Remember our weekend visit in November--Marsha and I brought the kids along as granny bait hoping to lure you to town with us but even that scheme failed to budge you.
"I'll stay on like the crows," you said, and with eyes the color of the Atlantic scanned the Maine shore edged with shuttered cottages, their owners gone. I was so furious I'd have turned around and driven straight back to the city but we'd just arrived and I wasn't going to give in to you so easily or to Marsha's silent "I told you so. Your mother isn't going to budge."
"Crows don't migrate," you continued. "They stay the winter. When the heavy snow falls in December, that old crow in the pine keeps me company."
Timmy and John, believing he did, whined to wait until the black bird flew down and cawed for food at your window. The whines turned to tears on Sunday when we left.
You hurried us home to the city as if we were summer people, not kin who wanted you to come, at least for the worst of the winter. You must have noticed that we left worried and also annoyed. Your stubborn "I'll stay" meant you expected us to return in December.
"Your mother's annual Christmas con," Marsha complained on the long drive back up north that December for the holiday.
As you have pointed out frequently, Marsha's always been a city person, ill at ease in an empty landscape, the trees bare as skeletons against an empty sky.
When we reached Maine the boys nagged me to stop on the side of the road. They wanted to pee in snow they had never seen so much of, so purely fallen, steeping the countryside, blocking your door with drifts left undisturbed until we tramped clouds of silver pollen across the threshold and, bearing gifts and cheer, found you seated in a kitchen chair, head back, eyes staring as if you still could see us with only the whites. The boys ran to the window, excited to discover a few crumbs on the ledge. When the crow refused to come, then they cried.
I trust you appreciate how precisely I followed your instructions the next afternoon, just two days before Christmas it was, when I scattered your ashes under the pine. There seemed to be so few of them, and those few fine as flour on the snow.
"What's daddy doing?" the boys asked in chorus.
"Your father is putting food out for the birds."
The explanation was probably close to what you had in mind, but her sounding as if I were some crank feeding pigeons in a city park enraged me, and you heard me snarl, "Go wait in the car, the three of you."
On the way home I snarled again, "Get out of the car," and pulled over to the side of the road. "Everybody out."
Nobody moved. "I wanna go home" from the back seat. "Where are we? I don't believe this" from the front.
The flat, left rear right down to the rim, was a mixed blessing, the kind you're so good at. I had no time to brood while I took the unopened presents from the trunk to get at the jack--an electric blanket for you from Marsha and me, a thermos from the boys, and their special gift, a ball of suet to hang on the tree--I had no time to brood when I wrenched my back struggling with the iced lug bolts. Even today, after a year, I get an occasional jab of pain, just a reminder-- but you ought to know I don't need reminding, especially on a December afternoon like this when it's snowing on the plastic snowballs that decorate the public trees and on the Santas at every street corner stomping their boots in dirty slush mixed with salt as I pass, stepping carefully on the slippery sidewalk.
"My mother phoned," Marsha informs me when I walk in the apartment. "She wants us to come and bring the boys."
I said, "No way," as nicely as I could.
As a rule, I leave the decisions involving her family to her. She is an only child and her parents, lonely and bored since moving to Florida, are very dependent on her.
"This Christmas we're going to stay put," she says. She has already made her point. The tree has been up for a week, and in the steam-heated living room is beginning to shed a few needles on the rug. "So she and Dad are coming here. Timmy will have to move in with John. We'll be dreadfully crowded, but that can't be helped."
I agree it can't be, and stare out the living room window. Cars clog the uptown streets with rush hour traffic headed for the suburbs but I am way ahead of them, racing far far beyond the glow of the skyline to where coast, ocean and night sky lie close like enormous aquatic animals sheltering one another.
And here I am, aching back and all, standing under the pine, scattering bird seed. I hope you're surprised. Don't think you've conned me, because you haven't. I wanted to come, always, every Christmas. You've got to believe me so
I can go back to Marsha and the boys. There's no rush, though. I won't be hurried away like some intruder.
This place is beautiful: the unblemished whiteness, seeds skittering on the surface like bits of quartz, and fixed against the flux and drift the winged blackness. I wish I could stay on, but it's late, so I'll be leaving.
"Dark outlasts the light," the crow caws. CP
Copyright 1995 by Sheila Cudahy, from the collection Crow Time. Reprinted with permission by Sun&Moon Press (Los Angeles).
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