When they tell me I will dance the Crow Mother, I cannot breathe.
I have practiced in the dark, in the wild grass of the hills, far from the glows of our fires. I have crushed the stalks beneath my feet, the bruised-green smell rising into the sky. I have held out my arms just-so and arced my body in circles. I have raised my voice to Her in song.
Since I was a small child, I have done this. For as long as I could remember the dance from one day to the next, from season to season, I have done this.
And now I will dance it in the circle.
I am not as light as I thought I would be, not as joyous. My heart is as tight as it is glowing.
I am afraid. Afraid I will fail. That my practiced feet will stumble. That She will not accept me as her dancer and will rain her displeasure down on my people.
I sit very still while they prepare me. My skin is dark, but the paint is darker. It runs in soft, curving lines across all of my body. My arms and legs. My breasts and stomach. Ne’hma paints my face, draws the patterns down my forehead and cheekbones, covers my eyelids in black. It is her honor to bestow because she holds the village to her bosom. She holds the village up to the gods. When she was younger, she was the Crow Mother.
They lay the shawl of feathers across my shoulders. I take a breath that shudders up my body. I step out into the glow of our fires.
The circle is clear, the faces of my peoples no more than shadows at the edges, lit in pieces by the moving flames. The air smells sharp and cold. It prickles against my naked skin. The silence presses against my ears. I am not sure I remember how to dance at all.
I raise my shaking arms to the night sky.
Hear me, Crow Mother, and welcome me into your dance.
My first steps are tentative. The ground feels foreign beneath my feet, though I have walked it all my life. The wind springs up hard enough to burn me with its cold, and I tremble. If She rejects me, we will have no new growth. I will doom everyone.
I close my eyes and pretend I am not in the circle. I am in the hills. I am standing on the wild grasses. I am in the dark, far from sight.
And my feet remember.
I stomp on the earth of the circle. I hold out my arms just-so. I arc my body in circles.
I raise my voice in Her song, and it does not sound like my voice. It is strong and clear and wild.
It is Her voice.
I open my eyes, and the fires leap up, stretch for the sky. I sing and I whirl, and my joy bursts out of me, catches all of my people in its embrace.
I am the Crow Mother. And the Crow Mother is me.
She’d always remember that picture. The one that hung in the hall, visible when the guests walked in. Full of regal beauty, poise, and perfection on the day of her mother’s first principle role.
Odette spent her entire life trying to live up to her mother’s expectations. But her feet wouldn’t turn out just right, her legs were spindly, and coordination non-existent. And she hated her name – named for the white swan where her mother had always favored Odile, the black swan, despite the role being one and the same.
Time after time, day after day, year after year – her mother pushed her, prodded her, and scolded her in front of a class full of girls with the right figures, the right coordination and an actual ambition to dance.
In her twilight years, Odette’s mother wanted what her daughter would never be – a prima ballerina to take over the legacy, to continue the line of dancing royalty she’d created. And when it didn’t happen, Odette was shunned, locked away to think on her crimes, on her genetic failure to live up to her mother’s standards.
The bruises were easily explained away. No one thought twice about them considering Odette’s obvious clumsiness. Though they left no lasting external damage, the mottled purple fading through to green and yellow dug gouges in her psyche.
Until the whispers started.
At first Odette though they were from the other girls as she arched her back in a port de bras, but it didn’t take long for her to realize the voices were always with her. Soon, she began to take comfort in them, listen to them, and wish she could please them in ways her mother would never be pleased by her.
No longer alone, she bore the beatings with a smile, which only served to further infuriate her mother. Punishments lengthened and the ridicule became so nasty Odette could see the revulsion in her peer’s eyes.
She harboured the whispers, held them close, comforted them. Something would go her way soon, because she had a plan to be perfect – a plan to quiet everything once and for all.
The first thud of the golf club as it sunk into her mother’s skull had a sickeningly wet crunch to it. Sort of like a packed bowl of cereal with almost enough milk.
The second stroke resounded with a wet pop when she pulled it away from her mother’s head, the indent making a nest of blood and brains for that pretty brown hair.
The third stroke sprayed blood higher than Odette anticipated, coating her mother’s painting with an artful splash of red.
Odette stood there for a few moments as her mother twitched, as the eyes glazed over, and as the body finally lay motionless in a congealing pool of blood on the floor. She sunk to the ground, letting the golf club clatter beside her and smiled at nothing in particular. For the first time in her life, she found her mother’s favorite portrait appealing.
