Trunk of Crows
Rachel rested her head against the coarse bark of the tree limb. This day was her favorite kind of day: hot sun, hot air, cool tree under her hands. And sky so blue she wanted to swim up into it. A cloud shaped like a pirate ship sailed above her.
She had been climbing trees, she thought, for almost as long as she’d been able to walk. It was something she knew and had always known she was good at, because the boys at school teased her about it. The tree limb she had settled on was too big for her. If she sat with her legs on either side of it, after a while they began to hurt. If she lay down across it, the bark bit into her skin. She had to keep moving to stay comfortable.
She turned her head to look at the picnic blanket below and the little crowd of people on it. Her family: dad, stepmother, grandma, grandpa. Two blonde heads, two gray heads. They looked simple from up here, and Rachel thought that if she were given a pop quiz right now on what they were thinking or talking about, she’d get a 100% easy. Was her grandmother A) annoyed by whatever Rachel’s dad was saying, B) trying to pretend she liked picnics when really she hated everything that happened outside, C) telling Rachel’s stepmom how to do something she already knew how to do, or D) all of the above?
People, Rachel thought, were like mirrors, reflecting everything on the inside back out again. Boring. Not like her crows. Crows were special, and complicated. They had to be learned.
Placing her palms firmly against the limb of the tree, Rachel pushed herself up and turned onto her back in one liquid motion. The sun was in her eyes in this position, but she didn’t mind. She was glad not to be part of the group below.
Monica had packed as many bologna and ketchup sandwiches (Rachel’s favorite) as she could jam into the old picnic basket, and now, sitting on a quilt spread in the shade of the one tree in the field, she wished she hadn’t packed so many. The sandwiches were non-negotiable—they were the only reason Rachel had agreed to come on this picnic even though she’d just spent the morning shopping for new clothes with her grandparents. Still, Monica wished she’d thought to pack something else for the grown-ups. “They’re a bit squished,” she said, passing them around.
Fred, her husband, took one without a word. Bill, her father-in-law, said, “Thanks, Mon.” Elaine, mother-in-law, took one and said not to worry about it. Rachel was busy climbing the tree.
Monica wanted to see how Elaine would like a bologna and ketchup sandwich, but gratification was delayed.
“What has Rachel been doing outside of school, Monica? Extracurricular activities are important for well-rounded children,” Elaine said. She could never pass up a chance to remind anyone in the vicinity that she had been a schoolteacher for thirty-five years, and that therefore she was a veritable saint.
Elaine always called Monica “Monica,” even though Bill always called her “Mon.” Monica had no particular preference—Monica versus Mon—and she bore Elaine no ill will. But she did wonder whether that feeling was mutual.
Monica took a bite of her sandwich, felt the cool ketchup escape into the corners of her lips. She brushed it away with the back of her finger and chewed. Elaine finally took a bite too. Of course, she didn’t get any ketchup on her wrinkled, dignified face.
“What have you been up to these days, Freddy?” Bill said around a mouthful of bologna, even though no one had answered Elaine yet.
Bill liked to talk, and if too much time passed without the sound of his voice, he rectified the unfortunate situation. Monica liked him more than she liked Elaine. She liked the way he was gently antagonistic toward Fred. She felt someone ought to be, and she had no interest in doing it herself. Bill’s question was a jab, though a loving one. Fred had lost his job seven months back, and while he was looking, he was not looking especially hard.
He took the question in stride. Fred was good at that sort of thing. He derived his self-worth mostly from things he created—like the cabinets he’d built for the kitchen, or the garden wall he’d put up last spring, or Rachel—and not from society’s expectations, or his parents’, or his wife’s.
“I’ve been building a hope chest,” he said, “for Rachel. It’s a thing of beauty.”
“A thing of beauty,” Monica said, half because she was trying to agree with him more often and half because she thought it was funny when he used old-fashioned sayings like that.
Fred glanced at her but otherwise ignored her.
Bill said, “I didn’t think people still used those.”
Elaine said, “They don’t.”
Fred said, “It’s a good bonding activity for the two of us.”
Monica looked up. Rachel was lounging on a limb several feet above them, one jean-clad leg swinging.
“Does Rachel help you?” Elaine wanted to know.
