The bottle flies banging against the window screens wake me up. Not yet dawn and they're already out there, lying in wait, drawn by the ripe human odors wafting out of the open windows. Big green flies, the kind that when they bite you, you feel the sting for days, the welts rise and itch like crazy and neither calamine lotion nor rubbing alcohol nor the direct application of urine from a virgin can soothe the pain.
Although my windows are open, it already feels hot and muggy—in a couple of hours the heat will be of blast furnace intensity, particularly for the unfortunate souls, like me, who don't have air-conditioning. It's a bitch living around here without artificial cooling; those bereft of it suffer mightily from June until October. Air-conditioning in this region is like television—who doesn't own a TV? The answer is, very poor folk; struggling students in tomblike dorm rooms; alternate life-stylers who eschew modern conveniences altogether; and a handful of fall-through-the- cracks people, like me.
Along with the flies there is a swarm of mosquitoes, buzzing like a ripsaw. Cousins in kind, in intention. Vampires of the insect world, they want blood. They smell it, from the other side of the mesh. They have extremely keen senses of smell, these relentless little sons of bitches. Hundreds of eyes to see everywhere, and olfactory awareness way more evolved than ours. If the human sense of smell was as highly developed as that of these insects we could not stand to be near each other. We would have perished millennia ago.
I inspect my screens two or three times a week religiously, to make sure there are no holes, not one solitary pinprick. They are resourceful fuckers, these denizens of the insect world, they've been around much longer than we have, and will be here, buzzing and biting, long after all trace of our species has vanished.
The clock on my nightstand reads five o'clock straight up, the tail end of the wee small hours. First light is not yet on the horizon. Slipping out from under the thin cotton sheet, wet with a nighttime of sweat and other bodily fluids, I make my naked way through the house and out onto the back porch, taking care not to wake up my companion, who sleeps on her side, her back to me, snoring heavily, rhythmically. She has her own sets of unique bodily smells and effluence, some rather lovely, some distinctively funky. I checked them out last night with great pleasure, from a considerable number of positions, both hers and mine.
It was our first time together sexually, this particular woman and me. Whether she and I will have other such nights, I don't know; I doubt it. Commitments of any kind, especially mid-or long-term, aren't in the picture for me these days. I'm recuperating— I need space, lots of it.
If there is any marrow left in my bones this morning—there seems to be, since I am walking and breathing—it is because of the body's extraordinary ability to regenerate itself. The French call a great f-ck "a little death"; the difference between that and the real thing is that in the little death you go to heaven before you die, and you feel better afterward, as opposed to feeling nothing at all. At least I assume that's the difference.
But I digress. I do that a lot these days. I'm good at avoiding, too, and I'd be at the top of the list of championship procrastinators as well. I'm excellent at not staying on the topic, especially when the topic is me or about me, about what I'm doing or how I'm behaving. Actually, avoiding myself takes up most of my time. Not looking at why I am where I am, and how I got here.
That's not quite true—I'm an academic by vocation, I should be precise with terminology. I know how I got here, I just don't like to think about what it is about me—environment, genetics, heredity, plain dumb luck, or some pathetic combination of those and other factors—that has made me such an expert about fucking up my life. My cock isn't all that long, but I've been stepping on it with great regularity the last couple of years.
I grab hold of it. Tilting up a screen panel, I lean over the porch railing and take a good long piss into the shallow, torpid water below, bracing myself against the edge post for support. The flies buzz over, but I shoo them away with my free hand. They hover and make angry noises. They are primitive creatures, they don't like waiting on a meal. But I don't want my body to be their meal, especially not the family jewels. I finish taking my leak, and go back inside.
I live in a shotgun shack. Front room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, back porch. Less than six hundred square feet, total, not counting the porch. An old sharecropper's shack that had been sitting empty and abandoned for decades.
Sharecropping is a defunct way of life now, at least in this region. The practice still exists in some of your deep South shitkicker states, where people are still living in the nineteenth century, not only philosophically but physically, but not in modern, enlightened societies such as mine.
