Always When

The crows were uncommonly loud that day. She heard them from inside the house even, as she stood beside the stove stirring his oatmeal. Afterward, as she went out to refill the bird feeder, they screamed at the woman, reminded her how she’d always thought them harbingers of death. Their caws were so insistent she had to stop and lean against the ancient oak in the side yard.
            “This is the day.” She spoke the words into a wad of damp handkerchief. When she finally moved on, she repeated the phrase, added to it. “This is the day the Lord hath made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.”
            At the back of the yard but nowhere near the actual property line, she twirled the dial on the padlock that protected the shed’s contents, tugged on its weight and in the evergreen shadows felt it fall open in her palm. As she entered the dim, she paused a moment to watch her breath feather the mountain air. She pulled the scent of pine deep into herself, held it there as long as she could. 
            "Just in case it's the last time," she said on the exhale.
            She plunged both hands into a five-gallon bucket and withdrew twin mounds of peanuts in the shell. She filled her jacket pockets then turned, clucked and made kissy noises to signal the squirrels it was breakfast time. When she walked back into the light squinting, there they were, a dozen or more clustered around the doorway, waiting with soft bright eyes and twitching tails. Something inside her unclenched. The nuts were gone in a blink.
            “Hold on,” she told her darlings. She disappeared back into the dark, heaved the half empty five-gallon bucket waist-high and made her way back outside. In the sun's shine she tipped the pail and moved in a slow circle until the ground was littered with peanuts.
            The woman puffed a gray tendril away from her eyes. “I’d tell you to make ’em last, but you wouldn’t, would you?”
            One little fellow took to coughing and bits of nutmeat flew out of his mouth in a spray. His tiny head thrust forward over and over as he made miniature, hacking squeaks.   The woman reached for him but he bolted toward the woods and his friends followed.
            “See? You gotta be careful what you ask for,” she told the retreating crowd, “'cause you just might get it.” She fingered the cross that dangled from a chain near her throat divot. “I don’t even know if I’ll miss you,” she said to the place where they’d been. “I have no idea.”
 
 

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