As the Crow Flies
A thick fog rolled across the lowlands cutting the horizon into bands of muted gray and stark white. The chamber’s occupant was oblivious to everything but the happenings outside his solitary window and the words flowing from his own mouth. The spoken verses mingled with intermittent calls of crows, creating a ghostly song. “The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace.” Caw. Caw. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid.” Caw. “Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Caw. Caw. Caw.
The door opened into the room, slowly and silently, as a single crow lit on the outer window ledge. Caw. Henry mirrored the bird as it cocked its head to one side and then the other. Their eyes, dark and glistening, met, and they stared at one another in silence. A voice from behind broke the spell, “Henry, I’ve brought you soup. Eat before it gets cold.”
“He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry,” replied Henry.
“True,” said the man. “And the beasts and the ravens eat when presented with the opportunity, my boy.” The crow flew away. “Now eat, and we will go for a walk when this fog clears. You need to get out of this room.”
“Yes, Father,” replied Henry, taking the steaming bowl of tomato soup.
Once he could no longer hear his father’s footsteps down the staircase, Henry opened the window and poured out the soup onto the rock garden below. “That your fasting may not be seen by others but only to your Father who is unseen; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Henry dressed warmly, finishing off with Wellington boots, a knit cap, and a heavy wool coat, and sat on the bed awaiting his father’s return.
They walked silently from the great house, over the hill to the duck pond. The pond was empty and still, like a large pane of tarnished silver glass. “They’ll return in the spring,” said his father about the ducks. “They always do.” Henry nodded, staring at their reflections in the pond.
“She came to me again last night,” said Henry, still staring at their watery figures. “I know it was a dream, this time. Where her eyes should have been were just black, empty sockets that, somehow, looked right through me. She talked to me, but it wasn’t her voice. She said, ‘The eye that mocks the father and scorns obedience to his mother will be plucked out by the ravens.’”
“It was just a dream.”
“I know,” answered Henry, turning away from the pond.
“Let’s go,” said his father. They walked back up the hill, stopping at the big oak with the swing that once occupied Henry for hours on end. “How about a swing? I’ll push you.”
Henry sat on the weathered board seat, holding the ropes with both hands, while his father gently pushed him. Up and down, back and forth, gray cloud sky above, and rusty, mustard colored grass below. Pulling one of the ropes, slowing the swing, Henry asked, “Do you ever dream about her?”
“Not for some time now, Hank. Now all of my dreams are of you.”
An unexpected honking drew their attention upward. Pointing to the sky, the father said, “Look, Canadian Geese. I bet they are going to the pond.” Henry watched the birds until they were out of view.
“Maybe,” said Henry, putting his feet on the ground and stopping the swing. “There were seven of them. Do you think that’s a sign?”
“A sign of what, exactly?”
“The seven churches, the seven angels, the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven deadly sins,” said Henry.
His father kneeled in front of Henry, placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders, looked him in the eyes, and said, “No, Hank. They are just geese. Just birds, not symbols of doom or signs of some unseen hand that’s going to punish you. Just birds!” He pulled his son in, hugging him firmly. Henry did not reciprocate his father’s embrace, instead whispering, “Can we go now?”
“Sure,” said his father, rising to his feet and turning toward the house. Henry touched his father’s hand, pointed with his head, and asked, “Can we go there first?”
They walked, hand in hand, past the big oak, toward the old stone wall at the far end of the estate, stopping just beyond the trimmed azalea bushes. Henry sat down, opposite the polished black stone, and said, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.”
The minutes-long reverent silence was broken by his father asking, “What do you see, Henry?”
“And what else?”
Henry replied by reading from his mother’s monument, “Margaret Elizabeth Manchester. May 19, 1987. November 3, 2018. Loving wife of William. Devoted mother of Henry.”
