“There was the Door to which I found no Key; There was the Veil through which I might not see,” Merritt said to the black-haired boy seated on the porch swing. “Alma, goddamn it, get your sorry carcass in here and bring us some iced tea. Charlie boy’s hot. He’s been over the levee all day collecting my birds.”
Charlie shifted his stocking feet. He had left his muddy boots outside by the front door. His 410 shotgun was propped up in the corner. Charlie was looking hard at Merritt. He’d never heard him quote poetry before. Merritt’s gray and brown hair was slicked back with Vitalis just as carefully as always. But his green eyes looked like they were protruding more than usual.
“Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee There was—and then no more of Thee and Me,” Merritt continued. He was patting the dog Ma who was lying across his leg. Merritt was stretched out on a day bed. It was covered with a thin pink cotton spread. “Omar was no fool. We spend all our life trying to look through that Veil, then we’re gone and nobody ever gives a damn that we tried to look in the first place. It’s like standing on the Mississippi side of the river and trying to look over into Arkansas and not seeing a thing but green and black. You’re walking on the sandbar not knowing if you’re going to step in quicksand and that will be the end while you’re still looking and looking for something.”
Alma came out on the screened in porch and set up the metal tray next to Merritt’s bed. Alma put down the two glasses of sweetened iced tea.
Charlie got up from the glider and took a few steps across the small porch to pick up a glass. “Alma, when you get ready to stuff the birds, I want to watch. I’ve got to learn now that I’ve shot some.”
“All right, Charlie. I just have to get everything ready.”
“The birds I need get harder and harder to come by,” said Merritt. “DDT has just ruint the birds here. Killed the hell out of the boll weevil and just about killed the hell out of the birds too. Someday before I die, I’m going back to Vaiden to the hills and get out of all this poison. I think it’s done my heart in too. But you got a good one today, a Western Tanager. This is only the second one I’ve ever gotten. Hot damn almighty. It just tickles me to death. That and the Mississippi Kite today makes you worth feeding supper tonight. Isn’t that right Alma?” Each new good specimen made Merritt’s collection more valuable. No wonder several universities were courting him. Forty years ago he had had no idea his birds would become so important.
“I ‘spect so,” Alma said. She went into the dining room. She opened the door to the oak sideboard and took out a small pair of scissors, a blunt instrument the size of tweezers, a package of cotton, some wooden sticks, needle and thread, and a razor. Alma put these on the table. She went into the kitchen and reached under the sink and got a box of borax. Charlie had followed her into the dining room. The concrete floor felt cool under his feet. It was late August and hot.
“This used to be a barn,” Alma said, as if she knew he was thinking about the concrete floors. She felt sure that they would always be in the rented house as long as they lived in Prentiss. Merritt always said if they bought a home, it would be in Vaiden. “It stays pretty cool in the summer except for the upstairs. We don’t go up there that much since Merritt’s angina came on.”
Charlie pulled up a chair beside Alma. He was the latest in a group of many boys who had come to collect birds over the years. Many were grown and had families now. Some had gone on to teach at universities. In spite of the fact that Merritt labeled some of those places hot beds of communism, he was still proud. Others had published scientific books.
Alma thought that Charlie was one of the youngest and maybe not one of the brightest. He made up for that by being intense. He came early on Saturday mornings, sometimes as early as five thirty or six in the morning and would stay until late in the afternoon. Charlie glanced around the dining room. There were cardboard boxes lined with cotton, full of all kinds of birds, Cardinals, Baltimore Orioles, and hummingbirds. The boxes were stacked alongside each wall. The stacks reached up to the windowsill. There were cardboard file cabinets along the other walls, except for where the sideboard was. These too were filled with stuffed birds.
Alma was making a slit down the chest of the yellow bird all the way to just before the small opening under the tail.
