Wednesday June 17
The bad lady wanted to take Roya's blood. It wouldn't hurt, she said. Just one little poke, that was all. Like getting a shot.
Roya hated getting shots, so this didn't make her feel any better. Shots were a big deal. This was a big deal.
Roya was supposed to be good and do as she was told. But, while Andi was visiting yesterday, the bad lady had come in to draw their blood to make sure they were healthy. Roya didn't want to do it. For one thing, she wasn't healthy, and didn't know why the lady couldn't figure that out on her own. They'd only been here a few days, but already Roya felt bad. Not sick, just weird. Not herself. She was cooped up in this cold white room, hadn't been outside in too long. Her body ached for fresh air and running and climbing, but her head kept telling her everything was fine. It took effort to care about anything.
Roya wanted to care. And she needed to remember that everything wasn't fine.
Andi had volunteered to go first yesterday, not making a sound when the needle pricked her arm and her blood started filling the tube. Watching it flow out, thick and red, made Roya dizzy, and she turned her back and said no. No, no, no.
The bad lady had left angry, but it felt kind of good to make her mad. Only a little bit, though, because Roya was scared of her. She had empty eyes.
Andi said she understood why Roya didn't want to do this, but they needed to keep the lady happy, and it really wasn't so bad. Just one little poke. Roya still said no, but Andi kept trying to convince her. So Roya told her to go away, even though she didn't want to be alone.
After Andi left, Roya thought of something. The lady had said Roya couldn't have her flute... but maybe, if she agreed to do this, she could get it back.
The lady must have wanted her blood sample pretty badly, because she agreed to Roya's deal. Now, she entered Roya's room wearing her white lab coat, Andi trailing behind her. The lady carried a tray of supplies, but Roya zeroed in on her flute, still tucked into its purple knitted case. She reached for it, but the lady set it atop the television. “You can have it after,” she said.
As she started ripping open tubes and arranging needles, Roya watched her flute, balanced on that thin black box. She imagined holding it again, feeling its smoothness beneath her fingers. The flute had come along everywhere since Naveed gave it to her for her birthday the previous winter. She loved it because of the hours and hours he’d spent carving and sanding and getting the tones right. She loved it because he had created it just for her.
“Have her sit on your lap, and hold her arms down,” the lady was saying to Andi, as if Roya weren't there. Andi sat in the recliner, sending I'm sorry signals with her eyes, and Roya climbed into her lap like she was supposed to. Andi's arms encircled her, but it didn't feel like a hug, because it wasn't one.
“Don't look,” said Andi, as Roya felt the cool sting of the alcohol swab in the crook of her elbow. “Close your eyes. It'll be over in a minute, and then you can have cookies and juice for breakfast.”
Roya didn't want one of their cookies. They tasted like sweet cardboard. She wanted one of Cyrus's, fresh out of the oven, chewy and warm and buttery, the chocolate chips melted into bittersweet pools.
The lady tied something tight and rubbery around Roya's upper arm. Roya closed her eyes. Poke.
The sharp sting hurt, but Roya tried not to cry.
Then again. Poke. The lady exhaled in frustration. “Stop squirming. Andi, hold her tighter.” She pressed against Roya's arm with her thumb, feeling for something down deep. “I can't find a vein. Just hold still, okay?”
Roya wanted to scream, You lied! You said just one poke! But she didn't, remembering the prize that waited once she got through this.
“Do you want me to tell you a story?” Andi asked, and then Roya felt like crying again, because the question made her think of Naveed. She nodded, letting Andi's voice fill her ears, but not listening to her words. She opened her eyes to peek at the flute.
The silver star charm she'd sewn to the front of its case glinted in the room's harsh light. The charm was special. Maman had given it to her on Saturday, after the two crows died.
Poke. “There we go,” the lady said, and Roya closed her eyes fast. The lady took the tight band off her arm, and then Roya could feel it all flowing, flowing out.
Andi was still talking, but her voice grew further away, as Roya let her mind drift somewhere else: to the flute, the charm. The crows.
The two dead crows had been mates. Roya had watched them since they arrived in the garden weeks before, because these two were different from the other crows. They rarely flew, preferring to hop or flap from branch to branch, or to walk along the ground. It seemed to Roya that they were resting after a long journey.
They roosted in the tall black elderberry bush near the back fence, and at first she thought they might build a nest. That was before she realized they’d come there to die.
Roya had buried the first dead crow after the hail storm, deep under the elderberry. She tamped down the wet soil with her shovel and marked the spot with a smooth stone. Even though she knew this death was part of the never-ending cycle, that the crow’s spirit would return to the heavenly garden and his body would feed new life on the earth, it was hard not to be sad for the one left behind. Roya had seen him standing near her body earlier, head bowed. He watched during the burial, too, through eyes hard and glassy as marbles.
Roya asked him a silent question. Is there any way I can help?
The crow raised his left wing, his right one hanging at his side. It was odd to see a bird lift one wing and not the other. He tried to hop to another branch, but missed, and fluttered to the ground. He gazed at her steadily, and she knew his answer. No.
