On good days I get the kettle boiled before the sun comes up. I like to sit on the balcony and watch while dawn transforms into day. Sunrise swelling over the railings fills my cup with an amber glow. Some people take their tea with lemon, or sugar, or even – ugh – milk. I prefer mine flavoured with light.
The tea I like comes in a red cardboard box. The red makes me happy, as does the fact that the box holds eighty sachets. Most days I let myself drink two cups. I never take more than three; that way I only have to go shopping once a month. It’s been a long time since going out was a pleasure. These days it’s best to stay home.
I’ve been making friends with the crows. They like to gather in the tree across the parking lot. Between my first and second cup, some crow or another usually flaps over to see what I’m eating for breakfast. This morning there are four. They perch on the railing, looking down at my toast. I take one more bite, then tear the rest of the slice into bits, which I leave on the plate when I go inside to make that second cup of tea. When I come back out, the toast bits have vanished. In their place lies a shaggy grey twig.
Crows are good with tools. They know how to select a seemingly-random object – say, a twig – and make its power their own. Twigs are an important part of crow life, so I know this gift they’ve left me must be significant. My hands shake as I pick it up; too much caffeine on a near-empty stomach. “Gaw,” says one of the crows who are watching from high up in their tree. I nod in agreement.
In spring, the crow tree’s boughs are grey and bare. The crows, returning from winter vacation, line the smooth limbs until the tree’s nakedness is hidden away from the world. Last season’s wardrobe may be crumbling over the exposed roots, but the tree is resplendent in a dressing gown of stylish obsidian feathers.
My own dressing gown is black watered silk, swirling with featherlike patterns. I wear it out to the balcony sometimes, to feel the wind lifting its hem. Covering my bark with facsimile wings helps me conjure caffeinated lightheadedness into a sensation approaching flight.
The way crows fly looks so laborious. A study in flapping, methodical wings beating the air down in order to stay above it all. I used to dream of gliding, soaring, like ravens or birds of prey; these days I’d settle for a crow’s flight, nearly as plodding as my own steps when I have to go out. It’s hard to walk when I’m weighed down by heavy bags – and worse, by the eyes of the neighbouring strangers observing my sluggish progress. People like to look down. I could flap right over their heads and never be noticed. Crows flying sound like my dressing gown, flapping to get away when a thieving breeze snatches at its hem. A crow is too wary to let the air sneak up over top and push it down to the ground. And I won’t let the wind take my wings away without me.
I used to play with the farm crows when I was a child. I think the first time was in winter. It had snowed all night, and the field behind our house scintillated reflected sunlight like an ocean of tiny gems. I don’t remember where I was going, but I sank to my knees in the drifts with every step. Two of the crows who sometimes lived by the barn followed me across the field, hopping from one footprint to the next. When I stopped, they stopped. I turned, slowly, and looked down into my tracks. Nestled in my boot wells, their bodies looked like spilled ink seeping into the opalescent snow. I started walking again. The crows hopped. I stopped, and they stopped. I looked at them and they looked at me and then at each other, muttering “Carh, arh, agh.”
I didn’t understand, but I nodded.
They nodded back. They remained about ten paces behind me all the way to the edge of the woods. I don’t remember where we went next, but I have wondered for decades what they were talking about.
I drank the last teabag this morning. This means I have to go out. I’m low on food as well, down to the dregs of dried prunes and granola. Last night I shared the last tin of sprats with the crows. It’s been a week since there were crackers or eggs. I don’t always remember to get hungry, but there’s only so long even I can go without eating.
I can still carry enough in my old hiking pack to ration out for a solid four weeks, though it’s been getting harder to hold up under the burden of my own appetite. When I was younger – when the doors were all open and the trails stretched on forever, when I did not yet know what a thing it was to go out – I thought nothing of walking for hundreds of miles with my whole life strapped to my back. I don’t miss the trails as much as I miss having a home I could carry around. The two kilometres to the grocery store are a long way to walk when you know everyone is looking.
There’s a bag of green apples on the discounted produce rack. I like green apples. There was a Granny Smith tree in that field behind my childhood home. There were other trees in the orchard, but the crows preferred to gather in that one. I reach for the bag at the same time as the woman on the other side of the rack. Our fingers touch.