My people were not sharecroppers—far from it. We were landowners and water people for almost three hundred years, from well before the Revolutionary War. An old, solid Maryland family. My mother and all my grandmothers going back forever were card—carrying members of the DAR. There are both Union and Confederate generals scattered throughout the family tree. My forebears owned slaves until the Civil War and they had sharecroppers after that, up until the late 1950s, when my father stopped the practice. He felt it was morally repugnant for people to live in a serflike situation. We had seven sharecropping families working our land when he decided not to do it anymore, and he deeded over forty acres to each family. Some of them still farm their sections to this day, and speak of my father with great reverence.
During this time, the first part of the century, my people were comfortably well off, and pretty much cut off from the larger world—theirs was an insular life. The Chesapeake Bay area away from the big cities, like Baltimore and Annapolis, was a rural, sparsely populated region. Even people with money, like my parents and their forebears, didn't travel much, didn't see much or know much of the world. Which suited them just fine.
That life-style began changing at the end of World War II, and the pace accelerated in the 1970s. The population boomed all over southern Maryland and northern Virginia. The new people moving into the outlying areas needed places to live, work, shop. Suburban sprawl was inevitable, unstoppable. The Maryland counties of Prince Georges, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary's all underwent tremendous growth, which hasn't abated for fifty years.
This surge in population, however, didn't extend as far south as our county, King James, which is the southernmost county in the state on the Bay's west bank. It's too far away from Washington and Baltimore for people to commute. There's only one road, a four-lane highway connecting the county to the rest of the state. And the area's not suitable for casual recreation—much of the land is heavily wooded or semiswampy, the roads are narrow and scarce, the beach areas are not as hospitable as those north of here, or on the Eastern Shore, or the ocean. Our census is lower than it was a generation ago-for every new face that moves here, more than one departs for a life that's more promising—socially, culturally, financially. The young people, especially.
Those who have moved down here in the recent past have generally been older people who want a quiet place for their retirement. A sizable amount of the property that's been carved up for these ten-, fifty-, and hundred-acre parcels used to be in my family—we owned the best land in the county for having access to the waterways that feed into the Potomac River and the Bay. My father, the late Horace Tullis, who was a mover and shaker in local businesses and politics, started selling off bits and pieces of the farm during the 1970s and 1980s. The money was too good to say no to, and by then it was clear that none of his children were interested in living here and carrying on the family's affairs.
My little abode is on the southernmost edge of our family's still sizable holdings—we have over two thousand acres, although the greater portion of it is, as it's always been, uninhabitable swamp. By the time I came upon this ramshackle mess, which is at the end of an abandoned dirt-and-oyster-shell hard-scrabble road that stops at the edge of St. Ambrose Creek, one of the many small uncharted tributaries that feed into larger rivers that eventually flow into the Chesapeake Bay, it was on the verge of collapsing completely—floorboards rotted out, holes in the roof bigger than cannonballs, walls sagging, the well gone dry. In a couple more years the vegetation would have reclaimed it, as if it had never been.
I rebuilt the place enough to make it livable—shored up the foundation, reframed most of the walls, put on a cheap plywood floor over which I laid surplus linoleum I got at a junkyard, dug new septic and water lines. For heat and electricity I put up some solar panels I found through a government surplus catalog and attached them to heavy-duty batteries for energy storage, for those extended periods in the winter when the sun is weak. I also bootlegged an electric line from a power cable about half a mile away. Probably my mother's, although it could be a through line to somewhere else. I only use it in emergencies, so whoever owns it isn't going to notice, because the power draw is minimal. (They haven't so far, anyway.) My stove and refrigerator run on bottled propane, and my shower is a gravity feed. Not the Plaza, but it works.
It took me four months to complete the job. Fortunately, the weather was mild this winter, so I wasn't held up all that much. I had nothing else to do except fuck off—smoke dope, drink beer and whiskey, read, shoot film. I camped out in the bones of my shack while I was working on it. Two or three times a month I went up to my mother's house for a proper shower and to do my laundry. If my mother was feeling charitable and not exceptionally pissed off at me she would invite me to eat dinner with her. Not that I was enjoying her culinary talents— she doesn't cook; she never has. Mattie, the family cook for the last forty years, handles that. She is a superb cook, specializing in dishes of the region. I have been eating her cooking since I was born. We Tullises are damn fine eaters.
