Suszynski: The cormorant
I ran to the Turtle Ponds lasts week, a preserved area near where I grew up, to whistle at the turtles, to let them know that I’m still thinking of them. Where I usually stand in the thicket to observe them, a cormorant was sunning its feathers.
According to my brother, these birds are, “pretty silly looking. It has a weird balding puff and its beak is too short.” To which my other brother responded, “they’re like ugly, not cute penguins that can actually fly.”
As I observed the double-crested cormorant, “prehistoric” came to mind. When they hold their wings out to dry, there is a crooked elegance there — they are comfortable with waiting.
What startled me was that just 15 minutes before I spotted the bird, I was reading “Census” by Jesse Ball, which has a curled cormorant on the cover.
The narrator is a census-taker in a somewhat dystopian world. At the beginning of the book, the narrator discovers that he has a fatal heart issue, so he decides to bring his son on a trip to take the census and to also show him the world from A to Z. Once they arrive in Z, the narrator sends his son on a train back to the beginning: “My son must go to somewhere else, some good beginning, a place where a person can stay. Is there no such place?”
Intertwined through the story is also the strange tale of Lotta Werter. The narrator is reading her book, which is about cormorants: “Whatever principles she discovered day by day, they seemed mysteriously entwined with those dark nimble eyes, with that whispering, wild ungraspable diving. It must be a terrible thing, she writes … to be a fish, and know that a cormorant has observed you.”
I watched the cormorant dive into the water. Over time, people have interpreted this bird to mean different things. A messenger of death, a protector, and in “Paradise Lost,” a cormorant is used to deceive.
“As I approached a house on the main road six miles past B, I felt that the census is in some way an observation, and if so, if it is, then what is its beak, when does the beak come, and what is the quality, if the beak could be taken into account, of the grace granted?” the narrator asks.
The narrator reevaluates the census in every town he stops in. People are required to let him into their homes, where he asks a series of rather probing questions. More often than not, these questions reveal something about the people’s goodness or lack thereof.
Cormorants have less preen oil so their feathers hold more water, helping them to swim under the surface. After watching YouTube videos of cormorants, I almost fooled myself into thinking they were fish after a while. I thought to myself, what separates us anyway? Fish and cormorants share a certain water-logged grace.
In an interview, Ball said of his book, “In this case, the census is going around and trying to ascertain what the sum total of human life is, and what all of these human beings are doing at any one time on Earth.”
To me, this book is about goodness. If goodness has something to do with how I view myself or others, then it is closely linked to perception. But I have always believed goodness to be a weight measured by the person receiving it.
“I’m sure you have a sense of yourself, and in some ways we attempt to obtain from others a recognition of it. I attempt in meeting you to ensure that you see who I think I am when you look at me. You do the same,” says a man in G.
The cormorant has made me rethink the sum total of human life. I have a certain idea of that total in my head, just like I have a certain idea of who I am. Even though I believe myself to be a seeker of goodness, or at least striving toward it, it is still a measured sum. Perhaps, we as humans, must meet the cormorant at various times in our life in order to look into those aquamarine eyes and think about what it means to be good at this moment in time.
“Living things are so remote. Our hearts leap and our bodies wait helplessly in space,” the narrator says at the end of the book as he lovingly watches his son.
What does the cormorant think of itself, as it extends its wings, each individual feather shining like a slick knife in the sun? This living thing, very close to me in space, its heart leaping and mine beating, is this the sum of human life?
“Those mythic things that stand before us, shining, in dresses of cormorant— what do we have — what can we possibly offer in exchange?” the narrator asks.
The cormorant, as fisherman, as graceful waiter, inverts our gaze unto ourselves. Unto our measured goodness. In recent months I quiver at the precipice of knowing myself, looking into the eyes of the great cormorant, because I am afraid that goodness has shifted. And I am running after it to catch up.
Anna Suszynski is a staff editor at the Vail Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at annasuszynski or on Twitter at anna_suszynski.
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