(note: this story takes place between the events of BLOOD MAGIC and THE BLOOD KEEPER)
(For a French translation, go here.)
We’re one song with many notes. Wings move separately or together or in jagged, swift patterns like fingers playing a piano.
Color and depth and hunger, wind in our feathers, faces we know:
Huge dark eyes and hair looks like it was chopped up in a combine. When we see her, half of us want to flap around her, brushing our wings against her and cuddling into her neck, while the rest of us want to fly until we spread out over the ocean and there’s no place to land. We’ll drown and never have to remember our sister again.
Sharp nose, eyes under a hat, loud voice and blood on his hands. Offering crisp old meat and berries, letting us hook onto his shoulders.
The lioness. Grinning at us – me – like she can’t wait to tear into the soft parts of our guts and feast.
The cold stone graveyard. And blood. And fire.
Soaring along the black line highway, fur and flesh, rot and blood, and wind – wind – wind, its fingers combing down our backs, ruffling our feathers. Buildings taller than trees and dirty gray birds fighting for our trash, our seed, the bacon Hats leaves on the sill. Sister crying. Blankets nested in the rusty teal truck.
The pull on us, on our memories, lashes us together, so when we fly and fly as far as we can and the sun sets and we don’t know where we are, all we do is hunker down in heavy branches and wait for light. To fly back to our sister.
Winter. Spring. Hot, sticky summer. Some of us die, swept out of the clouds or poisoned from the vile city. We go with her out over the hills toward the setting sun, through green-green trees, all the colors of the earth, steel and poison left behind.
Until the red and orange silo catches our eyes. It glints in the sun, and there’s a tree growing up out of its roof – a perfect perch. Pink and blue and silver shine and sparkle from the branches. We forget Sister and Hats and arc down to investigate.
We land, twelve different crows on twelve different branches, and we see a new face.
From every angle, we see it, all the facets of our eyes drawing her together into one, single face.
Her skin is scattered with sunny little freckles, like someone pressed seeds into her cheeks. Her smile is immediate, wide and blissful. We want to be closer to her when she smiles because one thing we don’t remember is how to smile like that.
Yellow hair coils from her head, caught up with a rainbow of beads. We want them.
She reminds us of the lioness, except she doesn’t want to eat us. She’s tying a ribbon into the tree and one of us steps onto the knot to hold it for her. She says something. Her voice is a soft purr, just like – like the lioness.
The girl in the silo holds a flashing knife, she pricks her arm and lets a trickle of red pool in her palm. There’s food in her bag, little berries, and she drips blood onto them. We flap our wings, blowing air at her face. She smiles again, laughs. We feel it in our hearts.
She eats a berry and we watch all the angles as she chews, her jaw and the curl of her hair and the sky in her eyes. Then – then she offers her hand to us. Her upturned palm, with berries waiting. One of us, one note of our song, hops forward, claw pushing into her fingers, and eats.
It isn’t gradual.
It’s sudden, like death. Like a knife in the heart.
Reese David Kennicot.
The girl says my name out loud, as if she heard it through some whispering magic.
I was a boy, but I died and now I’m crows. But I remember.
It’s two weeks after Mom died, I’m running to get away from the brutal summer. Same as every day since, I race two miles down the old wagon road and back, head out to the fields for harvest, eat lunch with the boys, work more, come home to dinner with my sister and Judy, go to bed or get with Dani. Wake up and repeat it all. No thinking, no planning. Just one thing after another.
This morning, Mr. Meroon waits in his red baseball cap, crouched along the edge of his alfalfa field. I slow down. It’s almost six, so the sun’s peeked over the hills behind him and he’s this black shadow like part of the land rising up to talk to me. “Reese, my boy,” he says, holding one hand an inch up from the thick green. As if he feels heat off it. Or is about to heal it like some old medicine man. “How long do I usually keep this field alfalfa?”
