By Sam Quinones
My mother always wanted to be a tree.
When she died, she said, she hoped she would return as some large graceful tree – an old oak perhaps. Her roots, I suppose she imagined, would stretch like fingers out from the trunk and graceful branches would provide shade.
A neighborhood without trees is a sad and desolate thing, she always said.
Many years ago, I decided that when I die I would prefer to return as a pelican. I decided this after my mother had died of cancer. We lived now at the beach in Southern California and pelicans had made a comeback from near extinction caused by the pesticide DDT. Once that was banned, pelicans appeared again along California’s coast.
They glided down the coast a few feet off the water in groups of four and five in V formation. The leader would beat his wings, and the others would follow his lead.
Above all I loved to watch them fish. This they did alone and from high above the water. I would watch them flap along slowly high in the air. Then they would stall and suddenly pin their wings back and, like missiles, plunge into the water to nail some unsuspecting fish.
They would stay submerged for a second, then reappear with a fish in their bill, and with a toss of the head, they’d drop it down their gullets.
Just as trees meant something about human life to my mother, pelicans to me, I guess, came to represent freedom, trusting one’s own vision of what was right and comfortable.
Late one afternoon in Mazatlan, I decided to take a walk on the city’s long straight beach. I had been doing a story on the colony of transvestites as they prepared for the oldest drag-queen contest in Mexico — a story I included in my first book. That day, I needed a break from their chaotic, bleak lives.
I had been walking down the beach for a hundred yards when I saw a pelican coming out of the waves toward me.
I stopped. I’d never seen a pelican approach a human like this. Yet out of the water came a full-grown bird. I walked into the water toward him, figuring he would fly off. He kept coming, but I saw that he wobbled in the water. We came face to face in about a foot of ocean froth.
“Hey, friend,” I said to him.
I kneeled down in the water and soupy sand, opened my arms and was startled when he fell into them.
I inspected his long thin neck to see what was wrong. As I did, his massive head swayed, listed to one side and plopped on my shoulder. He was losing consciousness in my arms. Looking closely, I saw the problem. A fishing line was wound tightly around his neck.
I was in my trunks and had nothing sharp on me: no belt, no keys. I looked around. On the beach, a man walked by.
“Do you have a knife?” I called out to him in Spanish, as waves lapped around the pelican and me. He didn’t.
Finally, I leaned into the pelican’s downy neck, as his head and massive bill draped over my shoulder and down my back and the seawater sloshed around us. I found the fishing line with my fingers and, putting my teeth into his neck, I gnawed it.
It broke within a few seconds. He inflated like a long thin balloon. He was now erect. I looked him in the eyes that were returning to life.
“There you go, buddy,” I said.
I’d like to say he looked back at me, and we shared a moment across eons of evolution. I don’t think it happened. Instead, he turned and I watched as he flapped his wings and took off from a sitting position. His webbed feet grazed the water and he lifted off into the sun.