Sunday, March 13, 2011

Law of Nature

Hip boots. The man's boots are muddy, caked to the knees. A clammer.

Bennett sees the bird when the man comes out from the trees. The guy has an osprey. Bennett can tell that just by looking at the body. Smallish. A second-year male. Its wings are splayed open like a broken umbrella.

Bennett hangs up the phone right then, with three numbers still left to dial, hoping like hell it's road kill, something the guy's picked up along 129, down where it runs along the tidal flats. If not, he's got a violation on his hands, and he's in no mood for paperwork. Not at 4:27 on a June afternoon. Not with less than a week until his retirement.

The clammer stands there, not far from the trailer now, kicking at the pine needles, just holding the thing.

Bennett gets up from the card table and raps at the window, waving the guy over. The clammer still doesn't move. The osprey sways in his hand; a breeze riffles the dark wing feathers like a deck of cards.

Bennett thinks twice about bringing the regulation book out with him, then changes his mind. The aluminum door smacks behind him.

"I take it there's a good reason you're in possession of that bird," he says, not bothering to flash his I.D. "That's an osprey, you know. Protected species. Means it's got me and the Feds looking after it."

The clammer touches the bill of his cap and backs up a step, holding the osprey like a birthday gift.

Bennett notices the osprey's talons above the man's fist: a bouquet of thorns.

"You want to tell me where you found it?"

The clammer plays a finger back and forth across the buff-edged feathers on the bird's breast. "S'like fur. Touchin' it like. That's somethin' they don't tell on TV."

Bennett digs in his shirt pocket for his I.D. Some people just had to be set straight, had to have things all laid out for them. Bennett flips open the little I.D. case stamped with the Maine State Seal and says, "Warden, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife."

The clammer fans at the black flies swirling around him. "Know, I appreciate this kind of a bird."

"What kind is that?" Bennett asks. The clammer is talking like a drunk, but there isn't any smell. His face is smooth as stone and edged with wisps of beard; neither young nor old, he's both somehow, vaguely familiar.

The man looks at the limp creature in his hand, looks up again. "Bird like this, he'll fly not flappin' his wings. Way up, lookin' down, see." He breathes with his mouth open.

"Okay, let's start with your name."

The clammer rubs his lips with the back of his hand and says something.

"Gonna have to speak up."

"Said Alvie Popham Junior."

"Address? Where do you live, Alvie?"

"Ev'green House," Alvie says, digging a little crater with his toe.

"Evergreen House. That's the group home up there, right? Back of the hospital?"

Alvie holds the bird to his chest and looks down at the hole he's made. "Group home...yuh."
Bennett recalls him now. He'd seen him riding a woman's bicycle around—walking it sometimes—with green plastic buckets slung over the handlebars.

"That's okay. Hell, no shame in that. Just let me take a look at that bird now."

The osprey leaves a wet patch of blood and feathers on Alvie's shirt; he looks down at it, startled, afraid to touch it.

Bennett sees that the osprey has been shot. The abdomen and part of the right wing are frayed and coming apart like mattress ticking. The bird smells rank, fishy, and it has an odd weight in his hands; the head flops around doll-like when he turns it over to inspect the eyes: dull orange. When he looks up, Alvie is crying silently, a bubble of saliva on his lips.

"Hey. Hey, come on. He's dead, sure...things do that, they die. Law of nature. Now, how 'bout you show me where you found him?"

Alvie presses his hands to his eyes, spluttering, "I like it there...Ev'green House...Jeezchrise, I like it nice there."
"Sure. Hey, I would, too."

Bennett passes the South Bristol line, slowing the green state-owned pickup at the mailbox that says Dodds in drippy letters. He swings the truck onto a dirt fire road, glancing in the rear-view mirror at Alvie, who's hunched stiffly in back with his fingers clenched around the handlebars of his bike. That was where the guy wanted to sit. Bennett stops the truck beside a scrubby meadow, toothed here and there with shale; the land drops off to a tea-colored pond.

Bennett cocks his head out the window. "That it, Alvie? That field there?"

Alvie's cap bobs in the mirror.

It goddamn would be, Bennett thinks.

He drives on through a black belt of spruce trees. Boughs slap and grab at the sides of the truck; the tires splinter clam shells thrown over the ruts. The road opens onto a clearing with a graying cape flanked by loose heaps of split cordwood. A tin-roofed barn sags behind it. Bennett angles the truck next to a Subaru with a Grateful Dead bumper sticker, then kills the engine.
He gets out of the truck and walks around the side. "Just gonna ask you one more time, Alvie: That was it, right? Where you found the bird?" He almost hopes the guy will change his mind, tell him he made it all up.

Alvie looks at the lump in the plastic trash bag by the tailgate. "Told you, found him in a field. There was sheeps."

