From “A Bird in the Forest”

A chapter from my fiction manuscript; this one, about a boy’s father and uncle, in 1949 Nova Scotia. Sometimes dialogue writes itself. This one was fun.

After Christmas came the coldest and hardest part of winter, when snow piled up against the doors and all the little houses seemed buried in an expansive crust of white.  Every Saturday night Uncle Floyd came over and sat in the warm parlor, while Nevin’s father reclined with his feet on the hassock and the boy sprawled on the floor next to Snooks.  Sometimes Uncle Floyd surreptitiously drew out a metal pocket flask and took a sip.

         “Don’t tell your mother,” he quietly cautioned. “Your mum’s a teetotaler.  She likes to say, ‘Drunkenness is the devil’s backdoor to hell, and don’t you forget it.’”  Then Uncle Floyd winked, signaling that he didn’t believe a word of it.

         Nevin’s father didn’t drink unless Uncle Floyd pressed him, and Uncle Floyd only pressed when he was telling a story.  All of his stories were old, but they sounded new on the retelling, and Nevin’s father went right along, pretending he was hearing them for the first time.

         “You remember Harvey Taylor?” Uncle Floyd began one evening.  “He went away after his parents’ house burned down.  By the time he come back, his folks was dead and buried.  Killed by a logging truck, they was.  In their hay wagon on the way to church, flattened just like that.”

         He clapped his hands loudly, and Nevin jumped.

         “Old Harvey might’a set his parents’ house on fire himself, come to think of it,” Uncle Floyd went on.  “Anyhow, he had a pretty good job up New Brunswick until something big fell on him.  After that, he couldn’t straighten up anymore.”

         “You don’t say,” said Nevin’s father with a faint smile.  “He must’a been all bunged up.”   

         “Yessir, bunged up, that’s what he was.  Anyway, no one had heard from him ‘til he come back.  Poor bugger didn’t have one damn thing to his name, except the land where that house burned down.  Some folks said he got some money from the accident and buried it, but you can’t prove that by me.”

         “Where’d he bury it?” asked Nevin, intrigued by the thought of buried treasure.  His father hid jars full of silver coins—“better than a bank,” he said—in the kitchen cupboard behind the cans, and the boy liked to take them out and jingle them before returning them to their hiding place.

         “Shh,” said his father.


         “Listen what I’m telling you,” continued Uncle Floyd.  “That old Harvey hollows out a cave in the side of a hill, and he goes and puts a wooden door over the opening—a real door, with a doorknob and everything.  And damned if he didn’t live in that cave all winter with nothing but a great big old German shepherd named Killer.”

         Nevin’s father snorted, his face flushed and his eyes bright with amusement.  He took a sip of whiskey and passed the flask back to his brother.

         “You laugh, but wait ‘til you hear the rest,” said Uncle Floyd.  “Come spring, Harvey puts up a tarpaper shack with a stove and a bed for him and the dog.  I’m out the McCormack Road one day, and I get it in my head to have a look.  I go up and knock on the door, and I hear him say, ‘Come in.’  Don’t you know, that looney’s sitting back in his skivvies, got a greasy beard down to here.”

         Uncle Floyd touched his hand to his belt buckle.  Then he took another quick swig and lowered his voice.

         “Now you’re not gonna believe what I’m about to tell you.”  He leaned in.

         Nevin’s father winked at the boy as if to say, “Get a load of this.”

         “I take a look around, and I can’t believe my eyes.”  The other man’s voice rose.  “There’s this big old ham bone on the table—Old Harvey has ahold of one end, chewing on it, and Killer is chewing on the other!”

         Warm from the whiskey, Nevin’s father burst into hearty laughter.

         “That is a load of utter horse shit,” he said.

         “Mind your language, Kenneth!” Nevin’s mother called from the recesses of the kitchen, but her husband was holding sides that ached from belly laughter that was all too rare.

          “Oh it’s horseshit, is it?” asked Uncle Floyd with mock indignation.  He wagged a finger at Nevin.  “Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”


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