by Avra Margariti
There once was an evil witch—
No, a ragdoll raven—
No, a family of crows unlike any other.
Yes. Better. This is, after all, a love story.
* * *
A figure perched on the Eye of the Needle, staring at the rosy sunset swirls across the sky. If only she could grasp the correct thread of storytelling, of memory. Down below, her sharp eyesight clearly made out the human settlement despite the sheer distance separating their realms. The thatched roofs of cottages and huts peeked out through the gossamer mist. Trees and grass, valleys and woods. Scythe-bearing workers bent over cornfields as they wrapped up the day’s work; children ran around in capricious patterns; and adults rode donkeys through winding dirt roads.
She called her cloud perch the Eye of the Needle because when she sat there and looked, the world below sharpened into focus while everything else faded away.
“Rosanna, it’s time for dinner,” Mama crowed from somewhere behind.
The figure twisted around toward the voice. A small, pensive sigh escaped her beak as she flapped her wings back to her flock.
“There you are!” Rosanna’s siblings sang, fluttering in anticipation against their cloud-nests. “You know we can’t go hunting without you.”
Rosanna’s body wasn’t capable of eating, but she could still hunt. A sick feeling overcame her whenever she killed insects or picked up carrion to bring to the nest. However, the feeling passed when she fed her siblings and watched them grow strong and lively every day.
Another feeling remained even as she rejoiced at racing her siblings through cumulus clouds, feeling their coolness on her skin; even after her family of crows had settled inside their nests, huddling together for warmth and companionship. It wasn’t a feeling of emptiness, at least not anymore. A little while ago, Rosanna used to feel hollow all the time, a dead husk. She knew she wasn’t made of flesh and bone like the rest of her family, but of sackcloth, crude stitches, and moldy cotton unevenly stuffed inside her belly and wings. Her adopted family gave her their own down feathers to fill the empty places inside her. They gave her a home in the clouds.
But the fact remained that although Rosanna now knew love, she had been born knowing hate. At night especially, when the world was quiet save for her family’s breathing lungs and beating hearts, this became difficult to ignore.
Rosanna quietly lifted herself out of her nest to sit on the farthest cloud and watch the human world from her secret spot. Most nights, she felt a terrifying pull, like thread through a needle, drawing her to a place she couldn’t see despite her unique vantage point.
“Can’t sleep, my love?”
Rosanna flinched, then felt herself relax again as the familiar, hoarse voice soothed over her ruffled not-feathers.
Mother Crow, the leader of their clan of avian deities and former witch familiars, hooked her talons onto the edge of the cloud, close enough that Rosanna could lean against her hollow-boned, yet reassuringly sturdy, frame if she so wished.
Mama always knew how to put Rosanna together again whenever she was feeling ripped raw and open.
“What troubles you, child?” she asked.
When Rosanna remained quiet and only watched the humans’ night lights flicker below like weak starshine, Mama spoke again. “Is the dream back?”
Rosanna sighed. “Yes, Mama. I’ve been trying to make sense of it. Weave a story out of image and sound fragments that will help me understand. But I can’t.”
Mama hummed. Her plumage was so dark, she was indistinguishable from the darkness around them save for the flashes of pink and green between feathers. This didn’t frighten Rosanna, but rather brought her even more comfort. She had learned to love the dark. It was the light that still scared her, making her feel hollowed out and spread open, pinned and probed on some wooden examination board.
“Perhaps you could tell me about it again. We might be able to make sense of it together.”
Rosanna took a deep breath and began recounting the by now familiar nightmare.
“I am myself but also not me…”
She is disjointed, spare parts: shabby beige cloth, a length of dirty string, two black buttons through which one day she sees nothing, and the next she sees everything. She remembers hands: big, knobbly, and disembodied appendages coming down from the ether to stuff and sew her together.
Wake up, a voice commands, and she hops upright on a long workbench, wobbling as she becomes accustomed to rag wings and metal claws for the very first time.
You know what to do, the Voice says again, and she does know. She knows everything the Voice, the Hands want her to.
Although she may be a newborn in every sense of the word, she is no fledgling. She flies out of the cottage’s open window with a fleet-winged menace, whipping through the dark forest, twigs snapping against her body. Her sharp eyes see the plumes of gray smoke before the brick hut and its chimney come into focus. Two children work outside, where the forest’s vegetation bleeds into their packed-dirt yard. The girl is drawing water from a stone well. The boy rakes leaves into a cushion of autumn gold.
