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The Pelican

Story by Arlaina Tibensky (Read author interview) June 20, 2022

Art by Paul Bilger

Posted signs warned DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS, but I couldn’t stay away from the one-footed brown pelican menacing the pier. Depleted from liquidating my dead mother’s things, I used the money from the pathetic estate sale to book a weekend at a Floridian Airbnb, right on the water. I wanted more than anything to feel the bird’s loose nubby pouch, its quilled feathers. I yearned to massage ointment into its stump and watch it endure my devotion.

Yesterday, I walked to Publix without makeup and bought a white frosted cake on sale from the refrigerated bakery section. A gel-brushed strawberry oozed in a puddle in the center of its top layer like a skinned animal on a frozen lake. The pelican didn’t care about its missing foot. Its legs were the leathery blue-black of bats’ wings. The stub, round at the ankle, thumped against the bleached pier slats when it walked. It didn’t need anyone’s help.

On the pier, I drank the Airbnb’s pod coffee from a mug painted with heat-activated seashells that appeared when hot liquid filled it. The ocean smelled primal and meaty like the top of a newborn’s head. As the seashells faded, I took a hot dog bun from my kangaroo pocket and placed it next to my white Crocs trying to entice the bird. Ignoring the bread, the one-footed pelican waddle-flapped closer, eyeballing me. Its bright orange beak was long and pointed as a folded golf umbrella. “Kiss kiss,” I coaxed. It looked away, disgusted, no thanks.

I didn’t cry when I dumped Mom’s life into the roll-off container. It was, after much agonizing rationalization, garbage. Water in Mom’s basement from years of neglect had seeped through everything. The man I hired, a heavily tattooed part-time body builder who hot-boxed weed in his Acura on his break, emerged from the basement with vintage designer coats, framed Renoir prints, her high school yearbooks thick as bibles, all the objects that had surrounded me my whole life, fuzzed with mold, reeking of mildew. Nothing salvageable.


The pelican’s stump tapped bluntly on the boards and made me ashamed that I couldn’t cope with my loss. A leather cat paw, clawless and dull as the butt of the gun in a movie. Regal and maimed, muscular and damaged, the pelican was King Richard IV, an Olympian with a leg that ended in a bouncy metal end shaped like a sewing machine foot. “Not hungry?” The pelican eyed me with a survivor’s disdain, then scanned the horizon. The ocean seemed exhausted, and the dirty white sand was sown with orange cigarette filters.

At Mom’s I hadn’t been able to find things, my high school ring, a pocket chess set that was a gift from the first boy I slept with. The Airbnb looked like every optimistic room on Insta. The midcentury modern dresser, the acrylic Moroccan rug, the round mirror with a gold frame, the David Bowie throw pillow. I longed for the curated chaos of Mom’s apartment- real messy life, dust, yearbook photos, her frog collection. So many frogs.


Back at the Airbnb for lunch, I stood at the open refrigerator and contemplated the cake. Iced in white, its insides were a mystery. A speedboat the color of the Goblin’s hovercraft sneered past, barely touching the water. Chocolate, or birthday yellow? I carried the cake back to the pier where the pelican waited. Leaving the domed cake behind a pylon, I carefully stepped out of my Crocs, which looked carved from soap, my leggings, my hoodie. The bathing suit was Mom’s, a black one piece with crackled elastic I’d found in the back of her underwear drawer, still smelling of coconuts and skin. I was alive and wanted to know it. I clenched my inner muscles so I wouldn’t cry out and scare the pelican. I dove from the pier into the murk, eyes shut tight.

The ocean held me in its hands, the water so salt-thick I felt suspended in chilled Jell-O as blood marched in my ears and the cold made me pucker and chatter. I trudged to the shallows and onto the shore, my feet breading with sand like chicken for frying, back to my lopsided and oily mystery cake, my maimed pelican on the pier.

I clawed a chunk from the side. Red velvet, Mom’s favorite, dark as blood and too sweet. Red crumbs tumbled down my chest. The second handful was even better. I was so hungry, I was going to eat the whole thing. The bird sidled closer, shifting its weight from foot to stump, like a frustrated R2D2, then in a burst, extended its wings, their span the size of a woman.

“Take it,” I said, relenting, and held out two hands overflowing with cake. The pelican leaned forward and with its toothed beak knocked the cake up from my grasp and high into the air. The cake veered from its parabola and plummeted straight into the bird’s gaping mouth. It galumphed in a panic toward the open water, thud-flap thud-flap thud-flap, broadening its gray wings as wide as they could go, and with its belly full, soared into the sky and out to sea.

About the Author

Arlaina Tibensky’s writing has appeared in One Story, One Teen Story, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the New York Times, and elsewhere and has been anthologized in New Stories from the Midwest 2018. Her YA novel about a girl obsessed with Sylvia Plath, And Things Fall Apart, was a Junior Library Guild Selection. She is working on a new novel.

About the Artist

Paul Bilger’s photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly. 

This story appeared in Issue Seventy-Six of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Six

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