What diplomacy today
can bring to the rescue mice fit to chew through
plastic nooses carelessly left to wind around
the bleeding necks and throats of sea elephants?
You don’t hear that fable, now, do you? – Don Perkins
Banaabekwe, at her loom of seagrass
slowly, in dappled morning sun, weaves
stories for her little ones, to wear as necklace
until they are strong enough
to swim all the way out to sea.
There, the young manatees lay
their grass mantles upon a tide roller
a brave declaration of status attained
and pledge of love to salt water.
It is the gulls who act as midwives
to this epic surfing task; they cry
urging on the young ones, and send
their own youth to the challenge –
– Who can snatch a grass garland
from the crest of a wave, before
it breaks? Who dares leave it longest
even as the roller curls, who
can judge the last possible moment
to strike water, like light itself
and rise, beak or feet burdened
with glorious, dripping victory wreath?
It happened in the Everglades
where humans, caught in pursuit
of an illusory immortal youth
would challenge each other:
Who can down a sixpack
and still steer this boat?
And let’s drop a net out for breakfast.
The outboard’s roar
awoke her scars, and Banaabekwe
fled, blindly, trusting shallows
to lead her to another cradle loom
until they passed. Too many nights
this ill-smelling ritual
had fouled her home, pushed her aside.
Her season’s work, woven adornments
fell, fouled and shredded, in their wake;
now, what would the season’s youth
wear for their challenge journey?
dim-eyed by nature, and vexed by grief
more blind, picked up what lay to hand,
and in her swiftest manner, fashioned
new necklace garlands for her clan.
Or so she planned; but these entangling
strands among which she’d begun
her work wound tight, did not yield
her teeth were no avail, and rolling
only tightened the travail.
Choking, confused, and desperate now
Banaabekwe lay in the stream, and washed
down toward tidewater. The youth, all
distraught lumbered hard in her wake
their bare necks an evil echo of their elder’s
torn and burdened self.
They gave no thought to the test; they were
merely trying to catch her body slipping
away beyond redemption; her arms tangling
in the stuff dangling dimly around her, a shroud.
At the shore, the gulls waited, the gulls always wait.
When they saw the calves coming, pursuing
some great, struggling form, they came closer.
Please help, gasped the young ones, our Teacher
she’s dying, and though we are trying, we cannot
catch hold of this web that has come alive, this evil
sea-grass, not sea-grass at all.
And the gulls, with a great cry, swept down to breakwater
where Banaabekwe gasped, as the calves took in turn
the life-saving labour of lifting her up to the surface
to breathe. No one curved a back boldly, no one
cocked a limb, they just held up their teacher, all grim.
Now the gulls fell to cutting, unravelling, unrolling
both swiftly and gently, with fierce gleaming eyes.
Roll her so, roll her here, hold her still, came the cries.
Til at last, as the sun was near skin-scalding high
Banaabekwe floated unbound; then they rounded
upon her, the calves, their exhaustion forgotten
and buoyed her between them back up from the sea.
These same gulls, who for long generations
had woven their nests from the manatees’ wreaths
now flew, like a cloud, holding shadow above them
and called out from their height, where to swim
where to turn, the long road to a grass bed
a place for Banaabekwe’s body to rest.
There she lay, barely breathing, surrounded
by love, and the bonds she had woven
her long faithful life; and the young ones
who saved her, stayed with her, soft singing
in green brackish comfort. She spoke:
You who have saved me, she sighed
you did forfeit your time and your chance
to dance, testing the waves. I have no gift
I may offer, no sacred grass garlands, no
song, I’m not strong enough to sing anymore.
And then, from above, came a shadow
and music, the rough, shanty songs of the gulls
and they sang to the manatees, songs of thanksgiving
for all of the nests, all the tests, all the fun. Today
they sang, you are all mighty among us, today you
are grown, and how well you are grown!
And all hail the brave manatees, cried
the birds dropping down strands of sea
grass, shiny shells, and their own
softest feathers of down as a crown for the crone.
So it was. But the manatees, soft in their haven
knew not this last action, this seagull devise:
come the evening of outboards, the gulls gathered
lifting the shroud, further fouled by their outrage
and flew, in a grim-shouldered squadron, but silent
for once, up the river ahead. The net was heavy
the journey hard, but when the ones whose song
shatters the peace with their greedy cacophony came
The gulls were waiting. The gulls always wait.
Beautiful image of resting manatees is by user Mariamichelle on Pixabay.com.