Story Time

Crows

 

 

Jim Harrows looked out at a dead cypress tree just outside the Boundary. It was as if the tree now had leaves of black; every limb was covered with the noisy birds. “I don’t remember there being so many crows.”

Judith Harrows looked up from the faded fashion magazine she’d found under a collapsed wall the day‑‑or was it a week?–before. “It’s different now,” she said.

Jim shook his head. “I’m not talking about now. I’m talking about before.”

“Before the end of the world?”

“Yeah,” Jim said. “Before then.”

They didn’t talk about it too often; just when the press of understanding forced them to bring the subject up. It wasn’t even painful now, except sometimes when they thought of Lizzy. Their beautiful little girl was a proper focus for grief; when they tried to think of all the other people in the world, all those lives and dreams blown out like so many candles…well, it was too much to comprehend. There were no tears for them because there could never be enough.

“Multi-fabric Layers will be the thing next year,” Judith said, turning her attention back to the magazine. Her own skirt was rather short; mostly because the material was frayed and ragged. When was the last time she had worn a different outfit? Jim couldn’t remember. His own clothes weren’t much better.

“Which year is that?” Jim wanted to know, but Judith just shrugged. “You can’t pretend nothing’s changed,” he said.

Judith looked at him. “I can if I want to.”

Jim thought about it for a bit and decided she was right. He thought about joining her, playing pretend again for as long as his sense of reality would let him. Pretend that the aliens‑‑he still had no other word for them‑‑had not come down out of the sky in their little black ships and changed everything. He wasn’t as good at pretending as Judith was; he kept coming back to here and now, or “here” and “now” as best he could understand them. He just couldn’t get his mind around the whole thing. It hurt when he tried, so he usually didn’t. That wasn’t quite the same thing as pretending, but it wasn’t far off.

“Maybe I’m going about this all wrong,” he said.

Judith didn’t look up this time, but she was still listening. “How so?”

“I mean, I can’t pretend as well as you, but I can’t really comprehend what’s happened either. I think ‘here we are, the last man and woman alive on earth.’ The next moment it’s gone again and I’m wondering if we’re late for work, or is it time to pick up Lizzy from band practice. Maybe I’m trying to comprehend too much at once. Maybe I should start smaller.”

“What with?”

“The crows,” Jim said, coming to a decision. He would think about the crows.

*

Jim counted the steps around the periphery of the Boundary: eight thousand, five hundred and twenty‑seven steps over broken glass, rubble and struggling weeds brought him full circle and back to Judith. She hadn’t moved, so far as he could tell. She still looked at the same magazine page with, though it was hard comprehend such a thing, a rather vague intensity. As if she were concentrating more on her concentration than on the page itself. Jim decided that probably was the case.

“You’re beautiful,” he said, after a bit. And it was true. Her hair was still dark and shining, despite the dirt, her face smooth and unblemished. She was just as she was before the aliens had come. Ragged and filthy, yes, but the same.

“I’m rank. Neither of us has bathed in months.”

“Neither have we taken a drink or eaten a bite of food in months,” Jim said. “but you’re still beautiful.”

She finally turned the page. “You sound surprised.”

Jim shook his head. “Not surprised, just a little sad. I think we’re dead.”

Judith did look up from her magazine now. “That’s crazy,” she said.

“Is it? People can go weeks without eating if they have to, but no one can survive more than a few days without water. When was the last time we had a drink of any kind?”

She shrugged. “I don’t remember. Doesn’t matter; I’m not thirsty.”

“Neither am I,” he said, “which is the whole point.”

“Go away,” Judith said. “Come back when you’re making sense.”

“I am making sense,” Jim said, a little defensive.

“Not to me.” Judith went back to her magazine. Jim started to argue, thought better of it. He went back to the path.

*

Jim paused at step three thousand and fifty‑nine. He wasn’t sure why; he wasn’t tired particularly. The rubble he’d just passed might have once been their apartment building; he wasn’t really sure. It was hard to think that a place that had once been so important, the locus of such joy as he had known then, could now be just one pile of rubble among millions. Not that he’d bothered to count all the piles yet; he wasn’t that bored. But he could. The aliens had made it possible. Today he glanced at a pile of rubble that he had not really paid much attention to before, and he saw something there that he had never noticed.

