The bald eagle swooped from the rangy, wind-beaten cedar on the other side of the river toward the duck that floated like a decoy 15 feet below. When the eagle got close, the duck dove, disappearing—from Howard’s view, anyhow—for several minutes before breaking through the light-spangled water a few yards down, like the Madonna, like a cartoon, like Venus on the half-shell, gleaming and spectacular and very much alive. The eagle, back in the cedar, gathered itself for another round. Again, missile-like, it dropped, again the duck dove. Howard watched them for 10 minutes before going back inside. He hadn’t planned to stand on the dock in front of his small house in the chilly January morning watching these wonders of nature. He hadn’t planned to be either enthralled or bored. He’d gotten up to go to the bathroom, and had seen the eagle through the smudged living room window. He didn’t know if he felt more like the duck or the eagle, but the day was starting out a little differently, for a change.
Maybe today would be the day he’d win the jackpot, get the big job, find the girl. He didn’t need much money, just enough to pay the bills, but it would be good to nail down the next gig. And he certainly didn’t need a girl, though a soft body touching his on these cold midwinter nights went a long way toward warming his bed, if not his heart. Right now, in fact, the charmingly accented Fiona, formerly of Yorkshire, England, and recently of this small town on the river, was in his bed awaiting the return of his eager, medicated cock. He’d requested Viagra when he went to the clinic for the stomach pains he couldn’t shake—he’d really thought he was dying this time but it was only the flu—and the doctor, also middle-aged, had sympathetically written the scrip. Howard desired sex-not-love to stay alive, to keep on keeping on, same old story, and in fact, if the looks and provocative texts he regularly received from across the bar were any indication, his appeal to women seemed to be increasing as his professional success, beyond its peak, slowly waned. This surprised him. The moment he entered the hubbub of the highway and the bar scene, he was transformed into a barrel of laughs, but at home, alone, in that garden of Eden on the river, he felt cold and deflated. No woman loved a sad sack. Would he tell Fiona about the eagle and the duck?
That night they were in the middle of blocking out the scene where he, director of the local community theater, having cast himself as male lead, was about to kiss the 17-year-old high school girl who played the illicit lover when Fiona, female lead, fainted stage left, just missing the ratty couch they’d hauled in to re-create a fancy French parlor. She landed with a dull thud well short of her taped mark. The play was an obscure one he’d written in college for which he’d won several prizes, though no one, of course, in this small coastal community had read it or heard of it, let alone of him. He waited a moment before lifting Fiona onto the couch and pushing the hair back from her broad smooth forehead. Someone ran for water. “Shall I call 911?” the young girl gasped—he could still, unwillingly, feel the softness of her mouth on his—and he said, “No, wait, she’ll come around, she’s a fainter, this is nothing new,” but it was new, and it was also a little scary, since she’d said just that morning that she would die, she’d do something silly, if he refused to see her anymore. She’d been rubbing her temples while they talked. Was this fainting linked to that? He wouldn’t have been surprised if she was faking it just to get his attention, illustrating in this graphic way her undying devotion. He’d met her a few months earlier, they’d flirted and then they’d fucked, and now this. “How about if I cast you in my play?” he’d said the morning of the birds. He’d also suggested they cool it, take their time, perhaps not see each other for a while, and she’d had the little fit but then she said, “Okay, sure,” and they’d driven to the high school auditorium 20 minutes away for rehearsal. She hadn’t said much, sat with her arms crossed staring gloomily at the stark flat fields that connected his house to the next small town.
Fiona’s eyes fluttered. “Oh,” she said, and put her hand to her forehead, looking at him. “What happened?” Classic, he thought, what a line, though she really was a fairly good actor. This he’d discovered when they read through his play, he taking every part but hers. Everything had been light and fun. “You fainted, dear,” he said, taking her hand. “I did?” She tried to sit up. “Lie still for a while,” he said, and she said, “Okay,” and looking at the circle of concerned faces ringing the couch, she laughed a little and said, “My moment in the improvisational sun,” which made him like her a little more.
