Parting the Veil
by Phyllis Barber
A Brief History of Seagulls: A Trilogy with Notes
[p.89]In the spring of 1848, the Mormon pioneers planted crops after suffering great hunger during the first winter in the Salt Lake Valley. As the crops ripened, hordes of devouring crickets descended upon them from the foothills east of the valley. The saints fought them with clubs, fire and water … their prayers for deliverance from almost sure starvation were answered when thousands of seagulls came to feed on the crickets.
—Inscription on Seagull Monument, Temple Square. Salt Lake City
She watched the first cricket hop onto her curtains—the first and only lace curtains in the Salt Lake Valley, year of our Lord 1848, Lucy Pettingill, proud owner who’d fallen into boasting and self-glorification because of her new possession. As the cricket trespassed across edelweiss blossoms, diamonds and ovals, stems and leaves delicately woven into lace, it showed no respect.
“How dare you!” she said loudly, though the cricket seemed immune to the intensity of her words, its grass-thin legs claiming new territory with every step, its antennae probing wildly.
[p.90]The curtains had arrived the week before. All the way from Chicago—packed into a strong, brown box, carted to a river boat, stuffed into a saddlebag, warmed by the foaming sides of a horse galloping across the plains to the Territory of Deseret. Lucy unwrapped the package as if she’d never seen a package before, unfolded the curtains as if they might break, and lifted them to the light of the oilskin-covered window. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful, Charles.” Draping a panel over her hair and around her shoulders, she’d held it tight with a knotted fist—the most precious of shawls. Then she veiled her face.
“I’m Scheherazade, Charles. An Arabian princess surrounded by hanging fuchsia and roses, gazing at shallow pools filled with the fragrance of floating lotus.”
She turned dreamily in place—a music box princess—then eased the lace to her shoulders. Charles brushed her lips lightly at the corner of her mouth. She cooed, but then a question popped into her mind. “How did you make this happen?” The shawl slid to the crook of her elbows.
He palmed her shoulders with his large hands, then wrapped her in his arms. “The sun can tell me the time.” “Your grandfather’s watch?” She pushed away to examine his eyes, then thrust her hand into the empty packet where he usually kept his watch.
“I wanted you to be happy.”
“But you loved that watch.”
“Don’t worry.” He tucked her under his arm. “Even if the Indians were smart enough not to claim this desolate valley for themselves, we’ll make it blossom. And when we do … “ He patted his hip pocket. “You are love, Charles.” She nuzzled his ear.
“As you are.” He kissed the hollow of her cheek.
Charles was the kind who saw God’s face everywhere—in clouds and in the waving grass of the plains they’d crossed together. But Lucy hadn’t been so sure about the presence of God in everything until she hung her lace curtains. While Charles weeded in the communal field, Lucy discovered God through an oval in the lace. He was smiling as if to say, “You are blessed among women. No one else has the bounty you’ve been given.” His eyes filtered through the curtains, patterned the hard earth floor, and filled her with his presence—the Divine, the [p.91]Beautiful, the Great, and the Good. Lucy shared this story with neighbors, discreetly, of course.
But now, in her one room shaped from the hard earth, she could only see a leggy insect with probing antennae, treading on the precious threads, cocking its head from side to side, considering her curtains. An insidious little creature with ugly, hostile eyes.
She’d heard rumors of crickets all morning long, but hadn’t seen any until about an hour ago when she carried water to the raspberry starts—her work assignment on Tuesdays and Fridays. They were landing on everything green—stalks of corn, curlicues of bean plants, swollen buds with squash blossoms inside. At first they landed politely, genteel summer visitors. Then, all too quickly, a wall of crickets approached from the east, thick and dark. The day turned into cricket night. The vibration of the insects’ wings and jaws and legs and the human shouts of “Crickets!” grew louder each minute. “The crickets will have everything!” people shouted.
With her water bucket in hand, Lucy watched Brother Kenton hop from foot to foot as crawling things swarmed. She heard Sister Whitesides shouting for kindling for a fire wall. She saw the Esplin sisters unrolling a bolt of muslin and stretching it taut to scoop crickets up and away from the ground.
Lucy pulled the tea towel tucked in her skirt waist, the only weapon she had. She dropped her bucket and ran to join the frenzy, scattering bunch after thick bunch of crickets with the snap of her towel. Lucy, Charles, and their neighbors stomped their feet, jumped on crickets, squashed them with their shoes, their hoes, their shovels, their blankets, their brooms—anything they could find. But the crickets only multiplied.
