OCTOBER 1, 1954
Nathan McCann stood in the cool autumn dark, a moment before sunrise, his shotgun angled up across his shoulder; he insisted that his retriever, Sadie, obey him. He called her name again, cross with her for forcing him to break the morning still, the very reason he had come. In the seven years he’d owned the dog, she had never before refused to come when he called.
Remembering this, he shone his big lantern flashlight on her. In the brief instant before she squinted her eyes and turned her face from the light, he saw something, some look that would do for an explanation. She had been able to say something to him. She was not defying his judgment, but asking him to consider, for a moment, her own. You must come, she said. You must. For the first time in the seven years he’d owned her, Nathan obeyed his dog. He came when she called him.
She stood under a tree, digging. Not digging in that frantic way dogs do, both front feet flying in rhythm, but gently pushing leaves aside with her muzzle, and occasionally with one front paw. He couldn’t see around her, so he pulled her off by the collar.
“OK, girl. I’m here now; let me see what you’ve got.”
He shone the light on the mound of fallen leaves. Jutting out from the pile was an unfathomably small — yet unmistakably human — foot.
“Dear God,” Nathan said, and set the flashlight down. He scooped underneath the lump with both gloved hands at once, lifted the child up to him, blew leaves off its face. It was wrapped in a sweater — a regular adult-sized sweater — and wore a multicolored knit cap. It could not have been more than a day or two old. He would know more if he could hold the flashlight and the child at the same time. He pulled off one glove with his teeth and touched the skin of its face. It felt cool against the backs of his fingers.
“What kind of person would do such a thing?” he said quietly. He looked up to the sky as if God were immediately available to that question. The sky had gone light now, but just a trace. Dawn had not crested the hill but lay beyond the horizon somewhere, waiting.
He set the child gently on the bed of leaves and looked more closely with the flashlight. The child moved its lips and jaw sluggishly, a dry-mouthed gesture, as if mashing something against its palate, or, in any case, wishing it could.
“Dear God,” Nathan said again.
He had not until that moment considered the possibility that the child might be alive.
He left his shotgun in the nest of leaves, because he needed both hands to steady the child’s body against his, hold the head firmly to his chest. He and his dog sprinted for the station wagon. Behind him, dawn broke across the lake. Ducks flew unmolested. Forgotten.
At the hospital, two emergency-room doctors sprang into rapid, jerky motion when they saw what Nathan held. They set the infant on a cart, a speck in the middle of an ocean, and unwrapped the sweater. A boy, Nathan saw. A boy still wearing his umbilical cord, a badge of innocence. As they ran, rolling the cart alongside, one of the doctors pulled off the knit cap. It fell to the linoleum floor unnoticed. Nathan picked it up, put it in a zippered pocket of his hunting vest. It was so small, that cap; it wouldn’t cover Nathan’s palm. He moved as close to the door of the examining room as he felt would be allowed.
He heard one of the doctors say, “Throw him out in the woods on an October night, then give him a nice warm sweater and a little hat to hold in his body heat. Now that’s ambivalence.”
Nathan walked down the hall and bought a cup of hot coffee from a vending machine. It was indeed hot, but that’s all that could be said for it.
Twenty or thirty minutes later a doctor came out of that room.
“Doctor,” Nathan called, and ran down the hall. The doctor’s face looked blank, as if he could not recall where he’d seen Nathan before. “I’m the man who found that baby in the woods.”
“Ah, yes,” the doctor said. “So you are. Can you stay a few minutes? The police will want to speak with you. If you have to go, please leave your phone number at the desk. I’m sure you understand. They’ll want all the details they can get. Try to find who did this thing.”
“How is the boy?”
“What kind of shape is he in? Bad shape. Will he survive? Probably. I don’t promise, but he’s a fighter. Sometimes they’re stronger than you can imagine at that age.”
“I want to adopt that boy,” Nathan said.
“If he survives, you mean.”
“Yes. If he survives.”
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “That would not be my department.”
He told the story in earnest detail to the police, careful to stress that the real hero was sitting out in the back seat of his station wagon.
“Baby’d be dead if it wasn’t for you.”
“And Sadie,” Nathan said.
“Right. Look. We know you’ve got stuff to do, but we need you to show us the exact crime scene.”
“No inconvenience,” Nathan said. “I was on my way back there now, to get my shotgun.”
They began walking toward the hospital parking lot together.
