This is my original work. You are welcome to link to it. If you quote from it, give me credit.
Commentary: I think I do achieve the illusion of a non-human main character in this fantasy story. It’s one of my favorites because I like crows. If I were going to revise it, I would tighten up the flow of the story; the main character flies to the mountain a few too many times and I would sharpen the other descriptions. I think this is a good story; it I cut 750 words from it, it might be very good. But I’m not doing that today.
Before today, Ragged has never seen a Climber. She has heard about them, in the softly muttered stories the clan tells after sunset, when she and her brother Whitelick snuggle down in the feathers and twigs of their nest. Now a Climber is swarming up the tree where her brother sits alone, crying out for their mother and father.
The rest of the clan sounds the alarm. Ragged clings to her branch, krrraw-raw, kra-raw-rawing at her brother to fly. He climbs to the edge of the nest, teetering, then hops back down inside, calling.
Ragged has only flown twice before. On her trial flight she landed in a thorn tree, earning her name. Whitelick still has not flown. He is younger than she is, and the last streaks of yellow are only now fading from his beak. He does not know what to do.
The Climber pauses, clinging to a low branch with one featherless talon. Ragged’s mother flies at its head. On the ground, another one of the flightless watches. It stoops, picks up a stone and throws it, striking Ragged’s mother under her wing. Ragged launches herself at the flightless on the ground. She extends her talons and strikes at the shining grass-green pelt that covers its back. It is slick and her talons don’t grip. She slides. The flightless twists around and dashes her aside with the tall straight branch it carries, knocking her into a tree trunk. She hops into the shadow of a cypress, calling in distress.
The Climber has reached the nest. Ragged makes three hops and flaps her wings. It is a steep climb, not the kind of flight she has done before, and by the time she reaches the nest her brother is gone. The Climber is halfway down the tree. Ragged’s mother flails on a branch too slender for her weight, cawing the alarm again. Ragged grips the edge of the nest, fluttering her wings, and stares down at the upturned face of the Climber. Its crown is covered with plumage as black as Ragged’s own wings. The other flightless swings the branch at Ragged’s uncle, as he dives and circles, calling out challenges. Beneath his cries she hears her brother calling.
Both flightless run across the clearing to where a pair of four-leggeds stand waiting. They climb atop the four-leggeds and urge them away from the grove of trees. Ragged follows them. She wants to call encouragement to Whitelick, but she is too tired – and afraid, afraid the flightless with the billowing green pelt will hit her again.
It is the longest flight she has made. Her wings ache, and the line of her glide drops, as the four-leggeds run along the river. Her heart races in her chest. They stop at a stone wall and Ragged lights on its top, panting. This is the nesting place of the flightless. She knows of it from the stories.
She cannot rest for long, because the four-leggeds pass through the wall and walk along a broad and shallow canyon lined with cliffs made of wood and many kinds of stone. Ragged swoops ahead of them and lands on the top of one of the cliffs. The flat rust-red stone surface, traced with gold and brown, is warm against her feet. The four-leggeds stop, and the flightless climb off them. Another flightless comes and leads the first set of animals away. Ragged hears Whitelick call from beneath the flapping green pelt. She calls back to him, but Whitelick doesn’t answer. The flightless go inside a tall narrow mountain and Ragged cannot hear them.
That night in the cypress grove, the clan gathers. They share stories about other places where the bad things happened. The clan decides that it will leave this place. They will not be back until Ragged’s children’s children are grown. Ragged’s father murmurs to her mother, stroking her head with his beak. Ragged huddles alone in the bottom of the nest. She is too young to speak at the gathering.
At dawn, Ragged does not leave the nest. Her mother perches on its edge, bobbing and cawing, but Ragged doesn’t answer, burrowing into the dark blue down lining the bottom. The clan wheels above their tree, calling and scolding. As the sun grows higher, they tilt their wings and fly away west, all except Ragged.
She stays until the sun is high in the sky and spills warmth down through the dark green branches onto her back. She pokes her head over the edge of the nest and calls for her brother. He does not answer. Ragged hops up onto the rim and takes flight, back to the nesting place of the flightless, back to the narrow mountain that holds her brother. Hunger drives her to the ground outside the wall, where she searches and pecks until she finds a few stray seeds. Then she flies over the wall into the nesting place.
Flightless are very busy, like ants, and there are a lot of them. Ragged circles the mountain and calls for her brother, with no luck. She follows a trail of the flightless to another set of stone hills, a nesting place within the nesting place. Here are many more four-leggeds like the ones the flightless rode, although these have flapping hides the deep red of dried blood marked with sun-gold. She watches from a post, sees another cluster of flightless that look like Climber with their drab brown hides, and swoops along behind them until she finds a huge midden, filled with softening meat, sour fruit, guano, scraps of plants, stale bread and scores of juicy worms, grubs and maggots.
