Mission of Mercy
So I put off calling David again, lest he have unhappy news. Then, in the turmoil that is summer in Vacationland, I plain forgot. It was two weeks before I finally reached him.
“Yep, he was fine,” David said. “I force-fed him for a couple days, and he got his strength back. So I put him back in the river, and pretty soon he was catching all the fish he wanted. Then I took him down to Two Lights.”
My immediate reaction was disappointment that I had not been there, even irritation that David hadn’t called and given me the opportunity to join him. I imagined the compact body stretching out as he held the gannet high above his head, its feet trapped by a stocky thumb.
In my mind, I was looking from below the edge of the rocks, up at a man in a battered work shirt. His step, as he moves forward, bounces on the springy turf causing the bird to struggle for its balance. It stretches its wings, making an isosceles triangle of the pair of them. The hand rises, is pulled higher by the hesitant wings, lifted by aerodynamics until they freeze in a heroic tableau, the man poised like some athlete from classical times.
I have to rewind the mental tape, correct the image, because suddenly the bird in my head has turned the cream color of an adult gannet. Then there is a gust of wind off the sea. The wings beat, and David—as if coming to the end of a countdown—removes his thumb. The gannet takes to the air.
“I held him up, and he took right off. Just kept going. I never saw him land,” David finished his story. And suddenly I wondered if actually being there could have been any more rewarding than listening to this straightforward tale over the phone. Being there would have imposed a mutual obligation to share the experience aloud, a conversation about the Wonders of Nature—maybe over-, maybe understated, but likely wanting in either case—all the way back to the parking lot. So much easier to think in terms of the birder’s “good bird” than to try to explain the majesty behind that “glittering eye.”
Besides, it was David’s skill and perseverance that had taken care of the bird. The thought of communion between bird and man floated in my brain until it was gradually replaced by the tremendous satisfaction that my luck in finding the gannet had been matched on the gannet’s side by its luck in finding me.
A few weeks later, when I was sailing somewhat further Down East, a first-year bird, species Morus bassanus, flew across the bow. No logic or reason could quash my certainty as I recognized it as my gannet, now recovered, sweeping the seas. Nor, as it disappeared in the haze, that it had left me a valediction: Farewell, farewell! but this I tell / To thee, thou Wedding-Guest! / He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.