Issue #88 Guest Editor Allegra Frazier is a writer, editor, and visual artist living in New York whose work previously appeared in Storychord Issue 19. Her flash fiction work is frequently published at Wild Quarterly, and more of her work can be found within Paragraphiti, Story Magazine, Norman's Journal, Bayou Magazine, and elsewhere. For more, visit allegramfrazier.com.
by Lena Valencia
The crow swooped onto the branch of the Sycamore tree, which quivered under her weight. Two startled chickadees flapped away. It was a smooth landing, considering her size. She dug her talons deeper into the soft bark. She had grown to be enormous, a giant among her murder in the past few months, and had to be careful of where she landed—not all branches could hold her. She blinked a shiny black eye and reached her beak into her wing to peck at an itch. The tree she was resting on stood above the backyard of the Bentons' apartment. Light green sprouts of a small herb garden poked out from a plot of earth in one corner. Vines dotted with pink blossoms concealed a chain link fence. Two women sat in rusty lawn chairs around a rusty table, picking at a bowl of almonds. Maggie Benton, the younger woman, took a sip from a glass of white wine. Her baby sat on a thick blanket on the ground near her feet. Splayed around the baby: a rubber giraffe, a chunky orange cardboard book, a stuffed penguin, hard plastic shapes on a plastic ring. The baby picked up the giraffe and stuck it into her mouth, causing the toy to emit a series of airy squeaks. The crow watched intently.
Issue #88 soundtrack: Mt. Royal "Mockingbird"
Claire Benton, Maggie's mother-in-law, pulled up a third chair, untied her sneakers, and rested her feet on top of it with a sigh. Her grey hair was pulled back into a single braid down her back.
“Talk about shopping 'til you drop!” she said, taking a sip of her iced tea. The last few times she'd visited Bruce and Maggie, she had been eager to leave their sleepy Brooklyn neighborhood for Manhattan sightseeing. The caffeinated jitter of the city was everything Arcata, her foggy little Northern California town, wasn’t. This trip, however, she seemed especially tired.
“I'm just glad it's over,” Maggie said, “the fluorescent lights in that store made me nauseous.” She leaned back in the chair, closed her eyes, and put two fingers on each of her temples.
A light breeze started up and Claire broke into a sneezing attack.
“Allergies?” Maggie said, her eyes still closed.
“It must be the dirty air here. I never get them in California.”
“Let me know if you need anything for them. Bruce has an arsenal of allergy medication.”
That morning, Maggie's husband Bruce had insisted that she spend some time with his mother out of the house. It was a Saturday, and he had to run to the office for some emergency, a regular occurrence on weekends.
“It will be good for you, honey,” he said to Maggie, as he shoved his laptop into an over-stuffed messenger bag. Looking in the mirror, he ran a tiny comb through his brown moustache. Maggie stared at it vindictively. He hadn’t started wearing a moustache until they were married. It made him seem smug and slightly effeminate, Maggie thought, and reminded her of the snobby bookstore clerk at the shop down the street who had made a face when she had timidly asked him to recommend a book that wasn’t too demanding.
“I just don't feel comfortable leaving the baby alone with Perla all morning. Can’t you take her with you?” They spoke in low tones, trying not to attract the attention of Claire, who was in the living room getting dressed.
“The woman has four kids. She knows what she's doing,” he rubbed her shoulder. Maggie shrugged him off. Bruce had forgotten to book a hotel room for his mother, and the small apartment felt even smaller.
“So you're meeting us here at 5:30?”
“Yep,” he said, taking a final glance at his reflection. He kissed her on the cheek. His moustache tickled. “I love you,” he said, before sailing out the door.
The baby let out an ecstatic gurgle at the squeak the rubber giraffe emitted when she squeezed it. Maggie's eyes shot open.
“What a happy little girl!” cooed Claire, sniffling. “She looks just like Bruce when he was a baby. Except for those monkey ears.” She reached down and pinched the baby's ear. The baby gurgled and stared up at her, giraffe head in her mouth, transfixed. Claire switched to a baby voice: “'Don't make fun of my silly ears, Gramma!”
A loud snap startled Maggie as one of the branches from the Sycamore tree fell into the herb garden. The baby started bawling.
“Holy crap!” said Claire, “what on earth...”
Maggie bolted out of her seat but quickly sat back down, her hands digging into the chair’s rusty arms. “I’ve been bugging Bruce about getting that taken care of,” she said.
Claire walked over to pick up the sobbing baby.
“Don't!” snapped Maggie.
“What?” said Claire, bewildered.
“Not allowed 'til she's nine months.”
Claire froze and stared at her, her lips parted.
“It's this thing we're trying. You know that woman who wrote that piece for the New Yorker? The one with the baby mice?”
“No,” she said, sitting down shakily.
“Naturally. Well, apparently, baby mice who receive limited affection from their mothers for the first few weeks of their lives can complete mazes faster and perform simple tasks that mice who received constant affection can't.” She unclasped her hands from the arms of the chair and began tapping on the tabletop with her fingernail and exhaling deeply through her nose. The baby continued to wail.
“What are you doing now?” asked Claire, “some sort of voodoo telepathy?”