None of the flightless notice her as she lands and feasts. She hops about, cocking a head to the sky to keep watch for Climber or the flightless with the green pelt, but she manages to eat her fill. She takes to the air again, the breeze lofting her up, and circles the mountain again, calling for Whitelick.
She can hear him faintly as she comes around canyon-side. The cries get louder. She caws back. Beneath her she sees a narrow ledge and lands there. There is a hole in the side of the mountain, big enough for Ragged and another to fit through easily, but it is cloudy. She pokes at it. Her beak bounces off its rippled surface. Beyond that barrier Whitelick calls to her. It is his frightened call. She pokes harder at the barrier, kok-kok, kok-kok. Whitelick squawks an alarm and she startles up, sheering away to the right as the barrier shifts and vanishes. The flightless has shed its green pelt, and shows a crown as gray as a gull’s. Its lower face is covered with wiry, curly feathers, so it must be a male. Ragged lands on the roof across the canyon and folds her wings, pressing herself into the shadow. The flightless leans out and looks up, then down. He pulls his head back inside, but when Ragged lands again on the ledge, the barrier is back in place and she cannot get in.
For seven days Ragged watches, eating at the midden, dodging the hooves of the four-leggeds, some of which do not have glowing red-and-gold hides but are brown and white and wander in a clan. She dodges sudden showers of stinking water that fall without warning from the walls of the canyons. She dodges rocks and clumps of manure that are thrown at her and faces down the scrawny cats that crouch and growl when she marches by.
Often she flies, high above the nesting place. It is shaped a bit like her own shadow, but lacks a wing where it hugs the shimmering curve of the river. The broad canyon divides the nesting place almost in half. Four-leggeds pulling moving platforms, and four-leggeds carrying flightless, go through the wall at three spots. Beyond the wall, the fields where the clan used to feed on worms and bugs are green and gold now, filled with unripe seeds and fruit.
At the river, the flightless carry glistening curves of fish up from floating nests. Ragged lights, tears off scraps of gleaming flesh and flies up to nooks in the buildings to savor their succulence. She drinks from the edge of the river, watching for flightless and for the large rats that live there. She learns how to steal fruit and other food from the places where the flightless congregate. She sees Climber come out of the mountain every day. Sometimes Climber brings in buckets of water, or an armload of wood. Sometimes it brings back food, and often it takes a black cloth bag to the midden, where it dumps scraps of food and other things.
Gray Crown molts frequently; sometimes his pelt is grass-green and sometimes a dull whitish-gray. Once, while he is walking in the canyon, a flightless female passes him. Two fledglings caper and call at her side. He stops and bends toward one of them. The female hustles her chicks away from him, wings outspread in warning.
Usually, when the sun is high in the sky, Gray Crown comes out of the mountain, clinging with both talons to the branch he carries. He walks along the canyon to a widening-place filled with colors. Ragged watches him from the cliff tops, perched on the warm flat stones. Flightless gather in groups, as active as the colony of grubs her mother once uncovered by moving a rock. They chatter constantly. They scold, murmur, display, and gather food. The widening place is filled with piles of things; dark red berries, soft orange fruits, carcasses of animals that look strange to Ragged at first because they have no hides, chickens and geese tethered to the legs of the flightless or to things that look like the narrow trunks of trees. Small birds with violet wings flutter back and forth in nests made of metal. The branches of the nests look like thorn trees, and they meet at the top. The widening place has bowls of grain, bowls of fire and bowls of food on sticks that the flightless often drop while they are eating; rivers and pools of hides and plumage, grass-green, sky-blue and water-blue, stone-white and stone-gray, the dark blue of her own nestling down.
There are many gathering places within the widening-place. Gray Crown is often driven away from those places. The elders squawk and wave their wings, and he abases himself and slinks away. He sits in a sunny corner near the wall, with a flat rock in front of him. Flightless come to him and give him metal disks, some that gleam silver, some that shine sun-gold, some that are gray or nearly black. The other flightless sit facing Gray Crown. Gray Crown has a packet of skins. They are as big as his talons, regularly shaped, with colors and shapes on them. Gray Crown sets a number of skins on the ground, pointing to them and then to the seated flightless as he grumbles and caws. The other flightless cocks its head, or nods, or turns its head back and forth as if trying to see better.
