Thane’s grandfather was an oyster farmer. Every morning they would go out on the water together.
The old man would pull the oyster racks onto his barge, then open four or five shells with his shucking knife, to see if they were ready to sell. Then Thane would get to feed the oysters to the seagulls!
It was the best way to start his days.
Thane saw every colour of sunrise there was.
Even dark blue, when the storms were gathering.
His favourites were when there were a million types of grey!
When they brought the first haul in, Thane would go to school, and his grandfather would continue to work through the day.
Only one seagull would eat out of Thane’s hand. He called it Louie. Louie the Brave.
“Look, Granddad! He’s landed on my head!”
Granddad would just grunt. He had seen a lot of seagulls over the years.
Thane found himself feeding Louie more and more.
“You shouldn’t do that” Thane’s grandfather said. “It will become dependant on you feeding it, and starve when you don’t.”
Thane didn’t know what to think. He couldn’t imagine Louie not diving for fish, or baby eels or crabs. Besides…
“Don’t be silly, Granddad,” he smiled. “I’m going to come out with you on the water forever!”
Thane’s grandfather just grunted, and went back to tying down rack floats, and freeing the water ropes of barnacles.
The next morning Thane’s grandfather harvested the biggest oyster Thane had ever seen.
“Oh boy!” said Thane, feeding it to Louie.
“Don’t-“ the old man started.
But before he could finish, the seagull swallowed the oyster, then flew up, arching, belly to the sun, in a big circle, before swooping down again.
“Granddad!” Thane called, pointing.
The old man didn’t know what to say. He looked at the gull intently. “Never seen one of them do that before…” he said.
“It did it for me!” Thane cheered.
“A circus trick,” his grandfather said, like gristled fact. “Offer a fish to a bear, and it will jump through a hoop for you.”
“But granddad…!” Thane said, pointing at Louie, now perched on the boat’s bow.
“Soon, the other gulls will figure out you aren’t dangerous, and they’re missing out on food. As they get closer you won’t be able to tell Louie from the rest,” the old man said.
Thane looked hard at Louie, then some of the other seagulls, circling a safe distance away. No matter how close he observed, they all looked exactly alike. He went to the bow of the boat, and sat under Louie, moping until there were tears in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, boy,” Thane’s grandfather spoke softly. “It can be hard out here. I just don’t want you to get too upset over a bird.”
That night Thane lay in bed, listening to the ocean, wondering;
Where do seagulls sleep?
Why do we never see their bodies? What happens when they die?
How do they die?
How old do they live?
Mostly, though, he pictured the loop Louie flew for him.
“Louie did that after I fed him, not before,” the boy mumbled. “He was saying thanks, Granddad…”
But his grandfather was right; before long, other seagulls came in close, and ate from his hand and stood on his head.
“You look like a noisy Christmas tree!” the old man chuckled.
But there was no cheering Thane up. He tried so hard, but they were identical! Every one of them!
Then, one, out of the blue, took off, arching up, and up, and up, as if tracing rainbows, until it had flown a loop.
“Louie!” Thane shouted, a tear in his eye, as the bird came back and perched on the railing down from him.
Thane was so happy he even did a little stompy dance, just for Louie, for his loop. And Louie sort of waddled a bit back.
The oyster farmer said nothing. He was too salty for miracles or happy endings. Those things made a man soft, then when they didn’t last, made life that much harder. Especially in winter, when the frosts and sleet came.
Things continued like that for two years. Louie doing loops, as the last of the grey tips of youth in his feathers was replaced by pure, bright, white. Then doing double loops, and spirals. The backwards swoop was just brilliant to watch!
Surely, Thane thought, Louie is the only seagull on the whole peninsula who can do that!
More and more seagulls, and Pacific gulls, and sea eagles came. And every time Thane thought Louie was lost in plain sight, Louie would do another trick.
Thane would keep feeding him, while sitting back against the oyster racks, before the barge hit full throttle, just so the seagull and him could hang out.
“Why does that seagull matter so much to you, boy?” Thane’s grandfather asked, as he put on his waders to jump in and get the shallow stock.
There was a strong westerly blowing the boat off the rack lines, so Thane hooked a bowline knot around a sleeper. He was starting to be quite the fisherman, but the old man never took him for granted. The boy hasn’t discovered girls yet, he would think to himself. Then, he’ll be gone in a flash.
