New in Mission at Tenth, Volume 7
He left and the crows came.
Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw.
Sarah’s mother would have reprimanded her for using an indefinite antecedent in that first sentence.
He being Paul.
Apparently, it has to do with global warming. Not Paul leaving her, the descent of the crows.
Sarah tries to count the crows sometimes, but they flap about, soaring from telephone wire to tree and then to her roof.
One is for bad news Two is for mirth
Three is a wedding Four is a birth.
—From an old rhyme called “Counting Crows.”
He wouldn’t dare have a child with her. He wouldn’t fucking dare. Would he?
She and Paul have three children: Tony, to whom she gave birth, and two adopted children, Rosa and Max. Rosa has cerebral palsy. Max, pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified.
Max at fourteen is the only one still living at home, although he is away on a camping trip in the Sierras with his “pod”—his progressive private school disdains the word “class.
Crows have been observed feeding and caring for disabled members of their species.
“I’ve fallen in love with someone else.”
Paleoclimatologists say that the current, four-year-long drought in California is the most severe in the past 1200 years.
A ghost town from the Gold Rush era—four hotels, a dry goods store, and seven saloons—has revealed itself beneath the receding waters of Folsom Lake. A 1996 Subaru has shown up
in Laguna Lake. Decades-old barnacle-encrusted trailer homes have emerged from the waters off Bombay Beach, a town on the Salton Sea built by developers in the 1930s and extolled as the California Riviera.
Under drought conditions, live oak trees produce an abundance of acorns, as if knowing that their existence is threatened.
After all, this is Oakland. Oak-land.
The bounty attracts the crows, which are flying above
Sarah’s head with acorns in their beaks, clutched in their talons, breaking the nuts open against the skylights of her house.
Crow eggs are beautiful, a pale and marbled blue.
Her neighbor, Arne, wearing a t-shirt that says “Praise Seitan,” happens along as Sarah has wheeled outside to discover her van covered in crow shit.
Arne is a vegan; he once spat out food from her offering at a neighborhood potluck—not a discreet into-a-napkin sort of spit, more of a Heimlich maneuver propulsion—when he discovered it contained honey, and, glaring at her as if she had just served chicharrones to an unwitting man with payess and a prayer shawl, thundered, “Honey is not vegan.”
He is now talking to her—“at” might be the more apt preposition—about the fact that this is a mast year for live oaks, which typically—although not always—follow drought years.
He has moved from this specific mast year to talking about plant consciousness—he is not woo-woo, he is citing academic articles, referring to their authors by their exact names: “D.W. Rathburn, R.G. Smythe...”
Arne is talking to a point approximately a foot above her head—Sarah is, after all, sitting in her wheelchair, but she is quite sure that even if she were standing he would still talk to a point in the air. He doesn’t seem to notice that the flesh of her face is reddening, her face scrunching up: this crow-shit covered van is the straw that has broken the camel’s back.
Her dead mother circles “the straw that has broken the camel’s back,” and writes “Cliché” with her red pencil.
“Mom,” she wants to shout, “what are you doing here?
And please, could I get a little motherly sympathy. My...” No, she cannot use the word husband. “Paul has left me. A week before my sixty-fifth birthday.”
Now Arne has segued into talking about excrement as a source of fertilizer. “In fact,” he is saying, “there are islands in the Pacific that are covered in bat and seabird guano, which...”
Sarah attempts to interrupt him, saying, “I know, actually, I was a grad student in English in a previous life.” She immediately regrets the phrase, “in a previous life,” more than a few people hereabouts take such utterances quite literally, but she needn’t have worried, Arne goes right on, he is now talking about changes in the chemical composition of bird shit caused by global warming.
She has not gotten a chance to say that once upon a time, before she dropped out of grad school to take part in the 504 occupation of San Francisco’s Federal Building, her thesis was a Marxist reading of Herman Melville’s minor works, colonialism and race, and she thus knows a considerable amount about the Pacific Ocean in whaling days. Somewhere in the wilds of her house are index cards—index cards, remember them!—on which she wrote in her beautiful handwriting, with her $3 Schaeffer fountain pen, relevant passages from The Encantadas and Omoo and Typee and facts about the 1856 Guano Islands Act, which allowed any unoccupied island with a deposit of guano not claimed by another sovereign power to be considered part of the United States.
