Prelude to a Killing

Intro­duc­tions are tedious. Polite con­ver­sa­tion has never been my strong suit; I much pre­fer action to chat­ter, espe­cially when the lat­ter is with­out pur­pose. After all, I do not fancy you, and I doubt you will fancy me as I feel no oblig­a­tion to make myself appear more noble, charm­ing, or inter­est­ing than I am. I exist to per­form a sin­gle duty, and with­out ques­tion, I am the best in my pro­fes­sion. That is not hubris; it’s merely the truth. I never said I was hum­ble, but then I haven’t said much about myself at all. Every­thing you need to know about me can be summed up in eight words, and so I will just get to it.

I am a raven.

And I kill people.

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Octo­ber 10, 2008

Barton Springs Natural Pool Pease Park UT's South Mall Congress Avenue Bridge Governor's Mansion Texas State Capitol Stevie Ray Vaughan Statue Austin Nature Center

I have lived in Austin all my life, but I have trav­elled as far south as Mex­ico, and I’ve seen beau­ti­ful things on my jour­neys. But some­thing always brings me home, some­thing intan­gi­ble and inex­plic­a­ble. But per­haps that’s why it’s home — because its hold over me is mys­te­ri­ous and won­der­ful. In my years soar­ing over Austin and watch­ing its denizens, I’ve seen bril­liant things and heard won­der­ful sto­ries. I’ve also taken some amaz­ing lives. But that’s just what I am and what I do. I can­not explain it or con­trol it any more than I can my heartbeat.

This world is not con­clu­sion. A species stands beyond/Invisible, as Music/But pos­i­tive as Sound.

Emily Dickinson’s words whis­per through my mind as I soar over the Austin Green­belt, look­ing down over the hik­ers, fam­i­lies, and dogs wad­ing in and around the pale, green water. These bright, ani­mated chess pieces move over the board in a syn­chro­nous har­mony almost as though they are danc­ing. I hear their laugh­ter and their shouts, smell their skin and hair. As I drift lower they loom larger in my vision, now less like danc­ing gems and more like the glo­ri­ous mon­sters they are. A baby on wob­bly legs points a chubby fin­ger in the air at me, bab­bling and drool­ing. Her mother sweeps her up into her arms, and the baby’s head falls back­ward, her mouth wide with laughter.

In the dis­tance, I see a woman also watch­ing this scene. She is dressed in a tank top and flip flops, the uni­form of South Austin. She is folded into her­self, boast­ing the kind of invis­i­bil­ity ungainly teenagers wish for them­selves and so few humans can will­fully cre­ate. The woman is watch­ing the mother and daugh­ter with a small smile, but behind the smile I see some­thing else. Her eyes are liq­uid and unfo­cused. It is a moment before I real­ize she’s crying.

Curios­ity piqued, I moved in closer to see her bet­ter. Some­thing about her is famil­iar. I swoop down and pull my wings close to me, set­tling on a large rock just across from her. A breeze has blown a lock of hair into her eyes. Shift­ing, she moves her hair away, and when she does, her eyes light on me.

She stiff­ens. Her eyes become focused and hard. She looks me in the eye and shakes her head.

Raven. You bas­tard,” she says, her voice low and soft.

I step back and look around. Although I am occa­sion­ally yelled at by humans I am rarely spoke to, or even spo­ken of, prop­erly. Most often I am mis­taken for my cousin the crow, espe­cially since I am unnat­u­rally small for a raven. Cer­tainly no human has ever looked me in the eye and addressed me.

But this one is.

You don’t remem­ber me, do you?” She wears a half smile, and expres­sion com­pletely devoid of mirth. “You have no idea who I am.”

I shift my weight from foot to foot and fluff my feath­ers in irri­ta­tion. I am about to fly away when it comes to me. I have seen this woman before.

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Octo­ber 4, 2002

It was an unsea­son­ably cold, clear morn­ing in the foothills of Drip­ping Springs, Texas. I was out for my morn­ing soar, stretch­ing my wings and let­ting the wind carry me. I could smell wet, dying leaves, the smell of autumn.

I dropped lower as the wind died down, and I could see the pretty houses dot­ting the hill­side. Xeriscaped lawns, SUVs or mini­vans in the dri­ve­ways, organic veg­etable gar­dens in the back­yard. I knew these sort—they flour­ish in Austin. The Earth-aware, alter­na­tive med­i­cine, sus­tain­able types. Lots of the houses had children’s toys in the front yards, indi­cat­ing early-rising rap­scal­lions within. But that one house, the one where my busi­ness lay that morn­ing, stirred in its own way even as the other houses slept.

A woman’s voice, gut­tural and animal-like, cried out.

Sweep­ing in, I could smell sweat, blood, and anx­i­ety. The energy sur­round­ing the house was fren­zied, fre­netic. I could hear two voices: one soft and com­fort­ing intended to sooth and calm, and another that cried out in pain.

I flew around the house sev­eral times try­ing to get my bear­ings before I saw the open win­dow. Swoop­ing in, I mis­judged my descent and dis­turbed a vase of flow­ers too close to the win­dow. The vase crashed to the ground, announc­ing my arrival.

