Feed on


I wrapped my scarf more tightly around my neck in an attempt to stave off the November chill.  A gust of wind blew rain in my face and I shivered.  It had been an unseasonably warm autumn until about a week ago, when the temperatures had plummeted and rain clouds came rolling in off the ocean.

I was standing there on the bluffs, the rain battering my face and the winds whipping the strands of my hair that had escaped my ponytail into my face.  Sucking in a freezing breath, I laughed it out again.  The sound was snatched from my lips and tumbled down into the ocean below.  I threw my hands out and tipped my face back, losing myself in the pure wildness of the moment.  I felt as if I could fling myself into the air and go hurtling along the winds in a great rush.

The fractured cry of a gull cut through my thoughts. Searching the sky for the source, I found the bird above me, wheeling and diving against the force of the wind.  I wondered what prompted him to brave this weather. Usually by this time, gulls had moved inland in anticipation of the drop in temperature and guarantee of rougher storms.

I followed the gull’s path as it fought the winds in an attempt to make landfall.  Every time it dropped a few feet in the air I tensed, half expecting it to fall from the sky.  It was sent shooting sideways by one gust and I gasped.  The rain billowed through the air, buffeting the gull.  I squinted against the needles of rain and watched it, afraid that if I stopped looking, it would drop out of the sky and dash against the bluffs.

As if directed by my thoughts, the bird suddenly floundered.  A rogue gust sent it spinning and it hurtled downwards.  I gasped and clutched my hands to my chest as I watched the gull’s futile struggle to stay airborne.  It gained a few meters before another blast knocked it sideways again and it spiraled down into my arms.

I couldn’t breathe.  It panted in my arms, beak open and eyes half shut.  It was not afraid, or it was too exhausted to care.  I cradled it, hardly daring to breathe.  It had been almost seven years since I’d held a wild thing, but the memory came hurtling back.

I had been ten and exploring Cnoc Fola—something I’d been expressly forbidden to do by my mother—when I’d gotten tired and sat down in a patch of grass and heather.  Not five minutes later, a fox crept up to me and settled into my lap.  I hadn’t dared to move.  Foxes were rare on the moors, and to my extensive ten years of knowledge, did not make a habit of sitting in laps.  I had stared at it wide-eyed, while it studied me before yawning and closing its eyes.

After a few minutes its breathing evened, so I tentatively reached out to stroke the soft red-gold fur.  It was rougher than I had expected but smooth and shiny. I don’t know how long I sat there in the tall brown grass with that fox on my lap.  Eventually, it awoke and gave my hand a quick lick before vanishing back into the grass.  I never told anyone about the experience, quietly taking a scolding from my mother when I crept back into the house at sunset. I had forgotten about it for years until the gull fell into my arms.

One of its wings wasn’t quite tucked into its body, held loosely out at an awkward angle.  I frowned and adjusted the bird gently in my arms.  The rain pounded down, and I pulled my hood up over my already soaked hair.  I glanced down towards the road that led back into town and back down at the gull.  A gust of icy wind blew into me, making my decision for me. Catching myself, I turned and began to hurry back towards my house.

I reached the house and pulled open the door, the wind slamming it shut behind me as I ducked inside.

“I’m back!” I called as I shucked off my boots and stepped into the warmth of our tiny kitchen.  My mother was pulling a loaf of bread from the oven.  “Do we have any cardboard boxes?” I asked.

“What do you need a box for?  You rescue another kitten?”  My mother put the bread pan down and turned to me.  From his bed in the corner, Heath lifted his head and regarded me with curious brown eyes.

“Not quite a kitten…”  I grinned sheepishly.

“Aileen O’Donnell, what in heaven’s name is that?  Is that a bird?”

“A gull,” I said.  She threw her hands up and turned back to her bread. “I was out in the storm and it fell into my arms.”

“Oh yes it fell into your arms; that’s a likely story.”  She turned the bread pan upside down and let the loaf fall out onto a plate with more force than I thought necessary. The yellow light of the tiny chandelier cast a warm glow on her face, her cheeks red from the oven.

