Welcome to the May installment of First Sunday Short Fiction. Please enjoy the story, and remember if you want to submit a story of your own, you can find instructions on our submissions page.
Crow Gifts by Joan Kennedy
Wolves have always lived here in the woods around Saddle Mountain. All my life I’ve heard them at night calling to one another. Sometimes they sound like a choir, low voices mixing in harmony with higher ones. Other times they sound like a gang of drunk loggers in a howling contest big enough to drown out every other noise in the night. We never see them, because they never come down to the foothills where the houses are. I’ve heard wolves live and hunt in organized packs, they take care of one another’s cubs, and they like to stay as far away from people as they can. The only wolf I’ve ever seen up close, though, wasn’t like that at all. If he’d had his way, he would have eaten me for breakfast.
Several months earlier my parents had told me I wouldn’t be their only child for much longer. They said it like a warning, as if they meant I'd had seven good years and now that was all going to change. We’d gotten into a long stretch where nothing ever seemed to change. For years hardly anything interesting happened, and there were no other children for miles. We had no pets, though I had been begging them for a dog for as long as I can remember. They kept saying, “Maybe when you’re older,” but I was already quite a bit older than when they first started saying that. As it was, a baby sounded like the best thing that could possibly happen for the three of us. I just wasn’t ready for how tired and weak my mother had become, staying in bed nearly all day every day in the last couple of months before the baby came.
Before I was out of bed that morning, I knew my mother needed me for something: she was ringing the little copper bell she kept on the nightstand by her side of the bed. Before leaving my room, I glanced out my window as I always do. There was a present waiting for me. I opened the window and picked up a small blue earring someone had left on the sill. I placed it in the bottom drawer of my dresser in a box where I kept the little treasures I’d been finding on the same windowsill: a ring, several bolts and screws, a tiny bone with a hole drilled through it. Then I went in to see my mother.
“Scarlett, I need you to take some things over to your grandmother’s this morning," she said. "She’s out of medicine, and when we ordered more they delivered it here instead of to her house.” Mother handed me a bottle of pills, which I put into my raccoon-faced backpack, along with one of the bread loaves my father and I had baked the day before, and four carrots I pulled from the backyard garden. Then I tied my red cape around my neck, and rushed out the door toward my grandmother’s little gray bungalow about a mile down the forest path.
The forest is full of wild animals: deer, foxes, black bears, and every kind of bird you can think of. Somehow, with my raggedy old red cape on, I’ve never worried about meeting one of them. The cape has been with me since the night I was born, apparently howling my head off and impossible to calm down. The story is my grandmother left our house in a heavy snow that night to walk the mile back to her bungalow. There she cut an unfinished red bedspread off her loom and brought it back to wrap around me. They say at that moment I relaxed enough to take some milk from my mother, and fell into a deep sleep quickly after. I guess I’m too old to be carrying this thing around with me all the time. At some point I will put it away for good. But for now, if it’s not covering my head, it’s pretty much always tied around my neck.
I hadn’t gone far before I tripped and fell over a branch in the forest path, stinging and bloodying my knee. This kind of thing happened to me a lot. I’d been thinking for a long time if I had a nice pair of eyeglasses I wouldn’t trip so much or bump into so many things, and I wouldn’t need to bring a book all the way up to my face to make out the words. And maybe I could start to draw pictures that actually looked like the things I was trying to draw. Maybe even pictures as beautiful as the ones my mother draws. Like the dog, though, eyeglasses were for “maybe when you’re older.” I guessed this meant I shouldn’t irritate everyone by asking too often. In the meantime they had to live with my bruises, spills, and skinned knees, and more than a couple of broken dishes.
Halfway down the forest path I heard a familiar call. I looked up and spotted the glossy black crow I’d seen so many times in these woods. As I’d often done before, I reached into the backpack, pinched off a small piece of bread, and tossed it onto the path. The crow swooped and picked up the bread with one foot, flipping it into his beak as he always did, catching it right out of the air. He cawed loudly once, then disappeared.
