Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part 1
The birds had mostly gone to ground or been driven inland by the storm, so in the afternoon when the rain briefly slackened she took the sand trail to Oysterville to replenish groceries and post her letters. She walked quickly, holding down her hat. The sky in the west was still black, but now rippling every little while with silent green lightning. Dry blue flakes—she was still at a loss what label to give them—lifted and fell on the wind, and gathered at the outer edges of puddles in a stiff rime.
Oysterville's prosperity had failed decades earlier with the failure of the San Francisco oyster market, the village by now reduced to a few dozen weather-battered houses and barns scattered between the upland woods and the mud flats. The post office occupied space in Mulvey's Store, and the storekeeper, whose name was not Mulvey and who served also as postmaster, remembered her from previous years.
"It's you, is it, come back to look for your strange birds." He meant this in a neighborly way. She was, by most standards, an odd woman, one who dressed in trousers and tramped about in wild territory that was home to bears; a woman said to carry a pistol, and whose behavior and study could not properly be called "bird watching." But he had known women of her sort in North Carolina as a boy—"yarbs" who sold leaves and snake venom as curatives door to door, and lived out wild in the woods; and he was himself eccentric enough to think well of her.
It crossed her mind to tell him the correct term for a strange bird was incidental, or rare; but she smiled slightly and said, "Yes, it's me," and handed him several letters to post.
While he rummaged for any mail that might have come for her, he said, "Well, that was a storm we had, wasn't it, I never seen a sky like that, never have, nor such lightning."
She agreed that it was a terrible storm.
"A tempest, my mama would have called it, but no, I never seen it like that, which I wonder if it wasn't those fellows over to Fort Canby, shooting off some sort of ordnance, which they claim not. Or else the Japs, but if so they have got poor aim, they hit nothing but trees." He brought out two letters, one addressed in her mother's hand and the other in her father's. "Now what else can I do you for, miss?"
She gave him a short list—flashlight batteries, chocolate, a piece of smoked ham—and bought a copy of the weekly Chinook Observer, its bold headline announcing Yanks Shoot Down Yamamoto. She stowed everything in her knapsack and swung the sack to her shoulder, but did not immediately take the trail to camp. On the lee side of Mulvey's porch she found a bench and sat to read her letters. Her parents each gave much the same mundane report comprised of errands and weather and neighborhood gossip. "They have shot down Yamamoto," her father wrote, which was his only reference to the war.
While she was skimming the front page of the newspaper a young girl ten or eleven years old came through the yard; when the girl saw her there she veered across and stepped up onto the porch. "Is your name Miss Kenney? Are you the woman looks for birds?" The girl was in rubber boots and a brown sweater. Her fair hair was unevenly cut, held back with bobby pins under a hat decorated with fish hooks and bird feathers.
"I am Barbara Kenney," she said. And then—this is what Tom would have done—she told the girl, "I am an ornithologist, which is a scientist who studies birds. Are you interested in science?"
She considered her answer. "I wonder about things, if that's science."
The girl ran her tongue across her chapped lips. "I wonder about some birds I saw. I could show you them."
"Do you know the species name? Or can you describe them to me?"
On the peninsula, she had only ever seen oystercatchers on the rocks below the North Head Lighthouse a good twenty miles to the south, prying mollusks out of coastal rocks with their long, tough, bright orange bills. She said, "Where did you see them? Are you certain they are oystercatchers?"
"They're over on the mud flats"—the girl pointed vaguely—"which is not where I ever have seen them. And most of them dead on the ground."
She could not think what the girl's story might mean, or how to measure the accuracy of it. But she thought of the albatrosses and petrels dead on the Leadbetter beach. She put away her newspaper and stood. "Well, all right, show me."
The girl led her south on the tarred plank road toward Nahcotta. There were jack pines on both sides of the road, and the wind made a sound in them like the rattle of pebbles in a jar. A splintered windmill on the roof of a house made a faint whine, spinning its few intact vanes. In the west, the black sky was shot through every little while with flutters of silent, virid-green lightning.
After half a mile, they turned east and walked on the criss-crossing dikes of a cranberry farm and then the girl stepped down onto one of the bogs and headed straight across it. The field was soggy but not flooded, and the vines had not yet begun to bloom. The girl stepped with care, not to break the twiggy branches.
At the far edge of the bog they passed through a small woodlot and came onto a secluded part of the bayshore. There were dozens of black oystercatchers dead and dying on the wet mud. The birds not yet dead beat their long wings weakly against the ground and made faint yelping sounds, ghostlike and plaintive. Their golden eyes seemed to study the sky through milky film.
