Blackbird Calling

Baker’s Pick
Margot Miller

Vigilance hangs, endlessly, in the hot, jagged air. Lorena Hardcastle paces back and forth in her kitchen. Avian eyes dart urgently here and there and find nothing to do. Lorena has grown thin; her nearly all-white, unstyled hair is drawn off her face in a child’s headband. The ends graze her ears and neck. Her eyes, steel gray, but paler than before, reflect the white January glare from the naked windows, a sign of her habitual, intimate economy.

The whole house smells of Lorena and her husband, Paul, their things, mothballs and plastic caught in dusty memory; the cloying odor of cigarettes and coffee grounds linger over the furniture that has not been re-covered since they quit smoking; a vapor rises from the In-Sink-Erator, a film on the walls that could use a fresh coat of paint. Lorena quit smoking years ago to get life insurance—part of her estate plan to avoid taxes—and if smoke no longer streams from her nostrils, an acrid residue remains, sucking up any available freshness from the dim light at the windows streaked with the watermark of winter and the leaching of the aluminum screens on the glass. There are cobwebs in the corners. Lorena doesn’t want to pay for a housekeeper, even though she can afford it. Cleaning women, she says, are invariably unsatisfactory. They all quit, usually the first day. There is too much furniture for the house and its too-small rooms. Houseplants and piles of mail clutter the dining table and the floor. Heaped on the counters and breakfast table in the kitchen are vitamins, unshelved canned goods, open packages of paper napkins and Kleenex, a box of store-bought, assembly-line cookies.

Never sure where the next incursion might come from, what needy person might demand her husband’s attention, Lorena kept watch like a junkyard dog, deflecting over a lifetime any who could be turned away, all except those who would have complained if access to a man of the cloth had been denied. In time, there were fewer supplicants. She did not let down her guard but, over the years, she systematically narrowed the space to be patrolled. The children had been fairly easy to pack off to boarding schools. Now, they were coming, all of them, all in her house at once. Death would bring them. They could no more be avoided than a recurring dream, no more easily shed than the shape of one’s bones.

Lorena senses someone watching. Impossible. He’s wasting away in there, barely able to get out of bed, secure in his satisfaction. He’d been protecting her, she’d heard him say to one of the children when he didn’t know she was listening. In fact, they had been each other’s souffre-douleur, each the depository of the other’s inexpungeable, unpardonable guilt. She hates him for what she can’t accept from him, for what she can’t accept in herself. He hates her for what he could not allow, still cannot acknowledge about his own patience, long since yellowed into something else. She had wanted a confessor, someone who would know her truly and deeply and love her still. He, she supposed, had wanted someone to rely on, to look after him like a mother, someone who would allow him to regress at reasonable intervals. Sometimes, days would go by filled with long serrated silences that made her eyes feel like straight pins stuck into pale blue-gray butterflies. He went about his business, quietly content—or so she imagined—that she was at least silent. If he or one of the children asked if something were the matter, she scoffed, “Oh, is that what you think? Really, you have so much to learn! Ha, ha! Pitiful! Just pitiful, all of you!” Then she would sigh heavily and wag her head. “What a sorry lot you all are. See if you can’t figure it out for yourselves.” Closing her eyes with a clucking groan, the dreadful condemnation settled its weight on them. “If you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you!”

Lorena no longer resists the relentless knowledge that she has gotten it all wrong, that the nightmare isn’t a dream. She longs for assurance that in Heaven, if there is a Heaven, she will be recognized. In Heaven, someone will acknowledge her. She will be known and forgiven. She will be protected; there will be no regrets, nothing more to lose, and no reminders of what has been forfeited. A life glossed over but not, surely not, forgotten.

At the end of the week, the children and grandchildren arrive. He’s been waiting to see them. He speaks a few minutes to each one, photographs are taken, and then, obligingly, he lets himself go.