“D’you think I could just reach up and snatch a gull out of the sky?”  I began to poke around for a box to put the gull in, still holding it in my arms.

“Don’t give me that sass young lady,” she said, her hands on her hips. “And you’re dripping all over my floor, take that coat off!”

“Where am I going to put him while I take my coat off?” I huffed. “Are you sure we don’t have any boxes?”

“I’ll check in the storage room.  You just stand there, I’d rather only have to clean up one puddle than three.” She stepped into the storage room that doubled as our cupboard and I stood in the middle of the kitchen dripping water onto both the tile and my socks.  She returned a moment later with a slightly squashed box, pulling a dish towel out of a drawer on her way.

“Here, put him in here.”  She held out the box and I placed the seagull inside.  He fluttered weakly at the movement but didn’t resist.  “There we go, he’s settled now.”  She looked down at him and I thought she seemed less upset now.  That always happened with the kittens too. They brought out her motherly side, now that I was too old to baby.

“I’ll put in a call to Jerry down at the store, see if he knows anything about nursing seagulls.” She placed the box gently on the floor near Heath’s bed as I pulled off my coat. He leaned over and sniffed curiously at the gull. It hissed at him, and he licked it before dropping his head onto his paws again with a sigh.  “What’ya reckon they eat?”

“Fish I’d assume,”  I said as I stepped out into the vestibule and hung my coat on the rack where it dripped mournfully.

“You going to go out and get him a fish then?” my mother asked as she washed her hands.  “Also don’t birds carry diseases sometimes?”  She glanced over at where the gull was flopped in his box.

“Mum!”  I shut the door to the vestibule and frowned at her.  “It’s fine. I’ll take care of it.”  I went over and peered at the bird and it peeped weakly up at me.  “Don’t worry, we’re going to help you.”

Miraculously the rain stopped a little while later, so Heath and I headed down towards Jerry’s store.  I stomped through the long mud-grey puddles in the gravel road, but Heath danced around them, careful to keep his white paws as unsullied as he could.

The bell over the door jangled as we stepped inside, and Jerry called out a greeting.  I waved and Heath followed me as I wandered around the store waiting for Jerry to finish with his customer, a battered looking fisherman. We examined the tins and jars in the back corner and Heath nosed half-heartedly at a pile of fishing net.

“What can I do for you today, Aileen?” Jerry called and I turned to the counter. His sunny grin never failed to make me smile. I wove around shelves full of nails, bait, and crackers to reach the counter.

“I’ve got a hurt gull back home, its wing is bent all funny and was wondering what I should do to help it,” I said, leaning on the counter and examining the label on a candy bar.  Heath nosed at my leg and I patted his head.

Jerry frowned and poked around behind the counter.  “What happened to it?  You just find it?”

“Well,” I blushed, “I was out on the bluffs in the storm-” Jerry snorted, “and it was out flying but a few bad gusts hit it and it just sort of fell into my arms.”

“Right into your arms, eh?” Jerry laughed, “That would only happen to you Aileen O’Donnell, that’s for sure.” He turned and propped his elbows on the counter.  “This is what you’re going to do. He’s probably stunned and concussed.  If you keep him in a dark dry place, he should stay quiet for enough time for the pressure in his head to subside.  Then you’ll give him some of this,” he waved a can of cat food, “and make sure he rests. I can give you the number of a traveling vet if it looks like he’ll need more than that.”

“I think I’ve got some leftover cat food from the last kitten,” I said and grinned. “Thank you, Jerry. I’ll let you know how he’s doing.”

“You do that, and take care when you’re out there in the storms you crazy girl. We don’t want you blown off into the sea, you hear?” He smiled at me, the motion creating an intricate network of tiny lines around his eyes.  I grinned and nodded.

“C’mon Heath, let’s go find some cat food.” I patted my leg and Heath turned from where he had been sniffing a box of cereal. “Thanks again Jerry!”  The bell jangled as we left and the door thumped shut. I took in a deep breath of chilly November air and looked up at the sky that had begun to change from dark grey to navy. No stars could be seen behind the clouds.