Every night since the fire, Jessayln dreamt of wings. They pursued her through the halls of school, through the stop signs in town. They pursued her through the lectures as her parents tried to weave a cage of love and to the city with nests made of glass instead of clapboard. No one could catch her heart, for it flew faster than any bird.
Modeling made ends meet, and it was just another gig. Just another shoot. Just another elevator to a nondescript reception lobby. Down a narrow hall to a nondescript door, into a garden paradise on the 67th floor.
Nymphish girls ran from hair to makeup and Jessalyn was caught in their whirlwind. Tape measures swirled around her almost by themselves, chased after by dark clad assistants with clipboards and sharp voices. Her hair pulled up at an unseen hand, coiffed carefully into a ponytail on top of her head, then stuffed and spiraled into a bun-like nest. Earrings jabbed by deft hands dangled from her ears. Makeup applied with a hasty brush made her sneeze, but before she could ask questions, she was ushered with the others past plants she didn’t recognize and into a gown of black feathers that trailed to the floor behind her. Others were clad like peacocks, others like swans, but twelve of the other girls were decked in black dresses identical to hers.
The brightly colored girls fluttered off, but one of the assistants held up a hand when Jessalyn tried to follow. “The Corvid is not to follow. Wait here.”
When the voices of the others faded, the Corvid girls looked at Jessalyn, and she stared back into faces she previously knew only from the mirror and photographs. Jessalyn walked towards them, her steps hesitant but the pull irresistible.
“One for sorrow, for we have lost much for your flightiness” the first girl said, stepping aside.
“Two for joy, for we have been happy at times, though you never cared” the second girl said, standing beside the first girl.
“Three for a girl who saw too much that night.” The third girl stepped slightly further away from the others, her eyes never leaving Jessalyn.
“Four for a boy, who accepted his fate.” Another self faded into the group, lining up like paper dolls.
“What are you talking about?” Jessalyn shouted at them, trying to back away, only to find there was nowhere left to run. The wings had caught her, after so long.
“Five for silver, like your ethereal eyes.” Her voice, her own voice, spitting back the compliment she’d heard for so long, turning it into an insult.
“Six for gold like the firebird so long ago.”
It can’t be. It was a nightmare, a mass hallucination, a fantasy.
“Seven for a secret never to be told. Do you know it?” The girl leered as she stepped aside to join the others in their half formed circle around Jessalyn.
Jessalyn shook her head, earrings bouncing. “Please stop! I don’t know what’s going on here, but this isn’t funny.”
“Eight for a wish you didn’t remember, and still don’t.”
“Is this some sort of hazing the new girl thing? Because it’s seriously creeping me out!” The circle was almost entirely formed around her now, and her heart fluttered in her chest like a bird trying to escape.
“Nine for a kiss stolen under a mountain laurel longer ago.”
She’d almost forgotten. She’d kissed Alex once in the spring, playing truth or dare with the others. She’d promised not to kiss anyone else until they had a chance to try it again, alone. They’d never had the chance. She’d gone to her grandmother’s for the summer. When she returned in the fall, things weren’t the same, and then there was the bonfire…
“Ten’s a surprise you cannot miss!” The tenth Corvid reached out in a blur of motion and a flash of wings.
A sharp, burning pain filled Jessalyn’s gut. She looked down to see a knife, half gold, half silver, piercing deep into her. She stumbled, but none of the girls so much as reached out a hand to help her. They just kept staring at her with their doll like, bird like faces.
“Eleven for health, health you wasted. Are your wrists thin enough yet?”
Jessalyn fell to the floor, gasping.
“Twelve for wealth,” the last girl said, throwing a pair of coins at Jessalyn’s head.
Each girl merged and swirled and divided until there were seven, four, twelve again, an infinity of Corvids. No. Corvidae. Crows. A murder of crows.
“Thirteen, rise. Thirteen take your place with your sisters. Thirteen, beware.” But it was too late for warnings, too late for apologies, too late for the crow now fluttering wings above what used to be her body.
She left it behind too. No point in taking it with her, it would only hold her to the earth, and she’d always been too flighty for that.
Everybody in the family knew what Cousin Lissy could do, but nobody talked about it.
Ma said that’s because there was nothing to talk about, that Lissy was just the same as any other of us kids and we weren’t to treat her any different.
But really, I think nobody talked about it because none of us could really pin it down. It was like trying to describe the sea. You could throw words at it, but the sea would just gobble them up, throw them against the breakers at the feet of the cliffs, and then change itself again.