“I’ve had a lot of different boys stuffing birds for my collection,” Merritt was making himself heard from his bed on the porch, “but only Alma does a first-rate, bang-up job. Pay attention and you may learn something. Most boys are knotheads when they first start coming here. It’s only when we get to putting things in their brains that they start getting to be smart.” Merritt knew that Charlie boy still had a long way to go in understanding Merritt’s scientific way of thinking. But Charlie boy had proved himself capable with the birds he’d shot today.
Alma was carefully separating the skin from the tissue, pulling and separating. She pulled out the intestines. She took a demitasse spoon and scraped out the chest cavity. Alma was thinking back to when Merritt first started his collection. It was when they had moved to Prentiss about 40 years ago. Merritt had shot an Eastern Meadowlark and wanted to keep it. They had gotten out a book about taxidermy. Alma had studied it and then figured out her own way to do it.
“See what that bird had for breakfast, Alma. Show old knot-head there how to cut open a craw while you’re at it. Yeah, if I can get hold of any old knothead before any old knothead gets women on his feeble brain, I can teach him a thing or two. But it’s a little hard to go against history for the past ten thousand years or so. Boys too soon get women on the brain and they go off hunting women instead of birds.” Merritt was thinking that some of the boys ended up doing a pretty good job with the skins. Others got real interested in their girlfriends and lost interest in the birds. They’d be in a tear to get out of there for a Saturday night date. They made funny, bumpy skins with either too much stuffing or too little. Alma’s careful hands were what made his collection so fine.
Alma slit open the craw with the razor. “Stones and part of a grasshopper,” Charlie said. He knew he was in Merritt’s good graces for having shot the yellow and red headed bird and was not offended by the knothead talk. He’d been coming every Saturday through the summer now that he’d turned 15 and could drive. Before he’d just been learning by studying all the stuffed birds. Today had been his first kill.
Using the blunt instrument, Alma was cutting and scraping away the tissue from the tail. She stopped to put back a long strand of white hair into the roll at the back of her neck.
“Tell you what sticks in my craw,” Merritt said, “that we got a Catholic and Nixon running for President and neither one worth a nickel. Both what you’d call sorry so-and-so’s to be on the polite side of it.”
“You have to scrape the legs really good,” said Alma, “or they’ll smell to high heaven. Here you do the other one.” She handed the blunt instrument to Charlie. He held the leg gingerly in his left hand and began to scrape off the flesh.
“Damn it, Alma, I’m hungry,” said Merritt. “My stomach’s rumbling along. How much longer ya’ll going to be messing with that one bird?”
“Charlie’s doing a good job here,” said Alma. “I’m going next door and put the Kite in the freezer. We can’t get him done today. It won’t be much longer before supper’s ready. Charlie, just keep scraping real careful.”
Alma stepped into the kitchen. She picked up the large gray bird and put in on an aluminum tray. She had to place the bird at an angle to make it fit. She slammed the screen door as she walked out the kitchen into the small back yard.
She went along the fence which was covered with the orange blossoms of a trumpet vine. The landlady didn’t like the trumpet vine because it was deadly poisonous. The hummingbirds liked it so she and Merritt had left it growing. Alma stepped through an opening in the fence which had been broken down some time ago. Red spider lilies had sprung up since she’d last walked across the yard. They come back every year, thought Alma, but never in the same place. Her mother had had some pink ones. She called them surprise lilies back in Vaiden. Alma was thinking that her life, like her mother’s, had held few surprises. She’d never expected to move away from Vaiden and her family. They were all dead now. But once here in Prentiss, her life and Merritt’s had settled into a routine. Even before Merritt had retired from bookkeeping, she had spent some of each day on the bird collection.
