“I don’t need ye wankers swarming over me,” he growled. “It’s a couple of damn scratches is all—OUCH! —that’s my skull, Billigan ... I’ve been in far worse scrapes than this and never needed ye nancy boys…. Maggie, you really—AAAAAAAARGH! —you didn’t need to call 9-1-1, I’m perfectly fine, nothing a little Bactine and a Band-Aid or two won’t heal ... OUCH! —you’re all thumbs there, Doby—and let me remind ye once more, mate, that’s my skull you’re mucking around with!”
Melody shuddered when they pressed him onto his back, a paramedic saying, “Mr. Conor, we need to ask you to calm down and stop resisting us—we think one of the cuts on your neck may have nicked your carotid artery, and further movement might rupture it completely.”
Maggie had heard, too. She’d been speaking to the sheriff, a stout, angry-looking middle-aged man with a severe buzz cut, whose professional stoicism seemed shaken by the fact that it hadn’t been thugs that did this, but—seagulls?
Melody wheeled about. Mr. Conor was very quiet now as the medical personnel busily immobilized him, their voices low, their hands covered in thin white rubber gloves now stained purplish-red. Her stomach turned over: despite the fact that she couldn’t see her teacher, she could see the growing pool of blood that had formed beneath him: blood that ran in thin magenta streamers away from where he lay to the cracks between the wooden planks, to drain silently into the indifferent ocean twenty feet below. Mom impatiently concluded her interview with the sheriff; she stooped over one of the men working on Mr. Conor to say, “Aedan, don’t worry, we’ll be right behind the ambulance.”
A small crowd of onlookers had gathered, held back by the sheriff’s deputy, who had pulled into the plaza during her interview. The sheriff then interviewed Melody briefly—she barely paid attention to his questions, watching instead as the ambulance backed directly onto the Pier until it was just a few feet from the emergency personnel. Mr. Conor was now on a silver gurney and being wheeled noisily towards the vehicle’s open rear doors, its revolving emergency lights like rapidly whirling lighthouse beacons, mixing with those atop the sheriffs’ vehicles and glancing brightly off the nearby buildings lining the beach. Melody and her mom crowded as close to the gurney as they could, attempting to look over the shoulders of the paramedics.
Mr. Conor’s head was buried in orange foam padding, his forehead covered in white gauze. His body was wrapped in a thin blue sheet. He was thoroughly cocooned, so tightly in fact that Melody doubted he’d be able to squirm an inch in any direction. He appeared quite groggy. His one good eye (the other was covered in blood-soaked gauze) was intently staring at her, a stark beam of emerald determination. As she watched, his mouth widened into a gruesome grin, his face and gray beard painted with flecks of blood.
She felt like bursting into tears right there, but didn’t want him to feel any worse than he already must. With great effort she tried nodding and smiling reassuringly, but now he was whispering something—to her.
She pulled away from Momma, ignoring her protests, and pushed through the huddled mass to her geometry teacher. “What, Mr. Conor...?”
The metallic clattering of the swiftly moving gurney over the knotted planks of the Pier made it nearly impossible to hear his low voice, but somehow she caught it anyway:
“I want that proof on my desk first thing Monday morning, ye understand?”
She nodded mechanically, trying to stop the tears brimming in her eyes from spilling over. Momma abruptly had her by the arm, urging her, “Melody, come! The house is five blocks away and we walked here, remember? Let’s hurry now—”
And then they were half walking, half running up the silent and familiar beachside streets leading away from the Pier and towards home. The sea breezes had abated entirely, as though holding back in shared worry, making the sounds of rapidly diminishing sirens that much more stark and frightening. The way back seemed to take an eternity, and now it was she leading the way, tightly gripping her mother’s wrist and saying impatiently, “Momma, come on!”
They never set foot inside their small home on Edgemont Street, but immediately climbed inside the old Toyota sedan parked in the driveway. It backed quickly into the dark road, and with a staccato screech! lurched forward, disappearing into the night.
The emergency room at Scripps Chula Vista Hospital was eight miles away. It seemed like eight hundred. Then … the interminable wait inside its sickly gray-white confines, with its uncomfortable black plastic chairs, stacks of old magazines on veneer-covered coffee tables, depressing lime-green artificial plants placed here and there, a television propped in a forgotten ceiling corner blaring reruns and infomercials. There were the occasional bursts of activity as new patients were hurried in on gurneys, surrounded by medical personnel. The heavy silence immediately following would slam down upon her head like a mallet, leaving only the dull drone of the television above her.
