Peg Dooley said to her father, “You are looking at me with different eyes.” Of course he was. Four days ago Mrs. Dooley left this world. Sixty-two years as a couple, what else was Peg to expect? Embarrassed, she excused herself from the second story deck overlooking the back yard and went inside to the bathroom mirror, the same mirror from twenty years of living there, twenty-two years removed from that. And in it she saw the same eyes as her father’s. And when she rejoined Doc Dooley she saw with her different eyes the end of his life.
“There, walking in the garden,” he said, gesturing down. It was a large black bird, but not a blackbird. A raven? A crow? He could look it up later. “It looks to be contemplating.”
It appeared to Peg to be pacing off the distance between two points, or maybe searching for something to eat, or something to love, or something lost. “Birds don’t think.” She couldn’t stop herself from thinking about it.
“The posture is different.” Different from what? he wondered, but it was. And yes they do think.
“It doesn’t notice us up here.”
“This is how it behaves when it is alone and not feeling threatened.” He felt very threatened now, very alone.
“How it behaves,” Peg replied, “when it is with its mate.” Where is the other bird? she wondered. They mate for life, both ravens and crows, but not ravens with crows. Where is my mate? she asked herself.
It was early morning, when mated birds make assessments. What was lost from the day before? What was saved? What must be found to get through another day? Is my other still alive?
Peg went online. “It is a raven.” With no partner raven to see and to compare sizes, she could not tell its gender. It was a large bird anyway, bigger than the local robins by far. Muscular looking, with a broad and deep chest, a fearsome beak of shiny onyx, a wrestler’s neck. It was covered in inky blue-black feathers and balanced on burly thighs that sloped downward to connections with skinny gunmetal grey shins, short little poles that split open into gnarly, grasping claws that pinched deep into the soft earth as the creature strolled about.
Dooley’s raven wandered among the intermingled wild grasses and rose bushes and circled the Japanese red maple with the delicate maroon leaves that dangled loosely above it all. Doc’s wild grasses and rose bushes and other plantings had thrived under his care for years in his terraced garden. So had the Japanese red maple, a more recent gift that Ginny Dooley gave to her husband for their fiftieth. So had Ginny, whose meanderings in the garden were an elixir.
Doc’s garden chores were his daily ritual, which was now delayed a bit to observe the unexpected visitor, to suss out its motives and perhaps find meaning in its deliberate movements, which were slow and measured, like the beat of his wounded heart.
Other than the garden, beyond which the avian did not initially wander, the Dooley’s back yard was nothing more than the root zone of an immense Canadian maple tree that dominated the space. One could not walk across the yard with eyes closed and not trip over any one of the many giant roots that grew thick as firehoses and bulged upward when outward growth stalled. As a child Peg called them sea serpents and gave them names, and from the deck’s elevation she took a bird’s eye view of her private ocean.
“The serpents are my friends, mommy. They like me. They let me play on them.”
“The whole tree likes you, dear. The serpents are his feet. The branches are his arms and fingers. Hug the tree when his leaves wave in the wind, and dance with him.”
“You are funny, mommy. Dance with the tree?”
“Dance with the one who loves you.”
“Daddy loves me.”
Ginny died suddenly in the kitchen off the deck. Doc found her and called Peg first because he wanted her there with him when the paramedics arrived to see what Doc already knew. This was a family that did everything together.
Peg always wanted to hear how Doc and Ginny knew that they existed for each other forever. What was it, the thing that made them know? Not how or why they decided to get married, for example. That was a different thing, a functional doing something together thing. She knew other things too. She knew that they met as teenagers, at a dance. She knew what they did after that. They dated and double dated, and they kissed some time after the first date but not long after that and never in front of their double dates. They were able to tell Peg all of those things. But they were never able to answer Peg’s forever question, the thing that made them know. They just knew. It wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t put it into words. Nor was it Peg’s fault that her own marriage failed.
Doc Dooley shook his head and said, “I don’t recall seeing the raven here before today. Do you suppose there is a meaning to it being here?” He did not want to overlook a meaning to this day if there was to be one. Not this day in particular. As a scientist he was trained to look for things easily overlooked but he also knew that this kind of meaning was not one of symptoms as to a disease, where the meaning of the hurt had a rational basis that could be treated. Or not be treated at the worst of presentations. The meaning in question was more cosmic to the hurt he felt and down deep in his rational heart he knew that only the poets traded successfully on symbolism. Could the cosmos not have sent such a cliché? Now he felt silly. It is just a bird isn’t it?
