A Catalog of Birds

A Catalog of Birds

by Laura Harrington


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This novel of a wounded Vietnam veteran’s homecoming is both “a searing war story and a page-turning thriller” (The Washington Post)

.Billy Flynn has always wanted to fly, like the birds he draws with pencils and paints. He is also a patriot, so in 1970 he cannot resist the call to serve in Vietnam. A year later, he is the only one to survive after his helicopter is shot down.A wounded Billy returns home to his family in upstate New York, including Nell, his adoring younger sister. In his absence, the woman he loves has mysteriously disappeared. His wounds have crippled his ability to hold a pencil and his hearing loss has cut him off from the natural world he loves so much. Nell, a brilliant student headed for a career in science, is determined to do all that’s possible to save him.
A Catalog of Birds is the story of a community confronted with shattered innocence and with wounds that may never heal, in “a beautiful book about family, loss, and love [whose] memorable characters will haunt you long after you put it down” (Claire Messud, New York Times–bestselling author of The Woman Upstairs).

“Stunning natural descriptions provide a rich backdrop for Harrington’s beautifully articulated coming-of-age story, which captures the pain of loved ones grappling with the after effects of war.”—Booklist (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609454036
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/11/2017
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Laura Harrington, has written dozens of plays, musicals, and operas, which have been produced in venues ranging from Off-Broadway to the Houston Grand Opera. Harrington has twice won both the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England. Laura teaches playwriting at MIT where she was awarded the 2009 Levitan Prize. Alice Bliss , her first novel, won the 2012 Massachusetts Book Award in Fiction.

Read an Excerpt


February 1970

The last thing he remembers: two grunts and a stretcher materializing through a covering shroud of white phosphorus, getting crammed into a chopper full of the dead and dying, the medic finally stabbing him with morphine. He doesn't regain consciousness until the sixth day on the hospital ship. A blessed blankness while his burned skin peels away from half his upper body, leaving pain in its wake no narcotic can touch.

Was it mercy or a mistake to have hauled him off that mountaintop? He woke fifty miles from shore in the South China Sea with the scent of his father in the bed beside him: cigarette smoke, Old Spice, the sensation of being held against Jack's chest.

Billy had been sure he would die on that ship. Prayed for it some days when the pain stripped him of hope and dignity, his spirit diving into the sea to escape; the lure of water, colder and colder as he descended, becoming a slow, silken creature of the deep; fins and gills and unblinking eyes.

The transfer to the Army hospital in Japan: the bruising landing, the shock of December cold. He'd passed out as he was moved from the stretcher to a bed, IVs taped back into place, his body like a side of beef, waiting for the next round of surgeons and the next as they set and reset bones in his forearm, elbow, shoulder, picking out shrapnel with each surgery, waiting, always waiting for the specialist to arrive and begin to reassemble what's left of his hand.

He'd survived long enough to be wheeled into this hallway, club-footed Sam dialing the phone, negotiating with the operator.

The second he hears Nell's voice he can see her: jeans and boots, almost eighteen, no longer a kid. Sunlight spilling across the beat-up linoleum in the kitchen, her schoolbooks piled on the table, an apple, an orange, Jack's red plaid scarf around her neck, Flanagan waiting on the porch to go out.

Maybe he should've held on to that Saint Christopher medal she'd given him. He'd worn it looped around his neck with his dog tags. His first sight of the sea in Vietnam, he'd waded in, pulled the medal over his head, touched it with his lips for luck, and dropped it into the water. The water flat calm, soupy, shimmering in the heat. Jets taking off from Tan Son Nhut, a radio wailing on the beach, barbecue and diesel washing over him. Somehow there was cold beer, USDA hamburger flown in from God knows where, soldiers dancing in their skivvies, running into the sea, sunburned and stoned, taking a break from the war before heading back into the jungle.

How often he thinks of Nell on the day she fell from the tree, falling asleep beside her, waking to find her staring at him, face drawn, the pain registering. No whining, not a word of complaint. Struggling to her feet, one sneaker missing. How calm she was, retreating deep inside herself like the soldiers do. In shock or stoic, they endure the running, jostling panic as they are loaded on stretchers, carried onto the medevac chopper or simply boosted or shoved aboard, the scream of its rotor blades the sound of salvation.

