Rappaccini’s Crow

Issue #151

Doctor Rappaccini has a pet crow named Jonah. He says he raised it from a chick, but I have trouble imagining Doctor Rappaccini patiently nursing anything, tucking a blanket around it to keep it warm or feeding it mealworms and apple shards. If he has such a faculty for tenderness, he doesn’t exhibit it towards any of the patients here.

Today he made an appearance to supervise Mr. Abernathy’s removal from his wheelchair.

Someone should have realized Abernathy was never moving from it, but the orderlies probably welcomed not having to lift him back and forth. Bedsores must have formed while he sat there. Over the weeks, they split and healed, split and healed, finally fusing him to the wicker.

The orderlies left him there, looking out over the garden’s distant purple leaves. Never showing any sign of pain, till his flesh grew into the chair. Today at 2:45 PM, he screamed while they cut it away, and Doctor Rappaccini and his crow watched, unspeaking. When they were done, he leaned forward to listen to Mr. Abernathy’s heart with his stethoscope. By then Abernathy had lapsed into silence, but I wondered that Rappaccini could hear the beat of the man’s heart over the painful wheeze of his lungs.

The Doctor wears a pad on his shoulder for the crow to shit on. It misses most of the time, and gray and white clots the black coat’s backside.

It’s hit or miss whether Abernathy will survive. I don’t know that he cares either way.

Before this, all he did was stare out his window, day and night, past purple and green leaves towards the east, towards the mountains the white men call the Cascades.

Over the mountains, they tell me, the sun shines all the time.

Thunder last night. Not natural thunder, but echoes from the unending battle being waged far out among the San Juans. The great phlogiston-fueled battle rafts crash against each other day and night, pushing their claim to territory back and forth. We’re close enough to those battle lines that many people have fled south to Oregon. Others have stuck it out, saying that the lines will shift again, in a different direction.

I have stayed. Where else would I go?

I wheel the Colonel out into the watery sunlight. He can walk, but he prefers the dignity of the chair, in spite of its awkwardness, to having to struggle for every step.

Two days ago, when he surrendered his artificial leg to me after a visit from his niece, the Colonel said, “I knew every man of the three who owned this before me.”

He slapped the cloudy brass surface of the calf. “And some fella will get it after me. Maybe someone I know, maybe someone I don’t. Do you think ghosts linger around the objects they leave behind? If so, I’d be surprised if there weren’t three ghosts riding this one.”

I didn’t answer, and he didn’t expect me to. He knows my vocal cords were seared away in the same war that stole his leg. The same war that’s furnished most of the inhabitants of this asylum. Broken soldiers, minds and bodies ground-up by its terrible machines.

Used to be an injury was enough to get you out. Now if they can, they turn you into a clank, half human, half machine, and send you back to the endless task of pushing the lines back and forth. Nowadays we receive only the men who cannot be repaired, and here they sit or lie in their beds, waiting to die a slower death than the war would have given them, tended by orderlies like me, other broken men and women who can function enough to pretend to work.

People forget. Even though I can’t speak, I can still hear. Or maybe they don’t forget that. Maybe they just figure I’ll never be able to tell anyone.

True enough. I don’t have many who understand hand signs here in the asylum. But I can write out messages, even if it takes me a long time to construct the letters, even if they waver and bobble in a way that got me beaten over and over by the nuns back in school. As though your relationship with God was reflected in the character of your handwriting.

I don’t see Dr. Rappaccini that much. But that crow goes everywhere in the asylum. No one pays it much mind. It flaps along corridors and perches on the back of chairs, goes into patient rooms and pokes through their dressers. Mr. Whitfield told me it took his wife’s wedding ring, which he’d had on the night table in a china saucer so he could look at it when he first woke up.

Maybe the crow took it. Or maybe another orderly slipped it in his pocket, thinking to himself that we’re not paid that much, or at least not enough to be able to resist temptation. I don’t know.

Either way, even if Mr. Whitfield lost it himself, he cried when he told me about it; ineffectual old man sobs. I patted his shoulder, feeling how thin and bony it was under the threadbare garment. Dr. Rappaccini says Mr. Whitfield is one of the lucky ones. His body wasn’t harmed by the war. Instead he has war shock, pieces of his mind blown away instead of his flesh.

Is he truly one of the lucky ones? Sometimes I think that must be; having something broken in your head must be better than having something broken in your body, visible to anyone who looks at you.

Other times I’m not so sure.

I watched the crow this morning, thinking that if it had taken Mr. Whitfield’s ring, it would have put it somewhere. That it would have some treasure trove of what it’d stolen, somewhere in the asylum, and that I’d be able to retrieve the ring from it.

Mr. Whitfield was so upset. His white hair stood up in startled tufts and his eyes oozed tears. It was as though all his soul was in that ring. He told me that it was the only thing that let him remember his wife.

So I watched the crow. It made its rounds like a doctor, room to room, checking on each patient. I hadn’t noticed that before. Who would; who has time to watch a crow, here where we are overworked, where every idle hand is quickly put to labor?

It’s odd how everyone seems to defer to it, almost as though it is Dr. Rappaccini himself. The only person who dares defy it is the cook, when she shoos it away from the beef roast being readied for the dinner.