Lucy kept forgetting her work in the field to look back at her home. She felt a knot in her stomach—a warning. “I’ll be back,” she shouted to Charles. Before he could tell her it was no use, she was running to the end of the row and stumbling across rock-hard caliche and stones and brittle sage, crossing the bleak stretch between her and her adobe house.
“My curtains!” she worried as she ran.
As soon as she crossed the threshold, she grabbed her broom and swept crickets out the door, but each stroke pulled more of them inside than out. And now she was face to face with an impudent cricket [p.92]testing the worth of her curtains with ridiculous legs.
“How dare you,” she shouted again, flipping at the insect with her trusty towel. The cricket only hesitated in the air before fluttering back again. Then there were two, and three, and then a hundred trespassing on the field of lace. Lucy brushed them away with the flat of her hand, but the crickets swarmed over her forearm, shoulders, her hair, and she was covered with a living blanket of seething crickets.
“You!” she screamed. “Stop!” She slapped at her arms and her face and her neck. Frantically, she shook the curtains with both hands to stop the thousands of jaws from snipping and chewing. As she did, the network of fine thread gave way, not unlike burning wood disintegrating into ash. The exquisite circles and diamonds enlarged to monstrous holes. Her field of fleur-de-lys, edelweiss, and lily of the valley was a field of air.
Just as quickly, the crickets were gone, leaving her with the same life as before: a shabby one-room adobe house with hard clay floors and the boiling desert outside. The buffer between her and the harsh landscape had been destroyed. Her curtains everyone admired, even coveted, though no one was supposed to covet in this community which prized obedience to God’s laws above all else, were nothing but skeletal threads. Was there such a thing as a good life when so much destruction was possible? But her thoughts were interrupted by a new sound she’d never heard before. Something beating the sky.
Looking out the window, she saw the sun darkening again in midday. Lucy bolted outside to watch thousands of seagulls flapping their wings, spreading them wide for landing, aiming their slanted feet to overturned soil. There were more birds than she’d ever seen, folding their wings to their sides, striking madly at the ground with their beaks. When she looked up again, she saw something larger in the backdrop of the cluttered sky, something that appeared to be angels with white- and silver-tipped wings. The judgment of God filled the sky. Destroying angels opened the folds of their robes and dropped seagull after seagull to the earth. While her neighbors shouted, “The birds are eating the crickets. Can you believe the birds are eating the crickets?” Lucy was speechless.
Legs and heads of crickets dangled from the birds’ beaks. Black juice stained their yellow bills. One of them looked in Lucy’s direction, as if considering her. Then it turned to peck at another cricket. [p.93]Everyone seemed stunned, watching the gluttonous feast which continued for the rest of the day until the sun finally slipped behind the mountains. The seagulls followed. Sated. The fields were silent. “Our crops,” Charles shouted, his face covered with strings of sweat and dirt and a wide grin as he ran across the desert in the changing light, a triumphant warrior. He circled her hips with his arms and lifted her from the ground. “We can eat. We’ll survive.” He turned a few more times before noticing Lucy’s mood.
She held her arms stiff against his, not smiling in return. “The curtains” she said with an empty voice.
He set her on the ground. He pulled off his hat. “The curtains,” he said again, sinking to his haunches, elbows on his knees, one hand kneading the brim of his hat. Charles looked into his wife’s lavender eyes. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand while she gathered her apron into both of hers.
“Curtains don’t matter as much as food, I guess” he said, uneasily considerate of her feelings even though his chest pounded with the power of the things he’d seen.
“Those curtains were everything to me.” She looked white and pale and small in the emptiness of the backlit desert, unaware that the sky behind her was filling with brilliant light. “I thought God loved me.” “I’m sorry, Lucy.” Charles stood up and reached into his pocket where his watch should have been. His hand lingered in the empty space, thumb and forefinger rubbing together, but this was no time for regret. He pulled his hand from his pocket and threw his hat in the air. “We’ve just seen a miracle. Whoo-ee.”
Tears blurred her eyes as Lucy bent her head back to follow the flight of the hat into the brilliant orange sky. But then she blinked to clear her vision. The swirling clouds seemed to be swallowing the speck of a hat. The sky had become a mosaic of fleur de lys, edelweiss, ovals, diamonds. Her eyes widening in amazement, she witnessed the veil between heaven and earth, the thin membrane protecting the power and the glory, the face of the Almighty. And God was smiling through the openwork of the clouds. “Consider this bounty,” she thought she heard him say.
