June’s life was very hard. Her mother was sick, and this sickness made her cry all day. It made her have to lie down for long hours, staring at the ceiling. June’s mother dragged herself through life, from the food pantry to their little apartment and, once a month, to the doctor, a man who either changed nothing or everything depending on the day.
June took the bus to school and the other children teased her for her dirty clothes. Once there she could not concentrate on the teacher’s voice. She was hungry and full of worry and she was reprimanded for this. June didn’t know that this was unfair because most of her life was unfair. She had nothing to compare it with. She thought she must truly be bad for things to have turned out this way.
When she arrived home she would trudge to her bed with her head held low. She would fall upon her stomach with her clothes on and push her face into the pillow. She felt a sadness that she couldn’t put into words and realized that this feeling was what her mother endured, day in and day out. With this terrible realization echoing in her mind she fell asleep.
She dreamed. She was in a cellar that she knew to be far beneath whatever building pushed down upon it. She had been digging a hole in the hard-packed dirt floor. Her clothes were damp with sweat and she could feel dirt when she mopped at her brow with her forearm. Something small waited by the side of the hole, wrapped in white linen, as still as the grave. She looked at it for a time, and though she didn’t know what it was or how it had become her responsibility to bury it she felt a deep sense of shame that gradually mounted to panic. The only thing to do was to keep digging and so she attacked the hole with the shovel’s blade, ignoring the sweat and fatigue.
Suddenly, a rapping from above intruded on the rhythm of the shovel. A blade of fear pierced her. She knew that she had to answer, that waiting would only make things worse and so she dropped her shovel and with her heart fluttering in her chest she walked up the cellar stairs. She stood before the door. The rapping had become thunderous. She became certain that she had done something horrible and that her punishment waited outside.
She reached for the door, ready to unlock it and embrace the reality of the dirty thing that she was- and then she snapped awake. There was still a sound, a persistent rapping, something hard upon the glass. Light pooled on the floor below the window and a shadow was framed in its center. She forgot her nightmare for a moment. Was it an angel she saw there, winged and graceful? She had always thought that perhaps one would come for her one day.
Again there was that insistent percussion and she looked to the window. Not an angel then, but a crow dressed in its black plumage. As her dream threatened to rise up again her curiosity overcame it. She walked cautiously to the window. She was afraid that it would fly away. She had no friends, no pets, no family beside her mother. The crow might not be any of those things, but it was paying the kind of attention to her that didn’t hurt.
She stood before the window. The bird did not move. It cocked its head and met her gaze. Another series of insistent taps upon the window pane. She unlocked it and pulled it open. The crow hopped through the portal between inside and out. It looked at her for a very long time while she stood motionless. She wondered what was happening. Was she being assessed? Evaluated? Diagnosed? She hoped that among all the possibilities that she was being seen. No one ever saw her. Not really.
They stayed that way for some time, gazing, and though she had to pee after so many hours of sleep it was more important to have this encounter. As she stared her mind slipped into a state of non-being and though the memories of her life and the knowledge of who she was were still there they simply didn’t matter.
It was a Friday morning. She kept a clock in her room. Her mother couldn’t be trusted to wake up, or to wake her up, and there had been visits to their apartment by a social worker. She had seemed like a nice woman, but they wanted her to go to school, and in the nicest way possible she had told her and her mother that there would be consequences if her attendance didn’t improve. She didn’t know what those consequences would be, but her mother explained later that she would be taken away. She would live with another family then, or in a place where other girls in the same circumstance lived.
None of this sounded any better or worse than her current circumstance, but it scared her all the same. There would be no hiding then. No secret moments of grief. They would see the hollow place inside her and try to fill it with things that she wasn’t sure she wanted. So she set her alarm every night and dragged herself from her bed every morning. It rang. The crow flew. The spell was broken.
She rushed to the bathroom and not for the first time thought that relief was better than pleasure. She brushed her teeth and ate what there was to be had in the kitchen. Peanut butter and some white bread. She opened her mother’s door. She was not asleep, but had an arm raised. Her forearm covered her eyes, but she could see tears running down the side of her face.
She crawled into bed beside her mother and held her. The flow of tears from beneath her arm increased. After a time she pulled her arm away and kissed her on the forehead. She told her that she loved her. That she was so sorry for not being better. June knew that she would be late for school, but this seemed more important.
She walked down the stairs of their building through the smell of mildew. It was late fall, growing chilly. Her eyes felt swollen and she knew they were red. It would be one more thing about her that was worthy of comment by the other children. She took a moment to breathe. She felt as though she forgot to sometimes.
It wasn’t until she arrived at the bus stop that she realized she had missed it. There were no other children, no parents in their huge cars, idling fumes into the lungs of the children not similarly cared for. There was only what she could assume to be that same crow flying above, speaking it’s bird language. And she realized that it was not just the one but many. She felt as though they were calling to her. Then she noticed.
On the ground were two fledgelings. Too old to be chicks, too young to fly on their own. They were doomed, and she felt a kinship with that. She forgot about school. She forgot about the social worker and her scary way of helping. She took off her vest and approached the two grounded birds. As she thought about how best to approach them the birds flying above landed on the ground, one by one, until they formed a semi-circle that enclosed both her and the fledgelings.