She never speaks of her past, but it surfaced in her language, the spray of invective, filthy and informative, spat in the crow’s direction.

She flung a saucepan at the crow as well. The crash as it hit the wall cupboard made everyone in the kitchen jump. Everyone looked around, afraid that Doctor Rappaccini might have seen .

He wasn’t there, but the crow was indignant enough for both of them. She was lucky it couldn’t talk, couldn’t tell the doctor what she had done to his beloved pet. It hopped away on the counter, then flapped up to the high shelf held up with iron corbels and perched there, clacking its beak and cawing at her as though about to explode with indignation.

She went over to the window above the sink and opened it, stepped back, and gestured at it. As though it understood her, the crow flapped and flew out, still berating her with squawks and quonks.

By evening though, it seemed to have forgiven her. Or maybe it was taunting her, I don’t know which. Either way, it hopped on her shoulder as she was trying to ladle out dinner to the shuffling rows of patients. She couldn’t push it off, since the doctor was standing there watching.

But it couldn’t resist payback. She showed me later the blood on her arm where its claws had dug in, a cluster of discolored oozing marks. If I could have, I would’ve told her to wash it. I tried to mime that out. Demons live where there is dirt, and who knows what kind of demons a crow harbors? Instead she wrapped it back up, winding the bandage around her arm, hiding the damage.

Last night I dreamed I was the crow.

Crows aren’t male and female the way we are. Or at least it’s a matter of indifference to humans, and something that presumably only matters to other crows. I flew among men and women and all of them looked at me and knew that I wasn’t like them, but that was all right, because I was a crow.

Other parts of being a crow were less appealing. I flapped my wings and made a gravelly sound in my throat as I plucked an eyeball from a corpse. I popped it in my beak like a grape squeezed between thumb and forefinger, full of juice, to the point where it burst, spattering liquid over my wings.

I woke with a coppery taste in my mouth.

Over breakfast, I watched outside where Jonah sat on the fence post, calling to the other crows. None of them came down to sit with him, no matter how much he cooed or wheedled. Several times he flapped up to try and land beside them. Each time they pecked at him until he flew away.

No one else seemed to notice except the Colonel. He caught my eye and said, “Probably doesn’t smell right to them. Doesn’t smell the way a proper crow should.”

So Jonah pays some price for his life here. It must seem worthwhile to him, or he wouldn’t stay.

Perhaps that’s why his temper is so nasty; why he cannot stand to be thwarted.

I wonder what the other crows must think of Jonah. A crow that’s allowed itself to be tamed in order to make its life more comfortable. Do they envy it, or think it’s sold its soul?

If there was someone else like me, what would that reflection say about me?

Would he envy me?

Or think I’ve sold my soul?

Sometimes prejudice works to my advantage. I don’t have to share a room with any of the other orderlies, because they are white and don’t want to sleep with the dirty Indian.

That saves me trouble.  I can unwind the bandages around my breasts and breathe.

I’m still a man. That’s what I feel like.

But sometimes my body doesn’t agree.

It’s always been that way. I knew I was a man, even when everything else was telling me differently. It wasn’t until I ran away from the orphanage, lied and enlisted in a war that was eating up soldiers faster than anyone could produce them, that I could live the way I wanted to.

It wasn’t something I could have accomplished on my own. Here and there people have helped, looked the other way or let me slide by. When I was injured, of course the doctors knew. They could’ve caused a scandal. As it was, all they did was make sure I couldn’t draw on my pay, because I’d accumulated it under false pretenses, or my pension, which fell into the same category.

But there is plenty of work for those no longer fit to be soldiers. My options, the options offered an Indian who could no longer speak, were certainly not those offered someone with paler skin or whose gender was unquestionable, but I did all right.

I could probably find better employment than an asylum for those broken by the war. But here, there are so few questions, so little time for looking at those around us, that it hopefully will always be safe for me, even though all of us are overworked and underpaid. I can find what comfort I can here, in a world where there is so little.

Cook died last night.

Sepsis, Doctor Rappaccini said. From some small injury she must have sustained in the kitchen and carelessly left untreated. He said the word “carelessly” as though her death was just a matter of her being too stupid to take care of herself.

He didn’t say that she was a careful woman who kept things as clean as she could. He didn’t say that she tried her best for the patients, to comfort them not with her body as she once had but by making the food less wretched. She was good at bargaining on the black market, and she never used those skills to enhance her own table, only to get suet or sugar or spices that might make them happy for a moment when they tasted a favorite dish.

The replacement that Dr. Rappaccini finds for her will not make anyone happy but him. He doesn’t own the asylum outright but he might as well, having been appointed by the board of directors after he’d convinced them that he could make it turn a profit. That seems odd, to think that an asylum can be profitable, but at the heart of things it is a business.

And a business that the doctor knows well, in terms of how to cut corners. Before he came, patients wore their artificial limbs every day, a practice that Rappaccini says only leads to wear and breakage. Back then whenever someone died, their artificial limbs were buried with them. Now they’re wiped down with a solution of Condy’s Crystals and put away to be used again and again.

