Secrets for the Crows

Image from Pixabay

A dark fairy tale.

I was twelve when my parents were killed during a mugging. I went to live with my grandma in the country.

Her cottage had a long garden at the back, surrounded by trees. As a young child, I’d sat with her in her rocking chair on the back porch while she told me stories. I remember it well, perched on her knee as we rocked to and fro and she delighted me with fairy tales. My grandma always spun a good yarn, drawing me in to whatever magical world she wove, and that image of us together stood out in my memory as golden.

The first day of my new life, I stood on the porch remembering my younger self. Crows hopped across the lawn and flew up and down from the great oak tree near the bottom of the garden. It was summer, but a chill hung in the air that morning and my summer dress felt unsubstantial.

Two crows pecked at the grass, trying to tease out some morsel to eat. My grandma came up beside me and leaned against the porch railing, pressing her arm against mine a little — a cautious sort of affection, feeling around my grief.

“Don’t tell them your secrets, Mary Alice,” she said, nodding towards the lawn.

I frowned at her. “Hmm?”

“The crows. Don’t tell the crows your secrets, or they’ll trade them for fairy gifts. And fairy gifts are bitter things.”

It was as though she’d read my thoughts and taken me back to that happier time, full of fairies and their tricky magic. I leaned towards her, completing her tentative connection, and she put her arm around me as I’d hoped.

But I was lonely and melancholy and I didn’t heed her words.

In my first term at my new school, Billy Wright threw strawberry milkshake all over my new dress at the school disco and all the other students laughed. I marched down the corridor, my face burning with shame, feeling milky liquid ooze through the thin fabric and onto my underwear. I dabbed at the mess pointlessly in the toilet with a paper towel.

I was so full of shame it dogged me all the next day. As I ate my dinner, the crows hopped across the grass. I craned my head to watch as one by one they landed on the trees and bushes. It was as if they knew I had a secret to share. I stole out after dinner that night with the pretence of filling the birdfeeder, bags of seed and meal worm clutched in my hand.

I don’t know why I didn’t tell my grandma. It wasn’t such a dark secret, not that time. But I didn’t want my grandmother to worry, I didn’t want her to know that the dress she’d made had attracted attention. Because it wasn’t her fault those kids didn’t have any damn taste. When she’d first whipped the finished product off her sewing machine and had me try it on, I’d looked in the mirror and felt beautiful, all those little vintage details she’d included with such care, the deep red roses she’d chosen. She’d wrapped me in her love.

By the time the disco was over, I felt like a freak.

As I filled the bird feeder, the crows gathered round. One of them hopped up onto the feeder, bold as anything, and peered at me with its shiny impenetrable eyes, as if to say, Well?

“Shameless bird,” I chided under my breath, but I didn’t mean it.

The garden crackled with night magic. I could feel the crows’ curiosity, their hunger for my confession — like small winged priests, in need of purpose. So I told my secret, my shame, my hurt. I told it all out there on the grass. When I was done, they spread their wings and took flight. My pain went with them, lifted up into the night. My heart soared.

When I was thirteen, I visited my mother and father’s grave, and later that day my first period came. I sat on the sofa that evening, clutching the hot water bottle my grandma had left, wrapped in a blanket she’d crocheted for me the Christmas before, and felt the prickle of an icy touch across my back. I clutched the still-warm hot water bottle, but somehow the chill penetrated right through to my bones.

I love you, someone said. Something said. As soft as the whisper of fabric it hushed into my thoughts. My brave girl.

I shuddered and turned. In the corner of my eye I caught a shape, a shimmer of white, just the hint of a person. But when I looked head-on, it was gone.

I knew it was my mother. I can’t explain why, but I was certain. A part of me wanted desperately to call to her, to answer her, to hold out my hand and welcome her. But another part of me was terrified. I’d heard the voice of a dead person. That wasn’t normal. If I told anyone, they’d think I was mad.

My grandma had popped to a friend down the road, so I abandoned the blanket and hot water bottle on the sofa and went out into the night. My bird friends were waiting, black eyes glinting in the moon’s light, eager for news.

I told them in hushed tones about my mother’s voice and her hand across my back. I whispered my deepest wish that she would hold me in her arms, which was also my deepest fear. When I was little and my mum held me, I liked to twine her hair around my fingers and pretend it was mine — raven black curls, the colour of secrets and the soft night. I held my fingers out in the moonlight and showed the crows, because I knew that they would feel my love and hold it among their treasures.

As they rose into the air, my love unknotted from my fear and I felt nothing but a melancholy sort of ache for my lost mother.

