Fly away, old Buddy, fly away…Buddy? Buddy?

In an exclusive, dramatic reenactment, Buddy the bird is prepared for a sea burial through the traditional hawse hole.

Midwinter 2004

By David Roper
For Points East

I’m not sure any of you will believe my tale, but since no one other than Bryan and I was present at the time of this death at sea I need to tell my side of the story.

I am not an angry man, certainly not a murderer. In fact, never in my life have I engaged in any sort of violent behavior. Bryan seems to believe otherwise. Even now, a year later, I sense his suspicion of me. And I sense his visceral fear and anger. I sense it whenever he happens to be in front of me: on a busy street corner, near an open window, or, as he was last week, when he stood with his back to me on the high cliff way above Halibut Point that looks east toward Isles of Shoals. I think he wonders: will I kill again? This is why I must tell this story.

It was late in the fall. November. Too late to be delivering Opus, his little 26-foot Frances sloop, back from Maine to Marblehead. There was an edge to the air that spoke to me. “Make it quick; don’t linger, stupid; you shouldn’t be out here in the first place.” I pretended not to hear, and got busy raising the main. After all, Kennebunkport to Marblehead isn’t that far.

The recently rebuilt single-cylinder Yanmar sounded good and we had plenty of warm clothes and food. A long, languorous swell rolled under us on its way toward George Bush Sr.’s summer compound as we putt-putted out the channel. We rolled out the tanbark genoa, killed the one-lung iron beast, and, in a welcome silence, fell off on our course toward Cape Ann.

About an hour later the silence was broken by a light metallic hammering coming from the mast. It didn’t sound like a rapping halyard; more like an anemic mini-jackhammer. I worked my way forward to investigate. On the forward side of the mast, about four feet off the deck, oblivious to me and very intent on his business, was a small bird. He pecked frantically at the aluminum mast, hoping, I surmised, to find an insect or two burrowed within. He wasn’t having any luck.

“What’d you find?” Bryan asked as I returned to the cockpit.

“Well,” I said, “there’s a bird up there, and he’s either soft in the head or has found some real tasty termites living in your anodized aluminum spar.”

The wind shifted a bit, dropped off a lot, and we started the engine. After powering for a few minutes, we noticed the bird take flight from the mast and circle broadly around us before coming to land on top of the dodger. He was clearly tired, hungry, and maybe lost or disoriented. We stared at him, and he back at us. Then he took off again, circled, and landed on the starboard cockpit winch. Again, we stared at one another, cocking our heads, aliens unable to communicate.

“You hungry and tired, little guy?” I asked the bird.

“No,” Bryan interjected, “he’s just here to pick up his dry cleaning on the way to a bird convention in Miami.”

Wise guy. The bird hopped to the bottom of the boat’s small cockpit foot well. Then he hopped up on the toe of one of my boots, settled there for awhile, and then (and I’m not making any of this up) he hopped onto Bryan’s right knee.

As the day went on we became very attached to our new feathered friend, and he seemed to feel the same way about us. We named him Buddy. We tried to feed him tiny bits of crackers, but with no luck. Buddy seemed to be happy just to have found a space that didn’t require wings. In fact, I think Opus became his dream boat. He began to hop around like an integral part of the crew, alighting on the deck, the dodger again, back to the winch, and finally, back to the cockpit sole, my boot, and Bryan’s knee.

After my watch I decided to take a nap and ducked below to the warmth of the vee berth. I was asleep in seconds, but later awoke to Bryan’s voice. “Pssst…pssst…David… don’t move, but open your eyes – Buddy’s sleeping under your chin.” Sure enough, our new friend had burrowed between my beard and under my down jacket top and appeared to be blissfully asleep. And so it went. It seemed Buddy had now decided that being in the cabin was best of all, and he flitted about the cozy space, hopping about and alighting on the kerosene lamp, the stove, the bookshelf, and the quarter berth.

Meanwhile, we went about our shipboard business. At some point, between passing Boon Island and Isles of Shoals, Bryan asked me to grab his bird guide from bookshelf so we could identify our new shipmate. Below, I noticed Buddy sitting happily on the tattered Maine Coast cruising guide as I reached into the line of books and grabbed the bird book. We identified him as a red-breasted nuthatch. About that time we also started to look for the entrance buoy to the Annisquam River off Cape Ann. I tossed the thick paperback guide below and grabbed the binoculars to identify the buoy. It was now just before dark and getting really cold. It started to drizzle. But I knew we’d make it in OK within the hour, grab a mooring in the cove off the little village of Annisquam, start the stove/heater, pour some good rum, and get warmed up. Fifteen minutes later I went below to grab the small-scale chart for Bryan; then tidied up the small cabin to make it a bit more welcoming for our landfall. I didn’t see Buddy.

“Bummer. Must have flown off when we got closer to land,” Bryan said. “I thought he’d be with us forever. What a cool little guy. I had fantasies of him being the boat bird forever.”

“Weird,” I said. “I just saw him down there about 15 minutes ago. Must have flown away while we were searching for the buoy.”

The Annisquam light was just visible in the drizzle and dying light of day. We would be moored soon. One of the very few advantages of boating in November is the abundance of empty moorings. Once secure on one, we dove into the cabin, lit the stove and kerosene lantern, and poured our rum. Things indeed warmed up in no time. Our thoughts turned back to Buddy.

“We were never that far from land. Why would he stay with us all day and then suddenly disappear?” Bryan asked. He seemed truly crestfallen.

“Maybe he didn’t,” I said. “Let’s look around some more.” But we found nothing. Later, while the stew was simmering, Bryan asked me to reach forward into the bookshelf to grab the bird book again. “Maybe we missed something about him,” he said. “I want to read more about Nuthatches. He was such a cool little guy.”

Reaching into the shelf, I lifted out the thick bird book. The adjacent paperbacks toppled, and when I reached in to prop them back up, my hand felt something soft and round. I grabbed the flashlight, pointed it to the spot, and flipped it on.

I didn’t say anything for several moments, letting the pieces come together for me. Bryan was busy with a large knife, cutting carrots for the stew.

Finally, I spoke.

“Ah, Bryan? … Ah, I just found Buddy … And, ah, well, he’s kind of dead.”

Bryan moved forward in a flash. He turned to me, knife still in hand. The dancing glow of the kerosene lantern gave his face a contorted Jack Nicholson “Shining” kind of look in the half darkness.

“Sorry, man,” I croaked. “He must have snuggled into the space left from the bird book when you had it in the cockpit. Then, when I was tidying up, well, I put the book back. I must have sort of squished him with it. Jesus, I killed the freaking bird with a bird book. How weird is that?”

Bryan was in no mood for discussing what was weird.

“No. You didn’t kill him. You murdered him,” he said. “You murdered Buddy.”

It was the beginning of a long, uneasy night.

“Quit kidding, man,” I’d say over and over through the rest of the rum bottle. “Stop calling me a murderer.”

But he never has.

The next day, on the last leg to Marblehead, after covering his body with a tiny canvas shroud, we buried Buddy at sea. We sent him to the hereafter by sliding his lifeless form through Opus’ starboard scupper. “Ashes to ashes, feathers to feathers,” I said in prayer, trying to lighten the moment.

Bryan watched for a long time as Buddy’s tiny body disappeared in our wake.

Then he turned to me.

“Murderer,” he said.

Freelance writer David Roper lives and sails in Marblehead, Mass.