Heron Island by Rick Beck

Thoughtfulness:

Growing up takes time and work.
Once grown, you are entitled to the good stuff and you get to decide what’s good for you.

RB


Thanks to Jerry for his editorial assistance.
Dedicated to Zach Harrington. Sorry you left us so soon.
10/10/10

Nylin awoke from his dream of Heron Island to a room bathed in sunshine. A slight breeze ruffled the sheer white curtains that hung over his bedroom window. He watched the billowy curtains thinking they looked like giant pillows. Slowly the new day dawned on him as he gathered enough energy to get out of bed to get ready for school.

The dream faded from his thoughts as he found a pair of socks that matched, dragged a comb across his head, and glanced in the mirror at his image.

“Will I ever grow up?” Nylin asked himself.

“Drink you orange juice, dear,” his mother sang as she set the plate in front of him.

“Can I have some coffee?” Nylin asked, wanting to appear grown up even if he wasn’t.

“You’re too young for coffee, dear.  Drink your milk. You’re going to be late if you don’t start eating.”

Nylin toyed with the strip of bacon, marveling at its crisp texture and mouthful of flavor it delivered. He ate the scrambled eggs and got up to get his books.

“Bye, mom, see you this afternoon,” he said, banging the back screen, causing his mother to smile.

Nylin was her precious angel. She hadn’t been able to have kids, but late in life this blessing had come her way. She’d always been close to him and she marveled at his intelligence and understanding for all living things. He made his mother proud.

At any given time there were a half dozen turtles, who knew a good thing when they found one, numerous birds, an owl, several cats, and four once-stray dogs, and all received a lot of Nylin’s attention.

She remembered his greatest achievement from two summers before when he found a young heron crippled and lying on the path he took to and from school.  He’d brought the bird home wrapped in his shirt, hand fed it, splinted its wing, and nursed it back to health, which took the entire summer.

It was the summer his father died.  It was a trucking accident miles from home. Nylin did his best to comfort his mother, disappearing for hours when he needed to mourn. It was always the animals he turned to for comfort. They became his world. Nursing the heron kept his mind off his pain, but he still missed his father.

It was the injured heron he showered his love and attention upon. It kept his mind from dwelling on things he could do nothing about as he watched the bird grow stronger. One day, after removing the splint, he walked with the bird towering over his head, moving him away from its fencepost perch. Nylin always talked softly to the bird, as if it could understand. On this day he told the bird what he wanted it to do.

“You can fly, you know? Your wing is fine. If you don’t exercise it, you’ll never fly again. I want you to fly. You are a bird, you know?”

He felt the bird’s talons squeezing his arm as he lowered it before raising it in a quick motion, feeling the weight and the power in the heron’s feet. Then came the instant the bird took to flight. It soared up, barely flapping its wings, seeming to suffer no ill effects from months of rehabilitation.

Nylin smiled, feeling liberated by the bird’s flight.

“You knew you could do that all the time,” Nylin said to the bird.        It come back down to sit on the fence beside the shed where it had done its healing.

Nylin understood he’d saved the bird’s life. The heron knew as much. The bird came and went on its own schedule from that day forward. Nylin walked along the beach on his way to school and he could see heron flying above Heron Island at times.

Heron Island was the name he gave to it. Up until the year the heron had been injured, Heron Island was part of a finger of land that arched out into the Gulf. After a storm came through the summer before it had created the island, putting a hundred yards of water between the island and the peninsula it was attached to previously.

Nylin loved where he lived. He admired all the life going on around him. He’d felt a great peacefulness about Heron Island being created. He saw it as a refuge for the animals he loved.

He remembered the dead birds and other small dead animals washing onto the beach before the island went off on its own. People killed them for sport. Obviously some people weren’t able to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. His job was to undo some of the damage humans did. He took care of the injured animals and buried the dead.

Nylin understood this was all part of ‘the great circle of life’ and he imagined his father was out on Heron Island. He’d sit on the beach to talk to him. It was as if he still had a presence in his life. It wasn’t the same but it made Nylin feel better. It made Heron Island more mysterious.

