Susan Cormier

© Copyright 2018 by Susan Cormier

Photo of a dead crow.

It’s all in the way you turn your wrist. You'll need a plastic bag, doubled or tripled -- and if they're transparent, a shopping bag or box for carrying. You don't want any questions. Gloves against disease and parasites. Set your plan of action and act quickly. Tie the bags in a knot in case you screw up or lose faith. Faith: the act of motion without contemplation. The body will remember.

It's all in the way you turn your wrist. Lay flat, smooth with open palms, one arm across then the other, turn the wrists, bend up from the bottom then again, flip over, and there you have it -- a perfectly folded sweater.

Jared has a knack for folding sweaters.

Jared and I are upstairs, searching through storage, pulling out product and prepping it for the salesfloor in the store below. I sort clothes into colourblocks, mentally plotting the alignment of textures and patterns on displays, piling stacks of folded pants and shirts back into boxes for him to carry downstairs. Only he can move our twentyfoot shelving units and one-hand the heavy metal-based mannequins; only he can build me a four-hundred-pound steeltop stockroom desk from scraps. If I complain that our dumpsters are overly full he'll climb atop and smash the piles down with size twelve feet, rip reinforced cardboard with bare hands and cram it into crevasses and corners. And I've never managed to match his knack for folding sweaters, his perfect piles of knitted fabric with the sleeves tucked just so.

"It's all in the way you turn the wrists," he says, grinning down at me from his sixfoottwo while I with my stubby fingers struggle to match his finesse. Learn the motions, I tell myself. The body will remember.

Beside us outside the picture window, the first few evening crows fly past, trailblazers for the daily migration of ten thousand wings from nesting to feeding grounds and back.

On the rooftop ledge over the store below, a black crow lies twisted and shimmering in the heat, two feathers stuck to the window to mark the end of its last flight. I noticed it yesterday, pressed palms against windowpane, said a small prayer, and cursed myself. I multiplied the heatwave weather forecast by the standard rate of biological decomposition and calculated two days, maybe three, before the body swelled, swarmed a cloud of flies, and cooked into putrescence outside the window beside the staff kitchen. I cursed myself for knowing only two unnavigatable routes onto the rooftop: one, just off the alleyway, an ancient locked gate, rusted with decades of neglect, the key long since lost. And two, embedded in the wall of a dank steep stairwell, the thin metal bars of a ladder to the roof hatch, intended for inspectors and emergency crew personnel and other such men in uniform. I tried to climb it, once, but got no further than the second rung before the stairwell beneath me twisted into vertigo and my shoulders seized into terrified immobility.

The folding of sweaters, like washing grease from dishes or bloodstains from clothing, is a meditative ritual of calm distant focus. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat without thinking. The body remembers.

As we work, Jared tells me stories of action and adventure: the summers he spent in the military reserve, the time he chased a shoplifter and caught him, the boys who fought him in high school. He demonstrates how to throw a fist, smash walls, smash jaws. "It's all in the way you hold your wrist."

I look up at him, smile and nod, say nothing, pull heavy dampscented stacks of denim jeans, fold lopsided piles of sweaters and teeshirts.

It's all in the way you turn your wrist. Set a plan of action, act quickly, avoid questions.

On the salesfloor in the store below the girls glide and turn like elegant fishes, flitting between colourful clothes displays and customers. Their voices float up to us like bubbles through the air vents.

Outside the picture window, the rooftop of the store below stretches barren and blinding whitegrey, shadowless and shimmering in the latesummer heat. The crow's feathers are trembling. It takes me a moment before I realize. We have had no wind, no rain in weeks. One wing lifts slightly, spasms, and falls. A clawed foot reaches and grasps at nothing.

"Jared, that bird...."

"I saw it hit on Monday," he says, tossing empty boxes to one side.

"Jared, it's alive." He glances, grabs a taped-shut box, rips it open with bare hands, and tells me of supermarkets with sparrows trapped inside, balled-up nests of mice to be removed after the use of rodenticide, the skunk that lived in his old garage.

He saw it hit Monday. Today is Wednesday. The rooftop shimmers in the heat. One wing lifts, spasms, and falls.

"Jared, that bird is injured and in pain."

"Probably broken leg, or a wing." He shrugs. "It'll heal."

I glare up at him. "That crow has been out there in the heat, in the sunlight, for two days with no food or water. It is not a broken leg, or a broken wing. It is not going to get better."

After a long moment, he concedes. "I guess we could call a vet."

"Who would pay for it?" I duck into the kitchen for a moment, gather two-three clear garbage bags and the dish gloves, drop them by the stairwell with the roof access ladder. "And what vet would take it? Wild animals are covered in parasites and germs."

My stomach twists and falls with the thought of wrapping my hands round the rungs of the thin metal ladder and climbing to the roof. I calm the nausea by swallowing, holding my breath, folding sweaters right left flip and done.

We crack open boxes, pile teeshirts, fold sweaters. Set a plan of action, act quickly.

"We could call the Humane Society," he suggests.

"They'd just kill it anyways," my hands move in quiet rhythm. "That bird...needs to be taken care of." Have faith. The body remembers.

As we pick through boxes he tells me how he does it -- smashing small skulls with shovels, swinging rats by their tails against walls.

I shake my head, remembering the resilience of the body, the ability of the heart to keep beating while guts lie spilling, skull cracked open, how many beats until it's over. "No."

"What are you going to do?"

I shake my head, do not answer. Between the thumps and slaps of stacking boxes I hear the bright chatter of the salesgirls below. I fold sweaters, flat smooth right left twist and done.

