Dr. Stephanie DeRosa stared out the window of the train, her eyes open but not seeing the rolling green countryside. Her former boss had sent the ticket and the instructions to wait in this particular train, this particular seat. The possibility of regaining her job compelled her.
A petite young woman threw open the door to the compartment. She sat opposite DeRosa and drew off her gloves with all the deliberate ceremony of a strip-tease. Crimson-polished nails tipped her tiny hands.
"I've always loved red polish," the woman said. "I suppose you don't remember me. My name is Jem Corvus. My foundation funded your research."
"You've funded my projects for the last 28 years," DeRosa said, "and you haven't aged a minute in all that time. Is that why you've cut me off? You've already found the answer?"
Corvus said, "Would you care to join me for tea?"
DeRosa looked at Corvus as if she were mad.
"Join me for tea and I'll tell you a tale," Corvus cajoled. "Perhaps I'll even restore your funding."
A porter brought a trolley filled with a feast of finger sandwiches and biscuits. A ceramic pot was filled with hot Orange Pekoe tea. Corvus played 'mother,' pouring first for DeRosa and then for herself.
“The tea will warm you,” Corvus said. “You look quite frail, my dear. You do know that treatments of the Youth Protocol are covered under your retirement plan?”
DeRosa blushed. “I have a peculiar version of the bird flu. I can’t tolerate the treatments.”
“You’re ill?” Corvus’ skin bleached of color.
“I’m not contagious,” DeRosa said. “Just terminal. Old age will get me first.”
Corvus set down her teacup. “It’s not the strain that killed all the crows, is it.” Without waiting for a response, Corvus continued.
"You have heard of the plague on crows?"
DeRosa’s hand trembled, not enough to spill her tea. "So sad! Just two years and now all the crows are gone. Avian influenza. So they say, anyway."
"Yes, that's what they say," said Corvus. "But that isn't what happened. A scientist developed that plague. She experimented with crows, finding a way to destroy them. I understand that someone deliberately released the virus she developed.”
DeRosa poured some tea into her cup. "If you can prove this, you should tell the authorities." She sipped.
Corvus laughed. "Oh, I would never do that! You did just as you were told. I cut off your funding because I no longer needed you."
DeRosa set down her cup. "If you no longer need my services, why am I here?"
Corvus said, "Ah." She cleared her throat.
"Do you hear the sound the train makes as it rolls over the tracks? Thud-thump thud-thump, like the fluttering of wings. It sounds much like a song I've been hearing since I was a young girl. My parents worried that I was going mad when I told them about that song.
"The doctors believed the music I heard was related to the tumor. No, not a brain tumor, a lung tumor. Actually, several lung tumors: I had tuberculosis. I was scheduled to cough myself to death before the end of the summer.
"For a time I thought it was an annoying radio jingle, the kind you can't seem to forget. I began humming the tune all the time; quite an accomplishment for a girl with no breath!"
Jem wore her mother's wedding dress. She had found it under the bed, neatly boxed and wrapped in cream-colored muslin. The tailored silk gown and gauze veil hung loose on her body.
Laurel Corvus, her mother, bustled into the room, humming a popular tune.
Her mother’s humming conflicted with the tune running through Jem's head. She shook her head, irritated. That movement set off a coughing fit that left her cheeks flaming and red specks of blood on the dress's bodice. She began to pull off the veil, but her mother stopped her.
"No, I don’t mind; leave it," she said. "A package just arrived for you, from Auntie Phlox. The note is rather obscure." She paused.
"Shall I call your brother to help you downstairs?"
Jem said, "No, I can manage."
She drifted down the stairs, sliding her hand along the rail. Her brother gasped and her father may have been crying behind the cotton handkerchief he used to mop his face. They both stood and stared at the red spots on her bodice.
She pretended not to notice their attention but secretly she was glad. If they paid attention to her now, they would remember her later when she was gone.
She settled into the rocking chair and leaned against the soft pillows that lined it. Her mother brought over the parcel wrapped in brown paper and string.
