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The Raven and The Crane by Julie Hill Barton

You are sitting in couples therapy. It’s 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday and nothing is out of the ordinary. You and your husband have been seeing this therapist for almost five years and your marriage is solid. Still, you’re talking about how you wish he cared more about the upkeep of the house. As you speak, you remember that you hate talking about the upkeep of the house but you can’t seem to stop. Then your left arm goes numb. It tingles like you’ve been sleeping on it and you wonder if you’re about to have a heart attack.

You uncross your legs, wiggle your fingers, and wait for attacking pains in your chest. None come. Your husband is angry, listing his workload at home and at his job. You sit listening, angry too. But the issue isn’t the house; it’s your life as a mother with young kids and a stalled career; it’s your impenetrable loneliness. The left side of your neck starts to tingle.

The therapist mentions that you tend to focus on the negative when you’re not writing — which you aren’t — though this is apparently “what you do” in addition to raising two small children.  You feel unequipped to respond to her words.

You say, “I’m sorry, I’m really distracted. My left arm just went completely numb.” At this, the left side of your face tingles and you can’t feel your molars. You clack your teeth together. Your husband and the therapist appear confused, and this makes you wonder if you’re imagining everything. For a moment you want the chest pains to come. Sudden, acute sickness would take you out of this mundane routine and prove that you truly are suffering. Then you think that this could actually be a stroke and you picture your face half frozen in a perpetual frown. Your right palm starts sweating.

Your husband and therapist share a concerned glance. You hate that. You tell them to keep talking. They do, and you raise your left arm, feeling pins and needles prickling. You feel a bit far from the moment, like you’re watching it from a blade of the fan on the ceiling.

Therapy’s over and when you get up to walk, you feel like you’re weaving. Your head feels as big as a hot air balloon, and you feel enveloped by an immense quiet. This mental bigness is both alarming and beautiful. It’s as if the inside of your mind has gone from a one-bedroom apartment to a ballroom, and you’re dancing because you can. Your husband tries to help you down the stairs out of the therapist’s building and you tell him you’re fine. But inside you’re dancing and you know that that is crazy.

You step outside and the fresh air feels disorienting and you can’t decide: do you feel fine or are you having a stroke? You wonder if you should ignore the numbness, go home, wander the house, surf the web, and waste another day not writing. Then you imagine, again, your face fallen after the stroke. Your husband asks if he should call a doctor. You sit on a blue parking lot wheel stop and say, “Okay.” A wave of nausea comes, and you just want to lie down. Something is wrong. Something must be wrong.

He explains your symptoms to the doctor and they tell you to come in immediately. Your husband has a busy day; a candidate is coming in to interview for a job. You’re a child again, keeping your father from his important work. You are a distraction from what’s important, and you tell him he can just drop you off at the doctor’s. You’ll be fine. This is ridiculous because you have no car and no way to get back to your house several miles away. You feel acutely wasteful and worthless.  The little enemy in your mind is telling you that you’re just faking it—your arms is numb, so what? Don’t ruin everyone else’s day.

The parking lot at the doctor’s office is full. It’s always full. You watch your husband pull back into the street and the thought of him trying to find a parking spot, driving too slowly the way he does, makes you want to vomit. You say you’re going to throw up, your body heaves once, and he yells at you to open the door as you burp up nasty deep-black gut air. You don’t vomit, but now you’re scared and crying. The ballroom in your head is  echoing terribly.

He finds a spot and parks, walks you to the doctor’s glass door, and you feel like you’re doing a drunkard’s walk. Nothing in your life is satisfying. Nothing but writing, which you don’t do. There’s so much you can do but you don’t. You say there are reasons not to do just about everything. You want to run away, but you don’t. Wobbly, you step into the doctor’s office and feel like your clean, nicely dressed appearance and long blonde hair don’t properly convey the crisis inside your body. You sit in the waiting room and don’t really think; this itself is unusual.