Pulling the line tight, so his grandfather could place the shallow water oyster tubes on deck, Thane finally replied; “I don’t know. Louie makes things simple. He never teases or laughs at me, or makes me awkward,” he said. “He just is.”
“Is what?” the old man said.
That was a good question.
“My friend, I guess.”
The old man was impressed. What an answer, from such a young kid! For the first time ever, he threw the seagull an oyster, followed by a few miniature eels that had washed up on deck.
Straight away, Thane knew something was up. “Granddad…?” he said.
“I’ve been putting it off for a year,” the old man mumbled. “For you.”
“What, Granddad?” Thane asked, even though he knew in his heart.
“Too many years out here, boy. My health is failing. One man operations are no longer viable.”
“What does viable mean?” Thane asked.
“I make no money. The doctors say I’m half dead. I’m selling up.”
Thane stood there, not knowing what to think.
“Sorry, boy. You’ve got three weeks to say good-bye to that thing,” his grandfather said.
Thane cried through most of the night, over a stupid seagull! A dumb, squawky, useless bird that looked exactly like its mates!
Thane would miss that seagull. Miss all those loops, just for him and Louie, that said he had something special going with nature, that no one else could come close to. He’d miss his friend.
Then, the thought of it starving because of him would overwhelm him. Flood in time and again.
Thane’s grandfather was surprised on his last day. He expected the boy to be all blubbery. He didn’t want that, not for a second. Stepping off the ocean after a weathered lifetime was a happy/sad occasion – becoming a creature of land. He just thought blubbering was what would happen.
Secretly, it broke his heart.
So far the boy hadn’t spent a cent of the money he’d been given with the oyster farm payout. The old man didn’t know why, but speculated all the same. His grandson was as stubborn as him. He had probably made up his mind being on the ocean wasn’t about money at all.
Sure enough, when they steered the barge into position, then winched it back onto the trailer, and secured it, Thane stood on the tractor step next to his grandfather, and offered him an envelope.
“It’s all there,” he said of the money he’d been given. “I just want one thing for it…”
A day after his life as a morning oyster farmer hand had ended, Thane pushed off from the jetty on his brand new, old tin boat, and began to paddle.
It took seven minutes for the barge, with its two outboard motors, to get across the bay to Stingray Cove, where the oyster racks and Louie lived. Thane figured that meant about 1-2 hours of paddling. He knew, until he was used to it, his arms would be as heavy as led!
The barge usually took off as dawn was breaking, so Granddad could see the shifting sandbanks, but Thane figured the tinnie was so light sandbanks wouldn’t be an issue. With all the extra time it would take, he planned to launch at 4am.
The moon was still out, not far off setting, a brilliant, muddy yellow colour that grew to orange as it sunk into the sea mists just beyond the head.
“Here we go, Louie…” Thane mumbled under his breath, before steeling himself, and pushing off.
“No!” Thane cried. “Damn you!” He hadn’t counted on the wind.
Straight southerlies blew in hard, off the Antarctic. By now Thane was used to the icy cold. You just worked faster. But he couldn’t paddle through them with his boat! The harder he tried, the more they swept him north, until he was banked in the shallows not a kilometre from the landing.
“Louie!” Thane shouted, and punched the water time and again, because he couldn’t punch wind.
It was 9am, the old man didn’t know what to do! He had already cleaned the yard, sorted his shed, prepped he lacquer job on his small, rickety yacht. What did landlubbers do with their time, anyways? Then, there was a knock at the door.
Thane wrapped himself around his grandfather, giving him a hug as if holding on from falling. Then he pulled back, growing a hard, little man sailor’s face. The old man looked at him, so determined. It was hard to imagine how young he was.
“Shouldn’t you be at school, boy?” he said.
“First, I want you to teach me about wind and tides,” Thane said.
Next morning, Thane waited an extra hour until the tide was coming in. It pulled against the wind strongly, fighting for sway over the tinnie, until they cancelled each other out.
Thane paddled towards the bay island, using it as shelter, then out towards Stingray Cove, through the shallows a little to the left, so that when he crossed the bay the wind might push him back into, rather than past the cove.
“Louie!” Thane shouted, “Louie!” as he drifted into the shelter of the heads. He had never been more tired. His arms hurt, his legs hurt, his fingers were numb with cold.