“And so there I was, this gawky kid, scared to death but also feeling sorry for the goddamn bear. Put yourself in my shoes. What would you have done?”
This was his neighbor JP telling a story from the days of yore when he was a camp counselor, which was before he was a hippie then a Peace Corps volunteer then husband of the frightening Aggie—her long graying hair hung to her waist—then father and now bona fide fucking libertarian, is how Howard put it to Fiona when she asked for a little background as they walked through the inky black night from his river shack to JP and Aggie’s place down the road. JP had caught them while they were unloading props from the back of Howard’s car—they were three days into rehearsals, hungry and tired—and there had not been enough time to concoct a good excuse. Now, two days later, they were sitting in JP’s funky house, where a parrot chattered away in a darkened corner of the room, and several cats roamed freely.
“Not allergic, I hope,” JP asked Fiona at the door.
“I love cats,” Fiona purred.
JP liked to talk existentialism and anarchy and French cinema but Howard suspected that deep down he was a crazy fucking Ross Perot garden-variety off-the-grid minute-type-man. Still, his company sometimes surpassed Fiona’s, and it was definitely more scintillating than a lot of the bar talk he encountered in this backwater meth town. Howard had moved here to put many miles between him and the last difficult woman—he wanted to simplify, amplify—but it was the river that saved him, looking across its mysterious expanse and seeing nothing. The river and perhaps the community theater, such as it was.
“So here’s the thing. It was my first summer as camp counselor back in aught six, my one and only summer as camp counselor, actually,”—who’s counting, Howard was thinking—“and this bear that had been hanging around the dining hall all summer was getting into the trash cans and compost and everything, and early one morning the KP crew found him in the kitchen poking around the counters and shelves. He was working on the fridge door with these huge paws when they walked in,” he said to Fiona, who opened her eyes wide, indicating, Howard thought, her juvenile reaction to the story.
“They chased him out but then later that afternoon, this other kid—that would be Charlie—and I found him near the kitchen again, pawing around, there were no campers there but he was an obvious health hazard, to say nothing of scaring the everlovin’ shit out of us, and we yelled and flapped our arms and Charlie called the park ranger while I kept hollering, but the bear stuck around. So the park ranger comes screeching up in his truck and he jumps out with his tranquilizer gun and he yells at me to Get out of the way, son! and he aims at the bear and twunk! in goes the dart and the bear stands there a minute, dazed, then he turns and shuffles down to the lake. So we run down there too and the park ranger shoots another tranquilizer dart and this time the bear wades into the lake and swims to the other side.” He turned to Fiona. “Bears are quick-ass swimmers, by the way,” and she said, “Poor bear.”
“So he clambers out the other side and sort of stands there and the park ranger jumps into his truck and guns it on over and the bear looks at him and he looks at the bear, then thwonk! another dart, and this time the bear goes back into the water and starts to swim across to Charlie and me, and I’m thinking, holy shit, and then—and this is the exciting part—”
“As if the rest weren’t exciting enough,” said Fiona, fanning herself with her hand while JP took a deep draft of his homebrew.
“The best is yet to come, darlin’.” He held up his finger. “To resume. Charlie and I are standing there and the bear slows down and he tips and wobbles and bobbles and that’s when I realize the tranquilizer darts are finally working, they’re doing their thing, and the poor fucker is sinking fast out there in the middle of the lake.”
“Oh no,” said Fiona. Just the way she did on stage sometimes, whether it was in the script or not, Howard thought.
