1. Bird is the Word

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There was a time once where this would have been exciting for Mary. A divine call to adventure, a grand purpose, a great quest. It would have sent her heart racing, thoughts of glory filling her head.

These days it is nothing more than a nuisance.

“Look, I’m real sorry about the plight of your people, but I don’t do that kind of stuff anymore.”

The common crow in front Mary tilts its head like it doesn’t understand, the light coming through the overcast skies bringing out the opalescent sheen on its feathers. It is a handsome bird, well groomed with clear, beady little eyes. The corvid in front of her should be a well-chosen emissary, as pleasing to the eye as it is.

However, its voice leaves much to be desired.

“You must,” it croaks, and the human words sound terrible coming from its beak. The sound is akin to stone grating against stone, mixing with the dull blare of an out-of-tune oboe. The dry, inflexible tongue of the bird and warped vocal chords do not make for pleasant sounding human speech.

“My people-”

“Yah, no. I got that part. ‘War against evil rival clan.’ I got that,” Mary placates, lifting her hand out of her jeans pocket in a halting gesture. “But like I said, I can’t help.”

If the hard keratin of it’s slightly crooked beak could scowl or frown Mary has no doubt it would do so. As it is, the messenger settles for shaking itself hard enough to ruffle its own feathers up to make itself larger. It’s a threat display, she knows, to make it seem intimidating. However, it gives it a rather fluffy, disgruntled appearance which she finds hard to take seriously.

“The sage said-”

“The sage was wrong. Any hypothetical prophecy was wrong. More often than not, the organization dishing them out is tainted, corrupt, or otherwise compromised in some way. Trust me when I say you don’t need my help,” Mary advises, stuffing her hand back in her pocket. It’s cold out, and her fingers get numb rather quickly.

The crow shuffles on its scaly feet. The concrete sidewalk can’t be a great perch, but it’s doing its best. For that alone, Mary was willing to let it get its sale pitch out before she shooed it away, but now it’s starting to eat up more time than she planned for. She doesn’t have the patience for it. Maybe a little pity. Like, a tiny amount.

“That must not be,” the bird informs her imperiously.

She narrows her eyes at it. On days like these, she wishes she was more intimidating, an amazonian-esque figure that inspired respect and fear. Though she’s taller than usual, she doesn’t have the physique or striking facial features to impose like she wants to.

“You are reluctant. I will not fail in this. I will not give in until you acquiesce,” It croaks in that throaty, flat tone. Determination burns in its tiny little eyes, and something fizzes along Mary’s nerves.

“Listen here, bird,” Mary bites out. “I have a job now. I’m sorry, I am, but I can’t be seen in the park fighting a bunch of pigeons. Do you know what that looks like? How that reflects on me?”

The crow squawks in frustration.

“The dark clan encroaches on our territory! Our fledglings are in danger, our murder under threat, and you are vain enough to worry about your image?!” it cries. She must have really ticked it off because it’s opening its wings, flapping them threateningly.

A couple walking across the street peers over at the commotion. Mary does her best to look both startled and appalled at the bird, her hands flying up to her chest in a classic ‘oh my’ gesture, her face the picture perfect look of bewilderment.

It’s a rehearsed gesture. No sane person argues with random crows. She only hopes they just now took notice of her and they haven’t been watching. If they have been watching, well, she can play it off as an eccentricity or random encounter. People talk to random animals all the time.

Argue, not so much.

“Woah!” she exclaims, injecting just the right amount of startlement in her voice, craning her head to look directly at the couple.

“Are you guys seeing this?” she asks, forcing her dark eyes to go wide.

It’s a double ended attack method. It’s always a bit uncomfortable to be engaged by a stranger on the street, which might make them more anxious to move along. It also has the advantage of making her seem a little out of her depth.

However, it’s kind of a gamble. This could be one of those spiritual messengers and it may only exist on a metaphysical plane. If so, she kind of just messed herself over royally, but she’s pretty sure it isn’t one of them because it listed the local park as its territory. The spiritual realm could have a Galloway Walking Park, but she doubts it.

“It looks pretty angry. Maybe you’re near its nest or something?” calls out one of the men, and she nods, looking thoughtful. Good, not a spiritual messenger then. Also confirmed as a seemingly normal phenomenon.

