They Who Surround

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    The story my grandfather told of how he and my grandmother would walk further and further into the woods, until she asked to be left there, was really one about crows, he’d say, and I would not understand.

    I was young, then, but I wasn’t sure I would have understood anyway. My father told me that the older generation of Poles put much stock in tales like these, and I should listen politely to my grandfather whenever he told one of them, so I did just that when my grandfather talked about the invisible birds he believed lined the roofs and the eaves of the town where we lived.

    The crows had been in their positions atop the buildings as long as anyone had lived there, he’d say.

    They were probably as large as the houses and buildings upon which they perched, judging by the great gusts of wind that came from the flutterings of their wings, winds that could knock you back.

    My grandfather was sometimes scared of them, and sometimes not, and it was this way my grandmother, too.

    They would walk into the forest, going deeper and deeper, until there was no path at all, but always a crow would follow, or so my grandfather believed. Never less than one. It’s not that the crows were necessarily bad, my grandfather said, but still, one wished for a respite from their presence, from time to time, and the woods offered a degree of that.

    Each journey would carry them further, and many journeys were made over many years. The crows were wearying according to my grandfather, because one always felt their presence. They could curtail your route, at times, limit where you could go, limit your desire to try and go.

    My grandfather became insistent on the power of these creatures, and after enough journeys into the forest, my grandmother, who was older still, told him to return back to the town, to gather provisions, for she wished to stay longer than they had before, and to return to her then.

    When he set back out on the path, he couldn’t find my grandmother, nor, for the first time, could he detect the presence of any bird that had followed him from the town, though he felt certain that they remained back there waiting.

    My grandmother lived to be 100. She did not die in a forest. But each time we visited my grandfather, he would tell his story of the crows, but only to me. My father had likely heard it many times, I thought at first. Until I began to believe that maybe he hadn’t at all, and my grandfather was say­ing this just to me.

    We moved away not long after, and I never saw my grandfather again. I became older, I took what learning I could, and I began to work a trade until I could find the trade I assumed I would do until I did no more.

    This trade did not entail the acquiring of goods, but rather the responsibility of going to institutions and partaking of the wares and services, upon which I would write a report of how my experience had gone and whether was satisfactory.

    Some times it was, other times it was not, and then there were the instances that stood out, either way, as unlike any others. So it was in my trade as in life, until I met someone who also undertook the same work and with whom I knew I would be with until I could be with no one no more.

    We came to live in her house, which was at the edge of a wood. I remarked to her that it reminded me of my boyhood, and she suggested that maybe I should take a walk along the path.

    ‘There is something you might wish to see,’ she said. ‘It has been here almost as long as the house itself’.

    I asked her how I would recognize whatever this was, but she assured me I could not miss it.

    ‘You can both see and hear it,’ she said, and smiled in a way I had never known anyone else to smile. In that manner I had first seen when I knew, in an instant, I’d have no need for any other.

    The day was cool but not cold, and I walked briskly. I noted a blue jay who darted along my side, flying at intervals and alighting on cedar branches at the level of my waist every thirty yards or so, pacing himself so he’d arrive just ahead of me.

    I was fond of jays. I had learned that a blue jay could bury a seed he wished to consume later, and recall where he had done so a month after that. I’d tell my wife that upon my return, I decided, but I did not see what it seemed like she wished me to see. Or hear.

    Instead, after walking for more time than I was certain I was expected to, I came to a mossed over patch of ground, a hollow between clumps of trees and brush and tendrils, and turned to walk back.

    But not first before seeing a crow alight. The blue jay was behind me now, for there were no immediate cedar boughs to advance to, and I looked back to see him eyeing the crow.

    Probably because the latter was bigger, and the jay, for all of his querulousness and confident manner, was cautious, as befitted the intelligence of a creature that could bury a seed in the earth and then find it a month again later.

    The crow walked a few inch in one direction, then the other, and hopped a little, and I turned to return, noting as I did so that the jay had flown off.

    ‘Well, what did you think?’ my wife asked when I came tramping back into the yard, where she had been worrying over a tomato plant. ‘Have you ever seen such a beautiful water garden? My great-grandfather made it for my great grandmother. He designed it over an underground stream, so it will never be dry’. I told her I did not see a water garden, but rather simply a crow. ‘Yes, there is a crow who lives around here. He is very friendly. Sometimes I feed him peanut butter from a spoon. I have seen him in the woods, but not very commonly’.

    I came to know the crow well. For a time, certainly. Or maybe it was many crows, and I could not tell them apart. There were days when I’d sense him around me, watching from some tree in which he was not visible. Other times I’d be pacing in the house, mulling some matter I perceived to be significant at the time, and I’d look out the window to see the crow, on the grass, mere feet away, doing the same.

    ‘They are highly mimetic,’ my wife said, when I told her about this. ‘That means they can make like you do’.

    ‘Like we do,’ I said.

    ‘Yes, like anyone does, I imagine,’ and that concluded the matter.

    I did not see the crow for a long time after I had my loss. It was, I believed, my great loss, the greatest I would have. The smile that had claimed me in instant, was no more. I would walk into the woods, going further and fur­ther down the path, always making sure to avoid the water garden, which I had seen many times with my wife.

