The stone hit Ava in the back of the head. She stumbled and fell, spilling her schoolbooks out of her arms and onto the dirt road in front of her. Gravel dug into her palms as she threw out her hands to break her fall. Her knees skidded painfully across the ground.
“Have a nice trip!” a boy’s voice called out from behind her, to a chorus of laughter. “See you next fall!”
Ava brushed her long, black hair out of her face. She was hollow-boned and delicate, looking far younger than her 11 years. Her dark eyes welled with tears. She quickly wiped them away with the frayed cuff of her sweater.
A chilly autumn wind blew across the Kansas field, causing the corn stalks lining the road to whisper in the breeze. Somewhere in the distance, faint and far away, a gas-powered tractor growled. It was probably from Mr. Conklin’s farm – he was the only farmer in the area who was wealthy enough to own a tractor – but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t close enough to help her. Nobody was. She was on her own.
A group of kids about her age, two girls and a boy, ran past her. One of the girls stuck out her tongue. The other laughed. Their shoes kicked up clouds of dust into Ava’s face as they passed.
The girls were sisters, Sarah and Beth Winters. They were pretty and clean, with crisp red bows tied in their flaxen hair. They were the kinds of girls who had everything they needed and got everything they wanted; they never had to ask for anything twice. They wore matching blue dresses with warm red sweaters that looked like they were bought from a department store. Not handmade, like Ava’s shapeless brown smock. They weren’t twins – Sarah was two years older than Beth – but they were inseparable. Even now, they held hands as they skipped away into the distance. Ava hated them both, equally.
The boy was Carl. He must have had a last name, but Ava didn’t know it. It didn’t matter – there was only one Carl. He was a lumbering giant, easily a foot taller than anyone else in the class, with an oversized head that reminded Ava of a rotten pumpkin. His ruddy cheeks were sunburned and freckled from a long summer of torturing rabbits and stoning squirrels. He had icy blue-gray eyes, the color of the sky before a winter storm. His belly hung over his belt, straining the buttons of his denim shirt. He was big and stupid and mean and cruel. Not in that order.
Ava touched her fingers to the back of her head, where the stone had hit her. It wasn’t a big stone, but it was angular and sharp enough to draw blood. She drew her fingers away. Her scalp didn’t seem to be bleeding too much – the wound would scab up just fine – but it was enough to bring on a fresh swell of tears. She swallowed hard, choking back a sob. No, she thought. No crying. Not this time.
She was angry. At them, yes, but also at herself. She should have heard them coming. She was off in her own world again, like an idiot. She should have known they were behind her. They usually were. Sometimes they left her alone if she was far enough ahead of them, but if she was in range – throwing distance or shouting distance, depending on the day – they rarely passed up the chance to torment her. Especially Carl.
In the winter, he threw snowballs. The rest of the year, it was rocks, or rotten fruit, or worse. A few weeks ago, he threw a dead rat he found on the side of the road. He picked it up by the tail, holding it at arm’s length as he hurried to catch up with Ava, then slung it at her from close range. It slapped her on the side of the face, exploding in a putrescent eruption of maggot-infested entrails. The squirming, blood-blackened mass slid down her face and onto her shoulder, then rolled down her chest to the ground. Ava gagged at the smell, hot vomit spilling from her lips and down the front of her dress.
Compared to that experience, Ava preferred the rocks. They hurt more, but at least she didn’t have to spend the rest of the day at school stinking of puke and decay.
Once Carl and the two Winters sisters were far enough down the road, Ava picked herself up off the ground, brushed the dirt and gravel from her scraped knees, and gathered up her books. She would be late for school again; Mrs. Harrison would be angry, as usual. Ava would try to explain, but she knew the stodgy old teacher would hear none of it. She would put Ava alone in the corner at the front of the room, facing the rest of the class, under the painting of Jesus and the Apostles at the Last Supper. The “prayer corner,” she called it, where she expected – commanded – that Ava pray for forgiveness for her sins.
