Humans may be reborn in animal form, but that rebirth from human to animal form only occurs if an atman (soul) has repeatedly failed to learn lessons in its human form. (Paraphrased from The Upanishads)
Gregory Fiori teetered on the portside gunwale near the bow of his boat. His boat was hoisted as high as it could go in the boat lift, and Gregory stood on tiptoes, leaning out as far as possible while holding onto the lift guide. He had forced his grabber pole with its suction grippers and squeeze handle into the heights of the lift, attempting to remove the nest carefully constructed in the top of the canal-side H-beam.
Then, in quick sequence, the grabber slipped, and Gregory tumbled, falling backwards toward the canal ten feet below. This isn’t going to be good he thought as he hit the water. As he fell, his head struck the piling a glancing blow, and then instantly was submerged in eight feet of water.
A rustle from the cattails near the bow of the boat, followed by a splash and large ripples emanating from the canal shoreline, provided evidence of an animal’s departure from the shore toward Gregory’s general position.
Stunned from the fall, Gregory realized he now rested on the bottom of the canal, just as a toothed maw painfully attached itself to his thigh and began dragging him out to the deeper water. As the alligator began to roll and force the last of his air from his body, Gregory thought, No, definitely not good at all.
The boat lift had been completed in the Summer of 2017. By the Spring of 2018, the grackles had discovered the four ends of the upper H-beams that held up the lift cover. Protected from the weather by the lift cover, as well as by bolted-on heavy aluminum brackets, the grackles made themselves at home, building nests in each corner of the lift frame.
The grackles arrived at Gregory’s house in the Fall from more-northern climes, a flock of twenty to thirty. For grackles, everything is a group effort. The whole flock of grackles builds the dozen or so nests in a vicinity, and after placing their eggs in these local nests, stands guard as a team. Usually, each nest will be guarded continuously by two or three grackles but, should danger threaten, the entire flock will converge on the intruder, often a snake or egg-eating bird. When the eggs hatch, the fledglings are taught to fly by the entire flock.
Gregory looked up in alarm at the thirty-foot antenna on the house next door during the Fall of 2020. “They’re back,” he said, dragging out the words to imitate the little girl in the Poltergeist movie. More than thirty grackles covered the antenna and the fronds of the adjoining palm trees.
Gregory knew the nests would appear in the Spring. The grackles could build all four nests in a day. The telltale clues of nest construction were the twigs and other objects the grackles piled atop the H-beam crossbar, sticking out of holes in and above the beam. The nests were intricately woven, containing, in addition to the twigs, long grasses, dry reeds, and strips of palm tree fronds, all held together by bird vomit, pee, and droppings. When done, they measured a foot across, all tightly wedged atop the lift structure, and secured by a moist, mud-like bottom of unmentionable disgustingness.
For the last three Springs, Gregory had fought running battles with the grackles and their nests, sometimes removing them daily during the three-month season. The removal process was the same for each nest, but the risk differed depending on which piling the nest was built atop. First Gregory would lower the boat in the lift and clamber aboard with his orange grabber, some work gloves, and paper towel to clean up any resulting mess. He would then raise the boat as high as it could go, which placed his shoulders level with the nests. However, even at the top of the lift, he couldn’t look down on the nests inside the beam, he had to grasp at them by feel, trying to latch on.
Initially, he had tried dislodging the nests with bamboo stakes, then poles, but nothing worked. The nests were well-entrenched, covered by heavy-duty marine aluminum on three sides and the boat lift cover on top. Then Gregory tried the orange grabber the neighborhood distributed for the semi-annual garbage pick-up. The rubber ends grasped objects as fine as a piece of paper and, if Gregory could get them into the top of the beam, he could remove the nest.
It often took ten minutes of grabbing to remove a single nest, first pulling them apart, until the final grasp latched onto the satisfying remainder of the nest. He delightedly dropped each nest with a resounding “plop” into the canal.
The dock-side pilings were easy to access as the boat was close to the dock for easy boarding. Gregory got those cleared relatively quickly. The canal-side pilings were much further away, far out into the canal. The one closest the stern gave Gregory less height to work from but was easier to access from a low gunwale.
The most difficult nests were those at the bow of the boat on the canal side. Here, Gregory had to clamber onto a seat, then up on the gunwale with his feet between the gunwale and the bow rail. Leaning and stretching out, Gregory would work the orange grabber into the H-beam atop the nest.
Most times, Gregory could empty the nest before eggs were laid, but several times eggs had been crushed in the removal of the gooey nests. Most heartbreaking was the twice when Gregory pulled out a nest with fledglings still in them. In one case, the tiny birds sank to the bottom of the canal when he dropped the nest. In the one event imprinted on his subconscious, Gregory could still see the almost-fledged birds beating their wings and actually swimming across the canal to the rocks on the other side from where the parents called.
Garuda, up in the heavens, looked on in alarm and despair. “How dare that human form mistreat my precious birds so? He is certainly building some awfully bad karma. Little ahimsa (respect for all living things and the avoidance of violence) has he displayed in his current life form.”
The god Garuda, an agglomeration of eagle and man, is Krishna’s vahana, or vehicle. Vahanas are how the gods move around the heavens. Krishna is another form of Vishnu, but he is also the supreme god in his own right, so being a vahana to Krishna makes Garuda a mighty force in the pantheon. Garuda appears on Krishna’s banner, representing birth and heaven. He also watches out for all the birds of the air and is the mortal enemy of all snakes and other animals that threaten birds.
Every year, Garuda watched Gregory remove the nests from the H-beams. The human form’s delicate balancing act was a triumph of a single evil human over the implicit goodness of the communal flock. On the fateful day, Garuda, who saw everything, saw Gregory’s human form fall into the canal and, while Garuda had no part in summoning the alligator, he also did not regret its fortuitous arrival on the scene as an agent of Kali.
With Gregory’s death, Garuda knew the grackles on the canal were safe, at least until the next human form went to war with his birds. For now, Krishna had an atman to reassign in its ultimate search for moksha, the overcoming of ignorance and desire.
“Lord Krishna, mighty god of birth and heaven, let me move this unworthy sole to where it belongs. For three Springs, this human form has not learned his lessons regarding the power of nature as guided by you. His dharma is full of evil acts. He has shown no ahimsa, no desire to avoid hurtful acts.”
“Garuda, my beloved vahana, I grant you your wish this one time for it reflects on those parts of the world that you watch over with your eagle eyes.”
In the Fall of 2020, the grackles again returned. One bird seemed to spend a lot of time sitting on one particular boat hoisted into a boat lift, running off the other birds who sought to defecate their meals of bright purple beautyberries on every surface. But come Spring, the grackle, like the entire flock the past four Springs, helped construct the wedged nests high in the boat lift, his human form lessons finally and painfully learned.