Unlikely Species (2014)

Two boys were standing at the edge of the water, poking at something with a stick. From a distance it looked like an enormous piece of puffed wheat. As I got closer, I saw that it was a dead cat, lying on its side, half-stuck in mud, fur matted, grinning at the sky, the deranged cousin of the taxidermied bobcat at my former place of employment, only half-finished: its teeth were bared and its eyes were wide and yellow, like his. But from behind, it looked like its entrails had been torn out by hungry birds or fish, its rear end gaping as  raw and wide as its mouth.

The boys seemed to be engaged in some private ceremony I had no right to trespass upon; it was not my place to speak to them. I heard them muttering as I walked toward my house, though I could not tell what about, or if they’d even noticed me.

I tend not to lock the front door, but on seeing the boys I thought, anything could happen, anyone could come lumbering in here. I took off my binoculars, slung around my neck like a heavy necklace, and slipped off the boots I’d been wearing all morning. They were caked in mud. I would clean them later. I like to prowl at the edge of the water, and I always wear the same pair of boots. In a lot of ways it wouldn’t matter if I cleaned them, because they only get dirty again, but I suppose we all have our rituals we like to stick to.

I sat down at my desk, where I took out my journal. Turning to a new page, I wrote the date. Then I made a list of the birds I had just seen:

            3 crows

            1 great blue heron

            5  red-winged blackbirds

            several chickadees/titmice (too high up to count)

 I have been making these lists for over fifteen years, knowing full well that no one will ever read them. I myself rarely look back at what I’ve written. It’s just something I have to do. Some people write stories or make art that no one will ever see; I write down lists of birds. You will have heard of life lists, people going to all corners of the earth, spending money and resources to spot the most exotic species to add to their lists. Why do they do this? I couldn’t tell you. People have life lists that number in the thousands. This is nothing new. Perhaps what is more puzzling to me is the fact that I bother to count them—the number of each species, I mean. I can lie to myself and say I will send the information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or some other census for bird populations in the United States, but I never do. It is a way to keep myself sane, to stave off thoughts of death, the same as any other method. As I said, people have things they make that no one ever sees; some have meditation, or prayer. Some have therapy. Valium. Art. Food. Alcohol. Books. Prayer. Heroin. Music. Abuse. Self-abuse. Woodworking. Pottery. Uppers. Downers. Flowers. Psychics. Physics. Astrology. Tarot. Spraypaint. Whitewashing. Washing dishes. Hanging laundry. Keeping house. Getting lost. Finding Jesus. Keeping quiet. Marriage. Boredom. Silence. Noise.

I have lists of birds.

The boys were still there, but had quit poking at the dead cat. The taller boy leaned on his stick like a shepherd examining some casualty from his flock. He raised the stick and, scowling, jabbed it in the mud a couple of times—then, with a great wide swing of his arm, he flung it out onto the water.

Perhaps it says something about me that for a moment I thought he was going to harm his friend—give him a good smack with the stick, send him sprawling in the mud like the dead cat. Living out here, on the lake, I often have these visions of violence—usually when I see other people, but sometimes when I’m alone. I conjure up stranglings and stabbings, lovers’ quarrels and torrid affairs. I hallucinate young boys killing each other with sticks, with a suspicion creeping over me that these hallucinations are premonitions, that it’s bound to happen sooner or later, oh yes, one day it will happen, and maybe I won’t be there to see it, but it will. This is another thing about lists of birds: they keep me grounded in reality, rather than drifting about in the fantasy realm where I often find myself prodding. As long as I have lists of birds, I think on some level that everything will be all right.

When something bad happens you have to talk yourself down; you go to the desk drawer or the bookshelf, to the turntable or the liquor cabinet, and do what you have to do to make yourself feel better. My notebook, page after page of bird species, is this place for me, my refuge, now that the other one has been taken away from me.

