I still feel it, in the morning, like the ghost of an old friend; then I lift the sheets, look down and see the stump where the rest of my leg should be. I no longer blame the hunters, the bird, my ex-wife, or Francis Fuller. I will never be the man I was back then and for this there is no one to blame.
I did not like the Fullers. There were vegans, private school science teachers, the kind of people who rode bicycles to work in the rain and shook their fists at you if you accidentally splashed them. They were her friends, not mine, and all I wanted to do that weekend was watch old movies on the couch, drink, fall in and out of sleep, and dream of acts that left me both aroused and ashamed. But she insisted we go camping in New Jersey with the Fullers that weekend, in the early spring, and back then she almost always got her way.
“We’re going,” she said.
“Why?” I asked her.
“Because we need to do more things.”
“They’re not my kind of people.”
“You don’t have people.”
“That’s a choice.”
“Your choice. Not mine.”
“I choose not to go.”
“Sorry Charlie. You don’t have a choice. Not this time.”
So I packed Scotch, old, dime-store novels, and warm socks. She packed organic bug spray, a tent as large as a garden shed, chairs, binoculars, bird guides, two sleeping bags and humus. We drove east, over the Ben Franklin Bridge. White, fluffy clouds marched over distant farms and prisons. I pulled onto a back road that snuck through fertile fields and islands of tall trees. For a moment I dreamed of living there, Lynne and I, a couple of well-trained retrievers frolicking in the yard, a child, bright red tomatoes bursting at the seams from sun and water in cold frames built from reclaimed wood. On cold winter nights we would drink cognac in front of a wood burning stove filled with oak logs I had split myself. Then I remembered that we did not like children, or dogs, and just the thought of an axe handle formed blisters on my hands.
A brown blur sprinted from behind a bush. The car vibrated from impact. I slowed down and pulled onto a patch of grass. We got out of the car and walked slowly towards the wild turkey, dying on the pavement.
“Christ,” Lynne said as she stood over it.
The bird’s chest heaved and its wild eye looked up at us. It tried to lift itself with its broken wing and wheezed like an old teakettle.
“What should we do?” she asked.
“Leave it,” I said.
“The vultures will get it.”
“Then it will suffer even more.”
“You want me to kill it. Skin it. Roast it over a campfire so it didn’t die in vain?”
“I want you to put it out of its misery.”
“I’ll get my shotgun,” I said and walked back to the car.
I dug beneath the tent, chairs and sleeping bags in the trunk and found a small tire iron. I walked back to the bird and hit the thing as hard as I could in the chest. Feathers flew in the air. The bird squawked and tried to get up again.
“Give it to me,” Lynne said.
She caressed the turkey with her free hand and whispered into its flushed ear. She raised the tire iron over her shoulder with two hands and hit the turkey right on the head. Blood spurted onto the road. It let out one last breath and then its chest was still.
“Let’s go,” she said.
The fields gave way to pineland forests. I looked over at Lynne, but she kept her eyes straight ahead. She disappeared into a world of her own and I knew it was better to let her be.
I turned at the wooden sign for Belleplain State Forest and followed the road to the campsites. They were all empty, except for one in the distance. A string of Tibetan prayer flags hung from the trees around the site.
“It’s them,” Lynne said.
She closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Sorry,” I said.
“You always say that, but it’s never true, so why bother saying it at all?”
“Sorry,” I whispered.
They stood up from their folding chairs and waved their hands excitedly above their heads. They wore thin, beige paints and matching, plaid shirts. Their tent was smaller than a Jacuzzi.
“Just try to be nice,” she said. “Please.”
So I forced a smile as we got out of our car and did not resist when Francis put his strong, thin arms around me and hugged me a moment too long.
Lynne took the chairs from the trunk and set them next to theirs. I grabbed our tent and walked to the far corner of the campsite.
“Hey,” Francis said and pointed to the ground next to their tent. “The ground is softer over here.”
I looked down at the protruding roots and mounds of hard clay at my feet.
“I’m good,” I said.
Lynne sat with Nancy in the chairs while I took the tent out of the bag and laid it over the roots.
“Need help?” Francis asked.