Mary Bradshaw Tullis, my mother, is among the last of a bygone-era class: a genteel Southern woman of means. She was born in 1918, before the end of the First World War, less than twenty miles from the house in which she's now lived for the past sixty-one years, from the day she was married to my father. At that time, horse-drawn vehicles outnumbered gasoline-propelled ones fifty to one in King James County. Most of the local farming work was still horse-driven until after the Second World War. Even in Washington and Baltimore horses drew milk carts, bread wagons, junk wagons, up to the early 1950s. Both of those cities were dormant, sleepy burgs then, not today's booming metropolises. Air-conditioning was not yet common, particularly in private homes. People put pallets on the floor and slept with fans blowing across wet towels to alleviate the humid misery; or they flat-out suffered. When the history of the New South is written in centuries to come air conditioning will be the defining characteristic, analogous to the pyramids in ancient Egypt or the Roman aqueducts.
There was no television, and radio was in its infancy. No computers, of course, no Internet. People of my mother's position had servants: maids, nursemaids, cooks, washerwomen, governesses, yard men, field men, chauffeurs. Two or three servants to each person in a family, man, woman, and child, was not uncommon. It was a languid, privileged life.
Those days are long gone. My mother, still spry and energetic at eighty-three, gets by fine now with Mattie, who will be with her until one of them dies, a woman who comes in three days a week to clean, and a gardener.
Anyway, getting back to my situation. Why am I, the son of rich parents, a man of intelligence and wit, with a powerful ego, a man who, until recently, was building a wonderful and exciting career, doing work that he loved, why is this man who is not yet forty living in a rebuilt sharecropper's shack on the edge of his family's property?
The answer is long and somewhat complicated. And difficult for me to confront. But the basic answer is that I am doing penance for having fucked up, big-time.
But where am I going? Which is what my mother asks me from time to time. Where is Fritz going? she will say, speaking of me in the third person, as if I'm not in the room. Will I ever marry and present her with grandchildren before she dies, which could be at any moment, given her age. (She says this, not me. I expect her to live past ninety; when people reach her age they usually keep going, they were strong enough to get to this point, they'll be strong enough to keep on trucking.) I remind her that she already has grandchildren, courtesy of my older brother and sister. Your children, she replies. As if all of us must continue the family line. Or else it's that there's something about me the other two don't have. Like thoughtlessness and willfulness; along with an almost pathological drive, it often seems, to self-destruct.
Maybe I'm being too hard on myself about my present circumstances. I'm probably no more interesting than your garden-variety fuckup. I'm not violent, or overly critical of others. And the truth is, most of my life has been quite different from the way it is at present. Much more productive, in the socially acceptable scheme of things. My curriculum vitae is most impressive. Until very recently, when the devil in me overwhelmed my better gods, I was a star in my own small firmament.
It's a long way from the top—or near enough to the top to see it—to the bottom. For someone like me, living in a rebuilt sharecropper's shack on my mother's property is the bottom. Despite my present lowly station, though, I'm at peace. Living low-key, taking it a day at a time. The way I see it, I have nowhere to go but up; at worst, my movement, in the short term, will be lateral.
I give myself a quick sponge bath and brush my teeth—using the toothbrush to scrape the caterpillar from my tongue— slip into a pair of shorts, T-shirt, Tevas. Going into the kitchen, I take a can of V8 juice and a Heineken out of the refrigerator, pop the tops, pour the two liquids in roughly equal amounts into a tall mug, and make myself a "red one." Some people call this drink a "tomato beer," and use plain tomato juice, although I prefer the tang of V8. Rock 'n' roll musicians have been quaffing this libation for decades—friends of mine in the country music business that I met in Austin told me that the King of the Road himself, the late, great Roger Miller, drank one about every morning of his life. It's the best way to start the day when you've been drinking to excess the night before. Add a dash of Worcestershire, a few drops of Tabasco sauce, and you're in business.
I finish my drink, rinse the glass and set it on the sideboard, and unlock my special cabinet. I have over ten thousand dollars' worth of equipment in this little space—cameras, a Nikon cool-scan slide scanner, an Epson 3000 printer, as well as my Apple PowerBook, with Adobe Photoshop 5.5 for printing out pictures of my transparencies. All top-of-the-line stuff. Anything better than this, you'd have to go to a professional shop. My pictures in particular-thousands of slides, and prints I've made of them on the computer—can't be valued objectively: they're irreplaceable.
