Standing at the back screen door, the late autumn air carried the scents of dry earth and dying vegetation. Sandra leaned against the door frame and waited. The rows of dead, broken, harvested stalks of corn in the field beyond the back yard, trembled slightly, the sound of their brittle leaves being rustled in the breeze sounding like raspy old men asking for drinks of water. The scarecrows, each given a name of a dead president, nailed to nine-foot upright boards, stood guard over their quickly decaying charges. The tails to Lincoln’s ragged tuxedo jacket flapped in the wind. As hazy sunlight broke through the clouds, a small murder of crows arrived and began to circle above the field. She straightened up and watched them with rapt attention as they descended to the ground amidst the corn stalks. She placed the palms of her hands on the door’s mesh screen and closed her eyes. She imagined that her body had separated into microscopic sized particles and was passing through the screen and then turning into crows and flying off.
The whistle on the tea kettle sitting on the stove shrieked. Sandra opened her eyes and turned about. Her eight year-old son, Daniel – Danny – was standing in the doorway that led into the living room, gazing at her with his usual intensity. “Do you need something?” she said in a tone harsher than she meant it to be. “Is something wrong?’ she said, more softly.
The boy shook his head, turned, and went back into the living room.
Sandra turned off the flame beneath the kettle and then poured the boiling water into a cup in which an already used teabag lay limply at the bottom, the string attached to it drooped over a lip of the cup. She grabbed the string and bobbed the teabag up and down in the water several times, turning the water a pale shade of dark green before returning the kettle to the stove. She was about to smash a cockroach crawling across the stove top when a sound of breaking glass came from the living room. She rushed from the kitchen. A large stone lay on the floor in the middle of the living room beside where Danny was standing. The window was broken.
* * *
The rainfall began as a light patter against the bedroom window. Sandra raised the lid on the cedar chest that sat on a handmade rug at the end of the bed and took out the star-patterned quilt that her mother had given her as a wedding present. She closed the lid and tossed the quilt across the other quilt already on the bed. Felicity mewed softly, jumped down from the chair in front of the vanity dresser where it had been curled up on, sleeping, walked to the bed and jumped up onto the quilt. It walked about, kneading the quilt with its declawed paws, before finding a place to settle down. It quickly fell back asleep. The distant rumble of thunder caused Sandra to turn about and stare into the darkness beyond the window. A flash of lighting above the Badlands formations momentarily brought their irregular pancake-like layers of rock into view, and just as quickly disappeared back into the blackness. The howl of a coyote pierced the night.
Sandra removed her robe, slid under the quilts, pushing Felicity aside, and was just about to turn off the lamp on the bedside stand when Danny came into the room. “Did the thunder and lightning frighten you?” she said to him.
He shook his head and stared at her expectantly as he grabbed the elastic cord on his pajama bottoms and pulled it tight, cinching the waist tight around his abdomen.
“I can’t read your mind, Danny. At some point you are going to have to tell me what it is you want or need,” she said. She patted the bed. “Yes, you can sleep with me.”
Without taking his eyes off of her he got onto the bed and laid down next to Felicity and encircled the old cat with his arms and slowly hugged the cat, bringing it close to him. He closed his eyes. Within minutes his breathing slowed, mimicking the same sleeping sound – a gentle exhalation and inhalation of breathing – that the cat made.
She pulled a quilt over him and turned off the light. She laid back, her eyes on the trails of rain streaking down the window pane seen in the ambient light.
* * *
The school bus pulled away from the curb with Danny watching Sandra from the back seat where he sat with his face pressed against the window. She turned and walked down the long driveway towards the house, mud being added to the clumps on her boots that had already collected there. The grass that lined both sides of the driveway was noticeably bright and green, unlike all the other plants that had begun turning brown and dying off as soon as summer ended. Walking on it seemed like an act of carelessness, akin to walking on a clean carpet. The early morning chill had only just begun to dissipate, the increasing warmth leaving her to wonder if she had made Danny wear too many warm clothes before they left the house. His protests about wearing a sweater and heavy coat played out with the way he looked at her, like he expressed everything – with his eyes.