“I want to adopt that boy,” Nathan said.
“We couldn’t tell you nothing about that,” the cop replied.
“I want to adopt that boy,” Nathan said to his wife, Flora, over a late brunch. They sat at the kitchen table, Nathan smearing jam on his English muffin. He preferred butter, but was having to watch his waist.
“Don’t be absurd,” Flora said. She sat with a cigarette high in the crook of her first two fingers, reading the paper. She had the gravelly voice of a drinking woman, which she was not.
Nathan sipped his coffee; it was hot and strong. He felt a pang of loss remembering there would be no roast duck for supper. “Why is it absurd?”
“Neither one of us is very fond of kids. And we’re hardly kids ourselves.”
“I like children well enough. I just never thought we’d be all that well suited.”
Flora looked up from her paper for the first time. “Just answered your own question, haven’t you?”
“This is different. This was meant to be.”
She took a puff of her cigarette, set it down on the ashtray, and regarded him briefly. “Nathan,” she began. Nathan thought he heard a note of derision. Condescension, even. “I’ve known you twenty-four years, and you have never before said that anything was ‘meant to be.’ ”
“Maybe in twenty-four years nothing else came into that category.”
Flora shook her head. “Anyway, the kid probably has somebody. A mother. They could find the mother.”
“If they find her,” Nathan said evenly, “they will put her in jail.”
“And then it could turn out he has some other kin that would take him.”
“Maybe,” Nathan said. “We’ll see. It just seems to me that when an infant is alone in the woods, slowly dying . . . that child has . . . for all intents and purposes . . . no one.”
But when Nathan read the paper the next morning, he found he had supposed incorrectly. The boy had a mother, who had been located. She had attempted to cross a state line, but had instead ended up in an emergency room, hemorrhaging. She had been arrested, though not yet arraigned, and a debate raged over what charges should be brought. Reckless endangerment, reckless disregard for human life. Some said attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder. The question on seemingly everyone’s lips: Why the woods? Why not a hospital or an orphanage? But no answer appeared to be forthcoming. The article also said that the child, if and when he ever recovered enough to leave the hospital, would be given into the custodial care of his grandmother, Mrs. Ertha Bates, mother of the troubled girl, who lived in a small town an hour’s drive away. And then, finally, it noted that the infant had been found in the woods by a man on a duck-hunting outing with his dog.
Nathan folded up the paper, set it to rest on the end table near the couch, and sat a moment, digesting this new information. He thought about lighting a cigarette, though he’d gone to the trouble to quit them several years ago, and didn’t fancy going through all that again.
Then he began to wonder how hard it would be to find this Ertha Bates. He discovered it would not be difficult at all.
The home of Mrs. Ertha Bates was kept tidy, but it was old. The porch boards creaked and sagged under Nathan’s weight. He rapped on the front door, into which was set an arrangement of teardrop-shaped glass panes forming a half circle. A curtain slid aside, and a woman’s face appeared. Then the door opened. She stood on the sill, did not invite him in. She was a woman perhaps his own age, midforties — but old-looking, as though used too roughly — with graying hair, a faded-but-clean dress, and a plain white apron. “Yes?” she said.
Nathan held his hat in front of him. “I’m the man who found the baby in the woods.”
“Is that all you have to say to me? ‘I see’?”
“I can’t know what to say to you,” she said, “until I know what you’ve come to say to me.” While they talked, her hands worked across that apron, smoothed and smoothed, as if trying to smooth away . . . what? Nathan wondered.
“I wanted to adopt that boy.”
“So I heard.”
“But I didn’t come to argue that.”
“Good,” she said. “Because I am his flesh and blood.”
“Yes,” Nathan said. “That is incontrovertible. Now let me tell you something else that also is. That boy would not exist if I had not been in just that place at just that time. I’m not suggesting there was any special heroism involved, or that anyone else couldn’t have done the same thing equally well. Only that it wasn’t anyone else; it was me. No one can take that from me, any more than they can deny your claim by blood.”
“What do you want from me?” she asked, beginning to sound unnerved.
“Only this, and I think it’s reasonable: Sometime in the course of that boy’s life, I want him to know me. I want you to bring him to me when he’s grown. Or half grown. That’s up to you. And I want you to introduce me, and say to him, ‘This is the man who found you in the woods.’ That way he’ll know me. I will exist for him.”
Ertha Bates stood silent a moment, smoothing. Then she said, “How would I find you?”
