The Gull

The Gull

Prose by Rose Auslander
Photo by Sheila Lamb



The waves rolled, oily and black, reeking of fish long dead and gone, the fish-eating waves pulling the boat sickeningly right and left. No, port and starboard. Which was which again? Was I awake? A gull hung heavily over the sagging sails, a sea vulture smelling blood, waiting for the death throes.

No, come on. The poor gull. Still white as an angel except the dingy tips of its wings, which could use a wash, it had obviously seen better days. Maybe it just wanted me to throw it a hot dog and fries. I could try to lure it down to the deck with junk food and snap its picture. Where was the camera? Oh, that strap around my neck, of course. Through the lens, nothing but blurry blue-gray sky, blurry gray-blue ocean. Where was the gull? Well, I wouldn’t pose either if some skin-and-bones blonde on a boat was trying to shoot me with a camera. And the sea spray on the lens wasn’t exactly improving visibility. Then again, even after wiping down the lens, all I could see was water. No, there, at the edge of sight, were sea grass feathers hiding what must be marshes . . . but not managing to cover up the cries of some hidden bird, or the triumphant screech of the white-gray gull as it rose overhead, fresh from the kill. So much for the lure of junk food.

Across the years, too far back to see, the sand was shades of gray, salty and damp with sea water or sweat or tears. Perfect digging sand.

My brother’s voice, “Don’t bury my head.”

“Oh, come on.”

“No really, I won’t be able to breathe.”

“You’re such a baby.”

A breath of quiet, much too quiet for a beach with children.

A child, such a little child, was screaming now. Was I screaming? Or was that the gull?

No, it was all too far from the boat. No children, just thick gray dreams swirling around until I was dizzy with sickening memories of things that might never have happened, except that my stomach told me they had, and it was all my fault. The heavy, wet sand, my brother, the white-gray gull — all my fault.

Except that I had seen nothing. There was nothing to see. Nothing but empty fog.

I lay back on the deck and closed my eyes, and everything was wonderfully clear and bright. Puffy white clouds curdled away from the summer sun as it baked an empty hole into the sky, the heat shimmering into the hiss of waves sucking the life out of the parched summer sand. A gull swooped down over a swing set anchored in the sand, and glared down at a little dark-haired boy pushing a skinny little blonde girl higher and higher as she clutched at the metal links of the chain holding her swing. Her silky pink dress ballooned up as she swung forward, the air fluttering out as the pendulum pulled her back.

“Don’t push any higher.”

My brother’s voice, “Oh come on.”

“No really, I’ll go over the top.”

“You’re such a baby.”

A breath of quiet, the air ballooning the dress up. And suddenly I am a pink balloon of a girl sailing up and over the swing set, plummeting head first into the sand, deflating. Never the same.

A child, such a little child, was screaming now. Was I screaming? Or was that the gull?

Yes, the gull was back, taunting me. Not that I could see it. I didn’t dare open my eyes, which were streaming tears. Why was there sand in my eyes, my nose, my ears, my mouth?

“Honey, I need help with the sail.”

I squinted toward the voice. What was this man doing here, his hair streaking strawberry blond, his eyes twinkling gray and blue in the blue-gray sky? A good looking guy, but about twice my age. Why was he grinning at me?

Right, the wedding. At the city clerk’s office. This morning.

I looked at the delicate gold band on my left ring finger.

The boating honeymoon. I’d gotten on his boat.

What had I done?

Why was he bothering me about the sail now, while I was simmering in a broth of Coppertone oil and OFF, my head filled with sun, while the world was turning deep purple, far away on the other side of my Rayban shades? I relaxed against the familiar, well-worn terrycloth of my beach towel, ignoring him, but picturing him, his tanned arms around me, his unshaven face rough against my skin as we kissed. Unable to resist, I drifted back off, dreaming of his breath warm on my cheek.

“Honey, wake up. I need a hand with this sail, now.”

The deck where I was lying was covered with water. Had I heard his voice? Or only the sound of a wave splashing over me?

“This sail can’t wait any longer. We’ll both end up overboard.”

It was definitely a voice. His voice.

Working together on the ropes, we said nothing.

My husband. I didn’t want to lie to him. Or tell the truth. It was easiest to say nothing.

So we pulled silently together to raise the faded white sheet, the sheet that was so worn and shrunken it didn’t even cover my shoulders. And there wasn’t any blanket at all, no warmth, just the squeaking of the nurses’ shoes on the linoleum floor, the noise freezing my veins through the intravenous needle that was turning me into someone who watched soap operas, read beauty magazines and could never hurt a fly.

There were no visitors, only a doctor now and then, who pulled the gray metal “visitor’s” chair a safe distance away, and asked about my dreams.

“I was on the beach.”

“Did anything happen?”

“No.”

Obviously, the only possible answer was “No.” But even then, it didn’t look like I’d ever actually be allowed out to a beach, or anywhere else.

I slept and dreamed, and pulled against the worn, shrunken sheet until it filled out and caught the wind — and when I woke up, I was flying over the water. I’d never be in the hospital again. I was here, on the boat. The sail was up. Blood was running down the man’s hand. The man who was my husband.

What had I done? “What happened?”

