She no longer looked like a bird with a future, even as she flew the usual transects. Instead of the concepts and patterns that normally kept Raven alive, she saw only something newly configured as the bottom, so near. She mentioned it to the mate at her shoulder, nearly blinded by the sun setting over the Pacific, and he cast an annoyed look her way: did he need to be alarmed by this, to take measures?
“If everything stays the same,” she said as they pecked at cigarette butts along the Promenade, “if we go on like this month after month, does that sound like a cheerful prospect to you, or not?”
That kind of question can linger in the dead air between couples for years, until the times get hard and enforce any one of a number of changes. This was hard times, it turned out, and so instead of the cushy beach cities, abundant stale bagels at the craft trailers and shifting mosaics of barbecue leavings at the picnics of the Latin American diaspora, Raven found herself newly mateless once again, atop an old-fashioned telephone pole as the eastbound Greyhound sighed and disappeared down the frontage road. Depressed, she watched the trucks pass, sniffed the chemical stew rising off the lettuce fields. So this was Indio, gateway to the Coachella Valley. In the distance, a poisonous and beautiful body of water gleamed among the bathtub rings of the desert hills, where she would have to learn the subtleties of beached fish, of egret eggs and government corn, a new order of abundance.
“It’s all about frugality, about using the materials at hand to make a new start. Training and instinct can get us too specialized,” Raven said as Magpie and Mockingbird fluffed their feathers in the sun.
“When the economy tanks, it’s easy to get marooned,” said Mockingbird, always a quick study. “Sure, there are grants and part-time gigs, but who would pay out the kind of money even one little bird needs for a Westside lifestyle?”
The wind ruffled the pages of a magazine Raven picked out of the trash: a retrospective of Dorothea Lange photographs opened at the Getty right after she left town.
“Now there’s some real survivors,” Mockingbird said. “The Madonna of the Plains, old hoboes with a single clean shirt and a sheaf of Wobbly propaganda in their knapsacks.”
“What’s a knapsack?” Magpie said.
“We’re too effete for knapsacks.” Raven took back the magazine. “Knapsacks represent a kind of competence that is alien to our kind. Honestly, I saw the most pathetic yard sales in West Hollywood and Culver City, IKEA bookshelves and espresso makers, exercise equipment, a whole catalogue of bad choices.”
“Where’d all the money go to, I wonder,” Mockingbird said.
“Too much credit,” Magpie said. “No roots, no connections.”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” Mockingbird said. “You’re a total stray.”
Raven tuned them out. Would she even be here, would she have escaped that sense of fatal drift if she’d persisted like so many others at the project of wanting, of considering colors, patterns, zoning variances, tile and bamboo, curtains and blinds?
Magpie was crying a little bit.
“You think it doesn’t bother me?” She wiped her yellow eye. “That’s what you think? It was such a crazy time. I hardly remember it, just some bad weather, a truck, the tomatoes. Tomatoes. Maybe I made some mistakes, maybe I got greedy…”
“Shut up,” Raven said. “Don’t go looking for pity around here.”
She got ready to peck, but a man in torn jeans and a leather vest threw a broken board at her and she hopped away. Magpie and Mockingbird preened a little, and the leather vest man set a plate of hamburger in front of them.
“I remember your kind of bird,” he said to Magpie. “Stockton, a thousand years ago.”
“Mr. Futility,” Raven said from her phone pole, “talking to you.”
Magpie pecked at the hamburger.
“Nice,” she said to Mockingbird. “Like sparrow chicks put through the blender.”
“I’ve tried it before,” Mockingbird said.
“He’ll have you on cat food next,” Raven screeched, laughing and lifting her wings.
“I’m happy to share,” Magpie said. “Call it rent. I like the looks of that orange tree next to the trailer. No pecks while I’m sleeping, and I’ll leave you each a third of this.”
“Half for me,” Raven said. “I am the bigger bird.”
Of the three of them, only Mockingbird was born there, but she said most of the natives acted pretty snobby, even to her.
“The owls are the worst, always going on about mice and lizards like they invented them. This kind of mouse, that kind of mouse.”
“Mouse snobs, the worst,” Raven said.
“If there’s more wine,” Magpie said, “I’ll drink it.”
“That and cheap hamburger.” Raven poured her half a glass. Magpie gestured for her to fill it up.
“Was that a crack? He likes me, whatever. I remind him of better times. Is that so awful?”
“No one ever feeds a raven,” Raven said. “Not even the tweakers of Imperial County.”
“We’re pretty lucky.” Mockingbird was cheerful as usual. “Omnivores have it good. Did you read about those albatross babies, with their bellies full of plastic? And someone bulldozed the owl burrow right down the road, and I can’t stop thinking about the poor fishing cormorants in Japan, I mean, it’s total slavery.”
Magpie served herself the last of the bottle.
“The world is private property,” she lifted her glass to the other two, “and it all belongs to us. That’s something, right?”
Raven snorted, which came out like a croak.