Ava never did.
“Look, she’s doing it again,” Carl said. He took a huge bite of a sandwich, his third.
It was lunch time. The students were out on the playground behind their one-room schoolhouse, playing on wooden equipment hand-crafted by the church’s Men’s Club during a series of sweat-soaked, prayer-fueled summer Saturdays. There were swings, some seesaws, a metal slide, and various other play structures.
Carl sat atop a large wooden wall made from stacked logs. Sarah and Beth sat on either side of him, swinging their legs. Other children of various ages were clustered in small groups around the yard, playing jacks, jumping rope, swinging, and seesawing. Everyone except Ava. She was alone in the corner of the playground by the edge of the wood, staring up into a tree. Talking.
“She’s so weird,” Sarah stage-whispered.
Beth squinted her eyes against the glare of the sun. “Who’s she talking to?”
“Not who. What,” Sarah corrected.
Carl pointed one thick-knuckled finger. “In the tree,” he said through a soggy mouthful of food. “See the crow?”
Sure enough, a large crow was perched on the branch above Ava’s head. It looked down at her, head cocked to the side, listening. Ava pulled a small piece of bread from the slice in her hand and tossed it up to the bird. The crow caught it in mid-air and gulped it down greedily.
“Maybe it knows her,” Beth offered. She leaned out so she could see Sarah on the other side of Carl’s protruding belly. “Like Uncle Jeff’s bird, remember?”
“Right. It knows her,” Carl replied sarcastically.
Sarah nodded in agreement with Beth. “It could. Crows can remember faces. Our mom said so.”
“Uncle Jeff used to always feed the same crow whenever he came over to our house,” Beth added. “He’d get out of his truck and a minute later this huge black crow would swoop down, right to his shoulder, looking for bread. He used to keep a slice in his shirt pocket, just for that.”
“It probably wasn’t the same one,” Carl mumbled.
“Sure was!” Beth said, defensive. “How many people do you know that have a crow land on their shoulder?”
“Okay, then.” Carl lifted his sandwich in the air in a mock salute. “To Uncle Jeff. World’s Worst Scarecrow.”
Beth punched him playfully in the arm, laughing. “You’re the worst!”
Carl finished chewing, licked his fingers clean, then wiped them on his pants. His expression turned serious. He nodded towards Ava. She was still looking up in the tree, talking to the crow. “You know what I think? I think she’s a witch, like her mom.”
“Her mom’s a witch?” Beth asked, surprised. She shot a questioning look at Sarah to confirm.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Oh, great. This again.”
“Everybody knows it,” Carl insisted. “Ask my dad. Remember a few years ago, when all our sheep died?”
“You said wolves did that,” Sarah reminded him.
“Their eyes were ripped out!” Carl exclaimed. “Wolves don’t do that. Not normal ones, anyway.”
“What does, then?” Beth asked, wide-eyed. She was hanging on Carl’s every word.
Sarah whispered to Carl, just out of Beth’s earshot. “Stop. You’re scaring her.”
Carl ignored Sarah, instead explaining to Beth, “Witches talk to animals. They tell them to do things. Use them to get back at people they don’t like. That’s what her mom did to us.”
“My dad says she’s jealous. She used to be sweet on him. Still is, he says.”
“If Ava’s a witch, then why doesn’t she look like one?” Sarah asked, challenging him.
“She doesn’t need to. Real witches look normal, just like us. But they’re not.”
“Maybe he’s right,” Beth said. “Maybe she is.” Her voice was full of awe.
Sarah kicked at Carl. “Great, now she believes you.” She shook her head. “She’s not,” she said to Beth. “He’s just joshing you. There’s no such thing.”
“No?” Carl jumped down from the climbing wall, landing with a thud. “Okay. Let’s ask her.”
“Carl, don’t –” Sarah began, but Carl was already loping over to Ava. He thrust his hands deep in his pockets, trying to project an aura of innocent curiosity.
“Hey, Ava,” he called. “Whatcha doing?”
