The Bird Skinner

The Bird Skinner

by Alice Greenway

Paperback(First Trade Paper Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802121059
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 11/18/2014
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alice Greenway divides her time between the United States and Britain. Her first novel White Ghost Girls , set in Hong Kong in the 1960s, won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award For First Fiction and was on the Orange Prize longlist. She currently lives in Scotland.

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CHAPTER 1

Summerhouse at the End of Winter

Yet some of the men who had sailed with him before expressed their pity to see him so reduced.

Treasure Island

Fox Island, Penobscot Bay, Maine, July 1973

Jim wedges the chair into the kitchen doorway, forcing the screen door open, lights his third or fourth cigarette. The doctors told him not to. Cut down on the drink, right down, and cut out the smoking altogether. To hell with that. He lost the leg anyhow.

The nicotine leaves him edgy and overly alert. An irascibility that's hard to burn off, stuck as he is in a wheelchair. He could use a drink is the truth of it but he'll hold off for now. It's the least he can do — not meet the girl half drunk.

Go easy. Go easy, he mutters aloud. Shutting his eyes, he wills himself to concentrate on birdcalls. A habit honed since he was a boy. A surefire way of keeping emotions at bay, or safely battened down, which is how he likes them. Gulls — the leitmotif of the island, laughing or crying, however you want to take it. The scolding of a blue jay. The sharp chirrup of a robin. Crows — down by Stillman's place patrolling the fields, their voices grate, hoarse as smokers', and crack like adolescent boys'. There's no cacophony — it being midsummer and high noon — but he can hear the thin, come-hither whistle of a phoebe from the woods in front, the fish hawk mewling as it circles high above the point.

There are other sounds. The low diesel chugging of Adam MacDonald's lobster boat setting out late. Moments later, the dock creaks in the wash from its wake, rubbing against the wood stakes.

Clenching the cigarette between his teeth, Jim wheels out the door, over the uneven grass, and past the corner of the house. From here, he can look down the sloping lawn to the shore, where weed- and barnacle-covered rocks are exposed at low tide, across the brown-green water of Indian Cove, down the end of the Thoroughfare to the open blue of the Penobscot Bay. In the deepest water of the cove, a clutch of Stillman's orange and yellow lobster pots bob on slack lines.

"You can't live up there," his son Fergus protested when Jim announced his intention to move here to the old summer place in Maine. "You'll be too cut off."

"Damn right, I'm cut off," Jim snapped. He looked down at his stump. Transfemoral is the word they use when the leg is severed above the knee. Which makes it more difficult to fit a peg leg, or a prosthesis as the doctors insisted on calling it, though Jim had refused one anyhow.

"What if you fall down? What if you get stuck?" Fergus grew uncharacteristically fraught. He felt guilty perhaps, being the one responsible for hauling Jim off to the doctor: the advocate for his father's operation. He implored Jim to be sensible, to hire a nurse or housekeeper. Pleaded with him to stay put, at least until summer.

"What if I get stuck here?" Jim spat back, banging his crutch on the floor. It was the one satisfying thing about being a cripple, having the stick to bang about.

The truth is, he was already stuck. He'd been stuck since the war.

He'd gone back to work, the museum in New York kindly offering a position. There, he'd busied himself writing reports about other people's finds — buried himself more like it — for the past thirty years. His latest undertaking had been to catalog the department type specimens, the skins first used to identify new species and subspecies. The standard against which all new discoveries are compared. The museum had 6,300 of them, representing somewhere near a third of the world's known birds.

It was meticulous, painstaking work that involved delving into dusty archives, deciphering unintelligible labels, sometimes scrawled in French or German. It required encyclopedic command. Still, it was derivative, clerical.

He'd not initiated any original inquiry of his own. He'd not traveled, unless you count the daily commute from Greenwich into the city and back. He'd become a mothballed, dried-up skin himself. A shriveled specimen preserved by alcohol — gin in his case. His one book, his one valuable contribution to science, Extinct and Vanishing Birds of Oceania, published in 1960, was itself a compendium of loss, a rejection of life and living things.

Suddenly an amputee, he could no longer navigate the city. He couldn't get himself to the museum. He hadn't gone back, not even to say good-bye or to collect his things. He couldn't stand the idea of anyone opening doors for him, staring at the empty space where his leg had been.

