A Crow, The Vortex, and a Girl with a Steel Leg
SUNY Jefferson
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A Crow, The Vortex, and a Girl with a Steel Leg

Michael Keck
A Crow, The Vortex and a Girl with a Steel Leg
North Country Writers Contest 2019 Winner, Fiction

            The girls found him sitting on a bench at the top of the hill that looked into the city proper. He had his hat off, cooling his head, wore sunglasses, fleece pants, and his hiking boots. There was a green, plastic water bottle on the bench next to him. Down the hill, getting the first mow of the summer, three crows made the grass and themselves look better by contrasting. She sat down.
            “Do you remember what I told you about how the Native Americans identify the crow from a raven?”
            She laughed, looking towards him and back on the crows. “They said, ‘crows walk, ravens hop.’ I like crows.”
            “Me too.”
            “I like how they walk. I like to think of them as having dress pants on, going about their business, dressed up.”
            “Humph.” He laughed. “That is an interesting idea, but I don’t see why it can’t be so.”
            “Mr. Mike, tell me something else about crows.”
            “Well... we talked about the caw, as their basic tool of their language but did you know that they change how it sounds based on different times of the year and they can change the space in between the caws and make adjustments to the number of caws in the sequence?”
            She laughed again. “Why?”
            “No one knows. The people who study birds, called ornithologists, tell us that the language of crows is so complex and changes often, that it is impossible for us to understand it.”
            “Humph... do you mean that if I wanted to, I could find out what they are saying, and others would listen to me describe it?”
            “Why yes, I suppose you could. It could be your job.”
            To get away from the mower, the crows walked up the hill towards the benches, one in front, and one lagging behind always checking on the mower. Two cawed, bobbing their heads. One watched. Two more landed on the great lawn.
            An old crow sat next to a small stream that passed through a valley. The valley was shielded from the cold winds. He appeared to be sleeping. “Why have you come across?”
            When he spoke the youngest could not help to look at him, although it was forbidden. As the youngest, it was his job to watch. Watch only. Watch every direction. Every moment. Then, evaluate that movement against the threat to the older crows that he was assigned to, traveling and eating and roosting with them. But this was his first time across. And, this was a very old crow. One spoken of late in the night in the big tree in front of the old building downtown, in quiet voices, almost a whisper. He was the one who travels across the shimmer on the cross-quarter days. These are the days known to the pagans. Days of power, when the forces of gravity, magnetism, and the passages of celestial bodies line up. Days of magic. The youngest turned to his job. One of the travelers, spoke.
            “We are concerned about a man in the park that is speaking to me. He seems to know who I am. He shades.”
            “Have any of the other brethren told you that he has spoken to them? Are they concerned in any way?”
            “No, but they know who I mean. He is in the park often. Even on the cold days but never at night. He has not been seen near the roost. No one has seen him with owls, deer, or the fox.  He has a dog, but no more. He arrives alone.”
            “Why can’t he just be an old man trying to hear himself speak out loud?”
            “It is how he speaks. He has the bob. He uses the sequence.”
            “A gun?”
            “Is this the man with the white beard?”
            “What exactly does he say?”
            “We can’t tell. It sounds like gibberish to us.”
            The old crow laughed. “Gibberish? I haven’t heard that in some time. Tell me...what words is he using?”
            “It sounds like ‘Baca-beau.’ He will say this three times, like a chant.”
            “You are certain?”
            “Did you know that Baca was the name given to me at my birth? The doorway will be closing soon. You are too young to stay and must go back. Once on the other side, talk to the others. Let’s find out more about this man. Who are his friends? Is he saying anything else? I will be able to come across on the next cross-day and will find you at the roost downtown.”
            They left. It was along the same path as the one they took inside the shimmer, at the edge of the park. The branches of the nearby trees waved, and the light moved through and past, leaving behind three crows dancing along the hard path towards the long hillside that looked out over the city of Watertown. Someplace else, in some other time, the howl of a wolf at the zoo could be heard. It was mid-morning. The wind began to shift from out of the east towards the south and eventually, the west. The long cold dark was upon them.
            “Have you ever heard the crows sing?”
            “Sing? Like songbirds?”
            “Yes. It is very rare. For one thing, they only sing at night when they gather in their roost. In Watertown, one of the roosts is downtown at the Historical Society, which is a hoot all by itself, no pun intended. In the roost, they tell the story of their family. Their clan. It is a history. Everyone at the roost is related to one another. Each one holds a piece of the story. As their turn comes up, they tell it to keep the story going late into the night. The younger crows must be taught the old parts as well as learn theirs. Their parts are what is happening to the family at this moment. They guard their story from others. From us.”
            Down the street from the Historical Society building, out back of the Masonic Lodge, the old crow spoke to the group gathered there. It was November 5th.
