The charred-looking bird worried at the fish some with a sharp claw. It teased a morsel from the fleshy place behind the dead eye, where the sweetest meat lay. Its own eyes were weak, too weak to see the three boys resting by the water upstream. Still, its head was cocked towards them.
“You watching that crow, Japheth?” asked the youngest of the boys.
“I’m watching him,” answered his cousin. “I think I know that one, I’ve seen him getting fat off your mama’s garden. He must have decided that the safest place for him to eat is wherever you boys are with your shotgun.”
The third boy, brother to the youngest, said “We could hit them if they would come in close enough. Them birds know how far that sixteen gauge will reach is all.”
Japheth smiled — he was always smiling — and nodded down the creek. The bird still tore at the carcass of the bluegill. It still seemed to keep them under its beady gaze.
“How far to that crow as you judge it, cousins?”
The brothers studied the distance, seventy or eighty yards. They considered the gun leaning against the rotting willow log behind them.
“Now hold on there,” said Japheth, “I ain’t got a daddy to give me a shotgun. But little squirt there has got him a pocketful of chert rocks.”
The youngest said, “Them’s all my best throwing rocks, Japheth. You go get your own if you want to be hitting some old bird.”
His older brother, fifteen and so not quite as old as Japheth, not quite as tall or as broad in the shoulders, stood up and stretched his arms over his head. “He ain’t going to hit any bird,” he said. “He ain’t going to get a rock halfway there. Turn out your pockets.”
The little one had some chalk in there, too, and a length of string wrapped around a hickory shank, and five or six smooth, round stones the size of small apples.
“Go ahead, squirt,” said Japheth. “Show us how strong you are.”
The boy bunched his shoulders up under his broadcloth shirt. He set his jaw firm and his feet wide apart. With a little grunt, he flung the rock down the creek.
It fell into the water, a little over halfway the distance to the crow. The bird rolled the bluegill over with its feet and started pulling at the other side of the head.
Japheth let out a low whistle. “Further than your brother will throw his, I’ll wager. You’re going to be a hoss, boy. That’s your mama’s people, right there. Us Sapps are mostly like big brother here, right? Skinny and puny. Ain’t that right, big brother?” Japheth was always teasing.
The older brother burned a little, but just a little. Japheth had been staying with them just long enough for him to get used to the cut ups and japes.
He ignored Japheth’s whistling while he picked out a rock, leaned back, and heaved. It fell short. The bird did not look up from where it was flaking scales off the fish’s side with its beak.
Japheth picked up three stones and tossed them in the air above his head. He kept two aloft and asked his cousins, “How many of these rocks you want me to hit that bird with?”
The little one watched his cousin wide-eyed, though he’d seen the juggling before. His big brother, who’d seen the showing off plenty, said “Throw if you’re going to, Japheth Sapp.”
Japheth smiled and let the stones drop, two into his right hand and one into his left. He faced his cousins, his back to the bird. “I guess I’m going to,” he said.
Then he wheeled. He turned on his heel and wheeled his arms, right, left, right, threw, threw, threw. Faster than the wheels on the train that ran through Jericho, twenty miles south. Faster than the cars people had started bringing up as far as Stone’s Camp.
But not the fastest Japheth could move, no. While the brothers stood and watched the stones follow one another in an arc that led up above the tree tops then down — down toward where the bird still pecked and scratched at the fish — Japheth stole between them and snatched their gun. He threw it to his shoulder and shot, pumped, shot, pumped, shot.
And the rocks exploded. Shards of crystal caught the sunlight and reflected it in a thousand colors as they splashed down into the creek and onto the banks, thunder followed by rain.
Followed by the crow twitching its head, shaking off flecks of lightning and then bending back to its meal.
Followed then by Japheth laughing and hooting and dancing. Followed by his cousins shaking their heads, shaking their heads over Japheth showing them up again, showing them up and teasing them and how he laughed. He laughed and called like a jay. He laughed and called a little bit like a crow.
