King of Crows

For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!

This Week’s Inspiration: Kenku

Trigger Warning: Gore, Drug Use

A lonely traveller takes refuge in an abandoned church only to find it home to a bizarrely intelligent murder of crows. While at first enjoying the crows’ company and generosity, he comes to find the birds have a desire for something much stranger than a few loaves of bread and some shiny trinkets.

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“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”

– Voltaire

I bought a Greyhound ticket without caring where I ended up, stretching my limited budget as far as it would go. When I rolled off the bus in Carpenter and collected my duffel, dawn was only just quickening in the eastern sky. I lingered inside the station. Once my fellow travellers had departed the building was almost empty. The security guard stared at me until I went to sit outside.

Before I left Gainesville I’d found a bunch of prepackaged food in the dumpster behind a 7/11. They nestled among a clutter of unwashed clothing in my duffel. Picking a sandwich for breakfast, I ate without much enthusiasm. Despite the preservatives, the bread was stale enough that I struggled to swallow and the egg felt disturbingly warm in my mouth.

Crows scavenged around the edges of the parking lot. Sharp beaks stabbed at empty bits of trash and squawked in frustration. After a few minutes, a couple of braver crows hopped over to where I was sitting. Their coats were glossy and black. Eyes glittered with intelligence. I had half the sandwich left and not a lot of desire to finish it. The crows studied it intently, cawing.

“Here, enjoy.”

Tearing small chunks off with my fingers, I tossed them to the birds. The first two quickly snapped up the eggs and bread. Other crows were attracted to the free meal. I pulled apart the rest of the sandwich and distributed it, trying to be as fair as possible.

“Eat of this bread, it is my body. Do so in remembrance of me,” I muttered.

“Hey! Don’t feed them!”

I looked around, confused. The security guard I’d seen inside poked his head out of the nearest doorway. He scowled with an expression I’d seen from petty authority figures many times before.

“What?”

“The birds, don’t feed them!”

“They’re not hurting anything, man.”

“We don’t want them hanging around, digging through the trash and crapping on everything.”

“Okay, okay, sorry.” I turned to the crows, standing and dusting the crumbs off my shirt. “Sorry, guys, that’s all there is.”

I dropped the sandwich packaging in a trash bin and shouldered my duffel bag. The security guard watched me take off across the parking lot. As did the crows, silent and still.

As morning broke, I walked the length of this new town known as Carpenter. New to me that was, at a glance it was old and infirm, dying. Soon I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Travelling across middle America I’d seen plenty of towns like Carpenter. Swathes of shambling houses and derelict factories where industry had dried up and highways had turned away. Nothing was open along the main street at that time of morning but going off appearances at least half the businesses would never open again. Outside the centre of town were ranks of one and two story homes, most of them tired and in need of upkeep. I felt conspicuous and tried to avoid looking like I was casing the neighbourhood. All the same, I spotted a lot of houses with sure signs they were temporarily uninhabited or totally abandoned. Picking a place to squat was tricky though. I had to find somewhere my stuff wouldn’t be at risk from other potential squatters or from caretakers, and I wouldn’t be seen coming or going.

Eventually I came across an old church that looked long abandoned. Wirelink fencing surrounded a yard filled with overgrown grass. Pieces of siding had flaked off the walls of the church and many of the windows were broken but the steeple stood straight and tall. On a whim, I squeezed through a gap between two sections of fencing. Chains held the church’s front doors closed and anti-trespassing notices were taped to both sides. I found another entrance around the back of the church.

The church’s interior was mostly intact. At the rear of the building were offices, storage, and a kitchen, all cleaned out, empty except for dust and mouse shit. The main part of the church, however, was filled with rows of pews too long, heavy and unwieldy to remove. I’d been to church less than two dozen times in my life. My family were Christmas and Easter-only Christians and even then not what you would call devout. Yet the pews brought back memories of squirming uncomfortably against the seats, feeling too warm in my child-sized suit and wishing I was anywhere else as the preacher droned on and on. The stage, if that was what the raised section at the front of the church was called, still hosted a podium and an old piano off to one side, again too big and unwanted to move. On the wall above the podium was a conspicuously bare space where I assumed a cross or crucifix had been removed.

