Saturday, 23 June 2012

Short Story: "Walrus and Seabird"



Walrus lay upon the pebbly beach, a flipper across his eyes and a ho-hum in his throat.  Lolling his bullhead, he dragged one of his tusks across a razor of rock. The vibrations traveled up into his skull and rattled behind his eyes, giving him a headache. So he stopped. Glancing inland, he settled on a cottage that rested just beyond the border of beach grass. The people living there would probably come down to the shore today for a nice little expedition with their child. The breeze was stiffening, that was true. But they would probably come. The tide lapped at his groin, reaching for the rest of him, trying to cradle his body back into the ocean. Snuffling, he felt a few pearls of seawater in his moustache and licked at them. They tasted of salt and snot, which was not a surprise because he had been sneezing a lot lately. Back out over the water, seabirds jabbered at one another. How did they always have something to talk about, Walrus wondered, without ever seeming to grow tired of one another? He tried a few other things to pass the time, but all of these doings gave him a headache in the end, and he soon grew suspicious of whether he was, in fact, trying to hurt himself.
            “Why, hello to you!” somebody squawked. Curious, Walrus rocked his body back and forth, back and forth until he finally threw his head to a place where he could see a little seabird hopping next to him. This was strange because the seabirds did not usually talk to Walrus, except to make fun of him. Yes, something was fishy. The bird’s friends must have been watching from nearby, stifling their laughter and gloriously pushing one another into the grass. Walrus closed his eyes and became as silent as he could. I am only a stone, he told himself.
            “You are not very fun or nice,” said the bird. “I know that you are awake, and you must know that you are being rude. You must know that, so then it’s your fault. You've decided not to say anything.”
            Walrus answered that he was very tired, snuffling again and exaggerating his floppy jowls so that they spread out over the beach stones. But the bird wanted to know what had made him so tired, and Walrus answered as honestly as he could—“Doing nothing and thinking everything.” The bird cocked her head to one side and hopped a few feet closer.
            “Then why don’t you do something?”
            “I already told you that I am too tired.”
            The bird thought about this for a few moments, glancing down at the stones, then back to Walrus, out to sea, toward the land, back to the stones, then again at Walrus. Finally, she admitted that his problem was very difficult indeed. “Maybe you need something to start you up again," she said. "Something from outside that will get you going.”
            Walrus opened his eyes. “Yes. I have been trying that today, looking around for something.”
            “Has it worked?”
            “I am afraid not.”
            “Then maybe this is your fault. Maybe you want to feel the way you do.”
            Walrus bristled at the suggestion and did not answer it right away. After he had thought about it, though, he replied that his situation was unpleasant, and that no one could ever want to feel the way he did. Seabird argued that maybe someone would if they enjoyed pain, and Walrus grew frustrated. He was not as quick as Seabird was, and the speed of her conclusions made it difficult for him to reply. But he was certain that this feeling inside him was his and not hers, and that she did not have the right to force any thoughts on him because she did not feel what he did. He told her this.
            “I am trying to help, and have not forced anything,” Seabird answered. “If you want me to go away, then say so.” Walrus wanted her to stay, but did not tell her this. “Maybe you are too fat,” she added. He argued that he was supposed to be fat. “That fat?” she asked, pecking at his wrinkled skin. He told her that there had been times in the past when he was much fatter, and yet he had never felt this way before.
            “Hmmmmm.” Seabird’s attention seemed to wander from the discussion for some time. Then she flew down the beach to another place, and began hopping about a piece of driftwood, inspecting it. Walrus wanted her to come back. A creak and a crack leapt from inland, and he rocked his body all over again, trying to see what had made the sound. The creak and crack sounded a second time, and by now he was able to see the cottage’s screen door swinging open and shut. The mother and child had come out first, and it was the man who had caused the second noises. Were they coming down toward the beach? It did not appear so. Instead, they seemed to be settling themselves on the back porch. The man looked like he was getting ready to cook some thick steaks on the barbecue, while the child tottered down the deck’s wooden steps in an outfit of precious corduroy. The mother watched with arms folded, but not because she was unhappy. She was cold. If she had worn something warmer, Walrus thought, she would be able to open her arms, and the child would no doubt be happier if she opened her arms. The man held a large tray in one hand and a knife in the other.