Lorena refuses to bury him where he has asked, in the place where they had met and spent thirty summers together. She chooses instead a local burial garden into which the ashes are lowered in only a linen bag, which in time will disintegrate, allowing other ashes, hers, to be laid on top. Her brother-in-law lowers the linen sack into the ground, barely in control of his grief. Suddenly, a warm wind stirs the barren canopy above the sleeping garden and lifts the leaves scattered on the ground. A blackbird glides to the garden wall. Everyone looks up as if they hear someone speaking. It is going to rain, hard.


Lorena puts a frying pan on the stove to loosen some caked grease. She’s cleaning her kitchen a month after her husband’s funeral. She pours the coffee grounds from the percolator into the sink and begins emptying the refrigerator of foods that have been waiting around for weeks, or months, to be eaten; foods that have grown mold or shriveled into dust on their own. As Lorena stuffs expired remnants into the garbage disposal, grinding them down the drain into the PVC plumbing that carries the shredded remains away, she hears the frying pan begin to crackle and spit and turns toward the stove. She grabs a potholder, throws the pan into the sink on top of the food in line for the chopper. There is a hiss as the hot steel hits the wet wasted nutrition. When she turns on the tap, steam rises into her face. She waves it away.

Luckily, there is only a little smoke damage. She is, nevertheless, rattled and within a month moves into an Assisted Living facility around the corner from her oldest daughter, Janet; she takes two apartments, one for her bed-sitting-and-kitchen, the other for her office and storage.

She introduces herself modestly, listening patiently to old people telling their past to a new audience. She repeats phrases she’s heard Paul use in his pastoral duties. She allows, when pressed, that her husband had been paranoid, delusional even, but she prefers to remember what a wonderful man he was in his youth. At last, people seem to appreciate her. Still, she keeps her door locked.

One day, in the middle of the morning, Lorena feels numbness on the left side, and a glass of water slips from her hand. Then she feels it in her leg; it’s hard to walk. So much clutter to navigate around. Back to bed. There. The phone, where is the phone? Who should she call? Carla, the youngest, the dearest, the only one now, even though she lives clear across the country. Lorena had asked Janet, who lives a block away and who resisted helping her properly, why they all hated her, and Janet had replied, astonishingly, “Because you want us to be perfect and we cannot be perfect. We can only disappoint you.”

“What nonsense. God wants us to be perfect! You have to be perfect for the IRS!” It was almost a question. “You get anything wrong, and they slap you with a penalty. They’re watching all the time. You have to try to be perfect, for Pete’s sake!”

Carla is the one with medical knowledge. She’s a phlebotomist. Lorena finds this inadequate but, “any port in a storm.”

Carla’s phone rings. She answers it in the haze of early morning on the West Coast.

“I think I’m having a stroke.” Lorena never announces who is calling; she just starts in as if her voice should be recognized by anyone she would call. What she had to say was too important for greetings and salutations.

“What are you feeling?”



“Left side, my face, my hand, my leg.”

“As much as that?”

“What will it be like to die of a stroke?”

“Like going to sleep, suddenly, if you’re awake. You won’t even notice if you’re asleep.”

“Ah, that would be good. Can you talk to me until I fall asleep?”

“What about calling the doctor?”

“No. No, I don’t want any interference. Just talk to me.”

After three hours Lorena hangs up, still alive. Maybe it will be tonight. She arranges her will and other papers, checks the file cabinet, locks it, puts the key under her pillow, and goes to bed even though it’s only late afternoon, hoping for an unconscious death.

Carla bounces back and forth between her parents’ expectations and disappointments. Theo, the oldest, had disappointed their parents by not earning a prize for his scientific interests. He’d become a writer, fiction no less, instead of pursuing what he was trained for. Janet, the oldest of the three girls, had been sickly; they’d been surprised that she even lived, and then she’d given up nursing school, become a painter, and retreated behind the counter of a health food store. Molly, the middle daughter, had become an academic, inserting herself between alternating layers of need and knowledge. Carla feels the terrible weight of being the identified good child, the one who seems to read Lorena the best, anticipate and provide for her mother’s needs. At age six or seven, after Molly had been spanked for an offense they’d committed together, Carla stole a candy bar from the newsstand next door. No one knew to this day. The more faults she had to confess, the more Lorena ignored them and fawned over her as the good one, trying to suck the life from her. Carla senses satisfaction coming. This death is overdue.

