This story, which initially appeared in Denver Quarterly, is an excerpt from Joyland Midwest editor, Bryan Hurt's story collection, EVERYONE WANTS TO BE AMBASSADOR TO FRANCE. The book has just been rereleased in a new and expanded edition from Red Hen Press. You can buy the book on Amazon, IndieBound, or directly from Red Hen.
In my town there was once a seagull who had been reincarnated as a man. But instead of forgetting he was a seagull and knowing that he was a man, the seagull knew from the moment he knew anything that he was and had always been a seagull. When he closed his man eyes he felt the rush of air through his tail feathers, smelled sea water, and could hear fish flip fins in the dark below. But when he opened his eyes he’d see the cage bars of his crib, the sky trapped behind windows, birds free and winging away. Here he was lumpy and blubbering and soft-mouthed, without a beak.
The seagull’s parents were kind but didn’t understand. Raw fish? No way. We sleep in beds not nests of twigs and spit. Don’t poop from that tree.
And at school no one understood him either.
The teachers: get away from that window. Sit down because we’re serious about that window. Butt in the chair. But how he envied the housefly chasing the sky and sunlight, bumping against the warm pane.
And the students: pinning him to the playground woodchips, dangling the worm in front of his face. Eat the worm bird. He would eat it but they were only half right. Seagulls were a suborder of the class Aves, in the family Laridae. Yes he ate small animals and invertebrates, but he would have preferred something briny, a silver minnow or hard-shelled clam.
One day in middle school math the seagull met a goat who had been reincarnated as a girl. It was around that time that we were beginning to suspect that the reincarnation system was glitchy, on the blink. Souls were being recycled but not scrubbed clean of old identities. Not just goats as girls and birds as boys but humans as dishwashers; my great grandmother had come back as the engine of my parents’ old Volvo, which was just like her, the constant knocking an old person’s insistence on not being ignored.
The goat was chewing on the tab of a soda can when the seagull sat down beside her. At first she didn’t pay attention to him but soon the teasing he attracted was impossible to ignore.
“Leave him alone,” she said and wiped a spit wad off her neck. She glared at me specifically. I unhitched my arm and put the pink eraser back on my desk.
I did not dislike the seagull. We were neighbors and in elementary school and before that had even been friends. We’d climbed trees together, hunted for shiny objects, fished for minnows in the stream behind my house. But you know how it is in middle school. Stop acting like everyone else for a minute and they turn on you; suddenly you’re the one who stands out.
Goats are social animals and quick to make friends. After math class she and the seagull were inseparable. Every lunch they’d sit together in the cafeteria, near the marching band kids but separate, part of their own reincarnated clique. They’d talk about their lives before this one, ponder the karmic equation, wonder what they had they done to deserve humanity: the worst. The goat unwrapped her sandwich and chewed the paper. She recalled her fine soft goat coat, talked about a tasty hedgerow, a country house, a friendly dog tied to a rope. The seagull remembered flying in formation with other seagulls, sleeping in the warm ocean, a red and white lighthouse on a hill.
I sat alone at my table and pondered my own animal past life. I must have been a menace to others, something fierce and unrepentant, a rabies carrier, I was sure. Because in this life I had been reincarnated as the next lowest creature in all of middle school after the seagull, the lowest now that he’d allied himself with the goat.
A Cheetos wrapper bounced off my head. I picked it up, tallied my old sneakers and out of fashion backpack. A human with the soul of a honey badger, I told myself, reassuring. I walked my tray to the conveyor, dropped the wrapper on the goat’s table for her to eat. The next day in math class she remembered my name, said hi Ben, and made circles with her compass on graph paper, the line crossing lines and bending infinitely into itself.
I wasn’t an official member of their clique but they let me hang out with them. After school we’d stand along the brick wall waiting for busses. The seagull wasn’t much of a talker, especially with me there, third-wheeling. He’d hop nervously in place while the goat and I chatted. I liked to talk about my old great grandmother, the Volvo engine, still knocking. Recently my father had taken the car to a mechanic who of course found nothing. Now the knocking had become louder, a metallic clanking that you could hear halfway down the block.
The goat said she could understand this. Her parents were divorcing and she’d taken to wearing a brass bell around the house so that they’d hear her and stop fighting when she was about to enter a room.
