"May your soul be nourished and grow as it lifts to heaven in the vessel of a crow."
Part One: Losing Faith
"Things couldn’t possibly get any weirder.” That’s what I was thinking when it started.
I was driving down the remains of route CC in the southern tip of Callaway county. Occasional physical amenities, periodic reminders of the past, sparse scatterings of plant life.., my faith. After the recent explosion of catastrophe that was pretty much all that was left of anything. Remains. Earthquakes and extremes in weather had left the blacktop and concrete deformed and buckled. The old Dodge was rumbling and groaning as I traversed the crumbling ruins of what was once the well kept roadway of the neighboring nuclear power facility, which by some miraculous feat had been spared. Given the recent series of events, however, I just don’t quite understand how this occurred.
The ensuing world war had left much of the earth in shambles. Mankind had detonated a multitude of bombs against their brethren and left the world as a place of perpetual twilight where the sun never fully shined and the moon emitted a blood red glow. Famine was a mainstay of a majority of the population and plagues of insects, especially the locust , prevailed to ensure the depravity of most humankind. Due to the lack of organic material they consumed not only the remaining green things, but flesh as well. They were giving the rats and roaches some stiff competition. The only thing that out numbered the vermin were the crows. Their numbers were multiplying at alarming rates and no one was quite sure why. They seemed to be waiting for something.
It was a time of great suffering and the waters of the world ran red and had a metallic taste that smacked of the flavor of blood. Those who drank of it fell ill, their life force shriveling as they physically unraveled, yet maintained existence, though a painful, excruciating presence it was. Given the precedence of world events, I had decided I was not happy with God. And every opportunity I had I gave him ample notification. Given the slightest provocation I would explode into a tirade of unprovoked explicative language that would make the most distance of non-believers blush. I was lost. And I had let go my last trace of faith. A none believer (I had branded myself as such)
Finding comfort in old ways was the order of the day. In the past I’d once found solace by venturing into the heart of the Ozarks to photograph the existing wildlife. These days what my soul was seeking was sparse, but I did not care. Release was needed, something was missing ,and needed to be found.
The radio was crackling, sputtering intermittent coverage of devastating natural catastrophes, news of disasters, man made and natural. Fragmented reports of the great drought in the Mid East.., allowing the Muslims to overtake Jerusalem. A new monetary value. Washington DC plunged into total darkness. The coming of a new ice age caused by an asteroid strike somewhere in the southern hemisphere. The bad news paraded on and on. I’d listened to enough. Rigid fingers clasped the knob and quickly found the off direction.
I took a shot from the bottle of Old Crow nestled between my legs, then took a long draw from the glowing home rolled joint of “devils weed“. The ember fell to my lap. I thrashed about wildly slapping my thighs to extinguish the glow, nearly losing control of the wheel . As I left the confines of the skeletal highway the old truck bucked me like a bull with course rope drawn tight around its groin. The crown of my head struck the cab of my ride with a sharp thud, and a warm cathartic ooze accompanied by near loss of vision overcame me. I was inclined to pull the metal beast over in quick order. Jagged slabs of pitch black slammed the wheels, taking each out one-by-one, with a loud “shot” and the smell of burning rubber. As I slowly lost consciousness the image of the falling embers replayed in my mind. They descended in slow motion , like Hollywood special effects, only this time small human arms and faces waved frantically from the red-orange fluorescence.., and I could have swore I heard voices screaming. Blackness overcame me.
Part Two: The Calling
My head throbbed as I came to. The injury so great that the sound of my heart beating in my cranium was prevalent, until it subsided sufficiently for my ears to adjust to the sounds of my desolate surroundings.
“End it” A strange voice echoed in my confinements.
My eyes widened, darting around the temporary metal cage. It was distinct. I was sure I heard it. The muscles in my hand unclenched and my open palm came to rest on the ever present 22 magnum in the seat next to me.
“Yesss.., end it” I heard whispered once again.
Then I saw my tormenter. A large cockroach clung to the inside edge of my window just below the opening. Its red eyes piercing the darkness like tiny lasers and its mouth spitting as it spoke.