Broken glass of many colours glittered on the floor. Rocks had been thrown through most of the stained glass windows. A musty animal smell hung in the air. Accidentally, I kicked a bottle across the floor. Everything was silent but suddenly there was an explosion of black feathers and harsh squawks from behind the pews. Crows, more black crows, they must have been nesting behind the pews and I’d disturbed them. A flock in search of a pastor, or a messiah. Cawing, they circled the rafters. Some came to rest on the sills of the broken windows while others landed on the pews. Shiny, black eyes regarded my icily.

“Sorry about that.” My voice echoed in the hollow space.

Backing away, I moved to the other side of the church. The crows preened and ruffled their feathers. Nests of thin branches and torn material nestled among the pews. Odd debris littered the nests, shiny candy wrappers and colourful plastic, bits of metal and pretty rocks.

“Oh, wow.”

My attention went to the other side of the church. Half a dozen pews had been shoved back from the wall to create an open space. Across that wall, someone had painted a mural stretching at least twenty foot under the high windows. The subject matter was a parody even I recognised as ‘The Creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel. God reached from the Heavens to bestow life on Adam, the pair extending their arms and brushing fingertips together. The graffiti version was much more colourful, with a neon mosaic background behind the two figures. God, robed and bearded, had been given bulbous eyes and cheeks with a tongue sticking out of his mouth. Adam had been captured to a degree shockingly faithful to the original painting but with the addition of some hipster tattoos and a trucker cap. Someone else, as a later addition, had scrawled a large additional cock down the inside of Adam’s thigh in black marker.

“That’s really cool,” I said aloud. “I wonder why it’s tucked away in here, where nobody can see it? Probably just needed a canvas, and put it out there on Instagram or something.”

The church had been used by other people as well, probably teenagers. Beer cans and trash carpeted the ground in front of the mural. I decided the church might be the best place to crash until I found a better option. It was empty and draughty, but the weather wasn’t cold enough yet to worry much about that. I always felt weird squatting in houses that had clearly been foreclosed on or otherwise abandoned. I couldn’t escape feeling I was an intruder in someone else’s home. But the church, God’s home, was meant to be open to everyone anyway, so I felt like it would be alright. Plus, I would have company. Glancing back, I saw crows hopping from pew to pew, many still watching me. I set my duffel down on one of the nearest benches.

“Mind if I move in? I don’t know how long I’ll be staying but, yeah, I’ll keep to my side, okay?”

The closest crow tilted its head at me. Others lined the windows and pews but began to ignore me. Before doing anything else, I dug deep in my bag and came away with a tightly rolled plastic baggie. Filling the bottom of the bag were crumbled rocks of meth, like foggy bits of hard snow. Just at the sight of it, my body ached with fresh need. I fished a glass pipe out of the bag as well and tapped out just enough of the drug to keep me going. I only had enough for a couple more hits after this one. Firing it up, the smoke hit the back of my throat in a scorching blast. My head swam but a new strength, a new life, entered my body, radiating from my chest. Sitting back, I exhaled with a groan. Crows looked on without judgement.

Filled with a fresh sense of purpose, I tucked my bag under one of the pews and found a hiding space in the back of the church for my meth, and then I hit the street again. Things were waking up, at least as much as things were ever likely to wake up in the dying town. I walked back to the main street where some of the stores were opening.

Technically, I was homeless, and yes, I was a methamphetamine connoisseur, but if I was going to find a job I couldn’t look like either one of those things. To get meth, and everything else I needed to live, I needed money. In a small town like this begging didn’t pay much so I needed a job, and I needed to look reasonably respectable. First thing I did was buy a membership at a gym in town. That meant I had a place to shower and potentially wash my clothes. A place I was guaranteed I could charge my phone and use wifi. The receptionist looked surprised to meet a new face. I checked but the gym didn’t have any jobs available. Neither did the grocery store, the hardware store, or half a dozen other places where I asked in person. I claimed I was staying in town with a friend but some people I spoke to eyed me with suspicion.

