“Sentinel Crows” by Tarver Nova

On a pale horse, she rides.

Emerging from a leaden smog, she enters the Garcia family’s backyard. She sits poised, regal, as her horse crosses the threshold between yard and woods. Its elder-grey mane flows in the wind. Its shoulders churn with every measured step. When its last hoof cuts the yard, the woman pulls the reins, clicks her tongue, and eases the horse to a stop next to a pastel playset.

Lips pursed, she considers the doughy playset through her aviators. The woods are encroaching: moss creeps up the slide. Still, the playset is defiantly saccharine. The woman bristles, prodding her horse ahead.

The summer sun casts the yard in bas-relief. Through this, she rides slowly, surefooted as taxes. She angles toward an open window, where white curtains billow. A halo of mist gathers around her, hissing softly as if shushing the world. A deep thrum builds in the air. A bell tolls. A crow caws.

A crow caws again, annoyed. Bucking its head, the pale horse sputters. The woman tugs the reins and rubs the horse’s neck until it settles. Then she spots what startled it: a little crow, standing between horse and house.

“There you are,” she says. She clears her throat. “We have a soul to collect, little one. No time to—”

The crow interrupts her with a long, rising squawk.

The woman leans back. Raises an eyebrow. “Wait,” she says. “You can’t be serious.”

The crow gives a menacing little cluck.

The woman sighs, then dismounts. She treads through a garden of wilted daylilies, who are only too happy to give up their ghosts.

Rolling her shoulders, she squares up to the crow. “We have a job to do,” she says. “I can’t harvest the soul if you won’t guide it. Now let me through.” The air shimmers around her. Her long pea coat ripples. The ghosts of daylilies twirl about her hair.

The crow, in turn, chitters at her, wings akimbo. She falters back, crushing one last daylily.

“Whoa, whoa.” She holds her palms out, imploring. The crow keeps its mouth open and its wings wide. It hisses or sneezes, she can’t tell which.

A small shadow passes across the yard, and another crow lands in the windowsill ahead.

She scoffs. Points a nail at the window. “Wait, it’s all of you? Are you kid—”

The crow shrieks, hopping at her with such fervor that it lets loose a few feathers. Now, only crows can speak crow. But in its fever-dance, it sends its message: the crow will fight any who threaten its arcane role in the universe. It is a guide for souls. An escort across that threshold between the living and the dead. And she understands it clear: there will be no guiding of souls today.

Its point made, the crow settles, pecking at the dirt. She gapes at it, and then tosses her hands up, stepping back to the pale horse. She sticks her hands in her coat pockets and leans gently against the horse’s side. Puffs her cheeks and blows the daylily ghosts into little eddies. And she waits. After all, she has only time.

* * *

The old bedside radio offers a sea of music. But little Clara Garcia tunes away from the classical and the earworm-pop and the talk shows. Instead, she tunes the radio to the empty space in between, to the static. And once she’s found a spot that’s just right, she turns it up. The white noise is a downy blanket for her mind, the universe’s lullaby when the world gets too sharp.

Clara leans back in her bed, basking in the waterfall of sound. She enjoys the breeze from the open window to her right, even as her white curtains nearly billow into her face. She doesn’t need the music: she gets all her entertainment from her friends, the crows. She looks left to see the crows she calls Jack and Quinn. They’re searching about her tiled bedroom floor, hopping along islands of discarded clothing. She laughs at them, and then reaches into an oversized bag of sunflower seeds and tosses one for each. Jack and Quinn both rush for the offering, Quinn tripping in an impressive flourish of feathers. They fight over one seed until Quinn realizes there’s another.

Clara shakes her head, and then she yawns. She’s past due for her afternoon nap. She rubs sunken eyes with overlong pajama sleeves. But there’s a caw outside, then another, and the crow she calls Poe lands on her windowsill, disturbing the curtains in its wake.

Her face brightens at a twinkle in Poe’s beak. She’s already reaching out as Poe drops his find on the sill. Poe gives her a little call: Caw cluh-cluh caw! A familiar refrain from all her murder of crows. It is, she believes, their name for her. She smiles. “Hello, Poe,” she says, picking up his gift.

She twists it in her fingers. It’s a ring. She gasps. It’s tarnished, dirty, but the silver still peeks through in flashes. No diamond, and something foreign engraved inside. Although Clara is young, not yet nine, she knows it must be valuable.

“Poe!” she says. “Did you steal this?” The crow only chirps and preens under his wing. She frowns. What if someone is looking for this? But as she scrubs it to get rid of stubborn dirt, she thinks: this must be long-lost.

