He would put in just south of Jacque Rosier Baygall, where she’d put in, and paddle downstream one-and-a-quarter creek miles to the sandbar, white as baking soda, Ruth Ann had said, and nudge the canoe up onto it and secure it near a patch of cattails, and eventually walk over soft beach sand up into the Thickets. He took what was needed for a day or two, depending—a compass and binoculars, an expensive Japanese camera, water in an old army canteen, food and cooking supplies, a machete (hacking blade, people around there called it), and the CD player. Unlike others, he never came to shoot. He came to look. Commune. To satisfy an injustice that ate at his good sense.
“Daddy, leave it where it is….” Ruth Ann had admonished him up to the time he lost her a year and some months ago. She was thirty-two, healthy as a spring day, and had gone into a hospital in Houston to have a small knot removed from low on her back. Weldon had run his finger over it, the size of an acorn. Being close to some nerves, the spine, the doctor was afraid of an abscess and wanted to get it out. During the procedure or sometime later, an infection—a fungus, they said—found its way into her blood, a tiny thing, but heartless. Home after one night in the hospital, she got a little headachy and blurry-eyed and stayed in bed. The next day Weldon came in from helping a neighbor rewire a barn, and while he was washing up, the phone rang. It was her friend, girlfriend, partner, the woman she lived with, Harriett, and she said a fever had set in, he’d better come to Houston, they were putting her in intensive care.
Now, in the dark of an October morning, he came up out of the creek bed through high cane and thorny bay shrubs into a small clearing. Trained a light at his feet to protect his steps and soon reached the spring, which was no more than a seep made evident by sodden leaves that trailed off through the undergrowth. Just beyond was the blind he’d constructed of cane, held sturdy with twine and ty-vines and situated to provide a near unobstructed view of two blighted trees, basket oaks is what he had decided they might have been. Lamping the blind’s interior, he eased inside and planted his butt on cushions that had once decorated the living room sofa. He arranged the binoculars and camera and all, and laid the machete within reach, a kind of ritual by now.
The upper limb of the nearest tree, a hundred feet distance, is where Ruth Ann had seen them. She and her cousin Inez and two old friends had spent the morning floating down Village Creek looking for mayhaws. It’s something they did nearly every spring, put up mayhaw jelly from a recipe their grandmother had taught them. The trees grew along the bank here and there, branches heavy with fruit reaching out over the water. You’d float up under a tree, reach with a cane pole and shake a branch, so the ripe ones rained down into the boat and the creek, glowing reddish and yellow, the size of a baby’s fist.
They had filled their buckets and pulled up to the sandbar, and after a while Ruth Ann walked up into the woods and, wandering around, got herself lost for a while. And during that time she heard a cry in the air—kent, kent, kent is how she mimicked it, and then a hammering, knock, knock, and the knocking once again—and her feet followed her ears to two old dead trees and perched on a limb, the two birds.
The adult knew she was there the moment she saw it, ceased hammering and, taking wing, swept down under the canopy and away, the youngster chasing after it. They were ivory-bills, Ruth Ann said, she knew it instantly. The size of the big one, the long beak and red crest, black markings and wingspan. The sun splattered on them. She had grown up with wildlife and knew the pileated woodpecker—mistaken for the ivory-billed—and other birds, as well as reptiles and plants and species of blooms and reeds and vines. They were ivory-bills. No matter if she was astonished and her blood racing and eyes suddenly watering from the sight them. She thought it then and thought it later.
But never told her cousin or the other women. She couldn’t let go of it so easily or deal with their inevitable questions, examination, speculations, or the stories they would spread. And she didn’t tell Weldon either, not for nearly a week. She and Harriett called him to come to Houston and spend the day on a Sunday. After lunch, pouring coffee, Ruth Ann turned the TV down, a Houston Rockets basketball game, and, while the pictures played, told him about it. Harriett, tall, dark cropped hair, and some years older than his daughter, had come to sit close to her, which was unusual. They had never shown affection in front of him.
Ruth Ann related it moment by moment—the keen, sharp voice, the carpenter at work, the clarity of the day. Weldon hesitated, not sure how to react to this intensity in her eyes. It wasn’t, for certain, something that allowed for equivocation.
“I knew it was something,” Harriett said. “When I got home that day she was waiting for me with her face lit up.”
“You believe me, Daddy?”
“Believe you. You bet. You saw what you saw.”
“You saw an ivory-billed. Two of them up near Village Creek.”
Ruth Ann tilted her head, smiling, angelic in her solemnity. She’d told no one else, she said, adding that everybody who would ever believe her was sitting right in that room.
