From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Nest Building Habits of Children Inclined to Ornithomancy and Other Such Auguries

1

By the time I was four, my father began teaching me the subtleties of reading crow flight — most other birds, too. How they pin wheeled and canted, burst into the air and swooped down upon opportunity like covetous shadows. He taught me the Latin auis for bird, appropriately enough, in August of the year I began school.

2

My clearest memory of kinspeak came the day I wrote my name in the playground sand. From an oak’s canopy came the drawn out squelching, staticky scolding of a crow.

Except it was in my head.

It’s all caps. Why all caps? it demanded.

Then the crow laughed and flew away.

3

Mama and Daddy came to school one day to meet my teacher. Again. Although I could not keep up with their conversation — adultspeak being full of arcane phonemes and obtuse syntax to the child-mind — I understood it had to do with my staring into the trees across the road from the playground and getting too close to the road’s edge too often. The window, too, held clear viscous mystery, kept me and my thought nearly at bay. That day I learned that daydreams and kinspeak were synonyms. Other words, too, I must not repeat.

4

Age seven.

Theseus had a string; I had nothing the day my father left me in the woods.

“Find home,” he had said.

I cried.

A pair of crows came and guided my return.

My father found me sitting on the front stoop when he drove home.

Remember, said the crows in unison.

Father did not smile, though his hand was warm on my shoulder; he spoke with reassuring pats as we both sat there, staring into the trees across the road from our property. He began to grin when the crows sailed past; I heard something like a whisper pass my mind though I suspect that bit of kinspeak was intended for my father.

5

“I have to go away,” he said one day.

“Why?”

He pointed at the translucent brown bottles on the windowsill. The white labels contained strange combinations of pharmaceutical syllables.

Beware the Raven King, came the words.

Six crows balanced on limbs of a pecan tree in the back yard.

Father and I looked up at them together.

Beware.

6

Threats. Lost jobs.

I saw a shadow one evening like spilt ink at the corner of our house while I played outside, and my parents argued inside.

The woods across the road grew dark, too, as crows cawed and fussed and taunted each other. They hectored a mockingbird.

Come here, they said after the round of bullying ceased.

“No,” I said.

Come. Here.

The shadow slithered away from the house and met them at the road, and they pecked it over and over and over until black droplets and slimy gobbets fell from their beaks. The shadow dissipated and leeched into the cracks of the blacktop.

You will come. One day, boy. One day all do. Eventually.

I had hidden in the carport as their collective laughter flapped harassing wings in my head. Then I heard the thinnest sliver of kinspeak: Help. A tentacle of shadow nudged around the corner of the house and quested into the carport. I knew what to do to appease the crows and aid the shadow’s convalescence.

7

For weeks thereafter I collected pine straw and twigs, leaves and twine, candy and gum wrappers — all spirited to my bedroom and coverted in the sock drawer (the socks themselves having been removed to the higher haven of Underoos and pajamas). At night I kept my window cracked so that the shadow could enter and rest in the bottom drawer cum nest. In another room of the house came urgent voices that I pretended belonged to two people other than my parents.

8

One night the shadow left behind three feathers and a black pebble and this: Keep the pebble until.

“Until when?” I whispered at the fluttering dark on my windowsill.

A slammed door and harsh words.

I cannot say.

“And the feathers?”

Whatever you may make them, do.

So, the pebble and feathers kept company in a drawstring pouch. When I looked up, the shadow-raven had departed in a gust of wind.

9

One day I found my father sitting on the front steps. I had studied a single crow’s flight through the woods and traveled past the wobble-down fences, choked with green bullis vines, and the sharp-odored incense of wax myrtles. Mischief was the crow’s name, and he’d taken me far and had counted coup all by himself on a red-tailed hawk all along the treeline at the edge of a field stuffed with cowpea and lavender.

But my father.

His face was hollow like a rotten tree trunk.

“She’s gone,” he said.

“Where?”

