(© 2010 by the author)
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Nylin awoke from his dream of Heron Island to a room bathed in sunshine. A slight breeze ruffled the white curtain that covered the window and hung to the floor. Nylin watched thinking they looked like giant pillows. Slowly the new day dawned on him. He had to get up. He had to get ready for school.
The dream faded from his thoughts as he found a pair of socks that matched, dragged a comb across his head, and glanced in the mirror at his image.
'Will I ever grow up?' Nylin asked himself.
"Drink your orange juice, dear," his mother sang as she sat the plate in front of him.
"Can I have some coffee?" Nylin asked, knowing the answer but wanting to appear grown up even if he wasn't.
"You're too young for coffee, dear. Drink your milk. You're going to be late if you don't get started."
Nylin toyed with the strip of bacon marveling at its crisp texture and the mouthful of flavor it delivered.
"Bye, Mom, see you this afternoon," he said banging the back screen, causing his mother to smile.
Nylin was her precious angel. She hadn't been able to have kids, but late in life this blessing had come her way. She'd always been close to him and she marveled at his intelligence and understanding for all living things.
At any given time there were a half dozen turtles, who knew a good thing when they found one; birds, an owl, several cats, and four dogs were his most constant companions.
She remembered his greatest achievement from two summers before when he found a young Heron crippled and lying on the path he took to and from school. He'd brought the bird home, hand fed it, splinted its wing, nursing it back to health.
It was the summer his father died. It was a trucking accident miles from home. Nylin did his best to comfort her. He disappeared for hours when he needed to mourn. It was always the animals he turned to for comfort.
It was the great Heron he showered his love and attention upon. One day after removing the splint, he walked with the bird towering over his head from its human perch. Nylin always talked softly to the bird, like it could understand. On this day he told the bird what he wanted him to do.
'You can fly. Your wing is fine. If you don't exercise it, you'll never fly again.'
He felt the bird's talons squeezing his arm as he lowered it before raising it in a quick motion, feeling the weight and the power in the Heron's feet. Then came the instant the bird took to flight. It soared up barely flapping his wings, seeming to suffer no ill-effects from months of rehabilitation.
"You knew you could do that all the time," Nylin told him once he'd come back down to sit on the fence beside the shed where the bird had been rehabilitated.
Nylin understood he'd saved the bird's life. The Heron knew as much. The bird came and went on its own schedule. Nylin walked along the beach on his way to school and he could see Heron sitting and sometimes flying above their island.
Heron Island was the name he gave to it. Up until the year the Heron had been injured, Heron Island was part of a finger of land that arched out into the Gulf. After a storm came through that summer, there were a hundred yards of land cut off from the rest of the peninsula by a hundred yards of water.
Nylin loved his environment and he was amazed by the many miracles he admired. He had seen the island break off from the shoreline to get born. He remembered before there were dead birds and other small animals washing up on the beach. He knew people were killing them. Some people had no appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. It was his job to undo some of the damage they did by taking care of the injured and burying the dead.
These were swell lessons that taught him about life. Then his father had died. He wasn't around enough when he was alive, and now he just wasn't around. He thought of it as 'the great circle of life' and he imagined his father was out on Heron Island. He'd sit on the beach and talk to him when he wanted to feel his presence in his life.
Nylin didn't go out there because he wanted to imagine he couldn't. He wanted to imagine no one could. This would keep the animals safe. He knew it was silly but it was the way he wanted to believe and in his mind it was true.
When the great white Heron flew off one day and didn't come back, Nylin would sit and talk to him as well. He wasn't sure it was a 'him' as the Heron flew above the island, and many times there were two of them. Nylin would smile knowing one of them was his Heron. He smiled knowing his Heron was happily living the life nature intended.
Nylin never named his animals. He spoke to each as if it was a totally unique life. Each was deserving of respect and care as long as they cared to stay in and around his menagerie.
It was a little out of the way for him to go to school by walking along the beach, but it was how Nylin begin and ended each school day. His mother knew to expect him when she saw him, but his schedule was far more predictable than he believed.
His mother no longer kept Nylin close to her. After John died, she wanted to die, but she had to be strong for her son. She had lost a husband and might one day have another, but Nylin had but one father and she didn't want him to be a momma's boy. That would never do.
