The Cycle of the Crow

by Christopher Bresnahan

Photo from Pexels

Cycle of the Crow Photo Tom-Swinnen.jpg

The Cycle of the Crow

 

Milton treats his taste buds to cigarette smoke, coffee, and the cool air of a waking desert. He sits alone on the bus stop bench, separated from the city by a single strip of road. A desolate road, neither used to enter the city, nor to leave it; it is used only by those who wish to view the city. Not tourists. The perspective is not at all pleasant, in fact, it’s quite unsettling: layers of concrete writhing like memories in a worried mind. Despite this, Milton prefers to view the city from this side of the road these days, and if that’s not quite true, he certainly spends more time on this side. Certainly. He wouldn’t dare cross the road these days.

A crow swoops down upon the road and pecks into its fallen prey: a mass of paper, aluminum foil, and cardboard. Trash, its original function long since contorted by the terror of car tires.

Milton takes another sip of coffee from his styrofoam cup and adjusts his quarter horse hat, sweat now accumulating along his brow as the sun crawls into the sky. He watches the creature, watches it struggle to eat bits of junk. He observes the cycle of the crow: peck, swallow, puke, repeat. Occasionally a car will screech by, and the crow will soar up on top of the dumpster across the road, but as soon as it’s safe again, the crow returns. Peck, swallow, puke, repeat. He watches it and feels a growing frustration in his mind, like white static on the television, but he isn’t sure which button to press to change the channel.

A woman walks by, Daisy Bedlam. Milton went to school with her forty-something years ago, back when they both lived in the city. They had shared a kiss once, one adolescent night while buzzing on whiskey and sour candies. Her lips were soft then; now, they’re cracked and withered by the sun. Milton glances down at his own wrinkled body and shudders to think of how she now views him.

“You see that bird?” He asks, cigarette clinging to his lips so that he can point with his free hand.

“Sure,” she croaks, her eyes glazed over with the haze of a lingering hangover. “What about it?”

Milton scratches the remaining strands of hair beneath his hat, and between puffs of smoke he sputters, “Well...well we gotta do something! I mean a bird out on the street, pecking away at old junk? That ain’t right.”

Daisy glances at him, then to the crow, then to her watch, then back to him. “My shift starts in five minutes, Milton.”

As she walks away, Milton smells a sweet perfume hidden beneath the stench of stale beer. He drinks the sensation, slipping back into that juvenile memory. Junior year of high school, that’s when he played running back on the starting line for the first time, when the world felt like it was just beginning to open up and show him that, beneath the banal concrete, something incredible awaited him, something…. White static. He shakes himself out of it. He refuses to swallow things that will only make him sick.

He runs out into the street, flapping his arms in front of the crow. It stops pecking and stares at the frantic old man.

“Get out of here!” He shouts, his throat suffering from the abrasion of his voice. He slugs the rest of his coffee to assuage that sensation.

The crow cocks its head, curious.

Milton flaps his arms again, the loose skin of his biceps fluttering, the smoldering tip of his cigarette releasing curls of smoke into the air. “Fly, I know you can. Just fly and get out of here! Go find some fucking berries in the desert, or a dead coyote. Don’t waste your life here, pecking at old shit that’ll only hurt you.”

            The crow swallows a mobius strip of aluminum foil. Milton sucks on his cigarette, staring.

A car interrupts their standoff, and they both retreat: Milton to his bench, the crow to its dumpster across the street.

The car suspends a plume of dust into the air, and through it Milton and the crow share a tactical glance. Then they react. Milton hobbles out into the road, the metal pins in his hip creaking like the rusted hinges of a door. The crow dives down from the dumpster, talons outstretched. Milton lunges and grabs the trash, tree bark skin scraping against the concrete, his cigarette and styrofoam cup sacrificed to the wind. He hears the crow’s flapping wings and its guttural caw above. He brings himself to his feet, the trash tightly secured against his ribs, and with his free hand he bats at the flying beast.

A metal cry. A mass of steel and rubber and oil. It’s an 18-wheeler. He looks back to the bus stop bench: the garbage bin is full, overflowing. The only place he can dispose of the trash is the crow’s dumpster, where the city begins.

The street suddenly shifts into an intangible stretch of time, a sea impossible to swim through. Can’t return to the apartment building after all this, can’t just return to his bench and allow the crow its masochistic victory. But to go back to the city now, after so many years of solitude…that would be insane.

The truck, its detailed steel now faded to a black, consuming void, continues to barrel toward him. Who’s behind the wheel? Don’t they see him standing there? Don’t they see the indecision that claws at him? Why don’t they hit the brakes, or honk the horn, or swerve the truck and give Milton just one second to think before he’s reduced to roadkill?

Milton closes his eyes, feeling the road tremor under the weight of the truck. The vibration travels up his bones and rattles his skull, causing that white static to return. He doesn’t suppress it this time. Instead he embraces it, and out of the claustrophobic mania of the black and white particles an image crystallizes: bright lights shining down on a green turf field. The smell of sweat and stale popcorn. The breath of twenty-two teenagers condensing into a ghostly fog in the autumn air. It’s 1973, at the Clearwater County championship football game.

The quarterback shrieks, “Hike!” and hands the ball to Milton. He grips the leather tight against his torso and punctures the defensive line. Sprinting, his consciousness succumbing to instinct. Sprinting, consuming the area of grass between him and that painted threshold, which always seems out of reach. Sprinting, because there is nothing else to do.

The 18-wheeler passes, and its violent wind brings Milton back to the present. The trash is safely secured in the dumpster, and after a few futile attempts at finding it, the crow flies away, its cycle now broken. Milton brings himself to his feet, a nasty road burn along his knee, threads of blood creeping down from a cut on his forehead. He doesn’t acknowledge the pain though. In fact, his thoughts have evaporated. Milton’s mind is absorbed by the glimmering city, which pleads for him like a mother who has finally found her lost child.