Living With Crows—Jaclyn J. Reed

The doctor’s office is cold. It’s always cold, and no matter how I sit in the firm fabric chairs my tailbone hurts. Orange-scented disinfectant lingers in the air, but it doesn’t entirely cover the dank ripeness of disease.

“I’m bored,” Reaper squawks. “You’re bored. Let’s leave.”

“We can’t leave until we see the doctor.”

He screeches. A couple people look over. One woman pulls a toddler towards her.

“Please be quiet.” I say it like a prayer. Please be quiet. Just this once.

Reaper is a crow – a big crow, like the ones that haunt Japanese shrines and cornfields full of homicidal children. He landed on me ten years ago and has since nested on my shoulders. I thought he’d go away after the therapy and the pills and the sobbing, but he hasn’t shown any signs of leaving. He’s heavier than other crows. I mentioned this when he first landed, told him I thought birds had hollow skeletons; I asked if he shouldn’t be lighter. From time to time, he still laughs about it: how stupid I was think I knew anything about his kind of crow.

The glass door opens with a tonal bell. A teenage boy waddles in, his jeans too long and dragging on the floor behind his Converse. A piranha hangs off his right elbow.

“Good morning,” the woman at the front desk says. “How can I help you?”

“I have an appointment.” When the boy moves to sign-in, the fish’s scales almost look silver or blue. He winces. A bit of blood drips down the piranha’s belly. He pulls out a tissue and catches the blood before it can fall. This time, when he moves, the scales look less blue and more gold.

The receptionist runs down her list of questions: prior physicians, conditions, what kind of fish, when it latched on, how long he’s been coping on his own. I can’t make out his answers from this distance, especially since he tells them more to the floor than he does to her. She takes his insurance card and runs it. Asks him to keep a handle on the piranha; they have a zero-tolerance policy for aggression. She makes a joke about someone’s hyena, but she glances towards me and Reaper.

“They’ll call you from over there.” The woman points towards the grouping of chairs in front of me.

I’m alone in this section. The new mothers and old folk group on the other side. It’s better that way; Reaper gets antsy when people get too close to me. He’s been known to bite. He bit my ex-boyfriend the night we broke up. That’s what did it, that final bite. He already had so many scars; he couldn’t take another, and I couldn’t blame him.

I’ve grown too used to my scars. The ones on my hands are the worst – from when he first landed and I tried to shoo him away. He doesn’t gouge out flesh anymore, but sometimes he’ll break skin biting at my necklaces. Lately, Reaper’s been going for the eyes. I keep a band aid over the mostly healed cut under my right eye, otherwise he’d pick at the scab.

I can feel Reaper eyeing up the boy as he comes over and sits in one of the chairs across from me. There’s a squarish gap between us, an empty space filled by silence, the occasional door tone, and blue-speckled carpet with a suspicious spot. He puts the piranha on the armrest, and his shoulders relax a bit. Piranhas aren’t big, not like Reaper, but I bet one feels really heavy after a while with its teeth in your bones.

The boy smiles at me. It’s awkward, polite. I try to return it, but Reaper squawks again, and the boy cringes away.

“I’m sorry,” I say, as gently as I can. “He doesn’t like places like this.”

“Neither does he,” he says, gesturing to the fish. He keeps his eye on Reaper now, braced against whatever he fears comes next.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” I say. “Are you a new patient?”

“Yeah. I was handling him okay before but… you know.” He shrugged, wincing again as his elbow moved up-down, hitting both upper and lower rows of teeth. “My therapist recommended him. Is he good?”

“We like him.” Reaper goes for the little gem in my earring. His beak scrapes the top of my ear. I hit him away. “No.”

“Wow.” I turn back to the boy, his eyes wider than before but just as heavy. “You can talk to him like that?”

“It takes a lot of work, but I’m doing much better than I was. Dr. Newman has really helped me.”

“Good to know.” He wipes more blood from the piranha’s mouth before it can drop onto the chair. “Oh,” he says, “you have a little blood on your ear. Here.” He hands me a fresh tissue, manages to pull away before Reaper can move down my arm to peck him.

