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Alice K. Boatwright

Survivors

That first summer you kept bringing home animals youíd snatched from the jaws of the cat. On long walks through the woods surrounding our house, you traced her paths of destruction. I would find you in the garden, crouched over the entrails of small animals, or standing, distracted, with a single feather in your hand.

"Itís like a battlefield out there," you said, as you hung your jacket on the hook by the back door.

I looked up from the floor where I was cutting pieces of cloth. "What are you trying to do? Count the dead?"

"No," you said. "Iím searching for survivors."

I shrugged. What did I know? I was only twenty three, a country girl. You were thirty and had already been through a war, a marriage, and three careers.

The first survivor you brought home was a bird no bigger than your thumb. He stared at us fearfully and opened his small yellow beak, but no sound came out. I made a nest for him out of toilet paper. You caught a large moth by the porch light, mashed it up, and poked it bit by bit into his beak.

"There you go, Mugs," you said hopefully, but the next morning he lay stiff, heels to the sun, in the box.

"Itís not your fault," I said. "He was just too young."

"Murderer," you said to the cat, who purred and rubbed against your legs.

I made a pot of tea then rummaged in my bottom drawer until I found a suitable coffin ó a small white box lined with cotton and stamped "Coral Gables, Fla." I am an expert at funerals, having prepared, in my time, graves for hamsters, turtles, birds, fish, and assorted squashed cats. I can perform services complete with hymns, prayers, crosses, headstones, and flowers. I noted with satisfaction that I had not lost my touch. Mugs fit into the box perfectly. I tied a red bow around it and wrote "Here Lies Mugs" in black crayon on the top.

We bore the coffin out through the garden to the edge of the woods. You dug a grave in the loose dirt with a trowel. I put the box in the hole then we stood for a moment in silence, side by side, the sun on our backs.

After that, you turned your nurturing instincts to the soil, expanding the garden and poring over catalogs for self-composting septic systems and solar heaters. When I asked what was wrong with what we had, you said: "I donít want to be dependent on anyone."

"Winter is always coming," you announced as you headed into the woods with an axe. The woodpile grew and the garden was planted, but before the first green leaves could open, you were gone.

"Thereís a painting job for me in Connecticut," you told me. "It will only take a few days, a week, maybe two." I looked into your clouded eyes and nodded. Of course, you should go. We needed the money. The next morning, you shouldered your pack, pulled the visor of your cap low, and disappeared down the winding road through the woods.

I had many names for your leaving. As I sat at my sewing machine stitching bright scraps into patches, and patches into pillows and quilts, I named names. Necessity, restlessness, boredom. Nostalgia for your youth, for women who had left you, and the hopes you shared with them. As I sewed, I named names, but none of them was mine.

You came back with your cheeks sunburned and your pack full of dirty clothes. You exclaimed over the garden and told me stories about your adventures by candlelight. You spun yarns like threads to tie me to you and said you loved me, but within a few days you were out stalking the cat again.

One afternoon, while I was making strawberry jam, and the kitchen was fragrant with the smell of crushed fruit, you came to the door and called: "Come here, quick!"

I followed you to the porch, wiping my face on the tail of my work shirt. There was a small brown rabbit, huddled in a box full of wilting grass. His eyes were dark with fright, his nose, wet and quivering.

"Heís just a baby," I said, leaning over the box to touch the soft fur.

"The cat had him cornered in the garden. I was nearly too late."

"Poor Peter Cottontail, what a terrible adventure youíve had!"

We gave the rabbit lettuce and carrots, wild grass, and a tiny bowl of water, but while we stood over him, he did not move. During the night, he nibbled one piece of lettuce, dropped two black pellets, spilled his water, and died.

In the morning, the cat sat on a fence post licking her paws while we solemnly buried him next to Mugs. "Life is a series of disappointments," you said, as I stuck a popsicle stick marked "Peter" into the ground.

Silence settled on us like a heat wave. At meals, sitting across from each other, I scanned your face anxiously for a sign of change. I tried to work, but nothing went right: I cut pieces wrong, pricked my fingers, spoiled patterns.

In your dreams you cried out and clutched me, muttering about enemies who chased you through the desert. I held you until you slept, your thick curly hair soft against my breasts, but when you woke, you remembered nothing. Still said nothing.

I began to long for you to leave again, and at last you did.

"Iím going to help an old friend fix up his house," you said, filling your pack with paintbrushes.

"Good," I said, but as I watched you walk away from the window of my workroom, I stamped so hard on the pedal of my sewing machine that the motor whined and the bright cotton jumped under my fingers.

I understood that, like certain vegetables, you could not grow with anyone too close to you, but what about me? What did I need?

Someday, I thought, I will be the one who goes, leaving you a cupboard full of pickles and jams, a jar of dead flowers, a spool of thread under the radiator.

But for now, I spent the evenings in the silent kitchen, alone with the cat in a circle of lamplight, chopping vegetables and freezing them. Cutting up the summer, the days spent alone, so that later, we could open the boxes and share the hours spent apart. Each box was neatly marked. This was the day I sold a quilt; this, the day I dug the first potatoes; this, the day it rained; and this, the day the cat found a turtle under the porch. I stacked the boxes neatly in the freezer.

But when we finally ate them, would the vegetables still taste fresh? Would they be crisp? Or would the color be lost? Would there be a hint of bitterness to the taste?

I measured my days by the work accomplished, pushing myself to try new ideas and techniques. My dreams became pure and empty of everything except shifting patterns of color, so when you came whistling down the driveway one August afternoon, I looked up from my work, but I didnít run out to meet you.

