We was sitting on the porch, staring at the Flagler Hotel on the other side of the bay, my father drinking moonshine, mumbling to himself about fish, God, and bastards from the North when bright light burst from every window. The stars above disappeared. Shouts and ahhhs filled the air.
“It’s on fire,” my father said. “A miracle.”
“It ain’t fire,” I told him. “It’s electricity. They burn coal and send it through wires to lamps in each room.”
My father looked disappointed and though we were not close, I felt ashamed for destroying his brief moment of happiness.
He thought the hotel a perversion of nature, evil, a sign that Florida and the rest of the world were going to hell, along with my mother who ran away in the middle of night, 158 days after I’d been born, never to be heard from again. I did not have the courage to tell him that I had been there earlier and met a woman. He would have said I was going to hell too.
It was still dark that morning and as his drunken snores vibrated through the cypress walls I put on my best shirt, carried my boots to the skiff, untied the lines from the dock and rowed towards the hotel. I wanted to sit at one of the tables, have a cup of coffee placed in front of me by a waiter dressed in white who called me sir. I wanted to know what it was like to be rich and not have a care in the world.
The sun had risen quickly, rested for a moment on the long blue line of ocean in the distance. The bay reflected soft clouds above. Mullet jumped in the air and left perfect circles on the water. The hotel looked asleep, except for the waiters in long aprons on the patio who went from table to table, polishing glasses and silverware and a woman who sat on the wall of the quay in a black dress, smoking a cigarette, her white stockinged feet dangling above the water. She wore a white hat with a pink feather that curved behind her. She waved to me. I waved back. She put two fingers in her mouth, whistled, and beckoned me with her long white arm. I rowed toward her until the bow gently touched the wall.
“Do you give tours?” she asked and flicked her cigarette into the water.
Her lips were bright red, her eyes green with tiny gray pebbles inside them. Her face was the shape of a coconut, her long neck curved like a palm tree, the top half of her breasts pushed up by black lace. A silver cross hung just above them. She smelled like orchids and tangerines. I stared at the space below the cross and a purr came from her throat. Blood rushed to my face. I was scared. Of what I could not say.
“What now?” I asked her.
“A tour,” she said. “I would like you to take me on a boat tour.”
She stood and held out her hand. It was as delicate and warm as a just laid egg. She lifted her skirt with her other hand as she stepped into the boat and sat on the piece of wood just before the bow. I sat facing her, pushed off the wall and began to row.
Once we reached the middle of the bay I stopped. She closed her eyes and looked up to the sky. Her white skin glowed peach in the sunlight. A cool breeze came from the ocean, just enough to keep the bugs away. She opened her eyes and stared into mine.
“What else do you do?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“Besides give bored women tours. What do you do? For money?”
“My father and I run a store. We sell nails and bullets. Fishing hooks and flour.”
“Do you hunt birds,” she said and stroked the feather on her hat.
“It’s not legal.”
“But you did once.”
I tried to find the words to describe what it was like, before the hotel, before women like her from the North wanted those feathers in their hats. Each morning we woke to clouds of white egrets flying across the bay. Pink spoonbills stood at the edge of the creeks, digging for oysters at low tide with their wide flat beaks and bright red eyes. Great blue herons stood as still as statues on the edge of the dock. Their voices called to each other in a constant song of want. Then the hotel came and with it men who paid more than the price of gold for feathers. So we shot them, left their babies crying in hidden nests until they starved to death. We soaked the bodies in brine, skinned them, delicately plucked their precious feathers and sold them to the brokers and land agents. Hunters came from Canada. Indians traded feathers for liquor. Fights broke out. Men were killed. And then one morning we woke to empty, silent sky. Wardens posted no hunting signs on trees, as if mattered then.
“They’re gone,” I told her.
“All of them?”
“Some say they seen some, but far back in the swamps. Indian Country. Alligators. Swarms of mosquitoes. The papers say the rest moved south, to the end of the state.”
