Kristin Garth & Amy Suzanne
Canticle of Crow
Though gravity constrains her to the ground,
black feathers float overhead. Small throats
emote against sky golden rust. Their sounds
became a hymn at dusk transcribed to notes
for the featherless when she would stumble,
howl, half-human distressed greetings[i] learned
in palm of hand where they would land, humbled,
repeatedly ‘til she understand, yearns
for language enough to, at last, attend
to the chatter of a feathered friend. Calls
for aid every fall. A flock descends,
its cawing shadowy pall protects what sprawls
on cobblestone without a single wing.
To their canticle, she is listening.
[i]Crows surround The Mistress of Malice since she was small. She is not sure if their appearance corresponds exactly with her mother’s disappearance after the loss of the family fortune, but in her mind that is exactly how it seems. Do crows land upon the shoulders of other small children when they frolic upon brown neglected lawns? The Mistress never knows because she never has playmates. Father never has to forbid it–though he certainly would, given the secret screaming in the hole in the backyard. The squalor of their conditions--rats and the Oriental cockroaches battling for crumbs and licks of mystery spills inside of this house with its ironically barren cupboards--was not a site for guests. The high-pitched screams in the back yard and the fears her father would be tempted by the presence of another small, wandering stranger on the premises negates the practicality of company, too. For friendship, feathers are best, and the crows are what The Mistress relies upon. Thus The Mistress never really knows if her relationship with the birds is a condition of childhood or unique to herself.
The crows certainly do not flock to her father. Granted, he is not often found in the front yard. The back yard with its torturous hole is where her father gravitates outside. The rest of his hours, he spends inside in often candleless darkness in the closest thing they have left of a life of comfort, a faded emerald near-threadbare chair whose innards peeked out of rodent-chewed holes. Sometimes, though, he does seek The Mistress to fetch him libations or his favorite Sunday meat pie from town with the precious hoarded money he hides and spends as frugally as his evil appetites will allow. For when it is gone, they will, in fact, be doomed.
If The Mistress is obedient and runs when she is called to do whatever loathsome task her father suggests, she is granted a modest slice. This slice is sustenance for as many days as the young girl’s perpetually rumbling tummy can make it last. If she is reticent or slow to obey, she survives like the other unfortunate creatures of this house, the rats and the cockroaches, off crumbs on the floor dropped by a father with a gluttony as careless as his lust.
When her father walks into the front yard, the crows never approach. They cling to the young Mistress, talons in her shoulders tight until forced to run to her father’s bidding they must flee. Abandonment pecks at her heart each time their claws retract and their caws diminish in the distance as they lift meager weight from her starved frame into a broad sky. The crows clearly crave no association with the father of The Mistress. Who could blame the blackbirds? It is, after all, The Mistress’s fantasy to fly away from the sinister man herself.
In the yard, absent her father, not only do the crows cavort with the young girl, they seem to communicate. One lands inside of her palm several days in a row, looking her straight in the eye, repeating the same indecipherable utterance as if it is a message she must surely, at last, understand. Unfortunately, she does not. It is clear though the persistent little blackbird is struggling to connect with--perhaps even to educate The Mistress--and how she craves an education.
She concentrates on his bleak, blank eyes. Clears her brain of any distraction but the sound his beak proffers to her heart. In this hypnotic focus upon the noisy bird one day, tears of frustration mix with sweat drips from her temple, as she begins to lose hope. The patient recreates his sound again and again until the Mistress has an epiphany. Perhaps understanding is not critical. Perhaps just the doing the thing--mimicking this incomprehensible utterance would set in motion something magical. So she forces her lips to curl in a variety of previously unimaginable ways until a close approximation of a caw emits from her rosebud lips. The sound, which almost startles the girl herself, has immediate results: the bird in her palm leaps into the air. Black wings flutter in a flurry of jubilation before landing again in the open palm and nodding its small black head summoning a repetition.
Again, she vocalizes this new sound. This time her effort is made with such abandon she hardly recognizes humanity in her voice. The bird trembles from the feathers of its crown to its scant dark legs, bows its diminutive dark head to nuzzle the inside of her palm.
Soon she hears more sounds coming from something other than her own throat. Crows joined in a vast circle around her. It is indeed a kind of natural sorcery the crow teaches. The Mistress does not know the precise language for such a sound though perhaps precision was not the point. It is clearly an utterance that means summoning. On more than one day inside of her future, though she cannot possibly know it yet, it will save her life.
You hear them[ii] gnawing on the bed, the scrapes
of tiny teeth in tortured head. Awake,
you make your skeleton a sphere. Curve nape
of neck, thrust thighs to chest. Disappear. Quake
of mattress as claws climb, rodents reprove
remains of your mischievous mind. Meek
in darkness seeking beaks who would remove
you from what scurries, squeaks. Aloud you speak
a corvid prayer. No windows you know
anywhere in this basement buried deep
with negligible hope never sleep. Although
forsaken once, inside black wings they keep
a covenant tonight with talons, beak.