Jim thought about what he had seen for a moment. Then he stepped away from the Boundary wall to the center, not bothering to count the steps. Jim was pretty sure he could calculate them anyway, if only he could remember the formula that turned circumference into radius. Maybe Judith did. He’d ask later. For now, he went to the Oracle.

It was little more than a flat plate of a dark, glassy substance attached to a pillar of stone. It wasn’t glass, though. The heaviest piece of concrete Jim could lift hadn’t so much as scratched it, back when he could still summon rage for their condition, and for Lizzy. Jim hadn’t looked at the Oracle in some time; but he had been thinking for the first time in a long time, and now he actually had a question.

Jim looked down into the dark surface of the oracle like a seer trying to discern meaning in a bucket of water. “Who are you?”

Reakkkkere.

Jim winced. He didn’t like it when the Oracle spoke; its voice was high and scratchy and it wasn’t really suited to form words as a human might. Jim didn’t understand what it told him now. The word made as much sense as the cawing crows gathering outside the Boundary, and there was no way Jim could reproduce it. His own speech didn’t seem to bother the Oracle in the least; even his worst high school Spanish had been easy enough for the thing to decipher. Jim wondered if it really used his words at all and just knew what he was thinking. Jim didn’t want to consider that too far. He sought to change the subject.

Jim concentrated very hard for several minutes, and finally thought of another city. “Show me New Delhi.”

Perhaps the Oracle was lying to him when it showed him things, though sometimes there was enough in the way of natural landmarks still standing to at least imply that it told the truth. Jim remembered the Thames from his honeymoon when he’d asked to see London, and the river was all that was recognizable. Now at New Delhi he saw another river. He was willing to accept it as the Ganges. New Delhi, for its part, was just one more pile or rubble and weeds.

“Did you kill everything?” Jim asked finally.

The Oracle showed him birds, and some insects, and a few rodents scurrying about the blasted remains of cities and houses. This went on for several minutes.

“Enough. Are there no higher mammals?”

No response.

“Is anyone else alive?” he asked.

No response.

Jim took a deep breath, even though holding his breath didn’t really affect him any more. “Is anyone alive?” He tried to keep the melancholy out of his voice but could not. The answer, from the Oracle, was the same.

*

“We’re dead,” Jim said.

“No we’re not,” Judith said.

“Yes,” said Jim, sadly, “we are.”

Judith sighed and put the magazine aside. “Maybe we don’t eat anymore, but we walk and talk and think. Do dead people do that?”

“Apparently, since we’re doing it. And we are dead, you know. The Oracle as much as said so.”

“Oh, that thing. It’s a waste of time,” Judith said. “Though I agree we seem to have plenty.”

“It’s not just that. Today I walked past what used to be our apartment building. I found Lizzie’s doll. What was its name? Augusta?”

“Amanda,” Judith said softly, but nothing else.

“I didn’t feel anything, Judith. When I saw it. Nothing at all. We’ve had time to grieve, but not to forget. A lesser pain I could understand, Judith. A twinge, even a bit. Nothing?  Just that?” He shook his head. “What did you feel when I told you, by the way?”

Judith didn’t answer. She didn’t have to.

Jim nodded. “We are dead,” he said again. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“How? Will you please tell me that? How does it makes sense?”

Jim was a little surprised to see the anger in her eyes. He hadn’t thought her capable. He wondered if he was, himself. “The aliens killed everyone. They arrived in orbit, came down in their bristly little black ships and they killed everyone. Not much warning, absolutely no mercy. Why spare us?”

“Why kill us in the first place? I don’t know the answer to that and neither do you. Yet we are here and everyone else is gone. It just is.”

Jim nodded. “Exactly.”

Judith’s anger left her. All that was left was the same old weary resignation. “Once more, in English?”

“We had our own lives,” Jim said. “Remember?” She nodded warily and he went on. “They were very good lives. I loved you, you loved me. We both loved Lizzy. We had enough money, and clothes, and shelter. But that’s all it was. Ours. No different from several million or more other families. We were nothing special.”

“Even if that’s so, it’s a horrible thing to say.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry. But I need to work this out.”

