Young mouth in a hard line, Lala bundled her wool coat tightly around herself as she crossed the narrow pebbled beach at the foot of the bluffs. Her pockets and boots were stuffed with provisions -- crackers, tins of sardines -- and she lugged an exceptionally large jar filled with her grandmother's custard. She extracted her father's pocketknife and cut a boat from the dock near the house, rowing away. Sea gulls squawked and whooped. Dive-bombed.
A week ago, her brother had run away, had surely set up a fiefdom on a nearby island -- one of the rocky ones, with gnarly tree roots gripping boulders and cliffs, coves she suspected of harboring mutinous sailors. A pod of walruses would guard the island and eye her with incredulity. Her brother would wave them away and offer her a plate of jellyfish salad. She would say no thank you, or maybe she would have a bite. He'd have a fox as a companion, in a green suit and a green felt hat, and she would have to trick the fox into telling her brother it was time to come home.
Lala rowed three miles, her arms burning, turning to jelly. In the distance, she thought she heard her mother's bassoon. But that couldn't be -- she was too far out. The sound must have taken hold in her mind. For seven days and seven nights, her mother had remained atop the house, peering through the spiked rails of the widow's walk. Mournful, she sat on a stool, hoping for her son's return, hoping the sound of her music would, somehow, bring him back. She'd refused all kinds of sweets, especially her favorite, pineapple upside-down cake made with fruit from the family hothouse. She'd refused everything Lala brought to cheer her, everything Lala brought in hopes of a bit of silence. Lala could no longer stand the sound of the bassoon. She had to bring her brother home.
Sea foam churned in dark water, like milk coiling in tea. Beneath the blue-gray surface lay all the possibilities. An opposite world. A dutiful brother sought a wayward sister. A mother shone in perfect health. A father beamed, placid.
Before he left, there'd been fights. Her father and her brother. Shouts and slamming doors and, sometimes, tussles. When they sparred like this, they appeared as two small bears on their hind legs, struggling, leaning upon one another almost woozily. Once, her brother slammed the front door behind him. When he returned after midnight, he'd told her he'd been to the Alley in town, a very narrow street with trapdoors and secret passageways, peepholes and passwords. Opium dens and gambling saloons crammed together, their rough brick walls blackened with soot and damp with rainwater and the iridescent tracks of snails and slugs. Beneath a sulfurous street lamp, a scant-toothed merchant hawked charred sausages and salt-fish-on-a-stick. Her brother would return there several times, until two weeks later, when he'd disappeared with their father's skiff. Lala's father strode to the Alley, den to den, inquiring about his son. No one admitted they'd known such a young pup. But he thought they laughed at him as soon as his back turned.
Far below, a long, pale shape seemed to glide and soar. Thin at one end and wider at the other, it somewhat resembled a trident. But even through the rippling water she could see it was too fat to be a trident. Perhaps it was a long, muscular fish. A hammerhead shark.
Beyond the choppy strait the water calmed. What had been a green-gray smudge became an island. A cove appeared. The beach at this cove had finer, lighter sand and fewer rocks than the beach by her house. She pulled the boat onto the sand. Carefully, she listened, but heard nothing but the crash of the tide and a breeze in the firs. She treaded the border between beach and forest, peering between the trees in search of trails or footprints. Lichen spotted the trees' damp, knotty bark.
Overhead sounded the beat of wings; from the sky a clamshell dropped. It clacked against slick boulders at the edge of the beach, and a raven swooped down for the exposed meat. His beak pecked at cold gray flesh; Lala watched his beady eyes flash and twitch.
"Want some?" asked the raven, his gullet full of clam.
Lala blinked, then stared, then shook her head. "I'm looking for my brother," she said. It all glommed together as a single word: I'mlookingformybrother.
Get it together, she told herself. If the bird could talk, perhaps he could point you in the right direction.
The raven raised his head so that more clam bits would slide down his throat. Then he bobbed his head up and down, as if in understanding. "Look like you?" Lala breathed in; salt in this air seemed somehow thicker.
"A little. But he's much taller. And with hair like the spiked shell of a chestnut." She paused. "I didn't know ravens ate clam."
"Why not?" The raven hopped as if to shrug. "I'll eat anything." Lala wiped at her mouth. It felt as if the salt in the air were already crusting on it.
The raven hid something. She was sure of it. He didn't show concern, hadn't asked enough questions. What did he mean, "I'll eat anything"? His head twitched in a manner of appraisal. It was as if each twitch granted him a new perspective, and he was compelled to experience each angle to calculate maximum advantage.
"So you think he's gone this way," said the raven. "What makes you think he'll want to return?"
Lala pulled her head back; her babyish chin bulged at the neck. "Of course he'll want to return. He's just on some silly adventure. By now he'll be tired. He'll be cold and hungry. He's probably all turned around."