When I returned to the church, hungry, tired, and craving another hit, I found the crows waiting for me. About two dozen of them flapped among the pews, flitting in and out of the broken windows. I packed another pipe and cooked it, holding the smoke deep in my lungs. I needed more than that to keep my body going though, and took a couple of sandwiches from my duffel bag. The birds showed more interest in me then, like the crows at the bus station.

Try as I might, I could hardly keep the sandwiches down. I started pulling them open, tearing them to chunks and tossing them to the birds. My fingers ripped apart a wholemeal sandwich with tuna.

“Lo, and although he had only a few bread and fishes to work with, he managed to make enough food to feed his entire flock!”

Crows cawed happily, echoing among the shell of the building. A few more flew in through the shattered windows. It wasn’t long before the crows had happily gobbled all the half dozen sandwiches I’d packed.

“I am a generous god! The king of crows!”

In a frenzy of activity, I organised my meagre belongings and cleaned up the space where I intended to sleep. Dragging one of the pews around in a half-circle, I pushed two of them together bench-to-bench and laid some bedding over the seating. I arranged my clothes in order of wearability. The beer cans and trash I swept away with my feet to clear the space in front of the mural.

God in the graffiti mural rested on a bright pink and fluffy cloud. The faces of his angels or saints or whatever they were in the original were only vague smiley faces in this reproduction. The colour and way it bulged made the cloud look like a cartoon brain.

“I’m pretty sure there was, like, a theory about the original version of this painting. From Michaelangelo, the painter, not the turtle,” I said, lecturing to the crows. “I remember it from art class way back in high school. Some doctor noticed the shape surrounding God looked like a brain. Michelangelo had a bunch of other secret messages hidden in his paintings for the Sistine Chapel and they thought he was trying to send the message that God came from the brain, not from Heaven. That people just imagined him, created him from thought instead of God creating man. That’s crazy, right? That he could hide something like that in the church, right in front of everyone?”

I napped. When I woke up, the sky was turning purple through the windows. A feathered gargoyle loomed over my bed. I thrashed backward with a strangled cry. The crow sitting above me cawed and flew off. Another couple stood down the other end of the pews I’d pushed together, watching me sleep. I wondered if maybe crashing in the church wasn’t such a great idea.

“Damn, I’m hungry.” Rubbing my face I felt the rasp of stubble.

Crows cawed and flapped across the other side of the church. Shadows deepened as the day came to a close, so I only got glimpses of their dark bodies. One of the crows landed beside me and startled me again. It could have been the same bird there when I woke up. Something glittered in its mouth. It dropped the object into my lap and took off before I could really react.

Picking up what the crow had dropped, its packaging crinkled in my hand. A candy bar, one of my favourites in fact. I let out a bark of laughter. Obviously the glitter of the wrapping attracted the crow. The fact that it had dropped it on me right after I said I was hungry was a coincidence. I turned it over and over, making sure the packaging was intact, and decided I’d eaten worse so I unwrapped and chowed it down.

Another crow cawed, with a muffled edge to it, and landed at the far end of the pew. It also dropped something that thumped as it hit the wood. I sat up and crawled closer. It looked like another candy bar. I confirmed that’s exactly what it was, of another brand, intact, as I moved closer.

“What the hell?”

I jerked sideways as another crow landed next to me, and another. Bits of folded paper were trapped in their beaks. As they dropped the bits of paper in the fading light I could see it was money. Fishing my phone out of my pocket, I used it for light. One of the notes was a crumpled one dollar bill but the other was a reasonably crisp twenty. I grabbed for them quickly, as if they might disappear.

“Uh, thank you?” I said to the birds. “Seriously, is this for the food before? I mean, I’ll take it, but you’re welcome?”

Unbelievably, almost a dozen crows came one at a time or in pairs carrying gifts. Most dropped bills, cash, although a few had more candy. I scooped up the money and ate the candy bars. The money added up to nearly eighty dollars, which I organised in the fading light. I shook my head in amazement. I’d heard crows were intelligent, that they recognised individuals, used tools, recognised items of value, but I couldn’t believe their gratitude and intelligence. Maybe I’d had the luck to win the approval of a particularly intelligent murder.

