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August 24th, 2011 12:01 am WW Culture Staff | Cover Story

Kidnapped By Crows

An excerpt from Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis’ new book, Wildwood.

That had been their morning. Truly, an unremarkable one. Prue finished her granola, skimmed the comics, helped her dad ink in a few gimmes in his crossword puzzle, and was off to hook up the red Radio Flyer wagon to the back of her single-speed bicycle. An even coat of gray remained in the sky, but it didn’t seem to threaten rain, so Prue stuffed Mac into a lined corduroy jumper, wrapped him in a stratum of quilted chintz, and placed him, still babbling, into the wagon. She loosed one arm from this cocoon of clothing and handed him his favorite toy: a wooden snake. He shook it appreciatively.

Prue slipped her black flats into the toe clips and pedaled the bike into motion. The wagon bounced noisily behind her, Mac shrieking happily with every jolt. They tore through the neighborhood of tidy clapboard houses, Prue nearly upsetting Mac’s wagon with every hurdled curb and missed rain puddle. The bike tires gave a satisfied shhhhhh as they carved the wet pavement.

The morning flew by, giving way to a warm afternoon. After several random errands (a pair of Levis, not quite the right color, needed returning; the recent arrivals bin at Vinyl Resting Place required perusing; a plate of veggie tostadas was messily shared at the taqueria), she found herself whiling time outside the coffee shop on the main street while Mac quietly napped in the red wagon. She sipped steamed milk and watched through the window as the café employees awkwardly installed a secondhand elk head trophy on the wall. Traffic hummed on Lombard Street, the first intrusions of the neighborhood’s polite rush hour. A few passersby cooed at the sleeping baby in the wagon and Prue flashed them sarcastic smiles, a little annoyed to be someone’s picture of sibling camaraderie. She doodled mindlessly in her sketchbook: the leaf-clogged gutter drain in front of the cafe, a hazy sketch of Mac’s quiet face with extra attention paid to the little dribble of snot emerging from his left nostril. The afternoon began to fade. Mac, waking, shook her from her trance. “Right,” she said, putting her brother on her knee while he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Let’s keep moving. Library?” Mac pouted, uncomprehending.

“Library it is,” said Prue.

She skidded to a halt in front of the St. Johns branch library and vaulted from her bike seat. “Don’t go anywhere,” she said to Mac as she grabbed the short stack of books from the wagon. She jogged into the foyer and stood before the book return slot, shuffling the books in her hand. She stopped at one, The Sibley Guide to Birds, and sighed. She’d had it for nearly three months now, braving overdue notices and threatening notes from librarians before she’d finally consented to return it. Prue mournfully flipped through the pages of the book. She’d spent hours copying the beautiful illustrations of the birds into her sketchbook, whispering their fantastic, exotic names like quiet incantations: the western tanager. The whip-poor-will. Vaux’s swift. The names conjured the images of lofty climes and faraway places, of quiet prairie dawns and misty treetop aeries. Her gaze drifted from the book to the darkness of the return slot and back. She winced, muttered, “Oh well,” and shoved the book into the opening of her peacoat. She would brave the librarians’ wrath for one more week. 

Outside, an old woman had stopped in front of the wagon and was busy searching around for its owner, her brow furrowed. Mac was contentedly chewing on the head of his wooden snake. Prue rolled her eyes, took a deep breath, and threw open the doors of the library. When the woman saw Prue, she began to wave a knobby finger in her direction, stammering, “E-excuse me, miss! This is very unsafe! To leave a child! Alone! Do his parents know how he is being cared for?”

“What, him?” asked Prue as she climbed back on to the bike. “Poor thing, doesn’t have parents. I found him in the free book pile.” She smiled widely and pushed the bike away from the curb back onto the street.

The playground was empty when they arrived, and Prue unrolled Mac from his swaddling and set him alongside the unhitched Radio Flyer. He was just beginning to walk and relished the opportunity to practice his balancing. He gurgled and smiled and carefully waddled beside the wagon, pushing it slowly across the playground’s asphalt. “Knock yourself out,” said Prue, and she pulled the copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds from her coat, opening it to a dog-eared page about meadowlarks. The shadows against the blacktop were growing longer as the late afternoon gave way to early evening.

That was when she first noticed the crows.

At first there were just a few, wheeling in concentric circles against the overcast sky. They caught Prue’s attention, darting about in her periphery, and she glanced up at them. Corvus brachyrhynchos; she’d just been reading about them the night before. Even from a distance, Prue was astounded by their size and the power of their every wing stroke. A few more flew into the group and there were now several, wheeling and diving above the quiet playground. A flock? thought Prue. A swarm? She flipped through the pages of Sibley to the back where there was an index of fanciful terms for the grouping of birds: a sedge of herons, a fall of woodcock, and: a murder of crows. She shivered. Looking back up, she was startled to see that this murder of crows had grown considerably. There were now dozens of birds, each of the blackest pitch, piercing cold empty holes in the widening sky. She looked over at Mac. He was now yards away, blithely toddling along the blacktop. She felt unnerved. “Hey, Mac!” she called. “Where ya going?”

There was a sudden rush of wind, and she looked up in the sky and was horrified to see that the group of crows had grown twentyfold. The individual birds were now indiscernible from the mass, and the murder coalesced into a single, convulsive shape, blotting out the flat light of the afternoon sun. The shape swung and bowed in the air, and the noise of their beating wings and screeching cries became almost deafening. Prue cast about, seeing if anyone else was witnessing this bizarre event, but she was terrified to find that she was alone.

And then the crows dove.

Their cry became a single, unified scream as the cloud of crows feinted skyward before diving at a ferocious speed toward her baby brother. Mac gave a terrific squeal as the first crow reached him, snagging the hood of his jumper in a quick flourish of a talon. A second took hold of a sleeve, a third grabbing the shoulder. A fourth, a fifth touched down, until the swarm surrounded and obscured the view of his body in a sea of flashing, feathery blackness. And then, with seemingly perfect ease, Mac was lifted from the ground and into the air.

Prue was paralyzed with shock and disbelief: How were they doing this? She found that her legs felt like they were made of cement, her mouth empty of anything that might draw forth words or a sound. Her entire placid, predictable life now seemed to hinge on this one single event, everything she’d ever felt or believed coming into terrible relief. Nothing her parents had told her, nothing she’d ever learned in school, could possibly have prepared her for this thing that was happening. Or, really, what was to follow.

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