Dori’s girlhood was already halfway set aside, packed away with charred rag dolls and bonnet strings, wooden swords chipped of paint and tin knights gone to rust. She would rid herself of the last bit when the shadows crept through the shutter slats and tallows sizzled with fire, dripped wax in pools.
The sun was a smear. It was nearly time for the Lorist to arrive, with magic in her fingers and judgments on her tongue. The appointment had been made, the price paid, the secret passed from one set of lips to another and sealed there with the sacred vow of patient to physician.
Dori had said into the Lorist’s old ear, “The crow came to me. He flew up to my windowsill and sang. He left his.”
Dori’s hand had writhed on her belly, fisted.
“Get it gone. Get it gone, gods be damned.”
The crow was not just a bird, of course. Crows on windowsills hardly ever are. Months and months ago, the crow, the one Dori once called hers, alighted between the open shutters with a scratching of claws and a sudden preen—black gloss feathers, scimitar beak, ink-blot flashing eyes.
Mothers cautioned their girls about the ones with slippery skins: foxes who made deals that only cut one way, handsome men with eyes like dark lakes and horns towering above glossy hair and, oh yes, wicked crows. Crows that drew eyes with their beauty. Crow lovers that made naked skin sing with bliss. Crows that planted sons in human wombs to grow and then stole those sons from their mothers, breaking hearts and minds. Leaving lovers like wreckage, like salted ground: ruined, spoiled, mad with grieving.
The crow on the windowsill had tilted his head, hunger spinning in the black circle of his eye. He was beautiful. A lovely monster.
Dori was a good girl. She did exactly what she had been told. She knew it was no common bird. No common eye that looked as if through her modest robes and straight to her blood-filled, beating heart. She ran panting, stomping and giddy to the kitchen, cursed at by her mother as she darted around the sideboard to snatch the salt. A trail of it fell behind from between her gripping fingers as she sprinted back up to her room, to the open window, to the horrible thing on her windowsill. She tossed salt towards the summer sun, grains left sticking to her sweaty fingers.
There was a caw that sounded like laughter, like Oh, you silly, beautiful girl, and the crow was gone. A silhouette cut-out in the blue sky.
A girl becomes a woman in fits and starts. For Dori, that was the start.
The next day—villagers in the streets going this way and that, hawkers desperate for final sales, wagons creaking, children stomping in twilight gloom—the crow returned with a fiddle and long legs and arms. Velvet black and rogue from head to toe. He perched on the eave to the right of her window with a cocked head and flashing smile. “Will you salt me again?” He laughed, closed his eyes, and played. Music: a strike to her heart, a fire to her brain.
Oh, she knew it was foolish, but she was still so much a girl—trying on womanhood as one might try on shoes. Her ragdolls still rested on her pillow, arms akimbo. During summer storms she would clutch them to her face and soothe herself to sleep, dreaming of princes and kisses soft as moth wings.
His kisses were not as she imagined. They were far better.
The shapeshifter had a poet’s tongue. He told Dori she had a laugh and whisper that made his heart soar to the moon faster than his pumping wings would drag him, quicker still than a plummet and a dive. She believed him.
Her room was his roost for months that passed in a sweep. She wore circles under her eyes and yawned her way through the day. He never seemed to tire. His fiddle songs wailed into the night. Her parents complained of the new neighbors and burrowed into pillows.
The dolls and wooden knights tumbled into Dori’s trunk beneath the extra quilts and fabrics. What use were child toys to her now? All comfort lay in her lover’s arms.
A kiss like a slap, clutching arms like being caught in brambles, heart pounding to heart. Her narrow virgin’s bed was full with entangled legs and wrapping arms, shared breath and snarled hair. “Human woman,” he whispered in the night. “You’ve stolen my heart and put it to nest with yours.” He lay a kiss between her breasts, promises unsaid. Surely, he loved her as much as she loved him. Surely, things would never change.
Dori could not imagine a future without him in it.
The crow left behind feathers in her sheets, her drawers, the corners of the room. Her brothers found them blown out in the hall by fall winds and mixed with autumn leaves. They knotted feathers into warrior bands and howled up and down the halls till they were shushed.
Dori waited at the window, stroking one palm then the other with a single feather. She waited and broke apart each iridescent barb from the one beside it till the feather went ragged. She waited and snapped the hollow shaft, twisting until it went to pieces.
