The late morning beach requires windbreaker and hoodie both. Most human neighbors have not ventured out. We do, kicking off our shoes and regretting it almost at once. Dune grass and broken shells slice our reddened feet.
Out at the edge of the water under the low sun, the ground is uneven in a spot. Dark. Probably rubbish, a black tote blown away and left behind. But no, it takes shape as we near it. A bird. A black skimmer, one of the endangered of this island. White and brown feathers ruffling in the wind. It seems larger now than when its kind fly low, skating along the cresting waves. It is bent in a way it shouldn’t be. Large, like a Halloween pillowcase, like a wedding cake someone dropped. It gains substance in its stillness.
The surf comes up to join the fallen bird, to loosen the sand beneath. The body is rocking ever so slightly. Bent neck, one half-hooded eye vacant. A beak, long and curved, gray-brown, is buried in the sand. I say a quiet, “oh.”
Noting my dismay, my companion says, “That’s nature, darling.”
I say, “We can still grieve.”
Is this how it ends? We stand near the creature, the water biting our scoured feet. The skimmer lays all alone, no predator in sight. No kin either. What do they do, these birds, for the fallen of their flock? Does someone keep listening for this one’s call? Or do they just carry on after the one missed beat, someone else taking up its place in the formation?
I notice the urge to trade places. A nasty little whisper of doubt keeps telling me I am not cut out for any of it. For being a parent. A partner. A member of the petite bourgeoisie. For doing the thousand tiny tasks to keep a life on track.
No one wants to hear my whining, of course, most especially not the fallen skimmer.
Struggle is not the same as prayer.
Rumi says prayer is an egg. Hatch out the total helplessness inside.
Later in the spring, the sea turtles will lay their eggs here. Wooden signs at the rope walkways across the dunes instruct us to fill any holes we make in the sand during the day. Turn out lights out in the beach houses’ ocean-facing rooms. Draw the curtains closed. Our presence disorients them. They go the wrong way. What shelters us destroys them.
If any of them are reluctant to emerge, who can blame them? Peek out, take stock of the obstacles and all the pain ahead, and burrow right back into the sand. The thing is, each and every one of those fragile hatchlings does emerge. Despite the treacherous passage. Despite the odds. Whether it is base, evolutionary instinct or a call from Grandmother Sea, the little things keep trying to find their way.
Some among us prefer them dead. Through sheer ignorance, or cruelty, or exploitation. Or simply not wanting to be bothered. All of us are fine with them alive if they cause no stir. If they stay burrowed and let us clomp and dig all over their hatching ground. Our rage blooms when they start to climb to life.
But that is not the important thing. The important thing is this. Someone loves them and wants them to survive. Wants them to make it across the expanse to the place in the sea where they belong. Pinchers, edges, wobbling wetness and all.
We stand with the skimmer. And with the surf as she, one thimbleful at a time, digs a deeper well under the bird that she fills with herself.
My companion says he’s worried for me. He is right to be. I shouted at my son again.
Under my feet, the icy salt pulls away at the sand. The rounded butt of a shell massaging the curve in my foot, a calcified bit of sea egg.
You have to start here. On the shore. Choosing. North or south? Or better yet, all the way around, following back the same footprints that brought you. No matter what, you have to begin on the crashing shore. You may end there too, but right now, that is not among the choices. Not for the living.
In that sand falling away under your feet, rocking you, that is your prayer.
This bird, this one bent on the beach. It has a name — not Black Skimmer, the one we give it, but a sound, a scent, a pattern of feathers by which it is known to its kin. It has a story of origins, it fought the winter. The last hurricane. The alpha that took its catch. It might even have birthed the next generation. Even when it returns to the ocean, torn and scattered, falling to the bottom. It still deserves our notice. Our mourning. A prayer.
We are the same and we are separate. Borders are false and boundaries define. F. Scott Fitzgerald said “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I don’t know about intelligence or functioning. But yes, it is nature darling. Also, we can grieve.
Begin here. Open yourself to wind and salt. As the water pulls the sand out from under your feet and threatens (offers) to swallow you whole, know that where you stand is both the place you belong and the the place you must emerge from to seek where you belong.
Annihilation will always be a temptation. But it is not a prayer.
Prayer is an egg.
I hatch one, a naked, wordless prayer, just this witnessing, for the skimmer and its shattered shell, its release from the relentless struggle of being alive. For the loss of the suspended ecstasy of being alive.
The water laps, her salt fingers drawing the bird’s fat body further into her. Taking it for her babies, her own hungry, precious ones. Today the bird, not me. We leave them to their communion and walk on stinging feet across the field of shells and dune grass, the wind singing across our exposed ears.
It is our last day. We strip the beds and empty the kitchen of anything that will spoil, pouring out milk and packing up crackers and peanuts for the ride home. The carton in the fridge has three eggs left in it so I make breakfast tacos for my son. He thanks me and cleans his plate. My companion finds a piece of salmon wrapped in foil leftover from last night’s dinner and carries it to the beach. He breaks it into hunks, tosses it on the dunes for the gulls and the pelicans.
The sea takes the bird. The birds take the sea. The baby turtles, when the holes are filled and the curtains drawn, will follow the moon to the place where they can flourish.
Do you have faith that such a place exists for you? (Do I, for me?)
The important thing is this: Someone loves you and wants you whole, even wants to help you make it across this treacherous expanse as you seek where you belong. You, pinchers, edges, wobbling wetness and all.