After the play, Roya looked for him in the garden. She found his stiff body next to the smooth stone. The breeze rippled his feathers, but he didn’t feel it anymore.
At first, she thought he had followed his mate into death because he couldn't bear living alone. Baba’s parents had been like that. But then the other crows started coming, settling on the trees, the bushes, the fence, the power lines, all of them looking at the dark shape of his body. She sensed their fear, and she knew what it meant. There was something unusual about these deaths.
Later that evening, when she was reading under the quilt on her small bed, Naveed came into her room. His eyes were sad. She wondered if he missed the crows too. He said he was going to his friend’s house for the night, so would she like to hear the crow story now? Roya closed her book, nodding. Naveed ducked as he approached her bed, nestled under the sloping eaves of the dormer roof.
Their cat followed him into the room. Roya patted the bed, thinking that Pashmak might enjoy hearing the tale. The cat accepted the invitation and picked her way along the soft quilt to curl up at Roya’s feet.
Naveed lit the candle on her nightstand, and Roya watched his face glow in the candlelight as he relaxed into the story, his voice slow and soothing. It was a true story that had happened just before Roya was born. She listened closely, excited; she rarely heard stories about this time in her family’s history.
That autumn, Naveed said, he and Cyrus were playing in the backyard—which was different then, only grass, no chicken coop or fire pit or vegetable garden—when they found a crow with a broken wing by the back fence. They decided to take him in, and Maman helped make a nest from a laundry basket and soft towels. The crow seemed big, but he hardly weighed anything. His feathers were dark black, but Naveed said that when he looked at them closely, he could see every color of the rainbow.
They bandaged his wing, fed him cooked hamburger, helped him drink water from an eyedropper. Even though they knew the crow belonged in the wild, that one day they'd have to let him go, they gave him a name: Rostam, after the legendary Persian warrior.
It didn't take long for his wing to heal. When they unwrapped it and set Rostam free, he flew away. But he didn't go far.
Roya interrupted, excited by a possibility that had occurred to her. “Hey! The crow who died today had a droopy wing. Do you think it was Rostam?”
“I doubt it. He left after a few months, and it was such a long time ago,” Naveed said, but the more Roya thought about it, the more she knew it to be true. It made sense that he would want to come back, so he could die in a place where he had been loved.
Roya heard footsteps in the hall, and Maman peeked in the door. “Naveed was just telling me about when you rescued Rostam,” Roya told her.
“The crow?” Maman paused. “I wonder… I’ll be right back.” When she returned, she opened her hand, showing Roya and Naveed a treasure: the silver star charm. “A few months after Roya was born, I woke up from a nap to hear something scratching at the back door. When I opened it, Rostam was standing outside. This charm was on the ground at his feet. I think he was trying to thank us.”
Naveed took it first, carefully, as if it were very heavy. “How come you never told me?”
She shrugged. “I’m sure I did, you probably just don’t remember. It was…” She trailed off, looking far away. Naveed’s gaze softened too, and they stared at something between them that Roya could not see. “It was a busy time,” she finished.
“Why do you look so sad? Weren’t you happy when I was born?” Roya asked.
Naveed’s eyes came back into focus. “Of course we were!” He hugged her and placed the charm in her palm.
Roya examined the shiny charm. “Can I borrow it, Maman? I’ll keep it safe.”
“You can have it.” She hugged Roya too. “I love you, Roya-jaan. Our family wasn’t complete without you.”
Now, in the cold white room, Roya felt hot tears streaming down her cheeks. It was quiet. Andi had stopped talking.
“All done,” said the lady, pressing a Band-Aid onto her arm. Roya opened her eyes and saw that two of the glass tubes were full, the liquid so dark it looked almost black. She wondered what kinds of stories her blood would tell.
Andi stood up, easing Roya back into the chair before bringing her a cup of juice and a cookie. As Roya drank, the lady packed up her things and retrieved the flute from the television.
She handed it to Roya. “Thanks. You were very brave.” But she didn't sound like she meant it. She sounded like she'd lost a game, and wasn't happy about it.
After the lady left, Andi disappeared into the bathroom. Even though Roya still felt shaky, she stopped drinking her juice and held the flute to her lips. The music came when she breathed out, so loud and so lonely. She started with Naveed's finding song. Andi had said he wasn't here with them, but she'd heard that from the bad lady, who was a liar. Roya felt that he had to be somewhere near. She played and played, because Naveed would find her. He always did.
But no one came.
She kept playing, other songs too, but still no one came. Not even Andi, who stayed in the bathroom. Roya could hear her blowing her nose.
A big ache filled Roya up like water. Maybe she was too far away, and her family couldn't hear, and they couldn't get her out of this strange place.
Or maybe they just needed more time.
Roya set the flute down and picked up the empty woolen case. Rostam's silver charm was smooth and bright beneath her fingers, and it was a star, and stars were for wishing, everyone knew that.
She held the charm in her palm and made her first wish.
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