The crowgirl decided they would set up camp on a low hill at the eastern edge of a cornfield. There was a dark copse of trees to the south and a slow muddy stream, its shore sharp and crunching with crayfish corpses. To the north was the roofless barn, pale brown beneath the red and purple clouds; the stench of rotting horses was so strong that even the crows avoided the place as they darted between the dry cornstalks, looking for mice. From the camp on the hill they could see everything, the river and the barn with its silos of molding grain, the hunting crows, and far to the west, in the square white farmhouse with its padlocked cellar door, the congregation of the Dead.
(One for sorrow, two for joy.)
“It’s a big nest,” said Josh, a big dark boy who rode shotgun in the crowgirl’s station wagon, watching out the windshield through his grandfather’s army-issue binoculars. “Thirty of them, maybe. They’re just sitting in the front room, no space to move.”
“Wonder how that feels,” muttered the crowgirl’s sister, who shared the back seat with a couple dozen gallons of gasoline and a trio of ancient, milky-eyed crows.
(Three for a woman, four for a boy.)
“Why aren’t they hunting?” the crowgirl asked.
Josh shrugged. “Nothing to hunt for.”
“There’s us,” Crystal said. She sat in the middle seat, in front of the crowgirl’s sister, and kept craning her neck to stare out the back window.
“Yeah, well.” Josh looked pointedly up at the black wings circling ahead of them, fragmenting the sun. “We’re not too easy to get.”
“Someday,” the crowgirl told her sister, “you’re going to realize that you like me.”
They were walking across the rustling cornfield, the no-man’s land between their camp and the house of the Dead. Each footfall kicked up little clouds of white dust, glittering in the sunlight like powdered bone. The tiny shadows of high-flying birds made a patchwork of blue-black on the dead earth around them.
(Five for silver, six for gold.)
“Not that you love me,” the crowgirl continued in her low, beautiful voice. She was fifteen and skinny, deceptively fragile, but her voice flowed like honey. “You probably know that already. But someday—in a year or two, when I’m dead—you’ll be walking across a field and you’ll pause suddenly because you’ll remember a joke I used to make, or the way I used to braid your hair for you.”
The crowgirl’s sister kept her eyes on the pinwheeling earth-bound shadows and said nothing.
(Seven for a secret never to be told.)
“So now I’m telling you that I know. I know that you like me, deep down, so you don’t need to feel bad when I’m dead that you never told me yourself.”
“None of that’s ever going to happen,” said the crowgirl’s sister between gritted teeth. She steadfastly refused to look at the horizon.
On the day they set up camp, the crowgirl’s sister was four months, two weeks, and five days pregnant.
(One for death, two for birth.)
This is how it happened:
They were almost out of gasoline. Gael and the crowgirl’s sister wanted to ditch the station wagon, load up on food, and head farther west on foot, where fewer towns meant fewer congregations of Dead. After all, the crowgirl’s sister reasoned, ninety percent of their scuffles and close encounters could be avoided if they didn’t enter populated areas for gas. But everyone else, including the crowgirl, thought the occasional attack at the gas station was worth the added speed and storage capacity of the vehicle.
So it was agreed that the five of them, the crowgirl and Kenasia and Josh and Crystal and Ryan, would take the station wagon into Courville to fill the tank and gas cans and to grab as many soup packets, lighters, and bags of potato chips as they could carry. The crowgirl’s sister also wanted cigarettes, but Kenasia, who had perforce quit cold turkey, refused to let them in the car. “You want that shit so bad, you come into town with us and get it,” she said, parodying the crowgirl’s sister’s slurred, truncated sentences. “I’m not even looking at it. Unless you can find a pharmacy that’s still got nicotine patches?”
“Jesus Christ, don’t be such a bitch,” said the crowgirl’s sister. “It’s not like you quit for your health.”
(Three for mourning, four for mirth.)
“You know what’s good for my health? Not running unprepared into every goddamn gas station we pass because I need a smoke.”
“How’s that any different from needing gasoline?”
“You can blow up zombies with gasoline and a match,” Gael interjected smugly. “Only thing you can do with a match and Newport Kings is give yourself lung cancer.” Tall, skinny, and near-sighted, Gael was a total ass.
So while the others drove into town and Gael poked around the side of the road, stirring up anthills and bursting mushrooms with a stick, the crowgirl’s sister found a gravel path that led off into the woods, which were so thick and dark that even the high noon sun left the mossy trail unlit. Nothing stirred in the treetops. The swallows and robins and blue-jays were gone, dead or flown south, and all the crows and ravens were following the crowgirl, hungering after the Dead. A chipmunk darted unafraid along the path in front of the crowgirl’s sister, its white tail rusty with blood.
The trail wound past an old battlefield, where someone in the early days of the plague had stuck the severed heads of the Dead onto old fence posts. Even that didn’t silence them; a woman’s eyeless skull snapped its flesh-clotted teeth at the crowgirl’s sister as she walked past. Eat the flesh, scatter the bones; that was the only sure way to stop them. But at least it couldn’t follow her.
The gory fence ran parallel to the gravel path for a little over a mile, before the trail turned sharply east and began to crawl up a hill. The crowgirl’s sister had to crouch down beneath the low clutching branches of pine and yew, pulling herself up the sharp scree on hands and knees.
A low steel-sided house stood at the top of the hill, plywood over its windows. On the deep front porch, there was a floral-cushioned swing with a boy sitting on it.
(Five for heaven, six for hell.)
He looked about Josh’s age, twenty or twenty-one, with a ginger shadow along his firm jaw and a head of thick red hair. His skin was pale, except where a trail of freckles ran over his cheekbones and across the bridge of his nose. A hunting bow lay across his blue-jeaned knees, and a coffee can held a sheaf of arrows like a scrawny porcupine at his feet. He was sipping a Diet Coke and reading a three-year-old issue of Forbes.
“Hey,” said the crowgirl’s sister, dusting pine needles from her knees. “You got any regular Coke, or just diet?”
She half-expected him to grab an arrow from the can and fit it to his bow before he looked up and saw that it was just her, a big seventeen-year-old with sap in her hair and a hunting knife in her belt, baby fat still softening her cheeks. She half-wanted to see him startle. But he looked first, bending down the corner of his page before closing his magazine. He had been reading an article about online investing.
“No,” he said, “just diet. It’s pretty warm, but it’s still got fizz. Try it.”
He held the pale silver can out to her. She took a sip, sucking the thin liquid from the rim of the can. The bubbles stung the roof of her mouth.
“Why are you reading that?” she asked, nodding to the Forbes.
“I like the advertisements,” he said. “Last week I finished the back issues of National Geographic. Next week I’m starting Vanity Fair. It keeps me busy.”
“Do you live here?”
He nodded, smiling.
“Were you the one who piked all those Dead along the fence?”
He nodded again. Her admiration seemed to affect him somehow, to give him a sudden burst of energy. He kicked the rotting boards of the porch floor, carrying his swing back and forth.
(Seven for a secret none can tell.)
“You want to come inside?” he asked.
He fell asleep afterward, on the floral-sheeted mattress he’d dragged into what used to be the living room. A dead television set still stood against one wall, and the tiny fake-marble fireplace had a blanket of ash on the floor. The crowgirl’s sister looked around as she tugged on her khakis and buttoned her sweater, committing everything to memory: the dust on the television screen, the grape-vine pattern on the wallpaper, the way a bar of sunlight snuck through the plywood and gilded one side of her lover’s sleeping face. Her right bicep throbbed a little from when he had dragged her up on top; she had been hesitant to straddle him, her wide soft thighs seemed so much stronger than his boney hips. In an hour or two she would have a truly impressive bruise. For now, she crouched clumsily beside his head and kissed the tip of his freckled nose. She knew she wouldn’t see him again.
(One for sunshine, two for rain.)
Outside, the sun had begun to set, and a chill breeze was blowing out of the north. She drew her hunting knife and ran all the way back to the road, where Gael was practically hyperventilating in the back seat of the full-tanked station wagon, where Kenasia wasn’t even trying to hide the cigarette stubs in the wet grass at her feet, where Josh was peering worriedly into the blackening woods—where the crowgirl was sitting calmly on the roof, a raven on each shoulder, a knowing smile on her face.
The crowgirl became the crowgirl when she was seven years old. Her sister was nine. They were playing outside the chicken house on their aunt’s farm, tossing handfuls of sand at the big white hen and then darting away, giggling, as it lunged at their ankles with its vicious red beak. The crowgirl was leaning against the coop wall, panting to catch her breath, when a huge green-black bird dropped out of the sky, clamping its talons over something in the dust at her sandaled feet. The hens screamed, puffing their feathers, and the crowgirl’s sister took up a stick, thinking the massive crow was after the chickens. But the crowgirl had started screaming too, pointing to the thing in the crow’s claws.