How many die on his ship; he promises himself not to count. Focus on the bird, getting in, getting out. He gets a reputation, doesn't want one. Don't call him lucky, don't call him anything, draw no attention to the bubble he flies within. Illusion, faith, skill, sooner or later it will shatter, like the glass they picked out of the skin around Nell's eye. Another millimeter, their mother kept saying, just a fraction of an inch and she would have lost that eye.

In the hospital hallway, he looks at his hands. His mind hits a snag every single time. Reaches to hang up the phone, drops the receiver. It swings on its black cord, banging against the wall.

He wants a cigarette, wonders if he'll ever roll a smoke again. Looks out at the lights dotting the parking lot, a dog sniffing the perimeter of the fence. From this vantage point the hospital looks like what it feels like: a prison compound.

He must've fallen asleep. The dial tone grows louder, or begins again, changes to a thin wail that wakes him. Out the window the shifts are changing, the able-bodied walking to their cars. Soldiers stir in the rooms behind him, waking to the news of their losses over and over.

It's time to piss off home.

The VA hospital in Syracuse is a sprawling, shabby redbrick building. Yesterday's snow still fills the parking lot; the walkways are rutted with ice. The facade appears to weep in the weak sun, snowmelt from the roof and broken gutters.

Nell pushes through the revolving door, her mother's fury trailing her. Billy insisting that she come alone, her mother relegated to the parking lot. Nell wonders how long she'll last. Waiting is not Marion's strong suit. Billy always puts her in the middle: the chosen one and the buffer, too.

The hospital is hot and airless. She unzips Billy's hunting jacket, waits at the information desk. It smells musty and damp; the hallways, half-lit, stretch forever. Catches a glimpse of a girl exiting through the door at the opposite end of the building, a boy's watch cap hiding her hair. Megan? It can't be Megan; how would she even know Billy is home?

The man who finally appears can't find Billy Flynn.

"Admitted last night," she tells him, "from Japan."

He shuffles folders.

"Burned. Where's the burn unit?"

He runs his finger down the list of floors and departments. Finally: "Floor 6. South Side."

Nell takes the elevator, follows the arrows to the South Side, walks through corridors with soldiers waiting everywhere: in wheelchairs, on gurneys. Those who are awake watch her pass. The doors to all the rooms are open. She's afraid to look inside, can't stop herself. Boys missing arms, legs. She stops looking, looks at the floor instead.

The smell is overpowering: bleach, urine, vomit.

Two soldiers in wheelchairs, arms and hands intact, chase each other down the corridor, shouting. A radio, something about a radio. They will not be stopped, no matter who yells at them.

Nell flattens herself against the wall as they flash past. The soldier on the gurney beside her reaches for her hand. His bandage covers the top of his head, one eye, his jaw. The gauze is pink with blood, frothy, the sheet soaked. She lets him grip her hand, then turns to him.

"What's your name?"

He licks his lips. "Scotty."

"Are you waiting for surgery?"

"Just waiting." His voice is scratchy.

"I have to go. My brother is here."

"Come back. Come see me."

The burn unit is through a set of double doors. First impression: it's so much quieter than the ward she just walked through. She takes a breath, tries to calm the panic she feels. Intermittent moans, cries. The crash of a metal pan.

A wife visiting in high heels and lipstick, purse held tight against her belly, stops next to Nell, coat over one arm, eyes darting. Wearing her best dress, the one for church or maybe Friday nights, slim gold band on her left hand, hair flipped and lacquered. How'd she get through all that snow in those heels? Where's her mother? What made her think she could face this alone?

Nell finds Billy's room, crowded with six beds. She takes shallow breaths against the smells, tries to reconcile the thin, bandaged man pinned to the bed with the exuberant animal Billy has been all his life. Thinks, then, of building wings together; their stubborn belief that if they could just solve the practical problems, they'd be able to fly.

The side of his face, his neck and ear are bandaged in gauze and an elaborate dressing covers his hand, arm, shoulder, and torso. It's his right hand. No, she thinks. No. She slips between two beds to reach him, careful not to jostle the other soldiers. Registers that one of them is dead, eyes staring, mouth open.

Billy is asleep. She rests her hand on his chest, afraid to hurt him, needing to touch him, to reassure herself that he is breathing.

