by Jordan Kurella
The crow was beautiful when she ate: all black sheen and viscera. Her beak slick with spoils as it tilted back, neck bulging, bulging with her quarry. The quarry meant for us. We vultures.
I watched her. We all watched her. This solitary crow, separated from her friends, her loved ones, her family. Her murder.
I wondered sometimes, if she were lonely. Solitary as she was. As I was lonely. Perched on this stone ledge, high above a narrow street with my own friends, my own loved ones, my own family. My wake.
My loneliness crushed my hollow bones. The pain of it echoed in the wail of the wind, the wind between the tall and huddled buildings. I felt it as I watched the crow, preening her feathers over the humans we’d intended to take as ours. The humans spilling out of the vehicles hemming either side of this narrow street; the humans scattered across the sidewalks, once warm in their winter coats, now strangled by their own scarves.
Kitrita, queen of the wake, watched me as I watched the crow. Her hungry eyes (ever vigilant, always searching) cast disapproval over me. So I shuddered. I shuddered to shake the wind away, the pain away, the loneliness away.
Was it possible to be lonely? To be so shaken when shadowed by Kitrita. She who once called me her sister? Her favorite? Who told me she’d never let me go?
My heart told me it was.
As it ached for the crow.
* * *
“The world belongs to us now,” Kitrita said to me the next day as we fed on a once bustling city street, now strewn with corpses and bullet casings. This city we traveled to, when we heard the feeding was good. “It is our responsibility.”
On either side of us, buildings loomed with windows. Windows like mirrors. They echoed back to us the riches of the street below. Echoed back to us, us. Me, Kitrita, the rest of the wake, listening, listening. Coyotes some distance away, howling, howling. Crows in conversation above, cawing, cawing.
A single solitary crow once again captured my attention.
Kitrita once again watched me watching her.
But it was time to feed. My attention was now captured by the rip of fabric as Kitrita’s talons gripped firm around a human arm. She tore free cloth and cloth and cloth. Pieces of coat and patterned shirt. Then, the exposed human skin. A signal for the rest of us to eat. We would all follow her lead, all of us. Her bald head shining in the winter sun, red and glorious. Its sheen unmatched among the rest of us.
Kitrita would eat last, as she always did.
Even that day.
When I moved in to feed, Kitrita moved her great black body in front of me. Her white wing feathers marred by street filth. “No, Takrata,” she said. “None for you today.”
She looked to the crow, and then held her wings wide, blocking me from my quarry. My feeding. Blocking me from what she had won for me, for us, for all of us. What we had won together, she and I; what we had scouted. It would not be the last time she cast me out.
But I still had hope.
The feeding was good in this city, which it had not been in our travels here. The smaller towns we passed had been barren. Dotted by boarded up houses that smelled of delicious decay (but we could not get inside). Roads with vehicles on them with open doors, but the bodies too far gone for feeding. Destroyed by highway sunlight. Destroyed by coyote bitemarks, and others who’d come before.
This city was flush with corpses. Littered with carrion eaters. Littered now with Kitrita and her ire for me. I saw it in her eyes, in the way her body blocked me. Blocked me from feeding.
I heard it in the wail of the wind beyond.
Kitrita and I had once been one, together. She welcomed me into the wake. Called me her sister, her friend. But no more. Now the crow called out to me. She called once, before she left. Her voice a new music over the slash of beak against bone.
Kitrita had a cruel desire. One that’d become familiar; now taken from me. Her proud hisses and talon-like hold on my attention were gone. I was no longer welcome as her shadow.
All my affection tossed aside, for a few glances at a crow.
My reflection echoed back to me in a window now. A window beckoning me to the image of the wake feeding. Feeding to such finery. Their eyes sparkled. Sparkled as their necks tipped back with their spoils. But my eyes were not the same. They were dull, deadened by loneliness, by grief.
In the reflection, I was a filthy, discarded thing. Rotten and spoiled, as the wake fed. My red head hung low, its sheen cracked and dusty. The wake? With their slick beaks and hungry eyes? Jewels in comparison.
Takrata? Me? I crouched counterfeit to the side.
* * *
Winter sun arrived late and left early, but it was warmer now than it should be, so said Kitrita. This she knew from the stories. Stories passed down from wake to wake, from queen to queen. She was our guide and our keeper, and she had shut me out.
