by Dmitry Kostyukevich
“Ruslan! Stop feeding them!” Aunt Masha grabbed Ruslan’s thin wrist, and the boy nearly dropped the cookie. He pursed his mouth and looked plaintively at me.
I stroked my son’s hair: never mind, it’s just Aunt Masha’s nature to boss people around, she’s quick to temper and she tolerates no dissent, deal with it, kid, we’re her guests here.
“They fine for feeding the seagulls here. These creatures aren’t afraid of anything. It’s simply unbearable. They can rip it from your hands.”
A fat seagull was walking on the beach three feet away. I had never seen such big ones: they were well accommodated here on the Baltic Sea, and it was not a big deal that they were forbidden to be fed. They take a dive and they come up with their beak full of fish. Playing a sneaky trick on tourists is a piece of cake for them. They’ll always get it their own way.
“They have a breeding season now,” Aunt Masha said, looking unfriendly at the seagull. “They have to feed their young. That’s why they’re getting pretty brazen.”
The bird clicked greedily with its yellow hooked beak. On its mandible there was a red spot, which looked like a ripening berry or a drop of blood. The seagull came a few steps closer on its webbed feet.
Ruslan pressed himself to my leg and hid the cookie behind his back. No chance for this winged fisher to have a Belorussian treat, which was left after our trip from our hometown of Novopolotsk to this seaside German resort. And rightly so: I didn’t feel like feeding this monster anymore. Obviously, they made a decent living on the shellfish, shrimp, and garbage.
I squawked and raised my hand. The seagull made a shrill shriek and soared upwards. A long wide shadow began sliding over the fine yellow sand, then over the wet shore.
“Wow.” I whistled appreciation. “What a wingspread.”
“It can extend to two meters,” Aunt Mash said in a teacher’s tone. She had actually worked as a teacher before moving to Germany. “I’ve read about it.”
I took my cell phone and asked Google about seagulls. I followed the link “Attack of Seagulls on People” and ran my eyes over the article. “One of the explanations of seagulls’ aggressive behavior is formic acid. After consuming flying ants seagulls get drunk and become extremely badly-behaved…” I put the phone away. I leaned towards Ruslan and whispered in his ear. He brightened up and raised his inquisitive eyes at Aunt Masha.
“What’s the German for “seagull”?”
“Möwe,” Aunt Masha said, stretching the vowel “ö” out.
“Möwe,” Ruslan repeated.
I couldn’t help but tousle his fair hair again: he was a really smart boy. He should socialize with his peers more to integrate himself into society… He was very sensitive, and it would be kind of hard for him at school.
“One more!” Ruslan exclaimed.
A seagull sat on the barrier of a tribune, which had been built to celebrate some occasion. Another one sat nearby. Dark spots on the head and wingtips, a snow-white belly, yellow and green feet, a short tail. Plump birds, good birds… good… this word seemed inappropriate.
“They make nests here on the roofs,” came another fact from Aunt Masha. “Smart as dogs. Some of them distract you, imitating an attack, and the others calmly fly up and snatch food. Usually from children.”
“Acting in cahoots,” I said.
“Are seagulls dogs?” Ruslan asked.
Aunt Masha patiently began a thorough explanation.
I took out my camera from the bag, zoomed in and captured its beaky profile.
Ruslan was already dying to run to the sea.
Aunt Masha lay on the towel wearing a swimming suit and blouse.
“It was in the papers that a week ago a woman was attacked by a seagull. Her head was pecked all over and her face was scratched.”
I thought that a five-year-old didn’t need to know about such details, but I said nothing, as usual. We were her guests here (it was beginning to sound like a mantra). Though I hardly believe that our relations would have been different in Novopolotsk, for instance, which Aunt Masha and Uncle Roma had left twelve years ago. Dragon ladies don’t change patterns of behavior.
