of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Wyoming, stalk deer and elk, buffalo. Let it coordinate in prides, trample down barbed-wire fences and attack flocks of meat or wool sheep in the night, dragging them bleating and helpless into the dark horizon. And then, we know, the farmers will take up shotguns and rifles. Bills will be passed legalizing the hunt of our American Lion. Protests will happen, of course, but they will be drowned out, and hunters will share photos of the massive cat carcasses strung up in trees, some nearly eight feet long, paws the size of human heads.

The news cycles will call it a mistake, bringing them back, releasing them. And, see, our cat, Bailey, he was a mistake, too—delivered to us by our sister when we were ten, brought to our house cradled up in her bad boyfriend’s leather jacket, his orange and white face sticking out, pink-nosed, mewing helplessly.

“Only for a while,” she told us, “just while we find a new place to live.”

But she never came back for Bailey. And we grew to love him, but his love was diabolical—he chased us with claws, bit at our legs. Yet our devotion persisted. He died when he was eighteen from old age and we remember that, we do. We were home from college and Bailey, then, was skinny, skeletal. He wanted our hands upon his stomach, his neck, not petting, no, but resting, our warmth. He curled behind our legs on the couch. Almost no sound came out when he opened his small mouth. We touched his head, we told him we loved him. He died a week later while we were back at school navigating doomed relationships, grueling class schedules. But we never told him he wasn’t a mistake, and we regret that, still. He lay there, tucked behind us, quietly, feebly, nearing his end. All we could do was give our warmth. All we could do was be warm.


Bring back the giant freshwater turtle, a marvel.

We stand, back straight against the eggshell-white living room wall, and our partner measures our height with her hand, marks it at six-feet-two inches. We survey, we remark that stupendemys was, yes, stupendous: an eleven-foot fossil carapace was once found. Eleven feet! Its great bulk kept it anchored under water, and yet it was a weak swimmer, could hardly navigate against any current. It stayed in place, slow-moving, trapped—what kind of life is that?

Years ago, we found a turtle crossing the road in the depths of a state park. We pulled over. Our relationship, that one, back then, was near over. We got out, we moved the turtle. It pissed on us, all over our hands. We put it back into the brush, wiped our hands along our sweatshirts, our jeans. Back in the car, we made a joke about the turtle, how helpless it was crossing the road. We wondered, in silence then, what would’ve happened if we’d never come along?

In our twenties, we found a painted turtle on a hike. We were crushingly alone then, isolated from the world, trying to discover the source of our pain. We took frequent hikes, communed with nature. Our dog found the turtle and we, gleefully, picked it up. We remarked on its face, twisted into some permanent smile, we liked to think—although, sure, we knew turtles cannot smile, they have no place for it. We flipped it over, admired its carapace. It, too, pissed on us, drowning us in its release.

We were at a bonfire at our family cottage up north. We were ten. We trapped turtles in the lake with our cousins, painted nail polish on their backs to mark them as our own. We raced the turtles later on, released them back into the water. Years later, during college, our family broken and gone, we are back at that lake, small and barbell-shaped. Everything now is lesser, quainter than it used to be. From the edge of the T-shaped dock floating in the black water, we see a turtle poke its head out, its shell just arced up out of the water. There, we see a mark of faded, scratched nail polish along its back, a neon pink racing stripe. We have no idea if this turtle was ours, if it was the one we painted. But we wonder, Has the turtle been stuck here all these years?

Did it have nowhere else to go?

We think then of stupendemys living in this bowled lake—this tank turtle that would be stuck here the same. It would have been trapped, crushed by its own weight, unable to move up beyond the muck of the shores. We stand on the old dock, that splintering red cedar, as the sky darkens to the north. We know no one has said anything about rain, and yet the clouds say otherwise. That a change is coming. But for now, the waters are calm. There’s no wind, the lake is yet still, mirrored. This whole place, our memories, will anchor and die here, too, someday.


Bring back the pouch-dog, the marsupial wolf, the hyena.

We were ignorant—we called it Tasmanian tiger, its stripedness fearsome to us. We put out bounties, paid for its skins. Bring back the thylacine so that we may pay back the limits of our cruelty ten-fold.

The last thylacine died in a zoo on September 7, 1936. We witnessed its species end, the ruination of a genetic code. There are photos, so many photos, but when we talk about its diet and its mating and day-to-day habits, we are guessing: We know just about nothing at all.

The story of the Tasmanian tiger is one of regret, we know. It was misology that brought about the animal’s destruction. London landowning corporations a world away that logged and grazed on the island of Tasmania blamed thylacine for the loss of sheep, for drought and famine and natural disaster. Tiger Men were hired and put in charge of great ribbons of land, their sole job: the eradication of the species. They employed teams of dogs, convicts, native aboriginal hunters. We imagine the tigers fleeing inland, pursued endlessly. We imagine them scared, predator-turned-prey, never knowing the reason why.

But it was too late for them, in the end. Our destruction was rampant and unapologetic. Specimens were shipped to zoos and botanical gardens all over the world, but it was the last, in Hobart, so close to its actual habitat—yet trapped, caged—that died during the night with a whimper. Left out in the cold, the last thylacine, Benjamin, died alone. It cried out and no one came for it until morning, discovered its plight too late, too late.

By then, yes, groups had been formed to try to salvage the species, to place it back into the wilds, but how can you save the last of a thing? With its extinction came regret, but what does it mean to regret only at the end? On our deathbeds, to apologize only then? We worried too late for the thylacine. Our desire to save it came only when we realized exactly what we had wrought.

We had wanted to run away, once, when we were younger, to remove ourselves from our families outright, from the walls of the homes that kept us confined. Our siblings fought, screamed each morning. Our brother stabbed a steak knife into the wall in protest. We didn’t feel like we belonged here, with these people. We wanted to change our names—Ellsworth, we liked, a maiden name on our grandfather’s side. We’d rebrand, we’d go somewhere else, somewhere warm, maybe. We’d find new friends easily. We’d carry with us those memories worth holding onto, only the good ones—playing G.I. Joes with cousins in the muddy backyard, Lake Michigan at sunset, our mother’s hands raked gently across our backs to get us to sleep, to sleep. We’d displace the bad dreams, leak them from our brain under our pillow before we’re gone.

We’d be the first and the last of our kind. Only then, we believed, would we know what loss really was.

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