"What is it, Jem?" her brother, Raphael, asked.
She struggled with the strings a moment before they slipped off. The wrapping fell away and she saw the book for the first time. The familiar tune jangled in her head, not stopping for the entire time she held the book.
The book was a trifle bigger than her right hand and about as thick. The carved leather binding made up half its depth; perhaps fifty sheets were sewn inside. Jem ran her fingers along the carvings. Birds dominated the cover, crows, large and small, feathers and beaks everywhere. The huge crow in the very middle tilted one knowing eye at her. Jem shivered.
She opened the book and found the note from her aunt.
"Dearest, this legacy is yours now," she read. "Just sing." Auntie Phlox used her standard illegible squiggle to sign the note.
Jem flipped through the pages. On each, a name was written and a set of dates and an epigram, the story of a life. The handwriting on each page was different. She stopped at one page written in dark red ink, mid-way through the book. She ran her finger down the page.
Voices! A chorus of voices erupted in her head. They spoke out of synch with each other, reinforcing each other like the cries of a flock of birds on the wing.
"Melanie Anderson," the voices whispered. "She fed the crows from 1749 to 1767. She saved Jim Dunn from hanging. She is done."
Jem gasped and slammed the book shut. Her father jumped from his seat.
"What is it?" he shouted; then remembering Jem's delicate condition he sank back in his chair. "What is it?" he whispered.
Jem opened the book again, determined not to touch the writing but equally determined to read it through. "I was momentarily startled, Father, by a passing thought," she said.
She turned to the last page. In blue ink, in her own undisciplined Copperplate script, was her name. By now she expected any surprise, so she did not gasp, though she had never seen the book before, let alone written in it. She wondered why no dates followed her name, and no epigram.
She turned back one page, to find her predecessor. She dropped her hand on the page to blot out the name. The voices whispered, "Phlox Verbenia Holmes fed the crows from 1926 to 1935. She saved Louisa Smythe from drowning. She is done."
As the voices faded, Jem jolted to her feet and threw the little book down. Her sudden exertion took her breath away and she fainted into welcoming blackness.
She awoke in her own narrow bed. The bridal silk had been removed; she wore her comfortable flannel night gown. Her mother sat at her bedside, paging idly through the book.
She tried to speak but coughed instead. Hectic red splotches bloomed on her cheeks. Her mother poured a tumbler half-full of water and pressed it to her lips.
Laurel said, "I see Auntie Phlox sent you a journal. What lovely blank pages! Such a thoughtful gift. Though I imagine these terrifying crows are what startled you so. If you wish, I can dispose of this for you."
Jem smiled. A year before her mother would have discarded the book without asking. She would have considered the act as her motherly duty and privilege. However, the doctors had suggested that Jem's short time left on Earth would be easier if her wishes were satisfied. Mother followed the suggestion slavishly; the family followed Mother. Jem was to be consulted in all decisions and allowed all whims.
Jem said, "No, please Mother, I would like to keep it. As a memory of Auntie Phlox. I must go to thank her."
Laurel blanched. "You cannot go. I am sorry to tell you that your Auntie Phlox passed away this morning. We only discovered, just this hour, when we sent to Phlox's house. She caught her death from that unseasonable swim she took last week. Save a life to lose her own. I told her how foolish she was on my last visit.
"But you mustn't fret over such news. Here is your book." She passed the volume to her daughter.
The music swirled through her head again. Jem turned to the last page; perhaps she had hallucinated the writing. But no, her name was still there.
Three days later, Jem attended Auntie Phlox's funeral. Her family disapproved of her going: too much activity, too much morbidity for a young, sick girl. But of course they allowed the trip.
The family stood guard at Phlox's door after the funeral. Father clenched his teeth and growled at all his sister's friends and mourners. Raphael held tight to Jem's side, ready to support her if she fell faint again. Mother wore black gloves and black shoes. She greeted the mourners and accepted condolences with murmured thanks. For a cruel moment, Jem wondered if her mother was practicing her mourning.
