Life As An Albatross
written by: Karen Bayly
8 months ago
It is not only melancholia consuming Emeritus Professor Catherine St. Clair, but she refuses to allow others to see her sorrow or her pain. Instead, she stands behind the lectern, organising her notes and checking the slides on her laptop. She pays scant attention to the rabble of final year zoology students wandering into the auditorium, giggling and chatting as though this were a social gathering rather than their concluding lecture.
She waits until the clock displays 10:00 am precisely, then places a hand on either side of the lectern, sets her shoulders squarely and eyes the sea of faces before her.
“Good morning, students. Settle yourselves please.”
Silence falls quickly, not because the student body fears her (although she is formidable) but because they hold her in high regard for her intelligence, her academic achievements, her unfailing belief in the scientific method and her wicked sense of humour. No-one ever questioned Catherine St. Clair’s ability to be a leader in her field, not even the male peers who both despised and desired her. Now she is old, few of them think of her as a woman.
She waits until she is certain she has the attention of every student.
“In this last lecture on sexual selection, we will discuss mating systems and the relationship of these to parental care. There are five types of social mating systems: monogamy—the general concept of which I am sure you are familiar; polygyny—where one male mates with several females and leaves them to raise the offspring, a system with which I’m sure some of you would like to become more familiar; and polyandry—where one female mates with several males and leaves them to raise the offspring, also known as Utopia.”
A smattering of appreciative laughter ripples through the auditorium. Catherine St Clair lets the noise die down before she continues.
“There is also polygynandry where several males and females mate with each other. An open relationship if you like. If you believe the staff room gossip, this system thrives in the Psychology Department.”
More laughter. She still knows how to work a lecture theatre.
“Finally, there is promiscuity where males and females mate with anything that moves. I know this is familiar to many of you. But let us begin with monogamy.”
She presses a button on the lectern and an image flickers onto the screen behind her.
“One of the few examples of lifelong monogamy is the Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans. Diomedea from Diomedes, a shipwrecked Greek sailor whose companions were turned to birds. Exulans meaning an exile.”
She turns to stare at the image behind her.
“Strange that such a faithful bird should have so lonely a name.”
A faint shuffling from the rear row snaps her attention back to the students.
“One must assume though that the scientific nomenclature refers more to the species’ epic flights of solitude over nothing but ocean, journeys which take them far away from their mates and chicks. With a wingspan of three metres or more and enviable aerodynamics, Wandering Albatrosses have evolved to rule the sky, flying thousands of kilometres on a single foraging trip, then returning to deposit an oily concoction of squid and fish into the ravening maw of their offspring.
“Pair bonds between adults last up to twenty-eight years. However, given each bird spends most of its life in flight, landing only to breed and feed, one can only wonder if such relationship longevity is a case of absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Another smattering of laughter. Catherine pauses, overtaken by the realisation that this is her last chance to impart her considerable knowledge, to make them understand the connection between the theory they were learning and the reality they would experience. She has no offspring of her own. Only these students, motley though they may be.
“I am, at times, too flippant. Many of you assume the lessons I teach you do not apply outside this lecture theatre. Your assumption is incorrect. I’ve taught you more about the truth of life than you realise.”
Although far from her best lecture, it would be her most fondly remembered.
21 years ago
Air buoyant under her wings, a young female Wandering Albatross commands the immense blueness of her world. She is called Layla, but that is not her real name, which has no sound. A strange wingless creature gave it to her, one who wrapped her leg in some hard substance before she’d even left the nest. She hadn’t been able to remove this object, however much she tried, but it no longer was of any concern. She has lived with the band her whole life. It is part of her now.
Sea beneath her, sky above, the winds and air currents her allies, she searches for the speck of land where she’ll reunite with her mate. He is called Kees by the wingless one and this will be their eighth year as a pair.
At last, she sees her destination, a haven of solid earth in the vast, restless ocean. She’d deserted this place nineteen years ago on her maiden journey, but five years later the land had sung to her over wind and waves, and beckoned her back home. Since then, she has returned every two years.
