The Birdcatcher

Gayl Jones

September 16, 2022 
The following is from Gayl Jones' The Birdcatcher. Jones was born in Kentucky in 1949. She attended Connecticut College and Brown University, and has taught at Wellesley College and the University of Michigan. Her books landmark books include Corregidora, Eva’s Man, Mosquito, and The Healing, the last a National Book Award finalist and New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her latest book, Palmares, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and named a New York Times Editors' Choice and has received countless other accolades.

Ibiza. I have left Brazil and am living on the white-washed island of Ibiza with my friend Catherine Shuger, a sculptor who has been declared legally insane, and her husband, Ernest, a freelance writer of popular science articles. We are all expatriate Americans: exiles.

Standing on the terrace, sheltered in the smell of oranges and eucalyptus, washed in sunlight, you’d swear this was a paradise. But to tell the truth the place is full of dangers. The dangers, however, are not directed toward me but toward Ernest. You see, Catherine sometimes tries to kill her husband. It has been this way for years: He puts her into an asylum, thinks she’s well, takes her out again, and she tries to kill him. He puts her in another one, thinks she’s well, takes her out again, she tries to kill him: on and on. You’d think we’d learn by now; you’d think everybody’d learn, don’t you? But somehow we keep the optimism, or the pretense, bring her out, and wait. She’s like the fucking trapdoor spider.

Here she’s sitting now: We’re both out on the dandelion-bright terrace. I’m writing this, and Catherine’s scribbling in her therapy notebook that her last psychiatrist told her to keep. Ernest is inside behind the glass door working on an article on laser medicine. Here Catherine sits in a pink silk nightie and blue flannel housecoat, though it’s two o’clock in the afternoon and hot as fresh cow dung out here. Underneath I know what she’s wearing too—Lady Jockey drawers (Look, Amanda, Jockey makes drawers for women! I’ve got to get some of these!) and a champagne-colored (champagne!) Danskin bra. And looking so sweet! If you didn’t know her story, well, you could eat her up the way she’s looking now: wrist on her chin, her jaws as innocent and plum as cherubs’.

Astronomers say that even galaxies eat each other; so why not let’s eat this sweet bitch?

Anyway, she tries to kill Ernest: that’s all the story really. No one knows why, and Catherine won’t tell. The rest of us can only list the attempts: Once she tried to dump a steel bookcase on him, another time she lunged at him with a red-hot poker; once she grabbed the rusty spoke of a bicycle wheel when we were passing by a salvage dump in Detroit.

We were walking down this deserted backstreet one Sunday, before noon. When Catherine spotted the salvage dump, she ran a bit ahead of us, to the wire-mesh fence. When we got to her, she had her hands entwined in the fence. We stood behind her, watching. She looked almost like a little girl in her yellow cotton dress, her hair in tiny braids and tied with a ribbon, her bowlegs peeking out of the dress, and looking as if she were perpetually getting ready to climb onto a saddle—with ride-’em-cowgirl bowlegs. She was even wearing socks with her high-heeled shoes—that was the latest style. Standing pigeon-toed, she looked like a canary peeking into its cage.

“Come along, Catherine,” Ernest said, after we had stood there a moment.

“I’m looking to see if they’ve got anything I can use. They’ve got a lot of rubber things. I’m thinking of maybe doing a series of pieces in rubber. Bouncing the idea around, you know.”

She seemed in delightful good humor for a change.

I stopped watching her and watched the pale building that was the central office for the salvage company. It had high windows, so you’d have to climb a ladder to peek inside. The door was tall and narrow; only one person could enter at a time. I imagined one of those slender carnival giants—a man who lived on stilts—the sort you see in carnival parades, wearing a tuxedo and an oversized stove-pipe hat.

“We’ll come back tomorrow and you can look around.”

I turned; Catherine turned, one foot darted forward, she stretched her arm like a fencer, looking as determined as an expert. But Ernest had done something she hadn’t counted on; he had already taken off his leather jacket and had draped it over his arm—luck or premonition I don’t know—so that he had ready-made shield against her. She stabbed the leather. I grabbed her from behind around the waist and held. She still stood with one leg jutted forward; the other foot had fallen out of its shoe, so she was off-balance, easy for me to hold. Ernest got the bicycle spoke out of her hand and just stood looking. She gave a sudden yell like a samurai, then settled into my arms. A weird, curious look on Ernest. Like that time I went with an aunt to the police department to file a complaint. There was another woman there sitting at a gray, metal table, examining photographs. She kept turning pages till she got to the page where she saw the familiar face. “This is him,” she said, then, “I think this is him. This could quite possibly be him.” The detective standing behind her said, “We don’t go by possibly in here.” When my aunt and I got outside, she said, “That’s not exactly true that they don’t go by possibly. I have known them to go by possibly.” Anyway, the look of that woman spotting the “possibly” photograph was the look that Ernest had watching Catherine: “This is her. I think this is her. This could quite possibly be her.” But, standing behind Catherine’s shoulder, it was as if he were looking at both her and me at the same time.

