Things with Feathers

By David Finney

1.

      Before she took the name Drummond from her husband, her name was Maude Elizabeth Rhodes. Maude Rhodes steps in through the screened porch of the house where she grew up. She looks ambivalently at her hands as she releases the door and it bangs shut on its spring. Outside, horseflies alight on the crabgrass. Weeds have grown up around the cinderblock foundation. Her daddy’s boat is not yet tied up out back. She can see, through the porch window, the pickup truck there by the spare traps, its door left carelessly ajar. The tanks in the peeler shed gurgle, meaning business. He is out on the river tending pots.
      “Come on, you,” her mother says. “Let me see my girl.” Her mother’s arm is in a sling. They do not talk about that. Maude drops her book bag on the floor.
      They sit across from each other in the darkened kitchen, sharing a bottle of warm Tab.
      “But your classes?” her mother asks.
      “Good,” she says. “I’m liking composition.”
      “I’m sorry, girly,” her mother says. “It’s nothing I could think to do.”
      “I know,” she says. She tries to smile, because things are how they are, but she can barely force one out. Sure, crabs are fragile creatures. They can’t just pile up, no good hands to tend them.
 

It’s late, after midnight, but under the harvest moon everything is illuminated. She doesn’t mind this chore, among all the others: sitting on a stool, watching crabs.
      In the tank, under a few inches of water, the peelers are bunched up and hardly moving. They are piled in the corners. But one sits alone in the middle, its painted claws drawn in under wavering eyeballs. At this moment their backs are blue and the surface of the water is blue and the marsh and the grass and the sky are all the same blue, each shimmering distinctly and according to its own nature. She must watch this middle crab, this sally who’s pulling herself out of her shell—backing out of it, slowly, like how the old boys wriggle out of chest waders. These peelers must be tended every hour at least. A fresh soft-shell who’s just come clean out of her old self will be eaten by the others, left alone. When this sally is free and clear, Maude will take her out of the water with an ungloved hand and the crab’s useless, soft claws will droop down as helpless as hair and she’ll add this girl to the others in the cardboard box in the refrigerator. She’s heard that the Chinese or the Japs, she can’t remember, will pay two dollars a pop for a frozen Accomack peeler. The same cost as a whole half-bushel of fat oysters. It boggles the mind, she thinks, smiling at the expression she has picked up from her professor.
      When the sally is finally free and clear and her translucent shell drifts away like her former ghost, the moment she’s been waiting for, she picks it up and—she doesn’t know why—she kisses it on the back of its shell before it goes in the fridge. She’d like to know what this newly-naked critter is thinking.
 

Months later, the crabs have gone back down into the mud for the winter and Maude is shucking and canning oysters out in the peeler shed. The initial appeal of her familiar chores, if there’d been any, were gone. An electric heater warms her legs, but the little hairs on the back of her neck are standing up with the cold. She doesn’t entirely mind, but lately she has been sad.
      She and her mother sit across the card table from one another. The sling has gone.
      They work efficiently, wordlessly, elbows straight out and off the table. Looking at her mother, Maude’s reminded of a chicken and its wings: they hopelessly, flightlessly flap in the coop. Maude has been in some of the industrial coops up along Thirteen, the ones you can smell a mile down the road.
      As they work, shells pile up in old paint buckets, to be thrown on the lawn. The oysters have grown nice and plump now—her father brings in several bushels a day, though he complains how a bushel’s taking more and more work each season, how the patent tongs are bringing up just empty shells and muck even on the best grounds. He says someday it just won’t be worth it.
      She wonders if it’s true, or if it’s just in the nature of things for men to complain so. If it’s true, that would be in the nature of things too—all things just get harder over time. She considers this thought. Then her mother is looking at her. She has heard her daughter stop working. Or anyway, it’s what she’s stopped hearing, the scraping and clacking of knife shell. Maude shivers slightly from the cold, starts again. When she was younger, she would have stopped here to eat an oyster for herself, to slide its gooey body down her throat. She’d even lick the cold saltiness off the shucking knife. But not now. She knows what they taste like, there’s no surprise. She has not gone back to the community college up in Easton for the fall term. When she goes back, if she ever does, she’s still got a full year left for her associate’s. She looks at her mother, mesmerized by her hands as they work over coarse shell after coarse shell, not missing a thing. This time Maude is careful not to stop her own work. She can do it without looking. Her mother’s eyes seem especially sunken in the harsh, iridescent light—long shadows are cast down on her face. She’s in a kind of trance, the end of her tongue in the side of her mouth like the snout of a dead clam. Suddenly Maude realizes her mother is old, real old, and for some reason this comes as a shock. It takes some while, three or four cans, for that shock to wear off.
      They know he’s coming when he turns the first corner from the Onancock into their gut, cutting wide around the mark to stay in the channel. The light in the shed begins to vibrate a little. Even the heat down around her legs seems to tremble. Then the low growl of the inboard motor becomes plain.
      Her mother sets down the knife—it’s as if she timed her work perfect to the top of a gallon can, the oysters piled up neatly above the rim. “Duke of Gloucester,” says the can, “Big Salties.” She rinses the last oyster, sets it on the top of the pile.
      Her mother looks up at her, the whites of her eyes peeking out of the darkness. She refastens the pin in her hair. It’s unnecessary, bun tight as always. Then she gets up and scuttles to the house.
      Maude will work until this last load is shucked. She hears her father tie up the boat and drop, in successive trips up from the dock, three more bushel baskets by the door to the shed. He doesn’t come in.
      In the orange of twilight she sees him pass by the window. His hat sits high on his head, the bill a perfect V, and he is chewing on something, gum or the butt of a cold cigarette or a spent match from a cardboard “I Like Ike” matchboook.
      “Hard tide in the crick,” he says maybe to her or maybe to himself, another complaint.
      It’s quiet now and will be all night. She likes being alone out here. She knows her mother is fixing him dinner, will leave something for her in the oven.
 