She knelt and examined several of the dead birds. She lifted wings and spread feathers and felt along the bodies for shotgun pellets, but the birds were unbloodied and intact.
The girl, watching her, said, "What made them fall? How come they died, do you know?"
"We have had such a fierce storm," she said after a moment. "I imagine it had something to do with that. There were a great many dead birds on the beach this morning—seabirds we don't see on the land. It may be the unusual weather drove them ashore. And brought down the oystercatchers."
The girl pulled at the hem of her sweater with grimy hands and glanced toward the dark sky in the west. "I went over to Klipsan this morning and there were a lot of whales that drove up onto the beach. We get them sometimes, one or two, but there's so many I couldn't count them all. Maybe a hundred, they're laying all up and down the sand for most of a mile, just laying there waiting to die I guess. Is that on account of the weather too?"
"I don't know. It may be." She said nothing about the dog, the bear.
She wrapped two dead birds and then a living one in sheets of newspaper and put them in the knapsack. The live bird rustled the paper and cried weakly.
"You'd think a big storm would make whales swim down deep, not come out on the beach," the girl said, which was perhaps not a question. Then she said, "Will you cut the birds open to see what killed them?"
"Yes. Sometimes an autopsy can work out the cause of death."
She walked among the birds still on the ground, quickly twisting the necks of those still moving. The girl watched this in silence and then said, "I live at the Whalebone Inn. Will you come and tell me if you work out what killed them?"
She knew the Whalebone Inn, a boarding house in Nahcotta. "Yes, I'll come and find you if I learn anything."
They walked back together across the cranberry fields. When they came out on the road, the clouds were huge above the tops of the trees, violently bruise-colored, rippling with that strange lightning. They looked at the sky in silence. A dry blue rain had begun to fall again; it collected in fine drifts on the brim of the girl's hat.
"I am camped at Leadbetter Point. Will you come and tell me if you find any more dead birds in numbers like that, or where they aren't usually seen?"
The girl nodded, and after a hesitation she said, "Do you know the real name for an oystercatcher?"
"Do you mean the species name? The black ones here on the peninsula are haematopus bachmani. Bachman was a friend to Audubon, and there are several birds named for him."
"Have all the names been given out by now?"
"Do you mean, have all the birds on the earth been discovered and given a name? No, no, every year some new ones are found. If we were in South America we might discover one—there are more species of birds there than anywhere. I don't imagine all the species on the earth will ever be known and named. People are always finding new mushrooms and insects and fish."
The girl cast her a sidelong look. "Are any birds named for a woman?"
"Yes, a few." She considered how much more to say—how much Tom would have said. "But most of those are named for queens or goddesses, or for the daughters or wives of scientists, not for women who are themselves scientists." She did not say, that in the winter just past she had taken work as a poorly paid assistant to a prominent male professor, trapping birds and preparing their skeletons for his outdated study of the mechanics of bird flight; or that, the winter before, she had resorted to teaching children at a grade school in Calistoga. She did not say: Universities are willing to educate women, but not employ them.
"Are any birds named for you?"
"No." She did not smile. "Not yet."
Overnight, as blood will clot in a wound, the clouds thickened and hardened, and in the morning what remained was a black flaw stretching out of sight to the north and south, a long, shifting vein of darkness, glossy and depthless.
The storm had battered the coast for hundreds of miles, from Vancouver Island to Bandon, and inland as far as Spokane and Boise. Fishermen cutting through her camp on their way to the beach told her the widespread belief: that a new and terrible weapon detonated over at Hanford or at one of the secret sites in Canada had brought on the unnatural storm and left that huge black pall in the sky.
A woman she met on the beach was of another mind. God, she said, had opened a portal into heaven and shortly would raise up all the believers.
In the following days, extraordinarily high tides gnawed at the beaches and mudflats; roads and paths disappeared; fifty-year-old houses built on bluffs above the sand fell into the sea. Rafts of dead fish floated in on the next tide and the next, and their decaying bodies littered all the salt marshes and the sand beaches. There were so many fin whales and gray whales decaying on the beach at Klipsan that when the wind blew northerly she could smell the stench from her camp almost ten miles away.
Her notebook became a record of casualties and losses. Thousands of plovers, the subjects of her summer study, had been scattered, driven away or killed in the storm. She posted signs to warn people away from the nesting grounds—this was a crucial time for the few hundred pairs who remained—but the beach had been reduced to a narrow strand, and the Coast Guard horse patrol came up and down it twice a day, heedless of the birds' shallow nests. And in the days after the storm, beachcombers from the tourist cabins, as well as peninsula natives from Oysterville and Nahcotta, walked over the dunes and through the plover nesting sites or drove onto the beach and parked above the high tide line. From the open sand, the black rift seemed to hang just overhead, almost within reach, and on clear nights it was a starless streak through the firmament. People sat on blankets on the sand, or on the fenders and the running boards of cars, and stared up at it.
