Issue Forty-Four - Summer 2024


By Shari Lane

The day the bird landed on her head, Caia was looking the other direction.

She was walking across the Hawthorne bridge, late for work again. (The really unique, spectacular thing would be for Caia not to be late, to stroll into the office at exactly 8:30, or maybe 8:25 even, with a look of casual triumph, as if it was perfectly normal to show up at the expected time, get a cup of coffee, hang up the lavender pea coat she’d bought at the consignment shop, and push the Power button on the computer with a satisfied smirk as if she, Caia, owned the morning instead of the other way around.)

Below the bridge, the river made faces at the sky for being so somber, and the sky scolded the river for being so frivolous, even sent a few drops of rain to emphasize the point. Caia was watching the quarreling river and sky, curious to see how they’d resolve their spat, and so she missed the black bird sailing . . . directly . . . toward . . . her.

Until it landed, somewhat ungracefully, on her head.

Caia stopped walking, and smiled an uncertain smile. “Um,” she said.

She blew her hair out of her eyes.

“I know there’s something about a dove landing on Jesus’s head and God said this is my son yadda yadda,” she said, speaking in the bird’s general direction—that is, upward. “But,” she said, “some people might think a crow is, like, the opposite.” A bicyclist rang his little silver bell angrily at her. “A sign of the devil. Or something.”

The crow said nothing, as crows are wont do when challenged on theological grounds.

Traffic streamed by, in a slow, slogging, rush-hour sort of streaming. At one point all the cars came to a stop, and a man in an ancient Toyota covered with bronzed doll-heads leaned over and rolled down his passenger-side window. Caia was afraid to turn her head too far to one side, lest she disturb the crow, but with her peripheral vision she could see the man’s long beard and one of his friendly green eyes.

“Nice bird,” he said.

“He just landed on me,” Caia said, feeling inexplicably close to tears. (Maybe she was about to start her period?)

“That’s cool that you let him ride on your head,” the man said.

He wasn’t the first man to completely misunderstand her.

Traffic started moving again, and the man drove on, and Caia felt she’d lost a friend. A somewhat obtuse friend, a disturbed friend who collected doll-heads and sprayed them with bronze-colored paint and mounted them on the outside of his vehicle, but still.

She didn’t know what to do. She had to start walking, had to get to work, but what then? What were they going to say when she showed up late and with a crow on her head?

There had been nothing unusual about the morning, nothing that would have suggested her day was headed in this direction. The orange juice was a little off, perhaps. (Maybe she had food poisoning and she was hallucinating?) Richard had been preoccupied when he said goodbye, practicing under his breath the training presentation he had to give later in the day, whisper-muttering Never ever neglect something something something. And then: oh my god. Caia sucked in her stomach in dismay. Had she forgotten to feed the fish? The poor, innocent, defenseless fish? They could be wasting away right this minute. The crow was probably a judgment on her for her horrendous cruelty. A penalty for piscean penury.

But no, she distinctly remembered sprinkling flakes into the tank. That was one of the many reasons she was late.

This time.

“I’m very sorry,” she said to the crow, still speaking softly, hoping the other pedestrians and bicyclists on the bridge would think she was talking on a cell phone with a headset. Or just crazy. “I have to get to work.”

The crow settled onto Caia’s head as she began to take measured steps across the bridge, holding her head as still as possible. She was glad she was wearing a thick knit tam, rainbow-striped, custom designed for last year’s Pride Parade; the crow’s talons poking through were uncomfortable but not painful. Luckily the Get ‘Em While They’re Hot public relations company where Caia worked was nestled just on the other side of the bridge, so she didn’t have far to walk. She elicited a few stares, but in a town where a unicycler dressed as Darth Vader playing a flaming bagpipe and calling himself the UniPiper waved gaily at small children, who waved just as gaily back, a woman with a crow on her head was almost unremarkable.

Tom grunted at her when she came in, still taking slow, measured steps, still holding her head fixed in one position.

“You’re even later than usual,” he said, after the grunt. “Wait, why do you have a raven on your head?”

“I thought it was a crow,” she said.

“Crows are smaller and have less chin hair,” Tom said.

“Birds have hair?” Amy said, coming around the corner. Amy had lots of hair, curly riotous flyaway energetic hair, auburn shot here and there with gray as if determined to demonstrate that it could be serious if it wanted to.

“Google it,” Tom said, and because he was the boss, or rather one of the bosses, it sounded like a command, so Amy pulled out her phone to obey, and entered the search terms with her small nimble thumbs without even looking down, continuing to stare at the purported raven atop Caia’s head.

“Can I pet him?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Caia said. “He just landed on me as I was walking across the bridge, and he won’t leave.”

“Ravens are bonded to their mates,” Tom said. “Your black, silky hair probably looks like a female raven, from above. Maybe he lost his mate recently. Maybe he’s lonely.”

