The first gift I received from my mother was a stuffed panda. The panda had been hers, she said, when she was a little girl. Its plastic nose hung by a thread, and many of its seams were resewn. It was worn, and loved, and it became mine.
Four Leyland Cypress trees were brought as gifts, like the panda, to Mom’s funeral, and my grieving father left me to deal with them. He was lost without Mom, and her death came between us hard and fast, like the strike of a poisonous snake. Many things under his purview became mine: cooking, cleaning, and, eventually, planting the trees, which I did, at the back of our yard between the house and the woods.
Two things happened after I planted the trees. First, they grew quickly. Within a year, the cypress tress had grown from the two-foot little bushes they had been into the twelve-foot beasts they are now. This rapid growth effectively created a wall between our house and the woods, with about a ten foot clearing between. We used to stare into those woods, Mom, Dad, and I. We would speculate on what manner of creatures lurked there. Ghosts? Goblins? Giants? Our imaginations gave life to the myths.
The second thing that happened with the planting of the trees was the haven it created for a near constant murder of crows. I watched the cypresses from the kitchen window, the way my parents and I used to watch the wood line now hidden behind them. Crows descended daily from the heavens, many at a time, and disappeared behind the cypress. Sometimes their chatter was loud enough to hear from the house, and I would wonder how many crows could fit into that clearing.
And though I watched, day after day, I never saw the crows leave.
Granted, I didn’t sit for hours on end. It’s possible – likely, in fact – that the crows came and went when I wasn’t looking. As some say cardinals are the spirits of loved ones passed on, I came to associate the crows with my dead mother. The sound of crows was constant, and it brought me some level of comfort.
There’s a table carved from a single pine log by the window in our kitchen. Four log seats surround the table, though we ever only needed three. We used to sit on these stumps and eat our meals, when the family was still intact. I’m the only one who uses the table now. I don’t eat there, but I write or read or watch the crows.
And so it was, one day, I sat at this table by the window. My father had left for the day without saying goodbye, which, for a year, had been his custom. I don’t remember what I was writing, but I remember what stopped me. The chattering crows, their constant conversation so common in the kitchen, ceased. It was as if some giant hand flipped a switch from ‘on’ to ‘off;’ the sound was there, and then it wasn’t.
It was then I looked up and saw her. I caught only a glimpse, but she was unmistakable.
My mother passed among the cypress, planted in her honor, branches of evergreen closing behind where she walked. She gave a quick ‘follow me’ glance over her shoulder and vanished.
I did as she asked.
It was a cool November day, the Monday of Thanksgiving break. Though it must have been well past noon, frost still crunched under my feet. I left footprints where I walked, and so should have my mother. But there were none.
I pushed through the branches my mother had used. Beyond was the clearing, between the cypresses and the woods. The little clearing was silent, which was odd, covered in crows as it was.
I’m not sure what I expected to see; my dead mother, of course. Certainly not a clearing full of silent crows. But the birds are what I saw.
The crows – more than I could count – stood together, as if waiting, and I suppose maybe they were; little else could explain their silent behavior. I walked to the center, and as I did, the birds cleared a path for me. And there, set purposefully in the middle of this space, by spirit or crow, was a tree stump, of the kind around our family table. I sat.
I waited for my mother’s cold, dead hands to fall on my shoulders, for her words to tell me the conflict with my father had gone on long enough. Maybe I waited for some other sort of peace.
I sat there, with the crows and Mom’s ghost, for how long, I do not know. She spoke to me without words, loved me without condemnation. She knew of my pain at her loss. She knew, also, my pain at my father’s disconnection. So my mother did what a mother does, and she comforted me.
When at last she spoke aloud, it was as if the crows and the wind listened as well, for all was quiet.
“Look around and you’ll see me,” I felt her say. “Listen, and you’ll hear.”
That was all she said.
The crows milled about, jumping here or there at one another, wings flapping out wide. Some scratched at the ground, some tugged at one another’s beaks at whatever meal had been unearthed. I only decided to leave when they did.
As sudden as their cries had stopped, they resumed again. The sound became deafening, for there must have been hundreds of crows around me. With a piercing roar, they rose as one into the late November gray and left me alone on the stump of wood, thinking of my mother.