Long after dusk, Maude can’t be sure how long she’s been at the oysters. She’s near the end of the last bushel. Her hands are numb and slow on the cold shells.
      They’ll all still need to go into the canner. It’s bright out, moon in the window. She’s awakened to this fact by what she thinks is the sound of the kitchen door swinging shut. She’s been in a pleasant trance, thinking of the poems she’d write when she finally went back to her composition. But no one comes into the shed, and she hears the sound again, more distinctly this time—a gunshot. And then two more, in close succession. Out in the marsh. She stops working now.
      It’s illegal to be hunting after dark. But she knows that the boys shoot at night, take piles of birds to market before dawn. She doesn’t pay much attention to that, but she can’t recover the thought of her poetry and her classmates. It’s like the thread that comes out of a loose hem, it will never go back in. Then she hears the sound of the outboard—from her father’s route, memorized, she knows it’s in their creek and coming up this way. She hears his words: “Hard tide in the creek.” A pang of fear. Maybe those boys, whoever they are—and she can probably guess—are chasing cripples drawn up here in the hard water. But maybe they are coming to mess with his boat, steal his tongs or his traps. For a moment she wonders what to do.
      In her father’s orange rubber gloves which come up to her elbows, she feels clumsy like a crab. The sweater and jeans will be warm enough. Outside it is mild for December and geese are all stirred up somewhere, she can hear them squawking like women gathered after church. She can hear the outboard too as she gets to the dock. The river is lit up by the moon. Then the boys come into view—as they round the last turn she also hears their music. There are two of them in the boat. She waves her arms, waves them away, but it must have been the bright orange gloves they saw because they come right to her, turning down the battery-powered radio as the one at the outboard shifts to neutral and then reverse. They hover a few feet from her father’s dock, the water and the sky so close in color it’s as if their boat is flying.
      “How-de-do,” says the boy in the bow. He’s got his shotgun across his lap and a bottle of whiskey in his hand. His sideburns come down to the edges of his mouth. He is wearing a bright red cap.
      The one on the outboard coughs a little and laughs, flicking his sweet-smelling cigarette into the water.
      But the boy in the front, the one who’d spoken, puts his gun down across the pile of bleeding geese before him and smiles. One of the geese is still flapping its wing. The boy holds out the whiskey to her, offering her a sip. “Who’s your man, Nixon or JFK?” he asks.
      “Stay off my pop’s rig,” she says.
      “Of course,” he says. She has seen him around; he’s older, not really a boy at all. Name’s Drummond. He’d been in the service.
      “Where’d you get that awful hat?” she asks.
      He touches the brim with a glove. It’s green, with a big, red, five-point star. He really grins—“Took it off a commie,” he says. “Defender of the revolution. Dead as a doornail. Would you like it?”
      “I don’t know,” she says. He seems to get bolder with her hesitation. She’s given them an opening, and she hasn’t even known why.
      He holds it out to her. “Wouldn’t ’spose you join us for a ride?” he asks. His friend is silent, watching, fiddling with the throttle on the outboard.
      She looks back up past her father’s pickup towards the house and the shed. The door to the shed is open as she left it. The oysters waiting, heater plugged in. She thinks of her mother’s arms flapping like chicken wings over the spoiled gallon cans, her old pop ready to kill someone. “Alright,” she says. “I think I shall.” Shall, she thought, a word her professor might use—a word a woman would use.
 
