Fiction by C.W. Blackwell
Adelia hides in the tall barley and watches the old man pace at the edge of the field. He looks lost and unsteady on his feet, sunlight glinting from his thick drugstore eyeglasses. He shouts her name with his hands laced atop his head as if the pose could somehow carry a voice farther that way. After a while, he quiets—but Adelia stays hidden. She sees the way his right shoulder stoops, how the eyes shift and glare.
He’s not himself again.
The crows won’t come until the old man leaves, and only then they come one at a time. She sits in a trampled circle just wide enough for a quilt and a cross-legged girl, a half-dozen crows semicircled around her. It’s early morning and the sun is low in the sky. She removes a towel from atop a wicker basket and breaks pieces from a stale biscuit and places them onto the quilt. The crows tilt their heads and wait. They don’t caw or prattle. They don’t give her away. To each of them she gives a piece, and they peck until every crumb is gone.
“Where’s Charlie?” she asks.
The birds walk their soot-black talons in place and keenly eye each other. One offers a thin croak, feathers ruffled. She hears the next bird coming long before it lands. The wings pump softly like blood in your ears when you’re afraid. The crows shuffle and make room for the newcomer. This one is larger than the others, but not by much. There are scratches in the black lacquer of its beak and one eye has gone completely white. It carries a gold earring fashioned into a rosette with a freshwater pearl at its center. She opens her hand and the crow drops it into the cup of her palm.
“Oh Charlie, it’s beautiful.” She holds it to the sky and lets it dangle from her fingers. Then she stops and studies the bird very intently. “You didn’t take this off a woman’s ear did you?”
The crow makes a sound like branches creaking.
“Found it on the road? Well I’ll be. Never seen anything like it.” She admires the earring a moment longer, then she crumbles another biscuit in her hands and divides it among her audience. “If you find the other one, it’d make a wonderful present for Doreen. Maybe she can use it as a brooch just as it is. Lord knows she needs some joy in her life.”
After the third biscuit, she sets the basket on its side and the birds launch into the sky one by one. She rises and looks for the old man but does not see him anywhere. The farmhouse sits gray and quiet in the shade of a cottonwood tree. All she hears is the wind hissing in the barley and the distant barking of crows.
The dining chairs lie jumbled and busted in the front yard. There’s a cast iron pan upside down on the porch and the screen door sits broken in the jamb. She takes the pan by the handle and peeks through the doorway. All is calm and quiet. She tiptoes through the house and finds Doreen in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette and gazing out the window. Sad blue eyes like ice melting.
“It’s me,” says the girl.
Doreen startles and drops the cigarette. “Oh, Adelia.”
“Where is he?”
The old woman lifts the sink faucet and rinses the cigarette down the drain. “Reckon he wandered down the road again.”
“You been crying.”
The word crying makes the woman sob. “I know it.”
Adelia goes to her and throws her arms around her waist. She can hear Doreen’s heart through her apron and it reminds her of wingbeats. “Did he hurt you?”
“No.” She touches her mouth with her fingertips as if remembering another hurt. “But I thought he would. Never seen him this mad. You did the right thing, girl. Hide and stay hid. No telling with him these days.”
“He was calling for me. Screaming like the end of the world.”
“I heard him.”
“Why didn’t you hide?”
“I did, hon. He finds me every time.”
They salvage two unsteady chairs from the front yard and sit together in silence. Clouds drift in from the west. The day has grown warm, and every so often a breeze sweeps over the property and raises dust devils on the rock road. Toward noon, Doreen fries corn cakes and they eat them fresh and hot from the pan with plenty of butter. The girl moves her chair closer and rests her head on Doreen’s shoulder.
“What are we gonna do?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” says Doreen. “I been praying on it but the Lord ain’t answering.”
“I miss the way it was before,” says Adelia. “How’d he change so fast?”
Doreen brushes the girl’s coal-black hair with her fingers. “It was the booze. Just caught up to him in the end.”
“Never knew him as a drunk.”
“You don’t know the half of it, girl. Drove your daddy away. Your aunt Caroline too. He’d drink everything in the house once he got going then he’d ride into town looking for more. I left him twice. Almost a third time. He quit the booze leastways, but the booze never quit him. I got this idea that for every drink, a tiny drop of liquor stays up there in your brain somewhere. Just simmering like acid. A little tally of every drink you ever had. If you ain’t careful, all them little drops add up and soon your brain soaks in booze like them worms they put in the bottles down in Mexico. It drives you crazy, starts to eat away at you. Makes you forget who you are.”
