by Sean Ulman
Lufa dreamt of an installation sculpture twirling in twilit sky. Mobile articles dangled from cloud sinews. A bath tub toy boat in a brown bottle, a pastel pink and yellow fishing lure, a Styrofoam Saturn with glow rope rings, a marbled beaver-gnawed driftwood log, an anvil welded down to an anchor, a contained foliage mobile (aspen coins, poplar pogs, maple lapels), the artist’s face washed featureless by frostbite, and a stuffed robin rearticulated in flight with gold wiring.
The artist dashed static strokes to spangle his solar plexus like sun-dappled sea. The robin’s wings beat to beat the band. Looking up Lufa saw mummified fingers plucking puppet strings. She heard the sword-slicing-stone call of the Varied Thrush. The artist painted a gold treble clef on the staff between him and the bird. The singing robin’s beak stayed clamped shut. Again the thrush – ‘Brrringgg!’ – closer.
Lufa awoke. Her first Varied Thrush of the season was calling from a Lutz spruce perch outside her window. Her home phone rang, echoing the thrush, sweetening its peal.
“Spongie! Angie.” Sleepy laughter. “Hope you’re ready to start your work week, girl. Downhill from here, I promise.” Lufa yawned. “So I just spoke to a guard at the prison. Apparently an injured gull, attacked by an eagle, fell in the yard while some prisoners were out for exercise or whatever. It is our privilege to go retrieve it. You can go whenever, better before lunch. The guard said that the prisoners were having fun with it. Playing soccer, or rugby? It was still alive when I spoke to him. The situation was under control at that moment.”
It was Angie’s first day off in two weeks. Lufa thought of the other four girls in the bird department. All were competent. And one was a rugged girl who dipped tobacco as soon as stepped out the Sea Life Center door. Considering it a compliment that Angie had chosen her for the unorthodox assignment balanced Lufa’s fear-fed reluctance. “Got it. I just drive up to the gate.”
“Yup. They’re waiting. You’re welcome.”
She dressed and drove over. They weren’t waiting for her. They had swapped the rugby crew out of the yard for a relatively milder bunch. The ranking yard guard, squeamish about twitching animals, hadn’t collected the bird.
The gate guard ogled as he radio’d. “There’s a peach here. Yeh, I’ll say. Outta season… You from the aquarium then, dolly?” The slimy guy lipped his lower lip over the top to nibble on his rusty mustache. Retching, Lufa rated the gesture simply simian. She looked in his direction indirectly, as if she had poor vision. “Yes. The Sea Life Center. I’m here to pick up a Herring gull.”
“Picking up a birdie. Well well, we’ll see you two when you come back through.”
Lufa sped under the gate before it had finished lifting.
The gull was huddled in the back left corner, one wing arched out awkwardly, one dragging in the dust, both clearly cleanly broken. Lined up on the opposite wall were 24 prisoners serving life sentences. Lufa did not glance at the blur of blaze orange in her periphery, even as a few smears seemed to leap toward her. Approaching the gull, she did not break smooth stride when she heard boots scuffing gravel. Two guards scurried between her and the stationary prisoners.
Lufa knelt and laid a hand on the gull’s twitching mantel. Its red eye blinked pleadingly. It was in bad shape – exposed bone, bloodied feathers, a crushed foot. She thought it no small feat that the bird was still breathing, conscious. She considered ignoring the Center’s policy – snapping the bird’s neck right then to save it some pain. Whispering an apology, she lifted the fragile gull and gingerly set it in a blanketed crate.
None of the prisoners lifted their eyes off Lufa until she left. She was a mermaid compared to the visiting wives and female prison employees they rarely saw. Their stares spanned a myriad of inspirations and emotions.
One thought she was God.
She represented a daughter who had never visited.
Another waved at his kid sister.
A mother at an age before she had carried his evil seed.
She elicited memories of the vegetable garden one prisoner kept as a boy (he smelt soil, felt it crumble between his fingers).
The token farmer’s daughter.
A first girlfriend.
A pet poodle.
The girl next door.
A Hollywood star rehearsing for the role of bird healer.
Sure, a few studied her figure and face in order to emblazon details into their memories for masturbatory fodder. But they did this as close to respectfully as possible, intending to reserve the fantasy, rather than abuse it. Their faces, which Lufa didn’t look at as she left, resembled those of heavily medicated patients or dazed children zoned out on colorful fast-paced cartoons.
As the guard delayed lifting the gate, Lufa looked down at the gull. She laid her hand on its bloody back. “Hang on buddy.” Battling naseau, she thought about rescuing a bird just to euthanize it. She coughed an ironic forced laugh.
The guard regarded her unlike the men in the yard – hard, crude, invasive – and took perverse pleasure when he finally tapped the gate↑ button. Imagining he was resetting a wolverine trap, the guard peppered the button. The gate lowered before it had fully risen. She thought about flicking him the bird before she stomped the gas pedal.
Testing the damaged gate’s functionality, the guard walked through at full wingspan. The sundered wooden arm scraped his waist. Failing to recall the gestalt of Lufa’s face as well as its delectable details, the guard karate-chopped and kicked the gate’s hinge, cutting up his elbow; failing to disconnect the cracked beam.
Sean Ulman is back in Seward, Alaska writing a novel about that mystical harbor mountain town. He does most of his brainstorming on skis. A slice from his chapbook, “Radland,” (Deadly Chaps 2011) was nominated for a pushcart.
Art by Margarita Korol/ J.J. Audubon.