What Begins with Bird, by Noy Holland, is both an investigation of family relationships and a sophisticated study of language and rhythm. Holland creates an exhilarating tension between the satisfactions of meaning and the attenuated beauty of lyric, making her fiction felt as deeply as it is understood. An unstable sister whose misconceived pregnancy replays the endless nightmare of childhood siblings and a wrecked marriage occasioning the misery of a horse: these are the frozen events around which Holland's words congeal. The poetry of her images, powerful but immediately absorbed, can bring consciousness to a standstill: "By then I've reached her: Sister spluttering, spitting out the plug of snow. Her mouth is bleeding. Her face is the grotesque of a face, a soul in flames, some rung of hell, and she is sobbing, spit puddling under her tongue." The Faulknerian echoes of Holland's prose invoke a dreamscape, a panorama enclosing barns and men and guns and Mother, as she trudges the cold hills in her nightgown. This writing is exquisite, a gorgeousness as unforgettable as a stabbing pain or the after-image of a howl in the pitch of night.
"A ravishing associative logic of recurrent objects and sounds distinguishes Noy Holland's original stories; the bird in the book's title is the writer, herself, surely a poet, singing of "The slickened births and murders, ours, the fierce wide blowing day." Old wisdom newly and grandly delivered."—Christine Schutt
"Holland's scrupulousness and respect for the language keep this text alive and kicking. What Begins with Bird is a book to be read slowly and thoughtfully, shared, passed along."—John Edgar Wideman
"From broken phrase to sentence, from sentence to paragraph, from paragraph to scene and scene to story, Noy Holland's aims are ambitious, her tone right, her diction masterful, and she spells her stories out in bites of beautifully lyrical but bitter prose and with an ardent grimness of eye that is both unsettling and intensely satisfying; however the reader must weigh every phrase and go forward warily because images await like traps set in a forest. What Begins With Bird is a remarkable achievement."—William Gass
I was to marry him. I had no doubt of it. But I saw easily that it mattered to him that I take no notice of his plan.
It was not like him, it was strange of him—to have brought us at all to the island. He had secured a room in the island hotel, a clean place of thickest coquina, the tide gnawing at its heels.
The room, the entire island, even the sea seemed to quiet. He had consulted the gods, I decided. And this unnerved him, it surprised him, I saw, how the moment embarked in such quiet came to swagger before us and leer.
We saw no automobiles. We saw none but the crudest wobbling ways for the few mewling carts to run on. No bridge stretched over the inlet; the natives bullied their way by foot as they must, to market, to the city from which we had traveled and to which, bound anew by a mulish faith, we would return to make our home. They went weakly, carting their old in the ebb tide over the oyster beds.
The trip was pleasing, the passage by ferry from the mainland we made over the open sea. The night was soft and damply mooned. He suggested that, once we had settled, we walk; we would take in the night’s salt breeze.
I agreed, happily. I meant no trouble to him.
As we walked, I saw he allowed the box to drop to his feet in the sand.
I saw the broad spotted face of a pony as we walked--there were bands of feral ponies--peering out from the bearded trees. The sand was fine and polished. I swung my foot as we went through the ruffle of foam--that we might know where we had lingered, that we might, in turning, easily see where perhaps the box had been.
I confess this much surprised me, it worried me, that he had tossed the box onto the sand. I said nothing; I had decided. He had considered the hazard himself, understand. He is careful, it is his habit, he is thorough, such a man. He would make no failing gesture.
And yet I worried. I thought how easily the box might coast out. They would find it among the oysters beds, some child at her game, some lucky.
It was nothing. The loss of the ring would be nothing. It was his disappointment I dreaded, supposing the plan went askew.
We walked on. I understood I was meant to discover the ring when we had turned to return to our quarters. I saw my surprise, my elation; I imagined, as a kind of practice, that my voice might thicken with joy.
I understood, I believe, the custom well enough--my part in it, and his. I recognized the artifacts, the necessary gestures. He would fall to one knee, as is the custom.
I understood that the box would be velvet, it is velvet, I needn’t explain. The lid is jointed--that I might, as I wish, snap it shut, that he might stand it open.
I saw him kneeling, a plain man, decent, mine, the small box sprung in his hand.
He spun round; he lurched past me, I was walking some distance behind him, poor man. He sank to both knees pitifully and began to claw at the sand.
The ring was plain, it is plain, this is his habit.
And yet to see it surprised me. I found myself giddy, I was gladdened--to snug it over my knuckle. The long ardor, the looseness of girlhood at an end.
We kissed lightly; we brushed the sand from our knees. The light of our room fell toward us as we went, happily, in our languor; it swam to us from the shadows swung out of the bearded trees.
I meant no trouble to him.
I mean no trouble now.
That we were greeted at the door--this is the custom, is it not? And
it is, is it not, the custom to boast, to say, Look, was it not, what
He was in a fury when we reached the room.
She would come to us in the night, he was convinced, with a potion,
a bludgeon--what would prevent her?--a blade. She would plunge an ax
into his skull.
* * *
She was a clerk, understand, paid to greet us, paid to sort out keys.
She was nothing to me, a service to me, I had scarcely seen her.
It was only the ring she would covet at first. But give her time, give
her leisure. Who would there be to stop her, with him bobbing in the
He drew the knot of rope from his satchel and, with this, lashed the
door to the bed to the stop to the sink and back to the massive bureau.
He lashed the window shut. He fashioned a rattle of the shells we had
found to hang from the door should she shake it.
I slept. The air, the sea, I had no trouble sleeping.
In sleep I built him a crown of nails. The nails were mildewed. We could push them home with our hands.
Such a man as he.
In such a way the night passed, in such a way the years.
What Begins With a Bird
What Begins With a Bird