She caws, her vision a pure, all-encompassing crimson as she locks gazes with the girl by the well. The child’s form is slight and malnourished, her eyes, one blue, the other brown, glowing white with fear. The Voice of her creator cackles with glee at the sight of this wide, blue eye. And what her creator wants, her creator gets.
The girl by the well screams as the ragdoll raven swoops down on her. The raven’s body is thrice as big as the girl’s head. Her claws, although covered by black felt, are needle-sharp, and so is her beak. The girl’s hands come up to shield her bloodied face from the onslaught. Talons sink into the bare arms below, shredding them to ribbons. The ragdoll raven feels sick to her cotton-stuffed stomach and wire bones, but she can’t make herself stop. Not unless she procures her creator’s shiny prize.
When the girl’s brother slams the toothed crossbar of his rake against the raven’s body with all the strength of his skinny arms, it’s almost a relief. She can finally stop. The Voice in her head falls silent. The terrible redness is purged from her vision.
Soon, there’s only white-hot pain as her broken body lies limp on the dirt, and the human siblings rush back inside their hut to barricade their door. She has been alive for less than an hour and now she is dying, abandoned by her creator. As, perhaps, she deserves.
“Do you remember?” Rosanna asked Mama Crow, remnants of pain evident in her voice as she finished recounting her too-vivid dream.
Mama never lied. “I remember finding you, afterward.”
“If what I see is true… if my dream is also a memory, I had crawled to the nearest bush to die. My creator was furious. I had failed her, and I didn’t deserve her mercy.” Rosanna turned to gaze at her adopted mother. “But you saved me.”
“I did.” Mama Crow smiled, her lethal beak impossibly gentle.
“Even though you knew I was different.”
“You’re a raven; we are crows,” Mama Crow said. “Both Corvus. Both family.”
Oh, how Rosanna loved her.
“You know that’s not what I meant. Not all that I am.” A handmade horror, she thought, a reluctant omen of doom. That’s what I am.
With a nipping kiss to Rosanna’s head, Mama headed back toward the cloud nests. “Get some sleep, daughter of the rosy dawn. Dream or memory, that’s not who you are anymore. There’s no use torturing yourself over the past.”
But there is, Rosanna thought. Because what if the past has its claws hooked into the present?
She was alone again in the Eye of the Needle. The humans below were asleep, the light of their essences gleaming dream-hazy. However, there was someone awake still. A darker light, like the red-tinted moon during an eclipse. Rosanna felt that pull again deep in her chest; a force wanting to propel her forward, through the Eye of the Needle, and down. It was like a steel thread tied around the river stone of her heart, incessant, demanding.
Rosanna was tired. More than that, she was angry. And for once, she stopped resisting the pull. She let go, waiting to see where the thread would take her.
The witch’s cottage was wrapped in shadows, only a candle burning on a scarred, familiar workbench. Rosanna shuddered as she landed, only managing to keep her balance by spreading her wings at the last second. The witch loomed over her, age-ravaged face unreadable.
So this was her maker in the flesh, rather than in disembodied dreams and visions. The one who hurt her. Who abandoned her.
“I won’t thank you for bringing me to life,” Rosanna said, drawing herself tall even as her wings wanted to mantle and protect her body. She channeled her family members, particularly the way they liked to screech at larger avian creatures with wing-flapping bravado.
The witch smiled with a sickening twist of her worm-like lips. “I don’t seek your gratitude. I want to make a deal with you. And it’s in your best interest to listen closely.”
Defeated, Rosanna caved in on herself and prepared to listen.
“Your family doesn’t truly love you. They found you, strange and broken, and brought you to their nest. Crows like ugly things, don’t they? To them, you’re nothing but a curious trinket.”
“No,” Rosanna said, stumbling back. The pores of her sackcloth skin felt chilled. “They care about me.”
The witch continued as if Rosanna had never spoken. “I know what you want, child of mine. To fit in. To be real. I can give you the things you crave. But first you must complete the mission you failed.”
Rosanna remembered the girl by the well. It felt like a static shock, the image much stronger than the one in her dreams. The girl’s screams of pain, her sticky blood, the rake connecting mercilessly with Rosanna’s body.
“No,” she stammered.
