Laura Jacobs | The Bird Catcher | Excerpts



The Bird Catcher cover Margret 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 grads 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.


He became her adviser in her second year, a sort of stopgap when Margret's real adviser, Maria Silvano, a brainy, bipolar Rossetti scholar, who wore black leather miniskirts and pointy Manolo Blahniks, went off her lithium, wreaked havoc at the faculty Christmas party, and was on indefinite medical leave by the New Year. Margret was told her new adviser would be Dr. Charles Albert Ashur, Ancient Near East, a distinguished Assyriologist who also lectured on orientalism, which took in the Pre-Raphaelites. She'd passed him in the hall and on campus, that dark head, those elegant wools melting over handsome shoulders. She'd watched him listening intently to students who caught up with him after class. And she'd been introduced to him at a grad student tea, where shyness had made her quiet in his presence, boring. He was the most attractive man she'd ever seen. . . .

But it was true that Charles Ashur was scary and sexy at the same time. Scary because you did want to please him; you did want to show you could keep up and pull a rabbit out of your hat. And sexy because, well, Margret didn't want to please him, didn't want him to think he was the judge, even though he was. And then there was the way he looked at you, those velvet eyes taking you in under black eyebrows, making you subject and object at once, nervous under his gaze. Bedouin eyes, she thought the first time she'd looked into them. Bed.


How they loved that stretch of road, loved the phragmites teeming to the left, great sheaves weaving, rowing with the wind. Loved the way summer hung heavily on Sunset, heat waves slurring the air, haze paling the greens, graying the blues, chalking the sky and sand so you felt the entire places was sick with sun, leeched and reeling with ghost crabs, the translucent housewives of the beach, and pallid grasshoppers ashen in the dunes. In fall, they loved how everything stiffened, golden stalks breaking, and the last dry leaves on trees laughing madly in the wind. And winter, the cold fist of it, the sun a white fuse, the Cape May shops putting Victorian capelets on dress forms at the door, and bosomy estates serving plum-pudding teas. In spring, frogs caught their headlights at night, a pinging brightness in the road that made them brake. It wasn't fun to squash a frog. And dawn. So often at dawn, clouds lowed in the Meadows, heavy on the grasses, sometimes rolling over onto Sunset, whiting out the road like a Turner and slowing them with contentment. They tried to describe it at first — clouds grazing, or camped out in sleeping bags, or hiding from the sky — but eventually it was enough if one or the other just said, "clouds."


Margret bathed around six. It was still bright outside, and the long thin bathroom window which had so thrilled Emily and her when they rented the apartment three years earlier — "A window in the bathroom is a prize," the Realtor had said — let just enough light get to the weary white tiles so that a hint of shine caught here and there, and you could lie in the tub and pretend you were at an old Swiss spa with a forest on the fringe. Margret liked to fill the tub up high and then just languish. She liked watching the stillness of her body under water, the way her legs looked stunned, pink, the skin newborn like the lower half of a mermaid who has suddenly lost her tail. She liked wiggling her toes up the foot of the tub so they peeked above the waterline and kept from drowning, and she always wondered at how her breasts floated, twin islands so light in the water lapping around them. There's no stillness quite like a bath, Margret had thought, drifting in that space between the end of the week and the beginning of the weekend, a dimensionless passage so often pitched with longing, isolation, even desperation. The "Fri" in Friday had always made Margret think of fright and frighten. But now this hour seemed like a path of lavender, though maybe that was because of the soap.


The walk to the subway was always unnerving. The quiet was different at this hour, not rich and round as it was at three or four, but tense, the skin of it stretched thin. Even the whoosh of cars that passed on Broadway, never on the side streets, felt furtive, as if hurrying to get away. And the yellowish light from the street lamps, it was so . . . scrofulous. Pockmarking the darkness. What was that poem by Frost?

I have been one acquainted with the night.

Anyone who walked the streets predawn was suspect. They might have been partying too late. Or escaping a bad one-nighter. Or in need of something from a pharmacy. But they tended not to be these. The few people she passed were themselves predawn, sprung, it seemed, from the queasy dream of the yellow light. They were like the vagrants she sometimes saw in the bird sanctuary, men living on the rim of the normal, sleeping in the northen opening of the Amtrak train tunnel, their strides too long and loping, their clothes not quite their own, and the look in their eyes quick, calculating, even when eager to be trusted. Living in the cracks.

Her grandfather Milton used to talk about his beloved assassin bugs, how the dangerous ones in South America, the species that spread Chagas disease, lived in the crevices of adobe houses. At night the heat of sleeping victims, the breathing and the blood, drew the assassins out and down. They fell from the ceiling like horrible rain. Kissing bugs, they were called in the States, because they liked to bite around the mouth. She remembered her grandfather telling her that the locals had another name for them, something with a V. It translated, he said, as “those who let themselves fall.”


It was such fun to be with Charles at Higbee's at dawn. Such fun to be waiting in the mist on those big Cape May days when the warblers came through, zooming ravenous out of the sky, hundreds skiffing along the treetops, dropping into the boughs, popping in and out, here and gone, and everybody lined up on the path, calling out the really good stuff — worm-eating, bay-breasted, golden-winged. She'd be standing near Charles, feel him swinging his bins from bird to bird, his lips moving under the black barrels — parula, redstart, blue-winged — the darting birds caught in words like notes, branch to branch like Glenn Gould playing Bach, a fugue state.


Margret had Montagu Browne’s dark blue tome from 1896, Artistic and Scientific Taxidermy and Modelling, and Paul Hasluck’s slim green volume from 1907, Taxidermy. Browne was flowery and high-minded, curator of the Leicester Museum in England, and clearly full of himself. Hasluck, more of a headmaster, was cut and dry, with now and then a sigh that seemed scolding. “Do not copy stuffed specimens,” he intoned, “for such a course is simply to perpetuate mistakes already committed.” They both beat the drum for taxidermy as an art, a practice to be mastered, and not, as Browne disdainfully put it, “a clown’s pastime.” Margret got the feeling that bad taxidermy had been a Victorian blight. Birds with bulging or asymmetric eyes. Birds with bellies way too big. Birds in wonky postures you’d never see in the field. One came away from Browne and Hasluck feeling that every oaf with a knife and some tow was setting up shop and stuffing birds.

Margret didn’t know what tow was before she’d opened these books, that it was wood softened and spun into a kind of hair, good for filling out necks. And she’d never heard of excelsior, which sounded like something from Arthurian legend but was really just fine curled wood shavings. The books were full of words from a dust-mote world of stuffing tables and ceiling hooks: bradawls, gimlets, spokeshave, pinion wire, flake white. The preservatives alone filled Margret with foreboding: mercury, arsenic, carbolic acid. Even plaster of paris, used in those days to absorb grease from the skin, was now known to be carcinogenic. When Margret was a girl, Milton had told her about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, how he’d been an avid taxidermist as a boy until the arsenic dust made him so sick, he had to stop. “He turned green,” her grandfather said. It was a cautionary tale. By ten she was helping Milton with his insect collections, handling killing jars saturated with cyanide. “No green fingers” was all he needed to say.