Two young gulls prance on the boulder outside my kitchen window, tossing a dead fish back and forth. The others stand, one-legged, facing the spot on the far shore where the sun will emerge. Sometimes I imagine that it won't rise at all and the light will remain dim throughout the whole day.
Tranquil October mornings are my best time for thought.
Before the telephone rings or Carl fills the kettle with water, I sit at the painted yellow table, without tea, without the clatter of breakfast dishes, without a living soul to speak to. Sometimes I write in a handmade book filled with pale green paper given to me by Sylvie last Christmas. I keep the sweet card she sent tucked in toward the back of the book. But I am tired. I don't write anything. The book lies flat open on the place mat.
Today I just sit and look at my hands. When I touch the skin on the back of my hand between the long bones, the spot feels puffy; the skin, brittle. If I saw those hands in a magazine photograph, I would say they were the hands of an old woman, and I'd be right. It surprises me, that's all.
"Carl." I know he's awake, so I don't raise my voice. Just call loudly enough to let him know I'm starting the omelet. The first egg yolk breaks when I crack its shell against the bowl rim. The next two are perfect. I shake a little extra pepper and dried thyme into the bowl before I beat the eggs.
He comes clattering up behind me with the teakettle. I keep grating the cheese. He runs too much water into the kettle every morning and it takes forever to boil. After he lights the gas, he stands behind me and presses his mouth to the back of my neck and hums. Every day.
"Good morning, my pet," he says.
"Carl? Why do the gulls face the rising sun?"
"Because they know it's going to be a day full of fish."
"Tomato in your omelet?"
"Not today. I've got a canker from all the tomatoes. How about some of the smoked salmon from last night?"
That's what I love about him. He doesn't say, Sure, tomato would be fine. And he gets the smoked salmon himself from the refrigerator, unwraps it, and places it on the cutting board in front of me. I slice it into tiny pieces while the omelet sizzles in the frying pan and the teakettle hums to boiling. We're a team, Carl and I.
"What are you doing today?" I ask him.
"Nothing," he says. "Nothing planned."
Funny. For years there was no question of what was to be done on any given day. Monday: go to work. Tuesday: go to work. Saturday: rake the yard, clean the garage, play tennis if there was time. I taught history to high school seniors. Carl was a surgeon who replaced knees and hips with metal and plastic. We worked hard. Now we don't.
Even when I was a child, days were mapped out for my brother and me. My dad was a teacher at Wheaton College and my mother died delivering us. Harry and I were the only children, but they say twins are enormously difficult to raise. It was true. After Harry's accident, I wasn't very well behaved and Harry needed constant attention until his hip healed. In the summer we took trips to educational places like Gettysburg and the Grand Canyon. During the school year, I took ballet and piano and figure skating. Harry took drawing and sculpture. I should have taken the art lessons, I suppose, because that's what I love to do. But Harry took them because he couldn't dance or skate or run.
Dad never married again. He had friends. A few serious women friends. But I think he felt he had to compensate for our having no mother. In a way, Harry and I were mothers to each other. What a strange thought.
"About time to go see Sylvie, n'est-ce pas?"
"Next week," I say. "The last time, well, it wasn't easy."
"She expects us. We haven't been for a couple of months."
"Not now, Carl. Some other time."
Last Thanksgiving was a nightmare. The children were all here. Sam. Charlie and his wife. My brother, Harry, and his wife. Sylvie. It took both Carl and Charlie to hold her, to keep her from burning the place down.
I set the table with plates and cloth napkins and my mother's china teacups. "Let's paint in the woods. Just take the easels down the path and paint some of the mushrooms before they rot. There's a fox skull down by the old pine. I'd like to do something with that."
We sit on opposite ends of the long, thin table, the smoked salmon and cheese omelet on a platter between us, the teapot steaming. He places his glasses on the windowsill before he helps himself. Some days, like today, he looks too large to fit in a chair. People used to remark that he was too big to be a surgeon, that his hands were more suited to moving hay bales. Carl laughed at them and told them to think about Oscar Peterson and his sausage-sized fingers playing piano better than anyone else in the world.
