Alice K. Boatwright
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
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
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
"Heís just a baby," I said, leaning over the box to touch the
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.