Nylin didn’t attempt to go out to the island, because he wanted to imagine he couldn’t. He wanted to imagine no one could. This would keep the animals safe from man. He knew it was silly but it was the way he wanted it.

When the great white heron flew off one day and didn’t come back, Nylin sat watching for him flying over the island. He knew he couldn’t tell one heron from another, except for the bare spot under its wing, where it had been broken. Feathers no longer grew there.

When he caught sight of a flock of heron flying nearby, Nylin would smile and imagine one of the birds was his heron. He smiled knowing his heron was happily living the life nature intended. He was a little disappointed his heron never flew back to say hello, but that’s not why he nursed him back to health.

Nylin never named his animals. They didn’t belong to him; they belonged to themselves. He spoke to each as if it was a totally unique life. Each was deserving of respect as long as it cared to stay in and around his menagerie. He didn’t own them, and as difficult as it was, he accepted it when one left his care to go out on its own.

It was a little out of the way for him to go to school by walking along the beach, but it was how Nylin started and ended each school day. His mother knew to expect him when she saw him, but his schedule was far more predictable than he believed it to be.

It was after he turned away from the beach that Nylin turned toward school. It was a mile or more out to the main road and another mile to the schoolyard. It was only after he got to the road that his fear started to build.

It was the year he started going to the Dolly Madison Middle School. It was the year he found out about bullies. He tried not to think about it, but he didn’t make friends easily, except for animals. Once the schoolyard bully singled him out, other kids found it safer not to get too close to the bully’s number one target.

Nylin had suffered no more than a shove and insults spit in his direction. The bully’s buddies found this amusing, laughing at Nylin as he tried to keep his balance. Being peaceful by nature, and a foot shorter than his tormentor, Nylin felt helpless to do anything but put up with the humiliation.

Other kids stood around, paralyzed, holding their books tightly, thankful they weren’t the ones being pushed today.

If Nylin tried to turn to walk away from the taunts he was tripped and called ‘chicken’ by the older bigger boy. If he stood fast when confronted, the names got more vicious and the pushing more violent. There didn’t seem to be any way to avoid him.

It was the bell that sometimes saved him.

“I’ll be seeing you later, faggot,” the bully hissed at the bell.

Why someone would call him queer or faggot was a mystery.  What he knew was other kids heard the names and they stayed clear of him as if it was true. It wasn’t true of course. Nylin wasn’t certain what the words meant, beyond them being serious insults for any red blooded boy, which he was sure he was.

Mostly he was in class and stayed clear of places where his tormentor might be. Once the three o’clock bell rang, he was out the door, leaving the schoolyard behind him. He didn’t feel safe until he got to the long deserted stretch of beach that faced Heron Island. 

He sat watching for the big birds he could easily see from his sandy perch on the beach. He talked as if the island was alive, listening for the sounds the water made trickling to shore and the occasional cry that came from his island.

Nylin longed for the time when there was no conflict in his life and he felt safe. He was starting to get sick at his stomach on his way to school, understanding the bullying was about to begin.

He woke up from the same dream every morning that week. He was on Heron Island, wading ankle deep in the marshy ground. There were heron and other big birds, living in harmony. He looked for his heron but there was no sign he was there. Certainly the bird would remember the boy who saved his life.

Did birds remember?

When he awoke he realized it was a dream and he was safely tucked into his bed, which was a comfort, but there was a new and difficult day ahead.

“Eat your bacon, dear,” his mother reminded him.

“I’m not all that hungry, mom.”

“Are you okay?  Are you sick?” she asked, feeling his forehead.

He wanted to tell her he was sick of being picked on and he wanted to grow up and he hated school, but he didn’t say anything.

“I’m just not hungry for gosh sakes,” he said, and she smiled, sensing his desire to be grown up.

“Drink your orange juice, dear,” she sang, hanging the frying pan back in its place as she cleaned up. “It’s good for what ails you.”

No, it wasn’t good for what ailed him. What ailed him was someone else’s meanness. If it wasn’t the first thing in the morning, when he wanted his lunch money, the inevitable meeting might be in the hall between classes, or on his way out to the road in the afternoon if he wasn’t quick enough in making a getaway.