At the porch she kicked the mud from her boots and then climbed the steps while eyeing the broken window. She had duct taped a piece of cardboard retrieved from a stack of cardboard pieces in the basement over the large hole left by the stone, but only realized as she stepped onto the porch, that the cardboard was part of the box that had contained Hank’s urn. As if punched in the gut, for a moment she felt sick to her stomach and couldn’t breathe. She grasped the post attached to the porch railing and held on tightly, as if keeping from being blown away. It was then as tears began to stream down her cheeks that she saw the crows flying toward the field. They were arriving earlier in the day than usual. She ran down the porch steps and around the house, stopping in the back yard as her mud-caked boots prevented her from taking another step. Taunting a leaning Edward G. Harding, the crows descended to the rows of broken corn stalks that surrounded the base of Harding’s perch. She raised her arms and slowly began flapping them. And then she began to caw like a crow.
The birds weren’t disturbed by this at all. They continued to search the ground for kernels of corn and the insects the dead vegetation attracted.
* * *
Sandra emptied several ice cubes from the ice tray onto a piece of muslin and forcefully shoved the tray back into the freezer. She then slammed the refrigerator door closed. She pulled the cloth around the ice cubes, enclosing them in the pouch, and then tied the end. With the pouch in hand she walked over to Danny who was sitting motionless at the table, and momentarily gazed at the bright purple and red bruise that formed a ring around his right eye, before placing the pouch against his eye. “I know you can’t or won’t say who did this to you, but how can I protect you if you don’t speak up and tell me who keeps doing these things to you?”
He stared at her with the one eye, remaining as still as a statue.
She took his hand and pressed it against the pouch. “Hold it there,” she said. She turned and walked into the living room. She had stopped smoking when she found out she was pregnant with Danny, but the craving for a cigarette was overwhelming and annoying. She needed to do something with her hands, a distraction of some kind. She picked up the stone that had been thrown through the window from where she had left it on the coffee table and passed it back and forth from one hand to the other, feeling its weight, the texture of its surface. She closed her eyes and thought about people who could divine information about objects by just touching them and tried to force from the rock whatever it could tell her, what it could tell anyone. The silence was the same stony silence she received from Danny. She opened her eyes just in time to see a deer cross the driveway, slowing a bit as it stepped through the mud, and then bolt off when it stepped back into the grass. When the phone rang it startled her and she dropped the stone.
“How’s the boy?” her father-in-law said even before she could say hello after putting the receiver to her ear. “He talking yet?”
“Hank’s mother and I think Danny should come live with us for a while.”
“We got a call from Danny’s school counselor who was inquiring about you. We don’t think you’re capable of giving him the care he needs. The boy’s father, our son . . .”
She slammed the phone down and walked into the kitchen. Danny was standing at the back door still holding the ice to his eye as he watched the crows that crowded the field around several of the presidents.
* * *
The colors of the twilight sky were the same as Danny’s bruised eye. With her shawl around her shoulders, Sandra stood in the corn field looking for signs that the crows had been there, but found none. They came and went every day like apparitions that vanished without a trace. She wondered where they came from and where else did they go. Her skirt flapped in the chilly breeze, snapping quietly at times like muted Fourth of July firecrackers. Nearby, George Washington hung precariously on his post, about to fall off, with his three-cornered hat sitting askew on his white hair made from yarn. The clothes for all of the presidents had been found in steamer trunks in the attic. The pants, coats and shirts were stitched together to make up the costumes by Sandra while she was pregnant. A lot of crows had come and gone since then and none of them ever showed the slight bit of awareness that the scarecrows were there other than as things to land on long enough to survey the corn stalks.
She tightened the shawl around her and turned to see Danny standing in the doorway, watching her. He had Felicity in his arms. The cat was struggling to be set free from his hold. As she watched, the boy slowly tightened his grasp on the animal, squeezing the aged cat until it began to meow loudly and hiss.
“Danny! Stop that right now,” she screamed as she ran to the house.
He let the cat drop just as she reached the steps. She opened the door, her hand up, preparing to slap him for scaring Felicity, and then he said, “The crows.” She froze. It was the first words he had spoken in five months.
* * *
“His father used to sit on the back steps of the house and shoot the crows with his rifle,” Sandra said.
Mrs. Huston leaned forward and straightened the brass nameplate that sat on the edge of her desk. It had her name and title, School Counselor. “Those were the only two words he said?”
Sandra sat in a fake leather chair in front of the desk. The shiny brass of the nameplate glinted in front of her. “Yes.”
“Does Daniel have a special affinity for crows?”
“Not that I was ever aware of.” Sandra paused. “Danny. Everyone calls him Danny.”
The counselor smiled as if a gun had been put to her head. “Yes, of course. Danny.”
