I’m amazed, really, this bench don’t have a dip where my arse has pressed against it twice a day, seven days a week, for so many years now. Back when they installed this new one after the old seat began to splinter, I had to find a new spot until the workmen got done. My birds didn’t like that. They’re fond of routine, my sweeties. I know I shouldn’t cater to them, but I can’t help it. I love ‘em so! I’m like my da’ in that, I suppose.
I’m late today, and they’re already waiting. There, in the oaks and elms. See? Those black swaths atop the branches? Yes. Here they come! Two. Three. A swarm.
I always laugh at that. Such an odd term for a group of crows! They’re playful, yes, and they might bite if you poke ‘em. But mostly they want food. Or toys. I bring shiny trinkets from time to time, though it’s been a while. I guess they’re due.
“Come on, then,” I call to them, and they do. Out comes my bag. I remember when it was a small pouch of seed. Now it’s a paper sack full of mix—fruit, nuts, breadcrumbs, popcorn, whatever grains I have on hand. Sometimes I make them a special treat of boiled chicken eggs or pasta bowties or sometimes, if I have extra coin, some minced seafood mash or worms from the fish market. They love that.
I scatter today’s mix on the pavement before me and toss a few handfuls into the grass beyond. That’s the call to arms, that food. All at once they surround me with their fluttering and squawking and bickering. Black and shimmering in the evening light—what beauties! Here and there a pigeon joins in, or a mourning dove (though those’re really the same bird, ain’t they?), or some songbirds. I don’t mind. There’s plenty.
“Here now, Jerrald,” I call to one of my favorites. “Share with your brother!” Those two are always fighting. For all that Jerrald’s getting up in age, he’s been a bully for most of his seventeen years. Not likely he’ll stop now, is it?
And look! There’s Fiona! Sure, she’s a crow. I know, I know she’s white. Odd, ain’t she? Fiona don’t come every day, but I always bring her a special treat, just in case. I dig in my pocket and pull out a sliced apple wrapped in plastic.
“Come, Fiona!” I hold out a chunk and the nearer birds croak and flap, but I push ‘em back. “No, eat your own food.” I offer it again and Fiona comes first to the arm of the bench, then hops up to the back and inches closer until she can snatch the fruit from my hand. She tickles me the way she works up her courage, and I chortle a bit before I reach for another slice. She might be good for one more before she joins the rest of ‘em on the ground.
I love these outings! Oh, I don’t get around much anymore, except to go to the grocers or the fish market, but twice a day I come to the Common and sit across from the Great Elm marker. What would my babies do without me? I’ve watched some of ‘em grow from fledglings into mated adults with fledglings of their own—not just Jerrald and Fiona, but Ralph and Bitsy and Bob and Sarah and Farley and all the rest. They’re my family. Some of ‘em will meet me at the Tremont stop and follow me past the plaza and the visitor center, cackling all the way to my bench. A few even visit me at home, a couple miles away, down to the Symphony. Can’t feed them there, though. My windows open, and I can talk to ‘em in the trees outside, but the only time I tried to take the screens off the windows, it busted the frames something awful. I almost got evicted. I ain’t tried since.
In summer when the trees are full like they are now, I can almost forget my babies and I are surrounded by city. Almost. If I don’t look up too often. Can’t see the other monuments or even the bandstand from here. There’s always people, though. Even this close to suppertime a few walk by, going around our big gathering. One toddler squeals with delight. The adults nod or speak. Most think I’m “that crazy bird lady.” I don’t mind. They’re soon around the corner and out of my life, and their opinions matter less than a whit. You learn to think that way when you get old. Might have taken me longer than most, but at seventy years I finally figured it out. My life got easier after that.
Like those boys coming there. They’ll be ones who think I’m crazy. I grunt to myself and throw out another handful of seed. “Eat up, sweetings! It’s almost bedtime.” It is later than I thought. Getting dark already. The kiddie park is quiet and frogs are singing over to the pond. Street lamps are on down the way, and lights in surrounding buildings twinkle like stars against the sky. Must have lost track of time. That happens sometimes, these days. I toss more mix onto the grass and pick up my sack to head home for the night.
