Sunday, October 12, 2014

Birds (1987)

I awoke to the sound of geese and after they passed, a downy woodpecker. I threw off my comforter, dressed, and went down into the kitchen. The kettle was full on the stove, so I lit the burner and started towards the living room to get the fire going. Grandfather was there already, shotgun in his lap.
“Morning Granddad.”
“Good morning Gregory. Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah, great.”
“Good, good. A perfect morning for pheasant, eh?”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Did the Red Sox win last night?”
“No. It’s the Cardinals and the Blue Jays this year.”
“Oh yes. So who won?”
“The Cardinals. Seven to two.”
I heard the kettle whistle in the other room. I went to make coffee and while it was brewing I heard Grandfather cleaning the gun and talking to himself.
“Angels and God and the Red Sox. It doesn’t look good for us Spencer, not good at all.”
The coffee was finished so I put the lid on the thermos and started making sandwiches. Spencer came in to the kitchen and looked at me expectantly. Seeing Grandfather oiling the gun always made him excited.
“Yeah, we’re going hunting today. It’ll be great, just like old times.”
Spencer kept looking at me, so I tossed him a piece of bacon. He dropped it on the floor, then gobbled it down. I wrapped the sandwiches in wax paper and put them in my coat pocket.
I checked the gun to see if it was loaded. Sometimes Grandfather scares me. I put on my coat and was about to leaves when Grandfather came in. He looked at me in a strange way, then handed me a hip flask.
“You might need this. It’s a little nippy out today.”
“It was your father’s. I think you should have it.”
“Thanks. Come on Spencer, let’s go.”
“Remember to lead them. You always used to shoot behind the bird.
“Okay. See you this evening.”
I closed the door behind me and crunched out over the fallen leaves, watching my breath frost and adjusting my hat. Spencer ran ahead, peeing on trees and smelling the bushes.
I started out walking towards Buzzard Hill. The last leaves were still on the trees, a final blast of bloody color. The sun was up but it was still cold. I sat on a fallen tree and poured myself a cup of coffee. A crowd of Blue Jays flew by, rebuking me for invading their personal space. Soon they got tired to that and flew away again. I finished my coffee, put the lid back on the thermos and started again for Buzzard Hill.
We came to a field at the bottom of Buzzard Hill. Spencer went ahead and stopped in a point.
“Go on, get it.”
Spencer started again. After about twenty yards, a big male pheasant exploded out of the brush. I swung my gun left, with his break, and started to pull the trigger when he flew across a stand of Tamaracks. I let my gun down and watched him fly away. The sight of his golden body backed by the turning Tamaracks was worth more than the taste of pheasant had ever been. Spencer came back, looking hopeful.
“Come on Spence. Let’s look somewhere else.”
Spencer and I spent the rest of the day walking through the woods, watching the trees and looking for birds. Around noon I stopped in a grove of pines and ate my sandwiches, washing them down with a swig from the flask and smelling the brown and needly scent. We saw another pheasant in the afternoon, and a couple of ruffed grouse, but I didn’t even bother raising my gun, I just watched them fly off into the brilliant trees. I stopped to lie on the top of the hill for a while, watching the sky get bluer and bluer, feeling the moss under my arms.
When the sun started getting low, I finished the last cup of coffee and we headed home.
I put the thermos on the kitchen counter and dropped my coat on a chair, Grandad and Jessica were in the living room, drawing pictures. Jessica kept losing her favorite pink marker, and Grandfather would have to keep finding it for her. I guessed they had been doing it all afternoon. Jessica can color forever. I mean, it’s incredible.
“Hey, how’s the coloring going?”
“Hi Gregory. I just drew a picture of a bird.”
“What kind of bird?”
“A pink bird. See?”
I looked at it and handed it back to her.
“That’s really good. Did you draw any other stuff?”
“Yes, lots of pink birds. Pretty pink birds.”
She started showing me her collection of birds. I love her pictures. I put them up all over the place: the refrigerator, in the bathroom, everywhere. I have to keep finding new places to put them, because Jessica gets really upset if I take any of the old ones down.
“Come on in the kitchen. We’ll put them up on the cabinets while I make dinner.”
“Okay Gregory.”
She sat on the kitchen stool and played with the zipper on my jacket while I made dinner, and told me all about her birds.

