There’s no railroad crossing here, no train whistle in the cool gray fog to wake me when I lie down dazed in stubble that thrusts up brown and sere around me, five yards away from the tracks. The dirt smells wormy—a hint of something darker beneath: leaf-matter fermenting. Dung.
I can taste it on my tongue. I can taste him on my tongue: there really is no death.
They had to cut my father out from behind the wheel of the car; the baby was tossed free. They say that my father neither heard the train nor saw it coming. They say that he flung his arm out to protect the baby—so both of them, unprotected, floated oblivious into death.
What was it like, that blackness? Pure black, jet-black, ebony—or saturated with the red of their blood?
Idle questions. I roll onto my stomach, facedown in the stubble. What did it feel like? What does anything feel like?
A body. I’m a body.
Fifty-nine years old.
The stubble making me bleed.
I turn my face right. A crow wanders toward me. Blue-black feathers, dull bones beneath.
I reach for it. Reach.
Then, a shadow. Blocking the soot-colored light. Helga’s face looms near. Porous, reddened. A death mask—right?
She smiles. “Bacon,” she says. “I make bacon for you, Andy.”
“I’ve got to keep working.”
“Are you working? Or killing crows?”
“I can’t even touch one,” I say, sitting up; I reach for her hands, let her pull me to my feet. “When Pollock lived on Long Island, they used to come right up, take food from his hand—he could pet ‘em like a dog.”
“Do you want to stroke crows, Andy? I thought you were going to paint.”
“I can’t give it up.”
“You haven’t seen her in years.”
“She’s in here,” I say, and touch the side of my head. “I still want to do them. Like—Fukase with his ravens. You know?”
“You don’t get it,” I say, for the hundredth time. “I don’t want you to look dead. I want you to embrace death. There’s a difference.”
I love to manipulate Helga in the leaves, her body unnaturally white in the red-gold pile I’ve scattered over her. “Look at you,” I say. “How’d your face get so red?” I want to laugh at her, mock her; I wander in a circle plucking out the front of my shirt, giving myself breasts.
Whenever I tease her, Helga usually laughs. But now she rubs both palms over her face, making her skin blotch.
“Hey,” I say. “Leave it alone. How’m I supposed to get a painting out of that?”
“Use your imagination.” She picks up handfuls of leaves, scrapes her skin till it’s raw. “Is that enough?” she says, and opens her mouth, rubs leaf matter across her tongue. “She lives two miles away.”
“Jesus,” I say. “You’re ill. Sick. Go home.”
“Sick,” she says, and laughs. “Because I’m not Chris?” and I lean down, stare; the laughter stops.
“Why didn’t she ever come back?’ she asks; if she were jealous, I wouldn’t answer...but she’s not.
Her frozen face in my palms. “What d’you think? It couldn’t have gotten better. And so—we left it.”
“Like the convent,” she replies, and kisses me with swollen lips. “There was that second, scrubbing the floor. Hands and knees, and I thought I saw something. Not an experience. But saw something near the altar—floating. Stupid—it could’ve been a pigeon! But no, I decide. It was more. And for days I was happy.”
“Chris in her black henley,” I say. “Helga in her little white cowl,” and she laughs, and we’re together again, warm as an old married couple.
My father taught me to erase particulars from a painting, leave their essence floating like a ghost only sensitive viewers can detect. That way, an apple reminds us of the person who wanted to devour it but wandered, instead, into the barn, where he lay down beside the cattle and slept.
I met her out walking.
She was crouching in the snow. Thick jeans wadded up around her thighs. Pockets bulging as she squatted, fingering a something. Helga was with me that day. Trailing behind me, picking up pinecones, flipping them over in her nicotine-stained fingers, examining them.
She saw the girl a second after I did, lingered behind me.
She was an Indian girl—twenty-one? Twenty-two? Her hair a blue-black glittering, ruffled up around her coat collar. Rubber boots climbed her calves, ended below her knees. Her skin was poor, red blemishes surrounding her nose. I gazed at her sallow face and the skeletal structure came shining toward me—how white the bones, beneath tissue and arteries, the blue-and-red matter of being.
She was light-complexioned for an Indian. That thing—almost glossy—clutched in her hand. I gazed into her eyes. She gazed back into mine, not at all shy.
“What’ve you got there?” I asked.
She held out her hand. “Crow,” she said. “Found it like that. What do you think?”
I thought that it was missing its head. I gazed into the neck cavity, dark as her lipsticked mouth, declined to touch it.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Haven’t seen you around here before.” Helga came up behind me, arms crossed over her breasts, so womanly she embarrassed me.