Caia felt so completely discombobulated by the events of the morning, she wasn’t sure where to go with this. “You think my hair is silky?” she said.

“Of course your hair is silky,” Amy answered for him, her curls bobbing in enthusiastic agreement. “If I was a crow I’d want to be your mate, too.”

“It’s a raven,” Tom said irritably.

“But I’m wearing a hat,” Caia felt obligated to point out. Much as she would have liked to continue to hear about her silky hair, Tom’s theory didn’t make sense when she was wearing a hat striped with purple, red, orange, green, royal blue, and daffodil-yellow.

The phone rang, interrupting Amy’s Googling and Tom’s exasperation with a pragmatic problem: it was Caia’s job to answer the phones; could she do it with a large black bird on her head? (Did the color matter? Was she falling prey to implicit bias? Would she have noted its color had it been a Western Bluebird, or a Goldfinch, or a Scarlet Macaw?)

“Are you going to get that?” Tom said, one eyebrow arched like Mister Spock.

“I’ll try,” Caia said. Slowly she lowered herself into the chair at the reception desk, and slowly she reached for the phone, but then, of course, it stopped ringing, and went to voicemail.

“I like birds, obviously,” Tom said coldly. “I’m a member of the Audubon Society. That’s why I know it’s a raven. But we’re going to have to discuss whether we want to adopt a pet-friendly office policy.”

Caia sighed, a very small sigh, so as not to disturb the raven. “It’s not my pet,” she said, but only the raven heard.

The next time the phone rang, Caia was ready. It was difficult to take notes and see the transfer buttons while keeping her head up, but she made it work.

Although they had a pseudo-egalitarian office, an office in which no one had to bring anyone else their coffee, Amy brought a cup to Caia, and asked about her childhood. “Maybe you’re a bird-whisperer and you just never knew it,” she said.

Caia started to shake her head but remembered she had a bird on her head. “I don’t think so,” she said, feeling rueful. She would have liked to be an avian Dr. Doolittle.

Tom grumbled a little more as the morning progressed, and after a while Amy took the opportunity to say “I think you should quit grousing or we’re going to pigeon-hole you as the office crank and that might be hard for you to swallow,” at which Tom started to say something sarcastic but then, grinning slyly as if his mouth wasn’t quite sure how to make the smiling thing work, he said, “Oh quit sniping at me.”

The cavernous offices of Get ‘Em While They’re Hot sat in a brick building with tall mullioned windows that looked out over the boats/bridges/ducks/rain and other panoply of life in and on the river that split this odd old city in two. The windows were original to the building, and warped, and gave a slightly funhouse take on anything viewed through them. Caia loved it—the view through the mirage-inducing windows, that is. She didn’t love work, though she had thus far been unable to figure out an alternative. Someone (it might have been her sister) once said Working in a PR firm must be so exciting and Caia had shrugged, because it was really just putting lipstick on a pig, and though she liked pigs, and lipstick, for that matter, it wasn’t as though she was making the world a better place by presenting the pig in a better light. Or being the receptionist for the lipstick-applying pig-presenters.

Harrold arrived mid-morning. Being one of the company’s owners he could come in whenever he damn well pleased, he often said, though Tom always squeezed his lips together when Harrold came in whenever he damn well pleased.

Caia rotated her body slowly toward Harrold. “Hi,” she said.

“Caia,” Harrold said, “you seem to have a bird on your head.”

Tom and Amy took turns explaining the situation to Harrold, as if Caia was an objet d’art, or a child who couldn’t speak for herself. Come to think of it, she’d been more outspoken as a child than she was now, so really, she was left with the objet d’art, which was better than nothing, but not by much.

“The raven chose me,” she interrupted her (possibly) well-meaning boss and her (probably) well-meaning co-worker. “I think it’s a sign, and I’m meant to figure out what it means.”

The raven stood up, and the humans held their breath, waiting to see if this was a further sign, but it merely fixed one eye on Harrold, then resettled itself facing the opposite direction.

“East to West!” Amy said.

“What?” Harrold said, one eye squinting in confusion, or disbelief, or both.

“It was facing West to East, now it’s facing East to West,” she said. “You know, the ancient conflict between the ends of the earth. Maybe it’s trying to tell us we need to find unity, heal our divisions . . .”

Caia liked the sound of that, but before she could point out that (a) the raven was really pointing more East-South-East, and (b) the raven’s direction was going to change every time Caia moved, Harrold laughed, a loud, derisive guffaw.

“Amy, you’re . . . I don’t know what you are,” he said.

Caia rushed to Amy’s defense. “When was the last time a black bird landed on your head, Harrold?” she said, and then she was embarrassed. Would Harrold, a Black man, think that was somehow an accusation, that no black bird had deigned to choose him? “I just mean,” she said, trying to cover her embarrassment, “this isn’t something that’s ever happened to me or anyone I know. I’ve never even heard of it happening on NPR. So it’s not so crazy to think it’s a sign or,” she hesitated, then dropped her voice a little, “a miracle.” And she thought but didn’t say: my miracle. “It’s something,” she insisted.

