On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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The salt air rises from the bay, and a dozen or so herring gulls fly over the water, disappearing into the morning fog, then reappearing farther out.
Up on this hill, the fog has already cleared. I am planting Kennebec potatoes, kneeling to tuck the blunt chunks, each with a pale stalk, into the crumbly Maine soil. Those of us who live here at the head of the bay have, over the years, become an interdependent community of sorts. We work alongside each other this morning in a garden on a neighbor’s plot of land. I pause to admire the long, straight rows of lettuces, kale, kohlrabi, and chard: the light leaves and the darker ones, the purples, the cup shapes and rose shapes, all bright with dew in the early-morning sun.
A few rows up, Kate is giving quiet instructions to someone. Kate was born in this community. She grew up here and left for college and after graduation worked as an assistant manager on a farm in Massachusetts. Now a master gardener, she has come home to earn her living on the land and to teach us what she has learned. When we first began hacking kitchen gardens out of old hayfields decades ago, with our back-to-the-land fervor, we had only a few well-thumbed gardening books to guide us. But Kate is a professional. Her hands have acquired an understanding, their gestures minimal and precise. She places the seeds evenly one at a time, pats them into the soil, and moves along the rows with a clear purpose.
Most of us on this morning’s shift came here looking for a way of life that was good for both our families and the earth. When my children were young, I used to go into the garden while they slept, just as the sun came up, and I’d dig in the dirt and think: I have brought you to this good place. I wasn’t talking to my children — although I had, indeed, brought them to a good place. I was talking to the child I’d once been.
The sight of the gulls in the fog is pulling me back to the summer I was nine, an age at which whatever makes us who we are is already at work. “The child is father of the man,” Wordsworth wrote, and it’s true: we are all, to some extent, shaped by the children we were. I hear the birds’ familiar piercing cries and remember that nothing feels quite like the down of a gull’s belly: feathers tightly interwoven, waterproof-thick, the body within them radiating warmth.
My parents had rented a gray-shingled farmhouse on Cape Cod, a quarter mile from the beach, as they had done for many years. That summer they decided to return with my sister to Connecticut early, leaving me with their friends the Criders, who were from New York City. Mr. Crider was an executive at the Bronx Zoo, and he and his wife had inherited a cottage that sat on a high dune facing the beach and the bay. It was a nineteenth-century house, big and comfortable and cool inside. We children washed our feet at the tap by the back door and left a trail of grit down the hall. We never wore shoes.
Inside the cottage everything was shadowy except where patches of sunlight fell through the open windows with their blowing white curtains, and everything was quiet except for our voices echoing through the rooms. Outside, the water slapped the sand and the wind swept the glittering, nearly vacant beach. The white dunes we liked to climb were steep and topped with sharp, wind-whipped grass. Four other large cottages had been built along the shore, set far apart from one another, all constructed of the same dark-brown wood. From above they must have looked like beached whales. Overhead the herring gulls wheeled and shrieked.
Sammy, the Criders’ daughter, was a year younger than I was. We wore boiled-wool sweaters over sun-bleached shorts in the evenings and one bathing suit after another during the day. This casual life was, of course, privileged, but we were unaware of it. We belonged to one of the last generations of children who would summer there in that timeless way. The cottages would soon be swallowed up by development, driveways bulldozed into the dunes, the beach crowded with people.
The Criders’ cottage, like the others, was an assault on wild, untrammeled nature, but it was a mild first salvo. What was to come would vanquish this particular way of life — both human and wild. None of this crossed our minds then. How could it? Sammy and I were two blond girls, tan and freckled, skinny but strong, and rather simple. The days went by as if nothing could ever change. We ran along the edge of the tide, collecting moon snails and skate egg cases and clumps of Irish moss, which we rinsed and dried and used to make milk pudding. And we swam. At night we lay in our beds, reading by lamplight.
Sometimes, when I wanted to be alone, I would drift down the beach away from Sammy until I could hardly see the cottage. There I would lie down in the warm dunes and watch the patterns that the grasses drew when the wind bent them sideways against the sand.
That’s how I found the gull.
It was walking along the line of foam and seaweed the waves had tossed up, poking at one thing or another with its yellow beak, and dragging a broken wing. For a while I lay on the dune observing it. Then I chased it down.
I headed back to the cottage, carrying the gull out in front of me with both hands. All it did was paddle its legs. The bird weighed almost nothing, but deep in its dense feathers its body was hot, and the heat of it ran like a shock through my fingers and up my arms.
At the house I set the gull in a cardboard box, where it seemed to wait quietly as Sammy helped me fashion a pen out of a beach chair, an old window screen, and some boards we found stacked under the house. After we finished, I lifted the bird into the pen and brought it fresh water in a bowl and some bread and sausages and a hard-boiled egg and a small plastic container of tuna fish from the refrigerator. We sat on the back steps and watched the bird swallow the food. When it drank, it would dip its beak into the bowl and then tilt its head up to the sky so that the water ran down its throat. It preened, pecked at its hanging wing, and finally stood still, its yellow eyes betraying nothing.
