By John Hazard
In Florida’s parks and preserves, the trails are often popular on Sundays, so I’m not surprised to see twenty or more humans standing in a semicircle to stare at something. Soon I see it’s a large wading bird, but I don’t recognize the markings. It’s probably a juvenile with temporarily strange features—maybe a black-crowned night heron? More serious birders would know. Or it could be an immature great blue heron, probably the best-known wading bird, and the adults are elegant creatures indeed. Apparently I’ve caught this youngster in an awkward phase of his development.
Of course, the young heron doesn’t care what his human label is, especially at this moment—he’s just caught a crab and can’t decide how to eat it. He drops his catch, then casually jabs at it, more curious than hungry. Lying on the damp sand, the crab squirms in slow motion. It will do him no good to strain for escape, but he’s right to try, isn’t he? For the sake of nobility, the beauty of struggling against destiny? Although neither creature wanted the encounter, both have accepted their assigned roles. Even the gods, however, can’t make them act with enthusiasm.
Again and again the bird pokes lazily—until his stiletto beak thrusts, then thrusts again, and suddenly he’s a boxer, jabbing and jabbing, in command, prepping for the knockout. He’s finally found his anger. Poke, poke . . . stab.
He dangles the crab at the end of his beak and stares outward like a seer projecting his vision beyond the swamp. Or is he just showing off? He raises the impaled crab skyward, then drops him again and stabs him again, this time running him through. He raises him toward the sky once more, as if to wait for a sign from above, or at least applause from the human audience. The bird acts as if he’s got all day, acts as if stunning the crab has been his manly plan all along and not a random gesture.
Maybe this juvenile in all his pausing and staring at the wounded food is demonstrating an aristocratic modesty of appetite. Or maybe he’s being scientifically methodical. Or cruelly ritualistic. Or maybe he’s a showboat, mocking his prey.
I’ve never trusted the popular notion that humans are the only creatures with a mean streak, the only beings that kill for pleasure. Watch a cat with a mouse—or worse, with a bird. One time in a restaurant parking lot I stood transfixed watching an osprey atop a telephone pole as he tortured a still wiggling fish. He took his time, as if each shred were a calm pleasure. I grew impatient and went to lunch.
The crab, now on its back, continues to move his limbs dreamily. His pain must be acute, yet he expresses it with a kind of gracefulness. When it comes to dying, this is the best he can do, a ballet with no fast movements. It’s one kind of dance, one style of exiting. The crab might have preferred something faster, flashier, baroque, grandiose, but he finds himself limited to what his body can do: a slow-motion, surrealistic writhing.
In our ragged semicircle we humans are watching a kind of tragedy, an opera, and most of us speak softly or not at all. However, one thick woman on a bicycle begins to chirp at the heron, as if she’s cooing to her toy poodle. She cheers for the bird: “Don’t let him get away, Birdie. Eat him up. Eat him all gone . . . Ooooohhhh, is he too big? Are you afraid we’re going to take him from you? Ooooohhhh, we wouldn’t do that . . .” She jabbers on for a full minute. Remember how long a minute can be—a minute underwater, say, or a minute with a stone in your shoe.
For all I know, the crab might take all afternoon to die and be consumed, and that woman might keep talking through the whole performance. So I resume my walk and head down the trail toward the silence of an extensive oak hammock. Soon, off to my right, I see a roseate spoonbill sitting in a low tree and easing out of a nap. He’s a big pink bulk of wading bird with a beak that resembles a long wooden spoon. He’s a one-bird carnival of garish, freakish features. His feathers look like cotton candy. Or bubble gum. Or Pepto-Bismol. I try briefly to imagine the evolutionary advantage of such an appearance.
An hour later the trail finishes its loop and brings me back to the scene of the young heron. He’s gotten the crab down his long throat, and shuffles around cleaning up stray bits. Jab. Jab.
Throughout the heron’s crab consumption, an osprey—or swamp eagle, as some nickname him—has sat posing on a dead branch jutting from a treetop about fifty yards away. Like the osprey I knew in a restaurant parking lot, this one looks poised for action, a brown and white god, entitled, surveying his kingdom. I suspect he has leftovers in mind as he studies the scene. Will he bully the heron away for the remaining shreds of crabmeat? Surely it would be easy pickings for the huge osprey with his scowling brow and fierce, hooked beak.
Some pelicans and gulls look casual as they’re scouting from on high with large wings that lazily rise and fall or flatten into coasting. Below them, in the marshes, moorhens and coots drift among the lily pads and walk upon the lily pads, in motions that are partly stepping, partly gliding. They look like moseying spirits, and I smile a little as I hear the suggestion of walking on water.
But the moorhens can’t be gods, not in those clownish faces and beaks with candy-corn coloring, while the squawking, duck-like, black and white coots aren’t much more dignified—it seems right that some authority decided to label them coots. Plodding or scooting upon the water, they seem less like gods or gurus than caricatures dropped out of a carny act in the sky. They don’t seem at all related to herons and ospreys, yet scholars have determined that they share a species.
I don’t know what to make of all this swamp life; everything seems binary: comic or elegant, victim or predator, literal or metaphorical, matter or meta. Or more likely, everything is both. Everything is something else.
This refuge includes an estuary, so the water is brackish and might contain an array of fish and crustaceans greater than there would be inland or seaward. For the animals, I muse, it’s a blended realm, a menu to kill for, to die for. That makes it a happy place for human witnesses who, faced with complexity or absurdity, are inclined toward seeing beauty. There’s always something to observe and puzzle over in this home to wildlife, especially the high-stepping, oddly shaped, yet dignified birds who find themselves living here.
What if I could learn from them how to be calm and patient in the midst of hunger and fear? How to be graceful and mystical one moment but psychopathic the next? Or merely clownish. Maybe I should glean from them how to feed myself efficiently, kill guiltlessly, and wonder with youthful innocence why my food keeps wiggling on the blade. I didn’t mean to hurt that thing. I just wanted to catch it and play awhile.
Maybe the adults in the room already know how to impale their prey and think nothing of it. Jab. Jab. It’s like cutting bread. And, ever well-mannered, they chew with their mouths closed, they dab their lips with their linen napkins.
John Hazard has taught at the University of Memphis and, more recently, at Oakland University and the Cranbrook Schools in suburban Detroit. His fiction has been published in Ascent, Baltimore Review, Corridors, and Painted Bride Quarterly (forthcoming), while his poetry has appeared in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Shenandoah, Slate, Harpur Palate, and The Gettysburg Review. The author of the 2015 poetry collection Naming a Stranger (Aldrich Press), he lives in Birmingham, Michigan.
Originally appeared in New Ohio Review 29.