My dog sees the gull before I do. She strains at the leash, pulling toward the shifting grey shape, which becomes a filthy bundle of feathers, which becomes an injured seagull dragging itself around the corner and then under a bush in the neighbor’s front garden. I quickly cross the street before the dog can bark or growl or lay chase to the poor bird, who’s just trying to find a shelter from the rain and a quiet place to die.
We circle the block and make slow progress toward home, my dog looking back over her shoulder, frequently trying to turn us around. The whole way, she never stops insisting on the truth and urgency of what she saw, no matter my insistence on the opposite. Come on girl, it’s nothing. There’s nothing there. Come on.
Of course, there is no way to make my dog understand: I stopped going to work thirty-four days ago. My husband’s unemployment checks are yet to be cut, though he was laid off weeks ago. My governor won’t empty our jails and prisons, so the virus spreads like mold through the bodies trapped inside them. Across town, alone in her dining room, my mother coughs. See? A dying seagull would be too much for me to handle right now. A dying seagull is out of the question.
She doesn’t understand, of course, but she forgets. Until our next walk. As we approach the corner where we met the gull, she begins once again to pull desperately toward the bush, the darkness into which she saw the bird struggle to disappear. She throws the full weight of her small body forward, over and over, hoping I’ll give a few more inches of leash. I don’t.
A few days later, I tell my friend about the gull when she calls to ask how I’m holding up. It seemed like it was in a lot of pain, I say absentmindedly, carrying my phone into different rooms, washing my hands, taking my temperature. That’s so sad, she agrees, wiping down her kitchen faucet, disinfecting the drawer pulls on her cabinets. I realize that I’m crying.
I start to avoid the corner, the house, the bush. We move down new side streets, find new routes. The dog sniffs other sidewalks, other bushes, watches vigilantly the living birds of the neighborhood, stealing crumbs with healthy beaks and taking flight on healthy wings. But now it’s me who can’t forget the seagull, even as I steer us away again and again from the site of its suffering.
I find myself obsessing, wondering constantly and morbidly: what might have injured it, how long it lived, if there’s something I could have done for it. I even go back to try and find it, kneeling in the damp soil and parting the branches to squint into the darkness for any evidence of a life, a feather, anything. But there’s nothing there. It’s been a week.
I think of the seagull every day now. More than the news alerts coming through with a ping, the text from my brother that reads I’m scared, the blurry faces on the obituaries, I can’t shut it out. I should have taken the dog home and then returned, I should have called a wildlife rescue, I should have knocked on my neighbor’s door. I failed to find the energy for mercy, I was too overwhelmed to help. I close my eyes against my shame and tell myself that this is a good memory to carry with me. May the seagull make me kinder, better. May I see it clearly always. May I act next time, to help a bird.
And here it comes around the corner again, just as small and wet and broken as before.