“No, really,” Magpie said. “Look at yourself. You can outfly us, you can digest anything, that bill, my god, it’s like a drill bit, nobody will ever, ever mess with you, Raven.”
“Lunchtime,” Mr. Futility said, setting a plate in front of Magpie and shooing Raven away. He pushed a chair into the shade and sat down heavily. His face had swollen in the past few days, his ankles so distended he wore flip-flops instead of his usual boots. Magpie pecked at the hamburger, peering around at the man in a way even Raven had to admit was charming. She hopped to the porch railing and strutted and groomed for a while so Raven could steal a few beaks full of hamburger. Magpie wasn’t bad, Raven had to admit, like a grackle with looks and brains. But the wine was wearing her down. She stumbled on the porch railing, and her left wing trailed a bit.
“The problem with grackles,” Mockingbird said, coming to rest on a stanchion below her, “is they never shut up.”
“I’ve come to like it.” Raven did, it wasn’t a pose. The crepuscular racket of the grackles, and the deepening gold to the south, the dirty haze of irrigated agriculture and miles of windblown sediment, the peace, the sense of space, all made her think she could eventually adapt to her new life.
“You didn’t grow up listening to the clacks and croaks all day long. It gets old.”
“We didn’t have them in Santa Monica, just seagulls and English sparrows like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Rotten Limeys,” Magpie said, slurring her words.
“The sun sets so early after the time change,” Mockingbird said. “We probably shouldn’t be drinking all day”
“At least not this swill,” Magpie said. “I heard there’s a better selection at the Costco in Cat City, if we felt like making the trip.”
“Who is this we? I’m the only one with any spare cash.”
Raven flew away, feeling bitter. Mockingbird had all that talent and look at her, she was so easygoing compared to Magpie, who was, she’d admit, pretty, and exotic down here at least. But up north magpies were a dime a dance, and really the three of them came from the same place, avian trash, roadside breeds without much dignity. Terns dive for fish, the kestrels and owls hunt real living beasts, and we wait outside the truck stop for someone to drop his French fries, even the best of us sing to the speed freaks and the lettuce pickers for handouts.
Always with the self-loathing, Raven scolded herself.
Raven flew over tamarisk and rabbitbrush, over unexploded ordnance and abandoned ashrams. A month or so in Mexico would clear her head, it had to, solitary contemplation of the fish farms and dirt roads of Santa Clara, maybe a trip out on the Sea of Cortez with the pangueros, some tacos and the smell of diesel and wood smoke. If nothing else, she could chill with Coyote’s family for a while, she had addresses, the usual network of canids who cross at will, trip the sensors for fun, her kind, earthbound soul mates.
“Nothing’s much fun anymore,” one of Coyote’s uncles told her. “Some real tough dogs came up from Sinaloa last year, and all of us amateurs got motivated to quit real quick.”
The moon, waning gibbous, lay on its back over the sea, a hell of a sight.
“It’ll be at the half tomorrow,” said the old Coyote, not that it matters anymore. “I used to watch that old moon like some kind of Galileo, sister.”
“Like an old smuggler, maybe,” Raven said.
“Is there any way to make money with the new guys?”
“A bird like you, with papers, no record, some Westside snazz, you kidding? Sure. There’s dope, people going over wet, guns, dog fights, chicken fights, all kinds of money rackets. Some bad doings, Raven. I wouldn’t want my girls mixed up in it.”
“It beats going back to dullsville.”
“If that’s how you see it.”
Raven sorted out the pile of pesos and dollar bills on the hood of Chavo’s pickup truck. She was good at sorting out the crowd, too, figuring who was serious about betting and who got too excited or drunk to keep track, and she played it just straight enough to keep them happy, and just crooked enough to make Chavo money whatever happened in the pit.
She tried to avoid the roosters in their cages, not because they were crazy, but because they were so beautiful, and said such horrible things to her. Ignore them, Chavo told her, it gets them pumped for their fights.
It was Sunday night, and the Mexican Republic was officially 199 years and three days old. Chavo said they’d made more money that weekend than he had during Holy Week.
It was dark away from the pit and the groups of men showing off their birds. Raven and Chavo made their own party, a pint of Crown Royal, the fireworks just visible from Caborca. The band at the bar next door that played one bad ranchera song after another.
“My sister’s kids went to Dolores Hidalgo on a school trip,” Chavo said. “Where the revolution started. They hung Padre Hidalgo’s head in a cage off the side of a building after they shot him. Nice history, huh?”
Raven sipped her whiskey and kept sorting the money. Chavo liked to talk, explain the bloodiness of Mexico’s past, do a little amateur sociology. God, she was tired. She had a headache starting behind her eyes. She counted a stack of bills twice, then three times, and got a different amount each time.
“Chavito,” she said, “I’m starting to lose it. I think I’m getting a migraine.”
“Females. No stamina. Go on, go home. Here.” He tossed her a bundle of twenties. “Don’t puke on the money.”
Raven hopped to a thicket of creosote and threw up. It didn’t make her feel a bit better.
