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Five A.M. Ravens by Natalie Teal McAllister


Natalie Teal McAllister’s flash fiction piece, “Five A.M. Ravens,” is a captivating story of young motherhood. Each of the five segments hold tension effectively, allowing us to feel the main character’s longing, without sentimentality, to get back into the world. And each segment could stand alone; together, they offer layered meaning. With a fine balance of interiority and scene, McAllister uses second-person POV well to reflect universality of experience.

The lyrical language and attention to small details help drive the tension and return our focus to this character’s isolation. On pigeons: “To watch them now, those little beaks pecking at the concrete window ledge, the coos and snaps of their beating wings, is to know they haven’t missed you.” And on stray hair: “strands woven into the fabric of the chair, curls like traced circles around your shoes.” Please take a moment for McAllister’s author’s note, in which she discusses the challenges of writing a quiet story with a passive character.  —CRAFT


 

Once you could sleep.

At five a.m. the ravens are a collective of voices, neighbors in the apartment next door. You wake to their arguments or their lovemaking or their overwrought drunken discussions but there is no wall to pound your fists upon to make them stop.

In the washed-wool hours of morning you worry the birds will wake your baby, that high-volume toy of yourself in the room next door. The baby who yells for you—yells at you, is you, says all the things you wanted to say. Maybe you never had the voice for it.

How surprised you are this morning to rediscover the sleeping man in your bed. He is your husband, you remember. The baby’s father. He is a doll in the dull light. A mannequin or a silver carving. Somehow he sleeps through the birds, too.


When the baby turns one, you emerge from a fog into a world where there are trees and buildings and among those buildings, people moving with purpose and precision. In one hand you hold two sheets of paper, with the other you rock the stroller back and forth over a crack in the sidewalk. Pigeons hop windowsill to windowsill as if the world has never stopped moving. The baby plus almost a year of your difficult pregnancy, a year of not-being, and in that time, presumably the pigeons have lived tremendous lives and have taken time to enjoy the light breezes that curl between buildings. You imagine the conversations, the quiet musings and moments and discoveries that have passed among them in the time you were gone.

To watch them now, those little beaks pecking at the concrete window ledge, the coos and snaps of their beating wings, is to know they haven’t missed you.

It is spring and yet the remnants of fall leaves collect in piles beneath the stroller, gather and shatter as men push by on their lunch breaks, as women sidestep and smile at the baby. How lucky, they say, how very lucky.


You are still a slave to the breast pump. Its black bag beside you is stained with white milk spots, full of hair—yours, the baby’s, your dog’s, the man who sleeps beside you. No one has told you how much of life is managing lost strands of hair. Even here, in this workforce solutions office, you discover the hair of people who came here before you: strands woven into the fabric of the chair, curls like traced circles around your shoes.

You wonder if they call it workforce solutions because the stench of the word unemployment is impossible to erase.

While you wait the receptionist takes a can of deodorizing spray from her desk. She holds her nose between her fingers and a fog of fresh lilac appears between the two of you. You are so close that you feel the tiny particles land on your arm. Mist reminds you of moments in which you could stand at a street corner and feel the city alive with recent rain and isn’t it a funny thing, how water returns you to the living.

At least the baby is sleeping, you think; at least in this crowd of people there is an empty chair beside you and the rhythmic rustle of paper in idle hands that could almost put even you to sleep.

A man takes the seat next to you. At first you think he doesn’t belong here: not his pressed suit, nor his fresh-washed hair. He keeps his papers in a portfolio. He wears a watch. Except when you look close at the seams of his suit jacket each is uneven, each pinstripe misaligned with the next.

Still the receptionist calls him back before you.


The career counselor who sits before you circles words on your résumé. Pick action verbs, she says. She points her red pen across the table. “‘Responsible for?’” She says. “We don’t say ‘responsible for.’ We use muscular verbs. Verbs that lift weight.”

You are told you are a business socialite. You are an expert in time management. You are capable of handling disputes. You are an effective communicator.

There are gaps you want to explain. Holes into which your career has fallen. The unexplainable year you want to be responsible for. The woman pushes your paper toward you and the sound of it stirs the baby—for a moment, both of you watch her face, her flickering closed eyes, the paper between you, as if the baby were a tripwire.

But the baby pulls in, sends out that restful sigh that means you can breathe again. The woman picks up her phone and holds it out to you. “Me, too,” she says. Two small children smile back at you. Pigtails and popsicles. The woman taps the table with her pen. “You will survive this,” she says.


Outside you wheel the baby through a crowd of women in pencil skirts. It is ten a.m., yet here they are holding white coffee cups and laptop bags. They hold their phones to each other, showing photos of their dogs. They are laughing and cooing and when you walk by, you think of all the conversations happening inside the buildings behind them, the plans and strategies of childless women and men, men whose wives tried to tie pieces of themselves together so that their husbands could thrive.

The word mother is cohesive. It will hold you together, even as the gusts of wind push through you and the pigeons above call down from their ledges. Tomorrow in the break of morning only the ravens will speak your name. Your name—that name—will fall like so many feathers twisting to the pavement below.

 


NATALIE TEAL MCALLISTER is a fiction writer by night, marketing director by day, based in Kansas City. Her short fiction appears in Glimmer Train, No Tokens, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pigeon Pages, Midwestern Gothic, and CHEAP POP, among others. Natalie is also a two-time Tin House Summer Workshop participant, where the ravens woke her every morning.

 

Author’s Note

There’s a war on against the passive character.

Plunge into an MFA workshop or an evening writers’ group and you will likely hear a participant suggest that the main character in a workshop story isn’t active enough. This comment will open a slew of follow-up comments, falling along a spectrum of accusations that the character in question tends to “react rather than act” or “speak only when spoken to.” Eventually, someone will suggest that the character seems to lack objective.

The fix to this workshop trope is to develop bombastic protagonists. These are people with clear visions for their futures. Oddballs with loud voices are popular, as are characters with obsessive but slightly unusual objectives. These types of characters are seemingly born of Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to have characters want something, even if it’s just to free a piece of floss from their teeth, and they are quite popular in a workshop discussion.

While it’s true that eccentric, “active” characters can carry a narrative, it is also true that in our daily lives, these people are in the distinct minority. How many of us know exactly what we want at this moment? How many of us could state our own primary purpose or objective?

Five A.M. Ravens” is a piece written for these quiet types, for the wanderers who want something, but not that thing, or the other thing either. I believe that the central conflict for many of us is our inability to control our outcomes (or to know what we want), and I believe we deserve to have our stories told, too.

With that said, I will admit that it is not easy to create propulsion in a narrative where the central conflict is the main character’s inability to act. Quiet stories like this sometimes benefit from the art of threes—in this case, the birds who are oblivious to the protagonist, the loss of the protagonist’s name (which is intentionally lost in the narrative as well), and the weight of responsibility. Braid these three components well enough, and they can add drive to a story when a character cannot.

The central idea I was working with here was how we can be swept up, or perhaps swept away, by forces beyond their control. In this story, that force is the first year of motherhood, when women are faced with so much change that it can be difficult to navigate identity, desire, exhaustion, and worth. To return to the working world after having a baby is to find the world has moved on without you—perhaps the world you believed you belonged to never needed you at all.

 


NATALIE TEAL MCALLISTER is a fiction writer by night, marketing director by day, based in Kansas City. Her short fiction appears in Glimmer Train, No Tokens, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pigeon Pages, Midwestern Gothic, and CHEAP POP, among others. Natalie is also a two-time Tin House Summer Workshop participant, where the ravens woke her every morning.