“She designs, I build.”
“Rachel designs?” Bill said. He had a rectangular face thanks to his wide jaw and cheekbones, and his nose had been a bit purple ever since he’d had a heart attack a few years ago. He looked like the kind of man who could be anyone’s grandpa, but it was hard to imagine him as a dad. Especially Fred’s dad.
“Rachel is a very talented artist,” Monica said before Fred had the chance. Fred would say something like, “Rachel makes cute little drawings and I translate them into the wood.” Fred often downplayed Rachel’s talents, not out of any malice, Monica thought, but perhaps more from a subconscious jealousy. Monica didn’t feel that it was fair for Rachel to suffer for her father’s insecurity.
“Oh?” Elaine said. “I’d like to have a drawing of hers for our refrigerator.”
“Rachel’s drawings are usually a little dark,” Fred said. “Not exactly fridge material.”
“I’m not sure she’d give one up, anyway,” Monica said, unable to resist the jab after watching Elaine eat her bologna sandwich without spilling or smearing any ketchup.
Elaine gave an elegant little shrug.
“How do you mean, dark?” Bill said.
“You know,” Fred began, gesticulating in circles with his right hand, holding his sandwich in his left. “Graveyards, old houses, that sort of thing.”
“She’s going through a Gothic phase,” Elaine said. That was how she said Gothic—with a capital G. “She should read Wuthering Heights.”
“She’s eight, Mom.”
“She’s very fond of crows,” Monica said. “They’re in almost all of her pictures.”
“Not to mention the backyard.”
Monica crunched a potato chip.
“The backyard?” Elaine said.
“Rachel feeds them,” Fred said. “Every morning, apparently.” He pointedly did not acknowledge Monica as he spoke. “So they hang around. We can’t get rid of them now. We’ve tried everything.”
Monica had known about the crows for some time, but Fred had only become aware of the extent of the “problem” since he’d lost his job and didn’t need to leave so early in the morning anymore.
“Worms, mostly. Sometimes table scraps.”
“Get the girl a dog, Freddy, Jesus,” Bill said.
“They bring her little presents.”
“What kind of gift does a wild animal bring? The corpses of mice?” Elaine asked.
“Bits of string, little beads, that sort of thing.”
Monica looked at her picnic basket, still so full of sandwiches. It would be impossible to eat them all. Their scene in the mid-afternoon park glared with color. She lay down, her head resting on a pillow of grass. Rachel, in her place on the tree limb, was a dark silhouette against the sun.
Fred would never have imagined himself sitting on a picnic blanket with his parents and his kid and his second wife. Rachel sprawled above their heads doing he didn’t know what—talking to the birds, probably. His mother and Monica exchanged precise, barely-there insults.
One of the reasons he’d wanted to marry Monica was for her whimsical nature. It was so much the opposite of his first wife. But everything about Monica opposed Stephanie. Monica had princess-long, blonde hair; Stephanie had kept her brunette hair chopped short. Monica’s chaos in the kitchen was alternately endearing and frustrating, whereas Stephanie knew exactly how to do what she wanted to do, and what she wanted was all that mattered. Monica was soft and curvy where Stephanie had been all planes and angles.
He wouldn’t say he regretted the picnics, but he was coming to realize that there was something to be said for practicality. When he’d married Monica three years ago, he hadn’t realized that she would be more interested in her new position as Rachel’s stepmother than as his wife. This sounded selfish, he knew, but Rachel already had a mother and didn’t really need a second one, as far as he could tell.
Now Monica was sprawled across the picnic blanket, Rachel was lounging in the tree over their heads, and his parents were seated—his mother cross-legged, his dad leaning back with his long legs stretched out in front of him—on the other side of the blanket.
“Why don’t you come down and spend some time with your grandparents?” Fred called up to Rachel. But he only half-called, really, and Rachel didn’t give any sign that she’d heard. The truth was he knew he ought to want her to come down, to talk to his parents because they had come to see her, not Monica and him. But as painful as things were down here on the picnic blanket, it was easier without Rachel there. And Fred loved his daughter. He wanted to save her from the stifling feeling of the picnic blanket. He knew she’d rather be up there, and didn’t envy her the morning she’d just spent with his parents. Better that she stay safely up in the tree, where none of the tension of the adult components of her family could touch her.
