Conjunctions:71 A Cabinet of Curiosity

The Empyrean Light
Something was lying in the street. Ms. Wronski thought she saw it move, but by the time she had juggled her way up the stairs with her keys and the bag with the milk and the crumple of supermarket flyers and her satchel of ungraded homework, she was no longer certain. Curious, she peered down at it through the brittle curtains. Between the steep angle and the dim light of the street lamp, all Ms. Wronski could make out was a featureless black lump of undecided shape or size. As she watched, it moved, slowly up like a hand raised in hesitant recognition, then uncertainly down again. She stepped back from the window with a vague sense of embarrassment, and went to put the kettle on.

     “It’s a bag, one of those green trash bags for the leaves,” she said to the teapot.

     But this explanation didn’t sit well in Ms. Wronski’s stomach; something about the motion she’d seen was too deliberate to be the wind, more like the pouring of the milk than the way it swirled afterward in her cup. An image came to her, so vivid and visceral that she spilled her tea, of an infant escaped from one of the houses that lined the other side of the street, its little hands and knees bruised and filthy from the asphalt.

     She leapt up and out, her stocking feet slipping on the stairs, stopping only to wedge open the building’s outer door with the brass ashtray that stood guard there, as she’d left her keys in her apartment. Even before she reached the curb she could see that the shape was not a child, thank goodness; it was too small, too angular, too sight-confoundingly black. But what it was was not clear until she, walking more slowly now with the pavement under her soles still warm from the faded day, was right upon it.

     It was a crow. It lay on its right side, head facing the far sidewalk and legs straight out as if it had simply toppled over. Seen up close, the black of its feathers shed the twilight in a thin, prismatic wash. No visible damage, no tire tread or cat slash, no mar or twist of disease. Its eye was a hole into the dark.

     As Ms. Wronski stood there, hands on knees, the crow’s left wing slowly rose to point at the sky, and then down. The motion had the steady deliberation of clockwork, or of a bloom unfolding.

     “A nervous reflex,” Ms. Wronski said.

     She was answered by a low, guttural rattle. Standing on the curb was a second crow. It shuffled its feet on the concrete, looked down at the crow in the road, then up at her. It made the rattling sound again, followed by a “tsk tsk tsk.”

     “Oh dear,” Ms. Wronski said.

     She looked around. The street, which was never busy, was deserted. A few windows flickered with TV light. The elms were black against the glass-green sky. The yellowing leaves of the maple that had toppled a few days ago in front of Mr. Gamitter’s house trembled in the breeze.

     “Tsk tsk tsk,” went the crow on the curb.

     “Oh dear,” Ms. Wronski said again. She’d read that crows mated for life. Or was one crow or the other a fledgling, still dependent despite its full midsummer growth? Ms. Wronski flashed on her early vision of a stranded infant, and shuddered, though the breeze was warm.

     The crow in the road’s wing rose and fell.

     There was a twig in the gutter, debris from the toppled maple. Ms. Wronski picked it up and, with an apologetic grimace at the watching crow, poked the fallen one. There was no reaction.

     She looked up at the crow on the curb. “It’s gone, dear,” she said to it. “I’m sorry.” The crow lowered its head with what seemed like patience.

     Ms. Wronski imagined it keeping vigil through the night, through the morning’s cars and bikes and children chasing the rumble of the school bus, through the inevitable crushing and the heat and the flies. She sighed.

     For all its pristine, shimmering feathers, Ms. Wronski could not bring herself to pick up the fallen crow in her bare hands, for fear of disease—do we have West Nile fever here? she wondered—and for the simple strangeness of such intimacy with something wild. Her twig was too thin to lift the body, and the scattered maple leaves too small. “I’ll be just a minute,” Ms. Wronski said, to one or another of the crows. She shuffled across the street and up the walk, stopping in the door to the apartment building to tug loose a bit of leaf that had stuck to the sole of her stockings.

     She didn’t want to part with the rubber gloves she used for cleaning; they’d just reached the perfect softness, and anyway they smelled strongly of bleach, which seemed disrespectful of the crow’s nature. She thought of using the supermarket flyers, but then with sudden inspiration searched the kitchen drawers until she found the oven mitt her fourth graders had given her a few years back. It was shaped like a bear, with a flap for the jaw.

     She brought her shoes, this time, and her keys. The two crows were still there, the one in the road and the other on the curb. Apart from them, and the litter of Mr. Gamitter’s toppled maple, the street was still empty. The crow’s wing rose and fell, as if to welcome her back.