Thane put his waders on, pulled some muscles off the sleeper pole, opened them with his shucking knife, then held the meat above his head.
He whistled, just like the gulls did to their young, then again. “Louie…!”
Finally, a seagull came in sideways, wobbling against the wind, easing into a glide as it dropped into the calm, snatching the food. What a treat!
Thane then watched it arch up, into the sky, beginning to loop.
“Louie!” he cried with joy. “You stupid, ordinary bird!”
Other seagulls came. They fought each other and Louie, as they do, but Thane made sure Louie got his fill.
The next year was hard for Thane, and easy. He learned to read weather charts, and tides. That wind is not constant, it gusts, and that water often swirls. That there are very few straight lines, even in the unseen.
Without outboard motors to power away, Louie would sit on his shoulder as Thane worked his way back to the local jetty, a bit closer than his grandfather’s former oyster yard.
This gave them time together. Each morning Thane would tell Louie what he’d learned that day.
“To survive, something must die.”
That was a hard one. He always felt guilty for the crab or miniature eel, or oyster, even though they didn’t even have a brain. But that was the world.
“There is almost always a calm before a storm.”
“The wind can pick up in 60 seconds, turning glass into whitecaps pushing wild.”
He would tell Louie what he learned about seagulls.
“You’re going to live to be about 14. That means we have ten more years out here!” Thane smiled. That seemed like forever!
“You can drink fresh or salt water! Granddad says you get rid of the salt through glands above your eyes!”
Louie would squawk, as seagulls do.
“I guess you’re not so plain after all,” Thane would smile.
And Thane would tell Louie about his other life – at school.
About Julie Tachie, and how mean she was, and the teacher who was nice to him, and how he never talked about his time on the bay, because none of his classmates would understand.
Every day, a new fact, a new story.
Usually, he’s just blurt it out, then get on with the work that was to be done, listening to the air shift, the water, the birds.
All the fishermen got to know Thane. Sometimes the squid boat gave him a tow when the wind and tide didn’t align. The crayfish divers helped too. But for the most part, Thane kept to himself. Some would laugh, “For a bird?” and swear and tell him he was mad. Others would admire him. Either way, this was about Louie. It was Thane’s commitment, nobody else’s.
Stubborn wasn’t a big enough word.
One day, the westerlies came in strong, and stayed. Three days in, nobody had been out on the water. Come Saturday, Thane made to walk his way around the bay, even if it took a day.
When he got to the far side, there was a gate. It was locked, with warnings. The rich people with their yachts, owned cabins in one of the inlets. Nobody was allowed anywhere on that headland. Thane went anyway. It’s only bush. Who cares about bush, he mused.
They caught Thane 2kms from Stingray Cove.
“We’re taking you home!”
“I have to get through!” Thane protested.
He thrashed and kicked, and they called the police, and wanted him charged.
“Just let the boy through. He won’t harm anything,” the local policeman said.
“Where are his parents!? Charge him or make him go!” the rich people wailed.
“It’s been two days! Louie probably can’t go that much longer without food!” Thane cried.
“Get him out of here!” the rich people raged.
The local police were no mugs. They took Thane to his grandfather’s place.
The old man looked stiff, as if all his salty joints had seized up since he stopped using them.
“What do you want?” he huffed, sounding grumpy and bored.
It was the sound of all old people who were unhappy with life, Thane thought. Landlubbers. It made him scared and sad.
Thane explained. His grandfather listened.
“Well, it’s obvious,” the old man finally said. “Let’s go save your beautiful bird.”
The wind howled, it bit and tore. Paddling was useless. The old man’s sailboat was useless. They hugged the west bank of the bay, as he pulled the boy’s boat through the shallows, leaning forward, straining with all the might he thought had long left him.
Thane pushed the boat from behind, simply holding on where the water got too deep, watching his grandfather power through cold and seaweed. He had never seen such strength.
Thane knew it! The old man cared about Louie!
Thane’s grandfather hated that damn bird! But now he was grateful to it, too. It was giving him reason to be on the water again. Fishing was never a reason, it was recreation. Work was a reason! Picking up all the loose buoys was a reason. Rescue was a reason.
“We’ll go right out to the head, then let the wind push us back and across to Stingray!” he called.
“What!?” Thane called back. He couldn’t hear a word over the wind and water.
The old man signalled what he was going to do with his hands. Thane understood. It made both of them feel proud.
