Michelle Dove Excerpt, Spring 2010
Excerpt from "Instincts"
The old man called out, "Land, ho!" and walked side to side across the hill, weaving in skiing cadence as he kicked small planks of wood down to the clearing. Under his arm he clutched a handsaw and in his right hand he balanced a hammer and metal toolbox. For a few minutes he corralled the pieces of wood as if playing a game with his feet. "All right," he said finally to Jacob, "I recommend measuring the bottom and top pieces first to make certain there's enough wood to go around. But don't forget about the A-frame up top––you got to angle it much like a birdhouse."
Offering Jacob the handsaw, the old man pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket and began diagramming the instructions. It was then that Noe noticed his left hand––misshapen and knotted-up with three fingers that weren't fingers at all, only nubs. "See, like this, angle it up like a tent."
Noe didn't mean to shout, but the dogs were still barking. "Jacob, what're you doing? What's he talking about?"
The old man shifted the wood with his worn logger boots, piling the planks between him and Jacob. From where Noe sat, she could make out Jacob's eyes, skimming over the planks and ground, before settling just low enough on the old man's plaid shirt to avoid his eyes. "What are you saying?" Jacob asked. "You want me to build you a birdhouse?"
The old man let out a guttural laugh and slapped his knee like he'd never heard anything funnier. "A birdhouse? Hear that, Vy? He thinks we want a new birdhouse."
"Tell that boy that because of them pups, we haven't seen any birds in this backyard since Christmas." The old woman chuckled and leaned into the lawn chair and closed her eyes, revealing a faint blue eye-shadow that barricaded her lids from the sun. She raised the lemonade to her lips and kept the cup there, letting the sour smack her nose, never taking a sip.
The old man handed Jacob the toolbox and gripped his shoulder. "No, boy, look here. You're going to make up for what you did. You're going to build us a new mailbox."
Jacob stared at the wood planks like he'd been given a pile of colored pick-up-sticks to assemble into a mansion. He shook his head. "Oh, no––no, there must be some mistake. See, we've traveled a ways from Vancouver for this festival, a career-maker at that, and just being here has put us behind. I mean, I'm sorry for denting your mailbox, but we've got to get my truck out––"
The old man's eyes narrowed as Jacob spoke, yet his erect frame remained composed and stiff. He didn't let Jacob finish––interrupted with a two-finger whistle, the kind Noe expected to hear all over mountains like these. The barking stopped. Noe looked towards the sky, imagining that the tail-end of a wind leftover from the thunderstorm had swooped down and carried the barks away. But the heavy and humid air had stalled, and old man was standing in the thick of it like he controlled the weather, too.
"Now, there's no problem, is there?" The old man let out another coarse laugh. "The sooner you start building, the sooner you'll get to where you need to be. I'll get you to the station sure as this sun shines, but I can't fix my box. I need your hands for the fixing."
Jacob finally looked at Noe. The shaking in her leg was more uncontrollable now than when the dogs were barking. Noe gripped her lemonade tight, but it splashed around in her hand like a storm was brewing its contents alive. "Jacob, let's get out of here." Her voice was low, but there weren't any sounds in the woods to pad its vibration.
"Now, now . . ." With her free hand, the old woman patted Noe's shaking leg. "Now just do as the man says and you'll both be on your way soon enough. The thing is, he would fix that mailbox himself, but see, he's not so good with a saw anymore. The damned thing just slips out his grasp––what's left of it, anyways. Such a silly thing, really."
Now, Jacob wouldn't take his eyes off Noe. The chair shook freely beneath her, as if the vibrations were keeping time with her rapid heartbeat. Yet as much as she wanted Jacob's hand in hers, Noe restrained herself from reaching across the concrete patio to pull him towards her. Jacob had never needed comfort the same as she did.
The old man crossed his arms on his chest and spat at the ground. "Well?" he said.