And We Return As Crows
What I write, at its very best, is some illegitimate hybrid of South American magical realism and Southern Gothic I like to think of as Southern Fabulism. Here, I will be periodically posting a few short stories, as a little taste of my forthcoming novel, A Curious Matter of Men with Wings, which will be available through SFK Press in September 2018.
When I arrived, she was out front, vacuuming her lawn. She was my sister, and an odd one, to be sure. Aside from her unusual habit of vacuuming the yard, she fancied herself a seamstress and spent the majority of her adult life fashioning costumes for all fifty-eight cast members of a play she never wrote. She took equal pride in her garden, so much so that she painted both of her thumbs green every morning. Of course, the garden itself was no less strange: equal parts perennials, equal parts herbs, equal parts pork chops, tire irons and a drum of oil. (She likely had a little bit of everything buried out there.) But as her name would suggest, Vinyet was a short story (a very short story). And really, this is not her story at all.
Vinyet never left our childhood home. She grew up there, outlived our parents there, and she stayed there, even into her forties. She had lived there alone for a good many years, but she was happiest when she was alone. Alone and in that house. She was strange like that. Everyone thought so. Though being strange in a town like ours was far from strange.
Cozy, Alabama was almost a character itself, a leather-bound hymnal of a town, where people were named after the prophets but went, instead, by nicknames. Mister “Return To Sender” Cinder, for instance, had a nasty habit of writing letters to Negro League sluggers, seventeenth-century monarchs, Victorian poets and all of his deceased relatives. Ezekiel “Blue Gums” Malone, for another, hated all white people for enslaving his ancestors, and he refused to ever wear cotton, just to prove it. Malachi “the Cropduster” swore by the sensation he got while pissing from his car, while Micah became “Formica” after he buried his whole family under the countertops. Yes, we even had a giant named Andrew “the Green” Bryant, who stood an unwieldy seven-feet-tall and suspected that every last doctor was just out to steal his bones.
No one knew why, but crows took quite a liking to Cozy as well, seeing as thousands upon thousands of crows called Cozy home. And the rumors about where they came from made Cozy even stranger. I’m not sure when exactly the rumors started, but they started, and for generations, the people of Cozy (right down to the person) were all still crazy enough to believe that these crows were somehow special, that these crows were really the souls of the dead, the souls of our loved ones, come back to live among us.
Sounds strange, I know. But strange is also a way of life in certain parts of the South.
It was a bit of bad luck that brought me to her door. It was a cruel coincidence that led me to catch my husband of ten years cheating on me with some top-heavy intern. It was anger, indignation that led me to kick him out. And deep in the throes of what would become a truly nasty divorce, I found it harder and harder to be alone. I was frightened of myself when I was alone. So I called up my sister one day and, the next day, moved in.
It wasn’t long after that that Vinyet lived up to her name and died.
I found her out back, down on her knees, slumped over the bench in her garden, as if taken in the act of praying. Taken perhaps as a result of praying. Finding my sister there didn’t feel like it does in the movies. I didn’t scream or cry out to the heavens. Instead, I allowed myself one long deep breath and then knelt down beside her. I was stroking my hand through her hair when I discovered a bit of birdseed in the palm of her hand.
Right then, the young boy who lived in the neighboring house appeared at his back door. And thinking of him, I hugged my sister under one arm and pretended to pray, just loud enough for the boy to hear. “Lord, it’s us again, Licia and Vinyet. Don’t you think we are due for some rain? It sure would mean the world to Vinyet and me. Her flowers need it so.”
The boy popped his head over the fence and was about to say something when I lifted a finger to my lips. “Shhhh. We’re praying.”
So he lowered his voice and asked, “Can Miss Vinyet come out and play?”
“Not today, okay? Miss Vinyet isn’t feeling well. Maybe tomorrow. Tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay.” And with that, the boy skipped off into his house.
