This is not really a blog entry: it takes about ten minutes to read. I wrote this piece of non-fiction months ago. If you got the time please give it a read. Thanks.
What is it about finding a sick bird that will get people to go and find a cardboard box in the attic, shred some newspaper, get a bowl of water, and consider calling the vet that takes in wild animals? I’ve always liked birds. Dick told me the following story, one afternoon years ago, in a bar in Narragansett, Rhode Island, called Pancho O’ Malley’s. He and I worked together on a fishing boat. We had just unloaded a trip of squid. Now we were drinking beer from bottles. We weren’t drunk yet but we were heading there.
“Jimmy loved that bird,” Dick said. “I swear something happened up in the wheelhouse. A bond was made. They communicated.”
Dick pulled heavily off his cigarette. He grinned. His hair was silver-gray and long. “And I thought I was the birdman,” he said.
Dick was in Vietnam. After the war, he fished. He had a sharp recall memory: I heard his war stories as if they happened yesterday. During gales, I remember Dick lying in his bunk with his reading glasses on, a mountain of crossword puzzles across his chest, a pencil in his mouth.
The bartender changed the channel on the TV. The sound of bottles, the smell of smoke. Behind us some college students were drinking beer and eating chips. Then a young salesman in a suit and tie—he was sitting in the stool right beside Dick—said, “Hey I was just wondering, are you talking about a parrot? I couldn’t help hearing you say, ‘a bird and a bond.’ I grew up with an African Gray. Smartest parrot there is.”
“Parrot?” Dick asked. “We were a hundred and fifty miles offshore. What it was was an egret.”
“I know those birds,” said the salesman, getting excited, as if he were suddenly picked to be on the team. “The white ones, right? The ones you see in the marshes?
Dick blew out a cone of smoke. He wiped some beer from his chin. He looked at the face of the young salesman.
“I can’t remember exactly where we were fishing,” Dick said. “Somewhere well south of the Vineyard. Probably Block Canyon. It was in March and we were mackerel fishing. The Atlantic Harvester had just converted over to being a freezer boat, which was a big deal back then. I think it must’ve been ‘84. We could stay out for days and never worry about the fish going bad. The egret landed on the bow of the boat on the second day. I looked up from the deck and saw it there.”
Dick paused with his story. The salesman leaned in. Dick took a long pull off the beer bottle, hand clasped around its neck. He looked around the bar at the people, at the TV, at the booze lined along the liquor shelf. I waited and the salesman waited, the second hand rounded the face of the Bruins’ clock. Dick picked up right where he left off:
“Now a bird in the rigging isn’t something that draws much attention on a fishing boat. During the migrations, in the spring and fall, we get all kinds of birds that land on the boat—owls and hawks, and a dozen different kinds of tiny yellow birds that’ll fit in the palm of your hand. They find us because if they don’t they die. I’ve thought about this. The egret made a mistake. Something happened and it couldn’t make the adjustment. One hour it was migrating comfortably up high in the Jet Stream; an hour later it was completely stressed out flapping over the Atlantic, getting tired, looking for a place to land. Egrets can’t land on the water, you see, like a seagull can. Their feet need to touch bottom. We were fishing in 60 fathoms. The egret would need 360-foot legs to survive. Hawks, owls and those little yellow birds with the tiny beaks, all have a similar problem—their bodies aren’t designed to swim. If these birds wander off track during their migrations and don’t find us they’re fucked. They’ll drown. Or get eaten up. I’m certain the ocean kills them by the thousands. A death without malice.
So this egret clung to a wire stay near the exhaust stack. It was pure white, with long yellow legs and a neck that curved like a question mark. I was the one who called it an egret. No one else on board knew what to call it. The bird looked terrified, its plumage ruffled and ratty. The wind started to blow, a driving March rain. I watched the bird cling to the rigging stay, its body angled into the wind, like an arrow on a bowstring.
I went into the galley for coffee. I pitied the bird. I actually felt sorry for it, coming all the way up from South America, flying high, and then something goes wrong; maybe a shift in wind or air pressure, and the bird ends up flying above wave tops. It misses Bermuda and the East Coast. Its compass all fucked up, where all it wants is some marsh in Vermont. But it isn’t going to get it. Instead it gets us.
