Danger. Caught. Wings pinioned. Dark. Scratching. Sounds. I fluttered out of a burlap sack. A human squinted at me. Red, gnarled flesh covered half his face.
“Do you understand me?”
Meanings blinked in and out, swirled through my mind then came into focus. Human sounds rolled up my throat, too round, unnatural, half choking me, “Yeees!”
“Good.” Now the black-bearded mouth held still, but in my head I heard, “And now?”
“…I hear you,” I thought back.
“I am Manfred.” A smirk slashed across his mouth. “You are to be my familiar. Do you have a name?”
I cawed the tones that declared me to other crows.
“I cannot use such sounds. You shall be Nyx. Arise from barbarity and join me.”
I cocked my head as I struggled to grasp his meaning.
“Your new mind has not settled, Nyx.” He nodded toward a boy slumped in a chair. “Young Sigmund’s spark has kindled your understanding, but we must stoke it to a burning blaze.”
The boy drew breath, but his eyes were blank. I looked away, shook my wings.
Manfred grabbed the boy’s head. “His knowledge, his speech, his reason swirl around in your feathered head. I ground them up to fertilize your mind.”
I did not understand his words then, but I could see his memory — giving the boy a pungent yellow liquid, saying it wouldn’t hurt. Trusting, the boy drank. A sack on a dark blue stone juddered about, a struggling crow inside. Manfred spoke and an essence flew from the boy into the sack. The boy stilled.
Like killing a fledgling. I screeched and bit his finger.
He jumped back, clutching his hand. The pain sprung from his mind to mine. More images: a manor house, a boy, Manfred’s brother, throwing a pot of oil at his child self. Shock blossoming into agony. His flesh scalding, reddening.
I flew up, desperate to escape, against the thatched roof, against the barred windows, up the fireplace chimney. I thunked into a metal grill and fell in the ashes. He grabbed me.
I cawed aloud, and thought, “Let go, you cur.” The words shocked me, for I did not know them.
“I gave you the spark. I bound us together,” he said, stuffing me into an iron cage. “Only death can untie our knot.”
I thrashed my wings against the bars. Foreign impulses told me to unlock the cage with fingers I did not have. Knowledge that wasn’t my own fluttered around inside my skull. Squawks and caws mixed with “help” and “no”.
I knew the worst thing one can be is against the rhythms of nature — unnatural. This man had jumbled my mind, separated me from sky and kin. I spat Unnatural! into his mind.
He stood unblinking: he did not understand my crow thoughts.
In human, I thought, “Bastard.”
“Ungrateful beast.” He dropped a cloth over my cage.
The sounds of free night creatures outside the cottage drew the grip of my cage tighter. Hunger clawed at my belly as human and crow fluttered and thrashed within me, until in exhaustion I slept.
Dreams flew through my mind. My feathers burned, leaving smooth human flesh. My wings split into five-fingered hands. I jumped from a tree branch, fleeing the change, but my flightless body plummeted. When I hit the ground, I shattered. Manfred mixed my shards with boiling water and formed the mass back into the likeness of a crow. I was a mash of feathers, wings, and beak. An imposter in my own flesh.
I stirred, stretched my wings wide for a morning flight, and hit bars. The cage lifted and swayed. I heard trills and growls, but not the calls of my family. I had never woken without them. I cawed to my kin, but there was no reply.
Manfred pulled off the cloth to show a garden in a cleared patch of forest. “Nyx, we shall be friends. Fruit?”
He dropped three fresh-picked fruits into the cage. Sweet juice ran down my throat as I crushed them in my beak. I looked at the boy, sitting blank-faced on a bench. Could he no longer eat?
“I tutored Sigmund,” Manfred said. “He had several of the old tongues, mathematics, and natural philosophy. Now his knowledge, his skills, his reasoning, are yours.”
I looked around, the names of plants starting to filter through my mind. I listened to the forest, my mind listing finch, starling, thrush. Before, I had pictures, smells, sounds; feelings. Now, I had words. That vine going up the trellis holds grapes.
“If Sigmund is in my mind, why am I still me?”
“Only one consciousness can survive the spell. Anyway, his emotions weakened him. I needed a strong familiar.”
Flashes from the boy washed over my mind: grief as his father dies from the plague, fleeing through unknown country in pelting rain, working a field to bring grain to his mother.
