Highway 111, as I come to know it, seems appropriately numbered–a row of three thin digits, each one almost invisible, spare and pale as the landscape it cuts through. Scattered patches of white–salt, I guess—gleam dully from the dirt like snow. Even the sky seems white, as if the blue had been taken by geese flying south, or, more likely, burned blank by the relentless sun.
I feel incredibly conspicuous in my shiny green car. The only other color along this stretch of the road comes from the occasional string of boxcars stopped on the Southern Pacific railway. The trains are pretty muted, too—dusty wine, dirty mustard, black sandstormed down to gray. The few cars I pass are equally eroded—pickup trucks painted with primer, twenty-year-old weather-faded sedans, eyes trained on me from inside, loaded with curiosity and threat. If I don’t make some sort of decision soon, I worry that my own car, my own face might get sanded down to dust.
I crank the steering wheel and veer off the highway onto Desert Beach Drive.
The water spreads out before me, miles of flat shimmer. It looks refreshing, but as soon as I get out of the car, the heat and stench almost knock me over. An overpowering smell of bird and fish decay mixes in the air with something equally rank and environmental. I grab a piece of ginger to try and mask the scent, but the odor molecules still find a way to steep inside.
What planet have I landed on? I stomp a sleeping foot against the pavement, slap some life into my face, look around to make sure no cars have pulled into the lot behind me. The area is completely deserted. An empty fifties-style motel sits on the other end of the parking lot, all of its doors open, the rooms bare. The building is so utterly abandoned, no one has even bothered to vandalize it. Dusty tufts of overgrown bougainvillea seem incongruous against walls, random bursts of fuchsia life.
A marina up ahead, partly underwater and long deserted, touts sandwiches and live bait from its sun-bleached awning. An old yacht club, shaped like a ship with broken porthole windows and faded nautical flags painted around the boarder, silently faces the water. It looks like no one has dined or danced there in decades. What happened here? What happened?
The water spreads out before me, miles of flat shimmer. It looks refreshing, but as soon as I get out of the car, the heat and stench almost knock me over. An overpowering smell of bird and fish decay mixes in the air with something equally rank and environmental.Holding my breath, I walk toward the sweeping span of water. As I get closer, the sea begins to look less sparkly–it is the color of tea, the color of mud. The beach is not a sandy one, either, as it had seems from the parking lot. The ground is completely heaped with barnacles, small white tubes that crunch beneath my sandals, making me shiver even in the intense heat. I remember reading somewhere that barnacles had been introduced to the area by WWII aircraft that used the sea for dive bomb practice. I feel like I’m walking across a bone yard.
Every few steps, I come across dead fish in various stages of decomposition—some still silver and wet with missing eyes, some dry and brown like the cuttlefish my mother buys in Koreatown, some dissolved down to bone, bleached white as the barnacles beneath them. Pale-green bird droppings offer the only other color on the ground. I walk up to an old swing set and steady myself against one of its hot metal legs. The end of a small slide disappears into a mass of barnacles nearby.
What am I doing here? I wonder, queasy from the rotten air. Then I see the jetty up ahead, covered with dead and dying pelicans.
The birds, dozens of them, are heaped against each other, a seething clump of beige and brown, long beaks jutting out like cactus spines. Some pelicans convulse violently, others have already started to decompose, their speckled breasts caved, split open. My eyes feel seared. Bile rises in my throat. I don’t know what I expected—some ballet of languid wings, something remotely beautiful. Anything but this.
* * *
Excerpt from The Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis. New York: HarperCollins. Copyright 2003 by Gayle Brandeis. All rights reserved.