An act of faith

Coastwise towing isolates the tugboat and its crew in a world all its own, suspended in time, and surrounded by the limitless horizon of the sea. The rolling decks of the vessel become terra firma (or infirma) in this unreal universe, a tiny island swooping up and down the waves like a clumsy albatross looking for a place to light. At sea, the relationships between human and beast alter. Out of control of his environment, man becomes a more vulnerable creature , struggling like all other wild things to come to terms with the elements. We all become fellow creatures, fascinated by one another's ability to cope.

Porpoises lope along, peering sideways at the curious inhabitants of this sluggish beast, or performing graceful leaps and backflips to our delighted applause until they grow bored with our ponderous progress and race on to new entertainment. Birds stop on the tug for food, water, and rest before setting off again on their long journeys. Often, small warblers will stay for a time, lured by the prospect of clearing off the indigenous insect population. They will perch on a bitt and squint into the recesses of the galley at the doings of the human inhabitants.

Once, while scooting across the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, a fat bird no bigger than a large mouse flew into the open galley, and landed within arm's length on the edge of the table on which I was kneading bread. He stood with little feet splayed apart, balancing against the tug's roll, and watched, cocking his head to see better what this peculiar process would eventually produce. When I pulled a scrap from the dough and pushed it to his nose, he snatched it eagerly in his beak, but spit it out almost immediately with a look of unfathomable perplexity.

Many of these birds travel in groups, and we were visited once some eighty-five miles off the Georgia coast by a family of about twelve. They were intrepid hunters and explorers, following their quarry through open ports or doors, or gripping the sill of a window with scrawny feet and watching in curious silence the creatures that populated this moving oasis. Perhaps the numbers in this troupe made them more bold than usual, or perhaps it was some empirical intelligence. Whatever the cause, we began to notice some definite exploratory advances toward some of us by some of them. While standing on the fantail with my arms at my sides and absorbed in watching the captain haul aboard a huge dolphin fish for supper, I became aware of a soft brushing against my hand. I looked down, and was startled to discover a little warbler, feathers all puffed out, staring unafraid into my face.

I could not then have guessed that I would later witness another, more touching display of their intuitive trust. I had wandered up to the wheelhouse to enjoy a better view of the foredeck acrobatics of the bird troupe. The captain and engineer stood at two of the open windows, loudly and energetically discussing navigation, completely absorbed in their conversation. When I turned to read something from the open pages of the logbook which sat on a shelf at the back of the wheelhouse, I was astonished to find a little female sitting in quiet bewilderment atop the open book. Although I leaned back to give her ample room through which to exit, she held her ground, chest pumping mightily and eyes wide with fear. Since she seemed paralyzed with fright, I tried to calm her, gradually inching my hand toward her to sniff and examine. When my hand was beside her, I lifted an index finger to gingerly stroke her heaving breast feathers. She submitted to this in frozen silence, eyeing my finger and me suspiciously. When it became apparent I was making no progress in calming her, I withdrew my hand and stood back once again. This seemed to provoke a frenzied attempt at escape through a fixed window in the wheelhouse. She flew into the glass, battering herself futilely against the pane, while I tried to capture her unharmed in a cupped hand. Just as suddenly, she stopped, and fell back onto the logbook, panting. I retreated and watched for an opportunity to aid her release.

For several moments she sat looking the situation over, and finally made another attempt, thrusting herself up against a pane of glass very near the engineer's shoulder. Jolted from their conversation, the two men stared uncomprehendingly at the bird's frantic endeavors. Then the engineer wrapped a hammy hand around the quivering little body and slowly pushed it out of the window in front of him, freeing the bird in his fist.

Instead of taking flight, she stood in the large palm, blinking curiously at Harry, who stared back in delight. She hopped around a bit in his hand, peering over the side of it at her friends below, then turned to study us from her new vantage point. She stood there for some time, confident in her returned freedom and our benevolence. Eventually she heard a loud Chirp! from one of her friends below. At that she rose and fluttered down to supper.

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