CALVIN COOLIDGE

by Laura Ellen Scott

 

Prologue

Have you any idea how large a fledgling crow is? They are chicken-sized. They are also clumsy and desirous. They look at us, really look, and are almost always disappointed by what they see.

 

I.

I remember the President insisted on wearing his grandfather’s blue woolen frock and calfskin boots. The frock was cut like a shirt with flaps that reached the knees, and the boots were two sizes too large. He fancied himself a Vermont backwoodsman, but to me he looked like a war child. After a supper of ham and stewed greens, he told me to fetch the stepladder. “The light has been too shiny,” he declared, and together we loaded a rag with fireplace soot to blacken portraits of great men. It was terrific fun, even though my thumb was still sore from where he snagged it, on purpose, with a fishing hook earlier in the week.

I know the President resented my survival of the injury. His favorite son had perished from a superficial wound incurred while playing tennis on the South Grounds, and Mr. Coolidge put it down that “if I had not been President he would not have raised a blister on his toe.” Which is true in a sense, but perhaps the father was more father than president when he made the boy switch his shoes, left to right and right to left, to promote evenness of wear. The boy was only sixteen, and he died of blood poisoning after five days. And here I was, with my sore thumb, helping this president erase as many other presidents as we could before his malady overtook him for the night.  He found my good health irksome, but he needed me.

I am the sleep butler. After the favorite died, the President became a sleeper, like in a fairytale. He slept for ten hours every night and another four hours after lunch. He stopped telling anyone what to do anymore, except in private moments of cruelty. We do tempt providence when we have a favorite son. The other son (what should we call him—second-favorite? least-favorite?) reminded his father of the son who was gone. We should have ashed him as well, I suppose.

By the time the founders had been painted dark as minstrels, the President was tired. He told me a story about a blacksmith he knew when he was a boy. “He was a large-framed powerful man with a black beard, said to be quarrelsome. I have seen him unaided throw a refractory horse to the ground when it objected to being shod.”

I put him to bed in a room insulated against the roar of the age. He slept his long sleeps in an attic alcove with country-style slanted ceilings and a window that looked directly out into the rum-colored leaves of a chinkapin oak. He added, “but he was always kind to me. He was a big-hearted man. I wish I could see that blacksmith again.”

I called the crows. It was only dusk. They came by the hundreds to roost in the chinkapin, blackening every branch until the tree began to vibrate. The President took comfort in his birds; it is not unusual for a powerful man to lean on beasts more easily than he leans on his fellows. We watched the birds for as long as the dim light allowed, and even after the sun set we continued to stare into night. The crows were still there. Shifting, shaking wing. Puffing up and bringing down. Winking. Seeing us not see them

Just as I was beginning to think the President had either forgotten me or had fallen asleep he said, “I wish I could see that blacksmith again.”

 

II.

The next morning the crows in the chinkapin managed to form a clear opinion, one that was shaped like an anvil. The President took this as meaningful and he rushed out, making me run after him with his coat. In no time he was out on the lawn in his frock, knees knocking, boots crushing the frost-tipped grass. It was his aim to call the crows to communion, and for this purpose he clutched a small sack of poisoned corn. He ignored the pleas of his wife and son, and he ignored the warning barks of Rob Roy and Prudence Prim.

When I caught up to him beyond the courts, he was surrounded by a black trembling pool of birds, beaks parted for whatever would come.

The President explained it thus: “In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not.” Most of the birds died right off, keeled over at his feet. But the ones that survived were ordained. The dogs stopped barking and began to whine.

The President said, “I reckon the wife likes animals.” He turned and walked slowly back towards one of the service entrances, and behind him a row of sanctified crows picked a trail, rocking from side to side. Doop-de-doop, doop-de-doop.

I brought up the rear.

Here we come. Here we come. Now here we come, this processional of infinite censure

Doop-de-doop, indeed.

 

III.

We brought the crows back to live inside the house. Beyond these walls, history has proffered many creative interpretations: that his silence was wisdom and that his incapacitation was philosophical. But within these walls, Mr. Coolidge’s great legacy was made entirely of black birds.

Crows nested in cupboards and sinks and chimneys. Generations fledged over the stove, slammed into windows, and bit through wiring, causing fires. In flight they screamed past despots and diplomats, thudded against the ceilings and roosted in the chandeliers. All the time, really looking into our eyes. These crows were now crows of the nation. They would drive the future insane.

 

***

 

Laura Ellen Scott is the author of the novel Death Wishing (Ig Publishing, 2011) and the short fiction collection Curio (Uncanny Valley Press, 2011). She is also the Series Editor for The Wigleaf Top 50 in 2012.

* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.

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