by JoeAnn Hart
White caps rolled in sideways from the ocean, little waves hello from a storm tossing around in the Bahamas. A chill wind pushed a mist over Port Ellery; not enough to make Duncan close his truck window but enough to soften the world. It might be mean weather for early October, but inside, he was radiating a tropical front. Orders for the spring season were pouring in from nurseries around the country for Go Kelp! fertilizer, his new mix of dehydrated fish waste and seaweed fertilizer he’d created at his family business, Seacrest Ocean Products of Maine. This bounty, this unexpected burst of sales, this lifesaver thrown to him as he was going down for the third time, he owed to a seagull. They’d saved one another. The bird had a six-pack holder wrapped around his neck, strangling himself on the beach, but Duncan was able to catch him in a feat of daring that had been caught on camera and posted on YouTube, making them both minor celebrities, the bird a symbol of hope in hopeless times. The gull was still convalescing at Seagull Rescue, where Josefa had named him Kelp, inspiring the name of the fertilizer. Seacrest’s marketing consultant was considering putting the bird’s picture on the label since their fate seemed spliced together now. Fans had been leaving offerings at Seacrest’s for Kelp and Josefa’s other rescued gulls: Cases of sardines, medical supplies, stuffed animals, and most important, checks. Leaf peepers swung through town to see the beach where Kelp had been saved, with hopes of meeting Duncan, the gull’s savior. His maintenance man, Wade, kept them out of the factory, but profited by selling photo-copied directions to Josefa’s for $2.00 a pop.
“Don’t take advantage of their devotion like that,” said Duncan.
Wade mocked insult. “A public service,” he called it, and perhaps it was. The city’s streets had been laid out in the 1700’s on top of mule paths, then randomly marked as one-ways, so getting into the center of downtown was a challenge even for natives. Duncan wished he had one of those maps right now as he found himself trapped on multiple dead-ends or driving against one-way traffic as he tried to navigate the inner world of Port Ellery, a grim corrective to its public face of beaches and clam shacks. Narrow streets rose up sharply from the water, joining at the top to create a high mound of old brick buildings. Altitude had protected them from the sea over the years but the salted wind and reflected sun had aged them. A wet day like this gave them a dark luster. Josefa lived on the other side of the hill where the newer housing—meaning built sometime in the last century—looked older still. Vinyl clapboards were chipped and bent back exposing foil innards, and satellite dishes sprung from eaves like warts. Dirt yards were landscaped with swing-less playsets and the only color in the neighborhood came from plastic flowers at the Madonna bathtub shrines. As he circled the streets, lace curtains opened, then closed, and he felt himself being scrutinized. With some sense of accomplishment, he pulled up to Josefa’s at last, a single-family home that was this side of complete dilapidation and had the acrid smell of penned birds. The lawn was white with droppings. On the locked, chain-linked gate, there was a sign: “Sshh, Kelp is sleeping.” Josefa was nowhere to be seen but he heard her dogs barking inside. In the course of looking for sick gulls, she often picked up other needy animals, especially in the weeks after Labor Day when the summer people left, abandoning their pets. She found homes for them all eventually, but this time of year she still had a full house of dogs, cats, cockatiels, guinea pigs and even a ferret. When he climbed down from the pick-up, a half dozen cats were sitting in the branches, as solid as sandbags, staring at him.
He took his cell phone out of the zippered pocket of his windbreaker and dialed Josefa. She opened the upstairs window and even though they were only twenty feet apart they continued to use the phone. Josefa had a mild speech impediment which caused her to talk in stops and starts, and raising her voice would only make it worse. “Mrs. Delaney called to say you were … on the way over,” she said. “So did Mr. Potts. Guess you were driving around. In circles.”
Duncan looked down the street. If they all knew where he was going, why didn’t anyone bother to show him the way? “And then you locked the gate?”
“Oops,” she said. “Forgot I did it. They won’t leave us alone.”
“Kelp’s admirers. Dear souls. Money’s pouring in through the web site. If this keeps up …. I’m going to have my dream. A proper seagull rescue home.” She looked wistfully down at the yard. A blinding white cockatiel came up behind her with a flurry of wings and settled on the windowsill. Josefa, a child of the 60’s, did not believe in cages and even the ferret ran free.
“I have checks for you,” said Duncan. “Does that let me in?”
“Goody,” she said, and she clicked off the phone. She brushed the cockatiel back in the house with her arm and closed the window.
