This story, written by Reginald Hart was published in Canada in 1994.
By Reginald Hart
Otto was hungry. He unlocked the outside door. The dog eagerly jumped into the house—spun three circles, not quite catching his tail with each revolution—then stood fixated, staring at the glassy knob.
The dog scratched frantically at the scratches on the old door, then backed onto his dusty bed: a worn woolen blanket in the corner of the unassuming kitchen.
"Good boy!" said Otto, as the dog suddenly stood back up and began coughing out cabbage rolls, ravenously filling a corrugated tin pan up to the rim.
Otto raised his coffee cup. Brown liquid streamed from his lips to the mug; it started to steam as it approached the brim. A spoon flew off the unswept floor—into Otto’s hand. Immediately the dog was asleep, one hind leg kicking and running after dream meals.
"Bye Dad," Otto heard, standing at the counter, watching hot coffee rise out of his favourite mug and into the pot held at a tilted angle above; turning to see his son, Lyle, closing the inside door. Otto held his breath; felt the air move as the boy walked behind him, back through the half-lit house.
It was yesterday. Again. Friday the 13th of August, 1999. Moments before, as dark became day, Otto had watched through the kitchen window as the dog took up faeces—poop—from the yard. Back then, the dog was old, tired looking, the strain of his task visible and audible through grimace and yelp.
Otto kept looking, absently holding his empty coffee mug. Lifting it to his lips. Warm liquid rising up from his stomach, through his throat and over his unbrushed teeth into the waiting mug.
"Aaah that’s nice," he said.
But now, the coffee maker was on the counter. Half asleep, Otto spooned two scoops out of the top of the machine and into the near-empty tin.
He touched the faucet. Water flowed from the drain into the spout above. Otto placed the coffee maker into the stream. He rubbed the faucet again. The water stopped. Otto shook his head. He pawed his eyes and coughed a couple of times - the habitual markers of a day unraveling. He backed up the stairs, made a quick stop in the bathroom and then flopped back on his bed. His eyes unblinking. His mind, stuck in the realm between night and day, wake and sleep. After a time, Otto slept.
He dreamt of the day, the uncreated tomorrow that was now past, already fading from memory. Soon he would rise and watch the news. Fascinated with the people segments: the man with the son coming off death row. The man was ecstatic; Otto was bored.
He dozed. Otto was drunk. A tin of baked cabbage rolls sat cold beside him. Fourth quarter: Saints 14, Vikings 27.
Otto woke up, eyed the uneaten cabbage rolls and fondled his beer. He became excited as the Saints uncrossed the goal line—Saints 7, Vikings 24.
Third quarter. Wink Rempel, the Saints’ quarterback, was okay. A trainer rushed off the field.
He looked hurt. The player looked hurt; he was holding his calf and writhing on the ground. Numbered players flew off a sprawling pile of pads and faceless masks. Otto lifted the beer to his lips…felt the warm liquid cooling his throat…gulping…as it rose up and into the cold can.
He felt thankful. Rested. His son Lyle was fourteen already. The days went fast. There were good times to come…memories to unleash…to fall back on.
They’d be returning to the farm. His parents’ farm…where boys and men and the distinctions between them became unfixed and unfathered…a lull that best suited Otto’s lazy agenda.
Soon Lyle would be thirteen and the fish would flip and fly from table to pan—to hook to the fight and release—frolicking back to uncaught depths linking the souls of the father and son fishing team.
Otto held open the freezer. He unearthed a small chicken, some pork ribs and a tin of frozen cabbage rolls and drove back to the store. The clerk gave him $17.50. Otto put all three items back among orderly hordes of their brothers; stacked in freezers placed as far back in the store as the endless aisles of stocked and unstocked knickknacks would allow. He left the store. He went to work. At lunchtime, he had called the school to confirm an appointment he once had with Lyle’s grade seven teacher.
During the morning, Otto was freshest. His best work undone during the rush that preceded noon. His uneaten breakfast. His mornings, chatting with Lyle on the way from school to home. Nagging his son through word drills—or out of bed—the peaceful moments before he woke his beautiful son…coffee mug in hand…staring at the face that looked so much like his own. The endless flights of stairs; the waking; the dreams; the giving of self to sleep; of self to a steamy consciousness of unwinding steps; unfastened thoughts.
What had he done tomorrow?
