Forked Logic

The Osprey

Cover Image for The Osprey

There were a few seagulls squawking on the porch outside my window. My mouth was dry and I could feel a throb in the back of my head from dehydration. The room's blinds fortunately blocked out all the light from outside. My sleep was such that, not yet having checked my phone or watch, it was impossible to tell whether it was still early or had already passed into mid-morning. I listened to the tide behind the seagull's cries and decided it didn't really matter.

Dauphin Island is a small, narrow island located in the Mobile Bay on Alabama's Gulf Coast. Spanish explorer Alonzo Pineda was technically the first European to discover it, but he was quick to move on. The French eventually settled it, first naming it Isle du Massacre after mistaking the mass grave mounds of the natives for some kind of vicious tribal massacre, and later changing the name to Dauphin in honor of a son of Louis XIV. The island served an integral role in trade, as the shallow depth of the Mobile Bay meant smaller boats had to carry cargo out to Dauphin Island where larger ships could pick them up. It was also an important strategic position, and Fort Gaines, built in the early 1800's, is still a fixture on the island.

The Wikipedia page, which I read as I waited for my gas to pump on the drive down from Huntsville, also talked about Dauphin Island's unique wildlife situation. It turns out that the island is the first land encountered by a large variety of birds as they migrate North in the spring, and as such is used as a sort of rest stop. The island's use in trade having diminished with the dredging of a channel in the bay, the exotic birds and quiet beaches eventually led to a split focus on research and tourism. The Eastern half of the island is home to wildlife preserves, an estuariam, and Fort Gaines; the Western half is populated with mostly beach houses and a couple of high-rise condominiums.

It's an eerie place. At the widest point it's less than two miles across, and the majority is less than a mile. It feels like the ocean could swallow it with a big wave at any time, yet- maybe in service to the birds -it allows the island to keep its head just above sea level. Adding to the oddness is the fact that all along the ocean's horizon, separated by about two hand lengths (if said hands are raised in front of your face while standing on the beach with your feet in the wet sand where the waves reverse course and retreat) are massive oil and natural gas rigs. Goliaths of human ingenuity and audacity, the rigs stand like sentinels, watching over the island, a constant reminder of the world's increasing complexity and the staggering reach of humanity. Somehow, the rigs didn't seem unnatural. In fact, the first thing I thought of were giant mosquitoes, with their long sucking tubes drawing oil from the Earth. Whether it was a good idea for people to relate to the Earth like a mosquito relates to a person was a question that seemed important. What if the Earth related to us as we relate to mosquitoes, with poisons and slaps? What if it already did?

Opening my eyes and getting out of bed, I started to remember the dream I had just awoken from. I had been on the island, and it was just as it was when I had explored it the day before. This was unusual. Normally my dreams were set in imagined places that were amalgamations of other place I had been or seen. What was more odd was that I was conscious of this while I was dreaming. I could remember thinking how weird it was that this was the real Dauphin Island, a thought that seems to imply I already knew I was in a dream, although I never consciously made that realization. In the dream I had been on the Eastern half of the island, alone at dusk in one of the wildlife preserves. At the base of a tree just in front of me stood a massive brown and white osprey. It's bright yellow eyes stared back at me for a few seconds before it twisted its neck and turned to walk away from me. After a few steps it stopped and turned to look at me again. It made a little squawk and twisted its neck around again as if telling me to hurry up, and I started to follow.

Once it was sure I was following it took off and flew in front of me. Though no more than ten minutes had passed in the dream, the sky was now dark and filled with stars. The moon was full and the osprey was easy to follow. As the trees started to thin out, I realized the bird was leading me toward Fort Gaines.

When I broke the tree line, the osprey landed in front of me. The second its talons touched the ground they become bare human feet. Where the osprey had been there now stood a beautiful Native American woman. Her long black hair flowed over her shoulders, flitting this way and that as if there were a breeze, which there wasn't. Her eyes, now a rich shade of brown, stared at me with the same piercing quality as the Osprey's had. Just as I remembered my voice she raised a finger to her lips and gestured for me to follow her with the same twist of the neck the osprey had used earlier.