The numbness is throbbing in your left hipbone now. This seems ridiculous, and you don’t tell anyone. The nurse calls you into the examination room. On the examination table the sanitary paper crinkles so loudly beneath you, it reminds you of fireworks. Your husband explains your symptoms. You hate the attention, and you know you need the attention so desperately you might die.

The doctor with pretty red hair comes in, looks at you, asks you to stick out your tongue left, right. Raise your arms. She shines lights in your eyes. Asks if there’s a history of stroke in your family. You say no. She starts to hurry, asks questions about multiple sclerosis, heart attack, vision problems, hearing distortion, and you can’t keep track of her questions. You’re getting more scared now and you still feel terrible for bothering everyone. You want to turn to your husband and tell him that he can go to work now, even though you know this is ridiculous. The doctor is still talking and you mutter the words, “I’m getting confused,” and tears fall again. You’re terrified. You want to be away from this place, these people. You’re so unhappy, yet somewhere deep inside, there’s a small thread of you letting go, saying: Just let this happen. Just be. Just pay attention. You deserve to try to prevent death from taking you too early.

“I’m going to call an ambulance now,” the doctor says, and you hear your older brother say, Jesus. Now you’ve done it. You’re wasting everyone’s time and money. You’re a fucking cipher. You don’t notice his voice in your head. You accept it because now there’s a man in a black outfit with shiny black shoes and a walkie-talkie and rubber gloves, and there’s another man putting stickers on your chest, reaching down inside your shirt past your breast, and the man asking you questions is tall and blonde and has a buzz cut and looks a lot like your older brother. You answer his questions with military-like precision.

He asks, “So this started when you were in couples counseling? Was the discussion particularly stressful?” And you look at your husband and he shrugs his shoulders and you both say, “No.” You want to apologize to your husband.

Two men hold you under your clammy armpits and walk you to a gurney. You sit and they roll you out of the doctor’s office, through the waiting room. You’re confused, foggy, and embarrassed. You’re rolled into the ambulance and a large black man steps in with you, his demeanor sweet and calm. He tells you that his name is Raven, and you know in that very moment that this whole thing is the universe smacking you, telling you to stop the bullshit, and pay attention to what matters: your writing, this story you’re trying to tell.

You’re not crazy. But this could be the birds calling you back to your writing like they’ve done before, shutting down half your body to get you to listen. You tell him that you love ravens, that they’re magical. “They’re tricksters, too,” he says. You lay your head back on the surprisingly comfortable gurney mattress and look out the window as he takes your blood pressure. He tells the driver, a small Asian woman with short messy hair, that your left arm’s reading is well below your right.

You think about how you write with your right hand. You think about the time you couldn’t finish your first novel and how you sat in your office one spring Connecticut day and finally forced yourself to write, come-what-may, and typed seventy-five pages of new words, and as you wept and finished the final section, you were distracted by a racket in the yard behind you. You turned around and in your centuries old oak tree were hundreds of blue jays. Your phone rang and it was your neighbor in the house behind you, your dearest friend, and she said, “Are you seeing this?” You replied with a distant, “Yes. Beautiful. Never seen anything like it.” She told you she hadn’t either, that there was no such thing as a flock of blue jays. You hung up the phone and wept with happiness because you knew, as crazy as it seemed, that your writing was deeply connected to spirit and nature, and these birds all came to you, to your window, to congratulate you and to thank you for paying attention to your art.

Raven asks you how you’re feeling and you’re back in the ambulance in California. “Cold,” you say. He puts a blanket over you, but you can’t help but shiver and shake. Your shoulders twitch, your legs bounce uncontrollably. At the hospital, you’re parked in a corridor and you tell the Asian ambulance driver to watch your leg as it twitches and wobbles. “You’re not controlling that?” she says. You don’t say goodbye to Raven. He has disappeared.

