Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Crows

 

 

I have never broken a promise. Not one that mattered. I was married for four years but do not think I am telling secrets to say that my wife had a breakdown near the end and believed, apparently, I was to blame for everything. It is only human to feel this way, and it would be unbecoming to argue matters so far after the fact, especially since neither of us lives any longer in Huber Heights or even in Ohio, which seems very far away, a moon you see from your window peering out between drifting clouds. More recently I have begun to wonder if the child was even mine. Such thoughts arise of their own volition, or rather, despite my best efforts to stop them. I used to think you might choose what you did not want to dwell on, but perhaps we are not so free in such things. Which applies, as well, to promises. To imagine otherwise is to be as naïve as both Hali and I undoubtedly were once upon a time when we first met and believed we might make a life together.

Marriage itself is a promise, though one that is broken so frequently it hardly seems so, and in this particular case it was not my decision to end it. Hali was a reporter when we met, and I was a copy editor, and we both still were when we parted. The Dayton Daily News was suffering through the usual financial woes, but it was still a fine enough place to work. And work is not the whole of a life in any case. If you stood on our back porch, you could see most of the five acres we had inherited from Hali’s parents, and though we were technically in the city, you would never have thought so. There was a small man-made pond with bullfrogs and raccoon paw prints along the shore, with cattails growing in great abundance. Hali and I appreciated our good fortune, especially given how new we were to adulthood, in our late twenties, how young to be able to look across a property and to know it was our own. Probably we felt on the cusp of something, but maybe that is how most of us feel most of the time.

Which is not to say that Hali and I were always on the same page. Most days there were crows near our house or in the dense thicket of white oaks and shagbark hickories. From the windows, we watched them row out on the boats of their bodies, otherworldly. We studied them like black obelisks in the neighbor’s property. Their lives appeared primitive and completely separate from our own, so I found it puzzling when Hali first began placing the tin plates in the yard, then, over time, moving them closer to where she stood standing in the sunbaked grass, waiting. She used meat scraps or peanuts or grapes or cooked beans. All those black veils winding around her as though to tie a knot, though maybe that interpretation is a product of hindsight. She was a mother to the creatures, or maybe it just seemed so given the cast of her hair. I’ll admit it had drawn me to her early on, had enticed me to watch her from a distance at work, and the first time I saw her naked I was struck by the stark contrast with her skin, the dark strands reaching nearly to the small of her back.

She talked to the crows while she was feeding them. There were clucks and clicks and soothing words of comfort wafting up from the yard while I watched from the porch or from the windows of the house. It had been a hopelessly muggy summer, the heat slipping its weight around us most nights as we lay in bed, making a salt of our skin, the blades of the ceiling fan whirring like a living wheel, so the windows were always thrown open. One evening I was placing dishes in the washer and listening to her voice when suddenly her tone changed. I leaned closer to the screen mesh, straining for a view. The crows were leaning their dark heads into the silver tins, but my wife was moving off, and I realized, suddenly, she was calling my name. It was the urgency that caught me up, that drew me toward the door and out in the yard.

I could see to the distant pond toward which Hali was running, her hair sailing out behind her. It could be anything, I knew. Her enthusiasms were always getting the better of her. There might be the long neck of a turtle sticking up at the far edge of the pond, a submarine’s periscope. There might be a garter snake she was chasing through the rippling grass. There might be a rising moon appearing impaled amid the hickories. I squinted toward her. The pond, at dusk, carried in its body the blood of the sun. Then I saw. Saw. There was no doubt. I began running myself, as quickly as my body would carry me. Hali, far ahead, did not break stride but splashed into the shallows, up to her knees then thighs then waist.

The neighbors to the east of our house—we barely knew them—had the last name of Graham, and the husband worked at Wright Patterson, while the wife was a nurse at Miami Valley. The first time I had heard the name of the son, who was four, I had tried not to smile. It was a grownup name from another century, too large for such a small boy. George. Hali had the child by the shoulders in the deepest waters of the pond, was dragging him back to shore. I swam out to help, the cool waters, brackish and fetid. We dripped when we sat on the grass, the boy coughing, his blond hair slicked back, his chest heaving. I was amazed by how calm Hali sounded, how comforting her tone as she spoke to the child while we walked him past the fence and home, while she described to the mother how she’d seen him tottering along the lip of the pond then suddenly losing his balance on the loose rocks. The green towel the mother fetched was massive enough to enfold George nearly entirely, and her thanks effusive to the point of embarrassment. How, she kept asking her son, had he left the house without her noticing? Why had he wandered so far?

“Take a deep breath,” she said. “Does anything hurt?”

It turned out, of course, that this was the start of things. Of that I am certain. Perhaps I should have realized it at the time, but it is easy to be blinded by a good deed, particularly when a child and a mother gaze up at you with gratitude.