"Still water today," he says. "Not a ripple."
"No. Not a ripple."
"Quite a chunk of fish the young ones have."
"Look. That adult just brought another. Look. There on the rock."
The Earl Grey tea smells smoky, like old cigars and Harris Tweed, like professors at grad school. I pour mine first, as Father always did, because the first pouring is the weakest.
Carl's skin is old, too. I touch the back of his hands.
"Jessie? What's up?"
"Nothing. Just touching you," I say.
"Sure, we can go to the woods. Oils or water?"
"Watercolor today. I prefer watercolor."
"Yes. Of course. The tree."
Last year we both took a drawing class at the library with an artist who lives in New York in the winter and comes here for the summer. Funny, I can't remember his name, but he's famous. We drew paper bags for eight weeks. At the time, I thought that was excessive, but we learned patience and how to see something as it truly is. We crumpled bags. We smoothed them out. We stacked them one on the other, hid them behind each other, pushed one inside another. The teacher kept saying to draw what was really there, not what we thought should be there. When we learn that, we can draw what's in our mind. I'm still stuck at barely drawing what is really there, but I think Carl has graduated to drawing what he imagines there. It will come, Carl says.
Breakfast takes a long time. We sip tea and nibble at our eggs. He toasts a stale bagel. I pour us both more Earl Grey as the gulls continue to watch the sunrise and make plans for their day. Another young gull has joined the fray, vying for fish. Do birds really wonder what they will do in the afternoon? Decide if they will fly over to Schoodic Rock or to Little Sheep? Or does the chief gull just take off and the others follow?
While Carl cleans up the breakfast dishes, I open the top drawer in the red chest and sort through the paints. Someday soon I'm going to organize this blasted drawer and throw away the dried-up tubes and empty jars and stiff brushes. Because it's October, I choose browns and reds and yellows with white to make colors like coffee and brick and canary.
Carl sings while he washes the dishes. Usually he sings old tunes like "Blue Moon" and "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," a little off key, but today he sings in French. He spent his early childhood in France. Now he changes to a children's song in a small voice, like a child's, words that I can't understand. How do I know it's a children's song? It just is. Such a sweet thing, to sing a children's song. You can tell even if you don't know the words. Kind of mournful and sung in a peculiar key, a different language. Maybe Spanish. Where would he have learned Spanish? I don't think I've heard it before. He speaks German, too, and a bit of Polish because of the time he spent there during the war, but he hardly ever uses it. When he's upset about something, he swears in Polish.
The canvas bag has everything we need. We each have a portable easel that Charlie gave us for Christmas. I tell the children that we don't need anything, because they usually get us something useless, but we do use the easels. One year Sam gave us a very expensive book about Siberia. We bring it out and put it on the coffee table when he comes to visit. Another coffee-table book.
Carl carries the canvas bag with the paints and paper and easels, not because I'm not strong enough, but because he's taller and the bag doesn't bump along the tops of the stumps and stones as we walk.
"What's the song about? The one you were singing?"
"Oh, I don't remember. Something about a little bird."
"Your mother sang it to you?"
"Yes. My mother."
But I'm not sure it's French. I studied French for years and I didn't recognize even one word. No, I think it's another language entirely. But I don't ask again. Carl is kind of exotic. There are things about him that I don't know. I love to imagine all kinds of possibilities, like that he was the prince of some foreign land or was kidnapped by the Russians and held against his will. What I do know is that he had a hard time of it during the war.
Wet leaves cover the outcropping granite and I'm afraid I'll fall. I wrap my fingers around the edge of his jacket, which of course is ridiculous because if I slip I will pull him down with me, but it makes me feel safe.
"Should we get another dog? We don't have to get a puppy."
"It's too soon. Maybe in the spring," he says.