When the crow had flown off, I heard a muffled growling sound and looked behind me. A huge black dog I’d never seen before was loping up the path toward me, wagging his long bushy tail. “Hey, sweetie, what’s your name?” I asked, while ruffling his fur and scratching behind his ears. He wore no collar but was very friendly, and he was obviously used to being around people. Everywhere I stepped, he stepped right along beside me. Once when I stopped walking he poked me with his muzzle to get me to keep walking straight along the path. It felt a bit like he was trying to herd me somewhere.
Moments later the crow returned, dropping something from his beak into the leaves beside the path. He cawed over and over, louder and louder, from his perch on a tree branch just above us, and kept grabbing leaves with his beak and spitting them down to the ground. When he started flying at my new friend, I screamed at the crow. “What’s the matter with you? Haven’t you ever seen a dog before?”
The crow picked up the object he’d dropped at the edge of the path and threw it at my feet: a pair of old-style wire-rimmed eyeglasses. They looked as if they’d been stolen from a laid-out corpse, and they’d spent maybe a hundred years lying outside in every kind of weather. The crow kept screaming until finally I raised the glasses up to my face and slid them onto my nose. I glanced over and around to see if the dog was all right, but I didn’t see a dog. Instead, I found myself standing nose-to-nose with a snarling black wolf.
The wolf began pawing at me and opened his mouth incredibly wide, but not for long. The crow dive-bombed him and pecked the top of his head, his eyes, anything he could reach. The wolf kept swatting and biting at any part of the crow he could get to. This went on for quite a while, leaving black feathers everywhere and blood on the path. During it all, I sat with my red cape wrapped tightly around me, making myself small and trying to be invisible. Finally I think the crow hit something vital. The wolf give off a loud, high scream. The wolf staggered off in one direction, the crow staggered off in another, and I staggered the rest of the way to my grandmother’s house in a daze. With those rusty old eyeglasses on my nose, I didn’t trip or bump into any more fallen branches.
“Dear God, child, what happened to you?” my grandmother cried at the door, quickly pulling me inside. She made me a cup of strong brown tea with honey, and leaned in to listen as I told her everything that had happened. “Grandma, I thought wolves live in packs. Why was this one by himself, and why was he down here?” She shook her head slowly and said, “Some wolves get kicked out by the others. My guess is this one couldn’t stop annoying the she-wolves. Only the pack leader is allowed to annoy the she-wolves.”
I haven't seen either the wolf or the crow since that day. The little gifts stopped appearing on my windowsill. My mother is her old self again: first one up in the morning, tightening kitchen pipes with a crescent wrench, folding napkins into little fan shapes on holidays, painting dreamy watercolor pictures, singing to my baby brother and me.
He was born about seven months ago, shrieking his little head purple. I almost want to say shrieking in harmony with my mother, because she was making quite a bit of noise herself. My grandmother had already finished weaving a soft green blanket to wrap him in.
Now he’s showing three teeth in his gummy little smile, one of my jobs is to feed him baby-sized bits of solid food. Yesterday I wadded up a piece of bread into a ball, placed it on the red oak tabletop, and rolled it over toward him. The little goofus grabbed it, but with his foot. Then, again with his foot, he flipped the bread ball high and opened his mouth wide, catching it right out of the air.
story ©Joan Kennedy 2017
artwork ©Robin Corbo 2017. Used with permission.
About the Author:
Joan Kennedy is a bicoastal writer, spending most summers in Portland, Or., and the rest of the year in rural Northern Virginia. She’s an avid songwriter who specializes in lyric-driven story songs, often centered on characters from history, mythology, and CNN. A retired writer and editor of software user manuals, Joan recently used the time recuperating from a broken leg to reconnect with her long-neglected love of writing fiction. You can visit her at her webiste, Story Songs and Song Stories.
About the Artist: