Scavengers

Hal Walling

My stepfather was a painter and photographer of birds. His name was Frank, but I called him Finch, and he called me Loon, which was close enough to Allison.

I was five when my mother and I moved into Finch’s house. He had a studio in the basement with a darkroom and a deep-freeze. The shag rug was like a paleontologist’s quarry, crushed with feathers and small bones. As a girl I liked to explore there, to watch him sketch and paint and frame. He made a good living selling photographs, enough to support my mother, who was a writer, and who spent her evenings mixing Irish coffees at the kitchen table.

Finch had three adult children of his own. I never met them and we never mentioned them except on holidays during dinner prayer. Once, he jokingly referred to them as skeletons in the closet—an image that gave me nightmares, given the dead birds in his freezer.

Finch was fifty-seven when he married my mother. As early as I can remember, he had hair the color of snow, which he wore in a long braid fastened with a rubber band. On drives through the countryside, in the backseat of our Corvair, I would slip his braid through the headrest and let it swing against my knees; or I would try to replicate it using the fringe of his suede jacket, twisting and knotting strands, not knowing it took three.

Sometimes Finch would stop the car on the highway. My mother would groan, but he would get out and walk back down the road. One time he returned with a great blue heron and laid it beside me. The bird stank of decay, but its feathers gleamed like water. As we drove, I unfurled its S-shaped neck across my lap. I could feel where its prickly vertebrae had been crushed. When my mother saw, she turned around and said, “Allison—the blood.”

For my tenth birthday we rented a cottage in the Muskokas. This was something we did every summer, since Finch liked to leave the city to go birding, and he thought the scenery might inspire my mother. On our second day, I was hunting frogs when I heard an explosion of tree branches. My mother yelled from the patio, “Are you OK?” Then, “Where’s Frank?”

We found him lying bent in the dirt, blinking his eyes but not saying anything. He had fallen fifty feet from the canopy of a red oak and protected his camera but broken his back. My mother told me to wait, not to touch him under any circumstance. I examined his limp body—his elbows guarding the camera, his legs like string. He peered at me from the sides of his eyes, swallowing hard as if he meant to speak. I told him to relax, and I lay down beside him, and we listened to the wind ruffle the leaves until the paramedics came.

He spent three months in the hospital and needed bone grafts from his hip. During that time my mother began drinking more heavily; then suddenly she quit and one day announced she had finished her novel. We celebrated in Finch’s hospital room by ordering Chinese food and watching Fantasia. A week later he was walking, and soon after that he came home.

From there it wasn’t long before Finch started working again—driving out to lake country, often bringing me with him. In his sixties, even with his limp, he showed me how to climb trees, and we might sit for hours in the branches of a sycamore. I learned to spot nests by scanning the ground for mismatched twigs. If several birds were in the sky, Finch could tell me who was hunting, and who was hunting whom, and who was scavenging.

When I was thirteen, he took me to a canola field on the Bruce Peninsula. It was dawn but the crops shone bright green and yellow. I carried a shoebox full of feeder mice while Finch climbed onto a shed. When he found our mark, a red-tailed hawk, I let the mice go. They scurried into the canola, and within seconds the hawk dove. As it cruised lower, wings raised, an owl flashed across the field; the hawk split the brush and snatched up one of the mice, but before it could escape, the owl bore into it. Both birds shrieked and the hawk spun to the ground. The owl stole the mouse, then released it and attacked the hawk again. Even from my low vantage I could see the confetti of feathers, the brawny outstretched wings of the birds as they sparred. I heard the shutter snap above my head—the heavy click as it clapped shut and slid open and snapped again, not stopping until the owl had flown off with the dead hawk.

We had planned to shoot until dark, but Finch couldn’t wait to develop the film. He laughed all the way home. He said the photos would make us rich.

It was afternoon when we got back to the house. A van was parked out front, though I didn’t notice it until later. Finch eased into the driveway. He left the engine running. “You go first,” he said.

Inside, I found a young man with a mustache sitting at the kitchen table. I had never seen him before, but he looked at me and said, “Allison?” I wondered briefly if this was my father, though I knew for a fact that my father was dead. “You’re early,” the man said.

I heard the toilet flush. My mother came out of the bathroom. “What are you doing here?” she said. “Where’s Frank? Did something happen?”

I told her he was in the car. That’s when they began panicking. My mother put her hands on her chest as if to cover herself, though she was fully dressed. The man ran to the back door, but Finch had sealed it shut for winter. Finally my mother shoved the man into the bathroom, blocked the doorway, and grabbed my arm. “Go tell Frank to get some beer,” she said. “We’re having a party. That’s Jerry. He and Frank are old friends, but it’s a surprise so don’t tell him. Just say we need beer.” She let go of my arm and pushed me. “Go now, hurry!”

Finch was in the Corvair, the engine still running. He watched me through the windshield. I didn’t know what to say. I was thirteen, old enough to see my mother’s lie, to know that Finch’s only friends were other photographers, and none of them were half his age. It occurred to me that the man, Jerry, might be Finch’s son, but that seemed unlikely.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said.

“Done what?”

“Sent me in there. Like one of those bomb-sniffing dogs.”

He laughed. “It was that bad?” He killed the engine and got out, using the car door for leverage. He seemed suddenly old. His chest heaved as he walked. “None of this is shocking,” he said. “This moment—we always knew it would come.”

Finch went into the house. A minute later, the man came out and got in the van and drove away. My mother took me to a motel, where we shared a bed, though I refused to speak. After a few days we went back to Finch’s house. I found him in the darkroom. But the dynamic had changed. Not so much the one between Finch and my mother—it didn’t take me long to discover that this wasn’t a first-time incident, and that Finch knew more about it than he let on—or even my own troubled relationship with my mother. Most of all, it was Finch’s effect on me, his security, his cool influence, which now seemed cut with sadness, worn thin like an old coat. All I saw was his age, his admission that he was past his prime. In the time it took me to fight through puberty and see his admission as a peaceful thing—an acceptance—he divorced my mother, moved to lake country, and faded from our lives.

But that day, in the darkroom, I stood beside him in the old way. He lifted a print out of the developer fluid, letting me work the fixer. As I rocked the tray back and forth, Finch switched on the safelight. I could see there was a problem with the film. Finch told me it had water damage. The effect perfectly captured our day on the Bruce Peninsula: the birds fighting amidst the canola and clear sky, while violet streaks tore through the exposure, warping the image. It wouldn’t sell, but it was beautiful, I thought, in a salvaged, accidental way. Then Finch turned out the light, and we slipped back into the familiar dark.

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