Fiction by Carmelinda Blagg

AWAKE

            I was folding Stephen’s clothes, putting them in a cardboard box, when I heard the noise.  It came from the back of the house - a dull thud that kept repeating itself. It was early, not quite nine in the morning. I was still in my T-shirt and boxers. I slipped on my moccasins and padded to the kitchen. My wife Tina and I thought the time had come for us to pack our son’s things away. But Tina said she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t bear to handle his clothing, so I told her I would take care of it. I folded and smoothed everything into neat solid squares, and as I did this, I ran my hand over his T-shirts, his worn blue jean jacket, those yellow and green bandanas he liked to wrap around his head when he went out on a hot day to toss the basketball.  

            I went to the kitchen window. Above the sink I could hear the sound of flapping from outside. But I couldn’t see anything. It was quiet in the house. Tina wasn’t around.  These days, she’s up before dawn and by the time I wake up, she’s not there. I’m usually awakened by the sudden absence of her breathing beside me. 

            I stepped outside through the laundry room. A basket of dirty towels and sheets was sitting on top of the washing machine. It’s a small dimly lit room that smells like bleach and soap. On the dusty concrete floor, close to the washing machine, I saw the silver bracelet I’d given Tina for our twentieth wedding anniversary two years ago. I picked it up and held it as I fingered its gleaming silver metal. Its tiny, oval links felt cold as they meshed against the skin of my palm. I dropped it into the pocket of my T-shirt and continued outside. The sun was rising fast. Yet another hot day.   

Last night it rained for the first time in weeks. I lay in the darkness of our bedroom, Tina already asleep. There was a time when we would have held each other, and whispered about the rain, the way the trees, heavy with wetness, would create their own showers when the wind stirred their branches. Now, our irregular bedtime rhythms claimed us in different ways, like varying patterns of stress, both great and small, traveling the course of an already faltering branch. I listened to the rain hitting the windows and the roof with a sense of relief that a storm had come at last. I lay there for a long time, fully awake, counting the seconds between the flashes of lightening and the peals of thunder and the way the rain would come down hard, then stop, then start again.   And I knew that just about the time I would finally drop off to sleep, Tina would wake up, quietly get dressed, and go out by herself into the dark morning.  

The morning smelled like wet ashes and wood. It was still quiet, as if something hadn’t quite touched the day to turn it into just another borderline awful one. I walked over to the kitchen window where I looked up and saw the huge black wing of a crow flapping madly from the gutter. I couldn’t see its other wing. Water splashed and wet leaves flew about, drifting everywhere. The crow had likely tried to drink from the gutter and got itself stuck. Stupid bird. There’s so many of them around here, and most of the time, they act like they don’t even know their own size. That’s why I got rid of the bird feeder last year. Between the crows and the squirrels it never stood a chance, and neither did the poor finches and sparrows trying to wrest a morsel from the little copper tray when they dared, eventually giving up and going elsewhere.

            The crow was making a low, miserable sound; a sound different from the noise they make when they’re dancing on the roof or gathered in the treetops, making that raucous cawing as if they owned the whole neighborhood.

            I went back inside the house, changed into some worn khakis and a sweatshirt and, on my way back outside, grabbed my leather work gloves from the shelf above the washing machine. I got the ladder from the garage and brought it around to the back of the house, leaning it up against the gutter. I pulled on my gloves and climbed up the ladder. It occurred to me that what I was doing was quite absurd - trying to rescue a stupid crow, a creature for which I have absolutely zero fondness. 

It was still flapping that one wing, splashing water, as I climbed the ladder. A wet leaf flew up, landing on my sleeve. Water droplets spread darkly across the front of my sweatshirt. I got to the top of the ladder and the crow stopped moving though it was still making that pitiful sound. Its tail was oddly spread, like a broken fan, and it looked like some feathers were missing. Rain water pooled in the gutter, dull and green. It hadn’t been cleaned for months and was full of dark, mossy gunk, dead insects, leaves and severed moth wings. Then the wind blew and I glimpsed the sky just above the roofline of our house.  The last time I’d gone up on the roof was a year ago, to clear some tree branches after a thunderstorm. Stephen was a freshman in high school. He wanted to climb up on the roof with me, but I told him no, I didn’t think it was a good idea to have both of us on the roof.  I started picking up wet and broken branches and I’d toss them down to him. He was having a great time, running here and there, retrieving the branches, his shaggy hair falling in his face. The cuffs of his jeans were soggy and frayed and the wind filled the sagging pouches of his oversized T-shirt, like air swelling the sails of a boat.

 The crow started moving again, flapping that one wing. Now that I was up high enough, I could see what it was trying to do. Its was stuck, crammed in the shallow bed of the gutter, its right wing folded almost completely beneath it. It was struggling to keep its belly from the sharp edge of the gutter’s rusted metal lip. I could see a bright pool of blood gathering in the dark water. 