"Strange?" Otto thought.
"I can’t remember—I can visualize all the yesterdays but can’t remember what I had for tomorrow’s dinner. Was it pork or beef?
"Was I a vegetarian tomorrow? Did I remarry?
"Was I fifty?
"—Was I a grandfather?
--Otto was married again; before the unmitigated messiness of the inevitable divorce; Lyle was in diapers and the three of them were the perfect family.
Unaccountably, Otto admired his wife. He envied her; her unblemished youthfulness; her ability to shed and lose weight at will - her breasts swollen with milk - the remembrances of when they would be devoid of life-giving fluids. Lactose-free. Supple and firm…the stretch marks receding…the nipples uncracked…unchewed.
His wife. The unsung woman he had gone around with for a whirlwind of short years—a brief courtship and then the agony of being unwon; unwooed; unknowingly looking for that special her among an undying world of almost-hers.
—Otto was twenty. He uncoupled with his former wife. While he thought of the love they shared, unseen forces were busy separating flesh from flesh; sperm from egg—and Lyle—his long forgotten son was unmade.
Otto was content. His girlfriend had gone back in her house. Her father looked through the window at Otto’s car, double-parked in front. Otto honked his horn and backed down the street.
Back home, Otto raced through the house; undressing; marching up the stairs to the bathroom.
He stared at the man in the mirror, uncombed his hair, carefully, paying attention to detail.
—His hand held a razor - cautiously moving between sink and chin, wet and cheek.
Flakes of his skin—and stubble that was unmistakably his—left the razor and adhered to his clean-shaven face. His shadowy beard reappeared. Otto found it fascinating. The orderly art of becoming unshaven. He often found himself amazed at the thought of methodical hairs rising from a myriad of depths, through unplugged drains and onto blades scraping against half-lathered faces; attaching itself quickly; untrimmed and retreating into unmoistened folds of untold flesh.
Sometimes Otto thought of preachers re-preaching once remembered sermons. Or he pondered the meaning behind the employments of undertakers. —Undertakers who undertook the immense task of unmaking; unburying the masses of once dead; the uncoffined; the unchambered; returning to a land of life and youth, unvoiced puppy love and thorn-skinned knees.
Otto was eighteen. He could smell his mother’s cabbage rolls. The whole house…the words…unpronounceable. He quickly unpacked and went downstairs.
His parents, Bob and Hannah were perfect—really. They hugged him; then unfolded two tickets to a Saints’ game from a card that read "Happy 16th". —Otto loved football.
And playing catch with his dad.
And bouncing the bouncy ball.
Tit, tat, tut.
Rolling across the floor.
Across the table.
Onto the bed.
The doctor, slapping out his breath; carefully forcepting Otto into Hannah’s unlaced womb.
His saintly mother, Hannah, breathing deeply.
Her husband Bob…by her side…then pacing the halls for half the night.
Otto was hungry.
Questions for discussion
1) What is the theme of the story?
2) Why does the author use names like Otto, Bob or Hannah? What are palindromes?
3) What happens to Otto after the story ends? Where does he go?
4) What is the difference between the words ‘thawed’ and ‘unthawed’? What does the difference suggest about the English language? What does it suggest about the storyline?
5) Is this story about magic? Is it a fairy-tale? Is it science-fiction?
As the Crow
By Reggie Hart
Never again would birds' song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.
- Robert Frost
"You want supper?" she said, sitting on her wooden stool, half-turning from the cellophane covered window as he tried to duck out of the bathroom. Damn it anyway, she thought, when can we afford a place where the kitchen isn't right next to the bathroom?
"Just something quick tonight. I have to work on the books." (Write the real, he almost said.) It wouldn't have mattered if he had told her the truth. She loved it when he went to roost in his attic. It gave an opportunity to do the things she liked.
He watched her opening the fridge as he sat down at the small table. Mediocre roles, he remembered. Ordinary people in a dwindling community. These were the exact things a writer was supposed to reveal to the reader, he reasoned, winding further into a daydream; imagining curious, discriminating ghosts, hovering over his shoulder as he worked on draft after draft of his poetry. And the ghosts returned to earth to hear his phrases, like the Stevens poem, he thought. He fancied Wallace Stevens, nestled behind a titanic roll-top desk, dark suited elbows resting on a stack of ledgers as he stretched and interlocked his fingers.