It was a thick yellow snake, its head still stretched toward the damp hole it had burrowed beneath the floor of the chicken house.
From that day on, the crows followed her everywhere. They flocked on the sidewalk in front of the housing unit, pecking at worms and unsettling passers-by. They perched on the window ledge outside the crowgirl’s second-grade classroom, interrupting the math lessons with their hard, metallic voices. When the bigger girls cornered her on top of the jungle gym, the crows would swoop down and grab wispy clawfuls of hair.
(Three for pleasure, four for pain.)
One day, when the crowgirl was eleven and her sister was thirteen, they went into the woods between the middle school and high school to meet a boy the crowgirl’s sister liked. He was fifteen years old, a sophomore, and he smoked cigarettes and other things that made his sweatshirts smell strange. That day, he was using a pocket knife to pick apart the corpse of a gray squirrel. The crowgirl’s sister wasn’t sure if he had killed it or found it dead.
He looked angry when he saw that the crowgirl had come along.
“What’d you bring the freak for?” he asked, tossing ultramarine hair out of his eyes. He had gorgeous eyes, bright blue with long golden lashes, and had dyed his hair to match. “I wanted to see you alone, fat girl, just you and me.”
(Five for flowers, six for snow.)
“You make her scared,” the crowgirl said.
Her sister punched her in the arm and the boy laughed. He closed his knife and tucked it into the pocket of his tight black jeans.
“That true, fat girl? Do I make you scared?”
He scuttled toward her, still low to the ground, like a spider. The crowgirl’s sister yelped. A raven darted out of the treetops, shouting like an angry mother, and scratched three deep, bloody trenches in the hand that was reaching for his knife. The boy swore, licking blood from his fingers. He stood up, spat bloody saliva at the girls’ shoes, and stamped back toward the high school.
The raven cawed in self-satisfaction and began eating the dead squirrel.
The crowgirl’s sister’s name is Gabrielle. The crowgirl has a name, too, but no one uses it anymore, not even her crows.
At night, in the tent she shares with Kenasia on top of the hill, the crowgirl’s sister whispers a name into her pillow.
(Seven for a secret none can know.)
Sometimes, the crowgirl’s sister thinks of herself in the third person.
When the crowgirl’s sister was four months, two weeks, and six days pregnant, she went down to the muddy river in the copse of trees to wash the morning sickness out of her t-shirt. She went alone. This was against the rule that they’d all agreed on after Gael wandered off to pee and got jumped by a pair of Dead. The crows came down, but too late; Gael’s spine had been snapped.
The crowgirl’s sister knelt on the riverbank and pulled her shirt over her head. Her belly, always soft and round, had begun to feel firmer over the last month, sturdier, as if a secret team of engineers had fortified her insides. Three or four times, she’d thought she felt the baby kick, but then she thought it might have been too early. Her brown skin had taken on a deep purple tinge in places, like another bruise left by her lover’s urgency.
(One for the wicked, two for the just.)
As she scrubbed her shirt in the river, a hot tickle of sweat ran down from the base of her neck, pooling at the ridge that her bra strap dug into her back. Pausing only a moment, as she thought of Josh and his binoculars, the crowgirl’s sister unhooked her bra and set it on the sandy bank. She took off her sandals, sweatpants, and panties with the word “sexy” printed across the seat, and slid into the water. It was not particularly deep, and it was warmer than she’d expected. She took a handful of dry leaves from the shore and scrubbed the sweat and dust from her limbs. Closing her eyes, she ducked her head beneath the surface and let the slow current loosen her tangled braid.
When her head broke the surface, she heard the raven’s warning caw.
The crowgirl’s sister grabbed her knife from the pile of clothes on the bank. The raven was darting low overhead, from one dead black branch to another, a hunter in pursuit of—something. Something moving toward her. She strained her ears in the windless silence. All around her, the fallen leaves lay undisturbed, broken branches dangled still as church columns.
“Who’s there?” she called, raising the knife.
(Three for water, four for dust.)
The raven dove suddenly behind the tangled roots of an oak. There was a thrashing, the sound of something tearing, and a woman’s voice shouted: “Don’t let it hurt me! I just want to talk.”
The crowgirl’s sister hesitated.
The raven screamed again, briefly, its voice cut off by a heavy thump. The Dead woman had thrown a rock. She emerged from behind the tree roots, shuffling broken legs, her black, thick-nailed hands thrown up to shield her face from the departing bird.