As Charles’s hat fell back to the field and he ran to retrieve it from [p.94]the tangles of a ravaged squash plant, she hugged her arms to her chest and cradled herself. She bit her lip and searched for words to say to God and to Charles, who was tossing his hat up yet another time like a boy in a bubble of ecstasy.
In 1848, seagulls vomited grasshoppers into the Great Salt Lake, then returned for more.
—Fife Folklore Collection, Utah State University
Anabrus simplex, better known as Mormon Crickets (though they are actually grasshoppers), have been known to migrate in bands a mile wide and ten miles long when spring conditions are mild and dry for several years. They don’t travel during overcast or wet weather. Otherwise, they travel 1/2 to 1 mile a day in the summer.
—Salt Lake Tribune, 1989
Max cleared his throat. He tapped his toe. He’d been waiting for too long at the checkout counter of the Big Bear Feed & Grain Supply. Sheila, the clerk and his estranged wife, was talking on the telephone. She was also leaning over the counter and exposing the tops of her ice cream cone breasts as if to remind Max what he was missing. She did look slimmer than usual in her hot pink dress, a velvet ribbon choker around her neck. She must have bought the outfit for her new life. Bleached the gray in her hair, too.
“Those’ll be in on Monday,” she said as she stood up, arched her back, and hung the phone on its cradle. She poked a yellow purchase order onto a spindle, adjusted the volume on the stereo to a higher level, and then, after looking slowly to the right, as if there might be something more important happening elsewhere, she yawned and folded her arms. “So, you’ve got cricket problems, Max?” She patted one of the bags of steam-rolled wheat loaded with carbaryl that sat on the counter.
“No, Sheila. This poison is for my health.” Max tucked in the back of his shirt with two hands, sniffed, and lifted his chin like he had a cramp in his neck.
[p.95]“I’ve been selling tons of this stuff for the past few days. Must be potent.” She smiled her Sheila smile, a little bit crooked, though Max noticed the vertical lines above her lip were getting deeper. “But wouldn’t it be better to leave the crickets to the seagulls?” “Seagulls. What a joke!”
“You never did believe in miracles, did you, Max?” She checked to see if customers were on their way to the checkstand. A few people milled at the display where high beam flashlights were being offered at a limited low price, but no one seemed to be hurrying in the direction of the checkout counter. “We always did argue about God and what he could do.”
“You and your miracles, Sheila.”
“Not now, Max. Nobody needs your lip right now.”
Max put his thumbs behind his belt and felt good about the way he was giving it to Sheila, getting a rise out of her still after twenty-two years of marriage. She needed to know he was just as much a live wire as ever. Still virile. Still strong. He licked the tips of his moustache and changed the position of his feet. Two solid boots on the ground. He folded his arms. One big mass of man.
Sheila hummed as she put her hands on her hips and shook her shoulders ever so slightly to the mariachi music on the radio. The Spanish hour on KPGU-FM was programmed once a week for the migrant workers who’d decided to become citizens and grow something that belonged to them for a change. Sheila listened to catch on to the language, like her Spanish-I teacher suggested. She also convinced her boss that one hour a week was good for business. “Mutual respect,” she told him. He named her clerk of the month after that.
“Since you’re buying carbaryl, Max, you’ll ptobably want to hear what I heard yesterday.”
“You know me, sweetheart. Always ready and waiting.” “You’re such a lover boy, Max.” She swayed ever so slightly behind the counter, cha cha cha, one, two, lifting her freckled, leathery arms like horizontal wings. The years of sun and wind had imprinted themselves in her skin, even in the paleness of her eyes. She’d worked hard on the farm.
“That I am, Ms. Sheila.” Max leaned his hands flat into the counter, rested his wallet on the scratched formica, tried to gauge the appropriate distance from this woman who was supposed to be his wife.
[p.96]She was holding out longer than he ever thought she could. When she said she was leaving him, he was sure she’d be back after a week’s time, at the most. But she’d been living at her sister’s for five months now, not even calling him to help with her car, that old junker. She always said she liked how he did odd jobs. How handy he was. “So what’s this you were going to tell me?”