     Ms. Wronski slipped the oven mitt on her hand, and worked the jaw a few times with her thumb.

     “This isn’t a real bear,” she said to the watching crow, and then felt foolish. “Well, I’m sure you know much more about animals than I do.”

     She carefully picked the fallen crow up from the asphalt and set it on the curb by the other.

     “Now then, dear, say your goodbyes.” She stepped back and clasped her hands, startled herself as the bear’s jaws closed over her fingers, surreptitiously wiped those fingers on her skirt as she looked away down the street. Still no sign of car or pedestrian, no attendant birds or cat revisiting the scene of the crime, just the occasional TV flicker and, briefly, a shape that might have been Mr. Gamitter at his window.

     She looked down. The standing crow was looking back up at her. It didn’t seem particularly mournful, Ms. Wronski thought, just patient, or perhaps a better word was expectant.

     “Of course, you crows are familiar with death,” she said. “The circle of life and all. It’s a matter of the proper perspective.”

     The fallen crow’s wing rose and fell, as if in acknowledgment. The watching crow watched Ms. Wronski.

     “Well, then, here we go.” Ms. Wronski picked up the fallen crow and, with a check of the street—still empty—and Mr. Gamitter’s window—likewise empty—she walked, solemnly and with the crow held before her, across the street and up the walk to the door of the apartment building, then left and around the corner to where the bins sat.

     She opened the lid of the trash bin with her free hand. A stench swirled out, so thick it was visible in the light from the street lamp: pizza and Chinese food and coffee grounds and used diapers and stale beer and the unnatural tang of Pine-Sol cleaner. Ms. Wronski winced and turned her head to catch a breath, saw that the other crow had moved to the walkway, still watching.

     Ms. Wronski blew the breath back out, and lowered the lid. She bit her lip, and looked at the other bins. Recycling seemed too far a stretch, circle of life or not, and the rules of what could be recycled were very thorough. But the next bin was labeled “Yard Waste.”

     “You might not be quite what they had in mind,” Ms. Wronski said to the crow in her hand, “but you certainly spend most of your time in the yard, and I am sure you are biodegradable.” She looked over her shoulder, somewhat guiltily. Mr. Gamitter’s house was just across a low fence from the bins. It occurred to her that Mr. Gamitter also spent most of his time in the yard, and was likewise biodegradable. She swallowed the sudden urge to giggle. “We won’t toss him in the bin just yet,” she whispered to the crow. “No matter how distraught he was about the maple tree crushing his roses.”

     The yard-waste bin was larger than the others, a steel box on wheels that was picked up and dumped by a special truck once a week. Ms. Wronski stood on her tiptoes and pushed up the lid. It smelled encouragingly of grass and wood chips. She hooked the arm that held the crow over the edge and levered herself up. Inside, the bin was dark, and as her eyes adjusted she could see that it was entirely empty. She opened the pot holder’s felt-toothed jaw. In the dark of the bin, the crow’s shimmer was lost; it was a black, featureless form, as it had been when she first glimpsed it in the street. It was surprisingly heavy lying in her pot-holdered palm at the end of her extended arm; she always imagined all birds as feather light, but the crow felt like a bag of apples, or a pint of milk. She imagined how it would drop from her hand, not flying but falling, to land with a thud and the low bell thrum of the bin’s steel floor, to lie on that bare steel floor in the dark until the truck came.

     She closed the bear’s jaws again around the crow, slid her feet back down flat, and closed the lid.

     “For goodness’ sake, Eli, get a grip,” she said to herself.

     She walked back around the corner to the front door. The other crow hopped back a few steps and looked up at her. “Tsk tsk tsk,” it said.

     “Indeed. If I’ve taken on the responsibility, I might as well do a proper job,” Ms. Wronski said to it. “I’ll just be a few minutes.”

     She unlocked the building door, a bit awkward with her right hand since the crow was in her left, went up the stairs, and unlocked her own door. She spread the supermarket flyers on the coffee table and set the crow down, set the bear pot holder next to it, fetched her abandoned tea, and sat herself on the love seat.

     The crow looked utterly alien, there among the school papers and knickknacks and stacks of books. The gleam of its feathers; the dark of its eye; the smooth, reversing curve from beak to neck to back; its perfect stillness; all made the apartment look tawdry and transient.