He looked at his hand. “The rope must have opened up an old cut. It’s nothing. Why don’t you go nap some more?”

I could feel his eyes following me as I climbed over to lie back down on the deck. What was he thinking?

Did he know I’d been in the hospital? And then the “halfway house?” Could he have any idea what that had been like? How everyone there was ancient, except one out-of-shape boy who couldn’t put a sentence together, and a girl with crazy hair who snuck out every day to steal things . . . Obviously no one could have expected me to stay.

But did he know I was a runaway, living in a bikini and a towel from the lost-and-found at the beach? That no one knew where I was? And that I’d gotten to the point there I’d do anything for a hot dog? But the sun had felt good, and I’d liked looking at the boats. Especially this one pretty sailboat, and the guy who worked on it — him. This tanned, strawberry-blond man.

I closed my eyes, and I was back on the beach, lying on my towel, staring down a gull — back when the man first spoke to me. “Hi,” he said. I didn’t look away from the gull, but I knew who it was.

“Hi,” I said back.

“Your parents know you’re spending all your time at the beach?”

“Your wife know you look at bikinis when you’re supposed to be working?”

He said nothing, just stood there pulling at the wedding ring on his finger, while he kept staring at what little there was of my lost-and-found bathing suit, still too small, even though my bones were sticking out from not having any money for food.

He was twice my age, and but I didn’t really care if he wanted to look. Finally, he said, “I was married. She passed away.” He swallowed, pushed his hair off his face, turned abruptly, and went back to his boat.

The gull left me, and followed him.

The next day, the gull was back. And the man was back, too, this time with a hot dog for each of us.

“I lost my wife and child in a boating accident,” he said. “I don’t like to talk about it.”

“I know what it’s like to lose someone,” I said.

We didn’t say anything else. We just sat together and ate.

I watched him finish eating, get up, and go to get his boat ready. I watched the gull go away with him. I watched them sail off together.

An old man smoking on a bench in the shade watched, too. Then he beckoned me over. Even though the boat was well out of sight, he pulled me close enough to smell his sour tobacco breach as he whispered, “There are rumors about that one and how his lovely wife and child met their end. If I were you, I’d be careful not to go out on his boat with him.”

“He told me about his wife and child. He told me all the rumors about you, too,” I said, breaking away.

Rumors, indeed. Who didn’t suffer from rumors? I looked back at the bench, where the old man was now yelling into the ear of an old crony, probably saying something about me.

The third day, the moment the gull stopped by, the strawberry-blond man was back, with more hot dogs and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. I was glad to see him. I was hungry.

“So what about you?” he said. “You never told me, does your family know what you do all day?”

“I don’t have any family,” I said.

He nodded, and looked relieved somehow. “I know what it’s like not to have any family.”

We didn’t say anything else. We just sat together and ate. And when he left, he tossed me the shades.

The fourth day, we didn’t say anything at all until we finished eating. Then he took my finger, and put a ring on it. “Will you . . .” The gull stared at him. His voice broke.

“I’d be honored,” I said. I knew he’d take care of me . . .

And now I slept on his boat.

The waves rolled, oily and black, reeking of fish long dead and gone, the fish-eating waves pulling us sickeningly right and left. No. Port and starboard. Which was which again? The gull hung heavily over the sagging sails, a sea vulture smelling blood, waiting for the death throes.

Across the water, across the years, too far back to see, the sand was shades of gray — salty and damp with sea water or sweat or tears. Perfect digging sand. I dug away, the cold, wet sand sticking under my nails, the salt water burning where I’d cut myself with a shell.

I dug out my brother, but he didn’t seem to see me. I called his name, but he didn’t answer. I screamed his name, and he still didn’t even look at me. I hit him, slapped him hard on the cheek, blood splattering on his face from the cut on my finger. And he did nothing. I screamed and screamed, and the gull screamed . . .

And now this gentle man, this kind good man who built this little boat, who raised these faded white sails, who took my hand, helped me on board, and even leant me his camera, this man is lying next to me, kissing me awake.

“I want to have children with you,” he says.

A breath of quiet, much too quiet for a sailboat in the ocean.

The gull screams.

-refers to “g-u-l-l” from the poem in the absence of stars tonight, gulls by Scot Siegel

  1. I like how this begins and ends with the disorienting/sickening yaw of the boat rocking in the swells. I like how the gull represents neither light nor dark, but a sort of blue foil against the wind. I like how the conflicts do not end, but dissolve in the calm that is the eye of the storm that is life. That IS life, afterall.

  2. thank you so much for your thoughtful comment Scot!

  3. A disquieting story, artfully told.

  4. Thank you for reading, Sherry. It is a longer piece than I normally publish but it really drew me in.

  5. Belated thanks to Scot and Sherry for your thoughtful comments. Sheila — beautiful photo. Perfect for the story.

  6. Wow Rose, you got me sunk into this one! Thank you!

  7. The weave of narrative and dialogue moves this beautiful and sad story so gently along, like waves.

  8. April, Bel Canto is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s so bfautieully written. I have the first few paragraphs saved and often use it for dummy text when I’m laying out websites. Wonderful book.Good call on the other items too, I like that animal bust.

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