by Clark Hays
“Hey, look at this.”
Hal settled down beside me with a soft rustle and I swiveled my head, cocking it to the side. “It’s a stick, Hal.”
“I know,” he said eagerly. “A real nice one. Want to play keep away or something?”
“No,” I said, shuffling to the side away from him.
“Why not? It … I mean, come on, it’s a nice one.”
I slumped forward. “Hal, for the love of Christ, it’s a fucking stick.”
His eyes narrowed, reflecting hurt, and he dropped it into the snow. “Geez Montgomery, you don’t have to be so damn irritable. I just thought you might want to, you know, have a little fun.”
“Well I don’t.”
Phil flapped up next, his meaty body barely held aloft, and wedged down between us. He nudged and harrumphed and jostled, eventually making enough room for himself.
“What’s up gentlemen?” Before either of us could answer, he bent forward and peered down intently. “Hey,” he whistled, “great stick.”
“I know,” Hal said proudly. “That’s what I was just saying, but Montgomery is being an ass. Want to play to keep away?”
“With a stick like that? Hell yeah,” Phil said, snatching up the twig and flapping off.
“Hey, wait a minute, unfair, unfair,” Hal called excitedly, taking to wing and cawing happily in pursuit.
I watched them go, shook my head and turned to study the bright morning sky. Undecided on my next course of action, I hopped into the air and winged my way up to the safety of the trees, landing on a sturdy pine branch. Seconds later I sensed the approach of another, rich with the smell of intrigue and decay, landing silently above me.
Had to be Mona.
Mona is one fine looking crow. Sleek and intelligent and a little bit on the mean side, which I like. She announced her arrival with a caw and a quork, and then a lush rasp that set my feathers on edge.
“Looks like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb are having another rousing game of fetch the stick,” she said. “They couldn’t talk you into joining?”
I said nothing, but took the opportunity to look up at her which was like looking into an obsidian sun. We had met once as humans and in that form she was really nothing special. A housewife, a little on the heavy side. Chain smoker. Couple of bratty kids and a boring husband. A tired sort of cynicism, though. Sometimes life does that to you.
“Some schmuck hit a deer over at the highway,” she said. “Bet it’s still warm.” She slipped out into the air and circled the tree twice. “Come on. I’m buying.”
What the hell, meat is meat.
I pushed hard to catch up to her, flying low over the treetops, glancing up occasionally at the sensuous curve of her breast.
“What about Hal and Phil?” she called down.
“Screw ‘em. They got their stick.”
She laughed out loud. A short, sharp, one-note affair.
Below us, a farm dog barked hysterically in response. Being a crow, even just part of the time, has given me a healthy disdain for canines. So damn stupid. They’re a big joke to the rest of the animal world.
The deer wasn’t warm but close enough. A trail of blood, shit and entrails stained the edge of the frosty highway, marking the final resting place of the tangled carcass. We circled the carrion warily, Mona and I, then landed on the nearby telephone line to watch for oncoming cars and to check out the birds already assembled. These were all plain old jack-crows, so when we finally landed amongst them it was like royalty showing up. They hopped and squawked and grudgingly gave way, all the while grumbling sideways out of their bloody beaks. They know we understand, at least for the most part — crow is crow, after all — but regional dialects can confuse things.
These jack-crows, for example, were obviously unhappy to see us but I really had no idea what quork-wrickk meant. Just as well, I guess.
We paid them no mind; just ripped right into the rib cage and pecked past the skin and bone until we got to some good, dark heart and lung meat. When it’s fresh like that, the meat, it’s like choking down big chunks of honeycomb, only with a bitter edge. Like dipped in that malt vinegar they sometimes serve with French fries.
Later, fat and sleepy, we perched on the fence and the wires sagged underneath us. Hal and Phil showed up eventually but all the good stuff was already gone and they spent most of the time hopping through the mess and bitching, occasionally gulping down some stray little bit of intestine.
It’s not like any of us need it. In a couple hours we’ll all be back in our little houses (or in Phil’s case, our little mansions) watching TV and drinking beer. Staring at the walls.