 

2.

      Maude breathes deeply through her paper mask. She hardly smells it all anymore: the bleach, the shit, the thin strains of flesh and blood.
      Her hands are sweating inside her latex gloves, even though it’s otherwise cold enough in here for a sweater. Emmeline who works next to her on the line is saying: “Maudie, this man-boy in little Jenny’s school—Maudie, he’s touchin’ all the girls. Fifth grade, hon. Right up under their little skirts!”
      But Maude has mostly stopped listening. It’s not that she doesn’t like Emmeline. Emmeline is okay. It’s just that the woman has become so damn tiresome. She’s always blaming everyone, and in such ugly fashion.
      Instead, Maude is watching her hands work. And she considers it’s not much different than shucking oysters for Daddy in the old back yard. In some ways, maybe it’s even better. The mask and the gloves for one thing. The air conditioning that hums, to keep things safe and cool, even in winter. And the old boy who douses the ground around their feet, even as they work, with a warm bath of bleach and water. Maude splits a chicken carcass in half, trims yellowish-white slices of fat from the flesh. Puts the pieces back on the belt. She could always put in for a change. There were many rooms in this giant, single-storey building. What a rise they’d get if she, Maude Drummond, a white woman thirty seven years old, showed up for work in the room where the chickens actually went from living to dead. What a hoot, she thought, happy with her bird humor. But she could hold her own. She would keep the pace as they took the white, writhing birds by the feet and hung them upside down, stretched their necks, chopped off their heads and threw them into a fifty-gallon drum. Then they went into the boiling wax so the feathers came off easy.
      The men who worked that line sang songs she didn’t know. Songs honed over generations out in the fields. The men themselves had mostly come in from the fields, because here you could earn a better living.
      She had once told Eldridge that. “You could make a respectable living, you know, in one of the chicken works up near Princess Anne,” she said. There were solid wages, benefits. Eldridge, after all, wasn’t exactly young anymore.
      He had scoffed at the idea. “Rather fall off the boat an drown,” he said.
      Instead, she had taken her own advice, had been at this work for nearly seven years. She’d started here when it was clear she wouldn’t bear Eldridge’s children. The money was one thing, but she might as well keep busy, after all.
      Eldridge is now working some traps along Blind Gut, beside a fancy piece of land owned by some sport from over in Richmond. He worked in Maude’s daddy’s very own boat, which had been pulled out of the water to sit on blocks after he died. He swore he’d never work the water, but when he got fired from the County Roads there was little choice.
      Maude still wonders about that, what had happened with the County Roads. She’d heard he’d stolen dynamite or something from off one of the trucks, a stick at a time—because that’s all that’s kept in one place—for near six months till the supervisor got suspicious and he got caught. They never found the dynamite and Eldridge told Maude it was all a bunch of lies, that she should mind her business and steer clear of gossip. But he lost the job nonetheless. And one night next summer, a huge explosion blew a new cut through Mason’s Atoll from the bay to Church Creek, a stretch of which had long been silted in. Some folks on Church Creek didn’t need to suffer rented slips down in Onancock any longer, a development for which they were—as far as anyone could tell—mighty pleased. It all happened close to Eldridge’s strip of Blind Gut.
 

