“What, are you just going to sit there and stare all day?”
“It’s not like I can do much else, thanks to Father,” Siddo said, staring out over the edge of the nest. The world stretched before him, the dark sea roiling between the patches of green. “Besides, I think it’s incredible. All this to explore.”
“Whatever,” Skrill muttered. “Just a bunch of rocks and water to me.”
“That’s because you have no imagination, Skrill.” It was a word he’d heard his father use. Neither knew what it actually meant, but it was enough to get Skrill going.
“I’ll show you imagination,” Skrill lunged forward. The two chicks pecked at each other with their pink beaks. Siddo flipped up, Skrill’s featherless wings buffeting at his head as the older chick pinned him to the bottom of the nest. The weathered branches creaked as the two rolled and tussled.
“No fair,” Skrill panted. Siddo had him pinned again. “You’re bigger.”
Siddo couldn’t contain his smug grin. “Yeah, but you talk enough for both of us.” Born only a few days before, Siddo had beaten his brother into the world by moments, but already, nature favored the first born.
“It shows I’m smart,” Skrill said, a smile creeping around his beak. The tiny talons holding his chest had loosened as Siddo talked. “Unlike you!”
Rolling out of his hold, Skrill sprung off the edge of the nest. The flying blur of brown and black spots knocked the wind from Siddo. Siddo shook the stars from his vision, finding his brother standing over him. The smug grin belonged to him now.
“Oh, we’re only getting started.” Siddo whipped his feet around, tripping Skrill. The brawl resumed.
“All right, my dears, that’s enough,” a black wingtip separated the brothers.
Massive and regal, their mother stood over them. Her white head glowed in the twilight, flowing down into the dark back and wings. It was the heritage of their species, the Black-backed gull. Someday, both he and Skrill would be that large and strong, the largest of all the gull species. Neither could wait.
“Please, Mother? I haven’t defeated the villainous crow yet.” Another big word Siddo’s father had used in one of his tales.
“I’m sure the ‘crow’ can wait to learn his lesson until tomorrow,” their mother smiled.
Skrill piped up. “But this foolish Northerner still thinks he’s a match for-”
Her head whipped around. “I said that’s enough.” Skrill stumbled backwards, eyes wide. Even Siddo felt a jolt.
“Besides,” she said, feathers smoothed once more. “If you keep on being heroes, you’ll miss your dinner. Looks like you lost half your down already today.”
Tufts of brown fluff whipped away as the great wings of their father churned up the air. Both chicks had to fight to stay upright, but already their eyes were focused on his talons. A wet sea bass smacked down against the sun-baked branches.
Stomachs rumbling, Siddo and Skrill raced forward. A black wing swept them off their feet, the two mites tumbling to the other corner of the nest. “No,” their father grunted. “Your mother first.”
The two had to watch as the adults had first pick of the meal. Siddo looked over at his brother, finding two hard eyes boring into their parents. Finally, the remains of the tail sat before them, their father flying off into the darkening sky. Both chicks rushed in, tearing away at the fish.
Stomachs full, the pair felt their eyelids growing heavy. But Siddo’s perked up when he noticed that his mother too had settled down. His bliss was cast aside by the urge to explore. Checking on his mother once more, he dug his talons into the side of the nest.
Immediately, a fierce yellow eye froze Siddo in its gaze. His mother’s head turned, her body towering over his. With a tap of her wing, Siddo tumbled down into the center of the nest. He looked down as she shuffled to face him, lowering her neck to look him in the eyes. The revolution had been quelled.
“It is said that gull chicks are born with sharp minds and restless spirits,” she spoke in the hoarse voice of their species. “I have never had doubt in this fact. Within a few moments, you could walk. Within a day you could speak. And now you are growing faster and faster, growing stronger and more bold.”
She shook her head, “But do not let arrogance convince you that you are above danger. You still can not fly. You can not swim. You can not fight. In time you will be ready for the challenges of our vast world, but this is not that day, little chick.”