When Alma got to the backdoor of her neighbor’s house, who was also her landlady, she knocked and called, “Yoo, hoo, anybody home?” When no one answered, Alma walked up the steps and into the laundry room. She put the bird down on a counter and opened the freezer. There were already several birds in the freezer, waiting to be stuffed. I just don’t work as fast anymore, thought Alma. My hands move slower now. Used to I could keep up with all the birds the boys shot. She put the Kite by the sandpipers. There were five of them, three Bairds and two Sanderlings. Merritt had been so excited about those, killed by one of his boys who’d left a couple of weeks ago for his first year at college. Merritt had helped him get a scholarship. Alma rearranged the freezer. She moved the package of cut-up chicken and put it in front of the birds. She moved the Borden’s strawberry ice cream over to the far side. She put a package covered in white freezer paper and labeled “chop suey” just under the ice cream. She didn’t want the birds disturbed by the landlady’s two girls digging through the freezer for ice cream. Merritt would be upset if his rare finds were bothered.
When Alma got back to the house, Charlie had finished scraping the legs. Merritt was asking him if he had a girlfriend. “Yes sir, I do,” Charlie was saying, “but she knows I’ll be over here ‘most every weekend.”
“Well, bring her with you and I’ll tell you whether she has any sense or not,” Merritt said. “Some girls when they are born, let their common sense fall out the tenth floor window. But you just let her know who’s boss.” Merritt had never had that problem with Alma. He knew from the beginning of their courtship that she was smart as a whip.
“I’d like to meet her,” Alma said. She had taken the demitasse spoon and was scraping out the eyes and brains. “Hand me that roll of cotton and one of those sticks,” she said to Charlie. Alma reached over and got a handful of borax. She rubbed the cavity of the bird with the borax for several minutes.
“Yeah, bring her over,” said Merritt. “But don’t let her stand in front of Buddha. She’ll sure as hell get pregnant. And that will be hell to pay. Alma, how much longer till you get your sorry carcass in the kitchen?”
“I’m just about ready to sew it up,” said Alma. She was threading the needle and her fingers felt stiff. It’s probably arthritis, she thought, making it hard to get the thread through the needle. Alma took a piece of cotton and wound it around the stick. She kept adding cotton, smoothing it around, until she judged that the mound was the size of the Tanager. “How do you think that looks?” Alma asked Charlie.
“Looks good to me, Alma,” Charlie said. He was wondering how he was going to eat supper after scraping flesh off bird legs.
Alma put the cotton body inside and sewed up the opening down the front of the bird. Then she smoothed the bird’s yellow feathers down on his chest. She gently stroked the black feathers on the back and arranged the wings. Last, she took her finger and patted the red feathers on the bird’s head. “We’ll leave him out to dry really good. Merritt can fix his tag tomorrow.”
Charlie went upstairs to wash his hands while Alma was fixing supper. He’d been upstairs many times before. Still, the number of stuffed birds amazed him again. The long cardboard boxes lined all the walls. The beds in the two bedrooms were covered with birds. He stopped by one of the beds. He looked down at the birds spread out over the green bedspread. He recognized the Great Blue Heron. He remembered that it was gray. There was the Little Blue Heron. It was slate blue. He also knew the Anhinga and the Snowy Egret. Merritt was especially proud of the Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret was easy to remember. It had been hunted for its long white plumes until it was almost extinct. Alma had covered the birds with plastic wrap from Prentiss’ Laundry and Cleaners. There was a large brown bird with a curved beak that Charlie did not know. He supposed the birds were on the bed because they were too big to fit in boxes. All the birds were arranged with their sharp beaks pointing toward the window. Above the bed, a mounted bald eagle spread its wings.
When Charlie came down, Alma had set up two trays out on the porch. She was just carrying in two plates. There was fried okra, big thick pieces of fried ham, cornbread, sliced tomatoes, and white corn. Alma always cut the corn off the cob because of Merritt’s false teeth. On side plates were pieces of jam cake. The layers were spread with strawberry jam and covered with white icing. Charlie had forgotten about the bird legs. He was hungry and ate everything on his plate.
“Let’s go, Alma,” Merritt said. Alma had just come in from taking the 50 dollars in rent money next door. “Capps stopped by and told me Myron over at the Blue Hole had a bird for me.”