Food arrives from the War Office each week. Never enough. The cook used to send the off-duty orderlies out to forage for greens to supplement what there was. Some grumbled, but it was in our best interest to cooperate.

The first day I foraged, I was so pleased to bring her back several armloads of fiddleheads. I knew they were edible, although I had never seen ones before with such a faint purplish hue to them.

She made a face and picked one up to sniff it. She shook her head, setting it down, and said, “Boy, you took these from the Doctor’s garden?”

I had been here only a few days and didn’t know what she meant. My face showed it.

She said, “Come with me.”

She led me to the garden where I’d found the ferns. Surrounded by cypress, it seemed half-abandoned at first. A fountain, its white marble confines crumbling, burbled and splashed in the center, wild iris flowering around it in shades of blue and purple. But when I looked closer, I realized many of the plants were caged in urns and other containers. The largest stood next to the fountain, a bush covered with purple flowers, brilliant as gems, so lovely they seemed to illuminate the garden when a cloud flickered over the sun.

“You don’t come here, and neither do you bring me any food from it,” the cook directed. She was thin and wiry. Freckles splotched her skin, the color of weak cocoa. “You stay away from it.” She pointed at the flowering plant. “See that? Another month and it’ll fruit. Don’t go eating those or you’ll regret it. This is the doctor’s personal garden.”

I can glimpse that garden now as we line up around the grave, in the cemetery that adjoins our grounds. An unobtrusive white stone, skull-sized, rolls in the grass to mark each dead patient. Name and dates applied with black paint that wears away quickly, leaving a shadow like a day’s worth of stubble on the cold stone.

The priest says, “Let us pray.”

I close my eyes to hear the breathing of the men around me, the shuffle of their feet and crutches, the creak of wheelchairs.

Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis....

I always associate the sound of Latin with furious whispers, with sharp pinches. With eyes like freshly broken blue/black/brown glass beads, pressing down from an adult’s height over my vantage point as a child.  

The nuns were unhappy with their assignment to an institution devoted to making Navajo children assimilate into white culture, and the children were the closest outlet for that frustration.

I was six when they came for me and my two brothers. They split us up and sent us to different schools. That was the rule, break up the families. They didn’t want Indian children banding together, didn’t want them telling each other memories of home, reminding each other of what they had left behind.

We could not call ourselves The People any longer. They wouldn’t let us speak our own language. If we spoke in Navajo, they beat us; forced us to find the English words to say what we wanted. Not that they would have given us anything we wanted.

In the mornings, we ate burned bread and cold oatmeal and listened to Sister Perpetua barking out the day’s reading from the Old Testament. She looked like a china doll from a Christmas tree, but she didn’t talk like one. She never seemed to pick the Bible’s kinder parts, only the pieces calculated to frighten us.  The story of the prophet Elijah telling bears to eat the wicked children who’d mocked his bald head was her favorite.

We heard the Bible at breakfast, and at the noon snack, and at dinner. We swam in stories from the Bible, all of them telling us how wrong we were. They told us we could never be like whites; they told us we had to be like whites. On Sundays, they prayed over us from dawn to dusk. I never understood how they could despise us so yet devote their lives to teaching us.

So few of them seemed happy. So many of them seemed ready to lash out at us, swift as a scorpion, angry in a way that confused and bewildered me.

But for every few dozen scorpions, there was someone whose presence outweighed the rest.  Like Father McNeill.

He was tall, so tall. I’d never seen a man stretch that high before. You would’ve thought it would have made him frightening. But he had a way of leaning down to listen, blue eyes intent, that made him comforting.

He was head of the school when I came there. He stood at the entrance as they marched us in, two dozen Navajo children from Monument Valley and the Bears Ears and Moenkopi. Unhappy and frightened, and not knowing what sort of place we had come to.

His smile made us feel better, at least some of us. Others had learned already that when whites smile, sometimes they don’t mean it.

Father McNeill meant it. He talked to each of us. He told me that Jesus was my friend, a friend I could always rely on. A friend who would comfort me.

I liked that. I liked the idea of a friend in those lonesome times. And some of the pictures of Jesus didn’t make him look like a white man. I couldn’t imagine him a Navajo like me, but I could imagine him a cousin from very far away. I liked the Jesus that Father McNeill talked about, a kind and loving and honorable man. A man someone could try to emulate.

In years that followed, I got a chance to compare stories with other children who’d been shipped off to places that didn’t have anyone like Father McNeill. It was only then that I realized how lucky we’d been.

He kept things sane for us. It could have been much, much worse.

Much, much worse came later, after he died, and the school became like all the rest.

When I was sixteen and they finally let me leave, I tried to go home. I went back to Bears Ears, three days of hitching and walking. When I got there, my family was gone. No one remembered them. One fellow thought they’d moved over to Calamity Springs, so I went there too, but the trail was even colder there.

I had no money, no family, no home. So I signed up to serve in the War.

Once you’ve noticed something, you notice it always. I watched Jonah the Crow. I couldn’t help but notice him now.

At least I thought the crow was a him. Something about the way it cocked its head whenever Rappaccini spoke to it made me think that the two of them must share a gender.