The day had come when I could no longer avoid it. I knew this, sitting at my desk, my pen suspended above the page, struggling to think of other birds I’d seen, but nothing came to mind. No vultures, no cardinals? Nothing. Just two boys and a dead cat. I looked out the window. They were sitting now on the edge of the water, taking turns throwing rocks into the lake. I watched the silent explosions on the water, over and over. I watched the shadow of a cloud sliding across the still surface. I knew I could sit there all day, just watching, unless I forced myself to move.

I felt a burning hunger in my stomach, which brought me to the kitchen. On opening the refrigerator, I was greeted by a box of calcified baking soda and half a container of brown rice, plus a few condiments in the door that were well past their expiration date. The cabinets, too, yielded hardly a thing. My life had deteriorated to half a slip of stale saltine crackers and a mysterious tin of Spanish mussels. I thought of the market, and the money I would have to present on purchasing my meager basket of sustenance, the food of an unloved woman. I needed to go shopping, but had to take another step before I could do that, as one so often does in life: things are hardly ever as simple as they could be. The time has come, Mavis. Pull yourself together. I couldn’t put it off any longer. What a struggle. What a difficult thing, to return to the place you were cast out from, what was once your safe haven, now only an empty shell of what it had been, like a wasp’s nest in winter.

As often as I can, I like to use my own two feet to get me to where I need to be. And I could have made the walk to the museum in forty-five minutes, easily; but I had already been mucking around all morning. My calf muscles were sore—lately I’d felt a chilly soreness in my bones, and today was no exception. Across the pond, directly across from the boys and the cat, under a little shelter he’d built on my property out of four pieces of wood and a tin roof, was Rodrigo’s pick-up truck. It pulled me toward it, as Rodrigo had once pulled me toward him.

“If you don’t want to have children,” he’d said on the day he left me, “I will leave you something else to care for.”

Cherry-red, sturdy, a handsome little Japanese number. I hadn’t driven it in ages, not since leaving the museum for what I thought would be the last time—that is, until my boss, Jerry, called, saying, “Mavis, you’ve got to pick up your things from your desk. It’s going in the garbage otherwise. You can pick up your last paycheck while you’re at it. I hate to leave things like this, but that’s the way it’s got to be.”

Why was my life made up of men telling me to do things?

It made me drive the key a little harder into the ignition, press a little harder on the gas pedal. I was pleased with the hungry little murmur the engine made, the startled look on the boys’ faces as I peeled out and swung past them, raising a cloud of dust. “Here we go,” I said, as if Rodrigo himself were there to hear me, still in Mulro, rather than three thousand miles away, delivering lectures on herpetology at a university in Peru. Snakes, frogs, lizards, toads: he knew them all. He was the reptile mind to my feathered, singing one. I turned on the radio, and deliberately found static, cranked the volume up loud. My ears screamed, furious, raging, as I hurtled toward the town. “Stop it!” my eardrums yelled. “Stop it!”

Mulro. Locals pronounce it “MUL-ro,” while people like me, who came from somewhere else, pronounce it “Mul-RO,” the wrong way. I won’t bother to tell you what state it’s in, because it may as well be anywhere in America, except, perhaps, upstate New York. Population: 12,000. Home to a Korean church and every other denomination imaginable, if you’re into that sort of thing. What else? Two Mexican restaurants. Innumerable chain hotels and fast-food drive-thrus, because it’s right by the interstate, and truck drivers know what they like. The only culture here happens when the high school puts on a talent show, or on karaoke night at Jefferson’s, the dive bar downtown (could you even call it a downtown? Really it’s just a couple of mom-and-pop hardware stores and the courthouse). If you’re hankering for a little science—which is tough to come by in a place like this—if you’re a serious-minded adult or, more likely, an eight-year-old on a field trip that you had to beg Mommy and Daddy to sign the permission slip for, because you’re the type of kid who’s grown up with glow-in-the-dark constellation stickers on your bedroom ceiling, and a pet snake, and feathers and rocks on your windowsill; if you want to feel the weight of a trilobite fossil in your hand, or see how big an ostrich egg really is compared to the tiny hummingbird’s; if you want to read information about dinosaurs that tactfully avoids any mention of evolution; if you’re a thirty-seven-year-old woman who knew a thing or two about ornithology and needed a job, and you were willing to move across the country for it, particularly after Mother got sick and didn’t need you anymore (a friend told you about the job, over lunch one afternoon: “My friend Rodrigo works there. You remember, Rodrigo from grad school?”). You found a nice little cabin by a pond and bought it for a song, using the money Daddy left you before he moved across the country with his new girlfriend and decided never to visit ever again.

