Margret stood at the stone stairs leading down into the park at 115th Street. The stairs were steep and sinking, pushed in and jutting out. How does such heavy stone get so shifted? Margret always wondered. It couldn't be from people. It must be ice trapped in fissures, freezes impacted like a tooth. Only Nature herself could nudge such slabs, make it look like they had moved in their sleep. Margret lifted her face to the treetops and reclipped her heavy hair back, catching the dark, wavy wisps that were always coming loose and getting in her eyes. You had to concentrate on these stairs, and this hair of hers, the envy of childhood friends and college roommates and now her colleagues in the city—"So Botticelli," they said, "so Burne-Jones"—it was endlessly mossy against her neck, endlessly escaping from behind her ears.
It was seven A.M. and the light was coming in, though you could hardly say the sun was up. It always took longer to find and warm the West Side. Margret went carefully down the steps, then paused to spin the focus wheel on her binoculars, which sometimes stiffened between outings. Like I do, she thought. She began walking with a steady pace, keeping to the wide path along Riverside Park's majestic retaining wall. Up on Riverside Drive, all you saw was a safety wall, three feet high and made of silvery stone rectangles, uniformly spaced. Columbia undergrads sat on the wall, rocking and laughing at each other's jokes, unaware of the other side. Look over, though, and you saw the drop, quite dangerous in some places, enough to send an eely wave up the back of your thighs.
At the bottom of that drop, down in the park and looking up, the wall was something else again, huge stones laid in to heights of thirty feet, rough strokes of coal, bronze, nickel, russet, with scratchy patches of bleach green. Monumental, maternal, it was the fruit of a brute labor the city would never see again. And in the seams and chinks between stones it was alive, a darkness attractive to mice, rats, birds, cats, raccoons. Well, who wouldn't want to live in a wall if they could fit? Even young trees, their slim trunks emerging from crevices four feet above the ground, had roots deep in the dark behind those stones. Something there is that doesn't love a wall. But I do, Margret thought; I love this wall.
What if we lived in a wall? she once asked her husband as they walked this path. A wall, he said. He liked to let a question land, to see how it sat. He'd always wanted to live in a cave, he said, with all the luxuries, of course: a stereo system, a library, a sock drawer. Like Captain Nemo in the Nautilus, with his Caravaggios. A wall, however, that would be . . . Like living in a corridor, she'd suggested. She was thinking of nuns floating down long passages in stone cathedrals. Their whole lives were a corridor, light entering, piercing, in slivers. So you're imagining a space in there, he said, traveling the length of the wall. Yes, she'd answered. She would have been walking on his left side. He was deaf in his right ear, so you had to be on the left. But why is a corridor so appealing? he wanted to know. Because it's in between, she said. It's nowhere that's always leading somewhere. Like the wind. Whereas a cave is just a hole in the ground. He'd taken issue with that, thought she was being hard on caves. Look at King Solomon's Mines. Look at Journey to the Center of the Earth. Caves often led somewhere. Not to the same kind of somewhere, she'd retorted. Then he wound her hair around his hand to make a familiar knot at the back of her head. Mar, he said, you cannot use mystic abstractions to win arguments, even silly ones.
Like a rope, Margret thought. He wound my hair like a rope around his hand.
She was entering the north end of the Riverside Park Bird Sanctuary. It was a deserted part of the park, because it was untended, overgrown. The only other people who were out at this time of the morning were runners and people with dogs. They stayed in the south end of the Sanctuary, the rolling Women's Grove, with its attractive path of cedar chips, its pin oaks, lindens, black locusts, and a fifty-year growth of towering, teetering black cherry trees that seemed a kind of coven, ancestral, arthritic, one uprooted with every storm. In the Women's Grove you felt like gentry walking the manor, and that's exactly how the dog owners looked, strolling as if these were their grounds and they should be tamping tobacco into pipes, a shotgun under the arm. They hated having to keep their dogs leashed. It broke the spell, the sense of expansive ownership. Everyone felt possessive of the park. But the north end was Margret's.