“Heath I’ll race you back!” I took off running, the dog loping along beside me.  I knew if he really tried he could beat me—his four legs easily outpacing mine—but he kept pace, a large furry brown and white shadow at my side.

We crashed up to the door panting as the night grew deeper. Inside, my mother was heating up soup on the stove.  I dried Heath’s feet off in the vestibule and gave him a quick kiss on his nose.  He licked my cheek and we went to go examine the gull. He was nestled in his box with his head under his good wing, sleeping.  I turned to my mother.

“Jerry says to let him rest and feed him cat food,” I said as I pulled down bowls from the cabinet.

“Cat food?” My mother looked at me curiously and I shrugged.

“That’s what he said.”  I put the bowls down on the table and went into the cupboard to see if there was really any cat food left over from our last rescued kitten. In the back, I found a few dusty cans and pulled one out. I returned to the kitchen and dug around for the can opener. At the sound of the can, Heath lifted his head from where he was curled next to the gull’s box.

“This isn’t for you,” I told him and he seemed to sigh before dropping his head to the floor again. After opening the can, I placed some of the food on a small plate and brought it over to the box. The gull blinked at me and I knelt gently beside it, placing the plate inside. Immediately, the gull bent forward and began to eat. Heath stared at it and I stroked his head.

I ladled soup into two bowls and my mother placed the fresh loaf of bread down on the table. As we ate, I stared out the back windows, looking through the herbs that hung in front of them. It was dark and there was no moon to be seen.

“I’ve got a new tea recipe I’ve been meaning to test out,” my mother said as she pulled another chunk of bread from the loaf. I looked up and swallowed my soup.

“What kind?” I asked, accepting the piece of bread she handed me and taking a bite. Heath looked at me as I did and I made a face at him as I chewed.

“It’s a variation on my insomnia tea,” she explained, “but this one is focused on ridding people of nightmares. Sometimes nightmares can occur even if one is not sleeping restlessly, so I wanted to see if I could find a remedy.”

“Lucky we don’t get nightmares,” I said as I returned to my soup. My mother hummed and chewed thoughtfully. In the corner, the gull rustled and Heath sighed.

“The only thing is,” my mother continued, “that I need to brew it under the full moon.” She stirred her soup. “That’s in two weeks, so I need everything to be ready before then. You’ll help me, right?”

“Of course!” I grinned. “The more things I can learn from you, the more helpful I can be.” My mother smiled and squeezed my hand gently.

* * *

I couldn’t sleep. Usually, the faint sound of the waves was enough to lull me to sleep, but tonight I was as restless as the sea. Sighing, I gave up and extracted myself from the worn quilt and collection of pillows. I could feel the chill of the floorboards through my socks. Making sure to step over the creaky floorboards, I crept to the trapdoor and slunk downstairs to the kitchen. The gull was in his box, head tucked under his good wing and Heath was curled up beside it.

“Are you two friends now?” I whispered to him as I sat down, and he licked my hand. I tangled my fingers in his long fur and crossed my legs, tucking my feet underneath myself.  The kitchen was dark and quiet except for the sound of Heath’s even breathing. In the distance, I could hear the ocean breaking against the bluffs. I reached out a cautious hand and trailed one finger along the gull’s back. He didn’t stir, so I continued to gently stroke his back, humming under my breath as I did. It was soothing and I found myself becoming sleepier as I continued to hum an old lullaby my mother used to sing to me.  Beside me, Heath had begun to snore faintly.

* * *

“Aileen, did you sleep down here?”  I looked up to see my mother standing over me, grey sunlight streaming in through the windows. Heath was curled up with his head on my lap and I realized I had slid against the wall, my legs still curled underneath me.  They were stiff and I stood slowly, stretching with a groan.

“I guess I did,” I said, yawning and rubbing my eyes. “I couldn’t sleep last night so I came down here. I guess I just dozed off.”

“Well,” she said, “if you catch a cold from sleeping on the floor with the bird and the dog,” she turned and began to bump pots around on the stove, “it’s not my fault.”

“I’m fine,” I said and bent to check on the gull. He was looking up at me with bright eyes. In a flutter of wings, he flew into my arms and pressed his head against my neck.

