The dawn’s misty veil casually lifted towards the heavens, dispersing time into unknown dimensions. Spray hit my face, stinging my eyes and piercing my open blisters. As the roar of Zelda’s engines cut through the morning, seagulls encircled our boat, waiting for leftover bait that I’d always share despite my father’s objections.
I pulled in the catch, as he held the helm sheltered in his sanctuary. I don’t recall working each trap. I don’t recall my repetitive motions that had been programed into me since I was seven. When the wheelhouse door creaked open, I felt a lump in my throat. His presence domineered each time he stepped on deck, making a part of me want to jump into the deep. Instead, we civilly exchanged positions, so I could put ointment on my blisters, while he brought in the last trap. When I reemerged still rubbing in aloe cream, he held up a lobster for me to shoot rubber bands on to pinch their claws shut. But something inside snapped. I couldn’t continue this lie. I grabbed the lobster tossing it overboard. Surely, losing his precious catch would reel him in to see my point of view, or at the very least start a conversation.
But my father didn’t register my protest. Expressionless he calmly passed me the next crustacean, and the next, until the trap emptied. Each time the catch feverishly battled the air in front of me I’d return the prisoner to the ocean, instead of shackling its claws. Throughout it all, my father’s eyes never flinched, while he automatically handed me the lobsters, going through age-old motions. I suppose he felt he’d make his point by drowning me in the tradition I was born into, one I could never leave. He failed to comprehend what I was rebelling from. In his realm I was locked into this life. Everyone in his family, as far back as records went, worked the sea. This lobsterman’s way was insulating armor. He refused to see it might be a cancer slowly killing our relationship.
While the lobsters hit the water, dark clouds had gathered smothering the sun. Now, the boat was rolling violently. Waves had grown into demons with hissing crests that tensed my muscles immobilizing me in awe. I failed to register any danger, until I saw my father dash for cover. Why didn’t he warn me? I tried to lift my foot, but it didn’t budge. Looking down, panic shot through me registering that my Bean Boots were nailed to the deck. I screamed, but he couldn’t hear me. He never could. It was too late. It was always too late.
Bolting upright, I woke drenched in sweat. I cupped my hands over my face, only to recoil, thinking I smelled seawater on my palms. The repeating dream plagued me in the shower. This was its third appearance. “’Least it’s not real.” I managed a half smile while dressing. Rubbing my eyes, I wondered how many hours I’d slept. No matter, I could sleep walk through the day. No one would notice, no one cares.
The morning’s work was tedious, most likely useless. When lunch rolled around, I made a beeline for the door, only to be stopped in my tracks. The boss needed a report revision right away. My heart sank. By three o’clock my head was fogging. The office chatter built into barroom sounds. I had to get out of my cubicle before it closed in on me. When five o’clock hit, I slipped out the door, ignoring someone yelling my name behind me.
I sat on the riverbank to clear my mind, unaware of her presence. Watching the water break into a seemingly never-ending descent, I caught sight of her just beyond the waterfall’s crest, stalking pray. Lifting her stick-legs high, over and over, the great blue heron inched along. I marveled at her calm, as the river consumed each step, only slightly disrupting the water’s path.
Bowing her head, she readied herself, becoming a coiled spring. Swooping downward, her wings covered the water like an umbrella, while her head plunged underwater. Within seconds she emerged with dinner. Annoyed with the trout’s frenzied battle, she tossed her delicacy into the air, managing to disorient it. There she plucked the pray from the heavens, and the trout vanished down her neck. She stood tall, satisfied. Then she saw me. Her head tilted to the right. I mirrored her action. She puffed out her feathers in defiance. Our eyes locked. I didn’t budge. Nor did she.
For the past year I’d had sightings of her in the distance, always hoping that one day I’d be able to get nearer. There was something freeing about her that beckoned me. I never imagined I’d be this close, communing. Apparently sensing I meant her no harm, she turned her attention back to the river, scanning the depths. Her feathers flattened. Minutes passed. We didn’t move. But my troubled mind was working overtime, and my thoughts returned to the office, breaking my respite. I knew the report needed more research, but contemplating it made me numb. I was trapped in the never-ending grind of a dead-end job, stuck paying off student debt. The night before, my college roommate had clearly exposed how I was living in a self-imposed prison.
“You’ve aged so much,” Clare had said.
“Thanks so much.”
“Sorry, just saying, you need to live more.”
“Costs too much.”
“Life’s worth it. You can’t work all the time. Before you know it—you’ll be dead.” She tossed a shot of whiskey into her gapping mouth. “You’ve got to relax, take it easy.” She smiled red-eyed. “You know what?”
“We’re going to do this every week.”
“Seriously?” I looked around at the crowded bar while screaming music assaulted my ears, and boys trying to look gorgeous looked us over. Tilting my head, I peered into Clare’s eyes. “Don’t you remember, we wanted to change the world?”
“Sure.” She took another shot. “But then the bill came due.”
“Well, I still need to do something real.”
“And what’s that?”
I sipped my wine, avoiding the question.