When Ma weren’t around, my older brother John would say Lissy was touched, slow, on account of her having gotten tangled up on her way to being born, but it wasn’t really true. John just didn’t like trying to learn how to talk to Lissy right — said sign language was slow, and John always wanted to be fast. Fastest runner, fastest tree climber, fastest everything.
There were a lot of us kids running around, dodging between the family houses, spreading out across the connected yards — especially that summer. Lissy and me were the youngest two except for Bobby who barely had his first couple teeth. All the other cousins were bigger and louder. They ordered us around and talked over us and ran around outside on summer night way after the Aunts sent us to bed, so I didn’t really mind hanging out with just Lissy a lot of times — even though she was almost two years younger than me — because at least it was quiet and I got to say what I thought without someone elbowing me around and telling me to shut up.
Lissy actually liked to watch me sign, to hear about my day or the comic book I was reading. She told me it was a lot more fun to listen to someone who listened back
It’s why I was the only one who got to see what she could do.
The Uncles had made a fire in a pit back a little ways in the woods, this blossom of orange against a pitch-dark summer night, but they’d gone back toward the house, to grab more beers, to sit with the wives while us kids ran around in the dark. The other cousins had started a game of Cat-and-Mouse and scattered into the trees where the darkness could hide them. I wanted to go play, too, but Lissy hated Cat-and-Mouse because she couldn’t hear anyone sneaking up on her, so they always scared her halfway to hell. So I sat with her by the fire instead, listening to the shouts and laughter echoing all around us.
Lissy nudged me and signed thanks for staying with me, and I just shrugged because I wished I wasn’t the cousin stuck sitting with her and I hated myself for thinking that. I didn’t want to be a Bobby. I really didn’t.
She nudged me again. You want to see something neat?
I frowned at her, and she smiled just a little, with half her hair covering her face because she never bothered to pull it back. I shrugged again.
Lissy turned her eyes to the fire. She tapped her bare feet against the ground — bum, bum-dum, bum, bum-dum — and she nodded along with the beat she created. Her hands drifted in front of her, her fingers moving like she was signing things but they weren’t any signs I’d seen before and they didn’t mean anything as far as I could see and I thought maybe she might just be playing and that nothing would really happen. Nobody’d ever seen her do anything on purpose before — not even Aunt Beth and Uncle Arnie. It’d only always been accident.
But then the fire flared up high, throwing sparks like new stars, and the smoke curled thicker overhead. And Lissy stared, so I stared too, and I started to see…something. A butterfly made of flames. A circle of fiery faeries dancing. A giant wolf of orange and white, calling to his pack. The fire surged up, and the smoke twisted around, became a head, became wings, became an enormous bird with a comet tail of flames. It swooped down, brushing our heads, and I laughed. Which made Lissy laugh.
“Samuel Benjamin!” Aunt Beth’s voice was still loud enough to give me a jolt, even from all the way on the other side of the yard. “What’s going on over there?”
I tapped Lissy’s arm, and she took her eyes off the fire to look at me. The bird and the wolf, the butterfly and the faeries all disappeared. The flames dropped down into the logs.
“Nothing, Aunt Beth!” I hollered, my hands moving for Lissy so she could see what I was saying. “Just put too much wood on!”
There was a tense moment, and then she yelled, “Well, don’t do that again. You kids singe your eyebrows off, no one’s taking you to the hospital.”
“Okay. We won’t.”
“Fifteen more minutes, and then you and Lissy come back to the houses for bed.”
“Yes, Aunt Beth.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as silence fell again. Just the singing of night bugs and the crackling of logs burning slow. Lissy giggled a little, signed she was sorry she got us in trouble, and I told her don’t be because that was amazing.
She blushed a little.
We stared in the fire, the shouts of our cousins bouncing back and forth around us, and I swear I saw a knight charging through the flames.
Death has sounds. Coughing, spluttering, a strange sort of gurgle… I can’t help but notice them as I walk down the cobblestone street, scarf pulled across my face hoping to fend off some of the illness in the air. Though it’s not illness, we all know this, we’ve known it for some time.
It’s a plague.
We’re not sure how it reached our shores, and I don’t think anyone actually cares. What we care about is surviving, and the odds are slim at best. It besets and clings to people indiscriminately. Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that no one group is at more risk. Technically. I daresay the rich aren’t quite as prone.
The children play in the street, oblivious to their potential futures, to the plight of friends who can no longer come out and play with them. Their song sends shivers down my spine, and I’m not sure why.
