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  • We were plagued by broken birds that trip. A bruised-winged songbird floating in the sea, scooped out, warmed and dried, boxed safe until it was able to fly. A one-legged gull that hopped along the deck of Mark and Heidi's 52-foot concrete-hulled sloop while he screamed at her, "Fucking bitch!"' and I huddled in the forecabin, trying not to hear the blows in his voice.

    They were the out islands of the Bahamas. Small salt-white crusts of land drifting northwestward off the tip of Little Abaco. Anything wet was lush. The reefs, the long-haired coral heads, plump red star fish as big as hubcaps. Anything above the surface seemed to be scraping survival from what the sea was willing to give up.

    A week out, Mark demanded that we each take a day at the helm. Heidi and I, not knowing navigation, tried to help each other steer clear, stressed and cursed. What could we do for one another, while he yelled about ropes and wrecks?

    Two weeks on a small boat with an angry captain and his word-battered wife - all underwater beauty aside - was too much. Invited Heidi stayed aboard - who knows what happened - while I took refuge on nameless islands.

    The tide was out when I dropped the open-decked kayak into the water and jumped in. There the sea's blue thins when the tide's low, from cornflower to forget-me-not. I paddled my lemon yellow liferaft to shore.

    There was no beach to speak of, just a ledge of jagged old coral the island perched upon. A scorched pile of sand, a few scrappy shrubs and rustling grass. I figured slow wading around the island could be drawn out for at least two hours

    Watershod, soft swells mid-calf, I walked the sandy bottom, watching crabs scuttle sideways up the vertical ledge, finding cool dark nooks for hiding. I dodged urchins turning a corner, to see a yellowbrownlongnecked Whistling Duck against the wet ledge. Noon under the sun's blister, most birds were well-hidden. I waited for the duck to paddle away. It swiveled its head, arched eye in my direction. No paddling.

    I waited. Swivel.

    I waded toward it. Swivel.

    Saw it was pressed, one side against the ragged edge of the island. The other, now, flapping a bid to take wing.

    I assumed it was another broken bird. Assumed, maybe, like the songbird I could box and towel it back to flight.

    So I walked softly to it. Swivel. Flap.

    Closer, I could see it was pinned somehow. The rock, I thought? Caught mid-fish in a crack in the ledge?

    Soft speaking I stroked its feathered back, and reached down its belly trying to find where the leg might be lodged.

    Awkward angled bony bird leg, no foot?

    Awkward angled bony bird leg.

    And something smooth and strong. Rubbery ring.

    I fingered that ring, an animal of the air, aquatic novice trying to wrap her mind around what the hold-up might be.

    Octopus.

    I got to my knees in the water, tide turning now.

    She'd wedged herself under the ledge. I couldn't feel her body, my mammalian hand chaffing against the rough rock lip, withdrawing. Scared, too, of what I couldn't see in the dark underwater.

    And the bird, neck stretched, beak skyward, wet-feathered.

    There was no slipping my finger between the leg and the tentacle. No space. So pull, gently at first. But water bird bones are built for floating, not for strain. Something broke. Neck stretched again, small bird beak opening to the sun bearing down on both of us.

    And my heart pounded, it was all wrong.

    I think I whispered to the bird. Some meaningless human blessing. Some ask to be forgiven.

    I stood and waded away. Done with circumnavigation, I turned back.

    Water nearly to my knees. The poor bird. Trapped and now broken, it would drown.

    I stopped. Swivel.

    There it was, still. Imagine it, seeming slumped against the ledge as the water edged over its back.

    In for a broken leg, in for a broken neck. I turned back.

    I can feel it now, 15 years later. I can feel the edges of the vertebrae in that bird's neck. One hand stacked over the other, holding. The damp feathers, the hot sun, the shame and the fear. I can feel the edges of my trepidation, the stacked question, to wring or to snap. Minutes there with that delicate stretch in hands, uncertain. The bird unmoving, its little heart doubtlessly pounding. My mammalian blood all guilty adrenalin.

    Just do it. Be brave for the bird. Tightening grip.

    The bird, held from above and below.
    And in the end, no mercy from either.

    Because, though I had acted, I could not act. Kneeling hip-deep in the water, I could not put that bird out of the misery I'd made unnatural. My meddling fear, my weakness. I could not break the bird's neck. Even now, I know, I could not do it. That kind of violence, for mercy or not, is beyond me. And now, as then, I would not be able to watch it drown.

    So I stood up, waded away. Pushed, then paddled that yellow kayak the other way round the island. Back to the boat.
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