I had to do this quickly. I took a deep breath and placed my hand on top of the bird. It quivered in my grasp. I felt around its underside. It didn’t like that and squawked again miserably, pecking at the gloved arch between my thumb and forefinger. But I could sense that it was weak and hadn’t much fight left in it. My fingers roamed beneath it, touching its soft, cleaved belly, its feathers sticky with blood. It had cut itself against the sharp lip of the gutter. If I pulled it out it would die, but it was going to die anyway.

I closed my eyes, counted to three, and pulled. I hear a horrible screeching, then the bird’s head popped up, its beak grazing my face. But I couldn’t move it. I pulled again, more forcefully this time. No good. Its claws were slipping sideways as it tried grasping the slippery metal of the gutter. I felt queasy, realizing that I was now an accomplice to its misery. Trying once more, I took my free hand and grasped the metal lip of the gutter and, using all the strength I could muster, I pulled on it, hoping I could create a little more space to free the bird. It creaked. The ladder wobbled and I quickly clutched the underside of the roof, trying to hold myself steady. A cold panic ran like a current through my neck and shoulders. I looked down the length of the gutter and saw that I’d almost brought the whole thing down. But I could now feel the crow wriggling free. Black feathers were flying everywhere. Drops of blood splattered across my sweatshirt, my face, my pants, the kitchen window.

The bird continued weakly flapping that one wing as I held on to it. I couldn’t grip the ladder now because I had to take the crow with both hands.  I nestled it in the crook of my arm so that I could take hold of the ladder with my other hand. Slowly I stepped down. The crow kept digging its claws into my glove, struggling to break my hold, but it was too weak.

The morning still smelled like ashes and rain, but it was now growing warmer.

“Sheldon?”

It was Tina. I didn’t turn around because I had to keep my feet steady on the ladder. If I were younger, this would be a lot easier. 

I reached the ground, still holding the crow close. 

“What are you doing?”

Her voice trembled, betrayed by a small knot of familiar panic. I didn’t want to startle her. So I took a deep breath and began stroking the bird as I turned to face her. 

“It’s a crow,” I said. “He got stuck in the gutter.  You know how greedy crows are. He didn’t know he was in trouble until it was too late.”

Her face was drained. She blinked. “Oh, dear,” she said, drawing her hands to her face. “It’s bleeding…everywhere. Oh, Sheldon what happened to it?” Her words came out in a quick stream of distress.    

“He’s injured. The lip of the gutter’s pretty sharp. Yeah, he’s bleeding.”

 “Was it trying to build a nest?”

I shrugged. “I doubt it. I think it just got thirsty.”

I looked at her. Furrows of worry there in her face. She might be right. I was thinking only of the bird’s being a victim of its own greedy instincts, and not that it would have any purpose beyond that – a purpose not necessarily awakened by knowledge, but one linked more to its own immutable survival.  

 “Your face,” Tina said. She took a Kleenex from the side pocket of her purse and dabbed at my cheeks and nose. 

“It got a little messy when I pulled him out.”

She nervously dabbed at my chin with the tissue. The bird squawked and she stepped back.

“Will it fly?”

I shook my head. “It can’t. One of its wings is broken.”

She crumpled the Kleenex in the ball of her fist and hurried ahead of me. She was carrying a plastic bag and I could see that it was filled with oranges, some bread and cheese, a long carton of aluminum foil and a package of light bulbs. She was wearing blue slacks and a white shirt. Her yellow (almost white) hair was neatly combed, turned under. I love the shape of her backside, and I am moved always, even more so these days, to hold her against me.

Before going inside, she turned and looked at me.

“What are you going to do with it now?”

“I thought I’d bring it inside, see if there was something I…” 

Before I could finish, she started shaking her head, and then she went inside, letting the screen door close behind her. I started to call after her that the bird was dying, that it just needed a place to die, but then I thought better of it and followed her silently inside.

She put the bag of groceries on the counter and grabbed a roll of paper towels, ripping off a length and placing it on the floor as I knelt down, still cradling the crow in my arms. 

“Put it here,” she said, smoothing the paper towels with her hands. I did as she said, and placed the crow on the towels. My glove was stuck in one place where the bird had bled quite heavily, so I turned it on its side and when I lifted my hand away I saw a deep gash nearly three inches long on its dark, smooth belly. 

Tina groaned. “Oh, how awful. Is it dead now?”

I shook my head. “Not yet, but soon, I’m afraid.” 

My glove was sticky with blood and feathers. The crow stirred a little and started beating that single wing. A tiny hollow in the middle of its chest was pumping furiously. It stretched its claws up and apart in quick, jerky motions, as if trying to find someplace to put them.

