The crow perched on the fire escape rail. It was the first day of spring and, somehow, there wasn’t a cloud in Queens.
The crow eyed the meat that flopped from Frank’s sandwich on the table.
Frank flung his hands in the air and the bird dropped off the railing, swooped low in the street, and rose to the apartment across the way. A breeze swept Frank’s hair, the ventilation within the building groaned. He fished the old, silver pocket watch his mother had given him out of his pants—flicked it open, ran his thumb over the crack in the glass, closed it. He placed it on the table.
His phone chimed. Area code: Seattle. 206. His stomach lurched—what had his mother loved about crows? Scavengers.
“Hello. . . speaking. Yes I know. . . okay. . . yes. Yes. Thank you. . . of course. See you Tuesday,” he hung up and with a hand that barely shook slid his phone back into his pocket.
Across the street the crow watched Frank, it’s dark-chasm eyes were a mystery.
“You win,” said Frank, gripping the fire escape rail.
He left the sandwich on the table and booked a flight to Seattle.
* * *
Frank’s favorite part about Seattle was that he only had to visit a couple days each year.
His mother’s epitaph was carved into dull, gray concrete. Had that been her choice, or Nina’s? They were the only ones left at the grave now, but stood on either side of it.
“You’re an asshole,” his sister said.
Frank said, “I know.”
There was silence except for the drip-drip of water from the trees. Miraculously, it wasn’t raining—not just then, anyway.
“I told you it would be soon,” she said.
Frank said, “I know.”
“And you still didn’t come,” she said.
Frank said, “I know.”
Nina grunted. She walked away, her heels sinking into the sod with each step.
The wind blew. The trees shivered. The cold spring air bit Frank’s nostrils. He heard a car door slam, an engine start. He drew out a small note from his jacket. His knees popped as he bent to the grave.
“Hey, Mom,” he said. “I brought this for you.” He placed the note near the flowers that leaned against the headstone. “Sorry I didn’t speak at the service. I think you would have understood.”
A sound like crashing waves grew around him. Above, sifting through the trees, were thousands of crows.
“Perfect,” he said, from where he crouched. “I suppose you would have been pleased.”
His mother had loved their intelligence, sociability, and language. She’d told Frank that crow language wasn’t about the small differences of each cry, but the most easily noticeable variance between a warning caw and a non-contextual caw. Once you can identify those, the rest came with time.
The crows filtered through the branches as the trees bucked in the wind. Frank reached to secure the note he’d placed on the grave. His finger was an inch from it when a dark form flashed before him. The note was gone.
The crow stood on the headstone, the note clutched in a wiry claw.
“Give it back.”
The crow tilted its head.
It launched into the air and glided toward the line of trees.
“No. No. No.” Frank leaped around his mother’s grave. He dashed between headstones and didn’t care where he stepped.
The crow ascended and perched in a tree among its brothers. The noise they gave was like the rapids of a river.
“Give it back,” yelled Frank, his arms wide.
What is lost is just lost, but can be found.
Thousands of crows peered down at him. Their wild voices cascaded upon his shoulders.
Something inside has been locked away.
“A raven isn’t like a fucking writing desk! It’s just a stupid kids story,” screamed Frank.
Every last oil-black bird jumped into flight and Frank followed, his eyes on the crow with the note clutched in one claw.
The graveyard was ringed by a low stone wall and Frank vaulted it easily. On the other side was a trail, not yet overgrown. The birds moved through the woods like shadows. For the first time they were silent, the only sound, the wind, the sigh of trees, the whisper of many wings.
They stopped at a clearing encircled by tall swamp grass. At the center of the clearing was a ring of pure white stones. Within the circle were. . .
Frank bent down and picked up the necklace his mother had warn years ago, shaped like a half moon. The chain ran between his fingers like water. He saw an old black and white picture of a woman laughing. That was her. A pair of baby shoes. A wedding ring. And his pocket watch—the one his mother had given him, he knew, it had the same crack in the glass and gleamed silver. Frank shut his eyes. He’d left the watch on his table outside in Queens.
A dark blur flashed in front of him. The note he’d placed on his mother’s grave was propped up against the baby shoes.
We cannot grieve without you.
Something rose in his throat.
“I,” his voice caught. “I wasn’t ready for her to die.”
Nor were we. Feel this within you. Unlock your pain.
His heart burned with loss, but now he felt it. Welcomed it. Didn’t lock it away. Tears formed near the corner of his eyes, but they didn’t drop. Something changed within him, something that made him want to visit Seattle, his mother, Nina, everyday of the week. Oh, Nina. It was. . . he had no name for it.
“Thank you,” he said.
The crows did not respond.
Frank replaced the necklace within the ring of stones. He turned away, and left it all behind, even the note and watch. As he walked he felt, behind him, the birds rise into the air, and as they did, some unknowable weight was lifted from his shoulders.
Alex Clark-McGlenn is a freelance writer by profession, a fiction writer by passion. He’s a graduate of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. His fiction has appeared in eFiction Magazine, and Smokebox Literary Magazine. His story “The Lost Doll” appeared in the Best New Writing 2016 anthology as one of three stories to win the Editor’s Choice Award. His piece “The Story of Grandma Snow,” can be found in The Cost of Writing vol. 3, published by the 1888 Center. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest and is hard at work on his first novel.
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Photo by Qurratul Ayin