“You haven’t got a clue, do you?”
I sighed deeply. “Come on, there’s a reason we’re alive.” I placed a hand on her shoulder. “A reason we’re friends.”
“Yeah, I agree.” She slid my drink closer to me. “So, enjoy.”
Grimacing I looked at my reflection in the bar’s mirror. Empty, void of passion, of commitment, my eyes watered in anger, frustration and fear. I wanted to scream.
“Chill. You always overthink things, girl.” Clicking her fingers, she ordered another round. “Just let go. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
“Doubt you will.”
She laughed. “Maybe not, but it’ll give me something to think about at work tomorrow.”
Unable to embrace her “letting go” perspective we finished our drinks in silence. I put her in an Uber, promising to do “this” again soon, knowing we wouldn’t. Clare was just as stuck in a vortex as I. We both needed inspiration, not to waste what little free time we had avoiding reality. I knew there was something I had to do. But that something had always been too elusive to define, let alone capture.
“What’s wrong with me?”
The heron shot me a quizzical glance. A sunfish flew out of the water, attempting to breach the waterfall, as if it were the Little Engine That Could. It did, but the patient heron welcomed it to the other side, scooping it up. I grinned. She seemed to appreciate my bearing witness to her success, but my legs were cold and a foot had fallen asleep. Still, I didn’t dare move, too fearful the only listener I had in the world would leave. When I couldn’t bare the pain any longer, I repositioned myself on the rocks, sure she’d fly off, sure I’d never see her again. But to my astonishment she stayed. The sun sank lower on the horizon, snuffing out the day’s warmth. I rubbed my arms and addressed my friend. “Same time, same place tomorrow?” With a glint in her eye, she bent slightly, while spreading her wings. Launching, her plumage rolled like woven ocean waves. As her wings touched the water, they created teardrops hitting the surface, sending memory ripples echoing off its banks.
The next day I returned.
The river always welcomed me like an old friend who never ages. I sank into a rock formation and hid my head between my legs, taking deep calming breaths. With a swooshing sound overhead, and a breeze on my neck, I looked up just as the heron landed on a rock not twelve feet away. I didn’t dare move as she inched closer going about her business, apparently ignoring me. Every one of her movements had a purpose, making me realize how cluttered and unreasoned many of my everyday motions were. Each of her steps were calculated to be nearly undetectable in the underwater world. After transforming into a statue, she’d wait for her prey to reveal itself in the opportune striking spot. This time she stood frozen for well over twenty minutes, before she filled her belly.
Then a dragonfly circled my head, and landed on my knee. She peered at it, acknowledging my presence for the first time. Gazing into my eyes, she sparked a sense of wonder in my soul. I felt she knew a part of me better than any human. A high-pitched whine, buzzing, jolted me back into my panicked world. My cell’s annoying ring had made my heron wary. Standing erect, while looking at the metallic object, she took a step backwards. Raising her beak to the sun, she spread her wings, strutted forward like an Olympic javelin thrower and was gone.
It was Clare, drinks at eight. That night, when I told her about my heron encounter, she listened politely, although her eyes rolled twice. I knew she thought I was losing it. I thought she’d already lost it. Undaunted, the next day I returned to the river and waited until sunset. No heron.
Finally, Friday. The boss needed more amendments to yet another stat report. While I worked through lunch, my mind flooded with images of my bird effortlessly flying overhead. I bolted for the coffee machine, wishing I was in the heron’s world. Pouring myself a cup of mud, I closed my eyes. There, she flew into the sun, disappearing into its light, filling me with a peaceful sensation. Yells from fellow workers woke me to my overflowing mug. I returned to my prison cube and found it impossible to crunch any more numbers. For the first time, I had to leave early from an apparent splitting head.
She was waiting for me. My cell buzzed. She shot me a quizzical glance, but to my relief stayed.
“What?” I whispered into the out-of-place object.
“Are you there? I can’t hear you,” shouted Clare.
“I’m with my heron.”
The dead silence lasted too long. “No need to worry, girl. I’ve got the answer.”
“We’re going on vacation.”
The heron tilted her head letting the sun embrace her in its glow. She took one step forward, paused, giving me a farewell nod and lifted off. I felt empty, alone, not knowing if I would ever see her again.
I returned to the river every day for a month, but she never came back. After two weeks I stopped searching, and decided instead to imagine living all the time in the wild, as a heron must. Over the days that followed, I listened to nature in a new way, through my wilderness self. Every day the river’s flow was different. Every day I heard something more unintelligible, but I knew it meant something intrinsic to my soul. I found myself listening to the wisdom of the waterfall. It had the power to calm and energize at the same time. I was grateful that my heron had guided me to this safe refuge.
On my last visit, while I shut my eyes taking deep breaths, winds whisked through the birch, creating the music of waves lapping ashore. Sensing the river wash over the rocks, I felt it pulse in my veins. I imagined the twists and turns of the water flowing to the sea. That’s when I understood the ocean was calling. Tranquil, yet excited, I let myself drift into a semiconscious state, floating into the sky, as if I were weightless.