Thane had never been so close to the heads. It was spectacular, terrifying. Monstrous waves came in on the left point and right bank, tumbling, crushing, lifting sandbanks, ripping kelp from its moorings. Everything was grey, everything was brilliant and towering and moving and violent.
It was so cold he couldn’t feel his hands or legs to the knees, but he figured he’d also never seen anything so raw or gigantic. He wondered if anyone had ever braved such weather to see this?
The old man beckoned. Up close he was sweating furiously, both white and red. Thane wondered how the hell he had pulled the boat so far? He didn’t look right and also looked perfect! Alive, strong! Invincible.
“The dunes should protect us from the waves!” he shouted. “We’ll push out and let the incoming tide help us across the channel. Remember, don’t fight the current. Paddle across it!”
“But, what…?” Thane started.
“We’ll end up past Stingray Cove, but in the shallows. I’ll pull us back towards it!”
By then the old man would have been fighting against nature for three hours. Those scarred, knotted hands were shaking, his eyes were too wide. Thane was incredibly worried for him!
Making their way across the channel was frightening and inspiring. Thane had never felt such power as a high tide coming in on the back of a storm. The water rolled and bucked as if all earth was liquid. He felt inspired, he felt so small. He paddled across not into it, like he was told, rising and falling as it surged.
The shallows on the other side were deep. Thane’s grandfather was up to his shoulders in water, no wadders to weigh him down, pulling hard. The day remained cloud-dark, as if almost night, sharp rain hitting them in their eyes.
Stingray cove was a thing from Heaven. Sheltered from most of the wind, out of the channel’s pull, boy and grandfather paddled into it’s shallows, shucked some oysters, as if they knew things, and waited, while Thane put his hand in the air.
By now it had been 3 days.
“How long can they go without food, Granddad?” Thane asked.
“Usually about two days,” the old man replied.
They waited in the calm, listening to the echo of thundering surf beyond the head, watching the wind rip clouds over their heads.
“Maybe it still remembered how to hunt for itself,” Thane nervously said.
His grandfather knew better than to reply.
The wind blew. Water lapped against the boat. A stingray made its way past.
Two seagulls approached.
They were both hungry, but all seagulls were hungry, always. Was one of them Louie? Even now, after all this time, they all looked the same.
One stood on Thane’s head as it ate.
“It’s Louie…” Thane said.
His grandfather could hear the hope in his voice. “So many of them do that, now,” he replied.
Both birds ate a lot. All Thane could do was wait. When there was no more food, one seagull took off. Then the other did, back towards shore.
Thane felt something inside him break.
He couldn’t face his grandfather. Tough sea workers don’t cry, he thought. But he didn’t want to be tough. He wanted to be a boy. He wanted to know Louie was alive.
“Boy…” Thane’s granddad croaked.
Thane faced him. The old man was lying down, clutching his chest.
“Granddad!” Thane hollered. “No!”
“I’m…” the old man started, before running out of breath.
“No! No! I won’t allow it!” Thane pleaded. “It’s not fair! It’s not! Nonono!”
“Boy!” the old man barked. He was pointing.
The last seagull was arching up. Obviously weak, it had flown low through the cove, under the wind, before rising near shore, so the updraft might help lift it up and back, in a loop.
“LOUIE!” Thane cried. “It was you! It was!”
Thane had tears running down his face. Not for someone’s mum or dad, or anyone. For a stupid bird! Stupid! He knew that, but didn’t care!
“I’ll be back, Louie! Always!” he called, then set about using the wind and tide at their back to get help for his grandfather.
The old man watched his grandson, waste deep in the shallows, steering the boat towards the shelter of the rich people’s protected inlet. In this moment, his last at sea, he could see everything.
The boy would not quit. He would see the gull find a partner, raise a chick, then another, time and again. Thane would grow up with discipline, purpose most kids could only dream of, that he could never really explain or share. Kids could be cruel, none would really understand.
And, one day, after ten, twelve years, the gull would simply not come. Some time in the boy’s 20s, when he was a man, strong with what he’d learned, ready to cut his strings and sail on the breezes of the world.
It made Thane’s grandfather insanely proud. Insanely! Young Thane was a force of nature. He belongs on the sea, the old man thought. Him and his stupid seagull.
They deserved each other.
If I don’t make it back today, he thought, it would be a fine time to die.