Later, when he goes back to the gathering places, he is sometimes allowed in. When he comes out he sidles and droops. At these times, Climber often appears, supporting his weight as they walk home to the mountain. He staggers as if he is hurt, and Climber coos to him like a mother to her fledgling.
The moon is a full white circle dripping light onto the top of the canyon. Ragged roosts in a niche in the wall. Sometimes she calls, like a nestling, for her mother and father. Other nights she grumbles herself to sleep.
One day in the widening-place, Gray Crown takes one of his metal disks and goes to the flightless who keeps the little birds in the metal nests. The flightless opens a side of the nest. Gray Crown takes out a bird and puts it into a black cloth bag. As the sun drops below the wall of the nesting place, other flightless drift away, but Gray Crown waits, pacing back and forth, while Ragged watches. He murmurs to himself. Drab flightless come by and put fire onto long sticks that jut out of the wall. Gray Crown paces his territory.
A group of five flightless appears from one of the many narrow ravines that join the canyon. They all have pelts of dark red and gold. Four of them carry a strange box as large as they are. They stop in front of Gray Crown. The fifth flightless scurries to the side of the box and pushes aside the rippling cover. Another flightless climbs down out of the box. It is a female whose pelt is red and gold as well. Her red crown plumage flows forward and hides her face. Gray Crown abases himself. The fifth flightless sets a block of wood on the ground, and the female perches on it. Gray Crown crouches, his head bobbing. He spreads a piece of cloth on the ground. Ragged hops along the wall to a place where she can see better.
Gray Crown brings out the black bag and a black cutting tool. Ragged has heard stories of the metal cutting tools the flightless use because they have no beaks. He opens the bag and draws out the struggling little bird. With one talon he gives its neck a twist. He cuts it open. Blood runs over his hand. He spreads its guts on the cloth and bends over them. He mutters and grumbles and waves his talon. The female makes short sharp calls, and Gray Crown murmurs back, pointing and gesturing. They stare at the smooth, glistening clumps of meat but neither of them eats. The female rises and goes back to the box. The fifth flightless helps her climb inside. He turns and tosses three disks of sun-gold to Gray Crown. Gray Crown scoops them up. He folds up the cloth and carries it away.
In the dark, Ragged flies down to the spot to see if there is anything left. There are spots of blood, but he has carried the guts away and there is nothing here to eat.
Each day the sun rises a little earlier. When she visits the midden in the morning, tendrils of steam twist up from the holes she digs. More and more often, when she lights on the ledge, the barrier is cracked. Often Climber bustles around inside, and sometimes Gray Crown skulks by the opening, scratching with a stick on a piece of skin or turning over the shape-and-color skins and muttering. Sometimes Ragged can see Whitelick, but she dares not speak to him.
On the eighth day when she lands on the ledge there is no barrier. She bounces to the threshold of the hole and peers inside. There are no flightless that she can see. Across the cave-like space, Whitelick huddles in the bottom of a nest made of thorn branches like the ones in the gathering place. Whitelick’s once-bright feathers look dull. He sees her and straightens up, cawing. She grumbles, deep in her throat, and steps back onto the ledge. No flightless come forward at the sound of her brother’s call, and he falls silent, sidling up to the ring of thorn branches.
Ragged hops across the threshold onto a wide wooden surface that runs along one wall of the cave, clear over to where her brother’s nest hangs from the wall. Between the wooden plain and the nest, a deep hollow in the wall holds ashes. In the middle of the wooden surface sits a black bowl. Ragged peers into it and sees a bright eye above a sharp beak peering back at her.
Next to the black bowl sits a narrow wooden box. She taps at it. From inside comes a hollow plonking. She cannot open the box. On top of the box is the cutting tool. She taps at it, too. It is not metal. It is black stone, its scalloped edge lined with dried blood.
She hops closer to the thorn branch nest. At the edge of the wooden surface, she sees a stick of silver metal. It is shaped like the twigs her mother would fashion to tease grubs out of cracks.
Ragged flutters over to the nest and lights on it. Her talons slip on the slick metal branches and she begins to slide. She flaps her way up, only to slide down again. Her talon rolls over a knot in the branch, and then a second one. Whitelick taps on a block of metal across from the two knots she just found. Ragged tugs and tugs at the thorn branches. They give slightly, but do not move. The nest will not open the way the nest in the widening-place did.
Whitelick pokes his head through two of the branches and bobs up and down. Ragged glides back to the wooden surface, and he grows more vehement. She looks at the silver metal twig, and Whitelick toks. She picks it up. Her head tilts to one side as she drags it along the surface. She flies to the nest. The twig chimes when it strikes the branches. There is a hole in the block Whitelick poked at. Ragged turns her head and fits the end of the twig into the hole. The twig hangs unmoving.
