Fiction · 07/15/2009

Carpentry

He started with the lowest branches. You can see them piled in the mud by the crabapple. He cuts them with a plain handsaw, working with a carpenter’s skill, though we’re guessing from the half-built racing engine in his garage and the tools hanging on the wall that he’s a mechanic, or was. He hasn’t left his garage for weeks, hasn’t offered many clues. Except that sparkling engine.

He only emerged this morning, saw in hand, stepping over the gasoline can and around the generator, then down the driveway before practically flying up the tree. Some of the younger birds took fright; such a burst of reds, yellows, greens, and blues that you’d have thought a cat was near. They alighted on the drainpipe and seem content now. But there’s no trusting them. They usually don’t live long enough to learn much. With them, it’s all instinct. All hurry. Flit here. Flit there. They’d never spend a day shaking off the rain. We’ve been around a long time. Seen previous nesters come and go.

He saws the branch he’s sitting on. And when it cracks under his weight, he moves to another branch to finish the job. When he’s down to just three branches, he pulls a cigarette from his shirt pocket and puts it in his mouth. He doesn’t light it at first, just sits there looking out at the gray sky, as if he could sense the coming storm. In that moment, we think he’ll stop. That it’s all an act, like with the younger ones. Maybe he just got himself worked up and needed to flit about. You can’t tell with these nesters. Their faces are so closed it’s a wonder they can breathe at all.

Then he lights the cigarette, takes a long puff, and starts sawing again. We move to the highest branch, careful not to say anything. From the top, we can see into the house through the living room window, the bare yellow wall with nails sticking from it, the marks in the stained carpet where the sofa used to be.

The branch cracks and falls, and he moves to the top. The little ones on the roof trill and twitter, as if they never suspected it would come to this.

He puts saw to branch and looks at us. And that’s when something sparkles in the garage. Something small and shiny. We want it. We must have it. It’s so beautiful there on the floor against the back wall of the garage. With a caw, we take flight, swooping in, fighting for it, pecking and tearing at each other. In a fury of black wings we knock the gas can over.

And then it’s finished. It was a bottle cap. Nothing more.

We hop back along the river flowing from the can, watching it seep through the crack running down the center of the garage, then over the driveway and out to the base of the tree where the dried and leafless branches soak up the spill.

The beakless face cracks into a smile. He pulls the saw from the branch, cradles it in his arms before releasing it. The saw hovers before him, then catches the wind out over the line of houses. He inhales deeply from his cigarette, breathes smoke as if he were now a carpenter of air. He pulls himself to his knees to better observe his handiwork, then takes the cigarette from his mouth. He flicks it to the ground.

We hop about, the flames licking at our feet as we rush into the ashen sky. The younger ones watch, flapping their wings wildly, feathers falling like rain.

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Peter Grandbois is the author of the novel The Gravedigger (Chronicle Books, 2006) and The Arsenic Lobster: A Hybrid Memoir (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009). His short stories have appeared in numerous journals and been shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. He is a professor of creative writing and contemporary literature at California State University in Sacramento.