As the sun burns away the morning fog, scarred remnants of rusted keels, bleached whale ribcages, and human skulls come into focus. For centuries merciless Atlantic currents have smashed sails, masts, gunwales, and rudders against treacherous shoreline rocks. Shipwrecked European explorers, seduced by the lure of diamond fortunes, who survived the torture of thirst and hunger named the region “The Gates of Hell.” Even the San, who’ve have lived here for over 50,000 years, call this coastline the “Land God Made in Anger.”
Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is a tough place for humans to survive.
Our seagull clan—the Franklins—have lived here for as long as our ancestors can remember. We love it here as do whales, sharks, and dolphins. The salt air is invigorating, the sea clean and clear, and we never have to fight albatrosses, storks, pelicans, and terns over food or territory. In these icy waters, there is abundance of hermit crabs, anchovies, pilchards, hake, and mackerel. After cleaning their catch, frigates plop fish innards and heads overboard. We hover behind them whooping, sweeping, and diving. An easy meal. That’s why our bodies are plump, our bird songs lyrical, our feathers shiny, and importantly, why our population keeps growing and growing. We don’t even have to migrate in winter, so very few young chicks die. This is a perfect place for home. The place where I soon hope to find my mate, build a nest, lay three eggs—pale apple green with black speckles—and feed and kiss my very own chicks.
Twenty-foot high waves smash against the white sand. When the backwash sucks shells and seaweed back under, streaks of white foam linger. Little bubbles blotch the fine grains of someone’s home, and I poke my beak into a hole hoping to find a soft-shell crab. Snatching my wriggling antipasto, I lift my beak and gulp. The tidbit slides down my throat.
Just as I’m about to dig for another snack a shadow falls beside me. Wings flutter, and my first impulse is to squawk, heckle, and poke at the intruder. But to my surprise I find myself looking into Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s golden eyes. The Jonathan—who gave us the freedom to fly high and swoop low when the rest of us gulls stuck to the rules, who loved flying even more than eating, who wanted us to value freedom.
Jumping from left to right, leaving web-prints in the soft sand, I swallow, and my heart flutters. If only I’d painted my claws that flirtatious shrimp pink like my aunts from the Sabines’ gull clan, but Jonathan doesn’t seem to care. He tilts his head to one side, wiggles his tail, and waddles closer until I can feel his breath on my cheek. On their own accord, my yellow webbed feet begin to polka. I step to the left and bring in my right foot, then spin around and flap my wings while Jonathan stretches his neck forward, dances around me, and begins his serenade. He lifts his beak up to the sky and sings our seagull mating song. His baritone voice lyrical, sometimes rising to a tenor—cawing, cackling, hooting, and whistling.
This is the moment I’ve been waiting forever since I first saw Jonathan. I fell in love with his fearlessness—the way he challenges the status quo even though he makes the elders angry and upsets his parents. I, too, want to fly where no seagull has flown before, but, an armchair aviator, I don’t have the courage and am too submissive.
“Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock, Jon?” His mother often asks. “Why can’t you leave low flying to the pelicans, the albatrosses?”
Jonathan can’t even begin to explain why he is addicted to aerobatics—to speed, to power dive, to inverted spins, and to gull bunt; why he can’t resist flying above the spindly cirrus clouds, lunging vertically and horizontally again, and again, and again. But when he swoops, stalls, and drops down against his family’s wishes, I always perch behind a rock waiting for his unique cawing and shrieking as he skids when he crash-lands. While the rest of the clan else has nothing to do with the rebel, I clap my wings hoping he’ll see me. But not once had he ever looked at me, not once had he come near me. Now he’s flirting with me. Me. Of all the gull-girls, he wants to be with me.
“I’ve been watching you watching me,” Jonathan squawks. “Your special wiggle, the shape of your legs, and that special way your wings nestle on your back.”
Jonathan’s white feathers gleam—the edges are tinged with gray. He opens his beak and drops a large pinkish two-carat diamond ring at my feet. The sun’s golden rays shine through the prism, creating a rainbow on the white sand.
“Darling Jasline, will you marry me?”