“Why’s it make him so mean?”
“It’s frustrating to forget is all.”
“Sometimes forgetting is all I hope for,” says the girl.
He returns just before dark with a horned moon rising overhead, stars speckled over the black welts of the Great Smokies. They watch him from the window as he stands over the broken furniture in the yard. His shoulders are square, posture straight. It’s the way he’s supposed to look. Still, his movements are slow and halting. He looks like an inspector who has forgotten what he came to inspect. When he comes through the door, they see that his clothes are torn and his trousers are caked with mud.
“You been walking in the woods again, Albert?” says Doreen.
He looks at his hands in the lamplight. There are bloody scratches up his forearms as if he’s been lost in the berry briars.
“Reckon so,” he says. His voice comes rusty and low as if he hasn’t spoken a word all day. He clears his throat and tries again. “Them woods grow awful dark in the evening. A man’ll get lost if he ain’t careful.”
“Well, you best be careful,” she says.
He looks at her as if for the first time. “Doreen?”
“Go on and fetch my pistol.”
She stands frozen with a hand over her chest. It takes her a moment to respond. “What do you want with a pistol?”
“Never mind what I want with it.” He cleans his eyeglasses with the ragged hem of his untucked gabardine shirt and sets them back on his face. “Just fetch it for me.”
“If you’re talking about the Colt—”
“That’s precisely what I’m talking about.”
Doreen watches him very carefully. Her eyes drift to the girl and return to the old man again. “Albert, hon. You done sold that gun in the city last year.”
“Like hell I did. Fetch it now. I asked you twice.”
Adelia opens the drawer of an oak desk and sorts through it. She turns, holding a small roll of cash. Mostly fives and tens. She hands him the money with the confident attitude of a downtown banker.
“You did well, sir,” she says. “Made more than you bought it for. You took those city folks for suckers.”
He counts the money, glances at the ceiling, and counts it again.
“Ain’t nobody in a city but fools and whores,” he says.
“That’s what you always say, yessir. You drive a hard bargain.”
“Goddamn right I do. I’ll walk to Sevierville tomorrow and buy me a new pistol,” he says, tucking the cash into his breast pocket. “A man’s got to keep one handy in case of a mutiny.”
His gaze drifts inward, yet somehow far away. “I know what y’all got planned. Only a fool loses his ship to mutineers.”
“Tell you what, Albert,” says Doreen. “I’ll draw a bath and fetch a change of clothes. Meantime, Addie and I made a fresh stew today and you sure look like a hungry man. That sound all right?”
The old man raps his knuckles on the dining table and looks about the room.
“Where’s all the goddamn chairs?”
The girl wakes before dawn amid the clatter of wood crates and a barrage of cusswords from down the hall. The door opens and Doreen rushes in with a lamp in one hand and a wicker basket in the other. Blood gathers in the fine white hairs of her brow.
“Open the window,” she says.
The girl blinks in the lamplight.
“I said open it.”
Adelia does as she’s told.
“Now climb on out,” says Doreen.
“It’s cold,” says the girl.
“Go on, now. You heard me.”
Another crash and more cussing.
Adelia works her legs out the open window. She drops to the ground and looks up from the dark. Doreen strips the blankets and bed linens and feeds them through the window and hands the girl the wicker basket.
“Stay gone till it’s quiet,” says Doreen.
“What’s he getting into?”
“He’s looking for that pistol again.”
“Lord knows. Ain’t nothing good could come of it. Now go on.”
The girl wanders through the dark with the blankets draped over her boney shoulders, a basketful of corn cakes in her hand. She hears the sound of glass breaking, something heavy turned-on end. They’re both shouting now. Screaming. A faint gray band appears over the ridgeline as the mountains grind new light into the world. She goes to the edge of the barleyfield and cinches the blankets tight.
When the crows arrive, they find her burrowed in the blankets, crying. They watch curiously and make quiet groaning sounds she hasn’t heard before. She sits up and reaches into the basket where Doreen has placed three corn cakes and two boiled eggs and she sets everything out in the dirt.
“Is he gone?” she asks.
They dip their beaks and pump their wings.
“Take what you want,” she says. “I ain’t hungry.”
One of the birds nuzzles an egg around in the flattened barleystalks. They take turns pecking at the corn cakes with a strange orderliness. Soon the crow with the white eye appears. In its beak is a small round object with ridges.
“A rusty old bottlecap?” she says. “What am I gonna do with that, Charlie?”