The bird made his rounds every day like clockwork, checking to see what was happening, as though worried that he would come across a situation Rappaccini would not approve of. I could imagine the bird reporting to him, squawking out stories of inefficiencies and broken rules; informing on us all.

People ignored the crow, the same way that they ignored me. If you can’t talk, you become just part of the background.

It’s more comfortable being part of the background, being unnoticed and unquestioned. Neither the crow nor I were the first to discover that. But it’s something that had served me well, during my time in the war.

We are not supposed to talk to the Colonel about the war. Dr. Rappacini is convinced too much emotion will cause apoplexy, that his heart will collapse under the strain. He doses the Colonel with opium, which gives him strange dreams.

Yesterday the Colonel told me his leg talks to him when he’s asleep. He said, eyeing me, “Is that the strangest thing you’ve ever heard?”

I shrugged and shook my head.

“There’s plenty of odd things in war, my boy,” he said. He saw me raise an eyebrow at him and shrugged himself, although he flushed. “Yes, I know you’re not my boy. You’re just an Indian. But you’re a man, like I am. You had a father. I had a son.”

I didn’t say anything, of course. More importantly I didn’t gesture to contradict him.

He continued, hurriedly, as though to not give me time to reply, “Anyhow, the war is about phlogiston. You know what that is, how it powers the great engines that drive the city’s heart. Not as much now, since almost all of that is devoted to the war effort.” He spoke with conviction now, animated by his own words. “That’s the contradiction at the heart of the war, see! Fighting over a precious resource, and using all of that resource in the fight. They keep saying that once the war is over, humanity will advance, once it’s got all that phlogiston to devote to its own noble needs.  But that will never happen. They’re too evenly matched. And too many people are making money from supplying the machines to fight the wars. It won’t stop.” He paused and lowered his voice, forcing himself calm. “It won’t stop till all of us are dead.”

If I’d been able to speak, I would have. But all I could do was pat his shoulder and hope he understood.

It’s quiet here when no one is screaming. That’s the biggest difference between here and the war: the noise.

There, it’s everywhere—the cannons’ boom, the machines’ roar, the furnaces’ blast, rockets shrieking, voices screaming. When I think of the war, that’s what echoes through my head, pushing out the smell of iron and electricity and blood and salt water.

I lied about so many things when I enlisted. They didn’t question any of it. They knew that most of the boys signing their names to enlistment papers were too young for it to be legal. But a war requires bodies, and it is not choosy about what kind they are.

I was assigned as a driver to a captain. Even now, when times are so desperate that they are taking thirteen year-olds, they don’t allow the People to be soldiers. We were support staff only. I couldn’t fight, but I could fly the little ornithopter that took him from ship to raft, from one battle to another.

The first time I saw the captain, I thought he was ugly. His face looked as though someone had thrown it together from lumps of clay. But his eyes were dark and long-lashed, like a woman’s, almost too pretty. He was tall but stooped, as though to hide just how tall he was. His hair was so black it had a blue sheen underneath, like sunlight on a crow’s wing.

He didn’t like me anymore than I liked him. He didn’t think he needed a driver; saw it as a way for the high command to restrict what he did. But after a while, he came to realize that I was useful and discreet.

He didn’t start talking to me, really, until after a trip in which the side got blown off the ornithopter. I’d kept flying, pulling forward as shells clattered and boomed beside us.

It was early morning and the sun was rising, revealing us. I knew I had to get us to safety, and I steered up, trying to gain the shelter of the clouds even as a shell exploded a few feet to my left, throwing smoke and fragments across the windshield, darkening the interior before the slipstream swept it away, a metal shard rasping across the glass.

The captain knew better than try to direct me, for which I was grateful. So many people think the best response to a crisis is to inject themselves into it. Instead he kept quiet and let me fly. Some corner of my mind, not occupied like the rest of it with the simple matter of survival, was warmed by that trust.

I earned it. We were shaken but unscathed by the time we landed. The only mark of the journey was the arc the shard had cut into the windshield, a curve that glinted in the full morning sunlight.

I was so glad to be alive.

The captain said, clapping me on the shoulder, “That was fine flying.” He mistook my flinch at his touch and apologized.

I just nodded. Let him think that I didn’t like other people touching me. That was easier than the truth.

I don’t know when I realized he wasn’t ugly anymore. It would’ve been some time after it was already too late. I had already fallen into love.

I didn’t do anything with it. I’d never felt like that before. So I kept it like a hand-warmer in my pocket. Every once in a while I stole a glance at him and put the picture away in my mind, and used it to warm my heart, in the nights when I could hear the shells and everything was cold and lonely and too, too close to death.

I thought so many times about revealing myself to him. Telling him who I was.

But what did I expect would happen? Every time I played it out in my head, it never went the way I would’ve wanted it to. That dream required too much taking-in at the seams. It didn’t fit what would happen. It was impossible to make it fit what would happen.

What does it say, when your deepest yearnings are so unrealistic you can’t make them work even in your imagination? Does that say something about imagination’s limitations, or, as it seems more likely to me, does it say something about that dream?