She hated this place. She sank her head to her mother’s shoulder and closed her eyes, wishing Yaeko was with her. She could feel Momma press her lips to her head.
Three hours that felt like three days later—and a very slender, very young-looking doctor pushed open the large swinging doors and strode quickly over to them. He was dressed in green surgical scrubs and looked tired and impatient. “Are you the acquaintances of Aedan Conor?” he asked without introducing himself.
“We’re his friends, yes,” Maggie responded.
He brusquely pushed aside a teetering pile of old magazines sitting on the coffee table in front of them, causing two or three to spill to the tile floor. He sat on the cleared area and leaned forward, his eyes narrowing, as though trying to make out the picture on a television with poor reception. He nodded curtly to Melody before looking back at her mother and saying, “Now what was it again that attacked him...?”
Both mother and daughter spoke in unison—“Seagulls.” Melody added quickly: “There were four of them. Big ones. With black markings on their chests, like a sword or something.”
The doctor looked down his nose at her. “Black—?” He dismissed the statement outright, glanced at Maggie. “Seagulls. You’re sure of this?” he asked incredulously.
Momma’s irritation was plainly evident in her voice. “Of course I’m sure, Doctor—?”
“—I was trying to get them off him, Doctor Punaho. Like my daughter said, they were larger than normal, however, and—”
“—and they had black markings on their chest, Momma, like I said, don’t forget—”
Young Doctor Punaho leaned forward as if abruptly pushed, clasped his hands. “What were these markings, exactly?”
Melody felt as though the doctor was merely humoring her. His face clearly held disdain in it, as if he were humoring a little girl, not worthy of much attention beyond her obvious attempt to get some here.
“B-Black markings,” she stammered. “A sword ... through … an ellipse. A ring. W-With flames on it …”
He glanced at Maggie. “You saw these markings too?”
“I’m not sure what I saw,” she replied. “I was just trying to get the damn things away from him.”
“How is he?” Melody asked, sick of the suspense, and sick of being treated condescendingly.
“Well …” Doctor Punaho sighed, then gave a fatigued shrug. “He suffered numerous cuts, ten or so requiring multiple stitches. Whatever attacked him had razor-sharp claws or talons or ...” He rubbed his chin, thinking. “…but I’ve never heard of any species of seagull with obvious human markings, or talons, let alone ones sharp enough to cut through tempered glass—”
Melody stopped breathing.
Doctor Punaho continued, his voice now assuming that professional impassivity that announced he was no longer curious about the attack that occurred earlier in the evening and would now only report on its grim consequences. “That said, his left ear was severely lacerated—several cuts went completely through it—but the greatest damage by far was centered on his neck, as if—”
“As if they were specifically aiming for his neck,” Maggie nodded.
“Yes. And in fact one … talon—or whatever it was—came within half a millimeter of Mr. Conor’s carotid artery. Had it actually cut the artery Mr. Conor would have likely bled out before the paramedics arrived. He’s lucky to be alive, quite frankly …”
Melody brought her hands to her mouth, her mother shaking her head in awed disbelief. She found herself reliving the attack for the fiftieth time that evening. The birds had appeared from seemingly nowhere, a white streak of purposeful hate. She thought of the seagulls over Mr. Conor’s head as he approached their table earlier … precise, orderly, almost military in their guardlike attention to the man below ...
The doctor was saying, “… he’s lost some blood, enough for us to keep him overnight for observation. And he’s in considerable pain …” He shook his head again. “Seagulls….” After a moment’s silence, as if considering an implacable problem, he added, “Something else: the ‘seagulls’—or whatever they were—their claws or talons or whatever they were seemed to be tipped with a … a poison of some sort. Its composition is unknown, but what we do know is it seems to stimulate the nerves around an injury hugely, causing tremendous pain … like pouring lemon juice on a cut—”
She and Momma winced, Maggie hissing between clenched teeth.
“Of course, we’re having it tested; we still—”
“Is he going to be all right?” Maggie asked urgently. Melody nodded, waiting …
“We think so,” said Dr. Punaho. “Again, we’re keeping him overnight, just in case. It will be longer, of course, if the poison in his system turns out to be a lethal dose. But for now, I can tell you Mr. Conor is in stable but serious condition, and is resting as we speak. He’s … a very stubborn individual. We’ve had difficulty getting him to do anything for us.”