“It’s an entertainment,” Peg replied, knowing that it was no cliché but a cruel reminder that at the end of the day we are all alone.
“I suppose. Shall we give it a name? A back story? We have an hour.” His playful suggestion belied the fact that he had no interest in doing so. It was a reflexive comment from the days when Peg was a little girl and when two squirrels chasing around the trunk of the Canadian maple were enough of a reason for them to imagine an entire episode of a Saturday cartoon show. Peg sensed the conflict in her father and suggested that they ready themselves for what was to come.
The hour passed too fast for both of them and what lay ahead was suddenly now. The dreaded word, visitation, loomed like a cudgel over their day. It was worse for Ginny of course, which only steeled Peg’s resolve to get Doc through the required social aspects of the most private of vulnerabilities, the loss of his flanker to the outside world. Doc was quiet and kept to himself in public and even with friends unless Ginny found ways to draw him out, which was always when they were with their friends, and he was always grateful for her intercession.
“You are a fascinating creature, Doc,” Ginny would say to him later on. “I’ve told you a million times I love it when you get going on a story. I love it when you share yourself with people the way you do with us at home, so why is it so difficult?” She was no taskmaster and her gentle chiding was always delivered with good humor.
“Getting started is the problem,” Doc answered.
“You had no problem getting started on our wedding night.”
Their wedding day was his first reminiscence as he and Peg sat in the room alone with Ginny on a day that would be, as Doc suddenly realized, the final gathering of the whole family. Why not conjure the happiest day of his life? “You were conceived that night,” he told his daughter. “We were three from the start.” Peg chuckled and then caught him looking at Ginny with a kiss on his lips, and in that moment she understood that what Doc had revealed to her was not meant to shock his daughter but to thank his wife.
As the guests quietly entered by one’s and two’s and three’s they naturally spaced themselves apart from one another out of respect to Doc and Peg, but at the same time to gain oxygen against the known effect of finding oneself in a room where not everyone was alive. Everyone except for Gwen, who was Ginny’s older sister by two years. She broke out of the waiting line of people, made a beeline to Doc and placed herself in front of him, thereby blocking his view of Ginny. Gwen then leaned over, pulled Doc’s face fully into her bosom and took a nearby seat after a perfunctory wave to Peg, who blew her aunt a kiss and whispered to her father, “Bogey at three o’clock.”
Gwen was an exact duplicate of Ginny minus – minus what? Peg could never put her finger on it without feeling ungracious that she could not imagine being Gwen’s daughter. Peg saw Gwen and Ginny as essentially twins born two years apart, with some indefinable gift going to the younger girl when somewhere in the interim the gods of personality finally declared they had gotten it right.
“It will never happen,” Doc answered. “Not then and not now.”
His comment struck Peg as funny and not inappropriate under the circumstances, which she saw more as a perfect response to a bit of feminine burlesque that would have amused her mother in life and was therefore suitable in her present condition. “Can you believe her nerve?”
“She is wearing your mother’s favorite perfume too,” Doc answered with a laugh, reaching for a tissue and wiping his nose and mouth area, which had received a full dose of it in the embrace. “Can you smell it on me?”
“I smell strategy is what I smell,” Peg answered.
“Your mother is not pleased.”
“Oh I think she is proud of you right now.” And that was enough to get Doc to bury his face in the tissue, at which point Peg put her arms around him and let him sink into the grief of the moment, which happened to be the first outward break of his composure during all four days of pure shock. What had stood for consolation during that time? Ginny was supposed to live forever? Or Doc was expected to be the first to go? Or it was a blessing that she didn’t have to suffer, don’t you agree? And all of the other exclamations of disbelief that came forth in Peg’s memory as she held the quivering old man steady in his sorrow were ushered forever from the reality in the room. It is what it is.
After giving Doc a few moments to recover, and with a subtle signal from Peg that it was okay, little by little the guests stopped by to pay their respects. Over the course of the next hour all conversations to be had were had and all guests departed, leaving Peg, Doc, and Gwen alone with their thoughts. And that was when Gwen spoke up. “I’ll go to the house to help get the food set up.” About twenty close friends were expected, but Peg had already arranged for a caterer. There was still a burial ceremony to follow.
“Come with us,” Doc said.
“It’s okay, dear. I want things to be perfect for you. You two go ahead. I’ll be fine.”
