A picture worthy of a story. The day Shelley became brave
Shelley wasn’t the bravest seabird that had ever lived. Far from it. In fact, she was the only storm petrel she knew who lived on the mainland, preferring the stability of her life in the big horse chestnut in Mrs Kowalski’s sprawling garden – with its view of the ocean and the sturdy fence that kept out mammals – to a life at sea, roaming up and down the Atlantic. She had visited her cousins’ rocky, summertime home just once as a fledgling; she had found it desolate and inhospitable, and, after one particularly fearsome night of hunkering down as the small islet was buffeted by winds strong enough to pluck the feathers off any little petrel girl, had vowed to never return.
It was lonely, to be sure, living the years by herself in that big old chestnut on a quiet stretch of Ireland’s coast, and when the colony was far away she had to do her trawling on her own, but Shelley’s parents had raised her with the injunction to be true to her nature, and she had always determined to do just that, even if her nature made the other storm petrels call her names like “deviant”, “landlubber” and, possibly most hurtful of all, “weirdo”.
Feeling shunned by her own, Shelley made an effort to converse with the other genera in the surrounding trees, as well as with diverse and seasonal passers-by. Some would give her strange looks, but others were friendly and the hen two trees over always made a fuss of her when she visited.
It was this mothering friend, called Helga, that Shelley visited the day of her fifth birthday. Helga knew a thing or two about standing out from the crowd; she had once told Shelley that she believed her family to be the only Fea’s petrels in the land.
Shelley had cleaned herself particularly well in mark of her birthday; the backs of her wings glistened jet black in the weak sun and her square tail fanned out neatly as she made the short trip. A moment later she hopped onto the branch leading directly to Helga’s home. “Happy birthday, Elskan,” Helga said when she spotted Shelley, making use of the Nordic endearment she’d adopted for her young neighbour. She fluttered her wings in Shelley’s direction, inviting her to come further in.
“I’m five today, Helga,” Shelley said without any to-do, shuffling along unsteadily on her thin little legs. An unexpected wobble had entered into her voice when she spoke, and she had to swallow hard to repress it, hurting her throat. “I’m getting old.”
“Not so, Elskan,” Helga insisted. “Still lots of time to find a mate and have a chick.” At this juncture she nudged her own hatchling further back into the nest with her beak.
“You really think so? Even for a ‘weirdo’ storm petrel like myself who doesn’t get out much?”
“Algerlega – absolutely.”
Shelley smiled gratefully at the firmness in Helga’s voice. Knowing her to be a forbearing friend, Shelley added forlornly, “But I never meet any other storm petrels, not now my parents are gone. I eat with them, but none ever talk to me. So how am I supposed to meet a good-looking young petrel who isn’t already partnered, or even just a girlfriend of my own age?” She suspected she already knew what Helga’s answer would be.
“By being brave, Elskan, by being brave.”
Shelley started to tear up. “But I’m not brave. I’m the opposite of brave – I’m, I’m … a chicken.” There was a short pause, then they smiled at one another over the little joke.
“Thankfully you are far too pretty and dainty to be a chicken. Look at you – you’re a sweet little catch. And maybe you haven’t been especially brave up till now – but you will be. You can be.” Helga batted a moment with the naughty hatchling. Then she faced Shelley again and said, “You’ve spoken to so many of the other birds around here – some of them big, rough types. Other storm petrels really shouldn’t be so terrible after all that. I even saw you talking with a big, testy Northern Fulmar last autumn!”
“It’s not the same,” Shelley pouted. “They – you – only expect me to be whatever it is I am – you don’t know what a storm petrel is supposed to be and do. Other storm petrels do, and I don’t fit in.” She sighed. “At least almost none of them remember me now and I can go feeding near them without having to endure the insults and knowing looks.”
“You don’t think I get looks, a Fea’s petrel in Ireland? Lots of birds are a bit different, a bit … unanticipated. Interesting birds, like us,” Helga said with a brisk devil-may-care shake of her head feathers. She then settled back down and gave her young friend a long searching look, before finally saying, “Why not stay on the waters a little longer tonight? Don’t just fly home as soon as you’ve eaten. Stay. Chat. Mingle.” Shelley nodded dolefully in response. “You don’t have to do much more than that. The right storm petrel will see you with time and he’ll take it from there. You must just let yourself be seen. Baby steps, Elskan, baby steps – tonight, just stay on the water for a little bit longer. Agreed?”
Shelley sat still, her face down, thinking, then she looked up and nodded decisively, a tiny spark in her stomach making her realise she could actually do it – if she decided to do it. There was nothing stopping her, she told herself. She was tired of being alone. Yes, she was living on her own terms, in her own way, but it was lonely. She wanted something more.
“Tonight I will be brave, Helga. I will make you proud of me.” She shuffled away, back along the branch. Just before she leapt off, she looked over her shoulder to smile at her friend and say, “Thanks, Helga.”
“Any time, Elskan, any time. You just hang in there. And Helga will be here to cheer you along all the way.”
That evening Shelley flew out to sea with a light in her eyes. The sky was dark with clouds, and a fresh north-westerly breeze carried her easily along her way. A short while later she dropped down onto the surface of the ocean, cold as always but with waves that were relatively gentle. No excuses, she told herself, and proceeded to nibble on the first piece of plankton that floated her way.
When her hunger started to abate, she slowed down her feeding and looked about furtively in between mouthfuls at the group of nearby storm petrels, all chattering with each other as they ate. They made it look so easy, and Shelley felt the recognisable anxiety wrap itself around her like seaweed around one’s feet. She contemplated abandoning her plan and just flying home. Her stomach was full enough. But then she remembered what she had promised Helga about being brave. The flicker of determination in her belly was still there, and she focused on it, urging it to grow bigger and help her.
Expelling saltwater through her nostrils, she lifted herself up and resolutely pattered across the water towards two youngish-looking birds on the fringe of the group. Having reached their spot, she plopped down into the water next to them, clearly taking them by surprise.
“Hi,” she said. “We’ve never met before. I’m Shelley.”
It turned out the two petrels she had chosen were brother and sister – Bonnie and Ioan – and they had just been discussing their next trip to Malta. Shelley asked them about it, and instead of making her feel embarrassed because she hadn’t been herself, they began to tell her about it. Bonnie described the warmth of the waters and the colours of the flowers on the trees, and Ioan told her about the taste of the food there, and the gentleness of the air. They asked her about her life, and then listened interestedly as she told them about her horse chestnut and the garden. Before she knew it, all the other birds had left and it was just the three of them that remained, talking. She had outstayed them all!
As she said goodbye to Bonnie and Ioan, having promised to meet them the next evening, Shelley felt lighter. She didn’t know if she was any closer to finding a partner – Ioan was a little young at just three years old – but she had been brave, and she knew it. Shelley-level brave, at least. And her future started to open up in her mind’s eye at the prospect of the other brave things she might surprise herself by doing.