“Can we see him?” asked Melody anxiously.
The emergency room doctor glanced quickly at his watch. “No, sorry. Visiting hours ended an hour ago. He’s out cold anyway.”
He rose abruptly and nodded, looking at both of them. “Ma’am, Miss. If you’ll excuse me ...”
They sat for a long time without speaking or looking at one another, trying to process all they had seen and heard this evening, the droning of the television above them echoing hollowly in the waiting room. Eventually her mom said, “Let’s go, love. We can call first thing tomorrow morning. Perhaps if he’s able to leave we can give him a lift home; if not, we’ll pop in as soon as the hospital allows visitors. Come on.”
And now they sat in their living room absentmindedly sipping hot chocolate, each wrapped in her own thoughts. Finally Momma rose. “Bed. I know, I know: we won’t sleep, but we should at least try.” She bent down and kissed her cheek. They hugged. “What was that you said as we waited for him? ‘This is weird’? Bet you had no idea how ‘weird’ it’d turn out to be!”
Melody didn’t want to let go of her. But she did anyway and forced a wan smile to her mouth. “If that’s what a first date is supposed to be like, I’ll skip.”
Momma’s laugh was genuine. “Didn’t you know? When you turn sixteen you go immediately into the convent in Tijuana. You won’t have to sweat it.”
It was Melody’s turn to giggle.
She turned at her bedroom door a minute later and looked back. “Is he going to be okay, Momma?”
“I think so, Bug. I hope so. Go on. Get to bed. Dream good dreams for him—and absolutely no working on that infernal proof of his.”
She couldn’t work on the proof, no way. Maybe in the morning. Maybe. She could if he was all right. She could, she would ...
She also couldn’t dream, because she couldn’t fall asleep. Not for a long, long time.
She was in a vast opalescent blue, brighter and whiter above, becoming steadily darker below. Beneath—far beneath—the blue condensed into a deep cerulean hue, which seemed to swirl just above a layer of total blackness. She was floating again—swimming—in the same place she had been earlier after falling into the gaze of the dishwasher named Harry Chin. But she wasn’t cold—she didn’t feel wet at all—and despite being well beneath the surface had no fear of drowning. In fact, like before, it felt as though her lungs were infinite within her chest, and when she inhaled, every part of her body inhaled too. The sensation was intensely satisfying, so much so that for a long time she simply focused on her breathing and the joyous thought that if the earth had lungs, this is what it would be like to breathe with them. She thought abstractedly that breathing water felt exactly the same as breathing air, that she couldn’t sense gills or other similar organs on her person.
Her body …
She could no longer sense her arms or legs, but as with the realization that she was underwater, it caused her no panic or even concern whatsoever. She considered how useless arms and legs would be here anyway. Her body felt tremendous, gargantuan.
She took in another great breath (of seawater? Was this the Pacific Ocean?) and tried to picture herself as a thirteen-year-old girl, with arms and legs and tiny air-breathing lungs and silly problems and fears. They seemed light-years distant, as though she were observing them through the lens of a telescope, and with the same detached curiosity. As she exhaled she thought of Mr. Conor, of the attack he suffered. She replayed the events of the evening once more and found herself thinking of death … a truly intriguing phenomenon, really … a mystery … the terminus to life. The futile struggle to forestall it, the intense fear surrounding it … so curious…. And then she knew with a sudden crystalline certainty that that mystery could be solved beneath her, in the dark below. Without fear of any kind she dived, her great form effortlessly propelling her deeper and deeper; she sensed the light above fading away, becoming a lonely gray, then a twilight blue, then swallowed away completely. It was as though she swam in a deep, lightless cave, darker than the darkest night.
She took in another vast lungful (gillful?) of …air? water?—and then it was right in front of her: the symbol, the aecxis, the periodless question mark with the curly-Q top, glowing blue and gold. The answer is there, within it, she thought. I only need to solve it.
And then she knew exactly how.