“Didn’t think of that! Maybe I’ll just go around,” she calls back across the street and the couple nods in her direction as she shouts a quick ‘thanks’ after them. They don’t respond, too busy going on their merry way.

When they turn the corner, Mary latches her attention back on the bird. She finds herself irritated at its persistence, and if she were less controlled, her tawny cheeks would flush with the agitation she feels.

“You need to leave,” she orders.

“Not until you agree to help,” the bird snaps back.

“After that display?” She scoffs. “I think not. Either you leave now, or I start getting rocks to throw at you.”

The bird takes an ungraceful step back, but she doesn’t hold that against it. It’s meant for flying and perching, not walking on flat ground.

“You would do that? Harm a messenger seeking your aid in a time of need?” it asks.

The question stings a little because generally, she’s not entirely cold-hearted. If she could live properly doing quests like this, jumping worlds and what not, she would. Heck, she’s tried doing just that.

Tried being the operative word.

“There are others,” she says.

There are, too. She’s not just lying to make the bird go away. There are tons of others who can do exactly what she does, and many are far more skilled than her. It’s not even like this is a new thing, this talking animal and hero nonsense.

The paranormal, supernatural, and the supersensory have been recorded throughout the history of mankind. It’s in the records on the tombs in Egypt and the oldest written tales of China. It’s riddled throughout the history of Europe by way of illuminated manuscripts with knights fighting snails, and wood cutter’s sons finding geese in trees. It’s in every Abrahamic holy book and every indigenous societies architecture, from the temples of India to the Aztec pyramids. Weird things happen, people see it, people interact with it, yadda yadda yadda.

Only these days, despite all the evidence gathered together to support the supernatural, people reject it. They call it unscientific.

Mary is fairly certain that if anyone actually bothered to try and quantify some of it, they wouldn’t find it to be as hocus-pocus as it’s made out. For instance, many corvids can mimic human language, which is a well-recorded phenomenon. They have also been documented gathering in social groups, having a loose flock structure, familial bonds, and uncanny intelligence.

But try to make the leap from talking social hyper-intelligent bird species to bird soliciting help for its clan and suddenly she’s taking things too far.

“They will not do,” the crow says in answer to her previous question, shaking her from her musings. She gives it a deadpan look, tucking an errant strand of brown hair behind her ear. They keep escaping her short ponytail, and some days she wonders why she tries.

“Are you even trying here? Because I’ve said no. I offered a good reason why -which I didn’t have to do because I don’t owe you anything- I did threaten you, which, apologies for that I suppose, but at that point it had already reached harassment and now I’ve offered alternatives, which you have declined. I tried, and I am asking you to respect the boundaries I have made,” Mary says pointedly.

The crow stares at her warily, still thinking of her threat. It opens its beak cautiously.

“Perhaps if you saw for yourself,” it hedges carefully. “You would see the damage done.”

Mary closes her eyes and tries to think of prime numbers like Simon said. It doesn’t work. If anything she just gets more frustrated when she gets to thirty-seven and keeps having to check her mental math just to be sure.

“Ozymandias-”

“Areomidas.”

“Areomidas,” she corrects. “I understand that this is an emotionally, mentally, and probably physically trying time for you. However, I am a person, not a character that you can engage to join your party when you need-”

“What?” the bird demands.

Mary backtracks, this time trying to avoid references the animal might not understand.

“I have a life. I am not someone who has to drop everything when someone else needs me,”  Mary tries very slowly, willing it to understand. “I owe no debts and am bound by no oath.”

“The clan-” it says, ignoring the statement she just made.

Mary hardens her heart and starts walking away from the bird. Simon is expecting her and he said he was making a hazelnut torte, so she focuses on that as her goal. He always makes them to perfection, roasting the hazelnuts himself, making sure they are perfectly skinned before grinding them into a base flour. Partnered with the faintly spiced cream he whips to ice it with, it makes for a deceptively light and endlessly satisfying treat.

The crow squawks as she steps around it, startling enough to upset its balance. It beats its wings a few more times and starts hopping after her, still talking.

Mary walks faster.

The bird adjusts its pace to match.

Mary starts running.

She hears the flapping of wings as the crow takes to the air and Mary groans out loud. It’s almost impossible to get rid of a tail that can fly when she is stuck on the ground, but that’s her life right now. That’s where she’s at. Running from a bird not even a fifth of her height and not even close to her weight.