A stout woman with hair bound in a loose tapes­try of gray­ing braids atop her head rushed over to where I’d landed. “It’s a bird,” she called out. “Just a bird in the house.”

I sniffed and exam­ined her. She wasn’t the one.

I took flight again, maneu­ver­ing into the room with the blood and sweat, land­ing in the cor­ner near the door. The older woman hur­ried in behind me. A small woman with wet, curly hair plas­tered to her fore­head stood on all fours on a pile of sheets and tow­els on the floor. Her legs were spread apart, and she was moan­ing, rock­ing back and forth. I rec­og­nized child­birth, and moved in for a closer look.

The woman moaned again, grunt­ing and grit­ting her teeth. She looked to be in extra­or­di­nary pain. The stout woman glided behind the labor­ing woman. “The baby’s crown­ing, “ she said. “You’re doing great, sweet­heart. Keep push­ing gen­tly, breathe, that’s it, we’re sooo close, Carrie!”

Car­rie took a deep breath, and her whole body relaxed for a moment. Her back arched down, pulled by the weight of the child in her abdomen. With a soft shud­der and a small sigh of relief, she looked up. I think she was about to speak when she saw me. In that moment, we both knew why I was there.

Get out,” she whis­pered, her face hav­ing gone white. “Oh god, get out! Get out! Get that fuck­ing black bird out of my house! Jake! Mom! GET IT OUT!”

Sur­prised by her out­burst, Carrie’s mother sat back on her heels. “I don’t know how to trap a bird,” she mut­tered, look­ing dazed. “Jake’s not here, honey, he was called away to work. Don’t worry about it; the bird can stay. We can deal with it later.”

Car­rie began her wail­ing again, and her mother, the mid­wife, began shout­ing instruc­tions even as she maneu­vered between Carrie’s shak­ing thighs. “All right, honey, the baby’s head is out. Okay. Oh. Oh. Car­rie, you have to push this baby out now…”

One minute, two min­utes later, in a rush of blood and water, the baby slid between her mother’s thighs and into her grandmother’s wait­ing hands. The ten­sion in the air was pal­pa­ble. Yet amid the com­mo­tion and the smor­gas­bord of smells, I was called to the bright, shin­ing, ethe­real cord that sud­denly appeared in the room. It rang in a bril­liant fre­quency, and when it appeared, every­thing else ceased to exist. I went to the cord, and snapped it into my beak. It was mine to take away.

As I took flight with the cord securely in my mouth, I heard a woman’s voice cry, “She’s not breath­ing! Oh god, she’s not breath­ing! Help, Mom, SHE’S NOT BREATHING!”

I went out the same way I came in, through the win­dow, fly­ing high and dis­ap­pear­ing into a col­or­less sky.

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Octo­ber 17, 2008

I never thought I’d see you again. Not much rea­son to, I guess, since I never got preg­nant again after that. Did you know that, black bird? I had four mis­car­riages before car­ry­ing Isabelle to term, and then you swooped in and car­ried her away. Just like that,” Car­rie says, snap­ping her fingers.

She looks dif­fer­ent now, clothed and clean in the sun­light. Her hair is an explo­sion of bright, cop­per curls that reflect light like metal. If I were a mag­pie I might try to cap­ture some of that hair for a sou­venir. But I know bet­ter than to get too close; she’s wound so tight she’s liable to do any­thing and I don’t want to cause a scene.

So you know what I want from you, black bird? I want you to bring me another baby.”

I cock my head to the side and blink. Storks bring babies to cou­ples, not ravens. I hop a lit­tle closer to her, for I am intrigued by more than her hair. It isn’t often that I am seen for what I am, and even more rarely that I am seen for who I am. Car­rie doesn’t just see me for a raven; she knows we have met before. She knows I saw her naked and despair­ing. She knows I nabbed her child’s life from this world. She knows me. She sees me. And I can­not move away.

You take lives all the time,” she says, her voice break­ing. “All I’m ask­ing is that you bring me one of them. Instead of tak­ing it off to wher­ever you take them, bring it to me. You can do that. You owe me, black bird.”

Her tears are falling freely now, and I almost under­stand her pain, even if the mean­ing of her words are lost on me. “Owe” is such a uniquely human word. I can­not under­stand what this means.

I car­ried that baby for nine months with­out even a hint of trou­ble,” she whis­pered, her shoul­ders shak­ing. “It’s not fair, black bird. You owe me.”

Fair” is right up there with “owe” as a word I have no use for. But her plea is so rich, and as a com­pos­ite she is so beau­ti­ful that I am drawn to her desire quite apart from her own tri­fling rea­sons. I am drawn to help her because she sparkles, because she sees me, and because I have never brought life to any­one, and quite frankly, the idea excites me. For rea­sons com­pletely my own, I want to help Carrie.

I blink my eyes, shake my feath­ers, and take to the sky. South Austin is full of inter­est­ing peo­ple. I just have to find the right one to bring to Carrie.