Issue 2, Spring 2007


The Magic Crow
by Ann Gonzalez


“My hands are like birds.” My mother fluttered her right hand, wove it back and forth in front of her face. It was difficult keeping my eye on Mom while driving. Mostly, I watched the road ahead. Mom’s left hand was motionless. It sat in her lap like a wedged rock.

“Your hands mom? Or your hand?” I have never been good at these kinds of conversations – the ones that I do not understand.

She dropped her flying hand. It joined the other, the one that had remained heavy and still. “I remember when you were young. When you were my beautiful daughter.” Mom stared out the passenger window of the car; the car that I continued to drive toward a remote cabin deep in the Maine woodlands. With every word my mother said the speedometer climbed.

My lover, Rachel, sitting in the back seat with her two young children, Jason and Sarah, leaned forward. She was as close to being in the front seat as she could be. “Jane,” she said, addressing my mother, ”Samantha was telling me and the kids about the Magic Crow. Is it true that a magic crow lives near the camp?” Rachel started to rub my shoulder. I think she was desperate to have me slow down, so I eased off the accelerator, just a bit.

“Yeah, tell us about the Magic Crow!” Jason yelled.

“Well let’s see,” I checked Jason in the rearview mirror. “The Magic Crow lives high and deep in the Maine woods. She’s a mystery, a black ghostlike bird.” Jason sat up a little taller. “No one has ever seen her. Well, except maybe me.” Jason inched forward. “Once, when I was a kid, I saw this huge black phantom pass through the branches of the trees. I knew it was her.” Jason’s mouth opened into a small o.

“How’d you know?” he asked.

“Well, she was so big, and she flew through the trees without making a sound.” I smiled at Jason although he only saw the back of my head. “Plus she left my brother and sister and I candy and toys – not every bird does that.”

“Will she leave us toys?” He leaned forward to listen.

“What do you think Mom, will the Magic Crow leave Jason and Sarah candy and toys?” I wanted my mother to speak up, to tell Jason the story of the Magic Crow the way she told me the legend when I was eight. I loved it when she went on and on about the great wingspan and the profile so black it was almost blue. She refused to tell Jason about the crow; she remained thin-lipped and silent.

“Uh, I’m not sure Jason,” I stumbled back into the conversation. “I think so though. You and Sarah are great; I think the crow will want to leave you something. We just won’t know until we get there.”

I tried to watch Jason, Sarah and Rachel through the rearview mirror, my mother with my peripheral vision, all while focusing my attention on the roadway ahead. I knew exactly how accidents happened.

After a pause my mother startled the quiet. “I think the Magic Crow is dead,” she said. “No, I am sure of it.” She raised her chin, slightly.

“Mom!” I couldn’t believe that I suggested this damn trip. I thought it would be a good idea; that we’d have fun. Again the speedometer moved upward in inch-long jerks and my grip upon the wheel tightened.

Looking in the rearview mirror, I watched Sarah playing a clapping game with her doll. The doll clapped its hands together and over its ears and over its mouth. Sarah didn’t look up at all. Jason was another story.

“What do you mean the Magic Crow is dead?” he asked, ending his question with his top lip turned under and his mouth in a hard, hard line. “That’s the reason I came. You said there was going to be a Magic Crow.”

“Hey Jason.” I reached my arm over the back of the seat, while still looking forward. “My mother didn’t mean it – the Magic Crow isn’t dead.” I felt silly with my hand hanging over the seat. What did I expect? Did I think that eight-year-old Jason, big-boy Jason, would hold my hand or something? With as little fuss as possible I returned my dangling limb to the wheel and returned my concentration to driving.

Jason, Rachel, everyone seemed to settle back in their seats again. Even my mother’s shoulders dropped and she stretched out her legs, a waking kitten. Her peace lasted until her legs started to agitate like an old-fashioned washing machine – up and down, up and down. Some considered these palsy-like symptoms considered a side effect of my mother’s antipsychotic medication. To me they indicated an absence of it.

“Mom, you brought your pills with you, right?” I looked to the right, back to the front, to the right again. I wanted to see her eyes when she answered the question. “Mom, you have your medication, right?”

“I remember when you were young. When you were my beautiful daughter.” My mother’s legs hammered up and down.