As he waited for her to come down he examined the yard. A few gulls were in cages, some stood still, hunched up, deep into themselves. The healthier ones limped around trying to maneuver around the piles of flotsam Josefa had assembled over the years, a maze of buoys and lobster pots, tangles of driftwood and buckets of seaglass. There was a mountain of seine nets—ghost nets, she called them, the ones that floated free to entangle whales and diving gulls. She took what she could off the beaches so they could not be washed back out again, then found homes for them during tomato season as trellises.
The door to the house opened in an explosion of dogs who stormed the gate. When Josefa swung it out, two little ones still clung on for the ride. Duncan stepped in and Josefa pushed the dogs back with her foot as she latched the gate again. “What are you wearing?” he asked.
She pulled the bottom edge of her baby blue sweatshirt out so he could admire the words “Go Kelp!” superimposed over a soaring gull.
“Nice advertising for both of us,” he said. “I’ll sponsor the next batch.”
“Look who’s talking… money,” said Josefa. “Sponsoring no less.”
“It’s good having money again,” said Duncan. “I just hope it stays this way. You’re doing pretty well yourself.” He pulled a wad of envelopes out of his pocket, all filled with checks.
Josefa took the envelopes and splayed them out like a hand of cards before putting them in her back pocket. “My daughter, Lavinia … the architect? Wants to come home. Plans to make her name designing my ‘facility,’ as she calls it. She sees a white building with arched wings to create shade for the outdoor cages.”
“Seems like a lot of design for a place gulls come to die,” said Duncan.
“You’ll be glad for good design when it comes your time,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be all that matters.” She pushed the dogs back into the house so Duncan could bring the supplies in. “We’ll even have a crematorium …. which should warm your heart. We won’t have to dispose of them at Seacrest’s.”
Josefa could not possibly dig enough graves for all her failed rescues, so she sometimes threw them down Seacrest’s waste chute that led to the grinder, the first step towards dehydration. It was more nitrogen for the fertilizer mix but it made Duncan very uneasy.
“In the end, it’s all about disposal, isn’t it?” he said. He filled his arms with cases of sardines and carried them over to the storage shed. He put them down and picked up a sign. Buoys, $10.00. “Since when have you started to sell your collection?”
“When people started to buy it,” she said, pawing through a bag of stuffed animals. She pulled out a red plush crab and tossed it to a wiry dog who caught it mid-air. “I’m selling eel heads these days too.” She pointed to a white five gallon bucket that sat up on a cage, out of reach of the dogs. Scrawled on the bucket were the words, Eel puppets—2 for $5.00.
“Gross,” said Duncan, peeking in.
“I get them for free down at the dock … dry them out in the sun. The kids love them. The heads don’t hardly smell after a while.” She picked one up and stuck it on her finger. “Hi Duncan,” she said in an eely little voice. Then she gave it a good sniff, but there was no trusting a nose that lived with that many animals. She put it back and picked up a box of white and gray feathers. “Their favorite is still seagull … feathers” She lowered her voice. “I say they’re all from Kelp.”
“How is my boy?”
“Oh, he’s fine.”
“Can I see him?”
“Duncan, when you’ve seen one seagull … you’ve seen them all.”
This was not like Josefa. Usually she bombarded him with minute differences between individuals. He looked over by the fence, and in the finest of her cages was a gull and a thickly-lettered sign saying “Kelp.”
“There he is,” he said, and walked toward him.
“Oh … Duncan,” she said, then turned to busy herself with creating order in the shed.
Duncan squatted next to the cage and greeted the bird, who stood in profile, looking rather noble with its blunt beak. He thought of the bird’s beginning, its dramatic break out of its isolating shell to discover itself in a cozy nest with other young gulls and doting parents who brought food, and in time, freedom, showing it how to lift its wings and leave that nest, off to lead the life of a bird, floating over land and sea, swooping like an angel over this earthly existence. To think that a creature so intricate and grand could be brought down by a lowly piece of plastic.
“Hi Kelp,” he said. The bird looked at him with a dark eye, turning its head from side to side to bring him into its vision, appraising him with no recognition. Some gratitude. It moved a step closer to the wire and tilted its head with a look that read: Food? When it saw that Duncan had none it turned its back. Its feathers were dirty and the injured wing still hung limp by its side. There was not much that could be done for badly damaged birds. If they weren’t already in shock when they were picked up, aggressive treatment might stress them into it, a point from which very few returned. Sometimes the only thing to do was to give them a quiet place to wait it out and hope they would heal themselves, which seemed to be the ticket for Kelp’s head. Around the beak where the six-pack holder had dug in was completely healed over. In fact, the feathers were fully grown in. A miracle.