At what point does pain supercede shock and become simply a state of being. The spasmed scrape of open wing against cement, sandpaper surface slowly pulling feathers from skin, scraping skin from flesh, flesh slowly ground down to bone. For two days a crow turns slowly in the heat, its awkward damaged dance leaving a mandala of splattered blood, dripping crap. Red blood, white crap, black feathers -- the spinning ritual of unfinished death.

It's all in the turn of the wrist. Learn the motions. The body remembers.

The jeans and sweaters are folded, stacked into boxes for carrying down to our store. We have done what we came here for.

I stretch the cramps from my fingers, tuck the bags and gloves into my waistband, open the stairwell door and peer up the ladder. My stomach dives like a fish. "I can get up there," I say quietly. "But I might need your help getting back down."

In the window reflected in his eyes, the stunted fluttering of a dark wing, the lightning streak of fluorescent bulbs illuminating the windowglass between his hands and a distant gravel rooftop. Three feet away, waves of suffocating heat.

He fiddles with his keychain, extracts one key, heavy and elegant. The gate. That rusted alleyway gate to the rooftop.

He holds out the key, and when I take it he holds on for a second too long. "Susan," he says, "Everyone deserves the chance to live."

For a moment he is a little blonde boy holding a carstruck broken daschund pup, listening with wide blue eyes to the police officer kneeling in front of him trying to explain. There is a myth about men in uniform. The truth about kittens stuck in trees is they always come down eventually; little old ladies don't really need a hand crossing the road to the sidewalk; and death happens regardless.

"Everyone deserves a chance to live," he repeats, as though chance were a silver platter of brightly-coloured answers presented picture-perfect by Santa Claus or a white-robed God.

"Everyone deserves a chance to not be in pain," I reply.

"What are you going to do?" he asks again.

We stare expressionlessly at each other, hard as boxers' knuckles and vulnerable as peeled skin.

"I'll probably take out the cardboard and garbage after. I might need a moment." I pause. "Please don't tell the girls. They'll just get upset."

He picks up a box half my weight with one hand, twists his wrist to lift it to his shoulder where he balances it with impossibly long spider fingers and says, "I'll see you downstairs."

We have no ceremony for the death of animals in the city. We have dumpsters in alleys, a shuffle of stinking dripping plastic bags and flattened cardboard boxes. We have the moment when the sun lowers obscene orange and the first few crows fly overhead, slow motion in the heat rising from cement.

A bird with broken wing will still stand. A bird with broken leg will favour it, balance on its belly, try to fly away. The inability to achieve some sense of bodily control is spinal fracture, or brain damage. It is important to know the difference between repairable injury and non-viability. It is important not to ask too many questions lest you get distracted by moral decisions.

Wild animals are filthy with disease -- beneath the feathers, a crawling of parasites. Against the claws and grime, two or more layers of plastic bags, and gloves if you have. The soft weight of a body of feathers. Tie a knot in the plastic -- if you fail, or lose faith, this will ensure suffocation. Find the pulse at the base of the throat with your fingers.

Once you know the actions, your body will remember. Faith, the act of motion without contemplation.

One thumb on the breastbone, on the pulse, fingers wrapped around wings, that soft sad weight -- other thumb and finger circling throat, hand around head, it's all in the way you turn the wrist, a quick twist all the way around until you feel the pop in your palm and keep going until your hand is twisted at some obnoxious angle then hold. A broken neck will not kill -- a crushed trachea will. Hold. Sound reverberates through flesh and bone more than through air. Hold. Hold long enough for the wind to blow dust and hair past your shoulders into your eyes, long enough for the traffic below to grumble its way through a stoplight, long enough for the pulse beneath your thumb to fade and grow still.

Outside our upstairs window, the feathers and crap will wash away with the next rain, but we have a two-foot-wide mandala, an inerasable halo of blood burned baked into the rooftop, the last desperate sundance of a messenger from the otherworld, a too-perfect circle of darkening marks that years from now salesgirls and stockboys on their way to the staff kitchen will walk past and ignore, or wonder, without knowing the connection between it and the angle of sunlight and the dusk-flying crows overhead.

Avoiding the bright bubbling salesgirls, I let myself in through the stock room door, sit at my four-hundred-pound steeltop desk on a too-high chair with my feet dangling above the floor. I file papers, click emails, staple things.

Jared strides in from the sales floor, stands beside me. I hand him the key and say nothing. He commends me overly-enthusiastically on a great job taking out all the cardboard and garbage. He fiddles with the safe, chatting brightly, his big spidery fingers twisting at its tricky combination lock. I smile, nod, say nothing. I don't need to remind him it's all in the way you turn your wrist. In a heat wave, some things get sticky.

Susan Cormier is a Métis multimedia writer who has won or been shortlisted for such awards as CBC's National Literary Award, Arc Magazine's Poem of the Year, Anvil Press/SubTerrain Magazine’s Lush Triumphant, and the Federation of B.C. Writers’ Literary Writes. Her writing has appeared in publications including Blood and Aphorisms New Fiction, Atlantis: A Women's Studies Journal, West Coast Line, Arc, and a handful of anthologies including Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary B.C. Poets.

Susan is the organizer of Vancouver Story Slam, Canada's longest-running monthly live storytelling competition. In the past, she has been artist-in-attendance at the herland feminist film festival, a founding editor of Rain City
Reviewmagazine, and a Western Canada representative on the SlamAmerica national performance poetry tour. Current projects include Back Down the Rabbit Hole, a research video essay about youth bullying.

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