I wanted to slam on the brakes. Instead, I took a deep breath. Again, Rachel worked the knots from my shoulder. I slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. We had driven for seven hours, having left Massachusetts early this morning, and we were still forty-five minutes of rough road away from the cabin. It was not as though we could turn around.

“Mom, I’m still your beautiful daughter, although I am definitely not young anymore. And, getting older by the minute.” I turned in my seat so I faced my mother from the hips up. She stared straight forward, then moved her head to the right in a slow-turn as though we were still moving and she is watching something pass by. However, she doesn’t look at me, not once. “Fine.” I said. “Fine.”

There hadn’t been another car on the road for over an hour; still I took care to look in the rearview mirror and look over my left shoulder before I eased back onto the road.

I glanced at my Mother. “I just hope you brought your medication because we won’t be able to get you to a doctor or hospital, not even to a neighbor once we’re at the cabin.” She tilted her head to the left, then to the right with her lower lip stuck out a little. She looked like a twelve-year-old.

I turned the heater on because the temperature, at least my temperature, has dropped by ten or twenty degrees. Not really, but that’s how it felt. The air coming in through the heater vent had that delicious early fall smell – it smelled of fresh apples and smoldering wood. Pressing my hand to the window I realized it was very cold outside. I had forgotten how high into the mountains we had to drive to get to the cabin.

For the last part of the ride everyone was quiet. I frequently checked the rearview mirror, constantly adjusting it as though I was moving back and forth in my seat. Rachel was still there, with her arm around Jason’s shoulder as he leaned into her and put-put-putzed with a small model plane. The plane repeatedly crashed into his leg with a quiet but clear “Bshang. Blam. Kablooey.” complete with spit sputtering from between his teeth. Sarah was asleep, hugging her mom and her doll as close as she could. I looked to the right, my mother’s legs were in their silent march and her hands were both beginning to flap. I hoped we’d arrive shortly. Please God, I hoped we’d arrive shortly.

Finally we saw a small A-frame, tucked as far away from anything as it could possibly be. It had plumbing and a generator so it wasn’t that we would have to rough it – it was just that the nearest neighbor was a half-hour or more down the road and the nearest town much farther. The pines circled the cabin with great majesty. They ruled over the house and the river running in the ravine below.

We arrived. This was my favorite part of the trip when I was a child – the arrival. No matter how tiring the trip had been, my mother always looked vibrant and happy when she pulled into this dirt driveway. I thought we were all happy -- my mother, brother, sister and I -- because we were so excited about the coming of the Magic Crow.

I put the car into park, sat back for a moment and took a few, very deep breaths. My chest hurt from the clear, clean air. “Okay everyone, here we are.” I clapped my hands together and blew on them for warmth. The sun had dropped behind the mountains; the birds sang the end of day. “You’ve all got your woolies right? It is going to get real c-c-c-ooooold tonight.”

There was a rustling in the back seat. Sarah rubbed her eyes. I worried sometimes about how quiet she was. “Hey Sarah, perfect timing,” Wanting to set a good example I opened my door – the chilly pine scent was delicious. “Come on Mom, we’re here.” I reached over and undid her seat belt. It was as though she was sleeping with her eyes open and her legs moving – she just sat and stared. “Mom, c’mon, open the door.”

Rachel unloaded herself and the kids from the back seat. “Is that the cabin?” Jason asked. “It’s so small.” Clearly Jason envisioned something more home-like.

“It looks smaller than it is, Jason. It’s fun because the room upstairs, your room, is huge and open all the way across.” I tapped my jacket pockets looking for the key to the cabin. For a moment my heart stopped beating, I stopped breathing – I couldn’t find the friggin’ key. But then I did. I breathed again, my heart resumed beating. There was no longer any doubt, this was a really bad idea.

I handed Rachel the key; told her that there were flashlights lining the wall on the right as she entered. When the last shard of daylight vanished, we would be immersed in a night that is mud-black and just as thick. I walked around the car and opened the door so my mother could get out. “We’re here Mom. Why are you sitting there? C’mon, let’s go.” I was tempted to pull her out of the car, but remembered patience.

