‘Adelaide! Adelaide!’ Mama’s rasping voice is calling.
Caw. Caw. Caw.
You can hear her cry, between your ears, in the back of your head. She’s been there all along.
Above you, in the trees, they sit and watch. Black eyes, black wings, shining and thick feathered, beating, beating. Look out–here she comes. Big, mean Mama.
‘Adelaide? Adelaide! Where have you been, you wicked girl?’
Creep up on it, did you? In your thin cotton summer dress, threadbare, flapping over grazed knees on skinny legs. Did you crawl up slowly, cat-like, stalking the bird? Did you jump all of a sudden? Of course, you missed. Nobody outsmarts a crow.
‘Go catch me a crow, girl!’ Adelaide is told, while her mother prays on her knees in private with the pastor. ‘Catch me a crow, girl! And don’t you come back until you have one!’ And so, banished, she spends her eighth summer laying traps in the fields, lying in wait, balls of string and bags of bait at her side.
Adelaide, sullen girl child, knows nothing of crows, except their disdain for her. She waits and waits but each time she fails, returning home at dark, long after the pastor has left. The more she fails, the more determined she becomes. She observes that crows are smarter than the other birds. Smarter than humans.
In the beginning, when the pastor first knocked at their door, offering salvation, Mama would be happy. The pastor would pat Adelaide’s head and smile, showing his teeth, all white, save the gold one at the front. His big rough hand would gently shove Adelaide through the back door, telling her to go and glory in the creation. Adelaide is not sure what this means, but she can read the letters, written in blue ink across his large knuckles. L.O.V.E. on the one hand and H.A.T.E. on the other. She thinks he must write these words anew, every day, because they never seem to wash off.
But you knew all along, didn’t you, Adelaide? You could smell the danger. Clever girl. Too clever for your own good, Mama would say.
Adelaide soon learns not to return too early, not even if it is raining. Returning too soon would make the adults angry. It would mean she’d be sent to bed, ears boxed, with no supper. The more the pastor comes around, the more she misses her supper.
Newly house-proud Mama gives her more chores. But Adelaide can never quite get the floor clean enough, nor can she sweep the yard to perfection. For each failure, there is a slap, pinch, or shove. Adelaide learns to do her chores quickly, aiming to complete them just before the pastor’s car comes into view.
When she isn’t in the fields, Adelaide is in the town library, reading. She learns that most attempts to catch a crow fail. A crow can be caught, but only once. Crows will avoid locations where they know there are traps. Nooses never work. Glue traps don’t work because their feet don’t stick. Nobody knows why.
A large collection of crows is, of course, a murder. When a crow dies, a murder of crows gathers. Neither funereal nor tender, they are trying to discover what killed the dead crow. Crows are pragmatists. They learn lessons.
The more the pastor comes around, the more time Adelaide spends outside. Feral Adelaide, on her belly in the grass, sun hot on her back, her neck, her knees. Gripping the string hard, eyes wide and fixed on the rickety trap, she waits, moving not a muscle. If the crows see what she’s up to, they will leave the field and never come back. Crows don’t forgive.
These crows, this murder, seem unbothered by the child lurking in the grass. They watch her set the traps and, just as she settles down to watch, they immediately take off to another field. Sometimes one will come quite close, to keep its beady eye on her, as she puts peanuts inside an elaborate set of string loops. It’s always the same crow–two white feathers on his left wing–and it seems like he’s mocking her when he cocks his head and caws. He waddles off to the others to present his report. Then they fly off shrieking.
Today, she has a new trap. This one she discovered in a boy-scout comic. She’s been making it for days. Two sticks, a small stone, some string, carefully tied and balanced, are, the comic assures her, always a winner. As she waits in the grass, confident of catching a crow, her thoughts turn to what she will do with it. It hadn’t occurred to her before. She imagines the struggle it will put up, flapping, and pecking. She wonders if it will hurt the crow to be dragged back to Mama’s house on a piece of string, upside down all the way. And then, shall she burst through the doors to proudly present the furious bird to the pastor and tell him, now you can leave? Shall she? And if he takes the bird and wrings its neck, what then?
Adelaide shivers. She does not want to hurt the crow. She does not want to please the pastor. As she thinks this, the white feathered crow lands a few feet in front of her and takes a long hard look at her boy-scout trap. It masquerades as a handy perch, and crows do love a perch. Adelaide can see the crow is tempted. Before it can hop up, she reaches out and grabs the trap. The crow flies off and she, slightly regretful, after all that work, sits back down and dismantles the contraption.
Overhead, circling high, the white feathered crow cries, then wheels away.
Why should she catch a crow? She throws the sticks down.
Back home, earlier than usual, she finds Mama still at prayer with the pastor. Sneaking to the back door, she couldn’t resist a peek. Up on tiptoes, slowly up, there they are, in heavenly raptures. Adelaide hadn’t realised that you could pray on your back, legs in the air. With a big naked pastor between, huffing and puffing at his Eucharist. Hallelujah.
The spectacle transfixes her for a moment, but the sight of the pastor’s fat bottom, all a quiver, makes her feel ill. Not entirely sure what she is witnessing, she decides that whatever it is they are doing; it is not praying. Dropping to the ground, she hears a rustle in a nearby tree. There is a crow, white feathers on his wing, watching. She points to the window and the crow cocks his head and looks in.
