Family Circle 2010 Fiction Contest: "The Ravens Are Leaving the Tower"
Sarah Grubb's story, "The Ravens Are Leaving the Tower," won third place in the Family Circle 2010 Fiction Contest.
I hail a cab at Gatwick airport; throw my backpack in the trunk and sink into the creaking leather seats. Rain drizzles down the glass; little rivulets of water create lines in my view of the approaching city. My eyes close and a sour feeling rises from my stomach. When I open my eyes at a stoplight, I force myself to look straight ahead. I want to collapse on a soft bed and take a long nap, but I haven't even booked a room in London. Sixteen hours from now, I'd be in Paris.
The rain slows and comes to a stop as the cab drifts through the streets to the Tower of London. It hits me as I get out and hitch my backpack on my shoulders. I'm alone.
I stroll through the grounds, snapping photos, and trying to blend in with the crowd. I hover near a tour group. The guide is talking about the ravens, "...raw meat and bird formula biscuits soaked in blood. They also enjoy a whole rabbit now and then." I follow the group to a line for the Crown Jewels. I take a picture with a guard and buy a postcard from the shop.
On narrow streets, I look for the tube station that's supposed to be nearby. On the train, I pull out the postcard from my pocket. I can tell the truth; it's cold, grey, and I hate being alone. My mother will read it and show it to my father, saying, "I knew this trip would be a mistake. She should be at home." I write:
The grass at the Tower of London is impossibly green. Ravens strut their giant, shiny black bodies on the neatly manicured lawn. I'm sure they cut each blade with a pair of expensive scissors. It looks fake. The legend says that if the ravens leave the grounds, the kingdom will fall. I saw one fly away.
P.S. The kingdom did not fall.
Harrods Department Store is packed. I'm pushing my way through the front door when a security guard pulls me aside.
"You can't have that giant pack in here," he says.
I tighten the straps of my bag a little tighter.
"Take it to the coat check," he says, looking at the green canvas bag in disgust.
I want to leave. I want to explain myself, but I blink back tears and follow his order. I clutch my passport, money, and camera to my chest as I weave my way through the Food Hall. I order lemon at the Gelato counter, though I hate lemon, but it's Eliza's favorite.
Going to Harrods on an April day is like going to the mall before Christmas. And not that tiny mall on Harrison Street. The big one, out by the airport. I had lemon gelato, it was sweet. I wish you—I scratch that out with my pen and write, It wasn't that good. Maurizio's is better.
I wander through the toy department, past rows and rows of stuffed animals. Eliza's room is full of them; she already has two turtles, an elephant, and a trio of bears. I have no idea what possesses people to buy children's toys for a grown woman, but Eliza displays them proudly. They were better than flowers; she'd said when I complained about our neighbor, who'd brought over a drunk-looking Teddy bear wearing a t-shirt that says, "Feel Better Soon!"
Outside on the sidewalk, I throw my hand up for a cab.
The line for the London Eye strings around a giant carousel. I don't have much time. I'm directed into a pod with a family. They don't say "hello," or ask where I am from, so I sit on the bench inside and press my forehead against the thick plastic, as we raise high above the River Thames. The muted navy sky blends into the ornate buildings across the river. The wheel turns, and I'm on the ground again.
In Paris, I sit at an open café by the Eiffel Tower and pull out my third postcard.
The Seine is a dark vein that moves slowly through the sprawled out city, I write. Eliza had shoved her sleeves up the night before I left, revealing her purple and green bruised skin. I'm turning into a California raisin, she'd said, laughing.
I eat my ham and butter sandwich on thick French bread and inhale the cool air. I look up and see an owl perched on a streetlight. His head sways from side to side, but his eyes never move.
"Can I sit?"
I look down to see a boy standing over me, blond hair hanging in his face. There are three empty chairs beside me, and nearly every other table is full.
"Fine," I say, though I'm sure he can tell the displeasure in my voice. His name is Michael, he tells me. He's nineteen, from Seattle, and doing a semester abroad in Paris. Later, I write that Michael is French with thick eyelashes and long, wavy hair. I write that when I'd showed him her picture, he said, Magnifique.
The non-postcard version goes like this: We sit in uncomfortable wicker chairs and swallow each chewy piece of bread with a swig of water. I wait for my check for too long and when the café lights come on, illuminating Michael's open and uncomplicated American boy face, I throw my money on the table and say goodbye.
I have two assignments for Paris: ride the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower at night and have a picture taken of me standing beside the Mona Lisa, imitating her enduring smile. At the top of the Tower, I'm unsure of what to do so I take pictures of the tops of houses and the lights. So many lights.
On the ground again, I go in a souvenir store to buy something for Eliza, but everything I see is useless. What would she do with an Eiffel Tower pencil holder? A Mona Lisa magnet?
I sit on a curb in Barcelona, waiting for a bus. An older couple sits on a nearby bench.
"Can you understand what they're going on about?"
I turn to the bench. A British woman is motioning towards a couple fighting in Spanish a few feet from us. "No, sorry," I say. "Something about the color yellow, I think."
I nod, with a slight expression of guilt, but their faces both explode in smiles.
"My cousin lives in South Carolina! We were just there last summer. Donna Flannery? Do you know her?" the woman asks.
"Now, why would she know Donna?" the man says to her, shaking his head. "What, you think she knows everyone in the country?"
Their pale, white faces are flushed bright red from the sun. They look uncomfortable in their khaki shorts and running shoes. "Why are you all by yourself?" the woman asks me.
After her diagnosis, Eliza had sat my parents and me down to tell us the news. My mother later confessed that she thought Eliza was going to tell them she was gay. My father had expected to hear that she was pregnant. Neither of them were prepared for cancer.