I slept that night on the hard pews with the money tucked under the stack of clothes I used as a pillow. Dark wings and whispered noise filled my dreams, or maybe that was when I was half-awake. When dawn broke, ugly cries from the crows filled the church and roused me.

Hungry and withdrawn, I smoked the last of the glass. I had to really scrape the grains out of the baggie to pack my pipe. The relief I felt was tempered by the knowledge that soon I would need to find another dealer and I had no contacts here in town. At least I had some cash. I counted it again, struggling to believe where it had come from and that last night really happened. Crows cawed and flew around the church.

“Hold the place down while I’m gone, guys.”

Walking back into town, I had a shower and scrubbed some t-shirts in one of the sinks at the gym. While they dried, I used the wifi to scan through a couple of dating apps. I wasn’t interested in romance or even a hookup but in profiles with the kind of coded language that suggested they had drugs to sell. I swiped and sent some messages but didn’t get any immediate responses. I looked for jobs as well but came up dry.

After the gym, I went to the grocery store and bought some more nonperishables. Most of my newly acquired cash I wanted to save but I thought about how the crows had rewarded me for just a few stale sandwiches. I bought a couple loaves of bread, some whole grain stuff with lots of seeds, and some lunch meat. I wasn’t sure if I bought them out of gratitude or in the hopes of a richer reward. On my way back to the church I spotted a few dark birds watching from the eaves of buildings and wondered if they were a part of my flock, keeping an eye on me.

“Have you heard the good word? He is returned.” My voice carried as I let myself in through the back of the church again.

Crows hopped and flapped, fixing me with their black stares. I suppose under most circumstances it would have been creepy but standing by the pulpit I found it oddly cheering. I felt like I could have broken into a sermon. Returning to my bed, I started to remove the food I’d bought specifically for the birds.

Although I’d fed them last night, the crows massed as I opened the first loaf of bread. Pulling the slices to shreds, I hurled bits of bread among the pews. My flock happily gobbled the whole grain. I opened the lunch meat and tossed it to them as well. They snatched it out of the air with their beaks, throwing their heads back to swallow. It didn’t take long for me to go through all of the bread and meat.

“Okay, that’s it for now, guys.”

I sat down and ate some of my own food. The crows milled around but some took off through the windows. The mural sprawled across the wall behind me. After eating, I scrolled through my messages on the dating apps using some of my precious data but I hadn’t gotten any replies. The crows hopped and milled around the church.

“Let me tell you a thing or two-,”

For a while, I just rambled at the birds about whatever came to mind. I told them about my family and past. Drug lingo, and the way to recognise potential dealers on apps. The difficulties I’d seen in my travels, tribulations, and run-ins with petty authority figures like the bus station security guard. It helped to distract me from the growing cravings, which would only get worse and worse until I scored.

After a while, with a small commotion, half a dozen or more birds returned. I was gratified, surprised but pleased, to see them clutching more things in their beaks as they filtered through the broken windows. Sure enough, after being met by some of the other crows they flapped across the church to me.

“Guys, really! You shouldn’t have.”

I didn’t consider myself a thief or a con artist, but I’d done what I needed to do for money and drugs in the past. If I were one of those things though, this would be the easiest operation I’d ever seen. The first few crows dropped crumpled money, and then another candy bar. One crow dropped a small, wristwatch-shaped device.

“Is that a Fitbit?” Another crow dropped a shiny ring, an engagement ring, right into my outstretched hand. “Holy shit, is this real?”

For a couple of loaves of bread and some lunch meat, the crows had returned another haul. I counted and sorted the money. My flock backed up and cawed. Their notes were flat and strangled but there was something almost musical about it, like a choir.

“I feel like a Batman villain or something, a master criminal with his army of trained crows! Except I didn’t have to train you. Did someone else do that? Did someone train you to take money and stuff, and now they’re gone? It’s crazy! King of the crows, baby!”

After checking out my latest haul, I saw I had a message from one of the dating apps. My amazement and curiosity about whoever might have trained them was almost totally forgotten as my mind turned to scoring. I quickly tapped a couple more messages back and forth. Our language was coded but we arranged a time to meet and ‘party’, and a price for me to make a buy. I had enough cash now from my exchange with the crows to get me through a few days. My biggest worry was that the person I was messaging might be a cop, but the signals were constantly evolving to try to stay ahead of law enforcement and my contact got everything right.