"Here's the church and here's the steeple," he recited to his daughter, who had interrupted his fantasy, fervidly tugging on his folded hands. He feigned a laugh; repeating the classic game for the toddler. She started pointing at the blistered, spelean wallpaper, following the acrobatic shadows created by his moving fingers. He wiggled them into a soaring bird and then a rabbit, then back to a bird but the child soon ambled away, already bored with his limited silhouette repertoire.
He tried to picture Stevens' reaction to his blatant borrowing of the Large Man's ghosts; gazing into the past; feathery wrinkles lengthening out his eyes. If there were ghosts, he knew they would never be content with his work. But he could hear the back row gossips. Having one of their loathsome field days as he rendered the foul ache under their caustic words - squeezed out the emptiness of their acerbic, corrosive lies - and preserved it all. Undiluted and bitter. Maybe he could frame "the clucking sequence" with some rustic imagery: canning field tomatoes or a guided tour through a crowded stable.
He envisioned a pastoral scene of snow drifting gently over a meadow. Good, but it needed an epigraph: give it a chromium edge, he imagined. A quote from Robert Frost, he thought. That would probably please the ghosts - or maybe not! The writing might not be enough. Perhaps feeling the sting of chilblain caught skating on the slough or tasting steam forming on his breath as he shoveled out the driveway. Perhaps that would appease them, he finally decided. If not, they might commandeer his voice and wildly cackle while chasing scoops of snow at stray pets - or yell vile, earthen phrases, spooking the substitute teacher leading a class tobogganing:
The Dead Crow
scatter crumb of whitened bread
under frozen burger box
bundle twine with forked branch
prop up underneath an edge
i freed a crow once nailed in a wooden frame
i give my word i don't know what
summoned me into the settlement
i proceeded to look over the enclosure
sensing weird pleading from below
recording remembering all of my life caw caw caw caw useless crow
sometimes we think about them
defecating long fingers over unstained garden gates
tell one another
She never understood his poetry. Never believed he could be a ‘real’ writer.
"Pretty flimsy," she said, perched on her beloved stool, idly poking at the thinly stretched plastic. Remembering the hairdryer. Big and black. Awkward in his hand as he shrunk plastic over the drafty window, mumbling and muttering something about missing lunch. She had watched him. As he performed his loveable, but ludicrous routine (behaving as if she wasn't there), putting voice to his standard complaints. Damning his damnable uncle, realtor Bill Corby. "Cockeyed bastard rooked me into it," he had said then, but nothing now. "Supper's coming," she said, patting him on the shoulder; stooping over to pick up a squeakable croquet mallet from under the table. She heard the newborn hacking but waited. Listening. Unsure whether it was croup or cough, she headed for the bedroom, squeezing the toy mallet just as the microwave sounded - beeping in synchronous accord with the buzzing egg timer.
Jack stared at the page. Marshaling his thoughts as a montage of memories began to meld together into one incessant mosh pit of reminiscence. “And give up verse, my boy, there's nothing in it.” The myopic words from Mauberly disturbed his thoughts as he tried to make sense of it all.
“In music, crow is realist”...Wallace Stevens again... mixed with Don Mclean crooning from the other room: They would not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now. The march of events. The maudlin confession. The modulations... poetic meter... it was unmarketable... inadequate... insubstantial manna... unable to placate the mendacious mass waiting for clarity... waiting for the MTV mosaic to stop gyrating... become focused... just long enough to showcase the march of events in a straightforward, meaningful way.
A short story might work.
Or a screenplay...
<VOICEOVER: JACK DAWSON>
fellowed with dull buried memories
parked in a dark roadster
mishandled by awkward fingers
as he shrunk
over the frigid air
time for salsa?
quickly do it!
he should work
right the reel
over his hunched back
wooden velcro strophes
filling his eccentric quota
with hollow dreams and wacky roving
caught necromancing over the sweeping slough
or scaring scoops of snow at sticky roly-poly stragglers
<CUT TO: GENERAL STORE, 20 YEARS EARLIER>
Watch those Hutterites, they warned him. They keep strange ways. Their women are kept down, boneless, "...not cocky like the men," his mother said. They reminded him of penned cattle; the plain dressed girls, yoked to their task, rolling dough on floured tables. Slowly turning to look. Rotating, jointly, their docile cow eyes - seemingly disinterested in the deranged mien of the unruly grade sevens - steered around during a field trip to the Paske Meadow colony. He had lingered behind that day, savoring the taste of the raw, sticky roll one exceptionally fetching girl had shyly offered.