She put her hands on my knees, leaned forward and pressed her lips against mine. I had not kissed a woman before and did not know what to do. So I sat there, perfectly still, and let that small current of electricity flow from her lips to mine, travel through my veins, into my heart and thighs.
“Feathers,” she whispered in my ear. “Bring me feathers and you can kiss me as much as you like.”
Her name was Sadie Brown. I fell in love with her that morning and understood that love meant there was an empty space in your chest you didn’t know was there and the only way to make it whole again was to be loved in return. It meant that if she wanted feathers I would find them—swim through swamps, wrestle alligators, kill every last bird in the world so I could kiss those lips again, feel those fingers on my thighs, touch the black lace over her breasts, and lock my body to hers as I had seen people do on a deck of cards my father hid in the top drawer of his dresser.
My father finished his last sip of moonshine as the notes from a band playing under the lights on the patio traveled across the bay. My foot tapped to the music. He got up out of his chair and stumbled to the door. He cursed under his breath and I listened to his heavy footsteps as he walked upstairs and fell into his bed. I felt sorry for him then. He was going die drunk, poor and lonely, and would never know what it was like to kiss a woman like Sadie Brown.
I stayed on the porch and stared at the windows of the hotel. I imagined I saw her in a room on the bottom floor, standing in front of an electric lamp as she took off the black dress. I saw the light go off and wondered if she was laying in bed, dreaming of birds and me.
One by one the rest of the lights went out, until the hotel looked like an abandoned ship. The stars returned, the sky so full some of them fell and left a trail of blinking dust behind them. The frogs stopped singing. The wind stilled and the palm leaves settled. I heard large wings part the thick air and out of the darkness emerged a great egret, as white as snow I had never seen, gliding just above his own reflection in the water. He sailed right past me and landed on the far end of the dock. He looked at me with his large yellow eye—the prayer I hadn’t said yet, answered.
I got up from my chair, walked softly into the store, went behind the counter, grabbed the 12-gauge, a handful of shells and returned to the porch. The bird was still there, staring down into the water. I got on one knee, put the stock against my shoulder and aimed at its chest. I inhaled, pressed my finger gently against the trigger, just as the bird flew across the water into the mangroves, a white ghost in the middle of dark branches. I stepped into the skiff, untied it and rowed towards him. Each time I got close enough for a clear shot he flew further into the backcountry.
The creeks narrowed. The roots and branches stretched above me like a thousand tangled arms until they formed a small tunnel. Oysters clapped their shells. The buzz of cicadas echoed across the water and through the leaves. The egret flew through the tunnel and disappeared into the darkness. I followed him there, remembered the feel of those lips, and the way my heart swelled with desire at the thought of touching her in places I had never seen. The branches gradually retreated, the stars returned and as the boat floated into a small bay I heard egrets, herons, pelicans, and storks. I turned the boat with the oars and stared at an island filled with birds—a lost city of gold.
The birds remained on their branches as I rowed toward them. The soft white feathers of a snowy egret rose along the back of his head. I grabbed the gun, knelt on the floor of the boat, aimed and fired. He shrieked and fell into the water. The air filled with the birds’ panicked cries as they flew into the sky. I reloaded, shot a Great Blue Heron before his giant wings had a chance to lift him. A spoonbill’s legs got caught in the roots as he tried to escape. I loaded a new shell, rowed to him, pressed the barrel of the gun against his chest and pulled the trigger. Pink feathers flew into the air, floated down and landed in my hair and on my shoulders.
I threw their bodies in the bottom of the boat and rowed back to the tunnel of mangroves. Before I entered it I looked behind me and saw that the birds had returned to their branches in the rookery. The bay echoed their calls, as sad and desperate as hungry children.
By the time the sun came up I had skinned the birds, put the best feathers in a small burlap bag and thrown the carcasses into the water. Silver catfish fought each other for the slim pieces of muscle attached to the hollow bones. I washed myself with our bar of best soap, then rowed across the bay to the hotel. She sat on the same wall, in a white dress, as pale as her skin; from a distance it was hard to tell the difference between the two. She used the toe of her black boot to keep the bow from hitting the wall.