"And no goddamned nurse!" he swore at Fergus. He'd had enough of that in the hospital. Enough poking and interfering, enough rules and regimens, enough mollycoddling. Not even allowing him a goddamned drink. He twirls the cigarette he has now defiantly between his fingers, associating it in his mind with a sort of freedom.

Early spring, Jim began to wonder if Fergus had been right about moving to Maine. He looked at himself in the mirror, eyes red-rimmed, thick stubble on his colorless cheeks, the deep creases in his forehead, the fishhook scar down one side of his face. His hair was thick, tousled, and uncut. His lips distinctly blue. He wondered if he was drinking himself to death. If so, there must be an easier way.

He flicks the spent cigarette, presses it into the grass with his single faded blue canvas sneaker. It's the first time he's worn a shoe in weeks.

Wintertime, Jesus Christ, he lived like a bear. Wrapping himself in a big fur coat he found in one of the closets. Piling goose-down covers and scratchy wool blankets on the bed, which was unmade and all scuffed up like a rat's nest. Sleeping. Drinking. Keeping the fires lit. Bottles and corks under the bed. Empty corned-beef tins that sprouted mold once the weather changed. Books left open with the spines straining. Half-smoked cigarettes stubbed out on the kitchen table. It's lucky he didn't set the goddamn house on fire.

Everything was new to him as he'd only come in summer. The island lay muffled in the snow of a freak storm. The weighted branches of spruce and fir bowed low over the white-clad rocks. Slips of birch trees shivered like cold bones. In the cove, disgruntled gulls hunkered on broken slabs of ice. An early snow goose with its black wing tips appeared one day on its way to summering in the arctic. Chen caerulescens — he noted it in a book he'd started, a record of birds on Indian Cove.

At night a pair of great horned owls hunted the point, filling the house with their bassoon-like calls. Scoters and rafts of eiders floated on the gray sea. When the temperature dropped below freezing, a sea mist rose from the water and wrapped the island in a mirage-like veil. He looked at the thin drift of snow lining the balustrade outside his bedroom and remembered that Helen had always wanted to come here for Christmas. They never had.

The house was cold. No matter how many fires you lit, how long you kept them going, you couldn't make it warm. Large, airy, built for summer, it had little insulation, no central heating. Instead it had a warren of rooms for guests, extended family, and servants. The original owner was one of a Boston elite, who called themselves the Rusticators. Businessmen, bankers, lawyers, architects, who flocked down along this coast at the turn of the century, seeking, like Emerson and Thoreau before them — like Jim now — a simpler life. Only for them, Nature was buffered by maids, cooks, and in-laws.

Cold leaked through places you wouldn't expect, right through the shingles and slated boards, right through the glass panes of the windows facing out to sea, right under the floorboards as the large front porch, jutting over the lawn, let the wind in underneath.

When Jim arrived, Stillman carried some ancient wood up from the basement, and they struggled to light the big cast-iron stove in the kitchen. The flue was clogged with a nest from the year before, which eventually fell down into the stove and burst into flame. Jim felt ashamed not to be able to look after himself as he watched his old boyhood companion light the fire in the dark wood sitting room, then in his upstairs bedroom.

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 cruelty — mud.

"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 him — a 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 childhood — if it weren't for this goddamn girl about to arrive.

"Who's coming ov'ah?" Stillman asks, walking around the back of his pickup truck. It's the first time Jim's asked to go to town but, by nature undemonstrative, Stillman doesn't register any outward surprise.

"Hell if I know," Jim replies. He hoists himself into the cab, pulling up on the open door. Stillman knows better than to offer help. "You can leave the chair. I'll not get out of the truck," Jim says.

It was Stillman who brought the letter two weeks before. So that, damn it, Jim barely had a chance to reply. He remembers the envelope. It was festooned with big colorful stamps, like a missive in a bottle encrusted with barnacles and limpets.

"By God with that shoal of stamps, you can't tell where it's from," Stillman observed.