“I haven’t heard that one before,” Siddo muttered.
There was a twinkle in her eyes as she continued, nudging him with her wingtip, “Do not despair, my dear. I understand how you feel. Not too long ago I was a little one, waiting for my chance to spread my wings and see the world. But you’ll be seeing nothing but the bottom of those gray waters if you refuse to listen to your father, Siddo.”
“Pah! Father,” Siddo grunted. “All he ever tells me is what I can’t do, why I can’t do it, and where I can’t go.” He trudged away, shaking off his mother’s comforting gestures.
“Your father loves you, Siddo,” his mother called after him. He just can’t bear to see you hurt like the others.
Skrill watched how she spoke to his brother, the gleam in her eye. There was something about it that pulled at him, made him long that she would show such kindness towards him. But beneath that, there was something else, unfamiliar. It made his talons dig at the branches beneath him.
He jumped as a wing touched his back. “What about you, little one? What are you thinking in that mysterious head of yours?”
Skrill’s defenses reassembled. “Nothing that you would care about,” he spat, hopping away from her.
She shrugged. Knowing Skrill, if he didn’t want to talk, he would rather starve to death than open his beak. There was no way of knowing how they’d turn out at this age, she reassured herself. Every family had a troublemaker, but she had hope for hers.
Figuring that any further attempts to explore would only land him in deeper trouble, Siddo settled down beside his mother. She lifted her wing, shifting it so that it cradled his body against her soft underbelly. Wrapped up in her scent and warmth, Siddo felt like nothing could harm him. His eyes felt sluggish
Even as slumber carried him away, Siddo noticed that Skrill had not snugged up beneath her other wing. Skrill glanced towards his brother from the edge of the nest, then looked away. Siddo’s mind felt too slow to think about it any further.
In the cool night, his ears picked up wing beats. Recognizing his father’s deep voice, Siddo kept perfectly still, not daring to open his eyes. He could tell right away that what they talked about was serious.
“…two more on the eastern shore. The Silent Death’s not finished with us yet.”
His mother shifted, blocking out the conversation for a moment. Siddo couldn’t make out her question.
“I had to fly close to the North to find that fish. Maybe what they say is true about the disease driving away fish. If that plague doesn’t get them, a lot of young gulls are going to starve… Some are talking of leaving…”
Their voices lowered even further, Siddo’s ears unable to discern any words.
“…I was born on this rock, I don’t want to leave either. But for the sake of our sons…”
A breeze picked up, carrying off their whispers. Protected against the cold wind, Siddo felt a dream calling to him. Too young to understand most of their words, he chased off after the massive fish, determined to catch it and its sea monster brethren.
Siddo awoke to darkness, cold, confusion. He was no longer in the warm nest, snuggled against his mother’s side. Insulating straw was replaced by bare rock, a cold wind blowing through his thin down.
A crash! Salt water gushed over the edge of the outcropping, smothering him in its frigid embrace. Shivering, alone, and on the edge of panic, the young gull attempted to assess his situation.
How did I get here? He hadn’t even wanted to explore this time. Even if he’d tried, he was sure he would have been caught. Perhaps I was walking in my dreams? Siddo knew he was out of his league in this hostile place, the words of his parents suddenly sounding sensible. One question rose above the others. What do I do now?
He had no idea where he was, save on a rock with the sea hissing beneath. The darkness was too thick to see anything else, the roar of the prowling ocean too loud for anyone to hear his cries for help. After several attempts, the miserable chick gave up, his energy needed in the struggle to keep warm. The wind gusted through his wet feathers, threatening to carry him away. At the gale’s command the ocean joined in the assault, the waves growing as they battered away at the rock.
Even as hypothermia wrapped its icy talons around Siddo’s mind, he understood that he could not stay here. The wind, the waves, but most of all, the cold; if he didn’t do something, something…very bad would happen to him. His instincts understood well enough, and willed him to move away from the vicious sea. Food, warmth, shelter, the voice spoke to him, calming his panic, that’s the ticket, me boy. The nest, he must find the nest.