“Three years,” I answer, catching my breath and knowing he’s only asking to make sure I’m paying attention. “Been only two,” I add after a pause.
Mr. Meroon pulls his hand back, and slaps it on his knee. Dust puffs off the denim. “Sometimes change gets pushed sooner.”
I just stand there feeling this hot-August-stillness. The lily-pads don’t move over the stagnant pond by his barn and green sludge creeps over the surface of the water. I’m trying to be nothing more than a piece of the heat, nothing to notice, nothing to make me think back to before. Dad killing my mom and then himself isn’t change I wanted.
Pushing up so all his bones pop, Mr. Meroon stomps over and puts his arm around me. He’s never touched me before. I closed my eyes tight, wanting to run on.
Mr. Meroon claps my back and said, “The land will get you through it, boy.”
I think how he doesn’t have any family left, either, and how all my far-distant future imaginings since I was in junior high included buying his farm someday and working it. When I had a wife, we’d be close to Mom and Dad which would make Mom happy when the grandkids came, because God knows Silla would never end up in Missouri but fly off to New York or Chicago or something. My wife and I would spend our anniversaries on a blanket in the middle of the third pasture, which I’d plant all over with wildflowers. Mr. Meroon would stay on until he died, of course, showing my kids what it was like to be part of a real farm. To be part of life, to mean something.
That’s impossible now.
I push away and say, “The land isn’t enough sometimes.”
I run on. Harder and faster, going so far that by the time I stop it takes me an hour to walk home. I’m late for work, and Silla backs away when I slam into the house, as if she’s afraid of me.
It’s before anything bad happened. The last normal night. Dani and me are lying on an old sleeping bag in the bed of my truck. A feed bag from Kilkenny’s where I’m doing day labor to save for school props us up. She’s tucked against my chest, her purple fingernails teasing my tee shirt. It’s still in the eighties, even with the sun an hour down, and we’ve only got the light of a half-moon. I’m relaxing there, smelling her hairspray and the wheat dust up my nose from driving threshed grain to the elevators all afternoon. It’d been hot and dry, perfect for harvesting, except for how tacky it makes my sweat. Mostly I’m debating with myself for the hundredth time whether or not I should take my truck up to school, given the cost of campus parking passes verses being able to drive out into the prairie whenever I feel like it. If I leave it here, Silla will use it for sure, and she won’t even bother to take her boyfriend out to the middle of nowhere like this – she’ll turn the bed into a traveling stage or something, and deck it out with backdrops and decals and it’ll never see a decent day’s work again.
Dani’s fingers slide under my tee shirt, scratching lightly over my belly and shooting all thoughts of my sister to the moon. She rubs her palm over the button of my jeans and I’m turning to kiss her when she says, all soft and casual, “My cousin Ada says there’s a cosmetology school in Manhattan.”
I catch her hand and hold it. “I’m not marrying you, Dani.”
Jerking her hand free, she sits, indignation turning up her nose. “Don’t think quite so high of yourself. I wasn’t thinking any such thing.”
But she has been, and won’t meet my eyes. Instead she reaches for the empty can of beer we shared and tips it back to find the last drips that cling to the rim. I don’t move, except to angle my head and look up at the sky again.
Her hand smacks down on my stomach. “Why wouldn’t you marry me?”
The sting of her slap is eclipsed by the sudden uncertainty in her voice. I sit up to face her. “I didn’t – I didn’t say I wouldn’t. Just that I’m not.”
“You don’t love me.”
“You don’t love me either.”
“I thought you saw something special in me, Reese. I thought that’s why you picked me, when you coulda had a bunch of other girls, or all of them, if you wanted. But what? I’m just easy? That’s all it was?”
“Don’t be this way.” I try to catch her flapping hands.
“Don’t make it either or. It isn’t.”
“Yeah? It is with boys.”
“Bullshit,” I snap.
She crawls on her knees for the tail, and as she climbs over, flips me the finger.