A week later they took Weldon’s canoe and went up there, he and Ruth Ann and Harriett. The two of them outfitted in khakis tucked into identical rubber boots and hats with brims you could snap up on the sides. Ruth Ann the prettier of the two, handsome might be a truer description, her face, as she grew older, cast more and more like his, a straight, sharp nose, broad cheekbones, the chestnut hair he’d once had more of, a sun-darkened complexion.
She had boyfriends in high school and her senior year a special one, Randy Kittwell, the Kittwell family well-to-do, oil and gas still being produced on their property. Weldon teased her once. They were working in the garden, they’d always had a garden. “Actually all he wants is to get in my jeans,” she said, not afraid to shock him, which was the sort of relationship they had.
“I’ll talk to him,” Weldon snapped.
“You don’t need to. I did already. Besides, I don’t want you scaring the daylights out of him, okay.”
His wife, her mother, had left when Ruth Ann was three, for a man she met at a get- together at a friend’s house in Sour Springs. He was from Albuquerque, an optometrist who came to visit relatives in the area. Apparently he started making the trip pretty often, and Weldon learned later on that Margery had been sneaking around, seeing him for over a year.
I hope we won’t need a lawyer, she had said, that we can work out something about Ruth Ann. Weldon told her there wasn’t anything to be worked out. That his daughter wasn’t going anywhere, and for sure, not a thousand miles away to live with a man who sold eyeglasses in the desert.
Later on, he slipped away from the house and went to the motel where the man was staying, Holcomb was his last name. He shoved the door open and the man was coming out of the bathroom in his underwear. Bigger than Weldon had expected. A broad chest and thick black hair, which was wet and combed back over his head. Weldon raised the shotgun, a heavy 12-gauge double barrel, a canon of a gun, that had once belonged to his father, and told the man to ease down on the carpet right there where he was, he wanted him to know what the terms were. The big motel bed was unmade, in shambles, which got to him once he’d left and was back on the highway driving for his mother’s house where Ruth Ann was visiting. That and the fact that he hadn’t a shell in either barrel, nor in his pockets or in the truck either—he wasn’t dumb enough to chance that—sent a shiver through him.
He rolled the window down, laughing at himself, a fit of relief, and at the sight of the big man sitting flat on his rump contemplating his own death. It was a moment in his life that over and over again brought great pleasure. He’d thought that one day, years on, he’d tell Ruth Ann the story, imagining she’d get a kick out of it.
Ruth Ann found the twin dead trees soon enough, and they sat in shadows for an hour or more, contemplating the possibility, the miracle of the birds reappearing. Deciding on a reconnaissance, they hiked up stream and into a forest of cypress and patches of palmetto and hardwoods and little spadderdock ponds. Walking narrow hummock trails, they finally ran into pure swamp, acid green water that spread out under big trees, moss and vines as far as you could see—the edge of the baygall, Weldon explained to Harriett.
They had run up deer, a pair of loping razorbacks, yellow-breasted chats. Not once a snake or woodpecker, but on occasion what they were looking for—standing dead trees with rotting bark, and at each one they’d slip back into a pocket of vegetation and stay awhile, breathing softly, respecting the silence.
“Enough bugs and spiders in that one to feed a dozen ivory-bills,” Weldon offered at one point. He believed it was true, or almost believed it, and never let on otherwise.
It was a long day, a good day. Exhausting. And Weldon got a sense of Harriett that he hadn’t had before…an athletic build, slightly bowlegged, unhesitant to wade a slough, excited as Ruth Ann over the venture. He wasn’t sure when she’d appeared in Ruth Ann’s life. In college in San Antonio Ruth Ann had studied biology and then anthropology and then stayed on another year for graduate school where she’d worked for a professor. The next thing he knew she said she wanted to go to New Orleans and study in a school to be a chef. It stunned him, he had no idea she had that sort of interest, trying to imagine her in one of those white coats and funny hats. A plain cook is what he thought, but there was no thought of trying to talk her out of it. A year later she was working in a restaurant in Houston, a fancy place, which was good because she’d make the two-hour drive up to Sour Springs pretty often, and at a crazy moment—she was trying out a recipe for sea bass, a Cajun style thing, and he was chopping vegetables—she told him she’d been wanting him to know something for a long time, for years she said, solemnly.
She confronted him, a spatula in one hand. “I’m not attracted to men, not sexually,” she said.
He didn’t quite get it.
“I’m not ever going to get married and give you grandkids.” Her eyes were glistening now.
“Daddy, I’m trying to tell you I am gay…from the top of my head to the tip of my toes.” And she used the word lesbian, so there’d be no mistaking.
