Laboring up the stairs on his crutch, he pitched one-legged down the long hallway, shutting all the other bedroom doors while Stillman rolled mats against the thresholds to stop the drafts. Once the wood was stacked, Jim could stoke the fires himself. The stove was hot but if you walked any distance from it, you could see your own breath.
He remembers Stillman uncovering a family of field mice who'd claimed one of the big sofas in the sitting room. "Let them be," Jim said. No doubt they'd huddled here for generations. Its winter lodgers. There'd be mice all up and down the Thoroughfare doing the same.
Then spring with its own crueltymud.
"A-yup, mud season," Sarah said brightly, matter-of-factly, seeing Jim's tracks just outside the kitchen door. Deep muddy ruts. "Mud, lupine, lilacs, and it'll last till June." Just when it was balmy enough to go outside, the wheels of the chair stuck fast. Crutching back to the house, he managed to find a rope to haul it in, before Sarah found hima god-awful mess.
Sarah, Stillman's unmarried daughter, strong-boned, strong-willed, freckled, thirty. She brings Jim his groceries each week: eggs, bacon, milk, cigarettes, corned beef. A bottle of Scotch or gin when he asks for it. He refuses anything more healthy or varied she might offer. She's Fergus's spy too, no doubt, checking up to make sure he's still alive. She delivers his papers: The Rockland Courier Gazette and the New York Times, a day late, carrying news of Watergate and Vietnam; Erskine Childers's son elected president of Ireland; Papua New Guinea's first elected chief minister; France testing its atomic bombs on Mururoa Atoll. Jesus Christ, hadn't they had enough of that?
Never you mind the mud. You could open all the doors and windows. You could sit in the sun. You could smell the whole island warming, thawing. Rotten seaweed, fermented leaves, wet grass. Listen to the sound of melt dripping off the eaves of the house and trickling down to the sea. He cleaned up. Leaning forward in the chair, he swept all the cans and papers into big black bags for Sarah to take to the dump in the middle of the island.
He watched migrants and then the summer birds flock in. Male red-winged blackbirds arriving first like military heralds with their red and yellow epaulets, then yellow goldfinches, and sparrows: the seedeaters. Followed by the insect-eating bluebirds, phoebes, swallows, and warblers. The female blackbirds, the thrushes, and orange orioles. A smell of lilacs drifted in the kitchen door.
By May, Jim could walk outside, far enough to spread seeds and dried bread on the bird table. He needed both crutches at first, and placed them carefully so as not to slip and make a further ass of himself, though there was only Sarah to see. Then set himself to mastering one. The ground grew firm enough for him to wheel the chair around the house, and later Stillman came and laid a small path of crushed shell so he could wheel right down to the shore. He started to work, tapping out a long-postponed article he'd planned for the museum's Natural History Magazine.
Jesus Christ, he likes this place. He'd let himself be comforted by it, by all the sounds and the familiar smells from childhoodif it weren't for this goddamn girl about to arrive.
Excerpted from The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway. Copyright © 2014 by Alice Greenway. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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