And then she thinks: what if it’s a wedding ring, one of a pair, and the crows have kept the other? She laughs quietly to herself. Married to crows, what a thought.

Poe gives an eager rattle, so she pets him along his back. He accepts the pets ungracefully, leaning with mouth and wings open. Clara reaches for the sunflower seeds. She grabs a small handful and sprinkles them at Poe’s feet, keeping her end of this bargain.

Poe goes wild, pecking at his seeds. Clara closes the bag and pushes it back against an equally sizeable bag of peanuts. She looks to the bags. Grabs a peanut and studies it. As if out of obligation, she licks the peanut. She enjoys the flavor, but her stomach roils. Frowning, she sets the peanut with Poe’s earnings. Poe shuffles with joy.

She sighs, stinging with guilt. She used to love these so much. She used to eat peanuts every day. But these days, she just doesn’t have much of an appetite. At least the peanuts can still bring her some joy through the company of crows.

She studies the ring. She already knows what to do with this. On a bookshelf next to her bed, behind a wall of books, there stands a fleet of used pill bottles. They contain her stash, the many gifts from the crows. Some bottles are left open, and loose trinkets lie about. She’s in the middle of one of her many reorganizations. Some days, the trinkets are organized by color. Others, by categories. Today, she’s been organizing them by her favorites.

She grabs a big pill bottle with “#1” written on masking tape on its side. The ring joins an elite club of trinkets. There’s a thin gold chain, so clean and shining that Jack could have plucked it right off someone’s neck. A plastic, swaddled baby, quite possibly a miniature Jesus robbed from the manger. And there’s a bone, a bunny’s or squirrel’s, broken in half. She’d never admit it, but the bone is her favorite. There’s beauty in it being broken, being bare.

Humming to herself, she plunks the ring in.

Bolstered from Poe’s find, she sifts through her collection. There are tiny toys. Screws and bolts and nails. Stones of all shapes, from colorful gemstones to plain old rocks. Quinn, bless her little bird soul, is the one who brings the rocks, but Clara can’t bring herself to deny Quinn her treats. Clara looks over to Quinn, who is now trying hard not to choke on the sunflower seed. Clara can’t decide if the crow is the dumbest or the smartest of the bunch.

Some of the trinkets offer fragments of other people’s lives, which Clara is happy to fill in. She wonders if a dapper old man misses his ornate black button. Or if a young woman who’s missing her shell earring still wears its twin. Or if the boy or girl who lost their Lego minifigure is at all like Clara. Whether they would be friends, if they could.

But it’s a bus token that she weaves the most stories about. What happened when this was lost? Was its owner late for work? Did they miss a family dinner?

And wherever they were going, to what lengths did they go to get there? Some restless nights, she occupies her mind with ever fantastic tales—of rides on flying buses, on pirate ships, on the backs of dragons.

She also wonders: if she could run off on a grand adventure of her own, would the bus token still work? And if it did, how far would the bus take her? Would it go only around a long block, showing her homes and yards disappointingly like her own? Or would it head to the big city, where she could lose herself amid the people and the marble and the glass?

A burst of motion at the window shatters her fantasy. In swoops another crow: the one that Clara calls Kavka. Poe barks at her and nudges his riches away, but Kavka has other concerns. She squawks, fluttering her wings, then hops around to face outside.

Clara spots the subject of Kavka’s ire: a woman in her yard, pale-skinned, with black hair so big it looks like a cowl. The woman’s hands are jammed into her pea coat. A scowl, loosed at nothing, cracks out around big sunglasses. The woman leans, inexplicably, against a pale horse, who gnaws at the remains of daylilies. Clara laughs and waves at the horse. It brings its head up, mouth full of plant. Seeing her, it flicks its head, as if in greeting, and it paws at the ground.

The horse’s antsiness leaves the woman stumbling. She catches herself on its broad body and stands back up, posture rail-straight. She pushes up her aviators, stares sharply at the horse, and follows its gaze to Clara.

Kavka lets out an angry caw, so Clara makes comforting little clicking noises at her and pets the crow. “It’s okay, Kavka,” she says, before going back to clicking. With her free hand, she waves gently at the woman. Still, she can’t help but wither in the woman’s gaze.

The horse snorts, and Clara thinks it might be excited to see her. She hopes that it might even let her pet it. But the woman promptly mounts the horse. Pulling on its reins, the woman turns the horse around. With no eye contact, she leads it away, across the yard. Clara is ready to watch them trot through the woods, through all her old hideouts and paths, but once they pass the edge of her yard, the horse and rider seem to disappear, as if into a fog.

