Wingbeats, Part I

The night is stifling, as it always is in the summer. Humid air rolls in through the window and makes everything clammy and sticky. She had to buy a special nightgown for the summertime. In the wintertime Oregon is cold and rainy, and drops fall from the sky like liquid ice. But from late May till August the rain falls just the same, but it is tepid and whenever she reaches her destination she feels like she needs to take a shower. Hot or cold – she needs the temperature change.

In the summertime her sleep is filled with nightmares. She wakes with the sheets tangled round her legs, like giant hands ready to pull her under. She wakes with his name on her lips.

He had to beg her to get the house. But he always got his way, especially where she was concerned.

“It’s too big,” she laughed as he nuzzled her neck in the little hotel room.

“It’s just the right size,” he whispered. “A perfect house for us and our kids.”

She hates and loves remembering that night. Just as she hates and loves him.

When she wakes on these wet summer Oregon nights, her face streaked with water (tears or sweat? Even she cannot tell), she lies, near catatonic, full of rage and hurt. How dare he, she tells herself. How dare he leave her in an empty shell of dreams and futures that can never come about? No children, no husband, no long journeys around the world. Just this great big west coast house, an empty chrysalis, a place in which something living was harbored. But nothing emerged come springtime.

Arianne rips the sheets from her and staggers out of bed. In the bathroom she pours herself a glass of water, then splashes some more onto her face. Its coolness is refreshing and helps her push the nightmare away. He died by drowning, but in all her dreams it’s something from his novel that kills him. Shadows like the ones his villains lurk in reach out with hands as dark as midnight to pull him down. He drifts away from her and even though she screams his name and tries to pull him back, he fades.

As she goes back into the master bedroom she checks the bedside clock. 4:32. She’ll get no more sleep tonight. Instead of going back to the bed, that hated place, she takes a seat at the old cherry-wood writing table. The wood is dark and flawless. She loves running her hands over its surface. The motion soothes her.

A sudden rustle at the window causes her to look up. Outside the trees are black silhouettes, paper cutouts in the gloom of the pre-dawn. The moon has slipped below the horizon and the stars are fading. And standing on her windowsill, watching her with one black eye, is a crow.

Crow and woman stare at one another. Arianne opens her mouth to shoo it off, but her voice doesn’t come. She feels as though her throat is a sheer mountain that the voice can’t climb. The crow, for its part, cocks its head. It lets out no caw or screech. Unnatural silence and stillness stretch between them. When at last she puts out her hand to undo the latch on the screen, the crow waits patiently for her and then hops onto the writing table when the way is clear.

It fluffs its glossy black feathers and lifts one black leg experimentally.

Water. Alan would give it water. She rises hurriedly and goes to  refill her glass at the bathroom sink. When she returns and sets it before the bird, it dips its beak in gratefully. It still says nothing.

“My husband would like you,” she murmurs.

At the sound of her voice, the head comes up from the water glass. The eye stares, unblinking.

“He always had a soft spot for animals,” she continues. “When his book became a bestseller he promised me he’d get a kitten. After everything in the house was settled.” A kitten. One of the things she hasn’t bothered to think about since his death.

She gets the funny sense the bird is listening.

“We even met over a bird. Not a crow. A pigeon. A dead pigeon. I think he hit it – I was walking on the sidewalk when his car swerved up on the curb in front of me and nearly knocked me down. I was so mad, when he jumped out of the car. I was ready to give him a slap on the face. But I saw him pick something up from the edge of the road. He stroked the pigeon and murmured to it, and a couple of moments later it flew off. I knew right then I couldn’t yell at him for that. So I let him take me to lunch instead.”

Tentatively, she slides her hand, wrist up, along the table toward the crow. “His novel was even about flight,” she whispers. The novel. She never finished reading it. Alan was reading it aloud to her and they were halfway through when he died. She tried to pick it up a few times. When others said how proud they were of the legacy he left in the world. But every word on the page, every syllable was pronounced in his stark Midwest accent, his measured baritone voice. The weight of that voice crushed her. She’s never been able to finish a page.

The crow suddenly sticks out one black scaly foot and presses it into her outstretched palm. It presses down lightly, then its wings emerge and it flaps once, twice, three times. The breeze it makes is refreshing; the steady thump is like the beat of a heart. The crow lifts away from the writing table, turns, and flies through the open screen back out to the gray world. It left no mark on her palm – it didn’t even scratch the surface of the writing desk.

Arianne stares after it for a long time.

Continue to Part II

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