I woke to the sound of the wind shaking a mound of snow off the tree outside my window. I sat up under my comforter and looked out at the virgin snow; a new blanket marked only by a couple of rabbit tracks crossing the yard. A few flakes were still falling, but they were mostly wind blows from the roof.
I started the fire and got dressed, and went outside. I stood in the snow for a while, marveling at the brightness and looking at my footprints coming out of the cabin. I brushed the snow off the bird feeders, filled them and went back inside.
I made coffee and sat at the oak dining table, watching the birds come to the feeders. I turned on the old tube radio that takes forever to warm up and made more coffee and by the time the coffee was hot the radio was warm and I listened to the weather report and the school cancellations. I heard Granddad go into the shower, which also takes forever to warm up. Before Granddad got out though, Jessica was already awake.
“Hi Jess”
She was still rubbing her eyes, so it was a moment before she could answer. Jessica hates doing too many things at the same time.
“Look at the snow!”
“Yeah, it’s really nice. So what do you want for breakfast?”
She says that every morning. She’s crazy about pancakes.
“Okay, let’s have pancakes.”
By the time I had the first one in the frying pan Grandfather had joined us.
“What’s for breakfast?”
“Great, great.”
We finished breakfast and I cleaned up.
“Come on Gregory. Let’s go outside.”
“Go get your stuff on. It’s cold out there.”
She went and got her mittens and her hat. I helped her to get her mittens on and to put on her boots, then we went out into the snow.
“Look Gregory. Someone else has been here too.”
“No, that’s just me. But see those?”
“Those are rabbit tracks. Some bunny rabbits were here.”
“Not bunny rabbits. Bunny rabbits don’t have any paws.”
Jessica makes a distinction between real rabbits and stuffed rabbits.
“Sorry, you’re right. No, not bunny rabbits. Real rabbits.”
“Good. Bunny rabbits don’t like the snow very much.”
“That’s right.”
“Real rabbits are much nicer. Their fur doesn’t get all balled up.”
“It’s true”
“Let’s follow the rabbit. Maybe he’ll take us home with him.”
I’d been reading her the Thornton Burgess stories, so she was pretty excited about meeting the rabbit and all his relatives.
“Okay, let’s go”
We followed the rabbit tracks into the woods.
“Do you see that tree?”
“That’s a pine tree.”
“Yes, I like that tree. He’s still green.”
“Yeah, that’s because he has needles instead of leaves. Needles don’t fall off, they stay green all year long.”
“That’s nice. I like green trees.”
We followed the tracks a little farther.
“See that tree?”
“That’s a maple tree.”
“That’s the tree that gets really pretty in fall. You remember, there’s one outside your window.”
“Oh yes, I remember.”
We followed the tracks some more, naming trees and bushes and making up stories about what they all did when we were not around. We saw other rabbits, but we kept following the tracks, until they ended in a bull briar patch.
“Is that were the rabbit lives?”
“Probably. It might just be a tunnel leading to his real house.”
“Can we go down and meet him?”
“I don’t think so. Rabbit holes are very small, smaller than you even.”
“Oh. I really wanted to meet him. Do you think he has a wife?”
“I think so. Do you want to hear a story about a little girl who did get to go down a rabbit hole?”
“Yes, tell me a story.”
“It’s a long one. Want to go back and have some hot chocolate while I tell you the story?”
“Yes. It’s cold out here.”
We started back. I pointed out the various kinds of birds, and explained why her favorite birds were in Florida for the winter.”
“They don’t like the cold very much, and they have wings, so they just fly south.”
“And then they fly all the way back again?”
“Seems like a long way to go. It’s nice here in the winter too.”
“Yeah, it is.”
We stopped in the front yard to make snow angels.
“Look Gregory. A pink bird.”
“That’s a Cardinal. Isn’t he pretty?”
“Yes, I like pink birds.”
Grandfather was in the kitchen when we got back, so Jessica started telling him all about the rabbit while I made the hot chocolate.
I set the mug in front of Jessica and sat down.
Grandfather went out to listen to the weather report, and I started reading Alice in Wonderland.
From the moment Alice went down the hole, Jessica was enthralled. It began to snow again, and I made another cup of hot chocolate, but Jessica wouldn’t let me stop.
When Alice finally awoke, it was dark, and snowing harder than ever.
“I like the down the rabbit hole story.”
“Yeah, it’s a great story. There’s another one too.”
“No, I want to hear this one again.”
Not now. I have to make dinner. We’ll do it later.