It was always on his mind, even on the days when his tormentor wasn’t in school. He knew he’d be back the next day. He was afraid. He was a prisoner because he wasn’t big enough to fight back. No one tried to help him and he couldn’t ask to stay home from school.

He considered telling a teacher or the principal, but that might assure a more physical attack. Teachers were rarely around to protect the smaller kids. He couldn’t tell his mom. He was the man in the family now and it was up to him to take care of himself. With it being constantly on his mind, his grades were beginning to suffer.

Life had never been easy. The other kids were too busy staying out of the bully’s way to help him. He hadn’t gotten to know many kids at his new school. He felt more at home with his animals, but now he wished for one big friend, a very big friend, who would protect him.

School let out early one Wednesday for a routine teacher’s meeting.  Nylin made his usual dash for the door and he was soon walking along the highway on his way home. There was no sign of the bully and he could stop worrying until the next day.

The pale blue sky and fluffy white clouds announced the beach just ahead. Nylin wanted to watch his island and relax. When he came out onto the sand, he breathed in the clean fresh air. It was three hours to dinner and he was safe.

He sat for a time watching Heron Island straight ahead of the path he used.  Birds flew high over the treetops. The sounds created a symphony Nylin didn’t think everyone heard.

“I wish I was a bird,” Nylin said out loud. “I’d fly away and never go to school again.”

After lingering a long time, he decided to go home to see if his mother might need some help around the house. He hadn’t mentioned the teacher’s meeting or the early release from school, because he wanted the time to spend alone.

Nylin didn’t hear the boat arrive, but when he stood and turned toward home, there was the boat and the boy in it was watching him.

“Hi,” Nylin said surprised.

“Hi,” the boy replied. “Come on. I’ll take you over.”

“Over where?” Nylin asked.

“The island. You’ve been staring at it. You must want to see it up close. It’s great. No one goes there. Just the animals. I’ll take you.”

The boy looked over his shoulder as he rowed to set a proper course that would take them to the middle of the island.

“What’s your name?” Nylin asked.

“Ardeid.”

“I’m Nylin, Ardeid.”

“I know who you are,” the boy advised him.

“You do?”

“Yes, I do. I’ve seen you watching the island before.”

“I never saw you,” Nylin confessed.

Nylin wondered how the strange boy knew him. He’d never seen him before. Ardeid was older but he didn’t go to Nylin’s school. It was a mystery but not one worth worrying about.

As they came upon the island, Ardeid rowed to a spot he liked, bringing the oars into the boat. They glided into a tiny cove that was surrounded by ferns and bushes. The boy stood, turning to tie the boat to a convenient stump as the boat reached shore.

“Come on,” he said, as he stepped out of the boat, standing in the underbrush along the bank that came right up to the cove.

Nylin accepted the boy’s hand and stepped ashore. Ardeid was a full head taller than Nylin. His hair was light in color and his open shirt revealed the same colored hair that was more a fine fuzz you’d associate with the plumage of very young birds.  Nylin smiled, sensing the boy’s gentleness without having any proof of it. He felt he could trust him.

They quickly made their way into the depths of the island, rich in trees, bushes, and tall grass. The undergrowth was a thick plush green. The trees hugged the path, cutting off any long-range view. The ground gave under Nylin’s sneakers with soft moss offering a cushion under his feet.

Once out of the brush, the animal life was thriving in a people free world. There were deer and rabbits drinking nearby,  and a wide variety of birds that reacted little to a human presence. The frogs and crickets warmed up for an evening symphony to come.

As Nylin watched a family of turtles move past a passel of butterflies fluttered up around his head, making Nylin laugh. He leaned up against Ardeid as a black snake slithered toward him. He tried to move out of its way, Ardeid’s arms fell down across his shoulders. His fingers dug into Nylin’s chest like talons. Looking down, but being unable to move, Nylin watched the snake slid across his sneakers, stopping to look up at him before slithering away.

“There’s nothing here that will hurt you,” Ardeid explained.  “Simply let them be and they’ll let you be.”

“I’m scared of snakes,” Nylin revealed.

“They’re scared of you. He doesn’t know what you are.”