“Did you bring me feathers?” she asked.
I stood in the skiff and handed her the bag.
She grabbed it and looked inside. A wide smile spread across her face. She leaned down into the boat, put her small hand on the back of my neck and pulled me towards her. She gently nibbled my ear, then circled the inside of it with her tongue. I did not like it, but did not want her to stop either.
“There are more?” she asked.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Will you bring them to me?”
I tied the lines to the cleats on the wall, climbed onto it and followed her down the crushed shell path to the hotel. We walked quickly through the empty tables of the cafe to the back door. She reached under her skirt, into the top of her stockings and pulled out a set of two keys and unlocked the door.
Gold wallpaper and lamps lined the walls of the hallway. We stood in front of the first door. She winked at me, put the other key in the lock and pushed the door open. A large window looked out onto the bay and through it I saw the outline of our store and knew my father was pouring a sip of moonshine into his cup to still his shaking hands, sitting on the porch, looking out at the hotel and cursing it under his breath, unaware that his son was there, in front of a beautiful woman, who kissed him on the mouth, sucked his upper lip and gently bit it. I placed my hand on her left breast.
“Close your eyes,” she said.
Her small hands unbuttoned my shirt. She circled each of my nipples with the tip of her tongue. All the hairs on my body rose and soft moans came from my throat. She undid my belt and my pants fell to the floor. She slipped her thumbs under the thin string that held up my underclothes and pushed them down. For a few moments there was nothing, no sound or touch and I wondered if she was going to leave me there, naked and erect, take the feathers and sell them. I felt like a fool. But then I heard the thud of her boots against the floor and her dress fall. A few seconds later her thick tongue parted my lips and ran across the bottom of my teeth. She pressed her warm breasts against me then pushed me away.
“Open your eyes,” she said.
I stared at the round, white cheeks of her buttocks and the curve of her hips as she walked to the bed. She turned around, lay on her back, and put her arms over her head.
“Have you done this before?” she asked.
I went to the bed and lay on top of her like the men in the cards. She spread her legs open, pressed her sharp heels against the back of my thighs while her hand guided me into the soft, damp folds beneath her triangle of black hair. Her hands moved down to my behind and she pulled me further into her, let go, then pulled again until my body understood the rhythm on its own. I closed my eyes, listened to the creaking bed springs and her soft cries. The world became an ocean of darkness and I felt my body sink slowly through it, towards some promised light at the bottom. A few seconds later I felt the stuff come out of me and go into her. My body became as soft as a jellyfish. She pushed me off of her, got up and put her clothes back on. She stood by the door as I got out of the bed on unsteady legs, found my clothes and dressed myself. When I tried to kiss her she turned away.
“Tomorrow,” she said as she opened the door. “Bring me feathers.”
So I did, the next day and the day after that and each time she brought me back to her room and we repeated the act. It was the same each time, not like the people in the cards who did it in other ways, but I did not mind. It could be that way for the rest of my life and I would be completely satisfied.
When I got home each morning and my father asked where I’d been I told him I’d been fishing but hadn’t caught anything. He would nod, take a sip of his tainted coffee and stare out at the hotel.
“And now they’ve ruined the fishing too,” he’d say.
I had been to her bed six times when I rowed through the tunnel of mangroves in the dark early morning and stared at the bare rookery. It did not seem possible that a place once so filled with life was now empty, every branch and nest deserted. Even the leaves on the trees were gone—the island a skeleton of its former self. I feared that that if I had no feathers to give her I would no longer be invited back to her room, into her bed and into her. Just the thought took the air out of my lungs and the blood from my heart. The whole thing was like a dream I’d rather not have had.
