With Respect to P.H. Emerson’s Fairy Tale, “The Crows”
I woke up this morning to the sound of crows cawing outside my window.
As I lay staring at the ceiling, I wondered how many were gathered in the yard, perched along the aging wooden fence, watching. And waiting. Was a single bird calling out in search of a friend? Were there two or three, or more, chasing away the deer that liked to nibble on Mom’s yellow roses?
Maybe they were trying to tell me something, as only crows can do.
My Great-Grandpa always said, ‘if you want to see how your day will go, all you need to do is count the crows.’ When I was little, we’d repeat that line in a funny sing-song rhyme every morning before leaving the house for our walk. In those days, my small hand melted into his soft palm and we’d swing our arms in unison, back and forth, as high as we could. Together we’d look for our fortunes in the sky.
I pushed myself up from the mattress and tossed back the covers. By the time my fingers found my glasses on the nightstand and the world outside came into focus, the crows were gone.
Last night I dreamed that two crows watched me sleeping, their beady eyes peering, heads cocked at my snores. They probably looked like I did when my Spanish teacher talked too quickly in class. After all, it’s tough to be an Irish kid trying to trill his R’s in a language that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. For me, anyway.
But it was a good dream. ‘When two crows I see, it’s good luck for me.’
On two-crow days, Great-Grandpa took me for ice cream. Sometimes he’d even let me get rainbow sprinkles. We used to sit together on this old wooden bench in the park under the shade of a big oak, sticky vanilla dripping from the cone through the spaces between our fingers. I’d always try to eat faster, to get ahead of the summer warmth before my sweet treat turned into a puddle of liquid; but Great-Grandpa always said that it was more important to savor the ice cream than it was to save it from melting, whatever that meant. Those were my best days.
One time, Great-Grandpa told me a story about a sailor from the old country who dropped dead after seeing seven crows flying around in his dreams. For days, I was afraid to look at the sky for too long. I’d hide my face in case any birds were flying over me. If there were seven crows, I didn’t want to know about it. And if I didn’t know about it, they wouldn’t be able to come for me.
Mom yelled at him. “You’re scaring Cormac.” She told me there was nothing to worry about. The crows were just some old man’s fairy tale. After all, Great-Grandpa was really old.
Still, I had nightmares for weeks.
Great-Grandpa only laughed. And continued to tell me all about the crows. In secret.
Funny thing, I remembered seeing crows at Great-Grandpa’s funeral. Five sleek birds swooped down onto the railing of the church steps, squawking as pallbearers walked by with the casket. I turned to tell Mom to look, that Great-Grandpa was giving us a sign. She was too busy fixing her makeup to listen to me. I told her she looked like a sad raccoon, and it set her crying again.
From that day on, I decided to keep the crow counting to myself.
But the crows remained my greatest fascination. In fourth grade, I wrote a report about them. In sixth, I learned that a group of crows is called a “murder” (who would’ve thought?). In seventh grade, I learned the words to every Counting Crows song – I even convinced our band director to let us play one for the spring concert.
Yawning and stretching, I looked over the cloud-dotted sky.
Two crows. Today was gonna be a good day.
“Hey Freckles!” The bus quieted as Logan leaned over the seat. He pulled his lips back in a sneer; remnants of his breakfast stuck in his braces. Blueberry muffin.
He cracked his knuckles and stretched his fingers as he opened and closed his fist. I could see the dirt under his fingernails.
“Are you deaf?” Logan smacked the side of my head, stunning me. As I reached up, his other hand connected with my face. His cronies popped up like weasels, smirking.
“Got my math homework?”
I rubbed my stinging cheek. “Well, no. I shouldn’t be—”
He interrupted with another slap.
“You shouldn’t be, what? A red headed freak?”
The bus erupted with laughter. Heat flooded from my ears. I lowered my head, rifling through my backpack as he hovered over me.
