Navigating through the labyrinth of rain filled potholes, James pulled the Chevrolet Silverado to the steps of the farmhouse, careful not to jostle his wife, Adrianne. Mud speckled the windshield as they clunked up and down.
She leaned back with her eyes closed to counteract her nausea, and with a flick of his wrist, James cut the engine. The whole world went silent aside from the metallic plop of raindrops freefalling from the eaves onto the roof of the truck.
“You still doing okay?” he asked.
She nodded, but didn’t open her eyes.
Sighing, James swung his mud-splattered door open and stepped into a puddle.
Even though the rain had stopped, all the cows still huddled together as one bovine with twelve tails flicking away flies. A sharp caw caw drew James’s eyes to a crow balanced on a barbed wire fence staring at him with its head cocked. It was missing a toe on its right foot and had trouble staying upright. James made a sucking noise with his lips and the crow ruffled its feathers, flew into the surrounding trees, and then made another obnoxious call.
Sinking into mud to the tops of his ankles, and feeling the stones underneath through his boots, James trudged across the driveway to open Adrianne’s door. She stepped down with his help, and he handed her a navy umbrella. Opening it, she held it above the two of them as they staggered into the house. As if not to break her, he laid her with care on the sofa.
“The sound of the rain reminds me of when I was a kid,” she said.
“Why’s that?” asked James as he stepped into the kitchen to boil the kettle.
“Going camping, sitting in the tent, waiting for it to stop while dad brought the car around. Good memories.”
After bringing Adrianne tea and painkillers, James sat with her until her medication caused her to fall asleep under a pile of blankets. James sat comfortably in a t-shirt and jeans, but she shivered even under the covers. How it pained him to watch her suffer.
James carried an English muffin onto the rain-covered Veranda. He used a rag to dry a wooden chair that overlooked the fields. The hair on his arm stood on end when the breeze blew, and he sank into his seat – after several minutes of sitting in the lingering fog, his clothes became damp.
The crow with the missing toe perched again on the barbed wire fence and eyed him with the same curious expression as before. Its wings glistened in the rain and water dripped from its feathers as it fluttered onto the wooden railing five feet in front of James. He rewarded the bird’s brazenness with a quarter of the muffin. It gobbled it up as soon as James offered it, and the animal stared at him, as if wondering if he would share the rest.
“Wait a moment,” said James to the bird.
He opened the rickety screen door and sauntered into the kitchen with the intention of finding more scraps, but Adrianne coughed, and by the time he made it outside again, the crow had flown away.
Adrianne’s lungs rattled with the aeonian sound of death. Gritting his teeth, James turned away and waited for it to either pass or for her to hack up a lung.
“Are you alright?”
She dipped her chin in what might have been a nod and smiled. If only she would speak her mind and tell him how she really felt – she didn’t want to burden him, but pretending to be okay was more heart-wrenching than being honest. She must have lost ten kilograms over the past six months and didn’t have much left to lose. The only part of her that hadn’t been weathered by sickness was her eyes – they still sparkled with the same life that would be expected of a woman in the prime years of her life, but the rest of her was frail enough to break at the faintest touch.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“For making you stay here with me. I know you’d rather be at the clinic.”
“Clarence is at the clinic. It will be okay.”
She closed her eyes and folded herself against her pillow.
The next day, the crow landed on the same spot on the fence, staring at James with its inquisitive expression. James held out half a muffin and the bird glided to the rotting wooden planks of the veranda and ate from his hand.
He named the crow Ceres after the Roman Goddess of the harvest. He didn’t have any crops, only a few empty fields, a dozen cows, and a barn of hens too stubborn to lay eggs, but the name still seemed appropriate.
For two months, Adrianne’s condition stagnated, not improving as her doctors had promised, but not worsening either. Three mornings a week they would drive into the city to visit the hospital and participate in the experimental treatments on which the last of their hope hung. Afterward, she would fall asleep on the couch, knocked out from the effort of doing anything other than sleeping. James would sit on the veranda with a bag of bread for Ceres until he heard her stir or cough.
“What are you going to do if. . .” she asked when James brought her tea.
He rested the cup on the table and sat across from her. “I think I’ll go back to the city.”
“I know you never wanted to live here at all –”
“But the fresh air is good for your lungs, and this is where you wanted to be.”
She turned to the window. The rain had slowed to a drizzle “Did you know there’s a word for that after-rain aroma?”
“What is it?”
“Petrichor. Isn’t that something? It comes from the soil. It releases a chemical in the air that we breathe in. I think that’s my favourite smell.”
“I don’t want to live here without you.”