     The crow’s wing rose and fell. If Ms. Wronski hadn’t finished her tea she would have spilled it again. She got up, put the cup into the sink, stood by the fridge with her hands on her hips, and frowned at the crow. It looked no less alien from the vantage of the kitchenette. Then she carried the kitchen stool into the bedroom and stood on it to rummage through the top shelf of her closet until she found the box that held the black patent pumps that she’d just worn the once and had thought to return, but hadn’t. She took out the pumps and set them on the floor with her other shoes. The shoebox no longer had its tissue paper, but the green scarf with the floral pattern that she sometimes used to wrap her hair on blustery spring days was hanging there in the closet.

     As she came back to the front room, Ms. Wronski heard a throaty rattle. She leaned over the crow on the coffee table, but it was still silent. The rattle came again, from the window. She pulled aside the curtains and there, balanced on the narrow ledge outside the window, was the other crow. It peered past her at the table, then tilted its eye toward her.

     Ms. Wronski pondered for a moment, then shrugged. “In for a penny,” she said, and opened the window.

     The crow shuffled forward a bit onto the flat of the window ledge, but did not enter.

     “You’re welcome to come in,” Ms. Wronski said, and then wondered if, vampire-like, it was now free to come and go as it pleased in the future. Though, of course, “the future” might not be long for a crow, as the bird on the table attested.

     The crow on the ledge just blinked, and preened a feather flat.

     “Suit yourself,” Ms. Wronski said. “Though if I had stayed at my window when I first saw your friend in the street, I would never have figured what was going on. As I said, it’s a matter of perspective.”

     The crow in the window tilted its head with a dubious look she would have found a bit cheeky in one her students.

     “Well, then. My name is Ms. Wronksi.” She underscored the “z” in “Ms.” like she did with her students, though they invariably said “Mizzuz,” and that oaf of an assistant principal always insisted on “Miss” with a drawn-out “s” and a disdainful leer. “But then again, he complains about the ‘puh-suede-o intellectuals, so I pay him no mind at all,” she said.

     Back on the love seat, she shook out the scarf, folded it triple—the nylon was quite sheer—and lined the shoebox with it. “It will be just like sleeping in a lovely meadow,” she said to the crow on the table. Then she put the bear back on, and picked up the crow.

     “If you’re not really dead, now would be the time to let me know,” she said. The crow’s wing was still, its legs stiff, its eye focused on nothing but the darkness within.

     Ms. Wronski set the crow in the box, and tucked the ends of the scarf over the crow as tightly as she could, thinking of that wing rising again. Then she fit the box’s lid on, took the bear off, and stood. She turned to the window, but the other crow was gone.

     Mr. Gamitter was at his window as she came out the door to the apartment building, hands on the glass, staring down at his fallen tree, but there was no sign of him when she reached the fence to his yard. The other crow was there, however, perched on the maple’s upturned roots.

     “Tsk tsk tsk,” she said to it. It ruffled up its feathers, and shook them smooth again.

     The maple in Mr. Gamitter’s yard had fallen, for no reason Mr. Gamitter had been able to discern, last Sunday night. And when it fell, crushing Mr. Gamitter’s roses and a section of fence, it had left a circle of upturned dirt where the roots had been. Ms. Wronski set the shoebox in the center of the circle. Then, after another check of Mr. Gamitter’s window, she fetched the shovel he had left leaning against the house, and dug a neat rectangular hole adjacent to the box. She leaned the shovel against the inverted roots of the maple, which waggled their torn ends at her in the breeze like disapproving fingers.

     “Well, it’s not your dirt anymore, is it?” Ms. Wronski said to the roots. “There’s no space in front of my building, and I’m sure Mr. Gamitter would rather not find another hole in his lawn.”

     She knelt, and lowered the box into the hole. Then she stood and brushed the soil from her skirt. The watching crow jumped down by the little grave; Ms. Wronski could not tell if it was looking up at her or down at the shoebox. In the last light of the sky and the dim glow from Mr. Gamitter’s window, the box glared, glossy green-striped white cardboard stamped with the logo of the manufacturer. The light that bounced from it to the surrounding soil was the flat sheen of the TV flicker. Nothing at all about it looked natural.

     The shoebox lid slowly rose, and slid to the side. The ends of the scarf fell open. The black arrow of the buried crow’s wing pointed up at Ms. Wronski.

     The watching crow opened its beak.

     “Oh, hush,” Ms. Wronski said, in her best schoolteacher tone. “You’re very quick with your ‘tsk tsk tsk’ but I just don’t know what you want me to do with your mate, or your child, or your friend, or whatever she is.” Her voice trembled a bit with what might have been frustration.

     The buried crow’s wing fell again. The watching crow closed its beak. The lozenge shape of Mr. Gamitter came and went in his window. Ms. Wronski pondered.