“We are here. Come on. Get out of the car,” my mother deadpanned. I ignored her mimicry. Finally she started to move, to make an effort to get up and out and for that I was grateful. I placed my hands together in a small “Thank you God” prayer. My mother stumbled, so I steadied her by holding her elbow. I haven’t seen my mother for several years since Rachel and I live on the opposite coast; Mom has aged quite a bit.

“Do you remember this place Mom? Remember we would wake up early and go outside to see if the Magic Crow left us treats on her tree?” My mother still had that vacant look. She moved in whichever direction I steered her.

“I remember when you were my beautiful daughter.” Her voice was monochromatic; it flattened everything.

“Rachel, is everything okay?“ I asked, pushing open the cabin door.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Jason and Sarah are upstairs. It sounds like they have gone for a squeal and a run. I started a fire with the paper and kindling that was in the wood box. Now I am looking for candles and,” she stooped to open a bottom drawer in the kitchen, “I just found them.” She stood and pointed the flashlight up from under her chin in a trick-or-treat pose. All I could see was her ear-to-ear smile. Rachel had a way of brightening even the darkest of moments.

The only rooms in the A-frame, with doors, were the bathroom, master bedroom and the upstairs. The kitchen was open to the living room, separated only by a barroom style counter. I moved my mother past Rachel, who was still in the tiny kitchen area, and stood her in front of the couch facing an enormous picture window. The blackness outside and the flickering candles, flashlight and fire inside have turned the window into a huge looking glass. All I could see were my mother, her left foot performing an incessant tap, her head pressed forward and me, standing at her side, holding her up by her elbow.

“Sit down Mom, you must be tired,” I said. She acquiesced to my gentle urging. “Mom, I’m going to the car to get our bags. I think you need to take your pills.” As I headed out to the car Rachel told me she was going to go upstairs and check on the kids.

I stored my mother’s bags in the master bedroom and piled the rest of our gear in the corner of the living room. “Mom, here’s your purse. I want you to get me your pills.” I was reluctant to invade my mother’s privacy. “I’m worried about you. You look a little pale.”

My mother took her purse from my hands. I got up to put more wood on the fire.

“You want me to take my pills? You want to know that I brought my pills? “ My mother’s voice sounded like it was coming from underground. It was incredibly deep and sonorous. I quivered as a chill rose through my chest.

“Yeah Mom, I want you to take your pills.” I took a seat on the couch. I put my hand on her back. “You need to take them. “

“Well then I’ll take them,” Mom banged around in her purse. She jerked out her fist and exposed her palm. “See! I am taking my pills.” Then she tilted her head back and dropped a handful of M&Ms into her mouth.

I grabbed for her wrist. I wasn’t sure that I saw what I saw. Though as my mother slowly began to chew I am pretty certain they were, in fact, M&Ms.

There were several loud thuds overhead. I shrank in my shoulders but relaxed, a little, when I heard a laugh from Sarah. It was a wonderful sound.

“Mom, those weren’t your pills. I’m serious now, give me your bag.” My mother tucked it under her arm and turned away from me like a little kid or like the mentally ill woman that she was. The more I pulled at it the tighter she held it and the farther from me she turned.

“For godssake give me your bag!” I yanked it from her. The room became slightly wobbly as I pushed things from the left to the right in the bottom of her purse and found only piles of Kleenex, some used and some not, a pen, many loose M&Ms, crumbs and hair and crumpled pieces of paper with ‘Hell’ scratched and scrawled across the lines, a man’s wallet and a tampon. This last even though my mother went through menopause ten years ago at least. There was not one pill case, pill, not even an aspirin. I really wanted an aspirin.

My mother was still moving her jaw in big slow circles, she was masticating the M&Ms. She pulled the purse back toward herself; I let it go. “You dare to take your mother’s purse. You dare to go through her things. Shame on you.” My mother, though small was standing up and looking down at me. Flames of shadow and light danced across her face. She was still talking in a bellow. I calculated how long it had been since she last took her medication. It had been much too long.

I rose too. “Okay Mom. How about if you go into the other room and lay down.” I turned her elbow, pointed her toward the bedroom.

“You let go of me! Let go of me right now! “ She threw her purse across the room so it thunked against the window and the tics and plicks of a few M&Ms could be heard bouncing on the floor. “I know you. You are the devil.” She pointed at me and backed away. She headed towards the kitchen.

