Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
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The Seven Ravens

A week after their first and only date, Alexis called Ted and said, “I’m in the hospital.”

“Are you okay?” said Ted, who was holding the phone to his ear while he pushed a shopping cart through Walmart. It was nine thirty on a Saturday morning, and he’d made the mistake of forgetting that it was a home game day. The aisles were clogged with families in maroon T-shirts pushing carts stacked with Budweiser and chips.

“I’m fine,” she said, as if being fine were something she could just barely stand. She’d used the same tone when, at the end of their date, she said, “I suppose I’ll call you.” She hadn’t, and—after the pang of being rejected by someone he hadn’t really cared for had passed—that was fine with Ted. He’d only answered the phone because he hadn’t recognized her number. “I need a favor, though.”

And so Ted paused in the frozen meats aisle while Alexis explained to him that she’d been chopping onions, and chop chop chop, off went her finger, and if only she’d saved it they might be able to reattach it. “My left pointy finger,” she said. “I’m right handed but I’d still like to keep it, if at all possible.” What she was asking, Ted realized as a tide of families flowed around him, was for him to go to her house—unlocked—, hunt around on the kitchen floor for her severed finger, and deliver it to the hospital. “On ice,” she said, as if she were describing a seafood platter or a mixed drink.

He pushed his nearly full cart into a crevasse between the car magazines and inspirational novels and left it there, then walked swinging his keys out into the bright September day, telling himself he was answering a noble call.


Alexis lived in a blue cottage in a student neighborhood five blocks from the university and a mile from Ted’s own house. The porches of the homes around hers were littered with beer bottles and weather-beaten sofas; a plaster bulldog, the school mascot, crouched on her front step. He would not have expected her to be a school mascot kind of a person. All he really knew about her was that she’d moved from Buffalo to Mississippi two months ago and was a new assistant professor in social psychology. They’d been set up by Ted’s colleague, Paul, a fellow web designer who had met her at a happy hour and insisted that she and Ted would hit it off. Which they did not.

Inside the house, he was struck by the piles of satin throw pillows and the smell of onions and melted wax. A splinter of light cracked through dark living room curtains. It was what you might expect from the home of a Wiccan priestess, and this impression was further conveyed by the bloody scene that greeted him in the kitchen. He felt as if he’d stumbled upon the aftermath of a very small murder: tiny pools of blood on the counter, a swath of splatter across the freezer, the glinting butcher knife on the Formica floor. No finger, thank God. But where could it be?

Ted had always been dizzy around blood, and now was no exception. He closed his eyes and then opened them. The left pointy finger, she’d called it, which he assumed was the index finger. But now he imagined it pointing at him from its hiding place, the companion to the finger she’d directed at him as she said, “I thought you’d be balder.”

He tried to recreate the scene: chop chop chop, she’d said, and the finger had  . . . Had she actually said it had “flown right off”?

Apparently, it was gone. Maybe she’d tucked it into her purse? It occurred to him that her car was also gone, that she’d driven herself two miles to the hospital. It seemed like a brave feat, and his heart warmed to her the way it hadn’t on their date, during the awkward spaghetti dinner at a strip mall restaurant.

He peeked into the sink, under the kitchen table. The blood splatter on the freezer door might be a clue, and sure enough, when he rocked the refrigerator away from the wall, there it was, bigger and pinker than he’d expected, resting in a pile of gray dust. From the size of it, it appeared she was left with about a half inch of finger stump. The thought of retrieving it (with a broom? Salad tongs?) made him go fuzzy around the sides of his vision. No, he thought. No.

He arrived at the hospital to find her sitting on the side of a tidy white bed, groggy from painkillers and holding a swathed hand up in the air as if she had a question to ask in class. “Well?” she asked.

“No luck,” he said.


It was something that, if their relationship persisted, would probably haunt him, which is why he was reluctant to accept her offer of a dinner to repay him for looking for her finger. “God knows,” she said, “it could have gone down the sink! I was pretty frantic, and there was so much blood.”

Their second date, as he had reluctantly come to accept it was, took place at a college hangout on Main Street, a hamburger and beer joint that was already full of douchebags at seven thirty on a Friday night. Ted hadn’t gone out on a Friday night in more than a year, since his breakup with Brenda. Brenda was a graphic designer in his department, Agricultural Communications. They’d bonded over jokes about teaching farm animals to text message, and he’d been charmed by her snorty laugh. She had a three-year-old son whom she was still nursing—“Don’t judge me!” she’d warned him, which made him judge her. She’d gone back to her ex-husband in Tuscaloosa, which was a relief to them both.