“Sigmund endured hardships,” I said.
Manfred’s face quivered. “That is the strength of a slave, not a master. Sigmund couldn’t even kill vermin.” He raised the cage to look me in the eye. “Sigmund moaned about how unfair things are. You and I know the natural order. We take.”
I thought of my mother’s death. A raccoon had attacked before dawn, ripping her breast open before we mobbed it. She fell from our spruce tree, and one wing twitched before she stilled. From Sigmund’s memories, I saw men swing his father’s body onto a cart piled high with bloated corpses. The twin loses tore at me.
But my animal self saw Manfred’s eyes and knew I could not show weakness. I turned from my sadness to my rage.
“You took me from my home. You caged me. You made me unnatural.”
“Let’s make it simple. Secure the last ingredients for an unction, and you may visit home. The rare Iridis butterfly drinks the nectar of flowers that grow high in the treetops.”
In his mind, I could see the image of a shining blue and black butterfly.
“Bring me a live specimen, and I will grant you three nights home. They are almost impossible to catch though, so failing that, gather empty chrysalis pods. That will get you one night home.”
“Fine. Let me free.”
“First hold out your leg… Well?”
I stuck my leg through the bars.
He locked a silver circle around my leg and muttered words. “This cuff guarantees your return. Don’t make me use it.”
I saw an image: the cuff going up in white-hot flames. He opened the cage, and soon I was soaring above the trees. I tucked my claws, and the air embraced me. I gained height and then glided, wind caressing my feathers and warmth filling my heart.
Why did he need this unction? How does the cuff work? Would it really burn… Caught up with the chattering in my head, I hit an air swell the wrong way and tumbled. My crow self regained control. Did humans live like this, cleaved from the world around them by voices in their heads?
I circled the forest top, seeking my prey. The sun was high when I spotted a fluttering in a patch of blossoms and dove. The Iridis darted in under the dense treetops, where I could not follow. I backed off and looked for other blossoms. And the pattern repeated. After many tries, a patch yielded my prize. I held the shining butterfly with my beak ajar. It fluttered helplessly. Just as my own mind fluttered. For the first time, I felt pity.
I opened my beak and the Iridis flew free.
I labored for the rest of the day to collect chrysalises, returning as twilight fell to the cottage with as many as I could carry. Manfred scowled then looked over the mass of discarded skins and nodded. His mind fevered with the steps to make his unction: boiling, chanting, mixing.
I was allowed to fly home. The last of a pink and orange sunset lit the horizon. I knew how the light would hit my spot on the third branch of the roost. As I approached home, I cawed my name and heard the familiar replies. My human impulses tried to push a smile to my lipless beak. Father, sisters, brothers gathered together in what humans call a murder. Only my mother was not there.
I landed on my usual perch. It was a comfort to perch on our spruce again. I offered my neck for my sister to preen. She stepped forward. The chatter and fluttering flared in my skull. I wobbled. They stared, heads cocking from side to side. I told them a human had captured me.
My father hopped forward, looking me over as though inspecting the dead. I shook my head to quiet the fluttering. He uttered only: “unnatural.” I called his name, but the others joined in cries of “unnatural.”
As the oldest hatchling, I had brought sticks to build nests for my siblings from later hatches. I had fed them from my beak. Now they screeched at me, and mobbed me in a blizzard of beaks and claws. I fled, my grief mixed with a haze of Sigmund’s memories: his widowed mother begging mercy but the lord and his ruffians driving them off the land they had worked for twenty summers, their breath clouding the chill air. I felt his tears flow.
I woke in the cottage. A pot bubbled over the fire. Sigmund sat nearby, covered with an old blanket.
Manfred wrote glyphs on the blue stone with a paste that reeked. He shed his robe and exposed the gnarled flesh reaching down to his neck and shoulder. Kneeling in the center of the stone, he spread the white unction over the burns and chanted. His mind flashed memories of hot oil and children teasing. Hours passed as he cried out in pain and the white ointment popped and steamed. He lay collapsed on the stone as daylight faded away. Sometime in the night he rose silently and lit a candle. His skin was smooth. The scars were gone.