If you want to do any of these things, be any of these people, then you go to the Mulro Museum of Natural History, which is dark and cool, quiet in the summer, the only safe haven from the hellish heat outside, so hot it can make Bic lighters explode if they’re left in the car for too long, and warm and enveloping in the winter, when temperatures never get lower than, say, the mid-forties. It’s the sort of place where you can make yourself at home for hours, hiding in dark corners, creeping about, which is what you’re so good at doing outside, in the open air, avoiding human sight, human contact, with only the birds and the other wild creatures to keep an eye on you: except inside the museum, they’re dead, and thus, even more agreeable, even more compliant, just the sort of thing you need to be around at moments of high stress, the tension that will probably kill you one day (it runs in the family, after all).

I tiptoed past the welcome desk, where some half-asleep docent or intern—a teenager whose name I never bothered to learn—was busy scrolling through meaningless text on her phone. I willed my stomach not to grumble. Damn this hunger. I refused to pay admission to a place that had effectively kicked me out, cut all ties, left me longing for lunch. Like a Brown Creeper, I snuck into the Bird Hall: my treasure trove, as sacred to me as my own heart.

On all sides: birds, boxed away in glass, frozen in mid-flight. Here’s the first thing you notice: their eyes. Round, hollow, but I will not say sad, even though this place feels musty, haunted. They stare at you out of their glass displays, dozens of the loveliest specimens to have found their way to shelter, in a small-town natural history museum like any other in the country, perhaps, but special to me, because at one time, it was my sanctuary as well as theirs. Yes, their feathers have faded, the iridescent violet-blue-green dulled to dusky grays and browns. If you smelled them, they would probably smell like the Civil War-era blankets folded away in your great-grandmother’s trunk, which is tucked under your mother’s bed in the nursing home.

These specimens are over a hundred years old, stuck in mock flight since the middle of the 19th century, their wings tapered in a simulacrum of movement. The hawks make faux-dive-bombs toward some imaginary prey, talons poised at the ready, though they appear a bit half-hearted in the attempt, perhaps because they know it’s futile. Everywhere in those blank eyes: an accusation, a vague hostility. “You put us here,” they tell you, with their wide pupils, their motionless feathers; even their total lack of song feels like a threat, their silence as piercing as a pointed finger. “Your kind, they put us here. One day we’ll break free.”

My breath hangs in my chest, halted. Break free—but to what world? I ask you, you, Carolina Parakeet, with your fixed, ventriloquist-dummy’s grin: in the world beyond  the glass, you are no more. Your blood, filled with toxins from the fruits you devoured like there was no tomorrow (there wasn’t a tomorrow, not for you, anyway, not after 1939)—your blood could not protect you from the hunter’s gun, the ladies of society, who stuck your long green and yellow plumes into their hats, feathers the color of citrus fruits, tropical days. You’re gone forever. This is your reality, too,  Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, white-eyed, caught mid-laugh on your Plexiglas tree stump. And you, Passenger Pigeon—you went out long ago, when once you were the most abundant bird in North America, maybe in the world, migrating in your vast flocks. They shot you down, every last one of you. What freedom is there for you beyond the glass? Only certain death. Total annihilation. You won’t last long out here.

“Then we’ll put you in here too.”

Ha! That’s a laugh. I’d like to see you try.