“He didn’t look scared,” Nylin giggled.

“He has no experience with men. He hasn’t learned about the danger yet. The island is a safe refuge for wildlife.”

“He’s seen you?”

“He knows me but I’m not a man,” Ardeid explained.

“Not yet, anyway,” Nylin said, observing the bigger boy.

As they stood watching the undisturbed animals a big white heron took flight from the top of a tall pine tree, gliding down in large circles, until it swept close enough to cause Nylin to duck, and when he looked to see where the heron went, he found it standing on Ardeid’s shoulder, towering above both boys’ heads. Ardeid seemed unafraid.

The bird and Ardied made similar sounds as the bird bent his beak close to his face.  He imagined Ardeid talking to the heron, which made him laugh.  What a magnificent bird.  It was regally white and stood proud, but when it stepped onto Nylin’s shoulder, Nylin couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t do him harm.

“Nothing here will hurt you,” Ardeid reminded him.

The bird’s feet wrapped around Nylin’s shoulder as it conducted its investigation of him.  The big bird tapped Nylin’s head with its beak and then made him laugh when it ran its beak through his hair before stepping back onto Ardeid’s shoulder.  Ardeid held his arm out to facilitate the bird flying back up into its lofty perch.

“He came to check us out,” Nylin said.

“She did.  Yes, the animals are as curious about you as you are about them.  Men don’t come here.  Don’t make any sudden moves.  Be careful where you put your feet and they’ll be fine as long as I’m with you.”

The island was alive with insects and other animal life.  The island was alive with sound.  Even the wind in the leaves left an impression on Nylin.  The singing and chirping birds were the most distinct, but the undercurrent of sound was mesmerizing.  When Ardeid touched his arm to leave, it was too soon.  He’d yet to get his fill when he found himself looking back at the island that showed little sign of life from a distance.

“We’ll go back again and stay longer next time.  They’ll get accustomed to you, but we best not overstay our welcome today.”

Ardeid rowed in long gliding strokes that propelled the boat at a good clip. The way Ardeid placed the oars in the water made hardly a sound.

“You take the rope and tie the boat to the palm tree when I row us on shore,” Ardeid said, increasing the speed of his strokes.

Nylin took the half inch rope to make sure it wasn’t tangled or knotted. The boat came to rest on the sand. Nylin hopped out, going to the tree that leaned out over the beach and he wrapped the rope around it a couple of time before tying a square knot to hold it fast. 

When he looked back to the boat, Ardeid was nowhere in sight.  The heron from the island had landed on the rear of the boat, where Ardeid had been.  Nylin smiled and realized he hadn’t been paying attention to what was in the air overhead, but the heron must have followed them. He wondered if it might be his heron.

“Hi there,” Nylin said, thinking about holding out his arm to see if she’d land on him as she had landed on Ardeid, but he had second thoughts. 

Nylin checked around him to see where Ardeid had gone. The path was right beside the tree, but he’d have seen him if he’d passed him, and why didn’t he say anything?  He could have said goodbye. Where did he go?

“Ardeid?  Ardeid?  I wanted to thank you.  I feel like I know you, you know?” Nylin said, looking all around to see if he could find his new friend.

As he looked back at the boat the heron spread his wings wide and lifted off from the back of the boat and headed skyward. Nylin followed its flight with his eyes when he saw a second heron flying high overhead.

He hadn’t seen the second heron on the island, but it could have been in the tree top with the first. He admired how the bird that sat on the boat gained elevation, gliding effortlessly in tandem with the second heron. He thought back to the first time he saw his heron take flight. It had a similar way of gaining altitude.  

Nylin thought about what Ardeid said about the curiosity of the animals concerning him. ‘Maybe they’d flown out to see where I came from,’ he thought. He watched as the two heron flew back to the island treetops that made them immediately invisible.

“Ardeid,” he shouted one last time, still looking for his new friend.

He took his time walking home and kept looking back. Where had that boat come from? He’d never seen it before. It was dark green and the paint seemed fresh. Maybe he was a new kid. He may have just moved there. They’d probably meet again.   

