Crow on the Cradle
by Mary Taugher
Whenever someone enters the tiny curtained space where they’ve wheeled my gurney, I ask if Mr. Ramsey is alive. Is he in surgery, in a coma, dead? Either the ER nurses don’t know or they won’t give me an answer. They’ve dimmed the overhead lights, plugged an IV in the crook of my arm, and clamped a sensor on my finger. The jagged lines of my heartbeat zigzag across the monitor’s screen, and its bleeps overlay the noises of the emergency room. A nurse or doctor, I don’t remember which, told me I’m in shock and that I might have suffered a concussion. But I know I haven’t. I didn’t hit my head, the airbag didn’t even inflate when I hit Mr. Ramsey.
On the other side of a curtain a man calls out to the nurses to find him an electric shaver. Shave me smooth before I die, he moans. I try to tune him out. I curl into a fetal position, worrying about why my husband is taking so long to get here and whether he knows the pedestrian I hit is Mr. Ramsey.
It happened so fast. I remember the glare of the late afternoon sun. A man jogging toward me in the bicycle lane. Wisps of fog, jazz on the car radio. Then my vertigo returns so violently that I spin like a ragdoll in a washing machine, and I realize the jogger is Mr. Ramsey, whom I’ve seen a half dozen times in the past running this same path.
My dashboard, the pavement, the canopy of red flowering trees – it all swirls. Then everything collides into a nauseous blur until I see him inches from my front end. Mr. Ramsey, the man I loathe. I stomp on the brakes, yank the steering wheel. Which way? I can’t remember. The SUV lurches. Impact. God, the sound. A terrible thud reverberating through my body. My front right tire bumping over the curb.
It was an accident, a bizarre coincidence. I remember telling myself this as I sat trembling in my SUV. I don’t remember calling 911. I don’t remember climbing out of it. Next thing I know Mr. Ramsey’s head is in my lap. He’s unconscious. Sirens echo in my head, still spinning from the vertigo. My heart thumps wildly. And Mr. Ramsey’s legs, they’re twisted at unnatural angles, his shirt torn, a gash above his hip oozing blood. It’s the last thing I see before blacking out.
I was working at home from the third floor of our condo this morning, putting the finishing touches on a landscaping design before handing it off to the gardening company, when the vertigo first started. A loud cry, a hoarse gronk-gronk, startled me and I looked out my window to see a raven the size of a shoebox swooping down toward me. Tracking the raven, I felt a pull, a yanking really, in my forehead, and the room began to spin.
I squeezed my eyes shut. The sunlight from the window caused a blotchy afterimage of the bird and a fragment of a song about a crow on a cradle tumbled into my mind. I could hear the Irish folksinger’s voice, wistful and ethereal, as clearly as I had heard it so often at my friend Eileen’s house when our girls were young. The verse was about a baby’s birth, and the prophecy that if it were a girl, she would have rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, but that a shadow would trail her wherever she goes.
Spells of vertigo, from ear infections and high altitude, have hit me in the past so I wasn’t too alarmed. The verse, looping and insistent in my head, worried me more. I knew I needed to distract myself, so I used a cognitive-behavioral technique I’d picked up years ago. I got up from my desk and walked to my bathroom to count the shower floor tiles. After I’d counted to seventy-three, the song vanished.
Not long after, I took a break to walk down to the corner deli for lunch with my daughter. But as soon as we stepped outside I became woozy again. Christ, I said, grabbing her arm, I’m so dizzy it feels like the ground’s vibrating.
Earthquake’s in your head, Mom, she said, giving me a look of irritation.
The vertigo stopped seconds after I grabbed her, maybe because I was happy to be holding her arm, happy for any excuse to touch her. For nearly two years, my daughter had been depressed and sullen, in and out of therapy, off and on meds. In part, I blamed myself. My genes.
Earlier in the morning, I’d found her on the living room couch. It was six o’clock, way too early to be awake for someone her age, sixteen, and she told me she’d barely slept, couldn’t get back to sleep when she woke before dawn, couldn’t remember what it was like to sleep through an entire night or even three or fours hours at a stretch. She looked so sad telling me this. Her cheeks were flushed, and I flashed back to a day long ago, her cheeks glowing, her smile irrepressible as she accepted a gold medallion attached to a green ribbon for first place in the reel competition at an Irish feis.