“But the farm’s been in my family so long, it’s a shame to sell it.”
“Maybe your cousins will take it.”
She didn’t say anything, but instead rested her head on his chest until she drifted asleep. If he had known with certainty that they were in the final hours, he would have had time to prepare for her passing.
After a brief period of activity, where Adrianne managed to pick the blueberries from the plot behind the property and make pancakes with those blueberries the next morning, she died within a week, silently, as if unbeknownst to the world except for James and her closest family members.
Ceres was present at the wake, adorned in all black like the other mourners, and loomed in the trees while the guests gathered. Six people came in total.
“I’m so sorry for your loss” said Gabriella, Adrianne’s youngest cousin, when she was leaving with her husband.
James glanced away until he was sure he could speak. “Thank you, but it’s all our loss.”
She rested a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “Will you stay here?”
“I don’t think so. You know, with the clinic and everything. . . Actually, Adrianne said you might have an interest in buying the property.”
She shared a subtle look of uncertainty with her husband. “We’ll see, but with the timing and. . .”
James smiled and nodded.
When the guests left, James was left with one companion, at least for as long as the breadbox stayed full. Ceres drifted down from the treetops onto the verandah, and James threw crumbs as he ate. Ceres had a look in her eye as if she could sense his wretchedness but couldn’t formulate the words to console him.
Loneliness overcame James within a matter of weeks without the frequent trips into the city. Life on a farm that he had no desire to live on was a life of boredom. After feeding the cows in the morning, there wasn’t much else to be done. He became so desperate for attention that he even took to conversing with Ceres.
“Are you going to come with me when I move back to the city? I know you’ll like the parks, all the garbage you can rummage through. How about it, eh?”
The bird’s face filled with an uncanny level of human expression: empathy, curiosity, compassion.
The last place he wanted to be stuck was the farm, and, as expected, Adrianne’s cousin and her husband backed out as potential buyers. Even if he could find a patron, he’d promised Adrianne not to let it out of the family – he had two hundred acres of fields, three university degrees, and didn’t even know how to turn on the tractor.
Every time Ceres approached James, she grew braver until the climactic moment of landing on his shoulder. James had his back to Ceres, reading a newspaper and enjoying the dying hours of sunlight on an August evening when Ceres piloted down with the stealth of a covert military aircraft. James sprang to his feet, and Ceres flapped her wings to keep her balance. When James realized what was happening, he sat back down and waited for the bird to regain its footing. He cringed, waiting for Ceres to bite off his ear.
In September, James found a buyer for the property – an American with thick Beantown accent, who had even less farm experience than himself, if possible.
“What’s the acreage?” the man asked.
The man nodded and stroked his goatee. “This is embarrassing but. . . how much is an acre?”
James opened his mouth, but then realized he hadn’t the faintest idea. The two men laughed, and two days later, they drew up the preliminary paperwork.
When Ceres visited that day she landed on the barbed wire fence enclosing the cattle but wouldn’t land on the veranda, and when James approached, she flew away. Not one to believe in the supernatural or find meaning in what could just as easily be coincidental, to James, it seemed obvious that the bird’s odd behavior must have had a logical cause even if he couldn’t think of what it might be. Maybe she sensed a change in his body language – he read that some birds could do that.
The last time James saw Ceres was on an afternoon during the final warm days of September.
He sat on his usual spot on the veranda and heard a crow cawing from the treetops, nothing unusual, but soon an entire chorus of corvids encored, and even the cattle joined in, mooing – pleading – for relief from the awful noise.
James sprang from his seat to witness the commotion. Two other crows, thirty percent bigger than Ceres, chased her through the trees with malice gleaming in their evil eyes. They knocked her out of the sky, and she collapsed into a heap. James ran toward the scene and tossed rocks at the birds. He hit one of the creatures square in the sternum, causing it to tumble from the sky.
“Bastards,” he said to himself.
The crow he hit regained its wits and flew away unharmed.
An animal had never looked as human as the moment Ceres looked at James’s in the final moments of life. It opened its beak, and then lay still. Fear. The creature felt fear.
James buried Ceres in the blueberry patch behind the house, and while he was paying his respects the wind knocked his hat off, tossing it toward the empty fields. He bent over to pick it up and stared out at the plot of land. Maybe in another life he would have made a great farmer. He could have spent his days toiling in the field and nights trying to find meaning in the stars that were always cloudy in the city. But he wasn’t a farmer, he was a doctor, and it was time for him to go back to the life he left behind – away from the memory of Adrianne, away from Ceres – where he could pretend nothing had changed.