[NOTE: This story was originally published in Space and Time Magazine, Fall Issue, 2000. It's the first of my Crow Woman stories. I hope you enjoy it!]
Silver light, hot pine.
When I first came there was a brook over there, swift as a white hawk over grey stone. But it dried long ago. Down to a small still pool, dark as a doe's eye, in stones fawn-flanked with lichen. Still water makes silent air. I never used to hear my footsteps. Now even pine needles have a sound, like slick sand sliding.
The cornfield is new. I remember the first planting. The green spears came up, all rowed and blocked like an army setting camp. Right there. Dark That Rides called: "Crow Woman!" and we flew to trees' edge and stood gaping in their shadow, the turned earth strong as blood in our nostrils. The rabbits crept out first. First the blade, then the ear - then the mice, then the deer. That was the summer of sleek bellies. And those thick green waves, dusted gold under a bowed blue sky. Food and beauty. Each defended the other.
In winter, we said.
Bleached sticks under a whipped grey sky. Order wind-shredded and it won't take much to wipe it clean. We stood at the end of the path of trees and watched as hard slaps of cold burst across the field to rattle the stalks like bones -- and then I heard the water. "No," I said, just as Dark That Rides began to step outside. He stopped. I could feel him looking at me. "Listen." We listened as the wind played that tattered harp in runs and rills and splashes. The white hawk back. Water and food and beauty. He sighed. "If it pleases you," he said. The field's still there.
There's a man at the edge of it, looking. Right now.
Norm sat in the car while Stan stood outside, smoking a cigarette, staring intently across the field. Stan was looking for the perfect spot, and Norm had nothing better to do than to go along. Norm wasn't too bright, but Stan was brilliant in his own way. Stan talked and Norm listened. Stan said "Let's go"; and Norm hopped in the car. It was a man and his dog kind of relationship which suited them both. Lately, they'd been coming out here a lot. Stan figured that right here, or rather, over there, was what he was looking for. The field was open, but behind it was brush piling into thicket into rock into the whole tangled mess of Dark Hollow.
The wind rattled a handful of ice against the windshield, jerking Norm awake. They worked nights, and hadn't slept yet. Stan opened the door and got in, letting a blast of cold air into the car.
"Yep," Stan said, driving away. "That's the place."
Silver light, cold dawn.
When I first came, the tall grass hid the thin dirt path as if it were something shameful. Later it grew wide and rutted. I can still smell the dust from when they poured out a river of gravel and made it level. I thought the wind would never wash the air clean again. That night I lay in Dark That Rides's arms and dreamed they had broken up the moon and sent it spilling in white shards upon the earth.
"Hush, beloved," he said. His arms strong and gentle, cradling me in the night. "You're safe." His kiss like a breath on my hair. "All things are safe."
In his arms, it was true. It is true.
But I wonder when I see a man, the same man, standing on that road, looking across the field, time after time.
Stan was sure now. He had the plan, he had the victim, and now he had the place. Norm sat sleeping in the car, as usual. Stan flicked away his cigarette and something fluttered on the ground, catching his eye, stooping him over. Just an old plastic grocery bag, dirty and empty and stiff with sleet. When he straightened back up, the field had changed.
He'd seen it before, in some book, maybe in school. A painting. He didn't remember who did it, but he remembered it clearly. An endless field of bleached dry corn bowing under a dark gray sky, two thick planes of color, with a handful of black arcs that were crows, cawing their way through the storm. The only thing missing was a figure walking in its heart.
And then there it was. Walking away from him, through the corn. His heart pounded, waiting for it to turn. It didn't. The wind died. The crows had sunk back down into the corn. Everything was quiet, except for a sound like water. The figure kept walking away from him. It was a woman. It was Val. His desires took him so fast he didn't even think before he started running after her.
In the car, Norm saw Stan run off and sat up. The crows rose from the fields, cawing wildly, and then something darted past the car, huge and brown. He ducked without thinking about it, and a tap at the window nearly made him jump out of his skin.
"Are you all right?"
An old woman, wrinkled and bent and brown, was standing on the road by the car, looking in the window at him. She tapped again at the window, and he rolled it down. "Are you all right?" she repeated.
A coughing fit shook him speechless, but he managed to nod.
She waited until he finished. "You need to go back to your home. Now." Her eyes, bird clear, bird bright, bird cold, scanned the earth and the sky, and ended with him. "It's not safe out here." He just nodded, as if she was making sense. "Not safe for you," she said, without emphasis, but with certainty. Then she walked away, down the gravel road. He finally managed to call out the window and ask her if she needed a ride, but she said, without turning, "No." And walked on.
