Once upon a time a man had three daughters. No wife, not any more – he’d plucked her from the village like a delicate flower, and hill-farming’s a hard life – but she’d left him three bundles of laughter who chased crows from the farmyard and sheep across the fells. Eventually the two older girls began to chase shepherds instead, and first the eldest and then the middle daughter were carried off. One went far away, the other stayed close by on a farm where no love grew, and was worked into an early grave before two winters were up.
“I can’t lose you, my poppet,” the father said to his youngest daughter, the one who looked so like her mother it made his heart swell and then shatter ten times a day.
“I’m not going anywhere, Dad,” she said, and he knew she meant it.
He also knew about temptation, and he saw the looks his daughter got from the lads in the market.
“I don’t think you should leave the farm any more, poppet,” he said.
“Alright, Dad,” she said, because she knew the depth of his grief.
So she stayed on the fell. She missed the laughter of the girls down in the village, but she would never hurt her father by saying so.
One day in the yard her hair cascaded over her face as she bent forward.
“I wish I had a new ribbon,” she said, though only the wind and the crows were there to hear. Her father didn’t have time to buy ribbons, so she didn’t ask.
Next morning as she swept she saw something flutter past the open doorway, and when she went to look there was a velvet ribbon the colour of fresh blood lying on the flags. She stepped out and looked around but there was only a crow watching her, head cocked.
“If that was your doing,” she said to it, “I thank you.” And she picked up the ribbon and plaited her hair.
“I don’t think anyone should visit any more, poppet,” said her father, who had noticed the ribbon.
“Alright, Dad,” she said, because she knew how much he loved her.
So he locked the gates, and the girl stayed within the farmyard all summer.
“I wish I could see the meadow,” she said, though only the wind and the crows could hear.
That afternoon it rained flowers. Crows dropped cottongrass, buttercups and campion, and the girl gathered the long stems into a jug.
“I don’t think you should go outside any more, poppet,” said her father, who had noticed the flowers.
“Alright, Dad,” she said, because she knew his heart was breaking.
So he shut her in with a heavy key and left it in the lock.
“I wish I could feel rain on my face,” she said to the crow at the open window. It flew to the door but couldn’t turn the key. The girl smiled her thanks but there was sadness in her eyes.
Later, the key turned.
“Dad?” she said, but when she opened the door there was a stick wedged in the iron loops of the key. A crow fluttered back as she stepped outside and lifted her face to the sky.
“I don’t think we can go on any more, poppet,” said her father, who had noticed the mud on her feet. The crows swooped as he raised his shotgun, but they couldn’t get in.
The girl’s bones were hidden long ago beneath ground that keeps its secrets, but the crows remember her still, carrying ribbons and wildflowers over the crumbling walls.
originally published as part of the 52 Crows project by illustrator, Bonnie Helen Hawkins (2018)
JY Saville lives and writes in northern England, and made it onto the first stage of the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme for writers from under-represented backgrounds in 2017. Her short fiction has been published in more than forty places including Confingo, Ellipsis Zine and Untitled: Voices.
photo by Casey Horner (via unsplash)