I bit the inside of my lower lip, hard, until it hurt, then asked the question I knew I had to ask. Honey, you wouldn’t do anything to hurt yourself would you? You would tell me, right, wouldn’t you?
She shook her head yes and said, I’m okay, Mom, don’t worry about me.
I wondered if I’d ever stop worrying that she might harm herself. But what mother wouldn’t worry about a depressed teenage daughter, especially one who had skipped third grade and was young for her class, who had spent three and half years immersed in the culture of a high school where every year for the past six years a student had committed suicide, and who had left that school seven weeks ago, distraught and humiliated, to finish up her senior year at home in independent study.
When we entered the deli, I nearly fainted. I grabbed my daughter’s waist.
What is your problem? she snapped.
I’m dizzy again, I said.
Well then sit, she said, as if talking to a dog.
The deli owner, a Lebanese man named Sam, with coal black eyes and teeth so white and perfect they must have been capped, came from around the counter to ask if I was okay. Touching his forearm, I thanked him for his concern. I gave my daughter a twenty to buy lunch and by time she came back to the table with our salads, I was feeling better.
An hour later we went to family therapy. While we waited in the office, my husband scrolled through his phone, I flicked through trashy magazines, and my daughter stared as if hypnotized at a potted plant. And then, the damn song about the crow on the cradle snuck back into my head.
Stop, I told myself, wishing for the millionth time that I could overcome my anxieties. To calm myself, I employed another cognitive-behavioral trick that involves replacing an obsessive thought with a sensation that overpowers it.
I keep Altoids, the spearmint flavor, in my purse for just this purpose. I found a single one left in the tin box and popped it in my mouth. The taste at the core, stringent, almost medicinal, makes my mouth water with distaste and longing, opposing sensations that I suppose stretch back to my childhood when my beloved father gave me spearmint flavored mints, once after he’d disciplined me with a belt that left a row of welts on the back of my legs. You could argue that I was replacing one negative thought with another, but the overpowering effect of those mints was the handiest thing I could keep in my purse and certainly less harmful than a cigarette or a finger-pricking pin.
Dr. Mueller, a transplanted New Yorker with a mustache, barrel of a stomach and diamond stud in his right ear, didn’t keep us waiting long, and the four of us settled into his deep-cushioned, black pleather chairs and footstools.
We started family therapy because of what happened to my daughter. Nothing in her daughter’s history prepared us, but I suppose life unfolds like that, unexpectedly you round a corner of your life and bang: your mother dies or you lose your life savings. Or your daughter has sex with her teacher, Mr. Ramsey.
And not just once but multiple times, in multiple places, in classrooms and supply closets, in motels, in his Volvo wagon. Perhaps even in his home. Mr. Ramsey lives less than a mile from us.
A charismatic teacher, he taught at the high school for twenty years, right up until he was arrested, charged and released on bail. He’s my age, forty-six, with three children. It makes me nauseous if I pause too long to think about it. I mean the fact that this father, this teacher, sexually abused my daughter — and the fact, too, that his children may now be fatherless.
Family therapy didn’t start well that day. Dr. Mueller seemed distracted and my daughter refused to answer any questions with anything other than “I don’t know” or “maybe.”
My husband admitted that he’d wanted to do “bodily harm” to Mr. Ramsey, but had mastered the “ugliness” of the situation. The women in his life needed help, he said, and he was here for us, to help us deal with “our” guilt and sorrow, “our” anger and humiliation.
Ticked off by his above-it-all attitude, I scolded my husband, told him he’d bailed out on us, that all he ever did lately was immerse himself in his busy, busy work, that he might as well have a leash around his neck for all the time he spent attached to his computer.
Why are you yelling at me? he asked.
I turned to my daughter to gauge her reaction or to look for her solidarity, I’m not sure which, and was stricken by her expression.
A twisted smile. It might have been a nervous smile but, God help me, what flicked through my mind was sadistic smile. She was gloating.
Christ, I cried. Why are you smiling like that? Do you think this conversation is funny?
Maybe, I don’t know, she said.
