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The Tethered Gull  By  W. Bruce Watson
 
Usually only half of a duck, but every Christmas he got a whole one, stuffed and roasted--a canvasback, sprig or widgeon, if he were lucky; a bluebill or some other bay duck, if he were not. And mincemeat pie for desert--venison mincemeat made from the neck. Life among predators--huntsmen and fishers. Ducks, deer, salmon, cod, clams, steelhead, mussels, goose and crab. Men and almost-men with 16 ga, 12 ga, even 10 ga or 410, double barreled or single barreled, bolt or automatic, or single shot, over and under, in blinds with these, and boats with tackle, and rivers with gaffs. The boys and not-yet men, with slings and hurled stones, with snares and traps, preyed upon the small and the wild, and sadly, sometimes the not-so wild too. A frenzy of slaughter, a brotherhood of predators.

The boys roamed the hills behind the town--a rural poverty pocket nestled at the southern end of Humboldt Bay in northern California--or they haunted the wharves and beaches, and the flats and sloughs in pursuit of something to hunt, to trap, to kill, whether edible or not. And if edible, it was taken home, a possible demonstration of credentials, for points, for praise, the partial completion of some unspecified initiation. And if it were inedible, if wanton destruction, then it was left for scavengers, or hidden and left to rot.

Once, a lanky-armed older boy either through skill or blind luck hit a circling gull full in the breast with a hurled stone, abruptly truncating its spiraling gyre. Gravity's prey, it plummeted immediately, along with the crushing stone, crashing into its own reflection, its life ending in Euclidean precision. Stunned by the unexpected success of his peer, and in silence, he'd watched the intersecting concentric ringlets rippling outward from the mound of white fluff at their center. Although the boy had claimed bragging rights and skill in the feat, he never repeated it, nor ever attempted to repeat it.

Down, plucked from the breasts of freshly killed Brant, was destined to insulate vests and trousers and jackets for the predators, and fill comforters and pillows for them all. But finally sated with it, it was subsequently stored in heavy, brown paper grocery sacks, curled shut at the top and stacked and piled in the back of the hall closet downstairs. In time, the piston-like action of the opening and closing closet door would uncurl the closures and suck tiny fluffs out of these sacks, tumbling them down into the vortices and eddies that sent them whirling and drifting about the floor forever after. Efforts to rid the house of these ever present down bunnies proved futile, for they were indeed unsweapable and would quickly clog and incapacitate the ancient, household Hoover.

And when it wasn't ducks, it was fish. With deep sea poles, equipped with star drag reels and sliding triple hook tackle, trolling the swells for salmon for hours on end, and that failing, for a ling cod or two from the jetty deeps. All summer long they would live on fish, mostly salmon--pan fried, oven fried, broiled, baked, poached, smoked, pickled, canned, smoked then canned, or pickled then canned. During duck season, the house reeked of singed duck hair and bay mud, and of the hollow, naked, raw birds. During fishing season, of fish, raw and whole, raw and cleaned and scaled, cooked and hot, cooked and cold, of fishy left-overs, and fishy pans, skillets and pots waiting to be washed, of garbage sacks with bones and skin and oily bits of fish too small to save. Alder smoke from the smoke house hung about the place all summer long.

The worst of the entrails were buried in deep holes to keep the salmon blood, lethal to dogs, away from the retriever. Even though he couldn't or wouldn't retrieve, he had always been his father’s retriever, but his dog. The dog, a Lab-Spaniel mix, had never retrieved for him or his dad despite all the times they'd tried to get him to do it. They never knew if it had been out of cowardice, or an aversion to the icy water, or disorientation caused by the shotgun blasts. Very possibly his father, a good man but coarsened by circumstance and deafened by repeated exposure to these blasts, intimidated the dog with his guttural, overly loud and harshly delivered commands. He was easily frustrated, but never more so than by the dog, who cowered and trembled on these occasions. When frustrated, his father’s face reddened and his mouth frothed, his sputterings and ravings sending flecks of spit flying in every direction leaving his grizzled chin glistening with saliva, and half crazed then he seemed truly poised on the brink of violence.

They were poor, so ducks were retrieved with a small rowboat that was deliberately motorless to save on gas. To save on shells, cripples were never shot a second time. Instead, they were pursued relentlessly in a lethal game of hide-and-seek with the almost-man always it, a punishment of sorts, it seemed to him, for since the dog was in essence his dog and soft like him, his father reasoned, it was only fair,that he take the its place rounding up the wounded. Wounded and often blinded, a cripple seeking to escape would dive and swim underwater, away from the approaching boat, in an attempt to put distance between itself and its pursuer, only to resurface some 50 or 100 feet away, usually in a different direction and often with just the tip of its bill showing. Eventually the cripple would succumb to the damage and the chase and would sit motionless then, avian wreckage. Death came swiftly at the end of a high arc as they were grabbed out of the water and swung, wings held tightly to their bodies by young hands, their heads brought crashing down smartly upon the gunwales. This assigned duty was meant to toughen him up, for he, like the retriever, was far too sensitive to suit his father, and it might’ve succeeded indeed except that once he killed one bird too many.

One Sunday, with baited hook and 10 yards of heavy, silver-green twine, he contrived a trap, a means to kill the elusive gull. Sandy-haired and not-yet-man, he surveyed his efforts. One end of the twine was tied around a half empty barrel of seine weights that had been precariously balanced at the edge of the dock, ready to plummet at the least tug on the twine into the water ten feet below. At the other end, a baited hook dangled just on the water's surface.