She led me along the southernmost wall of Fort Gaines, dragging her hand along the stones as she walked. About halfway along the wall she stopped and knelt down. On the ground beside the wall was a small wooden trapdoor. I was wondering how I hadn't seen the trapdoor earlier when she lifted it open and motioned for me to climb down, and seeing no other choice, I did. The ladder led to a long, unlit stone hallway. I looked back up just in time to get one more look at the woman's eyes before the trapdoor slammed shut and I awoke.

I could smell bacon from the hallway as I walked down the hall toward the kitchen. Expecting the smell to be nothing more than a memory, I was pleasantly surprised to find two pieces waiting for me beside the stove. There was a note sitting on the counter beside the bacon.

"Headed into Mobile to ride out the storm. Call us when you wake up and we'll tell you where to meet us. -M" M stood for Mike. We had been friends since undergrad, and he was the best man in Luke's wedding, which was the whole reason we were in Dauphin Island to begin with.

In the haze of my hangover I had forgotten about the storm. I turned on the TV to the weather and picked up my cellphone, which I had thought was in my pants pocket in my bedroom. There was a missed call from Jack (which had really been me calling myself from Jack's phone in an effort to locate mine the night before), a notification that the Braves had beaten the Giants 4-2 (Tim Hudson got the win with a 2-inning save coming from Huntsville native Craig Kimbrel), and a message from Mike's girlfriend Lindsey that said pretty much the same thing as the note but with more exclamation points.

"Tropical Storm Henrietta is expected to hit Dauphin Island in the next hour, and all residents are advised to take cover." The weatherman stood in front of a radar map of the island. The edges of the storm were just starting to approach the island, and I decided there was plenty of time for me to get across the bridge to the mainland.

I could see the storm rolling in by the time I had finished eating. Around the house the sky was still a light shade of grey, but out around the oilrigs it was nearly black. The wind slapped against the sides of the house and swirled around the stilts that held it up. It surprised me how fast the storm moved in. By the time I had showered and gotten dressed it had started raining and the dark grey clouds had crept within a few hundred yards of the house.

It took me longer to leave than I would have liked. My phone battery was nearly dead, and I opted to let it charge for a few minutes before leaving. The rain was already coming down in nearly horizontal sheets of big, heavy, drops by the time I started the car and pulled out of the driveway. My grandmother had been kind enough to let me use her car for the trip. I normally rode an old Honda motorcycle, and I was thankful not to have to be on it right then. The car was a 1992 Buick LeSabre. It was in great shape for its age. Grandma hadn't driven it in years, and the odometer clocked in at a youthful 52,302 miles. The problem was the roads. The violent weather patterns and gradually climbing ocean meant the island was in a permanent state of semi-flood. There were fifty-yard stretches of two-inch deep water on the roadway, and a heavy rain could block off whole portions of the island. Though it was in good mechanical condition, the LeSabre sported the same bald tires that had been on it the last time my grandmother had driven it. As I drove I paid close attention to the feel of the tires, waiting for the familiar release of a hydroplane and gently releasing the throttle when it came.

Leaving the beach area and entering the more heavily wooded center of the island, I started to question my decision to leave the house. The sky was dark and I couldn't see fifteen feet in front of me due to the rain. To my sides I could see the large trees that lined the road swaying violently in the wind, and this more than anything else made me anxious. I turned on the radio and found the weather announcements.

"-Recommend remaining inside your homes and away from any windows until the storm passes." I turned the radio off.

I was two hundred yards or so from the turn to the bridge, and the rain had slowed temporarily. As I stopped at the stop sign I noticed an osprey sitting on the sign to the seafood store just across the street. It seemed to be looking right at me, and I found myself looking back at it, wondering how the wind and rain didn't seem to bother it. I was easing off the brake when the bird twisted its neck back, just as the one in my dream had done. Against my better judgment, and looking back on it, in some odd way feeling like I had no choice, I followed the bird straight across the intersection and towards Fort Gaines.

I'm not normally a superstitious person. I think people naturally make connections because that's how our brains operate, constantly receiving diverse inputs and connecting them to form a coherent whole. One side effect of this mode of operation is a tendency to see connections that aren't there or emphasize connections more than they deserve. For some reason though, this osprey brought out a kind of primal superstition in me that I couldn't resist. The resemblance to the bird in my dream and the already odd nature of that dream mixed with the fact that the rain had taken a brief break to catch its breath had me feeling like some ancient Greek hero called upon by the gods and destined for the a most calamitous adventure. I recognized the absurdity of what I was doing, but I kept on driving, watching the osprey soar through the rain the whole way.