We were both a little shy, like relatives meeting for the first time. You tiptoed around the house putting your things away, and later, from the kitchen window I could see your red shirt moving amongst the rows of tomatoes, pruning the plants and tying them up. I watched you pick off tomato worms and drop them into a can of kerosene ó something I could never stand to do ó and I was glad to have you back.

I talked happily to the cat as I cooked our dinner and set the table. She purred, sitting on your chair expectantly. A warm light place under my ribs bounced and skipped at the sound of your footsteps on the stairs.

"Iím home," you sang, kissing my cheek and dancing around the kitchen with the cat in your arms. "Iím home."

Over dinner, you wanted to hear about everything that had happened while you were gone, but your fine long fingers shredded one napkin after another.

A few days went by quietly, then one evening, just before dark, you appeared in the kitchen with something cupped between your earth-stained hands. You held them out and opened them slowly like a cracking egg to reveal a young robin ó fuzzy brown with a few stubby feathers and alert black eyes.

He gazed at me boldly, and said, "Cheep, cheep!"

"What are we going to do with him?" I asked, remembering Mugs and Peter.

"Weíll bring him up," you said, as you placed him in my hands. His tiny claws pricked my skin. "Really," you assured me. "I think this one will live."

We named the robin Fritz and installed him in a Kleenex box in the bathroom with dish of water. He looked quite content in his mound of Kleenex as we tiptoed out and locked the door, and in the morning we were awakened by his loud demands for breakfast.

For such a small bird, he required an enormous supply of food. Each morning we went out with a tin can and trowels to collect worms. I loved sitting in the damp grass with my coffee, digging worms. The scrape of the trowel against the rocks. The smell of the fresh-turned earth. The satisfaction in your eyes when you surveyed our catch and said: "This is enough."

Fritzís room became our favorite place to talk ó me on the toilet seat, you on the edge of the tub. We said we were keeping him company, but we were the ones who needed it.

"Isnít he amazing," you said. "Isnít he beautiful?" and he was.

Every day he changed, his pinfeathers sprouting, and his voice loud and happy.

"Cheep! Cheep Chureep!" he said, whenever we entered the bathroom.

He began to fly, lurching from one corner of the room to another, and he loved to sit in your curly hair. Once I found you asleep in the tub with Fritz perched on your knee, studying you.

His feathers lengthened, and his flights around the bathroom became longer. We stopped hand feeding him and brought him cans full of dirt and worms instead. While we watched, he practiced catching worms for himself, guided by instincts we did not understand.

When he began to lose interest in us and spend more and more time on the windowsill, looking out at the sky, the earth, and the birds beyond, we knew it was almost time for Fritz to leave us.

"Do you think heís ready? Will he be all right?" I asked one day when we were sitting in the bathroom, talking about the fruit trees we would plant in the spring.

"I think he is," you said and shoved open the window.

I was shocked, but Fritz, who had been dozing on top of the bathroom cabinet, snapped open his eyes.

"Go! Fly away!" you said, gesturing out the window.

Fritz gaped at us. "Cheep!" he said.

You grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the stairs, saying: "Come on. He wonít go unless we let him know itís all right."

Out in the field, you stood below the window, calling "Fritz!" until finally he appeared on the windowsill. He stood there looking down at us for a long, long time.

"Come on, Fritz! You can do it!" you called, but still he hesitated.

Then, at last, he hopped off the sill onto the lip of the roof. My heart was pounding with fear for him, but you looked pleased until we saw him going the wrong direction ó up the roof.

"Oh shit," I said, but there was nothing we could do.

Fritz climbed until he stood on the very top ó a tiny bird silhouetted against the setting sun. We waited for what seemed like forever.

Then he flapped his wings. Once. Twice. Three times. And suddenly he was in the air, circling the yard, until he landed a lurch on a telephone wire.

We shrieked. We cheered.

He had done it. We had done it.

We followed him as he flew from wire to bush to tree, exploring the yard. You gave him tips and tried to explain things he might need to know, but as the dusk gathered he vanished into the woods, and we had to go home alone.

I opened a bottle of wine and we sat together on the porch, toasting Fritzís future, and then, more hesitantly, our own. Your new orchard. My new work.

Upstairs the cat prowled around the bathroom as I busied myself clearing away the cans of dirt, the jar caps of water, the dishpan birdbath. A terrible ache filled my chest as I scrubbed away every sign of Fritz and his life with us.

During the night, as we lay back to back, a storm hit. Flashes of lightning illuminated the room, wind shook the house, and rain poured down. I thought of Fritz, alone on some branch, caught in the totally unexpected experience of a summer storm, and I began to cry. You took me in your arms and held me, but I could not stop.

"I wanted him to stay," I said. "I didnít want him ever to go."

"I know," you said, stroking my back. "I know."

After that, I searched every robinís face, gave every one a tentative call, but no answering cheep came back. I had to admit, Fritz was gone.

I often wondered did he live? Was he happy? But I had no way of knowing. I could not tell him apart from the other robins in the field.

The summer birds flew south. Frost snapped in the air, turning the leaves bright. In the evening, we pulled our chairs close to the fire with the cat curled close by our feet. On the night of the first snow, I opened the freezer and took down a box of green beans for our supper. They were not bitter; they were sweet and crisp as a clear summer morning.


Alice K. Boatwrightís stories have appeared in journals, such as America West, Paterson Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal and Enterzone, and two anthologies of womenís writing. In 2006, her book Leaving Vietnam was a finalist for the Flannery OíConnor Short Fiction Award. Formerly a resident of San Francisco, she has been living in Paris since 2004.

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