“It will come back,” she said as the oily wings dwindled in the distance. “I have to talk quickly, and you must listen. I have an offer to make.”
The crowgirl’s sister was prettier than the crowgirl. Part of this was because she was two years older; her breasts and hips were fuller, her eyes heavy-lidded and just a little sunken, so that she looked permanently ready to come to bed. Before the plague, back when she could do her make-up every morning, she lined her sleepy eyes in bright blue and painted her lips with icy pink gloss that smelled like strawberry or watermelon. It had been over a year since she wore lip gloss, but she remembered its taste, thick and sweet, like kissing, like sex.
The crowgirl’s sister had slept with Josh and Ryan, and once with Kenasia. Josh was sweet and Ryan liked it when she pushed him down and whispered in his ear, but Kenasia was by far the best, those soft kissable lips, the way she knew exactly what to do with her tobacco-sour tongue.
(Five for mountains, six for the deep.)
The crowgirl had huge pores, a flat chest, and chewed-down fingernails. Her eyes were tiny and her hair looked constantly in need of shampoo. As far as the crowgirl’s sister knew, the crowgirl hadn’t slept with anyone, ever. But she was skinny. She had a low, musical voice. She had the crows. And everyone loved her.
When the crowgirl’s sister was dressed again, her wet hair knotted back in a sloppy braid, the Dead woman sat in the hollow of an oak’s roots and spoke. “Is it true that carrion birds obey your sister?”
There was a strange reverence in the way she said carrion birds. The crowgirl’s sister wondered if that phrase meant something different, something more, among the Dead.
“Crows and ravens, yeah. Sometimes vultures, but only if they’re weak or starving.”
“How does she do it?”
The crowgirl’s sister shrugged, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “Dunno. Never asked.”
“Never. Maybe I just don’t want to know.” She opened her knife, pushed the blade back into the handle with the pad of her thumb. Click-clack. She was keeping an eye to the east, toward the farmhouse and the rest of the congregation. Dead always hunted in packs. “This conversation got a point?”
The Dead woman’s chipped brown teeth closed over the place where her lower lip had been months of decomposition before. The crowgirl’s sister wondered if all the Dead kept their mannerisms like that, or if this woman was just new. She suspected the latter. She’d never known the Dead to talk before. “We want a truce,” the Dead woman said. “An exchange.”
“Your sister for your lives.”
The crowgirl’s sister said nothing.
(Seven for a secret the dead will keep.)
“Look,” said the Dead woman, bending close. She smelled of stagnant water. The black strips of flesh that still clung above her nose and eyes were wrinkled, like furrows in mud. “We’re afraid of your sister. We admit it. Our only predators obey her, follow in her wake. But how safe can she really keep you—forever? How safe did she keep Gael?”
“How do you know his name?”
“We feasted.” The crowgirl’s sister didn’t know if that was the answer to her question or if the Dead woman was following some thoughtful track of her own. “Someday you will also be consumed. You’ll wander too far, or in a place too low and close for the crows to reach.”
“Even now.” The Dead woman raised her voice, a painful-sounding process, like strumming on a wire stretched to its limit. “What’s protecting you now? Where are the birds?”
“I have a knife.” She was thinking of her baby’s father, of the line of Dead skulls impaled on the fence posts. “I can fight you.”
“Will your child be able to fight us when it’s born?”
(One for weakness, two for might.)
“Give us your sister,” the Dead woman said, dropping her voice again. “Give us your sister and we will place a mark on you, you and your companions and anyone else you choose. Forever. None of us will harm you again.”
“But what would you do to my sister?”
A raven cawed nearby, invisible among the leaves.
The Dead woman looked away.
“They wouldn’t let me,” the crowgirl’s sister said. “Josh and Kenasia and the rest. They like her too much. I just couldn’t.” But she could hear her own uncertainty. The Dead woman was animated, almost smiling; she seemed to be listening for some approaching thing.
“Perhaps your sister thinks differently,” she said.
The crowgirl’s sister followed the Dead woman’s gaze. There was the crowgirl, the injured raven on her shoulder, walking slowly back toward the camp. “Damn,” the crowgirl’s sister said. She leapt up and took off running after her.
The Dead woman’s eyes followed her up the hill.