“Maybe too much of a miracle,” he said out loud. He considered the wing hanging by the bird’s side and thought back to the month before when he held Kelp under his arm. He was sure the bad wing had been on the left. This was the right. He stood up and turned to Josefa.
“That’s not the gull I saved,” he said.
“Isn’t it?” she asked, continuing to stack boxes.
“No,” he said. “It’s not. Unless he healed one wing and then broke the other.”
She put her finger to her lips, leaving her work to join him by the cage. She looked around and spoke in a whisper. “I have something to tell you Duncan. It didn’t heal. Kelp died.”
Duncan looked at the bird and felt a stab of sadness. Even though he knew the chances were slim, they were chances nonetheless, and now they were gone.
“Then who’s that under the sign that says ‘Kelp’?”
“Let’s call him …. Kelp the II. You have to swear, Duncan. Not a word. People will lose enthusiasm. I won’t ever get the new place.”
“You’re lying?” Duncan asked. “About a seagull?”
“People have gotten very attached. No one can know.” She reached her hand through the cage and the gull pecked at it. “I’m on the alert for gulls that looks like Kelp … or can be made to look like Kelp. Like this one. I’m going to need a really good bird in a few weeks that’s only a little injured. I can tidy him up and set him free. I’ve talked to the mayor about calling it Kelp Day. A national TV station wants to cover it.”
“Josefa, I’m sort of surprised.”
“Why? A little lie to benefit an entire species? It’s not like I’m taking the money to live in Aruba. Keeping Kelp ‘alive’ is going to help … everyone. New clean housing, medicine, veterinary care, a flight cage. All the things I could never afford. Hard to be in a position to want to help only to have your hands tied by lack of money. We’ll bring seagull rescue to a whole new level. I have a crew of volunteers now who search the beaches and help feed and clean. I’ve been swimming hard to keep up with the tide … now I want to float in with it.”
Duncan put his hands in his pockets and made fists. Of all the people he knew, Josefa had seemed the most honest and trustworthy. What did it say about the human species if even she could be tempted by money and fame? “It’s the thin edge of the wedge, Josefa.”
“Think about the greater good. Speaking of which.” She turned away, back to the storage bin and took out a lumpy trash bag. A webbed claw broke through the plastic. “Could you dump this at Seacrest for me?”
“No!” Duncan said. “With all those tourists hanging around waiting for me to rescue another gull and you want me to dispose of one?”
“Two,” she said. “It was a bad day. That’s why I put the ‘closed’ sign up … so I could move bodies around. Go ahead. Do it after closing, who’s to know?”
“I’ll know,” he said. “And lately everything that I do the world seems to know. I couldn’t even drive here today without a constant report on my progress. I can’t do it.”
And yet he followed Josefa out of the yard and through the gate to his pick-up, where she dropped the bag on the ground. “Duncan, I’ve never seen a man fret so much over the silliest things … It’s a couple of dead gulls. Give them a useful afterlife.”
“Josefa, I’m worried enough about the new mix as it is. My lab guy tells me he’s finding traces of plastic.”
“The fish eat plastic granules thinking they’re food, and then the plastic ends up in the guts I process for fertilizer. Now we have to somehow separate these microscopic bits out, because if the fertilizer is used in food production, the plastic continues to break down and causes hormone disruption. You’d think fish and seaweed would be completely clean but there’s nothing pure in this world anymore.”
“I don’t think nature can still produce a pollutant free fish,” said Josefa. One of her seagulls squawked and they both turned to look at it. “Goodbye, Duncan … do what I say. Take care of that bag.”
The mist had changed to spitting rain and he put his hood up. Josefa went back into the house, joyfully welcomed by the dogs, with their muddy paws and muzzles caked with seagull dung. She loved them anyway, and her love for them would find them homes. He looked over the yard to the cage that held the false gull. It was love that fueled her lie about Kelp. After all that effort to save him and he’d died anyway. It was hard to pin too many hopes on life, considering the competition. He stood for a moment as the wind tunneled up the hill from the harbor, whistling around him. High above, seagulls wheeled in the air, crying like lost souls. He picked up the bag of dead birds and threw it in the back of the truck. “There’s nothing pure anymore,” he said to the lifeless bag.
“Nothing pure but death.”
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels FLOAT and ADDLED, and her short fiction, essays, and articles have been widely published, most recently in Orion magazine and Design New England.