Air rushes in from the hole by the ledge, and Whitelick sounds an alarm. A flightless is screaming, rushing toward her.
Ragged flies to the top of the nest, clinging to the ring that joins it to the wall. The flightless, Gray Crown, swats at her. The nest tilts and spins. Ragged holds fast to the top, flapping her wings for balance. Whitelick lunges forward and stabs at Gray Crown’s talon. The flightless yells and lifts his tall branch. Whitelick beats his wings against the nest, shrilling a challenge.
Ragged bounds off the top of the spinning nest, landing in front of the wooden box. The branch hisses down and she jumps again, catching the edge of the black bowl. It tips and reddish water spills across the wood. The branch crashes down onto the narrow wooden box. The box pops open and the objects inside roll partway out. There are four of them, glossy and egg-shaped, ending with long twin shafts jutting out of the front. They range in color from dark yellow to the creamy beige of a chicken egg. Through their vacant eye-holes, Ragged can see the spreading pool of pale red water. The beaks of two of the skulls are still yellow, the sign of a young bird, younger even than Whitelick.
Ragged shrieks. She hurls herself out of the hole, cawing an alarm. She flies as fast as she can, all the way back to the grove, keening, and hides in her old nest. She ruffles up her feathers and calls for her mother, for her father. She krraw-krraw-krraws danger. She calls all night, but no one comes. The clan has flown west.
The next day the barrier is back. Beyond it, she hears Whitelick. Ragged perches across from the mountain. Climber comes out with a basket of cloth, and Climber watches the skies as she walks to the river. Ragged watches her.
The next day, the barrier has a slim crack in it. A four-legged, draped in dark red and sun-gold, prances down the canyon, a flightless atop it. The flightless is pelted in the same bright colors. The four-legged stops in front of the mountain. The flightless goes inside. Ragged glides across to the barrier and peers through the crack. She presses on the barrier but the crack will not widen.
Climber and Gray Crown abase themselves before the bright-pelt flightless, whose talons gleam with shiny things. The bright-pelted one stands in front of the nest that holds Whitelick, and it and Gray Crown chortle back and forth. Gray Crown comes over to the wooden surface. He points to the black bowl and the cutting tool. The bright-pelted one takes the tool in its talons, touches the edge, and nods. Gray Crown picks up a stick and scratches something on a piece of skin that is held at each corner with a smooth stone. Bright-pelt draws from one of its talon a loop of sun-gold metal with a stone in it. It slips this shiny thing onto a string and hands it to Gray Crown. It gestures and points again to Whitelick. Gray Crown bobs his head. Gray Crown and Climber lower their torsos and bow their heads as Bright-pelt leaves.
The moon shrinks. The days grow warmer. Boats bring more piles of food to the widening place. Flightless from other territories trail in through the wall. From their pelts there must be many different varieties. Ragged collects shiny things from the flightless and carries them to her perch in the wall’s niche.
One day Ragged flies up to the mountain’s top. It is steep and her talons slide on the black stones. Near the peak there is a narrow hole in the roof, like the gap in a hollow tree. From here, Ragged can hear Whitelick. She knows stories of brave ones who flew into hollow trees and were rewarded with eggs and shiny things. She walks around the hole. She peers inside. Deep below there is a glimmer of light. Ragged caws once. She walks all the way around the hole again before Whitelick answers. She jumps up on the rim and peers down, her beak between her talons. The hole is too narrow for flight. Ragged drops down onto the flat stones and paces around the hole again, murmuring in her throat as she walks. She hops to the edge of the mountain, then turns and walks back. Finally, she hops down into the hole and slides, rocks scraping her feathers and tugging them upward. She lands with a pouf and a fine spray of gray dust explodes around her. She sneezes. She shakes herself, sending ash flying.
She clambers out onto the rocks. From across the cave, the flightless growls, and she freezes, head cocked. Silence. He growls again. He sounds no closer. Whitelick scrabbles at the branches of the nest. Growl, silence, growl. She steps forward, looking away from her brother’s metal nest. Gray Crown lies in a corner across the cave. He is turned away from her. Growl, silence, growl. One talon hangs rests on his flank and from it dangles the string and the shiny thing. Near his feet his green pelt lies in a shimmering pool.
Ragged flies up to the wooden surface. The barrier is in place. She goes over to it. Along one side, a rectangular stick is wedged through two U-shaped pieces of wood. She studies it, picks at the stick. It moves and the barrier rattles gently. Ragged pushes up the stick. Air flows past her, swirling ash off her feathers, as the barrier cracks and swings toward her.