She put her hands on her hips. “You need it. I don’t. I don’t care why we’re here. I don’t care that we shouldn’t be here. Everyone’s dead and we’re not. That’s something. It’s not much, but it’s something. I’d like to keep it if you don’t mind.” She seemed close to tears.

“We’re not special,” he repeated, relentless. “There was no reason to spare us. But maybe there was a reason to preserve…something. I think that’s what we are. Like bugs in amber or, rather, set in glass like a paperweight. Maybe a souvenir, preserved by their own methods that just happen to be a little more sophisticated than formaldehyde. It happened to be us. It could have been anyone.”

“I’m not listening,” Judith said.

“It makes as much sense as why they attacked Earth in the first place.”

“Did they need a reason?” said Judith, who was listening after all.

“Of course there’s a reason. Everything happens for a reason.”

“But need it be a good reason, or even one we’d understand? They blasted every city, every town, as far as we can tell every house on the planet. And then they left! They didn’t take anything, nor leave anything other than us, the Boundary and the Oracle, so far as we can tell. No raiding for raw materials, no exploitation of anything we had. Did the fact that we existed and weren’t them enough? Humans have killed for a lot less.”

“I suppose,” Jim said. “You’ve thought about this, haven’t you?”

She shrugged. “Some, but you’re thinking too much,” Judith said. “Your brain is fevered. Why don’t you take a nap?”

“Neither of us has slept in…since it happened.” Jim didn’t like the way Judith was looking at him at all.

“Then it’s past time you tried,” she said.

*

Jim kept his eyes closed for a long time. Even when he felt the bindings being placed about his arms and legs he didn’t move. He wasn’t asleep, but for Judith’s sake he was trying. When he finally allowed himself to open his eyes again Judith was watching him from her seat on a broken cornerstone a few feet away.

“You’re awake,” she said dully.

“I never was asleep,” he said.

She nodded. “I was afraid of that.”

Jim shifted a bit, felt the nylon ropes digging into his wrists and ankles. The ropes were still strong. “Where did you find them?”

“In what used to be a hardware store. Aren’t you more interested in why I tied you?”

Jim thought about it. “Because you think I’m crazy?”

She shook her head. “You may well be, but that’s not it. I want to try something.”

“What?”

“I want to kill you. I wasn’t sure if you’d co‑operate.”

“A reasonable assumption, but may I ask why?”

“To settle the argument, silly. If I succeed, then we aren’t already dead‑‑well, except for you‑‑and I win. If I can’t kill you, then you’ve been right all along and I apologize.”

Jim sighed. “Seems fair. What did you have in mind?”

“I hadn’t gotten that far. Give me a minute…” Judith looked around. Most of the concrete debris was a little too large for her to lift easily. She finally found an almost intact brick and tested its heft. “This should work. Hold still while I smash your head in.”

“Fine.”

Judith dropped to her knees beside him and raised the brick. Jim waited. After a few long moments Judith slowly put the brick back down.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Why not?

“Because I’m afraid you might be right. Because I love you, and yet I was about to bash your skull in. And you were going to let me.”

Jim thought her sentiment was a little touching. Not that he really felt touched or anything. Just that he thought he should be. Just as there were so many things he should be, but wasn’t. Because he was dead. “There wasn’t a lot I could do about it,” he said.

She shook her head. “It’s not that. It’s that you didn’t care. And…” she hung her head, ashamed. “And neither did I. I should care, and very much. So should you!”

He nodded. “Yes. The same when I saw Lizzie’s doll. I should have cared. I didn’t. Does that mean you’re convinced?”

“No. It just means I’m reconsidering the cost to find out.”

Judith leaned over and kissed him hard. Jim thought it sad that he couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that. Even worse, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d wanted her to. Another moment and she was tugging at what was left of his belt.

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” she asked. “I’m seducing you.”

He blinked. “Why?”

“Because, dammit, this is one sure thing dead people don’t do. I don’t want to be dead. Do you?”

Jim shook his head. “I don’t like it so far.”

Judith straddled him and started working on the knots binding his wrists. “Then help me!”

Jim did. He tried. When his hands were free he caressed her as he remembered doing, loved doing, moving slowly, taking his time in that methodical way that Judith had found at once infuriating and overpowering. The slow start, the slow build, the climax, hers and then, inevitably, his own. That was the blueprint. That was what was supposed to happen, what Jim did his best to make happen with Judith’s grim co‑operation.

