Our new house is on the water, and I now have the privilege of watching the sun set over Mobile Bay every evening. I was doing so one day a week or so ago, standing on the front porch. I only caught the last moments before the sun went below the horizon, but frequently that's when the real spectacle begins, and goes on for twenty minutes or more. I stood there until it was almost fully dark, and I was about to go in when something odd in the water caught my eye.
Like almost every house on the bay, ours has a pier. I don't know exactly how long it is but it's over two hundred feet. Out a bit past the end of it, between our neighbor's pier and ours, there was a weird thrashing in the water. And when I say "weird" I mean to suggest some of the old connotations of the word, those which made Shakespeare call the witches who helped to doom Macbeth "the weird sisters."
There was something not right about what I was seeing. It was not any of the normal disturbances of the water. In the bay one often sees mullet leap out of the water, sometimes travelling several feet before they fall back. One sees gulls swoop down and snatch something out of the water, or try to; there's a quick and shallow splash, and they spring away. Hunting pelicans, big heavy birds with a wingspan of four or five feet, climb, hang, then drop like bombs with a noisy splash on whatever they have seen, going well under water. And when they surface they often sit for a few moments or more, perhaps enjoying their catch. Getting back into the air again seems to be a lot of work for them. Now and then there are diving ducks, marvelously slick and cool swimmers and divers; they hardly disturb the surface at all.
And then there are the dolphins, with their well-known arcing plunge, dorsal fins out of the water in a way that momentarily spooks anyone who's ever seen a movie about sharks. And once in a long while one might see something that looks at a glance like a floating log, but is too low in the water and has a couple of rounded knobs at one end: an alligator, its eyes a little higher than the rest of it. Mobile Bay is an estuary, and though the river delta which empties into it is full of alligators, I saw only a few over the span of the thirty years that we lived in our old house. It was roughly ten miles south of the delta, and now we are another ten miles down. So I may never see an alligator here; the Gulf of Mexico is only a few miles away, and the water is saltier than suits the gator.
This was none of those things. It was a slow clumsy flopping and thrashing along the surface of the water, almost a hopping movement. But there is nothing that normally hops on the surface of the water. For a few moments I felt a creeping uneasiness. For a few moments I felt I was seeing some unknown and perhaps menacing form of life. I'm not sure whether the word "monster" actually entered my mind or not, but what I felt was something like what I imagine one might feel on spying an actual sea monster. As much as I love being near the water, I also have, at times, a trace of primitive fear of it, the fear that Job implies when he praises God for confining the sea to its limits: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." And whatever I was seeing touched that nerve.
I walked out to the water's edge and soon realized what the thing was: a bird, apparently injured, trying to swim with its wings. It was like a person doing the breast stroke, that absurd method of swimming which seems designed for maximum inefficiency. The poor bird thrashed at the water with its wings and was propelled forward for a foot or two, paused, then thrashed again. It was moving parallel to the shore, and up the bay, which is to say more or less northeasterly, away from the Gulf.
Then the more-strange began. I was standing on the bulkhead, at the foot of the pier. The bird got a little past the end of our pier, then made an abrupt hard right turn and headed toward me. I stood there and waited for him--I will call him "him" because that's what my wife always does with any wild creature unless its sex is obvious (even when, as with a spider, it may be inaccurate) and I rather like that, and because I soon had a sort of relationship with him which the use of "it" would seem to disrespect.
I stepped out onto the rocks and concrete rubble which constitute the bulk of the bulkhead. The bird continued toward me. I sat down on the rocks. He came to them and very slowly struggled up a few feet over the rocks until I could reach him. I picked him up. He offered no resistance and did not seem alarmed. I took him to the porch, where there was enough light to get a good look at him.