The Atlantic Harvester becomes a sanctuary. The big main engine booming down below, two generators, pumps, compressors, a mile of hydraulic hoses. Trawlers are loaded with winches and every winch has a different whine. And the net clanging and banging as it comes up the stern, the dragging of chains. The birds that land on us all have a choice: to stay and eventually reach land, or to take their chances, roll the dice, flying over the waves. Most choose to fly, to continue their migration—to take the risk against exhaustion and saltwater dehydration.
Then the captain, Jimmy, came into the galley. He got a cup of coffee; he didn’t mention anything about the bird. Jimmy doesn’t talk much. He’s married but you’d never know it. He has a kid. But up in the wheelhouse, amongst the radars and fish finders, there are no photographs of his boy tacked up. We fish with Jimmy not because we like him but because he makes us money. He’s the kind of captain you silently call dickhead and aren’t really sure why. He’s no screamer. No red-faced tyrant, hollering words that cut you down.
We hauled and set the net. We sorted fish by size. We froze fish. We ate. I forgot about the bird because I assumed it was dead. The white spray flew across the rails. The big steel hull rose and fell on the seas. Weather sucks. It makes everything hard. Half your energy goes into keeping your balance. Who knows where the other half goes?
It must’ve been late in the afternoon, on maybe the fourth day. The freezer hold was looking good, not full but getting there. We talked at the galley table. Me and the cook and the engineer. Jimmy was up in the wheelhouse. It was still shitty out.
“I’m heading up to ask Jimmy when he wants dinner on the table,” the cook said.
We nodded. The cook always checks with the captain about meals.
He went up the stairs to the wheelhouse. When he came back to the galley table he had a crazy look, half puzzled, half comedy, somewhere between a grin and a laugh. He lit a cigarette, carefully drawing out our anticipation. “You guys wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
“What?” we said.
“Jimmy’s got the bird in the wheelhouse. The bird’s sitting on the chart table. Jimmy told me it drank water from a bowl.”
This I had to see. I walked along the galley wall holding on to the railing. I turned at the stairs, the boat heaved. Something in the refrigerator shifted. I entered the wheelhouse. I heard the crackle of the radios. I heard the sound of Jimmy’s sweatshirts swinging back and forth on the hooks. I saw Jimmy’s back. He was sitting in the wheelhouse chair, staring at the cold ocean. The boat rode the seas. Troughs and peaks, spray all over the windows. Then I saw the bird on the chart table, looking wrecked, feathers all tufted out, a wing not quite fitting the contours of its body.
“How’d the bird get in here?” I asked.
Jimmy turned around in his chair. He looked beat, a man in need of better sleep. His words came out in slow motion, devoid of excitement. “I’d been keeping an eye on it all day. It was getting braver about things. Flying from one side of the boat to the other, then back around the aft end of the wheelhouse. I left the door open. The bird came in. I gave it water. It drank.”
“It’s an egret,” I said, as if naming it would make a difference about things.
“Dick, I don’t give a damn what you call it,” Jimmy said. “The bird’s beat. Fucking spent.”
I went back down the companionway stairs to the galley. I couldn’t believe it. Like a scene from the Old Testament. Pure white bird blown in from death standing on the worn wooden edge of the chart table surrounded by ocean rollers streaked in foam—and the skinny captain, our captain, wordless, chain-smoking, his blue sweatpants hanging off his ass.
We fished for two more days. Jimmy found a school of mackerel and we put fish down fast. The hold filled up. Through the day and into the night we hauled and set the mackerel net. When someone relieved Jimmy from the wheelhouse he gave explicit orders not to fuck with the bird. To not open the door; Jimmy said the bird wasn’t ready yet for flight.
Wasn’t ready yet for flight? I thought while packing boxes of mackerel. How the hell did Jimmy know when this bird was ready for flight? I laughed. But maybe I was getting envious. A bond was taking shape. So we packed boxes of mackerel and put the boxes into the big plate freezers. From the plate freezer the frozen boxes went into the freezer hold.