“Breathing,” Maggie said between breaths, doing her best to ignore Claire’s jab. “Infants can sense when you’re anxious.” She drew another breath. “They are actually highly intuitive when they’re this young.” She exhaled. “Dr. Archer says that when you ease tension in your own body,” she inhaled, “the baby’s tension eases too.” She let her eyelids slide shut as Claire stared at her, horrified.
Eventually, the cries began to die down.
“See?” Maggie opened her eyes.
“That just doesn't seem right, I mean...”
“Well, it worked.”
“You guys just let her cry? In the middle of the night?”
“We both have noise canceling headphones.”
“That just doesn't seem right.” Claire scratched at her ankle, gazing at her granddaughter.
Maggie snatched up her phone from the table and poked at it. “I knew it. I knew we should have just met Bruce at the restaurant.”
“He should be here by now, shouldn't he?” Asked Claire.
“He was supposed to pick us up an hour ago. No kids are allowed in the restaurant after 6pm, and it's 6:30.”
A horn blared in the distance.
“Well, that's silly. I don't think I've ever heard of anything like that. They love kids in all the restaurants back home. They even have high chairs, crayons, the works. Did you try his cellphone?”
“He just texted to tell me that he's running late.”
“We could always eat here. I'll make something.”
“You don’t need to do that, really. We’ve been eating heavily as it is these past couple of days. Why can't he just show up when he says he will for once?” She took two long sips of wine.
Bruce worked as a senior producer for Vortex, a production company that created commercials for high-profile corporate clients. It was a job that required many late nights and weekends. Maggie knew that when Bruce said that he was working late, he was indeed working late, but she couldn't help but wonder if it was a voluntary decision on his part. Maybe he was avoiding coming home. The thought made her shiver a little.
There had been a time when the two of them both worked late—Maggie surrounded by fabric swatches at her boutique interior decorating firm in DUMBO, ordering dinner in at her desk, flipping through her Pantone chips. There was a different feeling for each color, and she was an expert at building rooms that conveyed these complex formulas of emotion. Had been an expert. But now it was all baby all the time. She was not an Interior Decorator, she was a Mother. One of the ones who had given up.
Claire yawned. “He'll be here. You know how his job gets sometimes.”
It was then that Maggie noticed the gray half-circles under her mother-in-law's eyes. “Oh, Claire, why did you sleep on that leaky old air mattress. I told you we could have taken it and given you the bed.”
“No, the mattress was fine. Someone was blasting rap music on the street all night, it seemed like. I didn't get to sleep until pretty late.”
“Those would be our neighbors,” Maggie rolled her eyes.
“It's terrible. The baby I can sleep through, but that street noise is too much.”
“Tonight I'll give you some earplugs.”
The baby squeaked her toy.
Maggie pursed her lips. “That fucking giraffe,” she muttered, gulping the last of her wine.
Claire let out a little gasp at the profanity and walked back over to the baby. She crouched over the blanket and pulled a beanbag bear from her purse.
“Who wants Mr. Bear?” she said in a sing-songy voice, making the floppy animal dance.
The baby stared at Claire, mesmerized by the toy. Cautiously, Claire placed the bear on the baby's belly with one hand and swiftly grabbed the giraffe from the mat in the other. The trick seemed to have worked, until Claire lost her grip on the giraffe and it dropped, releasing a tell-tale squeak. A pause of realization, and the child broke out in sobs.
“Not again.” said Maggie.
“Maybe it's nap time?” said Claire.
“No, no. Perla gave her one earlier. Let the little beast cry. She'll get over it soon enough.”
The red-faced, wailing infant below caught the crow’s attention. She eyed the bowl of almonds. The branch on the ground. The younger woman, with her glistening black hair, her flashes of white teeth. The older woman, with her braid, hovering over the pink child. Gnats buzzed around the crow. Ants crawled between her talons. She could smell the termites through the bark. The crow began to sing to the baby, in her own crow way. She sang what she'd sung to her own children to calm them.
The baby continued to cry, letting out a series of strangled yelps. Maggie began to deep breathe again.
“How do you do it? How do you not pick her up? I don't get it,” said Claire, wincing.
“Will power.” Each cry seemed to slice through the middle of Maggie's face, bringing back memories of months ago—that dreadful colic—when she had almost grown used to the crying. One night she slept through it entirely. She remembered Bruce standing above her, holding the baby, his face stone, with that stupid moustache, “You didn't wake up,” he said, “so I got her.” Maggie had thought it was a dream upon waking in the morning, until Bruce said, “I really think you should take her into the doctor.” It wasn't until then that she realized the baby was still crying.
She began to deep breathe again.
“Maggie,” said Claire, “please.”
“Oh, pick her up then. Maggie adjusted her ponytail and poured herself another glass of wine. She wasn’t sure if she was lightheaded from the wine or from her deep breathing. She watched as Claire picked up the baby and began patting her on the back and cooing to her. The crying subsided. Maggie noticed the baby was paying no attention to Claire but to something in the tree above them. “There we go...” whispered Claire, and gently set the baby back down on the mat. The baby's gaze remained fixed on the tree.
