Crow

Fiction
Bim Angst


Photo Credit: Mary Bailey/Flickr (CC-by)

When the call came, rain was pounding, and Anna was stalled as traffic swung deep into the grocery store parking lot rather than roll through the puddle growing across the road so fast it backed up at the median and folded into whitecaps. Maggie Nazlevik, whose kitchen window looked onto the porch of her parents’ retirement ranch.

“Your mother’s basement is flooded,” Maggie lit in before Anna said hello. “She’s been down there. Pants wet to the knees, checking her freezer. She knocked on my door, asked me to call the fire department to come pump it out. I thought you should know.”

All Anna could think was: sweet Jesus, all that wet paper.

And then Maggie added: “She could have electrocuted herself.”

Thereafter, the image Maggie’s musing brought to Anna’s mind would return, embellished, many times.

As would the fact that the old crone had not, in fact, electrocuted herself.

 

Though it was only late afternoon, the rain had so darkened the day and freighted the air that the crows, hundreds of them, were already roosting in the trees along the alley. Anna would not disturb them. She shifted her car into neutral and rolled to a stop behind her parents’ garage. She shut the car door without a bang. Nary a bird stirred.

Inside, the house was dark, except for the television. The door stuck in its frame. Both to open and to close, Anna pressed her shoulder against it.

“The vermin are home early,” her father said.

The crows. He meant the crows. He could see them from his chair.

“Somebody should do something,” Anna’s mother said. “They shit all over, and they steal things.” Somebody. Always someone else.

Anna turned on a lamp. The place looked the same, smelled the same, with top notes of sour laundry and a signature of scorched coffee. Anna took off her coat, rolled up her sleeves and waited for the base note to register: urine. So far, so good. All was as usual. The basement lights worked, a good sign. The water had reached the third stair from the bottom but was dropping.

Too bent with age to see over Anna’s shoulder, Dorothy lifted Anna’s arm and slid her head beneath. “I offered the fire company a couple of hundred dollars, but apparently my money and I aren’t good enough.”

There’s no point in explaining, thought Anna. That water was likely rising everywhere, that pumping would not divert or stem the flow, that the fire company was busy with more important things, that her parents and their basement were not an emergency, that little could be saved, that money really couldn’t buy everything, though it had seemed so once. The water would recede. Anna descended the stairs. The line of demarcation was already blurring but the high-water mark was clear.

So much had been piled on the floor. Listing stacks of The Clareville Sentinel, The Anthracite Herald, and The Patriot-News swelled. File boxes bursting with onion-skin carbons and fading thermofaxes. Yellowing paperbacks, Louis L’Amour and John D. MacDonald by the dozens. Crates of jumbled hardcover histories. Mingled National Geographic, Field and Stream, Woman’s Day, and Reader’s Digest going back, in no order, at least to 1963. Photographs, clippings, cards, hand-scripted letters, scattered notebooks, checkbooks, calendars, diaries. Bulging folders of long-ago paid bills. Manuals from appliances irreparable decades before. Her mother’s cookbooks, pages marked with rusting clips, thousands of recipes on index cards. Glue gave. Covers rippled. Cardboard curled.

Anna lifted a box of cards. At top, the paper held. But lower, the ink of her mother’s hand was dyeing the white stock blue, and when Anna pinched, card pulped and came away on her thumb. Potatoes, pies, preserves, starches and cloying sweets Anna, finally, would never again be called on to prepare, would never again be browbeaten to eat, never again pretend to enjoy.

 

At first, Dorothy and Pete Derchenko acknowledged the necessity of speed and the dangers of creeping rot. They were reasonable, relieved, it appeared, that Anna was there to help. Just bring the stuff upstairs and let us go through it. Let us save what can be saved. Thank you thank you thank you. But Anna knew better than to hope. Dorothy pinched Anna’s cheek.

