A reminder of our 2023 Battle Tale VIII writing prompts:
1. the debt was paid
2. fell into a dream
3. brick by brick
Ann Winslow's short story masterfully utilized this year's prompts and wowed our guest judge, PEI author and former PEI Writers' Guild board member Elizabeth Iwunwa. Thankfully, with permission from the author, this year we're honoured to share the winning story on our website for all to enjoy! So without further ado......
One for Sorrow
“Now why,” Crow asked from high on a perch at the top of the hill, “would those two humans walk upstream, while the other one, clearly younger—and alone--goes in the opposite direction? Dark is coming.”
Sun, fading fast, did not respond.
Dark, still to the East, was quickly painting the lowlands along the river valley with shadow, coaxing Fog to follow.
Crow settled and peered more closely at the two together. “They think they’ve got time. But they’re wrong. Tsk.”
Two receding silhouettes parted the rushing water at the edge of the stream in synchronous steps, their human shapes distorted by the hip waders on their legs and spin-rods held firmly in hand. Their backlit edges were distinct at first, as crisp as their bright voices, anticipating the trout that would be caught in the pools upstream. At the bend the two became one in a haze of sage and lime and gold, blending into the tangle of newly unfurled ferns and budded shrubs. They looked, from above, like a low, slow-flying beetle, thought Crow--with outstretched antennae. Not father and son.
Crow turned to the right and focused on the boy now, a single figure just stepping into the deep shadow of the hill. The stream, wider there, fed full, ran green-dark and strong as he picked his way along the bank.
There was no sense calling out a warning, thought Crow, for father and older son had turned the bend into the full glare of Sun, still deceived. Besides, in the gulley beneath the hill, the land was a sponge of dropped needles and thick moss that trapped and held a cry. Even the song of the river was captured where the water ran deep.
Crow, exposed on the branch, felt a familiar agitation, but fought the urge to fly to the trees where the members of the murder were gathering wing-to-wing, squabbling to pick roosts and settle in. Above, handfuls of black shapes still made their way west, but the window for flight was closing.
With a nod to Sun, Crow slid off the branch and, choosing curiosity over comfort, dropped down and down in a slow spiral, all the while watching for Death in the shape of an owl. Crow kept to the shadows now, black wings a boon as Dark slunk ever westward, and found a hidden perch from which to wait.
In the shadow of the hill, Jonah quickened his step. He swung the iron frying pan he’d been given in wide arcs, sweeping aside sticks and brambles that worried at his legs. When his arms got tired and the tangles thickened, he simply stepped aside, into the water, his sneakers slipping over the rounded stones. Soon enough he’d be at the meeting place, the old bridge ruin, and dry his feet beside the fire he’d build. By the time there were embers, his father and brother would come overland, bringing a creel of fish to fry. While waiting, he’d have warmth and light, for the wood was full of tinder and he carried a card of matches in his pocket.
Yet the boy walked a sorry path beside the stream, his unspoken “Can’t I come too?” elbowing its way into place among his collection of other pains and griefs.
And more, Winter had assembled a replacement landscape for him to navigate. Dead trees, canted in new directions, reached here and there into the stream and challenged the water course. Layers of leaves hid the stories of previous seasons. Silt and driftwood and displaced rocks created fresh ebbs and flows. And Dark, in alliance, now played its ancient trick and hid the rotting timbers of the meeting place from Jonah’s unpracticed eye so that his young legs carried him well beyond where he should have stopped.
Slipping closer, Crow made note of an owl’s high, harsh oh-ooo-ho-oh, and Jonah, in concurrent chill, patted his belt for the comfort of his grandfather’s knife. His feet squelched on, clambering and slipping over and along the barriers in his path until a rotten trunk laughed at his hurry, disintegrated, and cast him down. He lay for a moment, dazed.
“Ants!” Crow warned, too late, as the boy sprang back on his feet, brushing frantically at his clothes.
Jonah was startled, clearly, for it was well past time for crows to be about. In the moment, he was glad to pause and consider the strangeness of it. He stilled his breath and, considering appropriate action, stepped aside so Crow could pick at the scurrying bodies in the sawdust.
It was Crow’s turn to be startled, for the wisdom of the elders held that humans were Danger. But Crow could sense no threat and the ants were retreating fast.
Browsing in the flake, Crow’s tongue found a paper that smelled of salt, of the boy’s sweat: a fallen card of matches. “Look, look,” Crow insisted, wary of drawing attention from predators on silent wings. But Dark was fully upon them and the boy had turned away, his head too full of the lie he’d told himself--that his destination was just ahead—to head Crow’s well-meant signal.
“Stay! Stay,” Crow tried again, with a new tone—more urgent, low.
But the boy thrust onward with heavy feet and little hope, squinting against the gloom for markers: a narrowing of the stream bank, a circle of charred stones from last season’s campfires.
And Crow, choosing companionship, followed.
“Ah, Moon,” Crow sighed, for Dark had truly filled the gully.
Moon, barely a quiver of a fingernail, half hidden in mist, did not reply.
At last, weary of self-deceit, Jonah threw down his rod and the iron pan, defeated. He rolled up his jeans and stepped into the current, cupped his hands and drank, turning an ear toward the direction from which his father and brother might still come.
Crow sidled closer.
“Been following me,” the boy said. “Yeah, it’s scary out here on our own. And getting cold, too.” Jonah reached into his pocket for his matches. He’d build a fire here--which was nowhere--but they would be warm and safe.
He patted at his chest: “Where . . .?” His hips: “What . . .?” Turned his pockets inside-out. Spun in a circle. Froze. In his hand, only a shiny square of paper. Inside it, only a lump of butter meant to fry the fish.
A crashing plunge ensued as the boy threw himself back along the path, the whites of his eyes electric as he tripped over roots and splashed through the mud shallows of shore, passing by the place he had fallen, for turning back looks nothing like going forward.
Time poorly spent, thought Crow. Though, to be sure, the noise repelled the incurious—even Owl.
At last, true exhaustion, and the return of common sense. Jonah walked a circle, then faced the hill and began to systematically force his way through the brush, up and away from the water, which would likely draw a queue of thirsty creatures. At the top of the rise, he found a stand of evergreens and, beckoning to Crow, stepped into the arms of a robust fir for whatever warmth it could provide. “C’mon then,” he said, and indicated a branch close by. “You’ll be safe. We’ll be ok.”
“Here.” He opened the slick paper package and laid it on the ground. “Crows like butter, right?”
Crow didn’t disagree but kept a safe space between them.
“Maybe the paper’s too noisy.” The boy held out a finger of butter and Crow, feeling reckless, ventured a taste. Decided it was fine. The boy then looked to his own comfort, removed his sneakers and wrung out his socks, stuffed them with dry leaves and forced his feet in. Settled against the tree.
Intrigued, the bird moved to a branch nearby, content enough to observe the mechanics of it all: the preparing and choosing, cleaning and rearranging and, at last, settling. In many ways the actions of humans and crows are similar, Crow admitted.
Full of ants and butter, and with curiosity abated for a time, the bird now watched the boy’s body relax against the tree’s trunk. Then Crow closed one eye, as birds do, and fell into a dream.
“Shut up, you moron!” a strange voice growled. Not Jonah’s, but the voice that belonged to the boy who walked up the river so many hours ago, eager for fish.
The older boy—slim, golden—was sitting astride Jonah’s chest, his fist ready to strike.
“You’re talking in your sleep!”
Crow’s open eye took note of Jonah, who, surely, had not spoken. Confused, Crow settled back—back into Jonah’s dream—and began to build the boy’s story brick by brick: here was Jonah softening himself into the bedroom space the two boys shared; Jonah sliding by on silent feet, back hunched against a possible blow; Jonah reading by flashlight in the closet behind a half-closed door, careful to sit against the wall, with feet tucked close.
Crow surfaced for a beat and looked long at the boy whose body was shaking hard, beating a tattoo against the bark of the fir.
Crow drifted off . . .
. . . And here again was Jonah, at the night window, pinching himself to stay alert, in order not to miss a faint whistle from the street below which indicated that the knotted-sheet ladder should be lowered for the older brother to clamber up, rum on his breath and pool winnings in his pocket.
And yet another brick . . . Jonah staring into his mirror, checking that the bruises on his arms and chest and back were hidden from those who might ask questions and discover so much confusion and complicity.
The boy’s body was peaceful now, relaxed it seemed, for the chattering of his teeth had stopped . . .
“Stop, please!” The voice of Jonah, seized from behind, his arms wrenched back. Crow felt the weight of the older boy’s body forcing Jonah to bend double; the ratcheting pressure on the nape of his neck driving his head forward after each gasp for air, as Jonah became a small ball with no breath, losing sense of time and place, curling onto the square of floor that spanned the no-man’s-land between the two brothers’ beds.
Crow shot to Jonah’s leg and wrenched at his shirt. “Awake! Awake!” Crow jerked at Jonah’s buttons and screamed. “Attend! Arouse!” Crow clicked and cawed, for once, oblivious to the potential for danger in the Night. And Jonah, befuddled, at last swam up from despair, surprised to find Crow’s body against him: Crow’s small warmth.
“Stand!” Crow demanded, hopping to a branch. And Jonah struggled to his feet.
“Fly!” Crow ordered, hopping higher still. And Jonah raised his arms, closed his eyes, swayed in the embrace of the fir.
“Fly, fly, fly!” Crow rasped, insisting.
Jonah lurched, and staggered.
“You can! Can!”
And Jonah, eyes wide, yet registering only shadows, sped West to sit wing-to-wing with Crow on the lowest branch of the tallest tree by the broad water. Beside them, the nighttime sighs of other youngsters filled the interstices. Above them were the hundreds.
Jonah tested his purchase on the branch, stretched his neck, embraced the feeling of peace that settled in. And so the two sat together, warm enough, while other black bodies shifted and swayed nearby.
Through Crow, Jonah came to feel the trees breathing, the forest floor flexing beneath them. A soft, rhythmic percussion of night insects threading their way through the leaves and grasses. Auroras downlighting the foliage in giant arcs. An immense dazzling, connecting song of belonging.
But the merest hint of Sun was struggling to colour the world, and Jonah found himself returned to his body, on his feet, able at last to make out Crow’s lines—Crow’s iridescent feathers, Crow’s dark eyes. Around them, the long-needle pines at the top of the hill began to shush, confirming that Dark was fading west. Jonah slapped hands on thighs and shivered.
Crow looked fully into Jonah’s eyes.
“They’ll be looking.”
An ache raced over the boy’s features, and he attempted to deflect the idea of return. “I—I was a crow . . .” he whispered, and let the statement hang, feeling around the contours of its truth. “And . . . And I owe . . .”
What was owed by either of them? Crow wondered, for each merely played their role. “Have I not been safe with you? And have I not learned about the life of one Boy?” If in fact a balance was due from either side, Crow thought, the debt was paid in full.
“Wait, wait.” said Crow, and launched into Morning, rising above the treetops. No surprise, the land was filled with clusters of weary searchers, and a long, low horn sounded in hope of drawing forth the lost boy. But the gullies and rises had swallowed their calls. And Dark had ensured they could not find his meandering trail.
“Follow,” crow burbled, returning. And, with reluctance, Jonah trailed behind, his feet still numb, his steps uncertain.
Sun bounced and skidded its way across the tops of the frosted furrows of the sloping field where boy and bird stood by a knot of scrubby cedars. Jonah squinted against the glare, made out rectangles of pickups and cars, their owners lined up on the road. He smelled coffee. Heard a dog bark. Saw an arm suddenly raised. A shout!
Jonah lurched from row to row across the frozen field: one crow for sorrow, two for joy . . . His feet were ice, but he stepped with acceptance, and then with purpose: five for. . . Crow released the boy’s shoulder and skimmed beside, gaining speed: six. . . The horns all sounded now, blaring welcome, calling the searchers back, and Jonah’s father strode toward him, larger and larger, arms outstretched: seven for a secret never to be told.
Jonah’s dark eyes glistened.
Crow flew above the din.
Elizabeth Iwunwa was born in 1997 and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Master of Business Administration in Global Leadership from the University of Prince Edward Island. Her works have been featured in PEI’s The Guardian and on CBC. She is the editor of Íjè: An Immigrant’s Voyage into Prince Edward Island Life, a collection of personal reflections, interviews, photo essays, and visual works of art that include themes of belonging, imposed and realized identities, cultural traditions, culinary symbols, and living the contradictions of social norms. It spotlights the narratives of immigrants to Prince Edward Island, shining light on their individual experiences. Iwunwa is interested in the intersection of culture, politics, and history in the lives and stories of everyday people.
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