I should explain that Hali had no brothers or sisters. She was raised for much of her childhood in the house where we now lived, by college professor parents who taught at Wright State University, the father in philosophy, the mother in journalism. They were both nearing forty when she was born, and by the time she reached her teens they were the age of the grandparents of many of her friends. Whenever she spoke of growing up in the Dayton suburb, she focused on how her primary friends were the family pets and her books—the first time I saw her at her desk, she had beside her a slim novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky—and how her parents, though busy with their jobs, had doted on her. That is the cliché that most of us accept. The only child feels the gaze of the adults until the narcissism is fully formed, irreversible. But I never felt that with Hali. I will defend her in this and in most everything else. I think what she actually learned in her childhood was loneliness. My two brothers and my sister taught me the opposite, the pleasure of a room to the self, a bathroom with no one else jostling beside you, but Hali learned the way you can hear your own breaths when you close your eyes, the solitary thump of the heart.

She approached me while I was mowing the lawn a few weeks after the occurrence with the boy. I liked the smell of cut grass and gasoline, the deafening roar of the John Deere engine, the yard cut down to the precision of a golf course, the leavings bagged and scattered at the edge of the woods.

I stepped off the mower. “Is something wrong?”

“I fell asleep,” she said. “I lay down on the couch and drifted off.”

I studied the map of her eyes. “You’ve been crying?”

“In the dream.” She lifted her chin as she spoke, squinting. She added, “From happiness.”

“You don’t look happy.”

“I was in the dream. I woke to tears coming out of my eyes.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

“I want a child,” she said. “I want us to have a baby.”

“Now?”

“I know what you’ll say. We’re just getting started in our careers. We’re young. I don’t care. I want this.”

The lawn mower was still thrumming beside us. I said, “What was the dream?”

“I heard what I thought was an animal crying in the woods. It was tucked into the hollow of a log. Our baby.”

“Hali,” I said.

I have always believed that dark eyes are the most intense and imposing. Her hand was gripping the crook of my elbow, clamping down.

“Promise,” she said.

So I did.

And I kept my word, after a fashion. I had never before thought of myself as father material. There was an awkwardness that isn’t easy to describe. The natural response was supposed to be a certain ooh-ing and ah-ing, but for me, at the sudden sight of an infant, especially one close at hand, even the ones belonging to my siblings, I recoiled. The word sounds strong, but aren’t young children even more primitive than crows? All blank eyes and wailing to no purpose? All bodily leaking? I did not want one, but I did want Hali to be persuaded that I did. Perhaps that is the secret meaning of a marriage. You hide the full truth of yourself for the good of the other. But I should not go overboard. What sacrifice was it when she drew me down onto our bed, or into the shower to join her, or sometimes on the living room couch or even on the floor, and a few times on a blanket in the back yard, the eggs of stars watching us, the rounded eye of moon? The crickets serenaded us, and the mosquitoes anointed our skin in blood. How could I have loved her any more than I already did when she whispered her warm breath against my ear? Something was forming. Something was taking hold. Wasn’t this what we were making? Wasn’t this what arose from our joining?

Then it was winter. The pond froze into stasis. Snow covered the grass, and the limbs of the trees became empty scaffolding. At night, sometimes, I heard the winds moving across the carapace of land, an ancient music, and I listened to Hali’s breaths. The bedroom cattycorner to ours, which had, years ago, been Hali’s room, was now being slowly transformed. The bookshelves had been removed, the walls painted, the outlets baby proofed. I’d noticed this last change one morning while searching through the desk for paperclips. We hadn’t bought a crib yet, hadn’t discussed directly that this would be the room for a child, but the closets had been emptied, as though in waiting, and the dresser drawers slid open easily to reveal nothing. Hali was sitting on the bed one early afternoon when I returned from the YMCA. She was dressed in navy blue sweat pants and a white sweat shirt, her hands hidden inside the sleeves, and sunlight was slanting through the window and forming a living rectangle on the carpeting, a glow from some other realm. Her socks were pink, her hair tied back.

I said, “I brought home pizza.”

The words felt strange inside the presence of the room, an imposition. She looked up. “I was thinking names.”

“Okay.”

“I know you don’t approve.”

“That’s not true,” I said.

“You think it jinxes things.”

“Of course not.”

She rose and stepped into the ghost light on the carpeting. “It’s never going to happen, is it?”

The words twisted in the room, dangled on their noose. I said, “We’ve been over this.”

“I know, I know. 70% within the first six months. We’re past that.” She rushed ahead before I could interject. “I know we’re supposed to wait at least a year. I know we’re not supposed to worry.”

“Dr. Marcus was absolutely clear,” I said.

