TRACY GUZEMAN The Gravity of Birds

ISBN 13: 9780007488391

The Gravity of Birds

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9780007488391: The Gravity of Birds

In this compelling debut novel, an art authenticator and an art historian are employed by a famous, reclusive painter to sell a never-before-seen portrait, leading them to discover devastating secrets two sisters have kept from each other, and from the artist who determined the course of their lives.

How do you find someone who wants to be lost?

Sisters Natalie and Alice Kessler were close, until adolescence wrenched them apart. Natalie is headstrong, manipulative—and beautiful; Alice is a dreamer who loves books and birds. During their family’s summer holiday at the lake, Alice falls under the thrall of a struggling young painter, Thomas Bayber, in whom she finds a kindred spirit. Natalie, however, remains strangely unmoved, sitting for a family portrait with surprising indifference. But by the end of the summer, three lives are shattered.

Decades later, Bayber, now a reclusive, world-renowned artist, unveils a never-before-seen work, Kessler Sisters—a provocative painting depicting the young Thomas, Natalie, and Alice. Bayber asks Dennis Finch, an art history professor, and Stephen Jameson, an eccentric young art authenticator, to sell the painting for him. That task becomes more complicated when the artist requires that they first locate Natalie and Alice, who seem to have vanished. And Finch finds himself wondering why Thomas is suddenly so intent on resurrecting the past.

In The Gravity of Birds histories and memories refuse to stay buried; in the end only the excavation of the past will enable its survivors to love again.

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About the Author:

Tracy Guzeman lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Vestal Review, and Glimmer Train Stories. The Gravity of Birds is her first novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Gravity of Birds ONE


August 1963

Alice haunted the mossy edge of the woods, lingering in patches of shade. She was waiting to hear his Austin-Healey throttle back when he careened down the utility road separating the state park from the cabins rimming the lake, but only the whistled conversation of buntings echoed in the branches above. The vibrant blue males darted deeper into the trees when she blew her own sweet-sweet chew-chew sweet-sweet up to theirs. Pine seedlings brushed against her pants as she pushed through the understory, their green heads vivid beneath the canopy. She had dressed to fade into the forest; her hair was bundled up under a long-billed cap, her clothes drab and inconspicuous. When at last she heard his car, she crouched behind a clump of birch and made herself as small as possible, settling into a shallow depression of ferns and leaf litter. Balancing her birding diary and a book of poetry in her lap, she peeled spirals of parchment from the trunks and watched as he wheeled into the graveled parking space at the head of his property.

He shut off the engine but stayed in the convertible and lit a cigarette, smoking it slowly, his eyes closed for so long she wondered if he had fallen asleep or maybe drifted into one of his moody trances. When he finally unfolded himself from the cramped front seat, he was as straight and narrow as the trunks behind him, the dark, even mass of them swallowing his shadow. Alice twitched, her left foot gone to pins and needles. The crunch of brush beneath her caused no more disturbance than a small animal, but he immediately turned to where she was hidden and stared at a spot directly above her head while she held her breath.

“Alice,” he whispered into the warm air. She could just hear the hiss of it, could barely see his lips moving. But she was sure he had said her name. They had that in common, the two of them; they were both observers, though of different sorts.

He lifted a single paper bag from the passenger seat, cradling it close to his chest, almost lovingly. Bottles, she decided, thinking of her father and his many trips back and forth between the car and their own cabin, carefully ferrying the liquor he’d brought, enough for a month’s worth of toasts and nightcaps and morning-after hair-of-the-dogs. Damn locals mark their inventory up at the first sign of summer people, her father had said. Why should I pay twice for something I’m only going to drink once? No one was going to get the better of him. So there’d been bottles of red and white wine, champagne, Galliano and orange juice for her mother’s Wallbangers, vodka and gin, an assortment of mixers, one choice bottle of whiskey, and several cases of beer. All of which had been cautiously transported in the same fashion Thomas Bayber now employed.

She waited until he’d navigated the short flight of flagstone steps and the screen door banged shut behind him before she moved, choosing a soft mound of earth pillowed with needles. She scratched at a mosquito bite and opened the book of poetry to read it again. Mrs. Phelan, the librarian, had set it aside for her when it first came in.

“Mary Oliver. No Voyage and Other Poems. My sister sent it to me from London, Alice. I thought you might like to be the first to read it.” Mrs. Phelan fanned the pages recklessly, winking at Alice as though they were conspirators. “It still has that new book smell.”