Every day the following week, the boy appeared in much the same way, emerging head-first at the fence, eyes bright and green. And every day, he would stand at that fence, up on his tiptoes and wait on my sister for nearly an hour. You couldn’t help but feel for him. I did. I felt for him. So I would peek out the door whenever I saw him at the fence, and he would ask me, “Miss Licia! Miss Licia, can Miss Vinyet come out and play?”
Always, my answer was the same.
“Not today, okay? Try back tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow, okay?”
It took me a good two weeks before I could offer him anything more that this. It was a Monday, I think, and the sun was climbing its ladder into the sky. “Miss Licia!” he called from the fence. “Miss Licia, can Miss Vinyet come out and play?” his eyes bright with anticipation.
“Play?” I replied. “Play what?”
“Oh Miss Vinyet and I, we play lots of games.”
“You do? Like what?”
He didn’t waste a second before listing off their games. “Let’s see…sometimes, we play Sun-Gun Death-Run out there in the woods. (That’s when you have to run around as fast as you can without getting killed by the sunlight.) And sometimes, we play Shoot’em Up, Poot’em Up and Name That Cloud. But the game I really like, Miss Licia, is Capture the Rabbit, as long as I get to be the rabbit. (Miss Vinyet says I make the best rabbit because I’m fast, like super-really-fast!)” He had to stop to catch his breath. “Oh and sometimes, sometimes when Miss Vinyet is watering the flowers, she lets me play Chase the Rainbow, which is like my especially favorite game of all because I can get all wet and stuff and can jump like super-duper high. But she likes to play Count the Crows with her eyes closed, best of all. And oh! Oh! When I get all A’s on my report card, sometimes Miss Vinyet lets me pick out names for her crows.”
What I still can’t admit to myself is how badly I wanted a son like him, a son I’d name Max and be Wild Things together. (“I’ll eat you up I love you so!”) What I still can’t admit, even to myself, is that I would never be a mother, that I could never have children of my own, and that this could be the reason for my divorce.
I guess, in a way, I got used to seeing him at the fence. It was even – dare I say – strangely comforting. I started watching for him out the kitchen window, those big green eyes and small boyish hands accosting the wood slats and peeking into the yard. But he eventually gave up and stopped coming. So one day, I decided to go out to him.
I peered over the fence into his yard, cautiously at first, so as to keep from being noticed. I was stunned by what I saw there. The boy was down on his hands and knees, crawling around on the ground. Bowls and pots and pans and even a few rubber basketballs, cut in half, had been positioned (almost strategically) around the yard.
Strange, I thought.
He was whistling a song under his breath, and it was high and twittering. He crouched down in front of a pot, placed a scattering of birdseed inside and then crawled over to the next one. It wasn’t so much the look on his face that said he was sad. Actually, he didn’t look sad at all. He looked rather happy, in fact, out there in a world all his own. But he was sad. He was sad, and I knew just how sad he really was by how lazily he dragged that bag around behind him.
The number of containers he set about the yard multiplied daily. Each filled and then refilled with birdseed. A week went by, and there were too many to count. So he took to spreading some seed around the base of a tree and then whistling up into its branches, trying to coax its residents down to the ground. His plan worked, of course (crows, like us, being creatures of need and all). And soon, the fence, the tree and the entire back yard became a haven for their kind. It was all I could do to hear the television or the phone ring with all that cawing and squawking and flapping around outside.
Though, honestly, it wasn’t as bad as all that. And in no time flat, all their noise was just another part of my day, settling gradually into that happy medium between what we accept and what we decide is acceptable. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, the mere presence of those crows continued to eat at me, until one day, I had had enough. I don’t know why. But before I knew it, I had marched right up to that fence and was yelling to him across the yard. “Say! You aren’t the famous Haslip boy that everyone’s talking about, are you?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said with a nod. “Clay Haslip’s the name my mama gave me.”
“So tell me, Clay Haslip, do you and Miss Vinyet play lots of games together?” I asked. “Yes, let me see if I remember correctly; you said Chase the Rainbow’s your favorite, right?”
Inspirited by the very idea of that game, Clay bound over to meet me at the fence.
“I tell you what,” I said, “I could play with you, at least until Miss Vinyet gets better.”