The raven cocked his head to the side, and though his expression remained impassive, Lala couldn't help but think he didn't believe her. Her mouth turned down at one corner. It seemed like he knew where her brother was and didn't want to tell her.
Perhaps he'd find the custard persuasive. She had always found pudding to be persuasive.
"Want some custard?" With two hands, she held out the jar and jiggled the creamy pudding. If the raven could lick his chops, he did so now and walked, then hopped and flapped toward Lala. She pulled the jar back to her chest. "You haven't said if you've seen my brother."
"Oh yes, actually. Hair spiked like a chestnut shell? Yes, I have seen him." The raven hopped from side to side on his awkward skinny legs, impatient, knees buckled in the wrong direction.
"Really?" Lala cocked her head, surprised and hopeful and skeptical. "Where?"
"Just a little ways down in the woods. I'll show you. But first I'll have some of that custard." His beak opened to reveal a small pointed tongue, a blackish pink fleck of waggling flesh.
Lala opened the jar and nestled it in the cold, fine sand. The raven's small head fit right inside the opening. The custard could not be drunk and was more slippery than clam, but he managed to get some of it down his gullet. Grandmother's custard was really quite good, very much to the raven's taste.
He gobbled more and more of the pudding, burying his head, then his whole body in it. Globs of it stuck to his sleek black feathers. Through the bottom of the glass, the relentless twitch of his wet black eyes put her on edge. Lala got the idea that the raven wanted to do something bad: that if she didn't gain control of the situation, he would have, as her father sometimes said, the upper hand. Glancing around the beach, as if the gulls would swoop down to protect one of their bird brethren, and finding no witnesses, she lunged to her knees with screw-top in hand, forced his feathery butt inside, and scrabbled to twist on the seal. Feathers squeaked against the glass like a squeegee; he righted himself.
"Why did you do that?" asked the raven. The glass mellowed his voice. She shook him, just a little bit, so that he would be frightened. He went thock-clink-thock-clink against the glass.
"Bring me to my brother, and I will free you."
The raven scoffed and sputtered. "Free me, and I will take you to your brother."
Lala thought a moment. "No. The other way. Bring me back to my brother, and I will free you. And, if you are good, I will get you more custard."
He thrust one side of his head forward and pressed an eye to the glass, watchful. "And the recipe?"
"Do you even have a kitchen?"
"Never mind that -- I have my ways. Now, if you could just poke a hole in the top of the jar, I'll be able to breathe, and this whole taking-me-hostage thing will work much better." Lala hadn't thought a magic raven needed air, but she set the jar down and bore a small hole through the screw-top with her pocketknife, careful not to stab the bird. "Thank you. Now you'll just want to go into those woods right over there." He tapped his beak upon the glass in the direction he meant.
So Lala entered the woods, hauling the raven in a jar, his sticky feathers ruffled and smeared against the glass. Pine needles muffled her steps. She kept an eye out for bears and wolves and smaller critters that could hide among the sword ferns that brushed against her legs. The air grew colder, felt charged. Lala set down the raven to pull up her hood. She peered down at him, and he peered up at her with a single wet eye through the jagged hole in the jar top. Her hooded silhouette was reflected back in miniature; she studied it before clearing her throat and asking, "Well, which way do I go now?" He slid and squished against the glass, turning his compacted body as best he could.
Damp needles crunched lightly beneath her. Rain pattered, filtering through the forest's branches. The daylight itself, through the clouds and branches, veered toward blue-green.
A black squirrel scampered across her galoshes and into a clearing. Though it still rained, sunlight shone ahead on the warm green meadow, and in the meadow the squirrel scampered past a red-and-white-striped tent. A crude, grinning face baring long, yellowing teeth had been painted on the side of the tent, advertising a traveling circus.
"This is where you saw my brother?"
"Yes," said the raven, and Lala dashed down into the meadow, sending his little skull bumping against the sides of the jar.
The tent's stripes blurred pink about her until she found its opening, dark and pungent. And at the opening her brother sat upon a three-legged stool, dressed as a clown in billowing polka-dotted fabric. He was peeling an apple. Behind her brother, inside the tent, lazed a man with his legs sprawled before him, chewing on a twig. The man noticed Lala before her brother did and made a disgusted sucking noise with his tongue against his teeth. Then he hocked and spit.
"Brother!" There was astonishment in her voice, but it seemed, also, to contain admonishment. No amount of pineapple-upside down cake would wrench their mother out of her suffering.
Her brother looked up. "Lala?"
"I found you!" Lala spread out her arms. The jar thunked in the grass, and the raven knocked against the sides of it.
"Please be careful," said the raven. "You're making me queasy."
"What are you doing here?" asked her brother.
"I would ask you the same thing. Come home!" The children would return home, heaped with riches, their taste for adventure sated.
"I can't. And now you'll be in trouble and make things worse."
"No, no, you have it all wrong. We'll go home, we'll give this helpful bird some custard. No more listening to the bassoon."
