She always had a thing for crows, ever since she was a little girl. Long dark hair in pigtails, she sat watching them; they’d caw from the treetops in her backyard while she planted an imaginary garden. Smiling at up the birds, she left treasures waiting on the edge of the sandbox; sometimes a crumbled piece of cake, other times a shiny pebble.
The crows would land, accepting the offerings and thank her in guttural tones. Soft growls, tinged with love.
“Tricky creatures,” her mother said. “Omens of bad luck.”
But still, they followed her home from school, perching on overhanging branches or strutting on grassy lawns, cawing.
She left them crusts from her sandwiches, or sometimes a piece of cookie. The crows always thanked her, with gravelly laughter and softly croaking in words only she understood.
“Evil creatures,” her mother said, and waved her broom at the cluster of black blobs gathered in the backyard. “Go on, scat.”
Lifting as one, the crows retreated to higher branches, voices cackling as they laughed at the figure brandishing a broom against them.
“They’re not so bad,” the girl would say. “They’re my friends.”
“Friends? They’re just a bunch of birds, hanging around.” Her mother peered out the window, “God knows what for.”
“I feed them.”
“Well, you should stop. They’ll move on soon enough.”
Lunches went to school and were brought home, still uneaten, scraps tossed to waiting friends along the way. One day, as she bent down holding a piece of tuna sandwich in an outstretched hand, a neighbour happened to look out their window, and stood watching the black creature, a bird as dark as night; hop up to the little girl, gently taking the crust in its beak.
A long moment stretched between them, as black eyes stared into the girl’s, and the neighbour looked on, stunned into silence.
The bird held the crust in its beak, and glanced at the neighbour, then launched into flight; alarm call ringing through the hood.
The girl turned to look at him, a middle aged man still standing on his front stoop. “You scared him,” there was an accusatory tone in her voice.
“Well, I didn’t mean to – just looking, that’s all.” He shifted on his front step, “You usually feed them like that?”
She shrugged and turned back toward her house, shouldering her backpack. “They’re my friends.”
The school yard took notice, children, ever quick to point out differences and pounce on them, leapt on easy prey.
“Bird brain, bird brain.”
The taunts flew, followed by fake crowing. “Caw, caw – look at me, I can talk to birds.”
She took solace beneath a shade tree, one of the few left standing in the open playing field. Across the blacktop other girls twirled skipping ropes, chanting, “One, two three, the birdies in the tree, faster, faster, caw, caw, caw.”
The girl stared up at the sky, watching crows track a straight line to the woodlot behind the school yard, they nested there, she knew. Sometimes, they’d fly down and perch awkwardly in the tree above her as the open field stretched around them. Together they’d watch the other children playing soccer across the faded lawn.
Blackness hanging above; whispering soft guttural croaks to check on her. But as the other children approached, they’d launch into flight, alarm calls piercing the air.
The girls continued to skip on the blacktop, “One, anda two, birdgirl’s lost her shoe, three, anda four, she shut it in the door, five, anda six, she’s picking up sticks, seven, anda eight, she’s gonna be late, nine, anda ten, let’s do it again.”
“Hey, birdgirl, the bell rang already, are you gonna sit there all day?”
Slowly, she stood up from beneath the tree, and watched the crows track a straight line across the sky.
“Class, if I could have your attention, please,” the teacher’s voice interrupted her thoughts. The girl turned away from the window, where a group of crows paraded across the front lawn.
The teacher walked over to her desk and smiled, “They’re probably looking for moles or grubs.”
She nodded. She already knew that.
“Now class, your next assignment is to do a report on animal adaptations.” The teacher pointed out the window, “Some creatures have amazing traits – like the crows, perfect beaks for stabbing at the ground, pulling up food. They can kill small mammals with their beaks.”
The girl bent over her notebook, blackline drawings soon spiralled across the page, birds launching into flight.
“What are you gonna do, go build a nest?”
Startled, she turned to face the speaker. A boy, in the grade above her, and nearly twice her size. She shook her head, and continued down the woodlot path.
“What – you’re not gonna talk to me? Or you only speak crow?”