He considered my offer for a moment before shaking his head. “No thank you.”
“I only play with Miss Vinyet. But thanks!” he yelled and scurried back across the yard.
“Wait!” I called after him.
“Won’t you play with me, just this once? Your games sure sound like a lot of fun.”
He paused to think and scratch at his knee. He glanced back at the tree then said, “Sure!”
And so, for the better part of that afternoon, we played together. I had fun, to be sure, hearing him laugh and giggle like boys do at sinister things, seeing (in him) the child I had forgotten to be. So it should come as no surprise that, upon waking the next day sensing a new childlike anticipation in my bones, I rushed outside, hoping to find him in his yard.
He was there, of course, same as he always was, sending birdcalls into a tree.
“Hey there!” I said. “Can little Clay Haslip come out and play?”
He didn’t so much as look up at me. “No ma’am,” he said. “Clay Haslip is real busy.”
Over the next few days, all of our conversations went exactly like that, almost verbatim. I’d offer him an ice cream sandwich, some war paint for our faces and even the permanent title of all-time rabbit, if he wanted it. But nothing worked. In a matter of days, he stopped responding to me altogether, so I decided it was best to leave him be.
Day after day, I watched him from the window, watched him busying around the yard for hours on end. It was late in the evening a week or so later, and I was sitting in the garden when I heard the gate unlatch behind me. To my surprise, Clay appeared. He sat down on the bench beside me and just waited there, looking off into the woods.
“That one there is Isaiah Jenkins,” he said, pointing up into the tree. “And the one beside him is Sarah Boggins. Miss Vinyet thinks they’re in love or something. I think she’s gross.”
“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to another.
“Oh him? Don’t mind him. He’s grumpy all the time. Kinda like my dad. My mama told me about a man named Balthazar who used to jingle bells around town and yell, ‘Does this make you happy?!’ I don’t know his name, but that’s what I call him.”
“Goodness me,” I said. “Doesn’t he sound pleasant?”
The wind stirred the trees, and for a good long while, we both just listened.
“Miss Licia?” Clay said, after a time.
“Miss Vinyet isn’t coming back, is she?” he asked, as if he almost understood what he was saying.
I didn’t know how to answer him.
“It’s okay,” he said and placed a small hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, Miss Licia. I’m a big boy now. I can ride my bike all on my own. So it’s okay. I know she’s not.”
And I’m not sure if it occurred to me then, or if (in a way) I had known all along, but a murder of crows leapt from the fence and escaped into the sky, and somehow it all made perfect sense, right then. The yard full of containers. The containers full of seed. The crows. The tree. And the boy who took up a task (as men do) to withstand the grief.
I couldn’t sleep that night or the next. I couldn’t sleep until, at last, it came to me, and I leapt from my bed and spent the next few hours searching the attic and Vinyet’s sewing room for the supplies I needed. A bit of cardboard I could fold into a beak. Some orange paint. Some black paint. A knee-length dress I could balloon to size. And finally: feathers, lots and lots of feathers. Of course, finding feathers was the easy part. Every yard within a two block radius was covered in them, thanks to Clay, and just yesterday, the old man across the street was out in his yard, raking up piles and piles of them.
After gathering what I needed, I spent a solid two days, hard at work, fashioning the makeshift beak and a costume of feathers. And when the suit was done, I tried it on, waited till dusk (when the light can be tricky) and then climbed the fence into the Haslip’s yard.
You should have seen the look on his face, the mix of utter shock and disbelief that only happens when a child comes to believe in the beyond-belief. “Who…who are you?” Clay asked.
“Caw, caw! You know who. You know who.”
“M-M-Miss Vinyet?” he whispered, like he might have woken up in a dream.
“Wanna play a game? Caw!”
There was a smile.
And that night, Clay and I ran wild through the woods, howling away at the impending moon, the slivers of light that could kill you, with one misstep. We closed our eyes and spread our wings as wide as we could. Then we leapt higher and then higher into the air, until it seemed we didn’t have to pretend to fly.