Caw, caw, caw, say the crows. Caw, caw, caw.
Crows are classified as songbirds, although their songs might have been written by Igor Stravinsky or John Cage.
A crow can be taught to imitate human speech, to say, for instance: “I’m Jim Crow,” or like Mickey, the crow at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, “Hey bro, what’s happening’?”
On her crutches, she’d marched in front of the local Woolworth’s, protesting their segregated Southern lunch counters, chanting, “Jim Crow must go! Jim Crow must go!”
A lady from the A.M.E. church touched Sarah’s shoulder and said, “Bless your heart, dear. You can’t be a day over fourteen.”
“I’m nine,” Sarah said, thrilled at being mistaken for a teenager.
Farmers used to spread corn in whiskey on the ground, and when crows had eaten it and were reeling and stumbling drunk, would club them to death.
One of the theories about the origin of the phrase “Jim Crow” is that it referred to a minstrel dance and song that was done in imitation of these drunken crows.
“I’ve fallen in love with someone else.”
Later, on one of her many trips on the winding roads from their house on Grizzly Peak to the flatlands below— passing the stucco monstrosities built in the wake of the fire—she will rant: “Fallen in love, fallen” as if what had happened was beyond his control, a misstep, a stumble in the dark.
Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
Which, quite frankly, would be more appropriate for a man his age.
“If you’re so all-fired up on the subject of clichés,” she says to her dead mother, “what about the sixty-two year old man who takes up with a woman half his age.”
Her dead mother makes no reply.
“Unseasonably high temperatures are expected to continue through the end of the week,” the radio says, “with a high of 86 predicted on Friday for San Francisco and 104 for Sacramento.”
Crows mate for life.
Sarah had the sense to say to Paul, after his confession, “Don’t tell me her name,” although in response he had blurted out, “Mara. Her name is Mara.”
Sleepless at three that first morning, she wandered into the kitchen to make herself a cup of chamomile tea—reaching above the oven door held shut with a bungee cord, that oven door that Paul had been promising to fix for how long now? A decade. She wheeled past Paul, on the couch, sawing logs.
And although she had had the sense to say “Don’t tell me her name,” she didn’t have the sense to resist going online and pulling up the record of calls—she was not, she emphasizes to herself, snooping in his personal phone. They are so high up that cell phone reception here is spotty at best, and they have a landline—how recherché, how arcane—and found numerous calls to a number she didn’t recognize. Which she called, and responded to a 3 A.M. “Huh?” with “Is this Mara?” hanging up after hearing “Yes,” the “yes” not of a woman in solid middle age, the yes—she could tell, even from her groggy middle-of-the-night “Huh?”—of a woman of the tattoos and piercings cohort, a fact that was confirmed when the phone rang seconds later:
“You woke me up, bitch.”
And there was her name on the caller ID: M DEVANJUK. Mara Devanjuk. How easy was that to google?
Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara.
A flock of crows fell dead before Alexander the Great as he stood at the gates of Babylon. His soothsayers urged him to heed this omen and turn back, but he ignored them and was dead within two weeks.
There was no omen to warn Sarah that Paul was about to leave her. When he sat opposite her on the couch—having moved a stack of newspapers, mail, and sundry papers out of the way so he could sit down—it seemed much more likely that he was going to say, “We’re almost out of toilet paper,” than “I’ve fallen in love with someone else.”
No omen, other than all the portents that foretell doom for a marriage—or in this case, a non-marriage—of some thirty years duration: the half-hearted spats, no longer the wild rows of their early years; the sex becoming not just infrequent but almost dutiful, like a trip to Berkeley Bowl where you might see something that would cause your heart to rise up with delight— cherry season has started!—but mostly was just pushing your cart up one aisle and down the next. In-out, in-out, in-out, humpity-pumpity.
Over fifty courtship displays have been observed in the American crow, including tail quivers, mutual bowing, showing off the bones of a raccoon skeleton. Also males holding debris in their beaks—“Look, I’m taking out the garbage. I love taking out the garbage!”
