I notice the raven on the young boy’s wrist while waiting for my mother to obtain copies of her medical records from the surgeon who pieced her ankle back together last winter. The child twisted about to kneel in his chair to watch the morning snow spritz against the plate glass window, hiking up the sleeve of his sweater in reveal of what I took for a temporary tattoo the size of a fifty-cent piece, the press-on type kids like. He was pale, translucent the word that came to mind, face washed out pink with stark strawberry veins spattering his cheeks. “Sit still or you won’t get a sticker,” his mother says, turning him back around to a proper sit. Our eyes meet as she straightens his disheveled sweater, the raven slipping back beneath the long sleeve. I silently wish them well, willing away fears lying in wait for small children, be it in the form of an underlying illness or a dark nightmare bird perched outside a bedroom window with outstretched wings sooty black against the crisp white curtains of my childhood.
The holidays have come and gone, as has my father, who chose Christmas Day to announce a new life with his mistress. My mother’s response was one of no response, other than to place the house on the market the next day and begin packing forty years of our lives into liquor boxes. I decided to take the second semester off from school to help her, thinking we could pack up the beast together and get my mother moved into her new place by summer.
My decision to stay seemed a good one at the time, but for my mother, stoic in her initial resolve, the separation process is slow going. I serve more as an overseer, my responsibilities in line with those of a hoarding therapist due to my mother’s obsessive examination of items. She prefers no one stand over her during her rustle with the past to place hands on a ceramic angel or a cracked clay flowerpot or any other object deemed dear to determine its merit as salvage; yet, should she happen across something belonging to my father, each and all is straightaway tossed into the trash without a second glance. I learn early on hurrying her through the detachment ritual only stops her cold. I give her the space she needs, using the time to run errands or explore the neighborhood, a quaint quirky artsy community laden with coffee shops and thrift stores my mother frequented until slipping on ice and shattering her ankle in five places. Although her full recovery spread over most of the last year, she healed remarkably well for a woman of late middle age, proving to her medical team she would walk again without any sign of previous injury. She attributed her recovery to sheer will and a recurrent dream of walking barefoot without a hobble through warm beach sand, a prophecy she planned to fulfill by selling the house and moving to Florida.
My mother and I pull the red and green tubs from the attic and to my relief, she waves me off to sort through the ornaments and decorations on her own. Our final Christmas together as a family destroyed the holiday forever, loading us with enough emotional triggers to last a lifetime. My father presented my mother with an elaborately wrapped gift she accepted with the same cordiality offered a cashier upon accepting a receipt, minus the polite thank you. She ripped the tape from the wrap like a Band-Aid, quick and all at once to escape the sting. Removing the lid, she folded back the tissue paper to find the deed to the house, signed over by my father and naming her sole owner. “What is going on?” I asked as she tucked the document inside a velvet holiday stocking beneath the tree. “Your father is leaving,” she answered. He simply nodded and deemed me adult enough to discuss his plan to move in with my mother’s physical therapist before the twinkle lights blinked on that evening.
I watched her watching him and thought how my parents had grown apart the last several years, though the distance between them ebbed following my mother’s accident. Through her recovery, he traveled less for business to ensure her health care needs were properly met, but once back on her feet and able to manage on her own, the two resumed separate paths, she alone and my father, apparently accompanied. I never thought of them as individuals or as a couple, but only as my parents in the singular, their sole function in life to revolve around me, their only child. I push back the unwanted memory as my mother pops off the plastic lid of the first tub, revealing strands and strands of tightly wound outside lighting. I ask if she’s certain, “We could make an easy task by tossing the tubs in the trash without looking inside,” but she shakes her head. “Go grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the day,” she says. I relent far too easily and placate my guilt by promising to bring back a couple thick slices of red velvet cake with rich cream cheese icing in celebration of her new beginning.
I bundle up against the cold, particularly bitter for so early in the season. Not far from the house, a girl about nine with platinum hair gleaming from beneath her wool cap and a woman I presume is her mother walk my direction on the opposite side of the street. As I pass, the girl stops and tugs back at the woman’s hand. Both turn and look my way. I check behind me before realizing I am the subject of interest. The girl lifts her gloved hand and points directly at me. Startled, I rifle through the pockets of my jacket in feigned search for some forgotten item and turn back the way I came. My parting glance locks eyes with those of the young girl. I quickly look away, unnerved by the stark patience of her still raised glove but also, by the image of a single raven in full flight appliqued across her white sweater. My throat scratches cold with jagged breath as I hurry home, not looking back again for fear they might follow.
I run inside and slam the door behind me, jiggling the knob to make certain the door is locked. I force myself to look out the peephole, but see no one. My mother calls for me and meets me halfway up the stairs, a lasso of Christmas lights thrown over her shoulder. “I thought it might be fun,” she says, “if we hang a strand around the cypress in the front yard one last time for old time’s sake.” Later in the evening, I watch the boughs twinkle from the window of my old bedroom, my laptop open to a search on the bird of my nightmares. Unknown to me, the raven trends current as a fashion icon for both children and adults alike, a plausible explanation for my recent random sightings. As for the odd behavior of the girl on the street, I found no theory other than the superstitious believe ravens keep watch over children, particularly the wayward and those in danger.