“Did you know that … “ She leaned across the counter to whisper, cupping one hand around her mouth in that flirty way of hers. “Crickets are cannibals. They eat their diseased and crippled and dead. Bait ‘em and they go especially berserk.” She tapped her pencil on the counter to the south-of-the-border beat still playing on the radio.
“I’m delighted to hear the news.” Max tipped back the brim of his straw hat, revealing his albino white forehead. He scratched that soft stretch of pure white skin and noticed that Sheila’s pretty lips were separated as she watched him put his hat back in place. He wanted to stare at those full, heart-shaped lips, pucker lines and all. “I’ll do anything to get rid of those creepy things. They’ve stripped the alfalfa, even the sagebrush and the willows in the south pasture. Before it’s too late, I’ve got to save my wheat.”
“Rambo Max,” Sheila said, scanning the bar code on the bulky bags of steam-rolled wheat. “The only way you know how to do life. If only you could have believed in a few miracles. In something besides your own efficiency.”
“I’ll ignore that comment, being’s I’ve heard it before. You used to like my style.” Sheila’s eyes were flat and foreign when he scanned her face for clues. No response. “But you might be interested to know your beloved seagulls flew over my land this morning.”
“Our land, my Max,” Sheila said as she slid the 50-lb. bags of wheat off the counter and back into Max’s cart. “It’s still our land. In addition to Spanish, I’m taking an assertiveness training class at the high school.”
“I stand corrected, darlin’.”
“Don’t darlin’ me.” Sheila’s eyes were narrowing in a way that caused a familiar discomfort to rise inside Max. They reminded him of that last breakfast of burned pancakes and over-fried eggs On a large blue plate. She’d slid them in front of him like he was the enemy. “Eat this, you turd.”
[p.97]Sheila’s words had caught him by surprise, coarse as they were coming out of her mouth, but that was her final say on the final day of matrimonial bliss—the end of the time when he could do no wrong, when Sheila looked up to him, and when she said she was sorry for whatever happened, no matter whose fault. He’d thought a lot about this Big Change in Sheila. Contrary to public and Sheila’s private opinion, he’d been doing some thinking on the subject—the whys and the wherefores of this change in his wife.
“Where are the seagulls when we need them?” Charlie Santos, a squat farmer with a pencil moustache, arrived at the checkout stand with three bags of the same treated wheat in his cart, a paint roller and two brushes in his hand. “I just came over from 1-15. You oughta see the greasy mess over there. Crickets mashed like potatoes. Department of Agriculture measured 235 per square yard.”
“I don’t want to hear the word seagulls,” Max mumbled. “Don’t anybody talk about seagulls.”
“So what’s the matter with you?” Sheila said. “You know how the seagulls saved the pioneers.”
“Charlie, my man,” Max said, shifting until one hip held his weight against the counter. “You be the ref. Do you really believe the seagulls saved the pioneers?”
“Doesn’t everybody?” Charlie laid his supplies on the counter and took a toothpick from his shirt pocket. “There’s a monument on Temple Square up in Salt Lake, for heck sakes.”
“Charlie, those famous seagulls flew into town this morning. Did they show up at your place?”
“What can I say, Max? You know I ain’t too religious.”
“Should that matter?” Max had an I-know-something-you-don’t-know look in his eyes. His face was alive with anticipation, his eyebrows poised for action.
“There were thousands of them, I tell you, flapping their wings and filling the sky.” Max had a way of getting bigger, of using the whole length of his arms and hands, when he told a story. He spread his arms open.
“I got a lump in my throat when I saw’ em, Charlie.” He pointed to his throat. “There were so many. So much bird racket. ‘I’m in the middle of a miracle,’ I said to myself. Crickets’ve been eating every green thing in my south pasture and here the mighty seagulls show up to [p.98]save the rest of my crops. ‘Wouldn’t Sheila be out of her mind about this?’ I thought.”
Max stood his full six-foot-three with a look of astonishment on his face, his hands raised as if part of the question. “But guess what?” “Tell us, Big Boy,” Sheila said. “You’ve got a sinker in your pocket. I can tell.”
“Don’t call me Big Boy like that, Sheila.” He faced off square with her and shook his pointed finger with each syllable he spoke: “Have some re-spect.”
“Don’t shake your finger at me.” Sheila pointed a finger back at him, something she’d never done when she lived at home.
Max remembered how she’d asked him umpteen times not to do that, not to shake his finger at her like she was a child who needed a scolding. Max looked at his finger and then looked over at sheepish Charlie who’d happened into this domestic fireworks show.