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
The edges of my shawl are threadbare, but I pull them around me to stave off the sudden chill. I’m not sure my mother will still be with us when I get back. And I can’t afford to think of how long it might be before I’m no longer here. I’ll turn into a blubbering mess like Dulcia did. We’re still not sure what got her first – the plague or the madness.
The stench of rot and decay assaults me as soon as I open our door. I gag at the smell, a stark reminder that not only does Death have sounds, but she has odors too. Horrible ones. My mother has passed. I was gone too long.
My heart hurts, I think, or maybe it’s my chest. They say that’s how it can start – a tightening of the chest, a hitch in your breath. Please let it only be my sorrow at her passing. I don’t want to die.
But who does?
I turn, surprised to find tears blurring my vision as I try to figure out who’s calling my name. Though the sunlight is dulled by the clouds, there’s still enough light that only the silhouette is visible at first. Does Death work this quickly? Is she paying me a visit too?
“Edith? Has she passed?” There’s urgency about the voice that only matches one person – Alma.
I nod, suddenly unable to speak around the lump in my throat.
“Let us collect her, love.” Though her words are kind, I can hear the urgency, the need to retrieve the body and burn it. Burn them all.
I nod again and let them pass to retrieve my mother’s husk, their own selves covered as much as possible to avoid contact, to avoid breathing in whatever the dead flesh is secreting. And I wonder when it will stop, or if, in the end, there’ll be piles and piles of us with no one left to burn them.
Days blur into one another, weeks and far too much time, just like those tears blurred my vision. It’s lonely in my house, and as much as I scrub it, I always feel like mother is still there, still about to die and leave that smell. Maybe it’s embedded in my nostrils.
Our town has dwindled to barely a village. The Baker died three days ago, a few weeks after my mother. It’s a shame, I loved his breadrolls.
But this morning feels different, and I’m not sure why at first and go about my obsessive routine. I clean the house, and myself and leave to sit outside on the porch and watch the comings and goings.
Today there is sunshine, the first true blue sky in a long time. It illuminates the mostly empty streets, deserted houses and hopeless faces. As I undertake my routine nail inspection for signs of my own Black Death, I realize the children’s singing has taken on a different tone.
“Edith!” Alma comes running. I’m glad she survived this long too.
“What?” I ask, and even I can hear the despondency in my voice.
I blink up at her, and need to shade my eyes to see her face. The earnestness shines in it, her eyes afire with something I haven’t felt in a long time. “It’s really over?” I whisper.
She nods and pulls me up, close to her in a rare display of affection for both of us. She’s gone as soon as she arrived, probably to take word to everyone else. All of our depleted population.
And still, the sun beats down, improving my mood and I listen to them, truly listen to the song again as I shade my eyes to watch the children spinning in the circle. For the first time I notice they’re dressed the same as they’ve always been. I swear I’ve seen the same children spin and sing for however… long this nightmare has lasted.
Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down
And as they fall to the ground, laughing and giggling at and with each other, I realize what it is they’re making me feel. As if it’s rising up from between them, heralding a new beginning for us all.
No one thought they were really making Jessalyn lighter when they chanted ‘Light as a feather, stiff as a board’ at Alison’s birthday party. No one thought they were really contacting the dead with a Ouija board made by the same guys that make Monopoly at Becky’s. So when they concocted the plan to summon a demon at the town’s Halloween bonfire, Alex didn’t hesitate. He was in.
They’d sneak out after their parents had told them good night. Out their sparkling clear windows, across their solid grey roofs, down the white drainpipes or the gnarled oak trees, across the meticulously arranged flower beds their mothers planted and perfectly manicured lawns their fathers trimmed and raked clean.
All but Alex. He waited, waited for the shouting to quiet and the doors to slam. Then he picked his way across carpets with hairballs on it her cat had left and no one had bothered cleaning up. He didn’t flinch when he knocked an ash tray off the corner table. His parents wouldn’t care. He doubted they’d even notice until they went to snuff out a cigarette and couldn’t find the ashtray. They’d probably blame the cats.
He didn’t have a key, so he just left the door closed but unlocked. There wasn’t anything inside worth the effort of carrying it away.
The bonfire still smoked against the cloudless night sky, but the crowd of revelers had thinned like the leaves overhead when Alex joined the circle of children. Their hands grasped for one another, sweaty in the lingering Indian summer. Grins flashed, excitement catching faster than the flu when silence is called.
