by Patricia Miller
The sea crow watched from her perch for five days full. The fledglings were advanced enough to scavenge for meals while she stood vigil, while she accepted she would not see her mate again. She finished the season, content to see the last of her children leave the nest, decided then and there she would not seek out a new mate come spring.
She took flight with the morning sun and spent her days traveling the wetlands and headwaters, collecting the voices of the coast that had formed her life. There was the laughing cackle of the gull-billed tern, the haunted echoing coo of the loon, the clang of a trawler’s anchor chain, the evening ferry whistle, the call to prayer ringing from a church’s bell.
She usually kept in sight of land, but even that close to shore she caught the sounds of dolphins whistling and clicking to each other, the whales booming greetings and warnings to their brethren across thousands of miles.
Slowly, over the course of season upon season, she came to understand the sounds. She spoke with others not of her kind, learned the ways of seagulls and sandpipers. She shared her knowledge with her kin, and they in turn passed them along to others. She became known as a teacher, and creatures of the air and sea became her friends.
* * *
It was spring, and the sea crow was trying to entice a cormorant into an exchange of information — like most cormorants, it wasn’t much into casual conversation — when she was interrupted.
[teacher, may you come] That isn’t exactly what the plover said. It was more along the lines of ‘Strange one who is not of us but hears our calls, would you look upon my request with favor and follow me in friendship without causing harm to our young?’ She piped her acceptance.
She followed the plover along the beach toward its breeding grounds. Other plovers had gathered, guarding their precious eggs. She understood, for although she was known to be safe amongst the young, she was still a crow with a crow’s reputation. She nodded to all and watched her feet to prevent any accidental trampling of fragile shells.
The plover didn’t stop, leading her around the rocky cliff face just past the sandy beach. There was a hidden cove beyond, filled with rock formations carved by the sea over uncounted millennia. She’d eaten any number of dinners there in the past, so she knew it well, but as they drew closer, she heard an unfamiliar sound, a song, a mournful lament.
The plover stopped just short of the cove. His piping clearly indicated he thought she might be interested, but he wasn’t risking his life or the lives of his young by venturing further to investigate. He bobbed his head and scurried back the way he came.
The sea crow heard the pain in the song, and she recognized the call of one who was dying. She took to the air, ensuring her safety from an animal who might lash out in its suffering.
As she crested the rocks, the sea crow caught her first glimpse and knew the song to be a trick of the wind, for no such creature existed in the world of man or beast. She had convinced herself it was a carving, beached by the recent storm when suddenly it proved itself to be real by lifting its arms to the sky and crying its pain into the world.
No creature who had nurtured young, cared for the injured, grieved a mate could ignore that plaintive cry. She swooped downward and landed on a large rock a safe distance away.
The sea crow took a good look at the creature draped half in, half out of a large tidal pool. By any standard of beauty, it was too beautiful. A creature fit for neither land nor sea, or maybe worshipped by both. She decided it was a male — she’d seen enough humans to understand a female’s need to suckle its young, and this being wasn’t equipped for that. His tangled hair was green of a shade similar to many statues, although it was shiny like they weren’t. His skin matched the pennies she hoarded away — humans were so casual about their treasures. She didn’t know what to make of his tail, for though it was the most beautiful thing about him, she had not known humans could come with one. It reminded her, in color if not in shape, of a peacock she saw once, a noisy and useless bird, but until now, the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
She wanted to see his eyes, hard clenched against the sun. She called to him with one of the human phrases she knew. He didn’t react to it. She tried another phrase, then the song of a thrush, the church bell, the ferry whistle. She spent long minutes mimicking dogs, horses, a fox, pelicans, that annoying albatross who’d followed her around one summer until she shook him off during a thunderstorm.
A dolphin’s click jerked his head upright. It so startled her she almost fell from her perch.
His eyes were black, surrounded by a thin ring of green. He had no lashes.
She clicked once more. [Hello]
He clicked back. [Hello]
She didn’t know if he understood her or just echoed the sound. She clicked again, asking a question. [Are you injured]
[Are you hungry]
She cocked her head. He didn’t look like a fledgling, but humans were odd, and he was odder than most.