“Agreed,” Harrold said. “It’s something. A bird got hurt or sick and landed on your head as a convenient resting place. I don’t think we need to go all mystic pizza. Just take him outside and let’s get back to work.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Tom said. “He seems to have bonded with Caia. It might cause some kind of, I don’t know, trauma, for her to abandon him now.”

Everyone stared at him. In a morning full of surprises, here was one more.

“Whatever,” Harrold said. “If you can work with that thing on your head, Caia, it makes no difference to me.”

He sidled by her, cautiously making his way around her to his desk, and Caia was suddenly fiercely glad. Because of the raven, she was an unknown quantity. A dangerous creature. A woman around whom one must exercise care.

By the end of the day, it was as if she had always had a bird attached to her head. People don’t often walk into a PR agency without an appointment, so there were no clients to be amazed or perplexed, but it was nevertheless gratifying to see how quickly Tom, Amy, and Harrold acclimated to Caia-and-the-Raven.

And then she was on the bridge again, heading home, walking with slow, measured steps. The river was sleepy now, crooning to itself sulkily. The sky looked down, fond but exasperated, and Caia caught their exchange, out of the corner of her eye.

When she got home, Richard was there already, standing at the kitchen counter with his cell phone in one hand, laptop on the counter in front of him, vacillating between the two screens like a dog torn between a steak and a maple-bacon Voodoo doughnut, except that the aforementioned dog would be deliriously happy, and Richard’s eyes looked vacant, and his Hi honey how was your day was almost indistinguishable from the breaths before and after, and he started to slide out of the way so she could make dinner, but then he looked up and said: “Holy crap, you have a bird on your head.”

After that he stopped looking at his phone, and his laptop, and made dinner (boxed macaroni and cheese, a salad, and a glass of pinot grigio), because obviously it would have been dangerous for Caia to work the gas stove with a bird on her head.

“Want some mac and cheese?” Richard said to the raven, raising both eyebrows to show the offer was made in good faith.

The raven was not, apparently, a fan of mac and cheese, but neither did the bird peck Richard’s eyes out, so Richard said he considered the interchange successful.

Afterward, they washed the dishes together, and then settled on the leather sofa they’d picked out because it was cool and hip before realizing that no matter where you sat it found a way to pinch your butt-cheeks together, which was uncomfortable and decidedly uncool. They watched a little television, and Caia asked Richard if he thought the television viewing preferences were different as between a crow and a raven, and Richard looked surprised and said he’d never thought it about. (The raven had no comment).

Then Richard kissed Caia’s hand so tenderly she almost thanked him. “Are you coming to bed?” he said.

Caia said no, she’d sleep in the recliner.

Both Richard and Caia despised the chair, inherited from Richard’s uncle, as unforgivably bourgeois, but now it turned out to be a remarkably useful item of furniture; who’d have thought she’d need it someday so she could sleep with a bird on her head?

She got up in the middle of the night to pee—another tricky business for a woman wearing a bird like a crown—handled masterfully, she felt. Before returning to the recliner, she stood on the threshold of the bedroom. The moonlight peering around the edges of the shades just illuminated Richard, asleep on their bed, his hand resting on the spot where Caia usually slept. For something less than a split second, Caia could imagine a different scene, a Richardless space on the bed, and the vision added to the unexpectedly infinite number of possibilities in the infinite universe.

Her possibilities.

In the morning she rose very early, before Richard but not before the sun. She was stiff from sleeping in one position, and carefully stretched her neck. The raven made muted croaking sounds and adjusted itself as she turned her head slowly from side to side.

The two of them waited in companionable silence while the coffee brewed.

I’m-done-I’m-done-I’m-done, the coffeemaker trilled, and Caia smiled at the cheery appliance, even gave it a pat to reward its faithfulness. and then she took her mug and the raven outside.

They stood together on the patio, leaning lightly on the railing, looking out over the street below, where the morning was unfurling, slowly at first, a red car rumbling toward the bridge, a honey bee flying experimentally by the dilapidated flower pots to determine if the time was ripe for collecting pollen, an old man with years of laughter and grief mapped on his face creaking by on the sidewalk; then faster, as a gaggle of young adults swarmed the coffee shop on the corner with disjointed conversation that floated up to Caia like word-balloons in a cartoon; and faster still, as the sun greeted the river, the honey bee, each blade of grass and dandelion and star thistle, Awake, my children, awake, flow and fly and photosynthesize.

Caia moved her head, gently but decisively. The raven stood up, extricated its talons from the rainbow tam, and hopped onto the railing, facing Caia. Bird and woman looked each other in the eye for a good long moment, and then the raven flew away, into the brightening air.

Copyright 2024 Lane