We could hear the horrible sound from way down the beach. I ran behind my father to where the small crowd was gathering, my bare feet slapping the wet sand. Not a crowd really--I saw, as I pulled up behind and had my feet stepped on. More like a broken corral of ten or so adults that had formed around the thing. All of them in jackets of earth tone black, green, or brown. All shoving each other around with a rudeness the excitement of the situation seemed to excuse. As they shuffled about, gaps appeared. I glimpsed the thing in quick flashes, like something moving on the other side of a fence. All their faces were locked in its direction, but everyone kept their distance. Some even looked frightened. “Oh wow,” I heard my father say, as I pushed my head between the wall of windbreakers. I was too curious to feel any fear. Then I saw it. A flipping blur of grey and white, flailing and rolling all over the wet sand. It wasn’t a monster at all. Just a bird. An ordinary seagull. Injured, struggling against something. It sprang into the air, attempting to fly, crashing right back down to the sand immediately. Its face frenzied, tortured. When it made the horrible sound again, I was looking right at it. Its throat ballooning out with the pressure. Somehow seeing it made hearing it worse. It was in pain. Struggling, or caught, in something. I couldn’t see what though. Others had apparently sensed it needed help as well. One man ran into the circle, getting down on his knees next to it. The frantic bird spun around, kicking and flapping violently, and caught the man. His hand flew up to his cheek as he fell back shouting, “Jesus Christ, goddam thing!” It was no wonder the people had gathered, I thought. It was an unnerving but fascinating thing to watch. Some people seemed to be suffering genuine emotional distress watching it. One woman just kept repeating, “Oh god, oh god, it’s dying,” her hand up under her chin, ready to cover her mouth in shock. Others seems coldly detached, like they’d only come over to look out of a kind of loose obligation to morbid curiosity. I looked up at my father and wondered what he thought of the suffering on display. His face--from my position, underneath and to the side--gave away nothing. The unforgiving early sun broke through the fog like a floodlight coming on. Squinting, I turned back to the bird. That’s when I saw it. The light glinting off of it, revealing its twisted figure. It was a wire. The poor creature was tangled up in a wire. Clear, or incredibly thin. Wrapped several times around its neck and one wing, keeping it from flapping, or at least not without a lot of pain. Newcomers entered. The crowd shifted. Someone stepped on my foot again. It hurt badly. I took a big breath of salty air in through my nose and ignored it. I looked around at the people, waiting for someone to take action. No one did. The bird lept into the air again, twirling backwards and then crashing to the wet sand with a unsettling slap. The raveling fog covered the sun like a veil. I could see my father’s face again. He looked concerned. I wanted him to do something so badly, but I knew he wouldn’t. He was painfully timid, and even more so since he’d gotten sick. Before, I found his meekness sort of endearing. But now it was like watching him getting beat up and not fighting back. I hated it. So, I was concerned for the bird, but also a little angry as I broke through the wall of shifting grown ups. Calmly, I walked toward it. I had nearly reached it when I heard a woman scream out, “Leave it alone!” Her voice had a chilling, strained quality to it--almost like the bird’s. It was an adult and I was startled, so I stopped. I looked back at her. Her face was like a demon. Her frizzy hair blowing crazy in the wind. Her wide eyes burning with hate behind thick glasses. This woman hated me. My heart started racing. I managed to mumble something about my intention to help as I turned back to the bird. The woman screamed again. And with every step I took, her voice tore the air in the same terrible, shrieking tone, “Leave it alone!” I shot a glance at my father, hoping now more than ever that he’d speak up. But he didn’t. It just wasn’t in him. Not anymore anyway. The shouting woman pushed her way through the people and inside the circle with the bird and me. I stopped. I wanted to just ignore her and keep going but I didn’t. Her voice was so loud it had a strange kind of authority. Looking to my father, I waited for him to say something, to defend me. But he didn’t. He looked terrified. I hated it. I was just about to turn back to the bird when the whole crowd gasped. I spun around fast, throwing my head back to watch the bird rising up over all our heads. All the faces turned and the little circle broke open as the bird struggled in broken flight toward the ocean. Adults pushed passed me. A fleece-covered elbow dug into my neck as I was shoved back. For a second, I lost sight of it. I’d hesitated because of the screaming woman and my father’s fear, and had missed my chance to help. The crowd all gasped in unison again and I knew I was missing something. When I got a look, I saw the bird flipping end over end, flapping hard with only one wing as a strong gust of wind blew it out over the