Crows Fall in Love in the Winter
The ring cut into her flesh. Her fingers were swollen again. Paloma held on to the handle of the seat in front of her, trying to concentrate. She did not want to get dizzy. The bus sped down López Mateos Avenue and entered the heavy flow of traffic of the Minerva Circle. The bus rattled like a ramshackle boat thrusting into a huge river from one of its many arms. She stared blankly into space, letting her eyes wander and then melt into the gray polyester jacket of the man sitting in front of her. Each thread of the fabric, slightly shiny, weaved into the next thread. She sighed, relieved at the thought that she might avoid carsickness this time. A warm thump on her shoulder startled her, and she realized that the child next to her was suddenly leaning on her. The girl’s bangs covered her dark eyes, until she finally looked up at Paloma, pulling her hair to the side like a heavy curtain.“I am sorry,” she said, making an effort to sit upright.
Paloma turned back to the sea of gray in front of her, when she noticed that the bus kept on driving in the Circle. It seemed so long this time. The bus tilted to the side, and she couldn’t help glancing up at the sky, which was blue, but it looked like it was turning yellow, then white. The bus, the Circle, the Minerva statue, the water of the fountain, all was folding together, falling upon her. The bus went for a full 360°. “Oh god, no,” she thought as she felt her stomach turn. “I won’t make it!” She swallowed hard. She should not have drunk that large orange juice after the interview. She felt the acid creeping up.
“Hey! What’s with you, man? You forgot to exit the Circle!”
“Where the hell are you going, you moron?!”
Paloma turned and looked at the other passengers, their eyes and mouths wide open with rage. She turned back to the front, peering over to see the large rear-view mirror and saw the driver, a young man with cinnamon colored skin and a mustache that very much resembled a hair comb. She noticed the spots under his arms on his threadbare white shirt. His eyes were covered by a baseball cap, so she focused on his lips as he let out a deep breath and drew a gulp of air before bellowing out, “¡Basta! Enough already! We’ll get back on track!” He drove further until they turned into the right street.
Once the bus was safely in the Southern arm of López Mateos Avenue, she let go of the handle and relaxed. Paloma stared at her fat fingers. Like cocktail sausages. She took a deep breath and pulled her purse closer to her body. Her fingers started playing with the gold chain of her bag. The “gold” was peeling off pretty quickly. Hopefully they didn’t notice, she pondered. What of it, if they did? That was the least of her problems. Paloma’s lips tightened. She hadn’t prepared well enough for the interview. Who would have thought it would take the course it took? But she should have known that, if it were to take that course, she would prove fully incompetent in improvising an answer. She should have rehearsed for the worst.
She longed to be at home, to tear off her jacket and start preparing a very tangy chicken mole. That always took her mind off her troubles. The mixing of over twenty spices in her grandmother’s volcanic rock mortar for the perfect sauce always gave her the feeling that life’s unexpected turns were not always bad: the taste of her mole was never the same, but it was almost invariably exquisite. She needed that now.
“You have been at Pin Pon Toy Store since you graduated from college. Why would you want to leave now, Ms. Montoya?” A young short-haired woman in a red suit asked her suddenly. The woman had been quiet until that moment, and Paloma had not expected her to ask anything at all.
“Well, Pin Pon has been a great employer, but I am looking for a new challenge,” Paloma answered, feeling panic when she noticed this answer sounded awfully phony. It was not what she had intended to say, in fact, she was probably quoting something out of a TV show… “I want a better job at this stage in my life,” she added, more frankly, “I am turning 26 this year, and I want to earn more in order to settle down and establish a solid foundation for my family and the children to come.” As soon as the last words dribbled out of her mouth, she wished she could push them back in and shut her lips with the stapler that stood on the table in front of her.
“Are you planning to have children soon, Ms. Montoya?” A middle-aged woman asked with a smile Paloma could not decipher. “I am a mother myself, so I know how important it is to choose the right moment for childbirth.” The woman pronounced the last word slowly as if she was adding a new word to Paloma’s vocabulary.
Paloma was silent, clumsily clutching the purse on her lap. She opened her lips, but nothing came out.
“You are not pregnant, are you?” The younger woman asked.
“NO! No, I am not.” She gulped, “But I was.”
“Oh, you already have kids,” the older woman feigned motherly cordiality.
“This is disastrous!” Paloma thought.
“No, I don’t have children.” She couldn’t bear their eyes, “And I am not pregnant.” She whispered and blushed so badly she feared even her hands might turn red. She closed her eyes until she realized that the interview was not over yet. She had to wait for its conclusion before she could get out and hurl herself off a cliff, or something like that.
“I am sorry. This wasn’t meant to be an inquiry into your reproductive plans.” The older woman licked her lips. “You are a competent accountant, but we only have time for one more question.” She raised her eyebrows at the manager, handing her over the last word.
Paloma had already forgotten the last question. The interview had taken place thirty minutes ago, but it seemed as far away as a childhood nightmare. She looked down at her clothes: she had her best suit on, the one she only wore to job interviews and funerals. Maybe she should save for a new suit. She shouldn’t be thinking about funerals in her job interviews, particularly not the last one. What a fiasco!
