Excerpt from the novel:
THE BLUEBIRD HOUSE
By Rae Ellen Lee
Two weeks after my accident, I am released. Even with good insurance, the hospital has its limits. A steady stream of patients had arrived with various illnesses, not one of them as bizarre as my reason for being hospitalized.
Alone now in our cavernous house with my pets, I move slowly and only when I must. My body’s bruised condition and the stiffness in my joints regulate my movements. I rest. I read. I watch Days of Our Lives. At other times I stare out the picture window in the living room over the Prickly Pear Valley. I sit silently, watching the afternoon light change on the Big Belt Mountains. When the moon rises you cannot see it move unless you look away and then look back again. That’s the way the light changes on the mountains, except, when the cloud shadows gallop soundlessly across the rock on their ghost legs. When the cloud shadows race along the face of the steep mountains I always think of immense dark leaves let loose, fleeing ahead of a storm—until they reach an unseen line of fences and the outer limits of their freedom.
I study the horizon to the north, with its odd, shallow dip like an antique wash basin. The Missouri River once passed through that basin, until the mountains lifted and the river took an elbow turn to the east toward the Great Plains. When the uplift occurred, I suppose that, too, was nearly imperceptible.
I’ve read there are no accidents in life, that things happen for a reason. My accident must mean something, and that is what I ponder while I rest and stare out the window. Maybe I’m being reminded that I have never been the dominant creature, not once, not in any situation. A heavy, oddly-centered anger sometimes seethes and roils in my chest underneath the faded purple hoof print, and it isn’t anger at the animal. Instead I’ve been thinking about love, about how I don’t really love Bradley, and how by staying with him all these years I haven’t loved myself. Like some slow geologic event, I had barely noticed it happening.
I can recall no joy in our marriage that was unbearably good, the way I’ve heard other women, like Myra, talk about their relationships. Years ago I read Total Woman. Other women were reading it, too, but we never talked about what the book did or didn’t do for us. I even wore Wind Song perfume for a while, but nothing I tried seemed to make me more of a woman, or Bradley more of a man, or our marriage any more like the song of the wind.
We’ve been married twenty-six years. I remember the night I met him at a dance at the University of Montana, where he was taking business management and I was studying biology. I loved to dance. He knew the steps and danced smoothly, confidently. But we only danced one other time after that—at our wedding reception. Mom and Dwight were pleased that I’d done so well at college, landing a man with a secure future in business. Boy, was I surprised that first year of marriage, and bewildered, too, at how little there actually was to being married. But then my two beautiful boys came along and kept me busy. When they went off to grade school I got a job as a biological technician at the state water quality lab and found that my college studies were good for something besides landing a husband.
When Bradley’s in town and at home in the evenings, he reads war stories, works on the computer, talks on the phone or plays golf with his associates. I’ve heard his subtle reprimands about my cooking and housekeeping so often I no longer listen. He says, “Molly, if you’d get rid of the dog and cat the house wouldn’t need to be cleaned so often.” But the house is never what I’d call dirty, even though I no longer spend all my free time cleaning. I do love my pets. He’s probably jealous. I find it curious how pets can take the place of one’s significant other, especially when he proves to be other than significant.
Years ago I began to notice that after Bradley was home a few days from his business trips I’d develop flu-like symptoms. When he’d leave again I’d recover. In case my symptoms meant something besides an allergy to Bradley, I went to my doctor. After several tests he found nothing wrong with me physically. Then he asked if I’d ever considered counseling. Later that week I arranged free sessions with a counselor through the employee assistance program at work. It didn’t take the counselor long to tell me, rather bluntly, “You’re a caretaker and it’s making you sick.” She didn’t say I should leave my husband, but I figured that’s what she meant. The weird part was, I couldn’t do it. Bradley needed me. He still needs me.
But how important will the words loyalty and faithfulness be when I’m in a rest home someday? I don’t think they’ll matter much. What I’ll want when I’m old is a deep well of memories to drink from. Yet who am I without Bradley?
And then, without bidding, I relive the details of my afternoon in the woods, and once again I hear the sound of my bones snapping like twigs under the weight of the wild animal. He was the dominant creature, in control and forceful. I was his prey. After he charged, after time had stopped, I was left behind, abandoned to my silence and pain. My helplessness swims over me, pulling me under.
What can it hurt if I rob the food chain of a few stems and shoots? Pushing my way through willows and alders, I take care to step over the occasional mound of frozen moose droppings. Chickadees flit from branch to branch, chittering like Gregorian crickets, as my boots chuff along the frosty ground. Chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Occasionally I hear a bird’s faraway clear whistle—fee-bee. It’s a perfect Montana spring day—just right for hunting and gathering—and I’m determined to take a little wilderness home with me to our modern, oversized house in Helena, the house that Bradley built.
A clump of red-osier dogwood bushes stops me. A long wine-colored branch, straight and round as a fishing pole, will give me two or three pieces for the face of my window shutters. The frames are built. Now is the best time to gather the stems, before the bushes sprout leaves. At midday, the air is chilly in the shade of the firs and pines where the dogwood branches grow long and straight. The pruning shears snap cleanly through a stem, and I add it to the growing bundle on the ground near my feet, pleased that soon I’ll be able to replace one boring set of beige, pleated drapes with a bit of color from the wild. Cascading all around me is the chatter of birds, like the sound of a stream filled with miniature waterfalls. At home, when I look at my finished shutters, I’ll think of today and of chickadees.
