Short Fiction by Lisa Blackwell
The children watched their father take his thumbs off their mother’s eyes and kiss the photograph, leaving snot and tear smears on the glass. His head arched back into place on top of the great hulk of his shoulders. A snail uncurling. Then he went back to cleaning his gun – slowly, rhythmically, caressing the barrel with his yellow cloth.
The modem lights flickered. From the darkness on the screen, family photos appeared, one after the other. The boy was first to become transfixed by this, then the girl. Finally, their father watched as each smiling face formed and then dissolved back into the blank. Different backdrops, but in each photo of their mother she was always shot in the same position. The same tight smile and hard look. The same arm protectively curled over her body. A barrier between them.
Their father shuddered at the children’s watching presence. He flicked his hand to dismiss their young bodies, their noise, their life, but mostly their pin-prick eyes searching for cues in his face. He went back to wiping over his gun. His bleary eyes appeared as two deep-dark gashes in his fleshy, red-veined face. The children never seemed to realise that nothing could be learned from his face. All detail had been bloated out of existence.
John, eleven now, was the first to hear the caw from outside. To see the familiar black figure hop down from the fence at the edge of the field. It was late August and the dark purple heather bled in great swathes across the moors. Mai, three years younger, followed John’s gaze and was out of the cottage before John could make up his mind to move. She was preceded by Big Ginge, the tomcat.
The light rain hung like mist in the air, flattening the children’s hair against their scalps as they followed the bird. She was a giant of a crow. She eyed them first with one black orb then the other, and cawed. She could have been crying but she may have been laughing. The ground was riven with the deep divots of horse tracks and as they ran their ankles twisted as their feet tilted. Still the crow hopped and laughed before them.
I’m going to catch her, said John. He made a grab. I’ll keep her, she can sit on my shoulder. She can do tricks. Crows are smart. Look. Look. She knows. She knows we’re talking about her. She understands.
But Mai wasn’t so sure. If it wasn’t for John, she would have returned to the house. You can love a thing and be afraid of it, her mother had said. This thing was too dark, too many points and angles. It was the colour of wet coal, as if it had just been torn out of the earth. The living embodiment of a prehistoric fossil.
From the cottage, their father caught sight of them as they went. The caws from the crow and the children’s cries indistinguishable to him. The features of the little girl always stabbed at his heart. But it was the times he’d see the boy from a distance, the familiar, odd, sloping walk, the gestures, the defensive tilt of the arm, the hard stare, that would twist in his throat and choke off the cry in its coming. He didn’t know if he felt like rejoicing or pressing the boy’s throat till it croaked, or both simultaneously. No, no, no, he loved them. They were all he had left of her now.
She had told him ‘Life is for the living’, but he seldom listened. It was only after her passing that his thoughts turned to her. Not in any feeling memory, but in the flat face of the photograph. The inanimate representation of what had once been flesh, bone and blood. As real to him now as she had ever been.
He fought down the feeling that his life was unravelling; his nerve endings as ragged as frayed wires. He had the feeling that time had stopped and that he had to do something to kick-start it back into action. He loaded cartridges into the barrel, then surfed the net for some flesh. To get the blood moving.
The crow moved in fits and starts over the field. The children stumbled and followed towards the overhanging sky, at what seemed to be the very tip of the land. She headed towards the horizon where the cloud gently cradled the hills. John lunged. The crow hopped, unconcerned, to the side. Again he tried and ended up on the floor. Mai laughed. Big Ginge watched from a distance.
As they came to the boundary of the field, the children could make out the patchy hanging carcasses that filled the fence. Mostly crows, all stiff and ragged at cartoon angles, with the odd mole splodge here and there. Mai hated the sight of the fence. But it was the only time the children saw their father feel better. Obliterating the world that had betrayed him. The lord of life and death.
The crow hopped on to the fence, stopped still and stared. John moved smoothly towards her. Don’t, said Mai. Don’t. These could be her children. She’s their Crow Mama. We should bury them. John picked up a stick and thwacked some heather in protest but said nothing. We should tell Dad not to, Mai continued. We should tell him to stop. Crow Mama bobbed in agreement.
Mai had realised, since her mother’s death, that sometimes it was no good just to tell the world what should be done. Sometimes you just had to do what should be done and hope the world joined you. Mostly it didn’t. She tried to dig with a branch. It scarred the earth but did not produce the hole she desired. John watched her struggling with satisfaction. He went to pull a large crow carcass from the fence and came away with only a big black tail feather. Crow Mama’s cry drifted up, out and over the moor.