Words were chanted, forgotten the moment they echoed from lips as they spun and whirled around the smoldering fire. Faster and faster they twirled, arms stretching-feet stumbling- lungs aching-colors blurring until-until-until… They all fell down, laughing and panting and wasn’t it all thrilling and exciting and a bit silly.
Until they looked up.
A bird hovered in the smoke, a river of plumage dangling like a peacock to the now smoldering logs beneath. A long neck turned to look at each child in turn, sending them screaming into the night.
All but Alex. When the bird met his eyes, he didn’t flinch. He stared back, firm against the horrors the smoke showed, for he saw worse every day. The crack of skulls and clatter of bones was nothing compared to the sounds his father’s fists made on his mother’s face, and the strange creatures the others fled from seemed far preferable to a house teeming with unwashed, underfed cats.
While the others cowered safely under their neat blankets back at their neat homes, with parents who noticed they’d snuck out and would punish them in the morning, Alex climbed upon the smoke bird’s back and flew and flew through the worlds. He doubted his parents would ever notice, except that he left his body behind on the bonfire. There wasn’t anything inside worth the effort of carrying it away.
KT: What were your first thoughts upon seeing this prompt picture choice?
Becca: Honestly, at first I thought, “Crap. It’s very pretty, but I’ve got no frakking idea what to write.”
Leigh: That’s pretty. I don’t really have a story for it though.
KT – I just thought it was so pretty. And it reminded me of Giselle. I love that ballet. I’m not sure why this picture made me think of it.I think I’m the only one of us who prefers setting pictures.
How did you progress to your story idea from those first thoughts?
Becca:When I buckled down and really started to focus, I was drawn to the rush of the fog/water around the rocks and to the one little stone standing on end in the middle. Standing stones have such a connection to lore and ritual, and I just started playing with the idea from there.
Leigh: I actually resorted to word association, and started listing the elements of the picture – Mists, moss, stones, etc. Then for each, I did word association, so like Stone went to permanent, altar, frozen, grave, and I came up with about 10 different ideas I started working with. Some were really trope, and I dismissed those quickly. I’d loved the Doctor Who episode The Tombs of Akhaten, and the setting just screamed an Asian influence, so I decided to riff off that.
KT: After my initial Giselle thought, I decided to challenge myself and do a 2nd person pov story. I’ve never written 2nd person before and really wanted to. Since my story was inspired by Giselle – I already had the story, I just needed to trial and error the point of view.
Did you encounter any difficulties while writing this prompt piece?
Becca: Trying to toe that line between the close perspective of this one, arrogant character who thinks he knows exactly what he’s getting into and also dropping these tonal hints about the truth of what was waiting for him. I mean, I’m not sure I succeeded necessarily, but it’s what I was angling for, so that was a challenge.
Leigh: It was really hard to figure out what to write on. Our other prompts had people in them, so there were clear subjects to focus on. With this one, I flailed around for a lot longer before figuring out details.
KT: 2nd person pov is much harder than I thought it was going to be. It took me several tries to get it right. I actually find settings far easier to write for. When there’s a character in the picture I find it far more difficult because I like to make my own. So, apart from getting the pov own, I didn’t really have any troubles with the prompt.
Any other thoughts on the picture choice and story meshing together?
Becca: Not a thought, really, but a fun fact: I gender-switched the MC. Originally, I wrote it as a female character, but I wasn’t liking how it sounded and couldn’t get it together. I decided to flip the hers to hims, and everything fell into place.
Leigh: I think by having just the setting, we did end up with very different stories, even more so than usual.
KT: I love settings. They inspire me in a way words, songs, and pictures of people don’t. This picture sort of called to me, in a melancholy way. Probably why I chose it.
Do you feel writing prompt fiction challenges you as a writer?
Becca: It’s definitely making me think differently. I’m such a planner usually when I write novels, so these shorter pieces have really been helping me learn how to just take a line or a glimmer of an idea and spin it out and see where it goes. It’s been fun.
Leigh: Definitely. I used to do a lot more short stories when I first started writing, but once I started doing novels, it was hard to go back to short stories. This forces me to really focus on the smaller things like sensory descriptions. Plus right now, while things are so hectic, it’s nice to take a little bit to work on the short stories.
KT: Absolutely. It helps me refine my process and I love some of the ideas we’ve come up with. With every short story I write, I feel like my writing is improving. Short stories are a great break from the way I plan my novels. I’m loving these prompts.