I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood; referred pain to stop the stinging in my eyes. These mornings on the bus were becoming part of a routine that didn’t stop until long after my tears started, or until the bus driver threatened everyone with detention.
Maybe there weren’t two crows in my dream. Maybe it was just one. As Great-Grandpa used to say, ‘When one crow I see, that’s bad luck for me.’
My friend Jared stuffed a forkful of macaroni in his mouth. “Why do you let them get to you?” He swallowed and washed it down with milk. I never understood how anyone could have milk with pasta. Whatever.
I glanced toward the popular kids’ table. Dead center of the cafeteria. As usual, Logan was holding court, chugging down a Sprite with one gulp. A moment later, he let out a burp so loud it seemed to bounce off the walls.
Everybody heard it. Everybody laughed.
Everybody but me.
I ducked my head. Silence was louder than laughter in a room full of followers.
Jared wiped away a milk moustache. “Well? How are you gonna make it stop?”
“I don’t know.”
I looked out the window. We’d picked a table in the corner, overlooking the courtyard. If I moved to a different table each day, Logan didn’t bother me as much. It was too much trouble for him to come looking for me. Mom said they only bothered you if you were an easy target. And the harder I made it, the better.
“You’ve gotta take a stand, man.” Jared squeezed his empty milk container. “Until you do something big, they’re never gonna leave you alone.” He pushed back his chair and grabbed his tray. “See ya in Science.”
As Jared wove through the sea of tables, I looked out the window at the blooming cherry blossom tree, the pink flowers the only bright spot against an overcast sky. The branches were so close, they almost touched the glass. Soon it would be summer, and I’d be free of Logan for three glorious months.
A black form swooped through the clouds and, with a flutter, landed on the branch. A crow. Another joined it, and another, until six black crows had flown at me, head on.
A chill trickled down my back. Cold sweat seeped through my T-shirt. Six black crows were never a good sign.
I looked away from the window to find Logan grinning at me. Two goons stood at his sides. Logan never did anything without an audience.
“Got my snack money, Freckles?” Logan sneered. The boys laughed on cue.
I opened my mouth and promptly closed it. My vision blurred. Logan seemed to grow taller by the moment, while I withered and crumbled like a dying tree.
The goons hovered.
Caw, caw, said the crows.
I dug into my pocket, the change cold against my palm.
Caw, caw. Louder.
I pulled the coins out, squeezing them in my fist.
“Money. Now.” Logan glared.
I glanced from Logan to the crows staring outside. They fidgeted; claws clicked into the wood. They puffed out their chests. They ruffled their feathers.
In one rapid swoop, the murder of crows dive-bombed the glass, wings furious, their cawing angry. Their beaks pecked like tiny hammers against the window. It was as if they were trying to crack the glass and push their way inside. I’d never seen anything like it. My heart beat manic, like the fluttering of their wings.
Logan grabbed my chin hard, yanking my gaze from the window. “I haven’t got all day, loser.” He was oblivious to the birds outside.
I stood, stretching myself taller.
Logan cocked his head. Just like those crows in my dream.
“No?” He elbowed his cronies. “Did ya hear that? Freckles said no.” He cracked his knuckles. “And now he’s gonna pay.”
I knew what I needed to do.
‘With six black crows comes sudden death.’
Money in hand, I drew back my arm. With everything I had, I drove my fist into Logan’s nose.
Blood spurted everywhere. He screamed. Raising his hands to his face, he stared at me, wide-eyed, before running from the cafeteria. The goons scurried after him.
Lightheaded, I let out a breath.
A slow clap started at the center of the room. Others soon joined until the applause was as loud as a summer thunderstorm. My hand was wet with Logan’s blood; its warm stickiness seeped between my fingers. And for a fleeting moment, I thought about ice cream. About my Great-Grandpa. About savoring.
Knees shaking, I sat. I looked out the window.
Four crows flew off. Two returned to their perch.
Today was a good day. A two-crow day.
Tomorrow would be even better. I just knew it.