But Lorena wakes up, and things seem “normal” again, until she coughs up some blood a few days later. Janet takes her to the doctor and there are tests; Lorena is quietly diagnosed with cancer as well as the mild stroke. It’s in her lungs, spreading quickly. She’ll be gone in less than a month, they say.


When the time comes, Janet’s husband calls Theo and Molly. Speaking in his undertaker’s hushed tone that washes over the listener like a slow-motion wave of sympathetic nausea, he says, “I’m sorry to say your mother has… passed away.” As if it were unexpected, as if it could be a poignant death, her soul slipping into the night, gently, a tender transition for a beloved, doting parent. As if she might be at peace.

Carla is alone. She and Janet have spent the last few days with their mother. Her husband has joined her, yet she is uncomforted. At breakfast before the service, she and Janet describe the last days to Theo, Molly, and Molly’s husband. Lorena’s lawyer had been called. The hospice had sent companions. Everything was ready; she could go. As the cancer quickly filled her liver and kidneys, her bones and brain, the routine mistrust of life grew fat on morphine. Yearning slipped into the furtive excesses of paranoia.

“That woman in there… It’s a heist! A heist, I tell you! She’s going to kill me and take everything.”

“Stop it! Stop it this instant!” Carla exploded.

“You stop it! Get out! I am calling the police!” Lorena fumbled back into her room, dragging her oxygen tank, and began punching the buttons on the phone, pathetically. Finally, she reached 911.

“My children are robbing me. The address is…”

The nurses thought she would come around at the end, ask forgiveness, dispense forgiveness, seek peace within herself and with others, die a good death, a graceful death. But she refused to see any of them. While they waited, Janet and Carla worked quietly in the adjoining room with the common doors closed. Lorena had a fortune in five local banks and almost $20,000 in cash in her file cabinet, which they set aside to divide four ways at the hotel. They filled three dumpsters with the paper and cloth residue of Lorena’s life. It had taken four days of steady work to clear the two rooms.

A small group stands once again in the sad little burial garden, in weather well below freezing: a few relatives, and the children and their families, but no friends, no neighbors.

There is no eulogy, no sanitized version of Lorena’s life, no humorous account of her charming imperfections. What can be said, in any case? Lorena is dead. Dead—every hope for all that never was: genuine tenderness, kisses, a warm smile, a soft look, a gentle touch, interest, a discerning wisdom, patience, confidence, the twinkling hint of endearment or a mischievous moment. Gone, every hint of longed-for indulgence, the spicy scent of calm, curiosity, encouragement, a belief in the future, hope. The only residue of the missing maternal is cold cash. Were they being compensated? Would a jury have awarded as much, as little? What is the price of a lifetime of sustained sorrow, years and years—more than fifty for them, almost eighty for her—decades of separation? Or is this gross inheritance the only sign that she would have loved her children if she could have, if she had felt herself loved by anything at all in the universe? There will be no nostalgic tearful moments, no fond memories. Lorena died as she lived, disappointment and frustration seething from her pores. She died unheard, angry and alone; she died impacted. The suffocating weight of invisibility, the absence that is the ash of never-was, lifts a bit for her children, but it cannot be dissipated. They will go to the funeral accompanied by a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, but each of them will be alone, wondering how the pain of the absent mother colors the lives it touches, crowding out all other forms of love. How is the maternal void written into consciousness and transformed into something bearable so as to not be passed on? This mother, dead to her children for so many years, lost now for eternity.

The priest recalls how Lorena had her own ideas, how he would not forget her. The small group stands shivering, watching the linen bag followed by the sand going into the ground. Everyone is dissembling sorrow at the lost possibility, detached curiosity, searing anger, unqualified relief, as the linen bag clears the PVC collar and descends into the columbarium where no one will ever come back to see her.


Margot Miller served as an adjunct professor most recently at the School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington D.C. and now writes fiction as well as translating stories for publication use at the Academy of Lifelong Learning, Chesapeake Maritime Museum, St. Michael’s MD. She divides her time between the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. E-mail: miller.margot[at]