"Do you know why a woodpecker might drum in July?" Nan asked them.
"Because it's an idiot."
"Charlotte" Willow began, but her cousin cut her off.
"It is! Why do you think we have the expression birdbrain? "
The woman watched Willow's round face carefully. The girl was two years younger than Charlotte, and she lived in northern Vermontbarely two hours from this house, actually. She had worried this whole month that Charlotte would (and the word had come to her the moment she had spoken to her own adult children that spring when they had begun planning the girls' annual summer stay in New Hampshire) corrupt young Willow. So far that hadn't happened, but she knew there was still plenty of time. She saw now that Willow was more hurt by Charlotte's tone than impressed by her attitude. The girl was gazing down at her toenails, and the salmon-colored polish that she had layered on them the night before. Her feet were elegant and small. The soles were smooth, the skin was soft.
"It's not likely the bird is stupid, Charlotte," Nan said. "He's either boasting of his responsibility for a second clutch of eggs or he's lonely and still trying to find a mate."
"I wish I spoke woodpecker, then. I'd tell him to go write a personal ad. It would be a lot quieter."
"Have you seen the crow?" Willow asked her grandmother.
"It's so big. I never think of crows as big. But twice yesterday near the gardenby the apple treesI saw it."
Charlotte rolled her eyes. "It's probably a raven then. Ravens are much huger. Right, Grandmother?"
"No, it is indeed a crow. There's a family with a nest at the top of one of the white pines near the strawberry patch. Try an experiment later today, if you feel like it. Before we leave for the club, place a dime in the driveway near the trees. Maybe even tilt it on its side so it catches the sun. When we return, there's a good chance the dime will be gone."
"Oh, good," Charlotte said, and she smiled. "A woodpecker so dim he thinks bashing on the roof will get him a girlfriend and a crow who's a petty thief. What nice birds you have, Grandmother."
"He wants the dime because it's shiny," Nan said simply, as she carefully placed the wicker tray that held her coffee on the table beside the chaise and stood up. "Now, what would you two like for breakfast? I actually have some pancake batter in the refrigerator from yesterday and, of course, sausages"
"Dad would freak if he knew how much meat you were trying to feed us," Charlotte told her.
"Yes, your father probably would. You don't have to eat it. But Willow and I still eat"
"Yes, we do."
Willow's hair was the color of a sand dollar that has not yet been bleached by the sun. She looked up now, brushed her bangs away from her eyes, and said to her grandmother, "Maybe I'll just have pancakes this morning, too, please."
"What? No sausages?" Nan asked, unable to hide the surprise in her voice.
"No, thank you. Not today."
"Hallelujah," Charlotte said happily, and then she climbed off the chair and ran up the stairs to get dressed. The dog lifted his head, the vibrations from the human on the stairs causing his spot on the porch to shudder beneath his snout. Willow paused for a moment, and it seemed to her grandmother that there was something more she wanted to say. But then she stood, too, shrugged her shoulders and raced up the steps after her cousin.
AS SHE DROPPED the pancake batterafter nearly twenty-four hours in the refrigerator, it was thicker than puddingonto the electric skillet, the phone rang. Nan Seton had never bothered to purchase a cordless phone, and so she made a mental note as she scooted in her slippers across the long kitchen to keep the call brief: She did not want the pancakeswhich, because the batter was substantial and heavy, reminded her of small loofah sponges on the griddleto wind up looking like charcoal briquettes.
Excerpted from Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian Bestselling author of Midwives Copyright© 2004 by Chris Bohjalian. Excerpted by permission of Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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