Aunt Masha and Uncle Roma were my school friend’s parents. Their Jewish family had embraced German citizenship entitled to them according to a program. His friend had gone off the grid, and a year ago he showed up, found me on the social media and invited me over. To my amazement, I agreed. Also, my wife Ksenia insisted that I went to Rostock with Ruslan. The salt air would be good for him. She couldn’t go with us because our summer vacation times didn’t match.
Here we were, in the nice Hanseatic city of Rostock. We had gone by train to Berlin, then to Rostock from there. Uncle Roma met us at the railway station. We left our suitcase and backpacks at their home, hopped on the train with Aunt Masha to Warnemünde, which used to be a fishing town, which had now turned into a seaside resort, and now we were admiring the Baltic Sea, which supported the cloudless sky.
I never got to meet my friend. He suddenly had to fly off on a business trip to St Petersburg, but he assured me that his parents would meet us, accommodate and show us the city. That’s how it happened. It seemed that those twelve years had not passed. Uncle Roma still constantly made jokes. This was why Ruslan liked him right away. Aunt Masha was the leader and mentor.
“Don’t play in the water too long,” she instructed. “It’s still too cool. Do you get it, Ruslan?”
Ruslan lowered his eyes and nodded.
“Good boy. When you come back there’ll be a candy waiting for you.”
“What should you say?” I asked my son.
“You’re welcome,” Aunt Masha said with content.
I looked at the tribune. The barriers were empty. Huge Möwe were circling over the sun loungers and playgrounds.
The shoreline curved like a crescent, and along its entire length there were people, sunshades, and loungers. Somewhere at the tip of the crescent I could see sunbathing nudists. On that score, the Germans were more relaxed. They were also crazy about getting tattoos. The scourge youth, as Aunt Masha put it. They covered their bodies with tattoos from head to toe.
On our right, two fraus were drinking cocktails. Tattoos covered virtually all of their skin exposed to the salt air and hot sun. One of them was slim and beautiful, the other one was plump, her hair the color of swamp mud. The girls looked after one another. Lesbies, by the look of them.
On the left, there was a man practicing yoga. On the wrong side of forty, lean, big-nosed. Smooth movements, closed eyes, dark shorts, white T-shirt. The lesbies nodded at the yogi, giggling.
Between us and the foamy edge of water, there was a badly sunburnt dad, who watched with a smile how his kid was destroying someone’s sandcastle.
A group of teenagers was smoking hookah. Dark-skinned, Muslims perhaps.
Aunt Masha talked to a girl from whom a seagull had stolen a sandwich. The girl had come here from Georgia to work. I didn’t hear more of their conversation as I ran with Ruslan towards the first sea of his life.
In ten minutes I almost had to use force to get Ruslan out of the salty happiness. His blue lips were a signal for that. I didn’t have a chance to swim properly myself because I was backing up Ruslan during his fight with the waves.
“Wipe him dry,” ordered Aunt Masha, “put the dry underwear and the sunhat on him.”
I wish Ksenia were here, I thought. And I would sprint as far as possible and take cover not to get hit by the explosion caused by the altercation between the two women.
“We’ll take a walk.”
Aunt Masha nodded, propped herself up on one elbow above her towel, wiped the sand off its edge and began scolding Uncle Roma over the phone: why he had forgotten to give them the beach umbrella, and the buckets and spades for the kid wouldn’t hurt. Poor Uncle Roma… Though why poor? He’s comfortable…he is so unpractical on the surface, so soft and kind, he so reminded me of… myself.
I sneered internally.
“Well, where shall we go, traveler?”
“To the rescue station!”
Narrow paths winded between the vacationists. I looked for stones of unusual shape to make Ruslan happy. Here and there we stumbled upon topless young, and not so young, fraus who had obviously been reluctant to go to the nudists’ area. A fair-haired and big-breasted woman was taking selfies, her boyfriend sitting beside her and drinking beer.