Ah well. Clara’s new gift tempers her disappointment—and that reminds her of the larger haul she has. She sorts through her collection for another hour. She dozes off into a light sleep as she’s sorting bottle #6, her least favorite trinkets. All the while, the curtains blow, the radio hums, and the crows keep watch.

* * *

On a pale motorbike, she rides. Spewing exhaust of leaden smog, driving slow against the gales of an evening thunderstorm, the woman drives up the Garcia family’s driveway and into their backyard. She pulls off her helmet and her big hair flounces out. She unfurls a black, oversized umbrella and frowns.

The backyard is layered with autumn leaves that add a muted bass to the rain. Nature has encroached ever more, with weeds strangling the lawn. Off at the edge, the playset is rooted, still bursting with color. And surveying this whole scene is Clara, seated on the covered porch.

Clara’s eyes are listless as she sits, her right arm extended along the chair’s armrest, her left tucked under her quilt. The covered hand wraps around a pill bottle that she’d secreted outside, better than a teddy bear. She lets the sound of rain carry her on an adventure. She’s a pirate queen, seated on her pirate ship, with a pirate crow on her shoulder. Her stomach is churning, but not because of the IV in her right arm. No, it’s from the boat rocking as it fights the high seas. The rain crashes all around, but she’s safe on her deck. The mist is cool on her skin. The fresh air helps keep the nausea down. It’s only a matter of time before she finds an island, brimming with trinkets and treasures—

On the porch railing to her right, Kavka fluffs grumpily and then shrieks. Clara frowns, looks over, and spots her visitor. The wisps of Clara’s imagination are still retreating, and a season has passed since she first saw the woman. But still Clara recognizes her. She rolls her tongue in her dry mouth. “Hello?” she says, rasping.

The woman doesn’t respond. She seems to be giving Clara’s old playset the stink-eye. Clara squints, pushing through a jumbled mind to study the woman’s features. Her makeup makes her skin look uncanny, like porcelain, which leaves her sheer-red lips ever starker. Her eyes are obscured by wide aviators, and her big hair blends in with the umbrella, black on her shoulder. Her pea coat doesn’t look equipped to handle rain this heavy, though she is dry as can be.

Kavka, standing on the porch railing between the woman and Clara, flaps her wings again. This raises Poe, folded in the spillage of Clara’s quilt. He blinks awake and stares from his blanket-fort. Jack and Quinn, who are on the other side of the porch fighting over a peanut shell, can’t be bothered.

The woman turns to Kavka, her expression inscrutable.

“Good morning, Clara,” the woman says, though she still seems to be watching the crow.

Clara shrinks in her chair. How does this woman know her name? And her voice is strange. It chimes above the rain, though she is not loud. Just unnaturally clear.

Clara squeezes the pill bottle, still under her blanket. She squints. “Where’s your horse?”

The woman raises an eyebrow. Gesturing widely, she says, “You would bring a horse into this?”

Clara looks down. “The crows don’t seem to mind.”

“Indeed,” the woman says. She leans for Kavka, twirling the umbrella slowly in her hand. “Unflappable little beasts.”

Poe hops from Clara’s blanket and swoops up to the railing, next to Kavka. He too spreads his wings at the woman.

“Er, sorry, ma’am,” Clara says, shuffling uncomfortably. “They’re a bit protective.”

The woman shifts the umbrella to her other shoulder. “You must have quite the bargain with them,” she says.

Under the blanket, Clara holds the bottle close to her. She rolls it in her hand. Then, she says, “The crows bring me little gifts.” Her heart is racing. She hasn’t told anyone about her stash before—not that there’ve been many to tell. “They started gathering in my yard just after I got sick.” She looks down. “One day, I’d lost my appetite, so I tossed my food to one of them—the one I call Kavka.” Clara points to the bird, who remains focused on the woman. “Kavka left me a little toy she’d been carrying… and ever since then, we trade food for whatever they find.” She looks to the woman, hope spreading across her wan face. “Want to see what I have?”

The woman says nothing, but she steps forward, her head and eyebrows tipping up. Poe gives a tittering hiss. If Clara didn’t know better, she’d think he’s growling. But the woman still doesn’t mind. Though Clara still can’t make out any eyes behind the glasses, it feels like the woman is already staring at the blanket, right where the bottle is. So Clara pulls it up.

She presents the bottle to the woman before popping it open with the same hand. Gently, she dumps a portion of it into her blanketed lap.

