Ethan and I weren’t allowed to have pets. Father forbade it. I was ten years old, my brother Ethan was thirteen.
“Dogs are damned spies and dirty,” Father would say. “Cats are too clever by far. Everything else is a cheat.”
Our backyard, littered with rusted lawnmowers and expired automobiles, backed up to a neglected orchard. Birds of all varieties feasted on sour cherries we found impossible to eat. Ethan singled out the crows; he screamed at them or threw sticks and rocks. The pellet gun came later. When my brother wasn’t around, I’d toss bread scraps or apple cores. Once, I stole money from my mother’s purse and my new acquaintances dined on French fries.
The biggest crow, a purplish-black titan, became a regular. The rule was “no pets” but this bird was free to come and go as he pleased, wasn’t he? After a week, the crow brought tokens: buttons and small scraps of wire, fish hooks and a stag beetle carapace, spent shell casings and gems of broken glass.
There came a day in which I was empty-handed. I’d devoured my lunch and could offer nothing in exchange for trinkets. The crow’s eyes swiveled like black ball bearings and his head tilted sideways as he approached me. Flapping his wings, he struck with his beak and nipped the meaty part of my arm. A void appeared where skin and muscle had been, but there was no blood, no pain, just smooth emptiness. He took another bite and then another before he was satisfied. I never again bothered bringing him anything, but our commerce continued.
No one noticed my body’s ongoing mutilation — not my family, not anyone — so I no longer tried to conceal it. Although portions of my old self were pecked close to the bone, I’d accumulated coins and jewelry and precious stones and even a women’s wristwatch, all of which I hid beneath my bed.
* * *
Mother usually stayed by herself in the kitchen long after the washing-up sounds stopped.
“I have no advice for you,” said Father. He tapped cigarette ashes onto his dessert plate. “Seriously, how do I know you won’t use it against me someday?”
Ethan paused mid-chew and squinted at me while I watched Father across the dining room table. A phantom itch teased my missing flesh.
“No one asked you for answers,” I replied.
Father jabbed the cigarette into what was left of his blueberry pie. Atop the lace overlay splayed his tree root hands. I could almost hear the blood pump into them and his face, and rush away from his brain. I barely had time to regret my words. A sock-full-of-nickels fist flashed sideways and landed on Ethan’s shoulder.
Ethan cackled, his cheeks glossy with tears. He wobbled in his chair, still upright, grinning. Purple blood seeped between his teeth — he’d bitten his tongue. Father lit another smoke, the filter end this time, and shuffled into the living room to doze in front of the television.
I call those occasions “Family Night.”
* * *
After I grow to adulthood, after Father tries an unsuccessful shortcut from Grand Rapids to Milwaukee by strolling into Lake Michigan, after Mother chokes to death on her own spit, after punching back at the latest winter storm, I visit Ethan’s hospital room. No phone calls or cards in years. By years, I mean never. Two days ago, the sole exception: a note, inside which is scrawled the hospital’s name and a room number. I don’t recognize the handwriting. Today, at Ethan’s bedside one week before Christmas, I’m informed that he’s oblivious to his surroundings and the people around him.
“That precedes the onset of his illness,” I assure the doctor, who smiles, frowns, and then walks away. My hands are stained red and green; I’ve brought a gift for Ethan but the wrapping paper is soaked through.
Heart cancer. You’re more likely to become pregnant and give birth to zebra triplets than contract this rare cardiac bonanza, but Ethan somehow managed it. What can you do, cut the damn thing out of there?
A tinsel garland bedecks the room’s Michigan-glazed window. Ice splatters against the glass. The garland is crooked as hell. This motivates me to do what I do best, which is complain.
“Excuse me, can someone fix this?” I ask an orderly. “The decorations are very bad.”
“I’m sorry,” he replies. “I’m not allowed to touch the stuff. Let me find someone.”
As he leaves I call after him: “Maybe add a Santa or some wise men or whatever. Something nice.”
I settle into a chair next to Ethan’s bed. My sibling would have passed already if not for the machinery hissing and humming on either side of his headboard. The sound equals salvation, or at least medical persistence.
“You’re looking good, bud,” I say. “I’m right here with you.”
Ethan’s never looked good and now he’s worse.
“It’s not yet Christmas, but I have something for you. An early present.”
I unwrap my parcel; it’s the clear plastic tackle box in which I’ve kept my favorites of the crow’s baubles. Even with the translucent lid closed, the contents gleam. I shift the box and admire the way light teases the treasure within. Ethan’s eyes remain closed, fixedly so. On his belly the box rises and drops, propelled by mechanical intervention.
“Call it a windfall,” I tell my brother. “Call it whatever you want.”
A racket more insistent than falling sleet rattles the window. Through the ice’s scrim I recognize my crow. He scratches and taps. He’s larger than I remember, now grown to eagle-sized or bigger. I crank the handle until my old companion squeezes inside. Does he expect a winter harvest? He follows me to the chair. I sit down and roll up my sleeves, but the crow stares at Ethan.
Michael Grant Smith wears sleeveless T-shirts, weather permitting. His writing has appeared in elimae, Ghost Parachute, The Airgonaut, formercactus, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Hypnopomp, Soft Cartel, and other publications. Michael resides in Ohio. He has traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cincinnati. To learn too much about Michael, please visit www.michaelgrantsmith.com and @MGSatMGScom.