Loud clucking and flapping gets my attention and I look up. The boys have not gone ‘round the birds. They’re plowing through, kicking my babies as they go.
“Here now!” I yell. “Stop that! They ain’t hurting you!”
“Shut up, old biddy,” snaps the littlest one. I say little, but he’s taller than me. What is he, fifteen?
The other two laugh.
My birds tilt their heads to watch this new show.
The biggest boy jerks his chin toward me. “What’s in the bag, gramma?”
“Nothing,” I huff. Dang pushy youngsters ain’t gonna bully me. I roll down the top and cram the sack under my coat. “And if I was your gramma, you’d have better manners.”
I fumble to my feet. The middle boy pushes me back down onto the bench. Keep your mouth shut, Ana, I tell myself. But I never listen, do I?
“Don’t touch me, you little snot. If I had my cane, I’d show you what for!”
The big one’s face curls into what might pass for a smile if you were half-blind. “Well I guess we’re lucky you don’t have it, ain’t we?” He steps closer. Too close. “Give us the sack and your wallet, and we’ll leave you alone.”
The sun’s down now, and still my birds sit watching. Well now, that’s odd, ain’t it? Any other day, they’d be off before dark. I glance around. Not another human soul in sight. Huh. Guess I’ll have to teach these boys a lesson my own self.
“I ain’t giving you squat.” I push toward the edge of the bench again and the big boy doesn’t move. “Get out of my way.”
He just stands there. I shove him aside and get to my feet. The other boys laugh. I don’t care about that, but I do need to move on. This little encounter ain’t setting my gut to ease. I totter off toward the bus, but ain’t three steps away before they surround me again. One pushes my shoulder.
“Gimme the bag, gramma.”
“No. Get away from me.”
Another tries to snatch it out of my arms. I slap his hand away.
Now they’re not laughing. Neither am I when they land the first punch.
My balance ain’t what it used to be and I fall back, dropping the sack to cushion my head with both arms. I hear a snap when I land. I hear another when they kick me the first time. I curl into a ball best I can, cover my face and belly, but I don’t remember much after that except pain and the taste of blood in my mouth and the screaming and flapping of my birds.
I wake in Mass General. Been here before, so the nurses know me. I’m not a regular or anything, but at my age sometimes a person needs a doctor. You understand. It’s the little redhead’s face I see first, all green eyes and freckles. I can never remember her name.
“Ana!” she sighs. “You’re awake! Thank goodness…” She touches a button beside my bed.
I lick my lips, and she brings a straw to my mouth. I suck at the cool water. Best thing I’ve tasted in years. I try to speak, but all that comes out is a squawk. Sounds like Jerrald. I try again.
Red smiles. “You’ve been with us almost two days.”
I try to raise my head but she puts a firm hand on my shoulder. “Not yet. Take your time.”
Two days ain’t long enough? I want to ask, but I am a little fuzzy. For once I listen to my better judgment and stay quiet. The doc comes, takes my pulse, checks my IV, looks into my eyes with that little light they always carry. Listens to my chest. According to him, I’m lucky to be alive. Concussion, fractured arm, cracked ribs, bruised kidney, blah blah blah. I sigh. I kinda figured about the arm. Cast gave it away.
“Did I at least give as good as I got?”
He flashes Red a funny look before he smiles. “Let’s just worry about you for now.”
“How long before I can go home?”
“We’ll see. You’re mending well for your age, but it’ll be at least a month before you’ll be up and around on your own. Is there anyone at home to help you?”
I snort. Sure. Got a whole staff. “No.”
“Then let’s wait and see how it goes. Try to be patient. I’ll see you later when I make my rounds.”
When he’s gone, Red fluffs my pillows and adjusts my blanket.
I nod. “Thanks.”
“Anything else I can bring you?”
“How about some eggrolls?”
“Dinner’s not for a few hours, but I’ll see what I can find.”
