A paper collage showing a dream-like scene of people dotting a beach surrounded by mountains covered in lush greenery.
Image credit: Yannick Lowery / www.severepaper.com

Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s fall 2023 issue, “How Do We Create Home in the Future? Reshaping the Way We Live in the Midst of Climate Crisis.”

Found within the residence of John Campion, MD, after the report of his disappearance.

On that warm morning the rainbow mussel (Dreissena aurora) was discovered, no one could deny its beauty. Crowds gathered in the early morning mist along the riverside of my home, Marsh Lake, to witness for the first time the bright iridescent shells shimmering with refracted light like oil erupting across the quay. All along the Mississippi riverbed the razor edges of each bivalve were magnified and distorted by the water. The famously muddy river was bright with color and crystal clear.

Others have reported, perhaps melodramatically, the damage caused by the introduction of the rainbow mussel to the waterways of North America. Even accepting more conservative estimates, the proliferation of the rainbow mussel has cost the nation several billion in infrastructure repairs. Fishing industries have collapsed along the Great Lakes. Hundreds of individuals a year incur medical debt for expensive veligerectomies. I treat at least a dozen each summer, soothing their itching skin and carefully detaching grown bivalves. I do not take on the more advanced cases. Once the lungs are colonized, time is limited, even with the best care. A month after treatment, perhaps up to half a year, the patient inevitably disappears, leaving only their clothes to wash ashore in the nearest lake or river.

However, since its first reported appearance on the shores of the Upper Mississippi over five years ago, the rainbow mussel has been directly linked to, at most, 80 confirmed deaths. Many sources place the number at 81, but I do not count the so-called Quagga Man of Marsh Lake. Though his was the most advanced case of Dreissena colonization in medical records, this did not precipitate his death.

He was murdered. But not, as others would claim, by my hands.

What I did to the man (or rather, what I left undone) was not out of malice or bias. By the time I met the Quagga Man, named after the mussel more commonly known in the area, he could have been anyone. I did not even know if he was a man. He could have been a woman, or nonbinary (the name Quagga Man was coined by the local rag and stuck to him harder than the mussels themselves). It was certainly no fault of mine that he was one of those vagrants forced out of the city to scrape a living between drought and flood along the riverbank.

In fact, no one knew what the Quagga Man was when he first appeared. He was discovered the same morning the rainbow mussel suddenly appeared along the marshy banks of the Mississippi in Marsh Lake’s Riverside Park. Crowds gathered as near as they dared to the bright iridescence rippling across the quay. Everyone looked to the river, and so it was nearly noon before the Quagga Man was discovered, a recumbent form in the park’s central fountain, encrusted with a prism of opalescence.

He was not alone. There were two other forms standing behind him, soldiers who once wore uniforms from two world wars. Tourists didn’t look twice, but those of us who grew up here knew the Quagga Man was a new addition to the monument. Was he a prank? A piece of modern art from some college student, placed at just the wrong (or right) time? A few rumors spread that attempted to explain his sudden appearance, but inevitably the greater wonder of the rainbow mussel took over the local imagination.

It was the ecologist Dr. Anderson who first floated the idea to our team, nearly three weeks later, that he could be alive. After the many layers of shell had been chiseled away, it took DNA and dental tests to determine that he was Desmond Brown, an amateur ornithologist fallen on hard times. I have since purchased his album of midwestern bird calls, which are accurate (if shrill).

Here, I will admit to a lie of omission. I knew the truth of the Quagga Man almost immediately.

The day he was discovered was the year’s first heat wave. I had arrived from the hospital to provide medical attention to the ecologists on the scene and the gawkers crowding the park. Out of curiosity, I looked closely at the fountain, fascinated by the liveliness the mussels lent to the reclining form. It was my first view of Dreissena aurora, and I was enamored. I walked around the fountain slowly, as a connoisseur, pushing my way through the crowd. Soon I was called to treat a child for heatstroke, whose mother had stupidly brought him out of the house. But when I returned, the crowds had thinned. I braved stepping in the waters of the shell-encrusted fountain to get a closer look. That is when I saw it: there was one cleft in his pearly shell. It was so small, only someone close could notice it. From deep within I saw an eye, shadowed behind the valves opening and closing with quiet clicks. It was wide and frightened. No sooner had that eye startled me when I saw a web of silky byssus enter and cover its surface. The fear I saw in that eye was the only message I would receive from him.

Was he asking to be saved? I did think, briefly, of shouting to my colleagues. But really, what could we do for him?

Nothing, I thought. He should have been dead already, after so many hours in the blistering heat—his skin punctured and his airways sealed. And yet there was, barely perceptible, a rising and falling of the chest. Occasionally, his fingers twitched.

How in God’s name was he alive? 

I endeavored to find out.


