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The cannibal birds of Burgazada

THE AWL - 24 JUNE 2011

We saw the island as sun dipped below the hills. I hefted luggage onto the dock. My wife Kelly, who worked in Iraq, had flown to Turkey, where I was raising our two-year-old daughter. We'd planned a week's stay on Burgazada, one of seven islands a short ferry ride from Istanbul. I was excited.

Pulling rolling suitcases, my in-laws followed me into town. They'd taken a plane from Chicago: Steve was a retired prison warden, and his wife, Claudia, taught eighth-grade history. Family bonding was imminent.

Boats bobbed in blue waters, and a row of fish restaurants had tables with white tablecloths set out. We saw a patisserie, with shelves of puddings and cakes. Next door was a grocery, a butcher and a produce stand.

Up the slope was a seaside community, where locals summered in wooden houses. It was here we'd rented a large apartment. As we walked up the hill, flower boxes bulged with color, and a wizened couple sat on a terrace sipping tea. A horse-drawn carriage rang its bell and we stepped to the side.

On the wrap-around balcony, Kelly held tongs, beaming through smoke, and tended a roaring grill. Claudia and Steve ooh'ed and ah'ed at the view of the pool. Candles flickered on a table, and the sun burned orange. We ate, drank and drifted to sleep.


In bed, we first heard the screaming. It was hard to believe how loud it was, how many birds must have been out there, and why on earth were they making so much noise? At last, for a few hours, we had quiet. But before dawn, a rooster crowed and the gulls resumed screaming. Then a dog began barking, then another. It was 4 a.m. Soon enough, hours early, our daughter Loretta woke up. I staggered into a blazing Turkish morning.

Groggily, I made coffee and rifled the cabinet for milk. Loretta padded around in bare feet. Then Kelly emerged from our room with wild hair and red eyes.

"What the fuck?" she said.

Outside, a gull swooped low, screamed, shat in the pool, then sliced into morning sky.

We went out to investigate. While it looked lovely from the terrace, up close the pool was a film of leaves, bugs and feathers. The sky above was a riot of howling birds. I found a net and began to skim, dragging along the surface, walking circles around the pool. Loretta trundled about in the grass. "Toot, toot," she said, mimicking a ferry. Steve watched grimly from the balcony, slamming down a cup of coffee. Claudia took a long shower. The gulls screamed.

Then I spotted a bone. Hoping Kelly hadn't seen, I scooped it up. Meat hung off the scalloped filigree of a spinal column. It was gross. Feeling nauseous, I set again to skimming, working the net faster, hoping there'd be no more gore. On a nearby tree, Kelly set up a baby swing, where Loretta settled in for a push, laughing.

Later, the birds continued to scream, and we tried to eat lunch. Sitting on the balcony, a view of a monastery in the distance, we peered into the sky. Just then, a gull and crow clashed in the sky, claws locked, retreating to rooftops to scream at each other. We decided it was baby season. I wondered if we'd need to buy a shotgun.

The next morning, skimming the pool, I was nearly knocked into the deep end. A gull arced into the sky and I heard why: it had been trying to protect its fledgling, a fluffy bird the size of a toaster, which bleated plaintively. The young gull blinked at me, lifting a foot into its feathers. It shat, then skittered into the bushes. By a deck chair, I saw half of what the bird had been eating. The carcass looked like a gull—cannibal!—the meat nearly torn off, a red smear. In the pool, rolling in the current, two sparkling spines had been pecked clean.

After another mostly sleepless night, I stood on the balcony early in the morning and eyed the water. Was it filled again with bugs and bones? Yes, it was. By a deck chair splattered in shit, the baby gull pecked at a pile of meat. I shuddered.

Around the kitchen, morale was low. The in-laws emerged from bed, and I made sure a pot of coffee was gurgling.

"Fucking birds," I stammered, cutting into a peach.

Claudia agreed immediately.

"I know," she hissed. "I hate them."

Kelly and I went for a run, tracing the edge of the island to its western terminus. We'd been living apart for most of a year but had fallen back into a rhythm. The gulls thinned out in the hills, and we ran happily into hot wind, gaining distance with every step from the screaming birds. Her footfalls made time beside my own. Soon enough, Kelly would be back in Iraq. That was what made the birds and bones so frustrating. This was supposed to be our time together.

Panting from the run, I sat in the pool and looked up to see birds locked in battle. They were inescapable.


One morning, entering our yard after a grocery trip to town, I saw the baby gull and thought maybe it had gotten bigger. Then it began to pump fuzzy wings. I held my breath. It flew, but only for five feet or so.

Despite it all, a pattern began to form: Coffee in the morning, a long breakfast. A run for Kelly and me, then a swim with Loretta. Claudia took the little girl on a long walk. Steve pushed her in the swing. We'd nap after lunch and swim through the afternoon. Dinner featured fish. The days melted into one another, and to my immense relief, the bones and the cries of the birds became just another part of a vacation routine.

On the second-to-last day, Loretta napped, and I stretched out in the bedroom. I heard Kelly in the lounge, talking to colleagues about flack jackets, battle helmets and satellite phones. Sleepy and heartsick, I tiptoed out to give her a set of headphones, hoping to muffle half a conversation I didn't want to hear in the first place.

That night, I dreamt of a plane crash and desperate search for survivors. In the dark, birds screamed.


The last morning on the island, methodically packing and cleaning, I found one more bloody bone, and I thought about how different my life was from my wife's. In Istanbul, I was mainly a father, and each night I gave our daughter a bath, put her to bed, then cleaned up the house. Kelly, meanwhile, lived behind blast walls, guarded by men with machine guns. For this one strange week, it hadn't been perfect, but at least we'd been together. Knowing where Kelly was headed—a place with noises louder than birds—I dreaded saying goodbye.

I stared at the bone.


That final morning, we boarded the boat alongside a crush of weekend visitors. I regarded other families with a mix of envy and wonder. A woman in head scarf and black abaya patted her son's head. A father, who spoke gentle Arabic, guided two of his girls to the bathroom. Maybe they were seeking refuge from Bahrain, Syria, or Yemen?

The ferry to Istanbul crashed across blue water, bringing us all closer to our lives on shore. The cycle was beautiful and also sad. To a certain degree, we were probably all getting used to it, and as spring became summer, the days would slide by.


This piece was originally published by The Awl. Read the original here.