He was a seabird, a tern, not very large. He was hopelessly, and without human assistance fatally, entangled in some kind of very fine, very strong, pale green nylon (or other synthetic) thread. I thought at first it was fishing line, but I've never seen any fishing line so extremely fine. Some kind of net, perhaps? I don't know. But everything except his wings--his webbed feet, his long pointed beak--was immobilized. He could not properly swim, and he could not open his beak, and so could not eat. I don't know why he could not fly but I suspect that he had at one time been able to, but had completely exhausted himself, so that one flap every ten seconds or so was all he could manage, enough to keep him hopping along the surface of the water but not enough to get him airborne. The thread was also tightly looped around his neck, deep within the feathers, which may have been doing further harm.
I called for someone to bring me a pair of scissors, and together we spent ten minutes or so snipping away at the thread. The bird remained still and unresisting, though he did manage one squawk of fear or outrage after his bill was freed and he could do so. When we had finished, I set him on a piling by the water, from which he immediately fell. But, feet now free, he paddled over to the sandy shore of the vacant lot next door, stepped out of and away from the water, and settled down onto the sand.
I offered him a bit of bread and a bit of tuna (they eat fish, don't they?). But he was not interested. He just sat there perfectly still. So I left him there. An hour later I checked on him and he was still there, but at my approach he got up and walked into the water. An hour or so after that I checked on him and he was gone: on his wings, I hope.
Now, maybe this means nothing. Yes, it was an odd incident. But purely naturalistic explanations are ready to hand and plausible. He had been struggling for God knows how long and come God knows how far. Perhaps initially he had been able to fly, but, unable to eat or free himself, he had gradually become so exhausted that the thrashing breast stroke, wingbeats a couple of seconds apart, was absolutely all he could do. And the exhaustion would certainly explain the docility.
I'm a natural skeptic and not one to turn quickly to supernatural or even merely providential explanations for phenomena that might suggest them; in fact I probably err on the skeptical side, probably more reluctant than required by strict adherence reason to see the hand of God at work. Physical causality and coincidence can explain almost everything if you want them to.
But as I listen to the interior voice that would explain away this incident I keep being stopped by that hard right turn. That is an accurate description: it was as direct a ninety-degree turn as you would make to turn right at an intersection. The bird turned right and came straight toward me. Considering that it had miles of water in which to decide--by whatever means a bird decides--to head toward shore, the fact that it did so when it was directly opposite me is at minimum a very striking coincidence. And it only did so when I had come out to get a better look at it. And it came straight toward me, in contradiction to the normal behavior of wild things, in which fear and flight are the instinctive responses to the human, not hesitating even when it was only a few feet away, climbing out of the water and struggling over the rocks directly to me.
It was as if in that extremity the bird's natural barrier broke down. He was going to die if he were not freed from the thread that bound him. And somehow he saw in me the possibility of help, and came to me, against his normal instincts, as the only alternative to death.
I am one of those people, those perhaps somewhat ridiculous people, who are disturbed almost to the point of nihilism by the pain of the world. I'm a little ashamed of this, because my own circumstances are quite comfortable. Get a grip on yourself, I say to myself. But Dante's picture of the love that moves the stars seems untenable in the face of the suffering that happens at every moment of time on this planet. There is nothing in what we can see that plausibly suggests that the cycle of birth, pleasure, pain, and death is less than an absolute rule for all creatures in all places at all times, or that there is any reason for it beyond whatever immediate circumstance produces it, or that any of it has any meaning independent of the subjective experience of the creature.
This bird's approach to me, and my ability to help, was for me a moment when something else shone through material cause and effect. It was a bit of evidence that although all of creation "groaneth and travaileth" there is something beyond, a justification for believing that the promise of redemption and healing is not a fantasy. "Coincidence" is not an adequate word for the force that brought bound and helpless suffering together with mercy and a pair of scissors.
The word "monster" shares an etymology with words like "demonstrate": Latin words rooted in the basic concept of to show, to point out. The direct ancestor of "monster" diverged early on to mean specifically a strange and uncanny thing, often serving as a warning or omen. But though all monsters startle, the message they bring is not always bad, at least if we have properly understood it, and anyway is almost always one we need to hear.
"Monstrance" comes from the same root.