From the window I watched him walk out across the field, the wan morning light no longer dim enough to offer him cover.
His movements were furtive and awkward, something I had never seen in him before. The slowness and wariness did not suit him and he walked as if he was weighed down with some heavy burden. My father was not a secretive man. He rarely spoke in hushed tones, nor did he seek out quiet places or shadows. So it was strange to watch him as he walked towards the wood. The way he stayed close to the long grass, seeking out the cover it offered him was unnatural. It made me want to open the window and shout out to him.
“Hey! What are you doing? Where are you going?”
But I kept still and sat by the window silently. Watching him.
Sensing me, he turned, and looked back towards me, standing taut and still for a moment,letting me know that I was not to follow.
I met his eyes and stared back. Only when he was certain I had understood, did he turn and walk on towards the copse. A musty dank air, the kind that autumn brings, filled the room, and made me shiver.
Beyond the glass I watched my father disappear into the shaded gloom, then the morning resumed its dewy slumber. A soft mist floated in the air, coating the leaves and the grass, clinging to the hidden surfaces that lay in the blue grey of the morning shadows.
All those dark spaces that longed for light. I stared deep into them hoping to see my father there. Trying to catch a glimpse of some movement. But there was none. The darkness was too dense.
I tapped my finger on the glass. Perhaps he would hear me.
“It will come to no good. Can you hear me? It will come to no good.”
Then the quiet of the early morning was disturbed by a sharp crack. Somewhere in the deep green of the copse a flutter of black rose up. Unruly and panicked. My father slowly emerging from the flurry and the darkness, a limp, black form hanging by his side.
He walked out of the copse, his head down, determined not to look back. Even from this distance I could see the blood that dripped from the dead crow as he walked. It was spattering his leg but he seemed not to notice it. But the drops of blood that lead back into the wood, back to the darkness, were unavoidable.
It trailed behind my father as he walked, like some accusation, coming closer now, towards the house.
Then the door closed behind him with a solid thump.
I could hear my father moving around in the kitchen. A chair scraped across the floor. Water ran from the tap. A cupboard door slammed shut. And through it all, my father mumbled. Words I couldn’t hear. The sound of his voice drowned out by the clatter all around him.
Then, from deep within the copse a mournful sound rose up into the air and silenced everything.
The caw of a crow.
There was blood on the floor. Fat drops that would be hard to wash away. I knelt down and trailed a fingertip through one. It was darker than I had imagined it would be. Even when I smeared it across the floor and thinned it out, it retained a purplish hue that did not seem like blood.
“It will come to no good. I can feel it.”
My father looked down at me with a glower and I could see the of violence that had welled up within him. His jaw tightening as he contained it. The effort of restraining that anger, contorting his face.
“I won’t be having any of your hocus pocus.”
I shrugged and rubbed the blood between my fingertips.
The dead crow lay on the table and I was surprised that some gleam or flicker of something could still be seen in its eye. It was looking at me. Had heard what I said and had flashed its agreement. “You’re right. It will come to no good.”
I nodded at it in acknowledgement. The small tick of my head catching my father’s attention. He stared at the bird for a moment, trying to decipher whatever it was that I had seen there.
“What are you going to do with it?” I asked.
He prodded the bird, as if he was checking to see it really was dead, then looked at me as if he wasn’t sure about something but did not dare say what it was.
“Hang it in the thatch. It has to be done.”
“Hocus pocus.” I said, but he didn’t laugh. Just picked up the limp bird and took it over to the sink.
“Are you going to wash it?”
He turned towards me, holding out his bloodied hands for my inspection.
“What do you think?”
And he laughed as I shuddered.
“Don’t be so queasy. It’s only a bit of blood.”
But it wasn’t the blood that had made me recoil. It was the gesture. Those bloodied hands held out as some sort of proof.
I did this. I caused this blood to flow.
An admission that filled the room and floated high into the rafters, out onto the roof. Then beyond.
My father stood by the sink, washing his hands. The water that washed away was pink and it seemed to hold him in a trance.
I watched as he rubbed his hands, writhing them and lathering them. A small crease folded between his eyes, his brows furrowing as if he was momentarily confused. As if that writhing action had roused him.
“It’s only a bit of blood. Just a bit of blood.” The repeating of it, stripping the words of their conviction.
I caught his eye and held his stare causing him to look away.
My father had leaned the ladder against the wall of the house and was standing on the lowest rung waiting to climb up.
“Help me here. Hold the ladder still while I go up.”
“You’ll be okay. It’s well set against the wall.”
I gave the ladder a shake dislodging him and making him drop the bird.
It landed at my feet, and the glint in its eye was still there, just as it had been that morning when it stared back at me and flashed its agreement.
“Nothing good will come of this.”
I cradled the bird in my hands. The feathers had a silkiness that surprised me. A softness and suppleness I was not expecting. But the flesh underneath was cold and hard. The deadness of the thing, irrefutable now.
“What? What do you know?”
I continued to stroke the feathers, feeling the weight of the bird. Wondering how it was that these soft, delicate feathers could ever had lifted such a weight. Carried it up into the air. What did I know?
“Nothing” was all the reply I could give.
My father grew impatient “Just give me the bird.”
He held out his hand to me,and I saw the blood there, under his fingernails. He had not been able to wash it out. It was stuck there. A stain.
“It didn’t wash out.”
He took the bird from me then looked at his nails and shrugged.
“Like I say. It’s just a bit of blood. Now hold the ladder.”
But I turned away from him and in the laden autumn sunshine began to walk out towards the copse. I could hear my father as he started up the ladder, rung by rung. The dead bird thumping against his leg as he climbed. He was muttering aloud, wanting me to hear.