“Tell me more about this hope chest,” his mother said.
Fred took a bite of his bologna and ketchup sandwich. Monica couldn’t find her way around a kitchen with a map and a headlamp, but it was sweet that she tried for Rachel.
“It’s beautiful,” Fred said. “I’m making it mostly with a good cherry wood. Rachel picked it out because she liked the color, but I made sure to get a good quality. We’ve been working on it for a while now. It’s very important to Rachel. I want to make sure it’s done right.”
Rachel did have a fondness for the chest, though she didn’t seem to understand its purpose. Fred wasn’t sure why she liked it so much. It was just a big trunk, really. But it gave Fred something to do. He made every effort to make the work last, because he didn’t know what he’d do with his time when it was finally finished. The trunk kept his hands and his mind busy.
“Rachel has an architectural mind,” Fred said. “She knows the exact measurements of the chest and she draws her pictures to fit it. Her drawings are advanced for her age, considering she’s never had any particular training, outside of school art classes.”
Fred noticed that his father’s eyes had closed. He wondered what the old man was listening to, since he was sure it wasn’t his little speech about Rachel’s hope chest. The park was quiet today, a Tuesday afternoon. The sun lay heavy on his shoulders. He could still taste bologna and ketchup. A bee floated around the picnic blanket but nobody moved to shoo it away.
Elaine knew that Fred and Monica found her tiresome. At seventy-three, she had been around long enough to recognize when she grated on the nerves. She had also been around long enough not to especially care. She was here to see her granddaughter, and for whatever reason, her granddaughter was being kept from her—suspended high above, like the princess in a fairy tale. Elaine supposed that made her the witch, and if that was the case, she would play her part, if not happily then at least with relish.
“Does Rachel understand what a hope chest is?” she asked, quite sure she knew the answer already.
Fred shrugged a shoulder. “Not really,” he said. “She calls it her crow trunk.”
“Her trunk of crows,” Monica said dreamily from her place lying down on the picnic blanket. “She calls it her trunk of crows.”
Elaine thought that this was fantastically witchy, and for a moment she imagined herself crawling into her own trunk of crows—to make mischief or to rest, she neither knew nor cared. Both held a certain appeal.
Fred laughed a short, tight laugh. Elaine was overcome with a sudden liking for Monica, something that had happened occasionally, and more and more often lately. But she didn’t feel as though she could say this, so she settled for interrupting Fred again.
“I would like to see it,” she said. “Have you got any photos on that smart machine of yours?”
Fred tapped on his phone a few times and then started to reach out to Elaine but held back at the last moment. “Remember it isn’t finished yet,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s lovely.” Elaine took the phone from his hand. The screen had gone black and it took some poking to bring it back to life, but once she did, she found that Fred had not been overselling himself. The hope chest was beautiful. The woodwork had clearly been painstakingly undertaken and, whatever his motivation, it was obvious that the chest was important to him.
But Rachel’s designs—they captivated Elaine. Composites of simple shapes, they conveyed movement and detail that made them seem lifelike. A crow might be little more than a curved breast, a straight line down with a little flair for the back and tail, and a sharp triangle for a beak, but its tiny circle of an eye stared out of the wood, through the phone, and into Elaine’s own eyes like it knew exactly what was going on behind them. Somehow Elaine knew that this straightforward gaze had come from Rachel’s hand rather than Fred’s. Fred was not a direct kind of person.
“Do you encourage her?” Elaine said. “She is very talented.”
“Of course we encourage her.”
Elaine held the phone out toward her husband. “Do you want to see, Bill?”
Bill opened his eyes for the first time since he had finished his sandwich. He looked at her and didn’t say anything but they’d been married so long they had passed through true love, through friendship, and into symbiosis. He didn’t really care about Rachel’s hope chest, she knew, but it would be easier just to take the phone and look at the picture. He did this.