Somewhere in my life, I came to understand that crows will reciprocate a gift. Perhaps I gleaned this jewel from many readings of The Rats of Nimh, or maybe it’s something from conversations with Mom. Either way, before I left the clearing, I took the only object I had in my pockets – the pen I used earlier for writing – and placed it on the stump. I’m not sure what possessed me to do such a thing, but it was done, and I walked back home.
That night, I tried to speak to my father, but he only grunted and shrugged at my conversation. He closed his bedroom door when the sun went down and left me alone.
In the morning, drinking coffee by the window, I watched a single crow fly into then out of the clearing behind Mom’s cypresses. I had only a moment to consider this oddity before my mother’s voice said in my ear, “Go and see.” I nearly fell off my seat twisting around for a look. But the house was empty, Dad having left with the sunrise. I looked back to the woods in time to see my mother, once again slipping between the Leyland Cypress and into the clearing beyond.
Once again, I did as she asked.
I set my coffee down, pulled on a coat and hat, and went outside.
The morning was another cold, gray shroud over my house and yard. The cypresses ahead were veiled, and in the mist I saw my mother’s hands closing the branches behind her. I passed through, hoping to catch another glimpse, but instead, I found the clearing empty, save the stump situated at its center.
And on this stump was a gift.
The gift was not the pen I had left for the crows. Instead, one of their number had taken my offering and had put, in exchange for the pen, the rusted tab of a soda can.
My heart leapt.
I stuffed the pop top in my pocket and looked around for my benefactor, hoping in vain a crow had waited to see my reaction. But none had. Neither had my mother, though I entertained the idea, for a while actually, that it was she who swapped gifts with me. I searched for the ghost, for the one who beckoned me from the house. I listened for her comforting words again, but only the wind whispered to me this day.
“The crows left me a gift,” I told my father, later, when he came home from work.
“Did you see your mother again?” he asked, because I told him about that as well.
He went to bed, without eating supper, and left me to think of what next to leave the crows.
Later that evening, I heard them descend with the night into the clearing. Their cries were loud, but not so loud as to rouse my father. I slipped on a housecoat and put the next gift into my pocket – a little button with a red heart on it. I don’t know how the button came to be mine, but it’s been pinned to my school bag for a couple of years now. As a gift for crows, the button would do; the heart on it was for my mother.
Though it was dark out, I saw her in the distance. She stepped between the cypresses, encouraging me onward in the darkness. When at last I placed the button on the stump, however, I was alone, and neither was she there the next morning when I went to see what new trinket was in its place.
I was not disappointed. The crows had taken my button and left a rusted nail, the kind in the shape of a horseshoe used to hold fencing in place.
This dance went on for several days, and my collection of odds and ends grew: a coin and a paperclip, a seashell and a key. I loved each gift more than the one before, as each, somehow, brought me closer to my mother.
And in turn, these little gifts brought me closer to my father.
With each gift I received, my father’s interest grew. We guessed at the meaning, if any, behind the items. Were they random, or were they selected specifically for me? We speculated on the wonders of crows, and we reminisced about Mom.
Slowly, over the course of many days, my father began to return to me.
In June, Dad received a promotion at work, and we moved from the house and my mother’s Leyland Cypress. The night before we left, I placed a final gift on the stump in the clearing behind the trees: a ring made from twist ties collected from several loaves of bread. Though I wasn’t sure if my mother still haunted the trees, I spoke to her just the same. I thanked her for helping me deal with her loss, and for helping me find my father again.
The next morning, my father and I ate breakfast and watched the morning sun set the dew on fire. A single crow flew into the clearing, and I told my father I had one last thing to do.
A summer breeze rippled the cypresses, and it looked as if someone parted the branches before me.
On the stump, in place of the ring I had left, a glass panda sat. It stood two inches high, and appeared hand carved. The little ears and nose were painted black, its belly white. It matched, in most every respect, the panda my mother had given me many years ago, except this one’s nose was intact.
I felt her warm hands on my shoulders and her voice in my ear. For a small eternity, I sat on the stump saying goodbye to my mother, and she said goodbye to me. The breeze died and the crow flew away.
I put the panda in my pocket and left the clearing to be with my father.
photo by Mabel Amber (via pixabay)