“Come on, Ma,” Alma reached down and picked up Ma. Ma licked Alma’s hand. Merritt got in the driver’s seat and Alma sat up front holding Ma on her lap. Merritt raced the motor twice before the white Ford pulled out of the gravel driveway and headed north of town.
“Cotton looks good this year on old man Jones’ place. He lost his shirt last year. He’s one man who seems snake bit no matter what,” Merritt said. “Even when I did his books way back, he just barely stayed ahead.” Merritt was thinking that with his bookkeeping, he never made a whole lot but it was always pretty steady. He’d never gone broke like a lot of the cotton farmers he’d worked for. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, his daddy had been right. It had been a solid living. Merritt had been interested in birds ever since he was a little boy. But when he wanted to be an ornithologist, his daddy had told him that wouldn’t make him a living. Merritt had kept on reading and studying though and now he had his collection. If he and Alma could get by, he wanted to hold on to it for now. He couldn’t quite make up his mind which school to give it to. Or sell it to. Besides, the collection wasn’t finished yet.
Ma was whining. “It’s all right, girl,” Alma said and stroked her head. They were at the end of the paved road and the gravel was crunching under the tires. The rows of cotton had given way to Johnson grass on both sides of the road. The old Ford started up the levee. Alma had the sensation of going up on a Ferris wheel. The idea that the car might slip before they made it up the levee and down the other side was always there. Wonder why I feel that every time, thought Alma. You’d think as many times as we’d been over the levee it wouldn’t scare me. If I had ever learned to drive myself, I wouldn’t be so scared. Merritt’s heart could give out at the very top and we’d crash down into the cottonwoods on the other side.
A little ways over the levee, the gravel road gave way to dirt. The Ford soon pulled up in front of Myron’s house. It was an old houseboat that had been pulled out of the river some time ago. It sat on cinder blocks in the middle of a grouping of cypress trees. A small barefoot girl ran out. She had straight brown hair and a freckled face. “Hello, Mr. Paden,” she said. “Grandaddy’s got you a bird.” She was pleased with her news and smiled.
“How you doing, two bits?” asked Merritt. “You been keeping yourself out of trouble?”
“Yes sir,” Stella said.
“Here’s you a dollar says you can stay out till next time I see you,” Merritt said and put a silver dollar in her hand.
A tall man with white whiskers, dressed in dusty overalls and no shirt came out banging the door to the blue houseboat. When he saw who was there, he went back inside and got the bird.
“Hot damn,” Merritt said, “It’s a black vulture. I don’t have one. How come you got it?”
“It was after my chickens,” said Myron. He put it on the backseat of the Ford.
“Goodbye Stella,” said Alma. “Come to see us.”
“Poor little shemale,” said Merritt. “She ain’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of growing up right. Sheriff told me last week that Myron killed another man. Makes about 11 so far. But not a one can they pin on him. Even at his age he just keeps making his whiskey out in the woods and shoots whoever messes with him.”
“I wouldn’t have minded a little girl like Stella,” said Alma.
“Too bad I never had the Buddha when you were young enough,” said Merritt. “We better get this bird in the freezer.”
The first rumbling of thunder woke Merritt. The wind had begun to blow the water oak which stood close to the house in front of the circular driveway. Merritt got out of bed and stepped into the living room. He reached over and shook Alma awake. She was curled up on the sofa where she always slept. “Let’s go,” Merritt said. “A storm’s coming.” Alma walked across the living room and cut on the floor lamp. Merritt was getting dressed in a corner where he had left his clothes from the night before.
When Alma came downstairs, dressed and ready to go, Merritt was just lacing up his black wing-tips. Alma picked up Ma and without a word, cut off the lamp and locked the front door. The storm had moved closer, the thunder was louder and the oak tree was being moved by the wind in a fierce way. Merritt raced the engine twice before pulling out. They headed north of town down Highway One towards Gunnison. If it were a really bad storm, sometimes they would drive the thirty miles to Deeson and back. Merritt drove very slow, not over twenty miles an hour. There was no traffic at one o’clock in the morning. There never was this late at night, providing that it was not a Saturday night.