I squeezed the arms of the chair, clenched my jaw. My daughter crossed her arms, still smiling. My husband cleared his throat. Dr. Mueller pulled on his ear and twisted the diamond stud, waiting like therapists do for the dynamics to play themselves out.
Babe, calm down, my husband said. I admit I’ve been a detached. It’s hard. Hard for all of us. We’ll get through it.
Say something, I said to my daughter.
She shrugged her shoulders, poked the tip of her tongue between her lips and licked her upper lip. A wave, no, a tsunami of vertigo washed over me. I leaned forward, put my head between my knees. I could hear my daughter fidgeting, the sound of her bare legs rubbing against the pleather chair.
Vertigo again? my husband asked.
He turned to Dr. Mueller and said, She’s had several episodes today.
It could be stress, Dr. Mueller said. But see a doctor if it doesn’t go away by tomorrow. I’ll get a glass of water.
I righted myself. The room gyrated. The back of my shirt was wet with sweat. My husband reached over to rub my back. Just as Dr. Mueller re-entered the room with the water, my daughter started laughing. She covered her mouth with both hands, but couldn’t stop.
You’re laughing because you’re uncomfortable, Dr. Mueller said. He handed me the glass of water and sat down. Perhaps you’re angry too, as angry as your mother. Tell us what you’re angry about.
No, no, my daughter said. I’m not upset. I’m relieved.
I took a sip of water. The vertigo had receded but I felt faint. My daughter curled her lips into a sneer again and locked her eyes on mine.
Get that snide smile off your face, I snapped at her.
She clamped her lips shut, and I could tell she was biting the insides of her cheeks as I sometimes do. Then she relaxed her jaw and slumped in her seat. With contempt embedded in her voice, she said, I’ll never be like you. That’s why I fucked Mr. Ramsey. I never want to be like you. I will kill myself if I ever become like you. I hate you.
Her words knocked my breath away. I couldn’t, wouldn’t believe what she was saying. I saw her little-girl self sitting on my lap, twisting the cloth carrot I’d sewn back on her blue-jacketed bunny, her face nuzzling the space just beneath my breastbone as she described why I was the best Mommy in the world.
My husband looked stunned. Dr. Mueller waited for one of us to speak. The silence hung over us like a dark holographic presence until my daughter broke it.
Your turn to say something, she said to me. But you’re probably afraid. You’re always afraid, always worrying about something. Afraid of heights, of flying. Dr. Mueller, do you know she has to down a scotch and a couple of Xanax before we leave for the airport?
Dr. Mueller looked at his watch and said, I want to talk about the comment you made earlier, about having intercourse with your teacher because you didn’t want to be like your mother.
I didn’t say intercourse, my daughter said. I said, fucked.
And you said you hated your mother.
This is stupid.
What do you mean?
What do you think? This. Family therapy. All we ever do is talk about me. I try to talk about my mom and her wacko problems, and you bring it back to me. Fuck it.
With that my daughter jumped out of her chair and stormed out of the room. We’d already gone beyond our time, and Dr. Mueller had another patient waiting, so we agreed to revisit her disturbing disclosure at our next session.
On the drive back, we were quiet, polite, distant. On the bridge, I counted sailboats to shove my daughter’s ugly words from my mind. When got home, my daughter ran up to her room. I told my husband I needed to unwind, that I was going to go to the YMCA for a yoga class. He offered to drive me, a conciliatory gesture I appreciated but didn’t accept.
What about your vertigo?
I’ll pull over if it happens again, I assured him.
Yoga relaxed me. Lying there on my mat under the gently whirring fans in the waning light of the afternoon, the eucalyptus trees swaying in the high windows of the studio as the instructor’s melodious voice guided us, I felt my limbs loosening, my legs twitching, as if I were about to drift off to sleep. My breathing was slow and expansive.
Afterwards, as I rolled up my mat, a woman I knew came up to me. Our children had been in the same class in grade school, but I saw her these days only at the Y or grocery store. She couldn’t wait to tell me which college her daughter had been accepted to, ranked seventh in the latest U.S. News and World report. She barely paused for my response before asking in a hushed tone about my daughter.
How is she coping? It must be so difficult for you. If there is anything, anything at all I can do, please call.