His heartbeat is slow. There's an IV in his good arm, delivering fluids, morphine? The bag is nearly empty. She hears water spilling to the floor, turns to see urine pooling beneath the bed by the window, the collection bag overflowing.

He opens his eyes. "Nell."

He is so pale he seems to come from another world.

"I want to hug you, but I don't want to hurt you ..." she says.

"Plenty of time for that."

He looks at her, assessing the changes, she knows, noticing everything.

"Your hair like that," he says. "I wish I could draw you."

"Quit it."

"It's your neck."

"What's wrong with my neck?"

"You're like a fucking swan."

"A freak of nature, then."

"Just don't tell me how I look."

"You look good to me."

"At least I'm not in a box," he says, which makes them both laugh. "How'd you manage Mom?"

"She's in the parking lot."

"How's Megan?"

"She's good."

"Did you tell her I'm back?"

"Not yet. I thought ..."


"He's a jerk. It's ..."

"It can't be serious."

"No." He doesn't need to know it's been going on since September.

"There's something you're not telling me."

"She's running with a different crowd."

"Megan?" He tries to sit up, can't. "Tell her I want to see her."


"Water over the dam, Nell, you tell her."

"I will."

He shuts his eyes against the pain. He is whiter than the sheets he lies on, as though his blood has turned to water, losing color and the power to heal. It about kills her that she can't take the hurt away.

As darkness begins to fall, Nell thinks about standing in that kitchen in East Syracuse more than a year ago: the same watery half-light; the same sense of being suspended in time; something begun, but not yet finished.

Nell and Megan walk the length of Dorset Street, the end of summer air hot and heavy. Tended yards give way to broken toys, discarded machine parts, busted streetlights. Cars spill their guts in rutted driveways. A woman hisses at them from her porch as if she knows their business.

"You sure this is the right street?" Nell asks. "It's further than you said."

A massive dog stands, head heavy, feet splayed, the chain around its neck rusted and rattling.

"You scared?"

Megan doesn't respond. The dog growls, tests the length of his chain.

"Did Helen Palmer tell you anything?" Nell asks.

The roll of cash falls out of Megan's bra again. An impossible sum. Nell snatches it up and shoves it into her pocket. Megan starts to laugh, then quits.

"It would be nice to know something," Nell says.

"Nice? You gonna write a lab report?"

"What if something goes wrong? What if ...?"

"Shut up."

"How long does it take? Does it hurt?"

"Of course it hurts."

"Billy ..."

"Is a million miles away."

"You need to tell him."

"I'm not discussing this with you."

"Did you use protection?"

Megan lets the question hang in the air.

There are no lights on outside the house as they make their way to the back door. They wait on the porch for long minutes before the woman lets them into the kitchen.

She is older than Nell expected, older than her mother, wire thin, wiping her hands on a towel. She pours a drink, sits at the table, unlocks a moneybox. Looks at Megan expectantly. No greeting, no small talk. There are dirty dishes piled in the sink, a congealed pan on the stove. The house smells of cigarettes and cat.

Nell watches the woman's hands, counting Megan's money, and wants to bolt.

"It's all there," Megan says.

"That's what all you girls say."

She stands, moneybox under her arm, says to Nell: "You wait here. Don't touch anything."

Megan follows her out of the room, won't let herself look back.

Nell stands in the dirty kitchen, thinking about blood and tissue, a collection of cells, her brother's cells, the lab at school, dissecting a pregnant cat, then the embryos, each sac heavy with possibility. Sweet sixteen, what a joke, this is the worst year of her life.

She walks down the dark hall, moving silently as Billy has taught her, places her hands on the doorframe. She needs to be here for Megan, for Billy. She wants and does not want to be inside that room.

Megan takes off her skirt and underpants as instructed while the woman washes her hands. Smells ammonia, blood, her own sweat. Looks for a sheet. Sees the instruments on top of a chest of drawers, jumbled in a glass baking dish; the alcohol bath sharp in the air.

She climbs on to the improvised operating table, wishing for something to look at: a picture, a window; wishes for Nell, wishes for her mother when the procedure begins. The cold speculum, the woman's rough hands; the lamp she brings close.

"This is going to hurt."

Gripping the edge of the table, she whispers to herself: I don't care, over and over.