“I got it,” I said.
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m sure.”
But I wasn’t and after half an hour of trying to get the damn thing upright I reluctantly let him put the poles in the right sleeves and attach all the clips even though he hadn’t once glanced at the four pages of directions. On his count of three we hoisted it up.
I poured myself a full glass of scotch and sat next to Lynne. The sun was almost down and the air grew cold. Francis laid dried leaves and pine needles in the middle of the fire pit and covered them with twigs, branches and logs. With a single match he lit the leaves. They began to smoke and crackle. He leaned down, put his lips inches from the smoldering flames and gently blew on them. The twigs caught, then the branches and in less then a minute the fire roared and the warmth covered us like a translucent, orange blanket.
We were silent, until we heard a loud, desperate screech echo through the trees.
“What was that?” I asked.
“The Jersey Devil,” Francis said. “Or a turkey. Hopefully, it’s the turkey.
I poured myself another glass of scotch.
“I killed one today,” I said.
“A turkey,” Lynne said. “Not the devil. He hit it with the car. I had to kill it with a tire iron.”
“You did the right thing,” Francis said.
“To the turkey,” I said and raised my glass to the woods. “And my wife. For putting things out of their misery.”
“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Francis said.
“Really?” I asked him. “When was the last time you killed something?”
He stared into the fire. His eyes grew wide and his white skin glowed.
“Spring break,” he said. “1993. My roommate Jim and I went to the Grand Canyon. We packed our gear, put on our backpacks and went down the Boucher trail, away from the tourists. For two days we hiked from the south rim to the Colorado River. With each step we went deeper into the earth, further away from civilization and by the time we reached the bottom it felt like we had arrived on a different planet. We each brought a small bottle of rum. We drank them on a cliff forty-feet above the river. The sun hung on the rim of the canyon. The walls turned pink and purple. Jim stood, took off his shirt, then his shorts and underwear. He walked to the edge of the cliff and put his toes over it. He turned, winked at me and then did a perfect swan dive into the water. The small splash echoed across the rocks, followed by a muted thud. When I looked over the cliff I saw his naked body floating face down in the river.
“I raced down the cliff, ran into the knee deep water and dragged him to shore. I turned him over and placed my ear over his mouth. He wasn’t breathing. I pinched his nose, covered his mouth with mine and breathed into him three times. I did it again and again until he coughed and the water from his lungs sprayed my face. I reached down to hug him but his arms remained still by his sides. ‘I can’t move,’ he said.
“I stayed next to him, giving him sips of water from my canteen and fed him nuts I chewed into paste. I signaled planes with the small mirror in my emergency kit, but after three days it was clear no one saw us. We were running out of food and it was a two-day hike out. On that third day I told him I was going for help. ‘Don’t,’ he said. He was paralyzed and would most likely be for the rest of his life. He loved to be outdoors, using his body: skiing, hiking fishing. If he couldn’t do those things we both knew there was no reason for him to live. I asked him what he wanted me to do. ‘Just put me back in the river,’ he said. I carried his broken body into the water. I kissed him on the forehead. ‘Okay,” he whispered. I turned him over, face down and pushed him into the slight current and watched him float away until he disappeared around the bend. I packed our gear and hiked for twenty hours straight until I came to the rim. When I got to a phone I called the park rangers. They found him the next day, pinned against a rock four miles down the river.”
Frances stared into the fire as we stared at him. The fire popped and a bright ember landed in front of us. It was just an ember, but I knew they were all thinking that it was the ghost of his dead friend, thanking him for doing what most men couldn’t.
Francis got up and put a pot of bean soup on the fire. When it was he hot poured us each a steaming bowl. After we ate the three of them talked of plants, birds and GMO’s, but all I could think about was the friend’s dead body, floating down the Colorado River, set free by Francis Fuller.
I finished my scotch and stumbled into the woods to pee. I walked ten yards, unzipped my pants and aimed for a tiny sapling. An owl hooted softly. I heard laughter by the fire. The waning moon shown through the canopy. I heard the sound of crushing leaves behind me.
“Francis?” I whispered.