It was after he turned away from the beach that Nylin turned toward school. It was a mile or more out to the road and another mile to the school yard. It was only after he met the road and walked along the shoulder that the fear started.
It had only been that year he started at the middle school. It was only that year he'd found out about bullies. He tried not to think about it, but he didn't make friends easily and once the bully had singled him out, other kids found it safer to not get that close to him.
Nylin had suffered no more than a shove and insults spit his way. The bullies' buddies all laughed at the appropriate times and any other kids who were around, stood paralyzed, holding their books tightly, merely wanting to get out of there.
If Nylin tried to turn to walk away from the taunts he was tripped and called 'chicken.' If he stood fast when confronted he was called other even more hostile names. Why someone would call him queer or faggot, he didn't know. What he knew was other kids heard the names he was called and they stayed clear of him as if it were true.
Mostly he was in class and stayed clear of places where his tormentor hung out. Once the three o'clock bell rang, he was quickly leaving the school behind him and didn't feel safe until he got to the long deserted stretch of beach that faced Heron Island.
He sat watching for the big birds he could easily see from his perch. He talked as if the island were alive. He listened for the sounds the water made trickling to shore near his feet and the occasional cry from the island.
Nylin longed for a time and a place where there wasn't any conflict in his life and where he would feel safe all the time. He was starting to get sick at his stomach on his way to school, understanding the bullies were there.
He woke up from the same dream every morning that week. He was on Heron Island, wading ankle deep in the marshy brew. There were Heron and other big birds, living in harmony. He looked for his Heron but there was no sign he was there. Certainly the bird would remember the boy who saved his life. When he awoke he realized it was a dream and he was safely tucked into his bed, which was a comfort, but there was a new and difficult day ahead.
"Eat your bacon, dear," his mother reminded him.
"I'm not all that hungry, Mom."
"Are you okay? Are you sick?" moving to feel his forehead.
He wanted to tell her he was sick of being picked on and he wanted to grow up and he hated school, but he didn't.
"I'm just not hungry for gosh sakes," he said, and she smiled, sensing his desire to be grown up.
"Drink your orange juice, dear," she sang, hanging the frying pan back in its place as she cleaned up from breakfast. "It's good for what ails you."
No, it wasn't good for what ailed him but nothing could make his days any safer. If it wasn't the first thing in the morning, when he wanted his lunch money, it might be in the hall between classes, or on his way out to the road in the evening on his long walk home. Even on the days when his tormentor wasn't there, he was never safe from being pushed around. He was a prisoner of the other boys' viciousness.
Nylin considered telling a teacher or the principal, but this could end with a final more physical attack. He could tell his mom, but he was the man in the family and it wasn't up to her to protect him. With it constantly being on his mind his grades had started to suffer. No one wondered what was wrong, but someone soon would and what was he going to say?
Life had never been easy and Nylin didn't make friends easy. The other kids who witnessed the bullying didn't want to be at risk by befriending him. He'd always been more at home alone and didn't make any effort to cultivate friends, but now he was left to wish he had. What he wished for was a big friend, a very big friend indeed.
School let out early one Wednesday for a routine teacher's meeting. Nylin made his usual dash for the door and he was soon walking along the highway on his way home and to safety. There was no sign of the bully and he could stop worrying until the next day. He might carry his lunch, because he had stopped taking his mother's change to eat. Would that make him even madder or would he simply take his lunch? There was no avoiding whatever the bigger boy had in mind for him.
Cutting into the woods had him feeling safe for the firs time. The big ferns and bushes brushed his arms and ankles as he made his way toward the Gulf. Dinner was still three hours off and he had time to spare. The pale blue sky and fluffy white clouds announced the beach just ahead. When he came out onto the sterling white sand he breathed in the clean Gulf air.
He sat for a time watching Heron Island straight ahead of the path he used. There were birds flying high over the huge old treetops. The sounds were all neatly arranged in music not everyone heard. Nylin loved the island and how it had become separated from land and man. It was a safe place for the animals he loved.