He looked at me, seeing himself through my eyes, and I felt his joy. The knot of years undone, wrong righted, the keystone laid into the arch: triumph.
“I’ve done it, Nyx.” He touched his face with shaking fingers. He took a long drink of jenever from a flagon he kept on the mantle. “Now she can love me,”
“My Sophia.” He closed his eyes, and we shared a memory of a red-haired girl in a patch of lavender. She looked up and smiled.
“What song will you sing her?” I asked.
“Are females not attracted by song?”
“It’s more complicated. I… have not seen her for years. She has her own estate now where unfortunately she welcomes refugees from the war.”
I, no, Sigmund, had lived there. With his, my, mother.
“I want you to follow her, learn her routines, see whom she meets. Look about her house. I must give her the perfect gifts.”
“I understand. We always give gifts before nesting.”
Manfred laughed. He showed me Sophia’s estate on a map. “Go.”
I took wing. If Manfred found happiness with Sophia, perhaps he would return me to my old life.
Sophia’s estate spread over rolling hills and fields crossed by streams. She lived in a fortified manor house with a few servants and old guards. Small cottages spread over the estate, some with a cow or goat. Men worked fields of wheat and barley.
I arrived during a lesson in the manor’s great hall. I realized then that not all Sigmund’s learning had come from Manfred. Sophia ended class for the day with a smile and dismissed the children to work in the fields or help their mothers in the vegetable garden. Ribbons of blue and green wove through her scarlet hair. Her erect posture spoke of nobility, but her clothes were common cotton.
She walked to a sturdy cottage with sienna stones around the door. My heart jumped when out came a woman with matted brown hair and reddened eyes — Sigmund’s… my… mother, hunched over, hands rubbing together. Her jaw set.
“Have you found him?” She whispered, dreading the answer.
“My cousin and the warden still search,” Sophia said.
Mother rubbed her face. “Why did I let him wander the woods?”
The echo of her son within me reached out with arms I did not have.
“We’ll find him,” said Sophia, reassuring and soothing.
“Without him, why go on?” She had the blank expression of the shattered.
Sophia held mother tight. She led her to the garden, and together they laid straw around the plants.
I remembered mother making soup, trying to recapture the years before the plague. The simple seasonings tickled my nose and throat as the warm liquid pushed away cold and sorrow. Through Sigmund’s memories, I wandered the estate, helped in the fields, stole away to the forest in the late afternoons to learn from Manfred. He swore me to secrecy. With the magic he would teach me, I could protect mother. A lord would not take our home again.
Later in the day, Sophia went riding. I flew through her bedroom window, and noted the shining pearl, ivory, and filigree on her combs and jewelry. Toward evening, she strolled in a small courtyard and played a silver flute, sounding like a wood thrush I used to see on a spruce tree near our own.
I reported back to Manfred, but did not mention mother. He leaned in as I spoke, nodding and taking notes.
“A thorough report, Nyx. Let’s start with something easy. Picture the ribbons you saw in her hair.”
As I held the image in my mind, he chanted over a ramekin filled with spiders and worms. A tingling energy flowed from my mind to his, to the ramekin. The critters slipped into a pattern, and a bud of blue silk appeared, the same color as the one Sophia wore. It snaked out of the ramekin in a finished strand. A pause, and then a green ribbon joined its sister. I felt the magic sate us like food.
“Excellent. I can use your memories as I hoped.”
“Does magic always feel this way?”
He raised his chin. “Do you like it?” he asked, knowing the answer already.
“It feels like it can do anything.”
“When you have Sophia, can you put Sigmund and me back as we were?”
He scowled. “It would be easier to separate a tree from its roots. You cannot go back, Nyx, only forward.”
I hung my head.
He sighed. “Don’t be so gloomy. You like the magic? If you continue to help, I will teach you.” He opened a book and put it on a stand. “Sigmund had just begun on the properties of gems.” He pointed to a spot in the text next to a diagram of sunlight passing through a ruby.
Another door unlocked between my mind and Sigmund’s. The letters cohered into the words “a focused beam.” I could read. A gust of relief came from Sigmund. I recalled sections from earlier in the book on preparing, cutting, and shaping gems for use as lenses and prisms. The joy of discovery pushed against my yearning for home.