"Be still, now!"

She feels sick. How could any of this: the rusted lamp, the metal bucket on the floor, the warm gush of blood, have anything to do with Billy and what they'd done every chance they got?

Why isn't there a sheet, something, a towel to cover herself? Is this part of the anger she feels radiating from this woman, who did not ask her name or share her own, yet here she is scraping out —

"Is everything okay?" Megan asks.

"Think I can see the future, lookin' up here between your legs? Start using what's between your ears or you'll be pregnant again before I can spit. And just so you know: Ain't nothin' going up there for six weeks. You hear me? Nothin'."

Megan cranes her neck to look at the woman as she pulls out the wand, removes the speculum.

"You're gonna ache and you're gonna flow, like you've got a real bad period. Three days, four, that's normal. You get fever, you start vomiting, losing more blood; you go to the doctor. If the doctor's closed, you don't wait til morning, you go straight to the hospital. They ask you what happened, you had a miscarriage: cramps, clots. You don't know my name; you already forgot my address. You got that?"

"You have kids?" Megan asks.

"That's none of your business."

"A daughter?"

"Your friend out there, she's gonna stay with you tonight." It was not a question. "Tomorrow you stay in bed. Make up some lie. Looks like you're good at that."

She opens the door, brushes past Nell. Nell sees the slop bucket, a vivid swipe of blood on the floor, the mess of being a girl.

Walking to the bus station Megan is giddy with relief. She wants to run, pretend, forget; cuts her eyes away every time she feels Nell watching her. She does not want to talk, to make this moment real by naming it. She's craving something, anything to bury this night. When's Billy's next leave? She'll never tell him; they'll never tell him, right, Nell? It's over. It never happened.

The dark of Dorset Street gives way to the lights of lower Main, the bars and pool halls, soldiers spilling onto the street. So many boys, and every mother's son of them wants Megan. They crowd around her, offer drinks, a ride, a burger, propose marriage, a weekend, a dance. Bring your friend, they say, uninterested in the awkward, too tall Nell, but willing to do just about anything to get their hands on Megan. She laughs and says no. You can't blame them for thinking she means yes. That killer smile.

Megan walks through the door at the bus station and pauses.

"Are you okay?" Nell asks.

"I want a beer."

"You can't. You're ..."

"Watch me."

She is thin, pale, her skin chalky, but even in the fluorescent light her red hair sparks. She wades into a new group of soldiers; they eddy around her like a school of fish. Megan does the choosing: this one, not that one, changes her mind, chooses again. Leaves the station.

Nell tries to stop her. Megan dances away, arm in arm with her soldier, laughing, nearly running, like a kid let out of school. Angry, Nell waits in the doorway, watches the clock. The last bus home is already idling in its bay.

A soldier approaches: stiff new fatigues, shiny boots, razor burns and acne, hair so short, so badly cut, he looks like a shorn sheep. Did they do this to her brothers? Is it any better in the Army? What does better mean?

He starts talking. Southern accent. Skinny as he is, his voice is rich. If he sang he'd be a baritone.

"Where you from?"


"Where's that?"

"About forty minutes from here."

"You waitin' on your friend?"

"I am."

"Could be awhile."

"I know."

This boy wants to touch her, the way Billy touches Megan, the way she wishes Harlow would touch her and never has. But even that isn't true. He wants to touch a girl, any girl, and she just happens to be in front of him.

He buys two sodas; they lean against a dirty wall. His unit is headed for Vietnam. He's a radio operator, says he wants to open a shop when he gets home: radios and television, sales and service. Says he has a girlfriend. Only sixteen. Isn't sure she'll wait for him. Two years. Anything could happen. It's a lot to ask a girl.

"You love her?" Nell asks.

"Since first grade."

"You think you'll make it?"

He looks at her, surprised. "Mostly we don't talk about that."

"But you think about it."

"Try not to."

He asks if he can hold her hand. So polite it's hard to say no. Asks, then, if he can kiss her.

"It's not me you want to kiss," she says.

"You'd be surprised," he says, leaning in to her.

His lips are sticky with Coca-Cola, his breath sugary. She pulls away.

He shoves her, hard, hisses: You little bitch! And walks away.


Excerpted from "A Catalog of Birds"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Laura Harrington.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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