“What in heaven’s name?” My mother exclaimed and I turned to her with wide eyes.

“I-I don’t know.” I leaned away from the gull but it continued to cuddle into me. “He was muddled and hurt last night.” I examined his hurt wing. There was no sign of dislocation or swelling. “He seems perfectly healthy.”

“That’s impossible!” My mother’s eyes were wide as well and she had a hand over her heart. Crossing herself, she turned back to the stove.

“I’m going to see if he’ll fly around outside,” I said as I stepped into the vestibule and carefully pulled my boots on. “Maybe he’ll find his way home again.” I opened the door and Heath stood to follow me out.  We stepped into the yard and the gull stretched its wings, still trying to stay in my arms.

“Go on,” I said, and it looked me right in the eye. “You can do it.” In a flurry of feathers, it was airborne, curling in lazy circles above my head.  I watched it and it fluttered down to light on my head. All I could do was stand there in shock.

“You’re not a pet, you know,” I told it matter of factly.  Heath seemed to be jealous of the attention it was getting and barked at me. “You hush. I still love you most, so don’t worry.” He sneezed and walked off to investigate the tall grasses that grew among the boulders.

The gull was still perched on my head and I shooed it off.  It flapped back into the air and flew around me again, letting out a harsh cry before fluttering down onto a boulder in front of me.

“Do you want something?” I asked it and it cocked its head at me. “What happened to you? How did you heal so fast?”

“You!” it cried and whirled into the air again. I couldn’t move. “You! You! You!” it shrieked again and settled onto the boulder again. I remembered to breathe but kept staring.

“Are you talking to me?” I felt ridiculous asking the question, but the shriek had had a quality of speech to it.  Perhaps my sleep on the kitchen floor had addled my brain.

“Prin-cess!” It cried and I felt dizzy.

“I’m imagining things,” I muttered to myself and clutched my head, spinning in a circle, “next thing I know, Heath will start talking too. Maybe I’m still asleep.” I pinched myself, but I was still standing outside the house with a gull staring at me.

“Not dreaming then,” I said and sat crouched down.  My heart was racing. I looked back up at the gull. “Go on then, say something else.” It blinked at me.

“Prin-cess! You! Thank!”

“Impossible,” I said and it blinked at me again.


“You understand me,” I said, unable to hold back a laugh. “I’m talking to a bird and it’s talking back!” I twirled a strand of hair around my finger, “I haven’t even eaten yet! Could you at least wait until after breakfast before you start talking and thanking me?” The gull fluffed its feathers and squawked at me, finally sounding entirely like a bird.

“Heath!” I called and he turned towards me, dead grasses stuck in his fur, “C’mon, let’s go eat breakfast.” I turned back to the gull. “You can eat too if you want.”

It hopped off the boulder and followed me back to the house, flying in short bursts.  I played with my hair, wondering whether I should tell my mother it had talked to me. I doubted she would believe me if I told her. I wasn’t sure I even believed it myself.

“You’re not going to start talking too, are you Heath?” I said. He looked up at me and sneezed again. “Good.”

We went back inside, the gull hopping along at my feet.  My mother didn’t say anything about it, just sighed and handed me the can of cat food.  I opened it and placed it on the floor, shooing Heath away from it and the gull.  “Go lie down,” I told him and he stalked away, flopping to the ground with a sigh.

I joined my mother at the table and we ate quietly. My mother didn’t speak until she was finished and carrying her dishes to the sink.

“I’ve got to do some things in town, meet some people, and make sure the fencing is all still in place. That storm yesterday was a rough one.”

“I can check the fences for you, if you want,” I offered, following her to the sink. “I don’t really have any homework left. I did it all last night.”

“Would you do that?” my mother asked, her face breaking into a smile. She began to fill the sink with water. “It would be such a help to me.”

“Course,” I said and dried the plate she handed me, “Heath and I could use the fresh air.”

“As if you don’t live your entire life out in the fresh air, you wild girl,” she laughed and I laughed with her. There was a flutter of wings and the gull perched itself on the counter next to me, pushing at my arm with its head.

