Two Crows – Jeff Wallace


EscapeIntoLife_Meghan_Howland_10

Jackie taught herself to speak shortly after her mother’s death. She listened to the way those around her spoke, the lilting sound of their accents, the sing-song drawl that came from them as they talked to her of her mother. They had sounded small and silly to her, their words the hollow words of fools. She didn’t realize she had done it until now, two years after she started to learn. She was in the break room of the grocery store where she worked speaking with a new hire, Patty. An older woman, she would be replacing Jackie when she finished high school and left for Ohio State in the fall.

“Where are you from?” Patty asked.

“Here in Jefferson, Ohio” Jackie said. “Born and raised.” She wasn’t sure she liked the tone of the woman.

“You don’t sound like it. I would have thought Columbus or somewhere up north.”

Just after her mother had died, before she had learned the feel of the words in her mouth and how to move them from her throat to her lips, her boss at the grocery store, Jerry, had asked her to record the “We’re sorry but we are closed in honor of Christmas” message. When he’d played it for them to listen to she had heard the twang in her voice, the back-of-the- throat-roll of the words. “You sure do sound ‘down-home’” he’d said, grinning at her. He had a lazy-eye, a pot-belly and had asked his fiancé to marry him at the company Christmas party. None of the cashiers were invited to the party of course, just management, but the incident had made its way down onto the store lines.  It was then that she had decided to change the way she talked—to learn how to speak with more smartness, with more grace, her voice free from the hollows and the hills.

Patty’s flourish as she draped herself in the wine colored store smock, tying the drawstrings in the front just under the softenss of her belly, brought Jackie back into the moment. “It’s good that you did,”  Patty said. My husband is from here and I’m from Toledo. The way he talks is just horrible. Especially when he’s around his family.”

“It can slip out sometimes,” Jackie said. It felt like an insincere apology. “It’s the words that one uses more than anything else. You have to be aware of what you are saying before you say it.”

“Well, it’s hard work to improve yourself,” the older woman said, nodding her head knowingly.

“My father used to say, ‘Most folks never change anything more than a light bulb.’”

“He’s right about that,” the woman said. “My husband wouldn’t change for all the tea in China. Where do we punch in?”

***

She drove carefully, glad that the gravel roads had collected less snow than the paved ones in town. When she got home every light inside was burning. She parked in the grass in the front, the ice cracking under the wheels of her slow moving tires. Usually, she could see her father sitting in his recliner, the blue-green glow of the TV reflected in his glasses and off his bald head. He was not there. Maybe he is cooking, she thought, knowing that it wasn’t the case, an unconscious fear starting to build. He had always been a drinker, the amount increasing over the years even when her mother had been alive. Now that she was gone, there seemed to be nothing holding him back. She worried that he would kill himself, or get himself killed.

When she came inside, the house was quiet.“Dad?” Jackie called out, taking off her coat and laying it across the back of a kitchen chair. She stomped the light snow from her boxy white tennis shoes. She had bought them from the working clothes supply store her neighbor owned next to the highway. “Are you in here? Are you ok?” The continual fear emerged then—she could imagine him having shot himself or cutting his wrists in the bathtub. When she realized he might not ever come back to her, that he would probably never be the same person he was before her mother’s death, she had gone on the internet to look up different means of suicide to prepare herself. The worst way to find him, she thought, was if he had hanged himself. She had been the one to find her mother. She had seen how that wasn’t an easy way to die or found.  She didn’t think her father would be that selfish, not now, not after everything else. Sometimes she thought that if he waited until she got to school, then she wouldn’t be the one to find him. She wouldn’t be the one to have to call the cops to cut him down. As soon as those thoughts arose she would push back against them, disgusted that she could think such a thing.

There was a pause, one long enough for her to draw a breath and fight the urge to shriek for him and then, “Yeah, honey. I’m back here in the sewing room. Come on back; I wanna show you something.”

There was to be no dinner, Jackie realized, and worse, the coal heating stove was cold. He hadn’t even bothered to bring more coal in from the pile. “You let the fire go out,” she said as she came down the hallway. “You’re going to have to go out and get more coal.”

