Birds of a Lesser Paradise
I fell for Smith the day my father hit his first hole-in-one on his homemade golf course. Dad had spent years shaping the earth in our backyard until he had two holes that landed somewhere
between an extravagant minigolf spread and a Jack Nicklaus par-72.
Mae! my father yelled, hoisting his nine-iron into the air. I did it!
He was a couple hundred yards away, and because I didn't think my voice would carry, I jumped up and down a few times and clapped my hands, trying to appear visibly thrilled. But I was self-conscious with Smith standing behind me, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his army-green cargo pants, an anxious scowl on his almost beautiful face.
Dad sauntered off to pluck the winning ball from the hole, long, white beard trailing in the wind, his spaniel, Betsy, two steps behind. It was hardly fifty degrees out, but Dad was wearing shorts and hiking boots. He was nearing seventy, but he had the bulging calf muscles of a man half his age.
I want to see birds no one else has seen, Smith was saying. I printed out the checklist for North Carolina. How soon can we mark these off?
Slow down, I said, smiling.
I don't know if I can tell a common goldeneye from a loon, he said. Is that important?
He followed me to our picnic table, which was soft from rot and green with moss.
Smith stuck his fingers into his bramble-thick hair, hair the color of sea grass. It seemed inclined to one side, like a plant reaching for the sun. He wore a paint-flecked T-shirt covered in a school of dolphin fish.
First, I said, let me tell you what we can see here in the Great Dismal Swamp.
I opened our brochure, pushed it toward him like a menu. We had a chunk of land outside of town that had been in my father's family for two generations. We lived in his ancestral home and ran Pocosin Birds, our bird-watching business, from the property.
In April, I began, birders can expect to sight fifty to one hundred bird species in the swamp.
Are you reading backward? Smith asked.
I have it memorized, I said.
I studied his face. His left eye was deep brown, his right hazel. For a moment, I wondered if he had a glass eye.
Eyes like David Bowie, I said, nodding my head in approval.
Are you going to take me into the swamp? he asked. He smiled. He was lean and dark from the sun. I couldn't tell if he was twenty-five or just short of forty, impoverished or on the receiving end of a trust fund. When he smiled, he looked like too much fun to be thirty, as if he wasn't tired of the world yet.
Typically, I said, we help our clients assemble the correct gear and map a course. We drop you off at daybreak.
I took a red pen from my pocket and circled an area near Lake Drummond.
The best nesting sites for warblers are here, I said. What do you know about songbirds?
I want to go in with you, he said.
Dad was born on the outskirts of the swamp at a time when it was desolate, hard, and flecked with ramshackle hunting cabins. His father had been into timber, and Dad was raised wild - the kind of man who could pick up a snake by its neck with the confidence I'd exhibit picking up a rubber version in a toy store. He was sentimental about his family home and the town. Anything he was used to having around he wanted to keep around. So when the town got too small to sustain a post office, he converted the blue mail drops into composting hubs in the back corner of our lot. He bought the abandoned elementary school at auction for almost nothing - no one wanted to pay the taxes on it, and looters had already taken the copper pipes and pedestal sinks. He rented it out for birthday parties, weddings, and to local artists for studio space. When a developer leveled the city park, Dad reassembled the jungle gym in our side yard near the garden and let the scuppernong vines go wild.
Excerpted from Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman. Copyright © 2012 by Megan Mayhew Bergman. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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