The appearance of compliant sanity was, as always, a feint, a ploy, a shifting surface, an oil thinning as it spread. The brown water that continued an irregular ebb and flow from the storm drain percolated through the newsprint, turning it to mush. Pete railed as Anna set out the heavy-duty bags. He was almost mollified for a short time when Anna told him that newspapers would be available online forever­­, or at least, Anna did not say, all of forever that he’d need. Each day, Pete insisted he checked email, claimed he had “heard from” friends online, though his computer had not worked in months, and for far longer he had not been able to figure out how to turn it on. Not that he needed the clippings and email anyway. Was there a project? Anna would not broach that discussion again. Pete raised his wild eyebrows and rubbed the grizzle on his chin, palmed over the white feather-fluff of his see-through hair, but acknowledged that technology was, indeed, marvelous, as he well knew: Didn’t he remember back to when cars had to be cranked? Didn’t Anna herself remember when they got their first color TV? He drove his finger into the flesh of her arm to make the point. Remember, girl? Remember? Ah, what he had chosen to keep, what to discard.

And so, Anna began clearing with the newspapers. Her hands pruned and blackened. At the top of the basement stairs, his tiny dog standing beside him, Pete leaned on his cane and supervised.

“Be careful of your back.”

So he knew, thought Anna. Even dry, archives this deep weighed tons. And yet, he had forgotten. It was not her back that pained her, but her knees. Always, her knees.

The crows watched, heads turning, as Anna wore a wet path to deposit the sacks and boxes at the end of the yard for pick up by the garbage crew. As she returned to the house, one or another crow glided down, turning a head to aim the gleaming bead of a black eyeball first to Anna and then over the growing mound of ancient debris.

 

The first dark spots appeared in the paper of the walls of her father’s basement “office.” As the spots grew, Anna boxed the dampening contents of cabinets and shelves. Was there a letter he had ever not saved? All his life, he’d worked toward something, saving scraps that he’d turn into—what? The family history? Where they’d come from. Who they were. What they did. Who was buried where and who had been left behind. This digging and looking back was an imperative Anna did not understand.

“Bring them up so I can sort through.” Pete pointed with his cane at the several boxes Anna had set on the basement steps.

But the furniture upstairs was so cluttered—yarn, envelopes, clothes, blankets, magazines, flyers, plastic ware, wadded bags, used tissues, books—that Anna had to set the box on the floor. Placed where he could reach it, the carton blocked a portion of her father’s matted path through the shag carpeting. More boxes would create a minefield. If he arrived there at all, her father would get from his rubber-sheeted chair to the bathroom even less than he did now.

Had everyone’s parents saved such things? The second-grade report card. A Sunday school perfect-attendance pin, generic, tarnished, of indeterminate vintage. Even the church had not been named.

The saving, the sorting would have been safer, easier, if they had laid things in an annual box, closed the lid, and labeled it. Like her, they might have had the forethought to limit themselves to a box a year, a shapely, ordered thing, concise, clear—not pell-mell piles in the cavern of a seeping basement, on surfaces, in nooks and crannies all over the house. Someday, soon perhaps, Anna would have to open the closets. Already, the old people had fallen, faltered, been carried away, and in their absences Anna had been called upon to rifle through their chests of drawers for small necessities and comforts. Beneath the threadbare nightwear and heel-sore socks, tie clasps, cuff links, school pictures, prayer cards, foreign stamps. They kept everything and stored it with no plan.

Take a picture, Anna thought, then let the thing go. A digital file took no space. A memory stick fit into a pocket. Forethought. Consequence. The later burdens of others. How many ornaments and lights, plastic pumpkins and snap-open eggs did child-rearing require? The celluloid trees of her early Christmases bent and shed their snow-covered needles among the fading plastic Rudolphs of her children’s. Paint flaked from glass orbs, tin stars crumpled, and flood water scummed it all. She wiped a rag across a plush chick’s yellow fluff. The fur mashed, the stuffing wept. Anna hadn’t wanted holidays, their pretense, their waste, their pain, what you got, what you didn’t get, who gave it, who did not, the judgment on why.

The crows bathing in the puddles of the alley scattered as Anna threw the decorations on the pile at the end of the yard, another layer mingled, as they all were, among pencil stubs, rusting cans of nails, broken fishing lures, tangled leader, crumbling tins of treble hooks, scraps of ancient fabric bleeding.