She reduces her altitude until she can see the pebble beach, the stream shimmering in the gully, the remains of a hat-shaped nest hidden amongst the tough wind-swept grasses.
He has arrived! Though her spirit soars, a splinter of fear pierces her heart. This will be their fourth attempt at breeding. They have been unsuccessful so far. Their first chick died, having made only a meagre crack in its eggshell. The next egg showed no signs of quickening. The third hatched, malformed and sickly, and perished the following day.
If this year’s undertaking fails… She cannot consider what that may mean. Best to focus on reuniting with Kees. Their bond is strong and their courtship dance always strengthens it further. This time will be a success.
6 months ago
Catherine St. Clair stands and stretches, her back twanging with pain. She is past her time doing fieldwork in cold and remote locations. Such nonsense is the province of those determined to make their proverbial mark in the world of academia — the young, hungry graduate or the ambitious fledgling researcher. She was both in the past. Now she would prefer to be in her office, reading or editing papers written by one of her many junior researchers.
Someone calls out to her. She twists her head, squints against the light, and recognises a volunteer, a student from Catherine’s infamous last zoology lecture. Jaime or Mamie, she never could remember names. She waves briefly and turns back to her notes, not wishing to recall that strange disquisition. She’d given away more about herself that day than she’d wished. And her last words still haunted her. “Never stop learning. Know enough so you don’t fuck up.” For heaven’s sake, she was an educated woman. F-bombs were beneath her. Perhaps the sudden lapse was to be expected under the circumstances. Perhaps.
A Wandering Albatross coming in for a landing draws her eyes skywards. She wonders if it is Layla. She’s been tracking this bird for years. Although discomfiting to admit, she feels closer to Layla and the other albatrosses on this island than to any of her friends, lovers, or colleagues. People came and went. These birds and her passion for them remained.
She’s researched here for most of her academic life, banded, weighed and measured many albatrosses, observed the pattern of their lives. Nowadays, human activity interrupted that design. She wondered how much longer this species could withstand the relentless rape and human-induced change of their world before people drove them to extinction. Still, she can’t help anymore. More the pity.
She watches as the albatross lands gracelessly and prays it is Layla. She needs to see her one last time.
21 years ago
Subantarctic winds spread icy fingers over the grass-tufted hills. Everywhere young albatrosses find their wings, leaving the familiarity of the nest in favour for a new partnership with sea and sky.
The breeding season is almost over. Layla regards the sole egg in her nest sombrely. No signs of life reside within. She taps the shell with her beak, rocks it from side to side. Nothing. A white tombed testament to another failed attempt.
She looks up to see Kees sailing in from the ocean where he’s been feeding. She takes the first position of their courtship ritual as he banks in preparation for landing. He brakes sharply, hits the ground, then slides a few feet before recovering his balance, raising his breast and spreading his enormous wings, ready to woo her. His landings were less awkward than most of his peers. It was one thing that drew Layla to him. At the sight of him, the tug of their bond overwhelms her, and they dance as they have done so many times in their life together.
Yet something is amiss. Their movements are uncoordinated, mechanical, lacking in intensity. It is as if the heart of the dance has stopped beating, leaving a lifeless, passionless parody. Layla stumbles and her beak clacks against his beak. Such a clumsy move, though unintentional. They cease bobbing and bowing, and stand motionless facing each other. For one moment, one brief, sorrowful breath, they are in sync again, at one in the cruel knowledge that their bond is no more.
Their dance begins again, but this time as one of departure. They are running in unison, wings flapping. Then both birds are soaring upwards, made light by the grace of air. Wheeling away in opposite directions, they will never be together again.
6 months ago
Catherine first met Layla as a gawky youngster. As she’d banded the fluffy white chick, its expression in those dark eyes had entranced her. Most of her colleagues regarded albatrosses as lacking in intelligence. Yet that’s what Catherine saw. A deep, knowing intelligence.