When I woke up I could already hear Grandfather in the living room, talking to Spencer.
“Yes, ducks today Spencer. Mallards on the Mill Pond. Blacks on Narrow River. Oh yes, quite a day it will be.”
I walked into the kitchen and started getting my stuff together.
“Good morning Gregory. Duck season, here already.”
“Yeah, I bet Spencer is excited.”
“He can hear the ducks already. How about those mallards, eh Spencer?”
Spencer looked at him with the same quizzical expression.
“The best place in over on the north side, near Cuellar’s dock. You get a clear shot at almost everything from there.”
“Yeah, okay.”
I went and filled my hip flask from the bottle on the sideboard. Grandfather was still cleaning the gun. I went to get my jacket.
“Remember to give them some room. You always used to shoot behind them.”
“Yeah, I’ve got to keep leading them more.”
“Well, have a good day Gregory.”
“I’ll try. Come on Spence.”
We started out over the front yard. Spencer was tearing around from bush to bush, chasing imaginary rabbits.
‘Ducks. It’s ducks today Spencer, not rabbits.”
Spencer turned around at the sound of my voice, then dashed off again after what was apparently the biggest rabbit convention of the eighties.
We got to the Mill Pond and walked around to the north side. I sat down under a maple on the edge of the pond, took a swig from the hip flask, and started waiting.
A flock of blacks and mallards flew over and landed in the middle of the pond. I took another swig from the hip flask and watched them through my binoculars.
Some of the mallards left, but a little later I saw some wood ducks over on the west side, near the shore. A kingfisher was diving, about forty yards out, and a couple of crows cawed at him from the shore. A few blacks joined the flock in the middle of the pond and started feeding.
Around noon, Spencer was getting restless, so I finished my lunch and we headed for Narrow River.
I picked a spot where the river widens out and gets shallow, about a mile and a half down from the pond.
We sat there all afternoon, watching the herons and the storks peck into the mud, fly downstream, feed there, and then return about an hour later. It was a nice day. When we went home, just outside the door, I put the binoculars back into my pocket and closed the flap.
Over dinner, Grandfather asked how the hunting had gone.
I missed them all Granddad. I missed them all again.

