Crow perches on the sill of an open window, staring at the forest beyond the moat – a seething canopy, violent and immense. What dark and beautiful things move beneath those leaves? I lean out, sniff the air, but catch only the scent of castle-comforts: baked bread and plum wine…dried petals of manicured water lily.
I rest a hand on my belly, feeling for the movements of the little one who grows there. Will they know the language of the forest, its joys and dangers? Or will it be a castle life for them? What third way, I wonder, would be a bridge between the two?
Crow rasps disapprovingly in the wetness of his throat. I follow his gaze to the minstrel in the gardens. He sits beside an espaliered pear tree, fingers dancing over the strings of a lute. His mouth moves but I cannot hear the words.
Crow is blocking them for me.
He knows how much I hate the song the minstrel must be singing – the one about the woman from the forest who was cured of her feral ways by the kindness of a king and the embraces of his court, her sharp edges sanded down like a storm-cracked oak made safe for children to play on.
Something creaks in the room behind me… the desk, perhaps, or the floorboards beneath the carpet.
A bone china cup sits upon a saucer, beside a high-backed leather chair. Inside the cup, a pool of cold tea holds the beige reflection of the bookcase behind. Sometimes I feel I am living in a still-life.
Crow, my truest friend, shuffles beside me, his tufted crown-feathers standing on end. A moment later, wind pours over the forest beyond the moat, its passage marked in the upturned leaves like the reckless play of an aery serpent.
‘Storm coming,’ Crow says, mind to mind.
His voice is plain, but I hear his invitation. Metallic scents now permeate the air, and the eddies swirling about the sill coax me to lean further out than is safe. The minstrel sees me. Has my wolfish sniffing thrown his song off-kilter? I cannot help but grin.
I cut off my ear with a shard of glass, in a dream the night I heard that song. When I woke, my hearing was dampened. A fortnight later it was gone.
‘I will give you a crow,’ said the king. ‘And you will hear just as well.’
He was wrong though. Some things I hear not at all, like the stately clop of heels as we go about the castle, like the squeaking cloth that pushes oil into my silver hands, and the minstrel outside, laying sweetness on my name.
But there are things I hear better than anyone: the pulse of fish moving through the moat, the beetle on the desk behind me, his sceptre-legs pulling him up the spine of a book, and the wren at the forest’s edge, swift in his smallness, sipping water from a crack in a fallen birch.
Crow knows what I need, knows what sustains me. He is the noblest friend I could hope for, though his council can disturb.
‘Won’t be long now,’ he says, shifting his gaze to my belly.
He could mean that it won’t be long before others find out about this little life I carry, or he could mean it won’t be long before the storm breaks over our sugar-cube lives. Usually he means both, and more.
‘What shall I do, Crow? I am not myself.’
He does not answer, not with words. He wipes his beak on the sill then hops off the edge, wing beats willing him into the storm.
This short piece was inspired by ‘The Maiden Without Hands’ – a poem by Anne Sexton, itself inspired by ‘The Handless Maiden’ faerie tale. Obviously there’s the feminist perspective, but I don’t want to flatten the enormous wisdom held in the faerie tale by commenting on it here. Partly this little story, if you can even call it that, was written for practice, but I find it impossible to practice with themes and characters I’m not interested in. As for the crow, there’s a writing adage that goes ‘write the friends you wish you had’. Well I definitely wish I had a crow friend. If my local corvids are too suspicious of my bread-crumb invitations then I’ll have to settle for a bird brought forth through ink.