Please call, I repeated.
I meant to voice my disbelief that she would under any circumstance expect that I might call her to lean on, but my voice came out like a mimicking parrot. I felt my face flush. Slapping her crossed my mind, but instead I ran out of the yoga studio.
Walking across the parking lot, I felt pressure clamp my head like a vise being screwed tighter and tighter. Within seconds I was woozy. The parking lot’s black-topped surface bounced like a trampoline. I stopped to lean on the bumper of a car, and started when someone spoke my name. The yoga instructor was standing beside me, asking me if I felt ill.
Vertigo, I told her. I’ll be okay in a minute.
The instructor suggested that I return to the gym and call someone for a ride home. But the dizziness seemed to be subsiding, so I told her I’d wait in the car for ten minutes. I thanked her and promised to call someone if the vertigo didn’t go away.
My memory is fuzzy. I must have arrived here in an ambulance. I cannot remember much until the detective came into my curtained cubicle. My adrenaline kicked in. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, but I knew right away who she was. She had an air of authority twinned with weariness. She’d heard it all. All the versions people conjure of their own reality.
We didn’t talk long. A nurse shooed her away. I wish now I’d feigned a concussion. Except for the vertigo, I’m not sure exactly what I told her, how I worded things. You need to be precise, cautious in a situation like this.
My husband leans over me. I reach up to touch his face. His hair is graying near his ears and at his temple. I squeeze his hand.
It was an accident, I tell my husband.
Quiet. Don’t say another word. The doctor says you’re in shock. It was the vertigo, wasn’t it? I should have driven you, damn it. You’re going to be fine. I’ve called an attorney.
Is Mr. Ramsey —
Shhh, it wasn’t your fault, my husband says, and I can tell by his hesitant tone that Mr. Ramsey is dead. An arrow of fear flits through me, but that’s all, just a single dart, and I wonder idly why I’m not more frightened by the idea that I’ve killed a man.
Don’t talk, my husband says. Just rest now. What are they giving you? Do you need more painkillers? Have they given you a sedative?
No, where is -–
She’s in the waiting room.
How is she? Is she all right? You shouldn’t leave her.
Babe, calm down, my husband says, your sister is with her.
He strokes my forehead.
I ask him if my purse is in the room. I need an Altoid. He finds my purse and rifles through it, but the tin box is empty. Please, please find me an Altoid, I tell him.
Alone, it comes back to me, like a missing link I didn’t know I was searching for. I remember now what I felt when I saw Mr. Ramsey and became dizzy. I can only describe it as a controlled rage. I didn’t mean to kill him.
My heart rate judders rapidly across the monitor, and I watch it as if from a great distance. I feel as though my years of practicing coping strategies has culminated in this moment, in this decision: I put my terrible revelation in a small box and seal it with packing tape, winding the tape around and around the box until I’m satisfied that it will never come undone, and then I shove that box into the furthest corner of our attic. All these years of therapy I’ve been told that denial doesn’t work, but I know with every deep breath I take, watching the monitor as my heart rate calms, that I will never open this box again.
I prop myself up on the gurney and wait for my husband to return. But when the curtains part it’s my daughter. She’s been crying.
Mom, are you okay? she asks. Have you heard anything about Mr. Ramsey? I can’t believe it was him that you hit. Mom, I –
My daughter pauses. Stares open mouthed at me.
Why are you looking at me like that?
Everything is going to be okay, I say.
I want to tell her that she’ll never have to worry about that damn crow, but I know she’ll think I’m crazy, so I give her a wider, reassuring grin.
She takes a step back from me. Stop it, she says. Stop smiling at me like that.
I clamp my lips together, curling them inside and over my teeth. Then I close my eyes, concentrate on my counting. I count the people who can attest to my vertigo. One … Sam, the deli owner. Two … Dr. Mueller. Three … the yoga instructor. Four … my husband. Five … my daughter. She didn’t mean what she said in Dr. Mueller’s office. She loves me, and someday, maybe when she’s a mother, she’ll realize how fiercely I love her.
Mary Taugher is a graduate of the MFA creative writing program at San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Transfer, Instant City, 580 Split, Prick of the Spindle. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2009 Short-Story Award for New Writers contest.