The boy simply shrugged, and William took a seat on the grass beside his son. “I’ll tell you what I see. I see a little ray of sunshine, over there, breaking through the clouds. I see the greens of daffodils coming up through the ground, just in front of the headstone. Those were Maggie’s favorite flowers, you know. But most importantly, I see you, Hank. I see my son that I love more than anything or anyone else in this world. I see your pain and suffering. My boy, my sweet, sweet boy.”
Henry’s low sobs made William shed tears of his own, and he put his arm around his son. “You are not alone, Hank. I am right here with you. It hurt so much when we lost her. It still hurts. There are times when I can’t believe it’s real. It’s been nearly three years, and it still doesn’t feel real, sometimes.” William wiped tears from his face and cleared his throat. “I can’t lose you too. Please don’t give up. Please don’t stop trying. There’s still you and me and the birds and the flowers and sunshine. Just don’t give up, Hank.” Henry buried his head in William’s chest as a large crow lit on Margaret Manchester’s headstone. “Let’s go back and warm up by the fire. I’ll make us some hot chocolate,” said William.
Henry stood in front of the enormous stone fireplace, carefully prodding the remains of the morning fire. He dinged the fire iron against the blackened eye hooks embedded in the inner walls of the firebox. In another time, they would have anchored expansive rods from which large pots and metal grates hung for cooking. Henry studied the height of the firebox, several inches above his head, and threw the iron poker on the hearth. He dumped the entire bucket of kindling atop the glowing embers and ash and then stacked split wood logs on top, until the flames were too high and too hot for him to add more. He stood on the hearth, hypnotized by the tongues of fire licking and blackening the surrounding stones.
“Henry, what the hell are you doing? Get back,” yelled his father, dropping the tray of mugs filled with steaming hot chocolate. Henry responded by moving closer to the fire, until the front of his sweater burst into flames. William grabbed Henry, throwing him to the floor, and using his own body to smother the flames.
“Damnit, Henry!” Sitting atop his son, William let out a feral, guttural scream.
“God will deliver us from the fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine – “
William slapped his son and then shook him violently. “No! You don’t get to do this! I won’t allow it! You hear me?” William got off of Henry, sat between the boy and the raging fire, pulled his knees into his chest, and furrowed his head into his arms.
Henry lay still, sweating, breathing hard, and listened to his father cry. He raised his head just enough to see his father’s small, tight silhouette against the backdrop of the fire. “Blessed are those who mourn.”
At those words, William turned to his son. “No, mourning is not a blessing. Death is not a blessing. Suffering is not a blessing. You want to know what is a blessing? Life is a blessing!” William stood over Henry. “You want your God to bless you? Do you? Then you damn well better start living, boy.” William stormed from the room, leaving Henry and the mess of broken mugs and spilled chocolate on the den floor.
Henry awoke in his bed, but could not remember how he had gotten there. Slowly his eyes adjusted to his surroundings. The room was still dark as was the sky outside his window. William was asleep in the straight chair which he’d moved from the desk, below the window, and placed in front of the door. Henry took the crochet throw from the foot of his bed and draped it over his father, careful not to wake him.
Henry stood in front of the window, stretching and rubbing his hands over his chest. He smelled of smoke and felt the hard, melted morsels that dotted his sweater, braille memorializing the previous day’s events – the flames, the fear, and the anger. He turned to his still sleeping father and then returned his gaze to the window, eyeing his own reflection. Barely audible, Henry mumbled, “For death has come up into our windows and has entered into our palaces.” He carefully climbed on to his desk, silently opened the double casement windows, and flew into the darkness on brilliant black wings.
A feeling of falling jolted William awake. He was nearly blinded by the bright sky above him and rolled onto his stomach to allow his eyes time to adjust. Caw. Caw. He turned his head to the left and, with a nod, acknowledged the two crows atop the headstones of his wife and of his son. William sat upright and produced a handful of peanuts from his right pocket. “I’m sorry,” he said, holding out his offering. “I must have fallen asleep. I’ve been waiting on you to come back to me.”
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