I select one of my cameras, a Canon EOS I bought last year. It's a good camera for shooting in the wild. My normal lens of choice, a 35-350 mm zoom, a nice all-around lens for nature photography, is attached to the camera body. In addition, I take a super-long lens, 800 mm. For my purposes, an ultralong lens is often the only way I get close-ups of my subjects. I take two rolls of 50 ASA Fuji Velvia film (a good fine-grain slide film) down from a shelf, plus a tripod and a pair of Nikon 823 power binoculars. I toss everything into a waterproof canvas camera bag, secure the locks, grab a plastic jug of ice water out of the refrigerator and a sack of grain from under the kitchen counter.
One last check of my houseguest. She's sleeping like a hibernating bear—she tried to keep up with me last night in the drinking department, not a recommended practice for a novice. My watch reads a quarter to six-time to be motivating, get some shooting done before the day heats up to unbearable. I leave her a note on the empty pillow next to her head. Coffee and juice in fridge. Help yourself to anything.
My small boat is wide-bottomed, good for navigating in shallow waters. I pole out from where I tie it up at the back of the house and fire up the outboard. I let the little engine run for a minute to warm up, then choke down the idle and point downstream.
This section is the most wild of all our land. To be more specific, it is located in one of the northernmost cypress swamps in the United States. Bald cypresses grow all along the river edges, their kneelike roots jutting out of the water. There's other vegetation, water lilies, sweet gum, various evergreens. It's very dense in here, not so dissimilar in feel to a South American rainforest. You can get away from civilization real fast in these small streams and tributaries.
For the past several months I've been coming to one particular area—a group of small, marshy islands at the southern-most part of our family's property that lies at the tip of a remote, narrow inlet that opens up out of the swamp. It takes me less than twenty minutes of easy putt-putting to get there. I cut my engine. The boat bobs in the water. The canopy of trees obscures the view into the perimeter unless you're right on top of it, as I am now.
There's no way to get here except the route I've taken. The waterway here, for miles in either direction, is a narrow channel— a larger boat wouldn't make it past all the twists and turns and shoals. Since I've been coming out here, I haven't seen a soul. Nobody's going to get to this place unless they're invited, and I'm not inviting anyone.
My family's always been very protective of our privacy. We've never allowed hunting or other trespass on our property. I don't hunt. My father wasn't a hunter, either, we never shared that particular male-bonding blood experience so common in these parts. That's an anomaly around here—bird hunting is a ritual of manhood, passed on down the generations. My father was a tough businessman and a tough man in general, but killing for sport did nothing but disgust him. Our land has always been off-limits to hunters; when Horace Tullis would catch a trespasser he would come down hard, marching down to the sheriff, pressing charges. It's been known in the county for decades that you don't hunt on Tullis land. Which doesn't make us popular with some of the locals, not that we give a shit.
I tie up my boat. Grabbing my duffel bag, tripod, the jug of water, and the grain sack, I wade ashore in bathtub-warm water, and walk inland.
The birds, dozens of varieties, are thick on the ground. They've come to expect me, because of the grain. It's like pigeon-feeding time in Central Park as I traverse the area, dropping piles of it here and there. They fly in and out, darting for position, crying and screeching their own particular bird cries. They're loud, they raise a hell of a racket.
An orthodox birder would decry my feeding these birds. You don't want to make a wild animal dependent on man, it softens them up, dulls their survival instincts. I know this, but my feeling is, it's not that big a deal. They were doing fine before I got here, and they'll be doing fine, too, when I don't feed them, which will be in the fall, when the migratory birds come back down here. That would be criminal, because it would leave them prey to hunters. It's illegal to seed flyover areas for that very reason.
I finish dumping my load, take my camera gear out of my bag, and wade through about a hundred yards of shallow water to another small knob of land. Although bird-watching is a huge leisure time activity—I read somewhere there may be as many as fifty million bird-watchers in this country—I am not one of them, in any traditional sense. I do not belong to the Audubon Society, I don't keep count of the different kinds of birds that I've seen, or catalog them, or take part in any organized activities regarding birds. I shy away from groups except in my work and normal social situations, like going to an Orioles game. I'm not a team player.