“Love,” Max said, shrugging his shoulders and grinning at Charlie. “Love, my foot,” Sheila said, twisting the gold-plated heart pin fastened to the front of her velvet choker.
“You’re being rude, Sheila. That’s not like you.”
“And you’re not, Max?”
“So you two,” Charlie said, patting Max on the shoulder carefully. “I was sort of hoping the seagulls would drop by, even if I don’t get out to church all that much. You think this carbaryl’ll do the job if they don’t, Max?”
“Hell, yes,” Max said, growing bigger with every word he spoke. “Hell, yes and hell, yes.”
“Excuse me, Max,” Sheila said softly, suddenly remembering her commitment to professionalism and customer relations. She was, after all, a service-award-winning clerk after only five months at Big Bear Grain & Feed in Payson, Utah, and she did have two customers at her checkstand. She lowered her head and tilted it to the side. “That was rude of me. Max, I know how you hate to be called Big Boy.”
Max wanted to get a lock on Sheila’s eyes right then. Had he heard right? Did he detect a trace of that rare thing called an apology?
“I better collect from you, Max,” Sheila said, no overtones in her voice. “I need to check out Charlie, here. You don’t want to be in line all day, do you now, Charlie?” She pulled out one of her charmer smiles.
[p.99]“Can’t say as I do, Sheila.” Charlie smiled back, hook, line, and sinker. “But don’t let me interrupt anything between you and Max now.”
“I need to tell you the rest of the story, Charlie,” Max said. “You need to hear this, too, Sheila. You and your devotion to unexplainable things need to hear this.” He dropped his hands to his sides. “You don’t mind, Charlie. It’ll just take a minute.”
Charlie picked between two of his molars with his toothpick. “These birds landed in my field, just like the story goes.” Max was back into bigness. “My heart was beating like crazy, being excited to be in a miracle. But get this. This is the pitiful part. They flew in. A big show. But then, after my heart is pounding and I’m thinking every cricket is going to disappear, those suckers only ate a few crickets. I swear. On the Book of Mormon, Bible, and Doctrine and Covenants. They ate crickets for about two minutes at the most, and then they flew over to the sandbars on the river to take a nap. And to think I was ready to believe …”
Sheila raised one eyebrow and looked square at Max. “They took a nap?”
“Those seagulls tucked their heads under their wings and went to sleep. I swear.”
Sheila held on to the edge of the counter with both hands, waiting for words to come. “Maybe ‘“ maybe they flew in from a long distance,” she protested. “Maybe they needed to rest before they gorged on crickets. Maybe they’d been eating them all morning and needed a break.”
“Keep trying, Sheila.”
“Maybe it’s the garbage,” Sheila said, turning down the volume on the stereo. The news was on. Spanish hour was over. “They hang out at the dumps, you know. That’s what’s changing everything. The burgers, Cokes, and fries. The preservatives. It’s changed all of us. Our minds and our bodies.”
Max felt like this was a phoney Sheila talking. Someone with a little bit of night school knowledge acting like she knew something the rest of the world didn’t. She’d always loved burgers, Cokes, and fries and had a midsection that was thicker than was good for her because of it. Then she left home and started taking those classes at the high school. But Max refrained from saying anything. He didn’t make a [p.100] smart remark like he would have as few as six weeks ago. He had a head on his shoulders, when all was said and done, and he wanted to make things right again. He chose his words with care.
“So that’s the answer, is it?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the seagulls, Max,” Sheila snapped, taking offense automatically, it seemed to Max. She couldn’t stop being angry long enough to recognize his sensitive choice of words and the new tone of his voice. “Stop trying to discredit the seagulls, and me. Leave it alone. You’re not going to get me to change my mind. End item. Pay up and let me take care of Charlie. Please.”
Despite his good intentions, he felt his temper coming on. His finger was twitching as if it wanted to shake itself at Sheila, scold her, and tell her to come back home and be Sheila—the woman he loved despite everything. Right now. He felt his hands wanting to hook his finger inside the velvet choker that made her look like she was trying to be sixteen and pull her out the door and across the parking lot and kidnap her in his Chevy Dualie. Wrap her in burlap. Keep her quiet for a few days until things returned to normal.
“Rush me right along, Ms. Sheila. Unwilling to hear anything except the sound of your own voice.”
“Why is it always the fat lip, Max?” Sheila said, the hot pink of her dress seeming to fade.