Nothing worked.

Jim wasn’t impotent, as he’d half‑expected. This was much worse. All the function was there, but none of the emotion. There was no slow build of passion, no passion at all. He touched her but she did not respond, despite her eagerness; they moved together and felt no more than if someone were cutting their hair. Dead cells touching, then parting. Judith gave up first. She rose off of him; she was barely standing when he began to subside.

“You were right, Jim.”

“Judith‑‑” he began, but she stopped him.

“I don’t remember dying,” she said. “I should remember. Maybe I will this time.” She walked away.

“Where are you going?”

“To see if I can fix this,” she said, over her shoulder. “Won’t take a moment…”

Jim watched her go for a little while, until he realized what she had in mind. He pulled up his ragged trousers and tried to rise, remembered too late his ankles were still tied and fell again. By the time he recovered and got the ropes loose Judith was halfway up a rusting fire escape on a blasted‑out corner wall. When she got to the top of that wall she balanced there a good fifty feet above the ground, looking down for the best possible spot.

“Judith, don’t!”

She shouted the damning question down to him. “Why not?”

There were reasons. There had to be, he told himself then and later. But Jim couldn’t think of a single one. Judith only nodded and smiled, then leapt from the wall with perfect diving form. She’d chosen her target‑‑a heap of ragged stones‑‑with great care, and she did not miss. The crows beyond the Boundary watched with interest.

*

Jim looked down at Judith’s body. The neck was impossibly twisted; bone showed through at shoulder and arm. There was no blood. Whatever the aliens had replaced it with was odorless and colorless; it leaked into the dry ground and was gone.

“How much longer?” he asked.

Judith’s voice was raspy and harsh, almost like the crows’. “Just a few minutes. I think my arm is going next.”

She was right. The arm straightened and the bone disappeared into flesh, then the raw wound slowly closed from one end to the other almost like a zipper being pulled. Jim watched as Judith flexed the fingers of one hand, then the other. Jim wondered how it was done, decided it really didn’t matter. He wondered if anything still did.

“Does it hurt?”

“I don’t feel anything,” she said. “Sorry. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Someone had to be first to try it,” he said. “If you hadn’t, I probably would,” Jim said, knowing it was the truth. “Don’t worry about it.” He helped her sit up on the rubble as her head twisted about like plastic doll’s and the vertebra in her neck re‑aligned and re‑assembled. Another moment and the only sign that anything had happened was a new tear in Judith’s blouse. Jim could see her right breast now. He wanted to care, but nothing had really changed.

Judith stared at the crows. It was the first time Jim had seen her take any interest in them. “Do you think they know? About us, I mean.”

Jim frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Judith sighed. “Men can be so dense sometimes, and being dead besides doesn’t seem to help. Look around you: what do you see?”

Jim did as he was told. He saw the ruins, the weeds, the silvery shimmer of the Boundary dome arcing overhead. Beyond that he saw trees, some alive, some dead. On all of them perched the familiar crows. He said as much.

“Exactly. And what do crows do?”

“Ummm. Fly? Perch?”

Judith put her hands on her hips. “What they do is scavenge. Discarded McD’s buns, garbage…roadkill. Which is what we are. The aliens came out of nowhere and they flattened us and they left without even a glance back.”

Jim felt the ghost of a smile; just as pale and just as fleeting. “Cosmic roadkill?”

“Have you got a better explanation?”

Jim thought about it. “No.”

“There’s nothing else here for the crows, Jim. Just us. They’ve come to clean up because that’s what they do. They know what we are; I think they knew before you did.”

Jim looked at the boundary. “You may be right. I feel sorry for them in a way. It must be frustrating.”

Judith didn’t answer. She just started walking. After a moment Jim fell into step behind her. “Where are you going?”

“To see the wizard,” she said. “Too bad there’s no yellow brick road.”

*

There was no yellow brick road; just the path that Jim had made. Judith had walked it with him sometimes, in the beginning, but this was the first time in a long time she had done so, with him. Jim found himself studying his surroundings in a way he had not for some time. Within the Boundary there was little but weeds and ruin; outside there was more new growth. The few scraggly trees that had survived the destruction were now growing large and full; there was the makings of a real forest there now, with occasional movement to suggest life was re‑establishing itself in some small way. A start, perhaps.