She opened the door to the sewing room. It caught on what Jackie thought was a rug as she pushed; the door slipped over the corner of the material then swung in smoothly.

“I’ve been busy,” her father said. He was kneeling on the floor and looking up at her in the door. She could tell from his smile that he had been drinking. He held in his hand a small black shape. She thought at first that it was dust rag. Then it moved, revealing a beak and two black shiny eyes in a puff of black feathers. The she noticed what the door had stuck on—the floor was covered in plastic sheeting. “I saved them,” he said. “They were gonna freeze.”

For the past few weeks he had taken to drinking his beer on the back porch and watching the wood-line across the pasture with binoculars. He’d never explained what he was doing and finally she had been forced to ask him.

“When I was a boy, my Papaw said that a body could teach a crow to talk. You gotta catch’em when their young and then split their tongues. Supposed to talk as pretty as a parrot.”

She had grinned at the story, saying at the time, “Is it true? Did Pap ever catch a crow?”

“Naw. I was just a chap and he may have just been talkin. There’s a nest out there and  I’m of a mind to find out if he was.”

“Are you going to take them out of their nest?”

“Now, no. I’d hate to steal a bird from its mommy that way—too tender-hearted in my old age.” He had stood and put his arm around her. For a moment it felt like before her mother had died. They had been happy then, she thought. They had been normal enough, normal for Jefferson and the hills, and life had been easy. She and her mother had sung together in church. Everybody said how beautifully her mother sang and that Jackie was almost as good, winking at her and elbowing her in the ribs.

And then the barn happened.

She stopped going to church after that, wouldn’t even be going this Sunday despite it being Easter. She sang only with the high school choir now. Her music teacher worked with her on her voice. No winking or rib-tickling. “It’s a way out,” he had said. She was good enough to earn a scholarship at Ohio State.

But that was in the future. Now, her father was kneeling on the floor, cupping and cooing to the small black bird. “You have been busy,” Jackie said, looking at the floor. Every inch of carpet had been covered in plastic. All of her mother’s projects, her bundles of cloth, the half-hemmed skirts and jeans, the dresses she had been making, were gone. Even her mother’s big sewing machine, an old-fashioned piece of equipment that had been attached to a wooden desk, was gone. The desk, a folding metal chair, some wooden dowels, and a few pairs of scissors were all that her father had left in the room.

“Here, hold him,” her father said to her, standing up and extending the little black bundle towards her. “He’s still scared. I think my hands might be too rough or something. Smoke is a real sweetie—just watch he doesn’t get you with his beak.”

Stunned, she took the bird from her father. “Smoke?”

“Easy, now. He’s just a baby.”

It was the lightest animal she had ever felt.

“Hollow bones,” her father said. “I didn’t know what to think either at first.”

Regaining her voice she asked, “Did you pull them out of the tree?”

“Naw,” he said. “When I saw what the weather was doing I figured they’d get blown out. Near dark I walked out there. Sure enough, the nest was in the snow, that old black momma crow nowhere to be seen. I figured it was either I brought’em in here or they’d freeze.”

She laughed, “That’s assuming we don’t freeze.”

“Shit—fire’s out?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll run out back and fetch some coal and fire the stove.” She became aware that her voice had changed. She pushed it to the front of her mouth. “I’ll bring up some coal and get the stove started.”

“Thank ye, darlin. The other boy ain’t et. I’s able to grub a few worms out from under a hay bale. Tomorrow I’m gonna have to run up to the bait shop.” The sound of his words were painful to her. It made her heart ache with desperate joy, the suspension of music and love, ignorance and distaste, and pity, all held in the thick liquid of his language.

She walked from the room, and found herself laughing. “How do you know they’re boys?” She slid into her coat once again.

He laughed. “I don’t know. I guess I just kindly reckoned that all crows were boys, like a feller does a dog ‘til he knows different.”

Outside, she carried the big coal bucket to the pile. She’d need at least four loads to get through the night and into the morning, but she didn’t mind. She was just glad that her father was smiling a bit. Crows, she thought, he’s like to have lost his mind.

When she finished filling the stove, she could hear her father cooing to the birds. She lit the fire, and then, without bothering to eat, she went to her room and began to practice her singing.