While keeping my eyes on her I walked to the door at the bottom of the stairway. Opening it I called, “Rachel. Rachel can you come here for a second?” I tried not to sound too agitated. I was determined to conceal my fear.

Rachel appears at the top of the stairs. “What’s up?”

Calmly I said, “I need you to get the kids into the car and head back into town.”

“Are you kidding me?” She asked. I could barely see her. Jason and Sarah were playing with the flashlights so occasionally Rachel’s face popped into view. When she raised her hand to brush back her hair she stuttered like an old cinematic.

I responded with more urgency, but softer tones. “Rachel, I’m serious. You have to get the kids out of here now. And I know it is going to be difficult in these ‘God-knows-where’ sticks, but you have to find a doctor or someone that can prescribe a tranquilizer for my mother.” I leaned into the stairwell so, for a moment, I lost sight of my mother.

“Alright, I’ll go. She’s really that sick?” Rachel had never seen my mother in her raw natural state. Rachel had only known the subdued and medicated version.

“Yes, she’s that sick. And she’s getting sicker.” It took my eyes seconds to readjust when going from the dark stairwell to the comparatively well-lit living room and back again. The moments of blindness were unnerving me. “Hurry, please,” I said to Rachel before returning all of my attention to my mother.

“She’s the devil’s handmaid isn’t she?” my mother said, pointing at the ceiling. “I bet you like that don’t you? When she rubs your crotch,” My mother started sawing her fist back and forth between her legs. “It feels so good.”

“Stop it!” I asserted in a loud and clear voice. “Stop it right now!” I took a couple of steps toward my mother. She backed up into the kitchen counter. Again she turned away from me, furtively peeking over her shoulder every now and again. Rachel, Jason and Sarah descended from above.

‘Hey kids, sorry about this. My mom isn’t feeling so good,” I held my arm in an arc pointing at the door. “And I need you to assist your mom, finding help for her.” I created an invisible fence between my mother and the children. I pulled the car keys from my jacket pocket and handed them to Rachel. “Get anyone. I’ll take anyone or anything that can knock an animal out.”

“Got it.” She said. “Goodnight Jane,” she said to my mother. Rachel shrugged her shoulders at me as if to say, “I see no reason to be impolite.” She mouthed, “I love you” but I had only cold winds swirling inside. Her warmth couldn’t reach me. Finally, I heard the car drive away.

“Okay Mom, it’s just you and me.” I started to rummage through some of the grocery bags I deposited in the corner. “I think we should both eat something.” I found a couple of apples and moved closer so I could hand one to her.

“The Devil’s poison. That’s what this is, the Devil’s poison.” My mother took, then threw the apple at me. It missed me and hit the hearth with another thunk. Thank goodness my mother wasn’t stronger and that her aim wasn’t better. I didn’t remember her liking to throw things this much.

I took a big bite out of my apple. I exaggerated my chewing, mocking the way my mother ate the M&Ms. “Stop it,” I said, this time mostly to myself.

“I knew you were the Devil the moment you were born. God gave you to me so I could free the devil from you.” My mother rose up again. She stood taller; her eyes ripped at me. I didn’t recognize her.

“Mom!” I placed the partially eaten apple on the table. “Mom, I want you to relax. Just relax.” I knew she couldn’t even hear me.

“You are the Devil! Satan has touched you and now I must free you!” My mother’s voice got louder and stronger. I wasn’t sure to whom she was talking. I knew it was coming; yet I was totally unprepared.

I closed my eyes for a moment, a second of respite. When I opened them my mother was in the kitchen. She fumbled around, opened and slammed drawers, knocked things onto the floor. She was barely visible however I saw that she held a knife.

“No!” I was on her. I grabbed her wrist and smacked it into the countertop. She swore in a screech. The knife clattered to the floor. I thought I had shattered the bones her hand. I was not sure what happened next, or how it happened. What I did know was that I had my mother pinned against the hallway wall. I had one of her hands locked behind her and my forearm was pressing against her throat.

