by S. A. Cole
Downlings and hatchlings crowd together and listen. This tale defines us, and no ice-black winter or nest murdering snake can take it from us.
In the long before, tales talk of the time when we corvids owned the hills, but scrabbled and clawed for each day of our lives. Endless snows and deep hunger in our shriveled bellies robbed nest after nest of life.
Then came the black tar road. It wound through the hills and we mistrusted the hot machines and the rotten smelling people inside. We gave them no gifts, and they gave us no succor.
After the road cooled and set its bones into the ground, your grandmother’s grandmother flew to find the end to the south and your grandfather’s grandfather flew to find the end to the north. We waited through summer heat, falling leaves, and huddled through the killing ice of winter. Neither scout returned. Having neither body nor feathers, we buried nothing more than their memories with the first rain after the thaw.
Then came the machines riding into our hills with shoots of too green grass and the twined white and purple blooms of the Tulip Poplars and Jane Magnolias. Monsters flattened and dug and crushed. Two of our egg laden nest trees slashed down with metal blades and burned. Our tears reflected the flames and dropped from our beaks over the blistered eggshells on the ground. Only three eggs remained tucked into nests, woven with bone brittle hope.
Picked bone clean, the humans built endless nests of pine and metal, liquid rock and dust where we had once lived. Bodies and machines swirled around until their thousand nests were finished and the humans left. Only our boldest went first, alighting on the eaves and singing a false song of bravery. Nothing emerged. And so with the carelessness of the young, the new nest-mates built homes in the eaves, and corners, above the windows, and enjoyed the safety from the winter-blooded snakes and dark minded foxes. Four eggs in our new sheltered nests.
“Looks like the birds moved in before us.” the man said. The first of many settling into the new homes.
Our hope burned as fast as our nesting trees when the man and woman arrived. Both young and lean, a desperate pair, they must have been to move to this built then abandoned place all alone. Their boxy metal machine spat endless things into the house, perhaps hoping to feed it like one of our young. Our flight gathered and chirped worried notes.
The youngest of us did the unthinkable. Bargained with the woman. On the sills, it left her worms. A gift swept away uneaten. Wings stretched wide, it sung her songs of love and shelter, flight and food. She braided her feather-dark hair and sung in tune with it. Why do I hide my glory? She sang with me hatchlings.
I knew her for a witch, just like the oldest of our tales. My gifts were rarely acknowledged, and so instead of stones and worms, I brought her things a witch might need. The downy feathers cast off by our young, a mouse’s tail, glimmering rocks, cold metal coins lost by the tide of humans moving into the new built homesteads as my witch settled into her own. The last gift I brought was the one that sealed our fates together. I laid it on the table behind their house as both man and woman drank steaming cups of black liquid. And together they saw I had brought them two blue lines ensconced in a plastic tube. Three seasons later, the witch daughter was born.
Now you know why they call me stork, even though my feathers are the same black as yours, hatchlings. The seasons turned to years, and we doted on the witch daughter and she doted on us. Our baths decorated the grass around the house, and they lay food out for us, specially concealed from devious squirrels in a hanging red house, a never ending succor of dry figs and savory seeds. Our wings filled the sky again. Now the ice dark winter feared to creep into our nests.
As the seasons turned and returned and turned again, the witch daughter grew and took the witch’s duties. She laid out our food, and we gifted her all things a young witch might need. Metal coins, braided grass and flowers for her hair, beetles cleared from her carrot garden. Most of all, we gave her song, delighting in her smiles. Hatchlings never forget, just as darkness follows light, so too does sadness follow joy.
The witch daughter selected a familiar. A cat.
The beast was all horrid muscles, and silent malice. Of course, it was black like the winter nights thought long vanquished. It prowled through the leaves and underbrush during the day, waiting for us with its thin, flicking tail. Claws scratched at the bark of our nest trees, and only those nesting in the eaves of the house felt safe. I will not lie to you all. It took one of our young, no bigger than any of you downlings. How we wept as it presented its own twisted gift to the black-eyed witch daughter.
Her tears matched ours. She ran to the witch mother, and they scolded the cat with words. But we wished for fire, not words. We should have trusted them, and their magic. They broke the beast’s silence, wrapping its neck with a spell of fabric and a bright metal bell.
The seasons turned, and the cat did the unthinkable. It grew larger, coming into its paws and claws. But inside the silent malice and red stained claws, the beast had changed, perhaps learned. Though we could never speak to it, and it could never speak to us, there was an understanding. We were both important to the witch daughter. There was something of a peace, as thin as the space between waves on the beach, new, and eggshell fragile.
The cat laid in the bright summer sun on the day of its taking. The witch daughter trapped the beast in a brown box and together with the witch mother took it into their car. Scouts followed them to a building, which must have been a temple of their magic, marked on the outside with pictures of not only cats but also dogs. The temple’s inscription had many human letters, but the important ones you must know I will draw.
Small Animal Hospital
Like the sand and the sun and the wind, remember these markings.