Bill’s expression changed slightly as he looked at the photo on Fred’s phone, eyes narrowed. His eyes had been growing foggy for months now but he refused any surgery that might help, convinced that it was better to have eyes that didn’t work than no eyes at all, which would be the outcome if he let anyone near him with surgical tools. Elaine watched his jaw slacken slightly, and creases of joy grow up around his eyes. Where Elaine had been delighted by her granddaughter’s artistic images, she knew Bill was taking pleasure in his son’s craftsmanship. Fred always talked as though Bill had never offered him a single encouraging word, but Elaine could translate Bill’s gestures, his facial expressions, to find the affection in them. Fred’s inability to do the same frustrated her, so she usually kept her translations to herself.
“That’s a good bit of work,” Bill said, and handed Fred back his phone.
Fred grinned, a boyhood smile, and Elaine felt pinpricks of old affection light up like stars through her body. This was her family. Now, when she felt herself to be on her way out, she lived on the edge of irritation with them all the time. She was afraid she hadn’t taught them enough, she thought. But they were hers; she made them. And for every flaw for which she felt responsible, there was a moment like this one.
Bill kept his eyes closed as much as he could these days. They didn’t work right anymore anyway, but it wasn’t just that. It was also that things grew harder and harder to look at. Not to see—that was a separate issue—but to look at. Elaine’s features seemed to be shrinking on her face. Her shoulders were wilting. The color drained from her skin like the world was a sponge slowly sucking the life out of her, which in a way was exactly right. Everything around Bill seemed to be falling into disrepair: the house, their relationship with Fred, even the cat had been looking frumpier than usual.
What no one other than him seemed to realize about this picnic was why they were all at it in the first place. Maybe Elaine didn’t even really understand. She knew about the cancer being back all right, but maybe she hadn’t thought about what she was going to say. Maybe she was trying to convince herself that she didn’t need to say anything. She’d avoided telling Bill for as long as possible, but you couldn’t know someone for decades, share a house and a bed with them, and keep secrets, no matter how much you might want to.
“Why a hope chest?” Bill asked. Once he’d given Fred his phone, he leaned back again. He let the silence stretch for several seconds, hoping that Elaine might take the opportunity, but when she didn’t, he felt the need to nudge things along. If he let it stay quiet, he would probably fall asleep, and there was no telling what he might wake up to later on. So he kept his eyes closed and he let the sun touch his face with its too-warm hands, and he resolved to indulge his over-indulged son for a little while longer.
“I liked the idea of making something that Rachel could take with her, into her future.”
This sounded like bullshit to Bill, though he was sure Fred believed it.
Fred talked for several more minutes about his pet project. Bill didn’t listen, and he suspected no one else did either. Of course he cared about his son, but Fred didn’t top the list of priorities right now. Fred seemed to sense this, and as a result he’d become more assertive—a change Bill failed to find endearing. So, Bill listened to the insects that passed over their picnic blanket. He listened to the rough scrape of the rubber soles on Rachel’s sneakers against the tree bark overhead, to the click of Monica’s fingernails as she tapped them against the picnic basket. He listened to Elaine breathe beside him.
Soon he would only hear that sound, familiar as that of his own working lungs, through the help of a respiration system. Instead of smelling the sweet heaviness of summer air, it would be a barrage of chemical cleanliness and the desperate desire to mask the scent of death. Instead of blanket and green grass beneath the length of his body, he would feel the press of a lumpy cushion on his back and linoleum beneath his feet. And Elaine would be the one lying down with her eyes closed. It came to him that this might be the last time the two of them were ever close together outside.
“What do you think, Dad?”
Bill hummed a question.
“About the wood? Do you think I should have gone with something else?”
“I think it looks fine,” Bill said.
“Do you think it would have been better if I’d gone with mahogany?”
Elaine’s elbow jabbed Bill right beneath the ribs. With the pain there seemed to come a spreading sadness. Maybe it was just because Elaine was dying, and their son had no idea, but his stubborn refusal to give Fred more than the bare minimum felt suddenly childish and cruel where before it had been justified nonchalance.
“I think it’s perfect as it is,” Bill said. He could practically feel Elaine’s satisfaction floating over the warm breeze and brushing by him. Not that she ever gave Fred any truly glowing praise, but he suspected that it was more important to her to fix things between him and their son before she left than to fix things for herself.
Bill opened his eyes just in time to see Fred smile.
“There’s something we need to discuss with the both of you,” Elaine said then. She had always been a bit dramatic.