Japheth dropped into a crouch. The branch he stood on was broad enough and thick enough to run train tracks along, he figured. He could not make out the top of the chestnut from where he stood, it stretched up too close to heaven. Three long strides would have taken him to the edge, where he could peer down to the ground, but he didn’t want to see how high he was.
A crow settled near him, curling its feet around the branch.
There were some leaves springing out from a stray twig near Japheth. He took one and wrapped it around him like a blanket. The crow was hopping, shifting, but not toward him.
The bird croaked and gasped. It shook and cawed so loud that Japheth almost cried out in pain, it hurt his ears so.
Then the crow retched and spat up some arms and legs. They were red, they were burnished and bloody. Japheth was close enough to see the scars on the arms. He could see the blackened calluses on the soles of the feet. He looked up at the crow.
He looked up at the crow that was studying him, measuring him.
There were dogs and kids running both banks of the creek beside the Childers’ farm. Fiddles were scratching and there was a man churning ice cream. A rare day, then; some there had gone all the way to the ice house at Danville.
Edwin Childers had a tidy little place. He kept the meadow mowed down when he didn’t have cattle grazing it. Below the meadow was his corn field, then the tobacco patch. Lined up down Bittersweet Creek — house, barn, crib, fields.
The yard and the pasture were full of people when Japheth and his cousins came down out of the hills. They took the rabbits they had snared and cleaned to some women by the cook fires, then found some other boys.
“Sesquicentennial,” one of them was saying, carefully. “I heard Mr. Childers say it to the preacher. It’s the same as a hundred and fifty.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” another boy said. “But I don’t know for sure. All I care is that it means ice cream and firecrackers.”
Japheth said, “And whiskey, too, or that’s not Elijah Lehman there.” So he and some of the wilder boys had clay jars out when it got dark.
And it was after dark that Edwin Childers lit torches around his lawn. He got up and witnessed a little, told how he loved America and how him and some others there had gone and fought for her. The he sat back down because he didn’t like to talk much, even if he was a deacon.
The fiddlers started in for sure, then, and couples swung around the barnyard, stomping and reeling. Japheth was old enough for marrying and all the girls were calf-eyed over him. He danced with a dozen.
He danced and he sang. He led a quartet on “Standing on the Promises” and sang the high part on “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” He pulled pennies out of the ears of the little ones and put them in his pocket. He scratched the old hounds behind their ears. He drank some more from those clay jars.
But the girls started shying away from him after a while, after he stole a kiss or two too many. So he took a rock and a wooden ball and a piece of kindling that was weighted right, and he set to juggling them. The girls didn’t come back still, so he took up three of the torches Edwin Childers had put out for light. They flew around his head.
The preacher came up on him. “Time to head on home, isn’t it, Japheth?”
“Ain’t got no home, brother.” Toss.
“Oh, you’re blessed, Japheth. You’ve got a half dozen homes and more in Cane County. Ain’t one among your uncles and aunts haven’t put you up that I know about.”
“Just passing through, then, Brother. Ain’t nobody to tell me when I got to go home, is there?” Catch.
“Well, boy, I knew your mama and daddy both. I married them, didn’t I? I think they’d say it was time to go on home.”
“My mama and daddy are feeding nightcrawlers under that patch of Johnson grass back of your church, though. Ain’t they, Brother?” Toss.
The preacher drew up, then. “‘The eye that mocketh at his father,'” he said, “‘and despitheth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out.'”
Japheth caught the torches. The fire light showed the sweat streaming off his forehead, but it didn’t reach the black hills on either side of the creek. “I never been out of this valley, Brother, not in my whole life. I never saw no ravens.”
“You go home, boy. You go home and read Leviticus. ‘Every raven after his kind‘ it tells us.”
The preacher stalked off to tend some found sheep. Japheth, he stood still a minute. Then some boys started egging him on, so he juggled fire.
He juggled fire. He threw it.
He threw fire and he caught fire. High into the air, higher than the roofs of the barn and the corn crib, he threw it. Higher than the tops of the willow trees.