He pointed at the road and would not look at me.

“I can’t read the sacred paths anymore,” he said.

“And your heart?”

“That especially.”

“The crows have been quiet,” I said, as much confession as anything.

He looked at me now. I waited. The wind blew. Neither of us heard anything else although across the road they came, one by one, to light in the nodding pine limbs.

“Murder,” he said to them. “I mark your number. You I call unkindness.”

Like some Hellenic choral ensemble, they squawked in both our heads:

King Raven,

King Crow

Kinspeak

Othertongue.

Nighttime shadow.

Daytime wind.

Know where you’re going,

Know where’s the end.

Then, like India ink, they burst into the sky.

10

. . . remission (etymology) — fr. Latin remittere, or to send back . . .

This term, according to my father, should be counted a Very Good Thing.

11

And so, the years trundled as beetles along dirt roads, and occasionally each year I would wander — “Go walkabout,” my father had said — and expect to see her. Even he would, too, and from time to time, I might even come home to find him perched on the front stoop. We said little of kinspeak and, by then I’d learned the word, ornithomancy. In their own fickle way, generations of crows came and went and said little themselves. So go the lulls of memory.

12.

College found me hundreds of miles from home and, internally, continents from the woods of my childhood romps.

A phone call: “The King Raven has come.”

Only a month later — from fingernail clipping of a moon to She in Her Swollen Crossings.

One month.

The shadow lighted on him — the branches of his lungs, the tributaries of his marrow, the secret osmotic paths called living.

Memory becomes a gray slate against the sky of a life yet odd, too, how a grave may remind one of an old sock drawer and a drawstring pouch.

13.

What was there left to do? Again, I had no string.

My old room smelled still of young man and little boy and the mustiness imparted by neglected habitation. I slept and grieved on my old bed without ever worrying the covers, and to get rid of the mustiness, had opened the window — just a crack — to offer fresh night air while I dozed amid loss and dreamed of strings I could not hold nor find until early morning.

My father had said that there was an owl come to roost in the open ceiling of the shed that housed the lawnmower and miscellany of gardening tools. It had come until one morning the crows, in a murder with murder on their minds, found him and swarmed him more like some hive-mind thing than the dark, eldritch, intelligent corvids they were.

This was three months gone, and we both had plumbed the old auguries of this anecdote.

It came to me as I slipped outside before the sun topped the trees and while Mars fought his Pyrrhic battle against the dread certainty of spreading tequila ink in the east.

Something else came, too. An old memory tucked away in some child’s sock drawer: You will come. One day, boy. One day all do. Eventually.

So, the road stood quiet, and I, with the drawstring pouch in my hand, made my decision while reciting the last bit of what the old crows had given my father.

Know where you’re going,

Know where’s the end.

It was such a deliberate disguise — the three feathers from my pouch, the black pebble that I swallowed and nursed in my stomach. The feathers pinwheeled to the dewy grass as I stepped across the road. And they came to me — the shadow I’d nearly forgotten, the crows. Beaks and eyes like the space between stars. The fount of shadow welling from my stomach, some memory of sacred wooded paths and knowledge that all auguries had now become mine.

Berrien C. Henderson lives with his family in southeast Georgia. He was born in a small town and currently lives in a farming community; deer and turkey have been known to wander through his yard. A small cadre of common house geckos earn their keep by eating the bugs on the carport and front porch. Both Berry and his wife teach — high school English and sixth grade English, respectively. He has a son and daughter, and they both answer to Thing 1 and Thing 2. Ever elusive free time he spends with family, and late in the evening or late at night, writing speculative fiction and poetry. His writing can be found in Kaleidotrope, The Shantytown Anomaly, The Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Clockwise Cat, and Behind the Wainscot. Forthcoming auctorial ventures include work in the Hatter Bones anthology (ENE Publishing), Drollerie Press, Star*Line, and Clarkesworld Magazine. He has been nominated twice for a SFPA Dwarf Stars Award.

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