The sun had yet to rise. She would still be asleep in her bed, dreaming of feathers, so I sat in the boat, closed my eyes and prayed for the birds to return. I whispered Amen, looked up and saw the circling, black bodies of vultures, their wrinkled red faces staring down at me, waiting until I found the courage to turn the gun on myself. I was about to curse them and their cruel God when I saw the blinking stars beyond them. The brightest ones formed the wings of an egret, a long neck and beak that pointed to a large planet, directly south, hanging over the very tip of the Florida. There were birds there, according to those stars and the papers, and I would take her there, stake a claim on some deserted beach. All she would have to do was point at the birds she wanted and I would shoot them for her. I would hunt key deer, catch snapper, grow potatoes, make love to her at sunset every night in a house I’d build out of coquina and pine.
I rowed quickly back to the store, the picture of that life painted in my mind. I tied the skiff to the dock, took off my boots, tiptoed to the door, opened it softly and lit the oil lamp on the counter. I filled a sack with beans, shotgun shells, dried meat and fishing hooks and left it by the door. I was about to open the safe under the counter when I heard my father’s footsteps on the stairs. I looked up at him and the revolver in his hand.
“I thought you was a burglar come to rob me,” he said.
“I’m taking what’s mine,” I told him.
“What you need it for?”
“I met a woman.”
“At the hotel.”
He looked at the bag by the door.
“And you reckon she’ll run away with you.”
“Yes,” I told him.
“She might not be the kind of woman you think she is,” he said.
“I love her,” I told him.
He shook his head slowly, walked back upstairs, mumbling to himself about bastard children, whores and the hotel.
I took half the bills in the safe and put them in my pocket. I filled jugs from the pump and placed them on the floor of the skiff. I carried the mast, boom and sail from the side of the store, lay them across the seats, pushed off the dock and rowed towards the hotel, covered in what looked like fog. I was halfway there when I looked over my shoulder and saw flames dance across the roof of the lobby, fire shoot out the top floor windows. I rowed as fast as I could to the the small beach near the back of the hotel, thinking I would break through her window, carry her out the doors on my shoulder to the safety of the boat, tell her I loved her and about the beautiful life we would have together.
As soon as the bow touched the beach I ran across the sand to her window, raised my fist to break the glass and stared at her face through the lace curtain. Her half closed eyes looked to the ceiling, her cheeks flushed red as she bit her bottom, trembling lip; her naked breasts swayed softly with every thrust of her hips and her fingers grabbed the hair on a man’s heaving chest. The feathers I brought her were strewn across the bed, money scattered across the dresser next to an empty bottle. My heart sank to my stomach, felt like a burning piece of coal as hot and vengeful as the fire that roared through the hall. She turned to look at me through the curtain. Our eyes met and she smiled softly, closed her eyes and kept moving against the man.
I walked slowly back to the skiff and pushed it off the beach. A woman in a burning nightgown ran out the door and dove into the water. A man jumped out one of the windows on the top floor and landed with a thud on the patio. Smoke covered the water, carried the scents of burnt wood and flesh as final screams echoed across the bay. I hoped my father was awake to see it. The tide was going out and I let it take me past the burning hotel, through the inlet and out to the ocean where waves gently caressed the sides of the boat. I pointed the bow south, stayed the mast, raised the sail, tied the mainsheet to the tiller and lay down in the bottom in the boat. Stars fell from the sky into the ocean and left a road of living blue light across the surface of the ocean. The screams ended, replaced by the laugh of a distant gull. I closed my eyes and dreamt of those distant beaches at the end of the world, filled with birds and beautiful women, who would take me to their beds, guide me into that beautiful darkness and love me til the end of time.
nate house’s fiction has appeared in Kudzu House, Avatar Review, Apt, Sentenia, The Pebble Lake Review, Armchair Shotgun, Carve, and other publications. His non-fiction has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Press of Atlantic City, The Philadelphia Tribune, and The East Falls Local. His novel Float was published by Aqueous Books in 2011. He lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Community College of Philadelphia.