Oh, Adelaide. Did they beat and berate you when they found you home early, a-sneaking and a-peeking? Did you get sent, no supper, to bed, for seeing what you saw? Did they tell you that you did not, could not have seen such a thing? And when you told them, through the tears and the snot and the blows, that you’d caught a crow and that, there he was, up in the tree, did they stop to look? No. They whacked you upside the head again, boxed your ears and pulled your hair. They called you a liar, a devil child and they slammed the door behind you.
In the tree, the crow watches on with his quick eyes. Finally, and with outraged shrieks, he takes to the skies in a flap.
Bright yellow morning light slips over Adelaide’s windowsill as she slowly opens her swollen eyes. Breathing shallow, she listens, and all is quiet, save the gentle snoring of her mother down the hall. Mama! Her ever loving, god-fearing mother, who slaps so hard and barely ever raises a smile, unless the pastor comes around. As Adelaide stirs, every pain reminds her of the beating she took. She remembers the crow and how he followed her and how he seemed to call to her. Fully awake now, and fully angry, she is decided.
Adelaide tiptoes to the kitchen, where she fills her bag with food for her and the crows. She pauses at Mama’s door. It is slightly ajar, and Adelaide can see her enormous chest rising and falling in time with the snores. How hateful Mama seems today, how big and mean and cruel. She can keep her pastor, but she can’t keep Adelaide.
Then she is gone, from home, from school, from her despised mother. Gone to catch crows.
For seven glorious days, Adelaide runs with the crows, following them from field to field. She roosts at the foot of their trees and plays in the early autumn sun, gathering berries and stealing food from wherever she can.
On the seventh day, Adelaide and the crows are on a hill, surrounded by thick woods that slope down to a lake. She is sitting in the long grass, sorting her berries as her crow family feeds nearby. Unexpectedly, they take to the air, screeching in alarm. Adelaide stands to look but, from behind, a large hand grabs her mouth, and another grabs her arm. He yanks her around and she sees the big fat pastor, his face filled with thunder. His blubbery lips wobble furiously, and his eyes spit hate, as he tells her what a wicked child she is, to cause so much trouble. She, he tells her, needs to learn repentance. As he throws her to the ground, unbuckling his belt, he snarls ‘I’m going to teach you how to pray’.
Adelaide, terrified, arms across her face, is braced. She hears a loud caw, followed by another and another. Daring to open her eyes, she sees one, then two, then many crows diving at the pastor, attacking his fat head with their sharp thick beaks and spiny talons. They are swarming around him now, knocking him to the ground and, when he gets back up again, they chase him, scratching, screaming as he screams. They are driving him off, off towards the woods, towards the slope.
‘There must be a hundred crows!’ thinks Adelaide, and she can’t help but laugh and clap her hands in delight. The crows don’t let up, bombarding the fat man while he stumbles and tries to run.
‘Whoops’, says Adelaide as the pastor trips over his loose trousers and tumbles over the edge of the slope, followed by the crows, who dart through the trees, still attacking as he falls. Then they go quiet.
From the top, Adelaide can see the pastor, all twisted up and bloody, almost at the lakeshore. She waits until she is sure he isn’t moving, then makes her way down. Her crow family sits and watches her from the branches above him. The white feathered crow hops down to sit on the pastor’s head, now face down in the dirt. He gives Adelaide an enquiring look. She pushes at the body with her boot and turns it over. Eyes staring, mouth gaping, limbs all distorted, head smashed in on a rock. Like a slaughtered pig and ready for roasting.
‘You can have his eyes,’ she says to the crows and makes her way to the shore to take a drink.
Time passes. The season changes and winter sets in. For months, Adelaide has lived in the woods with the crows, but now she is hungry. Her clothes are paper thin, and snow is coming. She knows she needs shelter, but she doesn’t know where she is anymore. In her head, she can still hear Mama’s voice berating her, but it no longer scares her. There are crows in her company. She has gathered their fallen feathers and attached them to her clothes, to keep out the cold. She wears their feathers in her hair.
The nights come early, and the woods cannot keep her warm. One night, she sees twinkling lights and is drawn to them. As she gets closer, she can see it is a Christmas tree with a string of lights wrapped around it. In the window of a little solitary house, it glows. Then she remembers where she is.
Oh Adelaide, did you stand at the window, all dirty faced and covered in feathers? Did you tap tap tap? Did you frighten Mama when she saw you? Poor, foolish Mama, who had, in your absence, taken to drink. Was it all too much for her, when you began to caw and caw, when the crows joined you and swirled around your head? Did she drop dead at your feet? Oh dear. Happy Christmas.
In the little solitary house, you and your crow family can safely winter. Someone will come eventually, but the crows will warn you in time. Then, Adelaide, you will fly.
Anita Ponton is a writer and visual artist, with an interest in exploring subversive characters in dark tales of revenge and, on occasion, redemption.
She was educated at Central St. Martins School of Art and at Goldsmiths College, in London, UK. Her art practice is multi-disciplinary and over the past 25 years, she has exhibited, performed and taught internationally.
Anita is currently focussing on writing and has published several short stories. She is working on her first novel.
For more information, go to www.anitaponton.com