I focused on searching for the stones. I picked up one looking like a bird wing and wanted to call Ruslan but couldn’t see him anywhere. My heart skipped a beat, that strong muscle painfully straining but then I saw the familiar red sunhat flashing ahead, and it was all over.
What a panic-monger I am, I cursed myself, but it was hard to overcome hyper-protection – it’s always the same story.
Ruslan was milling around the two-story rescue station, peeked into the open door. The floorboards there were shining with soap, a beefy girl clad in shorts and a tennis shirt was handling a duster. Silly ideas about Pamela Anderson from the “Baywatch” TV show popped into my head. I shook my head and without thinking put the stone into the pocket of my swim shorts, having forgotten to show it to Ruslan.
There was noise and flapping sounds up above.
A seagull came down on the rails of the observation deck and froze proudly against the background of a lonely cloud.
“Möwe, Möwe, Möwe,” I beckoned like they beckon pigeons – coochie-coochie-coo.
The seagull scowled at me with its black beady eyes. I groped in my pocket for the stone, just in case.
“Dad, what are these things called?”
“Over there… like life jackets, only not really life jackets. The rescuers wear them.”
Ruslan pointed at something inside the room. Finally, I understood what he meant.
“I don’t remember what it’s called.” I was upset: Dads should know everything. I wanted to Google it, but I had left my cell in the bag (internet roaming was the only thing that I concealed from Ksenia during the ride). “This thing is like a lifesaver. A buoy, I guess… Rescuers throw it to those who are drowning and drag them to the shore.”
Ruslan heard me out and then rushed around the corner. He spotted a beach quad bike.
I looked back to see where Aunt Masha was. We had walked a good distance off; the tribune was the landmark.
Ruslan was not to be seen around the beach vehicles. Maybe he had found himself a new object for investigation, though… it was a quad bike after all!
I walked around the building, found myself near the open door and began worrying.
The sounds of the seashore changed. They became restless, hysterical. I brushed this thought aside. There were more important things to think about.
Ruslan was nowhere to be found.
I had a lump in my throat. My heart strained again. Not one muscle, but three, five…
Right and left, people were screaming. A heavy wide shadow crawled on the sand. I didn’t look up, didn’t turn back at the screams. My eyes registered a red ball, a red backpack, red swimming trunks… My eyes deceived my brain. My ribs squeezed my trembling weak intestines.
“Ruslan,” I called, running around the rescue station for the second time. “Ruslan! Ruslan!”
I ran into the damn quad bike.
Someone screamed. Shrilly, grievously, womanlike.
What the hell was going on there?! I jerked my head around.
A stout elderly woman was pointing her finger to the sky, her bulldoggish cheeks shaking. One after another, the people around began paying attention to what the fat woman was pointing at in the sky.
I followed the woman’s glance, wishing to get it over with as soon as possible and to find my son. He couldn’t have gone far away. Maybe, he was hanging around bouncy castles or slides…
Ruslan was hanging under a crooked flat-sided beak of a gigantic seagull. His little round mouth opened and closed. This happened when Ruslan was very scared. One day he had run onto a road and had been engulfed with the sounds of a car horn and screech of brakes. No screams, no tears, only clap, clap, clap.
The bird, the damn Möwe, was really huge, unreal. Not a seagull but the Andean condor from Jules Verne’s “In Search of the Castaways”. No, much bigger, with wider wings. A prehistoric bird, pelagornis or… but anyway too small to pick a kid up in the air! My Ruslan! But it was picking him up… How could it be possible? What was it? Magic or antigravity?
The seagull struggled to gain height, now falling down, now going up with a jerk. Jerk, falling. Jerk, falling. With prey. With my son. A man jumped up and tried to catch Ruslan by the leg, but he couldn’t reach him. The bird flew along the shore but could fly away into the sea at any moment. Ruslan’s sunhat dropped off his head and glided down on the sand like a red spot, like a wound without the body.