    The jay, or a jay, would still appear, and would fly at my side, but for a long time I did not see the crow, nor did I expect to, and sometimes I even forgot there ever had been a crow.

    A fat outdoor cat lived in the yard next door. He was surprisingly agile, and one morning, as I paced inside the room where I had paced so often, and 102

    more often still when my wife became ill, I noticed this cat standing outside my window, moving his gaze from side to side as I changed direction.

    He had several black feathers protruding from his mouth, and what I assumed was a nasty grin on his face. A grin even the jay, for all of his vanity and querulousness, would never employ.

    The cat was lazy enough that it was not hard to get him into a sack, and he made no protests, not a single meowing complaint, as I walked with the sack in hand out past the water garden, where the underground stream likely ended beneath a small kettle pond, whose waters were always frigid, no matter how warm the day was.

    The jay flew at my side, perhaps searching his commendable memory as to whether he had seen anything like this in the past month.

    At the edge of the pond, I cocked back my arm, and threw the sack as far as I could. I expected the jay to squawk, but instead I heard the crow again, from the direction of the mossy gap between the various clumps of forest, and I swum into the pond to retrieve the sack before it sunk.

    The cat still offered no commentary as he found himself safely beached. I felt I had need of the crow, I was glad I’d get to see him again, but when I came to the mossy break in the woods, there was no bird to be seen.

    I married again. I thought it would put some matters that weren’t right back to being right. I married too soon. I learned that the kind of loss one has with death can be easier than other forms of loss. There is no choice in­volved. Or there seldom is. Commentary of a negative sort is not provided upon the union, or either person. It is not that way when a person goes and both live.

    Each morning, alone, I’d head out on the path, looking. And though I walked it more and more, it was becoming overgrown, harder to discern. Sometimes I would prune it with tools from the shed, and that helped, but I noticed that when I walked later at night, at dusk, or even just after the sun had gone down, there would be attendant shapes beside me.

    The jay had retired for the day at that point. But now I saw his form in arrangements of leaves, in vines and tendrils that as darkness took hold would bend into the shapes of what I had known.

    There was my grandfather beside me, there was my wife and her smile, there was another who had gone and lived, cycling shapes of leaves, the cycling darkness, thorn bushes, wisteria, that advanced at my sides with a great fluttering, so that I could feel the wind coming from in front of me, always in front of me, whether I was on my way out, or my way back.

    The shape of the jay was made up of the most knotted, aged vines, vines that looked to be in pain, or had some need to dispense that pain elsewhere, as a form of energy, cutting into some fresh tree.

    But then I knew why, for the shape of the jay was moulting, nightly, as I walked, into a far darker shade, one which I recognized, as I had once in­stantly recognized a smile, as the form of a crow.

    I was certain I’d meet him again and that I had to. I set out at the first light of morning for the mossy break in the woods, determined to sit and wait for the crow’s return. And I sat, until a bird appeared, but it was the jay, who was primping and pacing more than usual, not conflicted with any doubt, I imagined, as to where he might have last buried a seed.

    He would accept food from me by hand, and as he did so I gently closed my fingers around his feathers, took the garden shears from my pocket that I had used for pruning, and cut off his head, dropping both parts of him on the moss. I would not see the crow that day.

    Nor would I see him again, in that way I had seen him before, come to expect to see him, and taken for granted that I’d see him. But I sensed his form on all sides of me, all of his forms, and I realized he was there, he was there in all directions I would turn, and while he was invisible in one regard, he was not in another, and this is what my grandfather meant by the crows dotting the roofs of all the buildings in the place where we had once lived.

    The final time my grandfather told me the story, I asked the question I be­lieve he was always waiting for from me.

    Maybe my father once asked it, too. Maybe not. Maybe I would have a child who would ask me. It was a question, I think, that when asked, also sounds like an answer.

    ‘What are the crows?’ I said to my grandfather.

    He crooked his finger, and tapped his chest twice, and then did the same to mine.

    Nas,’ he said. ‘Nas.’ The crows are us. All of the surrounding, advancing, retreating, viewable, not viewed versions. And the ones that must be noted but which maybe will not be.

    I understood him that day, but I was not ready to. That would come later. The impression, though, has never left me in all of the times since I’ve all but heard, and maybe have heard, the vines cracking, like whips, as they snap into the shapes of birds, flightless, wing-waving birds. There is someone else’s face, there is mine. Another again, mine again. Mine again, mine again, mine again, never the same but for the fluttering.

     


    Colin Fleming’s fiction has appeared in the VQR, Post Road, Black Clock, Boulevard, and Cincinnati Review, with additional work running in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Boston Magazine. He is completing a novel about a reluctant piano prodigy called The Freeze Tag Sessions, a work of nonfiction, Same Band You’ve Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles, a children’s book called Silas Beaverton: The Beaver Who Tried to Dam the Ocean, and Musings with Franklin, a novel told entirely in conversation in a bar at Christmastime between Writer, Bartender, and the guy from the suburbs who dresses up as Ben Franklin.