“But I keep being sure. I keep thinking I feel something.”

One of Hali’s earliest memories, I knew, was of a shy raccoon using its gentle paws to accept from her fingers in the back yard a gift of peanut butter smeared on toast, while her parents watched. Continuity offers comfort, we imagine. It beats back death, as though the rote nature of any activity means it can never fully end. When Hali’s parents had died—one after the other, of cancer, not two years apart—those had been the stories she had turned to again and again. The baby robin the three of them kept in a shoebox until it was old enough to fly. The gray squirrel that waited by the back door for their arrival, its tail twitching.   

I am convinced that the good in life, for the most part, is confused and dreamlike, but the bad is visceral and well-defined. Winter drifted toward spring, and Hali stepped into a room inside herself and closed the door, or she brooded in the hallways both at home and at work, or she dabbed at her cereal or lay on the couch with a blanket pulled to her chin. It had been easy, in the past, to see past the adult to the child she’d once been. Her smaller ghosts still roamed the house, after all, or out into the property, singing in the hallways or playing on the rusting swing set or wading in the pond. If childhood is a great and empty expanse—one that seems, at the time, as though it will never end—spring was, too. And didn’t it seem I was to blame? Why hadn’t I given her this gift she so dearly wanted? Why had our bodies betrayed us? Why was I there to witness the depths of her disappointment? These are the questions we ask ourselves when reason no longer applies. This is what we are left with.

Then there was the affair. Or maybe I shouldn’t call it that. To give a thing a name is to imagine it has power over us. Hali’s duties at work left her always on the go, out into the city, while I was hunched before a computer or a desk, laboring. While she was asked to see the larger picture, I focused on minutiae. And the particular minutiae I noticed this time regarded Greg Gaines, new to The Dayton Daily News, a photographer. There are men who hold themselves a certain way, especially around women, especially around young and attractive women, especially around young and attractive women who are going through difficult times. They lean close. They hold the gaze. They project a kind of ownership, even when it is not appropriate, even when it is unwelcomed. There is a predatory quality that cannot be denied, and I noticed that characteristic in the handsome face, in the too-long dark hair, in the casual way he leaned against a wall or even yawned. Once I just happened to be standing at the window near the copy machines when the two of them returned from somewhere in the city, he with his camera on its sling across his shoulder. It was raining, the drops splatting against the open sea of glistening cars, and they ran together from the parking lot to the back entrance of the building, and her hand reached out to grip his forearm as they moved together, and they were laughing.

It was difficult to carry that memory with me through the rest of the day, to ferry it home at day’s end. Hali and I bumped against each other in the small kitchen, making salad and spaghetti and garlic bread. Meals are their own form of intimacy, especially between a husband and wife, and I studied her as her fork clattered and her eyes darted up then down and she sipped red wine. We walked to the pond after that, the wind rippling across the surface and making of it a living thing. Dragonflies darted low. We circled and saw shadows of the bass and bluegills and fathead minnows, and I could feel her sullenness returning, the lethargy of her home mood. I almost spoke, but then the low-slung sun emerged from between a thicket of clouds, and it was bright across the waters, and my words were swallowed into it, erased, and in any case I couldn’t be certain what I’d seen, regardless what paranoia followed me that night into sleep, infiltrating my dreams.

Later, when the heat of summer was back at full force, our ceiling fans moving out with their eternal wheel, I asked directly. But by then I was believing everything Hali told me, so my words came out more as an apology than an accusation. You will never guess, I stammered, what, at our lowest moment, I suspected. The words she spoke without hesitation in return were a relief.

The child was due in April. There are those who believe that all we think and do is actually a form of selfishness, even apparently generous and altruistic acts, their secret design to have us viewed in a certain way: the kind one, the saint. But there was a happiness I felt for Hali that seemed much larger than myself, separate from me, a creature on its own as much as the moon perches distant from the Earth. Ever since she’d taken the home test then had had it confirmed, she had seemed, somehow, to sail around the house, running up the stairs or laughing from the kitchen sink, even after the morning sickness diverted her at intervals to lean before the toilet and to chew on Saltine crackers, as though this, too, were part of some adventure. One evening I saw her in the back yard while the crows were gathering round, and she twirled like a child on the grass, her bare feet and legs performing their intricate dance. And I saw her standing sometimes before the mirror, her blouse or T-shirt lifted, feeling with her hand for the bump, or turning sideways to study the contours of her breasts. As a child I was forced weekly to sit obedient and still on hard pews, listening to prayers drifting upward from the congregation. There are mysteries in this life, whether we want to believe in them or not. Pregnancy, for Hali, was spiritual. She was connected to the long road backwards, to the human caravan, and now she was carrying it forward into the unknowable future.

