Pelican (his beak holds more than his belly-can)
When the roll is called up yonder, I think I will be counted among those who love animals. I won't be in the front line with those 5 a.m. bird watchers, but I might show up somewhere in the middle, around 8:30 a.m., with a passing grade. In fact , any animals who happen to find themselves in the heavenly congregation might even put in a good word for me.
Most animals, meeting me on the street or in the wild, offer only a nodding acquaintance. For domesticated types, there are never any hugging-licking, overly demonstrative encounters; and for the wild ones it is a sort of didn't-I-see-you-last-Tuesday look.
In this analysis I don't include one's own pets. Pets are family. Maybe once removed from siblings but ahead of cousins. When our family owned pets we could all get maudlin enough, but what is under discussion here deals only with the casual animals outside the family circle.
That being said, it is easier to explain my lack of enthusiasm for what I have been going through at the present time.
In earlier essays I have reported on some borderline friendships with two kinds of animals. There was the fish crow who apparently dropped me a typewritten note one morning, causing a misunderstanding with my wife. He is still around, knocking on the window occasionally. And then there was my ambiguous relationship with Jonathan, our goat.
They are properly part of the past. I might also add that I meet two dogs occasionally, at different times, as I walk along on my way to work. There is, in addition, a rabbit who nibbles around my feet while I am reading in the yard. But these are all very casual friendships and nothing to cause any comments from neighbors. Oh, my wife might look out the window and say, ''Who's your friend with the pink ears?,'' but nothing out of the ordinary.
Recently, however, my compatability with the animal world has been severely tested. An immature pelican has started to follow me. This seems very cute at first, but the persistent annoyance gives a full translation of what is meant by the word ''birdbrain.''
When my wife sees the two of us passing the house I can see her in silent hysterics behind the closed window. ''It tries to imitate the way you walk,'' she says after I get home. Then she wipes her eyes in laughter. But actually it is not that funny. She knows perfectly well he is not imitating my walk. A pelican can't imitate anything but another pelican, and his walk is ineptitude personified. (Personified may not be the right word.)
In the air they are breathlessly graceful but on the ground they seem to lose their smarts and trundle along in aimless, haphazard fashion which suggests inebriety. They make a duck out of water look like Mikhail Baryshnikov. A visiting Northern friend once told me it was several years before he realized that the bird flying in the air and the one staggering on the beach were one and the same.
People do not mention it when you are followed by a dog. Or a cat, even. In fact, it generally goes unnoticed. But when you are followed by a pelican it warps your whole life into a crisis of comedy. With the almost over-the-edge intelligence expressed by this bird, you have to conclude there can be only two reasons he is following you. Either he thinks you are his mother, or he thinks you are a fish.
It started on a Sunday afternoon. The pelican was sitting next to the tiller in my boat, which is moored to my backyard wharf. I had to go aboard to get some tools, and the pelican moved aside to let me pass. But he did not fly away as he is supposed to do. In fact, without my notice, he disembarked with me and followed me back to the house.
My wife looked up as I came in. ''You are not bringing your friend into the house with you,'' she said. I turned to see the pelican standing on the threshold, looking around the room.
''He's not with me,'' I explained. ''I don't know who he is.''
Pelicans rarely speak. When they do, it is only a sound like a person breathing on a pair of glasses to clean them. So the pelican said, ''Hahhhh, hahhhh,'' a couple of times, then, finding his welcome in doubt, stepped backward off the sill, which caused him a few seconds of rubbery staggering worthy of Laurel and Hardy, till he finally tipped over backward and I shut the door.
The next day when I appeared, he fell in behind me. I turned and spoke to him the way one speaks to a dog.
''Go home!'' I said, with a conventional pointing of the finger and stamping of the foot. ''Go home.'' The pelican, lovingly disobedient, blinked until I was through and resumed his march at my heels. Pelicans can blink one eye at a time.
Days passed. Cars stopped. People did not comment - at first.
The last straw was on the fourth day, when I went to visit neighbors at the end of the inlet. Unfortunately they had guests.
''What is that?'' the lady guest asked when I came into the yard.
''It's a pelican,'' I said.
''Is it yours?''
''No, ma'am. It's just a wild young pelican who follows me.''
''It follows him,'' my neighbor explained.
Later, as I left with bird in tow, I heard the lady say sotto voce: ''It's hard not to laugh. Can't anything be done in a case like that?''
Many desperate solutions suggested themselves on my way home, but it turned out all right. As we approached the house, unexpectedly a great egret, protecting his turf, rushed out and squawked at my ''traveling suitcase.'' The pelican took off. I haven't seen him since.
Now the egret follows me. But he stops when spoken to.