Max felt tired. He glanced down at his belly that must have grown while he was standing here. It was sagging. It was tired, too. Too many meals. Too much gravity. How could he have a belly after all the hay bales he tossed into the back of his truck? How could both he and Sheila be getting old? How could they be at such a stupid standoff? He swallowed. He cleared his throat.
“In spite of what you call my fat lip, I’m proud of you, Sheila,” he said with no trace of his usual sarcasm. “Taking classes and all.” Sheila’s eyes didn’t pop out of her head like in the comics, but almost. “Did I hear what you just said?”
“Everybody needs to stand up for themselves. I’ve been thinking about it, believe it or not.” Max pulled the bills out of his wallet—a thick stack of twenties. “What do I owe you?”
Sheila’s whole body softened like ice cream left out of the refrigerator “What do you owe me?” She said the words slowly, wistfully, as they stood across from each other. She wasn’t laughing. Her tone had [p.101]changed to the softest edge Max had heard in a long time—it wasn’t even an edge anymore. Their eyes didn’t get to point zero right away, but then, they met.
Sheila’s deep brown eyes made Max consider miracles-the way she was looking at him now, the first he’d seen anything like that for a good long time. It reminded him of the way she’d looked at him when she thought he was the best, even the greatest. He wanted to feel the soft press of her body, himself melting inside her. That was a miracle, if he could call anything a miracle.
“When are you comin’ home, Sheila?” he almost said, the thought crowding his brain. Instead he looked at the red numbers on the electronic cash register and put two twenties on the counter instead of into Sheila’s hand. Maybe next time. Next time for sure.
“Let me get your change,” Sheila said, her eyes lowered to protect what was happening in them.
“I’d be obliged,” Max lifted his hat from his forehead to air the sweatband.
“Good luck with the crickets, Max. I mean it.”
“Thanks.” He slowly rolled the cart toward the door, wishing he weren’t walking out the door, wishing he had a reason to buy something else. “Hey, Charlie,” he called back to the counter. “Get those bugs.”
“Will do, Max. You, too.”
“Don’t lose faith in the seagulls, Max,” Sheila called after him. “Miracles do happen.”
He lifted the back wheels of his shopping cart over the store’s aluminum weatherstripping and clattered across the parking lot to his Chevy, all the time groping for his keys, all the time wondering.
To: Gerald Blake, Davis County Environmental Health Department
From: Colonel Geoffrey Stevenson, Hill Air Force Base
We’ve got to solve the seagull problem NOW. Another F-16 was damaged last Monday on the runway, due to the seagulls at the Davis County Landfill. We can’t keep endangering our jets to the tune of $30 million a piece.
[p.102]Hank Steeves, lieutenant colonel, flipped the thumb switch on his throttle to slow his F-16. Below him, the Great Salt Lake sprawled in the late summer afternoon while the sun’s reflection on the water flashed Morse code. Dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot.
He cupped a hand over the receiver and shouted over the chatter inside his helmet: “I’m back, Utah.” But no one said, “Welcome home, Steeves.” Only the chatter in his headset-”Check in at 5. Helicopter hovering around flight line. Can give you clearance for runway 29”—the never-ending buzz near civilian territory. Because he was checking the com dials, he didn’t see the signal from the sun on the water.
He wished there weren’t so many voices vying for his attention. So many planes needing directions to traverse the sky. So many air traffic controllers. Sometimes the noise was too much for him. There was no space for any thought at all up in the big blue.
“Bingo fuel,” the seductive recording of a computerized female spoke to him. “Bingo fuel.” But he knew he had enough to make it back to Hill. He’d been farther out before when he’d heard the automatic warning.
“Crosswind on Runway 15.” Steeves knew how to sort out the information meant for him. Runway 15 belonged to Salt Lake International, not the base. “Hold in present pattern.”
Here he was, sitting at the tip of a long $30 million pencil, high out in the open, but still enclosed in a bubble. Even with the fancy high tech surrounding him, more information about G-forces than he could ever use, he was still a small human being with two legs and two arms, a torso, and a head. And even though these machines were smarter than any man could ever be, none of this equipment could come close to being a bird. Wasn’t it more impressive, when all was said and done, to fly quietly on two wings and a breast full of feathers, every feather designed for the express purpose of flight, no hard metal, no deafening roar of engines?