“Look at that wind blowing the hell out of those pecan trees,” said Merritt. They were passing through a grove on either side of the road. “”Into this Universe, and Why not knowing, Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing; And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing. ” I always think about Omar when the wind blows. I think he was saying there ain’t no great plan for the Universe at all. But I’m scared as hell in a storm. I think, Alma, that God is in each man’s soul. And nobody wants to die and face up to that God. Too many shortcomings.”
Alma had heard this every time they got up in the middle of the night and tried to outrun a storm. If the storm came blowing from the river, then they would head east out by the oil compress and ride through the cotton fields. If the storm winds came from the north, they would head south through colored town and on out toward the country club. If it came from the east, they would head to the levee. They would go bump, bump over the cattle gaps every few miles or so. “”And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, “” Alma said softly to herself. She had never worried who the elect might be. She knew her mother and father and her sister had been plucked from those winds.
“But what a sad thought if when your niche is finished here, you just rot in a coffin and return to dust without a thought that you ever had a soul,” Merritt continued.
Alma was thinking she was very tired. Ma was asleep in her lap. Alma wanted for them all to be home in their own beds.
She wasn’t afraid to die. She had lived a good life. She didn’t know why Merritt worried so about his niche. His niche was his bird collection. She knew the reason Merritt wouldn’t part with it now or even decide where it should go. He would feel like he wasn’t leaving anything behind. It would already be gone, so to speak, before he died. The mystery of where it would go was important to Merritt.
At day break, the white Ford pulled into the driveway. A big limb from the oak had fallen just where the car was usually parked. Alma thought that Merritt was always justified.
“Supposing we could get little Miss Two-Bits over here when she gets older? She could walk to our house from the school yard,” Merritt said. “What would you think of that?”
“I’d like that,” Alma said.
It was a Saturday in October. Charlie had been there early in the morning and hadn’t had any luck finding any birds on the sandbar or on Legion Lake. Merritt was listening to the Ole Miss-Kentucky football game on the radio. He was lying on the day bed with his hands folded on his chest. Ma was asleep on his feet. “Hoddy Toddy, Gosh almighty, give em hell,” Merritt said. Alma came in and began to clear away Merritt’s shaving things from a metal tray. She was later than usual putting the large basin, razor, brush and soap away because she had spent the morning organizing birds that Merritt had tagged. He had written out the Latin names in blue ink in his fine, elegant script. It just seemed as if she couldn’t get caught up these days.
“Give em hell, Ole Miss,” said Merritt. “We’re about to get a touchdown, Miss Alma.”
There was a knock at the door. “That’s Charlie boy’s mother,” Alma said. She folded up the metal tray and stood it next to the brick wall on the porch. “I’m running late.”
Charlie’s mother came in with an armload of winter clothes. She was a petite, pretty woman with dyed black hair.
“Go on upstairs, Dorothy, and be trying on your things,” Alma said, “Bring my hem measurer down with you and the box of pins next to it. I’ll be ready to pin in just a minute.”
When Dorothy came downstairs, she had on a blue taffeta cocktail dress with a scooped neckline. “My god, Dorothy, you’re got a beautiful neck,” said Merritt. He had sat up in bed. It was half-time.
“Oh, Merritt, you’re still the lady killer. I’ve heard all the stories. You know, Charlie boy has loved coming over here. He gets so bored living out in the country. I appreciate your having him. I hope he’ll do as well as your other boys,” said Dorothy. She knew that Merritt didn’t mean anything by his women talk. He was weird, just like everybody in town thought, but harmless. Charlie boy had told her how they cut the birds open right on the dining room table. That was strange.