At first, of course, he didn’t believe it, and second, it scared the hell out of him, a man of the country and a small southeast Texas town where such a thing was either a subject of disgust or disgusting jokes.
Later on, looking back on it, he blamed himself. He’d used a shotgun to shove her mother out of her life and then raised her more like a boy than a girl. His own mother had commented on that. She’d take Ruth Ann to buy feminine things and they’d hang in her closet. She wore pretty much what he wore, jeans, trousers even when they went to church, which wasn’t that often once she got past twelve or thirteen. They worked on the truck together, set trotlines, killed squirrels and skinned them. A small yellow cur dog with a bell on her collar, Miss Bojangles¸ Ruth Ann named her because of the song, followed her everywhere. They bought a little tractor and she made extra money plowing gardens for people. A tomboy, people commented, no more than that.
He had married once, when Ruth Ann was in grade school, to a younger women in the accounting department where he worked, the Southeast Texas and Sabine Power Company. It didn’t take, not because of Ruth Ann but him. Hallie was a thin woman with wispy blond hair, pale and a pleasing face, a thin voice. Very close to her mother who was at the house more than Weldon liked. She didn’t fit into their life as he’d imagined, but was more like a visitor. He’d look up and be surprised to see her coming through the kitchen door or from the bathroom. The last six months were pretty miserable. At work it was a mess.
After Harriett appeared, it came to him one day in a blur of understanding that he didn’t mind her at all. This pleasant, self-assured woman in Ruth Ann’s life meant that he wouldn’t have to give her up to another man. Nobody was going to replace him. No man work his will on her, take her off to Albuquerque or some other far off place. It was conscious on his part, the way the revelation became clear. He’d have her always, a great consolation.
They left the Thickets in the early evening and made it to the Beryl’s Cafe in Sour Springs just before closing time. He sat across from them under two stuffed red-tailed hawks in a booth he’d sat in a thousand times before. Ordered beers all round.
Picking at her food, Ruth Ann said, “I’ve been thinking…”
“Ah oh,” Harriett broke in. “We’re in trouble.”
“No, no really. I’ve decided I can’t just ignore it, can I. There are people that need to know those birds are out there. Somebody with authority who’ll see they’re protected. I can imagine some kid with a new shotgun going in there and shooting the first pretty thing that comes along.”
“Inez is going to wonder why you didn’t tell her,” Weldon commented. “Her and the others.”
But that was hardly the nub of the issue. It had been a lot of years since anyone for sure had encountered an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Thicket of southeast Texas, or anywhere else. Proof being two rough photos taken by a man with an old box camera, copies of which hung in the town’s library situated upstairs in Mrs. Grace Brailey’s Victorian home. In the first picture, a bird, wings spread, was flying up to the hollow of a tree. In the second, that same bird was sitting there with its head cocked like it was showing off its beak. Scarred black and white images. The tree looked bleached out. Experts agreed it was real.
Over the years there were other sightings, claims, and in the early 1990’s a bunch of them, though none proven out to everybody’s satisfaction, not anybody who mattered. The last one was a university professor who’d come from Florida a couple of years ago. He came into the wilderness north of Sour Springs, where the Thicket met the Angelina forest, based on some blurry video a man had taken from a rocking boat. In an article published all over, the professor swore that he’d seen an ivory-billed woodpecker fly a circle around a black water slough and then disappear. It caused a stir and was on the TV news. A number of scientists spent two months tromping around investigating, bird people from all across the country followed them. Finally, the video was deemed questionable. And in time the professor a fool or a liar.
Ruth Ann and Harriett drove back to Houston that night and Weldon assumed it was settled. The next afternoon she called him at work, and the first thing from her mouth was, “I’ve changed my mind again.”
“That’s fair,” he said.
“For some reason I was the one who saw them,” she went on. “I know you won’t buy this, but maybe they let me see them, I’d like to think that. Maybe it was happenstance. In either case I feel a connection that would be hard to explain to anybody else, other than to you, and to Harriett. And I don’t want it cheapened. It’s a good chance that’s what would happen, isn’t it. No matter if I am believed, which I won’t be. Experts will come around trying to cash in. And you know those are shy birds, and crafty. They have learned tricks to survive. When they want to they’ll come out and show themselves. That’s what I’ve decided. If I was one of them I’d keep hiding right where I’m at.”