For five years, the Bird Hall was my sanctuary . . . but the new museum director, Jerry—what a name!—Jerry was not content with silence; no. He’d filled my old haunt with bird songs, recordings of woodpeckers trilling, owls booming, robins warbling their lazy melodies from invisible trees, up there in the dark. Why? Why must they insist on all this noise? To lend accuracy, supposedly—to keep it from being too quiet, and therefore unsettling. I thought of the exhibits featuring the birds’ own ancestors, the dinosaurs, in the other hall, Earth’s Magma-ificent Story—how they kept animatronic robots moving their heads up and down, grunting and chomping at the air, because this was somehow supposed to be less terrifying to small children than utter stillness and quiet. Imagine being a five-year-old and greeting a motionless Tyrannosaurus, staring down at you. Somehow, a mute Tyrannosaur is more terrifying than one that roars and claws at the air with his silly little animatronic arms.

The school groups, the people who buy the tickets here, actually like the noise. But the trouble is, noise doesn’t equal accuracy. You would never hear these birds making noise all at once, all in the same place. The warblers would flee the owls, the jays would flock screaming to the red-tailed hawks. But you would not hear all of them all at once, a cacophony of unlikely species comingling, all at once, on any ordinary day in the outdoors. It feels wrong, dead wrong, and my guts turned over, rebelling against such a blatant refusal to pay attention to details.

I want to kill something.

But then.

I am drawn back, again and again, to my poor Passenger Pigeons, still here, after all these years in captivity. My dear parakeets, my Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers, the species birders and life-listers took months, years, to look for, scouring the longleaf forests, binoculars cocked at the ready, trudging through all matter of snake-infested plant life, hoping only for a miraculous glimpse of red and black, those reptilian eyes and long pointed beaks. By now, the birders have forgotten all about them. They have not taken the time to mourn properly, I’m sure—for them, it’s all about moving on to the next rarity, the next possible discovery. I am the only one who mourns, pressing my hand flat against the glass, the only one who could stare and stare, and go on staring for hours, while they stare back at me. To the children who pass through this sacred hall, the names mean nothing. Extinction, nothing. They can’t imagine a world where things they love and look for are nowhere to be found. I can, and that is why I feared that in the museum’s renovations and transitions of power—all those careless budget cuts, those misguided spending sprees—my dear extinct beauties would be gone, sold to some gold-plated, marble-floored palace in New York or London, or places even farther beyond, that I will never have the budget to fly to, not even once poor Mother is gone, leaving me her money and Daddy’s.

But they had been spared, every single one of the extinct specimens, a lime-green, lemon-yellow fruit salad of feathers; a blank, black-marble stare just inches from my nose, with only a wall of glass standing between us. It was enough to bring me to tears, back to myself again.

“Hey!” a voice called out behind me. I didn’t turn around; I kept my eyes locked on the parakeet. “Ma’am?”

It was childish, I knew, to think that if I focused hard enough on the birds, I could blend in with them, lose myself, become invisible. Sighing, I turned to face the girl who’d been sitting behind the welcome desk when I came in.

“Admission is seven dollars,” she told me, folding her arms, all business, her jaw churning like a cow chewing cud. Gum. I hate gum. She squinted at me. “Unless you’re a senior, that is. If you’re a senior, it’s five.”

“I’m not here for a visit,” I snapped, my irritation born of lunchlessness, anger and despair. You little bitch, I know this place as well as I know the trails around my own house. “I used to work here, but I don’t anymore. I was told to collect my things.”

The girl frowned, unconvinced. “Who told you that?” she smacked around the gum.

Repressing a shudder, I replied, “The Museum Director, of course. Jerry Leeds.”

“Hm.” She proceeded to blow an enormous bubble which slowly expanded to the size of an emu egg—before popping, collapsing like an empty plastic bag. We looked at each other for a long moment. “You’d better come with me,” she said.

So I followed her out—what else could I do? Throw a fit? If this place had ever been my domain, it wasn’t anymore. I had lost my rights to it. But I would not hang my head in defeat just yet—not, at any rate, around some prepubescent little gum-smacking snot.