“Leave me alone.” She pulled her backpack higher up on her shoulders and pushed past the underbrush, scratchy branches reached for her, pulling and tugging, and still covered with the yellow leaves of early autumn.
She heard him following, branches snapping beneath his weight. “What’s the big deal? I’m just going for a walk too.”
She turned to face him, “No you’re not, get out of here.”
He stood, arms folded across his chest. “You can’t make me.”
She stared at him, fury rising. He was right.
“Just go away.”
He smiled coldly, and patted the backpack on his shoulders. “Just borrowed my old man’s pellet gun for some target practice – heard there’s a bunch of crows hanging about.”
“Get out of here.”
He shuffled through the leaves, staring up at the tree tops. “Should be a nest or something around.”
“No there’s not – go away.”
Hoarse alarm calls rang through the forest, she heard wing feathers rustling as the crows took flight.
His eyes widened and he grinned. “Looks like we found them alright.” Sliding the backpack off his shoulders, he bent, unzipping it.
She took that moment and launched herself at him, a small figure straddling his shoulders, and swung, fists tight with fury.
Oomph, he grunted in surprise and fell backwards, sprawled across the leaves. She grabbed at his face, her nails dragging red furrows down his cheek.
“You little bitch –”
He shifted, his weight somehow rolling on top of her. “Gotcha now.”
Trying to raise her hands, she squirmed, heaviness pressing her into the forest floor, fallen leaves tangled in her hair.
He grabbed at her hands, immobilizing them, and pinned both hands in one enormous paw. Sharp crack and blinding flash as her head jolted sideways. Nausea threatened.
“You stupid little bitch,” his voice was in her ear, “You wanna go at me?”
“Get off.” She twisted, his grip on her hands tightened, and he reached back to punch her again. She flinched.
“Gotcha now, birdgirl.” His face hung near her ear, whispering crude things she didn’t understand. She felt his weight shifting, a rough hand tugging at her clothes.
Grainy voices strained with urgency, alarm calls rang out; she twisted again, her hands still caught in his. Suddenly the air filled with the sound of flight feathers, leaves rustled beneath the breeze, raucous cawing followed as the crows descended upon them.
“Hey,” he jerked sideways, “What the –”
Alarm calls and black feathers swam together, and his weight shifted. She felt herself rising, her hands now freed, she raised them above her head, and brought them down again and again, beating in a long familiar pattern. She was not surprised to look down and see the forest far below her, tree tops still golden with fall colours.
Hoarse laughter filled the air.
The two police officers stood around awkwardly, one patted the mother’s shoulder as she sobbed into a tissue. “It’s not like her to do something like this. She was such a good girl.”
“There’s nowhere else she would have gone?” the young officer looked up from his notebook.
“No – no,” she snuffled, “She came straight home afterschool.”
“Maybe she’d visit the woodlot for a bit, but she’d be home by now.”
“The woodlot – with friends?”
The mother shook her head, “Always alone. She had a thing for crows.”
The officers stared at each other; raucous cawing drifted in through the open window.
A burst of static interrupted, followed by garbled voices from a walkie talkie on the young officer’s hip, he held it to his mouth, “Say again?”
Through the hiss of static, “Body found. In the woodlot.”
“Oh God,” the mother sagged into a chair, covering her face with the sodden tissue.
“Confirm female, age eleven?”
“Negative. Male. Age unknown.”
“What?” he stared at the walkie talkie.
Another burst of static. “Cause of death unknown. Multiple stab wounds.”
Riotous laughter burst outside, the mother looked up to see a cluster of black blobs hanging from the trees.
The officer patted her shoulder, “There’s still hope, we’ll find her.”
“You know what a group of crows is called?” The mother stared out the window, watching the crows hopping from branch to branch. One perched, feeding a smaller one. Glossy black feathers rustled as it flapped its wings, laughing.
“You alright ma’am?” The officer stared at her, concerned, “We’ll get someone here for you, soon. Quite a shock, I’m afraid.”
The mother ignored him. “They’re called a murder.”
Liz McAdams is a writer with a serious thing for crows. Her work appears in the usual places, including Spelk, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama, scattered around Twisted Sister and will be up soon on Shotgun Honey. Check Liz out at https://lizmcadams.wordpress.com/