I darted off. I ran after the seagull whose wings curved a little in the air (because of the black feathers the wings looked burned), and the sharp hook of the beak dug in my son’s T-shirt collar. I guess I shouted something, making threats to the Baltic thief.
I didn’t see Ruslan’s eyes anymore. The Möwe turned towards the sea after all. A little more and it would…
Almost without realizing, I grabbed the first thing within my reach and threw it at the seagull.
The folding seat made an arc in the air and landed right on the bird’s back. It hit its wings and spine. I even jumped up in surprise and joy. Though it was too early to celebrate just yet.
The yellow beak opened. Ruslan fell in the water.
And immediately disappeared in the arriving wave.
I rushed to him, struggling through the cold resilient water, trying not to lose sight of the landing point. I assured myself that it was not deep there, up to Ruslan’s neck. I prayed that somehow, by some miracle, he wouldn’t panic and splutter, he wouldn’t…
I cried and rammed through the waves. Just a few more feet. Just a little bit.
For a brief moment, there was a question on the edge of my mind. It quickly disappeared in the slimy seaweed. The beach was left behind, speechless and non-existent for me.
I dove, opened my eyes and saw a pale spot. My hand came up against Ruslan’s back. I came up and pulled…
On my chest, his head over my shoulder, he began coughing and then crying.
“Dad…da… will everything be all right?”
“Sure, little man. It’s all over. Now everything’s going to be okay.”
I turned to the shore and understood that my promise was premature.
Seagulls attacked the beach.
Sweeping wings beat heavily in the air. The birds swooped down on the people, pinched and pecked them. Two seagulls picked up in the air a boy about seven or eight years old. He was coughing and twitched his arms and legs. I had no pity for him left in me, no pity for anyone, except Ruslan.
A huge seagull hovered over the head of the girl wearing an orange swimming suit. Attacked, pecked, and scraped. The girl raised her hands to protect herself and screamed. Her lengthy boyfriend jumped up and struck the bird with his fist, but it wasn’t going to give up. The young ones backed up the seagull. The younglings with black beaks and striped bodies assaulted the couple with blood-curdling shrill yapping.
A wave hit, and my knees buckled. I realized that I was standing and staring at the feathery hell. I was standing just like those people who were in the sea when Ruslan fell in the water… Why didn’t anyone hasten to rescue him? This was the question, which evaded me several minutes ago.
We looked at the shore. At the crazy Möwe, which had their eyes on human flesh. Someone was trying to hide from the swooping seagulls in the water.
Ruslan twined his arms around my neck so hard that I was suffocating but I asked for something else:
“Close your eyes, son.”
“I already did,” he said seriously. “Why did the bad birdie attack me?”
“It’s gotten too much sun,” I made a joke but, of course, there was nothing to laugh about. Nevertheless, I thought Ruslan giggled into my shoulder. I wish I were so brave…
I wanted to close my eyes just like my son. Not to see how the seagulls were ripping juicy bright pieces off the girl’s face lying on her back near an overturned lounger. Not to see how people in swimming trunks and suits were running to the row of neat hotels (there, on the balconies, the seagulls were raging, too, fluttering around the poor figures like bees around a burning beehive), attacked the fallen people, fell down themselves, shrieked. Not to see how the big-nosed yogi was crawling our way, his T-shirt torn on his back, his eyes wide open but blind, mangled by the beaks.
Without putting Ruslan down on the sand, I leaned down and picked up a folded sunshade. Using it as a stick I drove off a seagull from the back of the man’s neck. There was nothing else I could do for him.
A shadow dashed from above, scraped on my head and brought pain. I touched above my right temple. There was blood on my fingers. The wretched creature had torn out a piece of my scalp!
Everything was swarming under my feet. I could feel salt sting my eyes. It was hard to see where I stepped. A crumpled towel, a smashed plastic cup with a pink umbrella on a toothpick… The fat tattooed frau sprawled between the rows of roofed beach chairs. The seagulls were all over her – tearing and spitting out her tattoos. The turmoil was horrible. The fat woman’s skinned, and bloodied body was shaking convulsively, her green hair matted with blood.
