By Sarah Prineas
5 September 2005
At the dead time of the year, the gray snows of winter lay thin on the ground. It was too early for crocuses or daffodils, but not too early for mud. The crows had arrived, announcing something they thought was terribly important, gathering in dark hordes in the row of trees along the road. I didn't mind the starlings, the other garbage birds of the Midwest, because they gathered and disappeared like clouds of smoke. But the crows were ill-omened and I hated them. I went out, turned on the truck, and honked the horn at them; they wheeled up shrieking and complaining, but soon settled down again to wait.
I trudged back inside, shivering. A cluster of bottles and rubber nipples awaited my attention in the sink, and the diaper pail behind the door was beginning to smell.
I'm too old for this. I closed the door softly behind me, hanging my sweater on its hook. Too old to begin at motherhood all over again. And too young to be a grandmother—I'm only forty, for God's sake. I paused, listening. The sound of the crows outside was muted; there was no answering cry from the baby's room. Time enough for tea, then, before she awoke from her nap.
I'd barely gotten the kettle filled and the gas on when something stopped me. Silence. The crows had stopped calling. I went to the door, twitched aside the curtain to look out.
A crow man dressed in black feathers stood on the doorstep, peering in with a yellow, darting eye. I flinched away, then, curious, peeked out again, but now he was just a man. Dressed in a tattered black raincoat over jeans and a dark sweater.
My house was at the end of a long, muddy road which, in turn, was at the end of a long stretch of highway that led to the nearest town, about twenty miles away. I looked out at him. Saw no car in the driveway, no mud on his boots. Hmmm. He was standing, arms crossed, staring at the door, tapping his foot as if impatient.
I took a deep breath and opened the door.
He fastened his yellow-eyed gaze onto my face. "I've come for the child," he said.
Well. I raised my eyebrows at that, though he, or someone like him, was not entirely unexpected. "You'd better come in." Stepping aside, I opened the door wider. He hesitated for a moment, then strode past me into the kitchen.
Of course, I had no intention of handing Laurel's baby—my baby, now—over to this stranger, but I was curious about him. Though Laurel was my daughter, I'd be the first to admit that she had been difficult, and she never would say who the baby's father was, not even at the very end. This raggedy specimen looked about her type.
He stood surveying the kitchen, his sharp gaze darting from the herbs planted in pots on the sill of the wide window to the dried herbs hanging in net bags from the ceiling, flinching away from the hex signs I'd painted in a row on one wall.
"Tea?" I asked, crossing to the stove. The kettle was aboil, so I took it off, dumped a few dried leaves into a strainer, and poured out two cups of tea, adding honey to both. I took my cup, leaving his on the counter, and sat down in my rocking chair. He stood there, staring at me.
His face was sharp-edged and gaunt—not at all handsome—and unmemorable, somehow. When I looked away from him, I could hardly remember what he looked like. "Your tea's on the counter," I prompted.
"No." He stepped further into the room. "Thank you," he added, as if trying on manners he was unaccustomed to wearing. "As I said, I've come for the babe."
I sipped my tea, regarding him over the rim of the cup. "You can't have her." If he was what I suspected, he had to play by certain rules; he'd not be taking anything from me unless I offered it freely.
His face hardened. "Nevertheless," he said. "I will take her."
Damn Laurel anyway, for getting mixed up with this sort. I set down the teacup and got slowly to my feet. We faced each other across the room, the crow man and me, and tested our wills. Mine felt strong, invulnerable; yet he did not look away. The baby chose that moment to wake up, her demanding wail severing the taut silence between us.
"Nevertheless," I said calmly, folding my arms. "You will not have her." I pointed toward the door. "You may leave now."
He scowled. "I will go, as you ask. But I will come back." With that, he turned in a swirl of ragged raincoat and stalked out, leaving the door wide open behind him, taking the crows with him as he went.
Crows eat the eggs of other birds from their nests. When crows move into a neighborhood, the colorful birds, the robins and orioles, the tanagers and bluebirds, are forced out, their ecological niches taken over by creatures more ruthless then they.
Laurel's man stayed away for over two years, though I didn't forget his promise. His threat, that is, that he'd return. The baby, whom Laurel, in a fit of sarcastic pique, had named Jennifer, learned to crawl and then skipped toddling altogether, breaking into a run at eleven months old and never stopping to look behind her. She was a silent child, looking at the world through wide eyes, seldom laughing. Unable to pronounce her full name, she called herself Fur. I called her Jenny.
