Before she lost interest in storytelling, Mom sometimes would tell the others stories about their fathers—how she met them, funny habits they had, things like that. She'd tell those stories to cheer them up if they were unhappy, and it always worked. Two of us, though, never got those stories.
One was me. She never talked about my father, not ever. Once or twice, when I was still small and not many of the others were born yet, she did say to me, "Your father was my one true love." That was it. Never a word about what happened, not even whether he was alive or dead—those things I found out later.
Cory was the other one who never got a dad story. "Your dad was just a twinkle in my eye," was all she'd say. "The twinkle's gone now, but I have you instead." That satisfied Cory, though. He'd smile and go running off with Vessy, and Mom's eyes would follow Vessy, but Cory she had to follow with her ears only, because of the deal she made with Cory's dad.
I know the story of Cory's dad. I heard everything that happened.
I was five at the time. Daisy was three, and Fox was not quite one. Mom had just broken up with Vessy's dad, which made me and Daisy sad, because we loved his piggyback rides. I used to wonder why Mom took such a sudden dislike to him, wouldn't talk to him on the phone or come to the door to see him, even with Vessy growing bigger and bigger inside her. Now, though, I think I understand. Vessy's dad's one of those rare folks who wander over there and back here, back and forth across the border, as easy as that. Most people can't manage it, as you probably know if you've ever tried, but he had the knack.
Mom, on the other hand, she's an exile. She's trapped here. At first she probably couldn't help wanting to hear his stories, but I bet eventually the bitterness got to be too much.
Around that time, I remember Mom always used to stand in the door in the evening and look across Route 9, and her eyes weren't seeing the gas station or the package store or the hair salon. She was watching the border between here and there rippling closer. The border comes rolling in like the shadow of a cloud moving across the land. It feels like the air before a thunderstorm, and it smells like sweet fern.
Well, one evening, after standing in the doorway a bit, Mom drifted back into the house, looking gray as a gravestone, and leaving Fox standing out front in just his diaper. He stood there in the long grass and began to wail, and I thought maybe he was hungry or something, so I hauled him into the house, stuck him in the playpen, and went to get Mom, but she had shut herself up in her room.
I was about to knock, but then I heard voices. Mom's and someone else's. Not Vessy's dad. Not Daisy's dad or Fox's dad.
"Tss, tss, you're looking a little worse for wear, Willow's Daughter," that someone said, in a harsh, inhuman sort of voice. I turned the doorknob very slowly.
"This land of hours and days wears on a person," Mom said. "Have you spent any time here? It piles up, hour upon hour upon hour, and then day upon day upon day." I pulled the door open just a crack, squinching my eyes closed and gritting my teeth, because those are things you do to make sure a door opens quietly.
"So why don't you just fly away home?" asked the voice. I opened my eyes and peeked in. It was a crow, a big one, perched on Mom's windowsill.
"No birdfolk blood in me."
"Oh no? I thought for sure you had some."
"Even if I did, Nearest River wouldn't let me by. It would find a way to reach up into the sky and fish me out. We made a deal. I can't go back."
"Tsss, how could you bargain so poorly?"
"I got what I wanted. His life was worth it. Even at this price."
"Ahhh"—and that was a caw—"you sound like one of the sad souls from these parts. Love and loss, love and loss. It's their favorite song. Tiresome."
"I'm tired of it too."
"So what can I do for you, then?"
"I want you to take my eyes—not my hours-and-days eyes, but my elsewhere eyes. I'm sick of seeing what I can't have. I never want to see elsewhere again. I want you to take elsewhere sight out of my eyes."
"You're offering me your eyes? As a gift?"
Mom laughed dried leaves and broken reeds.
"I'm not offering, I'm requesting. I'm requesting you take them."
"Let's call it a gift, Willow's Daughter. It's two bright gems you mean to give me, and I can't take them without giving you something in return. So here's what I'll do: I'll give you another little one, company for the one you're already growing inside you. There'll be crow in the one I give you; he'll be good at finding bright things that others have lost."
"I don't want another child, Crow. I have more than I can manage already."
"Oh, but I insist. I won't take your eyes if you won't take my little one."
"That's not a gift; that's a burden!"
"That's as time may tell. Or do you wish to keep those gems of yours?"
Silence. Then, fiercely,
"No. I want them gone. I'll take your child if I must."
"Good. And you know it's only your sight I'm taking. The smells and sounds of elsewhere will still be there to torment you."
"I know. I'll find ways to be rid of them, if I need to. Now, please don't make me wait any longer."
I wanted to call out to Mom, but my tongue wouldn't work. None of me would work: my hand was frozen on the doorknob; my feet were stuck to the floor. The crow flew into the room, and its wings sounded like a downpour as it fluttered in front of her face. They beat faster and faster, a smear of ink spilled in the air, and then the smear grew longer, reaching down to the ground, and there wasn't a crow in the room anymore. There was a man there, a man in a black denim jacket and frayed black jeans, with black hair like ruffled feathers. Over his shoulder I could see Mom's face. Her eyes looked the same as ever.
"Well then," said the man, and his voice sounded gentler and deeper than it had when he had been a crow, "how is it for you now?"
"I can't see you at all," she whispered. She reached out her hand like a blind person and touched his face. She smiled thorns and icicles then. "Perfect," she said.
"And now for the child," the man said.
"Yes, how do you mean to get this little nestling to me?" Mom asked, hands on hips, head inclined.
"Oh, in the usual way for souls in the land of hours and days," the man said, his words half muffled by Mom's hair, because he had moved in right close to her, had an arm around her waist and—
—that was enough for me. Next would come the words "Run along," if anyone looked up and saw me. My hands and feet were mine again: I pulled the door shut and ran down the hall to where Daisy had climbed into the playpen with Fox and was trying to get him to eat a banana. I climbed in too.
"Let's give him Cheerios next," I suggested.
Mom didn't stand in the doorway staring out across the border anymore, after that day. Her eyes could see ordinary things just fine, but other things, elsewhere things, not at all. I could tell the crow was right, though: Mom was still bothered by the sounds and scents from elsewhere. Sometimes, when the border flowed in really close, she'd turn on the radio, loud, and she took up smoking, too.
Many months after that day, Vessy was born, and with her, another baby, a boy. Mom said his name should be Corvus, because that means "crow," but we called him Cory. And Cory's dad was right about him, too—he's always finding things. He's eleven, now. I have a secret wish: that one day he'll find Mom's elsewhere eyes and bring them back to her. When I'm wishing this, I tell myself that Mom's not really as far gone as she seems, that it's not too late, that she'll accept back her eyes, and maybe, even, find a way to go back there. It's probably a hopeless wish, but I cling to it.