When I was fifteen, I sat beside Joni Smith watching autumn sunlight ripple across the slow river. We were hiding from the school adventure holiday because we were both too scared to abseil. A breeze unhitched the leaves from the trees and they sailed down around our heads in a shower of unlikely pink. I caught one and we laughed.

“I can’t believe that colour’s natural,” Joni said. She took the leaf from my hand, turning it over as if to check it wasn’t some trick.

I reached out to touch the leaf too, and we held it there between us like a promise. I looked up and she smiled. I drank in her bright eyes, the trail of freckles across her nose, the shock of gold in her brown hair where the sun had caught it that summer. I felt the connection between us like a jolt — a closeness I’d never known before.

I moved forward to brush her lips with mine. Everything froze. Even the leaves on the trees paused mid-air as her lips pressed against me.

She pulled back, jerked her hand away, tearing the leaf from mine. It fell to the ground.

“What the hell?” she shouted, wiping a hand across her mouth. “Why are you such a freak?”

She gave me one last look of disgust and marched off through the woods, back towards the bunkhouses. I wanted to shout, to call to her. Something. I didn’t know how to make it right. She’d seemed, in that moment, to want what I wanted. Had I really misunderstood? The words wouldn’t come — they caught on the cage of my fear.

When I returned to the bunks, I tried to see it in their eyes, the others. Had she said something? Had she told them what I’d done, what I was? No one said a thing to me.

I buried the feelings I had for Joni deep down inside, under the forest floor, and covered them with leaves and twigs and the bare bones of my desire.

I only spoke my secret to the crows — that lost moment of perfection out among the leaves. Now it would always be laced with shame and rejection. I spoke my fear, my worries, and they carried it all away, until I was left only with the unreal pink of the falling leaves.

When I was seventeen, I had secrets instead of friends. I stopped trying to fit in, stopped trying to make them like me. I wore clothes like armour, make-up like a mask. I wore my difference like a weapon, all spikes, daring anyone to come close. My grandma tried to reach me, but she didn’t know how to navigate this pain and I was so lost.

The other students gave me a new name, running Mary Alice into Malice. I let boys touch me and kiss me in the park behind school. Their touch knocked my spirit right out. I watched the tangle of limbs from above, like a ghost. In those moments, I tried not to think of Joni Smith’s freckles, of the way that Lisa Francetti’s dark blonde hair spilled over her shoulder like a shower of spun silk, of the way that Millie Johnson’s nose wrinkled as she tried to stop her glasses sliding down her face. I tried to feel some closeness, the touch of another person, a connection like a jolt. Instead I felt the flutter of wings in my stomach and tasted the bitterness of secrets spoken in the dark.

Today, I buried my grandma. She died quietly in her sleep. I had her buried beside my mother and father and toppled secrets into her grave in place of dirt, too late to share. Her friends held my hand awkwardly and I could see the question in their eyes — how do you carry this weight at nineteen?

That old heavy feeling covered me over as I drove home from the graveyard, threw my shoes off in her hallway and climbed her stairs. It dragged on me, wearing my limbs down. It had never really gone away from when my parents died, but had nested inside me, half-asleep, one eye open in readiness.

From my bedroom window I could see the crows gathering on the lawn. Ten, twenty, standing post as if to observe my mourning. Had I told my secrets to all of them over the years? Had each one listened to my whispered words and plucked them from the night air?

I climbed into bed, my grief too heavy to fight. It blanketed me, folded me up in dull grey. The life drained out of the world.

I slept.

I dreamed.

I lay in the forest at the foot of my grandma’s oak tree, still sleeping. The creatures came with a scritch and a scratch, curiosity drawing them to me. They hovered around, wings buzzing in the air, flitting against tree bark, against each other. So small, so thin, spindly arms and legs like nobbled twigs, bent and twisted. They pressed their tiny hands against my skin, their sharp little nails like needles.

What gifts will you give her? A voice asked, vast and lofty, made of the rustle of leaves and the flap of wings.

Voices answered, small and insinuating, made of scritches and scratches and the buzz of wings.

I will give her nails as sharp as knives, so that she may take the eyes of those who hurt her.

I will let her feel the embrace of the dead, so that she will never be alone.

I will give her raven black curls, the colour of secrets and the soft night, so that all who see her will love her.

I will give her a kiss as sweet as honey and as sharp as a bee’s sting, so that all who feel her embrace will go mad with love for her.

And I, the lofty voice said, I will give her a single wish.