I had not eaten in two days.
The stories said that the city fell slowly, so slowly. Fell by lies told and believed, until one day, the world’s people could not feed each other any longer. So they fought. The world wanted to breathe, so said Kitrita. So it made the people angry. It gave itself back to us: its scavengers.
On the first day I saw the crow, she was listening to our stories. Her head tilted to one side, black eyes shining, blinking, curious. She was perched on a window sill with curtains still shut.
The details of a life so human, they remain. Long after those human lives are gone.
* * *
I heard my name whispered through Kitrita’s rasp of a throat. Through the carrion taste of her breath. Untucking my head from my wing, Kitrita was so close. Her beak could scrape mine in the sunlight. My own wing was no protection. I was now marred from street filth. Three days of scouting. Three days of not eating. Three days of Kitrita’s ire reflecting back, back at me.
“Takrata,” she said. “Go scout the northern end of the city, away from the water.”
She said, “I give this task to you, and you alone.”
We do not scout alone.
I could see by the lack of hunger in her eyes that she did not want me anymore. She was banishing me from our balcony. Our balcony with trees that still held their leaves so deep in winter. Our balcony covered in our own down and other treasures we could carry.
It was done.
I would leave this place to find my own, if I could survive that long.
Setting to the sky, I saw the sun cresting just over the wide, wide river. It lit up the ripples in such brilliance. The sight set my heart rippling, rippling alongside it. The taste of the air on my tongue, the feel of the wind on my feathers. I was alone. Alone. I was no longer a shadow of Kitrita. The once fluttering beat I had felt in my throat for so long was now gone.
My heart had returned to my chest. It beat in tandem with my breathing. My wings took on a new steadiness. A steadiness as I soared, soared high over the river. Taking in the beauty, the beauty of what I had claimed: such calm, and such silence.
Such silence but for one solitary cry.
* * *
Her name was Rak, and when she brought me to the train station (in the northern part of the island), we settled on a bench. We chatted until darkness. When the night grew cold, she curled against my wing. That first night, she tucked her beak into my feathers. Settled this way, she ran the crest of her head against the baldness of my own.
“I like this,” Rak said. “I like this. I was curious about this; about you.”
As the winter wind set in around us, I heard doves cooing together. Rak brought her smaller body close to me, her beak up to mine. They touched, our beaks. Hers black and beautiful and glorious. Clean, because she always kept it clean. Mine white and hooked. I ran it over the edge of hers for the feel of the smoothness of it.
It set my feathers to shuddering.
Shuddering now not to shake away this moment with Rak. But to keep it. To keep it close (with the wail of the wind singing in the hollow of my bones).
“I wanted this,” she said, her eyes closed. “I wanted this so much.”
We kept at it. We kept at it as the doves cooed, as the wind sang. As the night continued on despite us.
* * *
The world belongs to us now, Kitrita once said. Said to us on that city street. Before she cast me out. Before she denied me so much. But there is a weight to the words still. In my dreams, in my memory. She said, standing upon that human’s back, she said, It is our responsibility, yours and mine.
And it was, then. It was, at that time. But how, but how.
* * *
The train station was a sanctuary. To not only Rak and myself, to not only the doves and the sparrows, but to more. The station itself was a strangeness: Rak and I were a pair; mourning doves were mated in threes and fives; sparrows nested in their down with their pigeon partners. And most oddly, a coyote run had made its home inside the abandoned train cars. They offered their yawning doors to more than just themselves.
Among the motley tucked inside were two dogs. One, a golden retriever with a coat like copper, whose muzzle had long ago gone white. He limped up the stairs each evening, carrying food for the day, but not only for himself. For his friend, the three-legged basset hound. A basset hound with white-dotted spots and red-rimmed eyes. He had a howl so sad he made the mourning doves sing.
The groups of doves cooed together every night. Every morning a sparrow hopped alongside their pigeon partner. We were a home, all of us together. We misfits of the north.
And each night, Rak and I would return to our bench. Our bellies full of spoils, our talons full of treasures. Rak would curl her black body under my wings, both of us cleaned from winter rain and one-another’s grooming. We were no longer marred from the city; no longer marred from neglect.
We had one another.
We all had one another.
Mismatched as we were; loved as we were.
