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The Crows by Stefano Mazzega

Something was happening with the crows.  That something was making Stella uneasy.

From her small home in East Van, she looked up at the expanse of packed, black forms above.  They were crammed together, thirty thousand or more, on the high wires, trees and rooftops up and down the street, but were surprisingly sparse around her house.  The grey, dawn light was starting to seep over the horizon and the roost began to stir.  The fluttering started, squawking turning to cawing until it built into a frenzied cacophony.  The din transformed into motion as the roost exploded out from its middle. Hundreds of birds took flight spiraling upward.  Skeins of others followed, unraveling from below and forming a black veil that banked to the east.  Thousands of crows went in pursuit of their day.

Stella watched, as she had each winter’s morning for the last eight years since George died.  Somehow she had never noticed them before that, even though they were there in great numbers year after year.  In the first few months of her despair she was unable to function, barely able to leave her home. Then, the last few years, she had developed a fascination that drew her to the window whenever the crows were there.   Now most mornings she took flight herself, attacking her tasks, as she watched them leave.

Stella began her day, on her back deck, by taking care of any curious crows and sweeping up any black feathers left behind. Inside she scrubbed and cleaned every corner of the modest bungalow, vacuuming and wiping until her arms and fingers ached even though there was seldom any dirt or dust to be found.  She laundered the bedding, ironed the pillowcases and reassembled her nest, with hospital corners, each day before lunch.  Then it was off to the market.

Today, Stella put on her little white coat and made her way up the street with her polished boots clicking on the pavement, her black beret perched proudly on her head.  She bused to the Granville Market, as she did most days, to forage for the perfect ingredients for her culinary creations.  Preparing food every evening had become a satisfying, calming ritual that kept her spirit at peace.

A few people flocked around the outside of the market, feeding ravenous pigeons and gulls. Inside it was relatively empty, which made thoughtful grocery selection easier.  She hopped from vendor to vendor to assess who had the freshest products that day then chose her shallots one by one by their shape and aroma. This took time but no one seemed to notice or mind.  The merchants knew her well and valued her regular business.  She bought tarragon and cream and then checked the cheeses each merchant had to offer.  Once done, she left with fifty grams of white Stilton for her sauce.

As she walked outside, a gull and a young crow were fighting over a discarded French fry.  She sat on a bench and watched.  The crow won the match but dropped the fry when it saw Stella and flew off with an empty beak.  All that effort for nothing, thought Stella.

Something was happening with the crows.  It had started when the bold one had invaded her space.  Then others had too but it still didn’t explain why their behavior had changed.  Changes in weather?  Changes in food?  She was at a loss.  Perched high on a cable across the small square, the crow from before waited for her to leave.

Maybe she was wrong – that was possible too.

The bus home seemed to move through traffic  more slowly than usual and Stella started to feel anxious about missing the crows coming in to roost. It always occurred just before the sun set. Dusk approached quickly but as she arrived at her stop, it seemed that the clouds thinned leaving a final faint halo of light.  She smiled when she saw that the staging had only just started.  She walked slowly to enjoy the moment.

The sky was alive with short bursts of crows flitting in all directions.  They had started to stage in the highest trees.  The first wave perched at the tops and, as the others joined, they layered downwards and packed closely together.  They rose and settled as more birds joined the mass.  As Stella walked closer, one of the areas over her head popped skyward as the birds became agitated; then another, as she took her next step.  She stopped dead and felt very uneasy.  Was it something about her? The birds settled again but there was one final, unexpected pop just before she went through her front door.

The tarragon, chopped shallots and cream went into the pot. The crumbled Stilton and a dollop of butter were added after a little stirring.  Stella reached into the fridge, pulled out an open bottle of Sauv. Blanc and splashed some into her creation.  The blended aroma of the sauce filled the air and dissipated the anxiety that worrying about the crows had caused.  As she finished her dinner, dredging the last morsel of meat through a drizzle of sauce on her plate, her mind returned to the birds. How did they know?  A few lived to be thirty but most would die in their first year.  Something was definitely happening with the crows.  They weren’t as tender as before and their flesh tasted much more bitter.  Did they know about the trap out back?