The Birds of Maine

It was one of those gray-ish beach days for which the coast of Maine was rightly famous; ashen clouds of modest threat of rain playing hide-and-seek with hazy sun. The beach, growing larger with the receding tide, was washed with the kind of indifferent low rolling waves that told you the storm was perhaps lurking somewhere over the horizon, but was not imminent. Daunted by the prospect of a less than prime beach experience, it seemed that the summer vacationers had used the day to visit the discount outlets in nearby Freeport; the sands were sparsely sprinkled with chairs and towels, allowing the seagulls to descend in unusually large numbers, strutting from site to site, pecking at bags and coolers in search of food.

Sitting in my beach chair, trying to finish my summer book that had proven too challenging for sunny days and beers on the deck, I scanned each of the few new arrivals with indifference. Until the blonde in the deeply slit, long blue-patterned skirt arrived carrying the red chicken.

* * * * * * *

Carlos was feeling pretty good about his boy. Through the haze of cigar smoke and the encouragements delivered in curt and angry bursts, his animal had been doing well. Very well indeed. The razors strapped to his scarred legs had already split open the dark brown contender, and had neatly decapitated the one with the blueish feathers; some of the guys in the front row had to wipe the blood spray off their faces, and one was so drenched as to allow the finger-painting of a modest beard and pencil mustache to the delighted howls of the others. The next chicken was a wire-y little creature and, although looks could be deceiving, Carlos was optimistic; the Slasher had himself suffered only a nick on one wing and wings weren’t important in any event; it was all about the leg action, wasn’t it?

* * * * * * *

She was mildly tanned, but not roasted like some of the other blondes of August. From a few dozen yards away it was hard to gauge her age; surely not a teen, surely without the globular thighs a woman earned through the accumulation of years. But my interest, for once, was not for the woman but for what she was carrying. I could not tell you if she was plain, attractive or repulsive. All I can tell you is everything about her chicken. She placed the animal gently, with two hands, into a large straw basket and placed a white towel over the top. She spread out a small blanket and unfolded a portable beach chair, one of the old-fashioned kind with the aluminum frame and webbed plastic woven seat and backrest. She bent down to the basket again, produced the seemingly calm chicken and stood it on the top of the back rail of the chair. She delicately held her hands on either side of the fowl until assured that it had found its balance, and then sat down on her blanket and dug out some magazines. With what I would swear was a stack of People, she transferred to the chair, the chicken standing over her left shoulder. I could also believe that the chicken was leaning forward, reading along.

Hope the thing doesn’t decide to lay an egg right now, I thought. It is a long way down from its perch to the sand. Question: if you drop a fresh egg from a height of three feet onto soft sand will it break? Second question: if the sand is really hot, will it poach?

* * * * * * * *

There was so much noise that no one at first heard the footsteps. By the time Carlos saw the policemen, it was too late. He was promptly cuffed, and Slasher was scooped, carefully to avoid the razors. His wad of tens and twenties were seized from his fist, presumably as evidence although based on history the money would be applied to the purchase of scotch and cigars for the after-hours club the cops frequented down by the Saco River….

* * * * * * * *

The blonde must have decide to try the water, which was usually deceptively warm even though it was a beach in Maine; the curve of the Gulf Stream carrying a faint memory of the Caribbean gently Northward to the pine forests. She glanced backwards; the chicken was observing the fishing boats far offshore, not particular perturbed and, being flightless, not much of a mind to try to soar along with the wheeling gulls and the darting swifts and occasional plover. With the confidence of a pet owner with intimate knowledge of her animal, she turned her back to her chair and trekked down beach in search of the now-rapidly-receding ocean.

I do not know how intelligent sea-gulls are as a group, but I surely can tell you about one member of the cohort who will always live in my memory as a particularly stupid example. This chicken on the chair was not cooked as a roast. This chicken on the chair was not layered into a roll with mayo and a leaf of lettuce. This chicken was not buffaloed, saute-ed, fried, steamed, diced, sauced or otherwise transformed into a gull-worthy meal. This chicken was sitting there, soothed by the distant sound of surf, minding its own business, as peaceful as any bird could be. So why the gull decided to swoop down and, presumably, try his hand at grabbing a beak-full is a mystery I will never solve. The gull struck the chicken somewhere around neck or head, knocking it off its perch. A rolling bundle of grey and red feathers rolled a yard or two down the beach, all in a tangle. Emanating from this tangle was a mix of caws and hither-to unheard gutturals that sounded much like a muffled roar of rage.

The startled gull emerged for a moment, wobbling with surprise, and began to deploy its wings, having concluded that this was not a chicken cutlet moment, when the red chicken swiped out with one claw and neatly popped out the gull’s left eye. I can now attest that yes, the blood of a seagull is indeed red. A weak caw was the last thing that gull had to say to the world, as the chicken then mounted the gull’s back and began a systematic slashing attack with beak and claws. In a matter of a few seconds, the gull’s head took another roll down the beach sand, only this time it left its body behind. Red specks populated the slope, a larger red pool began to saturate the ground just in front of the blonde’s beach blanket.

The chicken calmly hopped into the basket and pulled the white blanket up over the top with its beak. The basket rustled for a moment and then was still.

Someone must have called the police, although I am not sure why. A small circle surrounded the officer, whose bicycle was left propped against the fence at the entrance ramp; he had trudged down the beach in his ungainly boots with grim purpose to observe the carnage.

The blonde was holding the red chicken and gently stroking its sides with measured care.

“No, he’s not at all vicious any more. I was in the water, maybe someone else saw what happened. But I got him at animal rescue in Portland. He was pretty beaten up when I got him. Someone said he had been kept by some sleazeball for cock-fighting. I had come in for a kitten but my heart just went out to this little guy.” She looked fondly down at her pet, then looked up at the policeman with a winning smile. Her eyes were blue. She received no criminal citation. The policeman buried the gull, in two parts, somewhere down the strand near where the rocky cliff began.

* * * * * * * *

Carlos told the judge that cock-fighting was a recognized sport in his homeland. The judge told Carlos that a six month jail term was a recognized cock-fighting punishment in the Great State of Maine. In his cell, Carlos sometimes thought of Slasher; when he got out he would need to find a bird as gifted if he was to rebuild his bankroll…