first set of big rollers. After a few minutes, most the people had left. We’d stayed there though, following in a parallel course up the shore. A few others had stayed as well. The screaming woman was still there too, walking close behind us. But she was silent now. That was one good thing, I thought. My heart was still hammering. My toes red with a burning cold that was spreading up my feet. Closer in now, the gull rose and dipped low, disappearing momentarily behind the big glassy-green waves. The salty wind sprayed hard and stung my eyes. I held them open for as long as I could, but eventually I had to close them. I lost sight of the bird. My father’s hand hit my shoulder. “Here it comes,” he said. His voice low, conspiratorial. I found it just in time so see it splashing into the foamy shallows a few feet off shore. Instantly, I took off at a run. As soon as I moved the woman who was screaming, began screaming again. This time though, I kept running. She came running after me--chasing me, all the time screeching, “Leave it alone! Leave it alone!” I didn’t care. I kept going. Too upset about all of it to stop. I charged right into the surf, practically tackling the bird. The water was ice cold. I could feel the burning in my feet crawling up my legs to my back. The bird was thrashing everywhere. Its wings and feet splashing water all over me, swatting my hands and arms. Up close, the sound it made was even more awful. I could feel it vibrating through me. The woman continued to yell but stayed out of the water. The others that’d stayed, stood and watched silently, my father included. I was just a kid; I’d never handled a bird before, let alone an injured, irate one. So there was a few moments of chaotic desperation before I got ahold of it. Finally, I had a good grip on one of its legs. The woman continued yelling. Just the same three words, nothing different. I ignored her. I held onto the bird. It flailed like crazy. Its wing and beak smacking me in the face and head. I wasn’t afraid. Only frustrated and angry. I wanted to fight back. I wanted my father to fight back against the cancer that was eating his body, and he wouldn’t, or couldn't. So I had to. My eyes closed hard, water and bird parts hitting my face, I reached and grabbed the wire with my free hand and yanked it back like someone starting a lawn mower. The yelling woman’s voice suddenly broke. She was silent. As I pulled the wire away, freeing the bird’s wing, I cracked one eye and glanced back at them. I couldn’t believe it. My father was standing right up in her face, shouting--or what was for him, shouting, “Shut up! Shut up!” The woman looked as if being shouted at was the worst thing that could happen to a person. The bird flapped both its wings freely. I kept pulling and the wire uncoiled from around its neck. Smiling with my mouth open, I tasted salt water. The woman started yelling again, this time something different. “Hey little girl,” she screamed, “You stop--.” “Shuuuuut uuup!” My father’s voice came growling up from somewhere deep within him. He was shaking. It was the most hysterical I’d ever seen him. I yanked again. The bird's head jerked. The wire was down its throat. The woman yelled back at my father. I don’t remember what she said. They were just screaming at each other. By now most the other people had gone or at least backed up a good deal. I held the bird. An icy wave broke around us, soaking me up to my chest. I pulled hard on the wire. As it came up out of its mouth, the bird made a sickening vomiting sound. A bloody piece of gooey flesh dangled from the end of the tangled wire in my hand. I let go of the bird’s leg. It beat its wings against the surf and rose into the sky. They were yelling behind me. I watched it go. My knees sinking into the sand as the little freezing waves receded around me. It looked okay. Making it out past the last of the breakers, It’s flight staggered but even. Then it dipped to one side, and like an old plane shot out of the sky, began plummeting gracefully. Its wings flapping weakly when it hit the water’s surface. I stood there for a minute, listening to the shouting and waiting for the bird to come up. But it never did. It was gone. They were still yelling at each other. Warm tears streamed down my face as I turned around. Angrily, I stomped out of the water and right up to the woman. “Shut up, you old bag!” I screamed. She looked at me, horrified. And then, I don’t really know why I said it--I was a kid--I was angry, but I shouted, “Nobody loves you! Nobody’s gonna cry when you die!” The woman backed up, her face stretching in disgust. Then with a final head shake of disapproval, she turned and walked away. My father looked over at me. He was breathing heavily, his whole face smiling. His eyes shining and alive. I smiled back. Six months later we buried him on a cold, grey morning. My mother spoke but I don’t remember anything she said. I was distracted the whole time, looking up at the birds passing overhead. Gulls, maybe.
-- A.C. Phillips is a writer and visual artist out of Portland Oregon. His artwork has been featured in Eleven Magazine PDX. He works a less than glamorous day job. In his spare time he enjoys bird watching and skateboarding with his son, Zeppelin.