Later, Jem made her way up the stairs to Auntie Phlox's bedroom. Raphael trailed behind her.
"The answer must be here somewhere," she said. She felt a little feverish and excited. "It must be! Auntie Phlox knew I'd come here after she died."
Jem took in the framed photographs on the walls and the multitudes of books on the shelves. She had been in this room a hundred times and thought she knew every corner.
"If I were an answer, where would I be?" she said aloud.
Raphael sat down in the brocade-upholstered chair near the bed. Their parents had given him the duty to stay close to his sister in case she had a coughing fit or fainted. He plucked a book from Auntie Phlox's bedside table and began reading.
Jem examined the photographs first. Most were of family, some of her and her brother, some of older people she had never met. Some photographs were of local scenes: churches, cemeteries, and the famous local standing stones at the crossroads. Several photographs showed crows in flight, crows resting. Jem snorted. "No answer here," she concluded.
She turned to the shelves. "So many books," she said. "Where do I start?"
She ran her finger along the spines. None of them sang to her. "So many books! Just look at all these stories. Auntie Phlox certainly read a great deal. But where's the answer?"
Raphael said, "Jem."
"Yes, Brother?" she said absently. She pulled a thick volume from the shelf.
"I believe I have your answer here," he said. He held up the book he had been reading. "Auntie Phlox's journal."
"No! I won't let you go," Raphael said. "It's cold and stupid. Auntie Phlox was crazy and I won't let you go!"
"Raphael, I'm wearing a warm coat," she said. "I'll be fine."
He stood with his arms crossed, blocking the stairs.
"Raphael, the doctor said to let me do what I want. I'm going to die either way."
Raphael's face crumpled. “You keep using your sickness to get your own way and you don’t even consider me! Our parents won’t stop you but I… I….” He took a deep breath though the tears continued to streak down his face.
"All right then, if you must go, take me with you."
For a moment she thought he meant her soon-to-be death; then she understood that he wanted to join her at the crossroads.
"You read what Auntie Phlox wrote," she said. "You'll be scared. But come along if you wish." She hugged him, then continued down the stairs. He followed.
The crossroads was just near enough for them to walk to it in one moonlit hour. The night chill penetrated Jem's thick coat but the activity kept her warm. She worried that her brother would be cold but he kept up with her and did not complain.
A small Celtic cross of copper was set in a marker stone half-buried in the ground; she stood on that. The night and the mist pressed on her. She could barely see her brother though he stood only a few feet away. She took a deep breath and sang the music that had been haunting her.
The words and the melody twined together and formed a faint glow above her head. She finished the song and stood panting.
Nothing happened. The light faded then winked out. Jem felt the cold invade her skin. She felt a coughing fit try to escape her lungs.
"No!" she whispered. She took a deeper breath and sang again.
This time the glow had just begun forming when the first crows arrived. They lighted on the ground at her feet noisily squawking and ruffling their feathers. When Jem ran out of melody she sang the song again.
After three repetitions she was exhausted. The light above her head pulsed in time to the music and hundreds of crows gathered at her feet. When she stopped singing they fell silent.
An enormous red-eyed crow, twice the size of any of the others, fluttered down to rest at her feet. It looked at her coldly first with one eye then a twist of its head and it looked at her with its other eye. It uttered a hoarse cry then flew at her.
Its claws hooked into the air around her head and pulled. She felt it like a muffled caress, like having her skin stretched and released. She laughed breathlessly at the tingly sensation.
The other crows all shot into the sky, then attacked her. Not one touched her, but she felt feathers kiss her cheeks; she felt the beaks and talons rip the thick insulating blanket of sickness that coated her body. They ripped it and consumed it.
She fell to her knees as the last crow flew away. She clutched a handful of oily black feathers. Her brother screamed her name.
The sound of the train passing over the rough boards of a trestle bridge brought Corvus back to the present. She sighed and stretched a little.
DeRosa still watched her, enrapt.
"Crows," she whispered. "What happened then?"
Corvus smiled as she recalled.