“Gaw!” The sound is involuntary, but I can’t regret its outcome. She recoils, wide-eyed. “Sorry,” I croak, clutching at a plastic-clad apple. “Startled me.”
She backs her cart away. The Granny Smiths are mine.
I take a bag of Golden Delicious as well. I don’t like them as much, but there is only one bag of Smiths. I wonder which crows prefer, tart or sweet? On the other side of the produce section I can see the woman speaking to a store employee. She points. They look, then laugh and shake their head at her. I shop here because the staff don’t seem to mind.
When the shopping baskets drag toward the floor, I know it’s time to head home.
“How’s it going?”
I put on my human face for the nice cashier. I always shop on a day when I know she’ll be working. Her eyelids gleam gold, and glittering dangles swing from her brown seashell ears. She uses the same voice with me as with everyone else. “Good,” I lie. “Are you doing well in school?” I cannot remember what she is studying.
She beams. “97 percent on the organic chem midterm! But I’m gonna get a 98 on the final.”
“You are very smart,” I tell her. “Someday you will be great.”
She blinks. Awkward. But then she smiles again. “Thank you,” she says. “You’re so nice.”
My face goes hot. I stuff the groceries into my pack as quickly as I can.
“Have a wonderful day!” she calls after me. I’m careful to not look back.
The crows keep bringing me gifts. Today a scrap of aluminum foil, gleaming and strange in its uncreased perfection. I have a growing collection of twigs, stones, and bones. A silver ring scaled like a fish’s cool skin. More and more visit each time, coming ever closer to me. They’re starting to trust my sincerity.
I think they’re planning something involving me. It’s common knowledge that crows are as good with plans as they are with tools. I read that in a book, but you can see it in the way they combine their twigs and found objects to transform useless junk into new and necessary things. It takes foresight and imagination to relate and remake disparate jetsam until it becomes something useful. Before I go to bed each night I look and look at my growing collection, wondering if there’s something I’m supposed to be making.
There’s something else I have to figure out. I don’t know what it could be, but something is hidden in my apartment. I should remember. I think and think, but only in the muddled margins between sleep and waking do I feel I’ve come close to glimpsing its nebulous shape. I wish I knew what it was for. That piece of foil bothers me. It should be crumpled, punctured, in some way marked from being picked up and carried in claws or beaks. Its smoothness taunts me, flaunting the presence of secrets I forgot to keep safe. It’s hard to imagine who would hide something in my home.
This morning I have six breakfast guests, and barely enough toast to share around. One hops down from the railing onto the furthest edge of my table. I offer an apple slice. The crow only stares, glassy eyes warping my reflection into something unrecognizable. Feathers and silk rustle in an occidental breeze. One of the railing crows lets the air lift it away to the tree. The crow on the table keeps still, and so do I.
Another thing crows know how to do well is hide things. They hoard their tools and treats, caching them in safe places to retrieve for later use. I wonder if I am a safe place, or only a tool.
Explosion. Outside, a great excitement of feathers and shrieking alarm. I see something broken on the hard grey ground, terrible and wrong. Before I can think what I’m doing, I race down the back stairs and out. It’s not one of my days to leave the nest – it won’t be grocery day again for weeks – but I can’t think about that now. These boys who don’t live here shouldn’t be in our lot. One of them holds an air rifle. The other laughs. I race at them, flapping, a broom in my hand, brandished like a straw-spiked halberd. “Go! Go away! Get!”
Ugly laughter, pitched with nervous malice. “Go away yourself, old bag.”
“What a loony.”
Swat and stab with my polearm, sweeping them back toward the street. My rage is wordless, boundless, and vast. Language is too difficult to throw away on such trash. The boys break and run, swearing and spitting. “Aghk!” I shout after their cowardly backs. The vengeful chorus perturbing the air agrees.
I kneel by the bundle of bloody, ruined feathers, cradling it up in my grieving hands. The others follow my funeral march to their tree, where I lay the fallen to rest in a root-sheltered hollow. A few bold scouts land. Duty performed, I can’t keep the awareness of being outside on a wrong day from crashing in anymore. Panic in waves, breaking. I don’t breathe again until I am safe, doors locked, keeping everything out.
It’s a third cup of tea kind of day.