“Take the peaccccccce, you sssssseek.” The serpent-like voice silently screamed once more.
“No!”.., I yelled as loud as I could.
“Not no, but hell no”. I said in a softer voice.
And with that I cocked back my finger and flicked the roach on the head, knocking his nasty insect butt clean out the window. It burst into a puff of black smoke as it hit the ground . The smoke took the shape of a serpent and slithered away, disappearing in the shadows.
I violently slammed the suicide machine into the gray cushion next to me. Pausing for a mere second as the action was met by a reaction and numerous nondescript items flew through my space. The cap from the Old Crow bottle struck me in the temple. I became instantly aware.
I ignored the pain as I twisted my body to gain access to the back seat. My features were unnatural and visibly contorted as I strained for what I was reaching . The feeling was familiar. A smooth cold shape. My helmet. It was necessary for what awaited me outside the relative safety of my metal chariot. Large hail stones and bodies otherwise unexplainable routinely fell from the sky. I donned my helmet and retrieved my 22 which I stuffed in my beltline.
After I managed myself from smoldering heap that was once my transportation I faltered and fell back against the thin armor of the shell of my false security. It gave with a resounding and final “pop”.and I hit the dirt. Sheepishly, I scanned my surroundings. My ears straining to listen for something recognizable. Then it came. Through the crackling and popping of hot things, the explosions of large objects crashing through the bodies of the organics. Uneasy yet welcome. Striking deep into the remnants of my soul.
“Caw caw caw” The crows were calling.
Part Three: Lured
I raised myself to one elbow, laboring for a clean breath, straining to focus. Gradually it came. Slowly, like a selfish child. An Image. The shape was obscured through the smoky ash as it floated to the ground, creeping like a lighter than air black snow. The shape of a young female about five years of age. Her features were dark . Like a starved orphan begging for a morsel she lifted her hand to reach toward me, then vanished. The barley discernible features taking the form of a wisp of dark vapor and morphing to the shape of a crow. The black passerine lit on a nearby baron branch and froze. Time seemed to stop. There was no sound. The only movement being blue, black, and purple reflections of light dancing on the birds shimmering feathers.
A piping coal shattered the silence reverberating like the crack of a well used whip in a great valley, animating the landscape with alarming irreverence. The crow broke off a small twig from the limb of its perch and dove to the ground with such a sense of urgency that it bowled over, its wings spreading to catch itself, dropping the stick. Quickly it snapped up the small piece of wood, hopped around in a circle as if looking for something, and seeming satisfied with its view began scratching in the dirt. No longer a crow with a stick, but a messenger with an instrument of conveyance.
Upon completing the task at hand it lifted itself from the ash and retired back to the spot from once it came, one wing extended, flexing out then curling in, summoning me. The last three and one half years had been strange. Each moment becoming exponentially stranger. And so I went. Shuffling towards the sullen girl turned beast. Ducking and wincing with each loud noise or sudden movement until I arrived at the destination and looked at my feet. I expected bird scratch, instead I found words. Half obliterated by my dragging feet, but still readable.
It said simply. “Follow”
Confusion was overwhelming me. Thinking for myself was becoming difficult. I faltered, and in a semi-conscious state I complied. Mumbling unintelligibly through buzzing lips a feeble response was managed.
And as it jumped from limb to limb, I followed the dark figure into the smoldering forest , the black silhouette guiding me deeper and deeper, calling with a single “Caw” when I paused., pulling me with an unseen hand. Resistance was tried. Resistance was futile. Further I went. Further still. Somehow I knew I could turn back, but I did not.
Part Four: An Encounter
The twisted game of follow the leader came to an end at a small clearing near a mountainous outcrop of grotesquely shaped rock that looked like a huge pile of interwoven bodies. They seemed to move as I gazed at them through the hot thick air. . From the top of the mound I heard the crow call, but instead of a “caw” it issued forth , still in a cackling crow voice, an unmistakable “come”, and again motioned with its wing for me to approach. My skin prickled at the birds now eerily human movements. I moved slowly, expecting the forms below to writhe in pain as I hefted myself upon them. Much to my relief my footing was hard and sure and felt as rock should. The crow anxiously bobbed his head in approval as I made my way to the apex. From my new vantage point I could see that square in the middle was an opening, like a great gaping mouth waiting to swallow me whole.