 

“Damnedest thing,” said her mother. “My things are being returned to me.” She held a tiny buckle out for Anna to see, and then offered up the lid of a shoebox, across it scattered bits and fragments, pieces and parts Anna recognized from the trash she’d piled at the end of the yard.

“They show up on the porch,” Dorothy said. “Somebody puts them there for me.” She held up a furled shell, its body whorl eroded. “This is from the first time I took my Gracie to the ocean.”

My Gracie. Possessions yet, thought Anna.

 

A middle-of-the-night call: her parents balking, bawling. Afraid of hurting them as they flailed, the police gave up trying to carry them out of the rain and simply kept them from wandering, kept them contained, stood watch in the broad ray of a motion-sensor light diffused by a dense fog.

Her mother on her hands and knees in the sodden turf, screeching, scrabbling at sagging boxes, a pocket leaching rust from the shanks of buttons shedding peeling paste pearls, gilt, and clouded rhinestones. The spotlight behind her sent a glow through the thin faille of the old woman’s nightgown; the dark substance of the old woman’s body was without flesh, and if anyone looked away, it was in pain at her thinness. Her father, skeletal, bellowing, held his pajama bottoms up with one fist, and with the other, barbed with the stubs of his ancient pencils, jabbed at the sky. His cane lay in the grass. Who knew they could step down off the porch? Who knew they could muster such noise? Who knew they could fall of their own accord to their knees?

Watching from windows and porch swings, the neighbors crossed themselves. There but for the grace of God.

The old ones were brought, shrieking, inside. Anna flipped the breaker on the yard spots.

At dawn, when the crows began to fly off in their individual way and her old people finally slept, Anna removed the bulbs and took them with her, resolved they would never light in that yard again.

 

Anna set out no more trash. Daily, she took a tiny bag with her. The old people consumed now so little. There would be no more acquisition. Every day, she would bring food, clean clothing. Every day, she would haul many things away.

She spread a plastic shower curtain in the trunk of her car, arrived near dusk, saw they ate something, anything, of what she brought, and, through the basement’s exterior door, lugged the family archives out into the night. Crayons, pebbles, parts of broken toys, tiny clothes, faded plastic sand shovels, glass baby bottles, diapers and pins, dolls, a million tiny molded soldiers neither Anna nor her children wanted.

None of it would return.

 

“Save this box,” Pete said, the dog on his lap in the stinking chair. The yellow nail of his gnarled finger scraped the cardboard and came away with a frosting of white.

“Did you go through what’s in it?” Anna asked, but she knew the answer.

“Everything in there is important.”

Anna stood.

Pete tapped the box. “Put it back where you got it. All of it.”

His pencils, his papers, all his things. He held her responsible.

Anna returned the frosted box to the basement. She obliged out of habit, but out of necessity, by deed and omission, Anna lied.

 

The crow lay on the porch, its brethren watching from the trees. Nearby, her mother’s broom, around its willowed splay a tangled remnant of rotting clothesline, one end knotted to a porch-beam.

Anna could imagine the scene, the old woman grabbing the nearest thing, aiming her long-handled weapon from the first not to shoo or stun but to kill. Her wraith of a mother smacking the crow, her face triumphant, stepping back to see the fruit of her righteous blow. The scene was familiar. Any item at hand became weapon in wrath, scepter in triumph. And another image, less familiar, but more pleasing: the woman stunned, confused her blow is blocked, baffled at being thwarted, astonished a living force dares to rise against her. This time, the crow. Perhaps, as the dark bird lifted, it cawed as the rope staved for a moment, and the blow’s pause drew the woman’s rage to her grip, her anger tightening, arcing along her spine. She chops, cleaves the line, and the crow falls.

When Anna touched the body of the bird, the black beak opened and the creature heaved, breathed.

The bird was bigger than Anna might have imagined, had she given thought before to the weight of birds.

 

Crickets, worms, fruit. Anna offered and the crow ate. With one wing and a foot dragging, the crow hopped on Anna’s kitchen counter, tilting its glossy head as it dipped a beak to catch the drip from the faucet. The crow, it seemed, was not afraid. It took cooked pasta from her hand. It stretched. It opened its beak and panted. It clacked, it chirped, it scratched. It poked its head in things. Whenever Anna looked for it, the crow was already watching her.

