Sanctuary's for the Birds
They went to the ocean, to the Gulf, because Josh had read that it was the best thing to do under circumstances like these. He had read it in a John D. MacDonald paperback novel; that the ocean was a healer of pain, and time, and weariness, and that the salt water licked wounds clean with the rhythm of each swell and long curl of wave. Mr. MacDonald meant, of course, on a boat, a real Travis McGee girl-trap of a boat. But Josh didn't have a boat, didn't have any money for a boat, didn't have any friends or even vague acquaintances whom he could tap for the use of a boat, so they went to the Gulf empty-handed and hoped that things would sort themselves out.
Josh watched her while he drove the car down the straight arrow of black two-lane asphalt leading to Yamarrack Island. He watched her out of the edges of his eyes, not wanting her to know she was watched. He stole quick glances at her when he turned his head slightly to look at a turkey buzzard huddling over something dead on the road-side, and again when a blacksnake swished its coils across the hot asphalt in front of them. She was leaning back in the passenger seat, her right elbow propped up against the open window, her chin resting in her right hand. Her left hand lay open, palm-up, across her lap, and he could see the old scars across her wrist.
Not again. Please.
The air-conditioning had quit on them an hour north of St. Pete. He had worked himself up into a righteous wrath about that, too, over the next half hour. I just got that fixed two months ago, I swear to God, those Krazy-Kool guys are con-artists or something. I knew I should have gotten that warranty, but God-damnit, why should I have to . . .
Josh, she had said. It doesn't matter.
Yeah, but damn it all . . .
Then she had turned back and resumed her staring out at the gray expanse of Interstate 75 and the palmettos that jutted up here and there among the swamps.
Well, he'd said. Wind down the window, at least. You don't want to sweat to death.
And she had. It pleased him when she did these little things for him, because he'd asked her to, for no other reason than that. She certainly didn't care if the window was up or down. She cared about very little, anymore. Josh liked the windows open as well because her hair now twisted about her face in damp tendrils, the wind tangling it and setting it free, and every few miles she would lift her right hand and push it back off her face, tucking it behind her ears. Her left hand stayed in her lap.
He wasn't one for talking much, but he had tried. Her silence, or her short tired answers, left him casting around in his head for something interesting to say. He saw another turkey buzzard rise up flapping from the grass as they rushed past. If nothing else, Josh knew his birds.
"Turkey buzzard," he said.
Perhaps it wasn't the best topic of conversation. He let another half hour's worth of road slip behind them before he tried again. They passed a green sign announcing "Yamarrack Island 5 mi.", and then another faded white one which said "Last Gas B-4 Yamarrack, Next Left."
"Nearly there," he said.
"Yes." Looking out the window still, at the dark tall pines flying past.
"I wonder, don't they have gas on Yamarrack?"
"Because, I thought everybody had gas from time to time. Even Yamarrackians."
She said nothing. This was her punishment, of course, silence. A few words doled out like candy when he was good, when he understood her. But it was so damned hard to understand.
"Or Yamarrackites. Which do you think, darling, Yamarrackians or Yamarrackites?"
"Josh, please." She turned from the window to face him. Her left hand curled in her lap into a fist. She bit at her lower lip.
"I was just wondering," he said.
"Well don't," she said. Her anger was rising fast now, unstoppable. "Just don't. Why do you always have to talk? Will you please for God's sake stop." She scowled at him and ran her nails through her hair. "Stop trying so God-damn hard. Just leave me alone. Please."
There was no pleading in her please. This was her anger, always so close to the surface, behind her vagueness and boredom. It was like the filthy water beneath a bright green layer of duckweed. It was so easy to mis-step and break through. The doctor said it was a good thing, this anger. But he had never held her in bed while she shouted and cried, never held her arms tight against her body while she tried to beat them at his chest.
The anger, he told himself, was all she had to hold on to.
"Well, anyway," he said. "Nearly there."
They pulled up at the Blue Heron Hotel, which was really a series of white-washed cottages scattered at ten-foot intervals right along the side of the road. But that didn't matter because on the other side of the cottages was the Gulf itself, lapping at the mud and sand not twenty feet away. Josh noticed a high-water mark half-way up the white wall of the nearest cottage, and a clump of seaweed stuck in a crack on the roof. Probably left there during the last hurricane. Another thing to worry about.