For the aecxis was not a symbol of the cold, impersonal mathematics of thought and intellect, of axiom and structure, but of the heart, beyond thought and intellect, beyond axiom, beyond structure. In that very instant, as before in the intense gaze of the dishwasher, she fell inside herself, but instead of vanishing to extinction, of dying, a most incredible thing took place: the beautiful symbol drew near, as if pulled along by her sudden, disappearing sense of self. It came closer, as though under the influence of a magnet or a powerful current within her.
It touched her—
—and brightly flashed out of existence.
And she knew the answer had been there all along, not in strenuous effort, not as intellection, but far, far beyond, in the realm where spirit and life fuse: an answer as perfectly clear and orderly as the transparent blue above her, as life-giving as the gestating blackness she swam in now; as satisfying as infinite breath. The answer told her:
Death is an illusion … a transition only.
And now the familiar music was back. That was it! she thought. That’s what I’ve been missing! The symphony she had heard in her spirit her entire life filled it like her lungs filled with life-giving oxygen, sweeping it upward in its innocent joy and passion.
She was leaving the blackness below her, the symphony buoying her blissfully upward. She passed through twilight blue into the turquoise blue of a mid-afternoon day in summertime, to a shimmering, shallow heavenly white …
She found herself floating on her back on the calm, glassy surface of the sea, miles from anywhere, peering upward at the sky, a boundless azure dome painted with angelic wisps of frozen clouds miles and mile above. The overwhelming sense of her own vastness was gone; she was merely human now; but her diminution didn’t frighten or concern her, nor the fact that she was far, far from home, floating in the middle of the ocean. There was no danger here, no questions, no past, no future. She somehow couldn’t feel it, and it wasn’t important, but she knew she was smiling. She closed her eyes.
She was back in her bedroom. She lay very still, savoring the warm feeling that a deep sleep always brings, sensing her breath, how regular and effortless it was. She wished she could drop back off into slumber. It was drizzling out; she could hear the steady drip-drip-drip of water as it trickled off the roof. After listening contentedly for a while, she turned her head slightly to look at the time. 1:25 p.m. She had slept through the morning and into the early afternoon.
She came up with a start, the events of the past evening rudely jarring her awake. She jumped out of bed and burst into the dining nook seconds later, where Momma was sitting at the table reading Wolfe’s Field Guide to Pacific Coast Seagulls.
“Momma!” she said, exasperated, “why didn’t you wake me up? Mr. Conor—”
Her mother looked up from her reading and smiled. “Good morn—er—afternoon to you too.” And before Melody could chastise her further, added, “You were out, Mellow Yellow. I tried waking you at seven—repeatedly—but you just would not budge.”
But Melody had barely heard her, for the awesome dream had just flooded her memory … the floating … the complete calm …
“Anyway,” her mom was saying, “I called the hospital at 6:30, but the on-duty nurse—a real winner, I tell ya—she said—and you won’t believe this—that Mr. Conor just up and walked out of the intensive care unit! Said she had never seen anything like it in her entire life!”
… the feeling of breathing for an entire world, the looming, mysterious blackness rising to engulf her as she swam down towards it …
“Apparently—like he was leaving a business meeting or something—he called a cab! Can you believe it? The nurses, of course, tried stopping him—yeah, right! The on-duty nurse groused that she had never met a more taciturn, crabby, belligerent patient, was glad to see him go, ‘miraculous recovery’ or not.”
… the music!—the music of her lifetime, music as expansive as her lungs, joyous, innocent. The—Melody caught her breath—the aecxis ...
“I tried calling his home, but his number’s unlisted, of course ... I imagine that’s just standard practice for all teachers these days ... Oh—I called Elizabeth too. I told her you’d be at violin practice tomorrow morning, no ifs, ands, or buts. Yaeko is such an amazingly sweet girl; she told Elizabeth she wants to play another recital for us this next weekend …”
… the solution …
She gazed at Momma as though meeting her for the first time. She stood frozen in the middle of the kitchen in her pajamas, as if any movement whatever would steal from her what she now possessed ...
“Honey? Are you okay? Bug?”
Her heart thumped like a drum. She blinked several times in rapid succession, and heavily, as if staring into a sandstorm. When she felt she could devote at least part of her attention to something else without losing this tremendous revelation, she smiled with cautious effort. “Yeah … I, uh—yeah. Good. Good. I mean—I’m sorry about Mr. Conor ... He’ll look horrible tomorrow at school … Should we get him a card, you think? ... Yaeko? Yeah. I’ve got to tell her someth—… Maybe—er … I’ve … got … something … I’ve ... got ...”