As I neared the glistening coal black bird it nervously scratched at the ground loosening
several small stones. Reaching its location, and sitting with my arms wrapped tightly around my drawn up knees, I watched intently as the bird carefully moved the pebbles around with its beak, selecting three roughly the same size, which it moved to the side. Those beady dark brown eyes then looked straight into mine, and the little black head nodded towards me, then the hole. After gazing at me for a moment it then plucked up one of the pebbles and flicked it into the shaft. The sequence was repeated twice more. Then the crow jumped upon my knees, stretched its neck towards me, and stared into my eyes. The tip of its beak touching my nose. I knew what it wanted.
As I rose to my feet the crow floated to the ground and my hands dove in my pockets searching for the small halogen flashlight that I kept on my person . Artificial light was often needed in this now dark world. As I rummaged through the cluttered cloth repositories I could see the crows lighting in the trees that lined the clearing. One-by-one they silently fell from the sky, making not a sound.
“How odd” I thought.
To see so many silent crows gathered in one spot. Their numbers becoming so great that the limbs of the trees were bowing to the ground under the strain of their weight. Still more drifted from the darkness, and as the trees filled to their capacity they began taking spots on the forest floor.
“Ah!” I exclaimed.
Kind of surprising myself with the my automated response as my hand emerged from my pocket with the flashlight. I clicked it on to ensure it was working and it flickered so I slapped it good and hard. The beam became solid. As I panned the shaft of light around the clearing the birds bristled slightly. I thought perhaps they were excited at the prospect of me descending into the hole, but as I turned back to the opening I discovered that I was not the cause of their state. It was those red glowing cockroach eyes. But this time they were in the head of a pig. A great stinking mud covered swine. The damned thing flashed a swill eating pig smile at me and in the same serpent like voice said.
“Theees crowsss mean to harm you my ffffriend. You sssshould come withhh me. I will shhhow you where to fffind ssome ssweet ripe Pawpawssss and we can dine on crow and sssugery fruitsss.”
The crow let out a quick sound of disapproval and retreated a safe distance away. My fuse was very short these days, and this pig “thing” was starting to piss me off. He gave me another sloppy pig smile with its eyes glowing brighter than ever and then spoke to me again.
“Pledge yourssself to meee and I will give you what you waaant. Will you commme?”
“Listen pig” I retorted.
“Aren’t you the same friggin thing who came to me as a roach and tried to get me to off Myself? Aren’t you?! How the hell! Do you think you know what I want! And just what the in the friggin hell are you really anyway? “
The swine answered. “I am many thingssss and can take whatever form I choosssse. I reign sssupreme in thisss world of darknessss and can grant your wissshesss If only you give me your allegianccce. Shhhall wwe dine?”
My lip curled, my teeth clenched , and my brow furled. The disgust I felt for this, this, thing had filled me. I snatched the magnum from my belt and leveled it at the pigs head yelling.
“I think I’d prefer to feast on pork!”
As my finger began to squeeze the trigger the loathsome creature let out a loud half hiss, half squealing laugh and instantly exploded into the same thick black smoke as it had earlier. My round buried itself in dirt. The smoke again took the shape of a snake, slithering through the crowd of crows as they parted in his wake, hissing and snapping at them a he faded into the murky distance. The crows closed the gap like a silky black wave.
Part Five: Into the Belly
I knelt at the mouth of the abyss. The air coming from the interior was warm and putrid, like the smell of rancid meat and rotting eggs. I had nearly talked myself out of descending into the disgusting stench when the sound of a child crying emitted from the depths. Without hesitation I lowered myself in. The throat was about four feet across, just wide enough for me to brace my back against one side and my feet against the other, making it relatively easy to work my way down. As I did the crying became louder. Tears came to my eyes as I thought of a poor child trapped in this deep fowl smelling place. I hoped I would find it well. The bottom was near now. I shined my light and saw a cloth that looked like a tattered dress . Closer, closer. I was there.
