Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler

BOMB 95 Spring 2006
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Late afternoon the bus returned to the Trachis Inn. Ana Gathreaux entered the main house feeling worse than she had in days. She’d found nothing of her husband’s at the hangar, only a blue Mont Blanc pen that might—or might not—have been his. What had become of his leather satchel? she wondered. His luggage? His passport? Not to mention the man himself. They’d found nothing of him yet. How could he have just simply disappeared?

The sun was dropping through trees outside. She walked through the empty lobby. The rooms seemed desolate now with so many guests gone. The housecleaner was vacuuming the hallway. There was a noticeable chill in the air. Perhaps it was time, Ana thought, to return home. But what was there for her back in New York City? An empty loft, her lab, her life—what used to be her life. However awful things were on the island, it couldn’t be as bad as returning home with nothing to show for herself, or Russell’s self. As long as she stayed on Trachis Island, her life remained suspended in a kind of solution, where there seemed to her an illogical glimmer of hope—for what or whom, she wasn’t quite sure. At the very least, she wanted a piece of Russell, some evidence, a patch of clothing or a positive ID. A tube of deoxyribonucleic acid that would at least confirm he’d been on the plane.

She entered the library. The last of the day lingered in the windows. How long had she been on the island? Three days? Four? Was it more? It seemed she’d endured there for weeks.

She stood among the books and the dust motes in the empty room. What was it about the library that gave her the smallest drop of comfort? She kept returning there each evening. The room reminded her somehow of Russell; at least he would’ve appreciated the library, the crowd of armchairs, the green glass shades, the fake Tiffany lamps. The books on papyrology, Norse gods, salt mining. An entire shelf housed Greek literature in translation: Herodotus, Pythagoras, the Epicureans (each book dog-eared and the innkeeper’s name penned on the inside cover). Russell would have liked that too, and the oak shelves that smelled of lemon furniture wax.

She picked out an old volume of Jean-Henri Fabre’s Life of the Caterpillar. The pages looked as if they’d been steeped in tea. The book was one of Russell’s favorites—he’d grown up with it in England—and seeing the title, taking it off the shelf, brushing dust from the leather cover, Ana felt a peculiar tingle, as she had the night before with the Chopin. Why, of all books, should she find that here?

The first time she’d met Russell was at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Ana was a new intern in the Ornithology Department, Russell the assistant to the collections manager. In the main lobby, Ana waited anxiously on a bench under the enormous barasaurus, and Russell was the one who came down to fetch her. On the elevator, he gently quizzed her about her work. He had a slight Oxbridge accent, a supercilious grin. He wore brown loafers—Weejuns, of course—and no socks.

He gave her a tour that day of the department, the systematics lab, the ABM Prism sequencer that analyzed the DNA of dead birds. But only downstairs, in the vast, quiet crypt where they kept the collection of bird skins, sealed in cabinets, did he become fully animated. He recited numbers (850,000 study skins, the largest collection in the world). He pulled open cabinets, rolled out aluminum drawers, showed her shelf after shelf of birds, all laid out like iridescent items in a jeweler’s shop. There were 20 per drawer, still colorful, beaks all angled to the left, cotton plugs in place of eyeballs. They were so beautiful and fastidiously arranged Ana was reluctant to touch them.

May I? she asked.

Be my guest, he said.

She gently picked up a skin, untwisted the yellowed tag attached to its leg. River Kingfisher, it read. Alcedo atthis. 1908. It was captured along the Cam River. Cambridgeshire, UK. The study skin weighed next to nothing, a paper doll; the stiff blue feathers smelled vaguely of naphthalene—musty, mothballish, not unpleasant. It reminded Ana of her grandparents’ apartment.

Russell stood staring at the bird in Ana’s hand.

“Thus lovely halcyons dive into the main, Then show far off their shining plumes again.”

She looked at him.


He shook his head.


He made a disapproving face.

She handed him back the skin.

I give up.

William Cowper.

I would’ve never gotten that, she admitted.

You like Coraciiformes? he asked.

Yes, in fact they were her favorite order. The family of kingfishers in particular. The punks of the avian world, with their harsh cackle, their outsize beaks, their attitude, the Mohawk.

And of course, Russell added, the story attached to them—all, sadly, untrue.

Uh-hmm, Ana said absently.

Russell laid the skin carefully back in its drawer, A portrait of Lord Rothschild stared down at them from the wall. They continued on that afternoon to the Chapman Memorial Hall of North American Birds, and then the rest of the museum. Months later, he made love to her under the same portrait of Rothschild, at night, pressed against one of the cold steel cabinets, with his sockless loafers, her bare foot on the back of his calf. Russell had keys to all the rooms, and at night, when everyone but the night watchmen had gone home, they roamed the tiled halls like teenagers, mischievously making love in the Chapman Hall, beside the Fuertes mural of flamingos or the dioramas of Peregrines on the cliffs of the Palisades (using the wooden banister for purchase) or the glass case of North American raptors. They copulated in the lab too, beside the humming DNA sequencer. Russell wanted to have sex in each room (it is a museum of natural history after all, he argued). They tried it in the Pickling Room as well, with its odor of formaldehyde, its shelves of glass jars filled with birds in alcohol—pickled puffins and grebes.

That was where Ana drew the line.

The smell is revolting, she said, buttoning her blouse.

Arousing, he whispered. He licked her neck and put two fingers on her chin. I find it complex, like … a Merlot.

She pulled away.

Enough, she said and went to the sink and washed. A glossy ibis stared from one of the jars, light glowing through the liquid.