Above trifling corpses, fall to sleep.
[ii]The basement of The Doctor is a return of The Mistress to the depths of darkness reminiscent of her childhood home and its hole in the backyard. The chewing of the rats, in particular, was a sound she had hoped to never encounter again. From her father’s hanging, her tenure in wealth with her abusive relatives to the grandeur of the upper floors of Willowbee Manor, she is abandoned to a familiar nightmare state she committed numerous atrocities herself to escape.
The Doctor had taught her to change her life at the point of a knife, and so she had, murdering relatives by her own hand, with surgical tutelage, of course, by her evil scientific mentor. A diligent pupil, she enacted his techniques alone and taken the prescribed bath, to wash away the bloody evidence. Only after all of this had he arrived to carry her off from the scene and settle her shivering frame into his crow carriage. At Willowbee Manor, The Mistress of Malice had been rewarded for her studies with every comfort she could have dreamed--an expansive library, the first she had ever seen, grand meals and a petal pink room outfitted with silks, a wardrobe of a princess and her own lady in waiting to tend to her cares--and only one rule, never to go beyond the first floor of the home.
She had no reason. All of the above was provided for her without any wandering up forbidden stairs. The Doctor had violated the sanctity of his own experiment even informing her of this, all she need know--“the screams echoing from the stairwell are sleeping young women only dreaming, producing a chemical needed to cure a disease. Nothing must ever be disturbed there by any prying unscientific fingers who could contaminate years worth of work and render precious subjects useless to me.”
Yet, on this night that The Mistress of Malice sits in the basement, she has done exactly all of this. Living amidst the chilling exclamations of the subjects, even the distance of floors could not obscure, became untenable to the child. Needing to see the condition of these screamers, The Mistress had feigned sleepwalking and fainted at what she had seen--only to wake in the arms of the angry doctor whisking her away to a part of this house that was as dismal as her past.
Here she is left, alone in the dark, or so she thinks, upon a bare mattress without a cover to be found until she hears an all too familiar sound that makes her wish she was, in fact, alone. It is the sound of a slew of rats, famished enough to chew even at the wrought iron legs of the antiquated bedframe upon which she sits. A grating of teeth and claws that becomes even more horrific a thought, assuredly a climb.
The Mistress makes her body into a ball of fear, clutches her thighs to her chest, protecting her core, desperate for any escape. Praying even though she is not a child that ever believed in God and suddenly without even thinking it, her lips form themselves into a sound she learned in childhood--a sound she has never given a name but summons the only species that ever protects or loves her, the crows.
They have come so many nights, in her loneliness, and whisked her from rooms where she was mistreated for respites which the child credits to her survival. Tonight, one arrives as well, a massive dream crow whose presence manifests in flutters of feathers and its formidable weight on the bed. No beak nudges the hollow of her neck and offers its broad back as a seat like before. The Mistress cannot quite discern what is happening with her eyes. Her other senses inform her, the terrible squeals of rats and the movement of air and shift in the weight on the bed give way to silence soon. Through all this she knows, the crow has feasted on those which would have feasted on the young girl. She sobs in horror and deep gratitude still waiting to be whisked from this nightmare.
It does not happen. In silence, she realizes the crow has abandoned her in the basement. Kept her safe from what would destroy her in this moment but left her to find her way out of this hole she has found herself in alone. It is frigid in the basement, and her exhausted body shudders as she falls in the darkness upon the mattress. It is clear the crows will help her to a point, but she has unfinished business in this house. She offered subjects to an experiment too awful to even abide beneath. As her heavy lids close, her mind steels itself to the realization she will leave the house only when the subjects do.
She entered this place an accomplice to The Doctor, a man who taught her to kill that which would abuse her. As sleep overtakes, she wonders, has he taught her enough?
Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Best of the Net & Rhysling nominated sonnet stalker. Her sonnets have stalked journals like Glass, Yes, Five:2:One, Luna Luna and more. She is the author of sixteen books of poetry including Pink Plastic House (Maverick Duck Press), Crow Carriage (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream (TwistiT Press), The Meadow (APEP Publications) and Golden Ticket forthcoming from Roaring Junior Press. She is the founder of Pink Plastic House a tiny journal and co-founder of Performance Anxiety, an online poetry reading series. Follow her on Twitter @lolaandjolie and her website kristingarth.com.
Amy Suzanne is an author and illustrator whose work has been published by Hedgehog Poetry Press, Pink Plastic House, Louisiana Literature, Roaring Junior Press, and many more. She is at work on illustrating Crow Carriage and Golden Ticket by Kristin Garth. She teaches art to K-8th graders in Louisiana.