Once home, he had his usual snack so he could make it to dinner without his stomach growling.  He stood outside for a long time, looking at the sky, wondering if the heron knew where he lived. It wasn’t far as the bird flies.

“Mom, anyone new move in lately?” he asked, knowing his mother would no.

“No, dear, not that I know of,” she said, putting his plate of spaghetti down in front of him.

Then they were there, both heron. They sat on the fence next to the shed. Then, as the one heron raised his wings to fly away, Nylin saw it. Two thirds of the way down the wing, a bare spot where feathers didn’t grow. It was his heron. That was the place where his heron had broken his wing. He had come home. He was back. Nylin was overjoyed.

“Oh, I knew you’d come back one day,” he yelled, rushing over to the pair, reaching out to hug his heron.

Nylin sat up in bed. It was a dream. Now he dreamed about them up close but it was the same pair he’d dreamed about before. It wasn’t his heron. He dreamed it was because he wanted it to be true.  He wanted to know his heron was safe and happy.

“A dream,” he said disappointed.

It was a new day. It was time for school and the bully never let him off two days in a row without pushing him around. He could say he was sick. No, he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He wasn’t going to let the bully make him miss school.

Sitting at breakfast he drank his juice and ate half his cereal, already being sick at his stomach. He picked up the bag with the lunch his mother made for him. She kissed his forehead and gave him a hug.

Ah, ‘if I could only grow up enough to kick that boy’s butt, my life would be way easier,’ he thought as he walked.

He hoped to see Ardeid on his way to school but didn’t. Ardeid was big enough to stand up for him. He remembered he’d only seen the older boy once. He might never see him again.

The last quarter of a mile he could see the school and his stomach began to churn. This was no fun and he forced himself to walk into the schoolyard with dozens of kids standing around. He moved toward the door, hoping if he only could get inside, he might be able to hold off the inevitable confrontation that would cost him his lunch and likely his dignity. He hated his life.

‘So far so good,” he thought, being a few seconds from making it inside.

He refused to look around. A few more steps and…

“Hey, little faggot. You brung me lunch, did you?”

“Leave me alone. I never did anything to you.”

The boy laughed and turned to his friend to mock Nylin.

“I never did anything to you. You’re alive aren’t you? That’s enough. I want your lunch. Bring it over here. Do you got any change on you? I need a soda. Let’s see what you got in your pocket. Oh, a key. What’s this go to?”

“Give it back. It’s mine,” Nylin protested, snatching at the key.

It was then Nylin found himself sitting on the ground, looking up at his tormentor, wishing he was bigger. Wishing he was strong. Wishing he could teach him a lesson. Wishing he was somewhere else.

As Nylin saw himself punishing the bully a white flash caught his eye as the bully taunted him.

Nylin recognized the bird as a heron and. He was confused by its presence in the schoolyard. What was a heron doing there? It wasn’t a safe place for the island birds to be.

The heron turned, swooping low and right for the two boys, and in Ardeid’s voice Nylin heard the words, “Bombs away!”

Nylin looked for Ardeid but he was nowhere to be seen, but what he did see was the big bird dropping a big load of crap onto his tormentor’s head, as if he’d aimed to put his discharge there.

All the kids laughed as the bully stopped, stunned by the bird attack and the dripping dropping that laid on top of his head. Nylin laughed, and the big bully bellowed his rage, kicking out at Nylin, who sat surprised by the bird’s most excellent aim.

“Bombs away,” Nylin heard, and the voice emanate from the bird this time, and its aim was immaculately accurate. It emasculated the big bully by hitting him right between the eyes as a schoolyard full of kids howled with laughter, delighted by the bird’s accurate aim.

“Bingo,” the bomber bird bragged as it soared above the schoolyard with only Nylin paying attention to his flight pattern, while everyone laughed hysterically at the mess made on the bad boy.

As Nylin stood, the bully became enraged by the laughter, the dirty bird, and the boy who was standing up to him.

“I’m going to get you,” the bully promised.

“I’m right here,” Nylin said, pointing at the school’s façade and the bully followed the finger to where the heron sat, wings spread, and seeming ready to make another bombing run if necessary.

