Thanks to the Indian, I mean Native American summer, we’ve enjoyed until this recent freeze, my husband and I, both nature lovers, and our two neighbors, Debbie and Lon, decided to partake in our last attempt at a water sport on the East End of Long Island.
First, let me tell you a little about this middle-aged kayaking crew: Debbie, of a soft-spoken and fastidious nature, has told us numerous times of her experience when she was a little girl going down the fire escape at school during a fire drill, and a bird flew by and got stuck in her long hair. Ever since that traumatic experience, she’s been phobic about birds. Understandable.
Her husband, Lon, 6’2,” of superior intelligence, and a very successful businessman of his own financial service company, challenges himself yearly to running marathons and scaling mountains like Kilimanjaro. But, on this one lovely Sunday afternoon, the end of Autumn, Lon did not come to the table — unless of course he had been served bird under sauce and a sprig of parsley. Yep, this was a first — the overachiever exposed his shortcoming.
After a hectic workweek, we started to unwind, as we paddled along the river, not making a sound, until eagle-eyed Lon spotted something far away in the water, and asked in a flat tone, “What’s that duck got in its mouth?” None of us could tell from the distance, so I paddled over at top speed, and saw the large bird was in distress. When I got closer, I yelled back to the others. “This is no duck!”
“What is it?” they shouted back.
“It’s a cormorant.”
A cormorant is a big long-necked black bird, larger than a seagull, smaller than a goose, with an extensive bill. This bird has a wing span of 52 inches, and is known for diving totally under the water to retrieve fish. In fact, back in the old days, fisherman used to tie a leash around its neck, throw it off the boat, pull it back up and yank that darn fish right out of the cormorant’s mouth for themselves.
I tried not to think about its history, as I got close enough to see the distress the poor animal was in. I started to cry for help. “Somebody, help! The bird’s drowning!”
My husband, Bruce, somewhat apprehensive, is used to my animal rescue stories, and knew I was getting extremely upset and slowly started rowing over to me. “Calm down. Calm down.”
The bird was on its side, swimming in circles, trying to get away from me, and I couldn’t keep up. I got close enough to see a nest of fishing line tangled over him, stuck in his mouth, wrapped around his entire body, and under his wings and legs. The others caught up to where I was, well not quite where I was . . . in case it turned out to be the Loch Ness Monster, I suppose. Debbie and Bruce asked me too many questions as I was trying to close in on the cormorant. Lon, Mr. CEO, looked quite relaxed in his kayak, leaning back, arms crossed behind his neck, observing the birdbrains. I looked at him and contemplated the length of my oar.
The cormorant was getting more frightened by the minute, and dived completely under the dark water. I became hysterical, “This is it! He’s drowned! Oh my God!”
Finally, Debbie and Bruce paddled up next to me. Sure, now that they thought the bird was gone. Surprised the heck out of all of us when the bird indiscriminately Popped up out of the water. We rowed over to it again, not the most proficient kayakers in the East, I might add, and surrounded the powerless fowl. (Speaking of fowl, I had a few choice words for Lon, who had lit up a cigar, musing, probably about mutual funds. He may has well have been sitting in his Brooke’s Brother’s suit with suspenders.)
The rest of us worked like a team, moving our fine-feathered friend with our oars, like a hockey puck, as it intermittently went under and popped up like a jack-in-the-box, surprising us each time until we got near the shore, our goal. We had no control over our direction, and submitted to doing the limbo under a broken dock. I had to do something fast or we’d lose him, and would have to start all over again. I was not a happy lark at this point, but I went for it — tugged on the fishing line stuck in the bird’s mouth, lifted the bird up into the air, swung it over toward me, and plopped it onto my lap in the tipsy kayak.
The bird honked and I screamed. Short-winded, I yelled at Bruce to go to the closest house where we had pulled the boat onto shore in someone’s backyard. I told him to return with two things: Scissors and gloves. We watched him knocking at the back sliding glass door, but no one was home. He yelled over to us, “I’ll keep going from house to house until I get help.” He ran, barefoot; the disheveled Swamp Jew, we called him.
Time was going by slowly, and he wasn’t returning. The heavy wet bird, still on my lap, was breathing fast until he stopped long enough to turn his long neck to look at me, and attack. It was at this point that I took note of his unusually pointy beak, you know the ones you see in National Geographic used to spear fish. The bird pecked my legs, relentlessly, and commercials of restless leg syndrome came to mind. I started fighting with him, “I’m trying to help you, you stupid Cuckoo!”
Debbie clumsily got out of her kayak, and ran over to a backyard barn. She disappeared into the splintery door frame. She quickly reappeared, and in her hand, she held something up to us, glinting in the sun. A pair of scissors. She looked angelic, holding the greatest invention of mankind. I was overcome with emotion.
Lon commented, “Look at that, Bruce has been gone for 20 minutes on a scavenger hunt, and Debbie finds scissors in two seconds.” His laugh is deep.
“Shut up, Lon,” I said, holding the cormorant’s beak together with my hand, so he’ll stop jabbing at me. The bird and I are both crying again. My friend rises to the occasion, faces her nightmare head on, and reaches under the bird’s body, while I’m holding it in mid-air. We were relieved not to find it stuck with a fish hook. Debbie tediously cut the tangled wire, bit by bit, forgetting her phobia under great pressure. “Eeew, I can feel its skin,” she shrieked.
Lon laughs even harder at us. As I slipped the bird back into the water, I flipped Lon, the bird, so to speak. In the distance we hear chatter growing louder, and see Bruce returning with a garden glove on one hand, and a scissor in the other. His white shirt and shorts, dirty and wet. He was limping, his feet bleeding, and a middle-aged woman was on his tail. They asked eagerly, “How’s the bird?” The woman told us that she was sitting on her rocker on her front porch relaxing in the sunshine, when this strange man (Bruce, of course) ran right past her, up to her front door, and started banging. “I was frightened of him,” she told us. (Very understandable.) “He looked like he’d just been through hell. He was out of breath, asking me for scissors and a glove. I thought he was a crazy person. He was yelling something like, ‘The duck, the duck,’ (he forgot it was called a “cormorant.”) ‘We’ve gotta help the big duck!'”
As the woman was telling us the story, we all turned to the commotion coming from the water. Lon had capsized. Justice served. And in the background, we saw Mr. Cormorant clapping his beautiful wings in utter joy.
On to the next season . . . and heaven and nature sing.