Sarah says to her friends, “I can’t eat. I can’t eat a thing.”
This will not, strictly speaking, be true. In the nearly two days since Paul said, “I’ve fallen in love with someone else,” Sara has eaten four grapes and two sections of a navel orange. And drunk coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. But coffee doesn’t count, not as food. Even if, as Sarah does, you doctor it with milk and sugar.
And seven glasses of red wine.
What is Paul saying to his friends? She is not sure. Surely exhibiting his stigmata, not the iron nails that ran into Christ’s hands and feet, just the scratches—quite superficial, Sarah would have pointed out—from her fingernails, when she’d lunged at him across the couch, after he had not said, “We’re almost out of toilet paper. We need to make a Costco run...” Her dialing Mara’s number at 3:00 in the morning had doubtless become, in his telling of the tale, a harassing phone call. Perhaps it has even become plural, multiple phone calls, although honest to God, she only did it once.
According to a legend of the Native American Lenni Lenape, in the beginning the world was green and the animals— Kijiamuh Ka’ong, the One who Creates by Thinking had not yet thought of people—lived in endless bounty. Crow had rainbow plumage and a beautiful song.
Then the One who Creates by Thinking happened to think of snow and ice, and soon the world was buried in snow and ice, and it seemed certain that every plant and animal on earth would freeze to death.
Crow was chosen to fly to Kijiamuh Ka’ong and beg him to save the world. Crow flew, pumping his wings for three days, up past the moon, past the sun, past the stars. At last he reached the Creator, who told Crow that once he had thought of something, he could not unthink it. But the Creator poked a stick in the sun and gave the fire to Crow, warning him to fly back to earth as quickly as possible, before it went out. Crow flew and flew, the soot from the fire blackening his feathers and the smoke leaving his voice raspy.
Fire melted the snow and the animals were saved.
When the One who Creates by Thinking thought of people, the people did not hunt the crow because his flesh tasted of smoke and they never caged him, because his voice was so ugly.
Sarah cries in all the wrong places. For some reason, she cannot cry in her therapist’s office, but she bursts into tears in the line at Artís Coffee, at Berkeley Bowl, fleeing the concern of others, abandoning her shopping basket filled with organic raspberries and collard greens and dark-dark chocolate. Surely those around her do not imagine that, like an abandoned teenager, she is weeping for her lost love: they must think she has just been widowed, lost a best friend, been given a dreaded diagnosis. Poor old thing.
Poor, poor old thing.
Having fled in tears she wheels into her van and drives, Dwight to College, College to 13, the Broadway Terrace exit, up, up, up in the dry hills, passing the sign in front of the fire station with its arrow pointed all the way to the right, the band of color redder than red, “Extreme,” and then home.
Home, where the crows seem to be carrying on a loud and contentious conversation. A group of crows is a parliament, and they do suggest a meeting of Britain’s House of Commons where the members jeer, interrupt, and hoot at the prime minister in the hot seat. She says as much to Arne, who is standing under one of the trees with a pair of binoculars fixed to his eyes and his neck craned. He makes no response—when she comes out of the house several hours later, he will still be there.
A woman walking her dog says, “It’s like that movie? You know?”
“The Birds,” Sarah says.
The male crow does not have a penis; his cloaca becomes enlarged during sexual excitement and he rubs it against the female’s cloaca. Copulation lasts between four and twelve seconds, and vocalizations during the act can be heard from a distance of a quarter of a mile, with female crows vocalizing a distinct, raucous cu-koo.
There are subjects which Sarah tries to avoid imagining.
The subject of copulation. Specifically, the subject of Paul copulating with Mara. She is not successful.
Paul, after that first night on the sofa, left, packed a duffel bag and climbed into his truck—it wasn’t raining, if it had been raining it would have been the stuff of a country and western song, the break up, the pickup truck, the duffel bag slung over his shoulder, the blue eyes crying in the rain—although really, to be a perfect country song, there would have been a yellow hound sitting on the front seat of the pickup.
Will it ever rain again?
A massive fire breaks out some eighty miles to the north of Oakland. The radio reports that it is zero percent contained.