“Jesus, Dani.” I scramble after her. Her strappy sandals won’t make it a quarter mile, much less the three back to town. I grasp her arm and she tries to tug away. “Come on, I’m going to college, which is like five hundred miles away for at least four years, and you’d already planned to go to Memphis with your cousin. We have plans, and they’re different, and that’s fine. Don’t pretend we haven’t always known this wasn’t forever.”
Her face tilts down and other than the arm in my hand, her whole body droops. “I don’t want you to go, now. Ok? I don’t.”
“I know! And it doesn’t matter to you that I care.”
“Yeah, yeah it does. But I have to. I’m going to.” All kinds of lines from bad movies pop into my head. It isn’t meant to be. Don’t make it less good just because it isn’t forever. It was a moment in time. An affair. The kind of bullshit I didn’t really know how to say.
The truth is, I fall into her like I fall into my bed after a long day. But I’m not hauling my bed to Kansas either.
“Just take me home,” she says.
I don’t want it to end like that; only a bitter trail on my way to college. But what am I supposed to do? If she needs us to fight in order to let go, fine.
The next day I get home later than I said I would. After leaving Dani I spent the night at the Alwoods so I’d be there for work this morning. I tuck my sunglasses up into the visor and turn off the CD player, climb out onto the gravel driveway, all thinking of what to tell Mom and what she’ll tell Dad and hoping I’m not in for a lecture about responsibility. They’ll be happy to know Dani broke up with me because I’m going to college.
There’s those three leaves drooping down off the maple in the front yard, fluttering even though the air’s too thick for wind, and I realize the screen door’s gaping wide open, off the hinge. The world all shifts an inch to the left and I out of nowhere I think, it’s wrong and will never shift back. Then I’m walking up the porch like walking on a loose dock, the world moving below you, sloshing around.
Everything next is this catalogue of images and details. Like pictures blown up in some album: Silla first, on her knees with her hair falling long enough that the ends skim into the blood, wicking it up so the tips are pink and red. Mom’s brown flats and her splattered ankles, the cuff of her pants. Linen. I even notice they’re linen. I notice the way they wrinkled, the way the blood crusts in the crease where her knee is bent under her other leg. Her hand with the wedding band that’s the only jewelry she ever wears, and her neck.
Not her face. Her face is gone, but I see what’s under it. Bone from her nose and a cheek, chunks of muscle.
He shot her in the face.
Flung back with his head propped up by the desk; brain splattered behind. His glasses hang off his nose and his mouth is open just enough to let out a trickle of blood. The gun is still in his hand.
At first, I think all three of them are dead.
But Silla’s back shakes.
I grab her and drag her out of that room, all the way back out of the house and into the sunlight. She drops to her hands and knees in the gravel. Her hair drips blood.
“Silla.” I’m not gentle as I wrench her around and stare at her face, at her body, making sure she isn’t shot, too. Her fingers twist in my tee shirt and she wakes up, her eyes going all big and tears spilling down. I hug her, pushing her head onto my shoulder. They’re dead, they’re dead, I don’t need to call the sheriff yet, I can hold my baby sister even though her bloody hair’s like tentacles where it clings to my bare arms.
And I stare up at the maple tree, wondering why it looks so different.
Mom’s paper napkin notes. They’re embarrassing, and after 7th grade I ask her to quit, but she won’t. Instead, she hides them tucked inside my sandwich bag so they won’t fall out onto the table where anybody could see she’s written love my little farmer with a big heart around the words, all in red marker. In high school, they turn into reminders of stuff she needs me to grab at the grocery store on the way home, or that Aunt El and Uncle Dave are coming to the game on Saturday. The hearts never stop coming.
The way dirt’s pressed permanently into Mr. Meroon’s half-inch calluses so his fingers are shades darker than the sun-red winkles making his cheeks as furrowed as the wheat field in February.
