Beware the birds.
|Ravens have a dreadful reputation. They are big. They are black. They are Odin's bird. They are intelligent. They quoth, 'Nevermore.' But it's not ravens you have to watch. It's robins.
To be fair, most of them are delightful little birds. Fluffy garden visitors that sing their little hearts out, perched on a spade. They nest in old kettles, foraging for grubs and worms for noisy hatchlings. Personally, I don't trust the little blighters one bit. They see too much. Ask my Uncle Bob. He knows. Well, he knew. Once.
I should explain about Uncle Bob. When I was only knee high to a grasshopper, he was locked away in Queensway Hospital for the Criminally Insane. For life. Or until sanity resumed control of his brain. For reasons that are nothing to do with this story, I was a regular visitor for the last year of his life. When he died, the Prison Governor gave me a cardboard box with the few things he had been allowed to accumulate. A radio. A sketchbook. A few personal knick-knacks. And a manilla envelope, thick with bits of paper, the accumulated wanderings of a mind labelled 'delusional'.
Judge for yourself.
My name is Abbeye Johannes Sisskins. Everyone calls me Bob. I hate that. Robins bob along. I hate robins. I used to be frightened of birds, pigeons, magpies, crows and, especially, ravens. I saw them as the incarnation of the devil, all feathers, stabbing beaks, watching, sharp eyes and curved, wicked talons.
(There was a series of doodles of demented hawks. Did they represent his inner demons?)
I had a disjointed childhood, passed from relative to relative, some kind. Some not. Finally I washed up with Gregor, some sort of distant cousin. He farmed near the coast, sheep, mainly, and I was put to shepherding. I hated the ravens. They would circle the ewes and, as soon as the lamb was birthed, they would swoop down and feast on the newborn's eyes. I can still hear the frantic baa-ing of the mother and the piteous mewing of the living lamb. In the spring we ate lamb stew with ghastly frequency.
The ravens nested in the granite crags up behind Tor's Fell. They would tumble in the winter wind and when the snow came they would toboggan down the scree like daft children. Then lambing time would come around and I would be out with a slingshot. I used to be able to knock them out the sky. But they learned, quickly. It became a game to taunt me.
As a young man it came upon me that my life had no deeper meaning than eating dead, blind lambs. I tried to talk to Gregor about it. He paused between mouthfuls of mashed potato and fixed me with a black, glittering eye. I was minded of a raven, but I said nowt. Then he shoveled the food in his mouth and wiped the back of hand across his mouth. I could hear the scrape of his bristles, they stained his cheeks and chin with the same greasy sable as his hair.
'B'ain't nowt wrong wi' them lambs.' He pushed his plate away. 'Better inside us than them Reynards.' He always called foxes 'Reynards'.
The next day, I was up the fell, flinging stones at the ravens, dancing in the gusts, laughing at me. Our flock of Kerry hill sheep was grazing all around, looking like fat, woolly pandas with skinny legs. It was no where near lambing but the ravens were circling anyway. Then I saw the cragfast sheep, how she had climbed up there, I had no clue. But a sheep is money, so I went back to the farmhouse for rope.
It wasn't the first time I had tied a rope about me and scrambled down from Hammer Edge. As usual, I was alone, Gregor was off, down the dale, on business. It was a fearful thing, I have no head for heights and the rock was slick and slippery. Overhead, those ravens wheeled, croaking their laughter, dive bombing me with blood stained beaks and dripping talons. The sheep was barely living, unable to move, it's eyes gory holes. There was nothing I could do but brace myself and use both legs to shove it to the crag's edge, and over. I had never heard a sheep scream before. I should have killed it before I pushed.
The cry of terror was stimulating.
Gregor was back, a bottle of gin half gone, when I went into the kitchen. He saw the rope. He saw my grin.
'Cragfast?' I nodded. All I wanted was to hold that cry in my mind. 'Dead?' I nodded. 'Did you bring it?' I shrugged. 'Then we'd best go fetch it.' I sank into a chair. I was too tired, too slow, to avoid the open-handed slap that set my ear ringing. It was not the first time he had laid into me. But it was to be the last. The gin bottle was in my hand. I swung it with all the muscles I had grown for the heavy labour of shepherding.
It smashed into the side of his head. Sharp edges sliced open skin. A shard slipped across an eyeball, just as a raven's beak would do. I hold his scream in my mind. I can still smell the blood and gin. My fingers tingled with the power of life and death. Again I sat, eyes closed, on the chair, listening. The rough scrape of fabric on the floor, the harshness of breath, the half formed pleas. That last rattle. It had a music to it. I enjoyed it. It was retribution for all that had been done to me.
Dragging his carcass out to the yard was easy enough. I left it there. There was a mess in the kitchen to be cleaned and scrubbed. It was dark by the time I finished, so I went to bed. The late morning sun roused me by stabbing rays through chinks in the curtains. I finished the last of the bread and bacon, I was going to need energy to put away the remains.
The ravens had been at the carcass. It stared at me with empty eyes. I threw stones at the birds only to discover that the rats had been feasting too. He was heavier than a sheep but loading the thing into a wheelbarrow made carrying it to the pasture easy. I thought to put a spade on top but after I had dug a shallow trench I needed a mattock to lift the boulders.
(There was a heavily inked sketch of a sweat-beaded, wild-eyed man digging by moonlight.)
When I returned to the task, there was a robin, sitting on the spade handle. It had a grub in its sharp beak. It flashed its scarlet breast at me and fluttered to a nearby wall. As I excavated, it watched. When I rested, it fluttered into the trench and out again with a juicy worm or maggot. By mid afternoon, I had rolled the dead meat that had been the despicable Gregor into its last resting place. I left it there, with the flies all a-buzz and went back to the farmhouse to eat. Mutton stew. There was also an unopened bottle of gin. I snuck a sip. Then remembered that Gregor would not be needing any. So I tipped up the bottle and drank a good half of it.
I have learned my lesson. Do not try to fill in a grave in the rain, with a hangover. The corpse was awash and the peaty earth swirled around it, splashing as I dropped heavy boulders on top. One landed on his face. I have added that soundbite to my core of remembrances. When I was done, the rain stopped. That robin came out, put its head on one side and sang a question. Or accusation. I threw a stone at it. Then had to dig another grave just for it.
The next day, I was supposed to be rounding the sheep up to Molliner Fell but I couldn't be bothered. Who cares about damned sheep? I finished the gin and passed out downstairs. Morning came with a robin's dirge. It was sitting on the window sill, shouting its tale aloud. I threw the empty gin bottle at it and missed.
Every day it came. It twittered. It tweeted. It pointed it's beak. It stared at me with a black and glittering eye. It whirred its wings, imitating the noise of a spade cutting through peaty ground. When the police came it sang its song but they ignored it. They came again. The robin led them up to the pasture. It cheered them on as they emptied the hole I had dug.
But it was the ravens who circled overhead. They see everything.
(There was a picture of a half-decayed human thing. A raven sat beside it, an eyeball in its mouth.)