One spring morning we were out in the orchard behind the house. I was repainting the beehives and Fur was darting from tree to tree, pausing to lean against each gnarled trunk and look up into its cloud of blossoms. A crow flew overhead, a black blot on the perfectly blue sky. I turned to follow its flight and he was there, standing at the end of the row of apple trees, incongruous in the same black raincoat he'd worn before.
He strode up to me and stood, arms crossed. "This is the child?" he asked, without looking at Fur, who had paused in her game and stood staring at him.
Obviously, I wanted to answer. I controlled the impulse—sarcasm could be dangerous with his sort—and merely nodded, setting down the paintbrush. Bees from the hive whizzed around my head, agitated.
"I have come for her, as I said I would."
Arrogant bastard, I thought. Yet I spoke calmly. "And as I said before, I will not let you have her."
His eyes narrowed, darkened, and I thought I glimpsed in them the swirl and flash of black-feathered wings, but then his gaze went past me and focused on Fur. She returned the look unfazed. "Do you want to come with me?" he asked.
Not fair! I thought, stiffening. Fur was too young for that sort of question. But before I could protest, Fur answered. "No," she said, putting a finger into her mouth. Laurel's man stood there, frowning. A knot of bees zoomed toward him; he flicked a finger and the bees veered away, scattering.
"You will not be welcome," I warned, "if you are going to resort to tricks."
He shrugged, as if in acknowledgement. "Very well. But I will return." He turned away.
"Persistent, aren't you?" I asked.
He paused, turned back. "Of course," he said, raising an eyebrow. "You know what I am."
I had an idea, yes.
"Then you know what she is, and that she has no place in this world."
For the first time, I felt angry, though I tried to control it, as anger could be dangerous when aimed at his kind. "She has a place, and that place is with me. You may not have her, no matter how many times you ask."
To my surprise, he bowed slightly, then turned and walked away. I glanced down at Fur; when I looked up again he had disappeared.
Crows make no music, as other birds do. That's a fallacy, of course: other birds sing in order to announce their desire to mate or to stake a claim on a piece of land, but at least they disguise their territorial urges with song. Crows don't even have that veneer of beauty; they just croak and take.
He stayed away for seven years. His sort have difficulty judging the passage of time here; perhaps he didn't realize how long he'd left us in peace.
Not entirely in peace. Fur was in fourth grade and had been sent home twice for fighting, and it was only October. Her teachers said that Fur was hyperactive and easily distracted. They wanted to dope her up to make her tractable.
There were times, I had to admit, when I felt tempted. She blew through the house like a whirlwind, scattering leaves and twigs and bits of bark behind her. She kept her dark hair cut raggedly short and wore her favorite sweater, one I'd knitted from purple wool, until it was worn out at the elbows, and then she asked for patches. As far as I could see, she had no friends. She spent a good deal of time away, wandering the fields and the woods, coming home at twilight tired and mute with wildness.
When the crows began bickering in the trees, I put the kettle on. I'd been expecting him, and this time I was ready. His knock at the door came before the water boiled. He didn't wait for me to invite him in, but strode into the kitchen as if taking possession of it.
"I've come for the girl," he announced.
"Tea?" I answered. He stared at me. "Why don't you sit down?" I pointed toward the comfortable chair that sat before the fireplace, opposite my rocking chair. After a long pause, during which I busily rattled cups and found the tea bag I'd prepared especially for him, he went to the chair, examined it, then seated himself. I brought over a tray laden with cups, a pitcher of milk, and a pot of honey and placed it on the table beside him. "Honey?" I asked. He shook his head. "Milk?"
He gave the pitcher a distasteful look. "No."
"Don't you drink milk?" I asked, cradling the warm cup in my hands. He shook his head. I watched him carefully. He raised the cup halfway to his lips and paused, sniffing at the rising steam. Abruptly he clattered the teacup down in its saucer and got to his feet.
I looked away, frustrated. And I saw him, the true him, just a flash out of the corner of my eye. The long, narrow face, the unnaturally high cheekbones, the crow-dark hair, the ears, pointed, with a tuft of downy fur at the tips. The suggestion that the joints at elbow and knee might flex both forward and back. I jerked my head around to see better; he flicked long fingers and the image was replaced again by the forgettable face he'd shown me before.
But I'd seen enough to know, and he knew that I knew.
