James carried these birds inside his untucked shirt to the kitchen table. He laid them down and wiped the remaining dirt off them with his hands. He lined them up on the tablecloth and sat down before them in a stupor, as if they would soon begin to speak, as if he should be ready for such a thing to occur.
Anne found her husband sitting across from the birds, his hand over his mouth, his shirt covered in dirt. He looked up at her, let his hand drop from his face, and opened his mouth to speak but said nothing.
“Where did these come from?” Anne asked, though she knew well enough and wasn’t certain what her husband would do or think.
“Silas did ’em,” he said. “I think he did every one of ’em.”
Anne then led her husband outside to the old lean-to shed. James hadn’t set foot in his father’s storage shed for months now. Out past the end of his wife’s extended finger was the overturned washtub covered with curly locks of wood. Atop the tub lay a bird in process. A small bird, the struggle of appearance still evident in its pose. Beside it was one of Thaddeus’ gouges. James sat down heavily on the bucket his son used as a chair. He picked up his father’s gouge and studied it, then put it back down. He gathered a handful of wood shavings and let them drop between his feet.
“You ever seen anything like it?” he asked his wife.
She shook her head and turned back inside, leaving him sitting there on the bucket like a man who had been knocked down in a fight.
JAMES HAD INTENDED to spend that afternoon taking samples from each acre to check for rosette disease in the crop. Instead, he found himself suddenly thrown into a series of new errands, and he moved with earnestness, one task begetting another–as action creates a taste for itself–until his engagements overtook his mind. He did not know what was happening in his heart.
He backed his truck up to the shed. He dragged the washtub out and cleared the floor and the space beneath the shelves of every odd thing his father and grandfather had kept out of suspicion of future use. Pieces of rusted rake implements, soiled stacks of almanacs and catalogs, the detritus of a chain saw that never ran, a wheelbarrow axle, and many other hopeless, handed-down things were thrown into the back of his truck to be hauled to the dump. He removed all his father’s scrap hardware from the sagging shelves, swept them clean of dust, then reset them with fresh joists and angles.
When the shed was clear he built a low worktable against the back wall–two sawhorses and two heavy planks, recently milled, that he’d intended to sell, beautiful and gray in their patina, flat as calm water. He took his wife’s stool from the kitchen and placed it under the table, knowing he would have to buy her another one. Beneath the wall on the far side he dug a hole and ran an extension cord and hung a bare bulb for a work light, testing it several times. He found a kerosene heater, which he cleaned and refilled and lit, and it filled the room with its warm tang. Time seemed to press on his heart, and he looked constantly at his watch, hurrying to complete the intention he himself barely understood. It was nearly three when he rehung the doors so they would close soundly and retain the heat.
When he was finished he stood for a long time in the door frame and surveyed his labor. The carved birds were now lined across the shelves above the bench, wet with linseed and tung oil, their grain alive in the light. He brought his wife to see, and she stood for a long time looking at the shelves. It seemed as if an entire flock of exiles had roosted there and made for themselves an aviary that stood sentient over the artist’s vise and table.
After some time James left the shed and went into the house and took a shower, his thoughts left unuttered, his hands still wishing for something more to do, to add to the place he had made.
That night Silas never came into the house. Anne and James ate dinner together in perfect silence, their son’s plate untouched at the end of the table. They went to bed, and still, late into the night, the light in the shed made long chinks in the dark.
An olive-sided flycatcher swept across the panels, casting bolts of shadow; a blackburnian warbler rested over the table and sang something previous and inscrutable. The light burned on–the hybridists in their beds, their young at his work–and mimicked that greater light inside the mother and father. Anne turned into her husband’s back and slept and James lay drifting off, listening to some dream of crank flight, the whistle of wings as the covey rose and dispersed into the limbs of the grove.
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