Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception. My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago. She was thirteen. My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward.
I was walking in the woods when Kate died. I'd asked her the day before if she wanted to pack a lunch and go to the Enon River to hike around and feed the birds and maybe rent a canoe. The birds were tame and ate seeds from people's hands. From the first time I'd taken her she'd been enchanted with the chickadees and titmice and nuthatches that pecked seeds from her palm, and when she was younger she'd treated feeding the birds as if they depended on it.
Kate said going to the sanctuary sounded great, but she and her friend Carrie Lewis had made plans to go to the beach, and could she go if she was super careful.
"Especially around the lake, and the shore road," I said.
"Especially there, Dad," she said.
I remembered riding my rattly old bike to the beach with my friends when I was a kid. We wore cutoff shorts and draped threadbare bath towels around our necks. We never wore shirts or shoes. We would have laughed at the idea of bike helmets. I don't remember locking our bikes when we got to the beach, although we must have. I told Kate, all right, she could go, and she told me she loved me and kissed me on the ear. Kate died on a Saturday afternoon. The date was September 1, three days before she would have begun ninth grade. I spent the day wandering the sanctuary without any plans. Enon had been in a heat wave for a week and I had been up late the night before watching West Coast baseball, so I took it slow and mostly kept to the shade. I thought about Kate going to the beach so much over the summer, working on her tan, suddenly conscious of her looks as she'd never been before. The milkweed in the sanctuary had begun to yellow, and the goldenrod to silver. The edges of the green grass were about to dry to straw. Silver and purple rain clouds rolled low across the sky and piled into towering massifs. The slightest wind pushed ahead of the weather, eddying over the meadow, lifting dragonflies from the high grass. Bumblebees worked on the fading wildflowers. I hoped for rain to break the heat.
Chickadees wove around one another, back and forth between the bushes along the path. I hadn't brought any seeds to feed them. I remembered telling Kate about the first time I'd fed the birds from my hand, when I'd been in seventh grade, with my grandfather. We didn't have seeds because he'd forgotten about the birds. When he remembered, he and I stood still on the path, with our hands out, and the birds came to us anyway. The episode had happened so long ago, and I'd told it to Kate so many times, since she'd been a little kid, that I thought it might be fun to try it again, just so I could tell her and bring up the story about my grandfather. (Kate said once, "I never met Gramps, but you talk about him so much I feel like he's somebody I know.") It was getting late and I still had to run to the market to buy food for dinner. Carrie's coming home with Kate, I thought, if they're both not too tired from being in the sun and the bike ride. I decided to buy salmon and asparagus and a lemon and potato salad, and the corn Kate had asked me to get. I figured that if she was hot and tired, she'd want something light. Susan'll like that, too, I thought. I'll get a carton of lemonade, pink if they have it. Kate always said it tastes sweeter, less tart than the yellow kind, although I could never taste the difference.
I had almost reached the end of the boardwalk, at the boundary of the marsh, where the path took up again through the trees and led back to the meadow, where by then swallows would be lacing through the sky, feeding. Although I felt like I didn't have the time, because I didn't want Kate to have to wait too long to eat, I stopped and stood still and held out my empty hand, like I had twenty-one years earlier, eight years before Kate was born, fifteen years before I brought her there. It suddenly seemed lovely, the thought of standing there, coaxing even a single bird, if only for a fl uttering instant, just so I could go home and cook dinner and when Kate came out to the picnic table, fresh out of the shower, her hair still wet, maybe even staggering a little to be silly, groaning and saying something like "Argh, I'm so tired," I could say, "Hey, I tried to feed the birds without any seeds, like that first time with Gramps, and it worked!" In the two or three minutes I allowed myself, one bird approached my hand and pulled up short and rolled off back into the bushes when it saw I had no food. I decided that that was close enough and hurried toward the car, glad at the prospect of making Kate a good meal that would comfort her after a long day.
Excerpted from Enon by Paul Harding. Copyright © 2013 by Paul Harding. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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