Ava froze. She quickly averted her eyes away from the crow, casting them downwards. She toed the ground with one foot but didn’t turn around. “Nothing.”
“Can you help us with something?” Carl asked, his voice honey-sweet. “Sarah and Beth and me?” He motioned towards the sisters, who were still perched on top of the log wall. Sarah beckoned to Carl to come back. He shook his head and held up his finger. One minute.
Ava didn’t respond, so Carl continued. “That bird up there.” He nodded toward the crow still perched on the branch overhead. It peered down at them with focused attention, as if eavesdropping on their conversation. “Were you just talking to it?” Still no response from Ava. Carl put his hands on his knees and leaned in close to Ava’s face, trying to look her in the eye. “What are you two talking about, huh?”
Ava’s lips moved imperceptibly, her voice barely audible.
Carl cupped his hand to one ear and raised his voice. “What’s that? Couldn’t hear you.”
“He’s my friend,” Ava said, slightly louder this time.
“Your friend?” Carl said, incredulous. He laughed loudly, slapping his knee. Ava flinched at the sound. “Your only one, I’ll bet.”
Ava didn’t answer.
“Does he talk back?” Carl leaned in closer, leering. Taunting. “What does he say? Does he tell you he likes you? Does he tell you you’re pretty?”
Ava’s cheeks flushed. Hot crimson patches spread across her chest and up her neck.
“Hey, you know who talks to animals?” Carl said brightly, tapping his head as if the idea had just occurred to him. “Witches. You’re not a witch, are you?”
Ava shook her head slowly.
“How about your mom? Is she a witch?”
Ava shook her head again.
“You’re sure? I won’t tell.”
“Okay, good. Just wanted to check.” Carl straightened up, cracked his neck, then started to walk away. Ava seemed to relax. She glanced up at the bird.
Suddenly, Carl cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted across the playground. “Hey, everyone! It’s okay! Ava said she’s not a witch! Her mom too! Also, not a witch!”
Other kids on the playground looked towards Carl, wondering what the shouting was about. Some snickered among themselves. Others pointed at Ava and laughed. Ava bowed her head, allowing her hair to fall over her face, shielding herself from their stares.
“They’re just friends! Ava and the crow. Best friends!”
“Carl, stop,” Sarah called. “Leave her alone.”
Carl walked back over towards the log wall, a grin on his face. “You’re such a spoil-sport.”
“It’s just not funny, that’s all.”
Carl glanced back over at Ava. She was sitting on the ground, hugging her knees to her chest, staring at her shoes. The crow glided down from the tree and landed at her feet. It pecked the dirt around her, picking up stray breadcrumbs.
“Watch this,” Carl said. He reached down and scooped a rock from the playground sand. It was heavy and round, about the size of a golf ball.
“Don’t!” Sarah hissed. “You’re going to get us in trouble!”
Carl snorted derisively. He gripped the rock like a split-finger fastball, then whipped it sidearm towards Ava. The rock sliced through the air with deadly precision and caught the crow square in the side of its head, instantly shattering its delicate skull and rupturing its eye. Ava recoiled backward, shocked by the sudden violence of the impact. The crow flopped over on its side. One of its wings extended at a crooked angle and gave a single weak flap.
Carl pumped his fist in excitement. “Yes! Direct hit!”
When Ava recovered enough to realize what happened, she let out an agonizing cry. “Nooooooo!”
She gathered up the broken bird in her arms and cradled it on its back like a mother holding a newborn. The crow’s head rotated loosely and grotesquely on its broken neck. Ava slipped her palm under its head, supporting it.
Carl stepped closer, looking down over Ava’s shoulder at the dying bird. Its skull was split wide open, crimson-flecked white bone standing out in stark contrast to the black feathers. Thick ropes of blood and gore oozed from the wound, mixing with the clear fluid leaking from its destroyed eye. The crow looked up at Ava with its one good eye. It blinked once, its pupil turning white, then black again. Its beak opened and closed silently a few times, then stopped. It was dead.