“Honey, you’re scaring me. What’s on your mind?” Maggie rose and stood before her, concern pinching her face. She reached a hand out, pressed her palm against her forehead. “You’re warm. Feeling okay?”
She had it now, she knew. She had it! She shifted her stare to her mother’s eyes, which were full of motherly worry.
“I’m—I’m fine, Momma, really.”
Her mother pulled her into a hug. “You said you’ve ‘got something.’ What is it you’ve ‘got’?”
“You’re reading a book … on birds?” Melody knew she couldn’t talk about the aecxis, not without freaking her completely out.
Momma kissed her cheek. “Yeah … I went out to get some groceries and found myself at the bookstore instead. I was thinking I could learn about seagulls. I’ve never heard of any gulls that would attack without provocation—or had talons. Or black markings of a sword through a flaming ring. The doctor last night got me to thinking about it. It kept me up all night, I think.” She grinned wistfully.
Melody pulled back. “Momma … I’ve got … I’ve got a ton of homework ...”
“Ah.” She chuckled. “That’s what you’ve ‘got.’ That damn proof.” She sighed. “Shall I bring in an intravenous drip now or after you collapse from exhaustion?”
Melody kissed her cheek and rushed back to her bedroom, closing the door behind her. Her purple backpack lay at the foot of her bed. She sat and unzipped it impatiently, fumbling inside it, fishing for her geometry folder, her hand shaking.
There. She yanked the folder free of her other books and folders and out of the pack and opened it. Aside from the class syllabus, the proof was the only thing inside it. She breathlessly pulled it out. The diagram of the broken triangle stared back at her, as did the neatly-drawn aecxis beneath it. Without looking she reached down into the pouch of her backpack and fished a pencil out of it. She steadied herself, focusing on the symbol …
Soon the periodless question mark with the curly-Q top began twisting and writhing, as it always had. She cautiously closed her eyes (knowing somehow it was the right thing to do) and recalled her dream … the sensations of total peace … of absolute serenity … of the music—her music. She held to those feelings, to the symphony, and slowly opened her eyes. The aecxis, unlike before, had not returned to its static, pencil-drawn state as it had when she had taken her eyes off it in times past, but now seemed even more alive, glowing faintly gold, beautiful to behold. She absentmindedly dropped the pencil she was barely grasping and, with her index finger outstretched tentatively, pointed towards the symbol, which now appeared to be floating inches off the page.
At the last instant before she touched it, the aecxis flashed a brilliant white, a tiny supernova, and disappeared into her finger.
She closely examined her finger, astonished, then the page, and then her finger again. She had felt nothing as the symbol disappeared into it; for a moment she entertained for one final time the thought that she was going mad. But no … plainly, the graphite mark that denoted the odd, periodless question mark that was the symbol, and which her teacher had placed there with his own pencil, was now missing, as though it had never existed.
She gingerly set the page on her lap after several minutes, as though handling a very fragile object. She gently extended her index finger again and pointed it at the “broken” triangle, letting it come very close to touching one of the line segments that made it up. She considered the proof. What was it supposed to look like when “solved”? She knew, of course: she was supposed to mend the broken triangle, to make it whole!
At that very moment, as she thought that very thought, and with her eyes wide as saucers, the same brilliant light flashed at her fingertip: the fantastic symbol was back; but when it touched the paper it suddenly splintered into dozens of tiny symbols, all seemingly different. They fed quickly into the segment her finger was closest to ...
As she watched, open-mouthed, the segment began to move. It joined seamlessly with the closest end of the split segment—more tiny floating aecxes flowed out of the end, disappearing into the next segment … the segments flowed together, joining, becoming one ... And now there was a simple angle: two rays joined together at a newly formed vertex, and one more segment still unattached to it ... But now those tiny symbols were flowing into both of its ends as they spilled out of the rays that made up the angle, like water from miniature irrigation pipes … the last loose segment began to move, drawing closer, shrinking to fit the width of the angle … the ends flowed with aecxes, now closing into the rays … the graphite darkened slightly—
—and a sudden, dazzling, minute star appeared again, and with movement almost too fast to follow, tore around the completed figure, a perfect equilateral triangle, before disappearing altogether. The aecxis was gone.
She sat for a very long time, stunned, staring downward at
the completed proof.