Edith Beakins sat alone in her house, listening to the drumming of the rain on the slate tiles of her roof and the tinking sound of the electric heat. She sat in the kitchen on a wooden chair, eating soup.
The soup had carrots in it, despite what she had repeatedly told the Meals on Wheels volunteers. She hated carrots. So, she did her best to spoon out the small cubes of carrot and fling them from where she sat at the kitchen table into the sink.
The soup had come with bread, and she was warming it up in the oven, but she was hungry, and had decided to start on the soup anyway.
“Bawk, damn carrots,” croaked her parakeet, Jimmy, perched in his cage in the living room.
“Quiet, Jimmy,” murmured Edith. She slurped her soup and listened to the rain. It pelted against the window like the spray of the sea against her porthole on that voyage she took to New Orleans. Suddenly Edith felt a clamminess creep up her spine, and her fingers tightened on the spoon, remembering the way she gripped her mother’s arm all night, seasick, wanting to throw up from the rocking motion of the sea and the sour smell of the damp wooden ship.
“Don’t want to go, mommy,” croaked Jimmy.
“I don’t want to go,” repeated Edith, softly, still locked into that childhood reverie. Thunder struck with a boom that rattled the windows of her little cottage, and she snapped back to reality, resuming picking out the carrots and flinging them toward the sink.
“The devil wants to eat your heart. Bawk,” croaked Jimmy. Edith looked sharply at him, his white breast puffed up against the draft in the living room, his black eye staring at her. Beyond his cage, the window gleamed black and shiny, the rain pounding against it in sheets, not a soul outside for miles.
“The devil,” squawked Jimmy again. He beat his wings.
“Hush,” whispered Edith, but she remembered now, stepping off the boat in New Orleans, late at night, her mother paying the fare and hurriedly walking, tightly grasping Edith’s hand in hers, walking so fast that Edith had to run to keep up, sick as she was; and the figures of people in the shadowy street, in doorways and small shops, spilling out of taverns, their shouts of mirth ricocheting off the buildings. And one man, small and wizened, squatting in a doorway of a shop, plucking a headless chicken. He’d glanced up at them, then fixed beady black eyes on Edith, who stared as long as she dared.
“Bawk,” said Jimmy, “It was a curse. Yes, he did. It was a curse.”
Edith shook her head to clear it. Her blouse was clammy, and she got up from the table, a little unsteadily. She walked to the living room to take her shawl from the basket by the sofa, wrapping it around her shoulders. She came to Jimmy’s cage, opened it, and stroked him gently.
“Quiet, now,” said Edith. Jimmy cocked his head to the side, blinking his black eyes. He stared at her.
“No more calling out,” she told him. He just stared back. She closed the cage and turned back toward the kitchen, and from the corner of her eye saw a shadow dart just out of sight up the stairs, like a person moving to hide. Edith froze.
“Is someone there?” she called.
She hobbled to the kitchen, tugged open a drawer and drew out a large boning knife, and brandishing it, crept past the living room toward the stairs. She turned on the hall light, rounded the banister and peered up the stairs. Sitting there, staring back at her was the hunched man from New Orleans, plucking a chicken, staring at her with gleaming black eyes.
“Oh!” cried Edith, and she stumbled back, tripping on the fringe of her shawl, and falling back. She looked back up the stairs, and the man was gone. She squeezed her eyes shut, a searing pain stabbing through her hip.
“It’s broken,” whispered a voice in her ear, hot breath sour with stale rum.
“Help!” she cried, turning her head to look at the man, but no one was there.
“Help!” said Jimmy. Suddenly there was someone pounding on the door.
“Meals on Wheels delivery!” said a deep, muffled voice. The door opened, and hundreds of carrots spilled in as if dumped from a truck. Carrots rolled across the floor toward her as a deep voice laughed a long, low, booming laugh. The carrots turned to bats and flew around the room, swooping and diving at Edith’s face.
“No, No!” cried Edith. The room swam and swirled around her, as a tall man stooped into her doorway and stood over her, laughing. She couldn’t make out his face.
“Bawk, Master’s here,” said Jimmy, beating his wings against the cage. “The devil’s back for Edith’s soul. The Devil’s back for Edith’s soul.”
And Jimmy flew from the cage and landed on the tall man’s shoulder, and he leaned down and kept laughing, laughing in Edith’s face, as she thrashed and trembled on the floor. Soon, she was exhausted and lay still, staring blankly at the ceiling, listening to the rain thrumming on the roof and the clink of the metal of the electric heater.
“Ding” went the oven timer. Inside, the bread sat, cold as a stone. Gas flowed from the pipes, over the burner in the bottom of the oven, past the cold, unlit pilot light.