And he never made a false throw. He never missed a catch. he was never off, not by an inch. So the torch that came down wrong, well, could that have been Japheth’s fault? More than one man there saw the black shape dart out of the sky, more than one woman saw the fire knocked spinning.
The barn and the crib were old. A great great uncle of Edwin’s had built them when people first came up Bittersweet. The house was new, though, the Childers’ prize. The old one had been torn down and the new one put up in just a week. A lot of the men there had some sweat in that house. Even Japheth had some sweat in it.
And so they worked hard to save it. There were enough there to run two bucket lines down to a deep place in the creek. The corn got stamped down to do it, but they saved the house. They were bone tired and weary, black from smoke and red faced from heat, but they saved most of the house.
But the barns…. Fire is peculiar. It can hide. It can hide under the ground and under leaves. It can hide in ashes, sure, and in sweet alfalfa hay it can hide and it did hide. It waited, and it grew angry. All those exhausted people, when that sound like Goliath drawing in a breath came from the barn loft, they lifted their eyes to heaven and somebody said, “‘Rescue me, O Lord.'”
Time and sun had seasoned the old timbers. Rafters to packed dirt floor, the fire took the old barn, took it fast. When they screamed, the horses sounded like women.
Japheth climbed the bluffs above the creek in the dark. He found some ferns in the high places and made a bed in a sheltered spot between boulders. The fronds smelled like the woods, but when he finally fell asleep, Japheth only smelled smoke.
The crow hopped over to where Japheth hid. It took him up in one foot and pulled him from his hiding place. It swiveled its head back and forth, back and forth, looking at him.
Then it leaned in with its beak and trimmed off his arms. It gobbled them down, then snipped off his legs.
“Look here, crow,” called Japheth, “Those are my strong arms and legs.”
The crow dropped Japheth off the side of the branch. As he fell into the dark, he heard it laugh and laugh.
Japheth passed left over wisps of smoke on his way down off the hill. He backtracked them to the Childers’ place. He saw the women — Edwin’s wife and all his pack of daughters — down by the creek, pulling things back and forth in the water, rubbing clothes against rocks.
Edwin Childers stood among the blackened timbers of his corn crib. His crib, his father’s, his grandfather’s. He was staring at some red coals.
Japheth was an early riser. No one else had made the trip back yet, to start the rebuilding. He drew a breath to speak.
Edwin Childers, big Edwin Childers, swung his bull head around. He untied the knots in his shoulders and arms and back, then reached for the boy.
Japheth Sapp — sly young Japheth, quick and sure and strong young Japheth — fell to the rocky earth and it broke him.
Edwin Childers’ feet were shod with heavy brogans. He didn’t have any trouble snapping Japheth’s clever fingers. Japheth could tease a trout out of Bittersweet any time he wanted before that. He could pick funny little tunes on a borrowed guitar before that.
Before that, Japheth could fork hay all day long in hard June light, but that sheet of muscles wasn’t thick enough. Edwin’s boots found the boy’s ribs easy.
Before, Japheth Sapp could catch any girl’s eyes with his even white smile. Kick.
Before, he could hear a mule coming up the creek from a half mile away. Kick.
He could run from the Bittersweet Church to Stone’s Camp and not get winded. He could race squirrels up oak trees, and he could sing, how he could sing. Kick. Kick. Kick.
Japheth Sapp fell to the rocky earth and it broke him. It nearly unmade him.
Upstream was right. Against the flow of the water, he dragged himself up through a red haze, red that the creek water didn’t quite wash away. Against the water, against the slope of the ground. Whichever way was the hardest to crawl was the right way.
The old woman had the furthest place up the creek. She found him when she went for water, lying in shallows, murmuring through split lips. His hands clawed at the gravel.
Sister Ruth was from off someplace, but she’d married a Connely so she was a relation. She was widowed and her one boy had died with Japheth’s father. She didn’t worship with all those United Brethren along the creek and she didn’t see people much. But she knew Japheth, and she took him in.
She fed him soup and made poultices from moss and creek mud. She trimmed poplar branches into splints and set his legs as close to straight as she could.
