BY Marietta Muller Gwathmey
The gorgeous Wrightsville Beach day that summer in August 1989 lent itself easily and joyfully to a shell-seeking expedition to Masonboro Island. My summertime friend Janet and I had promised our begging children that we would undertake the venture and they were eager to get underway. As we loaded the Whaler with drinks life jackets and snacks we collected a few extra neighborhood children. There were eight of us in the boat as we navigated the waters of Banks Channel and pulled into a creek behind Masonboro. The marsh was alive with crawling crustaceans of varying species. They skittered out of the way as we splashed through the shallow water to pull the boat in close and secure the anchor. It was low tide but rising fast and anchoring out too far might have meant a swim for the boat when we returned later.
From where we moored there was about a one-half-mile trek over the dunes to the ocean side of the island where the children wanted to look for shells especially the favored sand dollars which they knew were plentiful on Masonboro. We soon mounted the ridge of the dune — it was beautiful. The narrow spit of sand and sea oats jabbed like a pointy finger between the ocean and marsh-fringed sound. The sun was bright but not hot and it turned the ocean into a diamond with a million brilliant facets. Gulls circled and cried crabs scurried underfoot and the waves foamed and crashed on the shore. Like a slingshot hurling multiple rocks the children flung themselves down the ocean side of the dune running with wild abandon and propelled by a force of energy that I have often wished I could bottle and sell — or drink. Janet and I followed leisurely enjoying the luscious salt smell the incredible view and the joy of our children. We walked down to the shoreline and headed south heads bent eyes intent on the tide line of small pebbles and shells which yielded treasures every few feet: iridescent scallop shells long fragile razors perfect periwinkles curled key shells and occasionally the much-cherished sand dollar. Ahead and behind the children shuttled back and forth like balls on a string returning to us again and again with their discoveries.
All the drinks and snacks had been consumed as the morning turned slowly to afternoon and we began to think about returning home.
We called the kids as they stood huddled together at the water s edge deeply engrossed in examining something that caused agitated conversation among them. My son William 8 dropped to one knee beside a lifeless object being rolled back and forth by the waves of the rising tide. Carefully he lifted it. Why was I surprised to see an almost comatose seagull cradled in his hands? This was a boy who collected injured creatures as a pastime; the son of a man whose mother has said that she rarely sat down for a second cup of coffee after he biked off to school that he didn t return 15 minutes later with a wounded animal for her to take care of until he got home. William was cut from his father s cloth.
After appropriate exclamations I suggested to William that the bird looked sick unto death — as indeed it did — and perhaps it would like to die peacefully nestled in the sea oats on Masonboro. Six pairs of eyes looked at me in horror; how could we abandon this helpless creature that still showed a spark of life? Well we couldn t. Porter one of the two girls in our group donated her T-shirt to wrap him in for the trip home though he hardly needed restraining and we made our way uneventfully back to the boat and home.
As the finder William was designated permanent caretaker. The name Macey short for Masonboro was selected without hesitation and a box procured for lodging just as my husband Frank — the ole nature boy himself and also a physician — returned from a fishing trip. The box surrounded by the original six children and some new additions made its way to the pier as the boat docked and excited voices began explaining and cajoling William s father before he even secured the lines. The boat bucked and weaved on the incoming wakes of other boats and the little emissaries on the floating dock bobbed up and down as well impatient for a consultation with the doctor who could diagnose Macey s ailment and surely provide the treatment which would restore him to health. I had to laugh (and still chuckle as I remember the scene) as I watched my husband peer dubiously into the box at the gull that lay on its side cartoon xs almost visible in its eyes. Frank s hands patted the air as he tried to calm the surrounding babble of voices assuring them that he would examine the patient when he got back to the house. Away went the box and the stream of children to await office hours. Waves of heat wafted up from the pier s rough boards and the sun glinted blindingly as I caught Frank s eye and shrugged. He shook his head at me grinning — we d been through this scene before.
A little later after examining Macey and finding no clinically injured parts Frank patiently explained to William and his side kicks that Macey seemed to be an old bird dying a natural death. Finding him in the waves and bringing him home had just forestalled the inevitable. He craftily suggested that Macey would be a lot happier dying amid the foliage atop the dune in front of our house rather than confined in a cardboard box.
And so the parade threaded its way amid the prickly fabric woven by the brambles sandspurs and thorny vines that encircled the dune. At the crest they scooped out a depression in the sand under a bush and laid Macey there to die.
The woebegone procession winding its way back down the dune was positively funereal and I prayed Macey would die and be buried before a cat or dog found him and left a scattering of feathers and feet. As the afternoon wore on Macey survived numerous visits from the children as they tried to coax him to eat and drink. Finally they left him alone with a plastic water bowl alongside just in case.
I must say that I entertained wishes of a predator coming in the night and carting away the entire carcass so the children might think he d revived and flown away. I watched anxiously as William made his way up the dune the next morning his shoulders drooped and his countenance dejected much like Mary Magdalene must have looked when she returned to the tomb. As I waited in the kitchen for his sorrowful return I contemplated what favorite breakfast I might fix to assuage the pain for as my daughter says I love with food. But instead William came running back down the dune to announce joyfully that Macey had survived the night. Couldn t I see declared William that Macey had a will to live? The other children came shrieking to savor the good news but still we convinced them that Macey was best left alone in his own environment for another night at least. And lying on his side in the scooped out hollow atop the dune with one eye opened skyward he got through the next night as well.