Perhaps the fire will sweep down, leaping freeways, creating a firestorm, as the Oakland Hills fire had done, a rising column of air above the conflagration creating its own strong winds, whipping the fire along, creating more winds which in turn increased the fire.
It might spread to wherever it was that Paul and Mara were holed up, burning them in flagrante delicto, as embracing lovers had been seared at Pompeii.
The radio says that firefighters are coming from New Zealand and Australia.
Sarah pictures men in full gear striding through the airports of Wellington and Sydney, lengths of rope curled around their left arms, hatchets in their right, their boots scrunching against the linoleum floor.
They are coming from the Antipodes to save us.
Crows eat garter snakes, insects, corn borers, gypsy moths, May beetles, wireworms, grasshoppers, long-horned beetles, salamanders, walking catfish, river otter dung, flies, house sparrows, starlings, human vomit, bats, worms, mice, whelks, roadkill, human carrion, weevils, grubs, centipedes, millipedes, lice, and ticks picked from feral hogs. They have learned to associate the McDonald’s logo with food.
They raid the nests of songbirds, devouring eggs, nestlings, fledglings, while the parental birds flap wildly about, screeching and keening like avian MacDuffs, “All my pretty little children? Did you say all?
Of course, this being October, there are no nests to be raided, although perhaps in April or in May the crows now caterwauling above her had been cracking open the fragile shells of robins, wrens, thrushes, tits in the trees above her head, a mix of albumin and gelatinous bones slithering down their maws, while Sarah, oblivious, had been going about her business, heading down to the Ed Roberts Campus for another meeting with the goddamn board of directors of what she persists in thinking of as her non-profit, reading over press releases, driving to Sacramento for another meeting, having to postpone a scheduled conference with Max’s teacher; perhaps, she now thinks, oblivious not just to the slaughter of innocents happening above her head but to a crack in her non-marriage threatening to become a fissure.
How long has this been going on?
Look here, she says to the voices that twirl through her head like manic ballerinas, there’s a limit: no more lines from cheesy songs.
Do those voices in her head pay her any heed?
How long has this been going on? they taunt. How long has this been going on?
Arne, who is standing under the tree watching the crows, says: “You are wrong. It’s not a parliament of crows. It’s a parliament of owls. A flock of crows is called a murder.”
As if they can comprehend human speech, the crows become particularly vociferous: “What the fuck are you saying about us? Huh? You want to say that again?”
“A group of larks is called an exultation. For magpies it’s a tiding. A school of fish. A gaggle of geese... Oh, hey, is Paul around?”
“No. I’m not sure when he’s going to be back.”
“I wanted to borrow a drill bit. Do you know, does he have a quarter inch reduced shank?”
“Actually, Arne. Arne. Listen to me—”
“I have thirty-seven drill bits. I bought a set at a yard sale..”
“Listen to me. I need you to listen to me. I’m not sure when he’s going to be back. He and I are sort of going through a rough patch.”
“Are you getting divorced? I was married once.” “We’re not married.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
“You could call him on his cell phone and ask him about the drill bit.” She gives him the number. “Do you want me to write it down for you?”
“No,” he says—his tone of voice a few steps short of insulted—and reels the number back at her.
She decides that if the temperature hits 97° it will mean that Paul will come back to her. The 97° will not be what pops up when she opens her computer or on any website. It has to be 97° as measured on the thermometer by their front door, one with a red column of mercury and faded pictures of cardinals and robins and chickadees—although of course no crows—that she and Paul had bought at a yard sale for 50 cents shortly after they moved into this house. No one has consulted this thermometer for years, but it has remained screwed to the doorframe: they are not people who cavalierly throw things away, as the chaos within their house attests.
Corvids signal aggression by flashing the whites of their eyes—actually, by blinking their protective second eyelids, called nicitating membranes.
Sarah could do with another set of eyelids, her sole set being so red and swollen.
A friend whose husband had the utter lack of originality to leave her for the au pair suggests Preparation H which, in addition to soothing the swelling of hemorrhoidal tissues, does the same for the red and swollen eyes of abandoned women.
She leaves her office at two in the afternoon, telling her assistant that she is going home to get some peace and quiet so she can finish the latest grant proposal.