I turned around slowly and saw the red wattle of a male turkey. The wrinkled skin looked like an old man’s testicles. The bird stared at me as he spread his tail feathers like a Japanese war fan. I zipped my jeans and walked towards him. I wanted to caress his neck and whisper into his ear that I was sorry, but as soon as I got within four feet of him he pressed his feathers against his body and flew awkwardly into the trees. I walked back to the fire, stood at the edge of the woods and stared at my wife and the Fullers. I heard Francis explaining the phases of the moon and pull of tides. Instead of joining them I walked to the tent, crawled into my sleeping bag and watched the nylon ceiling spin until I drifted into a drunken sleep.
The next morning I opened my eyes, looked for Lynne, but her sleeping bag was empty. The zipper of the tent opened slowly.
“Lynne,” I said and sat up. “I’m sorry.”
“She’s gone,” Francis said.
He handed me a silver mug of coffee.
“She left me here?” I asked.
“They both left. Bird watching contest. Boys against girls. Whoever marks the most birds wins. I’ve already seen a Red Crossbill and Purple Finch.”
This was her version of punishment, not just for the night before, but for the last eight years. She often subjected me to the things I hated most the morning after I drank too much: antiquing, visiting her mother, looking for drapes. And like a 12-year-old who had been caught lying I would hang my head in shame and hatred and dutifully follow her until we got home and I could retreat to the bathtub, sweat out the sins from the night before, and tell myself I would try be the kind of man she wanted me to be.
“Come on,” Frances said. “It will be fun.”
I stood up, stared into his pale, blue eyes that were as clear and bright as marbles. For a moment I felt the shame that haunted me on mornings like these begin to form in my gut; but in his eyes there was no judgment, expectations or history. There was only his quiet acceptance of who I was and the shame passed through me like an imperceptible fart.
“Okay,” I said and followed him out the door of the tent.
I got in the passenger side of Francis’ Prius. He handed me a map of the region that had red circles around bodies of water.
“We’ll start at the river, head to the Bay, and then go to the ocean,” he said.
We drove east. A flock of brown and gray birds landed on the telephone wires.
“Song Sparrow,” he said. “Common.”
Before we even reached the river we counted crows, wrens, seagulls and Turkey Vultures.
He spoke the names and quantity of birds into his phone.
“Nothin’ to it,” he said. “Just look up.”
We took a left after a gas station and he stopped in the middle of a bridge.
“Look north,” he said.
I scanned the brown river and watched a black bird with a long neck emerge from the water like some prehistoric reptile.
“I see a black duck with a long neck.”
Francis stopped the car and leaned over me. He smelled like musk, cloves and coffee.
“Anhinga,” he said. “They call it the snake bird. Swims underwater searching for minnows. Dense bones to help them dive and their feathers absorb water like the cells of a wetsuit.”
On the other side of the bridge he took a left onto a dirt road. The trees gave way to tall reeds. Marsh wrens dipped and swerved in front of us—hung on the swaying blades every twenty-feet to rest and belted out high, desperate notes. A dark blue bird with a crown and beak as sharp as a dagger perched himself on top of a dying Maple.
“Belted Kingfisher,” Francis whispered.
At the end of a road we parked at the base of a tower made of pressure treated wood and got out of the car. Francis handed me a pair of binoculars and we walked up the stairs to the small platform. Two creeks flowed in opposite directions towards the Bay. A pair of black birds with orange beaks flew just above the southern creek. They dipped their lower mandibles into the water and left two parallel lines on the surface that slowly vanished behind them.
“Black Skimmers,” he said.
Cattle Egrets stalked minnows along the muddy banks. A Great Blue Heron flew over the green grass; the air sighed beneath its wings. Spearing danced across the surface of the creek, chased by the bass below. The reeds swayed in the wind and a sadistic laugh echoed through them.
“Rails,” Francis said. “I’ve never seen one. You hear them all the time, but they camouflage themselves in the mud and grass.”
“What do they look like?”
“Like clowns with their arms cut off. They’re dark brown and fat and can only fly a few feet off the ground. People have been hunting them down here for years. Some redneck tradition that the old timers still practice, even though it has been a federal crime since 1976. I can understand killing a turkey for food, but to kill a rail is an act of pure evil.”