“Shhh. It’s ok little one, I am here now.” I whispered.
As I pulled back the soft flower print material the crying stopped. Giving way to one tiny satisfied sigh. Then silence. One last tear fell from my face, and as it hit the floor of the cave I swear it sounded as loud as a clap of thunder. For a while I sat and stared in disbelief…, at the pile of powdery, brittle white bones. I know not how long I gazed upon the remains before I snapped out of it. Clutched in the tiny hand at the end of a delicate chain was a small silver crucifix and around the skull were bits of raven black hair. Not wanting to leave the remnants in this lonely place I removed my outer shirt and gathered them up for the ascent.
The sadness that I felt had turned to anger by the time I reached the mouth. I pulled myself onto the rocks and gently sat the macabre bundle on the ground. With my right hand I carefully unfolded the shirt and prepared to confront the crows, but before I could say one word the bones and hair disintegrated into an ashy dust, took to the breeze and vanished into the night air. All that remained was cross and chain.
I looked out to the ocean of birds and the crow that had lead me here lifted from the murder and sailed towards me transforming back into the dark sullen girl that it had first appeared to me as. She came to rest very near me and lifted the cross from my shirt placing it in my hand. As she leaned in close to my face I could smell her, it was a sweet smell, and her eyes were dark and brown. Like a crows. She whispered into my ear and all she said was.
“You know what you must do. Give yourself to him. Entrust him with your soul.”
“Ahhhh” I screamed.
And threw the cross high into the air. At that moment ,in a wisp of vapor, she took back the form of a crow and plucked the crucifix from the sky before it had even begun to come back down. And she and thousands of others, with not a sound but the fluttering of wings, swirled up into the blackness, leaving me alone in the clearing.
Part Six: Harpazo
Nobody picked up hitchers these days so I hoofed it home picking off a few rats for breakfast along the way. I walked quickly to keep the locusts from devouring my bounty before I arrived. Swinging the rats against a tree every so often to knock them off. Soon I found myself at the homestead. It was quiet and day was just beginning to break. I gingerly pushed open the door and crept into the house to find my wife and two grand daughters sleeping in the back bedroom . They looked peaceful in their slumber. I quietly closed the door and went about preparing the days meal. All the while deep in thought about what had earlier transpired, about what it all might mean.
My trance was abruptly interrupted. A loud ringing had brought me back to my immediate surroundings. Startled, I looked around , then I realized it was the telephone.
But, we had the service shut off years ago because we couldn’t afford it, and the wires were not connected. Thinking maybe it had been reconnected without my knowledge I traced the wire from the handset to the wall. It was not plugged in.. I jumped as it rang again, hesitating before I put it to my ear. I didn’t say a word. Through the crackling I heard a familiar voice. It was the pig.
“Weeee need to talk. Sssomething very important it isssssss” It said.
Over the crackling of the phone and the hissing voice I could here a tapping a the kitchen window, and the sound of crows.
The voice became insistent. “Do not go to the crowsss. I have sssomething important to tell you. It’sss about your grand child, Raven Majessssstic”
My attention again turned toward the kitchen window. The tapping had become louder and the cawing of the crows more intent. They sounded frantic. I sat the phone down and went outside. There, face down in the frog pond was Raven. She was often drawn to the edge of the pond in pursuit of frogs or fish, it was interesting to her. I can only assume that she awoke and snuck out the kitchen door while I was distracted by the pestilent creature on the phone. Screaming her name I jumped into the water and lifted her limp body into my arms. As I did I noticed a frog with blood red eyes leap for cover.
“Raven!.,, come back to me baby” I said over and over.
I buried my face in her body, shedding tears like a frightened school boy. Her slight figure stirred. There was a gasp for air then her head lifted. Her brilliant blue eyes opened.
“Papa” She said in a soft voice.