Josh shut the car door behind him, stretched, and breathed deep. "Smell that! Tide flats and mud and fish. Bet it reminds you of when you were a kid, huh?"
She said nothing, but he saw her nostrils open wider as she smelled it.
"You want to wait out here or come in with me?"
"Wait," she said. Her shoulders hunched forward and she wrapped her arms about her chest as if she were cold. Cold, in the middle of a Florida heat wave. He hoped she would go down beyond the cottages and walk along the edge of the water. Not go too far, but just to see it and perhaps take off her shoes. She leaned back against the car, and looked down the highway they had come in on. The breeze blew a strand of hair across her face, and she pushed it back.
"Back in a minute, then," he said.
The woman at the front desk wore a bandanna around her forehead, had a gold left incisor, and suspiciously blonde hair. She stubbed out her cigarette in an oyster shell ashtray as he walked up.
"Welcome to the Blue Heron," she said. "Got reservations?"
"Yes. The name's Litton."
"Don't matter much anyhow," she said, flipping through a stack of index cards held in a child's Spiderman lunch box. "Ain't like we're full or nothing." She held up a card and squinted at it. "Here it is. Two of you, huh?"
"Married?" She pronounced the word like the French say "shit".
For a moment Josh was blank. Then he saw. "Oh," he said. "Yes."
"Uh huh." She eyed him under half-lowered lids, then looked back at the card. "You ain't honeymooners, are you?"
"What? Oh . . . no. No."
"Cause if you was, I could give you the special discount rate for honeymoon couples."
"But we're not, though. Sorry."
She shrugged. "Heck, we're slow, like I said. I could give y'all the special discount rate anyhow, and just put down that you was honeymooners."
Honeymooners. God. It had been so long, and now here was this woman trying to make them out as honeymooners. The very, very last thing from what they were. He felt slightly ill. The beginnings of a headache.
"No," he said. "Look, give us the special rate if you want to, but don't put down that we're on honeymoon. Please."
"Can't give you the rate unless I put it down." She nodded over her shoulder at an ugly green door marked Manager. "The old bastard checks on me."
Josh clenched his fist and watched his knuckles turn white. He didn't feel at all well. He felt a sudden panic and wondered if she was all right, standing by herself against the car. She was so . . . fragile, these days. He shouldn't have left her alone for this long.
"Fine," he said. "That's settled. We'll pay the regular rate. How much?"
She shrugged. "Okay, then. Forty-two fifty a night."
He handed over his money, and she took it without another word.
Josh went back outside and looked around. For a moment he couldn't see her, and he raised his hand to cup out the bright sunlight, sweat breaking out in a shine on his forehead. He opened his mouth to call her name, and then saw that she was sitting inside the car, with the window rolled up.
He knocked on the window. She turned her face to stare up at him.
"Come on, darling," he said. "We'll leave the car here and walk down to our room."
Our room. It sounded good, normal. They could be any couple on vacation, going to their room. He took her hand as they walked across the path of broken oyster shells to the cottage, and opened the door.
It was a blue shag-carpeted, glitter-ceilinged throwback to the fifties, complete with a Magic Fingers Vibrato-Motioned (Just Insert Two Quarters) double bed, occupying the precise center of the room. A double bed. Not the two singles he had requested. He looked sharply at her, but she was standing by the window, looking out at the distant gray line where sky met sea. Perhaps it would be all right. They had slept in the same bed at home until a few months ago, until the dreams got too bad. Perhaps here it would be all right.
"Darling," he said. "How is it? Does it remind you of home?"
She turned back from the window and smiled at him. "Yes," she said. "It does. It's the same water, after all. Just a few hundred miles south. The same water I learned to swim in. The same fish, I expect, and the mud and sand." Her voice was calm and flat. She looked out at the water. "But that was before . . . "
"Yes," Josh stopped her. That was the word, before, the word he had to stop her from thinking about and speaking. There was no before for them anymore, for either of them. But if he didn't stop her she would say it, and he didn't want to hear. "Darling . . . "
She frowned. "Did I ever tell you I'd cut myself once, Josh, with an oyster shell? On the foot. It bled all over the place."
