Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.

Chapter Four Hundred and six : Crow

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Jacob flicked the fly-fishing rod to create a new perfect cast. The line lay itself down on the water. The fly landed perfectly over a deep hole in the stream. As with all of the other times he’d cast, a large brown trout jumped onto the end of the line. Even though he knew this was some kind of masturbatory fishing, he felt sheer joy at catching the fish. Jacob hooted, and Sarah barked in celebration.

“How many is that girl?” Jacob asked with a laugh.

Sarah barked seven times.

“Seven gorgeous trout,” Jacob said.

He pulled on the line and the fish swam toward him. Jacob stroked the trout’s belly before releasing it from the fly.

“We should remember this stream,” Jacob said.

Sarah seemed to laugh at him.

“I know, I know,” Jacob said. “It’s not real. It’s still …”

He looked out at the day. The day was warm, but not too hot. This stream had deep holes for large fish to live and grow. It was shaded by tall deciduous trees, a type Jacob had never seen before. The sun didn’t seem to rise or set here. Every day was warm, sunny, and beautiful.

As long as he didn’t give in to his insecurities and fears. He’d done that. More than once. Dark, ominous clouds appeared out of nowhere. Sarah’s bark usually brought him out of his mental self-loathing. He looked at his yellow Labrador with gratitude. He was so glad she was there with him.

Jacob had found that spending time sending Jill love brought him bigger fish. If he actively spent time loving his children or Jill or even Valerie and Sam, he was able to get almost anything he wanted. Last night, it was a large pepperoni pizza with a six pack of wheat beer. He and Sarah hadn’t eaten all of the pizza, and he’d had only one beer, but he felt like he was learning the complicated rules of this place.

A crow landed on a branch which hung over the stream. Jacob hadn’t seen a lot of birds, so he was pretty sure he should pay attention to this one.

“Yes?” Jacob asked.

The crow cawed at him three times: “Caw! Caw! Caw!”

“Jimmy’s fallen into the well?” Jacob asked in reference to the Lassie movies.

The crow was not amused by him. Instead, the crow started pecking at the branch. Figuring it was just another oddity of this place, Jacob shrugged and went back to fishing. He was reeling in the next fish when the crow started flying over the stream.

Jacob scowled and looked at the bird.

“What?” Jacob asked with irritation in his voice.

The crow flew back and forth over the river. Jacob reeled the trout in, tickled its belly, and let it go. The crow flew close to him, and he pulled in the fishing rig. He watched the crow warily. It took him a minute to figure out that the crow wanted him to join the bird on the branch.

“What do you think?” Jacob asked Sarah. “Is this bird a message from the dark side?”

He grinned at his use a popular metaphor. If Delphie were here, she would chastise him.

“There is no dark side, Jacob,” Delphie would say. “No light. There is only the dark and light we bring to every situation.”

Jacob grinned at the sound of her voice in his head.

“And then there’s the Sea of Amber,” Jacob said out loud.

The crow cawed in response to Jacob’s words. Jacob scowled.

“I’d like you to speak with me in a manner in which I understand,” Jacob said.

The crow seemed to nod its head. The crow spun in a circle. It lifted one leg and set it down. Then it lifted the other leg. The bird lifted its wings and turned around again.

“Are you line dancing?” Jacob asked.

Jacob couldn’t help but laugh out loud. The crow cawed and shook itself head to toe.

“Okay, okay,” Jacob said. “I get it. You are a crow, so you speak like a crow. What are you here to tell me?”

The crow shook its head.

“Show me?” Jacob asked. His eyebrows rose with a mixture of wonder and amusement.

The crow tilted its head back and seemed to laugh at Jacob.

“Okay, okay, give me a moment,” Jacob said. “You’re a crow, right?”

The crow nodded its head.

“All right,” Jacob said. “Crows caw. They scavenge for food. My dad always says that without crows and vultures the world would be filled with rotting vermin. Crows are great problem solvers, better than any other animal including mammals.”

Jacob scowled at the bird. The bird appeared to grin at Jacob.

“How is it that you can smile at me?” Jacob asked Sarah.