Through the misery, a thought emerged. He was on the edge of a rock jutting into the sea, perhaps this was the same rock where his nest lay. His eyes scanned the patterns between his feet. Yes! Hope flooded through Siddo. I just have to follow the rock until it meets the land, and that’s where the nest will be.
Siddo took one hesitant step into the thick blackness. His foot met solid stone. More boldly, he took a second step, pleased to find yet more rock holding him up. He took a third step, into nothing.
The air shrieked by him. Siddo managed to let out a squawk before the sea grasped him. Fangs of frost plunged into his skin, taking his breath away. His down grew heavier by the second. Up and down, the waves tossed him about, the chick struggling with futile strokes against the current. He had no idea where he was trying to go, but he knew with all his being that he must find it.
It was fortunate for Siddo that the tide was coming in at that moment, or he would have been swept out into the open Atlantic, a footnote in the history of Green Isle. And yet, it seemed fortune was very much against the gull in the next moment.
Struggling to keep his head above water, Siddo watched as the rock face loomed out of the darkness. Its face stretched high up into the night, enormous versus the tiny chick. The waves before him smashed to pieces against the rock. Every muscle in his body fought the freezing current.
His back hit the rock first, the air thrown from his lungs. His neck whipped back, his skull colliding with the smooth cliff face. Darkness smothered him, precious seconds where his mind and his body lost all connection.
Siddo’s eyes reopened to find himself surrounded by stinging water. His beak opened, but it met silt and seawater. Go for the surface, the voice commanded. Quick like, afore your chest bursts there, chap.
With every last reserve of strength, Siddo worked his burning muscles to the breaking point, managing to break the surface. For a precious moment, he sucked in air, the black rings disappearing.
Turning his head, Siddo saw the wave rearing before him, frothing with bloodthirsty zeal. In the next moment, the gull was sucked into the breaker. His body spun about in the liquid centrifuge, Siddo fighting to hold onto what air remained. The wave heaved up and slammed into the bottom.
Sand, silt, darkness. Siddo fought to escape his tomb as the frigid tide tossed him about, forgetting which way was up, just kicking in any direction he could. His lungs cried out for air, Siddo’s vision grew darker, the tide unrelenting in its death grip. Just hold on, lad. The calm had vanished. Just hold on!
Siddo awoke to darkness, surrounded not by water but air. He drew in a sweet breath, giddy just to be alive. His stomach heaved, his beak spewing salt water and foul-smelling slime. This carried on for several minutes, until Siddo wished the ocean hadn’t been so merciful. His eyes stung from the salt, his throat burned. His muscles felt utterly destroyed, even shifting his head seemed impossible.
A wave broke on the sand just in front of him. He could feel the tug of the surf, almost swept back into the depths. It was this that spurred his exhausted muscles to live once more. Stumbling, crawling, whatever he could muster, instinct led him up the beach towards the dunes. That’s it, son. Every step you make is a step further between you and that nightmare.
Yet even instinct was not enough to overcome the lifeless tendons in his legs. Left only with his wings, Siddo pulled himself through the sand. The going was slow, painful, and increasingly pointless to his cold-ridden mind. He desperately wanted to stop and curl up, clinging to whatever warmth his numb body had left, and wait for the deep sleep to come. But both he and instinct realized the comfort it offered was too complete, its call too strong. Somehow, Siddo managed to push on, even as the sea breeze made an already frozen body even colder.
After what felt like hours, Siddo felt his face buffeted by stringy, thin blades of beach grass. The sparse patch of shelter they offered from the dune grass looked like a juicy piece of sea bass, temptation beckoning him to lay down. With incredible strength of will, Siddo managed to resist the call. Nest… warmth… must find, he told himself with what conscious parts of his mind remained.