They started going up there, two or three times a month. Sometimes with Harriett, sometimes just the two of them. Not in a calculated way but wandering and enjoying the momentary trance that accompanied the sound of a woodpecker at work or the sight of a large bird with white or black plumage wheeling in the distance. As comfort, Weldon speculated that the birds, for there had to be more of them, had made a home deep in the baygall protected by the swamps and bogs and jungle undergrowth—and the old tales of men and animals disappeared, all of which kept most everybody from going in there anymore. In a while he ordered the binoculars and then the professional camera. Finally, Ruth Ann told him she’d about exhausted herself. It was too nerve-wracking and getting to be an obligation, a chore.
“You go if you want to, but if they want to see me any time soon, they’ll have to come and find me.”
Ruth Ann died.
There was a memorial service in the garden of someone’s home in Houston, a restaurant owner’s home that was stone and glass and polished wood. A large number of handsome strangers dressed in expensive clothes, Harriett’s friends, Ruth Ann’s friends that Weldon did not know existed. Harriett hovered around him, self-assured men and women shook his hand, talked about how talented his daughter was. But still he was out of place, standing with a glass of bourbon and finally drawn to Inez and the few other relatives who had put on their Sunday clothes and attended.
And yet Weldon was glad, even moved, to see this side of her and wished he’d paid more attention to it. The fact is, he was a little afraid to venture into the unknown. Her mother didn’t show up. Weldon hadn’t seen her in person in many years, only photos that Ruth Ann brought back from the times she had visited her mother’s estranged family in Albuquerque and later on Arizona.
It took a while, but finally his heart found its natural rhythm again. For one thing, he took a new interest in his work. Twenty years he’d spent planting and climbing electrical poles and then ten supervising crews, and then all at once he had been kicked upstairs, as they said, to work behind a desk managing a section of the power grid. He was 57, a little heavy through the haunches, chipped front tooth, lines of a laborer drawn on his face, but in good shape and good health. He and Harriett stayed in contact, emails, which he had begun to use in his work now, but he wasn’t at all anxious to see her. He couldn’t imagine her without Ruth Ann, and Harriett may have felt the same way.
He and Tom Preston, a man he’d worked with for years, began to have a night out from time to time. Tom Preston was known for his prodigious beer consumption and agreeable company. A man who could remember jokes and tell them well. Five minutes after settling in at a bar he’d know the first names of everybody within range, and retell his old stories without restraint.
They were at a tavern just across the county line one evening when two men down the bar got into an argument. Weldon could see their contorted faces reflected in the glass behind rows of bottles. The subject involved one of the man’s daughters, a horse sold to her for barrel racing, an infected hoof. The one in a Houston Astros cap had a loud voice, as if he was trying to rouse everybody in the bar, and then the bearded one, short and stocky, came up on his feet and threw a fist. Tom, as was his nature, got between them, and Weldon, feeling obliged, got up to help, and the bartender came around with a blackjack and slapped the one in the cap a blow that sent him to his knees. In the struggle Weldon caught an elbow. He saw sparks. Somebody pulled the plug on the jukebox and hollered for everybody to stay put, and that’s all there was to it.
When they left, blood was trickling down into Weldon’s right eye. It wasn’t much, a neat little gash, but Tom drove fast up to Woodville and a nurse in the clinic there insisted on sewing him up.
In the car on the way home they opened a quart of Maker’s Mark, something to help soothe the pain, and in a while Weldon found himself talking.
“What would you say if I told you I’d seen an ivory-billed woodpecker, a mother and a youngster in the Thicket?”
Tom laughed. “What would I say?”
“In the Thickets up Village Creek.”
“I’d say somebody rang your bell or else you were hallucinating.”
Weldon didn’t pursue it. But he was back to thinking about Ruth Ann every other waking minute. The hours, days, months of their life together seemed compressed into a single moment, events and image not clearly demarcated, so he hadn’t a clear chronology, couldn’t separate the wide-eyed nine-year-old from the nineteen-year-old woman from her dressed in a chef’s outfit. Swish and the years had gone. And in the midst of this, just before the anniversary of Ruth Ann’s death, he received an email from Harriett, who had moved to San Diego, a few paragraphs. Not sappy or sentimental—Harriett was a clever writer—but clear-eyed and comforting. He should keep his eyes open for a package, she added to the note, something she’d held onto that really should be his.
It came registered and special delivery, covered in lovely stamps and wrapped in blue paper. Beneath the wrapping, a sturdy box and inside the box an old diary with a pale yellow cardboard cover and, inside, cornflowers scrolled around the border of the pages. He went out to the front porch and sat against a post, and when he cracked it open found petals and the tops of seedy weeds pressed inside. She’d kept it for a few months only, the spring of her senior year in high school, 1983. Short entries about school, friends, descriptions of walks down into the woods and simple illustrations of plants and animals she’d seen that spring. A water lily and pink grass orchid, a pitcher plant and floating bladderwort—she was fascinated by those carnivorous plants—the countenance of a coon with its bandit mask. He skipped through the pages, looking for anything about himself, and the few times he did appear she called him “my father,” not Daddy.
