Some time ago…
The air was frigid in the cramped apartment as the girl lay in the center of the room staring up at the ceiling. The fan wobbled above her, one broken blade hobbling its movement. It reminded the girl of a wounded fish, stuck swimming in circles around its bowl. Her pale blonde hair wavered in the fan’s uneven breeze. Inches in front of her face her breath fogged her vision, leaving tendrils of heat from her lungs to drift up and fade in the cold air.
Mama hovered over a blackened pot stirring reheated stew on their rusted stove. She hummed an old song she’d heard grandma sing before she was gone. The girl knew Mama missed grandma. She missed her too.
“Mama?” the girl asked as she rolled over and propped her head up with an elbow.
“Yes, Vitoria?” Mama questioned, a distinctly tired drag to her voice.
“Tell me one of grandma’s stories, please?” the girl warmed her tiny, numb hands with her hot breath. The stinging warmth sent some feeling back through the tips of her fingers.
“Again?” She looked at her daughter with exhaustion. Mama sighed and pushed a blonde thicket from in front of her eyes to a resting spot behind an ear.
“One I haven’t heard,” Vitoria pleaded with dolefully large eyes.
“Well,” Mama started, “a dark one perhaps?” She came around the counter and leaned on it. Mama replaced as much exhaustion as she could muster with a sweet smile.
Vitoria got up on both knees and nodded excitedly “Yes!” she exclaimed.
“Come here, sit with me.” Mama beckoned to Vitoria and made her way to the ragged recliner that sat next to the hot-water heater. Vitoria waited for her mother to get comfortable, then crawled up into her arms and nestled in their warmth.
“Hmm,” Mama tapped a finger to her lips, thinking. Vitoria stared up into Mama’s face. Her large icy blue eyes waited anxiously for another story. “Did grandmother tell you the story of the King and the Crows?” her mother asked, looking down at her. Vitoria shook her head, she bit her lip and grinned.
“Ah, well her mother lived this story. As with all of grandmother’s tales, they are true.” Mama’s eyes grew distant as she looked out the window. Large, fluffy, snowflakes swirled outside in the darkness of the night, illuminated by the faint lamps of the apartment.
“A long time ago,” Mama started, “when grandmother’s mother, Grandmother Ana, was just a girl, there came a flock of revolution. It came calling for the king. She lived in a magnificent palace. A jewel for all the country to love. But the people despised their king, her father.”
“What was his name?” Vitoria asked.
“Nicholas,” Mama answered. “The people hated him for his title, his wealth, even the family he was born into. But, more than anything else, they hated him for the sins of the men who ruled before him. Winter came, and the chill did nothing to thaw the people’s hearts. Their lives were hard, and winter made them harder. But the king, up in his palace, his life was warm, full of joy and happiness. The people grew bitter and turned to crows.
Then they came. They drifted on the cold wind and brought with them only ruin,” Mama said and fluttered her fingers ominously.
Vitoria took a steadying breath.
“Only a few at first,” Mama continued, “they perched high on the palace walls and cawed to the king. Long nights and cold days followed, and the birds called for him incessantly.”
“What’s incesh-ant-ally mean Mama?” Vitoria asked curiously.
“It means without end,” she explained, “they never stopped. The crows squawked about the change that was coming how they soon would rule, but the king refused to hear them.”
“Did he kill them?” Vitoria asked.
“He tried, but for every single one he killed, more came to take their place and the angrier the murder of crows became. The king was tortured, he would scream about the curse that was laid upon his home. He grew ravenous and stalked his palace searching for a room that drowned out the birds. Wherever the king roamed, nowhere could he escape the screams of the crows.
In the months to come more birds, thousands of them now, found their way to the palace. All joined in the king’s humiliation. The king became crazed, driven mad by the caws of thousands of voices. But still, he refused to hear their message. It wouldn’t have mattered if he did, they called for his head.
The king could not contain himself, he screamed at the birds. Threatening them as any king would have. He lashed out with a promise of gruesome death. But crows, Vitoria, don’t recognize the divine right of kings, they mock it.” Mama’s voice cracked a little.
“The more the king screamed, the louder their nagging caws became. Eventually, no matter how strong he was, his words meant nothing among the noise that had befallen his home.” Mama took a breath letting the tension hang in the apartment’s air.
“What did he do then?” asked Vitoria, her voice small and hidden behind nervous hands.
“Everything he offered the crows was found insufficient; all the bargains, deals, and threats fell on deaf ears. What can you offer creatures that only want death?
Then, when the king and his men were weak, the birds took his palace. With overwhelming numbers, they swooped in and murdered his men and took the king hostage. The king had but one care left, his family. They were all that mattered in the growing anger of the murder that cursed him. But, he would fail at this as well. He and his family would be taken by the crows.” Mama’s voice was soft, sadly painting the words in Vitoria’s imagination.
“There was nothing the king could do; he had lost his country to the crows and now sat as their captive,” She said in a matter of fact tone. “They had won. But the king still lived, as did the queen and their children. How could the crows truly rule if the royals still lived? They descended on the family, and a king, with so much power, fell to their talons. He had not heard through their warnings that his rule was at an end, that the world was now changed.
They tore at the family, ripped and gored at them. The royal family was murdered, death by a-hundred-and-three wounds and the crows were at long last victorious. The king fell, and knew, with such pain in his heart, he was powerless.” Mama said with finality.
“They really killed them?” Vitoria whispered.
Mama nodded but stayed silent, her eyes sorrowfully stared out the lone window.
“And then!? That can’t be the end!” Vitoria exclaimed, her impatience too much to handle.
“The crows then tore down all the royal statues, they rewrote history, they replaced their royalty with nationalism. They did it all in the name of the people. The people believed them, believed the crows would love them and wouldn’t use them like the kings of old. They believed they were now part of a collective, something bigger than any one of them. They believed they and everyone were now equal, how wrong they were. And the country suffered,” Mama finished.
Vitoria stared morosely up at Mama. She clutched the patched sleeve of her mother’s sweater “That one was sad. Grandma’s mama was there?”
Mama comforted her with a firm hug, dropping her chin onto her daughter’s head. “Grandmother Ana was the youngest daughter of the king. You see, the queen gave her something special. An heirloom. Something to hide her from the crows. And it did. Grandma Ana ran far away. Far off her feet carried her.”
“The crows hunted her?” Vitoria asked meekly.
“Without end?” Vitoria mimicked her mother’s words.
“Exactly,” Mama answered, “They never found her though, they looked far and wide. Grandmother Ana had outrun the crows. She was gone to them.”
“Grandma Ana was chicken,” Vitoria stated.
Mama’s eyes grew wide and looked down into the defiant face of her daughter. “Grandmother Ana was so brave, we are here because she ran. You’re here because she survived,” Mama explained.
After long moments of thought, Vitoria said, “I would’ve swatted those nasty birds!” She swung an arm through the open air.
Mama laughed and hugged her warmly. “I know, little warrior, such a brave thing you are!” They both laughed. The quiet apartment felt warmer than it had before.
Vitoria jumped up, her fists balled aggressively. Her brow was knitted over her large eyes, and a dangerous grin curled her dainty lips. “I’ll find every crow, you’ll see Mama! They’ll pay!” The little girl jumped onto the coffee table and began to fight imaginary avian enemies.
“I know you will, Vitoria.” Her mother beamed. “Come now little princess, time to eat.”
The winter wind howled and tore by the windows. But within the tiny one-room-apartment, Vitoria and Mama laughed and ate. Warmth would carry them through the night.
by: James Romansky
Some time ago…