The children decided that Macey did indeed need the protection of a confined space and begged to be allowed to remove him from the dune. That day Macey was returned to the box in the playroom and the miracle began. Perhaps it was the goodwill emitted by the myriad visits of the children or Janet s daily inquiries or the show-and-tell sessions provided by William to any interested party; Macey began to revive. Indeed as his story spread he gained quite a reputation on Wrightsville Beach.
Still he lay on his side in the box barely moving and showing no signs of wanting to get up. One morning William thought he would enjoy a change of scenery so he accompanied us to the ocean where he lay between our low beach chairs. He seemed to savor the heat coming up from the sand and the glint of the sun on the ocean for though still on his side the visit to his home territory seemed good for him. The ocean was calm that day and William took him down to the edge so that the waves could wash over him. As the seawater swished beneath him he rallied a bit and when William took him farther out we were surprised to find that on the water Macey could keep himself upright. It was a breakthrough of immense proportions and very soon everyone with a vested interest knew that Macey had swum on the high seas.
Back at the house in the box we tried him on his belly and though wobbly he managed to maintain his balance. Another breakthrough. And then he began to eat: small bits of hot dogs and wet cat food held out on a toothpick.
Frank continued to be discouraged by his lack of motor control until early one morning when he and I came downstairs and found Macey sitting up on his elbows! Such excitement. The entire neighborhood was elated by the news and even the carpenters working on our new porches were ushered in to view the miraculous recovery. Macey s newfound steadiness meant daily trips to the dock where he sat — protected — under a plastic milk crate while the children fished and swam. Marine tidbits were procured and offered for his enjoyment — minnows shrimp unidentified slimy things — and he ate with relish his eyes becoming brighter each day and his personality — if seagulls have one — more defined.
A few days later he raised himself from his elbows to a full standing position and before long William would take him swimming in the sound for brief periods.
I wish I could convey some of the incredible joy that accompanied each of Macey s accomplishments. He was such a part and parcel of our household — indeed of the entire neighborhood — by this time that it was almost as if he were a family member critically injured but in recovery. Everyone monitored his progress and we recorded it on camera frequently. We took many snapshots of Macey swimming beside William and his sister or of Macey in his milk crate on the pier gazing out at the world beyond.
One day about three weeks after we d found him he surprised us in mid-swim by taking off and flying for a few feet. But he seemed to know he wasn t yet ready for total freedom and returned to his box for hotdog bits and a dollop of cat food. During his morning and afternoon sojourns on the dock he entertained a host of visitors some just passersby who had heard about the sick sea gull and stopped for a first-hand look.
Meanwhile summer was coming to an end and I began to consider the possibility that Macey might have to return home with us to Virginia. It wasn t a horrible prospect for we d all become quite attached but I knew Macey would be better off gaining his freedom on his home turf.
We needn t have worried.
It was a glorious morning with the sun high overhead and the tide lapping high up on the pilings when William Macey and I ventured to the pier for a swim. As I pushed open the gates which led onto the gangway I turned to see Frank on the second-story porch conferring with the ever-present carpenters who like Macey had become members of our family. We waved and I turned back to see William carrying Macey down the stairs to where the water lapped at the bottom step. He carefully placed Macey in the water and waded in to swim beside him. Quickly Macey increased the distance between them and with a sudden thrust hurled himself heavenward. We stared in incredulity and turning toward the house I screamed Frank that s Macey!! and pointed to the sky.
The carpenters clapped and cheered William slapped the water with self congratulatory shrieks and Frank hurled himself down the stairs and out the door grabbing the boat key on the way. As Macey alighted on a nearby piling we jumped aboard the boat and as the motor roared to life we frantically untied the lines and backed out of the slip. With William standing on the bow and me clutching the back of the first mate s chair we followed Macey as he sought total freedom in the air. He seemed to know it was us following as he zig zagged back and forth and appeared to glance over his shoulder to see if we were keeping up. Frank and I couldn t stop smiling as we watched our William on the bow eyes intent on Macey s every movement making sure his healing was complete and total. We were happy/sad — laughing with joy as our eyes brimmed with tears of bereavement. William had brought the dead back to life; and like Lazarus Macey had become a legend. But he had one more maneuver to add to his amazing tale of resurrection and recovery.
With increasing confidence he soared away toward Masonboro then paused as something in the water below caught his eye. He plunged head first and emerged victorious a minnow wriggling in his beak. We watched in awe as he headed back toward us hovering for a moment above and beside William and dropping his catch in front of him as if in token of his appreciation. He seemed to be saying I m going to be fine now — and thanks. And he flew away.
You can imagine the telling and retelling of his farewell salute. I m just glad there were three of us to witness it or people would have thought it was a sweet but improbable ending to a happy story. It is now two decades later and a million gulls have circled the area around our pier since Macey left. We watch them dive for fish and argue over favorite pilings. Our dog barks at those that gain footage and she prances back and forth on the floating dock while they maintain their positions and ignore her frantic maneuvers to get them to leave. But occasionally there will be one that alights and seems more personable more knowing more aware — and cocks his head in a certain way. Our imaginations kindle as we look at each other and wonder is it Macey?