             The child was coming toward the beach. But the mother, Walrus could see, was ready to descend the wooden steps and stop the child if it wandered too far. He found it a very complicated way of doing things, and for a moment, he almost felt another headache coming on. Why live in a way that required so much thinking all the time? Why teach a little one this way? Walrus groaned and slapped a flipper over his eyes. But he did not know how smart people were. No, he did not know that. After all, look at Seabird. She could think much faster than him, and perhaps she would be the one with a headache if he forced her to slow down. Yes, thought Walrus, things must be different for different creatures, with some exceptions. Like hurt, for example. Pain was always a mean thing to inflict upon someone else. Seabird had told him a moment ago that he was mean—no, not very nice—back when he was feeling suspicious and would not answer her hello. She had been right, and he had not been very nice. He must not have been paying attention, because the mother by the cottage had already stepped forward and retrieved her child. When he realized that this had happened without his noticing, he felt startled. He should have paid more attention to the outside because that’s what was wrong with him—he was trapped with a bunch of inside things.
            It felt as though he were thinking too much. But no, that was not necessarily it. Trapped with inside things was a better way of putting it. He was not thinking any more than usual. Rather, it was because he was not conversing with outside things anymore. Things had stopped speaking to him. He badly wanted things to speak to him again so he could feel that something was worth doing. Was it because he had been mean to the outside things? Had he hurt them in some way, in the way he looked at them? Was it because he spent too much time looking instead of listening?
            The man had begun speaking to the mother about something, pointing at the child and raising his voice. What could he be upset about? Walrus did not know how smart people were, or how they thought about things. Something ruffled next to his head and he could tell without looking that Seabird had come back.
            “I just remembered that we have not yet solved your problem,” she said.
            “No we have not,” he answered without taking his eyes from the people by the cottage. Seabird was quick to notice his gaze, and followed it up the beach. The two of them watched without speaking. Then Seabird, cocking her head, said that it looked as if the people were angry with one another. Walrus answered that they almost certainly were, and that the disagreement seemed to involve the child.
            “Did you see the child do anything unusual? Did the woman do anything unusual with the child?” Seabird asked. Walrus closed his eyes and groaned, for he had not been paying enough attention.
            “This is all your fault, I think,” Seabird continued. “You have gotten stuck inside yourself.” Walrus did not know what to say, other than that he was sorry. Seabird turned her eyes on him, adding, “I would like to know what might be going on, but you weren’t paying enough attention. So now I can’t.”
            “Well, maybe we will hear what they are talking about if they continue raising their voices like that.”
            “Should we do something? Should I fly over there?”
Walrus shook his head. If Seabird did this, the man and woman might go arguing into the cottage where no one could see them. Walrus often felt uncomfortable about the houses people lived in because no one else could see what happened inside. No, houses were not very nice. 
            “Look!” squawked Seabird. “Are you watching?!”
            Walrus looked and saw that the woman had taken a step backward and was now holding her face. Had the man hit her? He asked Seabird, but she was too focused upon what was happening to answer. Why did he not pay more attention to things? He was missing everything! Walrus fell into a fit of barking. But the man and woman stared at each other as if he did not exist.
            “Look again now,” Seabird said, hopping around him. “Look at what she has done!”
The woman had run over to the barbecue and grabbed the man's knife. Now she was slowly moving toward him, screaming loud enough for anyone to hear.
            “Do you think this sort of thing just happens to someone like me, David?! What fucking decade do you think you’re living in?” She waved the knife at him. “Just because you hate your goddamn life and don’t care about anything doesn’t mean that I want any part of your bullshit! You’re fucking pathetic. Why don’t you go find a place where you can be alone and write your dumb-ass stories about animals on the beach?!”
            She had not used the knife, but it was clear that she had stabbed the man, who hesitated for only a second before he lowered his head, brushed a tear from his eye, and retreated into the cottage.
          At this moment, a chill cut through Walrus’ body, and he became worried that he was just like the man. He did not want to be trapped with inside things, missing all that went on around him. He called for Seabird. But she had gone away without telling him — no, without his noticing. 
           Was he mean for not noticing the outside things? He could not bear the thought. After all, wasn’t he trapped? Wasn’t he trying his best to get back to the outside things? By now, the tide had lifted him from the beach and was easing him back into the warm shallows. Eventually, he would need to swim to the deeps to look for food; but right now, the thought of that place frightened him. The tightness mounted inside his head, and then it burst from his eyes. He drifted back into the sea, weeping. He looked one last time toward the cottage, and hoped that the woman would never forgive the man for hitting her.

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