He sits on a branch, shifting from one foot to another as he puffs out his feathers against the cold. His beak, once a sharp point, is now blunt. Even his lovely charcoal feathers have lost their gloss and sit raggedly like an ill-fitting coat.
He stretches out his tired old wings. For a moment an ancient scar is visible beneath his right wing where the feathers never really grew back. He sighs wearily and begins to close his eyes.
For years now he has come to sit on the same branch of the same tree to look down at the same plot where the flowers always lie in a little heap.
Suddenly a sharp knock wacks him hard on his right side. He topples down, but catches himself on the next branch just in time.
‘Go back to the devil!’ shouts an angry young voice. ‘Stupid crow.’
An old man runs up to the child, catches his wrist before he can hurl the next stone and pulls him back sharply.
‘You rotten thing. What the hell are you doing?’ the old man’s voice trembles with fury.
‘Grandpa,’ the boy whines with indignation. ‘Crows are evil. They’re a sign of the devil.’
‘What nonsense! That crow is a very old friend of mine and if I catch you bothering him again then I’ll send you to the devil.’
The boy rolls his eyes, but his grandfather keeps his grip and pulls him towards a stone bench beneath the tree.
‘Sit down and listen. This crow isn’t a sign of the devil, but of all that’s good in this world. Let me tell you a story. Once, very long ago, when the streets were coated with fresh snow, a little girl with no friends sat alone in her frozen garden.’
She heard the sounds before she saw what was happening. Something about the cries was desperate, and a string of laughter rang over the horrible noise. She trudged through the snow as quickly as she could until she reached the group of boys.
They stood in a circle, kicking at something and chucking down rocks they had stashed in their coat pockets. A scattering of black feathers lays against the pure white snow.
She screamed so loud the boys fell silent, their heads snapping towards her.
‘How dare you?!’ she shouted. ‘Go! Leave now or I’ll kill you myself.’
Her little voice dropped so low on those final words that the boys could only stand frozen. Then, more out of fear that she’ll tell their parents than anything else, they ran off, leaving the battered crow with his wings flapping helplessly.
‘Hush now,’ she whispered as she knelt down beside the poor creature.
Removing her shawl, she wrapped it around the crow, picked it up as gently as a newborn child, and carried it into the safety of her garden.
At first his eyes looked at her in panic, as if expecting her to suddenly change her mind and beat him to death. Instead she laid him down and checked his wings one at a time. She found the bloody wound on his right side and cleaned it up so that it didn’t hurt so much.
He didn’t struggle the way a wild creature usually would.
Nor did he entirely trust those hands the way a pet does.
He lay somewhere between the two; too frightened to trust this stranger yet grateful all the same for her gentleness.
When she finished he hopped up, tested his wings with a few flaps, and then flew off into the grey winter sky.
As the girl grew older, the crow didn’t forget her kind deed.
When the schoolboys bullied her he would swoop down and peck at them with his wicked beak. When she left her hat behind at the park he would fly back to her home with it dangling from his beak. When her mother died and she cried and cried in the garden her mother had planted, he kept her company throughout all those lonely hours.
They say that crows are some of the smartest creatures in the entire animal kingdom. And that includes humans.
This crow was no exception.
He could see the goodness shining from this girl like a golden dawn. And so he took it upon himself to always protect her and be her friend.
Soon enough the girl began styling her lovely chestnut curls in the fashion of a woman rather than a little girl, and her patterned dresses were replaced with long skirts that flowed around her ankles.
She still spoke to the crow like he was a person instead of a bird.
And he still visited her each day, bringing little trinkets and gifts he had found discarded around the city.
That winter, the evening of the Yuletide dance was approaching.
While the bird couldn’t understand why such a silly affair was so important to her, he understood that she didn’t have all the bows and jewels to decorate her dress the way other girls did.
She had made her own dress, spending many evenings by candlelight as she sewed. It was simple, and really quite plain when compared to the dresses that sat in shop windows with their bright colours and embroidery.