The dog wagged its tail and panted.

“Crows …” Jacob said in a low tone. “I know! Crows collect things. No one really know why they collect what they do, but crows seem to have individual preferences. Some collect shiny things while some collect wood or paper. That’s it! What did you collect?”

The crow dropped a small, shiny stone the size of a large marble into the stream and flew away.

“Crap,” Jacob said.

He threw himself into the stream after the stone. He gasped at the cold which instantly penetrated his very core. He dug around in the stream but couldn’t find the stone. He put his head into the water and saw nothing. He was almost ready to give up when he remembered that Sarah was there to help him. In fact, Sarah seemed to understand how this world worked better than he did! He leaned back on his heels and looked at Sarah. She was standing on the bank of the river watching his every moment.

“Find it!” Jacob ordered.

Sarah jumped into the stream. She swam around him and sniffed the top of the water. After a few passes, she stuck her nose into the water. She swam to the side of the stream and set the rock down.

“You did it” Jacob cheered. “Good girl!”

He followed her out of the stream. She walked a few feet away and shook off the water. Dripping, Jacob leaned over the rock. He wondered if this was some kind of a test. Closing his eyes, he tried to sense the stone. He shrugged. It seemed like a pretty stone. He dropped to the ground, shifted his legs to cross-legged, and looked at the stone.

“What do you think I should do?” Jacob asked Sarah.

Sarah dropped to her belly and closed her eyes.

“Sleep?” Jacob asked.

Sarah gave him a reprimanding bark. He stroked her fluffy head.

“Yeah, that’s not right,” Jacob said. “I can feel it … here.”

He touched his heart. He continued talking to the dog.

“I know it’s important,” Jacob said. Looking at Sarah, he asked, “You think I can touch it?”

Sarah barked.

“Here goes nothing,” Jacob said under his breath.

He picked up the stone. His mind flashed on the fight he and Valerie had had the day Mike left for the Army. The memory held so many untamed and violent emotions that he almost set the stone down. Sarah barked, and Jacob nodded. He closed his eyes and let the memory come.

“You stupid bastard,” Valerie said. She beat on him with her fists. She hit him so hard that he could feel welts rising. “How could you?”

“‘How could I’ what?” Jacob asked. “He told you that he was leaving! You knew he was leaving long before I did.”

“Yeah but …” Valerie smashed her fists into his shoulders. “You stupid jerk. Do you care about anyone but yourself?”

“Are you insane?” Jacob asked. “You told me that he was going to the Army. You told me. He’s your boyfriend. How is any of this my fault?”

Shocked, Valerie gawked at him. Jacob felt like she’d finally heard him. He continued.

Your boyfriend left for the military,” Jacob said. “He went there so that he could be good enough for you.”

“He told you that?” Valerie asked. Her mouth dropped open. Her face shone with a mixture of rage and sorrow.

He told you that!” Jacob said. “You told me that.”

“I did not tell you that,” Valerie said. “And anyway, he’s plenty good enough for me.”

“I told you that!” Jacob said with righteous indignation.

Valerie hit him for a few more minutes.

“You totally don’t get it!” Valerie said.

She hit him a few more times and stormed off. Feeling like he’d won, he smirked at her retreat. She didn’t speak to him at dinner. As the days and weeks went by, Valerie stopped talking to him altogether. He tried to reach out to her but she just said, “You just don’t get it.” She left for college and, even when their mother had died, she didn’t speak to him again until he met Jill and she came home from living with Wes.

Jacob’s mind filled with a stream of justifications.

“She’s insane!”

“She’s the one who owes me an apology. Not the other way around.”

“Selfish. She’s so selfish. She left me to deal with Mom dying. She just floated in all ‘la-ti-da’ and floated away while our father was losing his fucking mind.”

“And where was Valerie? Why bother asking? Valerie was taking care of herself. Of course.”

“Fuck, she was nowhere to be found when things were hard. Like always.”

“There is no way this has anything to do with me.”

He sniffed. His heart pumped with rage. His mind continued to throw out angry statement after rage-filled justification.