He remembered the Heron he'd nursed. He wondered if that's where he'd disappeared to. It was an easy flight to his house, no more than a mile, but if he was still alive, he no longer made the rip anymore. Maybe the second Heron in his dream was his Heron's mate, and that's why he no longer came to visit. Except the dream didn't mean there was a second Heron or a mate. No, the dream was his way of feeling good about the Heron's disappearance.
One day he'd swim out to the detached finger of land. He could easily swim the hundred yards, but he didn't want to prove to himself man was still able to go there.
After lingering a long time, he decided to go home to see if his mother might need some help around the house. He hadn't mentioned the teacher's meeting or the early release from school, because he wanted the time to spend alone.
When the boy in the boat had rowed up, Nylin didn't know, but when he stood to turn for home, there it was with a boy watching him.
"Hi," Nylin said.
"Hi," the boy replied. "Come on. I'll take you over."
"Where?" Nylin asked.
"The island. You've been staring at it. You must want to see it up close. It's great. No one goes there. Just the animals. Push us off. I'll take you."
The boy looked over his shoulder as he rowed to set a proper course that would take them to the middle of the island.
"What's your name?" Nylin asked.
"I'm Nylin, Ardeid."
"I know who you are," the boy advised him.
"Yes, I do."
Nylin sat wondering how the strange buoy knew who he was. He was sure he'd never seen him before. He was older by a few years and couldn't go to his school. Besides, he'd have seen him before if he went to the same school. It was a mystery but not one Nylin would explore.
As they came upon the island, the boy took several final rowing strokes before bringing the oars into the boat. They glided into a tiny cove that was surrounded by ferns and palms. The boy stood, turning to tie the boat to a convenient stump where the back of the boat came to rest.
"Come on," he said, stepped out of the boat, standing in the underbrush along the bank that came right up to the cove.
Nylin accepted the boy's hand and stepped ashore. Ardeid was a full head taller than Nylin. His hair was light in color and his open shirt revealed the same colored hair that was more a fine fuzz you'd associate with the plumage of very young birds. Nylin smiled sensing the boy's gentleness without having any proof of it. He would tell him what the hair on his chest and belly reminded him of.
They were quickly making their way into the depths of the island rich in trees, bushes, and tall grass. The undergrowth was a thick plush green. The trees hugged the path, cutting off any long-range view. The ground gave under Nylin's sneakers with soft moss offering a cushion under his feet.
Once out of the brush, the animal life was thriving in a world free of people. There were deer and rabbits drinking near where they came out. There were large and small birds that reacted to the boys' appearance. The crickets and frogs were warming up for a symphony that would come at night.
As Nylin watched a family of turtles move past, a passel of butterflies fluttered up around the heads of the boys, making Nylin laugh as he leaned back up against Ardeid. Just then a black snake appeared, slithering straight for where Nylin stood. As he attempted to turn to get out of the snake's way, Ardeid's arms fell down across his shoulders and his fingers dug into Nylin's chest like talons, holding prey.
Looking down but unable to move, the snake moved across the top of Nylin's sneakers, hesitating to look up at him before he slithered away.
"There's nothing here that will hurt you," Ardeid explained. "Simply let them be and they'll let you be."
"I'm scared of snakes," Nylin revealed.
"They're scared of you."
"He didn't look scared," Nylin giggled.
"He has no experience with men. He hasn't learned to fear them. The island is a safe refuge for wildlife that makes it out here."
"He's seen you?"
"He knows me but I'm not a man," Ardeid explained.
"Not yet, anyway," Nylin said, observing the bigger boy.
As they stood watching the undisturbed animals, a big white Heron took flight from the top of a tall pine tree, gliding down in large circles, until it swept close enough to cause Nylin to duck, and when he looked to see where the Heron went, he found it standing on Ardeid's shoulder, towering above both boys' heads. Ardeid seemed unafraid.
The bird and Ardeid made similar sounds as the bird bent his beak close to his face. He imagined Ardeid talking to the Heron, which made him laugh. What a magnificent bird it was. It was regally white and stood proud, but when it stepped onto Nylin's shoulder, he couldn't be sure it was safe.
"Nothing here will hurt you," Ardeid reminded him.
The bird's feet wrapped around Nylin's shoulder as it conducted an investigation of him. The big bird tapped Nylin's head with its beak and then made him laugh when it ran her beak through his hair before stepping back onto Ardeid's shoulder. He held his arm out to facilitate the bird flying back up into its lofty perch.