So one day he flew off and didn’t return for over a week.
Wherever it was that he went, it must have been far to the south where the lands were in bloom, because when he returned to her in the heart of winter, it was with a beautiful red rose in his beak.
Just as she was leaving for the dance, he landed on the porch rail and dropped it into her hands.
That night, I met a beautiful young lady with a crimson rose in her hair.
My hands were shaking when I asked her to dance.
I was terrified she would notice how scuffed my shoes were, and how my jacket, which I had borrowed from my father, didn’t fit right. But if she did notice, she gave no sign of it. She took my hands and we danced and danced until the night grew old and all the other guests were departing.
We danced, even though there was no longer any music playing. And all I saw were her soft brown eyes shining with warmth as we spun around the room.
When the night ended and I was once again sitting at the workshop, hammering pieces of glowing metal into horseshoes, the magic faded. I knew that in this world of ours, love is never enough. I was just an apprentice, without a penny to my name.
How could I ask her to marry a pauper?
But I also knew that nothing worthwhile comes easily. So I worked and worked, saving every cent I earned. Two years passed in which we saw each other every day. When the time came, I went to the jeweller with my hard-earned savings stashed in a little pouch. Even two years’ worth of pay would only get a simple ring with cut glass instead of a gem.
I bought the ring and walked through the city streets thinking about how shameful it is to present such a worthless hunk of junk to the person I loved more than anything.
Just as I was ready to talk myself out of the whole plan, a crow landed on the fence beside me. It cawed so loud I jumped. It moved closer, dipping its head slightly as it looked me in the eyes. I reached out cautiously, and into my outstretched palm, the crow dropped a glittering stone. It was the deepest shade of red and sparkled in the lantern light.
I took this stone to the jeweller, who marvelled over its clarity and hue, and had it set in a ring for her.
Year after year in our happy life together, the crow came to visit the way that an old friend does. He flew far and wide, his strong wings carrying him all over the continent, but he always returned to us.
He watched as we aged, and our children grew.
And, when your grandmother became very sick, he helped look after her.
He cawed gently in the morning so as not to wake her, and left her sprigs of herbs on her windowsill. Each time he left he must have ventured a little further away, because he started disappearing for longer and longer periods of time, only to return carrying foreign plants in his beak.
Then, one terrible morning, when the crow had been gone for nearly a week, she didn’t wake up.
I don’t know how much time had passed.
But when the crow came back, he brought a strange flower no-one had ever seen before. Perhaps he thought it could have helped her. He dropped it onto the porch and flew from one window to another. When he didn’t see her, he flew off to all the places around the city that she used to go.
The locals saw him outside the library where she had worked, and the market where she had shopped. He flew to my workshop which she used to visit, and to the park where she had walked.
He searched and searched.
And then one day, he found her.
I was kneeling beside her grave laying down a bouquet of roses when he landed on the very branch he sits on today.
He looked passed me at the fresh covering of earth.
I could see that he finally understood.
Every feather seemed to droop down as if they were too heavy for him to carry upon his back anymore.
‘Every time I visit your grandmother, he’s there protecting her the way she had once protected him.’
‘Do you really think he remembers her after all these years?’ the boy asks.
‘I know he does. Their minds don’t age the way ours do,’ the old man sighs heavily. ‘Come on, let’s leave the old bird to his musings.’
He stands and his grandson follows him obediently. The little boy takes one last look over his shoulder before they disappear around a bend in the trail.
The crow suddenly flaps his wings, landing clumsily on the ground.
He carefully scrapes away the frost from the simple tombstone with his beak. Then he rearranges the little pile of dried flowers he had gathered for her, and lies down beside them.
Closing his eyes, he thinks of the little girl who had run to his aid when no-one else had. He remembers her lovely red rose and the way her smile lit up the world. His mind soars over all those wonderful years and his heart nearly bursts with happiness.
He doesn’t notice his tired old body, with its scruffy feathers, lying on the ground far below in another world. No. He has no use for it anymore.