He grabbed her arm and pulled her a step closer. He laughed. "Just like silly old you. Now, what shall we do next? Let's leave the unpacking for later, shall we? Except for your swimsuit, I'll get that out and you can get changed here, and then we'll go down by the beach. Or should we get some lunch? Or we could go along the boardwalk&151;I hear they have a boardwalk and a big dock you can fish off&151;and we could throw bread to the seagulls. Whatever you like, darling, we'll do it. It's your decision. Whatever you want."
Her mouth tightened and he knew the anger had come back. She pushed his hand off her arm. "I want," she said, "for you to stop treating me like a goddamned child. I am not a child. I have not been a child for a long time now, as you very well know. You are, if anybody is. So stop it now."
Josh let go of her and walked over to his suitcase, began unpacking. He could feel his headache throbbing in his temples, the blood pulsing in his ears. "You know, I don't exactly enjoy all of this, either," he said. He threw a balled-up pair of socks on the bed. "Look. I just want you to have a good time. That's all."
She walked past him and sat down on the double bed. "I am having a good time," she said. "I always have a good time. A damned good time."
He looked at her, her face blotched red and white. She was close to tears. "Darling," he said. "Come down to the dock with me."
"I'm tired." She closed her eyes.
"You won't be when we get there," he said. "It'll be fun."
"Josh . . . "
"All right. Stay here then. Amuse yourself." He opened the door. "I'm going to feed the birds."
He walked down the same black-top road they'd come in on, on the way to the dock. He stopped off at the Suwannee Swifty store on the corner of Main street, to buy a loaf of bread. He walked past the hotels and restaurants that crowded together along Bay street, and stepped onto the dock jutting out into the waters of the Gulf. He walked down to the very end and stood there, alone, tearing up the bread into little pieces. He threw them to the bold and cautious gulls who circled, waiting for them, screeching. He felt the sun burn through his T-shirt. He smelt the salt in the air and the sand gritting underneath his feet. He looked out at the blue water and the line where it met the sky. He was alone. Out there, somewhere, was Mexico. Texas. Louisiana. He was alone. He could go on being alone. He could go.
He threw the last piece of bread to the birds. He crumpled up the plastic bag and stuffed it in his pocket, so they would see he had no more. They kept circling him for a while, and then moved off to dive at the fishermen's nets again. He walked back off the dock and up the street to the hotel. He found her still sitting on the bed in their room. She stood up when he walked in.
"Josh," she said. "How . . . how were the birds?"
"Hungry," he said. "And you?"
"Hungry," she said, and smiled, and so it was behind them, for now.
They ate lunch at the Captain's Hook, which Southern Dining magazine had given four stars out of five, and had called "interesting, with a breathtaking view". Josh had wanted to save it for that night, so they could sit at a wooden table on the wooden deck and watch the sun sinking pink into the sea and pulling the light down behind it. But if she was hungry now, they would eat now. They ordered crab cakes, which Southern Dining magazine had called "a must-eat".
"You have to have the crab cakes," Josh said when she tried to order a salad. "It's like a law or something."
"Oh, all right then," she said, handing her menu to the waiter. "And a bottle of your house white."
"Iced tea," Josh said.
Her mouth tightened. "I want some wine."
"Have some then. If you must."
"It's just wine, Josh. You'll have some too."
He shook his head.
"It's very nice wine, Sir," said the waiter.
"Well," he said. "You know best. Darling."
The waited moved away. "I wish you'd stop calling me that," she said. You make me feel like an old woman. Like an elderly relation or something."
"I've always called you that," he said. "You said you liked it."
"Yes," she said. She traced a pattern in the tablecloth with her fork. "Well, stop it."
The wine came, and she poured them both a glass-full. The glasses were chilled and when he sipped it was cold and delicious and exactly right. "Cheers," he said. He took another sip. "You were right, this is very good."
She drained her glass and set it back down on the table. Looked at it.
"More?" he lifted the bottle. She looked at him. "It's all right," he said. "I'm going to have more, too." She nodded.
The waiter came back and set the big plate of crab cakes between them. "Enjoy," he said, and was gone again.
They sat, each waiting for the other to reach for the first one, looking at each other. She wasn't even pretty. So why was her face stamped on his mind like that? Blue eyes, good eyelashes, nice hair, perfect elbows and knees, but it didn't add up to anyone pretty. He could have someone beautiful, if he wanted. But her. She had a face you would always remember, even if you left.