“Yes.” The witch smiled, her watery, almost colorless eyes sparking with malicious glee. “The last and rarest ingredient for my spell. A pair of heterochromatic eyes, stolen by a connoisseur of shiny things. With that peasant girl’s eyes, I will be able to control the crow clan you call family. They will become my familiars and do my bidding without question.”
Rosanna inhaled a sharp breath through her metal beak.
“And then I will have no use for you,” the witch concluded. “You will be free.”
And Rosanna tried to say “no” again, but the word wouldn’t come. She was yearning, deep in the moldy stuffing of her chest. Her stone heart, still though it was, echoed a phantom rhythm. Real real real. Free free free.
The witch’s smile widened. “I knew you’d come around. Now go. When we meet again, we will both have what we want most.”
* * *
Back home in the clouds, Rosanna couldn’t answer her family’s questions about where she’d been. She felt heavy, sluggish, a stranger in her body. Her brothers and sisters flocked around her, trying to comfort her mysterious aches in their own way. They brought her insects and berries she wasn’t capable of ingesting, tried to preen her wings but only ended up loosening the seams that held her together. They rubbed their heads against her in apology, and she felt like crying until her tears rained down from the swollen clouds.
She didn’t deserve her family. She could never be what they were, experience what they experienced. If she accepted the witch’s offer, she would become a real, flesh-and-feather raven, not this poor ragdoll imitation. But then her family would no longer fly free in their realm, but become enslaved to the witch’s whims forevermore.
“Rosanna,” Mama Crow spoke, and the rest of the family made way for her as always. “Tell me what troubles you.”
“I can’t,” Rosanna lamented. “You wouldn’t understand, and you’d hate me if you did.”
Mama Crow tucked Rosanna’s shaking body under her wing. Her voice, so regal and commanding, was now impossibly soft. “Well, my sweet dawn. Why don’t you try me?”
* * *
The witch waited, no doubt in her mind that she would soon own everything she had ever wished for. After all, she had peered into the soul fragment of her creation that called itself Rosanna and found her biggest weakness. The ragdoll raven trembled and ached with the desire to be real. And for that, the witch was sure, she would do anything.
The sound of wings heralded Rosanna’s arrival. The witch began to smile. However, it metamorphosed into a frown when the sound amplified, wings flapping and feathers rustling over and around her cottage. The windows darkened with black birds, a murder of crows dashing inside the cottage. The witch dropped to the floor, her hands moving up to protect her face.
“What is the meaning of this?” the witch screamed at her creation who, beige and shabby, stood out among the flock.
“We had a family meeting and decided we won’t be taking you up on your offer,” Rosanna said. “Not now, not ever.”
Let’s not forget that this is a love story. Corvids protect their family from intruders with ferocity, and value community. Yes, Rosanna was made of rags and stitched together with magic, but she was still, above all else, a raven.
“No,” the witch screeched, “I won’t let you back down now.”
The crows of the clan were magnificent creatures: intelligent, magical, powerful, even as they threatened her. The witch had come so close to taming them. Rosanna had been nothing but a poor substitute for them, a way to obtain the peasant girl’s eyes according to the spellbook’s cryptic instructions.
“You don’t have a choice,” Rosanna said calmly from somewhere above the witch’s supine body. “I won’t let you hurt or trap my family. They took me in and raised me as their own after you left me for dead. Their love makes me real every day. You need me, but I don’t need you.”
“Dreadful creature,” the witch hissed.
“Actually, my name is Rosanna, Daughter of the Rosy Dawn, as baptized by Mama, Matriarch of the Crow Clan in the Clouds.”
Rosanna’s voice was fear-tinged, but defiantly steady. Enraged, the witch drew her hand back, prepared to cast a spell and rain destruction down on her wayward creation. The biggest crow, the murder-eyed matriarch, hopped onto the witch’s chest, scratching her with razor-tipped talons.
The threat was clear. If you hurt my daughter or anyone else ever again, I will peck out your own two eyes.
The crows flew out of the cottage in twos and threes. The matriarch left last with one final scrape of her talons against the witch’s heaving chest. Once everyone was gone, the witch crawled and stumbled her way to the window. The flock traveled as one back to their sky realm. From a distance, the witch couldn’t tell apart raven from crow, nor could she distinguish her former creation from the rest of the flock.
* * *
About the Author
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, The Arcanist, Flash Fiction Online, Lackington’s, and other venues. Avra won the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review prize for fiction. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.