Horror #40 — To forget the Crow Completely Is a Mistake
The nights were hot and Lumo had difficulty sleeping. He tried at first soaking a towel in cold water and lying in bed with it wrapped around his head. But the water soon evaporated and the towel became suffocating. He wanted to remove his clothing and sleep naked but knew mother would disapprove. And yet, if he could slip out of his nightwear, just for a few hours, perhaps he could sleep.
He had gotten as far as unbuttoning his shirt when he heard the bird call. At first, Lumo dismissed the sound as creaking from the house, for it was an old, large house. He felt the air on his bare chest for a few more moments before he heard it again, something like a croak.
It was possible, he conceded, that a bird had entered the house through one of the open windows. He fastened the nightshirt's buttons. He spent the rest of the night sweating, as if with a fever.
The next morning the foreign girl knocked at the mansion door. Her name was Yoka. Lumo stared at her from the window above, waiting for her to leave. When she didn't, he wrapped himself in a robe and descended to answer the door.
The foreign girl made no pretense for her visit, but came right in, examining the rooms. "We do not have places like this where I'm from," she said in her crystalline accent. "Not anymore."
As they walked she threw open windows. The air came in dry and limp. In the kitchen, she made him a bread and butter sandwich.
"You have the house all to yourself?" she asked and then, when Lumo didn't answer, asked, "Does it get lonely?"
"I read and I think," Lumo said. "It has been like this for a long time. I'm used to it."
"You must want someone, every once in a while."
Lumo shrugged. He didn't know what she meant. Lumo had been alone in the mansion for many years, though how many he couldn't say. Before that he lived with his mother until her body shriveled up and quit. She had not wished to leave the mansion on her death, for she thought the soil of the island had grown corrupted and the townspeople would conduct rites of witchcraft with her body.
Lumo's mother had many ideas about the island and the townspeople. She claimed Lumo's family had been present for the very formation of the island as it rose out of the ocean. Over the decades, they had stayed separate from the other inhabitants to remain pure.
"These people are not like us," mother had told Lumo one day. "They are immoral creatures. They use their bodies in obscene ways."
"What ways?" Lumo had asked.
Mother closed her eyes. "They are not born like us, but rather from eggs, which need to be roosted in order to grow hot enough for the offspring to burst through, already an adult."
"Why do you think," she continued, clutching at Lumo's hand, "there are no other children on the island?"
Lumo couldn't quite answer that question, for as a child mother would seldom let him out of the house and even as an adult he never descended into town, instead paying certain men in coin for the supplies he needed.
During the day he searched the mansion for the bird, staying out of the upper floor. It would be easy for a bird to slip in and out of house, invited by the shelter from the punishing sun. Having found no sign of the creature, Lumo dismissed the idea until nighttime when, faced again with the predicament of his clothing and the heat, he heard the bird call again, loud and distinct. He pondered leaving his bed and searching for it with the intent of driving it out. He pictured himself walking from room to room holding a thin candle in the heavy summer darkness. In the maze of rooms, he'd never find it. And so he lay for the night, somewhere between waking and dreaming.
The next morning Yoka let herself in and shook him though he was already awake. Outside the sun sat in a dirty haze and Lumo did not feel like moving. She gave him a glass of water from the bathroom but it was warm.
Lumo was sweating in his nightclothes. She went into the bathroom again. He heard her draw a bath. She called his name. He stood before her, bare feet on the tiles.
"The water's cold," she said and, as if to prove it, dipped her finger in the water, then stuck her finger in her mouth. Lumo unbuttoned his shirt, started to take off his pants, but she made no move to leave.
"Go ahead," she said, watching. Lumo removed his pants, folded the clothes, placed them in a neat pile. She gave him a hand as he stepped into the tub. The water was not cold. His sweat dripped into the bath water. He held his breath and ducked underwater, watching her watching him. The water blurred her figure, distorted her face.
"What sort of birds are there where you are from?" he asked her later, drying in the patio.
"Where I come there are no birds. Instead we have a breed of flying lizards, which have driven the birds away," she said. "But you misunderstand. I am from this island. My ancestors were here during its formation."
"Why did you leave?"
"That is not the question," she said. "It is: why did I come back?"
"Why did you come back?" he asked.
"To reclaim what's mine."
In the island they only had one kind of bird. If there was a bird in the house it would be black and it would be a crow. No other bird could tolerate the island's climate. Foreigners had tried to import other birds, to sell as pets, but they had withered in the heat. Now there was a market for captured crows kept in cages.
"All crows are female," Lumo's mother had told him, pointing to one in the market. "Do not show a crow where you live, for God has taken away their ability to forget. They will upset your household and transform it into a nest for themselves. No one will miss you, for they will replace you. Crows are shape-shifters."
Mother had not wanted to change after death, which is why she had given him specific instruction for her preservation. "You must follow these steps or death will corrupt me," she had said as she grew weak. "Death is a shape-shifter too."
Lumo did not bother going to bed at night, but stalked through hallways, picking up debris, examining it. None of it looked like feathers. Most of it looked like straw.
For building a nest, he thought. The cries of the crow taunted him. He slumped on an old chair and let the hours race by until it was dawn. He peeled himself off the chair, his nightwear sticky. He walked like a somnambulist. The walls sweated. The wood contracted and expanded with the heat. The house moaned.
He stumbled into the master bedroom and took the fragile bundle of mummified cloth wrappings into his arms. It weighed almost nothing. He carried it into the bathroom, placed it in the tub and lit his mother on fire. The flame burned easy and he closed the door behind him so the crow wouldn't know that he was turning its nest into ashes.
He poured glasses of water in the kitchen and splashed them on his face until Yoka entered. He let her take him by the hand like mother used to. They walked up the stairs to his bedroom, where she removed his nightwear. He found himself in the bed, with her straddling him. He felt her move. He closed his eyes. Time slowed with the heat. She made a noise, a call. He opened his eyes to see the fluttering of her great wings before her dark beak descended on him.
Augusto Corvalan writes: "My work has previously appeared in One Buck Horror, the anthology Winter's Canon, Midwest Literary Magazine, Potluck Literary Magazine, Bewildering Stories, among others. I was an honorary mention for the Quarto Prize, judged by Mary Jo Bangs and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Creative Writing."