***

“How was your trip?” her father asked. He was sitting on the porch. The Easter snow had been the last strike of winter; spring seemed to have been skipped. The inside of the house would be like a swamp on a day like this, even as the evening came on. She was glad to have missed the heat of the day by being driving to Columbus and being on campus at the university.

“It was fine. I met some of the other singers. They’re really nice,” she said, not telling of the way she had driven them around campus, how she could tell they were using her.

The porch overlooked the cow barn and the creek. The cows were still on the far hill, slowly making their way down to the creek to cross and bed. Her father was holding a shoebox with the two little crows in it. They had lost their down and were now covered in the oil-slick black feathers.

“Good people?”

“They seemed to be.”

“Good.”

There was a distant cow call. A calf was dawdling on the hill.

“How are the boys this evening?”

“Same as always: hungry and hollerin. The fellers at the bait shop are always glad to see us.” Her father had started taking the little birds with him when he went out. At first it had embarrassed her, but again she had returned to the same thought—it makes him happy; leave him alone. “If you’d been here, I’d have had you went with us.”

The “went” stands out in his words. She’d been corrected on that by one of the singers as they were pulling into traffic. She’d missed an opportunity to merge. “Should have went,” she had said. One of them had corrected her. She wasn’t sure who, too flushed with embarrassment. Gone, gone, gone, she echoed in her mind, should have gone, not went.

When her father went to work he locked them in her mother’s old sewing room. He’d spent the better part of a weekend finishing the plastic floor covering and building multi-tiered perches from spare lumber and fallen trees. The sewing room looked like a cross between a forest in the fall and a miniature city.

“They’re starting to hop and flap,” he said now. They flutter from one end of their room to the other. They’re gonna wanna take off soon.”

“Are you going to clip their wings?”

“I’d hate to do it, but I don’t know what else to do. I don’t figure they can make it on their own. I ruint them by hand feeding, I’d reckon. You think it’d be better to be clipped or starve?”

“Starve,” Jackie said. The sun was going down at the mouth of their hollow. The cows were in the creek. The calves were running along the bank, fearful of the cold and rushing water.

“I don’t know,” her father said.

“When are you going to cut their tongues?”

He looked from her to the box. Two black heads looked back up at him and then at her.

“They know we’re talking about them,” he said. “Goddamn, Jackie, I don’t reckon I can do it now. Could you?”

“Are you asking me if I could do it or if I would do it.”

“Both, if’n your able.”

“I will if you want me to.”

“Just do it while I’m at work.”

“That’s fine. I won’t tell you when. I need to practice. The professor gave me a lot to work on,” she said.

“I’ll be out here,” he said. His face was soft in the setting sun’s light. He picked the birds up one at a time and placed each on a shoulder, clucking softly to them.

She went into the house. The sink was full of dirty dishes and the smell of bacon fat and fried cornbread hung in the air. The ceiling fan had knocked the bills from the table onto the floor. She wondered what he was going to do at the end of summer when she was gone. She went into her room and closed the door. Her window looked onto the porch and the shadow of the porch swing chains moved like pendulums across the gauzy curtains. She could smell cigarette smoke.

“I’m not selling the hay this year,” her father shouted. “I wanna see how it will grow. ‘Give it back to the Indians,’ that’s what your mother used to say.” Then silence and the swinging chains. Then, “Sorry, I’ll shush. You sing. We’ll listen.”

Jackie sighed and cleared her throat. She began practicing her scales.

***

Jackie held the first bird on her lap. She was trying to pin it between her pressed together legs. The bird wasn’t very strong but it was quick. It twisted its body, pulling out its feathers and screaming. Her fingers and hands were scratched and bloodied from the fight. She let go of the crow and it fluttered to one of the bits of tree her father had nailed up.

“Can’t believe I agreed to this,” she said to herself. She had been fighting the bird for over an hour. The closest that she’d come to splitting its tongue was getting the bird to bite a small piece of wood. She’d tried to pry the beak open with it, but it had jerked its head and freed itself, biting her finger in place of the stick.