The day starts to fade and we sit like shadows on the wire. The cold doesn’t bother you as a crow, which is nice. Feathers have a dry sort of cling, like a cardboard blanket, and the cold can’t make headway past it.
Cars start to come by more frequently, headlights on even though it isn’t quite necessary yet. One car slows down so the kid in the passenger seat can look at us with his binoculars. They stop in the middle of the highway and the little boy points at us, his face lit up with a big, stupid grin. He has a big glossy book open in his lap. A budding birdwatcher.
Christ, that’s a tough one. Who can raise a kid that doesn’t know what a crow is?
When I’m sure he’s watching through the glasses again I glare right at him, raise up and beat my wings like a maniac and spread out my tail feathers. He’s loving it, smiling like a drooling idiot. I take off and zoom straight at the window like an arrow aimed at his eye. I close the distance in a heartbeat and now he’s not so happy, jerks the binoculars away from his face in fright. I flap against the window, shrieking bloody murder, beating my wings and scratching at the glass with my knobby old claws. The kid is screaming now, near hysterical, probably pissing himself. Even the mother is rattled.
She punches the gas and the car rockets forward, squealing down the highway. I flap along behind, as slowly and malevolently as possible and catch one more glimpse of the kid looking back over his shoulder, tear-streaked face faintly luminous like a moon made out of bread dough.
I rejoin the others, and they are all looking at me like I’m a steaming pile of dog shit. No one says a thing.
“What?” I snap at last, the silence too oppressive.
“Jesus Christ, Monty, that was mean as hell,” Phil said.
“That poor kid is gonna have nightmares,” Hal said.
“Yeah, well good,” I said, but it lacks conviction.
“You’re a real asshole, sometimes,” Phil said. “You ought to try being happy once in awhile.”
“I got nothing to be happy about,” I grumbled, preening self-consciously.
“How about because you’re a werecrow?” Mona said softly. “It ought to be enough.”
“Being a werecrow is just as pointless as being a real crow. Or a real human. The world is still full of idiots, present company excepted, of course,” I added sarcastically. “I’m still bored. And nothing we do really matters at all.” I pecked at the fence post angrily, knocking splinters loose. “It’s not like we’re werewolves or anything. Now that would be cool. They get to rip stuff up. They get respect.”
Mona gave me a withering look and I wished I hadn’t said anything at all.
“Fear is not the same as respect,” she said. “It’s just fear. That little boy, he doesn’t respect you now. He’s just scared.” She hopped from one foot to the other emphatically. “Get over yourself, Montgomery. At least you’re special. You get to see the world as a human and as a crow. How many people do you know who can say that?”
I didn’t answer, although half a dozen smart-ass comments floated through my head.
“Plus, you can fly, man,” Hal said.
“Yeah,” Phil echoed, “you can fly. There’s always that.”
I sighed tiredly, releasing a sweet, vaporous cloud of meat breath. “I just get so down on things. Sometimes I feel like flying right into the sun. Like Icarus.”
“Who’s Nicholas?” Hal asked.
I pecked him savagely in the neck, eliciting a yelp of surprise. “Icarus, you dolt.”
“Sorry. Jesus,” he said, hopping farther away.
“I bet that was what Sting was singing about,” Phil said in mock seriousness. “You know, there’s a little black spot on the sun today.”
Hal and Phil broke out into raucous laughter, the kind of crow laughter that scares folks at night. Even Mona joined in. It was pretty funny I guess.
They looked at me expectantly, waiting for the inevitable sour reply. I wished for an instant that I was in my human form and holding a shotgun. I’d blow all three of their fat asses off the fence. Instead, I hopped down to the ground and plucked up the twig that Hal and Phil had been making over earlier.
I flipped it into the air, watched it land in front of me in the snow, kind of sticking up a little. Inviting. “Oh yeah, well at least I got your stick, numb nuts.”
They sat there stunned, beaks hanging open. Then, with shrill caws of challenge, fell off the fence toward me but I was already moving. With a defiant cry, I seized up the twig and was gone, bolting into the darkening sky with all three of them hot on my tail.
As far as sticks go, it really was a nice one.