Jim nodded, though he could tell right away. He could identify each of the birds on the stamps: the Solomon Islands white cockatoo, the ultramarine kingfisher, Sanford's sea eagle. Jesus Christ, Finsch's pygmy parrot — a bird he'd collected. Official seals marked the letter's route from Honiara, via Port Moresby and Brisbane, to Washington, D.C. Forwarded to Jim from Greenwich by his brother Cecil.

Inside — a letter written on State Department paper with an embossed eagle and signed by a consular agent, whatever that is, with the singular name Sethie Bloom. We know you will be pleased to host Ms. Baketi (like hell he will!) who will be arriving (today!) for a month before her medical training begins ... (a goddamn month!) allowing her time to get accustomed to life in the United States.

Jim doesn't see how anyone would get accustomed to anything staying here with him.

What the hell's he to do with a medical student from the Solomon Islands? He's too old, too drunk to host anyone. Besides he's a cripple. Jesus Christ, he should have wired straight back, just as soon as the letter arrived. No. Stop. Won't have her. Stop. He still doesn't think he ever said yes.

There was something else in the envelope. He'd held it up and two folded sheets of newsprint fell out, one showing a photo of a girl with a big circle of hair, a full head taller than the white, bespectacled teacher standing next to her.

New Georgian Girl Headed to New York.

Top Student at King George VI, Student of Fiji School of Medicine, Wins First-Ever Medical Scholarship to the United States.

It made front-page news in the official British Solomon Islands Protectorate Newsletter and merited a two-page write-up in what looked like a more popular, local rag called Tok Tok. Competing there with stories on plans to celebrate Fijian Independence Day, a feature on kastom magic, a photo of a local crocodile hunter.

"Jesus Christ," Jim swears aloud. He spits out a loose piece of tobacco.

Stillman watches Jim lift his foot over a hammer, a coil of rope, a wood clamp, all of which lie strewn across the floor of the cab, and wishes he'd thought to clean them out. Turning down the wooded road to town, he glances over at Jim, who stares grimly forward, chewing on the end of an unlit cigarette.

Jim looks fragile — even more so away from the cove. His shirt is clean and pressed, thanks to Sarah, who sends his clothes over to the mainland to be laundered each week. But still he manages to look disheveled, stick-thin, his eyes bloodshot. The scar down his cheek, where some other boy, Stillman remembers, had caught him with a fishhook. His leg missing. Old man.

In fact, they're practically the same age. They'd played together when they were youngsters. Jim had the grand family, the big summerhouse. He had the cigar-smoking grandfather, captain of a schooner with teak decks and shiny brass fittings that seemed to take up half the Thoroughfare. But Stillman lived close to the reed beds, which were their favored hunting grounds. He got to help his pa haul lobsters. Best of all, he got to stay on the island when Jim left — something he knew all the summer boys envied. During the war, he'd considered himself luckier too when he was sent to France while Jim, he heard, went to the Pacific.

Circumstance has separated them. Even so, Stillman feels the unspoken camaraderie of boyhood — of squelching through the bulrushes, hot mud oozing between their toes, the wide-brimmed summer hat his mother tied tight under his chin. They'd searched for frogs and birds' nests, crabs and June bugs, garden snakes, and the small globular jellyfish that floated in the millpond. Jim had always a purposeful intensity about him, insisting they memorize scientific names, then teaching himself to skin. While Stillman was content enough to catch critters, then let them go.

The sight of Jim sitting rigid and uncomfortable in his truck makes Stillman feel protective and wary of the fresh-faced groups of summer folks assembling in the small lot before the ferry dock. As he pulls in, he finds himself suffering from what he considers a long-out-grown adolescent resentment of these men with their 200-horsepower engines, their money and spare time; these women with their pretty legs. Then feels put out by Jim's family for letting the old man stay on his own, shunting their responsibilities onto Sarah and himself.

These thoughts surprise Stillman. He lives on his own too, and likes it that way. Besides, aren't these folks Jim's own?

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Bird Skinner"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Alice Greenway.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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.

Table of Contents

Prologue,
I Summerhouse at the End of Winter,
II A Girl Named After a Car,
III Hunting Grounds,
IV Tosca's Story,
V Wantoks,
VI Long John's Earrings,
VII Japanese Bones,
VIII Hieroglyph,
Epilogue,
Notes,
Acknowledgments,

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