She watched it too, from drift logs above the nesting grounds. One day she watched a single heron, then nine pelicans, then a pair of horned grebes rise through the sky and vanish into the blackness. Methodically, she wrote down the time of day, and the numbers of the birds, their names. She tried to think what else to say, and finally wrote, Gone.
The woman who came to the door at the Whalebone Inn was not someone she recognized, though the woman seemed taken aback and said, "Oh! It's you!" as if they were acquainted from long past.
"I'm looking for a girl who lives here, she has a brown sweater and her hair is light in color. I failed to get her name."
"It would be Alice. What do you want her for?"
"I'd like to speak with her, if I may."
The woman, who was Alice's aunt, considered her niece an odd and baffling child—a girl who preferred capturing frogs to playing with dolls; a girl who liked to keep snakes as pets. It was a mild worry of hers, that Alice might grow up to be an eccentric and homely hermit-spinster such as the one now standing on the porch. After a considerable pause to weigh Alice's best interests, she stepped out and shouted, "Alice! Come here now, I mean it!"
In a moment the girl came in sight, walking up from the tidal flats. She was barefooted and muddy, in pants raggedly cut off at the knees. Her sweater pockets bulged with shells or agates.
"Hello, Alice, I brought you something."
She walked down to meet the girl and held out to her a small ring-bound notebook with a fresh pencil stuck through the rings. Alice took the book and opened to the first page and then looked up.
"It's a place to write down what you see, and find, and what you wonder about. You must write your name at the top, and the date, on every page, but it's not to be a diary. It's a place to write the names of the birds you see, if you know what they are. Or you can say what they look like, or make a drawing—you write on this side of the page, and make your drawings and maps over on the other side. And write down where you saw the birds and what they were doing, and how many there were. Write in it every day. Later on you will probably want to record your observations in ink in a more systematic way, but I've been keeping books like this one since I was a little girl. I have so many books now, they fill two long shelves."
Alice looked up from the book, pressing her hand in it to keep the wind from lifting and fluttering the empty pages. "There's a coyote I see sometimes, and a porcupine. Should I write those down too?"
"Yes, I shouldn't have said so much about birds. You must be a naturalist, for now, and not a specialist until you are older and decide for yourself what interests you most. So write down everything you see, everything in nature, any animals you see, what the weather is, and what the plants are doing—are they leafing out, are the buds swollen, are they flowering? And if you collect shells and rocks, write down what you've found, what kind they are, or what you think formed them. And write down what you wonder about, but try to be very sparing of sentiment and opinion—the best scientists are impartial, not swayed by their own beliefs." She smiled slightly. "If a woman is to have birds or other creatures named for her, she must be the very best in her field."
The girl tucked her chin to hide her own expression which was not a smile. Then she said, "Is it all right if I think back, and write down what I remember from a while ago? Just to catch up."
"Yes, but you will want to be clear. You could say: 'This is what I remember from last week, or last summer.'"
After a moment, Alice said with a glance, "I want to write down about the oystercatchers."
"Yes. You should do that."
The girl's look shifted toward the sky in the west, the thick black flaw above the tops of the trees. "Did you work out what killed them? The oystercatchers?"
She hesitated. "No. But I hope someone will discover it eventually. You should write down everything you saw around the time of the storm, and afterward. But only what you know or have seen. These things might be important, later, to understanding what occurred."
The woman who had answered the door was still watching from the porch of the Whalebone Inn. Now she called out, "Alice, you ought to be washing up for supper before long." The wind lifted and snapped the front of her apron like a flag.
Alice answered her, "I will," but without moving to do it.
Then, after a silence, Alice said, "I have seen birds going into that hole in the sky. Have you? There's saw-whets and barred owls that live on Long Island and when I was camped over there the other night I saw five of them go up."
She had written that morning: Fourteen willets—usually solitary, have never seen so many fly together—up and gone. She had seen children on the beach write notes and tie them into the tails of kites, and when they let go the tethering string the kites lifted into the blackness and disappeared. She did not say any of this to Alice.
She said, "You should write down what you saw, the owls disappearing, but Alice, no one knows what it is, so you shouldn't call it a hole in the sky." Then she said, "Did you row over to the island? The bay has been very rough." From the dock at Nahcotta it was at least a mile across Willapa Bay to Long Island. When she was no older than Alice, she had used to row a canoe on Clear Lake even in the fall when the hard easterly winds would blow foam off the choppy waves; but that was before Tom drowned.