He scowled. "Enough of this. Petty magic. I demand you give me the child."
"You know my answer already," I said. My voice did not shake at all.
"She does not belong to you, but to us."
I laughed. "Jenny doesn't belong to anybody but herself."
"You are depriving her of her birthright, keeping her here."
"Oh, please," I said, unable to hold the sarcasm back.
His eyes narrowed. "We can offer her a far richer and more beautiful world than this one." He made a disdainful gesture. "What have you here but polluted air, foul water, cement and metal landscapes, incurable diseases, overpopulation. No magic but your feeble herbs and your bees. Why would she want to stay in such a place?"
At that, my heart gave a foreboding lurch. Why, indeed. I imagined a day, not long in the future, when Fur might ask herself the same question. A time when, if this man asked her to go with him, she might give a different answer than she had before. A terrible fear welled up, spilled over. Leaping to my feet, I slammed my teacup down on the table. The cup shattered on impact; shards cut my fingers. "Get out!" I shouted. "You are not welcome here!" I pointed at the door, flicking droplets of blood toward him. He flinched away from them, retreating to the threshold.
"Even so," he said, implacable, "I will return and ask again."
"Go!" I shrieked. But he was already gone.
That night, I waited with fear like a stone in my heart for Fur to come home. Twilight, blue and silent, crept in; the first stars twinkled brightly on the eastern horizon. Still, she didn't come. I stood in the doorway, supper forgotten on the stove, my sweater wrapped around me, and stared out into the growing darkness.
Fur was just like her mother, I feared. God, Laurel had been a trial, a wild creature, untamable. She'd been passionate in her loves and hates, moving from one emotion to the next, as unpredictable as the wind and as destructive. She had hated the countryside where we lived. By the time she was fifteen I could do nothing with her, and she left for the city, returning now and then to collect herself, then flying away again on a storm of angry words. In the end, she did come home, the baby heavy in her womb. That time she stayed not long at all.
At last, I heard light footsteps. I stood up from the steps where I'd been crouching with my arms wrapped around me. Fur came around the side of the house, a shadow in the darkness. I stepped out to meet her and opened my mouth to scold. Then I saw her face in the light from the doorway. Fey she looked, of course, but frightened too, which surprised me. I swallowed down the angry words, and as I did so she came into my arms and gave me a fierce hug, then pulled quickly away. Without speaking, we went inside.
Crows are social creatures, and highly intelligent—for birds. Crows are cooperative breeders; both crow parents take turns sitting on the nest, and all family members help care for the brood. Crows often gather together to mob an enemy such as an owl or hawk.
The next time he came, he hardly bothered with the disguise. It was only a year after the previous visit, the dead of winter. A storm was forecast, and Fur was late coming home from school; I was beginning to worry.
The kitchen door blew open. Thinking it was her, I turned from the window. But it was him, tall, alien, graceful. He loomed in the doorway for a moment, then took a halting step into the room. He nodded, yellow eyes glinting. "Tea?" he asked, his voice tainted with sarcasm.
I had made him unwelcome, yet here he was again. Perhaps he wasn't following the old rules after all. I wondered where Fur was, hoping, despite the rising storm, that she'd be even later than usual getting home.
"You may not have her," I said, forestalling his usual request.
He waved his hand as if wiping away my words. He crossed the room and lowered himself into the chair opposite my rocker, then leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
I edged onto my own chair and examined him. The long face and pointed ears were as uncanny as the first time I'd glimpsed them, but looking past that strangeness I saw something unexpected. He was tired. And something pained him, whether physical or not, I could not tell.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
His eyes jerked open. "It's none of your affair."
He looked away toward the window. Tiny flakes of snow had begun falling, whirling in the winds that curled around the house. "My people are at war."
People? I thought. What people? After his last visit, I'd imagined his home as a magical place: emerald grass, Disneyland castles, crystal fountains, eternal spring. "How can you have war?" I asked at last. "You said it was beautiful there."
"One must know horror to recognize beauty."
I had no answer for that. But even though we were adversaries I didn't like to see him like this, tired, worn. I offered him tea, and then tea with honey, which he refused with a sardonic look. "No tricks," I promised.
His only reply was to rise wearily from the chair. "Are you going to give me the child?"
"Very well, then," he said, turning to leave. "I will return."
I know you will, I thought. But my answer will never change.
He paused at the door. "Next time I will ask her to choose for herself." And he was gone.