She hops back down to the floor and waddles across to where the flightless lies, still growling. Behind her, Whitelick clicks a question, but she does not answer. The bright stone, the coloring of a lowering sun, winks. She lofts and flaps her wings twice, closing the distance. Gray Crown grunts, then starts the growling again.
Ragged grips the string with her beak, tugs it free and with a long backwards hop lands halfway across the cave floor. The shiny stone drags along the floor, catching in the dusty dried rushes. She flies up to the wooden surface, the stone tinkling against the edge.
Gray Crown snorts. He does not move.
She edges closer to the opening in the wall. She waits. Then she ruffles her feathers, and, as fiercely as her mother, she kar-ar-ars a challenge.
Gray Crown rolls over. He stares into the center of the room with eyes that are only half open. Ragged spreads her wings and dances, dragging the shiny thing across the wood. He stares at her. He springs to his feet, calls a challenge, and staggers towards her. She flies out the hole and into the sunlight.
She circles the mountain once, cawing, the shiny stone hurling rays of orange light onto the rock. When she comes around, Gray Crown has run outside. He scans the sky. Climber comes out behind him. As she flies across the sky above him, he pushes Climber ahead of him, squawking and cawing.
Ragged flies above the canyon with her prize, aw-aw-awing victory, the sunstone flashing with each wing-beat. In the widening place, the flightless look up. They point and caw in response. Gray Crown pushes through the crowds of bright-colored flightless. Ragged clears the wall. The pendulum weight of the shiny thing pulls her down but she is nearly to the river before she drops it.
She cuts back, swooping back over the wall, silent now, over the head of Gray Crown as he shoves Climber away, waving his wing. The Climber turns and runs back toward the mountain.
Ragged pumps her wings. She nearly overshoots the ledge, skidding over it, before she leaps across the threshold. The metal twig is not next to the black bowl anymore. She knocks over bottles filled with colored liquid, blues and violets, oranges and greens, sends the packet of skins with their shapes and colors swirling down onto the rushes, pushes the cutting tool onto the floor. She roots among the glittery objects until she finds the twig tucked into a corner. She picks it up and flies to the metal nest. She splays her legs as far as she can, gripping the branches with her talons. The twig slips easily into the hole. She jiggles it with her beak but nothing happens. From inside, Whitelick reaches through the branches and grips the twig with his beak, turning his head. He isn’t strong enough alone, but Ragged helps him, and with a “click” the branches part and a gap appears, widening, swinging Ragged to one side.
Climber runs into the cave. She is posturing, leaning forward, whooping. Her face is nearly as red as a vulture’s. She stands near the place where Gray Crown lay growling. Her whoops grow longer and softer.
Whitelick leaps out of the nest after Ragged. He runs across the wood, but stops, shivering, at the threshold. Ragged pokes him.
Climber glances around. She picks up the puddle of green pelt on the floor. Holding it out with both wings, she walks slowly toward them.
Ragged squawks at her brother and pokes him again. He takes ones step forward, but only one. No more. She turns to Climber, extends her wings and krraw-raw-krraw-raws. Climber stops. Her gaze bounces between Whitelick and Ragged, back and forth, back and forth. Her wings, outstretched with the green pelt wide between them, drop slightly.
Ragged spins. She jabs her brother hard, krrraw-raw, kra-raw-rawing, and shoves him. Whitelick slides onto the ledge and falls. He shrieks. His wings open and with short, frantic strokes he flies across the canyon and lands on the roof. Ragged follows.
Climber stays by the hole. She watches them for a moment, and then the barrier is back in place.
Ragged leads Whitelick to the midden, where he eats and eats. As it grows darker he follows her. He starts to fly over the wall, but Ragged guides him along it until they find her sleeping place in the niche. From Ragged’s sleeping place they can see Gray Crown, who keens as he scavenges through the weeds by the water.
Whitelick calls for their mother and father, but there is no one. Ragged grooms her brother with her beak and murmurs to him the way their father used to. They fall asleep cuddled together like chicks.
In the morning, she flies with him back to the midden. Whitelick stops to rest twice, but his wing-strokes are stronger after he has eaten and they grow stronger each day.
The early-rising sun gleams off the bend in the river each morning, waking them, and they fly to the midden. Whitelick’s strength returns and soon they both soar above the nesting place and explore the fields beyond the wall. When the warm sun is high overhead, they fly back across the wall. Curving wide around Gray Crown’s mountain, they perch on the wall, watching the flightless in the widening place, chuckling to themselves.