What was her sacrifice? Peg asked herself. Are we supposed to be impressed? “You don’t have to do that, Gwen. We have the food taken care of.”
“I want to be helpful,” Gwen answered, and rushed off.
“Actually,” Doc said to Peg, “that is helpful.” He gave his daughter a big smile, one of relief, and the family of three made their way to the cemetery.
Afterwards, Doc and Peg joined the others at the house, where all guests were inside chatting and eating hors d’oeuvres and drinking white wine. The two maneuvered themselves through the crowd and to the kitchen, where they bumped into Gwen and the caterer. “Would you like a glass of wine?” Gwen asked.
“Yes,” Doc answered for both of them.
“Would you like to handle that, please,” Gwen said to the caterer, interrupting the woman from building a new plate of canapes for the devouring crowd.
The caterer gave Gwen a look of exasperation and then turned to Peg, who said to her, “No worries, I’ll get it. You go ahead with what you were doing.” She turned to Gwen and added, “We’re going out to the deck to get a breath of fresh air.” After filling two wine glasses, Peg handed one to her father and they exited to the deck.
For the first time that day, Peg welcomed the perfection of a cloudless sky. She marveled at how beautiful the yard looked in the soft glow of a late afternoon sun, whose slimmest beams snuck through tiny openings in the leafy canopy of the huge Canadian maple tree and splashed in mottled patterns against its serpentine roots. Well beyond this shady coolness, in the far corner of the yard, unobstructed sunlight brought vibrant life to all plants growing boldly upward and outward in the terraced garden. And that is when she noticed the two ravens walking about, the larger one leading the smaller one, as if it were giving the other an educational tour. “This is remarkable, dad.” She almost called him daddy. “Which is the one we didn’t name?”
“I can’t tell,” Doc answered. It was impossible. One was an exact version of the other. And there was no question in his mind that one of them had never left the garden since that morning. But which one? “They must both be adults. There are no fuzzy feathers.”
“Good point. Male and female then.” She took a long sip of wine. Despite the clanging commotion of nearby kitchen activities coming through an open window, the noticeable sounds of excitable voices emerging from another area of the house, and the noisy footsteps of two people stepping out onto the deck, the ravens went about their business unhampered by human activity. Doc and Peg watched in fascination as the larger raven led the two of them up and down every row in every level of the garden, even pausing to stand at the base of the Japanese red maple and gaze up at its elegant system of branches and wispy maroon leaves that twittered in the soft breeze that typically signaled the looming onset of early dusk in the area.
“He is giving her an update,” Doc said.
“An update on the garden,” Peg replied knowingly. “Since when?”
“Since about six mornings ago, when I mulched.”
“Six mornings ago. Are you sure?” She knew her father was as certain of this as he was of the night when she was conceived.
Before Doc could answer, Gwen opened the kitchen door and stuck out her head. “More wine you two?”
Peg turned to face her. “Not just yet thanks,” she said, and the imperfect version of her mother retreated back into the kitchen.
In the interval, Doc had moved over a few steps. “Peg, look here.” He pointed to the base of the giant Canadian maple, where the smaller raven was now leading the larger bird up one large root and down another, repeating the up-down pattern until it had traversed the entire circumference of the tree. Having completed the circuit, both birds walked side-by-side to a point halfway between the tree and the garden and commenced pecking at the earth. “Dust to dust,” Doc whispered.
Someone had turned on a classic big band tune. It was loud and orchestral and coming from the kitchen. It was probably Gwen who did it, Peg thought. She liked to dance and would sometimes try to tempt Doc into taking a spin with her before he could ask his own wife. “Would you care to dance, daddy?” Peg asked, taking his right hand and placing it on her waist. He smiled the smile of a man who had no choice. Peg would take the second bedroom. She knew where everything was.
As the last guest exited the house and the caterer began her cleanup, Gwen bid Peg and Doc goodbye. Then she drove herself to her sister’s gravesite and sat silently in her car with its engine running. When she felt that the sun had finally finished its descent, Gwen lowered all the car windows, turned on satellite radio, tuned in to a big band station, and cranked up the volume.
Jeff Adams lives in California’s Napa Valley. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in 34 Orchard, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, McNeese Review, Voices 2020 from Cold River Press, Anti-Heroin Chic, Otoliths, and other publications. He is the editor of ARCHYOLOGY (University Press of New England), a book of humorous light verse based on the work of the writer Don Marquis.