Fathom Mag
Article

Tracing the Circling Birds

I have preferred to linger near the shore lately

Published on:
September 23, 2019
Read time:
3 min.
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One corner of the lake slips away from the rest of the water and tucks itself into a cove. Blue-green waves soften into ripples, shuffle nearer to the pebbled bank, then settle into stillness. Overhead, three or four white birds fly in a circle. They follow an invisible loop, rising up and down, always curving back towards the cove.

I stand on the porch every day for a week, watching those birds. Throughout the day, the sun adjusts its position in the sky, clouds shift, and the water changes its hue. But the white birds continue to circle.

Something about the birds’ cadence compels me

“They are gulls,” my husband tells me. “They stay close to the water to search for food. That’s just what they do.”

I know they are ordinary birds, and I know this is an ordinary cove on an ordinary lake. But something about the birds’ cadence compels me—as though I am invited to consider the pattern they trace.


I have preferred to linger near the shore lately, withdrawing from daily tasks in order to retreat with my thoughts. I have always considered myself an introvert, but this newly-intense desire for solitude surprises even me. I have never felt so protective of my own inner life, not even when I had a newborn. Then, smelling like night sweats and expired breastmilk, I searched for any excuse to get out of the house simply to interact with real people who lived in the wild.

Now, with ample opportunity for showers and fresh clothes, I seek interaction with people only as a necessity. I find myself moving through my city-dwelling existence avoiding strangers, as if it were even possible. Several times, I have become so lost in thought or prayer during a routine trip to the grocery store that I have discovered myself weeping or singing without knowing it—much to the chagrin of innocent bystanders trying to buy a bag of potatoes.

Now, with ample opportunity for showers and fresh clothes, I seek interaction with people only as a necessity.

In the early mornings and evenings—and often in the late afternoons when my children are drawing stick figures and smearing yogurt on the table—I find myself curled over an open journal or open laptop. My fingers hover above black keys, draw sideways loops, and rehearse the same strokes in various combinations. My hands act as if they are trying to work some existential puzzle. If my brain understood what was troubling them, I’m sure it would be happy to lend some help. But every piece of me seems unsure of exactly what it seeks, my thoughts and words cascading into mugs of black coffee and returning as vapor.


Last week, I was hiding in the back hallway of a church with my journal, when a class from the church’s preschool barreled toward a nearby window. Fifteen four-year-olds began shouting excitedly while their teachers shushed them: “Don’t scare her. She’s protecting her eggs.”

As soon as they left, I hurried to the window myself. Right next to the playground, a mother duck sat inside a bush, bill tucked beneath one wing, feathers completely still. She eyed me carefully, defending her fragile creations from my intrusive vision.

I do not know what it is like to sit on a nest protecting eggs, but I have gestated my own babies for a total of twenty-one months, and I know the danger always threatening their little lives—the math of my pregnancies belying the truth that not all eggs survive, even inside the womb.

No babies are growing inside my body now, but the unyielding mother duck lends a clue to my recent experience. It seems something—someone, perhaps—is sitting protectively over my soul, just above the place where the faintest, unnamed dreams are growing, where fledgling life is gaining strength in the quiet, preparing to fly.

It seems something—someone, perhaps—is sitting protectively over my soul, just above the place where the faintest, unnamed dreams are growing, where fledgling life is gaining strength in the quiet, preparing to fly.

I know they are ordinary gulls, and I know this is just an ordinary lake.

But as I watch them circle the same spot, I cannot help but think about the book of Revelation—about the sea of glass, and the four living creatures with their six majestic wings and bodies full of eyes, surrounding the throne in heaven crying, “Holy!”

Tracing their worship back to the beginning, I consider how, long before any birds or gulls or mother ducks were created, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. I wonder how long the Spirit lingered protectively over the murky mass that would become earth, how long the formless expanse persisted in darkness before the voice of God spoke everything into light?

One gull dips near the water for a moment, then returns, empty-beaked, to his circular path in the sky. If I sit in this same position long enough, I can begin to feel subtle movement in the vein running across my right knuckle—a pulse of hope inside a blue-green current. 

I open my journal again and write letters in cursive until I can no longer see the sun or the white birds. My hand moves across the page, returns back to start, and makes its way to the other side. I free my pen to keep tracing the birds’ pattern as long as needed, surrendering to the weight of a darkness I do not understand. Whatever unnamed life stirs within me, it is not unprotected. Someday, even what is hidden from my view will crack open, ready to be received in the light.

Jenna Brack
Jenna Brack is a teacher and writer living in Kansas City. She has an M.A. in English and enjoys good coffee, serious conversation, and not-too-serious fiction.

Cover photo by the Bialons.

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