Night fell, darkening the church. I dressed in a clean shirt and jeans. The crows seemed a little distressed that I was leaving, cawing, flapping and ruffling their feathers. I reassured them I’d be back. They acted like they understood and calmed down. Shaking my head, I left through the back of the church.

My contact called himself ‘Tyson’ on the app. We’d arranged to meet at a street corner in the suburbs not far from the church. Many of the houses were abandoned but not all. Lights shone in living rooms and on porches. Television noise filtered into the street.

A flat note sounded from one of the electrical wires overhead. I looked up and smiled. Several birds, black shapes against the black of night, lined one of the wires. I couldn’t say with certainty they were members of my flock but I felt certain all the same. Watching over me as I went to make the buy.

I spotted Tyson, a big man in a dark hoodie, standing on the corner from a long way off. I approached like a prey animal coming to a watering hole, looking around in all directions.

“Hey, you Tyson? From the app?”

“Yeah, got cash?” He replied, no flirting, no small talk.

“Uh, yeah, yeah, I’ve got cash.” I fumbled with the wad of bills I’d put aside for this purpose. “You are holding, right?”

“This is what you want, huh? This what you want?”

Tyson held up a plastic baggie filled with goodly sized chunks of ice. The meth seemed to almost glow in the reflective light of the nearest streetlamp. My mouth practically watered at the sight. I worried though why Tyson was holding it up for the world to see, instead of hiding it in his fist.

“Junkie faggot!” A voice came from behind my right shoulder.

My instincts for danger were pretty good after living on the street for over a year. But I was going through withdrawals and sucked in by the sight of the baggie in Tyson’s hand. I failed to register another man, also in a black hoodie, rushing up behind me. Something struck me just above the ear and my brain exploded into fireworks. Sprawling sideways, I barely managed to keep my footing. Tyson laughed and then waded in, hitting me across the face as well.

“What’s up, bitch?”

I staggered and fell, landing on one knee. The two men circled, laughing. Tyson had his drugs, his bait, wadded up in one hand. His partner held a phone, recording while they beat on me. Tyson’s partner aimed a kick at my side but I managed to grab at his foot, forcing him backward. While I was distracted, Tyson lashed out and kicked me between the shoulders. Paralysing pain shot in both directions up and down my spine.

Falling onto my hands and knees, I tried to ward them off. “Please! Why? I didn’t do anything to you!”

“You’re a fucking junkie!” Tyson’s partner kicked me in the shoulder, knocking me backward.

Overhead, I heard several piercing wails. At least a dozen crows perched on wires and houses nearby, watching. Would they only watch, or would they help me? Several flared their wings but waited on something. Tyson and the other guy both lashed out and kicked me in different places, still recording. I reached out a hand, beseeching.

“Please, help me!”

“Ha! No one’s going to help you, dumb bitch!” Tyson replied.

Squawking, one of my crows collided suddenly with Tyson’s face. Claws raked through his flesh. He cried out, mostly in surprise at first but then in pain. Before his partner could react, another bird hit him in the side of the head. With shocking speed, a ceiling of flapping wings and feathered bodies appeared above. Frantic cawing assailed our ears.

“What the shit?” Tyson’s friend with the phone looked around and then screamed as another bird hit him in the face, drilling its sharp beak right into his eye.

I hauled myself to my feet, holding my ribs. Crows surrounded the three of us but they parted around me like water, throwing themselves at the other two instead. It was more than a dozen, my whole flock must have been there.

“What is this?” Tyson yelled. “Where’d they come from?”

Moments later, Tyson let out a strangled yell. I looked back and saw several birds hooking their talons into his shoulders and chest. One of the crows speared his eyesocket and wrenched its head back and forth, twisting his eyeball until it came loose. The bloody prize dangled from its beak. Tyson screamed and slapped his hand over the socket. I lost sight of him and his friend between waves of feathery bodies.

I staggered free of the flock. Over the flapping and cawing I could hear the men screaming and panicking from within. Around us, more lights appeared in and outside houses. Tyson had picked the spot for their ambush well but people were coming to investigate.