Pounding on my bedroom wall because I can hear Silla singing in the shower. Bad enough the water pipes fill my room with their wailing, but listening to the refrain from Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang over and over before a segue into Les Miserables makes me plot ways to bring a cow patty home from Mr. Meroon’s farm and leave it on her pillow. I do when I’m sixteen; Mom grounds me for two months, but it’s worth it when Silla’s singing turns to screams.
Pretending to read old paperback Heinlein all weekend instead of writing out my Latin for Dad’s class, so he hides his scowls behind the newspaper Monday morning, when really I’ve been up all night translating Book VIII of the Metamorphosis and slip it into his grade book so he’ll find it in 5th period. When I get home I find “Tales from Ovid” translated by Ted Hughes on my desk. Dad always thinks poetry is a good reward for everything.
Sophomore year I’m in the cafeteria two tables over from Danielle McKlellan who I’ve known since forever, a skinny little tomboy with red knees, who turned into a girly-girl wearing miniskirts to let everybody know there’s nothing wrong with her. One of the girls from the track team says if Dani’s skirts get any higher they’ll be able to see her panties over in Charleston where her daddy’s locked up. Dani rises off the bench with her fingers poised stiffly against the table, and says with complete conviction, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Everybody thinks she’s a fake, but I swear to Christ, she isn’t acting.
She clicks out of the cafeteria toward the football field, and I have an inexplicable urge to find out what she’d say to me if I actually speak to her. I say, Hey and she says leave me alone but I don’t.
Dad said from the time I was a baby, “Get a degree in whatever you want; just get a degree.” When I picked Agronomy out of K-State’s Ag School, he took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, put them back on, and said, “That sounds great.”
“They’ve got a study abroad option built in,” I offered. He smiled.
Mom threw her arms around me when I got my scholarship letter. I’d have gone anyway, since they’d made college funds for me and Sil the days of our baptisms. She kissed my face all over like in some old movie.
Silla wrinkled her nose and told me K-State’s theater program was alright. I told her I’d rather it was crap so I wouldn’t have to bother getting her tickets to their shows if she ever deigned to visit. She smiled and hugged me, saying she’d be happy to go see crap shows with me if she could come up without Mom and Dad sometime.
And now my face is a blurry reflection in the living room window, three weeks after their funeral, as I call the recruiter to tell him I’m turning down my scholarship. “I’m very sorry to hear that, son,” he says, what might have been real disappointment tugging down his voice. “Mind telling me why?”
My dad took a pistol and shot my mom’s face off before swallowing a bullet himself. Is that a decent reason? “My sister needs me right now.”
Silla with her heart in her eyes but her expression closed off and plastic. All that lost weight and me yelling at her to eat. Yelling all the time so she leans away from me, our so-called sibling bond jagged between us.
Silla under the kitchen table, scrubbing on the underside with a goddamned toothbrush. I drag out one of the chairs and plop down. My teeth are grinding and I don’t know how to apologize. After peeking at me with her huge sad eyes, Silla crawls out. “Coffee?” she asks, waving a loose hand toward the counter. She begins to fill the carafe. Her movements are so careful, so purposeful, as if she’s acting. Playing the part. Not the part of the grieving daughter, but of being a human being. Like she’s this new alien creature mimicking what she thinks people are supposed to say, how they’re supposed to say it. We’ve never talked about what had happened. How our dad was crazy and we hadn’t known it. How I’m worried about Silla, because she won’t accept it.
“You don’t believe it, do you?” she whispers.
“Believe what?” I can see out the kitchen window, at the maple tree. With its emerald leaves in all the wrong places.
“That he killed her!” her voice is tight.
My ears buzz. “Yeah, I do. He did. It was obvious.”
“It could have been a set up.”
“It wasn’t a fucking set up.”
“Reese.” She says it like she’s begging. Please. Please don’t make me.
I shake my head. The buzzing sounds like a tractor engine. “Don’t be naïve. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you’ll – ”
“Get better?” Silla shoves away from me, dashing for the table.
