“Aepyornis Island” is a short story by H. G. Wells, first published in the Christmas 1894 edition of the Pall Mall BudgetThe Pall Mall Budget was a weekly magazine published in London from 1868 until 1920.. The story was republished in two collections: The Country of the Blind and Other Stories and The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents.
Written as a first-person narrative, the story opens with a chance encounter between the narrator and a man who identifies himself as Butcher, a name the narrator is vaguely familiar with because of a legal case he has some memory of, Butcher v. Dawson. Butcher had been engaged to explore the islands around Madagascar when he found himself stranded on a coral atoll for four years, and the case concerned him suing his employer for the salary he felt he was due for that period of time.
Butcher tells of one particular island he explored where there was something in the water that prevented things from decaying. He had gone there looking for the preserved eggs of a long-extinct huge flightless bird, the Aepyornis. Assisted by two natives, he finds four gigantic eggs, “as fresh as if they had been new laid”, despite them being three or four hundred years old.
While carrying their find back to the canoe one of the natives drops the egg he is carrying, and it smashes on the ground. The native excuses himself by saying that he had been bitten by something, but enraged, Butcher beats the man, which results in both natives sneaking off with the canoe that night. Butcher spots the escaping pair and opens fire with his revolver, killing one of the natives, and succeeds in swimming out to the boat and climbing aboard. When dawn comes he finds the remaining native lying dead, possibly as a result of the bite he had received the previous day, and throws him overboard. But Butcher finds no paddle, and so has no choice but to let the canoe drift where it will.
On the second day, Butcher breaks open one of the remaining three large eggs, which sustains him for three days. On about the eighth day he breaks open another of the eggs, and is astonished to discover a developing embryo inside, which he consumes nevertheless. After ten days he reaches a small atoll, with a lagoon at its centre. Butcher places the egg in a safe place in the sun “to give it all the chance I could”, and within a couple of days it hatches; he calls the little bird Man Friday, after Robinson Crusoe’s companion on his desert island.
As the Aepyornis grows its “nasty temper” begins to exhibit itself, until one day it attacks Butcher, forcing him to flee to the lagoon and subsequently to occupy a palm tree too tall for the bird to reach. Eventually he decides that he must kill the Aepyornis, which he does by fashioning a bolero to bring it down and then jumping on it to hack at its neck with his knife.
With that tragedy loneliness came upon me like a curse. Good Lord! you can’t imagine how I missed that bird. I sat by his corpse and sorrowed over him, and shivered as I looked round the desolate, silent reef. I thought of what a jolly little bird he had been when he was hatched, and of a thousand pleasant tricks he had played before he went wrong.
Unable to bring himself to eat the bird, Butcher dumps the body in the lagoon, where it is picked clean by the fish. Some time later Butcher is rescued by a passing yacht, and on his return home sells the bones to a dealer; the bird is eventually recognised as a previously unknown species, Aepyornis vastis.[a]
At the time “Aepyornis Island” was written, Wells had never been outside England and Wales. It can be read as a parable on the theme of loneliness, a ripping yarn in the manner of Rudyard Kipling, or a Robinsonade – a genre of fiction inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe; Wells learnt his craft by imitating other writers.
- Aepyornis vastis is entirely fictional.