She took me back through the doors to the Bird Hall, snaking us out past the gift shop and the welcome desk, through the glass door to the hallway with the set of three doors, separated by a water cooler and a single folding chair, that had been so familiar to me as a docent. The exit led outside to the captive animals, the snakes, birds of prey, and small mammals that had been captured and rehabilitated here at the museum (it was a kind of service we offered the county; they’d be exterminated otherwise). The last office had been mine, and I shared it with three other docents: tiny, cramped, but I didn’t have a whole lot of paperwork to do. That fell mostly to Jerry. I expected we were headed to his office, but instead, she brought me to the middle one, which had been very familiar to me once upon a time. The door was plastered in posters and postcards depicting Mayan ruins, the Andes, a giant drawing of a snake somewhere out in the desert—all of the places we had said we would go, all of the places we had talked about seeing, if only we could rake up the money and the time off, perhaps a grant, if he could ever get his ideas in order. I had thought of all the birds I might see, a life list numbering in the eight or nine-hundreds, undiscovered creatures who might just be waiting for me in the jungle.    But we had never made it that far. Not together, anyway.

And when the girl knocked on the door and swung it open for me—for by this point I believe I had become paralyzed, merely standing there, unable to think when confronted with all those images of ancient grandeur and long-forgotten monuments—it all came crashing back, all the things we hadn’t done. For the walls were plastered in collages of those places and things, the animals we had wanted to see; and there was Rodrigo himself, sitting at his desk, reading something over the rims of the tortoiseshell glasses I had helped him pick out. They were constantly sliding down his nose, and he was always having to push them up; he did so as we came in.

“I’m helping Emily here learn French,” he explained jovially, apropos of nothing. This non-sequitur made sense when I realized he had cried “Entrez!” when the girl knocked on the door. My ears were ringing, whining like a mosquito’s wings. Even now, it was like hearing him talk underwater; I couldn’t even make out his face properly, it was all blurring together. “She already speaks fluent Spanish—n’est-ce pas, Emily? But French is what she must brush up on for—what was it?”

“The SATs,” Emily said, looking bored.

“Ah! Exactement. Les Ess-Ah-Tays.” He whipped his glasses off, and made a pointed little gesture with them as he pronounced each letter. Then he stood, and came around the massive oak desk where all his papers and books were spread out, and extended his hand to me. I took it, but didn’t feel it; I imagine my own hand must have felt small and cold to him, but his own hand may as well not have existed, I had become so light-headed. He was saying something about what a long time it had been, and then he concluded with, “You may go now, Emily. Merci.”

Next thing I knew, I had sunk, or been placed, in the chair across from his own. He sat casually on top of the desk, as if resuming his former seat would be too formal. He crooked one leg over the edge of the desk, swinging the other in the air, tapping his glasses against his thigh. Perched on the desk, he looked, as ever, like a golden eagle: a beautiful profile, chiseled and refined; sleeker, darker, and more mysterious than our stupid national bird. He looked around the room, seeming at a loss for words, and so I spoke first.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

He jumped, startled, as if he’d forgotten I was there. Then he settled back down again; you could practically see him re-settling his feathers.

“Jerry is out of town,” he said. “Taking a vacation. A much-needed one, I must say, after the renovations. I’m filling in for him, acting as the director for this week and the next.”

“Renovations?” I asked. I’d barely noticed: the Bird Hall was the same, or almost, except for that blasted recording, and that was all that mattered to me.

“Why yes,” Rodrigo said. “Have you not seen them? Earth’s Magma-ificent Story was completely redone over the winter. And the outside pavilion, completely remodeled. The birds of prey have new enclosures, as well—you’ll like that, I think.” He looked at me, then at the floor, clearing his throat. “We’ll have to take a tour after we get done here.” He peered at me closely. “What are we doing here exactly, Mavis?”