People were afraid of it. Here the paths were not fragrant with care, not deep in cedar chips. They were snaky walkways of dirt, young poison ivy crouched along the edges, old poison ivy climbing trees, wild roses throwing tendrils across the path, whippy green arcs with tiny pink spikes that caught like mean teachers and held. The park's retaining wall stopped where the north end began, at 120th Street, because the drop-off stopped there and a steep slant took over. Here the paths traversed a hillside incline, a westward tumble that landed in a slender stretch of meadow overlooking the West Side Highway. From this grassy shelf you could survey the Hudson River and New Jersey to the west, and the vast sky above the George Washington Bridge to the north. The eastern sun had a hard time reaching down the wooded incline in the north end, down through its burly growth dispelled in a slip of meadow, so it was darker in here and stayed colder longer, at least an hour longer than anywhere else in Manhattan. In the morning, Margret always dressed warmer than she wanted to. The north end was a law unto itself.
Which is why it was so lovely. North south east west; none of that mattered here. Not to the birds and squirrels, not to the vagrants who sometimes made cardboard houses in the forked limbs of fallen trees, knowing that no one with authority walked these Indian paths, no one who would roust or bother. When Margret was in the north end she felt she was in the frayed back pocket of Manhattan. A pocket with a hole in it. A place no one cared about and the police shrugged off because they thought it contained nothing. Nothing but birds and weeds.
She could breathe in here. She was free in here. Grabbed at only by the wild rose, the low branch, her hair coming loose across her face, and her thoughts coming loose but not so much in here because she was concentrated on looking. When she walked these paths—the low path that rode just above the meadow so you could spy on the sparrows, or the high path that kept you eye-to-eye with the canopy and everything the sky brings through—she felt left alone by the world and its need for smiles and brightness and the latest movie and the hottest restaurant and all the hungers that made people feel you were fine, just like them. She loved these walks in the north end in the early morning when it was most raw and deserted, because she could feel one with these tumbling woods, in love with them and inside them. It was the opposite of possessing, though in a way she did possess this place because no one else normal came in here. No, it was that these woods possessed her. She wouldn't tell this to anyone. But she felt it. I'm in its body and if I never come out, never come back, no one would know where to look for me because I wouldn't even be here.
The high path was more solitary than the low, maybe because it was like a path through air. This was the path Margret preferred. It was very narrow, very up-and-down, and with the old fallen leaves so wet—damp and matted after three days of cold March rain—it was slippery. But the air had that clarity after rain, that cold, clear sharpness. "Cut glass," her grandfather used to say of such days. And Margret liked that cold-glass feeling against her face. There wasn't much in here now, just the usual blue jays and tufteds, downy woodpeckers and red-bellieds. And a pair of Carolina wrens that popped up like petty tyrants, rasping at you from stumps. I'd love to pocket one of those wrens, Margret thought, touch that creamy breast, smooth one of those bossy little heads. If one of them dies, I hope I find its body.
There was nothing like touching the head of a bird. The feathers were so soft, the sensation of them practically dissolved on your fingers. Margret always had a Baggie in her pocket, just in case she found something fallen. But nothing much fell in here, feathers mostly. She often wondered where the bodies went. Not the ones caught by the peregrines, who lived high in Riverside Church in a west-facing niche and dropped eviscerated pigeons and jays onto the grass triangle down below. No, it was the ones that fell from branch or sky, having lived out their time. They should be everywhere on the ground. But they were nowhere.
Once, heading to the Cherry Walk, Margret and her husband found a dead woodcock in dried asters off the underpass at One Hundredth, no doubt hit by a car. They both stared at it, marveling at its autumn-leaf coloring, the long worm-brown bill, and the strange placement of its huge black eyes, far back on the head and oddly high, like a martian. Margret knelt down to it, to look closer, and said, Let's take it with us to study and then we'll bury it. He said, No, the grass should have it. And when she looked up at her husband and said, But it's so beautiful, he said again, It fell here, we should leave it. They had discussed this subject often: the power of beauty, how it takes you, and the attempt to turn the table and take it, and that's where the trouble begins. But when Margret saw something fallen she felt herself reaching, wanting. Even now, her breath white in puffs, her fingers going prickly with the cold, the Hudson River still and steely through the branchy canopy, and under her feet old leaves slick as salamanders freezing on the path—thinking back on that woodcock in the weeds, she wished she had taken it.
Excerpted from THE BIRD CATCHER by LAURA JACOBS
Copyright © 2009 by Laura Jacobs
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.