It was a brief meeting back at the camp, the crowgirl speaking calmly from the top of the station wagon, the crowgirl’s sister pacing until her sandals chafed. Josh stood up as soon as the crowgirl finished telling the terms of the Dead woman’s offer. He pulled up a sprig of woody grass with colorless, spidery roots and began to chew on it, looking west toward the farmhouse. “No,” he said. “It’s out of the question.”
Crystal mumbled something that sounded like agreement, tracing patterns in the mud with a dirty fingernail. Kenasia was gone, huffing on a cigarette at the base of the hill.
Ryan, perched on an overturned coffee can, looked profoundly uncomfortable. “They’ve got a point about Gael.”
(Three for day, four for night.)
“So what?” Josh’s deep voice cracked around the second word. “Gael made a mistake and he paid for it. The rest of us have lived this long, and it’s only because of her.”
“What about when she’s gone?” the crowgirl’s sister said.
Josh and Ryan stared at her. Crystal was still tracing patterns in the mud, chewing the inside of her cheek. The crowgirl, stroking the feathers of the raven on her knee, looked as impassive as stone.
“She isn’t going to live forever,” the crowgirl’s sister said. “Zombies or heart attack or a fucking brain tumor, something’s going to happen. The birds’ll be gone. And we might not be around, but our children will.”
Josh spat out a gob of grass. Ryan glanced at the crowgirl, but she wasn’t looking at anyone, just the oily rainbow of her raven’s feathers.
(Five for heaven, six for hell.)
“I’m going to do it,” the crowgirl said. “I’m sorry, Josh, but Gabrielle is right. If you let them have me, you can demand protection for everyone. All of you, all of your children and grandchildren until the end of the world. That’s worth my life.”
“Let’s vote on it,” Josh said desperately. He was trying not to cry.
“No,” said the crowgirl. She looked up from her raven. Her eyes were wet and pink. “I’m going to do it.”
She asked her sister to walk with her across the field. It was late afternoon, still warm and sunny, and crows and ravens looped through the dusty air. Their cries echoed in the distant hills, sharp sounds of mourning.
“It’s okay,” the crowgirl said, reaching for her sister’s hand. “I wouldn’t want to live like this forever. And I don’t want your daughter to grow up like this.”
(Seven for a secret none can tell.)
“She won’t,” the crowgirl’s sister said tightly. “I’ll make sure.” She watched the shadows of the birds, her hand resting on her belly.
The Dead streamed out of the farmhouse to meet them. Brown and blue, yellow and black, their dirty hair hanging in tangled mats and their eyes filmy and weeping. The crows swooped down to tear at them, but the crowgirl muttered something and waved her hands, and the birds dispersed.
She stopped a hundred feet from the sagging farmhouse porch and drew her sister up beside her. “Mark her first,” she said.
A Dead woman came forward, the one who had made the offer by the river. Her eyes were bloody but startlingly blue. She went to the crowgirl’s sister and pressed three bony fingertips to her forehead. She was humming a low, mournful melody that seemed to come from a deeper place than her decaying lungs. When the Dead woman lifted her hand again, the crowgirl’s sister felt a sharp bone-deep pain running down from her forehead.
(One for sickness, two for health.)
“Remember this,” the Dead woman said. The crowgirl’s sister nodded; she didn’t think she would ever forget the melody, the touch of those dead fingertips. “You can pass the mark to whomever you wish. We will treat you like one of our own.” She turned to the crowgirl. “Are you ready?”
(Three for famine, four for wealth.)
“Yes,” the crowgirl said. “Look away, Gabrielle.”
But I did not look away.
When it was over, the crows descended. Hundreds of them, thousands, beaks shining red and golden in the sunset. They scattered their sharp feathers like shadows over the field. They fell upon the Dead, feasting as the Dead had feasted on the crowgirl.
(Five for a coward, six for the brave.)
When they finished eating, they dispersed. And the crowgirl’s sister stood alone in the field of bones and shadows and death.
Every day, I walk through fields.
I smell the rotting corn or the rain or the wild-blooming flowers. I feel the grass whipping soundlessly against my legs or the mud sucking at my heels. Sometimes my daughter walks with me, stopping at every round pebble or curious shining feather she comes across. The wind runs its fingers through her red-tinged hair, and I see the mark like three burned fingerprints on her little forehead.
Some days, the crows are flying. I watch their shadows on the earth and wonder if this will be the day I like my sister.
(Seven for a secret I’ll take to the grave.)
© 2013 by Megan Arkenberg.