She stood shakily from the folding metal chair that her mother used to sit and sew in. She was nauseous. Too much, she thought. I can’t do this by myself. I need another pair of hands. Or a cattle- prod. She smiled when she thought of shocking the little birds, imagining them exploding in a puff of feathers, the room smelling like fried chicken.

The bird she had been working on was watching her; she could see it from the corner of her eye. It was squawking hoarsely, shifting from one foot to the other. “I see you,” she said, pointing a finger at him. He ruffled his feathers.

Its brother was on the opposite side of the room. He’d flown over their heads when they had first started to struggle, but as the battle wore on he’d perched on a high “limb” and just watched. He seemed to have become bored by all the nonsense.

Unsteadily, she walked from the bird-room into the kitchen. She had spent the day before cleaning the house while her father had taken care of the animals. She wasn’t sure how much work there was to actually do but it had taken him the better part of the day. He’d come in smelling of earth and animals while she was sure that she smelled of old spaghetti sauce and laundry detergent.

She went to the refrigerator, measuring her wobbly steps across the freshly mopped floor. The fridge was nearly empty. There was a half-gallon jug of store-brand orange juice, an opened container of pressed ham, salad dressing, and some ketchup. There were four beers left over from the twelve-pack her father had gone out for the previous evening. He’d drank the eight beers out on the porch, holding the birds and smoking cigarettes as she sung in her room.

She’d been back to Ohio State to meet again with Professor Owalski. He was kind to her, his big white beard opening to show a soft pink mouth and small round teeth when she sang well. He would push her, he had said, but only to make her better. He spoke in kind, soft words, soothing her and her nerves. It was different to sing to a person who knew what singing was supposed to sound like. She could sense he wanted her to be a better singer, to be better. Her shoulders tightened and she shook her head. She took two of the beers out of the fridge. She opened one and brought it quickly to her mouth. The bottle clacked against her teeth and the beer washed down her throat. She finished it and then stepped onto the porch. It was cooler outside and the itching from the scratches on her arms faded in the soft west wind. The first honeysuckles of the year were blooming.

She looked at the barn where her mother had hanged herself. Such a plain little thing, she thought. No one would know, she thought, if they were just driving by. “Isn’t that a pretty little barn?” some wife would say to some husband, their children in the back smiling and giggling. The husband would say that his grandfather used to have a farm, and then the couple would keep driving, probably to the little Amish bakery that everyone was talking about. Bullshit, Jackie thought. She opened the other beer. This one she drank more slowly.

She could understand why her father would do this. She could understand much of what he did. She could understand why he sat on the porch after work, why he would drink himself to sleep at night. She could understand the drunken tenderness his words had to her, and the tenderness that his hands had towards those little black birds. She couldn’t understand all of him, though.

She couldn’t understand why he would let the house fall in around him. She couldn’t understand how he could wear the same clothes to the plastic factory day after day, how he could go a week without showering or brushing his teeth. It’s one thing to get hit by a train, she thought. It’s something else to lay down on the tracks. She wondered if it was him that killed her mother. Not directly, but if it was just the way he was that caused her to do it. One thing to be hanged, another thing to hang yourself, she thought.

The beer bottle was empty. She went to get another. She intended to practice being her father for the afternoon and to just sit and drink and let the afternoon and evening slide in and not care, but when she opened the humming refrigerator and saw those final two brown bottles she reconsidered. It’s too easy, she thought. No, she thought. It’s just another way, same as everything else. She thought about the birds and what she had to do. She took a beer from the shelf and walked back to the birds’ room. When she opened the door they flew from her crazed figure.

Her father would be home soon. It needed to be done. She opened the beer and set it onto her mother’s sewing table. She stalked to one of the frightened little bodies. She grabbed it and carried it to her mother’s sewing chair. The bird twisted in her hands, trying to peck at her. She sat down heavily and held the bird in her fist and on her lap. She took the wooden dowel from the floor and forced the bird’s beak open with it. It bit down on it. She took the beer from the table and pored some in the bird’s open beak. It thrashed and choked on the beer. When it settled down she did it again. She did it over and over, the thrashing, the choking, the waiting. Eventually the bird’s struggles became less. She sat the bird on the floor and watched it try to walk. It tried to fly, its feathers soaked. It made its way up for a moment and then into the wall. It stumbled on the floor.

