By Cath Barton @CathBarton1
With a final stab, the crow got hold of a long strand of sinew, drew it up and carried it away. It flew out behind him like a red flag, its ghastliness too far away for the watchers to make out. The new year’s day was as if it were the first, the world a scrubbed blank canvas on which to draw afresh. The two men, who had stood for a moment watching the dark of the bird against the icy pale of the morning sky, rubbed their hands.
“Too cold to stand here,” said the one, pulling his hat down over his ears and looking up at the clouds scudding above the hill “Let’s get up there. Before.”
If he said more the wind whipped away his words. He strode out and the other followed. Both had their heads down. They were intent on reaching the summit. It was, from one to the other, a dare, the sort that men make without regard for the consequences. Behind them, unseen by either, three more crows descended to the place the solitary eater had left.
In the valley the woman had stoked the fire. The smoke from the damp peat made her cough. She drew the pot down; the soup would simmer the day long until her man returned. She threw in the few vegetables she had. There was no meat, hadn’t been for a month now. She wasn’t like the crow; wouldn’t pick up something killed by another. She went to the door, looked up at the hillside. Her eyes were still sharp; she could pick up the movement of a rabbit in the dead bracken. But there was no ripple of beast or man on the brown curve of the hill, only the downward flight of the three crows. And they and their judgements were not her business. She closed the door against them and took up her pen. It was her time to write, the annual attempt, the record in case he returned.
It had been nine years since he’d gone up the hill with nothing but his ordinary clothes. For all they knew a crow might have pecked his eyes, but crows don’t eat bones and the search had been thorough, the men beating the bracken and the heather for all the days of a week, covering the width and the depth of the valley.
“You’ll be careful,” she’d said to her man that morning, as he and the other stood on the door mat, as if waiting for her permission. He wouldn’t meet her eye. And they’d left, between two blinks of an eye. There. And then not there.
The commotion outside distracted her from her writing. Crows cawing. It felt as if the world belonged to them more than to men, these days. Then the bang against the window. She stared at the smear of blood, her hands grasping the table, her breath coming in gasps. To the door, flinging it wide. On the step the dead bird. The three flapping into the distance. Their cries of triumph.
Her man and the other had reached the summit, heard from there the noise of the attack down by the house, but couldn’t see it. Or see the woman come out. See her dart into the bracken.
When they got back the house was dark and the fire had all but gone out. They searched, but their hearts told them the truth. And the one cursed the other for the dare, himself for accepting it and the crows for their part in the ills of the world.