Until I moved back here I wasn't into birds at all. Except for working on my house and abusing myself with recreational drugs and alcohol I had nothing else to do and plenty of time to do it in. I've always been interested in photography, it's been a favorite hobby since I was a teenager; one day late last winter, sitting on my work-in-progress front porch with a Beck's in my paw and a half-eaten salami and Swiss-cheese sandwich in the other, I looked skyward and saw a great flock of Canadian geese flying in formation overhead, coming toward me. I hadn't been shooting much color, but luckily I had it in my camera that day. I grabbed the camera out of my bag, pointed it at the sky, and shot off the rest of the roll, about a dozen frames.
I'd been shooting black and white almost exclusively, knockoff Walker Evans kind of stuff, old houses and interesting-looking faces, rusted-out cars up on blocks, Amish women at the farmers' market, esoteric shit like that. I had never been interested in action stuff or pictures about nature. I appreciated them, I used to envy the photographers who did the spreads in magazines like National Geographic. But I didn't see the artistry in it.
These birds got to me, though, seeing them up close, so many of them, the enormous range of colors, the wonderful aerodynamic shapes, the great variety of types. I had stumbled into a new world.
Overhead I hear a loud birdsong, almost like a bugle call. Smiling, I look up. A small flock of extremely large birds is circling high in the air. They're stretched full-length, their long necks extended fully forward, their legs strung out behind them. As I watch, they come swooping in, a cloud of feathers landing in one of the shallow water marshy areas some distance from the other birds, at the edge of the little plot on which I'm standing.
These birds are sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis, a large, elegant species of bird. They roost in nearby shallow water at night, then spend their day here. They stay apart from the other birds-they're territorial, they don't like to share.
By rights, these birds shouldn't be here, they aren't native to the region. Occasionally, though, Mother Nature will throw a curveball, and a flock will go off course and wind up on the Eastern Seaboard.
These sandhill cranes are not why I'm here, though. I'm here to see Ollie.
Ollie is a whooping crane. Grus americana.
Whooping cranes are extremely rare, and highly endangered. There are only about two hundred of them in the wild; including captive birds, there are only four hundred in the world. They are beautiful birds, the tallest in North America, five feet in height, almost as tall as a man. In flight, their wingspan reaches nearly eight feet.
What makes this particular bird so extraordinary, beyond his exoticness, is that whooping cranes are never found in this area, not even close. Their natural breeding grounds are in the Canadian Northwest Territories, near the Alberta border. When winter's setting in they migrate south 2,500 miles, an incredible journey, to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the Texas coast, the only place they live in the wild.
Ollie is a lost bird. By fifteen hundred miles.
How he wound up on a small, isolated island in southern Maryland is a mystery. The most likely guess—which is only a guess, since I've kept him my personal secret—is that he lost touch with his flock and hooked up with this flock of sandhills, who are his close cousins. There are only two species of cranes in North America; I've done a bit of research on them. These are immature birds, less than two years old. They become independent in the spring following their birth, when parents cut them loose and they drift and explore and begin to flock together until they breed at about three to five years.
My best hypothesis as to what happened is that this flock of sandhills, plus the whooper, must have been driven off course, probably by a severe storm, and the adult sandhill that was guiding them to their breeding area was killed in flight (either accidentally, or by a jerkoff hunter). Leaderless, the flock drifted further off course until they found this isolated area, which is a perfect habitat for them—it's similar, in many ways, to the area in the Aransas Refuge. There are crabs, clams, other small mollusks for them to feed upon, as well as ample vegetation, and the predatory animals that live in these parts—bobcat, fox, other preying animals—can't get to them, because they stay out in the shallow water. So they're safe, and well-fed.
When I first saw Ollie I was in awe of his size and splendor and general regalness, and I still am; every time I see him my throat tightens, I feel a shortness of breath, like being in the presence of a power greater than the ordinary—the first time I saw Michelangelo's David invoked the same response in me; except that was a statue, this is a living creature. As I'm not a birder, however, I didn't know what a rare jewel I had on my hands. I didn't even know they were cranes, I thought they were great blue herons, Ardea herodias, another large, similar-looking fowl that is seen often around here. I shot several rolls of pictures of him and his mates, developed them, studied them. When I saw what he was, after looking him up in my Petersons Field Guide and comparing his characteristics to those of the sand-hills, I didn't believe it—how could I? It would be like finding a unicorn grazing among a herd of zebras.