I wipe my wet, cold nose on a sleeve then reach up for a perfect branch. Suddenly the woods fall silent. A slight breeze stirs the tips of fir branches, otherwise no bird sounds, no movement. Nothing. Curious about this strange hush, I turn my head.
At first only a puff of breath, behind me and off to my right. Then a small cloud, like steam from a radiator and a loud snort, an announcement. I hold my breath, my heartbeat. When I turn my head further, I see a looming dark form, too close and slightly out of focus. Where did he come from? Another grunt, this one louder, angrier. A hoof strikes frozen snow. I must keep calm. I’ve seen bigger. I will put something between myself and the beast. The bush in front of me doesn’t offer much of a barrier, but moose don’t see well. If I move slowly, he might not notice me. I step sideways with the right foot, and gradually bring the left foot along. I do this again, and then sink down, moving under the branches, around to the other side. Maybe the moose will get confused and think he’s seeing things. I take another slow step. I’m almost there. The bush is now between me and the moose.
I don’t know if I hear a pause before the moose lunges, or how I know he’s coming at me through the bushes. Dropping to my knees with a lurch, my glasses fly off my face and catch in a low, red stem—a stem just right for twig shutters. Now crouching to shelter my internal organs, I clasp my hands over the back of my neck to protect my spinal cord. Or is this what you’re supposed to do when you meet a grizzly? Oh, God. Please help me.
It happens so quickly, so inevitably—the furious snorting, the pawing, the crashing of brush over my head and the one step, heavy as a logging truck, onto my back, crushing me into the ground. I hear bones break with a dull, muffled snap, and my ears are filled with the thundering vibration of hooves pounding frozen ground. In the seconds before I pass out, I smell the musty, acrid exhaust of the large, unwashed animal.
When I come to, the pain in my back bites like the jagged, rusty teeth of an old crosscut saw. I must cough, but when I do the pain surges. The ground spins me around. Bushes blur. I wipe my mouth and see blood on a sleeve, a sleeve on an arm that I am barely able to move.
My car is somewhere out near the gravel road. But which way is it to the road? I pass out again. The cold wakes me up. The road. I must reach the road. I can hear Bradley, if I live to hear him again, saying, “What in the world were you doing out in the woods alone?”
As I drag myself onto all fours, a few broken branches fall away from me while others cling to my clothing like claws, or fish hooks. The relentless pain in my back and chest sears like hot coals, and I am dizzy again. Not far away, the creek trickles past between ice-bound banks. If I listen carefully maybe I can hear the direction the creek is moving. The loudest trickles should come from downstream, not upstream, and the creek flows downstream toward the road. But the slope of the ground appears level, except for patches of snow, broken branches, and the mounds of frozen moose shit I now see everywhere.
Groaning, I drag my pain, as if it is contained in a basket, forward on arms so weak they feel as if they belong to a stranger in a dream. Pieces of branches, now like broken wings, dangle from my jacket. Other branches hide the creek from me, but I believe I’m crawling toward the road. Every time I move the pain strikes, hot and forked as a lightning bolt. My legs trail along behind me. Moving ahead is too painful. Oh God, please don’t let me die out here. Cold and numb, I inch my way forward, my hands freezing.
Wait . . . a sound . . . a car on the road. Without my glasses, I reach toward the invisible noise, toward a blur of brush. Moving forward again, slow as a glacier, I realize it will take hours, days, for me to reach the road. I will die from my wounds. I’ll freeze to death tonight a short distance from help. Using my elbows I crawl toward a slant of afternoon sunlight in a clearing. Finally, finally, I flop a leaden arm over a bank of snow. But is it the edge of the road?
“Wake up, wake up,” a man yells. “Jesus, what happened to you?”
I open my eyes to a gray wool hat and a face so near that I can see individual wiry hairs in his brushy, walrus mustache. I close my eyes and groan. My teeth rattle against each other. “Moose . . . help.”
“Hold on. I never found a half-dead person before. Gotta get you into the truck.”
With more gratitude than I have ever known, I give in again and let the darkness reclaim me.
Curled in the fetal position on the seat of an old pickup truck, I am wrapped in a dirty blue blanket smelling of stale beer. The pain, like knives, stabs at me, over and over and over. My head rests against the man’s thigh that smells of oil and sawdust. My feet bump against the door handle. During the few moments I am conscious, the truck rattles and shakes and hammers the bumpy, icy road. I doze and, moaning, wake up to the engine roaring in my ears. Soon, white snowy silence. Then I hear a growling rumble as the man shifts down, and the jarring clatter of loose tools and beer cans on the floor. Am I worse off now than when I lay in the woods? But I don’t care. All I want is to stay alive, to sit on a mountaintop one more time with the sun on my face, to hear birds singing. Drifting off again, I dream that Bradley cannot find me, that this strange mountain man takes me to a deserted old building in a long-ago place in another century, and hides me there.
End of Excerpt
I hope you enjoyed this sample of THE BLUEBIRD HOUSE.
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