You know, Eliza said to me that night, you hear about all these people with cancer, how one in six people have either had it or will, but I'm the first person I know.
Do you want an award? I'd asked. I was fifteen at the time.
Maybe I'll get to do Make a Wish.
Stop it Eliza, you're not dying, I'd said.
That was three years ago. In Barcelona, the woman waits for my answer. "My sister is dying," I say.
"Oh dear," the woman says. "That's too bad." She fans herself with a map, uncomfortable with me and my dying sister.
I write: I met an adorable British couple while waiting for a bus. There's nothing else to say about them, so I continue with, Barcelona is beautiful, the sky is bright blue and there are mosaics everywhere. On Las Ramblas, there are parrots in cages, men in silver paint pretending to be statues, and a pregnant woman dressed as a fairy in a bright, purple dress.
I arrive back at the airport with half an hour to spare before my flight to Venice. I check in at the counter and when I say my name, the employee stops clicking her fingernails over the keyboard.
"There is a message for you," she says, with a thick accent. "It is from a Claire Connelly. I will print it out."
My heart pounds as I wait to read the message from Mom. I know that this is it—Eliza is dead. She'd not waited for me to come back and tell her all about Europe. I'm doing a horrible job anyway—the postcards are full of lies. The woman hands me a slip of paper. This is it. It's happened.
Forget about Venice. Eliza is in the hospital. She's waiting for you, but I don't know how long she can wait. Come home.
On the flight to Venice, I can't find a blank postcard, so I use the catalog from the seat pocket in front of me.
E, I write between pictures of bottles of wine, I'm on a plane to Venice so don't worry, I won't forget to feed the pigeons in St. Mark's Square and ride a Gondola and see the Bridge of Sighs. I'll do all of those things and then I'll be home.
P.S. I have so much to tell you.
P.P.S. That means don't go anywhere until I'm home.
The airport in Venice exits directly to a marina, and I take a boat taxi to the sinking city. I speak Spanish, hoping it sounds enough like Italian to get by.
"De donde esta St. Mark's Square?" A little louder. "Donde esta?" I forget all of the tenses but it doesn't matter. No one pays attention to me. I follow the labyrinth, walking deeper and deeper to the center.
The Square is flooded. Wooden planks intersect the area for people to get from one side to another. For ten minutes, I stand on the unflooded edge of the square and throw seed to the pigeons flying around the water. I find my way to the Bridge of Sighs, where I ask Gondolier if he will take a picture of me sitting in his Gondola.
I take a speedboat back to the airport. We lurch over a breaker from a passing boat, and my body flies up from my seat.
I won't make it. If she's dead, what does this trip matter? Why couldn't "Win a hot dog eating contest" have been on her bucket list instead of "Backpack through Europe?"
Venice is everything you imagined it to be. So many couples in love. I watched a wedding party in the Square, fed the birds, and rode a Gondola through clear green water.
P.S. Remember when we were little and you said that you wanted to grow up and be a giraffe? I think you meant you wanted to be tall. I bought you a Venetian mask decorated like a giraffe so now you can be one.
The plane rises over the sea, and I climb further and further from Eliza's dream.
The doors to the hospital whoosh open and I think about when I had my tonsils taken out years ago. I'd refused to go inside. I sat on the sidewalk, my hands propping up my chin while my mother first cajoled then threatened me. Eliza had sat beside me, whispering in my ear, What are you afraid of? It will only hurt for a little, but it will be over soon.
My father walks through the doors as he'd done dozens of times, but I hesitate with my hands full of postcards and gifts. Panic spread through me, my blood traveling so fast I think I can't breathe. I hear a screeching noise, and a nurse that's smoking says, "Damn hawk is such a nuisance."
I watch its golden wings circle over the courtyard, swooping and gliding in the creamy blue sky. I bite my lip and go inside.
My mother rushes to hug me in the hallway. "Go ahead in," she says.
Eliza is awake when I walk into her room. Her skin has a yellow tinge and her green eyes look as if they are covered in a thin film.
Her rasping voice startles me. My body shakes as I hug her skeleton body.
"Tell me everything," she says. "Show me everything."
I place the postcards beside her on the bed and begin with London. "My cab at the airport was one of those black ones like you see in the movies and my driver said things like 'Cheerio' and called me 'love.' The Tower of London has a view of the Tower Bridge. You know that famous bridge in London? The one with the nursery rhyme? It's called 'Tower Bridge.'"
When she closes her eyes, my heart nearly stops until I see her chest rising and falling with each hardened breath. She still has a smile on her face, so I continue. Two hours later, my parents insist that I take a break. I wander through the corridors until I come to a gift shop with a rack of postcards sitting outside the doors. I choose one depicting our city.
When I arrive back at her room, there are two doctors standing over her bed. My heart jerks. In Europe, I'd thought about her death and if it would happen too quickly, just like her illness. The doctors speak in low tones, and I move to try and peek at Eliza between their bodies.
My father faces my mother and me, gulps as if he can't catch his breath, and says to us, his voice breaking, "How do we...I just don't...They say we should say what we want to say now."
There's nothing else to say. For the past three years, she'd downplayed how sick she was. What do I say? Don't leave me. Don't go. Don't let this happen.
I pull out my pen and begin to write.
I wasn't scared before. You told me before that it will only hurt for a while, and then the pain will dull. The memory won't be as sudden. I believe you. But I don't understand how you can talk about yourself like that. You so readily accepted your death. Today I watched your eyes light up when I talked about the mass of pigeons in Venice that descended on whoever had food, their attention focused solely on that one person. I know you would hate to be that person.
I didn't get a chance to tell you but as I was leaving the square, the pigeons scattered and flew away.
Copyright 2011 Meredith Corporation.