“Helga Testorf,” I said, to the Indian girl.
“Chris Ramsay. I work over there.” She jerked her thumb in the direction of a hill.
“Ramsay? Of Ramsay and Sons?”
“I’m the daughter,” she said. “The sons already left.”
Helga scraped her boot toe through ice. Chris Ramsay’s sea-colored eyes watched the ice split apart, translucent veins, two big chunks. “What should I do with the crow?”
“Don’t bury it,” I said. “Leave it on the ground. Let animals take it away, piece by piece.”
Chris studied me for a second. “You’re the painter,” she said. “The one whose father died. My dads still talk about it.” Helga looked up at that; Chris touched Helga’s cheek, stroked it while Helga stared.
“Lotion,” she said. “Your skin’s dying off.
“Can I have a lift?” she asked me, suddenly. “Dinner in an hour.”
I shrugged. “You see a car?” I tugged my ear, glanced over at Helga. “Should we walk you?” I asked.
“I’d like that very much. Rape country around here.”
She stooped, laid the crow remnant in the snow, scooped white stuff over it.
We advanced through a twilit evening that reminded me of the Aurora Borealis: a wash of pinks, golds, violets igniting the sky. I glanced over at Helga, who walked clutching my hand, and thought how she was the secret: Helga in her green coat, pigeon-toed as she strode; Helga straddling a chair, gazing out a window misted with snow. She gazed back, eyes frosted windows, and I thought, Well, that’s it, then. Who could fathom women anyway? As closed-off as death.
Chris Ramsay meandered alongside, kicking slush with her rubber boots. She caught me watching, said, “Used to work in a meatpacking plant. Y’know, slinging guts. These boots kept me from slipping in all that blood. Or breaking my bones when a piece of carcass fell on me.”
“But didn’t your...fathers....” Helga ventured.
Chris grinned. One front tooth was darker than the other; her bottom teeth weren’t straight. “Didn’t think I wanted the family business then,” she said. “I mean, be a part of it. Guess you could say I was chickenshit like my brothers— didn’t see the possibilities.”
Ramsay and Sons squatted, a Georgian, two-columned structure, atop the next hill. The paint was fresh and clean; green awnings draped windows rich with a warm yellow lamplight. It wasn’t here, this building, when my father and Newell’d been killed.
Then, they’d laid Pa and Newell out in the Quaker Meeting House. I was the only Wyeth who had the stomach to view the bodies. A stain—reddish-brown blood from injured Hessian soldiers—mottled floorboards beneath the coffins.
Fair-haired little Newell, pale lips pursed, in his blue-and-white sailor suit. Pa with those broad black brows, face broad as an Indian’s. Magnificent in death.
“Let’s go in,” Chris said, stepping into the foyer. “We can have a little supper. My dads’ll have it ready.”
Out of the gloom, stretched and pale as taffy, stepped the two dads.
“Welcome,” one said, stepping forward, clasping my hand: his dry, smooth palm. Unaccustomed to work. Then I thought about what his business was and went cold all over. In the sudden confusion, these two men with close-cropped, dark hair, starched white shirts that buttoned up to their Adam’s apples, shiny black slacks, were escorting Helga and me into the foyer, Chris mixed into the confusion. “Hello,” they said, “hello,” and Helga squeezed herself up next to me, rubbed her palm up and down my arm, though I couldn’t tell whether she was enjoying herself or felt smothered.
And the foyer. Like a gilt half-dome or a glorified brothel, red-gold wallpaper, crystal chandelier, blood-colored carpet. A sense of quiet so profound I wanted to sink right inside it, vanish inside the walls. I wondered if rats were in these walls, if they crept out for viewings, sat on the boots of corpses who couldn’t protest their presence.
“You’ll stay and have dinner with us, of course,” one of the dads said, stroking my arm, his fingertips stained with something beige. “I’m Arthur, by the way. And my friend here’s Malcolm.”
I’d thought they were brothers, not lovers. Then I looked at them both, sorted out features in my mind. They were different, I realized—only dressed alike.
“I couldn’t possibly. You weren’t expecting us.”
“Venison,” Malcolm said, his jaw squarer, darker, than Arthur’s, his eyes an impossible shade of blue: I gazed straight into them, leaned back under a vista of summer sky. “How can you say ‘no’?”
I smiled, rubbed my mouth in assent. Arthur cheered.