Ted and Alexis were sitting outside on the balcony, and she kept waving at people walking by on the street below. “Hi, Karen! Hi, Richard!” How did she know so many people?

“Oh, I’m just on so many committees,” she said. “You know, the life of an academic!”

Ted was not an academic, so he didn’t know, but he said, “Sure.” He supposed he should ask about the finger, still swathed in gauze, but so far he’d done a good job of ignoring it—as if it were a pimple or a hairy mole. Look away, look away. “So,” he said, and then couldn’t think of anything else.

On their first date, they’d covered the basics: They were both in their early forties, childless and never married. She was from New York, he was from Maryland. She was not unattractive, which is how Ted supposed he could also be described. Normal height and weight, a bit of a hook to her nose, eyes brown and blank as a doll’s. Stunningly straight teeth. Her breasts seemed ample.

He sat back and chewed on his hamburger and listened as she explained, in tedious detail, about her lab and her students and how she had to keep changing her syllabus because “new ideas keep coming to me, you know?”

He nodded. She hadn’t asked him about his own job. Nobody really cared about the Agricultural Communications website except for him and Paul.

“You know what?” she said, wiping her mouth with a greasy napkin. “You’re going to marry me.”

“Excuse me?” said Ted.

“You heard me,” she said.


“I saw you two the other night,” Paul said at work on Monday. “Dining al fresco at Mugshots. So it’s going well?” He waggled his eyebrows. Paul and his wife Rachel had three kids and were always inviting Ted to come to church picnics, which he never did. It struck him for the first time that maybe Paul was so interested in other people’s love lives because he no longer had one of his own.

“She’s kind of moody and steamroller-like,” Ted said. “I don’t do much of the talking, and she has no interest in my life.”

“But she’s nice,” said Paul. “Right?”

Ted wondered what in his description of her had gone through Paul’s brain computer and spit out a piece of paper that said NICE. “I suppose,” he said, and then ran off to see the IT people about a broken database. It seemed as if his world were full of broken databases, none of which he had control over, all of which he needed in order to function in his capacity as employee or human being.

For instance, a normal human being, after being threatened with marriage on the second date by someone he did not like, would reasonably decline a third date. Reasonably, a reasonable person with an intact database would not say, “How about going to the football game with me next weekend?” Especially when he had never in his life been to a college football game. And yet this is what had happened, as they stood on the sidewalk of Main Street. Alexis had pouted down at her car keys, then kissed him on the cheek. “You got it,” she said.


The following weekend, Alexis led him through the maze of maroon and white tents on the drill field to the psychology department’s tailgate party, a series of blue tables set up under a maroon tent, where a walrus-mustached man was doling out heaps of pulled pork on Coronet paper plates. “This is my boyfriend,” Alexis announced. “Ted. He does web design.”

“Ted of the web,” said a red-haired woman with librarian glasses.

And so he was Alexis’s boyfriend, Ted of the Web, as she took him around to meet graduate students and her colleagues and “my experiments,” she said, nodding toward a vaguely Asian-looking man and a vaguely African American-looking woman, both chewing heartily on pulled pork. “See, I give my subjects a paragraph containing controversial information—like, about global warming—and then show them Roger’s face as the one who said it, then show them Keisha’s face, and then show them”—she pointed toward a tan Ken doll standing by the beer cooler—“Rick’s face, and they determine how reliable the information is.” She forked a heap of potato salad into her mouth but kept talking.

“I’m sorry, what?” said Ted.

“I said, Rick wins every time. Most reliable.”

“Well,” said Ted, “global warming isn’t exactly controversial.”

She shrugged. Her eyes were so dark you almost couldn’t find the pupil; he was reminded of a hamster he’d had in middle school. A flutter of orange leaves blew past; it was a warm September day, the sky turning the thick gold of late afternoon. Ted accepted beers and let himself be led around and introduced. Apparently the finger was part of the story now—“He couldn’t find it!”—and she demonstrated, holding up her hand with the now bandage-less stump.

“How about a knuckle sandwich?” yelled somebody.

Ted had another beer.

The lawn was full of shadows; tailgaters were streaming toward the stadium. He became aware of Alexis beside him. He was not cut out for this, he wanted to tell her. He was not Ted of the Web. But instead he said, “How is it?”

