I had spent the previous hour or so dallying with a couple of painting projects for Merry Maiden
, then taken the pleasure of a cruise on my bicycle down the docks of Fishermen's Terminal to survey the fishing boats and pleasure craft. This is a pastime that yachtsmen and yachtswomen the world over have indulged in, probably, since boats first floated. There are few things better to while away a casual hour than to wander a marina to admire the graceful curve of a classic bow or the robust orange-brown glow of a well varnished rail.
The Safari Quest was tied up at the end of the first dock. You may remember her as the adventure cruise ship I'd met while nestled behind Jedediah Island during my respite from the October gales that had hindered my southward passage from Desolation Sound. I rolled down the ramp and out along the narrow float, hoping for a familiar deck hand to chat with, but the Quest was silent with dark, brooding windows that peered from white house sides above her deep blue hull.
As I put my foot down, steadying my bike with one leg, I noticed a brief, dark flutter in the water about 20 yards out. The sky had nothing but grey to lend to the silver ripples on the dark surface, so it was not immediately apparent what had caught my eye. The shape had gone still, but I stared a little more intently, trying to discern the outline of a small branch, its bark darkened by the wet, or maybe the peaks of a tiny polyethylene island rising up from an errant, mostly submerged garbage bag.
But it moved again, as if the supposed flotsam had rolled over to find a new equilibrium and expose a different chunk of underwater shape. As more of it emerged, its silhouette became an animated jumble of black against the bright wavelets that proceeded solemnly down the breeze. I could now see a small, beaked profile and wings that struggled to fly themselves free of the clinging water. If I did not see a frightened eye, I at least imagined it.
Whatever type of bird it was, it never got close enough for me to know it. Something black with, perhaps, a few white under-feathers in its wings. I do know that it attracted the attention of the marina's other avian residents. More than one squealing seagull swooped and circled. The boldest actually plucked its smaller cousin from the water for a moment. Perhaps the load was too great, for the hapless bird was soon dropped back into the drink. I suspect it just proved not to be of the gull's taste, for I have seen them scavenge more unwieldy meals than a blackbird.
If there had been a small skiff nearby, I would have commandeered it for a humanitarian mission. There were none, so I had to content myself with an imagined rescue, scooping the beating, dark body from the cold wet and subduing it with warm hands and whispered shushes until it could be placed on Terra Firma to recover its wits and its life. As it was, I could only watch the drama play itself out, though I prepared a small cheer, a rah-rah-sis-boom-bah to be proclaimed discretely if it succeeded, against hope, to lift itself above the water. Lord knows, it tried. It tried and tried and tried, but I could see it tiring.
A gathering flock of crows took up grandstand perches on the boats and piers overlooking the scene. Several times four, five, six of them would swoop and swirl above the doomed bird, cawing their own raucous cheers. Perhaps the victim was one of their own and they were shouting encouragement, "You can do it! Try harder! Don't give up!" I don't think so, though. Are crows cruel enough to laugh at a foolish bird that tries to swim? Perhaps that's why they call it a "murder" of crows.
In the end, there was no one either to rescue or to dine upon the dark, fluttering morsel of life. I stood helplessly and watched while, over just a few minutes, the struggle became more and more abbreviated. Finally, the angular shadows that had tried so hard to free themselves settled to become indiscernible from the rippled surface.
Stirring myself, I pedaled thoughtfully away to continue my dock tour. Occasionally throughout the day this small drama of death has replayed itself in my mind. It seems funny, in a world where our television screens are splattered nightly with human blood, where our news is punctuated from greeting to sign-off with war and terrorism and murder, that I should be bothered to write about a tiny being smaller than my hand and its losing battle against the clutches of a body of water that had played its heartless role with neither malice nor pity.
Perhaps it was the elemental character of an event that occurs countless times in every second of every day that caught my eye. I think that, for each of us, in the end of ends, we face this same struggle while fellow mortals may swoop and caw, cheer and encourage, watch and mourn. Whether or not we believe that we are only our bodies or that we come from or go to some greater place than this life, we will each one day flutter against inevitability, fighting to exhaustion with wings of desperation to free ourselves from cold, wet, death. But in the end we can only relax, finally, to be hidden beneath the grey and silver surface of eternity.
I don't trust anyone's version of death, much less the characterization I offer here. The definition changes with time and circumstance. This particular one was more stark than sad. It was only a fact of life. When my time comes, it will be a fact beyond which I, for one, will only know what I alone then know. That's life.