My wife, Mary, and I were renting a condominium for a couple of winter months. It was a first floor unit, overlooking the wide end of a dredged canal that opened onto Boca Ciego Bay, in St. Petersburg, Florida. Snowbirds from New England, we certainly enjoyed this respite from the frigid north. For us it was an ideal location, close to St. Petersburg Beach, just across the toll bridge past the Isla del Sol condominium complexes and golf course. Or, taking nearby Route 275, in ten minutes time we could be walking the famed pier, downtown.

In the early evenings, I often joined my neighbor, Bob, fishing off the dock behind our rental units. Using live shrimp and chunks of squid for bait, we usually had pretty good luck. Squid had a strong aroma and seemed to be a favorite with the many catfish feeding off the canal bottom. Even well after dark we could count on catching a few catfish. Everything we caught was quickly returned to the water. Nobody was inclined to cook any of our catch, not with the plethora of fine and reasonably priced seafood restaurants in the area.

And while bait dangled and we angled, our wives, Mary and Jane, sat on either one of our screened porches, chatting while they watched us torment unwary fish. Our neighbors were from Ohio and, like us, glad to be away from winter.

While the sun was resting on the horizon, it became the habit of a beautiful great white egret to join us by the dock. It would stand motionless and rapt, never taking its eyes from the tips of our rods. Whenever we’d find a dead shrimp hanging limp on a hook, we’d toss it to the bird. Nary a morsel was wasted. Gradually, the egret moved ever closer to us, its instinctive suspicion of humans waning. Soon, it actually mounted the two steps to the dock and stood right next to us. So close, in fact, that it became a hindrance to our casting.

Almost every evening we formed a trio on that dock. Clearly, we had become part of the bird’s food chain. After a few days I even named the friendly creature, calling it "Mooch" for obvious reasons. Its long flexible neck was always ready to uncoil in the direction of proffered bait. Rows of short sharp teeth lined its bony pointed beak, more for grasping than for masticating, as it always swallowed large shrimp with a quick gulp. You could actually watch the progress of the shrimp down its thin throat. It reminded me of a small snake swallowing a large toad.

One late afternoon Bob and Jane weren’t home, having gone off to a mall and a movie earlier in the day. I was sitting in the living room watching television. Looking out through the porch, I saw Mooch standing patiently at the screen door, apparently waiting and wondering where its benefactors were. I chuckled at the sight of the forlorn egret with its wispy white chest feathers fluttering in the breeze, the setting sun in the background.

I was a bit concerned that the bird might puncture the screening with that formidable beak. Rising from the sofa, I walked into the kitchenette and opened the freezer. We usually had frozen shrimp and squid on hand there, although we used live shrimp as bait most of the time. I took the container of frozen shrimp back into the living room and headed out to the porch door, intending to toss out a few morsels. As I opened the screen door, Mooch surprised me by pushed its long beak into the opening. I stepped back, holding the door wide open.

I was amazed at the bird’s brashness, as it fearlessly entered the confines of the porch, its eyes on the shrimp in my hand. Just to see how far trust had developed, I slowly backed into the living room, holding the enticing shrimp before me, dangling between my thumb and forefinger. Mooch followed me right in. I sat down on the sofa and the bird edged up to me. Then I held the dangling shrimp out and fed the egret from my hand. I admit it was a bit of a thrill to have the stately bird accept the food, almost a preternatural experience.

Mary was sitting across the room in a soft chair, and I whispered to her to get up slowly and grab the Polaroid from the top of the refrigerator. Waiting and staring into Mooch’s eyes, trying to freeze him in position, I told my wife to take a picture. She took several as I continued to feed the bird from my fingers. The egret seemed to be perfectly calm, unconcerned that it was trapped inside the house. Apparently, there were no vestigal memories of those sad days many decades ago, when its beautiful feathers were sought after to adorn fashionable hats.

Eventually, it became clear that unless I was prepared to have the bird gain dependent status on my tax return, I would have to lead it back out the door. That proved to be a simple task as the egret followed along, eyes intent on the bait in my hand. Throwing a few shrimp on the lawn outside our door, I stood aside as the bird exited and resumed its feast from the grass.

Returning to the sofa, Mary joined me and we looked at the three excellent shots she had taken. In one picture, her timing was perfect. The egret’s beak had just made contact with the shrimp hanging below my fingers. The other two photographs showed the bird in front of the coffee table, looking across at me as if in conversation.

The following afternoon, we showed the pictures to Bob and Jane. They were both delighted, and got a kick out of my story, sorry they’d missed the show. But their chance would come later. Sometime in the early evening, Mooch showed up again. Mary and I had gone off someplace this time, so we only heard the tale the next day.

It seems that Bob was out front cleaning dead bugs from the grille of his car, when Mooch paid a visit to my screen door. Jane, who was sitting on her own porch saw the bird and ran to her refrigerator. She grabbed the box of squid chunks, as there were no shrimp to dangle. This was to be her undoing.

Gamely, she stepped from her porch and offered a piece of squid to the egret. She held the bit of smelly meat between her thumb and forefinger. With no hesitation, Mooch came up to her and shot that great pointed beak at the squid. Unfortunately, a few of its razor-like serrated teeth brushed across Jane’s finger.

The next afternoon we saw Jane wearing a bandage on her hand. We learned that she had to go to the emergency room of the hospital a few hours earlier. During the night her finger had become infected and swelled up painfully. To her regret (Dare I say egret regret?), she found out that there is a lot of rotted sea life microscopically imbedded in the teeth of seabirds. Mooch, of course, was guilty of biting the hand that feeds him.

THE END

© By RickMack (jotoma@bellsouth.net)

© Art is by RickMack. You can find more of his art and poems on the 'Time On My Hands' website.

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