It’s not that he didn’t like women. He did, I knew that for sure. But I didn’t want to come to him as a woman. That’s not how I wanted him to love me. I wanted him to love me in the way that two men love each other.

Was that unreasonable?

It didn’t seem that way at the time.

The crow can tell one person from another. He knows who will flap at him and who will not notice his presence. And it uses that information.

I saw it hop onto Mr. Paper’s shoulder. It had realized that he would just keep staring forward at the horizon, as he has done for three years now. The crow leaned over and grabbed a tuft of white hair in its beak and pulled, savage and fast.

Mr. Paper still didn’t react, but I did. I ran forward and flapped my hands at the crow until it flew away, the hair still dangling from its beak and blood dripping down to Mr. Paper’s back.

That was when I decided to kill it.

I couldn’t do it openly. Dr. Rappaccini would have wreaked revenge on anyone who killed his pet. I had to think the murder through as carefully as though I were plotting to kill a human. Had to do it surreptitiously, in a way that couldn’t be traced.

I thought about violent ways to do it. Catch it in a window and smash it, or find some cat or dog to kill it. But that seemed unworkable.

Here in the hospital it’s easy enough to find poison, if you need it.

I took the potassium permanganate crystals from the Condy’s Crystals jar, purple as sunset hills. If I could get the crow to ingest them, it would surely die.

I spent today watching to see what it ate, what delicacies tempted him.

Cheese. He liked cheese. So I took a lump of greasy orange cheddar from the icebox where it was stored for the doctor’s snack and put the crystals inside. I rolled it into a lump, warming it against my flesh so it would be malleable, a yellow sticky lump with death at its center. I set it out in a room where I knew the crow would come, on a china plate on Mr. Paper’s bedside table, because I knew he wouldn’t take it before the crow.

It was a terrible mistake.

I underestimated the crow, silly though that sounds.

At first I thought my plan would work. But when has anything in life ever gone the way I thought it would? The crow hopped forward on the table, head tilted to see the cheese, turning its beak to see around it and to look with first one eye and then the other, as though weighing it.

I held my breath.

It looked at me.

It saw me. It looked at me watching it, and it realized what was going on, stabbed its beak into the cheese, not to pick it up but to reveal what lay at the core. And then, watching me all the while, it ate every bit of cheese from around the crystals but left them lying there.

It stared at me. I stared back. It was seeing me, not just an anonymous human. Me and me alone.

Who would have known that a bird could become your enemy? It seems comical. But those blank, black eyes, glittering at me, were anything but funny. It turned its head again, examining me first with one eye then the other.

I knew it would remember me. I knew it knew what I had meant to do.

But what could it do, really? It was just a bird. Not capable of speech.  Or at least of communicating what it knew to anyone.

Still, it scared me.

When I was twelve, Sister Madonna came to the school. She came all the way from Italy, across the ocean, very far away. She was dark-skinned like an Indian, although her face was the wrong shape. But she looked, if you squinted, a lot like the women at home.

She was kind, too. Like Father McNeill, she was someone who managed to make all the others seem as though they didn’t matter so much. When she patted you on the shoulder, you could feel the touch much later like a ghost; could lie in bed and summon up the way that the pressure had felt, reassuring. Full of love.

I had learned by then to hide myself away.  My soul was like a turtle that had stuck its head out too many times, until all it wanted to do was stay inside the shell. But even turtles like the sunshine, like to crawl up on logs and feel the fierce heat beat down upon the plates of their hard shell. Sister Madonna was like that sun, that kind and welcoming heat.

That was why I confided in her.

I might not have been able to write much, might have had to struggle with that to the point where the nuns shrilled at me for the way my letters straggled, but it didn’t mean that I was stupid.  

I was clever in other ways. I could add up numbers at a glance or sort formulas fuzzed with x’s and y’s and z’s into coherency as easily as combing out a greasy hank of wool. I was quick at counting, good at estimating. That’s why I was tapped to help her when she took inventory in the storeroom, counting the papers and pencils and notebooks and all the other school supplies that they sent from the East in order to make us civilized.

It was a spring day. She asked me several times if I would rather be outside, but I was content to sit there listening to her chatter in her thick accented voice. She had a habit of humming to herself, and you’d hear scraps of hymns and sometimes whatever had been sung in chapel that Sunday.

I didn’t bring it up. She asked me first. She said, tilting her head to one side to examine me, “What’s troubling you, Vivian?”

When I came to the school, I tried to keep my old name, but this was the one they gave me, Vivian. By then it felt as natural to me as the other one. Which is to say, it was a woman’s name and therefore not something that I wanted. But then I learned that it could be a man’s name too.

I said to her, “Did you ever hear of women changing into men?”

She said, “Why would they ever want to do that?” And she laughed, but not in an unkind way.

I said to her, “I don’t want to be a girl, Sister Madonna. If I pray to God hard enough, will he make me a boy?”

She took a breath and put the box down that she’d been counting through. She looked at me directly. She said, “God has decided what you are.”

I said, “Then didn’t God make it so that I would want to be a boy?”

She said, “Maybe it’s a test from God.  Is that what it feels like, a test?”

I shook my head.