She understood immediately. “Throbs sometimes. Typing is harder. So is driving. It kind of sucks.” There was a silence. Then: “She said off-handedly. Get it? I thought of that yesterday.”

“Good one,” said Ted. He was aware of her slightly musky scent. He was drunk, he was tired and lonely. “Do you want to go to the coast with me next weekend?”


With Brenda, he’d done some wooing—some flowers, some gentle back rubs. Toys for the kid. Tenderness. That was what was missing with Alexis, but it didn’t seem to be expected. Sex, apparently, was expected—and he wasn’t opposed to it, as he discovered the following weekend. She was pliant and murmuring, reaching toward him on her Bugs Bunny sheets. Later, he’d gone out to the kitchen for a drink of water and the humming of the refrigerator had startled him—but surely it couldn’t still be under there, could it? Surely a mouse or something . . .

After that, she spent the night at his house. (He told her he was allergic to her fabric softener.) They never did end up going to the coast. She always had something going on at her lab that she couldn’t get away from. On the phone, she was terse and distracted, sometimes hanging up mid-sentence. Days would pass and he would almost forget about her, and then she would call to inform him that she was coming over, or that he was taking her to dinner, or—in early October—that she was coming over to cook dinner for him. She didn’t ask what he might like, or if he might be allergic to anything.

He could barely watch as she sliced the tomatoes with terrifying alacrity. “I know, I know,” she sang, as the silver knife flashed. “Stop cringing; I’m being careful.” It occurred to him that he had been cringing for weeks now, and couldn’t seem to stop.


Alone, Ted used to wake up each morning feeling squashed into the mattress. I am full of sorrow, he would murmur to himself. But now he’d stopped murmuring about sorrow. Once, driving to work, he realized he was saying, “Bap bap bap,” over and over: nonsense. But pleasant nonsense. Maybe that was enough?

Sometimes he let his mind drift forward to the moment when he would take Alexis’s mangled hand in his and slide a ring on her finger, doing his best to avoid looking at the stump. He thought of his favorite childhood prank: the gift box with the hole in it, the ketchup-ed finger lying on cotton, rising up like a cobra. His mother’s scream.

“Things are serious,” Paul said, finding Ted in his office staring miserably at his tented fingers.

“When aren’t things?” said Ted. “Nothing connects.” The website was a huge mess. The links were all broken; the photo of a pig led to an article about bull insemination. Linda, the graphic designer who had replaced Brenda, kept taking time off for her sick child, and the work she did turn in was all garish primary colors and Helvetica font. The database manager wouldn’t return Ted’s emails. Why wasn’t anyone at least trying?

“I mean with Alexis. I saw the two of you the other night at the movies. You seemed happy.” Paul rapped his knuckles on Ted’s desk, as if to ward off bad luck.

Ted said, “I’m confused. That sometimes works the same way.”

Alexis had never again mentioned getting married, and he was beginning to understand that it had been some kind of a joke—or perhaps an experiment. More and more, he got the feeling that some graduate student was about to leap out from behind a shrub with a clipboard and ask him to sign a waiver for being a human subject.


Her parents were driving down from Albany for a visit. “They’ve never been to the South,” said Alexis. “They’re excited to drink sweet tea and eat catfish. Can you convince your parents to come next weekend, too? Wouldn’t that be great?”

“My parents hate sweet tea and catfish,” Ted said. Ted’s parents lived in South Florida, divorced and remarried and, as his father once said, “just splashing around in our pre-death years.” When Ted visited, he spent half the time in Boca with his father and Minnie, playing miniature golf and drinking martinis; and half in Miami with his mother and Jude, volunteering at soup kitchens and repairing other people’s houses. His brother Joe lived in Orlando but he had stopped visiting their parents because “it makes my brain explode.” There was no longer any membrane connecting his parents’ worlds, unless that membrane was Ted. He’d not mentioned Alexis’s existence to either of them.

Alexis’s parents had been high school sweethearts, married for fifty years. Her mother was a smaller, darker version of Alexis and her father was pale and grinning, his gray hair sticking out like the plumage of an ancient goose. They had heard all about Ted of the Web, had seen his website (“All I ever wanted to know about cow dung but was afraid to ask,” said her father) and of course knew about the finger. They sat at a big round table at the Veranda, a restaurant popular with the graduation and prom crowd, and over her plate of half-eaten catfish Alexis’s mother peered at the stump through her reading glasses, teeth clenched.

“I can’t imagine how you did that,” she said at last.