“Who does she think she is?” Jacob asked. “She abandoned me!”

Jacob got to his feet and stomped around for a bit. His mind listed off all of the hard things that Valerie missed because she was pissed off for no reason at all.

“And who the fuck do you think was left to fix the God damned Castle?”

Jacob’s voice echoed off the little valley he’d been fishing in. When the sound echoed back to him, it sounded like:

“Wa wa wa wa wa waaa waa wa.” In spite of himself, Jacob laughed.

“Oooh crap,” Jacob said.

He sat down again and looked at the shiny stone. It gleamed like a diamond there among the sparse grass and dirt of the side of the river.

“How did you get here?” Jacob asked vaguely, not expecting any response.

“Crow plucked me from Valerie’s heart,” the stone spoke in waves of energy.

“This is Valerie’s?” Jacob asked. “Valerie is pissed off at me? For this? Why am I surprised? Poor precious Valerie couldn’t handle the fact that her boyfriend left for the Army and …”

He stopped talking and stared at the stone.

Valerie hadn’t handled Mike leaving very well. In fact, outside of school, she never left her room. She stopped being a cheerleader. She stopped eating much either. After a while, their parents put her in a psychiatric hospital. They went to family meetings, but there was no way Jacob was going to join them. Valerie fucked herself up. She could just fix her own goddamned self.

When she got out, she was more distant and more shut down. When she left for UCLA, he knew in his heart that it would be a long, long time before he saw her again.

He leaned back on his hands and looked up at the sky. He allowed his mind to remember everything that happened. He’d been standing behind Valerie when Delphie told her that Mike was the only man she’d ever love. She’d turned in place, glared at him, and stormed off to her room.

Of course, Delphie was right.

In all the intervening months and years, Delphie had remained right. For the first time in his life, he saw how much his sister had suffered — the house in Monterrey; her engagements to the wrong men; Mike’s return in body but not in spirit or mind; and everything that led to her return to the Castle all these years later.

His heart broke open for her.

If he’d been a person who cried, he would have wept for his sister. On the outside, she was the girl who had it all but on the inside, she had shattered when Mike left. As her brother, he should have, at the very least, borne witness to her pain. But he was caught up in his own whirlwind.

Valerie was still broken, all these years later.

It wasn’t about who was right and who was wrong, it was about loving someone through their pain. His fixation with being right had left her out in the cold at a time when she needed to be held close. She remained out in the cold through the death of their mother, their father’s insanity, and everything else.

His sister had yet to come in out of the cold.

As if someone was instructing him from far away, he realized what he needed to do. He focused his mind on Valerie’s face. In his mind, he whispered:

“I see your pain. I feel and know your desperate pain over Mike leaving for the Army. I forgive you for blaming me, and I ask forgiveness for not even trying to understand what you are going through. I failed you as a brother. And I am deeply sorry. I love you, Valerie, with all of my heart. I always have and always will. Please forgive me.”

Not sure if he was doing it right, he said it out loud.

When he opened his eyes, there was a long brown feather lying on top of the stone. As he watched, the stone disappeared in a puff of smoke. The feather lay where the stone had been.

For some unknown reason, Jacob picked up the feather and tucked it into his pocket. Getting up, he grabbed his fly fishing rod and whistled for Sarah, who was standing not a foot from him. Laughing at himself, they walked back to the cabin. He set the fishing equipment by the door, relit the fire, shucked his clothing, and crawled into bed. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow. Sarah jumped onto the bed. The crow cawed outside the cabin, and Sarah gave a soft affirming bark. Nothing stirred inside their safe haven. Sarah laid down next to Jacob and fell asleep.


Friday early morning — 3:13 a.m.

Valerie awoke from a sound sleep. Disoriented by the conflict between her strong emotions and soothing sleep, she looked around. Her father’s eyes were closed and his breathing was deep. Blane was rocking back and forth with his eyes closed. Valerie touched Blane’s leg in support. He grabbed her hand tightly. She gave his hand a squeeze before letting go. She knew that she couldn’t help him. Like her, he had to get through this himself.