My mother did not anticipate the fickleness of her ankle with the coming of the cold. The pain synchronized with the dipping winter temperatures, intensifying into a chronic deep ache that unexpectedly acts to motivate her. She spends less time deliberating on what to save and what to trash and more time focused on her move to a place where sunlight caressed forever warm. I feel in her way and although she never admits it, her ready recommendation of something else I should do is her way of telling me so. “When will you ever be back to visit this city once I’ve moved?” she said. On the days she all but pushes me out the door, I spend hours browsing the fine arts museum, enjoying the expanse of the exhibits, often finding myself as the lone person in a gallery, with the occasional sighting of a docent. My solitary sojourns are soon impacted by weather the press deems the Storm of the Century, a winter record-breaker for daily accumulation of snow. The city is taken by budgetary surprise and clears only the main roads, leaving residents to fend for themselves, abandoning vehicles in traverse of the deep snow by ski and snowshoe, sometimes with children shuffling behind in smaller version. The schools close and the museum assumes the atmosphere of a shopping mall, filling daily with chattering students and mulling families successful in negotiating the elements, enticed from their homes by the free admission and free heat.
I escape the crowds gathering at the café on the lower level, taking the stairs to the Mid to Late 20th-Century collection. I start my visits with the Rothko, an abstract oil on loan to the museum through the spring. The gallery is empty with the exception of two girls standing before the work, identical twins I estimate the age of high school seniors. The temperature of the room mimics the hot summer stifle of my mother’s dream beach, the heat set far too high with so many people congregating the building. I peel off my bulky ski jacket, but the twins appear impervious to the smother. Both stand in deep concentration wearing quilted black jackets zipped to the neck with wooly scarves wrapped to the chin. The muted purple black of the painting radiates their sheer crystal-clear complexions. I am drawn to the contrast, pulled by the darkness into the light.
Neither girl acknowledges my presence as I move past to read the posted artist quote. A painting is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience. I step back and find the girls gone. A single paper raven lies on the floor in their place. The image is a die-cut from heavy card stock, distinct to the shaggy throat feathers and long thick beak. “A common raven is just a bird,” my father said the long ago morning of my sighting outside the bedroom window. “A large bird, yes. And clever,” he said, placing a single feather on my nightstand. “Clever enough to leave a calling card.”
I study the bird, my nightmare bird. Every fiber of me wants to turn and run, but I think of my father’s words and flip the image over with the edge of my gallery map. Join us is written across the back in gold marker. I scan the empty room and see a second raven on the floor across the way, identical to the first. A third and a fourth lead out of the gallery and away from the collections into a great hallway. I follow the strange paper trail one bird after another, hoping to find some hint of explanation. The temperature drops so cold I can see my breath and as I pull my jacket back on, it occurs to me I can no longer hear the steady hum of museum visitors. Deep into the belly of the museum, I first see the light, pristine and fluid, all blues and purples punctured by shooting flecks of topaz. The gorgeous shine wraps around me thick and sticky and tunnels me into a luxurious ballroom where the last paper raven rests dead center.
The boy from the medical office sits on a smooth granite bench close to me. Behind him stand the twins. Across the room the young girl from the street offers me a slice of red velvet cake with cream cheese icing while the woman sharing the same identical ice blue eyes, holds her daughter’s wool gloves. My mother stands alongside the pair, dressed in a navy swimsuit cover-up draped in Christmas lights. She walks towards me with the grace of a diva, careful not to tangle her bare feet in the strands. Confused, I back away. She calls out, “I made it to the beach, honey. I am finally home where warm sand soothes my cold bones and my ankle will forever be without pain. The house is packed and I’m free. We are all free. Join us.”
The paper ravens swoop free of the iridescent tunnel, a spectacular unkindness of black, all wings and beaks, swirling together to form a dusky acrobatic cyclone. I rush through the birds in escape. The exquisite light inside the tunnel turns webby with resistance, pushing me back two steps with everyone taken. I drop to my knees and crawl beneath its contractions when the whispers catch me, gliding and feathery with pops of intelligibility–leukemia, car accident, double overdose, murder-suicide, come back to me, my darling daughter. A sharp sting rips through my body and I collapse. The light descends in opportunity and as I give way to its grip, a single raven swoops past and back, hovering over me like a halo. I struggle to my elbows, the pain a knife in my side and the bird shoots ahead. I claw my way through the meshy light, toward the museum, toward the dark Rothko, hurt, exhausted, but never stopping. The light slings me back with one final heave, sighs and releases its grip, disintegrating into wispy tendrils. The paper birds drop from the storm and still.
I pull myself from the floor to find my father wearing his Christmas bathrobe, the raven perched on his wrist. Without a word, I remember. My hands fly to my stomach and I lift my bloodstained shirt. A bullet wound shrinks to a close. He nods and with a jostle of his arm, releases the bird into flight. “Follow,” he says. The raven circles the high ceiling once, twice and soars down the great hallway. A single feather flutters from above in silent call. I chase after the magnificent bird, away from death, ravenous for life, a life where clever ravens guardian college girls from suicidal mothers wielding handguns drawn from holiday stockings in dead aim of cheating husbands.