The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Micah Putnam and the Leaky Boat

Another short tale from the Standish series.

Micah Putnam and the Leaky Boat
Some distance north and west of Standish proper, the marshy earth of Kentfield gives rise to the headwaters of the Salmon River.  Its origins are modest, with little ambition as it wends through the tiny village of Millington, where the unimpressive and aptly-named Low Brook arrives from the north.  Once it crosses the Standish border the waterway seems to realize it has work to do, and it swiftly widens and deepens, taking a sharp eastward turn around the jutting base of Baker’s Hill known as Massacre Point.  This of course is a reference to the three English settlers killed there centuries before by Passamaquoddy Indians, and not the thirty-two native souls slaughtered nearby during the militia reprisal hours later.
A few miles after the grassy picnic sites of Massacre Point, complete with handsome green historic marker, the Salmon River hits the thickly settled center of Standish at a run.  Fresh water churns under the stone-and-brick hundred-year-old New Bridge, then immediately topples over the dam, falling some six feet to mingle with the brinier portion of the river below.  From here the now saltwater river splits the downtown, with tall redbrick mill buildings on the eastern bank, and clusters of shops to the west, giving way to the scenic Dovetree Park that escorts the river to the Boston and Portland Railroad trestle on its way northeast.  Now stately and wide, the Salmon River sees a few more farmhouses on its unperturbed journey to the Bay, but is mostly kept company by reedy marshes and scores of riverbirds.
It was here, in the green estuary between Standish and Whartham, where Micah Putnam spent most of his time in a small wooden boat, binoculars in one hand and a pencil in the other, a drawing-pad balanced on his knee and a shotgun by his feet.    An observer, if there were one in the early grey hours when Micah lurked in the rushes, could be forgiven if they mistook him for one of the thin, willowy reeds that choked the low banks of the river.  Short and slight, Micah had a mild greenish tinge to his skin, which somehow retained a paleness despite hours spent out of doors, his face skyward, watching the wheeling and diving fowl of the river.  Most often he simply watched, delighting in the antics of black ducks and the cacophonic chorus of warblers and wrens.  Herons stalked past, and the kingfishers that gave rise to the mascot of Standish Academy’s athletic teams dove into the river surface, hunting for small fish, insects, or frogs.  Sometimes Micah would open his pad and sketch with an inexpert hand, noting differences in beak shapes or seasonal plumage. 
Not a few of the river birds fell to the pellets Micah fired, all in the name scientific inquiry.  The unfortunate fowl traveled home with Micah to his house on the west side of Standish, where in his makeshift basement laboratory he cut them open and explored their insides, studying skeletal structure, musculature, and varying organs.  Wifeless, childless, Micah Putnam corresponded with the biologists at the state university, sharing his field findings and seeking their approval.  This rarely if ever came, as Micah, a postal carrier in town, had no formal schooling beyond high school, and his knowledge of anatomical terms and scientific technique were self-taught and often quaintly amusing to the academics.  And yet Micah continued to visit the river, make his sketches, and shoot birds.  He did this for many years, as the sketchbooks piled up in his basement, and the stuffed specimens, and the kindly-worded letters from zoologists gently dismissing his painstakingly crude efforts.
It was a cold spring morning when Micah noticed water seeping through the planks in the bottom of his small boat.  At first, only a little water began to pool around his ankles, and Micah was unconcerned.  He was in the middle of the river, heading toward his favorite spot, but the near bank was not very far off, and Micah was a strong swimmer.  In any event, the leak did not seem serious, and he figured there was plenty of time to row to shore.  Turning one oar in its lock to adjust course, Micah saw a brief flash of blue and then felt a sharp pain in one knuckle.