The crow drops the object in the dirt and hops back a step, dipping its head.
“Why don’t you find something that’ll help us deal with Albert? If that old man gets any crazier he’s liable to kill Mamaw or me. Can you believe he got his mind set on a pistol? Good lord. Just think of all the biscuits and corn cakes you’d never eat if he shoots us dead.”
The crows finish every crumb and launch into a nearby cottonwood tree. They sound agitated, grousing and hopping from the bottom branches to the top and back down again, sharpening their beaks against the furrowed bark.
Doreen calls from the edge of the field. Her white hair hangs down and her hands are trembling.
“I’m here,” the girl calls back.
The old woman doesn’t hear, and shouts her name again.
“I said I’m here, Mamaw.” She gathers the blankets and wades through the barleystalks, waving her arms as she goes.
Doreen spots the girl and urges her onward.
“I need your help, girl. Come quick.”
The girl scans the farmhouse and brushes the chaff from her tattered blue dress. “Where’s Albert?”
“Went off to Sevierville on foot like he said.”
“To buy another pistol?”
“Just come. Quick, now.”
She leads her past the farmhouse, through a small apple orchard. The fruit hangs heavy on the old gray branches, rashes of orange lichen spreading over the bark. Beyond the orchard, they enter an untilled meadow with a lone oak tree looming in the distance. It stands tall and dark against the sky. The old woman moves quickly through the field grass, and when they reach the oak tree she hunches with her hands on her knees and tries to catch her breath. Adelia stands looking into the sprawling branches. There’s a rope with a thick knot at the end dangling from the upper boughs.
“I need you to climb, dear,” says Doreen, still panting. “I hid Albert’s guns in an apple crate and sent it up in the tree, but it got stuck up there.” She can barely reach the knot-end of the rope, but she stands on her tiptoes and gives it a futile pull to demonstrate.
Adelia touches the tree bark and squints into the canopy. “I can’t even reach the first branch.”
The old woman laces her fingers together and nods to the girl. “Go ahead, now,” she says. “Climb on up. I got you.”
Doreen groans as the girl steps into the foothold of her laced hands. Adelia hugs the lowest branch and dangles for a moment before she kicks herself up and swings her legs over. The bark feels cold and rough on her skin. She climbs to the next branch, then the next. She spots the apple crate wedged into a nook with oak leaves nestled into the wooden slats. She gives it a push, but it doesn’t budge.
“It’s stuck,” she says.
“That’s why you’re up there, girl,” calls Doreen, carefully stepping back a few paces. “Work it out slow, now. Careful.”
She shoulders into the crate until the box tilts an inch. She nudges it again and her foot slips off the branch into thin air. Her hands dart out and claw at the crate. Her fingertips find the pinewood lip and she steadies herself, breathing hard. She hears the sound of wingbeats and she knows the crows have come to watch her. Just the thought of looking up makes her dizzy, so she shuts her eyes tight and listens to the sounds they make as they gather in the high branches. She feels comfort now, strength. With a steady grip on a nearby branch, she shoves the crate with the heel of her palm and sends it crashing to earth.
They sit in the front yard as Doreen cleans and loads two Colt revolvers. There were four bottles of whiskey in the crate as well, but only one pint survived the fall. Doreen takes small sips from the bottle until her hands stop shaking. Every so often she thumbs the revolver’s blued steel cylinder as if the ratcheting sound comforts her. They study the treeline and calculate the time it might take for an old man to wander into town and back again.
“Noon would be the earliest, you reckon?” says the girl.
The old woman nods. “If he don’t stop for a drink or two.”
“If he gets drunk, maybe he’ll forget why he’s there.”
Doreen looks at the girl thoughtfully as if reading something deep within her. She hands her one of the revolvers, but the girl shakes her head.
“I don’t want it,” she says.
“I ain’t asking.”
Adelia slowly takes the gun and holds it like it’s the most delicate thing in the world. “What do you want me to do with it?”
“Hold it up and aim at them yonder mountains.”
“Ain’t that heavy. Both hands, now.”
Adelia levels the Colt at the horizon. “Like this?”
“Now bring the hammer back with your thumb. All the way back. Easy, now.”
The gun clicks and it sounds like grasshopper wings.
“Now if that crazy old man comes home shooting his gun, you hold tight and squeeze that trigger. You got that?”
Tears build in the girl’s eyes.
“I don’t want to shoot him, Mamaw.”
“If you’re good and lucky, I’ll be the one doing all the shooting.”