Nathan reached into his coat pocket and produced his business card, which advertised his combined bookkeeping and tax-consultation services.
Mrs. Bates accepted the card without looking at it. It disappeared into one big apron pocket. Her eyes found his directly. “All right, then,” she said. “All right. As you say. When I think he’s old enough to understand such a thing, I’ll bring him around to see you.”
“Thank you.” Nathan replaced his hat, turned, and took a few creaky steps. Then he looked over his shoulder, hoping she had not gone back inside. She had not. “Does he have a name?” he asked. “Have you picked out a name for him?”
She drew his card out ofher apron pocket and peered at it closely, as though her eyes were not good. “Nathan,” she said. “He has a name now, then.”
“Thank you.” Though he knew it was an overly polite gesture, he tipped his hat to her before heading away.
“Thank you, sir,” she said as he walked off her porch, walked out of the lives of both Ertha and the boy for very nearly fifteen years.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1969
Nathan McCann answered the knock at his door to find an older woman standing on his stoop, accompanied by a sullen teenage boy. Hair hung into the boy’s eyes; he looked away from Nathan, as if he could establish the matter of his disdain just that simply. Nathan did not enjoy unannounced visits, nor did he initially connect with a memory of having seen these people before.
“Nathan McCann?” the woman asked.
“Nathan McCann, this is Nathan Bates. The boy you found in the woods. I remember at the time you were keen to have this boy for your own. So, tell me, Mr. McCann, do you still feel that same way now? Because I am at my wits’ end. This situation is completely outside my ability to cope. I raised five children on what I thought to be normal discipline, but if there’s something this boy responds to, I haven’t stumbled across it yet. You still want this boy, Mr. McCann? You’d be doing me a great favor. I figure he’d be better off here than as a ward of the state, and that’s his next stop, believe me.”
“Yes,” Nathan said. “I feel the same way now.”
The boy’s eyes came up briefly when he said this, then flicked away again.
“Good. I have his things out in the car.”
“We’ll help you carry them in,” Nathan said. “Won’t we, Nathan?”
On the trips into the house with the boy’s belongings, Nathan felt a pang of regret that Flora had not lived to see the day. She’d teased him unmercifully for feeling it was meant to be.
“You can sleep in my wife’s old room,” he said to the boy. “What do you go by?”
“What do they call you?”
“Good,” Nathan said. “That will avoid some confusion. Gradually we’ll take my late wife’s things out to the garage. You can make this room entirely yours.”
Nat stood with his shoulder on the doorjamb. “You two didn’t even sleep together?”
Nathan dropped a suitcase and stood upright, his back poker-straight. He regarded the boy for a moment; the boy met his gaze unswervingly. Nathan felt the weight of these early tests. “It’s not something I’d expect you to understand,” he said. “But we loved each other in our way. Maybe it wasn’t always the best way, but it was what we could manage.”
Then he went around to the back door and let his dog Maggie come into the house. It was a luxury he’d allowed himself, and Maggie, often since Flora’s death.
They walked together to Nat’s new room.
Nat looked up, seeming stunned. “Is that the dog?”
“No, it’s not,” Nathan said, sorry to break the bad news, and also sorry it was not. “No, Sadie is long gone. This is Maggie.”
“Oh, OK,” Nat said, and brushed the stunned look away.
At bedtime, Nathan rapped lightly before letting himself into the boy’s room.
“What?” Nat said as Nathan pulled a chair to his bedside.
“I just came in to say good night.”
Nathan took the photograph out of the pocket of his sweater and laid it on the edge of the boy’s bed. “That was her,” he said. “She was a curly-coated retriever. She was a remarkable dog. I miss her terribly.”
Nat picked up the photo, studied it briefly. “Aren’t you even going to ask me what I did to get thrown out of the house?”
“No. I thought it best to start fresh with each other. You’ll have a birthday coming up next week. We’ll celebrate.”
“How do you know my birthday?”
“How can I not know your birthday? I found you in the woods on October 1, 1954. How could I forget a date like that? You were born the day before, September 30. You’ll be fifteen.”
“How am I supposed to live here? I don’t even know you.” It seemed out of context with what Nathan had just told him. “I don’t even know this place. This is all completely strange to me. How am I supposed to live here?”
Nathan sighed. “A few minutes at a time, I suppose, at first. I won’t pretend it’s not a problem for you.”
