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January 2017, vol 12 no 4

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Amanda Bell

So Long

The first gannet was a juvenile. It was sitting on wet sand below Lissadell House, quite alone. Its wings and back were dappled with dark brown, its breast and head dazzling white. A black line extended from the root of its long grey beak to encircle each ice-blue eye. I drew close to see whether it might be injured. It extended both wings to their full span, raised itself on long striped toes, and lunged at me, before resettling in its damp hollow.

I rejoined the crowd, took my place in the tiered seating, and waited for the concert, but when I think back on that night it isn't of Leonard Cohen in profile against the backdrop of Ben Bulben, or the drunk woman screaming for 'Marianne', or even the tailback of traffic leaving Sligo in the rain, headlights forming a giant glowing caterpillar which squirmed into the distance of the Ox Mountains, but the image of that blue-grey beak, strong enough to pierce the sea at 60 miles an hour.

barely a ripple –
turning frosted seaglass
in my palm

The second gannet was an adult. I came across it as I walked the high tide mark at Mulranny. Previous excursions had yielded bleached driftwood, a dead pilot whale, small cetacean bones, a cow's skull, and a perfect skeletal sea urchin. And this time, a dead gannet, its yellowed head just visible beneath a heavy dusting of sand. Its powerful neck, sinuous, seemed more furry than feathered, reminding me that the St Kildans used gannet necks as footwear. Having neither pocket knife nor bag with me, I turned it over with my foot, admired its impenetrably dense feathers, its folded black feet, and walked on. But half way back to the car desire won out. I doubled back, deciding to drag the bird back to the car by the very beak that I so coveted, and then figure out how to get it home.

It was very heavy. I tried to convince myself that the stench was of rotten seaweed, or the wind from an overladen septic tank, but soon had to admit that the bird, for all that it was intact, reeked of decay. Undeterred, I shifted it from hand to hand to share the weight between my shoulders, but just as the carpark appeared ahead, with a sickening slide the heavy rotting creature slipped its skull bone out of the keratinous sheath of the beak, and slumped to the ground, leaving me holding a pale scabbard, the weight and texture of a fingernail.

I brought the frail beak-form home and buried it in a flowerpot until the stench evaporated. When I dug it up, it had faded and frayed like a wind-torn plastic bag. Nevertheless, it has taken its place on the mantlepiece between a gull's skull and some whale vertebrae, and is curiously beautiful, though I still can't detach the sight of it from the feel of that heavy body sliding away.

by the light
of guttering embers
bones cast shadows