He watched her disappear around the curve. Suddenly he felt cold and afraid. He had to get out of there. Where the hell had Stan gone, anyway? All the old tales about Dark Hollow rushed through his mind. Crow Woman. Her lover, Dark That Rides. Dark That Rides. Get out now! his mind screamed. But Stan had the keys. Get out! Get out!
Silver light, silver leaves.
When I first came, it was night and there was no moon. A river of stars spilled down into the trees, to where I lay on oak leaves starting with every sound. Late, late, so very late, Dark That Rides passed by. He made no sound to wake me, no touch to move me. But I knew that he was there. In the dark. Watching me. And I was terribly afraid. I did not know him then. I did not love him, then.
Stan came back, panting, clutching his side, furious. It must have been a trick of the light, or his imagination, or just that he wanted it so bad. There was no way it could have been Val, she'd still be at work. He should have known that. He relieved himself of a string of profanity before Norm could get his attention. "All right. What is it?"
"We got to get out of here," Norm said. "Now."
"What are you talking about?"
"Just, we got to get out of here. This ain't no place to be, Stan. Believe me."
"What's got you so riled up?"
"Just give me the keys!" Norm shouted, and lunged at him. Stan's eyes gleamed.
Silver light, dark light.
I stood up and called out to the night, "I am Crow Woman. Whoever is out there, I am here. Waiting. Come and meet me."
His voice filled the night, warm and dark and strong. "I am Dark That Rides. And I swear no hurt shall touch you."
I believed. But I was so tired. "You do not know," I said. "My enemies are many. They want my life. I am ready to give it to them. I do not care any more."
"Care," he said. "Tomorrow they will come, and I will rid you of them. Now sleep until morning. You are safe."
That night I lay on oak leaves beneath an obsidian sky and slept on warm dark wings that rose and fell and rose and fell and rose and fell.
Stan looked down at Norm's body. Shock and fright leached all the pleasure out of him. The bloody rock fell from his hand as he looked around. No one anywhere in sight. He felt Norm's pulse. Nothing. The back of Norm's head was a mat of blood. He had really killed him. Then the triumph surged. It wasn't the plan, but it proved that he could do it. Now all he had to do was finish it. He hoisted the body on his shoulders.
Silver light, hot fur.
The men found me in the morning. They had been hunting me for days. Their dogs sniffed me out. They ran up the slope, baying at me. I clung to the oak tree and waited. The dogs made a circle, snarling and growling, their teeth sharp and white and hungry. The men were smiling. Their teeth were sharp and white and hungry. In their hands gleamed sharp knives. They were so close I could smell their sweat. Their blades were high above my head. Their hands reached out to pull me down. And then they stopped. Fear tore them apart, cleaved mind from body, soul from flesh. Fear of my beloved. Fear of Dark That Rides.
Stan bundled Norm's body into the deepest part of the plum thicket in Dark Hollow, dragged brush around it, and stood back. No one could see that anybody had ever been there. It was sleeting, rasping all around him. That would cover up any tracks he might have left. And who would be looking for tracks? If it was only Val, and not Norm, not that he was going to miss Norm, but - Val. Yeah, well, her turn was coming. He stood there, at the edge of the Hollow, dreaming it, all of it: her fear, her pain, her death.
The crows were silent. Nothing moved except the sleet tapping the ground and the wind in the trees, stirring them, bowing them, clapping them together like cold and brittle hands. There was no wind, but suddenly he felt very cold.
"I warned him," a voice said. He looked up and saw a young woman standing among the trees. She was very beautiful, very alone. He smiled, his teeth white and sharp and hungry. Her eyes were steady as she said, "There is no sense in warning you." She made a signal with her hand. Stan grinned wider and moved towards her, then stopped. Behind her, beside her, was something else, something that grew retchingly fast, retchingly dark, retchingly hideous... He tried to turn, to run, to wrench himself away, but his mind had lost its body, or his body had lost its mind, or -
A pillar of molten darkness lifted itself up above a forty-foot cottonwood and clove it in two. One whole half of the tree came crashing down to the ground, into him, leaving the other half upright. Its torn heart, raw and open to the wind and sleet, was, mercifully, the last thing he saw before he died.
Silver light, warm night.
We watched as they came and took away the bodies. Dark That Rides had made a blood trail they could not ignore, though they would have liked to. I could hear them whispering about me, about my beloved. "Strange things happen in Dark Hollow." Here, where all is safe. The only strange thing here is this:
My true love has my heart and I have his, but I have never seen his face.