It was day 32 when Kiara killed and ate her first gull. She was surprised at how long she held out, how hungry she allowed herself to become before trapping the gull under a heavy box of rebar and chicken wire, pulling back the mesh stretched across the top to reach the bird, smashing its head with a rock in a blow that sent up an arc and spatter of blood, into the air and onto her face. The feeling reminded her of the ocean’s spray. The hot and crimson gull’s blood did not soothe her sunburned cheeks the way the cold gray water off the rocks did. She wiped it from her face with the dirty arm of her shirt and pulled the cage off the gull, grabbing it by its legs the way her father would pick up ducks when he took her hunting. He would swing the lifeless bird by his side while their dog Trapper loped behind, still sniffing at the bird, wagging his tail excitedly at a job well done. She wondered if her father would be proud of her.
32 days before, Kiara had woken up in her bunk room to discover her roommate was already gone. An hour and 25 minutes remained until breakfast, so in no great rush, she slowly strolled down the rocky path from the dorm. She noted the quiet, the stillness of the island. Attributing it to the early hour, she looked out from her high spot down to the gully on the North end of the island, where the songbird banding station sat. It too seemed quiet, the light above the door that normally signified banding was on going was shut off. Nothing stirred. Maybe they’re all at the misting nets, she thought. Maybe they’ve got a good one. An indigo bunting, a scarlet tanager. As she normally worked with the large, aggressive gulls on the island, Kiara was excited at the idea of observing the gentle and delicate passerines. She ran through the scientific names of the birds she’d seen stuck in the misting nets, tangled and inverted in its light silken threads. As she descended the stone staircase to the trail, she named each one — one bird per step: Setophaga magnolia, Setophaga petichia, Vireo olivaceous, Coccyzus americanus, Coccyzus erythropthalmus. She moved towards the station via the wellworn path through the grass and noticed the door to the paint shed, swung wide open. There were several large plastic buckets of paint in various states of disarray by the door — one with a lid off, the other tipped over, leaking thick gray paint onto the grass. Another bucket was off to the side, a paintbrush and wooden stirring stick placed on top, as though ready for use. Kiara thought it strange, this one bucket, spilling its contents onto the ground. The engineers were careful and precise. It seemed unlike any of them to leave a mess, let alone waste. She stood staring at the scene before a gull screamed down at her from the roof of the shed, jarring her from her dark study. She stepped towards the door, beginning to wonder if perhaps something had happened. Don’t be stupid, she told herself. It’s just a little spilled paint. No use crying over spilled paint, she thought, and smiled. She thought about her field mate. How she would have said that aloud to her if she was here. “No use crying over spilled paint, Addie,” she’d say. And so she did, to no one at all.
The skin of the gull was thick. She had decided, after careful consideration, that she should skin the bird entirely, rather than pluck it. Her father had told her once that diver birds which fed on fish stored the flavor of their diet in their fat, and so they had to be skinned. Having seen gulls regurgitate plastic bags, soiled diapers, as well as other gulls, she did not desire such seasoning. So she set herself to task, palpating the bird’s breast to find the sharp ridge of the keep. Using a scalpel from a dissection kit she found in the lab, she sliced along it, pulling the skin to each side. She had decided to roast it, since the oven in the kitchen still worked. It tasted strange, but Kiara could not tell if it was the guilt she felt for killing it that made it taste as such. Perhaps it was the fear.
On day 57, she heard the fog horn of the lighthouse blast once.