Ollie isn't a sandhill crane. He's a genuine whooping crane. He looks like a whooping crane and flies like a whooping crane. And most tellingly, he sounds like a whooping crane. Sandhill cranes have a shrill, rolling call: Garooo-a-a-a. Ollie's voice is different, a loud, brassy, trumpet call, a whoop!: Ker-loo! Ker-lee-oo! On some days, I can hear his whoop from over a mile away, it's that loud and piercing. It's like no other birdcall, or sound for that matter, that I've ever heard.
Once I understood what kind of bird Ollie is, and how rare, I had to figure out what to do. By lucky coincidence, there is a captive breeding program for whooping cranes at the U.S. Biological Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Laurel, Maryland, which is about a hundred miles north of here. I went up there and spent a day nosing around, chatting up experts and gathering information on whooping cranes, without revealing what I'd found. My initial thinking, of course, was that he was a stray from their program. If that had been the case I'd have turned him in, no second thoughts. But none of their birds had gone missing.
My next step was to get in touch, via the Web, with The International Crane Foundation and with a group called Operation Migration, which is spearheaded by some of the people who became famous in the 1980s, when they led an orphan flock of young sandhill cranes to their new home by disguising an ultra-light airplane as a mature sandhill crane, an incredible feat documented in the movie Fly Away Home. They're about to try the same unorthodox approach to teach new migration routes to whooping cranes; right now, there's only one migration path for whooping cranes, from Canada to Texas, and ornithologists are very concerned that if alternate routes aren't established, the tiny flock could be wiped out if a disease hit their population.
They were very helpful; but incredibly they, too, weren't missing any cranes.
So I've kept quiet about Ollie.
I have my reasons for doing this. They're selfish, but they're genuine and necessary. I need peace, quiet, serenity—I had my head handed to me in the not-distant past, I'm still in the recovery stage. If Ollie was discovered by the outside world he would become a cause celebre, a national object of intense curiosity and scrutiny. Thousands of avid birders and scientists would flock to my private little corner. That would be disastrous for me-I can't handle invasion on that level. Privacy and space are my two most important needs right now.
So I kept quiet about my exotic discovery, although that's not a decision I take lightly. If I was a real birder, I would have sacrificed my own needs and turned him in, but I'm not, so I didn't. At some point soon, though, I will alert the proper authorities, because Ollie's too valuable to be left to nature's random capriciousness for long, particularly once hunting season starts around here—it would be catastrophic if a hunter shot him while he was flying over this small area. For the near future, however, I'm leaving him alone. It may be selfish in the infinite scheme of the universe, but he seems to be happy. I value happiness highly—I know from my own recent experience how fragile it can be, and how easily lost.
Observing Ollie, I've come to believe he has a sixth sense that this area is a safe haven for him, that the sandhills provide him cover, and protection. I know that Ollie can't stay here forever. He has to be returned to his flock. The survival of his species could depend on him. I'm just not ready to let him go yet.
I load a fresh roll of film in my camera and take some pictures of my pride and joy. With the ultralong lens I get vivid shots of his eye, his beak, the curve of his wings. He isn't afraid of me, we've gotten accustomed to each other over these past months, but I keep my distance from him anyway. I don't want him thinking of me as part of his extended family—when he is, ultimately, united with his own kind, he can't be dependent on man. Which is why I never feed him or the sandhills, as I do the other birds.
The drone of an airplane brings me out of my reverie. I look up. It's a jet, I don't know what kind. Not commercial. I watch as it flies low across the water and lands on a private strip a half-mile away, on the other side of the lagoon, taxiing to a stop on the tarmac.
The land that airstrip is on used to be part of our family holdings. It's changed hands a few times since we originally sold it thirty years ago. It's the only piece of real estate that's within five miles of my shack, which means it's the only property remotely near this area. The runway was built last year, shortly before I came back home, so I assume the property is under new ownership. I don't know who the present owner is—I've never seen anyone land here before. I suppose my mother knows—she knows everything that goes on in the county, nothing escapes her.