“And you?” the boy asked, even more agitated. “This is not a problem for you?”
“No,” Nathan said. “I’m happy to have you here with me.”
He turned out the light on his way out of the room.
“I can’t believe you’re willing to give me a gun," the boy said. “You certainly don’t know me very well. I don’t want to go duck hunting. It’s four o’clock in the goddamn morning. I want to go back to sleep.”
“There will be no swearing in this house,” Nathan said. “I’m only asking that you try it with me this one time. If you don’t like it, I won’t ask you to go again.”
The boy was sulky and quiet on the drive to the lake, but he reached back to scratch Maggie’s head.
“Check to see that the safety is on,” Nathan said as they unloaded the car. “And then carry the weapon so it points at nothing. Up across your shoulder, or in the crook of your arm pointing forward and toward the ground.”
“But the safety is on.”
“With guns it’s best to be double safe.”
They began the hike to the lake, side by side, Maggie bounding ahead.
“I wish you wouldn’t make me ask,” the boy said after a short walk. “I wish you would just tell me, and not put me through having to ask.”
“When we get there,” Nathan said, “I’ll show you the place.”
About an eighth of a mile later, Nathan said, “Right over there. Under that tree.”
The boy walked over and stood looking down at a fresh blanket of the new season’s leaves in the near dark. Nathan and Maggie waited until he was done.
The lesson in hunting did not go well. In fact, in time it broke down completely, with Nat leaping up in the air and waving his arms to purposely scare the ducks away. “Fly away!” he shouted. “Fly away, you idiots, or you’re going to get shot!” They did fly away, the reflection of their collective wings beating across the water. Then he sat down behind the blind and waited to see what Nathan would do.
“The acting out you’ve been used to doing,” Nathan said, “will not be acceptable with me. While you’re with me you will behave like a civilized person.”
“Great. You want me to shoot things. Very civilized.”
“Do you eat fowl?” Nathan asked.
“Do I eat what?”
“Are you a vegetarian?”
“No. I’m not.”
“Then, yes, it’s civilized. What a man eats, he should be willing to kill. It’s not absolutely necessary that he do, but he should at least be willing to. To eat a chicken only if it comes from the market is the height of cowardice and denial. Someone still had to kill it.”
Nat rose and walked a few feet away. Kicked at the grass for a moment.
When Nathan looked up again, he found himself staring into the barrel of the boy’s gun.
The gun was, of course, filled with light birdshot. And the boy was an inexperienced shooter, but it’s hard to miss a substantial target with a shotgun. Plus the kick would raise the shot some, and a pellet through the eye could certainly prove fatal. So it was conceivable, though unlikely, that Nathan could be killed. He weighed and juggled these factors as the boy spoke his piece.
“You can’t civilize me,” Nat said. “You can’t make me stop swearing. Or learn to hunt. Or act like a gentleman, or be ‘double safe.’ I’ll shoot you down before I let you make me into something I’m not.”
“I want you to be what you are,” Nathan said, “only civilized. And the only way you can stop me is to shoot me dead, so if you’re set on stopping me, you’d best go ahead with that now.”
The boy’s hands trembled on the shotgun for another moment before he let the muzzle drift slightly downward.
Nathan said, “All you’ve probably needed all this time was someone who cared enough to insist you behave.” And perhaps willing to die to make that happen, he thought.
The boy dropped the shotgun and ran away.
When Nathan arrived back at the station wagon about two hours later, the boy was waiting for him inside. It pleased Nathan to see this, but he didn’t make a fuss. He placed his four ducks up front, in canvas sacks: two on the bench seat between them, two on the passenger floor near Nat’s feet.
“I won’t insist on this,” Nathan said, “but it’s a lot of work to clean and dress four ducks. I’d appreciate it if you’d help me.”
“Why did she do it?” Nat asked.
“I don’t know,” Nathan said. “I can’t imagine.”
“Think how it makes me feel.”
“I have. Many times.”
“Then my grandmother abandons me.”
“Cry for yourself for the first of those two events,” Nathan said. “You have that due you. But look hard at yourself about the second one. You did something to cause your grandmother to wash her hands of you. I just don’t care to know what it was.”
“What do I have to do to make you wash your hands of me?”
“There’s nothing you could do. I will never wash my hands of you.”
They rode the rest of the way home in silence.
Nat joined Nathan in the garage for the cleaning and dressing. The boy wasn’t willing to gut, but seemed able to pluck out the feathers.