She knew that all this was curious but none of it felt strange. The sadness that she carried with her was not gone, but it receded. She knew what to do where before she had harbored only doubts and uncertainties. She knelt down, removed her vest, and gently prodded the birds into it. They looked to the other members of their murder. June felt the emotion and images pass through her mind. The mother bird had watched her while she dreamed and tasted her sadness. She had glimpsed those parts of her that were not human, that had been thrown away or eaten up or had simply died and June knew that those absences made her safe and pure.
The walk back to her house was delicate. She looked down at the young birds and they looked back. She felt seen, observed, evaluated and, ultimately, accepted. She walked up the stairs of her building. Mr. Reyes was hurrying down. He said hello but did not spare her a glance. As she made her way up and stood at her door Miz Lightfoot left her apartment for her morning walk. She looked down at June, at what she was carrying.
Miz Lightfoot was mysterious and very old. She was always kind. No one else in the building had ever been inside of June’s apartment. One day her mother didn’t wake up. All her pill bottles were empty. June had shaken her mother as hard as she could and yelled in her ear. She had picked up one of the phones that they had gotten in the mail but it was not charged. Neither of them ever thought to call anyone because there was no one to call. The phones would get lost for weeks at a time and it didn’t matter. Mail would pile up on top of them. When her mother rose from her bed long enough to force herself through the motions of cleaning they would be resurrected, plugged in and charged. For a day or so they would be useful and then the cycle would begin again.
When that most terrible thing had happened June ran to Miz Lightfoot’s. She had a phone that did not travel with her and this struck June as a very strange thing. But it worked. Miz Lightfoot stood with June as the ambulance traveled to them. June always felt lost but especially on this day. As the large men rushed through the apartment and did things to her mother that June did not understand, another thought intruded: What would happen to her? She knew little of what happened to children in such a situation, but she did not think that any of it would be good.
Miz Lightfoot had drawn her near and pulled her against her side. No one asked anything of her, even as the tears and mucous had run down her chin. As her mother was lifted on to a gurney, Miz Lightfoot approached a woman who had arrived and explained that June was her granddaughter. She lied well. The woman seemed satisfied that somehow this white woman with an accent that evoked headwraps and long winters could be the grandmother of this little brown girl. Miz Lightfoot walked her across the hall and into another world.
Her apartment was shielded from the abrasion of light. Dark furniture and countless plants in pots. Jars on shelves filled with different hues, roots and leaves hiding within. It smelled clean, but in the strangest way, as dust was clean. She was guided to the couch and Miz Lightfoot laid a heavy woolen blanket over her. She sat above her knees and stroked her hair as shock turned to sleep.
She woke in the night. Miz Lightfoot knelt before her. Her eyes were closed. She held a bundle of plants, smouldering. The smell was soothing. In her other hand she held something stranger than the smouldering plants. It was a bundle of feathers and two delicate bones tied with a ribbon. She held it to her forehead and whispered something, over and over. It was not English. She felt that perhaps she should be scared but she did not. She felt safe and loved.
In the morning she sat at a table across from Miz Lightfoot. They ate boiled eggs on toast. June did not know what to say. Miz Lightfoot looked at her. “You are thinking about last night.” She stated. “It was a thing I did to ask for protection for you. You deserve it.”
June finished chewing her toast. She stared at the table. “Was it magic?” June knew little about magic.
“Yes.” Miz Lightfoot said. “I was talking to someone for you and asking them to guide you on your journey.”
June nodded. This made sense. She wished that someone had done this for her before.
After a few days her mother returned in a cab and life continued. Miz Lightfoot was a kind presence in the stairwell from then on, but nothing more. June did not understand. She wanted to be friends but Miz Lightfoot had become a mystery once again.
But on this day, as June carried the two birds, Miz Lightfoot spoke again. “Do you remember what I did for you that night that your mother left?”
June nodded. She felt protective of these birds and pulled them closer to her.
“These are friends to you, June. They heard me ask for help and they answered. If you care for them then they will care for you. They will guide you to where you need to go. Know that they will eat most things, that they are clean birds, and that they have incredible memories for both friends and enemies.”
Miz Lightfoot knelt and hugged both June and the crows and went on her way.
June entered her apartment. Her mother did not respond. June checked that she was breathing and when she was satisfied she returned to her bedroom. She put the birds on her floor. She did not want them to fall again. She built a nest around them with her clothes. She lined the inside of the nest with her only clean sheet. In the kitchen she found little. There was always peanut butter and white bread and so this is what she fed them.
She stayed with them all day. They were so smooth, so dark, and in their eyes there was something like understanding. They looked like Miz Lightfoot if Miz Lightfoot were a bird. They seemed unafraid and she began to stroke them gently. They leaned into her fingers and ruffled their feathers. They rubbed their heads against her hands.
There was no school the following day. Her mother had only moved from her bed to use the bathroom. June saw that they did not have enough food. She ate dry cereal with a glass of water and gave the fledgling crows the last of the peanut butter and the shattered remains of a bag of corn chips.