“She was always a klutz,” said her father. “That time on the bicycle.”

“Woodshop,” said her mother.

“Balance beam,” said her father.

“Her prom date slammed her hand in the car—other hand, right? He left her crying by the curb.”

“He would have married you, Alexis, but you’re such a difficult person,” said her father.

“Ever since you were a baby,” said her mother.

Alexis was staring straight ahead; she had been chewing the same bite of salad for a very long time.

“I fell off my bike, too,” Ted offered.

Her father grinned.

Later, when Ted and Alexis were in his bed, she rolled toward him and said, “My parents should have gotten divorced about twenty years ago. They had the potential to be good people.”

He thought that was the most frightening thing he’d ever heard, but he said nothing, just pulled her closer. Sometimes he thought he might actually love her, and then he thought it was all a mistake. He had already grievously betrayed her. He had nothing to offer. He had one friend, if he counted Paul, and a small house, a fifteen-year-old car and a job that had bored him for six years. His life, he thought, was like global warming: everything melting, everything floating away. The polar bears crying on their ice floes. Some people (like Paul) might argue that it was a natural process, but Ted knew it was man-made, by him.


The ring had appeared in his sock drawer as if through some divine mystery—he could almost forget that he’d gone to Jane’s Jewelry on Main Street and bought it—a tiny ruby, four hundred dollars—standing there with a frowning boy who couldn’t be older than twenty. “Mine likes emeralds,” said the boy. “What does yours like?”

“Mine doesn’t care,” said Ted, thinking: Ha, I win.

He felt that disembodied finger poking at him, poking and poking. Though sometimes, more and more, he thought he might be beginning to forget, as if he’d absorbed that missing appendage, that space, into his own body, where it floated around inside his ribcage, in the general proximity of his heart.


In early November, he drove to Alexis’s house down the damp, leaf-smashed streets for a Thursday night drinks date. She had been more stressed than usual; her research assistant had bungled some data. A publication was in jeopardy. At night, she muttered in her sleep and he went out to his sofa to watch crime dramas on Netflix, then to his job to make the cow info, pig info, and horse info appear in their correct places. But there had been a breakthrough: Linda’s kid was no longer sick, so her designs had improved; IT had finally given Ted the logins he needed to make changes on his own, and his boss had actually given him a thumbs-up as they passed in the corridor yesterday.

The sky was turning the dusky gray of early evening; ravens wheeled in the trees above him—or no, they were American crows. He’d learned that linking the Mississippi Birds website to the Wildlife and Fisheries site. They perched on the bare trees above Alexis’s house, seven of them, calling to each other as Ted slammed out of his car and made his way to her porch, past the bulldog statue that had surprised him on his first visit. She’d told him later that she didn’t care about bulldogs, she just wanted to look like she did.

The front door was open, and through the screen he could hear music—something both jangling and aching. “Hello, lover!” Alexis cried. Her cheeks were flushed; she was wearing a red, celebratory-looking dress he had never seen before.

“Good news about the publication?” he said.

She turned in a circle, then padded over in her bare feet and kissed him. For some reason, there was a mayonnaise jar on the kitchen counter that seemed to contain a large caterpillar, something destined for life as a gray and frantic moth. “Doesn’t the house smell clean?” she said. She waited. Her eyes were too bright.

“Yes,” he said. “I was cleaning.” She stood before him, arms clasped around herself. “And there it was—behind the fridge. Who would have thought it was there the whole time? We should bury it. In your yard, I think. And plant a sunflower over it. Yes?”

The house smelled of lemons, like a forest of fruit trees. He thought of fairy tales, of Hansel locked in his cage. He thought of his magic trick finger in its tiny coffin. Alexis was beaming. Next to the horrible jar there was a packet of sunflower seeds. There would be no flowers in his yard, he understood, and by the time they bloomed in hers—next to the bulldog statue—he would not be here to see them. “Coward,” she would call him later, on the phone, and he would nod and say nothing while she chanted, “Coward, coward, coward,” like the call of a bird.

“My darling,” he said now. He stepped toward her, and for the first and last time he took her left hand and brought it to his lips. He kept his eyes open as he kissed the pale, scarred flesh. And then he turned away from the jar, away from Alexis; the doors of her house seemed to swing open for him and then he was outside. The air was cool, the seven crows watched him. In the musty sky, thin, glowing clouds were aligning themselves into signs: keys, fingers, everything pointing him away from here and from the strange and tender thought that the missing part of her was the only part he could have loved.  

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