He wondered if the doctors, the emergency nurses, the men, if they remembered her face. How long would it take to forget? Would years be enough?
He took another swallow of his wine, and smiled brightly at her. She was pushing a crab cake around on her plate with a fork. Josh reached for one too. "Darling," he said.
She looked up sharply. "Josh, it's bad. Don't eat it."
"The crab's gone bad, rotten. Just smell it."
Josh did. It smelled faintly of ammonia. "But . . . Southern Dining gave them four stars out of five. That's good. It can't be bad." He cut the crab cake into little pieces with his fork, looked at it.
"Just trust me, all right?" She tipped back her glass and emptied it again. "That's a smell you don't forget, once you've gotten sick off it."
"Well," said Josh. "Should we send it back? Start over?"
"No point. It's probably all like that." She lifted the bottle to her glass, and a dribble of wine came out. "Anyway, I'm not hungry anymore. Let's just go."
"Well, I really think we . . . "
"Josh," she leaned forward across the table. She put her hand over his. "Will you take me out in a boat? Now?"
He stared at her. How drunk was she? Not very. She'd only had three glasses. How much damage could a gutting knife do, or a fishing hook? Could he protect her from all the sharp edges in the world?
"We don't have a boat," he said. He had to say something.
"We could rent one."
"We don't have much money."
She pulled her hand back slowly, and put it in her lap. "I bet it wouldn't cost much, not if we didn't get a big fancy one." She looked down the dock, where fishermen were coming and going, or sitting and mending their nets. "We could ask one of them."
Even Josh knew that you couldn't just walk up to a fisherman and ask to rent his boat. Bad manners.
"Look," he said. "I'll rent one tomorrow, if you want. It's too late to go out now. It'll be dark in a few hours."
She stood up, pushed her chair back. "Just for once . . . " she said. "Oh, forget it. Never mind." She threw her napkin down on the table. "I'll do it myself."
"Get a boat."
"From where?" He laughed. "Don't you think you're being just a little precipitous?"
"That's another thing. I hate it when you use words like that. Precipitous. What the hell does that mean?" She flapped her hand at him. "No, don't answer. Look, Josh. Are you coming with me or not?"
The thought flashed into his mind of her dead, swollen with water, drowned. Her hair braided with seaweed. Mud dribbling out of her mouth. Her eyes gone.
"All right," he said.
She walked out of the restaurant ahead of him, and by the time he'd finished paying the bill, and arguing with the waiter over whether the crab cakes had or had not gone bad, she was already on the dock. She was talking to one of fishermen who was tying knots in his net, mending it. Josh watched him, his big hands moving the rope and twisting it into a pattern. He said something to her, looking up at her and squinting his eyes against the sun. She laughed, and tossed her hair around like a schoolgirl. Josh walked towards them.
"Darling," he said. "Come on."
The fisherman looked up at him. "Want to rent the boat, huh?"
Josh looked at her. She was biting her lower lip. He had told her time and time again not to do that. She bit the skin through and made her lips ugly. "Come on," he said.
"It's okay," said the fisherman. "As long as you get it back in an hour or so. I want to go out and check the traps one more time before it gets dark."
"Josh," she said. "Mr. Smalls here knows Eastin Island, where I grew up. You know."
"Yup," said the fisherman. "Been oystering there. Good water."
"He knows my grandparents' house."
"Pink one," said the fisherman. "Right on the water." He grinned up at Josh. "I don't mind. Take the boat. Ten bucks should call it even."
Josh looked down at the boat. There were nets piled in it, with white floats sewed onto them. There was a dead fish floating in an inch of water on the bottom. He thought of the water of the Gulf, warm and flat and calm. He thought of the far-off blue sky and the water leading them away. The breeze slapping little waves against the wooden hull of the boat. A fine spray misting over them. Out there was Mexico. Somewhere.
He looked at her. "Where do you want to go?" he said.
She smiled at him, and turned around to point at a black-green shape on the water. An island. Perhaps a mile away. "There," she said.
He squinted at the bright flashes of sunlight off the water, and tried to see the island. "What is it?"