“It’s not much,” she says of her treasures. She sets the bottle to the side and pushes the trinkets around with a finger. Spotting her favorite piece, she plucks it up and presents it.

“Here’s one,” she says. “They brought me a bone.” The woman just stares, still inscrutable. Clara twists the bone around her fingers, self-conscious. “I guess it’s a little creepy—”

“A rabbit,” says the woman.

Clara blinks, frowning at the woman. “Really? Huh.” She holds the bone up to a porch light, trying to see what the woman sees. “Are you, like, a bunny scientist?”

“No,” the woman says.

“You’re just around them a lot then.”

“More than I’d like to be,” the woman says. She nods at it. “That was a young one. Sickly.” Clara holds the bone close, still studying it. The rain continues its deep drone. “A cat got to it.”

Clara stares at the woman, then swallows hard. She sets the bone back into the bottle. Perhaps she’ll reconsider its spot in her favorites. Itching to change the subject, she holds up the ring. She’s shined it up. Only a few patches of persistent tarnish remain.

“Ah yes, a wedding ring,” the woman says. “They used to be so happy.”

Clara sinks. “They died too?”

“Oh no,” the woman says. “Their marriage did.”

Clara frowns. Plunks the ring in with the bone.

“How do you know all this?” Clara asks.

“You should know,” the woman says, “that not all of your trinkets have sad endings. As a matter of fact, that bus token—”

“That’s okay,” Clara says, scooting up in her chair. “I just realized. I kinda like not knowing their endings after all.”

The rain dies down during the long silence that follows, and the crickets begin to chirp from the woods. With her free hand, Clara slowly returns her trinkets, one by one, into the bottle, held between her knees. Finally, the woman speaks up again.

“It’s all right that things end,” the woman says. “I could show you. Would you like to see?”

The woman offers an open hand to Clara.

Clara shrinks at the sight, looks to her crows for reassurance. All four of them—Kavka and Poe on the railing, Jack and Quinn on the porch to her left—are watching her. She tucks into herself, holding her bottle close to her chest.

“No, I want to stay here,” Clara says.

The woman steps forward, about to speak—but the crows all jump up. Caw cluh-cluh caw! they each yell once, one on top of another. All four station themselves on the railing. Between Clara and the woman.

The woman steps back, still ready to say more. But any time she moves to say anything, one of the crows squawks at her. Then Kavka, brave Kavka, swoops to the wet grass and caws at the woman’s feet, wings wide.

The woman tips her nose at Clara and then turns to her motorbike. Without looking further, the woman mounts the bike and backs away. The sound of her bike fades into the purr of the rain.

The crows stand guard for a beat, and then return to their posts. Kavka sloughs off the rain, Jack and Quinn wrestle over a poor caterpillar. Poe settles back into the blankets at Clara’s feet, though his feathers stay puffed. Clara makes her calming little clicking noises. It’s as much for her as it is for Poe. After a while, Poe starts clicking right back.

Before long, Clara dips back into her imagination. She’s a pirate queen again. She’s found exotic new lands, fought off monsters of stone and bone, even found a treasure chest. Short of breath, she cracks it open. Inside, she finds riches beyond measure: piles and piles of bus tokens.

She slinks further under the blanket, until there’s only the top of her head, and her right arm, tied to her IV. And all the while, the winds whistle, the rain drones, and the crows keep watch.

* * *

Gone are the days of white noise, of rain and radio. The winter nights are long. The snow outside muffles all but a heart monitor whose beeps stab at the night. It’s dark, it’s stagnant, it’s still when the pale woman arrives.

She stands at the door, and the leaden smog drifts into the room. Her aviators point to the bed by the window. The only light comes from outside; the porch light reflects off the snowdrifts and the thick, lazy snowflakes coming down. It’s cold in the room, but it has been for some time.

The woman bows her head and purses her lips. She moves through the darkness. The floor is a haphazard mess of clothes, rolling like an ocean. When she passes a pile of black socks, the black on top shuffles awake, looks up at her, and caws.

The woman steps back as Quinn puffs her feathers atop her sock kingdom. After a second, something clicks in the crow’s little brain, and she squawks sharply.

From atop a dusty desk, another pair of eyes reflects the snowlight. Then a third, from under the bed. A fourth, on the foot of it. They all caw, and then swoop to the floor before the woman. She holds her hands out at the four, imploring. Kavka hisses at the woman, flapping her wings.

The woman clenches her fists. Then, tipping her nose at the crows, she moves to step over them.

