When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
My holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up
Till it could come no more.
"At the Sea-Side" by Robert Louis Stevenson
“Good to see you, John. This is our intern, Mel... I take it you two have already met?”
“Aye, but only briefly. How do you do, John?”
The one and only time Mel had met this man, he had accused her of getting stoned on a public beach at six in the morning. At least he had the decency to look embarrassed. He ran a leathery hand through his salt-and-pepper hair and tugged awkwardly at his binoculars.
“How do you do, Mel?”
“John is a licensed bander like Bakul and I, so it’s really exciting to have him volunteering on the project,” said Ben. “The birds haven’t started nesting quite yet, so it’s going to be a bit of a slow day. But I was thinking we could walk along the study area and put up ‘no dogs off leash’ signs.”
The team members gathered their hats and coats and slipped out the back door onto the beach. The wind was strong enough to whip Ben’s knitted scarf away from his face, and the thick, lumpy clouds cast the ocean in a steely light. Bakul zipped their faux-leather jacket up to their chin, somehow managing to look both warm and stylish at the same time.
“How do your outfits always look so cool?” asked Mel. “Clothes seem so boring when I’m shopping with my mam, but you make fashion exciting.”
“My clothes are a big part of how I express myself,” said Bakul. “When I was in secondary school, the other students and even the teachers were really cruel to me because of the way I dressed. But my family always had my back, and they understood that trying to make me blend in was only going to hurt me more. I wear whatever I want now, and it makes me feel really free.”
Mel nodded. “I always want to wear boys’ clothes, but it makes my mam upset. She’s all, ‘why do you want to look like a boy?’ and I’ve tried to explain to her that I’m not trying to look like a boy, but she just doesn’t get it.”
“It’s ridiculous, honestly. Why do they have to call them ‘girl clothes’ and ‘boy clothes?’ They’re just clothes. Trust me, it’ll get better once you head off to uni. Your parents can’t tell you what to wear if they don’t see you every day.”
A jolt of anxiety surged through Mel’s stomach. Five months from now, would she still be living at home and lying to her parents about studying medicine? Or would she be far away in Bangor, living by her own set of rules?
“Guillemots!” shouted John, and the group raised their binoculars in unison as a pair of black and white seabirds splashed down in the water.
“They’re the bridled form, with the wee spectacles. Can you see them?” asked John. “Kind of. They’re a bit far off for me,” said Mel.
“Are those the binoculars you’re using?”
What other binoculars would she use besides the ones in her hands?
“Oh, that won’t do at all. You won’t be able to see long distances, and you won’t be able to pick up colors on a cloudy day like today.”
“This was the best I could afford,” said Mel, trying to keep her expression even.
“Here, try mine for a while.” Before she could say anything, John had looped his own heavy binoculars around her neck. “Look, this is the focus and these are the eyecups. You have to twist it like this–”
“I know how to use binoculars.”
It was true, his binoculars were much clearer than hers. Mel could spot the birds’ white eye-rings from 100 meters away. Somehow, that only made her seethe more. Why did John assume she didn’t know how to use binoculars when he’d seen her birding before? And why did he have to throw his money in her face? Anne must have noticed her clenching and unclenching her fist, because she dropped back to walk with her.
“Your binoculars will be just fine for the plover project. He’s a bit of a mansplainer,” Anne said.
“I noticed,” Mel snorted.
“But he’s willing to help out with the project almost every day, which is super helpful. Dad’s been doing a good job of putting all that energy to use. I think he just needs to feel needed, you know? Anyways, it helps to be firm with him if he’s overexplaining something you already know. I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with people who assume I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“You come off like someone who knows what they’re doing,” said Mel. “I really admire that about you.”
It didn’t matter that the sky was cloudy, because when Anne smiled at her, it was like standing in a ray of sun. All she had said was thanks, Mel, but Mel suddenly felt like the most treasured person on the planet. Was Anne some kind of superhero?
Bakul approached a wooden post at the beach parking lot with a staple gun and a laminated “no dogs off leash” sign.
“One of the things people don’t understand is that dogs can actually be catastrophic to breeding bird colonies,” they began. “I love the doggos just as much as anyone else, but they can do a lot of damage even if they’re not trying to hurt any–”
Suddenly, an excitable border collie burst from the back of a parked hatchback and sprinted toward the beach. Tongue lolling, sand spraying, he tore through a flock of plovers that had been foraging at the edge of the water and leapt into the waves. The birds scattered in all directions, crying out in agitation. Now drenched, the dog turned around and raced back to his humans at the other end of the parking lot, blissfully unaware of the chaos he’d just caused.
“Well, I had a full speech prepared, but just imagine that same situation when the birds are in the nest,” said Bakul. “Dogs are bad news when there are defenseless eggs and nestlings on the ground.”
About the author: Ella Shively is an undergraduate studying natural resources and writing at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, USA. You can find her online at https://www.instagram.com/shivelywrites/.
About today's featured poet: Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1850. Prone to sickness since birth, Stevenson spent much of his adult life traveling to seek healthier climates and quench his wanderlust. He is best known for authoring "Treasure Island" and "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."