She didn’t say anything.

I said, “I don’t feel like this body is mine.”

I was afraid she would turn away, that she would tell me I was a bad thing, that all of these thoughts had been sent from the devil who, apparently, was the origin of many bad things, including the Navajo language and all the old ways.

But she didn’t.

Instead she said, “Sometimes people are not suited to what the world wants of us. To know yourself in the right place is a comfort, and there is so little comfort in the world. Traditionally that’s why many men and women have entered the church.  Do you think that’s where your calling is?”

I shook my head immediately. I didn’t mean her any disrespect, but I had been there long enough to know that the church and I were not suited to each other.

“Well,” she said, “sometimes what the world wants of us and what God wants of us are not the same. If you ask Jesus, he will tell you what to do. You can always turn to him. You know that, don’t you?”

I did. Most of us resisted what we were told, but I had picked out bits to keep. Jesus was love, Father McNeil and Sister Madonna insisted. I liked that. I liked the idea of someone made from love, incapable of feeling hate.

Sister Madonna was the one who taught me how to bind my breasts when they emerged, so I could pass for a man when I wanted. She taught me that men and women move differently, not because their bodies are so different but because the world looks at them in such a different way.

The first day I walked out in boy’s clothes, I couldn’t believe that anybody didn’t see I was a girl; that God didn’t look down and make me burst into flame. But it felt so natural, like I had put on shoes that had been made just for me.

At least a few of the military recruiters knew I wasn’t a boy. But I wasn’t the only woman enlisting. They would have looked the other way even if we had been some new species. That’s how desperate they were for bodies to wage their war. It didn’t matter whether those bodies had a particular set of organs or not. They died the same either way.

The crow kept watching me. Wherever I went, I could look up and see its eyes upon me. Was it that it had realized I posed some danger to it, that it didn’t want to let me sneak up on it again?

It wasn’t that though. I was its next prey.

I didn’t realize that until I saw it out in the moon garden. It hopped up on the edge of the center urn and reached out, not with its beak, but with a foot. It took a purple berry in its talons and squeezed until juice oozed out over its claws. It repeated the act with its other foot.

I remembered the marks on the cook’s arm, the festering wounds. So small to have killed her. So very small that no one realized it was no accident.

That thought came with another one. I was as crazy as any patient ever shipped back from the lines, whose mind had been blasted to bits by the sound of the guns, by the deaths, by the senselessness of it all. Now I was imagining things, thinking that a bird was capable of thought, of premeditation.  Of plotting someone’s death.

I went outside for a walk, to try to clear my head, but all I could do was look at the birds and wonder. Maybe they were all part of it together. Maybe they all had some plot at their heart, of revenge.... But revenge for what? For schoolboys taking eggs from their nests? For women wearing feather plumes on their hats? It seemed so trivial.

I remembered the crows watching Jonah, staring down at him from the drooping lines of a cedar tree’s branches. No, there was no mass conspiracy among the birds. I did not need to flinch whenever I saw a sparrow. I only needed to concern myself with Jonah.

But how to go about that, I wasn’t sure.

I woke, not knowing what had pulled me out of sleep. The war had left me, unlike so many, more capable of sleep than when I had entered; the soldier’s ability to grab a few quick winks whenever the opportunity presented itself.

For a moment, I thought I was back there. That I could lift my head from my cot and see the captain in the tent’s vestibule going over papers and maps while I waited in case he needed me to fly him somewhere. Anywhere.

But instead this was my room in the asylum, part of the converted slave quarters, a narrow and noisome space unadorned by any amenity. Other inhabitants of the ward pinned up postcards or silky scarves or drew on the boards in chalk, at any rate did something to make the space their own, to make it show some mirror of their personality.

I had no interest in anyone finding out more about me than they needed to. My walls were bare.

I had gone to sleep with the window open. Seattle stays cool until the beginning of July, when it hurtles into heat. I’d hoped for a cool wind to stir the stagnant, warm air. No breeze whispered, but there was something outlined in the window.

Jonah, perched on the sill. Watching me. I saw the glitter of his eyes. There was no reason to think some errant crow had come to investigate me. I had never seen a crow at night before. It could only be my enemy. Watching me sleep.

What plans might a bird hatch?

The Colonel died yesterday. Last night I dreamed of him, but he washed away and I was back in the dream.

It’s the one that comes each night. Every time, the same. I see the gas cloud hanging there, roiling with red shadows. Try as I might to dodge it, its depths swallow me again. I try to hold my breath but cannot, eventually taking a breath that sears my lungs, burns away the tissues.

I’ve stood beside Rappaccini while he dissected a corpse. I know what ordinary vocal cords look like; where they are buried in the body. Rappaccini has pointed them out to me, beneath the epiglottis, above the trachea, talking all the while about how mine must differ, scarred by the harsh gas, as though it was my throat beneath his knife.

I remember flying through the cloud, thinking that if I moved fast enough we’d escape. I told the captain to throw the blanket over himself, to crouch down. That saved him. But the crimson gas seeped into the ornithopter, fingers prying into the window cracks, drifted up through the vents. I breathed it in, swallowed it despite how each gulp burned in my throat, keeping it from reaching him.