Let’s play animals, said John. He wove the feather through his sister’s hair. Eurgh. She shook her head but the feather was caught fast. He took it as encouragement and plucked feather after feather. He wove them through Mai’s hair and into the knit of her jumper. Through his own hair and into the weave of his shirt. Mai still shook her head. Now though, more to try them out, to feel them, to see how they moved. Crow Mama came down from the fence and hopped nearer and nearer, as if to tell them a secret. Big Ginge slunk across the field. He crouched low, his gaze fixed on Crow Mama. His back pulsing, his back legs trembling.
Then, three things happened. The cat leapt, Crow Mama flapped and lifted off the ground and John caught her leg as she flew low over him. He did not let go. Crow Mama cawed louder and louder. Mai could feel and hear the moving air as Crow Mama’s black fingers brushed her face with every wingbeat. John’s feet began to kick and stretch for the ground as they lifted off. Let go, cried Mai, but her brother held on. He laughed as his body swayed, first one way then the other, as Crow Mama jerked to and fro, screaming.
Crow Mama seemed to pause for a moment. Then, with one enormous cry, there was a huge rush of wind, then another, as Crow Mama forced her way upwards. As John’s foot lifted just out of reach, Mai crouched and leapt, grabbing his ankle. He kicked. Let go! But she held on fast and her feet lifted clear from the ground.
Mai could see John’s face, eyes half-closed against the onrushing wind, with a look of hard determination. She felt her bones lose their density and fill with pockets of air. The small hairs on her skin tingled and hardened. Her fingers lengthened. Her toes curled downwards as the arch of her instep rose up. She was a thing of earth and air now. Not falling; cradled by the sky. The fields and moors spread out below.
It gradually dawned on Mai that it wasn’t the crow keeping them in the air but their own beating wings. She looked to John, his great fingered wings flapped, his eyes gleamed with a look of exhilaration. He laughed. Then she laughed too.
Under Crow Mama’s watchful bead they chased each other. They chased her. She batted them away. They chased blackbirds and thrushes and shouted at a robin. It shouted back. They harried a loping heron as it passed by. Its pterodactyl shape moving through the air as if it were time itself.
Finally, Crow Mama drew them back to their own cottage. She landed on the chimney, calling. John followed, but was waylaid by the sight of a square target. Their father’s Land Rover. Mai let out an involuntary squawk of delight as John let go and white and black spattered the bonnet and roof. John was more than enjoying himself now. Still Crow Mama called.
Mai was unsure. She felt a twinge in her heart for her father and immediately regretted laughing. She thought she should pity him. He was a man who had never known curiosity in his life. Only his own needs that the world was there to serve. Neither love nor hunger. For him, from the luminescent beetles to the darting, boxing hares, all were there for the taking, or mastering. But look what happens when you let the world in, she thought – you fly.
As the children alighted on the roof of the cottage, Mai could see Crow Mama tearing at something under her foot. Not flesh, not something visceral, but something dark, smooth and shiny. Something man-made. The telephone wire, just at the juncture where it entered the cottage. Crow Mama chattered and John, chattering back, went to help. They ripped with their great beaks, again and again. Pausing, just a moment, to look around before returning to their labour.
Mai hopped from one foot to the other. Father would be angry. He didn’t like destruction that wasn’t his own. Stop, Mai called. Her voice sounded hoarse and strangled in her throat. Stop. But John and Crow Mama seemed to take this as encouragement and ripped and tore with even more vigour.
Inside the cottage, on the screen, the flesh paused at an awkward angle. The face frozen and blurred mid gasp. Father, blood flowing now, thumped the desk in frustration. Then, tilting his head to one side, he listened and finally registered the caws and chatter coming from the roof. Bloody birds. He grabbed his gun in a whirl of action. All response, no thought. He was out the door and had blasted both barrels before he had gone five paces. So the big one got away – shame that. But the two little ones dropped like stones from the roof and landed, without any disturbance, on to the grass.
When the father looked at the strew of feathers, he saw a small, smooth foot protruding and a small darkening trickle of blood pooled in the middle of an upturned, porcelain-cupped hand. At first he staggered back. Then all life and energy drained from him and he could barely lift the weighty metal of the gun and reload. But slowly and blankly he did.
The cat sat beside the children, nosing the acrid scented air. He licked the blood-matted hair from the boy’s ear and, flopping on to his side, rolled his elongated body along the girl’s back. The children’s cooling flesh, unyielding in the wet grass. There was a pause and, almost simultaneously with the sound of the shot, the cat crouched low on the tips of all four paws.
Inside the silent, square-slabbed cottage, the screensaver photos had gone. The computer screen was blank except for a small message in the corner of the screen. ‘An error has occurred in your slide show.’ But the lights still blinked on and on. No human eye to see.