I took off running. Of course, no one could blame me for the actions of a flock of birds but there were drugs involved. I’d been living homeless for a long time and my instinct was to avoid scrutiny as much as possible. My sneakers slapped the asphalt, my head aching and the spots where I’d been kicked paining me. The noise and chaos fell away behind me. I ran with total abandon, flailing to stay upright.

With nowhere else to run, I returned to the abandoned church. Behind me I heard sirens, police or ambulances. When I came in through the back entrance the whole church felt weirdly still and silent. I breathed hard, tasting the thick animal smell in the air. Using my phone, I scanned the pews. None of the birds had returned, only their feathers, nests, and other litter remained.

“Oh, shit, shit!” I started to almost hyperventilate.

I didn’t know if I wanted to be there when the birds came back, but I had nowhere else to go. My only option would be to go back to the bus station and use some of my ill gotten cash to buy another ticket to anywhere. But assuming the police arrived to see whatever became of Tyson and his friend, they’d be looking for someone responsible. Looking for loners trying to get out of town. I walked over to the other side of the church, under the mural, and curled up on the pews.

Dark wings filled the broken windows. I turned the light off on my phone and sat in darkness, afraid, like a child. With the moonlight and refracted light from outside, I could make out only impressions. Silently, they poured inside.

“Did you kill them?” I asked quietly. “Are you-, what are you going to do with me?”

One of the crows flew over holding something in its mouth. It dropped it on the pew with a small, wet noise. Fumbling, I turned on my phone’s flashlight again and recoiled. An eyeball, pulled from the head of one of the men who’d attacked me, lay in a smear on the bench. It looked deformed, squashed, and trailed a veiny collection of raw nerves. I let out a choked sound and shoved myself backward.

“I don’t want it! I don’t want it!”

Indifferently, the crow who’d brought the eyeball jerked forward and snared it again. They threw their head back, body convulsing, and swallowed the thing whole. I wondered if they’d left him with the other eye. I wondered if they’d left either of the two men alive. This was insane, it was maybe plausible to think someone could have trained the birds to recognise and steal valuables in return for bread. But who had trained them to kill? Or were they really intelligent enough to make those decisions on their own?

“I’ve got to go, I can’t stay here! I have to get out of here!”

I started to get up and grab my bedding. My duffel bag lay on a nearby pew, deflated. Before I could start stuffing clothes and bedding into the bag, another crow flapped its way over. The church was full of them again, flaring and ruffling their wings. Something else dangled from the crow’s mouth. At first I feared it was a flap of skin or flesh but I noticed a ripple of light cross its surface.

The baggie of meth Tyson had used to bait me hung out of the crow’s beak. Muffled, the bird let out a small caw. I gently took the baggie. Some of the birds gathered but they no longer seemed as threatening. Heads tilted back, they squawked with what almost sounded like celebration.

“You’re-, you’re really trying to help me, aren’t you? You really do like me?”

The crows continued to squawk. Outside, I still heard sirens in the distance. Here, I was safe, and wanted, and needed. I settled back down on one of the pews.

xXx

I didn’t even need to leave to get the crows food the next day, they brought me gifts anyway. In fact, most of the flock moved in and out like an assembly line, bringing me more presents than ever. More money, and candy, and some snack cakes still in their packaging. One crow brought me a ratty and dogeared paperback. There was more jewellery and shiny things. Someone’s cellphone. And later in the day, one crow brought me a couple of beers attached to the plastic rings of a six pack holder, labouring with the weight as it flew but somehow managing. It was amusing to think of the crow crimespree the local area must have been experiencing.

What wasn’t amusing was thinking of the pain and horror of last night. Although Tyson and his buddy had ambushed me for no reason, clearly setting me up so they would have a victim they could not only rob but also beat on camera and who wouldn’t go to the police, I wouldn’t have asked for them to be killed. I spent the whole day getting smoked up, until I was too half-crazed to think. In spite of what happened, and in spite of the stream of thieving crows coming in and out of the church, no one found me. No one came to investigate. I was certain if I tried to get out of town I’d be found and questioned. The police might even have the video Tyson’s buddy had been recording. So I stayed in my sanctuary with my subjects, the graffiti mural, and the piles of trash for company.

