I still find myself flinching when I hear the sound. My head instinctively ducking. My forearms rising above my head. Goosebumps rising there like an army of tiny ants tearing through the flesh. The whoosh of wind is equivalent to a blow to the back of my knees and it takes a tremendous amount of willpower not to collapse and succumb to the fear.
You see, I am terrified of ravens. Of crows. Of blackbirds. Whatever it is you want to call them. I’ve had people laugh at my behaviour in crowded markets where I’ve meandered through the throngs of bodies to find a special treasure that reminds me of her. She loved collecting trinkets. She’d find the value and beauty in cheap twisted plastic bracelets, chipped painted figurines, engraved rocks, hand-drawn sketches, and bright fluorescent hair ties. A particular piece would catch her eye and I’d watch the object reflected there as the market stall salesperson would commence their pitch. Words like ‘timeless,’ ‘unique,’ and ‘heirloom’ peppered the conversation almost every time. False promises of happiness. Of a long life. Of children.
I’d take her home and she’d place her latest catch on the table against the wall in our living room, where all the other pieces stood like headstones in a graveyard. Neatly ordered and spaced equally apart on the flat surface. Thinking about that table, which is now covered with a dusty old sheet because I can’t bare to look at it anymore, I wonder if it was her way of maintaining some order amongst the chaos of life. She had control over those objects, they were hers to manipulate. They succumbed to her gentle nudges in a certain direction, like chess pieces moved by a skilful player. Maybe it was because she had always been the one who was pushed and prodded. Like the coworkers who constantly took advantage of her crippling kindness by dumping their duties on her already full plate. Or her parents who only ever called when they wanted something from her. Or her ex-husband whose negative remarks about her sensitivity still bubbled just under the surface of every word she spoke, her voice quiet and submissive.
The birds were her children. She loved them and cared for them and in return they’d often bring her trinkets to add to her collection. Items like a rusted coin, a child’s pacifier crushed by the tyres of a thundering semi-trailer, or many other equally terrible relics found amongst the trash in dumpsters. Items that were no longer useful, discarded for good reasons. But she loved them just the same and would squeal with delight when the black beasts would open their beaks and reveal her reward for continuing to feed them. Her clever companions had even learnt to mimic her. They’d greet her in an eerily close tone of voice to hers, and she would laugh and clap and praise. I think she saw herself in them. Largely misunderstood creatures who saw the beauty in the banal.
But alas, she was betrayed by them. A betrayal that still causes a sharp pain when I think of it, a silver blade pushing against that sensitive spot near my lower spine, edging me closer to the temptation of that dark place. I keep a diligent watch on the local news coverage, both on our old TV set that still has tuning issues, and through the newspaper I collect from old Bill at the convenience store just down the road. He shakes his head in genuine concern every time I purchase a paper with a new headline covering another disappearance from the town. He thinks I am too invested in this and I won’t get the answers I seek.
This time he said, “You don’t go searchin’ there, boy. Them woods are no good. You’ll end up here.” He waves a bony hand at the newspaper stack.
I don’t know if he saw my hand twitching to hit him. He might have. Old Bill had hawk-like eyes. But he was broken too, just like everyone else in this godforsaken town. He knew the pain. The longing. Like an endless drum beating in your ears, becoming louder the more you try to ignore it. The intolerable yearning for those simple, special moments. Like when she watched me with patience as I accidentally put sugar in her morning coffee again, gently teasing me for my forgetfulness. Or that feeling of her hand gently stroking my scalp as I sat limply next to her, my bones aching to rest but pretending to enjoy the terrible show we always watched together.
I recall the many times that show would be interrupted with breaking news about another local disappearance. We’d both sit up straighter, the woods just outside our kitchen window buzzing with renewed energy, reaching their skeletal branches into our worried minds as we listened to the broadcast. A child, a young mother, a promising lad with a bright future. The woods did not discriminate. Everybody in the town knew it. The warnings were everywhere. “Do not go into the woods” was a rule heeded to by the younger generations with greater compliance than the rules of their religion.
And now the guilt that I felt on those cold nights alone pestered me for not listening to them. I should have done something sooner. We should have moved earlier. The headlines that constantly shouted at me from newsstands felt like punches to the gut now. They used terms like “haunted,” “cursed,” and “spooky” to justify the horrible crimes that had occurred there. To justify my Lucy’s absence. People appeared to find a strange comfort in blaming otherworldly entities rather than members of their own species for the disappearances. A human being capable of heinous acts is far more terrifying. They’re real and they’re living amongst us. Fear amongst neighbours in a small town is a virus best avoided. Folklore and superstition placates it and allows them to understand it.
My Lucy had been lured there by the birds, I knew it. I had seen her outside of the window, her pink cotton nightdress stark against the creeping darkness of the late afternoon. I remember I had to wipe the frost off the glass pane to see her better. There were three ravens, one on her left, one on her right, and one just behind her. Seeing the memory in my mind now, it looked like a calculated positioning of three predators, leaving her no choice but to go forward towards the woods.