The young female’s official title was band number 4002255 Yellow B15, but Catherine named her Layla after the 70s song. She didn’t tell people that, though. She usually said she’d named the bird for the tragic lover in the Persian legend. The truth was that she loved the song, mainly because a discarded lover dedicated it to her on a radio show. She’d been a wild one in her youth, hungry for life, free with her affections and occasionally downright promiscuous. Not that she hadn’t wanted a steady partner. She had, but relationships and fieldwork were poor bedfellows. For Catherine, success, recognition, and scientific contribution mattered far, far more.
When albatross chicks fledge and fly away, they don’t return to land for many years. So she missed those first years of Layla’s life. However, she’d been privileged to observe the old girl for almost thirty-five years now. Layla hadn’t been lucky in love either in the beginning, and her first pair bond ended in a rare divorce, no doubt caused by the continued failures of their nests.
These failures irked Catherine. One summer, she’d helped in a research lab, opening the eggs of dead, unhatched chickens to extract the livers for DNA sampling. She could tell by their size and development many were close to hatching. As she’d carefully, almost reverently, cut into each fragile body, she could find no obvious deformities, nothing wrong at all. Yet, each one had died. There’d been no attempt to pip its egg and fight its way into the world. It’d saddened her to hold the lifeless bodies in her hands, every limb perfect, every feather perfect, baby eyes closed in a sleep from which they would never awaken. Why death instead of birth?
Some mysteries she would never unravel.
18 years ago
The warm sunshine on Layla’s back is welcome, chasing away the chill wind and filling the world with light and hope. She snuggles closer to her new bond mate and gently grooms the feathers around his throat. He responds, preening her head, moving his beak with delicate precision to fluff, then smooth, each tiny feather.
Life is good. After three years, she’d found a new partner. The wingless ones had named him Lars, and his previous partner died two years ago. This is their first breeding season together, and they’ve hatched a healthy male chick.
Lars has only just returned from a long ocean sojourn and has brought plenty to feed the hungry young fledgling. Layla will leave soon on a journey that will separate her from her young one for many days. But she must travel to find the best food for her chick, to ensure he has the best beginning in life, as her parents did for her and their parents before them. This is the way of the albatross.
She turns her head and nuzzles Lars’s head, returning the favour. He presses up against her, savouring the sweet warmth of her body, their chick sleeping, warm and secure, between them.
Life is all it can be.
6 months ago
Catherine observes the pair perform their courtship dance, enjoying every moment. She shouldn’t anthropomorphise, but sometimes she finds it difficult not to do. The couple seem so devoted, happy even, in the brief moments they are together.
In fact, Catherine is a little jealous. Her own pair bond experiment had not been so successful. After many years of playing the field while building her career, she’d decided she was ready for a partner and a child. So, she wed a colleague and tried to conceive. She was a realist—she knew her age would make the task more difficult—but after five years of failed attempts, medical intervention was a necessity.
However, her husband proved oddly resistant to travelling the IVF route, and their arguments about what they should do grew increasingly frequent and passionate. Finally, he confessed he’d found someone else, someone younger, someone who already had proved to be more fertile than Catherine. He wanted a divorce.
They’d parted amicably enough, given the circumstances. She’d wished him well and hoped he could keep up with a young wife and child. He’d remarked what a pity she knew so much about mating and fertility as her knowledge could only make her despondent about her future prospects. If he’d thought he’d plunged a knife in her back, he was mistaken. Knowledge is never a bad thing, even when hurtful.
She had many random affairs with men half her age, hoping the better quality sperm of younger men would increase her chances of conception. Her plan seemed to work. At first, she assumed the cessation of her menses was early menopause, but the increasing curve of her belly, the bloating, mild cramping, slight backache and frequent urination caused her to rethink her assumption.
Yet Fate was playing games with her. There was no child in her belly, only a malignant ovarian tumour, which doctors placated into remission via an aggressive treatment regime. The death knell to any possibility of bearing a child. Although grief tore a hole in her, at least she’d gained a few more years to continue her research.
Borrowed time runs out too quickly.
4 months ago
Layla is restless. Lars has not yet returned. In their years together, he’s been an excellent mate, devoted, gentle, steady provider of food for their chicks. Unlike him, to be so long at sea.