In fact, she is going home so that she can check the temperature when it peaks mid-afternoon.
The column of mercury only climbs to 93°.
At 4:37, the crows depart en masse, as if a bell had been rung.
Her obsession with the temperature is not quite asirrational as it sounds.
Heat had always brought them together.
The first night in India, their bodies slick with sweat, the wambling ceiling fan overhead nearly useless against the heat,
Paul’s flesh had tasted of turmeric and chilies, of the salt of his sweat, but underneath those things it had been alkaline, and it was that steadiness that had bound her to him.
The day of the Oakland hills fire, another October day with temperatures in the nineties and hot winds, the fire had blocked their exit and they’d turned the car around and headed back up to their place. Paul had hooked up the garden hose and hosed down the roof, while Sarah and Tony had filled the tub with water, and also the sinks, the mason jars which they’d emptied of lentils and mung beans and brown rice.
“Are we going to die?” Tony had asked, with six-year-old solemnity.
“No,” Sarah had answered in her maternal don’t-be- silly voice, although later, holding Paul, standing on the deck, watching the fire rage beneath them, wondering if the direction of the wind was going to turn, she’d whispered into his chest, “I wish we had a gun.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Water mains burst from the heat.
The water they’d saved in the tub tasted faintly of soap scum and cleanser, so they filtered it through Chemex coffee filters and added a bit of bleach.
They made love that night: Paul’s flesh had tasted of ash.
The next day, he walked down as far as he could, came back, shook his head slightly at Sarah: don’t go down there.
He didn’t have to say, she knew, that he’d seen a body turned to cinder in a trapped car. He’d brought back a piece of melted aluminum to show Tony.
The crows had flocked on that day, too, no doubt calling in their native tongue about the barbecued flesh beneath them, ripe for the eating.
The thermometer hits 98°.
Paul calls her and says, “I was hoping we could sit down and talk.”
So here they are, sitting on the couch, the couch they had been sitting on when he delivered his announcement, as far apart as it is possible to sit. In the next room, their son Max, who has returned from the school camping trip, is playing video games. His presence will surely act as a damper to protect poor Paul from any wild acts on Sarah’s part.
Paul is saying, “I was kind of thinking I might be able to buy you out.”
In response to which Sarah wheels over to her desk and picks up her laptop, wheels back, opens it and enters their address followed by the word “Zillow” and then turns the screen towards him.
His jaw literally drops, like a cartoon character expressing amazement.
He stares at his hands. He stares at his feet. He looks up but can’t hold her gaze. “Is there any way? I love this place, and—”
He stops himself so abruptly that she realizes he was about to say, “… so does Mara.”
“You brought her here? You brought her here. Sure.
Sure you can keep the place, just write me a check for—” She turns the laptop back towards her, brings up the calculator... “$461,447. There’s another fifty cents in there, but I’ll let that slide.”
In 1976, she had been sitting on the grass outside of the library at Stanford taking notes on Typee, copying Melville’s words onto those fine-ruled index cards of hers: “The Marquesas! What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name spirit up! Naked houris – cannibal banquets – groves of cocoanut – coral reefs – tattooed chiefs – and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with breadfruit trees – carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters – savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols—HEATHENISH RITES AND HUMAN SACRIFICES,” while some three miles away—as the crow flies—a college drop-out was fiddling in his parents’ garage.
A butterfly flaps its wings in New Mexico and a few months later a cyclone slams into Hong Kong.
A kid tinkers with a motherboard in a Palo Alto garage, and the price of their house increases thirtyfold.
Sarah makes appointments. With her doctor—she can’t get through this without meds; with a couple of real estate agents; with Max’s therapist.
Max’s therapist is Ray. Her therapist is Gillian. Paul’s therapist is Ernesto. Their daughter Rosa’s therapist was named Suzi, but Rosa, all grown up now, rebels against her parents by not going to therapy. Which is better than rebelling by becoming a heroin addict or joining the Marines, as some of their friends’ offspring have done.
Sarah’s doctor prescribes her seven doses of a short- acting benzodiazepine.