Her shoes beat against the ground and the chill air rushes in and out of her lungs easily. She can feel the steady throb of her pulse through her body, her arms in time with her legs, her upper body canting forward. The purse dangling across her shoulders by her leg keeps thumping uncomfortably on her thigh and she regrets choosing it. It matched well with her shirt, and she had woken with the optimistic thought that maybe today would be one of those days where she wouldn’t have to bolt.

Obviously wrong, but there is something to be said about efforts made. She isn’t sure what it is, but the fact remains people are probably talking about it somewhere. There’s seven point four billion of them on earth, including her. By sheer chance of probability, somebody is talking about it somewhere in some context.

She eats up ground as she goes, passing between the average houses of the neighborhood. Perhaps a bit wore down, and maybe a few could use new gutters, siding, and general structural repair, but it’s not the worst neighborhood. A kind of nice one, in her opinion. Not a brand new car in sight, but there’s a kind of community agreement that nobody says anything to anyone because everyone’s business is their own.

Mary jerks around a corner, scanning the skies. The dot isn’t anywhere to be seen but that doesn’t mean much. It’s a bird and with all the buildings and greenery, it is hard to differentiate from the many others of its kind.

She squints her eyes to see better, even though theoretically speaking lowering her eyelids should make her see less.

Do crows have good eyesight, like eagles or hawks, she wonders? Or are they like seagulls, who only have average to poor eyesight? She never really needed to know, but she might add another strange question to her search history later.

Deciding that maybe she’s thinking about this a little too hard, she slows to a jog. And because she doesn’t want to show up slightly sweaty and out of breath, drops the jog to a walk.

Simon’s house is like a beacon to her, although nothing in its appearance should make it stand out that way. It’s the same mass produced, side gabled architecture of the rest of the houses around them.  The walkway made from concrete that was poured decades ago, fractured and stained by previous owners. The structure could use a little tender loving, the side wall stones cracked here and there, and the windows in need of a good washing, but it feels like a home.

Then again, it might have something to do with the person she can see through one of the windows.

She doesn’t bother knocking, opening the creaking screen door and the more solid one behind that with an easy sense of familiarity. The smell that greets her is sweet and warm, richly accented with the earthy scent of nuts and spices.

She may accidentally slam the door behind her in her excitement to lock out the outside world and hide in this haven.

“Hello?” calls a baritone voice.

“It’s me, Simon,” she calls back, plodding her way to the ugly brown sofa before allowing herself to fall face first into the cushions. They smell like chemical flowers, only the slightest hints of musty butt sweat making its way through. Someone has been sprucing the place up.

Fancy.

“Your shoes better be off,” he says, his voice closer than it was a few second ago. She rolls guiltily on the couch, contorting to reach her feet and get rid of the evidence before he comes in the room.

It’s too little too late, though, because her large friend walks out of the kitchen just in time to see her throw the incriminating running shoes in the direction of the doorway where they tumble to a stop behind the closed door. She looks up to see his pursed lips and suddenly feels guilty.

“Mary,” he says in a voice it usually take mothers at least three years to master.

“I know. I’m sorry,” she says, attempting to sound contrite. It doesn’t really work, coming out a bit more sullen than she intended.

He sighs, knowing the tone, drifting close enough to muss up her hair in a way he definitely knows she hates. She swats at his hand in the manner a bee might sting a bear. Which is to say, it’s probably more annoying than anything else.

“What happened? Was it a ghost?” he asks, sounding a little condescending. Not his fault, she thinks. Simon’s just like that.

“No, it was a talking crow,” answers Mary, silently thankful. Ghost are even more pushy, hopelessly confusing, often times muddled, and always so entitled. Not to mention the old ‘hey, your dead loved one/the previous owner of this house/your ancestor has some words/deed it wants to be done/said’ is never a fun conversation to have.

“Portent of death kind, an omen of doom, or ominous messenger?”

“None of the above. Apparently, the crows in Galloway are having a turf war with the pigeons and wanted outside help,” she laments.

“Turf war?”

“Far as I can tell, the local murder of crows is convinced the pigeons are evil, a plague that’s growing out of control in the endless struggle to find stray rags to line nests with and the primest garbage cans to rob.”

Simon snorts, releasing her hair from his grasp and graciously allowing her to try and smooth it back down without actually seeing it. A trying effort, as always.