Jackie stood and watched the bird succumb to the alcohol. It walked in circles, no longer trying to fly. Its brother cawed at them both. She pointed a finger at the one making noise. “You’re next,” she said. The drunken bird had stopped moving. She picked it up its body as limp a wet sock.

Jackie sat back down in her mother’s sewing chair and picked up the thin sewing scissors. The bird’s mouth opened easily now, its thin pink tongue a splinter of flesh. She maneuvered the tip of the scissors to where she guessed was the center of its tongue. She had no idea how far back she should cut, so she aimed for the middle there as well. “Oh,” Jackie said, as the little silver scissors sliced through the tender flesh. There was very little blood.

She carried the limp body to its cardboard box. She fluffed the towels up around it. “I bet the hangover will be worse than your tongue,” she said to it. She turned, holding the scissors down to her side, to the other bird. “All right,” she said. “This won’t hurt a bit.”

***

“They ain’t et in two days. You think they’ll live?” Her father was eating the brown beans she’d put on that morning. He always roughly crumbled the sour cornbread into his bowl and spooned up the heaps of beans, bread and broth.

“I don’t know. I don’t see why they wouldn’t.” She sat across from him. Jackie preferred the bread to the beans. It had been her mother’s recipe. They never kept buttermilk in the house and Jackie had learned at an early age how to mix vinegar in with whole milk to turn it sour. Now, she spooned a few tablespoons of brown beans over her plate of bread.

“When are you going back to Columbus?” he asked her.

“I’m supposed to head back this weekend if I don’t have to work. They’re late with the schedule again.”

“To hell with that grocery store. You’re too good for that place anyway. If they give you any shit just quit.”

“I hate to quit something like that.”

“They’ll miss you more than you’ll ever miss them.” He was drunker than usual, she realized. It was a weeping kind of night. She knew he was talking more about himself than he was the store.

She smiled at him. “I’ll miss them plenty, Dad. It’s home. A person misses their home no matter what.”

“You’re so daggone smart,” he said. “You got that from your mother. That and your voice. Lord God, could that woman sing.”

Jackie thought about the rope around her mother’s neck, the way her thin body had spun in the breeze that came through the barn door.

“Miss her?” her father asked

“Every day.”

“She’d be proud of you,” he nodded his head in an exaggerated wisdom. There was soup on his chin and bread crumbs at the corner of his mouth.

“Let’s not do this. I know she would be. I know, ok, please?”

He stood up from the table and walked around towards her. He came up to her side and placed his arm around the back of her head and his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, honey. Your old daddy, he’s a mess.”

She pushed herself back from the table and turned and hugged him. “Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be fine. I swear it,” she said to him. “I reckon that even if things don’t turn out the way we are supposin they will, they still turn out they way they’re supposed to.”

He was crying against her. “Here now, here,” she cooed to him.

“You’re so good. Just like your mother.”

She pulled away from him. “Hey,” she said, smiling and crying. “Did I tell you how I got those birds to let me cut them?”

“No,” he said. He pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket. She remembered the feel of it from when she was a child, the softness of it, the warmth from being against his body.

“Got’em drunk. Drunk as a pair of skunks. Should’a seen’em stumbling all over the floor.”

Her father laughed loudly, “You’re so goddamned smart.”

***

Jackie’s father spent the next few weeks trying to get the birds to eat. He was having little success and his worry was growing apparent. Worse, he still tried to get them to talk, repeating the same words to them over and over, his name, Jackie’s name, their own names, but nothing. She would hear him when she locked herself in her room and practiced her singing. She would practice until her throat was raw. She knew it was bad for her voice to sing so much, so loud, but she liked the way her throat was scratchy and how her body would be exhausted from just the act of singing. She wouldn’t have to see her father try and feed those birds.

It was raining as she had hurried to her car, raining heavier as it refused to start, pouring down as she looked under the hood to jiggle the wires on her battery. She was soaked before she realized that someone had siphoned the gas from her tank. She had sat in her car, quaking with rage, imagining the argument she would have with her boss. She wanted to have it out with him,  imagined quitting in a moment of righteous indignation.

