The wet, ragged bottoms of long ago washed linen pants clung to Charles’s legs, providing a rare and welcomed cool amidst the oppressive equatorial heat. The transition from the Beagle to the rocky, volcanic coast of Albemarle Island had been a precarious one—a leap from the wooden dingy onto sharp, slippery rocks where a multitude of orange crabs scurried about and marine iguanas blinked their prehistoric eyes in the sun. A young sea lion raised his head and barked. Charles, swaying from seasickness, gained his bearings, straightened his hat, and set off up a hill covered in stunted trees. His leather collection pouch bounced at his side. The sound of crashing waves dissipated as he walked further onto the island, and soon Charles was left to observe the sweet call of finches as they fluttered from tree to tree. In the distance, he noticed a brownish-grey bird with black and white striped wings sitting on a crooked branch of a guaiacum tree. The bird resembled a finch, one of many that he had cataloged on other islands, but its beak appeared to be longer and more dramatically curved than the others. The bird could be a different species altogether, he thought, or conclusive evidence he needed to prove was becoming clearer during the previous days on land—that similar species of animals can possess differing, adaptive features, each better suited to the separate environments.
Charles closed in on the bird. Fighting the enthusiasm to rush up to it he took each step mere inches in front of the last, slow and deliberate, like the iguanas that crawled from black volcanic rocks into the sea. Focused intently on the bird and filled with great hope of capturing it, Charles didn’t see the fallen branch in front of him. But he heard it. The sound, a loud, echoing snap immediately brought his attention to the ground. The entirety of the islands, South America and beyond shrunk to the span of his wetted pants, leather shoes worn to the point of splitting, the soil, patches of greenery, and a branch broken in two. When he looked up, the bird was gone.
In the trees Charles saw only arid wood and pale green leaves. The azure skies remained empty except for a small cloud in the distance, like fresh-picked cotton lingering above Charles Island. He returned to the coastal tide pools, struck two of the strange orange crabs and placed them in his bag with a few species of flowering plant collected on the hill, then walked the rocky coastline back to the ship. He would never visit Albemarle again. The next day Captain Fitzroy would reposition the ship to Charles and capture the giant tortoises that other ships in the area reported as the best sustenance for long oceangoing voyages. After Floreana, the ship would head west to Tahiti and the reported islands of palm-lined beaches and dark skinned sirens.
In his journal that night, Darwin noted, “It is the fate of every voyager, when he has just discovered what object in any place is more particularly worthy of his attention, to be hurried from it.” All hands had long since retired when he closed the book, pressed the cork top firmly in the inkwell, carefully carried the candleholder with lit candle to his bed, and drifted off to sleep.
Then, once again, Charles stood within inches of the guaiacum tree on Albemarle. The finch was once again on the branch, motionless. A slight breeze blew and ruffled Charles’s clothes, dry, neatly pressed and clean. Conditions were perfect. Still, Charles strained. No matter how close he came, the bird was out of range. He advanced and the tree retreated at the roots. The bird’s call was clear, but there was nothing he could do to get closer. Its features were forever blurred.