Ballina. Tuesday, 3.45pm
The pelican is a relaxed bird.
One in this squadron of six has its neck lying back along its spine with its head looking forward from a feathery pillow as it swims towards shore. That’s really relaxed.
The others have their heads in the more conventional pelican position: atop slightly and elegantly curved necks.
As the scoop of pelicans nears river’s edge, they stand up in the shallow water. The pelican with the laidback head stands as well, but keeps its head folded back in that weird position.
Maybe it’s more than relaxed. Maybe it’s had an accident and its neck is broken.
Pelicans suffer in these modern times. They get tangled in fishing lines, choked on plastic and starved by overfishing. How will it fly? Swimming and standing may be okay with your head folded on your back but, flying? I don’t think so.
The scoop waddles towards a tackle of fishermen who are readying their rods on the sandy bank. Actually, they’re not really fishermen; they’re three teenage boys. Fisherteens, I guess. They’re noisy too, laughing and shouting in newly deep voices.
Fishermen are usually older blokes with khaki shirts, shapeless hats and big bellies. This hormone of fisherteens wears bright t-shirts emblazoned with the names of American cities. And baseball caps.
One has a serious cough, barking as he baits his line, and spits into the sand.
There’s a girl with the fisherteens but she isn’t one. Sitting on a bleached tree trunk, she watches as the boys bait their lines, white cords running from her ears, her arms folded across her chest against the rising cold.
The pelicans waddle, in that relaxed pelican way, towards the fisherteens and the girl. Amazingly, the weird one waddles with its neck still folded – like an Ikea pelican, half-assembled.
Lines baited, the boys walk towards the water. The pelicans scatter. Well, scatter is not the right word. They separate with pelican nonchalance, allowing their fellow fishers access to their river.
A young man comes down from the carpark and unleashes a black and white puppy. It immediately runs at the pelicans. The lay-down neck of the weird pelican springs up like a party whistle uncurling. It and the other pelicans hurry into the water.
A motorboat chugs upriver, its wash making the fisherteens jump and the floating pelicans rock.
Plonk, plonk, plonk – the fisherteens cast their lines into the future. The motorboat kills its engine and starts drifting back past the fisherteens and pelicans. An old bloke with a shapeless hat and big belly casts a line from the boat’s stern. A willy wagtail lands on the gutting table near me and attacks a blood-stained newspaper page flapping on about an election.
The river goes quiet.
The fisherteens stare into the river. The pelicans watch them with professional interest. The man, pup now under his arm, sits on the sand and gazes riverward. The girl pulls the earphones from her ears. The willy wagtail realises there’s no sustenance in the election and flies off to the pub.
A stillness drops down like a raindrop on a river; its ripples connecting us all. Rivers are good like that. They are Earth altars at which all living things pray; portals to our collective soul.
A lowering pressure sucks a sigh from me; a sigh filled with pent-up sadness for all that once was, for all that is lost, for all we are losing.
But I’m happy the neck is not broken.
A cough cracks the silence. It startles the pup, who escapes his owner’s clutches and resumes chasing pelicans.
They fly up to where dark clouds are gathering, all holding their heads out on long, straight necks.