Finally, he took the bicycle spoke and tossed it over the fence.

It dangled on top of a pile of junk, like an antenna.

“I know where they mend leather,” Catherine said. I let go of her.

Ernest folded his jacket, so the hole in it wasn’t visible. “So where do you folks want to go for lunch?” he asked.

“I want Greektown,” said Catherine.

“I’d like to hear where Amanda wants to go. You like Chinese, don’t you?” he asked.

“Greektown’s fine,” I said.

“Greektown then,” he said, scratching the side of his neck and blowing air out of his mouth, sounding like a tire deflating.

So every time she tries something now it’s new, like an inspiration. In the beginning it used to always be knives, then we stopped allowing knives, not real ones, not even rubber ones. Now she has to improvise.

And Ernest has to carry her doctor’s reports everywhere they go, so he doesn’t have to keep explaining. He carries around xeroxed copies in brown manila envelopes. In fact, I’ve got a couple of her doctor’s reports in my suitcase.

If Catherine is the trapdoor spider, Ernest is . . . How can I describe him? He’s lovely. Cinnamon-colored with big shoulders. I call him “big two-hearted river.” You have to have two hearts to take care of a difficult woman like Catherine. And my husband thought I was a witch! I’m a unicorn compared to her.

When Catherine isn’t looking sweet she’s looking like she’s standing behind glass. I guess that’s because she’s spent so many fucking days standing behind glass. What would you expect? They won’t even let her take her compact when she goes to those places, you see because it’s got a mirror in it, and they’re afraid she might break the mirror, harm herself, cut her wrists or something. But it’s not herself she tries to harm, never herself. They could let her have all the fucking mirrors in the world, and it wouldn’t be herself she’d harm. No. There are some bitches like that. And then there are the other kind—it’s always their own selves they go for. Like this one woman Catherine told me about, sneaked her compact in—but she didn’t go for her wrists, but for her cunt—cut it all to shreds. Some bitches . . .

It hasn’t been but a week since Ernest has taken her out of the hospital in Milan and brought her here to Ibiza. I got his postcard when I was traveling in Brazil. In the old days I used to stop everything and come running. Now I come, but I take my own time, and when I get where they are I don’t even ask what happened. I used to make it a little ritual of asking: “Catherine, what happened?” “I’ve just tried to kill my husband.”

Now I don’t ask, and all the asylums smell the same, like cellophane and orange juice. All stone and glass. This time she had to go all the way across the fucking Atlantic to go crazy. Catherine had just won this international Italian art prize too—I forget the name of it, but a real prestigious one; and they’d traveled to Milan for her to claim it. She claimed it all right, the bucks and this brass and gold trophy. It’s the trophy she tried to do her thing with.

Anyway, well, I remember this one time she’d just tried to kill him, and I got there and there they were sitting on a bench in the hallway outside the locked door, and he was holding her elbow. You’d think they were turtledoves. Baby! If all lovers could look that way! Well, it takes all kinds. And Catherine’s got enough jabber to fill the whole country. She starts talking about elbows! Just tried to kill the man and talking about elbows.

“You know, you can tell the age of somebody by the skin on the elbows,” she jabbers.

“No. I didn’t know that.”

Ernest glances up, notices me there before Catherine does. The wrinkles in his forehead seem to peel off, then they deepen. When Catherine notices, she winks at me and keeps on talking.

“Yeah. Pinch the skin up and if it goes back down you’re young! Pinch the skin up and if it stays up, you’re old.”

She tested us.

“We’re all old, kiddo!” she chirped.

Naughty Catherine pointed at me. “She wants me to test your pecker!” she exclaimed.

“Stop it,” he demanded.

Catherine’s little finger, still raised at me, wiggles, then drops to pat her knee.

When the doctor came, Catherine, wearing a clown’s grin, disappeared behind the locked door.

Ernest and I gave each other bewildered stares, then he reached into his valise for the doctor’s reports.


Excerpted from The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones. Copyright 2022. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

More Story
Here's the longlist for the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Today, the National Book Foundation announced the 10 books on the longlist for the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction,...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.