Someday, thought Anna, you too will leave.

 

Anna stacked the boxes and bags on a table in the basement.

“I’ll go out through the cellar,” she said. “I’ll check the lights and lock the doors.”

“You can be such a good little girl, when you decide you want to be. Such a shame,” said Dorothy. Girl. Little girl.

Pete’s eyes filled. “Don’t go,” he said, cupping Anna’s hot cheeks in his cold hands, finally choosing Anna and holding on.

They would not remember what they had, what they had driven away.

“I’ll be back,” Anna said. And under cover of night, Anna filled her car and slipped away.

 

Parties. Holidays. Graduations.

Picnics. Vacations.

Plays, band concerts, award ceremonies.

Weddings. Christenings.

A hundred years of pictures. The crow on her shoulder, Anna held the photos and slides up to the light. Their slippery images smeared and ran. Few faces stuck, and the thick flow of their drained emulsion tainted the flesh of the boxes and stained the skin of her hands oxblood, wordless, mewling beast, sacrificed.

Detritus. Treasures. Garbage. Gems.

Not that the details mattered. The kids had gotten out as soon as they could, flung themselves to the far corners, and they were too far, too long gone to want to come back.

Why stay?

 

“What is that on your sweater?” Dorothy brushed at Anna’s back. “It’s bird dirt!” The old woman held her hand with the smear close to Anna’s face. “Those damn crows. I’ll blast them out of the trees.”

“It’s just one crow.” Anna turned to watch her mother’s face. “My crow.”

Your crow? You’re joking.” It was not a question.

“I found it on your porch, hurt. I took it home.” Anna did not bite her tongue. “You remember the one.”

“You took it home.” Dorothy scoffed. “You were always picking up crippled things.” She shoved past Anna to the sink and washed her hands. “Soft in the heart, soft in the head. Always bringing some filthy thing into my home.”

My home. Here it comes.

The old woman took the familiar stance, one hand on her hip, the other raised, first a fist, then pointing. Anna steeled herself, arms crossed. But when the old woman opened her mouth to deliver the charges, Anna watched as the old eyes went blank and the lips faltered.

Whatever Dorothy had planned to say had escaped.

 

“Look at this,” Dorothy would say, handling the trinkets of the shoebox lid on her lap when Anna arrived. “Come see what I have.”

“Someone stole my things,” Dorothy purred, “and now they are being returned. Look what came back today!” She held up a child’s plastic barrette. “My Vera’s! I used to put this in her curly hair. It was her favorite.”

My Vera’s. It was like a stab.

Dorothy held up a red plastic monkey. “My Vaughn used to love these!”

“Monkey in a Barrel,” said Anna.

“Yes!” said Dorothy, delighted. “I played that with him for hours.”

“Guess what this is?” Dorothy opened her palm.

“The head of a Ninja Turtle,” said Anna, reaching.

But Dorothy closed her fist and held it against her chest. “This was my Henry’s. He had the full set.” She paused. “You can’t have it.”

“No, of course not,” said Anna, and, though she meant to keep it out, Dorothy caught the edge in Anna’s voice.

“You always want what was mine,” said Dorothy. “Covetous. Envious. You were always that way. You hateful child.” And then the full list came, as if the old pump had been primed. Selfish. Lustful. Brazen. Strong-willed. Defiant. Disobedient. Disrespectful. The familiar pause, then: Ungrateful. Ungrateful. Ungrateful.

“What you could have been,” Dorothy finished. “Such potential.” She pursed her mouth, shook her head. “Such a waste.”

And then, Anna took a breath as Dorothy with her sigh gave the cue, and when Dorothy started in on the chorus, Anna chimed in: I should have never had you.

Anna’s hand was up blocking the blow long before Dorothy remembered to slap Anna’s face.

 

“She has the police here now,” Maggie Nazlevik whispered into the phone. “She insisted I call them, wouldn’t leave my kitchen till I dialed.”

Anna waited. It would come.

“She says you abused her. She has the cops taking pictures now.”

A long pause.

“You didn’t hit her, did you?”