At dinner, all of us were prim, crimson linen napkins spread across our laps. I pictured Betsy at home, a snifter of brandy at her side as she lounged in her purple housecoat before the fire. I wouldn’t call her. She wouldn’t understand. She’d think I was still at the studio, struggling to paint, becoming so blocked that I’d paint the same brown landscape over and over, the one that reminded me of my father. She wouldn’t get it: no. That’s why I hadn’t told her about Helga. She’d hated Siri so much—I didn’t want more rage in my life: I wanted a snow-sleep. Calm.
We were eating baby peas with a knife and fork, thick cuts of a deer I imagined swinging from a rafter, bleeding out from its throat. Helga devoured her meal with furious appetite; wet dribbled down her chin; if she were naked, the juice would drip down the line formed by her outswaying breasts, cling as droplets to her nipples.
Chris ate nothing. I admired her restraint, wanted to live on painting, air. Her big boot climbed my calf. She didn’t even smile.
The dads insisted we sleep over, gave Helga and me a king-sized bed in a gold-appointed room I suspected guests stayed in when they were too distraught to leave. I still hadn’t called Betsy, our life a dream so distant I could scarcely remember it. Sometime after midnight Helga lay curled asleep, her hands under her head, her pale breasts flaccid above the gold-stamped comforter. I was reading beside her—Moments of Sustenance: tepid poems about comfort in communal prayer-groups at times of abandonment, grief.
I’d rummaged in the nightstand, found only this and the Gideon Bible, as if this weren’t a funeral parlor but a hotel for potential suicides.
She opened the door with the silence of death. Melodramatic, yes: I smiled.
She didn’t say anything. I looked at her, rubbed my chin. She pulled off her black henley, her breasts uptilted, glistening with sweat. She sat down on the floor, tugged off her steel-toed boots. Then the jeans, black-cotton panties. She sat down on the floor, naked, legs spread, her slit wet and dark. I slid out of bed, followed her to her room, let her get on top. I was accustomed to silent women, but Chris screamed when she came.
When she woke me again, I had the sensation of a dream continuing, a dream that could never stop, and her fluorescent clock dial pulsed 3:58 A.M. I was tucked tight in bed, swathed up to the chin in covers; she was standing by the bed, fully dressed, holding out my clothes. Our eyes locked; our gazes stayed riveted as I climbed out of bed, got dressed with her watching.
“You going to paint me?” she asked, and I nodded, biting my mouth.
Then she grabbed my hand, escorted me into the hall.
We were on the second floor of the house. Marble appointments everywhere, fake Greek statues—gods posed in Olympian attitudes—protruding from niches built into the walls. Brass luminaria illuminated the gray-flecked hallway.
“Can’t believe you live here,” I said, letting her lead me one-handed down the corridor.
“It’s hard,” she said, and I nodded. “There’s an elevator here. We’ll take it downstairs to the basement.”
There didn’t seem much to say. I’d never seen an elevator in a home. But this wasn’t an ordinary dwelling; it was the house of the dead. The elevator was lined with mirrors. We stared at our creased, sallow reflections, at each other as we descended. Walked down another corridor, fingers lightly brushing.
Turned into a cold white room. A silver gurney in the center, tubes, a bottle of fluid. A shelf behind the gurney, filled with bottles: “Jensen’s LifeLike Cream: Bronze.”
There was a sheet-wrapped body on the gurney, the feet uncovered. Ice-white, thickly veined though the veins looked like cords, colorless as some types of snow.
The head of the corpse was covered.
I kept staring at that sheet-wrapping, shroud. I was glad I’d seen my father though he’d looked like a dusky-faced mannequin...like something we could bury.
And Newell—the toddler?
Newell could be forgotten.
Because he appeared only asleep.
Some people thought Pa a suicide. He’d been so depressed, couldn’t sleep, greeted me in the door in a stained bathrobe for months. Started to smell. He was in love with my brother’s wife, Newell’s mother.
But I knew it wasn’t a suicide. Because Pa couldn’t take a kid with him into death.
He was my father.
“I used to hate this room,” Chris said, her voice low-pitched, weirdly dreamy. “Now I work here, though. Love it.”
“What do you do?” I ask, turning toward her suddenly, gripping her shoulders.
“The makeup,” she replied, in a tiny voice, as if suddenly shy. “Or—the ones that can be salvaged. I make them look pretty before they leave. I mean, before they have to leave their families.”
“You decorate them for the worms,” I said, and laughed; Chris didn’t laugh but stared back calmly: no judgment in her eyes.
“Would you like to see her?” she asked. “This one’s a closed-casket. She’s already been embalmed. They’ll start reconstructive work on her soon.”
“Malcolm and Arthur?” I asked, and she nodded.
