Excerpt from The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Birdcatcher

by Gayl Jones

The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones X
The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 216 pages

    Sep 12, 2023, 216 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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The Birdcatcher

Ibiza. I have left Brazil and am living on the white-washed island of Ibiza with my friend Catherine Shuger, a sculptor who has been declared legally insane, and her husband, Ernest, a freelance writer of popular science articles. We are all expatriate Americans: exiles.

Standing on the terrace, sheltered in the smell of oranges and eucalyptus, washed in sunlight, you'd swear this was a paradise. But to tell the truth the place is full of dangers. The dangers, however, are not directed toward me but toward Ernest. You see, Catherine sometimes tries to kill her husband. It has been this way for years: He puts her into an asylum, thinks she's well, takes her out again, and she tries to kill him. He puts her in another one, thinks she's well, takes her out again, she tries to kill him: on and on. You'd think we'd learn by now; you'd think everybody'd learn, don't you? But somehow we keep the optimism, or the pretense, bring her out, and wait. She's like the fucking trapdoor spider.

Here she's sitting now: We're both out on the dandelion-bright terrace. I'm writing this, and Catherine's scribbling in her therapy notebook that her last psychiatrist told her to keep. Ernest is inside behind the glass door working on an article on laser medicine. Here Catherine sits in a pink silk nightie and blue flannel housecoat, though it's two o'clock in the afternoon and hot as fresh cow dung out here. Underneath I know what she's wearing too—Lady Jockey drawers (Look, Amanda, Jockey makes drawers for women! I've got to get some of these!) and a champagne-colored (champagne!) Danskin bra. And looking so sweet! If you didn't know her story, well, you could eat her up the way she's looking now: wrist on her chin, her jaws as innocent and plum as cherubs'.

Astronomers say that even galaxies eat each other; so why not let's eat this sweet bitch?

Anyway, she tries to kill Ernest: that's all the story really. No one knows why, and Catherine won't tell. The rest of us can only list the attempts: Once she tried to dump a steel bookcase on him, another time she lunged at him with a red-hot poker; once she grabbed the rusty spoke of a bicycle wheel when we were passing by a salvage dump in Detroit.

We were walking down this deserted backstreet one Sunday, before noon. When Catherine spotted the salvage dump, she ran a bit ahead of us, to the wire-mesh fence. When we got to her, she had her hands entwined in the fence. We stood behind her, watching. She looked almost like a little girl in her yellow cotton dress, her hair in tiny braids and tied with a ribbon, her bowlegs peeking out of the dress, and looking as if she were perpetually getting ready to climb onto a saddle—with ride-'em-cowgirl bowlegs. She was even wearing socks with her high-heeled shoes—that was the latest style. Standing pigeon-toed, she looked like a canary peeking into its cage.

"Come along, Catherine," Ernest said, after we had stood there a moment.

"I'm looking to see if they've got anything I can use. They've got a lot of rubber things. I'm thinking of maybe doing a series of pieces in rubber. Bouncing the idea around, you know."

She seemed in delightful good humor for a change.

I stopped watching her and watched the pale building that was the central office for the salvage company. It had high windows, so you'd have to climb a ladder to peek inside. The door was tall and narrow; only one person could enter at a time. I imagined one of those slender carnival giants—a man who lived on stilts—the sort you see in carnival parades, wearing a tuxedo and an oversized stove-pipe hat.

"We'll come back tomorrow and you can look around."

I turned; Catherine turned, one foot darted forward, she stretched her arm like a fencer, looking as determined as an expert. But Ernest had done something she hadn't counted on; he had already taken off his leather jacket and had draped it over his arm—luck or premonition I don't know—so that he had ready-made shield against her. She stabbed the leather. I grabbed her from behind around the waist and held. She still stood with one leg jutted forward; the other foot had fallen out of its shoe, so she was off-balance, easy for me to hold. Ernest got the bicycle spoke out of her hand and just stood looking. She gave a sudden yell like a samurai, then settled into my arms. A weird, curious look on Ernest. Like that time I went with an aunt to the police department to file a complaint. There was another woman there sitting at a gray, metal table, examining photographs. She kept turning pages till she got to the page where she saw the familiar face. "This is him," she said, then, "I think this is him. This could quite possibly be him." The detective standing behind her said, "We don't go by possibly in here." When my aunt and I got outside, she said, "That's not exactly true that they don't go by possibly. I have known them to go by possibly." Anyway, the look of that woman spotting the "possibly" photograph was the look that Ernest had watching Catherine: "This is her. I think this is her. This could quite possibly be her." But, standing behind Catherine's shoulder, it was as if he were looking at both her and me at the same time.

Excerpted from The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones. Copyright 2022. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

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