“I’m not the Devil and you’ll not hurt me.” I tried to pullback, to release the pressure on her larynx. Instead I seemed to move in closer, pressed harder. “I am the Lord your God and I am here to grant you forgiveness,” I said. My mother was pulling at my hair with her free hand. Gurgling noises bubbled from her nose and mouth. We were eye to eye.

“I remember,” I released my mother. She slid down the wall, coughed and sounded as though she was drowning. “When you were my beautiful mother.”

She was on her hands and knees, catching her breath. I was too. The fire must have burned out because it was suddenly very dark and cold where we were.

I couldn’t tell if hours had passed or minutes when I heard the sound of the car in the driveway. I knew that I’d restocked the woodbox, put ice, from the cooler, on my mother’s wrist and taken a final tour of this wonderful place that I would never visit again. I was able to move my mother out of the hallway, to a corner of the living room. She demanded that she be allowed to remain on the floor. She’d been mostly quiet, with occasional yells of “Hell hath no fire!” and “Violets are violet!” Graciously she hadn’t moved except to pick at her wrist and tap with her legs.

Rachel opened the door. “Hello,” she said in a bare whisper. “Anyone home?”

“Hey Rachel,” I whispered back. “She’s mostly quiet now.” I looked over Rachel’s shoulder, “Where are the kids?”

“I’ll get ‘em,” she said handing me two pills that are the size of almonds. “I’ve got a whole long story about it, but basically you take a quarter of one of these and grind it up in water and it should let your mother sleep.” She turned back to the car. “Not more than a quarter though,” she said as she opened the car door. I prepared the elixir of sleep for my mother. I didn’t even ask what it was that I was giving her; Rachel would tell me later. Thankfully my mother drank without objection.

“Hey Jason, Sarah, it’s so good to see you.” And I could see them. The sun, while not visible, was definitely up because I could, just barely, discern the forms of my beautiful lover and her two wonderful children. They were standing three in a row -- shoulder to shoulder to hip. What a sight for sore eyes. As I realized how many hours had passed since Rachel and the kids left on their impossible mission, for how many hours my mother and I have tracked each other’s movements without speaking a word, I felt exhausted.

“Guess what?” My eyebrows went up in that adults-talking-to-children way that I hate.

“What?” Jason asked. He too looked very tired. His arms hung at his sides. I took a seat on the stoop of the open doorway. It was cold out here. It smelled like crushed leaves with a coating of pine and I was happy.

“I got to talk to the Magic Crow this morning.” I picked up a brown pine needle from the step and twirled it back and forth between my fingers. Someday Jason will understand that this meant I was lying. “Normally she flies in and out and we don’t hear a thing. So this was really strange.” Both Jason and Sarah were rubbing their eyes now; they seemed to be mustering energy. “The Magic Crow yelled ‘Caw! Caw! Caw!’ for several minutes. I didn’t understand.” Rachel pushed Jason and Sarah toward the stoop so they’d sit down. I looked back and checked on my mother. We were all sitting except Rachel.

“What’d she want?” Jason asked.

“Well apparently she’s getting quite old and she just doesn’t think she can be your Magic Crow the way she’d like to.” Both Jason and Sarah’s shoulders dropped, they looked like rag dolls that had come unstuffed.

“I knew I wouldn’t get anything from no stupid crow,” Jason said.

“No, no. Wait a second. First of all she did leave you something. Second of all, she really likes you so she told me she was going to talk to a screech owl she knows in California. Don’t ask me how she talks to the owl in California – she didn’t tell me that.” The pine needle in my fingers was spinning out of control. “The point is – she says this Screech Owl will be…well…your Magic Owl.” With that both Jason and Sarah perked up.

“Where’s what she left us?” Jason asked.

“Yeah, where?” added Sarah.

“Right over here.” With a head tilt I asked Rachel if she’d go check on my mother. She did. Jason and Sarah and I discovered candy bars and toys that were placed on the low branches of a sapling pine.

“This is for me?” Sarah asked with a big gap-toothed grin as she pulled a small rag-doll from the tree.

“Yep, it’s for you.”

“Oh boy,” she said. “I love the Magic Crow.”

“I did too, Sarah. I do too,” I said as Sarah, Jason and I walked towards the cabin, three in a row – shoulder to hip to shoulder.

A crow, watching from high in a pine, filled the ravine with a single “Caw!”