She might as well do the drive down to the house from work in Princess Anne with her eyes closed. It’s a straight shot down Thirteen, only a few turns at the beginning and some more at the end. Six shifts a week for over seven years, not that anyone’s counting.
      She has brought some scraps home from the plant, like she does a lot of nights—few wings and a drumstick for him—and she’ll put them on to boil. There might be some frozen succotash still in the icebox.
      Eldridge will probably be drinking his third whiskey and watching something mindless on the television set—M.A.S.H., if she’s home by eight, and otherwise Press Your Luck. It’s cold out, so yes that’s where he’d be, instead of out in the shed or still on the water. One time she had broken the routine, coming home early because there’d been a problem with the sprinkler set at the plant. She’d driven home soaking wet, though not too upset because the lost hours would get comped, and Eldridge was home early too—watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news. Mr. Reagan was talking about the Commie threat, and a crowd was cheering, and Eldridge was clutching that old hat with the red star. The one he’d let her wear that first, cold night out on the river.
      But as the tall white square of their rented house comes into the circles of her headlamps, she sees him out in the yard. He’s got a whole pile of things in the back of his truck. He’s standing on the tailgate, bending in, and he straightens up like a board and looks back at her over his shoulder—paralyzed momentarily like a deer. And for a moment, too, she is paralyzed. Instead of pulling into the yard herself she sits in the road, thinking. He is still looking at her, wondering who it is, completely blind. Her foot is on the brake. She lets the car idle there.
      What had happened, since that winter night when he and his friends took her for a ride in their boat? When the Kennedys were alive and her life was so afloat? Who had she become? Had she simply become just the same as every other girl she’d known growing up? Was it so cut and dry? And maybe it was. But at the same time, she didn’t entirely know this Maude Drummond, found herself at moments like this one feeling like she might easily come detached from her own trembling body and float above it, mystified at the woman (this horrible, infertile stranger) she observed below.
      And then there was Eldridge. The Eldridge Drummond who had lifted her eighteen-year-old body off her daddy’s dock, he was thirty-six himself. He had been all the way around the world. He wore a Commie’s hat to prove it. He had lived in Norfolk after his discharge from the Navy, working as a stevedore and living the city life, before returning to Accomack County.
      They had turned around and shot back down to the river on the fast tide. They bounced around for more than three hours out there on the big water, sipping from the whiskey bottle with the music turned all the way up. Even though it was a mild winter night, she soon began to shiver. Goose blood pooled around their feet. Eldridge had given her his down hunting jacket and a smoke from the joint. Soon he was the one to shiver, smiling all the way through it with gritted teeth. But as she grew drunk he was bold enough to scoot up on the seat behind her. He wrapped his arms around her and put his big, rough hands inside her father’s orange rubber gloves on top of her own. He whispered in her ear.
      “It’s been a while what I hoped to meet you,” he said.
      His breath smelled sweet like the whiskey and the reefer, and it made her glow with a new kind of warmth that defied even that cold night. He told her, over the outboard, about a friend he had in California and another one in New Orleans. She confided in him her favorite of the poetry she’d been made to memorize at college, recited it in his ear:
                  Hope is the thing with feathers
                  That perches in the soul,
                  And sings the tune without the words,
                  And never stops at all…

      When she looked at him again, his face was red even in the moonlight, embarrassed maybe that he knew nothing about rhymes and things like that, and at least for a while, she completely forgot the oysters going to waste in her daddy’s shed.
      Four months later, at the first hint of a false spring, he took her up to Havre de Grace to be married. It was her first trip to the western shore. They arrived by one in the afternoon and were husband and wife by three. They visited the decoy museum and ate turkey and gravy in a diner to celebrate. They’d stayed up all night together, her first time with a man. They drove back at dawn, exhausted, to make work.
      Her parents would have already had an inkling they were losing her. She could have kept it a secret still—Eldridge couldn’t afford a ring—but only then did she tell her momma and daddy she was his.
 

When she finally pulls into the yard and gets out of her car, he doesn’t look at her right away. He’s fastening a line across the stuff in the back of the pickup. And then she recognizes the mattress and box spring, her own bedroom chest of drawers.
      “What’s this all about?” she asks.
      Finally he turns to her. “Stump,” he says. “Nigger head. Cracked the engine block on the Evinrude.”
      She cringes—No, no, no, she is thinking—but she is beginning to understand. “Oh dear,” she says. He spent their savings, all of the month’s rent, on the repairs. What could they do?
      “It is a tenant house on the Hespeth farm that’s free, over by Blind Gut,” Eldridge says. “Pick up some extra work and we got it at a better price—next to nothing. Already been arranged.”
      She’s met the sport who owns the farm along Blind Gut. An old fellow from Richmond who puts on some kind of airs. And Eldridge had mentioned a son, who she supposed was about her age, who’d sooner or later be taking over the place.
      She has seen the tenant house from the county road—their new home. No more than a shotgun shack, with a tin roof and a screened-in porch: a step down even from the rented box before her, now emptied of their furniture. She pictures herself picking and gutting their birds. She imagines what she will say when they complain that she’s overcooked them, undercooked them. Already, she feels humiliated. Once, some long time ago, she must have been presented with a choice. When had that been? It seems that she can hardly even remember. And after a moment, she heads for the front door, to see that Eldridge hasn’t forgotten anything.
 
 
David Finney is grateful that Oatmeal has always been there for him—pouched by the water cooler, under fluorescent light, ready for a scald.