* * *
Winter continued. Seven times, the sun rose and set; for seven days the bodies lay in their slow, cold decay. We would have to move west, this I knew without the help of Kitrita, without the help of my wake. My knowing crept up on me; like the longer days had; like my happiness had. The things I’d learned from watching Kitrita, from being a part of the wake had transferred to me, to Rak and I as a pair.
I no longer needed those who no longer needed me.
Rak ate beside me, always beside me. She flew beside me, always beside me. She collected small treasures and returned with them to our bench at night: a plastic jewel here, a pretty stone there. Once, a ring. For me, all for me.
She wanted to be with me. And that want, that desire to be with me was greater than any false kindness that Kitrita had ever given. Ever once, ever ever.
On an afternoon where the sun shone bright and bold, Rak and I fed at a large park in the city, around a still pond. A still pond surrounded by concrete and abandoned food carts (the ground tacky with melt and rot). Toy boats lapped against the pond’s concrete embankment. Their white hulls and sails waving, waving, in the breeze. My talons pulled cloth and cloth and cloth away from a human leg, and Rak dove her beak to the flesh.
I always let her eat first.
The ghost of Kitrita only haunted me. I had banished her to memory; turned her into a phantom. A phantom held only in memory. A phantom that haunted me in my dreams, accompanied by the beating of so many wings, accompanied by her wake (my wake). I thought, I thought as I heard the hiss of her voice above me, calling out to me, from the blinding light.
A phantom. Only a phantom said, “Takrata.”
The phantom Kitrita said, “Takrata, you did not report back.”
But Rak looked up, black eyes blinking, blinking, blinking. Curious as ever. Not a phantom. Kitrita was here, surrounded by so many like her (my other brothers and sisters, my family, my wake). Her red bald head more glorious than ever, but her black feathers were dusty, unkempt. Her white feathers long ago gone grey and tattered.
She even looked like a haunted version of herself.
“We were waiting for you,” Kitrita said. A lie, her eyes not hungry, not wanting me. The wake loomed, watching us, wanting us. “We could have died. Selfish, Takrata. You’ll never change.”
And yet they were all hale from the bodies of the southern and central city.
Kitrita’s own eyes may not have been hungry, may not have been wanting me, but they burned with something else. Something I recognized in my own reflection in that fated window.
Kitrita’s eyes burned hot. Hot with jealousy.
* * *
The world belongs to us now, I remembered Kitrita saying. We scavengers, we cast offs, we carrion eaters. Those of us who pick up the leavings of those left behind. Those of us who were left behind.
Abandoned. Discarded. Cast aside.
It is our responsibility, she said then.
It was mine. It was Rak’s. It was hers and mine.
* * *
One night as Rak was tucked beside me on our bench, I watched as the copper-furred golden retriever brought food for the basset hound, and the two curled up together. The basset hound’s back against the golden retriever’s belly. Then I watched as the coyote run returned for the night. As the last one went in, a younger one, an adolescent, I stopped her.
“Why do you allow the dogs to stay with you?”
The coyote shrugged, glancing at me, glancing at Rak.
“Why do you allow her to stay with you?” she asked back.
A fair question. One that deserved a fair answer.
“We’re stronger together, she and I,” I told the coyote. “She makes me better than I am alone, than I was before.”
The coyote grinned at me.
“Same,” she said. “Big same.”
* * *
The toy boats continued their undulant sway against the concrete embankment. Like them, Kitrita spread her wings and sent her shadow over us as she soared, circling us both. As if Rak and I were decaying things. As if we were already dead, or dead to her. Long cast out. Long forgotten.
But we were not.
Kitrita desired us both.
When she landed, she spread her wings wide. Dark, dark wings against the concrete. Against the waning sun. She was queen of the wake. She held the power here. Kitrita, my former sister, the one I looked up to, was now looking down at me. Her eyes once again hungry, wanting, desiring. Jealous.
“You did not return,” she said again. She hissed, and the wake hissed along with her.
Black tongues visible in their white, white beaks.
“You took up on your own,” she said. “You abandoned us. You abandoned me.”
The hissing stopped suddenly. Abrupt. Bringing with it a silence so thick with the smell of decay and pond muck that I could not quiet my mind. All I thought of was Kitrita. How she fed me, how she protected me. How she once told me that all she did (all she ever did) was for me.
But at a price.