“Hello, Paloma! How is everything?” Abigail was outside their apartment building, watering the bougainvillea.
Paloma wiped her face with a handkerchief before kissing Abigail on the cheek. “The interview…”
“It was today?”
“I’ll tell you later; I have to change and get ready to go to work. I told my boss I had to go to the doctor in the morning, but now I have to go… By the way, what are you doing home so soon?” Paloma noticed Abigail was wearing her nurse uniform.
“The vet had a toothache, so he left and sent me home early. Come for dinner tonight, Marco and the boys are going out to visit their grandma.”
“How about you come to my place, eh? I feel like making mole.”
Abigail’s eyes sparkled in anticipation.
Paloma sat in the bus as it crawled through traffic. Her brother had called her at work just before she left. He had set a date for the wedding and wanted to know if she’d be able to come to Monterrey for the ceremony.
They hadn’t spoken since he last visited. Paloma could hardly keep the tears back. That fateful, awful meeting. Paloma felt like she was drowning. Thank goodness the bus was so full, no one would notice if she started weeping.
When had things started to go wrong? Should she have been honest about her relationship? Should she have never fallen in love with Abel? Should she have had soda instead of beer? Paloma longed to wish it had all never happened. But when she looked back, it was hard to genuinely want to obliterate it all from memory. The past months had been so emotionally intense. Feelings of pain and joy, the sensation of life and death, all so much stronger than ever before. Like shock therapy in being human.
She remembered every detail of her brother’s last visit, like Santiago’s cocky smile as he introduced her to his fiancée, a Northern Mexican with a rich dad and a Ph.D. in Neurobiology or Neuropsychology or something.
Paloma had felt too ashamed to invite her successful brother to her new apartment. She was living with Abel, a sales clerk who had never set foot in a university. She dared not introduce him to her highly educated brother quite yet. Having her brother visit her humble abode would have also meant hiding any trace of her lover. But her brother did not intend to visit her at home, so they met at a classy bar she’d never been to. Santiago had suggested the place. God knows where he had heard about it.
Santiago hadn’t been keen on introducing his sister to his sophisticated girlfriend, but it was the best he could do when she insisted on getting to know his family. Their father, the sociology professor, was long dead, and ever since their mother decided to return to Cuba, Santiago didn’t have anyone other than Paloma to introduce to his future bride.
Paloma hadn’t seen her brother since he finished med school at the University of Guadalajara and moved to the North. She was not used to seeing him in his fine clothes and expensive shoes. In her memory, her brother was a nerdy boy who never wanted to remove his lab coat. He was such a smart guy.
Paloma was two months pregnant. Given that Santiago knew nothing about her relationship, she did not want to startle him with the news. But because he was a doctor, she feared he would notice she was expecting. When the time came to order a drink, Santiago and his fiancée ordered expensive drinks with names in a foreign tongue. Paloma asked for a beer. She knew she wasn’t supposed to drink, but she wanted to throw her brother off the radar. He would never suspect she was pregnant if she drank alcohol. But she didn’t want to overdo it and have a stronger drink, or whatever it was they were having.
Six months into the pregnancy, the doctor told Paloma and Abel the news. The baby’s heart problems. His chances of survival. The possibility of mental retardation if the baby did survive. Abel went berserk. What had they done wrong?
At home, he yelled, over and over, why? Why? You eat healthy food; I always take you to your check-up… What did we do for this to happen? Paloma remembered that beer. She told him about it. He packed his bags.
He really did leave. He really left. Just like that. She talked to the doctor. He told her the disease was probably not caused by the beer. She called Abel. She begged the doctor to call him. But Abel never came back.
Paloma turned the key to her apartment. The cool air of loneliness greeted her as she pushed the door open. It was five months now that she was living on her own. She went in and drew the curtains in the living room, although it was already dusk. She opened a window and let the evening air come in.
She changed her clothes and put the chicken in the pot before leaving to fetch Abigail.
Abigail stirred the sugar into the lemonade. “So, why do you want to leave Pin Pon Toy Store?”
“The place where I went to today pays a lot better.”
“Perhaps, but judging by the type of questions they asked you, I wouldn’t want to work there.”
“You are right, but then again, maybe it was my fault.”
“No, it’s not your fault that you are a woman!” Abigail’s voice was full of indignation.
“It’s not that. I forgot to take off my stupid fake wedding ring… They probably wondered why I talked about settling down and having kids—and behaved totally inconsistently. You see, in my application I wrote I was single, and I wore a wedding ring to the interview.” Paloma shook her head at her own mistake.
“Why do you wear it?” At last, Abigail dared to ask what she’d been wondering for months.
“I put it on after Abel left me. I didn’t want people to pity me for being pregnant and unwed. I didn’t want any stupid questions to pop up, either. And look where that led me! It probably ruined my chances for the job.”
“Well, take it off!”
Paloma shook her head. Her fingers were too swollen from the heat of the kitchen.
“Take it off tonight and forget about it.” Abigail tried the rice, which was ready. She took it off the stove.