“King of the crows!” I shouted at the empty air, startling some of the birds.

Somehow, I lost track of the days. I stayed awake too long and slept when I passed out. Sometimes it was light out and sometimes it was dark. In my greed, I went through the baggie Tyson had been holding much faster than normal. It didn’t matter, the crows brought me more although I had no idea where they got it from. They brought me stolen pill bottles with names I didn’t recognise and some of those miniature liquor bottles like they have in hotel rooms, carried in their beaks.

The food lasted longer because I never had much of an appetite. Crows brought me packaged sandwiches and other food in a weird reversal of how our relationship began. But I couldn’t have everything, my phone ran out of battery and although I tried to use the stolen one the crows had given me I couldn’t unlock it. Other gifts from the crows became more esoteric, as if they were looking for the one thing that would please me most. Toys and bits of random junk, bits they’d stolen from cars, pages torn from magazines, a paintbrush, a screwdriver, and even branches and leaves. I accepted all of their gifts equally, not wanting to offend them. I was pretty sure if I wanted more money, or food or whatever, I would only have to ask. To pass the time, I sometimes told long, rambling stories or gave opinions on things I barely understood. Sometimes I held forth from the pulpit, other times while lounging in the pews with the graffiti mural behind me.

When I next woke up feeling sober, it was late in the afternoon. Crows mingled, flapping and hopping across the other side of the church. I rubbed my aching head and stiff neck. I felt eyes on me as the birds turned to watch me rise.

“Oh, what the fuck?”

More gifts from the crows had arrived while I was sleeping, there was nothing unusual about that at this stage. But I wasn’t sure just what the gifts were supposed to be. Branches and twigs, more tree stuff, but these didn’t look natural. They’d been clumsily twisted into strange designs, into things that looked like symbols. Things that wouldn’t look out of place above the pulpit if this was a different, more pagan church. Off to one side was a bird skull, polished white by the sun, every bit of flesh long rotted and baked off.

I moved closer and covered my mouth as if I was going to be sick. Hidden from my perspective at first glance was a dead squirrel. It lay on its back, fluffy tail fanned out between its legs. The creature’s chest had been pried open, tiny ribs snapped as if something had burst out from within. Resting beside it, in a smear of dried blood, was a tiny chunk of red meat that I recognised must have been the squirrel’s heart.

“What is this? This isn’t right!”

Somewhere, maybe while I was sleeping or maybe while I was out of my mind, a line had been crossed. The scene at the end of the pew reminded me of a kind of altar, a sacrificial victim and various accoutrements. Something the Aztecs would have created for one of their bloodthirsty gods. Somewhere during all of this, the crows’ gratitude had turned into some primitive form of worship.

“This isn’t right, this isn’t right.”

I scrambled backward and started grabbing my clothing. In the dying light, my flock filled the church. They watched with their eerily intelligent stares. Then, suddenly, one of them began squawking. A single, flat note that was all the same pregnant with meaning. Some of the surrounding crows flared their wings and turned to glare as if with anger. The first crow squawked again and again, the same note each time. Taking flight, they crossed the aisle and landed on a pew closer to me.

“What? What do you want?”

The bird cawed pointedly at me. I couldn’t understand it, of course, but I felt like I was being accused of something. Or being somehow denounced. A few other crows began to caw back and the church descended into a series of overlapping cries. The birds looked like they were arguing with one another.

Suddenly, another crow came out of nowhere and smacked into the first. They both spilled sideways. Before I’d really processed what was happening, several birds were on top of the first one. They pecked and snapped, and raked the dissenting crow with their claws. It fought back but seemed surprised. At first defiant, then pleading, it squawked and cried but the sound was buried by the violence of the other birds. My flock defending me from one who defied. Blood splattered black feathers. Their beaks scored against the first crow again and again, breaking it down into pieces.

“No, stop! Stop!” I said, too late. “Oh, shit!”