That fall she shared her (...earnest, ...unique, ...romantic) fondness for the pink rose water he had given her. She had chronicled her intense feelings in a scrotum-stirring note she coyly handed to him in the alley behind Brecheisen's Bakery. (The perfume was eau de something, $1.99 worth he had gulled from the store: recognising her in town a few weeks after the field trip. They had met secretly, crazily that time, for a chapped-lip first kiss in the narrow fold between the new Quickie‑Mart and his family's general store.)
"That Darius - he's bullheaded," his father said, after the Hutterites had left. "They steal," his mother added, tabling the matter while turning to explain the policy of closing‑out items to Uncle Bill (who once worked in the store but now owned Corby Realty). Bill enjoyed lazing around the store thumbing through magazines when he wasn't crawling around under his quirky roadster - or making occasional appearances in the Rock Road Inn. Back then, Bill, his mother, and the rest of their crew of ("second generation, born 'n razed") siblings all lived nearby. All seven of them (including their spouses and children) had stayed put. Most of them enjoyed unruffled lives and family barbecues laden with beef and beer filled reels and reels of jerky, monochromatic home movies.
His parents had contributed generously and often, almost innocently (considering his own stark naiveté), to all of his hollow‑boned intolerance. Hatred, racism, "there was no need for those sorts of discussions," his mother said. "The Dawson family didn't hate anybody - and neither did the Corbys," she tenderly told him, telling him again how his grandma Corby used to feed thick roast beef sandwiches to drifters at the back door. "Now forget that flighty gibber-jabber and get to bed," she said, "I'm calling the school about that substitute tomorrow!" He had decoyed her with a rickety white lie about a nonexistent school discussion. He didn't tell her about his ongoing, shake 'n bake romance with the engaging girl.
<FADE IN: ONE MONTH AGO>
Freda had told them she was lonely without a family. She showed no sign she had recognized him; nodding politely at his wife and praising the appearance of their two children as they waited at the Medical Centre. Her cardinal concern (after 33 years, unmarried in the colony) was an imagined fear that the town doctor was busy hatching a scheme to inform the elders that she wasn't a virgin. Close contact with outsiders would likely lead to carnality - according to the elders.
She revealed her secret fears to his wife that week as they became uncommon friends - sharing a love for crochet and a room in the west wing of the old Catholic Hospital. She never mentioned the empty perfume bottle, or various waiting‑room magazines and paperbacks she kept concealed in her white pine hope‑chest. In stolen moments, she had read and reread: her passionate daily visits to the pine box enshrouded for over twenty years. Her unorthodox aptitude for literature had remained hidden, unchecked by the acrimonious brethren.
<CUT TO: EARLIER TODAY>
"Her udder lung vas full of cancer," her uncle said, slurping his coffee as he glanced out the window of the crowded kitchen. Three of the Hutterite women (cowbird cousins) were posted outside, absently fingering the ornamental crowns on the scrollwork gate. (They had arrived unannounced, the clean-shaven younger man bearing the antique rosewood stool, asking for Mrs. Dawson: presenting her with "a keepsake from Auntie Freda," and five loaves of fresh bread. Afterwards, Samuel had done most of the talking. Sam's wife and Freda's nephew John had sat with them at the small table, somberly listening while three of the Tschetter's inquisitive daughters roamed around the cramped room. After a silent but obvious reprimand from Sam to his wife, they were set near the open doorway of the adjacent bathroom. The mother had spoken quickly in low German, gaining giggling compliance from the crocine girls.)
"Her room vas chock full of books," Sam continued, "Fillin' her craw wit hollow beans 'n horsefedders!" He had stopped to ruminate on this. Gazing out the little window. Staid. Unyielding. His jaw, jutting out of his face - ascetic - rotating his beard around a microbial morsel of oat bread. "Yah, shay vas all-vays unique dat one," he finally said, removing the uncomfortable silence.