“Man, nature is wild,” he voices, pausing for a moment to scan her over. He notes the rumpled clothes and the tangled strap of her purse. “What’d you say?”

Mary shoots him a disgruntled look, her sharp eyebrows furrowed slightly, her thick lips pulled into a tight line.

“I said no, Simon. I can’t just go around and throw down with the local fauna anymore.”

“I don’t know. Some of the warmest memories I have of you are you arguing with animals.”

“They are warm memories because you’re a sadist who sat on the sidelines and laughed at me,” she says without much heat.

Simon laughs as if to provide an example. It’s a rich sound, erupting somewhere from the center of his chest and spilling from his mouth into the air.

“Yah,” she gripes, rolling over to stuff her face into the couch. Her next words come out muffled. “Just like that.”

“Pout all you want, Mary,” Simon tells her, humor lacing his voice. “See if you can eat with your mouth where we put our butts. Bet the thing is full of silent but deadlies.”

“It really is.”

“Aww, you nasty,” he chides gently, nudging her leg with his hand, spurring her to kick out blindly. She doesn’t connect or even come close. “Life must be so hard.”

Mary sniffs sharply in a decidedly prissy manner, only to immediately regret it when the chemical-flower-slightly-butt smell imbeds itself into her nose, and probably her psyche. She is forced to turn her head to the side to gag a little, letting spice scented air cleanse her sinuses.

“Only as hard as it is for you,” she says, and he smiles down at her because he knows she means it. If there’s one thing Mary knows, it’s that. Her situation may be a little specialized, but it’s heavily populated world out there and saying that she’s the only one going through this is the same as saying there’s only one true accountant or server. Empirically, statistically, and patently untrue. It’s a weird situation, one that many might not understand, but so is Quantum physics.

The difference, of course, is that no one talks much crap about physicists beliefs unless they are also physicists or students thereof. Then it devolves into an incomprehensible jargon throw down until everyone is lost and the correct person isn’t proven correct until twenty years after they’ve died. So maybe the comparison was a little off.

Simon reaches out his hand and she takes it. He doesn’t so much help her to her feet as he does yank her hard enough to send her stumbling in a vaguely vertical direction as he makes his way to the kitchen.

“Sounds like a long day. Deserves some cake,” Simon says. She appreciates his existence.

Mary rolls her eyes. “I knew there was a reason I stayed your friend.”

“Yah, because you get punked by talking birds and come whining to me in the safety of my house.”

“That hurts, Simon,” Mary replies in a tone that reveals it does not hurt in the least.

He nudges her with his elbow, and she grunts when it comes into contact with her ribs. Plainly speaking, his elbow is on scale with his whole body, which is to say it’s big. It shouldn’t be able to wedge itself between her bones like that.

Birds shouldn’t be able to talk either, but that happens too.

 

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12 COMMENTS

  1. This is interesting. I’m a bit confused as to what is going on, but I’m sure it will become clear in future updates.

  2. I have always enjoyed the idea of urban/modern fantasy. So I look forward to seeing one of my fav. authors writing about it!

  3. This is pretty cool. Kinda wondering why the crows don’t just make an arrangement with some impressionable person. Fabric in exchange for shinies, or just things the crows noticed you lost on accident. Like I’m pretty sure most people would be willing to exchange worn out socks for the guarantee that if they ever lose their keys outside that it will be retuned quickly. Now I’m thinking of crows running an insurance/protection racket. I’m sorry I came to compliment you’re story and now I’m going on about hypothetical crow mafias. Thank you for writing, I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

    also I leave you with the image of some cute puffed up crow “Nice credit card ya got there. It be a shame if someone flew off with it.” nodding towards the food “say my chicks would really enjoy that, mind sharing?”

  4. I’ve been with you since the old days of OTRATS. And I can’t explain in words just how amazing it is to watch your writing grow and grow. Keep it up chica. I have no doubt that one day you’re gonna be on New York Times best selling and having interviews with Conway and every other person out there. You probably get these comments all the time, but you are amazing and so is your writing and I can’t wait for the future conversations where I can say Alleycat is my favorite author and everyone will know who she is.

    • This is so heartfelt and touching. I am so, so glad that you stuck with me this long and that I’ve displayed notable progress throughout. It’s been a journey, and I actually don’t get many comments like these. They mean the world to me, and I hope if I ever get as far as you see me going, I can stand up and give a shout out to people like you riverrr.

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