I was lucky. Another year and they might have made me into a clank. But back then, they were still dismissing people when they were injured, not holding onto them the way they do now.

The captain came to see me in the field hospital carrier, so close to the lines that the guns still thundered to punctuate his words. He cried, though not much, just a few tears as he held my hand and told me how sorry he was, how he’d put me in for a medal. Told me that he’d look for me after the discharge.

I thought about telling him then. But I couldn’t speak; could only have tried to explain through pantomime and writing, knowing that the words would be inadequate. I couldn’t tell him enough, couldn’t say that I didn’t want him to love me for the body that had been forced on me, I wanted him to love who I was, a man loving him.

That was important. But how could I convey that to him in my poor attempts at written language, that awkward scrawl that Sister Perpetua had burned my knuckles for?

I prayed that night for guidance, the way that Father McNeil and Sister Madonna had told me that I could always do. I turned to Jesus, my friend Jesus, to tell me what I should do, how I should act, and I laid all of that in his hands.

The next morning I felt refreshed and strengthened. Jesus would help me endure. I’d tell the captain, and he would be surprised at first but accepting, or perhaps he would tell me he’d suspected it all along.

Together, we would work it all out.

They wheeled me out into the morning, and I saw him walking towards me on the deck.

The guns thundered again.

Everything was noise and confusion and shouting and the smell of blood. My ears rang, and every sound came to me as though I were underwater.

The smoke cleared, drifted down as though unable to hold itself in the air any longer, and I saw him lying there.

His head was half gone, torn away by the shell. You could see his brains, the color of cold oatmeal, darkened by burns, lying in a pool of red. His eye was open and surprised, still long-lashed and pretty.

Still so pretty, even then.

That was God’s message. That he hated me so much he would rather kill a good man than let him be sullied by my love.

God’s writing was as ugly as mine. But it told me what I needed to know. That Father McNeil and Sister Madonna were wrong.

Jesus didn’t love me. He wasn’t my friend.

He was like all the rest of them.

I could have gone back home after the war. But it wasn’t my home anymore. The school hadn’t made me white, but it made me no longer a Navajo, no longer understanding those ways or those stories. I had come to Seattle because it was so green back then, back before the factories had grimed all the trees.

I was helping clean Mr. Abernathy’s old room, readying it for the next occupant. Doctor Rappaccini had made us try to clean the wheelchair up so it could be used again, but such a stench had permeated the wicker that even he was forced to admit it would never serve another patient. The stench even clung to the room’s faded wallpaper, and I’d been directed to wipe that down with bleach-water.

I turned around and found the Doctor standing in the doorway. Jonas was perched on his shoulder. He said, “Mr. Zonnie, I’d like to talk with you.”

That phrasing made me shiver. I’d never heard him call anyone Mister before, and it wasn’t that there was respect edging the tone. Only menace.

He said, “There’s been some things reported missing. Small thefts. A wedding ring, a medal.”

I widened my eyes and looked puzzled.

“Some cheese intended for my meal,” he continued, watching my face.

I kept it impassive, trying not to react. I don’t know that I succeeded. The Doctor kept staring at me. I could smell the acrid, sour smell from the birdshit on his back. Jonah clacked his beak at me.

“You could be sent back to the war,” the doctor said.  Each time he paused between words, the crow clacked its beak again.  Its head darted forward and I flinched.

The doctor noticed. “You’re scared of a bird?”

I just kept still.

He said with scorn in his face, “What do you think a bird can do to you? Let’s see.”

He shrugged his shoulder. Jonah flew at me, all sharp beak and extended talons, raking at my face.

I made a noise—something rough and ragged and painful in my throat—and flung my arm up, trying to dislodge it. Warmth ran down my face and the beak plunged once, digging itself into the skin at the corner of my eye.

I rocked back, thinking he wanted my eye, that he wouldn’t be satisfied till it was gone. I doubled over, shielding my head as the crow tore at me and Rappaccini watched.

Finally the Doctor said, “Enough.”

The crow stopped stabbing at me. I heard the flap of its wings as it returned to his shoulder.

The Doctor’s voice was cold. “Tomorrow’s an inspection. Take the brass appliances and make sure they shine.”

After the two of them were gone, I washed my face, thinking of the crow dipping its claws in the berries. I stole more crystals and dropped them in water, seeing the pink tinge spread across it before I used it to wash the wounds, ignoring its sting. The damage was bad, but my eye was unscathed, despite the torn skin beside it.

I tried not to think of the crow as I washed brass limbs with soapy water before drying them and taking up the brass polish, which smelled of ammonia and dust. I tried not to think that I had been asleep while that black thing hopped across the floor, perhaps perching on the end of the bed to look at me, to watch my eyeballs rolling beneath the paper-thin skin while he thought about plucking them out.

What was the crow?  Because that’s how I think of it, not by the name the doctor has given it. It seems unlikely that it is the name it would have chosen for itself.

Back with the nuns, they would have told me it was an instrument of the devil, summoned by sin, bent on taking souls down to hell, to drown in the lake of fire and brimstone. If not the devil himself, one of his imps.