They watch the treeline until the sky grows dim. Shadows reel over the yard and a slight wind bothers the apple trees. The movement of the branches becomes maddening. The eyes play tricks. Doreen hears a noise and raises her pistol for a minute or two before slowly lowering it to her lap. Together they look like weary sentinels whose war has already been lost.
“It’s been sunup to sundown,” says the old woman.
“Maybe he got himself into trouble.”
“It’s the not knowing that’s eating me up, girl. But I’m learning patience.”
The girl tries to smooth the goosebumps from her arms. “It’s gonna be cold tonight,” she says.
“Yep. Reckon it will.” Doreen stares into the orchard a long while. Night birds call in the dark alleys between the trees. “Why don’t we sit around the stove and wait there. Could you eat?”
“Don’t reckon I could.”
“That makes two of us. Let’s get warm, why don’t we.”
They sit together in the gloomy front room of the farmhouse with orange flames lapping at the stove glass. Outside, a dull moonlight settles over the barleyfield. A whippoorwill croons. Backs to the stove, they watch the front door until they lose track of the hours. They hold hands and lean together with the guns resting in their laps, falling deeper and longer into an uneasy sleep.
Just before dawn, something strikes the window.
Not too hard, but enough to wake both women.
They stir and feel for their guns. The sound comes again, and this time the girl sees a black form appear and recede in the frost-covered window.
Doreen rises and presses her hand to her chest.
“I thought it was Albert,” she said. “Swear I saw him standing there.”
Adelia goes to the window and peers out.
The yard is full of crows.
“Come see, Mamaw. Crows. Must be a hundred of them.”
Another bird harries the window and taps with its beak. It’s the bird with the white eye. Adelia begins to open the window, but Doreen pulls her back.
“That thing wants inside, girl. Don’t you let it.”
“It’s okay. It’s Charlie. He has something for me.”
“Look. In his beak. He always brings me presents. I’ve been feeding him corn cakes and biscuits all summer long. I asked him to bring something to help us with Albert.”
Doreen looks blankly at the girl and gives a slow nod. Adelia works the pane up into the old wooden sill and the bird hops into the window frame. It tilts its good eye at the two women and drops something onto the floor.
“What is it?” says Doreen.
Adelia kneels, cradles the object in her hands. She covers one hand over her mouth and holds the thing up to the window. “Oh, Charlie,” she says.
“Show it to me, child.”
She turns to the old woman, wire frames neatly folded in her palm. “Ain’t these Albert’s spectacles?”
Doreen takes the eyeglasses and looks them over. She doesn’t say a word. She opens the front door and steps carefully into the yard among the gathering flock and looks past the orchard to the meadow and the oak tree. She looks out at the pine forest beyond the property and pictures the narrow path that twists along the creek to Old Mill Road amid acres and acres of berry briars. The packs of coyotes and rutting bucks. The bone-aching cold. She polishes the eyeglasses with the hem of her blouse and looks them over once more.
The girl stands in the doorway, watching. “Yes?”
“You said you been feeding these birds corn cakes?”
“Yes, ma’am. And biscuits.”
“Well go on and fetch the rest from the cupboard. We got plenty of hungry crows to feed.”
“What about Albert?”
She taps the eyeglasses against her thigh and scans the horizon. It takes her a long while to answer, thin metal wires rattling against the lenses. “Don’t reckon he’ll find his way back after all. Just go on and fetch the corn cakes, girl.”
“All of ‘em?”
“Yes, all of ‘em. I want you to fill up, too. You need to build your strength. The barley’s growed high and it’s only us two doing the cutting.”
When the crows are fed, Doreen glances once more at the treeline and tells Adelia to meet her in the barleyfield. The girl wipes her oily hands on her dress and wanders that way and waits. She sees the crows flying east, toward the mountains. She hears them calling to each other as they go. Doreen returns with two sickles and a whetstone and sharpens the tarnished blades until the edges catch the sunlight. Together they cut the barley, lay it in stacks as they press toward the center of the field. The girl worries she’ll need to find another place to hide, but her worries soon turn elsewhere.
“Shouldn’t we go looking for him?” asks the girl.
Doreen doesn’t answer.
After a moment, Adelia touches her on the shoulder.
The old woman looks up, a tear pearling from the tip of her nose. Her eyes are flinty and wet and her hair shines brightly in the stark light. “I reckon sometimes no answer is the best answer of all,” she says. “There’s a certain grace to the silence.” She swings the sickle and clears another swath of barley while the girl looks on. “Just keep cutting, girl. Just keep cutting.”