True, foraging has been difficult this year. The albatrosses on this island had travelled further, searching for nourishment for themselves and their chicks. Layla hopes Lars has avoided the moving metal islands with wingless creatures in the north-east. She’s seen other birds dive into the waters near these and never surface again. She almost dived there herself once. The bounty of fish in the water around these odd monstrosities was incredible. Yet something stopped her, some voice whispered of danger, and she’d flown on to other safer fishing grounds.
In the deep blue of the Southern Ocean, Lars’s waterlogged form swings with the current, devoid of his courage, his devotion, his strength, of everything that he was. He had dived for a fish and was hooked on a longline. Ignoring the pain of the barbed, two-inch steel hook ripping at his gullet, he’d struggled to break free, wings beating valiantly in the unfriendly medium of water. All to no avail. Slowly, inevitably, he succumbed as saltwater filled the spaces in his body, drowning him in its cold, briny grasp. His last thought was of Layla, dancing before him, beside him, within his soul, in the warmth of their bond. Layla.
A bitter wind sweeps over the nesting grounds. Layla has all but given up hope. A deep, wordless knowing torments her. Lars will never return. Despite the difficulty, she must try to raise her new male chick alone.
She misses her partner already, mourns him. Many days pass before she stops searching the skies for his familiar form. By then, her attempts to feed her chick sufficiently have failed.
Time to leave.
4 months ago
Catherine’s gaze follows as Layla takes to the sky, leaving the tragedy of the breeding season behind her. The old girl seemed tired and disheartened. Catherine understood exactly how she felt.
The pain was growing worse now, and she could barely breathe at times. She shouldn’t have come this year. But she wished to say goodbye—to the island, to her past, to Layla. Her cancer had returned and although chemotherapy awaited on her return, in her heart she knew her life was at its end.
She squinted at the distant shape of the female albatross, her heart aching with loss.
Farewell, Layla. Safe journey wherever you travel.
Air under her floundering wings, an old female Wandering Albatross commands the immense blueness of her world no more. She is falling, falling from the sky above, the winds and air currents no longer her allies, falling to the icy embrace of the sea below. Her heart has failed, for she is weary and has lived a long time.
This is her last flight, one which will take her from the brightness of living into the dark night of eternal sleep. They called her Layla, but that was never her real name, which has no sound. Now she is only that name.
She hits the water and floats, a stricken angel, mighty wings forming a crucifix on the deep blue ocean. She thinks she can still sense the wind under her wings and struggles to catch the current and soar. Breathing is difficult, but she gasps one last fill of air. For a moment, it seems as if her efforts are in vain, and she will sink beneath the waves.
But no, for now a light shines before her, a beautiful, blinding light, gentler than sunshine but stronger, so much stronger. Her heart beats effortlessly, and she flies on a current more powerful than any she has ever experienced.
She looks down one last time at the body of a large female albatross floating aimlessly on the ocean’s surface. She recognises the lifeless corpse as the vessel she once inhabited, yet she is at peace. This existence is over, its joys, its sorrows, all over. Her life was well-lived; now she has finished with it. She is going home.
The body sinks slowly into the sea. She looks to the light, and flies effortlessly into its welcoming glow.
Catherine St. Clair lies in a hospital bed in a private room. Nobody sits by her side, yet she doesn’t care. She is dying. She could ring for the night nurse. However, this one is new. She would rather die alone than in the company of a stranger.
The pain is bearable now. With the amount of drugs coursing through her, she hoped she’d be pain free. She is tired of the struggle and wishes it would end. But what she wants most is to be back on the island, waiting for Layla to return.
As if to answer her wish, a vision of the bird she loved appears. Now that she is on her deathbed, she can admit to such unscientific notions as loving an albatross. It is a young Layla full of hope and promise, her calm, dark eyes urging Catherine to follow her wherever their journey may go.
It’s only the drugs, she thinks. Still, perhaps this is a sign that this is her time to leave. Nothing of her life remains, only this corporeal husk, her memories, her work.
She breathes out and counts slowly. One, two, three…
The monitor sings a long single note as the shadow of a huge wing passes over Catherine’s lifeless body.
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- Life As An Albatross - August 22, 2021