It wasn’t too long before several gulls began vying for the prize, and very quickly one swooped upon and swallowed it whole, hook and all. Frightened by the twine and its restriction, it leaped backwards taking to the air, but was pulled up short and dumped into the water, toppling the barrel, which spilled half of its contents as it splashed into the bay, narrowly missing the gull. Again the gull tried to fly off and again it was pulled up short, tethered to the barrel which now bobbed and floated ten feet away at the other end of the twine. Facing the barrel and flapping its wings, hovering, it tried to free itself.

A vision suddenly flashed into his mind of the tethered gull and barrel drifting past barnacle encrusted pilings, along the crumbling docks and out into the bay for any man to see and wonder at. He could do nothing but watch helplessly, burning with shame at how he had bungled its death. The gull was supposed to be dead, crushed by the falling barrel. Instead it hovered above the barrel, circling about it, landing on it, landing in the water, resting, hovering, testing the twine again and again, humiliating him over and over with each such attempt, the more the more.

Suddenly it dawned on him that the barrel was sinking, and a worse dread seized him--not tethered then but anchored, on permanent display right next to the dock, a transient atrocity, for all the men to see on Monday morning and every morning thereafter, for as long as it could live, until it starved, until it rotted, until it sank. And with each passing day of its extended demise, their hearts would harden against the one who had done this, perhaps reminded of a time in their own youths better left unremembered.

The barrel sank. The gull swam and lurched to and fro across a tight little circle through whose center the twine disappeared and whose circumference was ever decreasing. The barrel continued sinking, and the circle tightened, shrinking ever smaller till finally the gull was stitched to a single spot by the taut twine.

Then, reduced to its essence, the real struggle commenced--buoyancy and gravity opposing each other, for the barrel had not yet reached bottom. It sank more, and the gull was upended, head and breast beneath the surface and tail feathers and feet pointing skyward like some foraging teal. Is this how it was going to end? This sickening doubt roiled in his brain--the gull anchored, upended, foraging until it rotted, the monstrousness of the atrocity being simultaneously blunted and heightened by this ludicrous aspect. Blunted, when the men of the docks laughed the next day at the sight of the inverted gull. Heightened, as they realized it had been anchored there and had died thus in the process, a senseless and perhaps mad crucifixion.

Yet thrashing with its half submerged wings its webbed feet paddling furiously through the air, it managed to pull the barrel upward a few inches, to gain some slack, to right itself, to catch its breath, only to be upended again a few seconds later.

He watched the struggle continue, his mind filling with darkness, his stomach racked in spasm, as he saw that with each repetition the gull was less and less able to right itself. Its feathers were becoming more and more soaked, and with each dunking its buoyancy was being washed away until, in the brief moments between submergings, only its head and neck showed above water, its beak held open by the taut, glistening twine. After a few more iterations, all that showed were its eyes and upper beak, and the tips of its outstretched wings. Moments passed as the gull consumed its last breath in furious paddling, clinging to the interface between air and water. But, no longer able to breathe, no longer able to resist, it disappeared then into one final, single blink of its eyes.

Unopposed at last, the barrel sank, finally reaching bottom. And through the murky water he could see the gull flying slowly, ever so slowly, tiny bubbles drifting upward from its billowing wings, a few larger ones from its beak, opened in one, last, silent skree.

The struggle ended, the water smoothed itself out, and the reflected scene returned once again--the pilings, the boats, the other docks, the hills behind town and the clouds behind them. And from within and through the reflection, the anchored gull hovered, seemingly suspended in mid air, seeming to be but now no longer a part of the mirrored present. Its winged spirit trapped within the glycerin surface, reflected reality appeared draped about it like a veil.

And out of the enormity of what he had caused to happen, a premonition seeped into his darkening mind from the backs of his eyes. A skree caught in his throat, and biting into the back of his hand to halt the onset of thought, to deny the dawning insight, he jerked his head upward, no longer to stare at the reflection but at the scene itself, to confirm with his eyes the maggot that was to infect his every waking thought thereafter--that his time and his place, vacated and untenantable, were draped before him, a lie upon a curtain.
 
 
 
 
The truth is, after much furrowing of brow, I can't think of anything to say by way of preface to my blog. Along the way I wondered what it's purpose might be and maybe I should say a few words about that and would, except that I don't know what its purpose is, or could be, or should be. I only know that my clock is winding down and I'm so desperate to have my mind known that I could just spit! Maybe my blog could be about that. But how depressing and pretentious that could be! But hold on a second, maybe not—my therapist commented the other day how in late adulthood (AKA elder years), one is forced to deal with the sense of loss, all the time, it's always there, and it's painful, it takes great faith to live on even though one knows it's going to end and that whatever they accomplish, if anything, is not going to matter all that much. How does one find meaning or a sense of fulfillment in life knowing that it’s coming to an end? Psychologists have not written much about this if anything. It's sort of an unexamined part of adult life. It takes a lot of self-discipline to function in spite of this sense of loss—it's so easy to give up on the constant struggle, on life. A lot of people do—drinking, TV, drugs, electrosex, So, if you'll bear with me, let us examine this unexamined part of adult life.
 
 
 
 
Copyright © 2011 W. Bruce Watson, Inc. All rights reserved.  
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