“He told me to come in,” I said, keeping my hands flat on my lap, trying to keep my voice from shaking. I stared, hard, at the paperweight on his desk, a scarab beetle encased in amber. Had I given it to him? I could not remember. “Jerry. To get my last paycheck. And the things from my office.”

Minutes passed, and somehow the paycheck was taken care of, with the opening and closing of a filing cabinet, the signing of a piece of paper: but I barely registered them. I felt light-headed, blamed it on not having eaten, even though by now I had surpassed hunger, outrun it, and reached that stage where I no longer felt like eating. Rodrigo had a way of putting a funny dry taste in my mouth, an emptiness inside me. I kept my eyes on my hands, to keep them from roving to the walls collaged with the things we had hoped and dreamed of, and talked about, over countless wine-drenched dinners and fancy fish with the heads still on. Had we really been together for three years? It seemed impossible—but it was true. Three years, burned up in an instant, like a match, because of the one thing I had admitted I could not, would not, be willing to do for him.

“I thought you were going to South America,” I said, staring at the envelope in my hand, containing a check for probably not much more than three hundred dollars. Pennies, given all I had done for the museum, and for this man.

“I did,” he said. “I went, then I came back. You’ve been gone for quite a while, Mavis.”

I willed myself to look around the room, take it all in. I remembered, vaguely, him sending me a postcard from Machu Picchu that I had scanned quickly before casting it into the lake. This was just weeks after we had broken up, and the wound was still fresh.

“Nothing’s changed,” I said in the quiet. “This room looks exactly the same.”

He sighed. “I haven’t changed either, I’m afraid,” he said. And I knew that what he wanted were the same things he’d wanted six months ago. Children. He was getting older—his whiskers were silver now, his once raven hair now streaked with the foamy gray of the mountain waterfalls we used to hike along—and I could not give him what he wanted. He was old enough to be a grandfather, but he didn’t even have a child of his own yet. I felt no regret, nor sadness, over not being able to help him: I may be a woman, I’d told myself countless times in the past, but that’s not my job.  It’s not my duty, even if I love this man, to provide him with little replicas of ourselves, filling the world with so many more specimens like ourselves. I’d dream of children growing up, getting old, withering and dying, only to be stuffed and put away in glass displays. I’d dream of the dioramas they’d make at school, out of cardboard shoeboxes, forming me and Rodrigo and themselves out of modeling clay, and I’d wake up screaming. Sometimes Rodrigo was there in the bed with me, to calm me down; other times, he wasn’t. For we fought a great deal. We mostly slept in our separate houses, our own boxes where we kept ourselves shut away for safe keeping, and we never lived together. Three years had gone by, and Rodrigo, at fifty-five, had decided he couldn’t waste any more time.

“I do miss you,” he said, after a long while, perhaps seeing my hands shaking. But he couldn’t quite seem to bring himself to take my hands in his own. I longed, now, for the handshake he’d offered at the beginning of our meeting. “And I didn’t agree with Jerry that you should be fired. The circumstances were—regrettable, of course, but not exactly worth termination, à mon avis.” He paused, and looked at me, timid, curious, like a schoolboy on a field trip who longed to ask a naughty question about mating rituals. “What did happen, exactly? I never could get a straight answer. You were too upset to speak, and Jerry refused to go into details.”

I took a deep breath. I clasped my hands. And then, with the utmost calm, I told him, “Rodrigo. Children do not care about the sanctity of museums.”

Here’s the story: I had been minding my own business one day, an off-day with no school groups scheduled, when I’d come across a small boy in the Bird Hall. He was staring fixedly at the penguin display: the faded tuxedoes must have  made him ask himself, “But where are their bowties?”