“Yes!” I roar it.
I don’t know where it comes from.
She freezes and so do I.
Silence ticks like a clock. “I’m sorry,” I say quietly.
Silla staring at my hand through the wall. I blink slowly, not understanding how it happened. One minute I’m telling Silla and our step-grandmother Judy that I’m just going to my damn room, Silla is saying she scrubbed the bathroom floor again so it might still be wet, the next there’s my hand, white powder sifting off the drywall, and pain creeps up to my elbow slow enough I should be able to see it.
I imagine what Mom would say.
I remember she’s dead.
Silla takes me to the bathroom and washes my knuckles and fingers, luckily unbroken. She silently wraps it, her big haunted eyes avoiding mine.
Danielle shows up and I know Silla called her, even though Silla always thought I was better than Dani. I haven’t seen my ex-girlfriend since my parent’s funeral when she wore that damn blue eyeliner some guy in a Starbucks once told her make those plain green eyes exotic as the Mediterranean.
Today she’s in a dark purple shirt that would’ve been at home on a New York City street corner. (It’s my favorite.) In her hand is a six pack of Heineken. (Not what we consider the cheap stuff.) I just look at her as she picks her way over the scraggly grass in her heels, throws open the passenger door of my truck, and climbs in.
I lift myself into the driver’s seat and turn on the engine without looking at her. I back out over the loud crunch of gravel. We drive for five miles in silence until I pull off onto an old Army Corps park. Really, it’s just a lake with a few benches stuck up around it, a left over hole in the earth from some dam project decades before I was born.
Neither of us moves. A buzzing fills my ears, that isn’t crickets or summer air pressure, or the echo of a combine. Everything is alive outside the truck: grass waving in the wind, in long ripples that move straight onto the blue lake; cotton-ball clouds rushing overhead; birds zipping from tree to tree. Everything moving except for me.
The land will get you through it, boy.
Before I know what I’m doing I shove open the door and fall out. I stalk around the front and jerk open the passenger door. Dani slides out into my arms and I slam her back against the side of the car. Her hands tear at my hair and I kiss her with my teeth, my hands digging into her hips, until she moans and manages to squeeze her hands between us to my pants, pops the button and I’m gnawing on her neck and she hitches herself up by my shoulders, wraps her legs around my waist. We do it propped against my truck, me overwhelmed by the quickness, by the need. Her clinging to me with her arms and legs, holding on like she’s the one drowning instead of me.
Five minutes and we’re on a surprisingly soft patch of grass, and the hot wind blows her hair against my face. Our legs twine together, most of our clothes half-off. I hug her, looking up at the white clouds, sick to my stomach because there hadn’t been a condom and I didn’t even notice til now. My chest is heavy, crushing under some invisible force. Dani strokes my cheek, leans in and kisses my jaw and whispers, “Don’t cry, baby,” before I realize I am.
She sits up and unhooks her flimsy bra. She kicks off her remaining sandal and squeezes out of that miniskirt, then, naked as God, straddles my waist. Biting her bottom lip and smiling a little, she tugs at my jeans. I wiggle out of everything, suddenly realizing we’ve never both been totally naked together before. She kisses along my ribs and I close my eyes and feel the earth spinning slowly under us.
We drink the Heineken right there, naked in the tall grass, not caring that we’re close to the road and on government land, technically. The sun sets, and I tell Dani it makes her bleached hair turn a dozen neon colors and I’ve never seen her look so pretty. She just brushes her cheek on my bare chest and touches me everywhere. Places I’ve never been touched, and maybe I never will be again.
There’s light in my sister’s eyes, and she’s holding a leather book in her hands like it’s the Holy Grail, her face stretched so far into hope like I haven’t seen it in months, telling me the book was our dad’s and that magic is real.