<VOICEOVER: GERMANE (sic) FEMALE ACCENT>
given rite of hutterleut
women less than men
domesticated caved eyes
penned cattle indifferent
they're cowed they said
they steal they said
they're crows he said
caw caw caw caw caught
a covert fondness
for fragrance filched
unchecked by the gemein
chrome table caressing
a chequered cancer dress
<FADE IN: NOW>
A checkered scarf was all he could picture now - urgently bobbing on a crude black robe. His fingers, quivering goose flesh, nesting in her downy crocus. He became unsettled, realizing her delicate face had become a dusty blur; his wife's lips and blue eye shadow superimposed upon the sacrosanct, spread‑eagle blonde in his mind. Freda never said that? he thought, as he heard "egg burrito" (at once realizing that his wife had just spoken).
"For the umpteenth time, do you want salsa or what?" she said, placing a mason jar on the little table.
<HAZE RISING: 25 YEARS EARLIER>
"They're crows: caw‑caw, caw‑caw," he shouted, tearing around the overcrowded, dark green passenger van in front of the store; eliciting laughter from the slightly older boys as he crew and waved his arms. Afterwards, they offered to hawk a smoke he swiped from his mother to let him join in their adolescent scheme to go behind Brecheisen's and trade misconceptions.
He told them he had freed a crow once. Lacking a stack of bibles, he swore on a discarded ledger (as God was his witness) that some weird, unexplainable force had caused him to duck under the edge of Gert Bodie's fancy‑fence. Funny he had stopped at the section of dark green pickets, he told 'em. (The same pickets he and his childhood cronies once urinated on, insanely laughing that day at the nuisance grounds, as they watched the scavenger, Dirty-Girdy, coming up the back road in a smoky haze.) He had repeated the story so often that he now felt peculiar about it. As if it had become the truth. His own ghastly version which never allowed him to divulge the cruel reality - he had simply been touched by the haunted, pip‑pipping sound of the imprisoned bird.
A couple of summers later he perfected a recipe for catching the wary birds. He scattered some stale buns beneath an inverted cardboard box; then he tied a long piece of binder‑twine to a split branch strutted under an end. Quickly playing out the line, he huddled down in the tall quack-grass, coaxing, and later tormenting, a murder of crows.
Crows are squawking loners, he discovered. Each in love with their own voice. Even in a rookery (during too frequent announcements of comings and goings - distinct calls: loudest; shrillest; wary; machine‑like) each cry eventually emerges, an individual, from the midst of the portable muddle. But penned, or cooped in wooden crates crows become deathly quiet. Useless, his dad called them. "Useless garbage pickers them and the magpies," he had said when he showed him the dead crow. "Used to get a bounty for their feet," he added.
<CUT TO: DAWSON HOUSE, 20 YEARS AGO>
"...Throwin' them out," his mother said, brushing the remnants of macaroni and cheese off the tablecloth. "Perfectly good buns and Brecheisen's throwin' them out if I don't take 'em!" she later parroted to the uninterested neighbor who was busy hanging sheets on the line. "Nosy old crone," his mother gibed, letting the screen door slam as she strutted into the house. He had liked Mrs. Corneille. She recited risqué love poems and fed him croissant topped with thick Roquefort cheese - or made spicy tourtiére and fried vegetable croquette. He had never wasted home‑made pastry snaring birds.
Not a sin, he assured himself, trying to remember all the raw details of the young Freda. Sparse. Distant. Scanty memories interwoven with images of Gert Bodie's pet crow. Solemn. Stripped. The barren song she had mournfully crowed. Never knowing she was penned out of misshapen love.
That rotten Bodie.
<CUT TO: STREET CORNER, 25 YEARS AGO>
They were playing chicken on their bikes! Bodie chastising them as they taunted, corvine, circling near his screwy fence raucously chanting "dirty-girdy, dirty-girdy."
"Gird up yer loynes in yer mind, be ye sober and 'ope that the grace o' god'll be brunk rollin' to yer at the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ," Bodie had incessantly hollered until they knew it by rote.
He was haunted because his cousin Maggie (instead of him) had once gained instant fame mimicking Bodie - coughing and croaking just like the old cockroach from the back row at Communion.
"There are times when I think about crows," he blurted
to his wife, as they finished watching the late news. "Hmm?" she
yawned, getting up to click off the ancient TV. "Oh, nothing," he
He wanted to scream.
To tell her there were just a few, no more than a baker's dozen or
so, different ways to look at a crow. Instead, Jack rose to go to his attic
office and unwind. He stopped in the tiny kitchen to inspect the plastic