It was night when I woke. The moon peered in through my bare window. Sleep clung to me as though many days had passed. I leaned against the window, pressing my face and my palms against the cool of the glass, trying to wake myself. Trying to feel something real.

My nails scratched across the pane, carving sharp gashes in their wake. I pulled my hands away. Moonlight glinted across my hard metallic nails. I turned them round, watching the silver play across their length. I pressed the tip of one nail into the skin of my other hand. It slid into the flesh easily. A bead of blood welled up and pooled in my palm.

I shuddered and icy hands wrapped round my arms, chilling me to the bone.

We love you, they whispered, their breath misting icy in the air.

More hands joined the first, clutching me, stroking me, caressing my hair. It fell down over my shoulder in a great raven cascade, the colour of secrets and the soft night. Just as I had wished. Just as the little creatures had promised.

You’re so beautiful, the voice whispered, frosty breath against my cheek.

Their clammy hands crawled across me, touching every inch of me, holding me and crushing me in their chill embrace. I shrugged them off and they sighed and moaned, clawing, cloying, trying to pull me back.

I shoved them away and ran from my room and down the stairs, not daring to turn. The moans followed after me, whispering of their love, their devotion, their desire. What could they do to please me? They had come back from the dead for me, they cried, such was the strength of their love.

A knock at the door shook me through. The hands and the whispers withdrew to a hush behind me. Again it came, a persistent thud, pounding in my heart.

I edged forward, hand outstretched, and knocked the latch off. Reality yawned through the open door — the vision of Millie Johnson scrunching up her nose to stop her glasses sliding down, self-consciously slipping one wayward curl back behind her ear. She seemed no more real than the spirits who murmured behind me.

“Hi,” she said with forced brightness.

“Hello,” I returned, chasing the heaviness from my voice, the funereal drag.

“My grandma saw you at the funeral today.” She slipped a hand in her back pocket, then changed her mind and took it out again, letting it hang awkwardly back at her side. “She thought maybe you’d like a visit.”

Her eyes travelled across my face, caught in my eyes, escaped down my long black curls. “You changed your hair,” she said. “It suits you.”

She came forward, her awkwardness falling away, and held up one hand to touch my hair. My hand was still on the door, kept there as security in case I needed to slam it shut.

“You’re so beautiful,” she said.

I will give her raven black curls, the colour of secrets and the soft night, so that all who see her will love her.

Her face drew close to mine, her breath on my cheek.

I will give her a kiss as sweet as honey and as sharp as a bee’s sting, so that all who feel her embrace will go mad with love for her.

Those scritch scratch voices echoed in my head. I stepped back, clutching her arm before she sealed the kiss. Sealed her fate.

She gasped and looked to her arm as blood pooled across the sleeve of her denim jacket. I pulled my hand away, one long knife-nail withdrawing from her flesh.

“What the hell?” she cried, staring at me in horror.

“It’s not — ” I began, but my words fell away. It was too late for explanations, too late to tell my secrets now.

She staggered back along the front path, clutching her arm, eyes heavy with accusation. Blood welled around her fingers. She took off down the street. I slammed the door.

There was one place I could go now.

Ghost-hands brushed me, catching my clothes and hair, filling my bones with the cold of the grave. They promised only death. As they tried to catch me, to lure me, I threw them off and pushed on to the back door, to the garden. To my only place of peace.

The crows still stood sentinel as I walked across the shady green of the moonlit grass. At the bottom of the garden, behind the old oak, a forest had grown up. The forest of my dream.

From around the side of the old oak’s trunk, a shadow crept — tall, spindle-limbed, dressed in a cloak of blackest feathers. Horns like black branches grew from her head. She met my gaze with her own hard bird eyes.

“You have come for your wish?” she asked, with that same vast and lofty voice, as huge as the night sky.

“Kiss me,” I said.

Her face cracked into a vicious grin, all teeth and malevolence. “You seek to enslave me with my own tricks? Oh, poor little Malice. If you drive me mad with your honeyed kiss, I doubt you’ll notice the difference.”

“There’s no place for me here,” I said. “I seek a place at your court. Better that you love me.”

She came towards me, faster than flight. She smelled of forest floor, of wet grass at night, of carrion, of secrets. She drew me to her and whispered in my ear, “My sweet girl, I always knew you’d be mine.”

Our lips met, just a brush at first and then the wet taste of her inside my mouth. As bitter as secrets and just as alluring. All the secrets she’d eaten over the years, I tasted each one in turn. My shame, my anger, my hurt, my rage, my desire, my frustration. And the slow dying of my heart, laid down in a nest of black feathers.