In the background, Anna could hear Dorothy crying. It was not hard to distinguish the crocodile tears from the real. Was this dissembling, this fracture, this fall what Anna had waited for?

“She has a terrible bruise.” Maggie drew a long breath. “Your father does too.”

When Anna arrived, Maggie scurried down the concrete walk of her yard, waved Anna over, and drew her behind the hedge.

“I don’t want you to be shocked,” Maggie said. “You know how easily old people bruise.” Maggie held up her phone. “Are you ready?”

Maggie touched the screen and Pete’s face flashed.

“She says you struck him many times.” Maggie flipped a finger across the screen and an arm appeared.

“She says she was hurt when she tried to stop you.”

Of course. The words were out of Anna before she realized she’d said them out loud.

Maggie stepped back.

“Of course, there’s an explanation.” Anna looked over the hedge to her parents’ porch. Dorothy, shredding a tissue, sat in a lawn chair, chin on her chest. She’d carried on so long she had hiccoughs. A stout police officer stood beside her.

“I’ll talk to the police now.” Anna looked back to Maggie and patted her arm. “Thank you. For looking out for them. You’re a good friend.”

It had come to this. Hadn’t she known she would again be accused for whatever went wrong?

“Thank you, Officer.” Anna stepped onto the porch.

“That’s her,” Dorothy glared. “That’s the bad seed who beats me and wants to lock me away.”

Anna looked to the officer. “Have you spoken with my father yet?”

“He’s old, he’s out of his mind.” Dorothy clutched at the officer’s arm. “He doesn’t know anymore what he’s saying.”

The officer placed his big hand over Dorothy’s and she leaned into him.

“Officer Skerchok is taking his statement now,” said the officer. “EMTs are on the way.”

“I don’t remember,” Anna heard Pete say. “I woke up on the floor.”

As she crossed into the house, Pete called to her. “Anna. Anna, you’re here.” He lifted the ice bag from his forehead, exposing the astonishing bruise as he looked from Anna to the officer and back. Was he pleading?

“My daughter will explain.”

“Ma’am?” The officer held a small notebook and pen. “Can you give me the name of your parents’ caseworker?” He’d already pieced enough of it together.

“They’ve declined services,” Anna said. “Many times.”

Just the facts now.

“I see,” said the officer. “Then a caseworker will be assigned.”

Anna nodded. Finally, they were out of her hands.

“Anna? Anna? Where’s my cane? I need to make water.” Pete pressed on the arms of his chair, but as Officer Skerchok tried to help, the old man’s pants darkened.

“Don’t get old,” Pete told Skerchok.

“I’ll try not to, sir.”

Thank you, thought Anna.

Anna supported Pete to the bathroom, balanced him against the vanity while she held up his feet one at a time, bore his wobbling flyweight, and helped him out of his pants.

“This old dance,” he said. “You poor girl, looking after your old man like he was a baby.”

“It’s the cycle, Pop.”

“That it is,” he said. “That it is.”

The ends of his shirt were wet, and Anna stood to unbutton him.

“You’re a good girl,” he said. His blue eyes fogged, the white of one a shocking red. He took her chin in his hand. “You are a very good girl,” he said and kissed her.

A lump rose in her throat. His affection was never calculated. He had not protected her, though his inattention had pained him. She flustered for a moment and then got back to cleaning him up, opened the top button and slipped the shirt off his bony shoulders.

A crazy-quilt pattern of yellow and green, blue and purple bruises cross-hatched his back and chest.

What had he said or not said? What had he done or not done? What rules had he disobeyed?

That old dance, the dance partners changed.

 

Anna emptied the cabinets, the drawers, as the house was cleared, the men with the truck asking: this? this?

Haul it all away.

The older man, the crew chief, sometimes squeezed her shoulder as he passed. Did he think she’d cry?

When the house was empty and the men gone, Anna brought the crow for company, opened windows, propped the door. As Anna cleaned, the crow picked in the dust and bits, burbled and clacked, clasped this and that as it flapped, and before sundown one day opened both wings and joined its brethren in the trees.

pencil

Bim Angst’s writing has won some nice recognition from places such as the Illinois Arts Council, Yaddo, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Email: bimangst[at]gmail.com