I was standing in front of the mirror, adjusting my tie, when Aunt Grace came in.
“Do you need any help with that?”
“No. I can tie my own tie. Thanks.”
Aunt Grace moved into the living room, catching up on everything that had happened in the family since the last funeral or wedding or whatever else relatives get together for.
I straightened my tie and went into the kitchen; assorted aunts and cousins and in-laws were there, cooking and talking and hollering after missing children. I picked up a tray of carrots and celery and went into the living room.
I put the tray on a table and took a carrot for myself, listening to a third hand report of my cousin Charles’ exploits on the boarding school football team and a first hand report of Aunt Emily’s bronchitis. Aunt Grace was telling someone about school systems in Marblehead. I found Spencer and went outside.
We played fetch for a while, but I got tired of throwing the stick and sat down under a tree. Spencer looked disappointed, then went off to find someone else to play fetch. I watched the birds and the trees and pulled up blades of grass, tying them into rings on my fingers.
I looked at my watch and noticed that it was almost time for the funeral. I went in and put on my black jacket, and grabbed the keys to the car.
Aunt Grace saw me standing by the door, ushering people out, and came over.
“Gregory, why don’t you ride with us? We’ve got plenty of room.”
“Okay, sure. Is everyone out?”
“Yes, I took care of all that. Come on, the car is down the driveway.”
The service was a dismal affair, too many people sweating under heavy wool in the tiny Congregational Church. The pastor seemed a little confused about what to say, and the babies screamed in the background, effectively drowning him out anyway.
After the funeral we all went back to the cabin for the reception. The men went into the living room and listened to the baseball game; the women went into the kitchen and started cooking. Everyone started getting drunk and the cheering in the living room and the old family gripes in the kitchen got louder and louder as the night went on.
Eventually people started leaving. I’m not sure how it went. I took a bottle of bourbon, closed the door to my room and watched the night get black.

I woke up and went to the kitchen to make breakfast. Aunt Grace was already there, making French toast and drinking grapefruit juice.
“Good morning Gregory. Sleep well?”
“Yeah, great.”
“Sit down, have some breakfast.”
”I’m not hungry.”
“There’s something we have to talk about.”
“Um yeah. Is there any coffee?”
Aunt Grace got a teacup and saucer out of the cabinet and filled it from the service. She set the coffee down on one side of the table, and took her grapefruit juice over to the other side and sat down.
“Gregory, your Uncle George and I have talked it over, but I thought I should tell you first. We’ve decided that we want Jessica, and you too Gregory, to be a part of our family. I think Jessica will benefit immensely from a stable family environment, and the schools in Marblehead are excellent.”
“Do I have any options?”
“You can certainly come live with us, if that is what you want. If you wanted to go to college, I’m sure Uncle Charles could fix something up.”
“This is bullshit.”
“Gregory, please be reasonable.”
“Just let me tell Jessica first, all right. Just let me talk to her.”
Around noon I went into the kitchen and started making lunch. Put the bread in the toaster, the soup on the stove, take the cold cuts out of the refrigerator. As the soup warmed, I stood in front of the kitchen windows and watched Jessica and Spencer play fetch in the backyard. It was great; Spencer running madly back and forth and Jessica picking up the stick and throwing it again, listening to the shrieks and the barks. Sometimes Spencer would pick up the wrong stick and bring it back, and then Jessica would gravely berate him for bringing a different stick, and tell him to bring the old one. Spencer would look at her in a confused way, but then she would throw the new stick, and the game would continue until Spencer brought the wrong stick again, and the discussion would start all over.
The soup was boiling, so I went to the door and called her in.
We sat at the old oaken table in the dining room. Jessica sat in one of the straight backed chairs and dangled her ankles, knocking the soles of her shoes together periodically. I blew on my soup.
“Are you sad that Granddad died?”
Jessica finished chewing.
“Yes. I don’t think he wanted to”
I slurped my soup. I was sad that he died too.
“Aunt Grace wants you to go live with her.”
“I know.”
“Did she talk to you already?”
“No. I just knew she would.”
“Are you going to?”
“I guess so. Aren’t you?
“I don’t know. I don’t want to go live with them. They want me to go to college, but I don’t think I want to go.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I might go away for a while, try to figure things out.”
“When are you going to go?”
“Pretty soon, maybe tomorrow.”
“Wake me up before you go.”
“Are you going to tell Aunt Grace?”

I got up early the next morning. I went outside with Spencer, walked around with him a little, saying goodbye to the trees and the bushed and the hills and Grandfather, the cabin and the woods and the mist rising off the pond in the sunrise.
The first ride I got was in a Buick station wagon.