Turning away, I hurried toward the back of the church. I clutched my duffel in one hand but left most of my stuff behind. Seven or eight crows flew ahead of me and landed in the entry to the back hallway. Their eyes glittered in the dying light. Their faces were, of course, unreadable. I could have kept going, tried to charge and kick my way through them, but I didn’t want to risk them attacking me.

Staggering away, I started down the central aisle to the front of the church instead. The doors were chained shut but maybe I could squeeze through the gap. Maybe I could break the handles holding the chains. Maybe I was only panicking, and not thinking straight at all. It didn’t matter, I got half a dozen steps before something struck me across the cheek. Wings brushed my face. The crow that hit me quickly flew away and I lost it in the confusion. The birds were suddenly everywhere, airborne, sailing around the room.

“What are you doing? I thought we were friends!”

The crow that had squawked at me and been attacked was cast from one of the pews. Its body was bloody and broken, not reacting as it hit the floor. Something had shifted, whatever their plans. Things had hit a point of no return. I wondered suddenly if the angry crow hadn’t been denouncing me, but trying to warn me. I was hit in the back of the head and dropped my bag. I tried to protect my face and felt feathers and claws on the backs of my hands. Beaks made exploratory jabs at my exposed flesh.

“Stop it! I command you, I command you!”

The crows’ frenzy increased and I was lost in a storm of feathery bodies and sharp edges. When I lashed out, I only pushed them back momentarily. I knew now how Tyson and his friend must have felt. They didn’t go for my eyes or vulnerable points first, however. They attacked my skin and clothes. Their beaks and claws made small slices in my skin, my arms, my neck and scalp. My clothes were shredded, exposing my back and chest and more skin for them to slice open. And then I felt something even more invasive. I felt things being prodded and pushed into the gashes. Raising my eyes, I got glimpses of what they were doing. The crows were pulling out their own feathers with their beaks and were pushing the quills into the cuts so that they stuck and layered my arms, my chest and back.

“Stop! Stop!”

Beaks snapped shut on my lips. They worried and tore at the flesh, drawing blood. I felt the tips of their beaks rapping against my teeth. Squawks went off right next to my eardrums like firecrackers.

Through the fury of bodies, I got glimpses beyond my immediate surroundings of the graffiti mural on the wall of the church. The Birth of Adam, in hypercolour, with God’s goofy expression and hipster Adam. Afternoon sunlight streamed through the broken windows in just such a way to illuminate it. With a flash of inspiration, I understood or at least thought I did. God came from the mind, men created God for their own purposes. Maybe the crows had studied that image and maybe they came to the same conclusion. They decided to create a god for themselves. If one didn’t present Himself, they would make Him.

They came for my eyes last. The last thing I saw was sunlight dying on the mural.

Darkness fell outside the church and street lamps flickered to life. Everything fell silent, the cawing and the crying and the screaming. Eventually, the doors jumped as if hit from within. Something broke and the chains holding them broke away. The church was open again.

I stumbled into the cool of the night. Walking felt unnatural so I raised my arms to the sky. Ebony feathers, shiny as oil, fanned down my arms and covered my shoulders, my back and my chest. They covered my head and the back of my neck. Teeth clicked together in my lipless mouth, like a beak, with blood still running down my chin. My eyes were gone, leaving sockets, but I didn’t need them anymore. I could see in new ways now.

Belief is a powerful thing, even the belief of animals. Pray hard enough and someone might just answer, even if it’s not the being you expected. Get proactive about making yourself a deity and, well, He helps those who help themselves.

I entered the world anew. Not a man, or a bird, or a king, but a god.

======

Sean: This one was inspired at least in part by a dream I have. I was exploring an abandoned movie theatre despite the fact I was warned off by crows that seemed weirdly intelligent. As I got deeper the crows became increasingly more human, and someone had been using dark magic or mad science or something to change them to serve as minions or something. I know, it’s boring as hell hearing about other people’s dreams but I do get a lot of ideas from them. Tend to have a lot of dreams that have what I suppose are nightmarish imagery but I tend to enjoy them and go along for the ride.

As always, keep your eyes on the website for that one and check out what I’m putting down on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit if you’re so inclined. And thanks for reading!

Next Week’s Inspiration: Shambling Mound

2 thoughts on “King of Crows

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