A short story by Eva Goss…
Astrid loved her father. She loved his scent of salt and the warmth of his caramel skin, so unlike her own. She loved the way his eyes smiled as he listened to a golden whistler in song, or when he taught her about the behavioural patterns of the kororā. 1
On the morning of the 9th of August, Astrid’s dreams were interrupted by his heavy footsteps on the deck above her bunk. Her father’s face appeared above hers, peering in through the frosted glass of her cabin hatch. A river of cool air whooshed in as he propped it open.
“Come, I want to show you something.” Charlie’s voice was soft, despite his proximity – his words were whisked away by the south-easterly breeze which buffeted the wooden hull of Pania, whistling in the rigging.
Astrid lingered on deck and scowled at the grey waves, reluctant to leave the safety of her warm cabin. “Fine weather this morning, don’t you think?” Charlie’s eyes crinkled with a kind of excitement that Astrid couldn’t help being infected by.
She pulled on her heavy-duty rain jacket and landed lightly in the dinghy, her worn leather sketchbook in hand. The pair exchanged grins. Island-exploring excursions were a treasured ritual.
After a rough dinghy ride, followed by a blustery walk over vegetation-dense foothills, Charlie and Astrid reached the highest point of the island. From the clifftop, they watched the sun transform the waves below from a rough slate of blue-grey, to a glistening company of dancers, dressed in pink and orange. Although the cold breeze stung against their cheeks, they could both sense the arrival of a bright, clear day; and with it, the retreat of the previous night’s storm.
The lack of talk did not bother Astrid; she was content in their shared silence – with Charlie watching the wind on the water, brow furrowed, and warmth radiating from him.
Astrid drew. She drew the water, the waves, the clouds. She sketched her father’s face: dark eyes, an uncombed mass of curly, shoulder length hair, weathered skin. When a flock of birds began to spiral upwards on the thermal air currents which rose from the heating cliff face, Astrid captured their movement – their streamlined bodies, and the distinctive sable stripe which arced across the span of their wings.
“Antarctic prions,” remarked Charlie, breaking the silence. “I’ve always liked them. They tend to fly alongside the boat when she’s under full sail, but they never land on board. They’re the gypsies of the sky – always in the air. It’s rare to see them so close to land.”
“A bit like you, Charlie.”
He nodded in agreeance.
* * *
At 26 years old, Astrid had become a woman of grace and power – she was striking, but some found her disposition to be confronting. Sisu, her mother would have called it. 2
Yet, after her father’s death, some of this hardiness seemed to fade from Astrid’s character. It was as if she was subconsciously adopting what Charlie had left behind – a legacy of kindness, acceptance, and an intrinsic fascination with the natural world.
Astrid had sailed to the island alone; determined to relive the precious memory which, since losing her father, had lingered in her thoughts. Red windbreaker zipped to the chin, she trekked up to the same site where she had sat with her father, his arm slung protectively over her shoulders, 16 winters ago.
Standing in silence, she gazed out at the white horses. The water would embrace his body. He would become a part of the marine ecosystem which he had loved so dearly. Her father could not see the blush-coloured cloud that streaked across the horizon in front of her. But he was there on the island. He was in the breeze that kissed her face, in the rockpools, harvesting limpets, and drawing in the wet sand.
Most of all, he was in the swirling thermal currents, flying with the prions as they drew circles in the sky with their wings. They kept him company in his travels, and they held his memory close.
* * *
The sun, having cleared the horizon, reached over the rolling waves, and cast a warm light onto Astrid’s cheeks. The pair had begun to pick their way down the basalt staircase to the beach. Astrid started – fumbling for purchase on a rough ledge slightly above eyelevel, her hand had brushed against something warm and unexpectedly soft. She called to her father, pointing.
“Charlie, I’ve found something. I think it’s alive.”
Charlie peered above her. Reaching up, he slipped his hand under the creature.
“It’s a prion.” He showed her the limp animal. “She hasn’t been dead for long.”
They delivered the bird down to the water’s edge. Charlie tucked bright sprigs of coastal wattle under her wings. Astrid gathered driftwood and constructed a simple raft, untying her shoes and using the laces to lash the sticks together.
“Why is she dead, Charlie?” Astrid could tie a bowline with her eyes closed. She had swum with reef sharks, and she had sat, steadfast, at Pania’s helm in force 6 south-easterlies. Yet the nine-year-old could not understand why such a vital creature could die so abruptly. She could not remember the experience of loss, or the grief that often came with it. Her father, however, had almost drowned in it. Astrid was a baby when her mother became sick; Charlie had been her anchor since the beginning.
“I don’t know exactly why, Astrid.” He studied her pensively, searching for the right words. “Everything must die. This bird is dead, in the sense that her existence – and her state of consciousness, her awareness – is gone. Her heart, brain, lungs, bones, feathers – they’re all still here, but the prion is not. Soon, the physical parts of her will leave too; if other animals don’t come to feed on the entrails, then her body will eventually decompose.”
He took a breath.
“I believe that everything has an end and a beginning. We don’t know much about this bird’s beginning, or the way it lived. But we are here now, at her ending. She will not leave behind an emptiness – biological or otherwise. Her life will continue in everything she saw, heard, and felt – as well as everything that might have seen, heard, or felt her presence. Perhaps she had chicks – they will carry half of her genetic make-up. I don’t believe in spirits or ghosts, Astrid. I believe in science. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed; it can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. Her energy will be passed on – always shifting in form; as will yours and mine. We will give her a sea burial, and the earth will remember her time here.”
* * *
Morning had come; the sky had distilled into a clear blue; the ocean was a mirror. Astrid held the bird close to her chest, stroking its mottled feathers. She laid the fragile creature on the raft and watched as the ebbing tide carried her out to sea.
“Travel well, my friend.”
1 Maori word meaning fairy penguins. Found on the coasts of New Zealand and Southern Australia.
2 A Finnish concept and cultural construct that is described through a combination of various English terms including stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness.