Stella had been doing her usual thing when she first noticed the crow. That is, slicing her arm open over the kitchen sink. A glass of old milk had caught most of the blood (she’d noted the orange swirls blooming quite prettily in the curds) and the crow (perched on the back patio) had seemed to be looking her directly in the eye. She’d held its gaze as she squashed the knife into her pillowy flesh again, a soft hiss slipping from the gap between her two front teeth. The crow had cocked its glossy head, as if to say, That’s it, clever girl.
Since then, the crow’s come back every day at sunset. It sits there for exactly an hour, tilting its head this way and that, feathers flashing blue in the fading sunlight.
There is a definite cockiness about the thing, Stella muses tonight (she is standing in her usual spot, blood making funny little streams across a cold pork chop). The waning light has engulfed her garden entirely in sherbet colours. Sugary and sweet, shades you can taste. Ha! What a trip. Her mind fizzes with a hungry nothingness.
She takes a wad of kitchen roll from the counter and pushes it against her arm. Yes, very odd, she thinks. Sugar-sweet colours that coat your tongue, and this crow –
This crow reminds her of her husband. Arrogant and as confident as the sun.
Each day it takes its perch in the back of her garden to mock her and keep tabs on her. It slides its beady eye across the back of her house, looking for clues. The kind of thing her husband would have done before he disappeared in a puff of smoke (not a trace left of him – only a six-pack of that murky beer in the fridge and a round, feral sort of taste in Stella’s mouth).
She gasps and clutches a hand to her chest at the thought. Gone. The idea is still very foreign, like the smell of baked asphalt. She hasn’t gotten used to the silence in the house yet. Or the curved and endless emptiness of her mind. Time seems to stand still lately, the sky permanently cracked open, light and darkness always flooding in, in, in. An electric storm brewing, creaking floorboards, flashes of neon blue in the night. Stars dancing in her eyes and that headache which never really goes, but throbs behind her left eye persistently. An echo of the pain of her former life, she supposes. Sad. How long has it been since he left? She hardly dares count the weeks (months?) for fear of jinxing it.
The crow will have to go, too. She’ll kill it, perhaps. Or else she’ll run into the garden naked and shrieking, and she’ll wag her tongue and bare her teeth until it flies off into the bruised evening sky. Killing it makes more sense. It’s remarkable how much better she feels once the decision’s been made.
A week later, or perhaps it’s been a month, Stella sneaks breathlessly through the house. She winces at the sound of the tired old floorboards, which sigh under her feet like tall grasses before a storm. As she moves through each room, she slides the palms of her hands along the papery walls to keep herself from going hysterical. In the garage, she leaves the light off. She shoves a fist into her starched mouth to silence herself as she wiggles the hammer from its place on the wall.
Afterwards she just stands there. It was easier than she had imagined to do. The hammer still hangs from her hand, which is trembling pretty violently, she’ll admit. There is a lot of pale pink skin smeared onto the patio. Strange – had the bird been bald? Sick perhaps? The dent in the head is sunken all the way in, bits of brain showing. What strikes Stella as particularly odd are the long arms, covered in freckles and wiry ginger hair. Very ugly against that mottled greyish complexion.
There is a strange noise coming from somewhere, a siren. Bloodcurdling, her mother would have said. The rattling of someone’s soul. Stella looks down at the bloody mess and lets a long, low hmmmmnnnnn flow out of her lips and belly and fingertips. The siren stops, thank god. She can hear herself think. She taps a foot on the weedy patio and notices she is not wearing shoes. “How odd,” she whispers, so quietly. Then the siren comes back.
It’s true, her husband does like to sit on the patio at the back of the garden at sunset. To smack his lips quietly as the sun sinks into the cluttered horizon. To stretch out his tired legs and arms, to suck gluttonously on his cans, all the while watching the house, timing Stella’s movements as she glides from room to room as stealthily as a ghost. Sometimes he stands and stretches his gingery arms up to the sky, a flash of belly, milk-white and soft, creeping out from the bottom of his polo-shirt. He scratches here and there, cocks his head this way and that, yawns. Sometimes he turns his back on the house to tend to his prized rose bush. The delicacy of this act has always made Stella feel quite sick.
There are times, admittedly, when she feels entirely unreal. As though she is not made of flesh and bone as such, but something much more watery. She trickles through the cracks in the walls of her house. She washes down through the floorboards and seeps into the damp, pungent earth. That is probably why it never heard her coming. Strange how it didn’t startle and fly off – aren’t those things supposed to have a sixth sense? It had been stooped by the rose bush, its head bent low to the ground as though to catch a slippery worm or plump, glistening slug in its beak. Stella had floated up the garden, a silent stream, a pregnant thundercloud. She had raised her watery arm and –
The siren is piercing now, really very loud. It mingles with the ache behind her left eye. It is hollowing her out, causing her soul to flood from her mouth and the cavernous pores in her cheeks. She presses a hand to her lips to try and shove the thing back in but it’s all much too late. Every silvery scar on her body hums. The light falters, the air catching the first hint of pulpy darkness. The siren wails. The tremble in Stella’s hand becomes unbearable. It is all much too late. She falls to her knees and waits.
India Johnson is a freelance copywriter, living in a small town in North Yorkshire, UK. She studied English Language and Literature at the University of Leeds, before moving to London to pursue a career in commercial copywriting. Now living back in her quiet little hometown, she writes short stories on the side of her freelance work, and dips in and out of that hazy, torturous, seductive phenomenon otherwise known as the first draft of a first novel.