“Ouch!” he cried, releasing the oar, which slid from its lock and splashed free on the surface of the river.  Blood welled from the back of Micah’s right hand, which he examined.  The skin was broken, but the pain had already subsided.  Had he been bitten by an overgrown horsefly?  Micah had spent enough time on the river to know there were some insects to reckon with, and he’d had his share of stings and bites, though never one quite so spectacular.  Of more immediate irritation was the oar, now floating some feet away from the boat, and drifting further away.  With his left hand, Micah worked the remaining oar, orienting the boat to retrieve its wayward partner.  Focused on the task at hand, he did not see what caused another stab of pain, now in his left hand.  He grabbed at the handle of the oar that now slid free to join the first, but it eluded his grasp.  The boat spun slowly in the current, moving clear of both oars as Micah thrust his left hand into his mouth, sucking on the deep gash there.
          That had been no bug, he thought.  And there, perched on the gunwale of his boat, just a few feet away, was an absurdly large kingfisher, a two feet tall from crest to tip of tail, squat and blue.  It cocked its head slightly to one side and studied Micah with dark, round eyes.    It then threw back its head and sent forth a cackling rattle that echoed across the misty morning water.
          “Shoo,” muttered Micah, but the bird did not shoo, merely continued to sit and stare.  “Shoo!” yelled Micah, louder and with the slightest tinge of fear.  Just then he felt cold and wet on his ankles, and looking down he saw that the water in the bottom of his boat had risen to above his low boots.  Eyes widening in disbelief, he saw too that the seams in the floor of the small craft had been chipped at, as though by dozens of tiny chisels.
          Or beaks, Micah thought, and the small fear in his throat grew larger.  Hands still bleeding, he reached for the shotgun, with the intention of shooting this massive fowl and getting to shore as soon as possible.  It was a sign of his burgeoning panic that he no longer thought of preserving this unusual specimen, only of destroying it.  The huge kingfisher sat there, exuding a patient malice, while Micah took careful aim with his firearm. 
          At that moment, before he could pull the trigger, Micah heard that same rattling call, and not from the bird on his gunwale.  Wings buffeted his head, and as he raised his arms to ward off the sudden assault, the gun slipped from his grasp and fell, with a loud and final splash, into the river.  The flapping wings abated, and looking up Micah saw a second kingfisher alight next to the first.  This one was of a size with the other, if anything a bit bigger.  Heart beating faster, Micah saw that the water in his boat was nearly to his knees, and the craft was riding very low in the river.  It was at this moment that he felt a sudden weight on his left shoulder, and then a sharp and searing pain on that side of his head.  Moments later, a third bird, triplet to the others, also settled on the gunwale, now mere inches above the surface of the water. 
          In its beak it bore a human ear.  It was only there for a moment before the creature swallowed it, and in that instant Micah touched the side of his own head and felt the spot where his ear should have been, except it was now warm and wet with fresh blood.  Micah screamed then, in pain and fear and not a little rage.  He stood in the boat, stumbling crazily toward the three birds, who cried that awful cackle, so like manic laughter, and did not move as Micah lost his balance and fell.  He struck his head on one empty oarlock, and landed heavily in the bottom of the swamped boat.  Thrashing onto his back, Micah could see the birds had moved, and were now very near his face, calling and beating their huge blue wings. 
          Swim, he thought, but as he tried to kick free of the sinking boat the third and largest of the kingfishers took flight, and maneuvering behind Micah, pecked the back of his neck.  Trying to change directions, Micah was daunted by the other birds, who took up positions that hemmed him in and prevented his escape.  One darted in then, the first, he thought, and in a blinding flash of agony, his right eyes disappeared.  Opening his mouth to scream, Micah swallowed a hearty mouthful of the dark water.  One of the birds was perched on his head now, and drove its long, sharp beak into his scalp once, twice, three times, each strike a flaming lance of pain.
          Before his other eye was taken, the last thing Micah saw was a dark cloud emanating from the reedy shore, not more than fifty feet distant.  It hovered low over the river, flapping, crying, and it was comprised of many colors.  Birds, thought Micah, as they ate him.       

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