"But it was that field back there, right?"


"You telling me you're not sure now?"

"Said okay." Alvie begins to sniffle. "Jeezchrise."

Bennett picks up the trash bag. "Look, now. Just sit tight for me. Can you do that?"

Alvie wipes his nose on his sleeve. "A-course."

Bennett hears sheep bleating from somewhere behind the barn as he walks through high timothy grass toward the house. The place needs work; they all do out this way. The clapboards are flaked down to bare wood, and a string of Christmas lights is still tacked around the door frame.

He calls through the open door. "Clell?...Hey, Clell?...Like to talk to you, won't take long..." He cups his hands to his eyes, peering inside. The front room is coated with dust, empty except for a bean bag chair and a plastic rocking horse.

A thin woman in a tank top and blue jeans appears in the hallway; two loose braids snap from side to side as she walks barefoot toward the door, cradling a bowl.

Bennett steps away from the door and tucks his hands through the back of his belt.

"Came looking for Clell."

"Yeah, heard you out back." The woman keeps her head turned to the left. "Wish you luck." She studies the white flecks of crab meat stuck to her fingers, her face still in profile. "He was, you know..." She flaps her hand at the world beyond the door. "Out there."

"Have him call me. Bennett Sawyer."

"I might, you give me a hint what's in the sack."

"Just business is all."

"Black flies seem to like it."

"Thing about them...they're not real particular." Bennett turns to check on the pickup. He can only see the shoulder of Alvie's blue windbreaker. Looking back at the woman, Bennett says, "Like to look in the barn before I go. Just so you know."

"You want, see it all. He says there's goin' on eighty acres."


The woman swings her head around to face him. "Who in hell you think?" A squarish bruise underlines her left eye.

Bennett kicks through a snarl of blackberry bushes and poison ivy on his way to the barn. He carries the trash bag over his shoulder, trying to keep the black flies out of his face. The osprey slides around in the green plastic, its feathers stiff, prickly, feeling like the end of a whiskbroom. Black flies sizzle behind his head.

The barn is roofed with tin and sided with green tar shingles, the whole thing leaning downhill, waiting for a push.

Bennett steps through the big sliding door and stands just inside, coughing a little from the dust.

"Goddamn it, Clell..."

Once his eyes have gotten used to the dimness, he moves around inside, lifting a tarp that covers a half-built dory with respectable plank work. Beyond that are buckets of bolts soaking in motor oil, crab traps, license plates from before the state went to lobster tags, and an apple crate stuffed with papers.

Bennett stands listening for a moment, wondering about Alvie, how he's doing in the back of the truck by himself. The guy seems like the type to bolt for no reason. Bennett listens to a breeze rattling a broken windowpane, then digs around in the crate, flipping through a month-old section of the Portland Press-Herald, sheep feed invoices, torn copies of High Times, a taxidermy supplies catalog—

Something shatters—comes apart—overhead. Bennett peers through swirling dust at the rafters. Several feathers waft down. He hears cooing. Mourning doves. Jesus. He coughs twice, then hears a hollow whump outside, like a car trunk slamming. He comes out of the barn, squinting at the sunlit glare off the truck.

Alvie is standing in the bed, only the top half of him visible above the cab. He wheels his arms around crazily, saying something over and over.

Another man's voice says, "Dance that rock-and-roll, son."

Bennett drops the trash bag in the ferns and circles around through a stand of dead birches on the far side of the truck.

A man wearing gray coveralls opened to the waist is standing with one foot on the rear bumper, beating time on the tailgate. He's rolling something shiny around between the fingers of his other hand, holding up where it catches the light.

Alvie is dancing around his bicycle. "Wanna stop now, please,” he sobs, tears dripping off his chin. "Please wanna stop."

"Too soon yet. Only startin' to get the hang of it." The man laughs, reaching down into his coveralls to scratch himself. "'Member you got your little friend here," he says, fingering the tiny object. "Sumbitch'll stitch a hole through you, come out smilin'."

Alvie flails and spins, moaning softly.

Bennett walks out of the trees, working his I.D. out of his pocket. "Alvie," he says, his voice sounding choked, boyish. "Alvie, you stop it now. Just sit, sit down there."

Alvie goes down on his knees, hugging himself, wailing. "Jeezchrise. Pissed my pants all over."
The man behind the truck turns slowly, ignoring Bennett's opened I.D. "He was throwin' rocks at my house."

"Like he could hit anything. Look at him."

"You're trespassin', Sawyer. The both of you. Property's posted."

"What's in your hand, Clell?"

The man fans out his fingers; the bullet sits in his dirty palm like a pulled tooth. His gums are gray as he smiles. "Feed 'em to my thirty-eight snubbie. Even got a license, you want to see it."
"Did you threaten him?"