Nathan said, “We’ll put three in the freezer, and I’ll roast one for our supper tonight. Have you ever had roast duck?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re in for a treat.”
They worked in silence a few minutes; then Nathan asked, “What ever happened to your mother, after they let her out of prison?”
“I have no idea,” Nat said.
“You never saw her?”
“She never even sent a birthday card.”
“I did, though,” Nathan said. “I hope they were always passed on to you.”
“Yeah, every birthday and every Christmas my grandmother would give me a card and a present. And she would say, ‘Here. This is from the man who found you in the woods.’ ” His voice sounded different, which caused Nathan to look up, but the boy was looking down at his work, expressionless.
“Then why did you act surprised that I know your birthday?” The boy only shrugged. “They may not have been the best, most appropriate gifts,” Nathan said. “I don’t know that I ever gave you what you wanted. Because I didn’t have the advantage of knowing you. Knowing your likes and dislikes.”
“I don’t think that’s the important thing, though,” Nat said. “I think the thing is, you never once forgot.”
They sat down together to a roast-duck supper with applesauce and mashed potatoes.
“This is good,” the boy said.
Nathan thought perhaps they had turned a corner. He expected that things might turn out all right between them.
The following day the boy was arrested for trying to rob a gas station with the shotgun Nathan had barely taught him to use. He’d taken a hacksaw from the garage and cut through the lock to gain access to the gun rack.
Nathan drove to the jail, where he was allowed to see the boy.
“Good,” Nat said. “You’ve come to post my bail.”
“No,” Nathan said. “I’ll come see you every visiting day. But I won’t put up bond for you. Because I know you’ll run away. You’re going to stay in here until your hearing, and then you’ll go into the juvenile-detention system and pay for what you did.”
The boy said nothing for a long time. Then he said, “You’re right about one thing. I would have run out on the bail.”
“Why did you do this?” Nathan asked.
The boy shrugged. “Everyone else does bad things. Why shouldn’t I?”
“I don’t. Lots of people don’t.”
The boy sighed and brushed the hair back out of his eyes. “I believed you,” he said. “I believed that as long as you were alive you’d never wash your hands of me. Never stop trying to civilize me. I was trying to get far away.”
“Wash your hands of me now?”
“No,” Nathan said.
Two days later, on the boy’s birthday, Nathan came to visit. He brought a birthday cupcake — a whole cake seemed excessive under the circumstances — half a roast duck in foil in a paper grocery sack, and a small wrapped gift.
“Open it now?” the boy asked.
The guard looked over their shoulders to assure himself the present was no more than Nathan had claimed. They’d allowed him to enter with a wrapped gift because it was small, light, and soft, with no real potential to be dangerous.
The boy tore off the paper and stared at the gift. “It looks like a little tiny cap,” he said, turning it over in his fingers.
The guard backed off to the corner of the room again. “Who could wear a cap this small?”
“You, when you were only one day old.”
“You’ve kept it all this time? Why give it to me now?”
“I wanted you to know that she at least had some ambivalence. She left you to die, but part of her wanted you to live. She was trying to keep you warm.”
“That’s not a lot of consolation,” the boy said.
“No, but it’s some. We don’t always get much. I’m sorry if it’s not a good gift. I still don’t really know you. I don’t know what kind of things you like.”
“No, it’s good,” the boy said. “It’s a good present.” He sat quietly for a minute, then said, “The baseball mitt was good, too. I really liked that.”
“Good,” Nathan said. “That’s two. That’s something.”
Nearly a year into the boy’s sentence at juvenile detention, Nathan had a conversation with a guard on his way out the door. This was a guard he’d come to know slightly. Roger was his name.
“Three times a week like clockwork,” Roger said. “I could set my watch by you.”
“Does that seem remarkable?” Nathan asked.
“It does. When you consider he knew you four days before he got himself in custody.”
“No,” Nathan said. “I’ve known him all his life.”
Roger lifted his eyebrows slightly. “He’s lying, then?”
“Not lying. He sees it differently than I do. But I’m not his father.”
“Why, then? Why the remarkable commitment?” Nathan had heard once of an Eastern religion whose devotees believed if you saved someone’s life, you were forever responsible for his soul. Or was that the American Indian? No matter. Nathan didn’t believe a word of it, anyway.
“Why not?” he asked. “What else have I done with my life that’s remarkable?”