HALLOWEEN SPECIAL EDITION CHALLENGE WINNER
The crow carcass is heavy against the toe of my leather boot. I nudge it onto its back and two black legs stick up like twigs. The dark gray chest, hidden by the inky black wings before, remind me of my mother’s soft gray hair.
“It’s stiff,” I say. What I don’t say is that we never should have gone to the seer. I glare at Greta from the corner of my eye.
“Just grab it, Lucy.” She wrings her hands in her long skirt, clenching and releasing the red-checked gingham. I still can’t figure out what she’s supposed to be–a picnic? Not that my costume is any better. Black skinny jeans, black hoodie, too much eye-liner, and my second-hand Dr. Martens. I hadn’t even tried.
I bend over the bird, half-expecting it to flutter to life and fly off–that’s the kind of day it’s been–but it really is dead. I pull my sleeve down to cover my fingers and pick up the creature by a wing. The feathers shine in the dishwater dusk as if they’ve been greased. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
Greta gives me one of those pitiful, eyes-the-size-of-moonpies looks and says, “You don’t have to.”
But of course I have to.
I didn’t have to go to the fair with her. We’re seventeen–too old for costumes and candy, even if it’s free. I didn’t have to drink the cheap whiskey that made me cough and sputter–but Dean had brought the bottle. I didn’t have to go into Miss Veronica’s tent of secrets–though Greta tugged my hand so hard that one might not have been a choice.
Miss Veronica’s tent wasn’t a tent at all. It was the front room of the rec center, done up with electric candles and fake cobwebs. I expected Miss Veronica to be the town librarian or someone else we knew, but her dark eyes and wavy hair were unfamiliar. Her dress looked a hundred years old–one of those things with a tie up the back that pinches in the waist. But Miss Veronica’s waist didn’t need much pinching. Greta, who couldn’t handle her liquor, clung to my hand and hung a step behind me.
“You’ve come to talk to someone.” Miss Veronica lifted a bony finger and pointed at me.
“You’ve got the wrong girl.” I smirked and pushed Greta forward. Some all-knowing seer.
Miss Veronica smiled and nodded to two folding chairs set up across from her. The table had no crystal ball, just a single candle with a real flame, burned halfway down. “Someone in your life died recently.”
I set my jaw and didn’t say anything, but Greta squeezed my hand. Her eyes bulged. I shook my head. Everyone has someone who died, and six years wasn’t exactly recently.
“It’s your mother, isn’t it? All Hallow’s Eve is a magical time. The barriers between our world and the next weaken.”
I still didn’t say anything, but I leaned forward in my chair. My hand was slick against Greta’s.
Miss Veronica closed her eyes. “Stare into the flame, child. Concentrate on her spirit. She wants to come to you.”
I stared out the window at the blood red leaves clinging stubbornly to the trees. It had been a long, warm October and I was flushed from my thick sweater.
Miss Veronica opened one eye, then both. “You don’t want to talk to your mother?”
I fought to keep my voice even. “I just don’t go in for witches and all that.”
She pulled back and screwed her smooth face into a pinch. “Witches and seers are different. Witches act, fingers in everything, always stirring the pot. Seers simply see. The past. The present. The future. Beyond the veil.”
Greta kicked my foot and I rolled my eyes. “Fine.” I stared into the flickering candle.
The flame soothed me. It’s dance, combined with the alcohol, hypnotized me.
Miss Veronica’s voice was deep and mellow. “You were a late child. Late in your mother’s life, late to being born. She died five–no–six years ago. It was unexpected. There was so much blood. Pain. Pain in your heart for her.”
Of course there was pain. What daughter wouldn’t hurt, losing her mother? But my eyes blurred and I couldn’t be sure the watering wasn’t from tears. Greta’s hand fell on my shoulder.
“She wants to talk to you. She has a message for you.”
“What is it?” Greta gasped.
Miss Veronica shook her head so violently that I forgot to stare into the candle. “No. No. She can’t get through.”
Greta’s sharp nails dug into my shoulder until I shook her hand off and asked, “What do you mean she can’t get through?”