After a few days, he could have talked to her. Sister Ruth was used to not talking, but she spoke to him sometimes. It seemed polite.
When she gave him new clothes she said, “Army sent these back with Ezra. You eat enough of that soup and you’ll fill them out.” They were heavy, gray things, trousers and shirts and a long coat.
After a few weeks, she took him outside with the dogs in the air and sunshine. His eyes weren’t as good as they had been. He could see the crows, though. He could see them watching him.
Japheth watched the crows back, he watched them close. First, he learned that crows aren’t just black. “Black as an old crow,” people said, and there was some truth to that. It just wasn’t all the truth. The yellow and orange in their beaks and feet, yes, but blue? Their wings had blue in them. Sometimes he saw red in their eyes, even before they started coming in closer.
And the sound of crows. Caw, Caw, they cry. But a crow whistles sometimes, too. Japheth heard crows fuss like jays and giggle like girl children. He heard them babble like the creek over gravel.
The feel of crows — the sharp points of their claws and the soft lift of their feathers — that came later. Some time would pass before he learned their dusty, gamy smell.
Japheth healed slowly. He healed badly. His left leg had a bend to it. There was a rattle in his chest and he breathed too hard. He didn’t have his same face anymore. His nose was twisted and his lips wouldn’t meet.
But, he was able to hobble down into the yard to throw feed to the chickens and the dogs. Most times, when he’d finally managed to creep his way back up onto the porch, he’d find a crow perched on the swing where he usually sat. Sometimes he shooed them away, sometimes he went inside.
One day Sister Ruth said, “You know about the crow funeral?”
Japheth didn’t say anything.
“You see a crow laid up dead, somewhere, you get there quick enough after it’s killed?” Her talk was from up in the mountains. His Connely cousin had found her in Harlan or some place back around there when he went off and found out he wasn’t a miner.
“All these other ones come around, don’t they? They’s hundreds of them, I guess. And they’s all jabbering and carrying on like they do. And then they all hush up at once. And it’s all quiet like after a shot in the woods. And they just sit there a time, don’t they?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t know.
“Then, after they been sitting there for a while, they all start in cawing again. Then they light out to wherever it is crows go.”
It was time to feed the dogs, so he went out to the porch. Crows were in the trees and on the rocks. They perched along the ridge of the barn.
It was quiet, like after a shot in the woods.
He would scare them off. He found the rags of clothes Sister Ruth had found him in and gathered them into a tattered pile. He brought straw and tobacco sticks from the barn and broke his silence to ask her for needle and thread.
His fingers and eyes wouldn’t help him, though. He cursed when he couldn’t thread the needle, then wept when he didn’t have the strength to break the sticks into the lengths he wanted.
His cousin was passing him there on the porch once and saw him at his fumblings. She bent to help him but when he glared at her, she shied off. His eyes had more red than white in them, still.
Alone, he stitched up the rents in the shirt and trousers. Alone, he sewed shut the arms and the legs. He took handfuls of straw and stuffed them into the clothes, all the while promising himself, “I’ll scare them birds off, I’ll scare them clean off.”
But when he looked down at his crooked hands, he saw they’d done their stuffing too well. The new seams had parted and the straw spilled onto the boards of the porch floor. He didn’t have to shoo away the dogs when he bent to pick up the scattering, they’d gotten tired of him, finally. Tired or wary.
The tobacco sticks were slim lengths of milled poplar, dusty with the years they’d lain in the barn. They suited the job well, straight as they were, and light and strong.
When his arms failed him, he used his feet and the edge of the porch to snap the sticks into lengths, the lengths of a man’s arms and legs, the length of straight back. He fell off the porch every time he brought his weight down. His cousin had already learned that the time for going near him had passed so she only watched him drag himself out of the mud.
He lashed the sticks together with grass string, then damned the straw and hung the rags on the frame. He stole a white flour sack from the kitchen, then cast around for more tools. On the mantelpiece he found a box that held an empty lantern, a lump of shiny black coal, other old things. He took a battered felt hat — the same one the groom wore in the tinted picture on the wall — and the coal.