For three moons, I watched Sophia, mother, and the estate. Few visitors called. Those that did warned her against the dangers of sheltering refugees. She deflected with courtesy and feigned naiveté. Mother’s hair greyed and her cheeks hollowed as she slogged through the motions of living.
Manfred conjured jewelry, clothing, and cutlery for Sophia as if cocooning her in finery would win her love. I paid close attention to the techniques. I told him of Sophia’s kindness to those in need, but he focused only on regalia for his queen.
“When will you speak with her?” I asked one day.
“When I bring her here.”
“What if she does not wish to stay?”
“When I give her the love elixir, she will never want to leave. Then we will be happy.”
I did not offer my observations on what made humans happy. The fluttering started up — to serve Manfred meant ripping Sophia from her home, imprisoning her in a baubled stupor. She would share my fate and Sigmund’s.
Manfred continued to school me in magic. The thrill of knowledge was my only defense against the longing for both my families. He removed the silver cuff from my leg.
One day, he laid Sigmund’s body on the blue stone and dabbed a henbane salve on both our heads. He spoke an incantation, and my crow body fell limp as I awoke inside my unfamiliar self. The smooth human skin felt cold; the tunic grated. I crinkled my nose at the smell of my sweat. My fingers flexed, drawing index to thumb — no claws, little strength, all the power in the world.
We ground gypsum and ox horn with a granite shard from a standing stone I had fetched for him. For days we painted the earth and chanted old tongue verses from mountain shamans. At the ritual’s apex, stones rasped and ground up from the earth to form a vaulted keep. My human heart thumped, and a shiver ran down my spine. I thought this wingless body might fly.
“You see what we can do,” said Manfred, panting.
My crow self broke free, and my human mouth cawed so loud a flock of finches took flight.
We ate dinner. Manfred drank overmuch of jenever and wavered off to bed. I pulled a grimoire from the shelves and read. My legs rebelled against the chair. I perched on the seat.
Now that I had touched power, I wanted more. Turning pages with my own fingers seemed a premonition of further miracles to come. I could become crow again. I could protect my mother. I could bring my father back from the dead.
I froze. The door between our minds had fallen from its hinges.
I pushed the book away and hugged myself, my shoulders shaking. My crow father was alive. Sigmund’s father had died. Why did I want to revive a man I did not know? Because I was no longer crow. Manfred told me we could not separate. I was not Sigmund, not crow, only unnatural.
Food lost its taste. The sounds of the forest dulled, but our work on the manor continued. Stables grew amidst beech trees. A music room blossomed with instruments, but the luster of wielding magic ebbed. We cleared a circular patch in the middle of the garden, ringing it with lavender. Manfred thought to marry her there.
I slept little, haunted by visions of mother and my crow kin, the fluttering in my mind unceasing. Manfred let me read into the night. I studied a tome that did not offer a dissolution of bonds, but promised a peaceful unification.
For his love elixir Manfred needed ingredients: a garnet to own the heart, spider silk to hold fast the body, and the seeds of the cerulean primrose to enrapture the mind. And from Sophia he needed a lock of hair, a drop of blood, and a personal possession. Knowing Manfred would return me to my crow body, I wrote a brief note for mother and hid it in the woods.
The next day I flew to Sophia’s estate, carrying the note in my claw. I saw my kin scavenging and landed at a distance. One of my sisters called out “unnatural”, and the others gave the warning calls we had shouted from our spruce to interlopers a thousand times. A heaviness pressed on my heart. I knew my siblings’ names, their smells, but they were no longer my family.
I flew to a tree outside my home. When mother went for well water, I left the note on the table. It read: “I am safe but in hiding. I’ll come back. Don’t worry. Love, S.”
From the tree I watched her unroll the paper. She read it, covered her mouth, swayed, and dropped down onto a stool. Tears streamed, she gasped for breath. Color returned to her face. She jumped up and rushed the news to everyone. Sophia wrapped her arms around mother, and I remembered the night we arrived on the estate. Sophia had hugged me, a stranger, and let me know I was not just safe, but welcome.
Manfred had given me knowledge, but had torn me from both my families. He wanted to ensnare Sophia, to replace her bonds with unnatural devotion. I must protect her and my mother. Both parts of me agreed. As I plotted, I kept my thoughts in crow.