Maybe meditation would help—that she even considers this suggests just how desperate she is—and she goes with a friend to a Zen center in Berkeley. Giving her directions, the friend tells her that there are two Buddhist temples on this block, and she is to go to the one with the plain gate, not the one with the fancy carved gate.
She breathes in and she breathes out. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. She wonders if it would help to actually meet this woman in the flesh. She is aware of thinking. She returns to the motion of her breath. In-out. In-out. In-out. Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara. When is the bell going to ring? In-out. In-out. In-out.
Mara. Mara. Mara. Mara.
Afterwards, there is a talk about compassion, and the teacher says, “Every sentient being we encounter has been our mother in the past.”
A Realtor® arrives, a woman by the name of Elle—not L, as Sarah had at first assumed—with a mane of Ann Coulterish blonde hair and a quickly suppressed look of shock at the chaos within the house.
“The view is going to bump up the price quite a bit,” Elle says. “We generally think we can add $50,000 per bridge, and this is a five bridge view. That said, I think what we should do in this situation is underprice it a teensy little bit, and that should get a bidding war going—”
Teensy? Sarah and her dead mother roll their eyes in unison.
Sarah had once spray-painted “PROPERTY IS THEFT” on the cream-colored outer walls of a real estate office on Valencia Street in San Francisco; and on the walls and window of an upscale restaurant next door, “YUPPIES, STAY OUT OF THE MISSION.”
Yuppies, well, that dates her.
Her mother would have approved of the comma, although not of the vandalism.
There is speculation that crows sometimes execute a fellow crow, gathering in an assembly, and then silently departing, leaving behind a mangled corpse.
She takes one of her seven sleeping pills and boom, falls asleep like falling off a cliff, but after four hours she finds herself wide awake: Emily, her doctor, hadn’t been kidding about the short-acting thing.
If only she hadn’t nagged him so much. About the broken oven door. He might have even fixed the oven door, if she had just shut up about it. There had once been a fight over how long to cook an artichoke: not a spat or a squabble, a full-out clash: no body blows but slammed doors and Paul getting in his truck and driving down the hill and returning hours later smelling of beer. Why do you always have to be so right?
Why had she always had to be so right?
Now, of course, she is the wronged woman, but really, that was just another way of her being in the right.
Emily had also given her a handout about sleep hygiene, and she decides to follow its advice: “If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep after twenty minutes or so, get up out of bed and do something boring: read the dictionary, clean the bathroom, watch the Golf Channel.”
Following this advice, she manages to get the compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, two volumes, down off the shelf. Micrographically reduced—it came with its own magnifying glass—the technology that had produced it had seemed almost miraculous in the early 1970s when she had joined the Book of the Month Club in order to get it.
She looks up “crow.” “A bird of the genus Corvus; in
England commonly applied to the Carrion Crow...; in the north of England, Scotland, and Ireland to the Rook. C. frugilegus; in the U.S. to a closely allied gregarious species.”
She looks up “gregarious,” a word which it would never have occurred to her could be applied to birds, although she discovers that its root is the Latin word “grex” flock, and its first definition is to animals living in flocks or communities, and only in a transferred sense to those of her species, “Inclined to associate with others, fond of company.”
A rook is a “black, raucous-voiced European and Asiatic bird ... nesting in colonies, one of the commonest of the crow tribe.” The word has cousins in various northern European languages, ruke, reuk, rouc; in Old Norse (Old Icelandic) hrókr and in Obsolete Danish rog.
Perhaps she will go back to graduate school and learn Obsolete Danish and Old Icelandic and write a thesis not on race and colonialism in Melville’s minor novels, but on disability in Icelandic sagas.
Crows sometimes roost in groups of up to two million. Roosting allows crows to share warmth, reduces the chance and an individual being caught by a predator, and serve as a means for crows to communicate.
The word “roost” is derived from an Old Saxon word referring to the framework of a roof or attic. As well as meaning a perch for domestic fowls, it can also mean “a tumultuous tidal race formed by the meeting of conflicting currents off various parts of the Orkney and Shetland Islands.”