"Workin' for the sheriff, too, hunh?"

"I could get him involved. You want it that way?"

"Might. Hell, let me think about it. Get back to you. Maybe I'll ask
slo-mo over there, see what he says."

Alvie is staring at the stains on his clothing: blood on his jacket, urine at his crotch.

Bennett sees the fuzzy shape of the woman through the screen door; she stands there for a moment, and he expects to see her come out, maybe say something, but she simply turns away.

"Clell, I think you shot a bird illegally."

"That a accusation?"

Bennett thrashes around where he left the trash bag in the ferns. Clell says something in a flat tone, then spits.

"Right here, Clell." Bennett has found the bag. He picks it up, working the knot apart; the plastic has gone soft in the heat. The smell inside shocks him, so foul it's almost sweet. He lifts the bird by the dark tip of one wing.

"Sure is a pretty one," Clell says. He hasn't moved from his spot behind the truck. "What do they call a bird like that?"

"It's an osprey—fish hawk—same thing."

Clell puts a finger to his lips. "Not too loud now, don't want to wake it." He laughs hoarsely, scratches himself again.

"How may shots it take you? I figure two to bring him down."

"Tell the truth, I wouldn't mind it. Shootin' a bird that big. Be kinda fun."

"Like paying a fine. Shoot a protected species, that's what you're looking at. Guaranteed."

Clell pinches the bullet between his fingers. "Guarantee you this: I'll shoot anything—bird, you, and retard included—mucks with my lambs."

"Gut this bird, you won't find anything but fish in his belly. You shot him for the hell of it, Clell."

"What's your proof—him?" Clell cocks his arm and whangs the bullet off the roof of the truck cab, close to Alvie's head. "Next one'll bite you in the butt, son."

Alvie starts to whimper; his eyes roll white, shuttered; his body pulses, a shiver racing through it, like a dog drying off. His skull drums on the sheet metal.

Bennett drops the bird and scrabbles into the back of the truck, catching his boot heel on Alvie's bike. "Hey, guy...Alvie, goddamn." He tried to remember what you're supposed to do with something like this, tries to break it down into steps. Clear the airway, that's one. Alvie's head and body are fused, clenched, shaking like a fist. Bennett gets his fingers into Alvie's mouth. He skins a knuckle on Alvie's teeth, trying to fish his tongue out from the back of his throat. He can't think of step two, so he turns to Clell.

"I'm asking—hell, I can't do this myself. You're gonna have to call, Clell. Nine-one-one."

"Well, shit. You need me. Retard gonna tattle on me when he pulls out of it? Maybe split the fine with you?"

"Clell, get on the goddamn phone."

"Don't know as it's workin' proper." Clell works the zipper up and down on his coveralls.

"Could be what you call out of order."

The woman pushes the screen door open, her bare feet stepping onto the granite stoop, a skein of hair wagging as she walks down through the weeds.

Clell swings his weight around to face her. "You hear somebody call your name? I want you standin' around here, you'll be the first to know. That make any kinda sense?"

Alvie's head whips back and forth, his teeth sawing the back of Bennett's hand. His boots kick twice at the side of the truck.

The woman burrows her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "That fella all right?"

"Yeah," Clell says, "he's having a real wing-ding. You get inside now, I'll tell you all about it. Scout's freakin' honor."

She stands there, one big toe working into the dirt.

Alvie coughs, then spits up. His face looks oddly shaded. Bennett grips Alvie's muddy wrist for a pulse, but he can't feel much of anything. He knows there's another place to check, but he can't focus his mind long enough to remember it. "Jesus, Clell, get on the telephone. You hear me?"
"I'll call," says the woman.

Clell wheels on her. "Touch that phone, Lindy, we'll be havin' a conversation later."

"Tell you what," she says, starting up the slope toward the house, "I'm all talked out."

"Bitch kitty on ice," Clell says, reaching into his coveralls. His hand comes out with a blued-steel .38 Ruger revolver.

"Hey now, Clell..." says Bennett.

"Yeah?" Clell's eyes look broken in his face.

"The bird—fuck it—who's gonna know?" Bennett wipes at a trickle of sweat stinging one eye. Black flies whine just behind his ears.

Clell laughs, a sound like gravel shaken in a can. "You sayin' that for her or for brain child?"

"I just said it. Now make the call."

"You heard the lady. She's makin' it."

"You gonna let her?"

Clell pops the cylinder on the Ruger, then gives it a spin. "Goddamn, Sawyer, you got me stumped." He sights in on the woman's narrow back, then throws his arm around, firing the Ruger at the dead bird in the weeds.

"Lot more fun the first time," he says.

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