He dragged the frame of poplar and cloth to the edge of the barn lot and drove it into the soft ground. The flour sack wouldn’t hold the shape he wanted, the black strokes he’d drawn for a face shifted and twisted in the wind as wild as the clothes did. But he shoved the hat down over the sack and figured he was done. He would scare them off.
When they went out the next morning, there were no birds. The crows were gone. But so was his handwork. Gone from where he’d left it, at least.
Ruth saw something she knew in the weeds by the creek. She looked at him, scared and angry both, and walked to the bank. As he lurched up, she moved away from him, the dripping hat in her hand.
The bits of cloth weighed down the sticks and kept them from floating away. The tangle bobbed in the shallows, and the current moved the sleeves of the torn shirt back and forth over the gravel.
The first jeering crow landed on a flat rock a few yards away. They were teeming thousands by the time he made it into the house.
For a little time he tried to hide from them. But he could hear them calling outside the windows.
Then he tried to be rid of them again, tried to fight them. But his rocks wouldn’t reach them. He couldn’t have lifted a gun, even if she hadn’t hidden them all.
The days got shorter and the flocks grew. The trees cloaking the hills passed from green with leaves to red with leaves — or yellow or brown or orange with leaves — to black. Black with birds.
The great crow snatched him from his fall and dropped him onto a branch. As it settled in beside him, he asked, “Why did you catch me, old bird?”
The crow laughed and laughed. It said, “These are my strong arms and legs.”
One night Japheth Sapp walked away from his cousin’s house.
He limped through the trees along the creek. He could see his breath clouding in the moonlight. He saw a shadow dart across the moon, then another.
The first one hit with a muffled caw, a feathered whirlwind burrowing down the back of his long soldier’s coat. Then crows tore at his clothes and tangled in his hair. They picked and cut and battered. He would have fallen under their weight, but they kept him up, they kept him aloft with the beating of their wings. He breathed their dusty, gamy smell.
He wore crows.
In a gray dawn, Edwin Childers saw a stranger peering into his empty new corn bin. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a man he didn’t know on Bittersweet Creek.
When Edwin got closer, the man turned with an odd jerk. His face was covered with cuts and bruises, his nose and mouth were twisted. Edwin knew him, then, and some of the old anger came back.
The man said, “There’s nothing in this new grain house.” He smiled, then, and Edwin saw a tooth or two hid back in his mouth.
The smile dried up and its maker turned and hopped into the crib. The soot colored coat he wore flapped in the wind that had sprung up, made it look like he’d fluttered in.
Edwin stomped to the crib and ducked in through the westward opening. He saw the sun just coming up, just showing through the cracks between the pine planks of the far wall, where the ragged shape crouched, dark and wiry.
The voice was still strong, but had a rasp. “You can’t give back what you took out of me, Edwin Childers,” he said. “But here, here’s your corn back.”
A black shadow darted into the crib from behind Edwin, then out the east door. There was a tick and a rattle as it flew through.
The grain skittered along the floor boards until it rested against the side of Edwin’s boot.
“That’s some of the sweetest corn anybody could ever hope to glean, right there, Mr. Childers. Going to be a bumper crop, too.”
Edwin’s eyes were wide when he raised them from the corn to the broken face. “I don’t want nothing of yours, boy,” that deep voice cracked some, “I don’t want no help from you.”
The lips pursed as much as they could. “Ain’t in me to give you anything, Mr. Childers. All that’s in me now is taking away.”
Then crows came from every direction. Flight, rattles, flutters, the farmer couldn’t move for the tumult. The other walked around him, out the way they had come in.
The calling of birds and the rattling grew louder. Edwin couldn’t move because his knees, his waist, were held by the weight of thousands of grains of corn. He roared and thrashed and lurched towards the opening, where corn spilled from the crib like gold.
A cloud of crows lept from the grain house. A man followed below them, his stride broken but his path straight. They went their way, gathering, gleaning.