"Raphael had a terrible time getting me home," she said. "I was conscious but drunk on the experience and the sensation of wellness. Raphael told me later that I even weighed more; I was more solid than I had been in months.
"I was cured, of course. The doctors confirmed that, a few days later. They were, naturally enough, befuddled and confused. My mother threw a furious row. She accused the doctors of lying about my wellness; she accused them of lying about my illness. Finally, she accused them of being worthless and she discharged them all.
"That was the end of my coddling. For months I had been allowed to do what I wanted, any whim. Suddenly the rules applied again. Let me tell you, that was a difficult transition!" Corvus smiled grimly at some memory.
"But I survived.
"And the book changed. Now, the last page said, 'Jem Corvus, she fed the crows from 1936.' But that was all. I waited for the book to say something more, but it never did. Auntie Phlox's journal told me that the book would instruct me. So I waited.
“My brother died after the War. My parents, a while after that. I studied at University.”
The train chugged towards their destination. DeRosa closed her eyes and shrugged her shoulders to release the tension. Corvus sipped lukewarm tea. They rode in silence for several kilometers.
"I grew obsessed with them, you know," Corvus said suddenly.
DeRosa startled in her seat. She recovered, then said, "Ah! You must have loved the crows."
"No," Corvus said quietly. "I hate them. How they terrify me! Those nasty eyes, always watching. They're monsters!"
Jem loved living in Southern California. Sunshine beat down on her shoulders as she traveled the freeway in her black convertible Mercedes. Wind feathered through her short hair. Music from the local rock station screamed from the speakers. She wore fashionable wrap-around sunglasses and red leather driving gloves. She hummed along with the music, sometimes shouting the words she knew. She suspected she was close to an early answer on the Youth Protocol, her only research project. The lab was two exits away. She slammed down on the accelerator.
The slow lane flew along at seventy miles an hour. Cars streamed by on her left, in the faster lane; sometimes they sped by on her right. One particular car passed her, then swerved into her lane without signaling, dangerously close to her fender. She tapped her brakes, to make a little room. They also slowed. One of the passengers stuck her head and shoulders out the side window. She screamed some rude imprecation then flung a heavy brown glass bottle at Jem’s car.
The bottle smashed into the windshield. Thick chunks of glass cut into her face and hands and lodged in her hair. The tires slid sideways across the lanes and the car slewed around til it faced oncoming traffic. A speeding truck rammed into her car. She heard the awful smack of crunching metal and then she was unconscious.
She woke to a faint tapping noise. Sunlight streamed through the uncurtained window. Crows flocked on the sill. They saw her awaken. More beaks knocked at the glass, wings stretched and ruffled. She faded into a sleep filled with crows circling and swirling and hunting her along dark paths.
She woke again to the sound of squeaky shoes rushing down the hallway outside her open door. She noticed small black shapes flying among the white uniforms. She tried to speak out, but her voice was hardly louder than the imposing machine by the bedside that beeped with her every heartbeat. She fell back against her pillow and croaked a phrase from the song. The crows must have found her door at that moment. The room filled with crows, settling on the floor and the bed and the monitoring machines. They waited noisily as they always waited. She forced another bar of the song through her lips. The old crow, the one who always showed up at the crossroads, appeared and swooped on her.
She woke again when one doctor, two nurses, and an orderly crowded into her room and began unhooking the machines. They spoke to each other over her head and shot the occasional question at her.
"There, get those wires," said a nurse.
"Do you have someone we can call, dear?" said the other nurse, whose nametag read 'Gretchen.'
"I want the reports right away," said the doctor. "Some data is missing."
"Bandage those IV punctures," said the first nurse.
The orderly flipped a power switch, coiled some wires, and wheeled the big machine out of the room.
"You're doing much better now, Dr. Corvus," said the second nurse. "We just weren't sure for a while." She trailed off as the other nurse and the doctor paused to scowl at her. She patted a sheet in place over Jem's legs.
"Dr. Corvus," said the doctor. "You improved faster than we could have expected. You can be discharged today, if you wish. The nurses will process your paperwork." He stood a moment, opened his mouth to say something, and said, "Yes, well." He strode out of the room.