“I don’t know what’s got into that girl.”
Deep in the wood the shadows shifted. They were watching me.
For a moment I thought to stop. There was no need to walk in there, I could turn around. Head home.
From the copse a solitary caw once again cut through the air.
“No you can’t.”
The silence that followed seemed denser somehow, as if that caw had drawn the air inwards, to some place just out of reach.
A faint rustle of grass caught the wind, then another caw came, followed by another, then another. Filling the air without pause or cessation. An incessant, rasping complaint.
“Keep walking. Keep walking.”
I walked on and with the first step, the silence returned.
Behind me, I was aware of my father watching me. I didn’t turn to look at him, but I could feel his gaze. He was up on the roof, tying down the dead bird into the thatch. Unnerved for a moment by the rasping caws. He watched me as I entered the copse then called out to me.
But I did not listen. I walked in.
We had listened to the sound of their scratching for weeks. The cackle and chatter waking us each morning. It was not a beautiful sound. But the business of their movement, the purposefulness of their activity, was strangely joyful.
I would lie in bed and listen to them as they scurried about on the roof, scratching away at the thatch and chattering amongst themselves.
“Good morning gentlemen”
And they would pause. A moment or two of silence, before they recognised me and my greeting was returned.
Then the scratching and the chatter would resume. Followed by the sound of my father as he stood below, bellowing at the birds and pitching stones up into the thatch in an attempt to discourage them.
But none of his efforts succeeded. The crows remained impervious to his challenges and slowly throughout the summer, the thatch began to thin out. A hole appearing one morning, just as the rain began.
My father had stood in the garden and stared up at the roof and the crows had stared down at him and watched him closely.
“They recognise you, you know? They know it’s you that throws the stones.”
“Don’t you go making them out to be anything more than what they are. They’re just birds is all.”
“Smart birds, though.”
“A nuisance is what they are. Smart or not.”
“Maybe we need to get rid of the thatch” I suggested.
“No. I have a way to stop them.”
I and listened as he explained it to me. That a dead bird up there in the roof would serve as a warning. A sign that this was not a safe or welcoming place to be. That the roof was best avoided.
“It’s an old method” he assured me.
“If you’re sure” was all I could say.
The idea of a dead crow suspended in the roof, disturbed me. The way the birds watched my father. The way they anticipated his movements. Rising up into the air before he had thrown a single stone or uttered a single cry.
They knew him. Knew what he meant. A man with bad intentions who put them on their guard.
And now he was coming to kill.
I woke the next morning before the birds came and sat by the open window waiting for them.
From across the field they came, rising as one. They looked straight at me as they flew towards the house, but did not stop. I greeted them, one by one as they came to rest on the roof.
“Good morning, gentlemen.”
They settled there but remained still, waiting for me to speak.
“There will be no stones this time. The violence now will be real. Irreversible. Leave the roof and do not return.”
They chattered amongst themselves as I spoke. A low, clicking sound. Like a whisper.
Then, one by one, they took to the air and returned to the wood.
I watched them go, then went down to the kitchen to wait for my father.
“They’re gone” I explained when he entered.
“The crows. They’re gone. Listen.”
He stood by the stove and cocked his ear up towards the roof.
“You see? They’re gone. They’re finished with us.”
He listened a moment longer.
“What makes you think they won’t return? No, there’s only one way to be rid of them. To be sure they will be gone for good.”
“I promise you they won’t return.”
“And what makes you so sure of yourself?”
I thought of the birds as they rose from the roof that morning. Tilting their wings as they lifted off so that they turned to face me, eyes gleaming. Understanding.
“They keep their promises.”
And he looked at me then, his skin blanching white before a surge of red swept across it and his jaw tensed.
“That’s enough of that, Marlies. You hear me? Enough!”
“You don’t need to kill them. They’re done here. I promise you.”
“Not one more word. Not one. I’ll tie that bird to the thatch and then it will be done.”
It was cool in the wood and the dank smell of autumn had penetrated more deeply there.
I stood in the gloom and waited, but for a long while there was nothing. Not a movement. Not a sound.
Underfoot, the moss, thick with moisture, sucked me down and fixed me to the spot.
My legs became heavy, my head, light. I swayed and watched my feet, as the moss swallowed them.
“I tried to tell him.”
Not a movement. Not a sound.
“I told him what you promised. But he would not listen.”
The smell of autumn grew thicker in the air.
“Can you hear me?”
My legs grew heavier and I dropped to my knees.
Somewhere my father was calling.
And I opened my mouth to answer.
“Here. In the wood.”
But no words came. Only a caw pierced the air.
Then I saw them move. Shadows at first. The shapes slowly taking form. A wing. A beak. An eye. They dropped to the ground before me and slowly a circle formed.
I lay still and waited while they watched me. And as my eyes grew heavy and the darkness came, I saw the glint of an eye. Black and fierce closing in upon me.
Then we rose, as one. A surge of blackness that was carried high, up through the trees and into the light of the sky. Across the field we flew on towards the house. My father standing by the door watching as we approached. He stood there frozen as we circled the roof then dropped one by one onto the roof.
The dead crow was tied down in the thatch, its eye gleaming still.
It lay still and soundless as the twine that bound him fast was picked loose and he was free. Then a crack pierced the air and I felt the snap of my wings as I was lifted into the air. A caw rasping in my throat.
The roof a flutter of feather and wing as we swirled in the air above the roof, before tilting our wings and returning to the dark of the wood.
“Marlies! Marlies! My father called.
I looked down on him as he stood by the door, his eyes tilted to the sky, beseeching the heavens. But I could not answer.