I rub my yellow beak against his. A tear slips down my cheek as he slips the ring on my left claw. It’s hard to believe I’m going to be Mrs. Livingston Seagull. I nod and hoot and whoop as if I were the siren announcing the end of a shift at the fish-canning factory.
“I found it at the entrance to an abandoned mine shaft—the latest windstorm must have whipped off the dust,” Jonathan gargles, “It’s a perfect fit.”
“And a wedding party?”
We must be joined together as man and wife in these early days of spring to ensure our chicks survive.
“Soon . . . how about tomorrow? The forecast is for sunshine in the afternoon.”
He shimmies closer. He rubs his chest against mine and leans forward until his beak shifts into mine. At first, the kiss is small, and then it grows bigger. Old Spice deodorant flows over me, and I take a deep breath. I don’t need to fly—I have already arrived in heaven. Our beaks pull apart as Jonathan jumps onto my back and staggers to find his balance—his webbed feet soothing and tender against my spine. We rock and wobble, caw and squawk. His sperm leaves his cloaca and shoots into mine. Soon I’ll lay my eggs in our new home in a rock crevice, where we’ll take turns nesting our three speckled eggs and caring for our chicks. Like their father, and unlike any other gulls, our baby birds will have his tenacity and courage. They’ll learn to fly where no seagull has flown before; he’ll teach them what there is to know about life.
On our wedding day, I paint my toenails crimson, using dye from the sumac bush. They look stunning in contrast to my sunshine yellow claws. My sister checks me all over to make sure no parasites nestle under my wings. She ties a jade ribbon she found near the quay around my neck in a floppy bow, places a mother of pearl shell on my head, and hangs a piece of fish netting over my face. This veil in seagull tradition drapes over my breast.
Walvis Bay’s town hall clock strikes four, and our elder is ready to perform the service on a sapphire Buick’s warm roof. The diamond solitaire, binding our engagement, glints on the metal surface. Soon, during the formal marriage ceremony, Jonathan will place it on my third claw. My wings stretch wide as I show off the black stripes at the ends. Hundreds of seagull cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors flutter around me. My friends the pelicans and black cormorants also turn up to witness this grand event, but I didn’t invite the albatrosses. They’d only bring us bad luck.
All around me wings flap, friends screech, and aunties twitter. We’re all waiting for Jonathan to fly in and the ceremony to begin. The feast—yellow tail sashimi, shucked oysters, popcorn, and the opened bottle of Veuve Clicquot I found in the dumpster are arranged in neat clusters on the vehicle’s bonnet.
The blue skies are clear this afternoon, perfect weather for our wedding, but there is no sign of that white streamlined dive that brought Jonathan fame; no sign of a wispy cirrus cloud, a strong wind, or storm that might have delayed him. A nagging doubt reminds me that Jonathan could be irresponsible, but initially, I dismiss it. The ring, the mating songs, the dancing, the kissing, the cuddling—surely, I hadn’t misjudged his intentions. Everyone knows that once we mate we always marry, and we uphold our vows—forever. We seagulls never divorce.
The squawking crescendos, wing tips jostle, jounce, and blur. Jonathan’s mother pokes me in the neck, streaking my feathers with blood.
“He’s changed his mind, just like I told you,” she says. “He’s not coming.”
She’s right, and I’m wrong. Jonathan is not swooping down to me. All I can see is the sun dipping toward the horizon and the beginning of darkness spreading all over me. I flap. I cry. My feet burn, and my tears sizzle on the hot car roof. My eyes sting, my feathers sag, and a savage storming booms in my ears. My sister snuggles closer and wraps one wing over my back.
“Here, take the ring,” I say. “I don’t want it anymore. You decide what to do with it.”
She picks it up with her beak and drops it next to our cousins, who flutter and squawk as they fight over it.
When my guests fly away to roost in African wattle trees for the night, I squat down in a filthy puddle near a warehouse, where mackerel guts swoosh down the gutter into the sea. My appetite is gone, and these delicacies don’t tempt me. All I can smell is rotting fish.
I should’ve invited the albatrosses to the wedding—it wouldn’t have made any difference. I’ve fallen to the bottom of the pecking order.