It was when she spoke out loud, there in the paint shed with the tipped over bucket of gray paint just outside, that she realized she was alone. It was when she heard her words reverberate off the walls of the darkened paint shed, echoing back to her ears with a singularity that sank her stomach deep, like a stone to the ocean floor. She stayed there, standing, peering into the darkness of the shed, trying to name the feeling she had. If she could name it, she could know it, like a songbird. After a few minutes and no answer, Kiara stepped out of the shed and headed for the songbird station. The mist nets were hung in the bushes, she could see them waving in the air. Opening the door of the station to find no one did not come as a surprise, but her heart quickened when she realized that she would need to take down the nets, and any birds in them. She was used to the large tarsi of the gulls, their thick bodies and seemingly unbreakable bones. She was afraid that, without the knowledge of how to properly remove something as small as a sparrow, the muscle memory of her hands would snap their necks or break their wings. But when she got to the mist nets, there were no birds. Thankful that she did not need to free anything, it was only days later that she thought of what the net’s emptiness might mean.
At the end of day 1, Kiara sat on the deck of the dorm building, watching the lights from the mainland. She had tried the radios. She had tried the internet. The telephones. A satellite phone she found tucked away in the infirmary. The lights of the bridges and buildings along the coast flickered as they always had. Without a way to reach it, the mainland was meaningless — a series of flashing lights, a diffuse brightness on the horizon, and nothing more. She had walked to the dock earlier, where the boats were tied up, only to find that the large vessels were not moored there as they normally were. She had thought she felt tears in her throat then, a hard lump like the stone from her stomach bouncing back up to the surface. But no tears came. Instead, she started up the trail to the mess hall to take stock.
By day 27, she had run out of leftovers, canned goods, dried goods, and fresh foods. She had rationed after day 2, when she had eaten a large breakfast in preparation of a day’s work in the field. She at first felt silly donning her hiking boots that morning and taking her field notebook out with her, but she pushed through anyways. She recorded re-sights of gulls banded in previous years, noted behavior, checked nests. When she returned back to the office, she looked up every bird’s history in the project database. Having always cursed the rudimentary database for being somewhat archaic and not available via an online, off-site storage system, she was glad for it now. She methodically entered each re-sight, noting when the bird was banded, at what age it was first captured, whether it had been monitored since then, whether it had been seen off-island. In the days following, before the electricity cut out on day 48, she would sit each night and enter every bird that she had seen that day, savoring the data and the connection it offered to another human being, however remote its history was to her present position. She would read the names of people who had banded the birds, re-sighted them, recaptured and re-banded them when their large, bright colored bands became so weather worn that their letters and numbers could no longer be read. She imagined the praise she would get, when her project manager came to save her and saw that she had continued her work, despite the situation. She had purpose at first, and a little bit of faith, no matter how often she questioned it. When she killed her first gull, she stopped imagining being saved.
On day 67 Kiara went out to the colony, armed with her rebar and chicken wire trap and her notebooks. No longer able to look up birds in the database, she had decided to start a database of her own. In the meantime, she intended to trap a gull. She was becoming efficient at killing and skinning, and was getting used to the somewhat fishy taste of gull meat. She lugged the trap up the steep walls of the cove to the ridge where the gulls nested. Her feet were tired, and her shoes had lost most of their support and cushioning, the soles wearing down to thin slivers of rubber, making the jagged rocks a source of discomfort as she climbed. She threw the trap up before her and stepped hard onto a thin sheet of granite, attempting to use the leverage afforded her to push up and over the ridge. But the thin sheet gave way, and Kiara’s leg slipped down, slamming her knee against the rock face as she slid, down and over, onto the rocky shore below.
She felt the pain first in her lower back, and knew that she was bleeding. She felt wetness pooling beneath her. She looked up at the cove above her and saw her trap sitting on the edge. She tried to roll herself over but discovered that her collarbone was broken, the arm unmovable. She reached with her other hand behind her, searching across her back for the wound. Her hand touched rock, firmly embedded into her flank. She weighed her decisions, wondering if the bleeding would intensify if she managed to roll herself off. She tried to push herself over, but failed, skidding her hand across the rock, cutting her palm. She stopped struggling, and lay, still. Two gulls drifted down from the cove, landing on a rock directly above her. Still, they watched her. Kiara closed her eyes. The gulls descended.