Sarah started climbing down from her perch on the wall. “C’mon, Beth,” she said, tugging her sister’s hem. “Before we get in trouble.” Beth followed her sister to the ground. Sarah regarded Carl with disgust. “You didn’t have to do that. It wasn’t hurting anyone.”
“Oh, stop! What’s the big deal? It’s just a bird!”
Sarah grabbed her younger sister’s hand and pulled her towards the schoolhouse. “Let’s go.”
“Really?” Carl called after them. “You guys! C’mon, you guys!”
They ignored him and walked hand-in-hand into the school. Carl looked down at Ava. She was hugging the bird’s lifeless body to her chest, rocking it slowly and whispering to it. “Burn in hell, witch.” Then he ran off to catch up with Sarah and Beth.
Ava didn’t acknowledge him. Her eyes were fixed on a second crow, high overhead, silhouetted against the afternoon sun as it circled over the playground. Watching.
After class, Carl changed from his school clothes to his regular at-home attire: a pair of denim overalls over a dingy white t-shirt and a pair of square-toed black boots with heavy rubber soles.
He had chores to do. School was back in session, which meant winter was only a few short weeks away. Already, the days were getting shorter and the sun was setting earlier. The nights were chilly. Soon they would be freezing and his father would need to heat the wood stove to keep their small house warm.
It was up to Carl to ensure they had enough firewood to make it through the season. That meant spending long hours splitting logs and stacking the wood in the shed behind the house, where it would stay dry until it was needed. It was hard work, but Carl found comfort in it. He liked the weight of the ax, the way it arced through the air and split the logs so easily. It made him feel strong.
Carl’s house was nestled back in the woods, a hundred yards or more from the road. It was a tiny three-room shack with leaded windows and a rusted tin roof, hand-built by his father from trees he felled in the forest. A small stream trickled nearby. Occasionally, Carl would fish in the stream, but mostly he just pissed in it. When nobody was looking, of course.
Nobody was looking now, so Carl embedded his ax in the chopping block, ambled over to the stream, unzipped his fly, and directed a spray of urine into the slow-moving water. He whistled tunelessly. His eyes wandered across the trees on the water line until they settled on a thick branch that extended from a tall, crooked oak on the other side of the stream. Sitting on the branch was a large crow. It ruffled its feathers, then peered down at Carl.
“What?” Carl sneered. “You want this?” He moved his hips in a circle, pissing a ring into the water.
“Caw!” the crow said. Then, with incredible quickness, it launched itself off the branch and swooped directly at Carl’s head.
Carl ducked sideways, gasping in surprise. His boots squelched in the soft mud of the stream bank. He lost his balance and fell hard, smacking his tailbone on the rocks embedded in the dirt. His head hit the ground with a dull thud. A cry of pain and shock spit from his lips.
“Goddamn it! What the hell?”
Mumbling under his breath, he sat up and rubbed his hand across the back of his head. There was no blood, thank God. He brushed the dirt and leaves out of his hair, then scanned the trees overhead for the bird. It was gone.
He pulled himself to his feet, zipped his fly, then surveyed the damage. His overalls were soaked up the back with foul-smelling mud, from his ankles to his asshole. More mud was smeared across the backs of both arms. His boots were water-logged. Great, he thought. Now I’m in for it. If his father saw what a mess he was, he’d tan Carl’s hide for sure.
Carl trudged across the yard, unbuckling his overalls as he went. He’d need to strip down, rinse his clothes in the pump from the well, then hang them on the line to dry. Carl sat down on the chopping block, unlaced his boots, and tugged them off his feet. Then he peeled off the heavy, mud-soaked denim, dropping it in a wet pile on the ground. He retrieved a wooden bucket from a rusty hook on the side of the woodshed, gathered his overalls in the bucket, then carried it over to the black iron water pump nearby.