"Escanteria," said the fisherman. "Island. Used to be, folks lived out there. Good fishing. But then a hurricane came, and whoosh," he laughed and pulled another rope into his net, "some folks got blowed away. The rest moved on back here. It's a bird sanctuary now."
"Well," said Josh. "We can't go there, then."
"Why not?" She said. "It's not like it says No Trespassing or anything."
"That's what it means," he said. "Sanctuary. No Trespassing."
She pushed her hair out of her eyes. There were little beads of sweat on her forehead. "I want to go there," she said.
"I just do. Can't you just do what I want to, for once?"
He took a step towards her. "Why don't we just go out in the boat, just keep going and see where it takes us? We could go anywhere. You don't need to go to there."
He bent down, gripped the edge of the dock, and stepped into the boat. He straightened up, feeling the boat moving under him from side to side, testing the way his hips and legs felt. He balanced. He held out his hand. "Come on down," he said.
"Please," he said. "Let's just go drive around. Or sail, or whatever you do in a boat. Come on."
She bent down and jumped in the boat and set it to rocking, the water sloshing about in the bottom of it. "Fine," she said. "I want to go to the island first. Then we'll do what you want."
Josh shrugged, and went to start the motor. "You know best," he said. "Darling."
The motor roared to life, shattering the silence, drowning out sound. Josh pushed forward on the throttle, and boat edged away from the dock.
"Hold on," he shouted.
She cupped her hand around her ear, then smiled and shook her head. She turned around and sat down in the bow, her legs curled under her. She gripped the side of the boat with one hand, then leaned over and trailed the other in the water. Josh pushed the throttle some more, and the boat opened up. The dock was behind them, and the island was dead ahead. All there was in the world was the sound of the motor, and the boat slapping against the waves. The spray of water against his face. The sun on his back.
She was already staring out at the dark green trees of the island, watching them as they grew larger. Imagining them, perhaps, as they had been when the big hurricane came. When they were smashed, uprooted, dead. Or when the tide rose with the rain, and their roots and trunks were washed with saltwater and fish swam through their branches. Or now, when the birds flew about and sang and bred and died in their sanctuary.
Josh could see a beach now, a silver strip of sand with a dark line across it where the seaweed lay at the high tide mark. He made the boat go faster. They came towards a white sign sticking out of the flat water. Escanteria Bird Sanctuary. Josh could see the place where he would land the boat, a flat piece of sand with a gray tree stump to tie the rope to. He would walk across the sand barefoot, leaving his prints behind him in a single line, and they would be the only markings in that sand. They passed another sign. Warning, it said. Protected Area. Escanteria Bird Sanctuary.
Josh cut the motor down to an idle. She turned around and looked at him.
"What is it?" she said. "Why'd you stop?"
"You don't have to go there," he said. "There's nothing there except birds and bugs and trees."
Without the sound of the motor, he could hear things he hadn't heard before. The wind moving through the trees. The creaking of the wooden boards in the boat. The waves moving across the sand of the beach. He could smell the gasoline from the motor, the fish-smell of the nets, the mud and sand of the beach.
"It isn't anything I can say or do," he said.
He thought about the double bed waiting for them back at the hotel. He wondered if it would be all right, if it would be good. If she yelled and cried out in her sleep, or tried to beat her hands against his chest, he would let her. He would turn away.
"Get through this somehow," he said. "If it takes you years, do it."
She stared at him. "You don't understand," she said.
"No," he said. "I don't."
She looked back at the island, lying low on the water, the roots of the cypress sticking out of the mud. The sun made long black tree-shadows across the sand. She put her left hand in the water, trailed it there.
"Let's go," she said. Josh opened up the throttle.
The motor startled the birds, perhaps, or perhaps it was just the time of day for them to fly. They rose up from the tops of the green-gray trees in one chaotic mass, a cloud of them, black wings, beating wings. They went up into the blue sky, circling, rising up. He tried to yell to her. Birds, he tried to say. She already saw them. Her face was tilted up against the sun, her mouth open, her skin wet with spray. She stood to watch them go. She watched them above the tops of the tall trees, followed them with her eyes, the black wings beating, trembling, and rising up, up.
She put out a hand to steady herself, and looked at him. They were alone, the two of them, the boat rocking and the waves curling white behind the boat and the taste of salt on their lips. On the Gulf, empty-handed, with the sky and salt water spread out before them like a gift.