Once my chest stops hurting, I creep to the balcony, the one piece of outside when I still belong. I hope the crows can tell from this distance that I’m keeping their vigil too.
My crows really know how to hold a grudge. I see those boys again only once. Their faces are known now, their ugly thick voices, the insolent strut in their steps. They cannot strut on our street anymore. The last time they come here, they run away scratched and bleeding. I am terrified someone will punish the crows for enacting their justice. I watch and watch, but no one comes. Perhaps the boys were ashamed to admit their defeat at the claws of their victim’s family.
I still haven’t found the hidden thing. More of the crows have picked up the habit of perching on my table. It’s gotten so I can’t set my lunch down without displacing them. I eat standing up. They still bring me trinkets, trading for sardines. I’ve been wearing the fish-scale ring. They watch my hands while I eat my sandwich, waiting. Another appears, flapping over the crowd to drop a spool of red thread in the midst of the throng. A chorus arises: “Carh, arh, arh, aghk!”
The new crow perches on the arm of the chair, clacking its beak. There’s a chip in its gnathotheca. I lay down the rest of my sandwich and let them feast.
A collective of ravens make up a conspiracy. Crows, in crowds, are said to confabulate murder. I think that is unfair. No one who paid attention could doubt that crows delight in conspiring.
Their feasting done, they stay put for once, so expectant it makes me feel nervous. Whatever has been building all summer, all fall, I think its time has come. I hope I won’t disappoint them. I fetch the tray of sticks and stones and foil and take my seat. They come closer. I sort and arrange. I cannot envision our objective. Impatient, the chipped-beak crow hops up from the chair to the table. The foil warps its reflection into mythical unfamiliarity. It points with its beak, guiding my hands, until the objects are in order. Another crow knocks over the spool of thread.
I tie the objects together, one by one. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, resolving the disconnection of pieces that don’t seem to fit together. I move a stone from one part of the pattern to a spot where it easily fits. The chipped-beak crow snaps at my hand. I put the stone back. I don’t recognize the shape we’re constructing, but my audience is raucous with excitement. I wrap the foil around a bone and knot the last wrap of thread around itself. It’s done. Whatever this it might be. Wait. I slide the silver ring from my finger and try to puzzle out where it must go. Another crow plucks it up from the table and pushes it back at my hand. A payment, then, for services rendered, for giving the crows my powers.
The largest crow takes my work in its gleaming claws. I wish I had knowledge of their plans. They lift almost as one, the air beneath them a ladder for climbing the height of the blank grey sky. They don’t look back. Twisting my ring around and around my dull and clawlesss finger, I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to understand that the hidden thing has always been me.
No one knows why only some crows travel in winter. Partial migration is one of the world’s great mysteries. Crows, I suppose, are as individual in habit as anyone else. I could wish for crows who would stay, but I wouldn’t trade my friends for anything.
It’s spring again. I waited all winter, but my flock still hasn’t come back. The tree has nothing to cover its bark and long, smooth limbs. I can’t keep my eyes from staring, fascinated and ashamed. I have to go out. I won’t go far. It’s just that there’s no one else here to do the crows’ work, and the tree looks so helpless before it remembers how to make leaves.
The shaggy trunk is cool against my cheek. I wrap my arms around it, embracing the juxtaposition of its coarse skin against my smooth bark and silken wings. I climb. It feels almost as if the branches are helping me up. I perch at a juncture. My dressing gown drapes down my dangling legs, trailing over the limbs reaching up beneath me. The buds are just barely out now, sticky and red. If I close my eyes, I can nearly hear the whisper of feathers around me. Restful caws echo off asphalt and bricks as the crows in my mind shift and settle. If I look, nothing will be as I imagine. I keep my eyes shut and wait for the season to change.
previously published in prairiefire, Volume 42 (Spring 2021)
Ariel Marken Jack (she/they) lives in Nova Scotia. Her short fiction has appeared in Canthius, Dark Matter Magazine, Prairie Fire, PseudoPod, Uncharted, Strange Horizons, and more. They curate the #sfstoryoftheday on assorted social media and write a column on short speculative fiction for Fusion Fragment. Find her online at arielmarkenjack.com.
photo by Ospan Ali (via unsplash)