            “You are not alone in your concern. Others from the Blackwater, even the big hills off to the east have mentioned him, often in the same manner. These are older birds. Apparently he has been acting like this for some time. For all of his. They mention a kindness. He is not just an old man.”
            “Could he be speaking our story that has been foretold in the Winter Legends?”
            “But he is here now.”
            “Why can’t a legend be coming towards us now? Coming up from a different past? From his past?”
            “Are you saying that, as a legend, it does not have to always be from a dead past?”
            “Why not. The old man is here now. He is moving towards us. He wants something from us.”
            “I need to see into his eyes. Listen to what he has to say. Is there anything more?”
            “He has a special friend. A girl. She walks odd and clanks a steel leg. It is hard for her to make it up the hill but she does on most days when he is there in the park. She brings him food. They sit on the bench at the top of the hill, watching the city below them to the west. He tells her stories. He makes her laugh.”
            “There. That’s it. He must be a teacher. What if he has something to tell us? Where will he be?”
            “On the lower trail until the snow closes it off. He begins there, winding his way up the hill.”
            Off they flew. Past the water tower, stopping along a hard path to pluck at the bits of food the children had left behind the playground. Down through the opening of the pavilion, through the ceiling just because it was fun and no other building lets them do that. The old one, left them there, drifting down the hill, finding a good branch of a fir tree to sit on. The tree was old. It had been here a long time. Waiting. Watching. He did the same.
            The vortex would be open until the 8th.
            On one path, the man walked up from where he parked his car, just outside of the park boundaries. This was his winter spot. The park road had been blocked. The screens to protect the children from sliding across the street into traffic were erected. Any day now, the snows and real cold would arrive. He saw a single bird move down the branch to be closer to him as he passed. He thought it was a fir tree. A crow. But one that looked older. Not as pretty. Not as neatly groomed. The man stopped, made eye-contact, calling out, “Baca-beau.” The crow pretended not to notice. The man took one step closer, slowed his speech, “Baca-beau” the crow dipped his head. There could be no mistake about this man. He was the one. The crow made one low tone, a sort of a begrudgingly acknowledgement. The man nodded, leaving. He turned up the path, uphill to the large lawn.
            On another path, the same one the old man had just wandered up, a girl with a steel leg walked up. A crow flew in front of her. Another followed. There was more wind now. More storms. The air had an edge. Her leg was shiny. It could cut the darkness. It was persistent.
            “When you speak to a crow, keep your arms to your side and keep your hands inside your pockets. Bob your head towards them. It will take a while for them to understand that you are speaking to them. At first, they will not like it but at night, in the roost, they will begin talking about you. They will describe your appearance to the others. Even those crows who have never seen you will be able to identify you. Today is the last time we will see one another.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “I am going through the vortex tonight, just at dark, following a flock of crows. I need you to do three things for me. Can you help me?”
            “No. Wait. Do you mean that I am not going to ever see you again?”
            “I am not certain about that. We will have to wait to see how our lives play out. Listen carefully. I want you to tell your mom what has happened to me. I want you to call the police, telling them what you suspect but not what you know, and I want you to call my nephew. Give him this message: ‘Go to Rutland and feed his cats’.He will know what to do.”
            “I can’t lie about this.”
            “No, I don’t want you to, but you can tell each person a different version of the same truth. Adults do this all the time.”
            “They do?”
            “Yes, each will have different questions for you but not all of them will be asking you these at the time.”
            “Why can’t I come to?”
            “It is not your time. Think of what that would do for your mother. When a person grows up, they have to live in a life that is larger than the one they have known. When you become an adult, you have to live outside yourself. You have to start acting like that now. You have other things to do. You have a story to become. You have your own set of crows to speak to. These cannot take place inside the vortex.”
            “Mom, Mr. Mike is not there.”
            “What do you mean dear?”
            “He is not in the park, but his car is parked where it always is. It has been there for two days now. I asked, no one has seen him. And his crows are gone. We have to call the police. I have to call his nephew Pete and send them to his house because his cats will be getting hungry. Mr. Mike asked me.”
            “Why is it that you feel you know more than you are letting on?”
            “Mom. . . remember when I asked you to let me walk into the park by myself? I asked you to trust me. I am asking that again. I saw him leave through a shimmer of light in the corner of the park. When he did, a flock of crows flew in, after him, cawing. He told me they were going to Rutland for the winter. He called it a winter-harbor.”     
            That night, the girl with the steel leg laid down in her bed, crying. Outside her window, a crow sat watching. Another flew in, walking down the branch. They turned their heads toward each other and began to sing a song. It was soft. It sounded like a contrast to their darkness. It was against winter. Against the cold. Inside of it, each crow sang the part of the story that it knew. Now the story included the girl with a steel leg and why they had been sent to guard her.