You’re rolled into room 19, a first floor, windowless room with a curtain for a door. You notice old brown blood splatters on the wall. People arrive, tell you their names: Hannah, Scott, another Scott and Dr. Star. The nurse is quick with you, gives you oxygen because you have warned her that getting poked with needles makes you faint. The oxygen burns the inside of your nose. One of the Scotts is putting more stickers on your chest, wires leading to beeping machines. You feel stupid, alone, stuck. You’re certain nothing is terribly wrong.

A young security guard asks if it’s okay for your husband to come in. “Of course,” you say. Several minutes later your husband enters holding your purse, looking relieved to see you sitting up, and you don’t notice this. You just notice that he’s stuck in the antiseptic, fluorescent emergency room when he has work to do. He asks how you’re feeling and you say fine, even though the numbness has spread to the toes on your left foot.

In the next five hours, you undergo a CT scan of your brain, chest x-rays, blood draws for heart enzyme measurements, EKGs, and neurological tests every fifteen minutes. You tell your husband a few times that he can go to work, and you don’t realize that this makes him feel like shit. Your parents text from across the country; your mom sends you a picture of the bracelet you gave her and the sight of it makes you weep.

The test results all come back normal, glowingly healthily normal. You feel foolish, and the tingling is subsiding, though your left cheek and random spots on your left arm still lack feeling. Your husband is scrambling to find someone to pick up your children at school. You’re exhausted.

At home, you tell the kids you’re fine, not to worry. Your older daughter weeps; she worries. Your younger daughter puts a blanket on you. The dog snuggles under your arm and looks at you like he knows everything you can’t say. You don’t help when it’s time to put the kids to bed. You apologize twice to your husband for this.

The next day, you’re tired and your right arm where the IV was inserted is badly bruised. The kids go to school, your husband goes to work, and you watch television all morning, thinking once or twice about Raven, feeling the familiar, sinking suffering of not writing. A few hours of television renders you restless so you decide to go to the store. You slip on shoes, gather your things, and head out the front door. As you walk down your front steps to the car, a woman you’ve never seen before pulls up in front of your house, and says, “There was an enormous white bird sitting on your house all day yesterday. A crane, I think.” You thank her for telling you, get in your car, put your head in your hands, and weep. You cry with joyous gratitude that the bird nation has not given up on you, that the crane came to protect your home when you were in the hospital.

You and your doctor decide that the numbness was the result of a pinched nerve. You attribute this to when, a week ago, you pulled out two decade-old red loropetalum bushes. You yanked with all your might at the roots, straining your back and shoulder muscles.

Back at home, you’re aimless, looking out your living room window. You are admiring the new spiky, green drought-tolerant plants in the place of the old bushes when an enormous raven lands on the telephone wire mere feet from your window. Another raven flies above him to a tree across the street. You thank the birds for their attention and promise to return to your craft, to your connection with the winged ones, and your writing.

That same afternoon, when you’re talking to a friend on the sidewalk in front of your house, the white heron appears. He flies above you and away, as if to say, “I’m finished here.” His elongated white torso and branchy legs are firm and straight. His enormous white wings lift him away, higher with each beat. You gasp, point to the bird, and hold your hand on your heart.

Your back hurts, but your doctor has taught you how to stretch the strained muscles. You do these stretches now as you write, grateful that your heart and brain are healthy. You feel assured by both the birds and Western medicine that you have more time to spend on this earth, that you have an important story to tell, and that there are forces out there, human and animal, that care about you and your words. Pay attention, they say.  Pay attention and write down what you see.

 

Julie Hill Barton
Julie Hill BartonJulie Hill Barton is a writer living in Northern California. She has been published in Brain, Child, Westview, The South Carolina Review, Louisiana Literature, and other journals. She has an MFA in fiction writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also has an MA in Women’s Studies from Southern Connecticut State University. She is currently finishing a memoir. To see more of her work, please visit http://byjuliebarton.com