He scanned the horizon, looking for the elusive bird, clutching the wooden railing stained with white droppings. I looked at the freckles on his cheek and the blue veins in his hands. I closed my eyes and listened to the water flow through the grass and the laughing rails. I felt the sun on my eyelids and gently placed my hand on top of his. He slowly pulled it away.
“You take the southern trail,” he said. “I’ll head north. The trails meet at the Bay. Look for terns, egrets and herons.”
“Okay,” I said, walked down the stairs and onto the trail.
I followed the wrens down the soft, dirt path. The wind died. Red butterflies floated over the grass. The rails continued their incessant laugh. I walked softly, scanning the sky, the grass and the creek. Fiddler Crabs scurried along the edge of the trail, looked up and threatened me with their absurd, giant claws. At a small clearing in the grass I looked north and saw Francis on the opposite trail. He panned the wetlands with his binoculars until they reached me. I smiled and waved. He waved back and continued searching for birds. I watched him until a blanket of fog came in from the Bay and enveloped him completely. The fog grew heavy and thick and left drops of dew on my face. I kept walking to the Bay, thinking we would meet there, steal an abandoned canoe and paddle south until we reached the shores of Delaware; and there we would start a new life, find jobs as Park Rangers at Cape Henlopen State Park and live in a tent between the dunes. It would be like arriving on the shores of a new world where we could be the men we always wanted to be.
Ahead of me I heard water move through the grass. A single rail laughed. A hundred other rails responded and the air vibrated from their call. Through the fog I saw it in the middle of the trail. It had the body of a pear, with tiny brown legs and a short, thick neck. Its long, hard beak was the color of varnished maple. It turned to look at me with its golden eye. We stared at each other for a moment and I wondered if, like me, he was struck by the image of such a poorly designed creature—one that should have gone extinct long ago.
I took a step forward and the bird cocked his head.
“It’s okay,” I whispered and held out my hand.
He was only a few feet away when the shotgun fired.
Feathers floated in the fog. I saw four rubber boots next to the dead bird. Then I looked at my leg. There was a gaping red hole where the skin should have been. I saw the white bone and vibrating tendons. I looked up at the men as they stared at my leg. Their white beards reached their chests and their beady eyes shone through dark caverns of wrinkles. I tried to stop the bleeding with my hands.
“Charlie,” Francis yelled in the distance.
“Here,” I yelled back. “They killed it. They killed the rail.”
The two men slipped back into the fog.
A minute later Francis appeared and knelt beside me.
“Let me see it,” he said.
I lifted my bloody hands.
He looked into the hole. His eyes grew wide and looked into mine.
“Stay with me Charlie,” he said.
But I was already drifting away. He unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. His chest was sunken, hairless and covered in freckles. He picked up a small stick from the ground and put it in my mouth.
“Bite,” he said.
He wrapped the shirt around my leg, just above the wound and then pulled the sleeves as tight as he could. I bit down on the stick and the world turned white from the pain.
“I’m going to put you on my shoulders. Okay?”
I nodded as he put my arm over one shoulder and my good leg over the other. Once he was upright he walked quickly over the trail to the car. I spit out the stick.
“Francis,” I said.
“Come away with me.”
“There is a canoe on the beach. We can go to Delaware. No one needs to know.”
“Sure thing. Just stay with me a little longer.”
“Forever,” I whispered and slipped into unconsciousness.
I awoke in the hospital. Lynne was there, reading a book, when I woke up. My leg was not. The hunters were never found.
She stayed with me as long as she could, but we both knew it wouldn’t last. Three months later she moved to Jersey with a man named Dave. Frances moved to Colorado with Nancy to work with troubled youth in an alternative school in the mountains. He emails me every so often, to ask how I’m doing. I write back that I’m doing fine, which isn’t altogether true. I go out to gay bars, drink martinis with other queer men and let them caress my stump. I go home with them, and do things I never knew they had names for. Sometimes it feels good; other times it feels like I am just another attraction at a carnival freak show—the closeted, one-legged man, waiting patiently for a man like Francis Fuller to put him out of his misery.