I approached him. There was not an adult in sight. I thought of telling him about what penguins really are: Antarctic ice-dwellers, floe-inhabitants, yes—but also ancient holdovers from a tropical era, when the entire Earth was a giant furnace, saturated with heat. I wanted to tell him about their nesting habits, the incubation of their eggs. How the fathers nestle the eggs on top of their feet to keep them warm in the sub-zero chill. I wanted to tell him that human fathers often have no such level of devotion to their young. All too often, they toddle off into the ice, and get devoured by hungry seals (at any rate, this how I picture what happened to Daddy, with his slew of girlfriends to whom my mother would turn a blind eye, only to lose her mind over it, well after it could have done any good). But here’s my point: someone has to be the first penguin; someone has to take that initial plunge into the ice water. I did it myself. I sacrificed myself for the good of—

But I haven’t finished my story, of the sacrifice I didn’t choose, but was forced into. Somebody pushed me off the ice, and it was this boy.

He was chewing gum.

Seeing this, everything stopped: my story, my litany of facts and interesting trivia about our spheniscid friends, my tangents about my father which I could only hope had been playing out in my head and not in actual speech. Everything stopped.

I said, “You can’t do that in here.”

He looked at me for a long moment. Behind him, through the glass, I thought I saw the penguins creep toward the edge of their Styrofoam lifeboat. They were about to go tumbling into the mirrored water—

Then he took the gum out of his mouth, pulled it out in a long wet string, plocking it together with his fingers into a little pink bundle—and pressed it against the glass. Right in front of me.

“And do you know what day that was?” I asked Rodrigo. “It was the day after you told me you were leaving, that you would give me the truck. You gave me the impression that it was all over, that you were going to South America to meet some pretty girl and have babies and would never come back here. So imagine how well I took it, Rodrigo. You know how much I hate gum. You can just imagine what happened next.”

By this time, my fingers were gripping the edge of my chair. The tips of my ears were on fire; my mouth had gone dry, my tongue numb. The pictures on the wall had blurred into one big messy child’s collage, resembling nothing, meaningless. I gritted my teeth, feeling the fury snaking through me like a hundred electric eels. I saw the look on Rodrigo’s face, a look I hadn’t seen before, that was very similar to the boy’s, when I had done what I did after he stuck the gum to the glass.

He dropped his eyes, looking at his hands. I heard the seconds ticking by on the clock behind me. I gripped the check in my hand, my meager little grocery bag of items from my office: a couple of pens, a stack of post-it notes, that was all.

“Oh, Mavis,” Rodrigo said at last, quietly. “Oh, Mavis. You’re right, nothing has changed.”

Sometimes at night, I dream that the lake has started creeping into my house, a thin ooze through the floorboards, like a splinter working its way out of the skin. It comes through the crack under my bedroom door, smelling like tar and gasoline, abandoned tires, prehistoric muck. I don’t mind it too much because with it come the water birds: green herons, egrets, grebes, mergansers, ducks of all sizes and colors. I am not so alone, with them watching me. I am calm and ready—for what? For the water to carry me away.

Of course, we didn’t take a tour around the museum. I made up some excuse to get away from Rodrigo. As I maneuvered the truck toward the shed and prepared to park it, I saw the two boys, still lingering on the edge of the water. What on earth were they still doing here? Was there really so little to do in Mulro that their best source of amusement was to hang around with a rotting cat carcass?

I parked, got out of the truck, and looked closer. Were they—chewing gum? And was that—was that the boy? The one from the Bird Hall?

I must be going crazy—either that, or my vision was failing me. That morning I’d thought, on seeing all those chickadees and titmice so high up I couldn’t count them or make them out properly, that I needed new glasses. What could I do? What would I say to them? I stood there, frozen, shivering even in the heat, trying to decide what to do. They couldn’t very well stay there all day, on my property—but then again, what harm were they doing? What were they doing? Talking? Could two people talk for that long together? What did boys that age even have to talk about?

I felt curious about them, about people, in a way I had never been before.

I still couldn’t move. My eyes fell on the lake. Did my eyes deceive me—or had the water level risen since I’d gone away? I stared at the water, pondering how this could possibly be the case, since it hadn’t rained all day. ♦

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