He started working the pump handle. After a minute or so, water began to trickle – then pour – from the curved metal mouth of the pump’s spout. Carl ran one arm under the water, then the other, rinsing away the now-dry mud. Then he cupped some water into his mouth and splashed some on his face. The water was ice cold, with a coppery metallic tinge that reminded him of how a bloody lip tasted. He patted his face dry on his t-shirt, then opened his eyes.
Mere inches away, a crow was perched on the water pump, studying him. It was eerily still. Focused.
“Jesus!” Carl swatted at the crow. The bird hopped backward down the pump handle and flapped its wings to maintain its balance, but it didn’t flee. If anything, it seemed even less afraid. “Get out of here!”
The bird just glared at him, its coal-black eyes sparkling with fearless defiance. “Caw!” In an instant, three more crows descended from a nearby tree, landing on the ground a few feet in front of Carl.
“Fuck off!” He kicked at the wooden bucket, knocking it over in their direction. “Leave me alone!” His soaking overalls tumbled out of the bucket onto the ground. A flood of water rolled towards the birds. They calmly lifted into the air until it passed, then settled back down on the sodden grass. Then they, too, began to call.
“Caw! Caw! Caw!”
Several more crows called out in response. Within seconds, the three crows on the ground were joined by five more. Then ten. Then twenty. The calls grew louder as their numbers multiplied, in turn drawing even more. Some emerged from the woods; others materialized on the horizon, silhouetted against the fading afternoon light. They perched all around Carl: high and low, on trees and on the ground, on the roof of the house and on the woodshed. All of them calling, their cries overlapping.
As they multiplied, their calls started to morph into something different. It didn’t sound like they were screaming “Caw!” anymore.
It sounded like they were screaming “Carl.”
Carl looked around wildly. The crows were closing in from all sides, a maelstrom of shadows swooping and circling in ever-tighter formation around him. They blotted out the sky above, leaving nothing visible overhead but a roiling ocean of black feathers. Carl picked up the wooden bucket and hurled it at the birds in front of him. The crows in its path dipped and swerved to avoid the projectile, then quickly reassembled in the same formation, circling him closer. And closer.
The crow on the water pump was the first to strike. It launched itself like a rifle shot aimed right at Carl’s head. Carl threw up his arms to shield his face. The crow’s beak struck his forearm, carving a thick slice through the freckled flesh. Fresh blood surged from the wound.
Carl turned to run, but he found his path blocked by still more crows. He kicked and swung at them, feeling his hands and arms connecting with their bodies, their hollow bones collapsing on impact. But there were too many. Their beaks tore at his arms. His legs. His torso. Others launched themselves at his head. At his face.
Carl stumbled backward. His feet tangled in the soaking overalls on the ground, twisting his leg at an unnatural angle. As he fell, his shin bone snapped with a sickening crack loud enough to be heard even above the din of the crows’ calls. The splintered end of the broken bone tore through his skin. He hit the ground hard, fracturing his ribs and knocking the wind from his lungs. He gasped for air, clutched at his leg, and screamed.
Then, the crows were upon him.
Ava lay on the cot in her bedroom, listening. In the distance, she could hear the cries of dozens of crows. Hundreds, maybe. And something else, almost lost in the cacophony. Screams.
Suddenly, there was a tapping on her window. Ava sat up and swung her feet to the floor. The cot springs squeaked with relief as she stood. She glided across the room and peered through the dusty glass. She smiled.
There, on the roof outside the window, was a crow. It held something round and white in its beak.
Ava opened the window. The crow placed the eye delicately on the windowsill, then stepped back. The eye rolled towards Ava. She picked it up and examined it in her palm. The orb was grayish-white, with fine red blood vessels spidering throughout. The short stub of the severed optic stalk protruded from the back. The iris of the eye was an icy blue-gray, the color of the sky before a winter storm.
“Thank you,” Ava said to the crow.
The crow blinked, then bowed its head, inviting Ava to pet it. Ava reached out and gently ruffled the feathers on the back of the bird’s neck.
“Now,” she continued. “Bring me the other.”