Dr. Francine Archer’s Hands Off! Practice was the most recent parenting fad she and Bruce had adopted. That was what it was, she was sure, a fad, but what if it wasn’t? Sam and Rosa had used it on their daughter Juniper, who had gotten into one of the neighborhood’s most competitive preschools. Her head spun from all the advice that was out there—centuries of it. Why should something as ancient as motherhood come with so many restrictions? After chatting with some of the moms and dads in the park, though, she realized that here in the city, child-rearing practiced by those in her demographic was akin to raising a prize racehorse. There were rules for getting it right. The neighborhood parents swore by Dr. Archer's practice, so Maggie did too.
“Doesn't it get to be too much, Maggie, looking after her all by yourself, with Bruce gone?” asked Claire.
“You raised Bruce without a father.”
“Well, yes, but it's different where I'm from. There were moms around to watch him while I was at work. He had neighborhood boys and girls to play with. And there was plenty of room for them to run around and be kids. I just don't know how you do it out here—the strollers on the subway steps, the crazy bums, just the stress of the city—it's enough to make anyone lose it.”
“You get used to it.” Maggie was trying to follow the gaze of her daughter. What was in the tree?
“But you shouldn't have to!” Claire sat straight up in her chair, making it squeak as she gesticulated, “redwoods, big backyards with trampolines, fields of yellow grass in the fog, the Pacific Ocean! Maggie, it's paradise out there. And best of all, I would be there to help watch the baby. You could probably even go back to work. I know you miss it—I'm sure folks out there would love an interior decorator from New York to arrange their houses...” she trailed off, perhaps, Maggie thought, realizing the fantastic nature of the proposition.
“Claire, come on. Has anyone in Arcata ever hired an interior decorator?”
Claire frowned. “Well,” she said, “maybe you're right. But have you two talked more about it? About coming West, permanently?”
“Yes, Claire. And we can't. Not with Bruce's job.”
“It's just I'm getting older, you know, and travel will be hard, and soon the baby is going to be an extra ticket.”
“We've been over this before. It's just not going to happen.” Then, noticing Claire's pained expression, she added, “not right away, at least.”
Claire shoved a handful of almonds in her mouth. She began chewing vigorously, gulping her iced tea to help wash them down. The baby was sucking on her teething ring, staring into the tree.
“You can't hoard my grandchild,” she said, between bites, bits of chewed up almond falling from her lips onto her quivering chin.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Maggie plucked her phone from the table and began tapping the screen, “don't be such a drama queen.”
Claire stood up, pushing her chair back with a screech. A crow called.
“Caw. Caw.” said the baby. Claire sat back down.
The crow let out another caw. Both women looked up and saw it perched on the branch of the tree above them.
“I hate crows, don't you?” said Claire.
“I always liked them,” said Maggie, “they seem smarter than the rest of the birds.”
“Just the other day I saw one picking at something,” said Claire, “and when I went to look closer I realized it was a dead pigeon. How gross is that?”
“We all get hungry,” said Maggie.
“Caw,” said the baby, imitating the hoarse rasp of the crow's call.
“You're right, it's a crow,” said Claire, “a very big crow.”
The bird cawed back.
“They're talking to each other,” said Claire. The crow cocked her head, taking stock of the scene below.
“Caw caw caw.” said the baby, again, as the bird swooped down from the branch and onto the fence, giving the women a chance to admire her shiny, intelligent eyes, her sleek black feathers. She cawed again and began hopping back and forth. Soon the chatter between baby and crow grew so loud that the two women sat in awe staring at the baby, then at the bird.
“I've got to get a video,” said Maggie, over the din, “this is just too good.”
“Maybe we should take her inside,” said Claire, “what if the bird...tries something?”
Maggie laughed, fussing with her phone. “Oh, nonsense!”
She stood up and crept backward to get both baby and crow into the frame, gesturing for Claire to be quiet, as the great bird let out a final caw, pushed off of the fence, dove into the yard, talons extended, and in one smooth arc plucked the baby up by its fleece jumper and was back in the air. She paid no attention to the fading screams below as she flew over the blossoming Brooklyn greenery, toward home.
Lena Valencia is the managing editor of A Public Space and co-host of the HiFi Reading series in New York City. She holds an MFA in Fiction from The New School. This is her first published piece of fiction. Follow her on Twitter as @lenavee.
Giulia Palombino is a freelance illustrator and animator based in Berlin. She graduated with a BA in Visual and Performing Arts from IUAV University of Architecture in Venice, Italy, then completed an MA in Communication Design, specialising in illustration, at Central Saint Martins, University of London. Her drawings, animations and collages are generally delicate and full of open space. For more, visit the artist online at giuliapalombino.com.
Mt. Royal (h/t audiofemme.com) is a Baltimore-based band founded November 2012. The band is comprised of Katrina Ford (vocals), Ed Harris (bass), Matt Pierce, (keys), Woody Ranere (guitar) and Mike Lowry (drums). Katrina is best-known as the vocalist of Celebration, leading lights of Baltimore’s music scene. For more, visit Mt. Royal on Facebook, Bandcamp, and Tumblr.