She had no money. Miz Lightfoot was the only one who might help her but she was embarrassed. These birds were hers to take care of. In the early light of the following day she left her house with plastic bags around her hands. On the street was a squirrel, run down by a car and left to die. She picked it up, hoping that no one saw her, and walked back to her apartment.
She cut into the squirrel’s stomach. It was not yet stiff, still supple, its fur so soft, and she felt sad for it but knew that this was the way things were. She had never been told why things were this way and she did not feel that she had the tools or words to make sense of it.
The birds were glad for the gift. They pecked at it. June did not watch but felt she should. These birds were hers. If there were things to be learned from them then it was her responsibility to do so. She sat on her mattress on the floor to watch.
They ate its eyes. Their sharp, smart beaks moved into its mouth to tear loose its tongue. They pulled the strange lumps and strings from within its gut and they ate those too. June tried to learn. What was the lesson?
Maybe death was nothing to fear. Maybe spirit lived inside all that confusing flesh. She had been told about Jesus, long ago, and how his body was bread and his people ate this bread. Maybe this squirrel was like Jesus. Maybe this was the worship of the world. There was an endless passage in which death became life became death again.
She watched for a long time. She was very hungry but the sun had gone down. The electricity had been turned off and she lay on her bed until sleep came upon her.
She had a dream. She was gliding high above a frigid city. It was neither beautiful nor ugly. It was just the world.
A thick fog drifted upwards from many places. Here and there gold ascended in a reversal of rain. Her eyes were sharp. At her right and left two others like her were exalting in their freedom. They flew downwards in a gentle circling and she followed. A man in a blue uniform sat in a car and the gray poured out. They flew low and heard his cursing. They saw the gnashing of his teeth.
She and her companions circled lower. They made a vortex of the gray and it spun faster and faster until it was a thick and concentrated line. It no longer drifted to fall upon the ground or penetrate lungs. It grew denser until it was a pebble that fell to the ground. She landed beside it and her two friends joined her.
She understood. She picked it up in her beak and ate it. It was the only way to remove this dangerous thing. It did not hurt her. She saw how this man’s life was full of rage and disappointment. The things that he desired had not come to pass and the things that he used to fill the gaps were not good enough. The understanding of these things was painful but she felt as though she was built for this- just as this body ate the fallen dead, it ate dead feelings.
They took flight again. A shower of light was rising from beneath a bridge. There was a man there, cold, red-faced and harried by a life too unfair to survive. Again they circled, but this was a circle of joy, not of duty, and when their dance was done a shining bauble was all that remained. Again, she ate of it and knew the man, but this time not his sadness, but instead his freedom. There was love inside her, the joy of friendship, and the sadness of these things coming to pass. She saw that he was beautiful and that he was holy and that his freedom was necessary to balance all the grey that drifted skyward.
She woke and it was still dark. She had fallen asleep face down but felt warmth pressing against her legs. She rolled over slowly and gently. The two foundlings were beside her. They stood and opened their wings. They flapped them and hopped into the air. She saw that they could fly, that they were ready to go about their work in the world and this hurt her, though she wanted them to be free.
It was almost dawn. Soon the sun would crest the horizon on a cold day. She would not know what to do or where to go. There would be nothing but her uncertain life. Her charges hopped toward the door. They both rapped their beaks upon it. She did not know where they wanted to go. She opened the door and they jumped and flapped towards her mother’s room.
Within, she saw the gold rising. She could not say ‘no’. She could not beat the ground. There was no one to see or hear these things. She was too empty to sob, too lost. Her stomach, her chest, her throat all tried to register this thing, this worst thing.
She crawled into her mother’s bed and held her. She was still warm but something was gone. She cried tears that had been ripening for so long, sobs that should have been heard around the world and when that wasn’t enough she cried more. The crook of her mother’s neck, her soft shoulder, this body that had been so lost for so long was free and she was scared. And her friends… she could feel them beside her.
As she cried she felt something deep inside brain pop, some kind of death that was only partially completed, and time changed, moving so slowly, and she was in two places and she was two things. She was above the body that was once her’s. The gray poured out of her but it was parting- there was a light emerging from the fog and it became insubstantial as it rose. Her friends were beside her again, making awkward circles in the small room. Miz Lightfoot was there.
She knelt by June’s body and checked her pulse, then stroked her hair. She looked to the birds as they flew their hampered flight. She looked both happy and sad.
Miz Lightfoot spoke to the room, her eyes closed. “June, you have a choice now. You know what it is. I want you to know that none of it was ever fair, but few things are. There is not much that ends in this world, or any of the others. Just as you’ve had your measure of sadness, you will have your measure of joy”.
June made her decision.
She flew with her friends. The gray and the gold were married and after some time they were gone, leaving only a small bauble, crystalline with a fault in its center. June landed. She took the bauble in her beak. It tasted of sadness and love and at the end of those it tasted of freedom. She swallowed it and then she was born anew.
Miz Lightfoot opened the window and the three young crows flew out, a day of sacred duty before them. She left the window open. She rolled June onto her back, crossed her arms across her chest, closed her eyes, and walked across the hall to use the phone.