Monica sat up. Bill had closed his eyes again and didn’t see her do this, but he felt the picnic blanket shift. He took a deep breath and released it. The tension had heightened but he felt relieved that the waiting was over. He had a guess that when the end did come, it would feel much the same way.
What a lot of people didn’t think about was that there were bugs in trees. Rachel felt something tickle across her arm and lifted it to see. A little bug—not an ant or a spider, she didn’t know what it was—marching merrily down her forearm. She thought about brushing it off and letting it fall onto the picnic blanket below her, but for the bug’s sake, she instead tilted her arm so that it would walk back onto the tree.
Rachel didn’t mind bugs. They weren’t her favorite, and it didn’t bother her at all to feed them to other animals who liked to eat them, but they didn’t scare her or upset her like people thought they should.
As Rachel was thinking this, a bird circled far overhead. It dipped suddenly lower. When she squinted, she could make out the fan shape of the tail. Definitely crow. She raised one hand in a salute to her forehead, shading her face from the sun. If this was one of her crows, it might come to her.
With a series of graceful swoops, it made the descent from the sky toward the tree. Rachel sat up again, letting her legs hang down on either side of the tree limb, just in time for the crow to land in front of her. It stood side-to and didn’t turn to face her, but cocked its head anyway. Crows were good listeners. Usually, though, Rachel liked to be quiet with them.
She regretted freeing the bug now. Fortunately, in a tree, bugs were easy to find. It only took her a moment. Snatching it, she held it out to the crow, which didn’t wait a moment to snap it up. It didn’t even nip her fingers.
Rachel liked to watch the crows eat. It was much neater than when humans did it. They didn’t chew very much, just snipped a couple of times with their sharp beaks and swallowed. Rachel felt that people could learn a lot from crows.
With the bug devoured, the crow tipped its head toward Rachel briefly and then turned its gaze down toward the picnic blanket on the ground. Rachel had almost forgotten her family. She leaned forward to look at them too, but the clicking of taloned feet quickly brought her attention away from the blanket and back to the tree. The crow had given up observing the goings on below to edge closer to Rachel.
In its beak it held a bit of blue string. This was a gift, Rachel knew. Crows had very strict rules about etiquette. She had given it a bug, and it didn’t want to leave without giving her something in thanks. Where the crow had procured the string, Rachel could think of nothing likely. Crows were kind of magical that way.
“Thank you,” she said, and reached out to pluck the string from the crow’s beak. She expected to watch it fly off then, but it didn’t. It stood still, the light reflecting on its black feathers and glowing a deep blue for just a moment before it turned its head again to fix Rachel with one perfectly round eye. This was Rachel’s favorite thing about crows: how they could look at you, and you knew they were really looking at you because they never wavered, and you could look back but see nothing at all. The crow’s eyes were black and expressionless. Rachel knew it recognized her, even had thoughts about her, but there was no way to know what it saw.
She looked back down at her family. Something had changed below. Her grandmother sat straight, her legs crisscrossed. She looked the most like herself out of everyone.
Monica, who Rachel liked very much, was sitting up straight with her legs crossed. Her dad was holding his own hands in his lap and it looked like someone had pulled the corners of everything on his face down, like the sides of his mouth and eyes were on backwards puppet strings. Her grandma was talking but she was too far away for Rachel to hear what she was saying. Her eyebrows were close together, her mouth closed in a firm line. She looked like she was using what Rachel thought of as her teacher voice. And her grandfather was lying on the blanket the same as before. At first Rachel thought he must not be paying attention, but then she saw that every few seconds he turned his face away from the others and brushed one fingertip under his eyes, real quick like he didn’t want anyone to see. He was crying, she realized, which was something she couldn’t remember ever seeing him do before. No one else seemed to notice.
Suddenly Rachel felt as though the people below her weren’t her family at all—as though she didn’t even know them. They seemed more like her crows, in that moment, than like people. She found that she could not begin to guess what they might be talking about, what their expressions might mean, what could make them all so serious and sad. They sat separate on their square of picnic blanket, not speaking or touching, and she saw for the first time that each of them was a box unfinished—carrying their own secret life, and following their own secret purpose.