Sandra opened her purse and took out the stone that had been thrown through her window. She placed it on the desk next to the nameplate. “There are no stones like this one on our farm. Whoever broke our window with it bothered to bring that stone from somewhere else.”
Mrs. Huston looked at the stone and grimaced. “You didn’t need to bring it. I would have taken your word for it.”
“I thought it was important that you see it.”
“The school nurse has reported that Danny has come to school on several occasions with unexplained bruises and small cuts. I needed to look into it, so that’s why I called his grandparents and why I asked you to come in.”
“I told you,” Sandra said. “Someone is out to hurt him.”
Mrs. Huston lifted the stone with one hand, and using her hand, brushed away the dirt left behind. She then placed the stone on a tissue. “Why did you want me to see it.”
“It’s a murder weapon. It could have killed Danny.”
Mrs. Huston glanced at the stone as if expecting to see it move by its own volition. “Your husband died from a tragic accident, didn’t he?”
Sandra’s back stiffened. “All deaths are a tragic accident of one kind or another.”
“Yes, I guess that’s true, but I meant . . .”
“I know what you meant. Danny’s father shot himself. Danny witnessed it.”
Mrs. Huston’s tone became softer, kinder. “I know. And since then he hasn’t spoken, except for. . . “
Sandra interrupted. “Have you ever noticed that when crows, or any flock of birds, are in flight, no matter how many of them there are, or what may disturb them, they never crash into one another?”
* * *
From her bedroom window, Sandra watched a large, dark gray rabbit, hop around Franklin D. Roosevelt. She scanned the field around where the rabbit was foraging, fearing that with the oncoming night a coyote wouldn’t be far off and have a readily available meal if it got wind of the rabbit. A coyote had gotten into the chicken coop killing most of them before running off with one in its mouth as Hank ran out of the house in the middle of the night, shooting at the escaping coyote with his rifle. It put an end to their attempt to raise chickens. She often wished that the crows had carried off the first seeds planted to grow the corn. The crows were easier to kill and he took perverse glee in doing it.
Upon feeling Felicity rubbing its side against her leg, she took the cat in her arms and cradled it against her chest as she swayed gently from side to side. It was Hank’s idea to have Felicity declawed despite her protests and the veterinarian’s reluctance to perform the procedure.
“Cats can be taught not to scratch you,” the vet had said.
Hearing Danny’s bare feet on the floorboards behind her, she turned and waited for several moments before saying anything. His silence made her stomach ache. The two words he had spoken gave her hope that he had regained the desire, or ability, to talk and he would do it again soon. He remained silent, staring at her blankly. “Are you ready for bed?” she said, at last.
She placed Felicity on the floor, knelt down, grasped Danny gently by his upper arms, and stared into his eyes. “Do you want to go live with your grandparents for a while?”
His eyes widened, his cheeks paled. He shook his head.
She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him close. “Caw, caw” she whispered into his ear before picking him up and laying him on the bed. He curled into a fetal position as she stroked his corn silk-like hair.
* * *
It was early Saturday morning when Sandra carried the sewing basket that contained Felicity’s body out to the corn field as Danny followed behind carrying a small shovel. The crows hadn’t arrived yet. The air was almost balmy and filled with the scent of prairie grass. Near President John F. Kennedy, Sandra handed the sewing basket to Danny, took the shovel and dug a hole. She placed the basket in the hole and with tears flowing down her face, filled the hole with dirt. They turned, walked back. and had almost reached the house when the sheriff’s car drove up the driveway and came to a stop at the side of the house. In the back seat sat Jack Harley.
Sandra gripped Danny’s shoulder. “Go inside and call your grandparents. Their number is on the pad by the phone.”
The boy stared at her wide-eyed.
“You don’t need to say anything to them. Just make some kind of sound. They’ll figure it out that it’s you calling.”
He ran into the house as Sandra walked to the car just as the sheriff got out.
“Good morning, Sandra.” He pointed to Jack Harley. “His wife said you’ve been paying him to hurt your boy. Is that true?”
Sandra glanced back at the cornfield where the crows had begun to arrive. “Yes, it’s true.”
Genuinely surprised, the sheriff stammered, “Why would you do such a thing?”
“I hoped to scare my son into talking again,” she said. “His silence is killing me.”
* * *
Inside the house, Danny held the phone to his mouth. “Caw, caw, caw,” he screamed.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 480 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977