She had taken her father’s truck (he was still sleeping, so she’d had to leave a note detailing her reasons). She had listened to the empty beer cans roll around on the floorboard of the truck, smelled the stale spilt beer, felt the tackiness of it on her ugly white shoes. “Another month,” she said to herself. “Then he’s on his own.”

Her ten-hour shift was interminable. She was denied her argument with Jerry. He was out of town with his new wife. The steady downpour kept costumers away. She’d cleaned her counter, the register, the black conveyor belt with its rusted metal stitches. It was only her and Patty on the registers and Patty talked incessantly about the rain and the lack of customers.

“At least with a snow storm people come in and get milk and bread,” Patty said for the third time. Her short blond-silver hair had curled from the humidity. She kept her small square glasses balanced on the tip of her nose. Jackie watched her as she looked through the laminated codebook of vegetable prices. Patty would tilt her head back and peer down her nose through those glasses at the booklet. She would read things from the book, “Irish potatoes? Those are just Idahos,” she said. Later, “Mangos? Why would they call green peppers mangos?”

Jackie watched Patty look through the book, watched her clean the little conveyor belt with a spray bottle of generic blue cleaner, listened to her breathe through her nose, and had felt a knot form in her chest. By the end of their shift, Jackie wasn’t even pretending to talk to her.

Just before six, a large man with just a few items stalked to Patty’s register. There was grease on his jeans and both hands were stained to the elbows with resin. His boots squished as he shuffled at the register. The smell of pine sap and sweat hung heavy on him. Patty smiled thinly at him, her eyes squinting and her forehead wrinkling. “Will this be all?”

“Yep,” the man said. The carton of eggs and the half-gallon of milk made their way slowly down the conveyor. He began to dig through his jean pockets.

Patty hurriedly placed both items in a plastic bag. The man continued to dig through his jeans, then the pocket on his flannel shirt.

“Shoot,” he said sheepishly, an embarrassed smile on his face. “I done left my wallet at work.”

Patty’s own painted smile greeted him. She sighed and started to take the items out.

“Hold on, Patty. I got him,” Jackie said. Patty’s eyebrows raised. “Rough day?”

“Bad as any other,” the man said. “Rain makes it harder.”

Jackie handed him a smooth five-dollar bill.

“You ain’t gotta do that,” the man said, trying to wave off her money.

“Can’t be more than three dollars,” she said. “If you feel guilty just square with me the next time you’re in.”

“Thanky,” the man said. “My wife would’a skinned me if I’da come home without milk and eggs.” Patty handed him the change. He turned and sloshed his way from the store.

The silence between the two women grew in the wake of the sound of his retreating boots.

“God, did you smell him?” Patty asked. “It’s not decent. He didn’t even give you your change back.” Patty made a show of using the cleaner on the belt again. She pulled a tiny crystal bottle of perfume from her purse and sprayed it in the air. The cloying smell of it raised into the air, leaving them both smelling like old women at church. “I hate to waste this,” Patty said. “It costs my husband fifty dollars a bottle.”

“He stunk because he’d been working.” She could feel the perfume settle onto her skin. The taste of it came into her through her nose, seeming to settle in her mouth through her skin. Her eyes watered.

“Still,” Patty said. “No excuse to smell like an animal. I know that type—you’ll never see a dime from him.”

The knot in Jackie’s chest expanded. She felt her hands tighten and relax, tighten and relax. “You don’t know shit.”

Patty stopped cleaning. “Excuse me?” Her head raised back and she looked at Jackie just as she had the little laminated book.

“You heard me,” Jackie said. She could feel the words she wanted to say in her mouth now. She was frozen by the way her brain moved them from the front to the back of her throat. “You’re no count,” she said. “A goddamned hurtful thing. All of you. Ain’t a body worth anything in this world.”

Jackie took off her purple work vest, stuffed it under the counter, and walked from her register. “Ain’t nobody worth a thing,” she said as she walked passed Patty, making her way to the back of the store.

It was after six when she clocked out, three minutes worth of overtime, and she avoided Patty when she left. She saw her at the manager’s counter talking with one of Jerry’s assistants, the woman’s arms flapping like a chicken’s as she talked.