Dragging himself out of the patch of dune grass, Siddo tumbled down the slope. He lay at the bottom of the gulley, feeling the familiar contours of a nest beneath his useless feet. The sun rose in the east, bringing warmth and light to his soaked down. Sheltered from the wind in the dip between the dunes, Siddo collapsed into the nest.
There was something else too. His exhausted senses registered something warm, wriggling, alive! Siddo stood to find a chick. It cried out from beneath him, using the same call of panic he’d used this night past. But this time something answered.
Siddo was seized by a massive yellow beak, his puny throat caught in the mother’s vice. He gazed in fear at the enraged black-backed gull, her amber eyes blazing. The chick’s cries continued below them as she closed the prongs, Siddo’s vision turning crimson as the blood was squeezed into his head. His wings and legs hung limp at his side, his strength spent as his lungs ached.
Even as fate closed in on him, he stared in disbelief at the mother, realizing she was prepared to kill a juvenile to defend her own chick.
Just as darkness was about to seize his vision, the adult shook him. Siddo felt his joints straining with the force. Summoning his reserves, he wriggled free just before his neck snapped in two. The air shrieked past him. The dunes welcomed him with a jarring impact, his vision spinning as he turned over, facing the rustling green stalks.
The berserk gull emerged from the dune grass, stalking toward her victim. Enjoying his helpless state, she toyed with the chick as she grew close. Siddo’s mind focused on far greater things. He must know, he must understand before it was too late. With breathtaking clarity he realized he’d faced Death, that he had died in the suffocating depths.
The beady, yellow eyes burned over him. In another leap of conscience he realized he was staring Death in the face once more, that Death was everywhere. He had died once and come back. The thought gave him hope as the sharp beak rose, pointed straight at him. Siddo closed his eyes.
A shriek tore into the dawn, but Siddo was shocked to find it wasn’t his. He opened his eyes to find his father atop the female, driving his beak into her back. With a cry, the female rolled away, the chick forgotten as she now faced a much worthier opponent. Determined to fight, unable to see past the red haze, the mother spread her wings in a challenge. Siddo’s father matched the gesture, both Black-backed gulls stepping side to side.
His father locked eyes with the larger female, nature favoring the mother. “Leave him be,” he spoke, full of authority. “He’s just a hatchling, not worth your trouble.”
The reply came in a coarse voice, “He threatened my chick!” Siddo watched as she positioned herself directly between his father and his quivering form.
“Stand aside,” Siddo’s father growled. “There’s no need for any bloodshed. Don’t make me do this.”
“Say goodbye to your son!” She lunged forward. His father back-powered with his wings, climbing and dodging her thrust. The mother’s greater size slowed her turn, buying his father valuable time to put himself between her and Siddo.
She charged again, this time aiming high should he try to escape by air a second time. Siddo’s father slid to the right and surged forward beneath her defenses. His beak struck true, the female letting out a gut-wrenching screech. His father spat out feathers and bits of flesh as she collapsed into the sand, leaping upon her exposed belly. Siddo watched, rapt, as the two struggled. Black and white feathers filled the air, blood and carnage covered the ground.
With a powerful thrust of her webbed feet, the mother cast the male off. She struggled to stood, her white plumage bloodstained. Instead of attacking his stunned father, she charged at Siddo. He watched, frozen to the ground, as blood oozed from her beak, her savage cry splitting the air.
But then, a flash of black and white. His father swooped in from above, diving on the enraged female. His talons met their mark, shearing through her left wing. Blood spattered all over Siddo.
The scream left Siddo unconscious. He awoke to find his father lying several paces to the right of him, his chest heaving. To his left, the female lay on her back in a heap of feathers, blood coloring the dune. She gasped for air between her moans, “No… no… ”
His father hauled himself to his feet, stumbling towards the maimed female. Upon the sight of her foe, the mother began to writhe, but all in vain. He put a black wing over her eyes, her struggles stilling. “I’m sorry,” he breathed.
His beak plunged down. There was no shriek, only a gurgling noise. The body shook, struggling one last time as the life drained from her. Then all was still, and all was quiet.