He looked to the side to see if just maybe the wings of his F-16 were flapping, performing some new exotic high-tech feat he hadn’t known about. Then, laughing at himself, he tilted his head back to see the wide expansive sky, so huge up here.
“Salt Lake International. Check in at 7 … “The jumble of frequen-[p.103]cies crowded back into his awareness as he flew over the mosaic of the Oquirrhs, the Uintahs, the snow, desert, water, Antelope Island, sage, and salt-stung sand. Flatness. Spareness. Aloofness. A land needing no one, wanting no one, asking nothing. “Transfer to Hill controller.” He recognized his orders from Salt Lake International, handing him over to the base. He banked slightly, and, for just a brief second, the chaos in his headset stopped and everything seemed quieter than the inside of a crystal. Steeves was out of time, above a voiceless world. He was floating. He felt the wind whispering his name. “Come to me.”
Then he saw the seagulls. The seagulls he’d heard about as a boy. Every July 24th, Pioneer Day, some Sunday school teacher pulled out the story of the seagulls who saved the pioneers. He never had figured out why there were seagulls in this desert, so far inland, but here they were. Seagulls in airspace, disinterested in what a traffic controller might have to say.
They were white and whiter, the whitest, maybe because of the reflection of the sun on the lake. And they had wings of their own, unlike Steeves, unlike the jet that had mock, stiff wings copied from birds.
Steeves could see two gulls catching a current, dipping, rising, falling with the wind. If only he had a button he could push, one that would cut the engines and let the plane catch a current, let him float over the lake in silence with the birds. But all of a sudden they were flying too close to his plane, pulled in like magnets.
He heard a sickening noise, something that wasn’t coming out of his headset. It wasn’t the sound of gulls crying into the wind, making sea sounds over this dead inland sea. It was the sound of what was happening to the birds. Red lights flashed. He heard the coughing and smothering and whining of his engines. He felt the nose of his plane dip awkwardly toward the Great Salt Lake, toward the water, toward the bottom of the lake where it would be buried in brine.
Please no. Not this. Oh shit, no. No.
Engines. Re-start. He pushed the emergency starter. Nothing happened. No response from the engines. “Bird strike! Bird strike!” he barked into his headset.
Plane going down. Punch out. I can’t punch out. My plane. Oh God in Heaven, why me?
[p.104]Punch out, Steeves. Now.
I can’t leave this baby. No pilot worth his salt leaves Uncle Sam’s money at the bottom of a lake. Me, standing in front of the squadron wearing cement shoes. They’ll bury me with the plane. A bird, I’ll say. A little bird and so much science. Not me. No.
But I’ve got water below. No civilians to worry about. Time to do it. I can’t.
There’s no choice.
Visor down. Head back or I smash my backbone. Oh, Mother Mary and Jesus, here I come.
What if I don’t make it? What if I buy the farm from The Old Man in the Sky?
Elbows in. Tight to the sides.
He’s pulling on the ejection handle between his knees, the yellow rubber loop designed to keep his elbows by his sides. The seat blows. The spike at the top of the chair splits the bubble wide open, and he’s blasting through dense matter into no matter at all. The shattered remains of the canopy blast into the air and catch sunlight and whirl like scattershot in a cyclone and surge up before they float down. He’s sailing out of the top of the F-16 as it drops its nose farther and draws a long line beneath him, leaving him. The gyro rocket in the seat is turning him upright, the drogue chute slowing him down. As his own parachute opens and the seat drops away, he’s flying. He holds out his arms and flaps them in the quiet of high sky. His arms have no feathers to spread. His legs are a useless tail. But he knows what it is to be part of the wind, to feel the fierce chill on his face, to drop with grace from the sky. For a brief moment, his wish is granted, and he knows the province of birds.
TV NEWS REPORT:
The seagulls are gone from the Davis County Landfill after a month-long battle. The protected birds that saved the Mormon pioneers in 1848 were driven from the area this morning when marksmen gunned down six of their flock. County officials said they acted on the advice of the Air Force’s Bird Air Strike Hazard team—known as BASH—which suggested the birds would leave the area if they saw others in their flock fall. After last week’s F-16 crash, caused by a seagull, efforts have been stepped up to remove the birds. Officials [p.105]have tried firecrackers, recordings of birds in distress, and Zond guns firing at timed intervals to frighten the birds. As many as 25,000 gulls have made the landfill their home, jeopardizing training missions at nearby Hill Air Force Base. By sunset today, only a few stragglers remained.