“Maybe the aliens are patient,” Jim said. “They use as much force as they want because they know they’re not coming back until after the planet has healed itself.”

“I think you’re right, except for one small detail: they’re not coming back.”

Jim frowned. “You say that like you know.”

“I think I do.”

Jim wanted to ask her to share that information with him, but he had a feeling she would whether he wanted her to or not. Instead Jim watched the crows. They seemed thicker now than before. Something was different. It took him a moment to figure it out‑‑they were quiet. An occasional caw, or brief squawk of anger as two fought for the same perch, but that was all.

“Have you noticed the crows?”

“I’ve noticed little else since my resurrection,” Judith said. “They’re waiting.”

Now Jim couldn’t resist. “Waiting for what, I’d like to know.”

“For what happens next. Think about it; I have. You made me think about it, damn you.”

“Think about what?”

“The crows, silly. Back when we‑‑humanity‑‑was in charge of the planet, how were the other animals doing? Not so good. Tigers and rhinos and elephants hunted down or poached to near extinction, habitat shrinking as we expanded.”

“It’s a little late to join Greenpeace,” Jim said dryly.

She smiled briefly. “You know, I used to think it was clever when you substituted sarcasm for reason. Not now, Jim. Our emotions are as dead as we are. That didn’t happen right away but, slowly, it happened; reason is all we have left. Since you wouldn’t let me pretend anymore, I’ve been thinking. And I’ve always been smarter than you.”

“Have I ever denied that?” he asked, a little stung.

“Just making the point. Now, think of the exceptions to that scenario above. There were a few, a very few creatures that were expanding their range in that time: Falcons, coyotes…and crows.”

“I did watch the education channels sometimes,” Jim said. “It was because we left so much garbage, and they’re scavengers.”

“Falcons aren’t. Maybe it’s more important that they were adaptable, like the crows. They took advantage of new niches, like the cities. Perhaps they would advance, given time. Maybe that’s what the aliens did. They gave them time. And us.”

“Why?”

“If I’m right, I’ll show you.”

Jim let that sink in. He remembered how he had fallen in love with Judith’s mind as much as her body. He could still summon a ghost of that love now. All that his dead soul could do. “I love you,” he said, very softly, and more from memory than emotion, but it was all he could do. Judith didn’t answer.

They came to the Oracle. Judith leaned over the glassy surface. “Show yourself,” she said.

“That won’t work. I tried.”

“It’ll work this time,” she said, then spoke to the Oracle again. “It’s all right. I already know.”

The glass cleared. The image of the creature standing there might have been three feet high, not much more. Its skin looked glossy black at first, but in a moment they could both see it wasn’t skin. Its eyes were dark and piercing, its mouth a lipless beak. It said something it its rasping, high voice. Jim winced but Judith only nodded, and spoke very firmly to the Oracle.

“Open the Boundary. It’s time.”

The Boundary wall shimmered as if it were a giant bubble touched by an oil drop, then it disappeared. The crows shifted on their perches, then lifted in one’s and two’s. Soon more.

“They’re coming for us,” Jim said.

Judith nodded. “I think we were a gift. Call it a housewarming present to the new tenants. But they wanted us to know first.”

“Vicious little bastards,” Jim said, but Judith shook her head.

“Maybe. Or maybe they felt they owed us an explanation, if nothing else. That’s why we’re here. It could have been anyone; you were right about that.”

“Why not just tell us?”

Judith watched the crows. “Would we have understood? I mean, really understood, before now?”

“They had no right,” Jim said.

Judith nodded. “No. But then, who does?”

A crow landed on Jim’s head and pecked at his nose. Jim felt a little regret, but nothing else. The Boundary was gone now; whatever had kept his body functioning for so long was gone too. He reached for Judith just as she reached for him and in another moment they fell down together, tangled in each other’s arms.

“I love you too,” Judith whispered, because it was all she had left to offer. Again, she’d been listening after all.

A crow landed on Judith’s shoulder and pecked at her eyes. Another landed on Jim’s chest and pecked at his, and another and another until there was nothing left to say.

-The End‑

 

©2000 by Richard Parks. All Rights Reserved.

 

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