"He came to check us out," Nylin said.
"She did. Yes, the animals are as curious about you as you are about them. Men don't come here. Don't make any sudden moves. Be careful where you put your feet and they'll be fine as long as I'm with you."
The island was alive with animals and insects. The island was alive with sound. Even the wind in the leaves left an impression on Nylin. The singing and chirping birds were the most distinct, but the undercurrent of sound was mesmerizing. When Ardeid touched his arm to leave, it was too soon. He'd yet to get his fill when he found himself looking back at the island that showed little sign of life from a distance.
"We'll go back again and stay longer next time. They'll get accustomed to you but we best not overstay our welcome today."
Ardeid rowed in long gliding strokes that propelled the boat at a goodly clip. Even the way Ardeid placed the oars in the water made hardly a sound. It was like effortless motion that was every bit as captivating to Nylin as was the living island.
"You take the rope and tie the boat to the palm tree when I row us on shore," Ardeid said.
Nylin took the half-inch rope to make sure it wasn't tangled or knotted, and as the boat eased up into the sand at the edge of the beach, Nylin hopped out, going to the tree that leaned out over the beach and he wrapped the rope around it a couple of times before tying a square knot to hold it fast.
When he looked back to the boat, Ardeid was nowhere in sight. The great white Heron from the island had landed on the rear of the boat. Nylin smiled and realized he hadn't been paying attention to what was in the air overhead, but the Heron must have followed them.
"Hi there," Nylin said, thinking about holding out his arm to see if she'd land on him as she had landed on Ardeid, but he had second thoughts.
Nylin looked around him to see where Ardeid had gone. The path was right beside the tree, but he'd have seen him if he'd passed him, and why didn't he say anything? He could have said goodbye.
"Ardeid? Ardeid? I wanted to thank you. I feel like I know you, you know?" Nylin said, looking all around to see if he could find his new friend.
As he looked back at the boat the Heron spread his wings wide and lifted off from the back of the boat and headed skyward. When Nylin followed its flight with his eyes, there was a second Heron flying high overhead. He hadn't seen the second Heron on the island, but it could have been in the treetop with the first.
Nylin thought about what Ardeid had said about the curiosity of the animals concerning him. 'Maybe they'd flown out to see where I came from,' he thought. He watched as they glided easily back into the island treetops that made them immediately invisible.
"Ardeid,' he shouted one last time, looking all about him.
He took his time walking home and kept looking back. Where had that boat come from? He'd never seen it before. It was dark green and the paint seemed fresh. Once home he had his usual snack that would get him to dinner without his stomach growling. He stood outside for a long time, looking at the sky, wondering if the Heron knew where he lived. It wasn't far as the bird flies.
Then they were there, both Herons. They sat on the fence next to the shed where his Heron had healed up only to fly away. Then, as the one Heron raised his wings, Nylin saw it. Two thirds of the way up the wing, there was a breach in the feathers where they attached to the boney arm-like structure. It was where his Heron had broken his wing. He had come home. He was back.
"Oh, I knew you'd come back one day," he yelled, rushing over to the pair.
Nylin sat up in bed. It was a dream. Now he dreamed about them up close but it was the same pair he'd dreamed about before. It wasn't his Heron. He dreamed it was because he wanted it to be true. He wanted to know his Heron was safe and happy.
"A dream," he said disappointed.
It was a new day. It was time for school and the bully never let him go two days in a row without pushing him around. He could say he was sick. No he couldn't. He wouldn't. He wasn't going to let the bully keep him from going to school, even if it was a good excuse to miss school.
Sitting at breakfast he drank his juice and ate half his cereal. He picked up the bag with the lunch his mother had made for him. She kissed his forehead and bid him to have a good day.
Ah, if I could only grow up enough to kick that boys' butt, I would and my life would be easier, he thought as he walked.
He hoped to see Ardeid but didn't. The last quarter of mile he could see the school and his stomach began to churn. This was no fun and he forced himself to walk into the schoolyard with dozens of kids standing around. He moved toward the door, thinking, so far so good, and he refused to look around.
"Hey, little faggot. You bring me lunch did you?"
"Leave me alone. I never did anything to you."