She slipped off the blankets and went inside to use the bathroom. Opening the door, she found a group of Lipson people and Jacob’s carpenters toasting each other.

“Looking for a toilet?” Erik Le Monde asked.

“I was,” Valerie said with a smile.

He turned to look at a Hispanic man. He nodded and Erik waved her toward what she knew was a closet. Unwilling to break their revelry, Valerie opened the door to the closet to find three stalls, two urinals, gorgeous blue and white tile on the floor and walls.

“Wow,” Valerie said and smiled.

The men and women gave each other high fives. Valerie slipped into the toilets. She did her business. She said a silent prayer before flushing. When everything went down, she made her own cheer and went to wash her hands with a liquid soap she recognized from her secret stash of hand soap. For some reason, Mike’s theft of her soap made her smile. She gave the team an appreciative smile when she came out. Waving off a beer, she returned to her spot on the deck. The grandmother nodded to her.

Valerie couldn’t see much from where she was sitting. There were the grandfather and another shaman was singing what sounded like one word repeated over and over again. An adult shaman was creating a painting out of sand and the child, Ooljee, was working on the painting. Three shamans were sitting cross legged with their eyes closed. A team of four or five men and women were drumming, while a man stood next to the fire. Valerie wasn’t sure why, but she felt like something was better. She wasn’t sure what, but she felt like something had shifted.

Valerie looked up when the grandmother came close. The grandmother offered Valerie some water. Valerie smiled and took the cup from her.

“You may go back to sleep,” the grandmother said.

Valerie smiled at the woman and drank the water. The grandmother took the cup and wandered back to the ceremony. Valerie looked up at the starry night.

She had just closed her eyes when Jacob’s face appeared before her. Surprised, she opened her eyes. His face remained before her. Valerie reached out to touch his face, but her hand went straight through the image. She looked up and the grandmother was looking at her. The grandmother gave her a “go ahead” nod, and Valerie closed her eyes.

Jacob seemed to be sitting down in a beautiful place. She saw sun and dappled shadow on his face. His hair was a mess like it always was when he was camping. There was a sound. It took her a moment to realize the sound was water, no, a stream. Jacob was sitting by a beautiful stream. Valerie smiled.

“Are you fishing, brother?” Valerie asked in her mind.

He didn’t seem to hear her, which was all right with Valerie. She was just happy to see his face. She smiled. She felt a set of tight claws on her shoulder, and she looked up. The enormous crow had landed on her shoulder. She was looking at the amazing bird, when she heard:

“I see your pain. I feel and know your desperate pain over Mike leaving for the Army.”

Valerie gasped. She was so shocked by his first words that she couldn’t hear the rest of his words. The crow leaned over and pulled something from her left ear. She looked at the bird and saw cotton in the bird’s mouth. The bird jumped to her right shoulder and completed the same process. The bird flew to the fire on the deck where the bird dropped the cotton. The fire flared for a moment, and then settled down.

Valerie heard everything Jacob had to say:

“I see your pain. I feel and know your desperate pain over Mike leaving for the Army. I forgive you for blaming me, and I ask forgiveness for not even trying to understand what you are going through. I failed you as a brother. And I am deeply sorry. I love you, Valerie, with all of my heart. I always have and always will. Please forgive me.”

Her hands went to the place her resentment had been. Instead of the shiny stone of resentment, she found the deep well of love she had for her brother. It was as if the stone had capped that well to keep any love from coming out. With it gone, she felt only love for him.

“I love you, Jake,” Valerie whispered out loud.

As if they’d heard her, the meditating shamans opened their eyes and looked at Valerie. The grandfather, who was singing, noticed their look. He followed their eyes to Valerie. He glanced at the shamans and then at Valerie again. Without breaking his song, the grandfather nodded to Valerie and smiled. The meditating shamans did the same thing before returning to their trance.

When Valerie looked the crow was gone, and the grandmother was standing next to her.

“You did well,” the grandmother said. “Sleep now. You deserve it.”

Valerie smiled at the grandmother. As if the woman had wished it, Valerie fell into the first deep sleep she’d had since Mike had left for the Army.

Denver Cereal continues next week…

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