Crows are thieves. They steal bright things and hide them away in their ramshackle nests. To a crow, a scrap of tinfoil and a diamond ring are the same in worth. A crow values only dazzle and gaudy show.
For five years I worried about his last threat. I knew what Fur would choose, what her mother would have chosen, given the chance. To be honest, if I'd been offered eternal spring and harps and fairy princes when I was fifteen, I might have chosen it as well.
It was spring, and the bees needed tending. "Jenny," I said one Saturday morning, "I need your help with the hives."
Fur looked up from her tea. "Sorry. I have other things to do." She stood and pulled on her tattered jacket.
"Just a minute." I moved to block the door. "What 'other things' do you have to do?"
She shrugged. "None of your business."
Oh, I knew this scene all too well. The old, predictable words came out of my mouth. "As long as you live in this house—"
Without speaking, she glared at me.
"Just tell me where you're going, who you'll be with, and when you'll be back." I could sense her straining to be free, but the harder she struggled, the more tightly I held her, remembering Laurel's flight, fearing the flight to come.
But I could not hold her. She pushed past me and out the door. "Don't worry, I'll be back when I get back!" she called over her shoulder, and ran down the driveway. I stood in the doorway, watching. A short time later, I heard a door slam and the screech of tires. She was gone.
Three mornings later, worn out with pacing, exhausted from lack of sleep, I went out to the orchard. The trees were in glorious blossom and they should have been alive with bees. I approached the stacked white boxes, surprised to see no activity, no bees on busy errands, zipping out or returning heavy with nectar. They were there, though; I could feel them grumbling in the hives. Were they preparing to swarm?
A shadow nicked the corner of my vision. I turned, and the crow man was there. My heart clenched: Fur stood beside him. To see them together was to see their similarity. She looked like Laurel, but she had his strangeness; she wore it wrapped around herself like a tattered black cloak.
It was too late. She had come to say goodbye.
My heart heavy with dread, I turned to face them. If the choice had been made, this meeting was just a formality, an obedience to the old rules. Even so, I would not give her up without a fight. Behind me, the hives felt pregnant, the bees within filling the air with a low-pitched hum.
"I am here for the girl," he began.
I gave the ritual response. "You may not have her."
He nodded. Turned to Fur. "You are offered a choice. To stay here or to come with me and claim your birthright."
She was dressed in the same clothes she'd been wearing three days ago: jeans, a red sweater I'd knitted for her, sneakers, a jacket made of colorful patches. Her black hair hung wild and dirty around her face. She bit her lip and looked from me to the crow man and back again. She frowned. "What do you mean by 'birthright'?"
He answered, speaking quickly. "You are of noble blood. You will rule in a place far more beautiful than this. You will learn to use the powers you were born to, powers that have no place in this world." He gave me a confident look. "You have never fit in here, because you belong elsewhere."
She frowned and turned to me. "Is he telling the truth?"
"Yes," I had to admit.
"You may try to bargain with her, if you like," her father offered, sure of his victory.
At that, a harsh laugh escaped me. "I have nothing left to bargain with." Wasn't he giving her something every fifteen-year-old desired? Noble parentage, power, a chance to fit in? What did I have, that could compare?
"Very well." I heard the triumph in his voice. He turned to Fur. "Choose."
The sun shone down through the apple blossoms, dappling the grass; a faint breeze stirred the branches over our heads. Slowly she looked from me to the crow man. "You're promising me almost everything," she said at last. "But she's already given me something you didn't think to offer. It's no choice at all." She stepped out of his shadow and nodded at me. "I'm staying."
His look of triumph changed to one of utter astonishment. "I warn you, daughter," he said. "You will not be given another chance."
"There are rules about this, aren't there?" she asked.
Speechless, I could only nod.
"Good." She made a dismissing gesture. "You may go away now." Turning to me, she asked, "Is that how it goes?"
I nodded again.
The crow man drew himself up. His eyes flashed yellow and his black coat glistened like oiled feathers in the sunlight. Behind me, the bees boiled out of the hive, a swarm of furiously buzzing golden bullets, weaving a net of protection around us. I readied myself to fight.
He tensed, his shoulders hunching as if he were about to leap into flight. Then the tension snapped as he relaxed. "There are, as you say, rules," he said. He bowed, a capitulation. "I will abide."
A swirl of shadow and the cawing of a thousand crows, and he was gone.