The nurses finished tidying up in silence.
Jem said, "Gretchen, what's happening? Why don't I have any bandages? I remember being in a wreck. But I feel great."
Gretchen said, "The crows; do you remember the crows?"
The first nurse snapped, "Get back to the desk. I can take care of Dr. Corvus." Gretchen hurried out of the room.
Jem caught the first nurse's hand. "What is going on? How long have I been here?"
The nurse pursed her lips. "You've been here three days. You were in an auto accident. Before the ambulance arrived, you were run over by at least one car. No one thought you would survive.” She paused so long that Jem thought she was done. “But you have. You've healed with amazing speed."
Suddenly all business, the nurse handed a sheaf of papers to Jem, then sat down on the bed next to her.
"There’s no next-of-kin on your insurance files. Dr. Corvus, do you have someone who can drive you home?"
Jem scrawled her name on a few dotted lines, then said, "Didn’t anyone visit? Greg?"
The nurse said, “Oh! I forgot! I was to give you a message from Dr. Samuels; of course he visited, he’s been here more often than we strictly allow. He said to call as soon as you woke up.”
Jem smiled. “Hand me the phone, will you?”
Five minutes later, Dr. Greg Samuels poked his head around the door.
"Well, look who's up!" he said, smiling.
"Greg!" Jem replied. "Sit down here and tell me what happened. How'd I get through that accident without any injuries at all?"
Greg perched on the chair by her bed.
"You didn't," he said. "You were a mess when they brought you in. Broken legs, ruptured spleen, fractured jaw, concussion, enough bruises to paint a sunset. There's all kinds of notes in the file; I'm sure you'll read it yourself soon enough.” He waved the case file.
"I wasn’t here when the crows attacked, but the nurses told me all about it later. They’d just gotten you stable, waiting for a table in surgery."
“The crows… attacked?” Jem’s head buzzed. She remembered some dreams of crows. Surely dreams.
“Got in through the windows.” He jiggled the latch on her window. "It's closed now," he said. "Apparently every window in the building was open that day, because crows were suddenly everywhere. Well, not everywhere," he amended, "just this floor. They made a beeline for you and left gifts all over the hallway: feathers and excrement. They flew into this room and then," he waved his hands, "they disappeared.
"When things calmed down enough for the nurses to come in here and check on you, they found you sound asleep and completely healed. The doctors ordered a lot of sedation for other patients on the floor, the orderlies cleaned up the mess, and the nurses are gossiping like mad. You want to know what they're saying?"
Jem shook her head, but he continued anyway.
"Of course you do! They're saying the crows saved your life. They're saying that no one has died on this floor since the crows showed up," he grinned like a boy and laughed. "They think you're some kind of witch!"
Jem threw off the bedsheets.
"Take me home, Greg," she said.
He didn’t move.
“Well? Are you? Because this sure was miraculous. If you weren’t the director of a research foundation that funds some of the staff here, they’d never release you. From all the poking and prodding they wanted to do, you’d think they wanted to turn you into a voodoo doll. I backed ‘em off, but seriously Jem, what happened?”
She pulled on her shoes and considered how much she could share with him.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “I’m just glad that I’m alive. And that you’re here.”
She stood up and stretched. She felt wonderful.
“Take me home.”
At her home she kissed Greg.
“I’m going to take a quick shower. Fix me a drink, would you?” Before he could respond she bounded up the stairs to her room.
The book was hidden away under her mattress. As always, the song swirled through her head as soon as she touched the cover and she found herself humming along. She leafed through the pages, ignoring the chorus of voices. Perhaps finally the book would show her release. The words on the last page echoed in her head.
They hadn't changed.
"I married him," Corvus said. "He was a young talented doctor and he loved me. After a while, I told him everything. He didn't believe me. So I showed him the book. He couldn't see the writing, of course. Every year, I would make the trip to the crossroads. He always found a conference or important meeting that conflicted and he did not join me.