After a while Sammy wandered back to the beach for a swim, but I stayed put. How had the bird’s wing been broken? Maybe in a collision with a fishing boat, or from a misjudgment of wind currents — although that was unlikely; gulls are exceptional fliers in all kinds of weather.
Sammy’s parents had driven into town to shop. When they returned, the bird skittered sideways at the approach of the car, tripped over its wing, then righted itself.
“What’s this?” Sammy’s father asked.
I told him how I’d found the gull on the beach with a broken wing.
“And this is a cage?”
“A pen,” I said.
Sammy’s mother stood holding a bag of groceries in each arm. “What makes you think the bird likes it in there?” she asked.
I told her it was hungry, and I explained how I’d fed it sausages and an egg and some bread and tuna fish.
“Our lunch,” she said to Sammy’s father, who smiled.
“Well,” he said, “let’s try this for a while. Let’s see what happens.”
Without another word, Sammy’s mother carried the groceries up the stairs and into the house. I can only guess at her displeasure: the girl who was to keep her daughter company had gone rogue, built a ramshackle structure to contain a wounded bird, and fed it that day’s lunch.
The bird bored Sammy, but I kept my vigil by its pen, leaving only to hunt for crabs and moon snails, which I smashed open with a rock and fed to the gull. Back and forth between the beach and the pen — I was relentless, oblivious to anything else. The gull ate hungrily. The odor of what was left of the crabs and snails baking in the sun grew strong.
I was fascinated by the bird’s beauty and remoteness. I remembered its heat against my bare hands. No matter how close I got to the gull, it was a wild creature, and that wildness, I understood even then, was absolute. What hurt was the fact that I could not heal the broken wing.
The days of summer were ending. The beach air had a raw sharpness to it now, and sometimes in the early morning a hard wind cut across the open sand, and the water turned gray and rough.
One day Sammy’s mother sat down beside me on the back steps. She wanted to remind me I’d be leaving on the train the next day. It was time, she said, to put the gull back.
“Back where?” I asked.
“On the beach, where it came from.”
“But it can’t fly.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
That evening, as the Criders gathered to play a board game in the living room, I went to the hall to call my mother on the wall phone. I told her, in a voice that echoed in the high-ceilinged space, that she needed to come pick me up in the family car because I had a gull to bring home in a cardboard box.
I heard a light breathing, as if she were thinking it over. Then she said gently, “The Criders are going to put you on the train tomorrow, and you are not allowed to take pets on the train.”
“It’s not a pet.”
“Birds, then,” she said. “Wild birds.”
“But it’s hurt.”
“I am very sorry, Susie,” she said, and she waited as I wailed into the phone. The hallway amplified my weeping. I can imagine, now, the Criders in the living room, listening in stunned silence.
That night I got out of bed and tiptoed downstairs and sat on the back steps to watch the gull sleep with its beak tucked into its feathers. Sammy’s father, who had been reading in his favorite chair in the living room, came out and sat with me. He told me how much he loved the beach, and how every summer he couldn’t wait to get back to it. He asked what I thought school might be like this year and if I knew who my teacher was going to be. He told me about some of the animals at the zoo where he worked. One of the best, he said, was a vulture with pale-blue eyelids. In its cage was a ladder made of branches that led to a platform from which it could see almost the whole zoo. He said it was a treat to watch the bird slowly open and close its eyes. It had been caught in Africa, “a long way from here,” he added.
After a while he got up, patted me on the shoulder, and went to bed. I stayed and watched the moon give the sleeping gull’s feathers a thin dusting of silver. Then I went to bed, too.
Early the next morning I carried the bird down to the beach. Again it paddled its feet as if it were swimming. It was stronger than before, and it twisted its head around but didn’t bite. Its broken wing, draped over my left arm, gave off a scalding heat. The body of a healthy gull is about 104 degrees Fahrenheit. I know this because for a number of years, while I raised my children, I was licensed to care for injured wild birds. That gull’s body must have been burning up.
I set it down where I’d found it and started back toward the cottage. When I had gone about ten yards, I allowed myself to turn around. The gull stood facing the water, the tip of the damaged wing resting on the wet sand.
As I walk the length of the garden now, going to fill my empty bucket with more potatoes, I pass Kate’s mom. I wonder if, years ago in her own garden, she handed her daughter a seedling to set into the dirt, and if that contact with roots and soil and delicate stem gave Kate a small jolt that linked her to the world beyond herself, the world she lives in so capably today, her hands moving with practiced economy, handling the tools and hoses, the trellises and pots.
I picture that nine-year-old girl I once was, carrying the gull into the gray dawn. What does she know? She hasn’t learned yet how to save anything, nor that you can’t save everything. Kate, who scans the garden with a trained eye, knows the possibilities. Maybe a few of the specialty potatoes won’t do well. Maybe the rains won’t come as often as we might wish. But the kohlrabi is thriving, and so are the onions and the rows and rows of lettuces.
When I worked as a wild-bird rehabilitator, I lost some birds in my care, but I did save many and release them back into the wild. Each time, I opened my hands and watched the bird — owl, robin, swallow, gull — fly away.
I can’t say that the wounded gull put me on this journey to this town, this hill, but it gave me a first understanding of the natural world’s beauty and hurt and heat.
Susan Hand Shetterly