Reaper shimmies back up to my shoulder, behind my head, and onto my other shoulder. He picks at the bandage under my eye as I blot at my ear.

“Thanks,” I say.

He nods. “I always have extras. I feel bad if it gets on anything.”

“Have you tried moving him?”

“Once. He ended up moving back while I was asleep. He likes it there for some reason.”

“Yeah, I can’t get Reaper off my shoulders,” I tell him. Reaper clicks his beak and preens himself, forgetting the band aid for now.

“Reaper?” the boy says.

“Oh, yeah, Dr. Newman likes us to name them. He’s big on ‘accepting’ them.”

“I named me,” Reaper hisses. He likes hissing now. He learned it from the neighbor’s cat.

The boy leans back a little and presses his lips together. He chews on the bottom one in his mouth, and I know he’s drawing blood because Reaper’s excited.

“We should bite,” he whispers in my ear, scrapping the top with his beak. “I like that.”

“No,” I tell him, petting his wing with two fingers.

The hallway door swings open and a tiny nurse in pink and purple scrubs with some sort of pattern steps out. “Caroline?” she says.

Reaper shifts to my other shoulder when I stand to keep between me and the boy with the piranha. I nod to him anyway. Reaper pecks me on the cheek bone, not hard enough to break skin, only to bruise.

The nurse smiles at me. There are multicolored cats all over her shirt, climbing, rolling over, sleeping. She leads me back down the hall, making small talk, ignoring Reaper. He gets mad when people ignore him. He switches to my other shoulder to be closer to her. I’ve never seen this nurse before, so I’m not surprised by her discomfort. She obviously hasn’t worked with patients like me. She stops us at the scale in the hallway and seems genuinely shocked at the number that comes up.

“He weighs about 35 pounds,” I tell her.

She writes on the chart and smiles again, this time without her teeth.

We go further back down the hall and into a small exam room. They’ve redecorated recently, switched the fish motif for more medical posters, vaccination and medication diagrams, and an abstract mess of green and yellow swiped across a canvas.

The nurse asks how the medication is doing. Is my libido okay? Do I feel dizzy? Any unpleasant side effects?

“I haven’t been in the mood to have sex, but honestly that’s probably just because I don’t have anyone. Otherwise, it’s okay. Sometimes I don’t feel like eating for a day or two.”

She makes a note. “What about…” She searches the chart. A couple pages in, she looks back up. “What about Reaper? How are the two of you getting along?”

‘Getting along.’ That’s another one of Newman’s phrases. ‘Coping,’ he says, ‘sounds like these companions are a burden rather than a part of our personality.’

I look up at the bird, met only by his beady black eyes and the clicking sound of his upper and lower beak rubbing together. The sound used to drive me crazy. Now it’s kind of comforting.

“We haven’t been sleeping well,” I tell her. “He’s been restless and pecking more at night. I have to sleep with a pillow over my face to make him stop.”

Reaper squawks and fluffs himself. Just like a bird to boast.

She makes another note, asks a couple more questions: Do I smoke? Do I drink? How much do I drink? Could I be pregnant? Then she moves towards me. “Can I see that cut under your eye?” She doesn’t get within a foot before Reaper is there, his head in front of my eyes, screeching like a banshee. The nurse backs away quickly. She tries to smile, but it’s shaky.

“It’s okay,” I say, petting Reaper again. “It’s pretty much healed, I just don’t want him picking at it.”

She nods, gathers her laptop, goes to the door before saying, “Dr. Newman will be in shortly.” She closes the door on her way out.

I wonder how she’ll handle the piranha.

“I’m bored,” Reaper says. “Let’s go home.”

“We can’t yet. Soon.”

He pulls at my sweatshirt and nuzzles up against my hood. He likes the soft insides, flattens his feathers on it. Sometimes, when I’m in the office at home working or on the phone, he perches under my hood and sticks his head up in it to nap. After a while, I can’t feel his talons on my back and leaning forward doesn’t bother me. I prefer that to him picking at the phone case or chewing on my jewelry.