When she got home, the kitchen was a mess. An old blender, the only one they had but rarely used, was out on the counter. There was a brown and red liquid in it. There was a plate with brown and red smears on its face. “Dad?” Jackie shouted. Lifting the plate, she smelled it. It smelled like mud and manure. Looking around she saw that all the plates they had were covered in the same brown paste. There were empty beer cans on the floor and muddy boot tracks running from the porch to the kitchen to the birds’ room. “Dad?”

“I’m back here in the birds’ room, Jackie. Come here, I wanna show you something.” She followed the mud stains back to the room. When she opened the door the smell of the manure pressed against her. There were half filled five gallon buckets full of it; there were piles of manure on the plastic covered floor. Her father was holding one of the struggling birds on his lap, a turkey baster held up to its beak.

“What are you doing?”

“You know they haven’t been eating much, so tonight it hit me—make a paste for them.” He looked at her, his smile smeared drunkenly across his face.

“There’s shit everywhere.” She walked around the room, navigating the piles of manure. There was a whiskey bottle, nearly half gone, stuck into the pile closest to her father.

“It’s all on the plastic. Easy to clean up,” he said.

“But why?”

She knew he wouldn’t clean it, that he would leave it there for her. He would tell her that he was waiting for it to dry so it would be easier to move, or tell her that he hadn’t had time. Both lies.

“I didn’t wanna dig through it in the rain. I figured this way I could work without catchin’ my death.” He was whispering and looking at the bird as he said this, working the mouth of the turkey baster into its mouth. “I’m picking out the night crawlers and grinding them in the blender.” He squeezed the green ball gently, filing the birds mouth. “Most they’ve eat in days,” he said proudly.

She imagined taking the baster from him and grabbing the birds. She imagined wringing their necks and popping their heads off. She’d seen her father do it when she was young. He made a line of them with bailing twine, the birds hanged by their feet off the rafter in the barn. He’d walked down the line, snapping their necks and pitching the heads into the hog pen. She saw the chickens in her mind, dancing on the end of their cords, their blood spattering the straw and the sand. She imagined her mother in that same barn, dancing like that.

“You did it,” she said. “You killed her.”

With his eyes still locked on the bird he said, “No. I’m saving him.” His voice was light, blissful. He looked up at her. The space behind his eyes was empty.  He was crying tears of joy.

“They’ll never talk,” she said. She wanted to hurt him.”They’ll sit in here and fly around and crash into the windows and break their necks. They’ll never talk. They’ll just die. You hear me? They’re gonna die and it’ll be you that killed them.” The smell of the manure and the ground worms filled her throat and the adrenaline from it all made her nauseas.

She stepped from the mess and into the hall, shaking with rage. She would leave soon, she thought. She let the relief of it wash over her. She would leave him here. Leave it all here. She opened the window of her room. The rain was still falling, softer now, an easy spring rain. The cows had returned to the field and were lowing to one another. She stood there, facing the window and began to sing. She sang all of the songs she had been practicing. She sang them again. The noises of her father stumbling through the house came to her through the walls, through the windows. She heard him stumble to bed, fumbling out of his clothes, shit all over his hands, staining the quilts.

She continued to sing and during the night she began to sing the songs she used to sing with her mother in church. They were high and wailing songs, with cracks at the top of them for a voice to fall into. She sang them over and over. She disappeared into them and she thought she had fallen asleep. She became lost in the circular movement of them. She stopped singing the words, her mouth and her throat opening to pure song. She thought she was dreaming and her mother was singing them with her, that her mother was there, in her sewing room, singing back in the same wordless wail. She stopped. From her mother’s room there was singing. It was the song she had just finished. The crows, she thought—they’re singing.

About the Author

Jeff Wallace received is MFA in fiction and his MA in literature from Indiana University in 2007. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Louisville Review, Appalachian Heritage, Keyhole Magazine, and in online journals such as New Southerner, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and Still: The Journal. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Southern State Community College, and currently lives in Mount Orab, Ohio with his wife and two children. He is currently working on his first novel, The True Story of the Appalachian Revolution.

 

 

 




  • http://twitter.com/lissy_writes Melissa McDaniel

    Stunning!