While she’s gone, I look around. Like I said, I been here before, but not for long and never in a room with a window. The view ain’t great, just a gravelly rooftop and the back side of the hospice wing across the way, but sunlight tells me it’s after noon. Best of all, one of my birds sits outside on the ledge.
Oh, the sight of him does my old heart good! I push the blankets away and sit up. Takes a bit of work, but I manage to get my legs over the side. Before I can slide down to my feet, Red comes running back.
“Ana! What on Earth are you doing? Honey, you’re gonna hurt yourself! You can’t be up and around yet!”
She don’t know me very well.
I watch her set down my snack—which actually decides it, once my mouth gets to watering like that—and push myself back into position. She pulls the blankets over me, fussing the whole time. I listen with half an ear, and nod to pacify her. By the time Red leaves and I’ve eaten my rice, I’m sleepy again. I wake at the smell of dinner. Outside the window, the light’s almost done and Jerrald’s gone back to his roost. It ain’t safe for a lone crow at night.
Or an old woman, either, apparently.
I think about those boys who put me here. Makes me mad, that. A month. I ain’t got much, but my plants’ll be dead by then. At least my rent payment is automatic. I twist best I can in the bed and reach around to open the top drawer in my nightstand. My keys. My lucky black feather. My little change purse. I pluck that out and open it. Empty. It wasn’t just a sack of seed those boys were after.
I lean back against the bed and nod off despite the noisy hallway and the whining neighbors and the non-stop announcements over the P.A. Red wakes me a little later.
“Ana, the police are here. Feel like talking to them?”
“Sure.” I straighten my hospital gown and push up taller in the bed. Red ushers them in and stays beside me the whole time.
“Ms. Ana Wilton?”
They already know that or they wouldn’t be here. “Yes.”
“Can you tell us what happened to you?”
I tell them about the birds, the boys, the sack, the punch, all the rest until everything went black.
“What did these boys look like?”
I try to remember their faces, but it’s a blur. I describe them best I’m able. It ain’t much. “I know I hit at least one of them little hooligans. I don’t mean to hurt nobody, but they ought not be picking on old ladies in the park.”
The officers open their mouths, but Red chases them out. I go back to sleep.
My eyes open to see the window. Jerrald is there with Farley. Noises from the hall sound like the breakfast cart’s making its rounds. I glance around. Red will be off shift now.
I sit up, push the blankets back and grunt my legs over the side. Oh I remember Red’s words. Most of ‘em anyway. So I’m careful when I stand up. Legs are a little shaky and my side aches, but I use the IV pole like a walker and totter to the window before anyone stops me. I tap the glass. Jerrald blinks. Farley squawks. I wish I could hear him, but that’ll come later when I’m back in the park. In a flutter of feathers, Farley’s off and flying. Jerrald taps the glass with his bill and I chuckle.
“Oh yeah,” I tell him. “Ain’t no boys can put me down for long.”
“Ana, you shouldn’t be out of bed.”
I turn to find Candace (not Candy…she hates Candy…that’s why I remember her name) pushing an empty wheelchair. She grins, and I sit while she holds it still.
“You’re welcome.” She comes around to squat in front of me, in front of Jerrald. “Friend of yours?”
“Yeah,” I say. “We go back a ways.”
“I’ve seen you. In the park. Feeding the crows.”
How do you answer something like that? I look at her.
“Don’t you worry they’ll hurt you?”
“Hurt me? My babies?” I blow a raspberry. “Not a whit.”
“How long have you been doing it?”
“Oh,” I sigh, “prolly longer than you been alive.”
She laughs. “Fair enough. How do you feel?”
“Better. Can I go home today?”
Candace’s lips pucker like she’s actually considering my question. “Hmm. I doubt it. But Doctor Riley’s on duty now. You can ask her when she makes her rounds.”
“Then can I have some peanuts?”
She agrees and leaves me by the window with my solemn promise to ask for help before getting up. Then breakfast comes and I have to convince the intern to let me eat where I sit. Bitsy has taken Jerrald’s place, and I talk to her through the glass. The doc sweeps through and helps me back into bed. I shove the peanuts into a bottom drawer in my nightstand. Sleep takes me away for a few hours, and when I wake, Ralph is on the ledge. Lunch and dinner and doctors and nurses and more peanuts and naps, but at least with the chair I can get close to my sentinels. They keep a closer watch than any of the staff.