Knock. Knock. Twice, hard. It’s like his calling card. He never waits for a response either. Door swings open. Dr. Newman saunters in with a big grin. “Hello Caroline. Hello Reaper.” He plops onto the rolling stool in front of us and flattens his tie. He stares at us a moment before looking over the chart. I wonder what he sees. “So, the nurse said you haven’t been eating much, and it says here you lost about ten pounds since your last visit.”

“Good,” Reaper says. “No more fat.”

Dr. Newman is good with Reaper. He smiles, lets a second pass, then says to me, “You really can’t lose any more weight. Your BMI is already 15. That’s three points lower than the low end of normal.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to eat. I just get really nauseous.”

He thinks a moment, watches Reaper pull at my hair to preen it, running his beak down the strands to keep them together. I tried explaining that human hair doesn’t work like his feathers, that they’ll never stay together no matter how much he does that, but he just hisses and keeps going. Sometimes he pulls too hard and yanks out a couple strands. I think he does it on purpose.

Dr. Newman looks at the chart again. “I think maybe we should change your dosage,” he says. “Let’s take you down to 100 milligrams instead of 150, see if that doesn’t help with the nausea.” He makes a note of it. “It also says here you haven’t been sleeping. Is your insomnia back?”

I glance at Reaper. “No, he just doesn’t let me sleep. He’s always pecking at my eyes or my neck.”

“Now, Reaper, we’ve talked about this. Caroline needs her sleep.”

Reaper squawks and bobs his head. He likes playing games.

“Let me take a look at those new cuts,” Dr. Newman says. He puts on gloves and stands.

Reaper steps down my left arm, the tips of his claws going through my sleeve and scratching against my skin. Dr. Newman’s the only one he moves away for. Maybe it’s because the last time he tried to bite him, Newman slapped his beak, or because he knows when he’s good at the office, he’ll get sunflower seeds when we get home. Either way, he watches the doctor examine me, pull away the band aid and poke the skin. Some of the scab comes off. Dr. Newman blots the cut gently with some antiseptic. It stings, and Reaper likes that. He nods and dances a little. Sometimes, he leans forward like he might try to bite one of us. While Dr. Newman’s looking at my ear, and wiping off some of the leftover dried blood, Reaper lunges and takes a pen out of the lab coat pocket. He clicks it between his teeth.

“Reaper, no.” I try to grab it, but he dodges. He puts the pen in his foot and screams at me. I look back at Dr. Newman. He’s still smiling. He’s always smiling, and I wonder how he does it. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. I have plenty more. He can keep it.” He tosses the used cotton swab into the red-bagged waste basket, along with the gloves. “None of those look too bad. I’m going to prescribe you a strong antibiotic cream to start using on fresh cuts; we don’t want any infections. And I want you to be more strict with him at night. Remember, this is a partnership, not a dictatorship.” He hands me the chart for check-out and a new prescription before walking us to the door. “I want to see you in a month, okay?”

“Okay.” Reaper and I walk back down the hall and into the lobby. The boy and his piranha are gone, replaced by a woman about my age and a middle-aged man. Only the man notices Reaper when we come out. He stares for a minute before going back to the magazine in his lap.

I hand the receptionist my chart and schedule another visit in four weeks. As I’m walking to the car, Reaper squawks, “I don’t like it.”

“Don’t like what?”

“Everything.” He scratches under his wing. A black feather falls and blows away. “Don’t like it.”

When we get in the car, he pushes himself against my head and picks at my hair.

“Do you have to do that?” I say. I push him away and tie my hair up.

He pulls apart the bun on my head and bites at the hair tie still tangled in the mess.

“Don’t like it,” he says. “Don’t like it.”

Jaclyn J. Reed received her MFA in Writing from Carlow University and her BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Adelaide, Northern Appalachia Review, The Sunlight Press, and Prime Number Magazine, among others. She lives vicariously through fictional characters and works in e-commerce from the comfort of home, across the way from Hershey’s chocolate factory.

photo by Kevin Mueller (via unsplash)