"He grew older. The Youth Protocols were new on the market at that time. I made sure he got the cutting-edge treatments. He took the pills, and his aging slowed, but still: he grew older. At one anniversary dinner some idiot waiter called him my father."
Corvus wiped a tear from her cheek.
"I have a photograph of him. Would you like to see it?"
DeRosa said, "A photograph? Oh! You mean a printout. Yes, I would love to see a photograph, I haven't seen one since I was a child."
Corvus opened her purse and removed a leather wallet. Glassine windows protected tiny images of people she had known. She pointed to one image of a chunky blond man wearing a white lab coat.
“How old do you think he was in this photo?”
"He was born in 1999, the last year of that millennium," she said. "He was 25 when we met, just out of med school and looking for a research project. He was 73 when that photo was taken and looked perhaps 45 years old. I looked 20. Or that's what he said, incessantly, that last year."
DeRosa gave the wallet back to Corvus who replaced it in her purse.
"He begged me to take him to the crossroads that year. I did, though I knew the crows wouldn't feed on his age. They don't want age. They want to trade deaths.
"When we returned home, he left me."
This year, she didn't make her usual plans. The travel agency left several messages; she erased them unheard. As the anniversary date approached she began to ignore phone calls from her friends as well. On that date someone pounded on her door insistently. She refused to answer. She huddled in her favorite chair in her bedroom and put her hands over her ears. At the hour when, for the last 140 years, she had sung a lullaby to crows, she kept her lips jammed together. The song swirled through her head and jangled her nerves and demanded to be let out but she refused.
Like a junkie's addiction the craving faded under the attack of her denial. The song faded away.
She fell asleep on the chair. When she awoke in the morning she was stiff from the unfamiliar position. She stretched. She would begin her life now.
A few days later she noticed lines on her face. At first she was startled and tried to scrub them off, then she remembered. Her laugh was a trifle bitter. "Crow's feet."
She worked hard at her research lab and began to cut down on her outside activities.
"I'm really too tired to go biking this weekend," she said one time.
"I'm under a deadline and I just can't get away for that camping trip we planned," she said another time.
"I think I'll just go home and relax with a glass of wine tonight," she said to friends who had invited her to go dancing.
The invitations stopped arriving at about the same time she realized she was aging far too fast.
She went into her bathroom and turned on the harsh white light. Her hair reflected glimmers of light and she tracked down thick strands of silver. She caught a glimpse of her hands and was shocked at all the wrinkles. 'Alligator skin,' her friends called it. She pulled off her clothes and took an inventory of her whole body.
Her breasts sagged. Her belly pouched out. Her hips were wider than they'd ever been and she saw liver spots generously distributed over all her skin.
She sank to the floor, breathing so fast that dizziness swamped her.
She grabbed the points of her elbows and pulled herself tight, then she said out loud, "But this is what I wanted! I wanted to age. I want Greg to come back to me."
She took a few calming breaths then stood up. "This is what I wanted," she repeated.
She dressed in a soft peach-toned cashmere suit then placed a call to Greg.
A young woman answered the vidphone. "Yeah?" she said. A jeweled ring glittered on her finger.
Jem steeled herself. "Let me speak with Greg, please."
"Greg, honey, there's a lady on the phone for you."
Greg looked into the camera. "Yes, ma’am, how can I help you?" he said with blank politeness.
Over the course of that year her body aged with the vengeance of long denial. All of her hair grayed and she gave up on coloring. It was just too much work to keep the roots looking nice. Her memory faded and she lost interest in her research.
"I'm in retirement," she told herself.
She puttered around her home, gardening during the day, reading during the night. She needed so much less sleep these days! Some nights she puttered around her home from room to room, as if looking for something. But she couldn't remember what.
One evening she shoved her hands between the mattresses, looking for the elusive something. She snagged the book.
The song surged through her mind, awakening her memory. She shrieked and dropped the book. Then she grabbed it again. The song blasted her. She curled up on her mattress with the familiar leather book clutched to her stomach. She cried.