I hadn’t thought of her being outside in the cold winter air as unusual. She often ventured out just before the dark as that was when the ravens like clockwork would appear on the doorstep. Sometimes I’d catch her talking to them like they were her children, her voice wafting inside, cooing gentle praises. That evening her back had stiffened, like she’d heard something. I was busy doing the dishes at the time and had to take my eyes off her momentarily so as not to drop the precious china on its commute from the sink to the drying rack. When I had looked back, she was gone. It was that quick. But the moment would last forever in my mind. I’d see it every time I closed my eyes before I went to sleep. Her pink nightgown gently whipping around her pale calves in the crisp wind. And the woods. Those dark strips amongst the ghostly pale surfaces of the towering birch trees were soulless. She’d slipped into those dark spaces and never returned. I’d have nightmares of black hands reaching out of the gaps in the trees, gripping my forearms and dragging me into the void. I’d wake up shaking, tears cold against my cheeks.
I searched for her there of course. Despite the warnings of the townspeople and media outlets. I’d felt the eyes on my back and the disturbance of air above my head as the ravens followed my path across the frost covered detritus. I tried to find her. I’d called her name, my voice sounding much louder than it ever had amongst the silence of the trees. She didn’t answer of course. When she was taken, I had been to the police and told them of her last whereabouts and they had nodded in an infuriating when I explained about the ravens. When I told them that I thought they had something to do with her disappearance. Nobody believed that of course. Such nonsense.
They didn’t see them everywhere like I did. In the town square, watching a toddler carefully as he dropped his cracker, head bent to the side in curiosity. Or outside the school yard, gathering in groups, calling to one another as hoards of schoolchildren filed into their classrooms. Or hopping closely to the feet of the senior citizens gathering in the local park, testing the boundaries, inching closer. They were always watching. Their tiny black eyes like little camera lenses documenting the habits of those they could manipulate. Like Lucy.
They had known she was an easy target. Sensitive, caring, malleable. They, or whatever was controlling them, used her. She was just a plastic chess piece in their game, like the scuffed one the ravens had once gifted her. An ominous warning. I find myself wandering the markets more regularly now because I feel like she’s there with me. I hear the salespeople launch their pitches and she comes back to me, clearer than ever, smiling and excited to hear what they have to say. Sometimes I stand there, just behind the customer examining the wares, so I can listen to their conversations and remember her.
With the first winter approaching since her disappearance, I can feel the chill settle into my skin. With it comes a profound sadness. There is a point where hope turns to grief and I believe an approaching anniversary is the catalyst for that change. It’s an unwanted discovery that time has passed and they’re still gone. That you’re here, living and breathing, and they are not. That they’re starting to be forgotten by the world, just another frozen face on the side of a milk carton. Humanity begins to seem so cruel and callous, forgetful and fake.
Feeling the grief tighten its grip around my chest, I collected the newspaper from old Bill once again. I needed the distraction. He disapproved of course but nevertheless took my money every time, grumbling and shaking his head like he always did. A man has to pay his pills despite his morals. A new face was there in black and white on the front page, looking out from the small square with innocent eyes. It was Beverley, the old lady I had often run into down at the markets. She had adored Lucy, always grabbing her hand and pulling it down, marvelling at her glowing skin and rubbing her latest concoction of ointments on the delicate spot on the back of her hand. Lucy would ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the right moments, always agreeing with Beverley at the difference her silly potions made on her skin. I detested them whenever Lucy put them on. It smelt too strongly of lavender and the scent would linger in the air when she walked past. I’d tried to convince her not to buy from Beverley’s stall all the time but Lucy would say she felt sorry for the old woman and that she was a nice person who deserved the cheap change she’d hand over from the bottom of her purse. Lucy’s selflessness was unrivalled.
It was a shock to see a familiar face join the legion of the lost ones. I felt my throat constrict and tried to swallow the emotion that felt solidified there. When I got home that day, I threw the newspaper in the bin without reading the entire story. Something I had never done. I was so tired of the frozen faces, the warnings, the fear. I watched as the snowflakes softly fell and danced in the winter wind outside the kitchen window. I was overcome with an urge to stand out there, like Lucy had done almost a year ago. I wanted the cold to take over my body, freeze my organs, and stop my heart from beating its melancholic tune. At least then the pain would stop. So I did. I let the wind run its icy fingers along the sides of my face and bare arms. I inhaled the cold and exhaled the grief. It was surprisingly numbing.
Then I heard her, calling my name from the spaces between the trees. A different kind of cold that emanated from somewhere within me made me shiver. “Darling,” she called once more, her soft voice so familiar, so real. It even had the same rising intonation that she had, always turning my name into a question mark. My heart had instinctively thawed and started beating an electric rhythm. I took a step towards the woods but stopped when I saw a raven there, sitting on a crooked branch just out of reach, watching. It let out a loud croak and a similar response came from somewhere to my left. I whipped around and saw another raven, chest feathers puffed out, about the same height as a small dog. I watched them both warily. Lucy’s voice was still there, loud inside my head. I called out to her, my voice catching mid second syllable. She didn’t answer.
I knew then that the ravens had won. That little catch in my voice the only key they needed to unlock my guarded gates. I fell to my knees in the snow and the sobs flooded out, wrenching open my lungs and bursting into the cold air. When the last rays of golden light began to fade and the darkness rejoiced in its defeat, I saw her. She stood in her pink nightgown, the weeds underfoot catching on the hemline. She looked different, like the darkness had somehow seeped into her skin making her look hollow. A strange glow flickered in her eyes. It reminded me of the fireflies we used to catch that she’d feed to the ravens. An arresting smile alluring and promising spread across her face, beckoning me to follow. I entered the woods and took her cold hand. The ravens cawed in unison. Checkmate.