It had been three days since the crows came, and still, they covered the yard in a bobbing tangle of distilled black. There was no question to their motive; the rain had brought out the worms and they outnumbered the corvid hoard a hundredfold. It was a feast for the ages and one which seemed frantic for the birds; as if the writhing creatures existed only in a fever dream.
From his seat in front of the window, Vernon watched as the birds hopped from place to place, skewering their beaks into the soft earth, pulling the squirming creatures from the ground, and swallowing them whole. He did not know if this was normal crow behavior because he had never considered crows normal. They were false animals, holdovers from a time of myth and fantasy that only existed for the purposes of omen, parable, and storytelling. Once, when Vernon was a child, he had heard someone in his father’s home say that crows had once been white as the driven snow, but had been stained black when their cousin, the Raven, stole fire from the gods. He couldn’t remember who had told him this. He would ask the woman in the house, who might also know which snow is driven and which is just plain snow.
The wicker of his chair snapped and popped when he moved. It had been a gift from Robert, whom he had only briefly called Bob. He remembered that about him – how even as a child he had never been a Bob; nor had he been a Bobby, Buck, Rob, or – worst of all – a Bert. His headstone said “Robert” and Vernon was very pleased with this, although such a formality was hardly unusual. The dead always use their Christian names. The woman in the house was named Ellen, but Vernon did not know if that was a nickname or not. There had never been any saints called Ellen, which made a strong case for nickname; yet try as he might, he couldn’t remember for sure. This lack of certainty had born a lump of doubt in his stomach and Vernon was completely unresolved in his feelings for her.
Ellen had arrived the same summer Robert died, long before the crows came. Unlike the string of helpers that came before her, she was not young and tight-skinned. Nor did she sport the kaleidoscopic rotation of loose scrub pants and oversize tops which hung low around the neck and offered a tease of skin that was wasted on him. Instead, Ellen wore the long skirts his mother had preferred and carried herself with the slump of hard years. Her eyes sank into beds of puffed skin and she bruised as easily as he did. Once a day, she wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his left arm and patted his hand reassuringly as the air squelched itself out of the device, leaving only a concerning number and the slightest scent of rubber. In those moments, as he sat quietly in tourniquet, Ellen whispered secrets about the world and the word “wife” scattered across the ridges of his mind. Robert would have liked her, even if she did cross herself multiple times a day.
Without much hope, he took to counting them. He crossed thirty many times and once moved the needle past forty before a truck passed at a good clip and the lawn shattered into black wings. He waited for them to resettle and started over. The third day passed this way, interrupted only by the noise of the television in the early afternoon and the occasional ministrations by Ellen. Around the same time she began to warm dinner and dole out his prescriptions, the birds began to break off one-by-one into the early evening. His count then became more manageable: now twenty, now seventeen, now eight, now gone. He does not remember to ask the woman in the house about Brother Crow, nor Cousin Raven, nor the driven snow. Tomorrow, the sun would return and the crows would busy themselves elsewhere. Without quite knowing why, Vernon would begin counting the pickets of his fence, a smile tracing itself across his face when he touched the number forty.
He remembers a joke from long before the rain and the worms and the birds. Three crows land on a telephone wire, but two of them leave immediately. An attempted murder.
He doesn’t think Robert would have found that funny, but Bob might have.
James Stuart is a fiction writer based in Tacoma, Washington, who received his Bachelor of the Arts in English from Colorado State University. Stuart’s work has been published in Creative Colloquy, The Almagre Review, and Short Fiction Break. He also maintains his own fiction website, The Forge (www.storiesfromtheforge.com).