Alice had saved the book for the lake, not wanting to read any of the poems until she was in exactly the right surroundings. On the dock that morning, she’d grabbed a towel, still faintly damp and smelling of algae, and stretched out on her stomach, resting on her elbows as she thumbed through the book. The glare of sunlight off the crisp pages gave her a headache, but she stayed where she was, letting the heat paint her skin a tender pink. She kept reading, holding her breath after each stanza, focusing on the language, on the precise meaning of the words, regretting that she could only imagine what had been meant, as opposed to knowing with any certainty. Now the page with the poem “No Voyage” was wrinkled, pocked from specks of sand, its corner imprinted with the damp mark of Alice’s thumb. I lie like land used up . . . There were secrets in the lines she couldn’t puzzle out.

If she asked, Thomas would decipher the poem for her, without resorting to the coddling speech adults so often used, choosing vague words and pretending confusion. The two of them had fallen into the habit of bartering knowledge whenever she visited. He schooled her in jazz, in bebop and exotic bossa nova, playing his favorites for her while he painted—Slim Gaillard, Rita Reys, King Pleasure, and Jimmy Giuffre—stabbing the air with his brush when there was a particular passage he wanted her to note. In turn, she showed him the latest additions to her birding diary—her sketches of the short-eared owl and American wigeon, the cedar waxwing and late warblers. She explained how the innocent-looking loggerhead shrike killed its prey by biting it in the back of the neck, severing the spinal cord before impaling the victim on thorns or barbed wire and tearing it apart.

“Good grief,” he’d said, shuddering. “I’m in the clutches of an avian Vincent Price.”

She suspected their conversations only provided him with reasons to procrastinate, but she made him laugh with her descriptions of the people in town: Tamara Philson, who wore her long strand of pearls everywhere, even to the beach, after reading of a burglary in the neighboring town; the Sidbey twins, whose parents dressed them in matching clothes, down to the barrettes in their hair and the laces in their sneakers, the only distinguishable difference between the two being a purple dot Mr. Sidbey had penned onto the earlobe of one. You, Alice, Thomas said, are my most reliable antidote to boredom.

She peered through the birch trunks toward the back of the house. If she waited too long before knocking, he might start working, and then she risked interrupting him. His manner would be brisk, his sentences clipped. He was like a feral animal that way, like the cats at home she tried to entice from behind the woodpile and capture. She would never have gone over without an invitation—one had been extended, after all, in general terms—but even so, she had found it best to approach him cautiously.

Come over and visit, he’d said to her family that first day, introducing himself on the dock the properties shared, appearing from the woods to retrieve the frenzied dog that circled his feet. But introductions weren’t necessary—at least not on his part. They knew exactly who he was.

*   *   *

“That artist” was the way her father referred to him, the same way he might say “that ditch digger” or “that ax murderer.” She’d staked out a listening post at the top of the stairs at home long before they’d ever driven to the lake, eavesdropping on her parents’ conversation.

“Myrna says he’s gifted,” her mother had said.

“Well, I imagine she would know, what with her expertise in the field of . . . what is it he does?” Her father’s voice had the exasperated tone he often used when confronted with Myrna Reston’s expertise in a myriad of subjects.

“You know perfectly well what he does. He’s a painter. She says he’s received a scholarship to the Royal Academy.”

Her father snorted, unimpressed. “A painter. So people pay him to drink their booze and make eyes at their daughters and sit in a chair sucking on the end of a paintbrush. Nice work if you can get it.” Alice pictured her father rolling his eyes.

“There’s no need for sarcasm, Niels.”

“I’m not being sarcastic. I just don’t want anyone in my family fawning over some artist. We’ve already had more than we can handle with . . .” There was a pause, the whispers became inaudible, and Alice knew they were discussing Natalie. Her father’s voice boomed again and startled her on the step where she perched. “Why now, after all these summers of the house being deserted? Better it should stay that way—”

Her mother interrupted. “Whether or not they use the house is no business of ours. You’re only annoyed because if he’s there, you won’t be able to keep one of the boats tied up to the Baybers’ side of the dock. You can hardly blame the young man for that.”

Her father exhaled loudly—his sigh of defeat. “I can certainly try.”

*   *   *

The four of them had arrived on a Saturday evening three weeks ago: Alice, her parents, and her older sister, Natalie, all of them sweaty and road-weary, wrinkled and wretched from the long drive. When she woke the next morning the first things she saw were their suitcases lying open-jawed on the bedroom floor, spilling things yet to be unpacked. The swimsuit she grabbed from the clothesline and tugged onto her body after breakfast pulled like rubber against her skin, still damp from their ritual swim at dusk the night before. In spite of her father’s wild laughter as he splashed Alice and her mother, and her mother’s dramatic squeals in response, Natalie had refused to join in, and remained on the shore in the fading light, just watching them; her arms crossed and her face fixed with a cold violence, an expression she’d mastered since returning from her time away. Alice couldn’t account for Natalie’s sudden and intense dislike of the three of them. Why are you being such a pill? she’d whispered in the backseat of the car on the drive up, deliberately choosing a word Natalie often directed at her, then elbowing her sister when she refused to reply. You’re going to make them unhappy. You’re going to ruin everything.