Reba's only been dead a month. How long do you wait before it's proper to get another dog? Who decides these things? She was a big golden retriever who wouldn't retrieve and hated the water. Carl said some other breed got in with the mother for a quickie and Reba's father wasn't really a golden at all but some poodle or Irish wolfhound. We both cried out loud when we found her dead the morning of September fourth under the kitchen table. Carl said some expletive in Polish when he pressed his palm against Reba's cold forehead. I wish I spoke another language. When I got my Master's degree I had to read French, but that's not like speaking it.
"There won't be many more days we can paint outside," he says. "We'll have to paint the ocean from the kitchen table."
"Here we are," I say, as if he wasn't aware that we had arrived at the old pine tree. "It's still there. Do you think it will fall?"
"The tree. The pine tree. Sylvie's tree."
"Jess, my love, that tree's been there for years."
"But the lower limb. It's got a crack in it."
"Jess, all things fall over and die sometime. That old tree will. But not today."
This place is damp. It reminds me of the swamp where Harry and I used to hide from the bad guys. Once, our father had to gather the neighborhood for a search. They found us soaking wet and covered with scratches. There weren't really any bad guys and it's not really a swamp here, but the smell is the same. Damp leaves. Rotting ferns. Seaweed from the nearby shore. A place where the living turn into the dead to feed the living.
"There's mushrooms all over the place," Carl says.
"I'm going to get the fox skull," I say. "It'll only take a minute."
The only sound I hear behind me is Carl setting up the easels. I've forgotten exactly where I left the skull, but I follow the narrow game trail through the alders, watching on the left for a stump with bones on top. I gather bones of dead animals. Isn't that crazy? The fox skull is the most exciting. Why? I don't know. Perhaps because I can hold it easily in my hand and imagine where the tongue was and what the teeth chewed on. I load the skull, plus the fragments of legs and ribs and wings I've gathered, into the front of my jacket. Near the stump are some pinecones and clumps of chartreuse moss that I pile onto the bones until there's no more room.
It reminds me of when I was pregnant with Sylvie and thought I couldn't get any bigger without bursting, and I balanced a mug on my belly at breakfast. Carl thought it was a riot but always checked to make sure the tea wasn't hot enough to burn me. I wanted to name her after his mother, Chantal, but he didn't want to. He said he had no family. Carl chose Sylvie. He'd always liked the name, he'd said. I wonder how it would have been with her if we'd named her Chantal. Sylvie, like sylvan, the woods, the moss, natural like the deer and the coyote. Sylvie was like the woods when she was small. She picked up sticks and leaves and small bones and tucked them into her pockets. Her whole village was made from debris she found in the woods and on the shore. Whatever happened to it?
The alders blur ahead of me and I'm not sure of my way. My load shifts and some of the cones spill onto the ground. Ahead through the trees I hear Carl rustling around getting ready for the morning. I hear him pouring tea from the thermos. Has it come to this? Nothing important to do? Painting bones and moss and mushrooms on big sheets of bleached paper that will be thrown out when we die by children who thought we were just keeping busy?
"Carl, I've got a load here."
"My darling, let me help."
Everything is set up: the portable stools that we bought at the flea market and the easels from Charlie and the canvas bag that we spread out and cover with tubes of paint organized by color.
"Be careful, my pet, not to kick the water over."
I tiptoe around the paints and canvas to my spot. I thought I might paint the tree today but it's really Carl's subject. The closest branch hangs lower than usual because of the break. The last storm, I think. It won't last long. I wonder if we should get some new wire and tie it up. Sylvie will be distraught if the limb breaks. But I say nothing. Perhaps after we are finished painting. Or perhaps tomorrow. Or in the spring.
I set up my still life beside a rotting bolete, lean the cracked wing bone against the black side of the mushroom, tear off a small section of the chartreuse moss, place it in front of the bone.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from A Brief Lunacy by Cynthia Thayer. Copyright © 2006 by Cynthia Thayer. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.