Tina went to the sink and began to wash her hands. I watched her hands moving back and forth under the hot water, watched her take a green and yellow striped kitchen towel and dry them. Then she started putting the groceries away, placing the oranges in a basket on the kitchen counter, putting away the foil and light bulbs in the pantry, the bread in the bread box. She did these things with quiet deliberation, as if she were trying to gather pieces of broken glass calmly and methodically, so as not to cut herself. I watched her with her back still facing me. She was looking at the kitchen window. She stood very still then took a deep breath.

“There’s blood on the window,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “I’ll clean it up.”

The crow jerked its body beneath my hand. Its feathers spread out in a spasmodic reflex that caused them to make a beautiful symmetry of gleaming black and blue brushing against the linoleum. And then the bird went still. It just stopped, gave up its struggling. I slipped my other hand out from under it. Its claws kept curling out, then in before finally freezing stiffly. Its eyes were now drawn up in a lifeless liquid curtain. 

Tina leaned against the counter, cupping the small brick of orange cheddar she’d bought in her hands.

“He’s gone,” I said. “He was hurt pretty badly. He was suffering.”

Tina shook her head. “Why did he have to fly into the gutter?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

I heard her sigh and I looked at her.

 “Where were you?” I said.

She drew her eyes together in blank confusion. 

“What?”

“I mean before going to the grocer. Where did you go? Where do you go at five-thirty in the morning?”

The question came out of me like something spilling to the floor. It had been ricocheting around inside of me until, I guess, there was no place else for it to go, but out into the air between us. It was often hard to tell what was holding us together these days, but it occurred to me that indirection and avoidance were part of the strange adhesive.

She put the cheese on the counter and crossed her arms in front of her. She looked at the dead bird as if it were a spot on the floor. Something she’d missed when damp mopping. 

“I can’t sleep Sheldon. I just go for a drive.” Her voice trailed off.

It seemed that what had happened to us could go on forever, and that it most certainly would.

Did she drive by the high school, with those windows still boarded up from the shootings? Did she go to the cemetery? I wanted to ask. I could see her standing there, touching the letters of his name. I haven’t been to Stephen’s grave yet. I can’t go. Most days, I can’t get enough sleep. It dogs me. But for Tina, she is awakened beyond her capacity.

It’s as if, with his death, we’ve been given everything we cannot use.  

“I saw Ruby at the supermarket,” she said. 

“That’s nice,” I said, not looking at her.

“She told me Hans is concerned about you. Says he’d like to call you, talk, you know.”

I shrugged. I hadn’t spoken to Hans since he called a week after the funeral. I hadn’t spoken to him because I didn’t have anything new to say, except, well, what?

“Sheldon, did you hear me? Have you thought about going back to work?”

I knew what she was doing, trying to make me feel cornered now, like I’d made her feel a moment ago. But I didn’t like the sound of her voice trying to work its way beneath my skin. I shot her an irritated glance. 

“I’ll stop the Q and A if you will.”

She sighed impatiently, then slipped on her blue rubber gloves, tore off another length of paper towels and handed them to me. 

“Here,” she said. “You might need more of these.”

I reached out to take them, not realizing that I was still wearing the blood-soaked glove, its leathery fingertips just grazing her blue rubber kitchen glove. She hastily withdrew her hand and put the paper towels down on the floor near the bird. 

“You need to wash up,” she said. “You’re a mess.”

I looked down at my sweatshirt, with spots of blood everywhere and an especially large stain in the middle, where I had held the crow close to me.

“I thought I’d bury the bird first.” I said.

“Where?” She looked at me severely.

I told her I had the backyard in mind. A corner, close to the fence.

“Is that all right?” I asked.

“I don’t care. But not close to the house. I just don’t want it there.”

She returned to the sink, peeling off her gloves. She switched on the faucet and started washing her hands again. 

“You should have a shower after you’re done with that.”

Once, years ago, she would have been more drawn to the suffering of the crow before it died, carried along by an empathy she could afford.

Now she just wanted things to be neat and clean.

I gathered the crow in my arms and got up from the floor. I went to the backyard, feeling suddenly very tired. My neck and shoulders were stiff and aching, and Tina was right. I needed a shower. I touched a hand to my face, rubbing raw stubbles of whiskers and flakes of dried blood.  

It was warmer outside now and the sweatshirt I wore felt against my skin. I made my way to the corner of the fence, just beyond the small dogwood and the bed of hostas now a withered mass in the late summer heat. I put the bird down and went to the garden shed to get a spade. It was dark and hot and miserably humid in the shed. It smelled of rotting wood. I felt my way in the dark, silky cobwebs brushing my nose as I fingered rows of stacked terra cotta pots until I found the spade cradled inside one.  It was clumped with hardened mud and I brushed it clean. 