The bully ran crying into the school to get out of the bird’s range. Everyone laughed at his cowardly retreat.

When Nylin looked again toward the bird with his wings spread, he saw it. Two thirds of the way down the bird’s wing was a small bare spot where feather’s should have been growing but weren’t, because the wing was once broken in that place.

“Ardeid,” Nylin said to himself as if he’d just connected a truth that had eluded him.

When school was out, Nylin headed for home without even thinking about the bully. The hold he had on him was broken and it wouldn’t surface again, but there was something more important on his mind. He knew what he needed to do.

When he got home he raced up to his room to grab the ornithology book from its place on his bookshelf.  He turned to the genus and species section, moving his finger down to heron.

“Ardeidae,” he said, reading the word.  “Ardeid!”

He raced back down the stairs and passed through the kitchen as his mother prepared his snack.

“I’ll be back, mom,” he yelled as the screen door banged behind him.

He yanked his shoes off when he got to the beach and he waded until he needed to swim to get to the island.  He eased into the cove and pulled himself up on the path he’d walked the day before. The moss felt grand on his feet and he went directly to the clearing where he and Ardied had stood watching the wildlife. There, sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree were two heron, monitoring his approached.

“Ardeid. Ardeid,” Nylin said, hugging his face into the plush feathers of the bigger of the two birds.

“He won’t bother you any longer. I’m sorry I didn’t know you were in trouble. I’d have come sooner. It’s best for us to stay away from humans.”

“Thank you. Are you happy? You can talk? How can you talk?”

“Slow down. I can only talk to you. You gave me an understanding of talking while you nursed me. Animals aren’t without an awareness of men. It’s safer if we don’t reveal that we have much of an understanding of human nature. We may understand men, but most men don’t care to have any understand for animals.”

“Can I come and see you?” Nylin asked.

“It’s best if you don’t come to the island if you don’t need me. Someone may see you. Others might come without any kindness in their heart for us.”

“But you protected me. You made that bully cry in front of the entire school, Ardeid. How can I thank you?”

“You already have. You saved my life. You helped me when I needed help. I’ve helped you. It’s how it should be.”

“Will I see you again?” Nylin asked.

“If you need me I’ll be there, but I’ve got my family to look after,” Ardeid said, nodding his beak toward some tiny heron.

“Wow! You do have a family.”

It was a bittersweet reunion, because Nylin knew he shouldn’t come back. When he sat on the beach looking out at Heron Island, he often saw the two white heron flying above the treetops. As time went on there were a half dozen smaller heron flying with them.

Ardeid had been correct. The bully never bothered Nylin again and he once again found joy in going to school to learn all he was capable of learning.

The End

Postscript:

Nylin was able to overcome the bully that made his life miserable. If you have someone making your life miserable, tell someone you trust. They may be able to offer advice to help.

If you don’t have someone to talk to, the Trevor Project is there for you. They’ll listen for as long as you need. They’ll offer you advice if you think it would help.

It does get better but you may need to ask for help to feel better about yourself.


Happy Birthday John Lennon, October 9, 1940

The day John Lennon was assassinated, the world stood still.

He wanted to be remembered as a man of peace.

Beatle, superstar, icon, he stepped out of the protective bubble of fame to be a New Yorker. He ate in local restaurants, walked on the streets, and hailed cabs with Yoko under his arm. On a crisp December night, he stepped from his limo, after a day of promoting his new album. A man in the shadows yelled his name, emptied a .38 pistol into John, and the dream was over.

Give Peace a Chance, Working Class Hero, and Imagine are reasons why John’s music has never died and likely never will. Move Over Beethoven, John’s on the way.

Imagine was banned on all Clear Channel stations the day the Iraq war began. That was the power John Lennon wielded. His words threaten advocates of war.

If you have an interest in figuring out what the 60s were all about, start with Meet the Beatles and go all the way through the original eleven Beatles albums to hear the Love and Peace generation taking shape. It wasn’t a good idea. It was a phenomenon of people loving and caring for one another. The war on drugs was developed in order to stamp out the love and peace generation’s resistance to the Vietnam war.              

Thank you John Lennon, musician, peacenik, and chief architect of my generation.


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