Sparrow, Crow by Chuck Rosenthal

Diosa met Ruth Sparrow in a poetry writing workshop that Sparrow offered while visiting UVA in Charlottesville, Virginia. Sparrow invited her to flee to Vermont and take a vacation from the world of men. In Vermont, Ruth Sparrow taught her to tend a flower garden that lined the walk in front of her little house, to weed and water and prune the lilacs and lilies, the peonies and roses, hydrangeas, hibiscus, wisteria, tulips, daisies, daffodils, and gorgeous sunflowers raising their heads to the sun, and spices: rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon, parsley, basil, sage, catnip, and chives, all in their seasons, all in their balance, to watch and listen to the insects, the fertilizing bees, but most importantly to follow the birds, their perching, dance, song and flight, because everyone had a bird soul inside them, every woman at least, that must be freed and protected both, a task of depthful delicacy and, at times, grim determination. In the back of the house, of course, there was a vegetable garden that she and Ruth tended and harvested, cooked and canned for winter. They baked their own bread.

Ruth Sparrow and Diosa drank herb tea, lunched and dined, prepared food together and cleaned up together, because there was nothing like the music of women in a kitchen preparing and caring for each other. There were quiet times, alone, when each went off to write their poems, but for Diosa there was no creativity in bliss, and in those quiet moments she found her soul birdless, empty, and dark, her heart grasping for tense opposition, and she found herself filling her notebooks with the names ands smells of flowers, the songs and colors of birds, all to show Ruth, to please Ruth, the way she once wrote down the doggerel of the saints who spoke to her mother.

Then one day when Ruth was away, giving one of her many readings, Diosa looked up from a patch of blazing red gladiolas she was about to pick for the kitchen table and spotted a young woman watching her from behind a pine tree not far from the yard. Diosa went to her and the girl stepped out. She was small and dark, with wavy cropped hair, much like Ruth herself.

The girl put out her hand. “Has she named you after a bird yet?” she said. Diosa backed away. The air around them filled with voices, no, birdsong, though the twittering, the calls, seemed alarming.

“Girl poets,” said the girl. “One night you fall asleep and you wake up in a cage, flapping, twittering.” The young woman tilted her head and gazed at Diosa with one eye. She straightened. “The attic. Eventually she’ll let you out. You’ll be free, all right.” She put out her hand again. “Raven,” she said. “Her daughter.”

Diosa took the hand and held it. Of course, under the circumstances, it felt a little like a claw.

“Runaways,” Raven said. “Are you running away?”

“A nightingale who sits in the darkness and sings to soothe its own sweet sorrow,” whispered Diosa.

“You wish,” Raven said.

Diosa returned to the house and climbed to the attic where at the door she heard the tweeting and rattling of birds. The door was locked. Ruth Sparrow returned the next day with a new girl poet, Diana Trix, a heroin addict, who Ruth brought home to cure and save.

“Ruined by a man, a pimp and addict,” Ruth told Diosa. She locked Diana Trix in the attic for a week. She came out looking flustered, but she wasn’t addicted to heroin anymore, or poetry.

“Birds,” she stuttered to Diosa.

“Did they recite any poetry?” Diosa said.

Trix tucked her nose under her arm. She’d cut her light brown hair into a fuzzy helmet with a slight ridge like a Mohawk down the middle. She lifted her head again. “I wasn’t ruined by him,” she said. “Unless you call ecstasy ruin.”

“Ecstasy,” said Diosa. She’d known a lot of men, but never ecstasy.

“You ran from ecstasy?”

“You can’t possess ecstasy.”

“Are you turning into a bird?”

Diana Trix fluttered her elbows. “I have always been a bird,” she said.

Ruth Sparrow came into the kitchen. She went to her cupboard and brought out two ceramic bowls. She gathered some almonds, yogurt, strawberries, went to the cutting board and began slicing the fruit. “Blue Jay,” she said to Trix, “help me here.” Her dark eyes met Diosa’s. “Better this,” she said, “than devastation.”

Sparrow now doted on Blue Jay. She fed her and watched her as she ate, as she pecked at her nuts and fruit and seeds. Yet despite her apparent recovery it seemed, at best, that Blue Jay grew increasingly diminutive. When the three of them ate, Ruth and Blue Jay huddled together at the end of the table, sharing a plate while Diosa prepared and served, cleared the setting as the two of them nuzzled and preened.

One day, when Ruth took her station wagon to town to pick up supplies, Blue Jay disappeared. Diosa checked the garden, then the front yard. On the edge of the woods she heard only the soft ack-ack of a raven or crow. Back inside she found Blue Jay huddled, barefoot, at the top of the steps under the attic door. If now smaller than ever, her feet curled, and on her hands and face grew the intimation of soft down.

“I want to go in,” whispered Blue Jay.

When Diosa got done helping Sparrow unload and stockpile the groceries, she confronted her. “She’s at the attic door,” she said to her.

“It’s a process, my dear,” said Ruth Sparrow. “She’s finding her soul; not ready for captivity or freedom.”

“And me?” Diosa asked.

“You don’t realize how ruined you are,” said Sparrow. “Relax. Take sanctuary.”

Was that the choice? Diosa felt the base of her nose hardening into her cheeks. That afternoon, yearning for ruin, she went back to the woods, looking for Raven, but the air around her was filled with a cloud of flapping birds, with chatter, chirps and whistles. She called for the girl, hoping for her to emerge, or even a single raven or crow, but there were dozens of them, not silent but screaming. She listened for voices beneath the cries, but there was nothing in them but the fears and desires of birds.

Chuck Rosenthal is the author of seven published novels and a memoir. The novels: Loop’s Progress, Experiments with Life and Deaf, Loop’s End (the Loop Trilogy), Elena of the Stars, Avatar Angel: The Last Novel of Jack Kerouac, My Mistress Humanity, and The Heart of Mars. The memoir: Never Let Me Go. His work has been nominated for The National Book Award, The Penn West Award for Fiction, the Penn International Award for Fiction, the Critics Book Circle Award for Fiction, the American Library Association Most Notable Book Award, and for Best American Creative Non-fiction. He is a three time winner of the Utah Arts Council Award for Fiction.

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