As we got closer to the fort the rain came down harder. Somehow I never lost sight of the bird. It was as if it flew outside the rain and had a light that shone from its breast. When it got to the fort, it turned and headed towards the south wall. I pulled the car to the side of the road and set out to follow it on foot. The rain and wind stung my eyes and I struggled to shield myself as I walked. For a brief second I took my eyes off the great bird to watch my steps, and when I looked back up it was gone. Immediately my mind bombarded me with reason. What did you expect? You were going to follow this bird somewhere and it was going to turn into a beautiful woman, is that it? And if that had somehow miraculously happened, then what? You and you're beautiful, silent, companion would still be stranded on an island in a storm.

As if in protest against the sting of my own logic, I decided to retrace the path I had walked in my dream. I walked down the south wall, tracing the wall with my fingertips as my guide had in the dream. When I reached the place that my memory told me was the location of the trapdoor I stopped. Scanning the ground around me made it clear that there was no trapdoor in sight, only high grass and old stone. But there was something. Against the south wall, about fifteen feet in front of me there was what looked like a bundle of clothes.

She wasn't more than five, and when I got to her she couldn't do anything but cry and tremble in the cold. Adrenaline pumping in my veins, I picked her up.

"Everything is going to be okay. I'm going to help you." I told her as I held her against my chest.
By the time I made it back to the car, the girl had stopped crying and had gone silent. I put her in the front seat and started the car. I asked her who she was and where parents were, but she just sat and looked at me as if she couldn't understand what I was saying or else had forgotten that she could respond. I decided my best move was to go to the police station; I just hoped it hadn't been evacuated already.

I left the radio off and listened to the storm beat down on the hood of the car. As I left the gravel lot that surrounded the fort and started down the road back to town, the girl slipped her seatbelt off and slid over next to me, resting her head on my side. I could feel her breathing slow down, and listening to it helped me slow down my heart rate. The storm outside was just gathering strength, but in that car at that moment the worst had already passed.

I was relieved to see the lights on when I got there. I picked the girl up and carried her inside. As I walked in a young couple jumped up and ran towards me.

"Oh my God! Sarah! You found her! Are you okay sweetie? Everything's going to be okay now. I've got you," the woman, a brunette with rain-soaked hair and tear-drenched cheeks, said in a flush of hysterics as she took the child from my arms. The father, a fit, blond, man with thinning hair, threw his arms around me in a relieved hug then shook my hand and thanked me before hugging me again and turning to embrace his family.

An officer approached and shook my hand. "Thank God you found her. I've had the rest of our guys looking since her parents came in. Where was she?" Knowing I didn't have a good reason for being where I was, I decided to make one up.

"I found her on the south side of the fort. I'm a nature photographer and I was down there trying to get some pictures of the fort in the storm. Just lucky I saw her, I guess." While technically a lie, the story had a tinge of truth to it as I had in fact sold a few of my nature photographs to some relatively well-known periodicals in the not-so-distant past.

"Well, lucky works just fine for me. Thanks again." He said before shaking my hand a second time and excusing himself to go call the rest of the search off.

My head was spinning, and I decided to slip out of the station before either the parents or the officer turned their attention back my way. I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, just trying to process the events of the day. As much as I tried, there was no way to explain it in a way that would satisfy my reason. What, you're trying to tell me that a bird from your dream appeared in the real world and led you to a lost little girl? Do you really believe that? And the truth was that I didn't. It didn't make sense, and I wasn't willing to accept the supernatural explanation that was the only one I could come up with. Wet, tired, and stretched far beyond my mental comfort zone, I decided that the best remedy would be a shower and a few drinks with my friends in Mobile. Having a concrete plan of my own design helped calm my mind, and I listened intently to the rain on my windshield and the sound of the tires on the road. As I crossed the bridge I looked out the passenger's side window over the eastern half of the channel. Just for a second, far out and high above the water, I saw a large brown and white osprey soaring gracefully, untouched by the storm.

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