When the busses arrived the goat got on hers and the seagull and I got on another. The seagull always pushed on ahead of me; he’d find an empty bench, slide to the window, and leave an aisle seat open, an invitation that I’d never accept. If school was a wilderness then the bus the wilderness’s jungle. The seagull, animal souled, should have known this better than anyone. No rules applied here except for the most basic one, survival. Together we would have only made ourselves bigger targets. Without the goat, who was taller than most, with broader shoulders, there was no strength in our numbers.
One day before we got on to our separate busses the goat handed me a note. She told me not to show it to the seagull. “Don’t show the seagull,” she said. I nodded, unfolded the note, read it, and then followed the seagull onto the bus. He’d found his empty bench, slid to the window. I sat down next to him. He looked at me, surprised and grateful. But what can I say? I wasn’t doing it for my own good conscience. It was extra hot that day, midsummer transubstantiating into late October. The bus was full; all of the seats but two were taken. The other was next to a kid who’d been able to grow a full, dark beard since fifth grade. You could smell his hormones halfway down the aisle.
“What’s that?” the seagull said. Keen-eyed he was peering at the note, trying to read inside the fold.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
“It’s from the goat?” he said. He recognized her loopy handwriting.
I tried to shove the note inside my backpack but by then it was too late. The seagull’s attention had drawn even more attention. The note was yanked out of my hands, into the air, and passed along the aisle until it stopped at the beard, who opened it, scanned it with his dim eyes, and bellowed:
“Ben’s got a girlfriend. Ben’s in love with the goat girl.”
He poked his finger through the paper and began jerking the hole.
I cannot deny that there was some truth in what he was saying. The goat had asked me to the Harvest Dance, but we were not dating. Not boyfriend and goat-girlfriend yet. As for what he’d said about love: who knew about love, especially in middle school? All I knew was the heat in my face whenever I thought about the goat girl, her long limbs and blonde ponytail. The way that my heart was beating.
The beard tore the note to pieces and the pieces were torn into smaller pieces that rained down on me and the seagull, confetti.
When the bus stopped the seagull got up and pushed into the aisle. This was the first stop; ours was the last one at the end of the line near the river. The seagull paused at the door, looked back at me with a long sad look that said cruel world, cruel world, and exited. The seagull wasn’t in school the next day or the rest of the week after that.
On Friday the goat and I went to the Harvest Dance: there were haystacks, pumpkins, red punch, bluegrass. At the end of the dance she led me outside the gymnasium and let me put my hands up her shirt. We stood like that for a while, underneath the bleachers, in the moonlight and shadows, a dozen other couples all around us, all of us getting felt up or feeling.
The seagull wasn’t in school on Monday of the next week either. The goat and I sat side by side in math class, holding hands. The teacher droned on about triangles, the goat snapped her gum, and I doodled on a piece on paper. In my doodles the goat was a gold-caped super hero and I was tied to the railroad tracks, train coming. She’d swoop down in the nick of time and fly me away to her secret headquarters, where she’d recognize my true animal past self. Then we’d fight crime, Goat Girl and non-human Ben, together forever.
While I was doodling my phone buzzed, a text from my mother.
HAVE U SEEN GREG?
Greg was the seagull’s human name. According to my mother no one had seen him since Sunday. He’d eaten dinner, complained about hay fever, went to bed early. When the seagull’s mother came into his room the next morning she found his still-made bed, its pillows emptied of all their feathers.
I texted that I hadn’t seen him in a week, but even so I had a good idea where he was. When the seagull and I were little we used to play on a high cliff overlooking the river, a scrap of land with a wind-stripped tree that jutted out above the water. Sometimes, and for reasons that I couldn’t then understand, the seagull would grow quiet, sullen, close all of the doors and windows that opened into himself, like a house shuttering for winter. He’d stand on the edge of the cliff, look down at the river, the rocks, and out at the faraway horizon.
When the goat and I arrived that’s exactly where we found him. We got out of the cab and saw the seagull standing on the edge of the cliff, arms spread and the sleeves of his gray sweatshirt sown white and rippling with pillow feathers. We called his name but our voices were lost in the wind and the taxi’s engine. It was a blue day and the sky was high and clear and the horizon so far away that you could almost believe that there was more than just this: this town, this school, these bodies, our puny, recycled lives. Where the river met the horizon you could almost see the gleam of the tall buildings of the city that sat next to the ocean. Eight million souls and how many of them were former animals? I imagined a whole feral community.
The seagull turned to face us as the goat and I got closer. “Stay back,” he said. “Don’t try to stop me.” His eyes were red, his nose was running.
“Stop you?” I said. “Stop what?” I might as well have asked what color the sky was, or if grass died in the winter. It was all so painfully obvious.