     After a while, during which the buried crow’s wing rose and fell, and rose and fell again, Ms. Wronski dusted off her hands and squatted down next to the watching crow, who blinked but did not move away. “Perhaps,” she said to it, “my mistake is in thinking you want me to do anything at all.”

     The watching crow ruffled its feathers and rattled at that.

“OK, OK. Let’s just start over then.”

     Ms. Wronski lifted the box from the hole and carried it over the crushed fence and down the walk and across the street, to where she had first found the fallen crow. She couldn’t bear to put it back in the road, so she carefully tipped it out onto the curb. She sat next to it, and the watching crow fluttered down on the far side. The leaves of Mr. Gamitter’s maple shifted and shuddered in the breeze. What was left of the evening sky, the scattered street lamps, and TVs, and the glow from Mr. Gamitter’s window had all merged into one light.

     “Well now,” Ms. Wronski said. “I couldn’t see you clearly from my window. At first, I mean, when I got home, because of the angle and the light. Perhaps I still can’t.”

     She leaned down on one elbow to look at the fallen crow, and then leaned even farther, pillowing her cheek against her palm, and waited. The watching crow made a sound that for all the world sounded like a chuckle. The fallen crow’s wing rose up against the sky.

     “Up,” Ms. Wronski said. And then, “Ah.” She sat up again. The wing lowered. Ms. Wronski reached down and gently smoothed it flat with one finger.

     “I’m sorry, dear,” she said. “I teach fourth- and fifth-grade social studies, and then I come home and have my cup of tea and a sandwich, and sometimes I read and sometimes I do the crossword, and then I go to bed. ‘Up’ is something I just don’t know much about.”

     The other crow said, “Tsk tsk tsk,” and chuckled again.

     “And as for you, Ms. Know-It-All Crow, we’ll just see—”

     Ms. Wronski stopped, and was silent for a moment. Then she nodded.

     “In for a pound, Eli,” she said, and got up—slowly, because after all the evening’s activity her knees were sore—and stepped into the road, where the crow had fallen. Then she set herself down, first to one knee, and then to her seat, and then on her side, knees drawn up, just as she’d first found the crow.

     The rush of blood to her head, the feel of the asphalt against her skin, the effort and strangeness of the evening, the simple wrongness of lying in the road—surely there’s a law against it, she thought—left her dizzy. She shut her eyes.

     When Ms. Wronski opened her eyes again, she saw two crows looking down at her. Her first thought was that yet a third crow had arrived. But she had spent too much time looking at these two crows not to recognize them both, even if the one that she had found fallen now stood on its feet, head cocked to the side to look at her.

     The risen crow raised its head and cawed three times—a wild, high sound—and the other joined it in a lower, gritty counterpoint.

     A pause then. Ms. Wronski held her breath.

     The two crows cawed again, and from the distance came an answer, and another, and another, until the evening rang with the sound. Still calling, the two crows leapt into the air. One of them—Ms. Wronski thought it was the one who had stood and watched—looped around to pass just overhead, its wing tip brushing her hair, and then the two flung themselves into the sky. Two more crows flew up from behind Mr. Gamitter’s house, and three from the roof of her apartment building, and then dozens, hundreds, thousands, filling that empyrean light with their shimmering dark.

     Every crow in the city. Ms. Wronski was sure of it. Every crow in the world.

     Ms. Wronski felt as if she were sinking into the asphalt; she thought that even if she had wanted to rise, she would not be able. She lifted her arm instead. Was it to beckon the crows back, or shoo them on their way?

     “A wave farewell,” Ms. Wronski said, and lowered her arm.

     She could turn her head a bit, to look up into the crow-darkened sky. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mr. Gamitter, standing on his lawn, looking not up at the departing crows, but at the fallen maple.

     She was losing the light, and the angle was poor, but Ms. Wronski could just make out Mr. Gamitter setting himself down, a sort of slow toppling, into the circle of dirt where the maple had stood. The leaves of the maple began spiraling loose from the branches. All down the street, the trees strained upward against the pavement; some slipped loose and began to rise.

Gregory Norman Bossert’s short fiction sprawls across genre boundaries; recent works appear everywhere from Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Two, edited by Neil Clarke, and Best Horror of the Year: Volume Nine, edited by Ellen Datlow (both Night Shade Books) to the Saturday Evening Post to Conjunctions:69, Being Bodies. His story “The Telling” won the 2013 World Fantasy Award. He lives across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, where he works for Lucasfilm.