I had not noticed (I did not notice) that Rak, in all her defiance, had walked up to Kitrita. Her sheen now black as rot in Kitrita’s forced shadow. Her beak was tilted up, head tilted to the side.
“But,” Rak said, “but Takrata didn’t abandon you. Did she? Did she?”
All attention was on Rak now. Kitrita’s and mine. She did not seem to mind. She stood as if the attention was what she wanted, what she sought out. She looked Kitrita over: the filthy white feathers, the cracked beak, the red sheen of her head. The wake became silent; they became shadows of themselves.
“You were the one who cast her out,” Rak said. “You. She did not leave on her own. You, you, Kitrita. You made her leave. You abandoned her. I took her in, we took her in.”
It was Kitrita’s turn to tilt her head now.
“Yes,” Rak said. “Yes. We.”
* * *
“The world belongs to us now,” Kitrita had said once, as the humans had only begun to fight. “You and me, Takrata. It is our responsibility.”
Then, her eyes lit upon me with that same cruel desire I’d come to know as familiar. They’d been that way since she brought me into the wake with an outstretched wing and proud hiss. I was hers; I would always be hers.
And she made sure of that.
I did what she wanted, when she wanted. I was forbidden to do anything else. The wake followed in her stead; in our stead. As she and I soared high above the trees, high above the farmlands, she marveled at the beauty of our shadows.
“We will cut through this world like talons,” she said. “You and me, Takrata. You and me.”
But I was never such a thing: a talon, her destroying thing. My heart was never so sharp. My shadow always broken by a tree branch, by a sun shaft, by the reflection of a thousand windows.
I could never be what Kitrita wanted me to be. I had found another who matched me (not in size or feathers or beak) in generosity and spirit. But Kitrita had seen how my heart beat in my throat with Rak’s curiosity so near, so she had no choice but to cast me out. Now, as her own heartbeat did the same, standing so close to me, she remembered. She remembered why she kept me so close at all.
* * *
A howl pierced my concentration, one so sad it set a cote of doves to singing. Then, a cacophony of wings as birds surrounded Rak, surrounded me. The mourning doves, the sparrows, the pigeons, all of them. All of them coming to us, joining us. The familiar sound of the golden retriever’s heavy panting, the basset hound’s three-legged plodding, and the click-clack-click of the coyote run’s claws on concrete coming toward us.
We are stronger together.
We misfits of the north.
“What is this?” Kitrita asked. Jealous eyes now alight with fear. “What have you done?”
“Once,” I said, “I had a wake. You shut me out of it, banished me, tossed me aside. I was alone within it, but now? Now I am not.”
The wake shuddered: clattering of talons on their perch; a collective shudder of disapproval. Kitrita was also not alone, but her posture betrayed her: she spread her wings wide once more and hissed. Her hissing borne of fear and spite, her eyes pinned to the heartbeat I could see fluttering in her throat.
“They don’t want to attack you,” Rak said. “We don’t want to attack you.”
“Then what do you want?”
“To let us be,” I said. “To let us be and never come back.”
The undulant sway of the boat sails now danced to the coyote howls, the barking of dogs, the cooing of doves, the singing of sparrows. Kitrita did not wait. Her throat fluttered a dozen more times before she took wing. She soared off into the park’s trees, her once crisp shadow muted by dappled sunlight, cast into a thousand pieces by the winter sun.
With a second cacophony of wings, the wake, too, took flight.
Rak tipped her beak up to mine, so I brought mine down to meet it. This was what I wanted, this was where I belonged. Rak and I did this together, we all did this together. All of us.
But it was Rak, most of all, who was strongest.
* * *
That night after I brought back food for the coyote run as a gift (for the golden retriever, for the basset hound) Rak also brought me a gift. A coin with an eagle on it. Its wings were spread while it held arrows in one of its talons, a branch in the other. We sat close together on the bench, so close. Still, she nudged the coin to me closing the small space left between us.
“That’s you,” she said. “That’s you.”
“No,” I said.
I said running my beak along the crest of her black feathers. Running the hook of my beak across her sheen, through her down.
“No,” I said. “It’s both of us.”
* * *
About the Author
Jordan Kurella is a queer and disabled author who has lived all over the world (including Moscow and Manhattan). In their past lives, they were a barista, radio DJ, and social worker. Their work can be found in Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Strange Horizons. Jordan currently lives and writes in Ohio with their service dog.