The Gill house, which my grandfather and uncles built, seemed always in exciting turmoil, someone always searching for something misplaced, and on the stair landing there was a fabulous window set with panes of colored glass. I gazed through it to see the world shift to deep red, sickly orange or an unnatural green.
Before I started school my mother, my twin sisters and I lived in a small log cabin surrounded by big pines at the back of my grandfather's property. To this day the smell of white pine instantly sweeps me back to childhood with a sense of sadness and inchoate longing. The log cabin period may have been before the twins were born. I don't trust the tricks of memory. My mother and her brothers had built this cabin, probably a dream of her Girl of the Limberlost days. There was an old wax cylinder player in the cabin. My mother wound up the crank, the cylinder revolved and the story of The Three Bears emerged in a tinny voice.
One cabin window faced west framing a hill that had burned years before. The black tree snags silhouetted against the sky looked like deformed giraffes and skeletal elephants. They seemed both sad and frightening. In the deepening twilight the bony creature shapes seemed to move, the twitch of a leg, a neck bent. Today, in the summer twilight at Bird Cloud, the greasewood and rabbitbrush hunch themselves into giant marmots, crippled elk. The most beautiful object in my mother's cabin was her cerulean blue silk brocade robe, a present to her from my father. Burning with fever one winter night she walked barefoot out into the snow dressed only in this lovely garment. Later someone said she had pneumonia, a disease she harbored many times in her life.
At some point we moved out of the cabin and into my grandfather's ex-gas station, rejuvenated as a house. I remember the boredom of obligatory nap time and the pattern of cracks in the ceiling, the nasty yellow marshmallow chickens that sugared our shoes on Easter morning. I remember waking up once in darkness and feeling something sticky and hot on my ear, being conscious of a creature leaping away. It was a rat and it had bitten me. Only the scar and the memory remain. Although my grandparents and great-grandparents were close by, and aunts, uncles and cousins constantly visiting, I had a sense of aloneness, of not being part of the buzzing hive of relatives. Old Duke killed my small kitten and I was outraged that he was allowed to go on living as though nothing had happened. I would have appreciated a trial, a jury, and a death sentence.
My mother loved to sunbathe and would lie motionless for hours on a blanket in the hot, weedy sun, her closed eyes covered with two green leaves. We had a pet crow (called Jimmy after the Civil War song refrain "Jimmy crack corn and I don't care"). He was inquisitive and would sidle up to my mother on her towel and carefully remove each leaf. He was reassured that she was not dead when she opened one of her green eyes. When my mother built a stone fireplace in the backyard I was allowed to press my hand into the wet, gritty concrete that had not yet set and the crow walked about in it leaving his prints as well. Years later, as we were moving from 2217 McBride Avenue in Utica, New York, in a car packed to the roof with kids and clothes, my father put Jimmy in a hole-punched cardboard box, and lashed the box to the back bumper. The poor fellow was dead when we stopped for lunch by the side of the road, asphyxiated by exhaust. I never forgave my father for this crime. The misfortunes that befell loved pets were my introduction to tragic and inconsolable loss.
We moved and moved and moved. Over the years we lived in dozens of houses. A place in Rhode Island had the outline of someone's arm in the broken sheetrock at the bottom of the stairs. A house in Black Mountain, North Carolina, offered a good view of shade trees where chain gang road crews rested. A place in Maine had beautiful elms whose roots swelled up near the surface and made mowing the lawn difficult. Then the Maine Turnpike went in a quarter of a mile away and almost immediately there was a ghastly accident that brought police, rescue vehicles and the too-late ambulance. An official state cross indicating a death had occurred at this spot went up, a safety warning policy the state of Maine dropped when the proliferation of crosses along the highway gave it a ghoulish appearance.
Excerpted from Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx. Copyright © 2011 by Dead Line, Ltd. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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