"He showed me the way." She panted, smacked her lips, and swallowed, unable to get the words out quickly enough. "The bird."
"Listen, you can't solve everything with birds and dessert things."
But why not combine the two? Blackbird-blackberry pie. Salty with sweet.
"Hey now," said the raven, apparently reading Lala's mind. "Let's not let things get out of hand here. Will someone let me out please?"
Her brother dropped the red coil of the apple peel in the grass. He took a bite of the white ball, with its single brown splotch, and looked down at his sister. Grainy flecks of apple stuck to his jowls. With his mouth full, he said, "I'm afraid you'll have to go back home alone or else with your little friend. I've joined the circus with Mort over here, and we're sailing up to Sidney in a bit for a show. I've got the best part: swallowing fire." Lala gripped her top lip between her teeth. Spittle flew from the corners of her brother's mouth. Mort sneered.
Roaring in the best and most fearsome way she could, she kicked her brother, first aiming for his loins and then, thinking she would not kick him there hard enough, compromised with herself by doubling her effort at another target, his shin. Her brother dropped the apple and grabbed his shin.
"Ow! Why'd you do that? Snotty brat." He smoothed his puffy clown pants and stuck on his red foam nose. "You better get home before Mom and Dad get really mad. C'mon Mort, let's get going."
Her brother and Mort slung polka-dot sacks over their backs. Mort glanced down at Lala and snorted. Sunlight illuminated the pockmarks that spattered across his wide, puffed cheeks. The two crossed the meadow, joining a slow trickle of clowns emerging from all corners of the woods. All walked northeast on flopping shoes that honked and squeaked. Some slouched as they played harmonicas and kazoos. Others huffed as they shouldered their seagoing canoe.
"What kind of dumb name is Lala," she heard Mort say.
As the honking and squeaking and metallic whizzing diminished between the trees, she heard a gentle clanking at her feet: beak on glass, beak on tin. Lala collapsed on the grass and unscrewed the top of the jar. The raven scudded out, stretching his wings and flying upward, and the sky darkened momentarily as he did so, as if he could influence the movement of storm clouds. Lala flinched, thought for a second that he might dive and attack, and she fumbled in her pocket for her father's knife. But then the raven swooped backward, and his eye twitched in such a way that seemed to indicate he had a better idea. He hopped in the grass and shook his body, unruffled his matted, stringy feathers until a calm settled upon him. Lala relaxed, slightly.
"Well, this didn't turn out so well," she said, digging into one galosh for a tin of sardines.
"Don't beat yourself up," the raven said.
She shoveled oily sardine bits into her mouth. Gorging thus, she felt particularly morose.
Slowly, she licked her fingers clean and dried them against the grass. "I guess I owe you some custard." The raven made another one of his hop-shrugs.
"If you want." He seemed to feign nonchalance.
He flapped around her head several times as if he couldn't decide which shoulder to settle on. Finally, she felt the light touch of his scrawny claws. Lala sighed a short sigh.
Together, they rowed back through the strait. The waters remained choppy, and now Lala was tired and cranky. The raven, too, seemed cranky. His frustrated caw reverberated against the bluffs.
"If it hadn't been for the custard," he said, "I would've pecked your eyes out long ago."
At the dock she almost forgot to retie the boat. The raven tried to help, but he seemed annoyed with her -- his sticky, flapping wings batted against her face, and she swatted at him, but did so gently, for fear of his vengeful beak.
In the distance, she heard not only her mother's bassoon, but some other howl, at a different pitch. Lala trudged up the creaking, rotting steps and moved beyond the dark line of firs and spruce, toward home. The raven flew ahead and perched in a hemlock gracing the edge of the front lawn. Cawed. From behind the hemlock, Lala spied on her house. It had rained, and the hemlock dripped, sunset catching inside its jeweled droplets.
On the widow's walk sat both her parents, snugly together behind its wrought-iron spikes, honeyed dusk warming their skin. Her father played his oboe. And, she couldn't be sure from where she stood whether her parents' hair hadn't grown a bit whiter, whether she'd been away much longer than she thought. There was something bereft about them both, sitting in the cold, wind chapping their faces and hands as they now watched for two children rather than the one. But they also seemed somehow happy, or at least somehow pleased, as if they'd found some kind of balance in their losses, as if they'd found a sort of contentment in pining away up there together. As if that had been their purpose all along.
Anca L. Szilágyi's name is easier to pronounce than it is to spell. (It's SEE-lah-ghee.) "Raven in a Jar" was inspired by the foggy city of Victoria, B.C., and by Haida myths about a raven who steals the sun. Anca's fiction has appeared in Gastronomica, Fairy Tale Review, Washington City Paper, and other journals. Also, she really, really, likes pudding. Learn more at www.ancawrites.com.
Text © 2015 by Anca L. Szilágyi. Image © skynetphoto/Shutterstock.com.