When the cat returned, it was a changed thing. Instead of the sack that made it like a man, it was like us. We sang songs of praise and taunted the enemy, but it felt hollow to me. The cat grew weak and mewling. Its wound swelled and reddened. When the witch daughter came for the cat, brown box in hand, the beast only weakly mewed. Its limbs splayed out softly toward the ground. The box closed around it and perhaps in my heart I worried for it. Yes, it had our clan’s blood on its claws, but youth is rarely without regret. We loved the witch and her child, yet did their clan not slash our trees and burn our nests? And with this cat familiar we had a peace. What if the witch daughter replaced this cat with a snake?
Again, our scouts followed them to the Small Animal Hospital. They waited to see what would become of the cat, but the witch and the witch daughter returned alone. Others celebrated, though their joy was a hollow and nervous thing. Would there be a new cat when we woke? Day and nights passed, hatching-slow. Our feed was forgotten by the witch and the witch daughter. Hunger returned to our fat bellies with a dangerous edge we had forgotten.
The sudden weakness of our demesne did not go unnoticed. Newly bold mice scurried around the margins of our lives and the witch’s nest, carrying in and out food and mites, the dirty mammals. We hate them but only out of habit, fellows that race our beaks for scarce food.
On the fourth night of the cat’s absence, the snake slithered over the border fence and into our space. We squawked and shrieked, but to no avail. Snake ears feed on our screams and the crushing sounds of our bones and eggs.
On the fifth night, the snake emptied one of our nests, curling into the straw and twigs and grass of our sacred home as it digested.
On the sixth night, the cat returned. Whole and hale, but loved and welcomed into the witch daughter’s house. Others felt this another devastation to our clan, but I trusted the witch and the witch daughter. And perhaps I was foolish enough to trust a cat. The snake, digestion of our nest’s bounty complete, slunk along the tree limb as the sun sunk and night came. The scaled body wrapped against the trunk, and then the ground, and then against another of our nest trees. Its cold body stretched slowly skyward, toward four of our eggs, as the sun’s first light broke into the yard.
The broken silence of the cat’s bell rang out thunder loud. Brave black paws padded to the snake and the two great beasts locked eyes.
Their fight was not brief or glorious, or silent. Blood and fur and scales cast off and laid on the ground until the snake sunk its fangs into the cat’s front leg. The cat bit back and claimed one of the snake’s eyes. The titans parted, but the cat was timid. This snake’s bite carried more than fangs. Poison coursed through the cat and weakened it. The fight was the snake’s, and the scaled malice knew it. The cat backed away but never let its eyes leave the snake. Arching its black back and bristling out its fur the cat hissed. Its feet lost confidence, and the snake slid closer, body warming in the sun. The cat knew it had lost, but it would take the snake’s life or die trying. It would repay its debt to us with the last moments of its life.
The snake raised up, mouth wide, only a wing span from the cat.
I fell from the sky like a hawk, claws out at the snake’s one good eye. The snake thrashed and spat and snarled. My claws had found their home, and the snake and I crashed together. The bones of my right wing crunched and broke. While I regret many things in my insignificant life, trading my flight for the snake’s eye, I cannot regret. Now you know why they call me ‘snake bane.’ My claws sunk deep and held the snake’s head.
The cat may have been weak but a blind and bound snake was little threat. The cat’s fangs sunk deep into the neck of the snake and it stopped thrashing.
The witch daughter must have heard the noise of our fight. She opened their nest door, saw the carnage, and greeted it with a scream, running back into the house. Time dragged between when she left and when she came again. The bones in my wing throbbed and burned like newly molted feathers. When she came back, the man joined her. He brought a shovel down on the dead snake, cleaving it in twain. But the cat was long gone, only its fur and blood still on the ground to show its valor.
The witch daughter cried, and her tears brought six days of rain. The snake’s body, shovel carried to the trash, deserved even less funeral rites.
Now this part of the story I did not see myself, but ask anyone and they will tell you its truth. A cat is a heavily muscled beast, but our clan’s wings are strong with fig and seed. Sixteen wings beating together carried the cat to the Small Animal Hospital. The raucous scene of people taking a cat from birds I can only imagine. Our pantomime, birds relaying the story of a valorous cat defending our nest from snakes to the humans of the Small Animal Hospital, you can get from anyone in our clan. But remember the eight birds who stayed with the cat. Remember, eight songs sung to the cat’s unconscious body to anchor its soul while the humans repaired its body.
Remember, on the seventh day, when the cat returned whole and hale, born on Corvid wings, through wind and rain. And when the witch daughter’s tears dried on her cheeks with a smile as wide as our wings, remember that the rain stopped. The witch smiled at her daughter’s first magic, and at the winged return of the cat she gaped open-mouthed.
So now, perhaps I do not fly, and perhaps I help clean the fur of a hobbled cat, and though my feathers are not so black and full as they once were, remember the story of our clan as I told it, and as it happened. Not all cats are friends with birds, but one good friend is enough.
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About the Author
S.A. Cole is the full time father of three boys, and he writes in the slivers between diaper changes and meal prep. He might be the only writer who doesn’t currently have a cat, but the kids are lobbying hard. He and his family can be found in New Orleans, often under a thick layer of glitter. This is his first published story.