When Alice was younger, her father had fashioned a rough mask from evergreen needles and lake grass glued to a rotten shell of pine bark, shed like a skin. He secured it to the end of their canoe with heavy yellow cord, telling Alice their ancient Dutch relatives believed water fairies lived in the figureheads of ships, protecting the vessels and their sailors from all manner of ills—storms, narrow and treacherous passageways, fevers, and bad luck. Kaboutermannekes he called them. If the ship ran aground, or even worse, if it sank, the Kaboutermannekes would guide the seafarers’ souls to the Land of the Dead. Without a water fairy to guide him, a sailor’s soul would be lost at sea forever. Natalie, locked in place on the rocky shore, did not look like she would protect any of them from anything.

Alice lounged on the dock that first morning, listening to her parents talk about all the things they might do with the day. They never moved from their chairs, only shifted from one hip to the other, their skin smeared white with contrails of suntan lotion, their eyes invisible behind dark glasses, their fingers intertwined until they traded sections of newspaper or reached for their Bloody Marys. When the dog suddenly appeared on the dock, a low growl deep in its throat, Alice’s mother drew her feet up onto the chair, alarmed. They heard a voice coming from the deep part of the woods, calling sharply, “Neela. Neela, come here right now.”

“She’s really harmless, just suffers from ‘small dog complex’ is all” was what he said. She was tempted to say in return, “You’re not what I expected,” but held her tongue.

*   *   *

She stopped at the back door to Thomas’s cabin, the books tight in her hand, and took a deep breath, brushing the forest from her feet: a stain of pitch, the powdery dust of dry leaves, a citron smear of moss. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t visited him before, but her parents had always known exactly where she was, had waved and shouted after her, Don’t be a bother and don’t overstay your welcome. In that moment she realized what it was to be Natalie, to know what you shouldn’t do, and to do it anyway.

The paint on the door was tired brown fading to gray, cracked and buckled as alligator hide, chunky flakes of it falling to the ground as she brushed against it. She folded up the right sleeve of her shirt to hide the damp cuff she’d let dangle in the lake while reading. The wet of it soaked through, cooling a patch of her skin, but the rest of her body felt like a thing on fire, all twitchy and skittering. She rocked on her heels, holding her books to her chest. When she touched the doorknob it felt electric in her hand, hot from a shaft of sunlight slicing between the pines. She held on to it, letting it burn against her palm.

A breeze shifted across the lake, carrying with it the echo of gulls and the pungent smell of alewives rotting onshore after last night’s storm. Alice looked up through the maze of branches knotted overhead, to the bright washed sky. Her head swam, and she held the doorknob more firmly in her hand.

*   *   *

Feel free to visit whenever you like, he’d said. At the time of the invitation her mother nodded hesitantly, eyeing Bayber’s dog as the animal sniffed and scratched its way from plank to plank. Her father pulled himself up from the weathered Adirondack, causing the dock to sway slightly beneath them. With that unexpected movement something shifted, and Alice felt they were suddenly different people from the family they’d been only moments before.

“Felicity Kessler,” her mother said, offering her hand. “This is my husband, Niels. We rent the Restons’ cabin every August. You must know Myrna. Mrs. Reston?”

“My family doesn’t let me out very often.” He winked at her mother, and Alice was appalled to see her mother’s cheeks color. “Myrna’s—Mrs. Reston’s—name may have come up in conversation, but I haven’t yet had the pleasure.”

“Lucky you, on that count,” her father said.

“Niels!”

“I’m only joking, of course. As my wife will tell you, Mr. Bayber, it can be useful to have the acquaintance of someone so . . . well-informed.”

“Please, I only answer to Thomas.” He was wearing a dark sweater unraveling at the cuffs with a white button-down beneath it and paint-spattered khakis. A wicker basket piled with grapes swayed in one of his hands. “Here,” he said, handing the basket to her father. “Our property’s thick with them. It seems criminal to let them go to waste when they’re ripe.”

When no one replied, he forged on, undeterred by the guarded look on her father’s face.

“Consider them a peace offering. An apology for Neela, here. She and I have a great deal in common, chief being that, according to my mother, we’re both completely untrainable.”

That was the moment Alice liked him. Up until then she’d merely thought him strange, with his paint-spotted clothes, unruly hair, and eyes the same gray as the morning lake. Too sure of himself and too tall. And he stared at them—something her mother constantly admonished her not to do—but nonetheless there he was, staring at them quite deliberately and making no attempt to hide it, as if he could see past their fleshy outlines and deep inside them, into the places where they hid their weaknesses and embarrassments.

She wasn’t used to people speaking so directly, especially not at the lake, where adult conversations were burdened with enthusias...

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