I did not kill the Quagga Man. He would have lived if I had had my way. He would have changed, yes, but that was already beyond my control. My only responsibility, as I saw it, was to give him time. Every day I saved him from the swarming, gawking crowds threatening to trample him, suffocate him, chip off one of the precious shells that, somehow, made up his new respiratory system. Every morning I arrived before dawn and kept careful watch, attending my official duties as necessary but often rushing across the riverbank to distract tourists and encourage parents to rein in their little parasites. More than once, I lacerated my feet as I ran over a razor shell missed during the morning cleanup. I didn’t mind—I could patch myself up—as long as the Quagga Man had time to finish his remarkable metamorphosis, to which I alone bore witness.

No, I did not kill the him, neither by malice nor by negligence. The day he died, I had been forced to abandon my post. While I was treating one of Dr. Anderson’s young interns for dehydration, some idiot child, driven by a dare, had decided to clamber over the Quagga Man. The upshot was, the clumsy punk stepped on a finger. I could hear the crack from across the park as the digit broke away.

“Agh, it’s rusty!” one of the delinquents shouted. 

“It’s blood!”

“No way! It’s just mussel juice or something.”

I was there before I realized it, standing over the boy as he looked up at me from the ground. How had he gotten there? And just as quickly, I was called away by Dr. Kaur and dismissed for the day, against all protestation.

“But my papers…” I said, moving to retrieve my notes on the Quagga Man. But Dr. Kaur shook her head and assured me any paperwork I needed to finish would be there tomorrow. And likely much more.

There was nothing I could do. I was sent home indefinitely. And Drs. Anderson and Kaur, no doubt drawn by the cries of those idiot children, finally examined the encrusted form more closely. By the time my unofficial suspension had ended, the good doctors had begun their work. The Quagga Man died within the week.

The postmortem was a farce. “The species has developed parasitic behavior verging on carnivory,” Dr. Anderson, the report’s lead editor, wrote. “They may attach themselves to hard and soft surfaces, including flesh. More insidiously, the spores can be inhaled under water and encyst within the lungs. More observation will be needed to discover other identifying symptoms of Dreissena parasitism, but in the immediate future, prevention is the highest priority. For this reason, it is the recommendation of this committee that all methods and treatments possible should be used to remove Dreissena aurora from North American waters.”

Parasitism. Outrageous, blinkered nonsense. As though the case of Desmond Brown had shown us anything but that a man left drunk in a park fountain had miraculously survived one of the worst heat waves of the year without food or water—had survived purely on the secretions of Dreissena aurora into his bloodstream. Colonization, yes; but objectively symbiotic, if left alone.

The Quagga Man was not left alone. From salt baths to carefully administered ionized copper treatments (a highly unorthodox and dangerous treatment unsanctioned by the medical establishment), they did everything in their power to kill and remove the mussels that had embedded themselves into his skin and, in some places, his bones. They rinsed his lungs to kill the encysted veligers within the bronchioli. With each veliger and shell they removed, with every byssus excised, they severed him from the secretions that maintained his vitals—such as they were. In short, they did all they could to save him from what he had already become: a colony and a home for a migrant species in a strange land.

What was left of him after they chiseled away his shimmering carapace could have fit into a paper bag. The only justice of the situation was that, due to the temporary national ban on cremations, Desmond Brown’s body was released into the river to which he and all his peers are surely headed, regardless.

During my suspension, I could not keep my notes from the prying eyes of the press scattered throughout the crowds. They were stolen by a jumped-up local journalist looking for a scoop. A week later, I was crucified in the local papers, followed shortly by the medical journals. It was made very clear to me how lucky I am to remain in my position.

Meanwhile, the ecologists dumped their chemicals into the river, and teams of hazmats scraped away at the riverbank until all that remained were the indented forms of shells. Perhaps the rainbow mussel would have destroyed Marsh Lake. Perhaps all our pipes would have clotted with it. Perhaps the fish and birds would have died off, and the riverfolk starved. But Dreissena aurora had found a way to live with us, even through us, outside the river. They were prepared to make their home with us, and we had responded with poison and fear. I say we, though I no longer identify with that hateful word. There is no we, only the shivering solitary I of humanity.

My colleagues have rejected me in turn, jettisoning my life’s work from the academy and censuring me in public. My neighbors turn from me in the street.

I feel no guilt or remorse for my inaction and observation. But I must admit, the gaze of Desmond Brown’s eye has followed me through the last year. I ask myself if those tendrils grew as quickly as I remember. How long had I watched as slowly they obscured his sight? More and more, I think of the river and the hidden life teaming under its surface, once again muddy and opaque. The sun is burning away another summer. My skin itches, and I think how homey it would be at the muddy river bottom. How silent, and how cool.