“I don’t remember what I was thinking, I don’t think I was thinking much of anything, but I ran into the water and Charlie was right there with me, and I was trying to remember if he could swim, they teach lessons at the camp and I was pretty good but I didn’t know about Charlie, and the ranger was back in his truck, hauling ass to our side of the lake, yelling and carrying on, but all I could hear was the bear thrashing around. Then it got quieter, and he got smaller. Charlie and I waded out till we couldn’t touch bottom and then the water was over our heads and we had to swim and when we got to the bear, he was making a sort of snorting sound and pawing the water in slo mo—it was like he was lolling around out there, playing almost—and the two of us grabbed his head and held it up—his head was fucking huge, let me tell you, big yellow teeth, and he smelled ripe. Meanwhile the park ranger skids to a halt on our side of the lake and he jumps in too, tranq rifle slung over his back like Rambo, but by then Charlie and I had hauled the bear close to shore, keeping his nose and mouth tipped back. We pulled him in as close as we could—the head looked like a floating trophy—and the ranger helped beach him.”
JP tipped his head back and drained the bottle. “Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.”
“And?” said Fiona.
“And the ranger called some of his sidekicks on his walkie-talkie and it took four of them to hoist the bear into the back of the truck. Then they carted him off and released him somewhere, and that was that.”
“What a story,” she said. “How did you manage to pull him all that way?”
“Pure adrenaline,” said JP. “Herculean strength,” and he gave her a bicep curl. “Like when a mother lifts the truck off her trapped kid. We don’t know what we’re capable of till our backs are to the wall. Ain’t that a fact, Howard? You’ve been mighty quiet over there in the corner.”
“That’s a fact,” Howard said.
“What a brave thing,” Fiona said. “Here’s to your youthful valor, JP,” and she raised her wineglass, they all did. Aggie closed her eyes and shook her head.
“She’s heard it all before,” JP said, nodding at Aggie. “The true hero was Charlie. Turned out the guy didn’t know how to swim, but he’d forgotten that till after it was all over. He didn’t set foot in the lake for the rest of the summer.”
“Here’s to brave Charlie,” said Fiona, “all heart.” Getting tipsy, thought Howard.
“And to the bear,” said JP.
“To the bear!” they cried, clinking glasses. “To the wonders of nature!” But Howard was thinking, Stupid fucking bear and stupid fucking Charlie.
When he was undressing her that night—there was no way he could turn her away after the fainting spell—Fiona said, holding his hand still for a moment, “Speaking of the wonders of nature,” and he was thinking, Must we? “Long before my feet touched your Yankee shores, I was on my daily run and it was fall and everything was misty and damp, and I was on a stretch of road that went through an old part of the forest and I was slowing down, running uphill, when I saw, just off the road, some white … thing. I stopped and a small herd of deer went bounding off but this thing didn’t move. It was like a small white cloud in the middle of those dark woods. And then I realized it was a deer, too, a white deer. Solid white.”
Howard was about to say “albino,” but she put her finger on his lips.
“There are white deer that aren’t albino, I’ve since learned,” she said. “They have brown eyes, not red, but I wasn’t close enough to see. This was a doe, no antlers, and we stood there watching each other awhile—she was beautiful, really quite ethereal—and I wondered why she didn’t run, if it was safer without the herd.” Were those tears in her eyes? Give this girl a Tony! Howard kissed her hand. “Then finally I just ran home. She watched me leave and I took it to be a positive thing, a good thing. I consider myself a nonbeliever but at the time, it felt very spiritual, a sign of good luck, a stroke of providence.” She looked at him sadly. “And it’s served me well all this time. There. Now you can talk.”
Howard felt strangely tongue-tied. “I love atheists,” he said and pulled her to him, not wanting her to see how suddenly moved he was by her white deer and her sad spiritualism, and in bed they were urgent and loud, it was as if they were the last two people on earth, lone survivors, as if the flood were upon them, no time left and nothing to live for anyhow, as if everything depended on keeping their heads above water, staying afloat. Please don’t faint on me, he thought once, and in the next explosive moment he thought of his dueling birds and it struck him that perhaps he was both eagle and duck, why not? Why choose?
They were lying quietly in bed the next morning watching how the sun splintered the river into long slices of light, bright glittery shards. She remarked on how it looked like diamonds and he agreed and in that moment of contentment—moment of weakness—he told her about the eagle hunting the duck. “That’s really quite a grand story,” she said. “Very American.”