Miss Veronica sighed, her shoulder’s slumping. “She’s trying to get through to you, but they won’t let her. She has an important message. She’s worried.” She shook her head, sending her locks dangerously near the flame. “She’s frantic.”
I swallowed a hard lump in my throat. I wanted to whimper for my mother. As my lips parted, a cool mist covered half of my face. I grabbed my jeans and pinched.
“You feel her. She’s here with us, but they won’t let her talk.” Miss Veronica’s voice rose.
That’s when the crow hit the window. It came in as a big black shadow and thudded against the glass, which rattled in the wooden frame. It was too similar to the screeching of car tires and shattering of windows from years ago, and my head swam.
Greta squeaked. I jumped to my feet. Even Miss Veronica startled and whirled around.
“It’s a sign,” Greta whispered, her voice tremulous.
Miss Veronica shook her head. “It’s your mother.”
“My mother?” I peered out the window. The sun was red-orange as it dipped behind the mountains. The bird lay on the grass, either stunned or dead.
“It’s her message. She did everything she could to get it to you.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “But what’s it mean?”
Miss Veronica turned to us, her eyes hard, her lips set. “You must eat the bird. Then you will know.”
I can’t believe a grown woman told two teenage girls to eat a crow. Not only is the idea disgusting, but they are dirty birds, surely full of disease. Eating one can’t be safe. We decided Miss Veronica was bonkers and the bird was a coincidence. We walked halfway home, not saying much.
Then we turned around. Because what if it was my mother? The bird couldn’t explain the things Miss Veronica had known or the cold sensation on my skin. And now I’m holding a dead crow.
I turn for home again, holding it away from my leg. “How do we, you know, prepare it?”
We end up looking it up on YouTube. A pair of tattooed hands plucks the feathers along the breast and cuts out two chunks of meat as if they’re butter. I try to do the same, but the feathers stick and the skin is tougher than I expected. The knife requires pressure, and there’s the sickening crack of bones more than once before I get my two slabs of meat.
There’s no time for a marinade–I’m not cooking them for flavor, anyway–so I skip the rest of the recipe and fry them in oil. They sizzle and the room stinks of dark, gamey meat. Greta opens the window and I gag.
“I’m not going to eat that. It’s disgusting,” I say.
Greta doesn’t say anything.
I cut off a tiny piece and put it into my mouth. It isn’t so bad, a bit like chicken, except stronger and stringier. I fight down another gag and swallow.
Before I can say “delicious” in a sarcastic way a shiver runs through me. I cut off a second bite, slightly bigger.
When it hits my stomach, pain shoots through my abdomen, as if my body wants to expel the offensive bird. But I take another bite.
My arms prickle with goosebumps. My shiver turns into a full shaking. My goosebumps turn into pins and needles. It’s as if my skin is on fire and being split open by tiny pinpricks.
Somewhere, far away, a scream pierces my shaking. Mother? No. Greta.
“Stop it!’ she shrieks. “Stop it, stop it, stop it.”
The fork falls from my hand. I try to pick it up again, but my fingers can’t grip it. The bones in them have lengthened. My flesh turns black. No. Not flesh. Feathers. I’m covered in feathers. Oily, stinking, feathers.
I scream, but the sound comes out as a caw.
A low whistle sounds from far away. It’s mellow and soothing. I need to be near it. Wings flap and my body lifts from the table. Out the open window. Seeking the exquisite whistling.
Miss Veronica’s red-painted lips stop their call and turn up into a smile. “There you are my pet.”
I struggle to yell at her, but it comes out as a series of chitters and clicks.
“Tsk tsk. Such language,” she mocks, placing me in a brass cage and giving another soothing whistle. “I only said that a witch and seer were two different things. I never said which I was.”
She laughs and clips the cage shut. I click my beak at her again.
“Oh, by the way, your mother really did have an important message for you.” Her eyes flare bright. “She said, ‘Don’t eat the crow.'”
Koji A. Dae is a queer American writer living in Bulgaria. She has work published with Short Edition, Honey & Lime Literary, Luna Station Quarterly, and ParABnormal Magazine. When she’s not writing she spends her time searching for second-hand bargains and dancing the blues. You can find out more about her at kojiadae.ink