“Maybe it’s for the best that you will be staying on at the toy store.”
“I want to earn more.” Paloma sprinkled sesame seeds on the mole sauce.
“Why? Are you in debt? Didn’t the insurance pay for the C-section?”
“Yeah, it did. The thing is that I got this terrible scar. I want to have plastic surgery to remove it, but the state health insurance won’t pay for it.”
Paloma pulled up her blouse and revealed the smooth skin of her stomach. She pushed the waistline of her jeans down a bit to reveal the thick scar, like a worm resting on her chocolate colored skin.
Abigail frowned. She was glad she had had her boys by natural birth, but she kept her thoughts to herself. “Well, at least it’s well hidden.”
“Yes, but what if I meet a new guy. What am I supposed to say? Imagine!” Paloma had thought about this countless times since the doctor removed the bandage that had hidden the scar at first. “I am on a date. We are having a passionate evening, and then he sees this. What am I supposed to do? Tell him I had a baby? Then what? He’ll ask where it is; he’ll want to know who the father is and where he is now—”
“Oh my goodness,” Abigail did not want to picture the scene further.
“What should I do then? Show him the death certificate?”
“Paloma!” Abigail interrupted. “Come,” she said and opened her arms.
Paloma’s body shook as she wept.
After dinner, while they still sat at the table, Abigail took a bottle of Tequila out of her purse. “I thought you might want to forget the events of the day.”
“Yeah, maybe not just of today…” Paloma said, her voice dripping with melancholy.
“Oh, come on, try to look forward!”
“I’m trying, that is why I want to get rid of the scar.”
Abigail poured Tequila into two glasses. “You know, I was thinking. Maybe the question about your scar won’t come up on a date.”
“Look,” Abigail explained, “many men sleep with a woman they like without caring if she has kids or even if she’s married. The question will only come up if the guy wants something for the long run.”
“What if I want something for the long run?”
“Is that a question?”
“No! I mean, I want something for the long run. I want to fall in love for real, and I want someone better than Abel. I want a man who doesn’t run away because something might go wrong.”
“It did go wrong.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. And I really do not believe that it was because of the beer.”
Paloma shook her head in dismay. She pushed her full glass away from her.
“Paloma, our lives aren’t perfect. I know what you went through, and I am not going to start preaching about how ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ But I do want you to remember that nothing is hopeless. You know, I grew up in a village in the mountains. And every winter we watched how enormous flocks of crows danced in the evening sky before they went to their favorite trees to sleep. The sight of these crows, one cold winter after the other, waltzing through the pink and blue skies. It was beautiful. And you know what my grandma told me? She said that crows fall in love in the winter. And you know what that means?”
“It means that the loneliest and ugliest of birds find love in the most sinister part of the year! If there is hope for them, there is hope for us!”
Paloma laughed, “To the crows!”
“To love!” Abigail added, before gulping down the fiery drink.
Paloma was standing at the bus stop when she saw a tall man she recognized. “Hi! You are Abigail’s boss. I mean, you are the vet, right?”
“Yes, my name is David Silvestre. You came by once, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I’m Paloma, Abigail’s friend.” She smiled bashfully. “I brought in my parrot before it died.”
“Oh, yes! I remember now, the parrot that had been attacked by a stray cat. The one that had a wing ripped off?”
“Yes, go on and rub it in,” Paloma thought, nodding in disgust.
“I’m sorry.” David noticed her consternation, “I forget how sensitive these things can be for pet owners. As a doctor, I sometimes get lost in the medical details.”
“Yeah…” Paloma tried to find a friendlier subject. The bus wasn’t coming as soon as she’d expected. “You know, I’m not an expert on animals, but Abigail told me the sweetest story about crows the other day.”
“Is that so?”
“It was about how they are alone all year round, but then find love in the winter.” Paloma continued excitedly, “She told me how they fly and roost in swarms with other crows in the winter—and fall in love.”
David stood next to her, popeyed. “Well, I don’t want to be pedantic, but I don’t know where Abigail got those ideas from. Crows gather in flocks to roost in the winter, but there’s no love involved. No one knows why they do that. They just meet and then sleep on the same tree. Maybe they fly around a bit in their flock, but this is independent of the mating process.”
Paloma’s eyes revealed her disappointment.
“Hey, don’t worry. Nature isn’t sweet or romantic. But, look at the bright side, as humans we can fall in love in the winter, and we can make up silly stories about crows falling in love in the winter—if we find that uplifting.”
“But you don’t know for sure that they don’t fall in love? After all, mating and falling in love are not always the same thing…”
David laughed, “You mean like I am a bird psychologist or something?”
Paloma waited for an answer.
“Erm, no, I don’t know. Nobody knows.”
The bus arrived, and Paloma flew away.
Elisa R.V. García is a Mexican author living in Germany. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Aarhus University (Denmark). She works as a researcher, but she dedicates part of her time to writing fiction. In her short stories, she likes to explore questions dealing with identity, independence, and the complexity of human relationships. Her first short story was published by Thrice Fiction in December 2016.