[Are you lost from your nest]
He shook his head but didn’t answer.
[May I be of assistance to you in some way — may I summon those of your kind to render aid]
He let out another mournful cry, the lingering notes bouncing off the sheer stone walls and rocky sculptures surrounding them. The tune was long, each verse more sad than the last. She thought it would break her heart.
[Please let me help you]
[I cannot be helped for there is no one, no one]
She had seen bird parents who kicked out a fledgling too sickly to survive or hurried along one clutch of chicks when another came earlier than expected. Perhaps he had been abandoned.
It was a hard concept to convey in whistles. The whales had a term for it, but her voice, for all its gifts, had never been able to replicate their calls.
She tried over and over, varying tone and structure. Finally—
[Are you one who must now swim alone]
She was unwilling to leave him and hoped food might encourage him. She hopped off her perch, dug through the sand and rock for a quick bite, brought some choice bits back to him. He didn’t eat.
She pondered her last question. He had not given her an answer. She believed she had the right of it though.
[Are you one who must now swim alone] She repeated.
He shuddered. [I swim alone for I am alone — there are no others]
She didn’t understand. [Because they are lost]
[Because they are gone — because I am the last]
She thought back to her father and his father and stories passed along through the generations. There was a tale of another bird, the last of her kind, who ended her days alone in a cage, after humans had used their stones powered by fire to wipe out flocks that once filled the sky. The whales told of hunts which reduced their numbers, and cranes complained they no longer had the freedom of their old nesting grounds. Still, there were also stories of those once thought lost who had been found and so she told him.
[Have you looked everywhere, for the sky and sea are quite large and there are many hidden places]
He shook his head. [I have sung our song as far as the sea can carry and I am not answered]
[You have searched the old nests]
[For three full cycles of seasons I have searched and called and sung until I can go no farther] He lifted his arms to the sky and chanted another verse then dropped them to his side. [Always our numbers were few since humans conquered the sea. Each season brought forth fewer and fewer of us. There are no more, for no one answers the call. I am but one and can search no more. I am the last]
She gazed at him, this wondrous creature. His kind could not be over.
[Then teach me your song. Teach me your song and I will sing it far and wide. I will teach my children and their children and their children. I will teach the whales and the robins and all of us will search]
[It is too late. I am dying]
[But even if your kind passes from this sea, your song will not, for it will be carried by all of us in remembrance]
[Is it — I cannot but think it hopeless]
[I have learned many songs and taught many others. Teach me]
They sang together then, throughout the passing of the sun, well into the night and until the moon faded behind the dawn. Other birds came. Gulls, pelicans, the silent cormorant. They were joined by seals and dolphins. Every day brought more, an everchanging audience. Each learned what they could, even if it was only a single note. The sea crow and the strange, lonely one sang softly, one mournful measure after another. The growing multitude recognized the grief and pain behind it, became a chorus to accompany the song. Over the passage of the new moon, through its full arc in the sky, night and day spanned together into an unknowable measure of time.
But finally, his voice fell silent.
On a warm summer morning, just as the sun’s rays reached into the hidden cove, the last one of his kind was gone.
She did not know his rites of mourning, did not know what was to be done. It seemed wrong, somehow, to abandon what he was to the beach and its depredations. The dolphins, whose language brought them an understanding of the creature, took it upon themselves to carry the lonely one back to the sea, to commit him to the deepest part of his home. The sea crow followed as far as she could, singing his final lament.
* * *
About the Author
Patricia Miller is a US Navy veteran born and raised in Cincinnati, OH, USA, with a BS from Miami University, Oxford, OH and an MS in Library and Information Science from the University of Tennessee. She started reading at 3 1/2 after becoming obsessed with Batman. She is hooked on QI, British murder villages and professional cycling.
Publication credits include short fiction in A Quaint and Curious Volume of Gothic Tales, 206 Words, and the March 2022 Cinnabar Moth Literary Collection e-zine. A second story for Cinnabar Moth will be appearing in Winter 2023, and she will have a story included in an upcoming charity anthology inspired by vintage ads for Brigids Gate Press in Fall 2022.
She is an associate member of SFWA.