Manfred had again distilled jenever, with juniper berries and herbs from the garden. He always placed the flagon on the blue stone and sped up the contents’ aging with an obscure enchantment. He looked over the latest trinkets I had stolen from Sophia. He raised his cup and drank deep.
“It’s within our grasp, Nyx.” He smiled at me, the closest thing he had to a friend.
“Sophia, the forest manor house — you will have your heart’s desires.”
He wavered in his seat. “Yes. Yes, finally.” He took another gulp.
“May I try?”
“Why not? We’re celebrating.” He applied the henbane and returned me to Sigmund’s body. Repetition had made it as comfortable as putting on a coat.
I poured just a little and took a sip. It burned my throat with the taste of wood and smoke. I tried to ruffle feathers I did not have. “May I refill your cup?”
He smiled. “Why not?”
I turned away to do it. He’d never taste the sleeping powder in the strong taste of the jenever.
Manfred waved his cup. “But my brother still sits too high.” Through our bond, I saw him dwelling on reprisals: disfigurement, poverty, his proud brother begging for mercy. He turned his head to me, aware that I followed his fantasy.
“You understand. My brother did not just hurt me. He ruined most of my life.”
Years of insults and injuries roiled through him. I felt Manfred rage and yearn for retribution as he downed his drink. I looked away. Animals do not let spite trap them in the past.
“Don’t be sour,” he said. “When Sophia settles in, you can visit your family,”
“Yes… family,” I said.
Manfred sat slowly blinking. His head nodded. I helped him to bed.
I began writing on the blue stone, carefully, painstakingly. My hands proved their worth.
Hours passed. It was done, and I steeled myself for the next step. I applied a cloth of opiate to Manfred’s mouth, bound his hands and feet, and gagged him. I lugged him slowly to the blue stone and heaved him across the altar.
I wrote the dread sign across his forehead in crow’s blood. He woke as I began the incantation. He heard the words, and his eyes grew wide. The gag muffled his scream but my mind heard “No. No. No!”
I thought back to him: “You did not just hurt me. You ruined much of my life. And Sigmund’s. You understand?”
He gasped, recognizing his own words against his brother, and slowly, very slowly, his body curled in on itself, compacting into a tiny pip. I inhaled the power no longer his. My two selves embraced: not human, not crow, but both, free, in harmony.
The forest sang its twilight song as I took the remnants of Manfred to his garden. In the circle of lavender, I dug a hole and put him safely below the ground. I watered the spot, and the sensation of quenched thirst glimmered through our bond. Only death would untie our knot.
The sun had risen well above the horizon by the time I woke. I wrapped my crow body in linen and laid it on the blue stone. The sacrament of preservation flowed off my tongue. My body would be safe here for now; I would find a way to transfer back and forth on my own. I enchanted security on the library; its lore would be only for healing, building, transforming.
I shuttered the windows and locked the doors. As I left, I saw in the circle of lavender the first green hint of a spruce sapling. The spell had stripped Manfred’s mind, but a serenity flickered through our bond. Here he would grow. One day, a family might roost in his branches, his roots winding through the lavender, the vestige of him knowing home.
On my way to Sophia’s estate, my kin flew overhead. As I watched them glide, I felt the same peace I used to have in the air. I called out to them and tossed them seeds. They landed. My sister sampled the food and cawed to me in thanks. Father called our word for “friend.”
Rays of sunlight broke through the clouds. Though I had no wings to lift, air filled my lungs. At the estate, I hurried to the cottage with sienna stones. My mother was pulling water from the well. When she saw me, she cried and dropped the bucket. We ran toward each other and embraced. She is my mother, even if I am not her son. Together, maybe we can be family.
“Crow Born” © David Far, first published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on January 25, 2022
David Far studied economics and philosophy. As a national champion debater, he enjoyed discussing hypothetical worlds featuring wizards, robots and moral quandaries. Now he writes about those topics. His work is published or forthcoming in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Flash Point Science Fiction, and Bewildering Stories. David lives in New York City. He enjoys listening to his children spin stories from the secret places adults have almost forgotten. You can find out more at davidfarbeyond.com
Illustrations “Mystical Forest” background by Wyldraven, who can be found roosting here amongst much beautiful artwork. Lead illustration by Fran Eisemann,stock from Pixabay