My response never came. The crows exploded into an uproarious frenzy, and only then, as I scanned the landscape around me, did I realize that not thousands, but millions of them covered the countryside. They were jumping into the air with spread wings and falling back to the earth, hopping through the trees and across the ground, and cawing so loudly that nothing else could be heard. Or so it seemed. The sound of screaming sirens was slowly drowning out the raucous of the birds. They ebbed and waned , intensely wailing, with a noise sounding like that of great trumpets. Each crescendo bringing
About an event.
The dark clouds began pulling apart and changing from gray to silvery white. Sun light shown from the skies for the first time in three and a half years. It seemed brighter than it ever had before.
Shutters, windows and doors dropped from the casements of vehicles and dwellings and went crashing to the ground.
All of the grasses , and trees, and bushes, and all other manner of plant life put forth fruit and leaves , and blossoms, full and vibrant.
People came out of their abodes to see what was taking place and stood in opened mouth wonder and amazement at the awesome spectacles unfolding before them.
The smoke and ash seemed to draw into the body of the planet and the atmosphere became in an instant crisp and crystal.
Animals and insects of all kinds emerged from hiding and wandered openly amongst each other with their heads held towards the skies.
Even as I gazed in wide eyed disbelief at what was transpiring I could feel my grand daughters body as it disappeared and then reformed in my arms. I looked down and a crow fluttered from my clutches. I turned to see my wife and other grand daughter, and in a wisp they too transformed into crows. The other people changed too, all but a handful, and myself.
Then, with the final resounding blast, the inky blackness drained from the feathers of each bird and the blanket of crows shown brightly like the finest of polished metals. They took to the heavens on their new shining silver wings , glittering and sparkling in the sun, rising higher and higher until they disappeared in brilliant pinpoint flashes of light that flickered out like millions of tiny stars. I watched as each was carried up until only one was left. It lifted from the ground , but instead of trailing the others it glided towards me, changing into an angelic being as it approached.
The great wings wafted a sweet smell on their breeze and before I could make out any features I knew it was her. The one who had stood by me once before. She landed within my arms reach and smiled as if we were old friends. Then placed and object in my hands. As we touched I could see flashes of memories, a sad little girl, a tragic event, a slow and lonely death. The bones I had retrieved were hers. She withdrew her hand, stood there for a moment and then said.
“He wants me to tell you something”
I didn’t ask who.
“What” I said.
She knelt to the ground picked up a small twig and scratched something in the dirt, then spread her giant silver crow wings and lifted up to the heavens. I watched until she too became a twinkling star.
I opened my hand to find the cross and chain that had once before been offered to me, then I looked down and saw the words she had written. The two simple words, at that moment, held more meaning than the sum of all I had ever read or had ever been written.
They said “I AM”
Part Seven: The Beginning
And with that the clouds rushed back together becoming blacker than black, the ground trembled and began splitting open issuing forth unspeakably foul demonic creatures and puffs of sulfur scented steam. Green things withered in the blink of an eye and clouds of locusts filled the air. Blood red liquid and ash began falling from the sky along with large hail stones and rocks that burst in to flame and left smoking trails. I saw a monstrous wolf with red eyes making a deal with one of the remaining neighbors, soon after which the screaming man was dragged into the swirling shadows by howling specters. A loud buzzing sound and unnatural glow was coming from the direction of the power plant, it seemed to be growing. I decided I had better head the other direction, it seemed as though the next three and a half years were going from bad to worse. I checked to see that I had what I needed.
I patted my waist and felt my gun, frisked myself and found my bullets, knocked on my head and thumped my helmet, and opened my hand and found my cross. I untangled it and hung it around my neck, rubbing it between my fingers for just a second. I pulled my liner up around my neck and forced a smile. My dry lips cracked and a thin trail of blood dribbled down my chin. When I wiped it I noticed that my skin was beginning to blister and peel.
“Hmm’ I thought to myself. “I’m gonna need a little help to get through this one. One last thing to do before I’m on my way.”
I bowed my head and prayed..