Days pass. Almost a week before they transfer me to a rehab place that specializes in old people and sports medicine, like I’m some sort of geriatric athlete. I have to make a fuss to get more peanuts and a window, but at least my sweetings find me and take turns on the ledge while my strength improves. In two more weeks, I’m walking not just to the window, but up and down the hall. The only thing better than my first real shower—with my arm in a plastic bag—is when they take off my cast and doc tells me tomorrow is The Big Day.
I’m going home.
Farley’s at the window. I tell him I’ll be back in the Commons tomorrow, and he taps the glass. I know he knows. He’ll spread the word.
That night, I can hardly sleep.
Next morning, my babies are absent from the ledge. I eat breakfast, get dressed and stuff my hoard of peanuts into every pocket of my coat, even a few in my bra. I walk beside the nurse with the empty wheelchair—no way they’re pushing me another inch in that thing, I don’t care one whit for their rules—to the front exit to catch my bus. I walk out into the fresh air, fresh as it ever gets in the city, and take a deep breath. Around the entry and down the walkway, every lamppost, every branch on every tree is filled with crows. Jerrald. Fiona. Farley. Ralph and Bitsy and all the others, even a few I don’t recognize.
I make it to the bus stop, surrounded by my family, and wait. The bus comes and I get on. Sarah flies just ahead of my window for five blocks before she disappears. I can hardly wait to sit on my bench. The peanuts are mashing my breasts. It’s uncomfortable.
I get off at Tremont, a mite sooner than Symphony, but it don’t matter what those docs say. I’m seeing my babies before I go home. Caws herald my return. Sentinels follow, my babies leapfrogging past one another to keep me under guard like chaperones or presidential security. I chuckle, do a little dance in the plaza. I’ve missed this place. I’ve missed my sweetings! Peanuts are poor fare to offer them for such good company, but it’s all I have.
At least for today.
I make it to my bench, tireder than I want to admit. I settle with a sigh into my spot and begin pulling out peanut packets. Before me, a sea of black—with one white spot—spreads across the pavement and onto the grass, a squawking, fluttering, flapping, noisy mass of love. I open the first packet and throw a handful into the crowd.
“You should be careful,” a voice says, and I jump. I didn’t see her come up. “…feeding those birds.”
I squint at her proper business suit and made-up face. How can she walk in those shoes? “Thank you, but I’ll be fine.”
She frowns. “They can be dangerous, you know.”
“Crows?” I ask, peering at her. I shake my head. “I doubt that.”
The woman shrugs. “Tell that to the boys they attacked a while back. Landed all three of them in hospital. Two died.”
My hand falters. “Boys?”
“It was in the news. Didn’t you hear?”
“I don’t watch tv.” I toss the peanuts. “When did this happen?”
The woman blows out a long breath, her eyes rolling toward the sky. “Oh, maybe three or four weeks ago?”
I look up into her face. “Here? In the city?”
“Yep. Right in this very spot. They had the whole area taped off for almost a week.” She glances at her watch. “Anyway, you be careful.”
I nod and watch her walk away. My babies sit quiet, a rare thing, and I turn my attention back to them. Every one watches me, head cocked, eyes bright, feathers gleaming.
“Three boys, you say? Huh. Now ain’t that odd.”
I toss another handful of nuts and open the next packet.
Drema Deòraich’s primary focus is speculative fiction, though she does make the occasional jaunt into literary fiction and essays about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Her work has appeared in online publications for Silver Blade, Across the Margin, and Aphotic Realm. Her short story “Upshot” landed an Honorable Mention in the third quarter 2018 Writers of the Future contest. Drema is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Group, and attends semi-regular classes at the Muse Writers Center. She loves chocolate and Brussels sprouts in equal measure, and lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband, two orange floofballs, and all her other characters. Her blog and book reviews can be found at http://www.dremadeoraich.com.