The girl shrugged. "I went at low tide, and it was shoalwater. If I was to overturn I guess I could have stood up and walked to shore."
They went on standing together in the yard a few more moments, then Alice looked down at the book in her hands. "If it is a hole, and the birds are going on through it, I wonder what is on the other side."
The wind drew a lock of hair across the girl's face and she pushed it back and hooked it behind her ear. It was late in the afternoon and the sky had begun to redden above the black flaw. They both looked up at the hollow barking of gulls overhead, and watched without speaking as a flock of twelve or thirteen flew west and disappeared into the depths of the blackness.
From a thicket of arrowgrass in the salt marsh she watched a lumber ship half a mile off the point laboring into the bay, the white surf booming against the ship's hull and decks. This was dusk at the end of a wet day, and a pair of whimbrels foraging in the mudflats were the only birds she had seen in an hour. Her attention drifted. She looked away, then back, and the big vessel at that moment heeled over suddenly with a terrible shrieking of metal. Two men in bright yellow anoraks, small as the end of her thumb from this distance, slid off the deck into the gray water and disappeared. She drew in a loud breath as if it might be possible to call them back, but the sound that came on the exhale was hollow and wordless.
There were other men staggering about on the ship—yellow warblers moving jerkily from branch to leaf came into her mind—and there must have been men in the wheelhouse far forward on the bow, men standing behind the dark, rain-streaked windows, though she could not see them, could not hear them shouting to one another. The ship leaned and settled—hard aground, listing onto its starboard side—and waves broke on it in great foaming sheets.
She stood up numbly and threw off the marsh cape, took the pistol from her coat pocket and fired it three times into the sky. In a few minutes, someone on the ship shot off a signal flare, its blurred yellow streak wobbling upward, arcing toward the black flaw and disappearing into it. The ship's horn blared, blared again, and a third time.
With the last of the daylight failing, she began hurriedly to gather driftwood and pile it onto one of the mud islands in the marsh. Beach bonfires had been forbidden since the beginning of the war but this was all she knew to do, it was what peninsula people had done in the days when shipwrecks were common, bonfires on the beach to illuminate the darkness for any crewmen who might be able to swim to shore. The wood was sodden, too wet to light, and she was standing there in her mud-caked shoes, breathless with effort, thinking about the can of kerosene half a mile away in her camp, when something like a rumble of thunder shook the ground. The ship in the channel had gradually become invisible but for marker lights drowned intermittently by the breaking seas, but when she looked toward it a leaping glare lit up the whole mouth of the bay. For a startled moment she thought the wet driftwood had ignited, but it was something belowdecks on the ship—covert munitions, she would think later, carried with the lumber—that had begun to burn. The ship was very low in the water, leaning hard on its keel now, and swells were breaking over the upper deck, smothering it completely in gray foam and solid water. The fire shot up higher after every flood, and flames followed the oil out onto the glossy water and lifted upward in a yellow curtain.
She stood and watched men holding to the railings around the wheelhouse let go and drop and disappear into the water. Someone threw a Jacob's ladder over the lee side and men began climbing down it. One of them was Tom—she knew him by his plaid mackinaw—Tom!—and then a swell broke over the ship in a solid white sheet and he vanished under the cataract. Other men climbed down behind him and were swept off, or jumped from the last rung and sank in the burning water. All of this occurred in silence, or seemed to, as the wind, and the roar of the flames, deafened her.
The burning ship lit up the sky. People living in Oysterville four miles away, and in hermit cabins along the bayshore, began to walk out of the darkness onto the firelit marsh, singly and in pairs, wading through the flood in their gum boots, until a dozen or better stood around her, staring and silent, or talking quietly. Someone asked what she had seen, and she shook her head, unable to speak.
After a while, a Coast Guard double-ended rescue boat came laboring out of the darkness into the glare. There was a lifesaving station near the North Cove lighthouse. She had only ever visited the station in summer—young men in white trousers, tight knit tops, white seamen's caps, running rescue drills for small crowds of admiring tourists—but on the walls of the stationhouse there were photographs of wrecked clipper ships and of rescue boats breasting enormous crashing waves, photographs captioned "Heroes of the Surf," and "Storm Warriors." The Coast Guard boat, very small against the hugeness of the firestorm, came within a few hundred yards and then held off, rolling and pitching on the heavy sea. Several men came out of the forward cabin and shot a line across the water that fell short. They tried again, and a third time, a fourth, and then stood and watched the ship burn. The fire rose up in a great column of vivid orange and writhing black, and the wind took it all west into the starless hole in the sky.
