Flash Fiction: All the Sires of Generations
All the Sires of Generations
“That’s too bad. How you figure,” Arbuthnot asked McCoy, “if I put it out…if you get around, I mean, and put it out under my name… Tell em the professor, that’s what I hear they been calling me—”
Arbuthnot stopped here, and chuckled. “A man looking for a bird.”
McCoy, deeply sun-seasoned, perhaps thirty-five—wiry, narrow of skull, well-proportioned, though scaled small—had not so far found any of Arbuthnot’s digressions worth a laugh in reply. He looked pained and squinted through the window.
The Never Ask interior, its hurricane shutters thrown back, its unglassed sashes open to the shade of a cypress, had only this light. A car battery sat on the floor, making the fan go.
Arbuthnot met the eye of the man tending bar. “Yeah, take another,” he murmured. The proprietor leaned, uncapping bottles as he handed each across the sill. Arbuthnot and McCoy sat on the porch, their bench under the tin roof fanned by a slight breeze, just tolerably cooler than a stool indoors.
“Now I don’t know what the hell I’m saying, McCoy. Let me think.”
“These folks, you see,” McCoy said. He cleared his throat. “Don’t mean anything to em. Get em a little spending money, on their own…else it’s all cane fields. Never get ahead in the cane field.”
“Well, that’s it. I want you to put it out…Arbuthnot’ll beat any offer. But he wants that bird alive.”
He looked over his shoulder, inside, and around the porch. None of the Never Ask patrons seemed listening…but if they weren’t deaf, they were hearing. He decided not to name his bounty. People up in Wilkes-Barre shook their heads in disbelief, but Arbuthnot had gone all kinds of places by himself, with only a local man to guide him. It was 1950, the world was a civilized place. He didn’t consider the practice unsafe; he worried about the birds.
“I want you to keep your eyes open.”
Having said it, he found the tone a little peremptory, wondered if he ought to soften the order. He wasn’t sure he was the one giving orders.
“I mean,” he told her, “this is what I have in mind…write em down in the book, every bird we see. Some’re rare and some aren’t…blue jay, common as dirt, hooded warbler, not especially hard to spot. Pileated, probably see one. Red-cockaded, not likely…but they’re out there. We happen to spot one of those, that’s something to peg on, if you understand me.”
Now, this also was just an expression. His guide struck him as prickly. He hadn’t expected a woman, and didn’t have any manners for it.
“Mr. Arbuthnot, I get along just fine.” She had hefted his knapsack, his camera bag and the two canteens, loaded these in the bateau herself. Then put a firm hand on the pole. Fixed him with a look, when he’d made some move in his seat to rise and take this from her.
“I understand you,” she said now. “You better keep quiet and listen. Audubon wrote…”
“Yes.” He was interrupting. He flushed, but his face from the powerful heat was already red and sweat-sheened. “Yes…you’re going to say they’ll be calling to each other.”
He couldn’t see whether, under the brim of her hat, she frowned, but her chin came up. She turned her back on him, and launched the bateau into the current. Arbuthnot peered through his binocular. He jotted in his notebook, perspiration dripping and dampening the page. She, with her dark skin, was cool. He thought he would not make this remark, but would anyway ask her a rude question.
The two of them were not getting along so well…maybe it couldn’t hurt in the long run.
“You better call me Peggy.”
Arbuthnot felt he would not…not yet. “So, your people.”
She glanced at him, down on him, standing upright at the prow.
He felt he ought to shut up. “The Seminole tribe is big down here,” he tried.
“Well, I guess so. I never heard anyone say it that way.”
“Is that what McCoy had in mind? Maybe you know someone gets up into the swamps?”
She didn’t finish. She held up a hand, and so he didn’t know if she’d been about to rebuke him, or only wanted his attention. And she meant for him to hear, not see. He scanned the trees, alert and a little desperate. There was no knowing where the fretful cry, over now, had come from.
All the Sires of Generations
(2017, Stephanie Foster)