Already too cozy. He wished he’d kept quiet. He liked her but she was a believer in signs and omens, New Agey. She made too much of things. His ex-wife had had those tendencies, and he’d speculated after the divorce that the small things were the most lethal. Fiona had been grateful to be taken into his confidence; she obviously relished hearing his story. But she’d talked about it too much already, kept mentioning the beauty of the battle and its many hidden meanings. He knew she would not let it go. And now she was pushing him to take the kayaks out. The boats had come with the house, along with sturdy deck chairs and a tangle of fishing gear. She’d seen them lashed to a tree near the bank. He was reluctant. She was insistent. While she watched him pull on his long johns, she sang a silly schoolgirl song: My teacher’s got a bunion and a face like a pickled onion. Teasing him.
By the time they got to the boats an oppressive damp gray sky had descended—snow, perhaps?—and the wind picked up and water rippled and shifted around them in short bursts of agitated activity. He watched her glide away on the current. She was wearing his old blue slicker and was clumsy with the paddle, knocking the sides of the boat—it was clear she was not to the river born—but she wasn’t self-conscious about it, either, didn’t seem the slightest bit embarrassed. “Tallyho!” she yelled into the wind as she zigzagged off. He knew she’d soon be stuck in the thick reeds that jutted out in front of JP’s place.
He pushed off and angled his kayak across the river, paddling hard, scanning the tops of the cedars for the eagle. He wanted to put distance between him and the fair Fiona. He paddled for five intense minutes, then drifted for a few more, scanning the trees. It was chilly and breezy but the current was with him and the paddling made him hot, so he yanked off his poncho. He pulled his cap down tighter. The sleeves of his sweater caught the wind. The poncho flapped around and he tried to shove it down by his feet but it wouldn’t stay put, and as he leaned down to secure it, the boat drifted round the bend and out into the channel.
He didn’t see the trawler till it was bearing down on him, the prow as formidable as the barge the size of a football field he’d once encountered out on the Bay, way too close for comfort and reducing him to the size and sensibility of a matchstick. He yelled at the trawler as he slapped his paddle back into the water and pulled hard to get out of the way, but the boat continued at full throttle, raising a spiky, three-foot wake that hit the kayak broadside. Small whitecaps splashed over the hull onto his lap and legs. A series of choppy waves caught his back, soaking his sweater and shirt, and in the wet confusion Howard felt the paddle slip from his hands. He lunged for it, jostling the boat, taking on more water, then watched the paddle twist and turn and slip downriver. He tried paddling with his hands but weighted with the water he’d taken on, he foundered. If he worked very very hard, he could guide the sluggish boat to the nearest bank, and to safety, but it would take a while and he was beginning to get cold. He had forgotten his gloves. Across the river, he saw the dot of blue that was Fiona, the white oval of her face. She appeared to be tied up at JP’s dock and was getting out of her kayak and into his skiff. JP was bent over the outboard, cranking it up. Howard could hear the high whine of the engine slide across the aching river. He sat in his swamped boat and waited. At least he wouldn’t sink.
He continued to see Fiona through the run of the play. It would have been awkward to cut ties off stage when they were so intimate on, and for those weeks, while they acted and moved through their parts, Howard felt real, vital, alive. Being on stage always had that effect on him, wiped out everything else. One night near the end of the run, Fiona repeated how she had fallen hard for him and that it brought her great pain to think it must end. “Don’t be sad,” he said, gesturing to the darkened stage. It was late and they were the last ones to leave. It had been a good night. “We’ve been lucky that we’ve had all this.” Tears again in her pretty eyes, and she said, “All I know is I want it to last beyond all this.” But it didn’t. After her there was Sandy, then Tamara, then Liz, and in their company, he endured the long, hard grind of winter. Sometimes he imagined himself immersed in the dark river swirling outside his door, felt the power that both overcame him and kept him going. But he did not think of Fiona, their secrets and confessions. And then the warm spring came.
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