Someone else might wonder if it was a human soul, born anew into the feeble body of a bird, frustrated by its lack of hands and speech, bent on destroying those born into superior bodies or else carrying out some ancient grudge incurred before it was ever hatched.

Or a skinwalker, a witch who takes on animal form?

Or maybe it was just a monster.

Just because the world held monsters didn’t mean that God had made them.

When I was done, I staggered back to my room, hands aching. Something tapped on the window. I looked up to see the crow sitting there, silhouetted against sunset’s purple sky. I thought it was Jonah. It seemed unlikely it would be any other crow come visiting. It tapped on the window again and cocked its head. It wanted me to let it in.

I didn’t move. Staring back at it, I shook my head.

That sent it into an angry frenzy. It tapped on the glass, so hard I thought it would crack the thin pane. I looked away, and that made it angrier. I stared at the wallpaper, tracing the pattern of green leaves, faded now, and the even more faded yellow flowers, so pallid they were almost imperceptible, and pretended I didn’t know it was there.

I sat down on the bed, which squeaked conversationally underneath me then fell silent. I folded my hands in front of me and stared down at them. Long-fingered hands, strong hands. Hands that had flown me through shells and explosion and death.

They fell into the shape of prayer without my even thinking about it.

Father McNeill and Sister Madonna would have approved. They would have told me that if I talked to God, he would listen.  All my prayers would be answered, and that was good, even if it was in a mysterious way that you couldn’t understand at the time but which unraveled itself into meaning years later.

But I had talked to God many times, until his reply had been far too mysterious for me.  Death was a shitty answer to a prayer. That betrayal still burned at me, as fresh and bitter tasting as yesterday.

I missed my friend Jesus. I used to think of him as someone I could talk to. I carried on a conversation in my mind, addressed to him, and I never worried that he wasn’t listening or didn’t want to hear what I was saying.

I’d put that away the day the captain died, the day he and God betrayed me.

I wondered if Jonah would hurt himself, the way he was squawking and flapping. I raised my head and said, not out loud but in my head: I won’t compromise myself. Take me as I am, but not any other way.

I felt the silence listening. The way Jesus used to listen.

I said, Take it or leave it.

A rap again at the window.

Maybe that was my answer. Vile creature of a viler God, a God of poison and birdshit, of malicious eyes and sooty feathers.

Let him come in, then, and give me my answer.

When I swung the window open, he exploded in at me, a wrath of feathers and squawks. Instinctively I flailed and swatted, using all my strength.

He hit the wall with a thump and a noise, quiet as a twig snapping, as his neck broke.

But he was still alive. The angry beads of his eyes glittered as he lay, a feathery lump whose only motion was the in and out of its breaths. A line of sunset-orange light played over his belly and fingered a crack in the wall, awaking an answering glint inside.

I wrapped my hand in the pillowcase before I pulled his body away from the wall. He made a rattling sound of hatred and pain, and died.

I tugged the wall board aside to widen the crack. Inside were rings, a watch, more. A cufflink set with diamonds. A $20 gold piece with the Queen’s face on it.

I felt dazed, wrapped in cotton wool that kept the world away from me, perceived through a layer of confusion or in a darkened mirror.

God had answered my prayer.

Or had he? Was the world so random that none of this meant anything?

Either everything is random, or God’s hand moves all the pieces, including me, and Father McNeill, and the Doctor, and Jonah. A God who calculates things so precisely that when a bird falls, you see the last trace of sunlight answering you. Setting you free. A patient God waiting for something so large that Jonah and I were unimportant cogs. Maybe that God calls upon us according to our nature and doesn’t care what we are, or what we call ourselves.

Tonight I’m leaving. Rappaccini has looked for Jonah all day, calling and calling, but he hasn’t thought to search the grounds yet. Eventually he will.

I’ve packed the few supplies I have. They’ll take me over the mountains, I think, into the sun.

I have a travelling companion, an old acquaintance. He’s invisible, inaudible. I don’t know what he wants, precisely. Maybe he’s a figment. Maybe he’s not.

But if I think he’s there, it comforts me. And there is so little comfort in this world.


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Nebula and World Fantasy Award-nominated writer/editor Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches atop a hill in West Seattle. Her over two-hundred fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and two previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her most recent novel is Beasts of Tabat, with sequel Hearts of Tabat appearing in 2016. She is the current President of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. For more about Cat, as well as links to her fiction, see www.kittywumpus.net.

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4 Comments on “Rappaccini’s Crow”

4 Responses to “Rappaccini’s Crow”

  1. peter says:

    Nice!

  2. […] a steampunk version of 19th century America that I’ve been working in recently. If you read Raapacini’s Crow, which appeared on Beneath Ceaseless Skies this month, it’s the same […]

  3. […] If you’re interested in what I produced this year, the stories I am pointing people at are short story, English Muffin, Devotion on the Side, and novelette Rappaccini’s Crow. […]

  4. […] a trip into Seattle on Pride Day for brunch at the Space Needle, and well as celebrating “Rappacinni’s Crow” appearing in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and “A Brooch of Bone, A Hint of Tooth” in […]

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