Dori was still a girl. She wondered what she had done. What flaw had sent the crow from her room and back out into the world? Why did his fiddle snicker from other street corners, and when she ran to follow it, shriek discord and grow silent? Why?
If he had come—a flutter of wings, a crooked smile—to her windowsill, she could have salted him with her tears. He did not come for days, for weeks, for a month and counting.
Dori pulled out her packed-away dolls, stinking of must, and found them lacking. She could not stand the sight of their happy sewn-on faces. With a growl, she flung them into the hearth fire and went at them with the poker, scorching them to embers and ash. The love she felt for the crow smoldered like the dusty cotton, the red thread smiles, the miniature skirts and shoes. Love now swimming with hate, with loss, and mourned.
Bent over the hungry flames, scorched yarn hair and charred button eyes, she felt the crow’s parting gift flutter below her navel. A seed. A hello. A gods-be-damned no!
Girls weep and wail and curse the world. Women make choices. Dori moved from one into another and back again. She lay in red-eyed stupor soaked with snot and tears.
Choice—swaddled bundle in a basket left on the windowsill with wailing mouth calling for its father who would come, surely, for the only thing he had ever really wanted from her.
She’d been used. She’d been planted.
Choice—a something else. A something darker, cruel, deserved.
Why should the crow come away with everything? Why should she be the only one injured?
It was full dark and finally, finally time.
The Lorist came up the ladder cursing in whispers. “If you lied to me, girl...”
“I wasn’t lying.” Dori pressed her trembling hands to her burning cheeks that once took a trickster’s kisses and slipped his whispers south into her ears—down to her soul. “I’m not lying.” Dori’s lower lip trembled. Her eyes swam.
The Lorist’s face softened, dough and wrinkles, a hint of tired compassion. “Little more than a child. Curse the shapeshifter.” She pressed a steady hand to the girl’s chest, to her broken seeping heart, and gave a gentle shove. “Lay you down, child. Spread those legs wide. He taught you that much at least.”
Dori did as was said, watching shadows dance with flame-light over the ceiling where once the shape of lovers had knit into one, rocked and touched and slid.
The Lorist worked with her lower lip between her teeth. There was pain, but Dori made no sound. When it was done, when her guts felt scooped raw and her body sweat-slick and shaking, the Lorist put a knot of seeping fabric in her hands.
“Do what needs doing, woman. To the window the crow came through. Cast it out with your curses, and my magic obeys your will.”
Dori closed her eyes. She had loved the crow. She had.
Her hands were beginning to drip from what she held.
She remembered the long sliver of the crow perched on his toes on that windowsill. She remembered the way he turned inside out in a whirling knot of night, man to bird, flying off into the glow of dawn. A woman can not fly, but the bit of him that he had left behind...well, maybe that could shift too—from potential son into something other.
Dori was empty, but was it enough? After all, the crow would only find another girl to love him to this same end. That girl might not think to find a Lorist with magic in her fingers, but Dori had.
She put the bundle down on the sill. Her hands trembled over the knotted cloth, but her voice was steady. “Give your father a kiss. Tell him it is from me.”
A movement under the bloody cloth. A type of life where there shouldn’t be any. An old magic.
Dori put her lips close to the stained fabric. “He will welcome you, crow son. You are all he wanted. He put his guise on me. He charmed me. He left me with nothing but the promise of you, and even that, he’d never let me keep. I want his heart to look as mine feels: smashed, pulped, chewed and vomited. Will you do that for your mama, my crow son? My curse.”
The sound of a ripe peach crushed in a fist or a baby smacking its lips or something better left buried, crawling out of a bog.
The knot went to two in Dori’s hands, parting as the tears did from her eyes. She gently moved the wet swaddling aside and bent low into the raw meat smell of what had come out of her. “Go,” she commanded and flung her hands out into the night as if tossing salt, as if tossing the months of waiting and those endless days of loving the shapeshifter with every inch of her: inside and out. Gone. All of it. Gone into the night.
The baby went that way as well in a wash of blood and feathers: fighting gravity, flying free. Dori felt the same. She felt as light as feathers... oh, but not nearly so weak. She was hardly that, and now the crow would know it too.