The fifth day of the trip. The egret had been with us three days. I couldn’t sleep. It was early in the morning, I knew that. I went to the wheelhouse stairs. I climbed them. In the wheelhouse I saw red to the east, that color you get after a blow, right before the sun comes up. A color deeper than red. The clouds pressed low right above the waves. Jimmy was in the chair looking out. The egret was perched on the back of the chair. It was preening its feathers. Its ruffled look was gone.
“The bird ate some bread,” Jimmy said. “He wouldn’t touch a mackerel. But sometime after midnight he ate some bread. I softened the bread in water. He ate from my hand.”
I approached the bird. Jimmy’s hand caught my shoulder, stopping me.
“Don’t get too close. He doesn’t like to be crowded.”
We topped the freezers off, 100,000 pounds of frozen mackerel. The Harvester was full. We steamed for home, to Point Judith. It would take us about 15 hours to get there. As we neared land the weather started to flatten out. The boat ran on an even keel. Guys slept, showered, and talked about getting home, getting drunk, getting laid. I was on deck, the sun was out. You could see the bluffs of Block Island off the port side. Then a flicker of motion caught my eye. I looked up. The egret was in the rigging, hopping from one wire stay to another. Jimmy stood on the upper deck. He was watching the bird, too. Smoke poured out the exhaust. The bird stretched it wings.
“He can sense land,” Jimmy hollered down to me. “It can sense Block Island, getting its courage up to make the flight.”
The egret flew a circle around the boat and then landed again in the rigging. Then it took off, heading straight for Block Island, about two miles away. The bird looked strong in flight. Jimmy’s hands were on the boat’s rail. I don’t know if I saw the gulls coming before Jimmy. It doesn’t much matter. It was a flock, maybe a dozen, of them big-winged, broad-shouldered gulls, the kind you see offshore, the size of eagles. The gulls circled the egret—above it and below it. The gulls drove the egret into the water. It happened fast. The gulls sat on the water and drove their bills in and beat the egret with their wings. They weren’t going to eat it, just kill it. Jimmy watched. My stomach nerved up. Jimmy ran into the wheelhouse as if we had a man overboard. He began to turn the Harvester around, putting the wheel hard over, hammering the throttle down. The big diesel howled as the Harvester leaned into the turn. Once he got close to the flock, he took the boat out of gear. We drifted. The event was over. The egret was dead, a floating puff of feathers.
I was at the rail, watching. I’ve seen gulls do this before. Drive birds into the water. It’s what they do. When they see something foreign they go for it. Then I heard the bang of the door behind me. Jimmy stormed at me. The cook and the engineer were behind him. Jimmy had two loaves of bread in his hands, clenched down hard. The cook had a big bag of pretzel sticks.
“Take this bread, break it up and get it in the water,” he told me.
Then Jimmy was gone; seconds later he was storming across the deck. I saw him load six rounds into his 12-gauge pump shotgun. He got to the rail and looked down at the water. The gulls fed on the bread and the pretzels. Fed like mad. Then he opened fire. His hand worked the pump; the rounds came out. I saw gull bodies blown apart, wings, a head. The feathers flew high into the air like blow dust. The dead birds floated on the water. The gulls and the egret. We all just stood at the rail, both looking around and not looking around. Numb, that’s what we were. When I looked up, Jimmy was heading for the wheelhouse. He turned the boat around. We went in.
Now the early evening Happy Hour crowd was coming in. The bartender had peanuts on the table. News was on the TV.
“Jesus Christ. Them fucking gull bastards,” said the salesman. “Jimmy did the right thing, I’ll tell you that.”
“What happened to Jimmy?” I asked. “What happened to him afterward?”
“Don’t really know. We finished the mackerel season. Then someone in Alaska bought the boat. Maybe he went with it. Maybe he didn’t. I haven’t heard of Jimmy since that summer.
“Gone without a trace,” said the salesmen.
Dick nodded. He got the eye of the bartender, paid, then left.
It’s hard to say if Jimmy was made into a different man by what happened. No one ever asked him. He may have forgotten about the egret a week after it happened. I doubt it though. And it’s even hard to know if Dick was touched by what happened. I never asked him. And now Dick is gone; I haven’t seen him in years. He and Jimmy and me are all following our own migration, going from here to there and back again, sometimes secure, sometimes lost.