All the while he was a little hesitant, shamed to be so greedily poking into her privacy, as if it were a violation like catching glimpses of her naked when she got older. When was it that her body had become prohibitive, maybe eight or nine, and he was suddenly careful not to walk into the bathroom without knocking. That was about the time that he and Hallie married, and he wondered now if his discomfort with Ruth Ann hadn’t played a role in that, that is, feelings that a chaperone was needed in the house. At some point, maybe she was ten, he added a bath along with a large closet to her bedroom.
The entries stopped in mid-June, half the diary left blank until he flipped to the end and found another hand, her adult, assured hand recorded in black ink rather than blue, the letters squeezed together making each word seem like a separate picture. There were several entries back there, undated, and an illustration, the profile of a bird with an overlarge beak, her attempt at an ivory-billed woodpecker. She described the sighting, her hesitation and change of mind, and the trips they had made together, she, Harriett, himself, into the Thicket. A sentence culminating the very first entry struck him: …It seems, when I think about it, pure as a Psalm…
Finally, it was her words and also, in a strange way, the mornings when he’d gotten up to inspect the black eye left to him by the elbow that drove him back up there.
He settled on the cushion in the blind. In time, the two bare trees turned from deep violet to brown to gray, limbs spread as if waiting for the birds to come and roost. He stayed until his bones cramped and then put the binoculars away and crawled out and loaded up and headed out through the thickets for the trek to the next blind, which sat on a long dry stretch above swampland that led into the baygall.
At the tip of the peninsula was one dead tree standing like a stone column among fallen ones. He loaded the CD player, hid it in wild holly near the base of the tree. By the time he’d settled in, it was playing…knock, knock…kent, kent, kent…and then repeating every ten seconds or so, the volume raised just enough to carry through the trees and over the swamp water.
In a book in the little Sour Springs library he had discovered that a recording of the ivory-bill’s call had been made back years ago, and there were restored copies at a research center at Cornell University. Janie Stamps, who looked after the books, talked them into sending the library a CD. When playing it for the first time on the kitchen table, the sound coming forth could have been coming from Ruth Ann’s lips, the way she performed it. It choked him, tore at his chest and helped to crush shameful doubts that he’d harbored and, of course, never even hinted at to her.
Early afternoon he packed up once again and hiked to a flat bottom boat he’d buried under brush on the banks of a slough that wound its way on into the baygall. An hour he spent fighting low branches and vines, paddling some, dragging the boat through mud and muck some, careful to avoid bald sandy patches that might have been quicksand. The water turned darker and tannic-smelling and the solitude and shadows more pronounced. The third blind consisted of a one-man pup tent so well camouflaged you’d likely step on it before knowing it was there. In the distance a few dead trees in the act of falling grew at angles out of the water, and beyond them there were cypress knees and bush and a wall of dense forest.
It was a good spot, most likely never inhabited by anything other than long ago trappers and the ghosts of Indians and hermits and Spanish soldiers. There were floating lilies and piles of wood chips and gnawed saplings left by beavers. He built a small fire for coffee and fried strips of bacon. Once it was crisp and curled, he scooped in a can of rice and red beans. He sprayed for mosquitoes, ate watching the treetops and then drank lukewarm coffee sweetened with bourbon from a half-pint bottle. He read two articles in a magazine, and then, as daylight retreated, set the CD player and crawled inside the hovel and lay on his belly adjusting the binoculars. Herons swept in, a pair of otters scurried down to the bank and slipped out of sight, leaving hardly a ripple. There were bird calls mixed with the recorded calls and knock…knocks…of the ivory-billed. Ordinary woodpeckers hammered a rapping noise, rushing and sometimes prolonged, nothing so frank and authoritative as was on the recording, which had the effect of stripping everything else from his mind. It was no longer an ivory-billed, but the magnificent bird in Ruth Ann’s imagination innocently linked to a thousand pictures of her in his own mind.
He had set the player to continue for half an hour. By the time it gave out, night had woven itself through the Thicket. Beyond fissures in distant branches, stars appeared. His plan was to wake early and move to the edge of the water and adjust the player in the beam of his light and put the seemingly magical disk in motion again, knowing he was in the place he wanted to be, where he would be returning for a long time to come.