Laysan albatross, Laysan Island, circa 1961-1973.
hey came to dance. This was their island, a jagged assortment of rocks, grass, and sand breaking the continuity of the northern Pacific. Since the last days of their youthful sea exiles, the pair of sleek-winged, splay-footed Laysan albatrosses had flown to this place, mapped onto their minds, to come back to the dance they created together, their only source of grace on land.
They had hatched from eggs on islands such as this one, fledging and then spending their first years of life over the ocean. Their narrow gray wings sliced the air directly above the water, and sometimes didn’t flap for days as they rode the air currents close to the waves. They stayed far away from land, could sense its dry presence in their tucked-in, inexperienced feet. The openness embraced them. Their dark wings and dorsal sides offered long, feathered spans to the sky, their white underbellies cast slim reflections on the water. They were nomads of the sea.
The two albatrosses had crash-landed on the same island decades ago. They gave their lives to skimming the sea, but after their period of complete watery exile, they looked for land to start their species’ yearly courtship ritual. Both being unaccustomed to and uninterested in terra firma, the young birds flew against their natural direction to the first bit of land that tickled their feet. Having been airborne or floating gently on the water the entirety of their young lives, the birds knew only the stinging salt greeting of Pacific air and the certainty of the sea. Land was a strange, ill-understood concept, forgotten from their days as hatchlings but reborn in their brains by an instinctual reminder suddenly awakened.
As this feeling reached its apex, each bird picked out a dry spot in their familiar ocean and aimed their beaks toward it. They were joined by a nautical plague’s worth of other albatrosses, all earthbound, quickly dropping from the sky and populating islands normally forsaken by all but the wind. Neither had attempted to land on something other than water. From the east, the female glided over the island, then, unsure of the correct next steps, catapulted her slight bones onto the beach. From the west, the male, not thinking to skim the land like water, folded in his wings and stuck out his feet. The falling birds scraped the rocky sand, drawing feathered wing lines and etching frantic footsteps. When the momentum of flight finally ran out, their paths halted less than a wingspan away from each other.
Before they even got to their land-shy webbed feet, their beaks met the same angle from their respective crash sites. After the sea, their only known home, the first thing they saw after their land reawakening was each other. Six-foot wingspans, now out of the air, spread across the sand, and a disorienting firmness spread beneath their hollow-boned bodies. But their tiny bird hearts beat flutteringly in the mess of it all. They were for each other. No other albatross would do.
The birds, unused to ambulatory support, struggled to regain balance. Without water or wind, their means of transport were effectively amputated. But each found bearing in the gaze of the other, a pull that helped them find their feet. The long look was their fist sustained avian contact since flying away from their parents. They felt it coming. It was like an echo that had finally found its canyon wall. The dance of their ancestors awoke in their chests, reminded their wings of their grace, and traveled down their feet and electrified the space between them. Evolutionarily speaking, it was courtship and mating. But it was also the beginning of a loving allegiance, a partnership beyond the individual sustenance and spiritual guidance of the sea.
Their first dance began with a bow. Now fully on their feet, the albatrosses acknowledged their new affinity for each other in a synchronized, stately brush of the ground with their beaks. Their bodies seemed to know this rhythm, to start a choreography for the future. Besides flight, it was the beauty in their lives. The birds drew out of their bow to face each other again, seeing the years of sea in the other’s black-rimmed eye. The male started a deep coo, making his feathers rustle as if windswept. The female echoed his sound and added a series of clicks, sending her beak into blurry pecks at the air. The bird ballet had begun.
In this first instance of their dance, every movement was spontaneous, yet grounded in a genetic code, and beautifully matched. It was perfect togetherness. Their bones were made to blend, their steps coded in ritual but performed for the first time. They came to dance.
Amid their mutual background of clicks, coos, and warbling, the shared choreography unfolded. With a sudden, simultaneous inhalation, the birds nimbly aligned their legs, necks, and beaks to the sky, looking to something open like the sea. They held their breath, directed to the sky. Then back, their beaks tucked into an upturned wing, each on the opposite side. Though removed from the air, it was a series of avian movements with the sinuous continuity of flight, the unbroken sincerity of a long glide on a wind current. The ritual went on. Neither bird knew a way to break the patterns manifesting themselves in feathers, beaks, and webbed feet. As the island’s rocks cooled in the day’s retreat, the albatrosses finally drew together, feather to feather, tucked beaks into wings, and slept their due sleep.
Season after season, they had come to dance. The birds surrendered to the land, found the anchor of the other, and gave form to the rhythms embedded in the spaces between their nomadic hearts. In recent years, the eggs were no longer coming after the ritual. They no longer warmed a little being under their feathers, the reason for their union lost to a mystery of aging. But though courtship was no longer a necessity, it was still their ritual. The years piled up like rocks on the only beach they had ever slept on, and still they danced. In their yearly partnership, their wayfaring oceanic lives were translated into a terrestrial exchange.
Decades after their first dance, the birds looked once again into mirrored eyes. With the same nautical grace, they arced into their bow. Saluted, the steps began, as stately and well-defined as they had ever been, but perhaps the choreography would disappear, this iteration, into the mawing ocean silence after the ceremony unbraided the pattern. The aging albatrosses, following their ancient itinerant longing to turn back to the sea, could forsake land altogether, without the promise of return. Their dance would disappear with their slow-beating wings. Its only traces would linger in the blood of hatchlings fledged long ago, now feeling the perfect rhythm of their own steps.
At least once more, it was a rhapsody in two.
This post is part of our series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.
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Claire Brindley lives in Washington, DC, where she walks herself silly in search of the unknown. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.