“It’s awful,” said the seagull. “Awful. Every day I wake up and I’m like this. I’m a seagull.” He flapped his arms, shedding feathers. “I thought you were my friends,” he said. “But now, not even.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. There was a knife in my stomach. “I’ll leave,” I said. “It’s my fault. You can have the goat back. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Goat and seagull together.”
“I don’t want the goat,” he said. “You don’t understand. I don’t want anything. I’m not even supposed to be here.” His hands were fists now. His entire body trembling.
The whole time the goat was still and silent. Her eyes were soft and trained on something far away, something beyond the gleam of the city and the horizon. “You should do it,” she said.
“What?” I said. I stepped away from her. “You’re joking.”
“Not at all,” she said. “The seagull’s right. We’re not supposed to be like this. Not him, not me. Something’s broken. If he jumps maybe he gets to reset, start over.”
In the distance I heard a familiar metal clanking sound, my great grandmother the Volvo engine. I’d told my parents where I thought the seagull would be and they were on their way, probably with the seagull’s parents, winding up the road to the top of the cliff, staging a rescue.
“Are you sure?” said the seagull.
The goat nodded. “You’re a seagull,” she said. “You’ll always be a seagull. Do you think it will ever any get better?”
I wanted to protest. I wanted to say that of course it would get better. Didn’t everything always get better? But I also understood that I wasn’t one of them. I was just a human-souled human.
“What do you think?” the seagull said. He was looking at me. He’d stopped crying.
The wind had whipped up, ripping leaves off the lone tree. The clanking was getting louder. “I don’t know,” I said. “I mean what if the system’s so broken that you don’t come back at all? What if all that’s next is nothing? Isn’t something, even a bad something, better than nothing?”
But the seagull wasn’t listening. As I spoke he was scooting backwards, heels on the edge of the cliff. He looked at the goat. “Will you come with me?”
The goat shook her head. “It’s not so bad for me here,” she said. “As a goat I was already half domestic.”
The seagull nodded. His feet were halfway off the cliff. A strong wind would have blown him over. “Tell my parents it’s not their fault,” he said. He stepped off the cliff.
There was nothing.
My parents’ Volvo crested the hill. They parked and ran to us, my parents and the seagull’s parents. “Greg?” they said. “Where’s Greg?” His mother knew, was collapsing.
“He,” I said. “I,” I said.
It seemed so unreal, so unfathomable. I couldn’t say anything.
The goat stood at the edge of the cliff and stared over the water. “Did you see?” she said. “He changed,” she said. She said that after the seagull had stepped off the cliff a real seagull, a bird, had soared up and towards the ocean. They searched the river from here to the city and on the third day found the body.
The goat and I kept seeing each other for a month after that. I touched her breasts two more times and once she put her hand down my pants. Her parents divorced and the goat moved to another town with her mother, farther up the river. We emailed for a while, sent pictures, text messages. Then we stopped, which was a relief because every time we talked, texted, or touched I was reminded of the seagull. I didn’t blame the goat for what had happened even though she played a role. I played a role too. But I’m certain that he would have gone through with it, even if we hadn’t been there and encouraged him. What I couldn’t forgive her for was the lie she’d told about the seagull transforming and flying towards the ocean. A selfish and cruel thing to say, especially in front of his parents.
His parents were devastated, of course. They sold their house quickly and for a loss, moved away to a remote nowhere.
After what happened the bullies in middle school left me alone. The beard and the rest of them found someone less tragic to pick on. I graduated middle school and went to a bigger high school where I was just a quiet kid, part of the scenery. Eventually my great grandmother, the Volvo engine, stopped knocking. One muddy spring morning my father turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened. A click. The engine wouldn’t turn over.
When I graduated high school I moved to the big city. I was still looking for that feral community and had rented a studio apartment above a foul-smelling noodle shop in the Village. But by the time I got there everything had changed again. All of the humans I met had human souls and if they didn’t, if they’d been animals in their past lives, most of them had jobs and families and had forgotten. Even the goat girl. We’re friends on Facebook. She lives in the Midwest and has two blonde and long-limbed children.
The other thing I don’t like about the city is that there’s no sky here. Sometimes I look up and expect to see open, untethered horizon, but instead can only see blue and clouds caught in sides of buildings. Sometimes there are birds in the buildings too. Seagulls because the ocean is close by even though I never go there. But I can’t tell if they’re real birds or just reflections, or if they’re flying towards the city or leaving.