I returned to where I’d put the bird, knelt and start digging. Because of the rain, the ground was soft and it was not difficult to make a small, shallow grave. In minutes I was done. I looked at the sheen of the bird’s dark wound and the shiny iridescence of its blue-black feathers that lifted, stirred by a breeze. I wrapped it with the paper towels and then I heard a voice coming from the other side of the fence. It was a girl’s voice, clear and small. I stopped. Next came the soft mewing of a cat. She was calling to it. I imagined her on the other side, kneeling just like me. Who was she? I knew her. These were, after all, our neighbors. I’d seen her before, I was sure, but I couldn’t remember her name.

I started shivering. My hands were shaking. My knees felt as if they were melting into the ground. I thought it was just the usual morning exhaustion I’d become more accustomed to lately. The girl kept calling to the cat, over and over. Once or twice, she whistled or softly hummed, as if there were all the time in the world to wait for the animal to come to her.

I placed the crow in the spoon shaped hollow of its grave and with my gloved hands, soaked with its blood I gathered up clumps of wet dirt to cover the bird, patting and smoothing the dirt into a small mound in such a way that I would be sure to work around it whenever weeding or mowing nearby. 

 

***

I went back inside the house and as I walked through the kitchen I saw that Tina had made a pitcher of tea. She was in the living room, sitting on the edge of the sofa, her hands folded in her lap. A plastic watering jug was at her feet. She stared vacantly at the potted ferns near the bay window, as if anticipating some kind of instruction from them.   I waited there a moment. 

She finally turned and looked at me.

“Are you done?” 

I nodded.

“You look terrible,” she said. 

I tried a creaky smile. “I know. You’ve already told me.”

I went over to her, knelt in front of her. The light made the irises of her green eyes shine brightly prismatic. Her lipstick was even, perfectly tracing the line of her mouth.  She looked small and perfect and smooth as a pane of glass.

“By four in the morning I’m awake,” she said. “Sometimes, I drive by the cemetery. Sometimes, I go to Wyngate Plaza and wait for the market to open.” She gave me a little half smile and shrugged. “I wait to buy milk.” 

She hadn’t spoken like this in a long time. She hadn’t confided anything to me since I had watched her drop clumps of dirt onto Stephen’s casket. 

 “I park the car and wait for the sun to come up,” she said. “I’m up. I’m awake and it’s as if I’m waiting for something.” She closed her eyes and bit her lip.

I took hold of her hands. I pulled her close, kissing her neck, my fingers reaching for the buttons of her blouse. I wanted nothing more than to touch her, to fall asleep against her naked breast. Her throat turned warm and red where my whiskers had brushed against her. My ankles ached as I tried to keep my balance, my body clumsily leaning into hers. She remained stiff as I brought my lips to her chin and as I tried to cover her mouth with mine, she turned her face away and I found her earlobe.  Like the hungry, pathetic creature I was, I bit it, out of both anger and remorse. 

She put a hand squarely on my chest, pushing me away, glaring at me. She was flushed and alert now, unsettled by my sudden advances. She touched her earlobe, wincing. 

“My god, Sheldon.  What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I hung there, feeling warm and cold, weighed down by skin and bone, by the leaden gravity that seemed to cloak our whole house.  

“I heard a child,” I said. “The little girl next door, you know it…”

“Stop it!” she said. She straightened herself, smoothing her blouse. We were quiet, for what felt like a very long moment.

“I can’t, Sheldon,” she finally whispered, shaking her head.  “I just can’t.”

And then: “When might you go back to work?” She whispered this – almost tenderly, it seemed – looking at me, her eyes glistening.

I looked down at my sweatshirt, all mottled with the crow’s blood. I didn’t know the answer to her question. I was still in pull of an inexorable drift. Though all the hours of the day were truly empty ones for me, sheets of bright, blank nothings void of purpose, I clung stubbornly to each and every one. 

            “Probably soon,” I said. “It’s probably about time.”

            I got up slowly. I went to the bedroom and shut the door behind me. I began to undress. There on the carpet something glittered. It was Tina’s bracelet. It must have fallen from the pocket of my T-shirt when I’d changed into my clothes earlier. I knelt and picked it up from the thick carpet. I checked its clasp to see if perhaps it might have broken, because then I could take it and have it repaired and surprise her with it later. 

But it wasn’t broken. I thought of asking her about it. Why was it on the floor of the laundry room? But then, I thought, what did it matter anyway? I just stood there looking out the bedroom window, half-naked, unable to move, that familiar pressure in my chest. I remembered the blood on the kitchen window and that I had promised her I would clean it up.

But just now, I couldn’t move. I stood there watching the light of the day – a light so utterly ordinary, so very unremarkable – cutting through the branches of the large elm in our neighbor’s backyard.   

 

Carmelinda Blagg's short fiction has been published in a number of journals, including most recently, Barrelhouse and the Lindenwood Review. She lives in Bethesda, MD where she is a member of the Writer's Center.