She carried the book with her while she dressed, while she ate her breakfast, and while she booked passage to the crossroads.
Her travel agent did not recognize her.
“It’s a long trip, ma’am,” he said. “I can find a companion for you, someone to carry your bags, help you – uh, no? All righty then, just a sleeper car, yes ma’am.”
She was bone-weary when she arrived at her former home town and she still had a long walk to get to the crossroads. She trudged along the dirt path holding the book like an anchor to this world. She had a little trouble finding the exact center of the road but when she did, she straddled the old marker and sang.
The crows began arriving during the first verse of the music. More crows flocked to her than she had ever seen before. The old crow arrived last, as always, and she could have sworn that it was laughing at her. It launched, signaling the crows' feast. When they were gone, her youthful appearance was restored.
The train expended huge amounts of energy braking to a stop. A harsh male voice called loudly, announcing the village name. Corvus stood up.
"I've come a long distance on this trip," Corvus said. "I've been traveling for 18 hours and most of that time has been spent on this quaint little train. I wonder how they can afford to keep it running. Tourism, I imagine."
DeRosa also gathered her coat and purse and followed Corvus off the train. They stood together on the platform.
"May I come along with you?" DeRosa clasped her gloved hands together and hunched her shoulders forward. She prepared for the negative.
Corvus examined her.
"You're hoping to take my place, aren't you?"
"That's why you brought me along, isn't it?"
DeRosa and Corvus stood on the train platform and other travelers streamed by, making way for them, ignoring them.
"What if," Corvus whispered, "the crows told me to bring you? What if they intend to punish you?"
DeRosa's hands shook as she clutched her purse. She raised her chin defiantly but she didn't speak.
"They won't leave me, you know," Corvus said finally. "But come if you like."
They walked together in silence. At the crossroads Corvus took up her accustomed stance straddling the marker stone.
She sang. The light grew above her head and formed into a great globe. She sang three choruses but no crows appeared. The globe pulsed with life. She sang another chorus. Still no crows.
"I guess that's the end, then," she said. "I'm done with you, you monsters."
The great globe pulsed hard like a stomach birthing a child then split open. The crows spilled out.
They circled her, screaming murder, and then settled at her feet, more ghostly than solid. In daylight they would have been transparent; under that moonlight, they gleamed like black rainbows.
The old crow appeared. It looked at her with its red eyes, first one, then the other. Then it hopped onto her shoulder.
DeRosa gasped. "It acts like it knows you," she said.
"Of course the old crow knows me," Corvus said. "As far back as I can remember, we've met here each year."
It pecked at her arm and she swiped at it with the book, trying to shoo it away. It jabbed at the book and grasped it with a talon.
"You want the book, you old fiend?" she gasped. She jerked the book away from the crow. "Come and get it." She held the book like a club, ready to beat them down if they came for her.
The crows stirred then flocked up. They dived at her and for the first time ever the claws touched her. Each bird touched her gently, thousands of ghosts pushing her. She screamed at them and tried to protect her face.
The old crow flew at her, claws extended.
She shrieked and flung the book at the feathered ghosts. They grabbed it in midair with beaks and claws and ripped it into thousands of pieces. Then they disappeared, one by one, cawing noisily as they faded. The old crow resisted the longest, beating its wings against the inevitable, but at last it too faded away.
The book, made whole, dropped from nowhere and landed at Corvus' feet. The song did not play in her head when she picked it up. She tried to sing and realized that she could not remember the jingle.
She flipped to the last page of the book and laughed.
"What does it say?" the old woman croaked.
Corvus handed the book to her. "I’ve never understood it. But I’m done with them now. Read for yourself." She turned back to the path that led to the train station.
DeRosa opened the book and turned to the last page. Blue ink spelling Jem Corvus’ name scrawled across the page. She ran her fingers across the printing and heard music like crows’ wings, whispers that did not sound like Corvus.
"She fed the crows," the voices chorused. "She lives."
Below that she read her own name, in her own handwriting.
“I never meant to kill you,” she whispered.
Restless feathers whispered in the still air.