The boy laughed and turned to his friend to mock Nylin. "I never did anything to you. Yes I did. I want your lunch. You got any change on you. I need a soda. Let's see what you got in your pocket. Oh, a key. What's this go to?"
"Give it back. It's mine," Nylin said, snatching at the key.
It was then Nylin found himself sitting on the ground, looking up at his tormentor, wishing he was bigger, wishing he was strong, wishing he could teach him a lesson he'd never forget.
Just as Nylin saw himself punishing the bully a white flash caught his eye as the bully made fun of him and the other kids chuckled nervously.
Nylin saw the bird was a Heron and he was confused by its presence in the schoolyard. What was it doing here? It wasn't a safe place for the island birds.
The Heron swooped low and flew right for the two boys, and in Ardeid's voice Nylin heard the words, "Bombs away!"
Nylin looked for Ardeid but he was nowhere to be seen, but what he did see was the big bird dropping Heron-poop on his tormentor's head. All the kids laughed as the bully stopped stunned by the bird attack.
Nylin laughed, and the big bully bellowed his anger as he started to kick at Nylin, who still lay surprised by the bird's excellent aim.
"Bombs away," and the voice seemed to emanate from the bird this time, but regardless, the aim was immaculately accurate as it emasculated the big bully by hitting him right between the eyes in front of the other boys.
"Bingo," the bomber bird bragged as it soared above the schoolyard with only Nylin paying attention to his flight pattern, while everyone else laughed hysterically at the mess made on the not so big bullyboy.
As Nylin stood the boy became enraged by the laughter, the bird, and the boy before him.
"I'm going to get you," the bully promised.
Nylin pointed his finger at the school's façade and the bully followed it to where the Heron sat, wings spread, and seeming ready to make another bombing run if necessary and the bully ran away into the school to escape the bird's range.
When Nylin looked again, the bird spread his wings one last time, and that's when he saw it. Two thirds of the way down the bird's wing was a small bare spot down on the small bone where feather's should have been growing but weren't.
"Ardeid," Nylin said to himself as if he'd just connected a truth that had eluded him.
When school was out Nylin headed for home without even thinking about the bully. The hold he had on him was broken and it wouldn't surface again, but there was something more important on his mind.
When he got home he raced up to his room to grab the ornithology book from its place on his bookshelf. He turned to the genus and species section, moving his finger down to heron.
"Ardeidae," he said, reading the word. "Ardeid!"
He raced back down the stairs and passed through the kitchen as his mother prepared his snack.
"I'll be back, Mom," he yelled as the screen door banged behind him.
He yanked his shoes off when he got to the beach and he waded until he needed to swim to get to the island. He eased into the cove and pulled himself up on the path he'd walked the day before. The moss felt grand on his feet and he went directly to the clearing where he and Ardied stood watching the wildlife. There sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, two grand Heron sat calmly as he approached.
"Ardeid. Ardeid," Nylin said, hugging his face into the plush feathers of the bigger of the two birds.
"He won't be a bother any longer. I'm sorry I didn't know you were in trouble or I'd have come before. It's not a good idea to go around humans."
"Thank you. Are you happy? You can talk? How can you talk?"
"Slow down. I can only talk to you. You gave me an understanding of talking while you nursed me. Animals aren't without an awareness of men. It's safer for us not to reveal too much of an understanding. We may understand men but most men don't care to have any understanding of us, you see."
"Can I come and see you?" Nylin asked.
"Best you not come to the island. Someone may see you and others might come with less kindness in their hearts than you."
"But you protected me. You made that bully cry in front of the entire school, Ardeid. How can I ever thank you?"
"You already have. You saved my life. You helped me when I needed help. I've helped you."
"Will I see you again?" Nylin asked.
"If you ever need me I'll be there, but I've got my family to look after," Ardeid said, nodding his beak toward a small group of tiny Heron feeding nearby.
"Wow! You do have a family."
It was a bittersweet reunion and departing for Nylin, but when he sat on the beach looking out at Heron Island, he often saw the two great white Heron flying above the treetops and as time went on there were a half dozen more smaller Heron that came into view from time to time.
Ardeid had been correct. The bully never bothered Nylin again and he once again found joy in going to school to learn all he was capable of learning.