by William Kelley Woolfitt
Featured art: Crow and the Moon by Kawanabe Kyōsai
I’ve been told Crow’s story so many times I remember it better than my own memories. It was my bedtime, naptime, and story-time story. I think my parents told it to each other too, in whispers, in each other’s arms, striped with moonlight coming in through the blinds, too tired to say anything new.
There was a storm the night my parents drove me home from the hospital. I was a few hours old. Mother says that the rain was too fast for the windshield wipers, that Father pulled over three times. Father says that Mother sat in the backseat and held me the whole way. When we got home, we had to wait almost an hour for the rain to die down. Father found some jazz on the radio, climbed into the back to be with Mother and me. That was the first time he held me. Mother fell asleep, and dreamed she was a passenger in a boat.
Wind toppled the elm in our front yard, though later on some neighbors claimed it had been hit by lightning. It just missed our house. One branch scratched our bedroom window. Crows spent the night on our porch, their nest in the elm ruined.
Mrs. Yamato across the street saw the crows on our porch swing, screamed and dropped her chopsticks. An omen of death, she thought. She came running over with a broom. All the crows flew away, except a baby. Father put the baby crow in a shoebox and thanked Mrs. Yamato for her concern. Mother went into the yard, walked around the fallen elm and its jagged stump, poked into the fallen nests and found shiny things: bottle caps, bits of tinfoil, Father’s screwdriver, her own gold pendant necklace.
“Don’t tell me you’re keeping it,” Mother said.
“It’ll fly at six weeks,” Father said.
We all slept in the same room, I in my crib, Crow in his cage, Father and Mother in their bed. Crow hated to hear me crying, and he plucked at his feathers before he learned to hum lullabies. Mother woke up one night when I was crying. She waited to see if I would quit crying on my own, or if she should get up and check on me. Then she heard strange music, a raspy squawk, Crow mimicking the melody of my favorite lullaby, Teensy Weensy Spider.
Father fed Crow three times a day. Before work, after work, and an hour before bedtime. He mixed oatmeal and boiled egg yolk and calcium supplement and vitamins and ground beef heart, globbed it onto his finger, stuck his finger into Crow’s throat to make him swallow. Sometimes Mother nursed me at the same time.
Crow did fly at six weeks, but not away. He pecked the door if he wanted out, the doorbell if he wanted in. He learned to talk before me. His first words were in, out, food, water, sky, crow, boy. Those became my first words too. He called my parents by their first names. So did I.
Mother ordered fast-growing trees from the nursery so that I could climb and have shade when I was older. The elm had been our only tree. She planted catalpa and green ash. I played with a rattle. Crow played in the dirt, found a sparkling stone, and dropped it at Mother’s feet. Father took it to a rock hound who told him it was a garnet.
Father had a cocktail party for the people from his office. Our house was small, so I had to go over to Mrs. Yamato’s. I cried for an hour, my face angry and red, and she could not console me. “What do you want?” she said. “What’s the matter?”
“Crow,” I said.
She hated crows, but she called Father and had him bring over Crow in his cage. We all three fell asleep watching game shows. Mrs. Yamato snored like a train. A lit cigarette slid from her fingers. Crow screamed when the first wisp of smoke curled up from the carpet. I screamed too. She was a heavy sleeper. Crow flung himself at the side of his cage till it fell off the table. Mrs. Yamato woke up. Her floor was on fire. Crow’s wing was broken.
“Help,” Crow said.
After that, Mrs. Yamato loved Crow. She brought him pickled squid and pink fish cakes from the market.
Father taped Crow’s wing. He hopped all over the house while it healed, and I crawled after him.
When I was big enough to sit in my high chair and eat baby food, Father put Crow’s cage on a stool so that we could eat together. Mother saved table scraps for Crow, and Father hunted insects in the yard. Mother said grace. I learned to fold my hands. Crow hid his head under a wing.
I was sick on my birthday. The medicine was expensive, and my parents were fighting. Mother said we couldn’t afford to care for me and for Crow. She pawned the garnet, her gold necklace, her wedding band. Father drove away, wouldn’t say where he was going. Maybe to a bar, or maybe he needed to be alone. Mother borrowed Mrs. Yamato’s car, had her babysit me, drove Crow into the Bitterroot Mountains a hundred miles to the north, and let him go. I was too sick to cry.
Mrs. Yamato said she saw a black bird flying over our house every once in a while, but she couldn’t tell if it was Crow.
I got sicker. I missed Crow. We all did. Supper was the saddest time of day. Father worked overtime. Mother left me with Mrs. Yamato, took a part-time job as a checkout girl at the grocery store. Mrs. Yamato pasted my picture on dozens of soda cans, took them to every store in town, and had them placed by cash registers.
There was an old shed behind our house. One morning, Mother was washing dishes and she looked out the window. There was a trail of black feathers leading from our back door to the shed. She dried her hands and went out there. She looked for Crow, maybe saw a comma in the sky, maybe saw nothing at all. The shed was padlocked, and the windows were boarded shut. She leaned a ladder against the shed. She was a little scared of heights, so she asked Mrs. Yamato, who wasn’t scared of anything, now that she had gotten over her fear of crows.
“It looks like a room full of silver,” said Mrs. Yamato, peering into a hole in the roof.
Mother got an axe, and Mrs. Yamato got a shovel. They struck the door until the wood buckled, and thousands of coins poured out around their feet.
“This is impossible,” said Mother.
“I’ll get a bucket,” said Mrs. Yamato.
Mother called Father, and he left work early. They counted enough coins to buy me a bottle of medicine, dropped that amount into a pillowcase, and left Mrs. Yamato to guard the rest. We drove to the drugstore, which had just closed for the night. Father pounded on the door till his knuckles were raw. Finally, the druggist let him in.
Father sat in the backseat and held me, and Mother leaned against him. “I wish Crow would come back,” she said.
“Maybe he’s joined a flock of crows. Found a mate, or a number of his own kind,” said Father, and then he leaned over and kissed her forehead.
Mother poured the glistening dark medicine into a spoon that she’d brought in her purse. I, too, had an eye for shiny things, and when she put the spoon in my mouth, I bit the silver hard.
William Kelley Woolfitt is the author of three poetry collections: Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014), Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, 2016), and Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer University Press, 2020). His fiction chapbook “The Boy with Fire in His Mouth”(2014) won the Epiphany Editions contest judged by Darin Strauss. He edits Speaking of Marvels, a blog that features interviews with poets and prose writers.
Originally appeared in NOR 11.