“What do you want now?” I asked it, “I fed you, and you’re feeling all better.” It squawked at me and hopped off the counter and towards the door. Heath watched it pass and yawned.

“I think he wants to leave,” my mother remarked, and I nodded.

“It’s about time, I was beginning to think he imprinted on me,” I muttered, pushing the thoughts of the gull’s “words” out of my mind. “Do you want to leave?” I asked it and it squawked at me again. I opened the door and it hopped out onto the back steps before taking off in a rustle of wings.  It wheeled around the house a few times and let out one last shriek that sounded suspiciously like “thank!” and flew off inland.

I sighed and went back inside to collect my coat and Heath. Once collected, we flung ourselves back outside, a hammer, box of nails, and a pair of pliers stuffed into my pockets. I wrapped my scarf more tightly around my neck and breathed in the comforting smell of wool, wood smoke, and heather. Our fence, like most in the area, was wire strung along between posts until it reached a stone wall that ran along the ocean.  When it finally turned away from the coast again, it returned to posts and wire, the stone wall continuing on along the sea off our own property.

The sheep watched me calmly as I twisted a wire back into place and replaced a rusty nail.  Heath was lying on the ground at my side, staring at the sheep. After fixing that portion, I continued along down the fence, trailing a long piece of grass along the top wire and humming. The stone wall against the bluffs was sturdy but I held my arms out as I walked along it, Heath glancing up at me every so often as he paced beside me on the ground. We came upon two more loose patches in the fence and I fixed each one before moving on.  Once we reached our beginning again, I opened the gate and waved Heath inside the sprawling pasture.  The sun was high in the sky, struggling to shine down through the clouds.

“They’re getting lazy out here.” I waved to the sheep, “Round them up and bring them here.” He was off like a shot, skating low to the ground.  The sheep stared at him for a long moment before wheeling as one and surging up the rise. Heath flew behind them, dancing back and forth on nimble paws, keeping any stragglers in the bunch. His tail was streaming behind him and his ears were plastered back against his head, his face in as close to a grin as a collie could muster.  This was my favorite Heath. I loved when I could use him as a pillow and confess all my fears to his silky ears and liquid brown eyes, but seeing him like this, running like he was born to do, always made my throat tight no matter how many times I witnessed it.

I broke out of my reverie as the sheep thundered towards me, Heath hot on their tails.  Before they could reach me, he put on a final burst of speed and flew past them, turning them again gracefully, tail flying. They rushed past me and Heath trotted to a stop.  A moment later the sheep realized that nothing was chasing them and slowed again, returning to their lazy munching. Only a careful few kept their gazes on Heath for a moment longer before dropping their heads to the grass as well.

“You’re the best boy, aren’t you?” I dropped to a crouch and Heath hurtled himself into my arms, chuffing and licking my face. I overbalanced and fell, still tangled up with his fur and he wiggled out of my grasp only to attack my face with kisses again. “Ah! Get off!” I gasped between gales of laughter.  I grabbed his paws and he pulled back with an affronted look.

“I warned you,” I said as I scratched his ears.  He yawned and lay down, one ear cocked towards the sheep. “You all tired now?” He yawned again and I settled down into the curve his body made, careful not to sit on his feet.

“I’m tired too,” I said, yawning as well and settling down into his soft fur. There was a breeze coming in off the sea, but Heath and my scarf were warm. I stuffed my hands deeper into my pockets and hummed softly into my scarf as I stared at the sky and watched the clouds slide by. I thought about the gull and wondered if they could be taught to talk. Maybe someone had taught it a few words. Maybe I had imagined it, and they hadn’t really been words at all.

“I don’t know what to think, Heath,” I said. “Part of me wants to believe that a bird talked to me, but what would be the point?” I pulled one hand out of my pocket and smoothed down the hair on the top of Heath’s head. “No bird has ever talked to me before and I doubt they’ll start talking to me now, just because I slept on the kitchen floor and went a bit funny.” Heath sighed and I scratched his ears.

“Sometimes,” I whispered, mostly to myself thought the only other occupants of the field were Heath and the sheep, “I hate it here.”

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