“Keep turning real slow,” said Alma. She was opening and closing the hem marker and making a row of straight pins around the dress. “I’m only turning it up a quarter of an inch. It isn’t much too long.”
By the time Dorothy left, the wing back chair in the living room was piled high with clothes. Alma sat down on the couch to rest. Her legs were stiff from sitting on the floor so long. She felt dizzy.
“Hot damn, Alma, you’ve just worn your carcass out,” said Merritt. “I wish you’d quit sewing for other people. You need to slow down some.”
“I’m all right,” Alma said. “It’s just Dorothy’s trousseau wears me out. She brings it back every year. I take the dresses up and then next year I let them down. I never saw anybody so attached to their trousseau.” Alma was thinking that without the sewing money, it would be hard to keep the bird collection going. Feeding all those hungry boys and publishing papers from time to time was more than Merritt’s social security check would cover. Merritt liked to send the papers to universities and colleges to let them know about new specimens. It showed the collection was more valuable. It made it more sought after. The time would come when Merritt would have to make up his mind what to do with it. Alma knew that should he decide to sell it, it would bring in a good bit of money. She didn’t want Merritt to part with his birds until he had made up his mind and was ready.
“These women coming over with their clothes just keep you stirred up like a fruitcake,” said Merritt.
It was a cool day in November. Ma was barking. “Who the hell is that?” Merritt asked himself. “I was sound asleep, Ma.” Merritt got up from the day bed. When he went to the front door, Dorothy and Charlie boy were standing there. Dorothy was holding a plate covered with tin foil.
“We’re so sorry about Alma. We brought you supper,” Dorothy said.
“Yes sir,” said Charlie.
“Come on in,” said Merritt. “Where you been keeping yourself knothead?”
Dorothy and Charlie sat down on the sofa. Charlie was directly in front of Buddha. Dorothy was trying to figure out how to ask Merritt about Alma’s stroke without appearing-to be nosy when Merritt began to tell them. He told them about how he called and called Alma. She had been upstairs sewing and she never answered him. He got so alarmed that he climbed upstairs with a lot of effort and found her sitting in a chair, staring off in space. She couldn’t speak. He’d called the police and they had come and taken her to the hospital. She’d been there for two weeks and neighbors had been bringing him meals. He didn’t know when Alma would be coming home.
“Where did you get Buddha?” asked Charlie. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“When I first came to Prentiss, I went to work for old man Scott. He was rich as Croesus. When he died, he didn’t have any children and his relatives busted up his estate. I bought the Buddha and some china for Alma,” said Merritt.
“I heard,” Dorothy began cautiously, “I heard that Alma is talking some, just a few words. But that’s a good sign if she’s saying anything at all. I had an aunt who had a stroke and she never could say a word again, but she could walk around as big as you please.” Dorothy’s friend who worked at the hospital had told her that Alma was saying “goddamn” and “hell.” Whenever Merritt came to see her, she said, “Get your sorry carcass the hell in here.” It was a mystery because Alma had never said a cuss word in her life.
“Yes,” Merritt said. “She’s talking some. I have hope that she’ll be okay. I miss the hell out of her. I don’t know. “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it. ” Omar knew what the goddamn hell he was writing about.”
“If there is anything I can do, you just call me,” said Dorothy. “Oh, I do need to get the rest of my clothes. There were some Alma was still working on.”
Merritt sent Charlie boy upstairs to get the last of the trousseau. Charlie picked up the armload of clothes. They were piled in a chair near the bed which was covered with the birds. Charlie stared at the Great Blue Heron and the Little Blue Heron. He wondered if he could ever remember the name of the large brown bird with the curved beak.
Dorothy was going on about finding someone else to hem her clothes. Merritt was half listening to Dorothy. At the same time he was trying to figure out if he could manage having Charlie boy back over with Alma sick. Merritt remembered that the Mississippi Kite was still in the freezer waiting to be stuffed.