Kavka launches straight in the air, fluttering in front of the woman. She stumbles, and the crows, smelling weakness, become a flurry. They leap for her, nipping at her feet, flying at her face, cawing and trilling and squawking all the while. She covers herself with one arm, and waves the other at them. In her anger, a halo of mist grows around her. A deep thrum builds in the air. A bell tolls.

A comforting little tongue-clicking noise comes from the bed.

The crows drop to the floor. All except Kavka turn to the sound. She keeps her mouth open silently at the woman. Then another clicking noise, firmer this time, draws her attention as well. At the bed, Clara’s wan arm rises. She stops her clicking, and the arm drops back down.

The crows stare, the woman keeps her arms up. Poe is the first to break the stillness. He hops forward a few paces, then takes to the air and flies to the bed. Clara reaches for him. The others are quick to follow—Quinn, then Jack, then finally Kavka, all taking a spot around the bed.

The woman straightens. Pulls down her pea coat. Pushes up her aviators. And she approaches at the speed of someone with all the time in the world.

Clara is cradled in her bed. Sunken, pale, folded into her wrinkled sheets and clothes. Still her tired eyes shine up at the woman. She takes a breath, then another, and she swallows hard. Her mouth opens, as if gasping. The heart monitor picks up in tempo.

“Shh-shh,” the woman says. Her voice is near a whisper now, though still pure and clear as can be. “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to.” The woman glances at Kavka, who eyes her, unblinkingly, from the foot of the bed. “After all,” she says, a laugh on her breath, “there’s nothing you can say that I haven’t heard before.”

The woman’s aviators turn to Clara’s hand, resting on her chest. Between her fingers, the woman spots the bus token.

“You find comfort in the crows’ gifts even now,” the woman says. She sighs. “They’re good little beasts, after all.”

Clara looks down, and begins petting Poe. He’s ever awkward, doing his best to not fall over with every pet. Her other hand pulls the token closer to her chest. She focuses hard, licks the roof of her dry mouth. And she speaks: “I’ll be leaving behind so much.”

The woman nods. “Yes,” she says. “Yes you will.” She looks Clara up and down. “You’ll be leaving behind the pills, the blood draws, the tests.” She gestures over Clara. “The monitors, the IVs, the pain.”

Clara blinks and frowns at the cords coming from her, the tubes going into her. She feels anew the breathing tube on her face.

“Good riddance,” the woman says.

Clara closes her eyes. Purses her lips.

The woman raises her eyebrow. “Are you afraid?” she says, her voice gentle.

Clara shakes her head. “Not so much. Not anymore. But…” She looks to the woman again. “Do you know what’ll be left of me? Not…this—” she says, gesturing at her broken body. “But like the rabbit bone, the ring. The token. What’s next for the me that stays behind?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” the woman says. “But I think the crows had something to say after all. Something always continues.” The woman stands straighter. “Something lives on.”

Clara nods. She brings her second hand to the token.

The woman offers Clara a hand. “Do you want to see?”

Clara blinks slowly. Looks to each of her crows in turn. And she nods. Her arm reaches out. She takes the woman’s hand. It’s warm, and warmer still as the woman rests her other hand atop Clara’s. Clara looks up. Lets out a breath.

A lightness, a light, and Clara sits up. Feels a strength building again. The woman guides her up, up, cradling her elbow, and she’s standing again. For the first time in so long. She stares down in awe, trying to make sense of it. She feels a buzz, she feels like radio static. But the woman moves forward, bringing Clara with her. Clara stumbles, expecting to fall, but she finds that she can carry herself again. The lightness grows by the moment. They move forward together, just a few steps toward the door, and with every step the woman lets go just a bit more. Then she’s no longer bracing Clara up; she’s simply holding her hand. There’s a buzzing, and Clara turns back to look, but the woman stops her.

“You mustn’t dawdle,” the woman says. Her voice is clearer than ever. The sound fills Clara’s chest with a warmth that she’d thought was long-lost. “There’s so much to see.”

Clara nods. “Will you show me?”

“No,” the woman says. She looks back. “That’s their job.”

The four crows hop from the bed. Caw cluh-cluh caw! they sing to her. They lift into the air, dance about. She laughs and raises an arm, which Poe takes roost upon. Jack and Quinn dip and hop along. Kavka leads the way.

The crows lead her out of her room, past the threshold, cutting through the leaden smog. Hopping, swooping, cawing, the crows fly on an ancient wind. With it, they guide Clara beyond, beyond, into the light of the day.

Tarver Nova is a spec-fic writer and professional night owl in New York. Show him your cats on Twitter @tarvernova or visit him at tarvernova.com.