I touched her hand in reply, eased closer to the corpse. Chris stepped toward the sheet, gripped it, peeled it down.
I crouched closer to the face.
The woman’d been in some kind of an accident. Must’ve been—her face, fortyish, brown-skinned from a tan, was split from forehead to upper lip. Some repair job’d been attempted already—the dads?—but the cavity shone wide, dark, deep, though the blood’d been siphoned out of her system, replaced with embalming fluid.
The cavity, though, remained, a darkness split with bone.
“Tractor accident,” Chris said. “Ran right over her. Didn’t stand a chance.”
“Can’t you sew her up? Something?”
Chris looked at her fingers. “We’re not that...sophisticated, I guess. Requires a lot of skill.”
“Are you going to make her up?”
Chris shrugged. “What’s the point? Nobody’ll look at her anyway.”
“It was good for me, seeing my father before he died. He was in an accident, too. His—station wagon was hit by a train. They had to cut him free.”
“Oh,” Chris said, “I’m sorry,” touching my arm.
I squeezed her fingers, massaging the bones. “Years ago,” I said, looking right at her, and she rubbed her mouth, went silent.
Then: “But the face wasn’t affected, right? That’s our problem. The body’s not too bad...the face, though, is a mess.”
“Still, it helped me,” I said. “Got death out of my system for a while.”
“Does that ever happen?” Chris asked, and, this time, I looked away.
I hurried her into the dark. Loved this time of night, five-thirty, six, when the moon rolled hazy as memory across sky dreamy with the promise of dawn only hours away.
Everything gray—not black.
And it was the first time, really, that I had the crow inside my head. That I carried it inside me, sharp and hazy as Pa’s last photograph, which I used to stare at everyday until I realized that my entire memory of my father was shrinking to the outlines of that sepia-toned shot, Pa standing tall in his old-fashioned painting smock, an enormous man with tiny feet that—vain—he squeezed into little leather boots.
I had my father in my mind forever, I hoped...and now I had the crow.
The crow that Chris had clasped in her hand, the cavity where the head was supposed to be. I imagined her touching her lips to the tendons where the head had been attached.
Smiling, laughing, we wandered out onto a fresh layer of snow that made the dull ground glow, a shine that forced you to remember how beautiful Pennsylvania could be when you were positive you’d forgotten. Chris pulled the collar of her coat tighter around her neck; she was mumbling as she strode, frozen like me, though she swung her feet aggressively, her steel-toed boots cutting snow, leaving half-moons she abandoned without looking though I did, following her; I saw the pattern moonlight made puddling up yellow inside those emptied snow-crescents, so beautiful they made me gasp.
“Where’re we going?” she asked, breath haloing her pale, pimpled face, half of it gone dark.
“Place in the woods. Thought I’d paint you beside a tree.”
“Jesus, it’s cold. My tits’ll break.”
“They’ll look good that way. Hard. Won’t you use my name?”
“Because you’ve been inside me?” she teased. “Doesn’t matter, Andy. You’re older than the dads.”
“What were they doing?” I asked, as we meandered between birches pale with moon.
“What? You mean—when we left them?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Of course I know. I just wanted to hear you describe it.”
She stopped suddenly. I stopped, too. We stared at each other, surrounded by all those trees. “Shit, Mr. Wyeth,” she said, and took a step closer. “I mean—shit, Andy. You really are a perv, you know.” She took another step. Unbuttoned her coat, opened it, her breasts hard beneath the shirt; I curved my hands over them without untucking. “Strike you a deal,” she said. “I’ll take you to a place that’s just a little bit warmer than the one you have planned...and then I’ll show you.”
“Can I paint you there?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” Chris said, when my hands tugged her henley free from her jeans. “It’s a dream place for a painter. You can do anything you want there—and more.” I yanked down her bra cups, worked her over with my mouth, her tits glistening with the wet from my tongue, her face softening like snow-melt, my spine bowing under the weight of my backpack.
Sex and death, I thought, managing a sweaty smile.
It was a long trek out to “Chris’s Cave”—what she called it. The backpack grew heavier; though it was frigid out, sweat popped out across my forehead.
“Come on, old man,” Chris said, scrutinizing me as she meandered alongside. “I’m stronger than you. Worked in a meatpacking plant, remember?” I looked at her and hated that she’d called me old. Because—shit—I was only in my forties then.
But I didn’t want to die. Fuck, no. Because I still had so much left to paint.
I unstrapped the backpack. Stooped backwards, let it slide off my shoulders, drop with a thud onto snow. Chris picked it up, dusted it off with the flat of her palm, slipped it on; I tightened the straps once then harder across her back.