I was happy then. You can fill a day like that. You look up from your desk—from the cuneiform maze of the page—and suddenly you envision the tiny smallness of a hand, the sound of a baby stroller over gravel, the sweet cry in the night then the suckling sounds, your wife’s soft voice cooing in the dark. I wanted these feelings to go on and on, to multiply like dandelions. But the sorrow of the world must have its due, which is something we are taught over decades.

Things began with the Brandenburg Concertos. It was a Sunday afternoon in October. Hali was listening in the bedroom, the curtains drawn, the blankets pulled up over her expanding body, the music from her phone a whisper from the dressing table. I silently opened the door to check on her again, hoping she had finally slipped into sleep, that the queasiness that had seemed abnormally strong that day had at last dissipated. She was moaning from the bed as I stepped into the room, and within the hour we were at the hospital, and within an hour after that the doctor—a young woman originally from Barcelona, with hair as long as Hali’s—had given us the news, and by the next day we were home again and I had thrown away the bedroom sheets, not wanting to risk the stains remaining even after I washed them, even if I used bleach. Grief can seem like the curling of a body on a bed, the eyes clamped shut, the breaths slowed until they nearly stop. I lay beside Hali in the night, listening, not wanting to risk being rebuffed again if I reached out to touch her. If happiness had been something we had shared, this loss was her own, or so she made clear.

“We’ll wait a year,” I said in the next day, the mattress sagging as I sat beside her.

A dark strand of hair was matted to her cheek, clinging. “What are you talking about?”

“We’ll try again.”

She rolled over.

By January I was living in an apartment a few miles from Riverview Park. I could walk to the Miami River and watch the snow falling into the gray waters, which moved forward on their conveyor belt, the current seeming like a force that was older than anyone I’d ever known, older than the planet itself. I shivered with my hands in my pockets, wondered how a life could be so suddenly subtracted, pared down. At work I saw Hali at her desk or in the halls or out in the parking lot, and always there were plans to concoct, strategies. What if I said this or that? What if I pointed out that happiness ebbs and flows, that patience was in order, that soon the medications would lift the darkness and she would be herself again? What if I asked her to lunch at her favorite Thai restaurant or suggested a spring trip to Costa Rica? She had told me once it was her secret wish to walk on their sandy beaches and to see the jungle greenery and to witness first-hand an anteater, a boat-billed heron, a canetoad, a howler monkey. Mourning had consumed her from the inside, and the shell of her existed when I heard her voice over the phone, when I stopped by the house and stood on the front stop, my shoulders slumped, and rang the bell while hearing the crows in the distance. The divorce was completed by early summer, and in August I arrived one early morning at work to see her stepping from a car with Greg Gaines. He was driving, and she stood in the lot in sunglasses and a short blue dress and sandals I did not recognize, her purse hiked over her shoulder, her long hair enclosing her. They walked side by side, Greg with a hand pressing its imprint against the small of her back. Hali didn’t see me until they were nearly at the entrance.

“Oh,” she said.

Greg blinked, seemingly not knowing who I was.

“Oh,” Hali said again.

There are promises we keep, promises we change our minds about, and promises that evolve or devolve of their own volition, beyond our control. In some sense they live on without us, have their own lives, and that’s probably how it should be. To make a promise is such a strange thing anyway, as though we are a seer or a prophet, as though there are ever enough facts to know any future with certainty. I imagined that I would be with Hali forever, that we would grow old in our bodies, would pass thousands of days together, a great empire of decades gathering.

So when her shadow crossed my desk later that morning, and I looked up into the sputtering fluorescent lights to see her, her hair a black shawl, her mouth contorted with feeling, I still believed that the words that would rise into the air would draw us back together.

She said, “You’re wrong in what you’re thinking.”

It was my turn to blink, the world appearing then vanishing, appearing then vanishing.

She said, “Listen to me. He came after, not before.”

There is a space between heartbeats that fills the world with silence.

She said, “Promise you believe me. You have to promise.”

Any words I might have spoken were beyond the truth of daily life, or maybe beyond any truth at all.

I promised.

 

Doug Ramspeck is the author of The Owl That Carries Us Away, which received the 2016 G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, and is forthcoming from BkMk Press (University of Missiouri-Kansas City). He is also the author five poetry collections, three of which received awards: Original Bodies (The Michael Waters Poetry Prize, Southern Indiana Review Press), Mechanical Fireflies (The Barrow Street Book Prize, Barrow Street Press), and Black Tupelo Country (The John Ciardi Prize, BkMk Press). Individual stories and poems have appeared in journals that include Kenyon Review, Slate, Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Georgia Review, and Iowa Review. He is a two-time recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award and teaches creative writing at The Ohio State University at Lima.