The sky screamed and roared with rage.
I hid Ruslan’s head on my chest. My hand came across an umbrella. I opened it and ducked under it together with my son. This didn’t stop the seagulls but now they were ripping not me but the nylon, beating against the dome.
For a few moments, I lost direction and found myself in front of a stone breakwater. I twirled, having no idea where Aunt Masha was and if I should be looking for her at all. The main thing was to get Ruslan out… to save him…
Aunt Masha found us herself.
“Come on! Follow me!”
She dragged me by the elbow – a short, strong-minded, and resolute woman. The left side of her face was stained with blood and wet sand. For the first time in these eternal minutes of the nightmare, I sincerely believed that everything would be all right. Aunt Masha’s look didn’t take “no” for an answer.
“Where?” I said gasping.
“To the lighthouse!”
The old lighthouse earned the city two Euros per person. We had had in our plans to explore places of interest tomorrow.
“Dad, have the birds flown away?”
Ruslan could hear that the answer would be negative, but I lied, “Almost.”
“I want my mommy.”
I did too.
There was a man lying on the wooden boardwalk. The birds had stolen his face. Bit by bit. After pecking his eyes out, they knocked out a few of his teeth.
I turned around, maybe to avoid looking at the lying bodies, and regretted it immediately.
My heart nearly fell out of my mouth, as Ruslan once put it.
Between the shore and the horizon, there was a motionless ship on the waves. A flesh red color inscription “GOTTX” ran across its side. The vessel reminded me of a rusted hopper train car with a T-shaped mast, above which the seagulls were circling. Hundreds, thousands. Some of them were just gigantic Tolkien eagles.
They had formed a horrible cloud.
It shrieked. A devilish sharp sound, in which you could hear laughter, crying, whining, and door creaks.
Some of the birds flew to the cloud, the others flew out of it towards the seashore. To the feast.
Lost in contemplation, I stumbled. I was saved from falling by Aunt Masha.
The lighthouse door didn’t budge. Aunt Masha drummed on it with her mighty fists. She shouted something in German and in Russian, beating and kicking the door.
And it opened.
A scrawny gray-bearded old man let us in and bolted the door shut.
I put Ruslan on the floor and slumped down against the wall.
Space inside was terribly cramped. In the well of the lighthouse, there was only enough room for a table and a stand with souvenirs. A spiral staircase stretched along the walls. It was so narrow that it would be hard for people to pass each other.
“May I open my eyes?” Ruslan asked.
“Yes,” I said unwillingly as if a longer answer would kill me. My arms hung listlessly. My breathing was labored.
My son looked at me. There was fear in his eyes, the worst fear in the world, a child’s fear.
Far above our heads, there was the sound of broken glass. The seagulls were beating against the narrow windows and attacking the observation deck.
Aunt Masha was asking the old lightkeeper about something. She wanted to know under what conditions we would have to hold the line.
Round lamps illuminated the inside of the lighthouse. The light was sickly yellow.
How much time till sunset? And what would it bring with it?
The black oily foreign word “GOTTX” was circling inside my head.
Aunt Masha put her bag by her side. I saw my cell phone sticking out between the hastily rammed clothes.
I took it and asked Google at what time seagulls go to bed.
About the Author
Dmitry Kostyukevich is a horror writer based in Belarus. He is known for his intellectual horror stories. He is the author of three novels and more than a hundred short stories. His most significant publications include the novel “Ryder’s Ethics” (co-authored with Alexey Zharkov) and regular contributions to the annual Russian horror anthology “The Scariest Book”. He is also the literary editor for “DARKER”, the largest horror webzine in Russia (www.darkermagazine.ru).
Dmitry’s work is often translated by Oleg Hasanov.