No one will ever accuse you of being a romantic, she said.

He was buttoning his shirt. He had a gleam in his eye.

I’ll take you to dinner, he offered.

I’ve lost my appetite.

Soon Ana put an end to their after-hours activities. She was sure they’d get caught. She was only an intern still. But more than that, the collection rooms felt slightly possessed, with all those dead birds from centuries past sealed inside eight-foot steel cabinets. Even during the day, when she walked through them, the rooms remained half-lit and deserted, the marble eyes of owls and godwits staring from old glass cases. One could hear the echoes of museum goers on the other side of the thick concrete walls. Out there, in the halls of the museum, the public wandered completely unaware of the rooms hidden inside the heart of the museum—where nearly a million birds lay entombed. That was the strangest part, the laughter and noise that came from behind the walls. She always felt as if she were walking inside a crypt.

All of that seemed so many years ago to Ana, when Russell had seduced her with stories about early bird collectors, men who’d died from arsenical soap or in the bush or fallen from cliffs while collecting swallow nests. Some shot or murdered in the far reaches of the globe, there only to capture an unknown bird species. He too had the fever. He explained it as a mania for going out and gathering in the world. Was it not a way of showing one’s love for everything out there? A strange way to show it, Ana quipped, by killing it.

When she first met Russell, they used to go spring mornings to see the migrants in Central Park. A foggy morning after a warm front—or an abrupt shift from southerly to northerly winds—brought a fallout of birds on any given May morning: thousands of migrants pinned down for the day in the Ramble or along the lake. On the way home, in the streets, they’d find dozens of dazed or injured (or more likely dead) birds. Drawn by the lights the night before, the migrants found themselves in the morning trapped in the canyons of Manhattan. They’d be attracted to the lush planters on ground-floor lobbies of office buildings, and—not knowing better—they’d fly into the glass trying to get to the tropical greenery. Ana brought paper bags to pick up the dazed birds (Zabar’s or Macy’s for woodpeckers, brown sandwich bags for warblers). Back in the loft, she’d rehabilitate the injured ones and release them days later up in Inwood Hill Park, where they could fly unhindered to the north. Russell called it sentimental, her rehabilitating the birds. And she stopped doing it after their marriage. She hadn’t the time anymore or the inclination, and New York City Audubon volunteers patrolled the streets now in the mornings during migration. But she remembered those first days with Russell as some of the happiest in her unmarried life, the way they’d crawl back into bed unshowered, with the loft door open, just as the rest of the world was waking, and they pleasantly weary from their miles of walking in the dawn.

Sometimes she was surprised they’d lasted as a couple, not just for a year or two but 15 now, both of them growing into their lives like fingers fitting gloves. Russell had been made the head of the collection and went to conferences around the world. And she had published papers on migration and zugunruhe, and biogenic magnetite in the brains of migrating Savannah Sparrows. There was a time when they’d tried (halfheartedly, without success) to have children. But that had passed. And after a sense of failure and defeat, they had recovered and a new feeling emerged, a deepening that drew them closer in ways subtle and profound—both tied more to their work than before. They bought a plot of land in upstate New York and camped there some weekends, in a green nylon tent, dreaming of the house they were in no rush to build and one day retire in. True, Russell was often gone, traveling, and she was often lost in her own labwork; and their attentions to each other had attenuated to a comfortable neglect; yet they were not unhappy. Russell was a cushion, something solid to press against. Was that not love? Predictability, knowing where each of them would be. A GPS reading. A way of orienting through the turbulence of the world? Their life went on, unthoughtful, unmindful, until that morning the call came, and she thought, Russell, my Russell. Why had she not known where he’d be?

Something now about the library on Trachis Island reminded Ana of the collection rooms, the smell of fumigants, the waxed floors. Books, birds—both of them preserved. In the collection rooms, the living rubbed against the dead all the time, all those birds entombed inside aluminum drawers like seeds or husks dried long ago; and in the old library, the books were like that too, with foxed pages inside cardboard covers. Was it this that gave her the smallest sand grain of solace? The dark wood? The leaded-glass windows, the upright piano in the corner?

Russell told her one night after making love in the empty halls of the museum that if you listened carefully, you could hear all the dead birds in their display cases communing with each other.

What does it sound like? Ana asked.

Esperanto, he replied. Only for avifauna.

I see, she said.

Actually, it’s a kind of low humming.

He’d tried to look serious, but he was joking, of course. And yet Russell did, on one occasion, confess to believing in ghosts. Not the Esperanto-speaking kind, or stuffed animals in glass cases speaking with their syringes. But real ones. Real ghosts.

You’re not serious? Ana had asked, raising one eyebrow.

Well—Russell nodded—if you must know, I am.

She’d laughed at him. How could a biologist believe in ghosts? He couldn’t answer; he just did. Ana shook her head. Not she. She wouldn’t hear of it. And yet, standing in the library just then, with the book open and the sun dropping into the sea, she wasn’t sure that if he was there she’d laugh at him anymore.

Excerpted from Birds in Fall. © 2006 by Brad Kessler. To be published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

—Brad Kessler’s novel, Birds in Fall, will be released next month by Scribner. He is a 2006 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Originally published in

BOMB 95, Spring 2006

Interviews Dana Schutz, Harrell Fletcher, Tacita Dean and Jeffrey Eugenides, Frederic Tuten and Bernard Henri-Lévy, Lynne Tillman and Paula Fox, Judd Ne’eman and Janet Burstein, Charles Atlas, and Marsha Norman and Adam Rapp.

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