My thoughts are as thin-walled and hollow as bird bones this wintry morning. The cold keeps me from my morning walk, so I permit myself another chance to doze.
Root-rumpled pavement unwinds beneath my sleeping feet as I wander the silence of an urban forest. In waking life my daughter is named Raven, and I speak to every raven I meet while hiking, trusting they will convey my greetings to her, either directly or via avian correspondence, so my dream self is not surprised to find a friendly raven perched upon a wrought iron lamp hung from the branch of an ancient birch.
My daughter’s feet are surprisingly soft and warm when she takes hops onto my shoulder, and her eyes are as bright and intelligent as ever, so I follow her instructions willingly as she guides me through the gently gathering dusk with slight shifts of her weight.
We make our way along a meandering alley as it descends to a small courtyard surrounded by brick walls painted the gentle gray of the clouds gathered like a blanket over our heads. I sit on a small bench set against the far wall of the courtyard. Snowflakes as soft and warm as feathers sift down onto us.
Raven unfurls a wing to shelter my eyes and leans in to whisper me a dream.
The grass on the other side of the fence from the old man is tall and green and in it a young woman lies on her stomach with her chin propped on her hands. She watches the old man hold her baby. The wind moves through the grass as softly as the old man strokes the wispy curls on the baby’s head, as softly as he sings to her under his breath.
The baby twines her chubby fingers in the strands of silver hair and tugs at the tufts of the long beard. She laughs, the old man smiles, the baby laughs again. Such is the love and beauty between the two that the young woman in the grass laughs and then blushes, thinking she has given herself away.
The old man has known she is there. He watched her burrowing through the tall grass knowing she thought the wind hid her movements. Had he not seen her the ravens would have whispered her presence to him. They watch over her now as they always have and always will, for her mother named her for them in a different clearing under the same sun not so very long ago, and ever since the ravens have loved her as one of their own.
The old man stands and holds the baby close as he carries her across the meadow and under the boughs of the live oaks to the door of a small cabin where an old woman meets him.
The old woman takes the baby from him and looks up the hill to the waves in the grass that show the young woman moving toward her favorite tree. She raises her gaze higher still and silently thanks the ravens realigning themselves to take up their watch over the young woman as they always have and always will.
The old man takes up his staff and picks his way down the path that runs along the stream flowing over smooth rocks toward the place where a gap in the hills lets the sunlight in. In years long past a mill had been built in that place, and while the water wheel has rotted away, the few old people who live in the area keep the mill building in good repair.
The old man arrives as the last of the sun slips below the horizon. He opens the door and enters the mill building.
A cloud of pipe smoke intermixed with the laughter of more old men telling tales billows out the door to greet him. The haze of the pipe smoke so closely matches the silver in the hair and beard of the old man who had been holding the baby that as he wades through the fragrant air his outline slowly fades. His ears become entangled in the web of stories the old men are exhaling along with the smoke, and his perpetual grin grows wider.
The stories are, at times, embellished and adorned so greatly that they stray widely from what might be called the facts of the matter, but nobody is of a mind to mind that, and as the stories weave their magic the old man dissolves entirely into the intertwined beards and laughter and pipe smoke and tall tales as they make their way out the chimney and into the cool, starlit evening where they mingle in the eddies and swirl in the currents of the night air.
Once outside, the stories move as stories do, which is however they want to, and those that tell of the old man move uphill along the path between the stream and the sun-warmed meadows and into the three hearts inside the small, riverside cabin nestled under the boughs of the oak trees.
Inside the cabin the old woman sits in her chair by the wood stove with her knitting on her knee. The young woman is wearing a robe over her flannel pajamas and sleeping on her side, curled around her baby girl. Her hair falls in a loose braid over her cheek. The baby sleeps wrapped in the softest blankets and the warmest furs with a small smile on her tiny, perfect face.
My daughter gifts me a peck on the cheek and takes to her wings. She soars over the high walls and vanishes into the clouds.
The snow falls gritty and cold down my back. I stuff my hands in my pockets and hunch my shoulders as I trudge up and out of the quiet courtyard. The gradual ascent of the alley gives way to icy sidewalks. I take care not to slip as I wind my way home alone through the silent city.
The sidewalk ends at a set of concrete stairs strewn with empty picture frames and cast off clothing. Baby clothes on the bottom step give way to coveralls to summer dresses and then, finally, to the ripped jeans and frayed hoodies of Raven’s teenage years.
Her tattered backpack rests on the top step. Beyond it stretches a vein of cracked tarmac leading I know not where.
I lean down to pick up her backpack.
My eyes open. The arctic wind rattles the window by my bed. A glance outside tells me I have slept the short day through. Touching my palm to the glass I know it is too cold to play in the dark.