We approached the cave. She’d left a lantern glowing inside. Its warmth, its light, radiated hot milk, but orange. Orange everywhere. Orange across the snow, staining it, changing it. A kind of transcendence wafted up through my belly: I felt empty but clean. I thought about the dads, whispering behind the door when we crept past down that gray-flecked hall, little words of love, endearments from Arthur to Malcolm. Murmurs that crescendoed, sounds of a sweaty grapple. I could picture them without their shirts, without their pants, in a bordello-style, gold-and-red bed identical to the one Helga and I’d shared. They were lying back to front, their bodies covered with sweat. Maybe Malcolm reached around Arthur’s chest, fingered his nipples, and it was aggressive but tender, too. And when he pushed into him, he was ready.
That was what I’d wanted to be like my whole life: always open. Always ready.
And they did it in the middle of death.
“Here we are,” Chris said, pausing at the cave mouth. “You have to stoop to enter. Sure you’re ready?”
I looked at her, my smile souring. “Should I be afraid?”
“No,” she said. “Not afraid. Just—” She looked at me, her black eyes glinting. “It’s just...you know...everything.”
I followed her in.
It was what I’d waited my whole lifetime to witness.
I massaged my mouth till it ached: till my eyes flooded over.
It was a homage to death. A homage to the crows. Who could say which was more beautiful? Crow tapestries, vibrant blacks and golds, were tacked along one earthen wall of the cave. Crows taking flight at dusk, their wings a velvety purple. Crows pecking at deer scraps in snow. Crows curled up in the snow, their feet rigid against their breasts.
And stacks of the dead everywhere. Crows missing their heads stacked evenly along one wall, the cave shining a dull warm black with the sight of all those bodies.
She hadn’t killed them...she’d preserved them. All except for the heads.
I thought I knew.
Strip away their individuality, and the essence of crow was left.
Big suede gloves lay tossed in one corner. I smiled at Chris, approached, tugged the gloves on, lifted a sleek black crow on my hand.
“Taxidermy,” Chris said. “Amateur stuff. A trick of the trade.” She examined me closely, the crow still on my palm. “You don’t find it...disgusting?”
“Overwhelming. Wonderful. And amazing...there’s no smell.”
She smiled, shyly again; her crooked teeth gleamed the color of old bone. “Thanks,” she said. “Guess it means I know what I’m doing?”
“Definitely,” I said. “Definitely.”
She looked at me then, undid her belt buckle, unzipped her jeans, tugged them down to her knees. Then, the panties, down to just around her knees. “Like the dads,” she said, and glanced up over her shoulder...or tried to; her long black hair kept falling over her eyes. “Everything open—right?”
I leaned down over her curving back, peeled up her shirt. The heft of her little breasts falling forward into my palms. The gleam of her ass before my body blocked it. She’d worked in a meatpacking plant, handling carcasses. Stood in her steel-toed boots in the blood, trying not to slip in the mess, heaved cow carcasses, body parts, until her gloved hands ached. I couldn’t see her hands now; they were braced against the ground; she moaned when I fondled her breasts. One-handed, I made myself ready, pushed in hard. “Oh,” she whispered, and I smiled. Back in the funeral parlor, I imagined her dads worked till they sweated, trying to close an impossible wound. “We can’t fix her,” one said, finally, to the other; and I was certain that they cried. But I was deeper inside her now: Chris and I rocked forward, back, silent with a beauty that made my heart startle then quicken, that made me press forward breathless into death until it fled before us like a long black streak of shadow, the crows stacked everywhere, their stiffened wings primed for flight, my father lying trapped inside the station wagon after the train struck him with a force that smashed the car flat, the rubble smoking like a fireball but quiet now, smoldering, Newell lying in the field, his neck broken, snapped, not a mark on his face or body, the neighbors running toward them, shielding their faces as they raced, but there was no hope that day, October 19th, 1945, no hope anywhere, one body in the car, the other in a field, my father’s big body in its coffin, Newell’s tiny body in its coffin, but they’d already escaped, they’d already fled to a place we could never see or even imagine, the last crow’s shadow crossing the sun, and then, the flood of returning light.
Terri Brown-Davidson served as guest editor in fiction for The Pedestal Magazine. She is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and has received thirteen nominations for the Pushcart Prize. In addition, she has been awarded the AWP Intro Award, the New Mexico Writer's Scholarship, and a Yaddo residency fellowship in fiction. Her work has appeared in more than 1,000 journals and anthologies, including Los Angeles Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, and Puerto del Sol.