“Kill,” said a faint voice by her. “Get out the cage and kill, kill.”
Through the milky throb of a full-on migraine, Raven could just see a rooster, his chest bloodied and part of his crop visible through a slash in his neck. His claws twitched, and he stretched his beak as if to peck, then collapsed on his side.
“Whole life in a cage,” the rooster gasped. “You wonder why I’m in a rage? Tell them, one time I was on a trustee crew, I shoved this homie Salvatore into the truck lane on the 60. Guy name Clarence is doing time for it. Never felt right about that.”
“Settle down.” Raven said.
“I know you, Morena. Ugly puta. If I wasn’t disemboweled, I’d make you squawk, even if you are ugly.”
“Nice way you earn your living, sister. Freeloader. Chingada.”
He seemed to talk forever, saying the same foul things over and over. Raven retched again. How long had she been in this roost? It was starting to get light, but it could just be the moon rising. She’d lost track of where it was, full or new, waxing or waning.
“Water,” the rooster gasped.
“I could use some myself.” Raven stopped to listen. Something was eating something, messily, on the other side of the creosote bush, and Raven hopped to the top of a cactus in quick panic as a mean-looking dog brought his teeth down on the half-dead rooster. Three or four more of last night’s losers lay dismembered and scattered in the gray morning light, blood and bronze and iridescent green feathers bright amid the rocks. A nice way to earn a living, that dead gallito was right. Raven felt weak from her bad night, but calm, more grounded than usual, ready to decide some things. She spotted the rising equinoctial sun off her right shoulder and set off for the north.
“What happened to this place? It’s trashed. Is the trailer totally gone?”
“Someone towed it off, what was left of it,” Mockingbird said. “Didn’t you know?”
“I was in Mexico.”
“Way to say something before you leave. We wondered. It happens once in a while, when these guys get careless. Who cares? He was sick anyway.”
Mockingbird stifled a sob.
“What is wrong with you?”
“Michael Jackson died.”
Raven snorted. “Like, months ago, Mockingbird. Where have you been?”
“Oh, you know how summer is, you have chicks, it’s all crickets, crickets, spiders, grasshoppers, crickets, always watching for raccoons, worrying about everything, and then they get so ugly for a while, so demanding, such brats. There’s no time to think, or look at a newspaper, or anything, and then they’re gone and it’s even worse, too quiet. I’ve been just really feeling sad, he was really a part of my life for a while, you know?”
“Forget about Michael Jackson. I can’t believe Mr. Futility is dead.”
“They said you could see the fire all the way to Niland.”
“How did Magpie take it?”
“She’s under the orange tree.”
Raven hopped to the tree to examine the heap of feathers, the cracked yellow bill, a few tardy ants marching around.
“She totally let herself go,” Mockingbird said. “Wine every night, pills, whatever she could find, and no eating, of course. She tangled with a couple of cats, couldn’t spot trouble anymore. This wasn’t her world.”
“Couldn’t someone talk to her?”
“You could have, I think. You’re pragmatic that way. Those cats never came around when you were here, believe me. Everyone figured she’d pull herself together and fly back where she belonged. But I think she really cared about him.”
Raven tossed the iridescent feathers, not sure why she did it, mixing them with the dead leaves and dirt. This was great, run from one heap of dead bird matter to another, borrow trouble and carry the debt wherever she went.
“You look great, really,” Mockingbird said. “Mexico agrees with you. It’s getting very fun and crazy around here, some Canada geese came in yesterday and there are parties every night. You always show up when things start happening, Raven.”
“No parties,” Raven said. “I’m ready to tone it down a little.”
“You?” Mockingbird screeched a little, tossed herself into the air and ate a mosquito. “Some PBS and early to bed? You’re a riot, Raven. You’ll never tone it down.”
Raven hopped once, flapped once, and she was on top of her phone pole again. Shotguns popped in the distance. Stupid Mockingbird had no idea why the parties over there were so good, but Raven had seen it all, on her way north she’d perched on the blinds and the cleaning stations, watched the florid men in full camo load innocent-looking coolers into the trucks and sampled what they left behind. It was tempting to tell Mockingbird all of this, but Raven watched her for a while, hunting and flashing her dark gray and white pattern, showing a hint of yellow in the right light, tuning up a bit as dusk fell. Why abuse her for what she couldn’t see?
“Don’t get all pissy and fly away, Raven. You always do that. At least if you’re here, you know it can’t get any worse.”
“It can always get worse,” Raven said. “I will spare you the details. Oh, there go the grackles. I love the grackles.”
“Grackles appear reliably at dusk,” Mockingbird said. “If that makes you happy, you’ll always be happy. Lucky Raven.”
ALISA SLAUGHTER has published fiction and creative nonfiction in several literary journals, including Santa Monica Review, The Missouri Review, Natural Bridge, Alimentum, The Rattling Wall, Terrain.org and SundaySalon.org. She lives in the mountains of Southern California. "Raven Foreclosed" appears in a new collection, Bad Habitats, published by Gold Line Press.