Blood wells up on my finger, the heavy drip skating down into my palm. Silla reaches with her finger to draw a rune on my forehead with that blood, whispering, “You could lose yourself, Reese,” and me responding, “I’m not afraid.”
And I’m flying. Me, my soul, in a crow, flying over our house, circling the cemetery and remembering who I am only because of that blood rune Silla painted, connecting me to my body.
Josephine Darly grinning and wanting to tear me up, in my head, slipping herself through my veins, her hands working my hands, her eyes behind mine. I’m trapped and can’t escape, and my body is a puppet – her puppet because she’s stronger than me and I can only watch Silla fight, only watch.
She killed my parents and she’s going to kill me, too.
The knife is cold when it finds my heart, through the side of my chest.
The genus and species hits me a letter at a time, like my brain’s degrading from computer to typewriter as I jump from my dying body into theirs, as I cling to one little bird mind and another, reaching out to fill them up, because there are twelve and they’re good birds. Nice birds. American birds. Corvus brachyrhynchos.
There’s no rune connecting me to my heart anymore. There’s no heart at all.
The girl with that choppy hair – sister – throws her hands up when I dart over her head. She doesn’t know me, she screams, she runs and runs like we used to.
We scatter all twelve of us, like shards of a broken glass.
She says my name but not to me, not at me, she stands in the cemetery beside Hats – Nick – boyfriend – and weeps where I died. We cluck and hop forward but they throw rocks. She doesn’t know me. My sister.
We can’t leave her. We follow, darting through shadows, not wanting to scare her again. And we’re ready when the lioness comes again, comes for our sister, and we understand the patterns of magic because it’s all that we are now. We can help.
We land in a clutch around the rotting thing that used to be my body. One of us jumps onto its face so my claws pop through the skin. Raising our wings so my sister looks up at us. Sees us. Sees me.
Her lips make my name and I flap all the wings.
She cries. Tears glint orange in the firelight, and she pleads with me. She wants to put me back into the body. Resurrect it. Me.
My claws sink deeper into the face, and a piece of my crow brain thinks: food.
I startle away, we startle away and fly away from her, and it. That isn’t us, that thing isn’t us anymore.
We are a song of magic, we are a pattern of memories, and nothing more. We fly.
The girl in the silo says my name and each memory snaps back. I know who I am. Or who I was – it isn’t who I am anymore. I’m flying and feathers and this bright, hot magic from the bloody berries coursing through me.
When I was a boy I used to get into my truck every morning and do the same four things: turn on the engine. Adjust the rearview mirror. Flip down the visor for my sunglasses. Punch the CD player back to the number two song. As the first harmonica strains of “Thunder Road” filled the cab, my day was officially on.
With this girl’s yellow hair curling around us, I cycle through the memories, one after the other, a circuit turning me into something new. Reminding me who I was, but not weighing me down with everything I used to be.
The land will get you through.
It isn’t the land I need any more. I don’t have feet to walk it or hands to till it. I fly. I’m part of this power that connects everything, through her. Through this girl.
She whispers, my name is Mab and I’m so so sorry for what my mother did to you. This is the right place, Reese, this is the blood land, and this is where we keep curses and strange magic, and turn them into beauty. But you don’t need that. You’re already beautiful.
I take off, all twelve of us, spiraling up in a gust of wind, so all the sparkling colored charms in Mab’s tree shake and shudder.
The girl reaches after us and then – then – then she closes her eyes and her knees collapse. She falls onto the roots of her redbud tree, her body tucking down into the silo, and –
She’s with us.
We’re flying and she’s here, slipping through the crows with us, and we know her because she doesn’t have any secrets or walls. She’s magic and flying and a girl, too, just like we are crows and a boy, all at once.
It’s better than being one or the other.
Her voice whispers through our minds. It’s like being with God, Reese. Like praying and flying are exactly the same thing.
We cry out as loud as we can, thinking her name: Mab. Mab. Mab.
We are hers.
We are magic.
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