Sarah turns back to the definition of “crow,” and finds a quote from Greene’s Groats Worth of Wit, ‘There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers...” Yes, she remembers now, from those grad school days, it was an attack on Shakespeare. William was the “upstart Crow.” She reads the definition for “croak,” “crooked,” “crotchety,” and “crone.” In addition to meaning “a withered old woman,” the word “crone” can also be used as a verb, meaning “To pick out and reject the old sheep from a flock.”
This is not helping.
She decides to clean the oven. She will make it a condition of the final settlement of their affairs that Paul fix the goddamn oven door. Lowering herself from her wheelchair onto the kitchen floor, she rummages under the sink, unloading Ajax, Simple Green, products with the word Zen in their name, products with the word Miracle in their name—reminding herself to never again buy a cleaning product that describes itself as miraculous, the age of miracles has passed—and, failing to find oven cleaner, begins to weep.
Humans have tried to drive crows from roosts with dynamite; by shooting them—in the early 1930s the U.S. government provided free ammunition for this purpose; by positioning mechanical owls and hanging dead crows near their roosting site; and by broadcasting recorded crow distress calls.
After that four hours of sleep she spends the day feeling jet-lagged: not Chicago to San Francisco jet-lagged, more like Mumbai or Novosibirsk to SFO jet-lagged. She drinks way too much coffee—three cups at home, and then another three at Rasa across the street from her office, which leaves her feeling like a cranky two-year-old. She leaves the office again mid- afternoon, not going home to check the temperature—she is no longer in thrall to that particular delusion—just going home.
She pours herself a glass of wine and sits on the deck. She thinks about going back to the office, but by the time she gets there it will almost be time to turn around so she can be here when Max returns on the bus.
She will miss this view.
She’s almost forgotten that after they sell the house and she collects her pile of loot, she will not be able to live here anymore. Where will she go?
The Zen person at the temple on Oregon Street had said that not only was every being we encounter been our mother in a previous life, but we have been the mother of every sentient being we encounter.
Paul was once her mother. She was once Paul’s mother, which seems more plausible. Mara was once her mother. Paul was once Mara’s mother. Mara’s mother was once Paul’s mother’s mother. Mara was once her grandmother.
She was once Mara’s mother. She wishes she had spanked that child. A lot.
A crow struts along the railing of the deck and turns its head, its beady eye seeming to say: “What’s your problem?
“Be nice to me,” Sarah says. “I was your mother in a previous life.”
In response to which the crow excretes a gooey, whitish mess, which drips down the railing.
“And you were my mother,” Sarah says. The crow eyes her.
“Jesus. Arne, you startled me.” Startled is an understatement: her heart is still racing. Plus, she feels embarrassed: has he heard her talking to the crow?
“Paul told me I could just come in. He said he still lives here, even if he’s staying with his girlfriend.”
Girlfriend? Great, Sarah thinks, I really needed to hear the word ‘girlfriend.’
“He said the drill bits are in the hall closet.”
But he doesn’t head for the hall closet, he moves towards her. And then he is kissing her, bending over at an awkward angle, his tongue in her mouth. His tongue does not taste like Paul’s tongue; it tastes like the tongue of a vegan.
“Oh. I guess I was supposed to get verbal affirmative consent.”
“I just—I didn’t see that coming. It was too—sudden, soon.”
“I’ll go look for the drill bit.” Then just as he’s about to go through the sliding door: “Should I apologize?” “It’s OK... Just...”
“I thought it might make you feel better.” “The hall closet.”
The crow turns gingerly around on the railing, presents its backside to her, caws once, and takes wing. It gets smaller and smaller, disappearing into the vault of the sky.
Come back, she wants to call, come back, don’t leave me.
And then it does come back, along with twenty or thirty of its fellows, reeling through the air, swooping and gliding, claiming this particular patch of sky as theirs.
Anne Finger is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction who has taught disability studies and creative writing at both the university level and in community writing workshops. Her new book, A Woman, in Bed was published by Cinco Puntos Press in March of 2018. Her short story collection, Call Me Ahab, won the Prairie Schooner Prize and was nominated for the Northern California Book Award.
Accompanying image "Gone Mother" by William Rhodes.
Reclaimed shoe, photo on fabric, paint, and neon glass.