Back to the work at hand. I shoot some more stills of Ollie. If he misses other whooping cranes it doesn't show, he doesn't look like he's moping around and pining for like companionship— the sandhills provide that.
The sound of voices cuts through the air. Noises carry great distances out here—the water acts like an echo board, although specific words are indistinct. I glance at my waterproof Timex.
It's still early, well before seven. I turn and look again at the airfield across the channel, where the voices are coming from.
The airplane is parked on the runway. The entrance door is open, the steps extended to the tarmac. Three men are standing in front of the nose.
I swing my camera in their direction and stare through the lens, using it as a telescope, to get a better look. There's some coarse bunchgrass growing at the sides of the runway—through the distortion of the long lens it looks like a sea of grass, flowing in the wind like waves on the ocean.
One of the men I'm spying on appears to be a pilot, complete with epaulet shirt and MacArthur-style pilot's hat and shades. Of the other two, one is dressed casually, wearing a long-billed baseball-style cap and sunglasses, while the third man, who is smaller, is dressed more formally, in a coat and tie. He's bareheaded and is without glasses. Those two seem to be in animated, angry conversation—the smaller man paces back and forth, gesturing with his arms. The pilot-type is standing to the side, looking off into the distance.
I'm snooping on them; I shouldn't be, but I am. A private plane landing on a secluded airstrip at dawn's first light, a heated argument, who wouldn't? They don't know I'm here, they can't see me hidden on my island, nor can they espy my boat, tucked in amongst the reeds.
That used to be our property.
I have the right to look.I have them in full figure through the ultralong lens. I can't make out features—their faces are backlit, because the sun is rising directly behind them, silhouetting them against the milk-white sky—but I snap off a couple of pictures anyway. It's reflex—I see it, I shoot it. Besides, I'm almost finished with the roll. Might as well expose it.
I wonder who they are and what they're arguing about. My mind conjures up the most lurid possibility—criminal activity. That's not solely paranoia talking, although I've been accused of that. It's known that there is a lot of drug-running taking place here. This region, with its multitude of hidden waterways, has become an important drop-and-distribution point. It's commonly believed that some of the large farms in the area, including pieces of our old property, have been bought by international drug syndicates, using fictitious owners as fronts, and are being used as embarkation points. It's a good setup—this is a rural area, you can pretty much come and go without being noticed, via the Bay, and you're within a few hours of all the major Eastern cities, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York. Large ships can go in and out of these waterways virtually undetected; they could be transporting hundreds of millions of dollars of drugs, guns, any kind of contraband you can imagine. There's over a thousand miles of shoreline in the southern Chesapeake Bay, and it's impossible to patrol and control it all. The Coast Guard's lucky if they interdict ten percent of the illegal stuff.
Which is not to say that the people I'm looking at are criminals. My imagination tends to run amok these days. Nevertheless, the owner of that property is my neighbor. I'd like to find out who it is who has his own airstrip, his own private airplane. One of these days, when I foray into town, I'll check county records and see what name is on the deed. Whether he's one of these men I'm looking at I have no idea.
The sun is scorching the morning like a hot fist. I'm feeling the aftereffects of last night. I don't want to be out here when the sun is high, which will be soon. I turn away from them and go back to my own business.
The gunshot is not loud—a pop that echoes across the water. I turn back.
The pilot is nowhere to be seen. The taller of the other two is now standing over the smaller one, who lies motionless at his feet. The standing man, the one wearing the long-billed cap and sunglasses, has a pistol in his hand. He extends his arm and delivers the coup de grace. Through my lens I see the body on the ground jerk from the impact of the bullet as it hits him in the head.
The killer bends over and picks up the discharged bullet shells. Then he grabs the dead man under the arms, throws him over his shoulder as one would a sack of potatoes, and carries him onto the airplane. The stairs are pulled up. A moment later the airplane takes off down the runway, gathering speed as it ascends into the sky.
I watch, frozen and mesmerized, until the plane disappears from view. Then I put my equipment away, dump my gear in my boat, and wait for several more minutes until I'm sure they're gone. Using extreme caution, I pole out into the narrow channel, keeping as close to the shore as I can, and sneak away for home.
Excerpted from BIRD'S-EYE-VIEW © Copyright 2001 by J. F. Freedman. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books. All rights reserved.