After midnight, when the fire had burned down somewhat, the Coast Guard boat began to motor back and forth across the heavy swells, evidently searching for survivors or bodies in the water near the wreck. The tide, someone said, would likely take the bodies up the Naselle River to Raymond or North Bend, but nevertheless a few people began walking the bayshore in case any might wash up along the Point.
She searched in the arrowgrass and picked up her things from where she had dropped them—binoculars, notebook, the camouflage cape—and waded back across the marsh into the trees and found her tent in the darkness and lay down, shivering, in her wet clothes and then sat up and opened the Journal and by flashlight made an entry on the last page of Species Accounts.
Several times in the years since his death she had been visited by Tom, or rather Tom's ghost. Once, just at dusk, she had seen him sitting below an oak tree alive with acorn woodpeckers, and when she called to him he turned and grinned and made the purring sound a woodpecker makes in greeting its fellows. She came upon him suddenly in the narrow aisles of the Stanford library stacks, where he smiled slightly as if embarrassed and then turned into another aisle without speaking. On the peninsula, where heavy rain could turn the meadows and fields into an archipelago of islands, she had seen Tom crossing through the flooded tombstones of the Ocean Park cemetery, not walking on water but wading in his heavy hiking boots, raising a white surf that slapped against the stones. When she spoke to him he glanced back with a soft expression but did not reply.
None of this, of course, was real. A moment afterward, the person sitting under the oak was Claude Gerald who lived uphill from her parent's house in St. Helena. In the library stacks, it was Benjamin Morse, a student in her botany class whose dark hair brushing the collar of his shirt was so much like Tom's. The one she had seen crossing the flooded church yard was a young man who sold oysters on the pier at Nahcotta—she did not know his name—on his way to the feed store in Ocean Park.
After Tom drowned in the Spitzbergen estuary, but during the months when she had still believed him to be alive, she had been visited by vivid dreams of him, dreams that slipped away in the morning, beyond retrieve. It seemed to her that glimpses of Tom's ghost must be fragments of those dreams, dreams she had thought irrecoverable, and a separate, nameless loss. She wrote down each sighting at the back of the Journal in Species Accounts, on the page set aside for uncommon birds, the page titled Incidental, Accidental, Rare.
When the night began to thin toward grayness, she put her notebook and Tom's field guide in the knapsack and walked through the dark trees to the ocean beach.
Fog obliterated the headlands and the surf. In the half-light of dawn the flaw in the sky seemed to hang just overhead, a satiny black ribbon she felt she might stand on tiptoe and touch with an outstretched hand.
It was high tide, but there was a long black sedan parked on the beach. It seemed to her that the car would be lost to the ocean in the next quarter hour, and that the man who had driven it there was either unaware or unconcerned. He crouched behind a drift log out of the wind and fiddled with a small piece of machinery—a toy rocket ship, she thought, or a Roman candle.
She walked down to him through a dimpled field of plover nests. There were no more than a few dozen birds still remaining on Leadbetter beaches, and the nests on this part of the strand were unpopulated, empty of eggs. The man glanced up but said nothing, intent on his work. He had not shaved in recent days and his graying stubble—he was a man nearing sixty—was bright with beads of rain. She sat near him and opened the field guide to a blank page at the back, where Tom had drawn a few unidentified species, and she began to sketch the machine, which was not a toy: it stood like a white egret on tripod legs, its neck and bill pointed upward.
The surf came in around the man's big car, lifted it, carried it west a few yards and dropped it. The motion caught his eye, and belatedly he woke to the situation and shuffled to his feet. By then the tires had already settled half a foot into the wet sand. He stood there, considering, and then shook his head and said, "Hell's bells," in a tone of disgust, and crouched down again with his machine.
In a short while he took a piece of paper and a pencil from his pocket, wrote a note, spindled it, and slid it inside the narrow beak of the egret.
She had come to the beach with an uncertain plan—had thought she might build a fire on the sand and send something—a letter? or even the field guide—in ash and smoke up to Tom. But now she tore a page from the back of the notebook and wrote a few lines. The world is hard, she wrote. But everything lives on. Even love. Even loneliness.
She folded the paper very small and held it out to the man. He barely glanced at her, took it without speaking and pushed it tightly into a cavity in the nose cone. Then he struck a match and lit a short piece of fuse and said offhandedly, "You should probably get farther back," and they both stepped away fifteen or twenty feet. The rocket made a low grating or rasping noise—the sound certain gulls make, though she had not seen many gulls in recent days—and shot straight up, trailing white smoke and red sparks. They watched it rise through the gray sky and arc slightly and disappear through the rupture in the roof of their world.