An Unkindness of Ravens
Charlie Whitrow awoke to the sound of his wife dying in the next room. The wet, gurgling sounds cut through the drone of the ceiling fan that stirred the air above his bed. It was clear by their frantic pitch that these gasping, feeble breaths would be her last. Bolting up from the sofa, he instinctively snatched the cotton rag from the nightstand. Obscuring his nose and mouth with the cloth, Charlie moved briskly from the living room to her bedroom and found Evangeline hacking, trying desperately to raise her head from the pillow. Despite the sweltering temperature of the tiny fifth-floor apartment, the flesh of her hand felt like cool marble inside his heat-swollen palm.
"Just relax, dear," Charlie said, stroking his hand over her ivory tresses. "I'm here. Charlie's right here. Just breathe."
She looked up at him; her eyes were glassy and beginning to fade to a frighteningly dark shade.
"Not now, Evangeline. Don't leave me alone. I was planning on another fifty years with you. I can't let you go yet."
He had been a boy when he'd first met, and fallen hard for, Evangeline. Now, as the two of them crept softly through the terrifying realm of life's twilight, Charlie could do little more than watch in horror as his single reason for being gradually faded to a specter.
She'd contracted tuberculosis several months ago. Charlie had done his best to provide her with medical care, but her age, stubborn predilection for tobacco and phobia of hospitals allowed the disease swift domination of the frail woman. Evangeline had accepted medical attention only when it was forced upon her. For the past five weeks she had been living in St. Michael's Hospital, but when Dr. Valzer informed Charlie that his wife's condition would not improve, Charlie opted to take her back their humble apartment where they'd shared the past four decades. He had done his best to keep her comfortablegiving her the single bedroom, both for her comfort and for his own safety. He used whatever meager protection he could to shield himself from the infection and had thus far been successful. But life seemed to be draining from Evangeline with each passing hour. Now Charlie stood and watched, helplessly, as the last of his wife's life-force began to ebb.
The August heat was merciless inside the squalid room. Evangeline's eyelids fluttered shut. He could feel her arthritic fingers going limp.
Soon the shallow rising and falling of her chest ceased altogether.
Surely this was an illusion. Someone you've loved so thoroughly for so many years could not simply expire this way. One moment alive, the next cold and still and vacant.
An aching hole yawned open deep inside Charlie. He could scarcely place his wife's hand gently on top of the other before the sobs tore from his chest. He shuffled wearily out of the room.
His pajamas clung to his wiry, sweat-soaked body as he crossed the cramped living room, toward the open window where a dog-day sun was beginning its ascent over the crumbling slums of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
He curled his fingers over the windowsill and stuck his head out into the morning air. His nostrils were met with the familiar tangy odor of trash, smog and human sweataromas indigenous to Brooklyn in summer. Charlie peered back into the apartment to read the small alarm clock that sat atop the kitchenette counter. Not quite five-thirty a.m. There was precious little activity on the streets this time of day. But he knew that in a matter of hours the clattering din of city life would swell once again, continuing inexorably, as if Evangeline's death did not matter in the slightest. He wiped the salty streams from his cheeks and stared off into the horizon.
The darkness first appeared to be little more than a speck hovering against the impossible blue of the sky. Charlie watched it draw closer, each sweep of its wings bringing it into greater definition. He could hear its shrill cawing and the crisp flapping of its wings. The raven swam upon an invisible tide of hot air. Its black plumage resembled a shard of midnight that had somehow been dislodged into the dawn. Nearer and nearer it drew, toward the open window where Charlie stood awaiting its imminent arrival.
Charlie's body went slack he realized why the raven had come. Charlie's grandfather had been a full-blooded Iroquois and had tutored him in the lore of his people. Charlie knew what that dark bird desired. It was here for Evangeline's soul.
Pulling himself inside, Charlie slammed the window shut and fastened the lock. The raven swept dangerously close to the pane before pulling up with an angry squawk. It arced majestically before perching itself on the window ledge, staring inside with shimmering, dilated eyes.
"You can't have her," Charlie whispered. "She belongs here with me."
The raven cawed its rebuttal. Its gaze darted in all directions. When Charlie saw the black bird launch itself from the ledge, a naked panic overcame him. He ran as quickly as his seventy-year-old legs would allow, toward the tiny room where Evangeline was laying statue-still. The rectangular window was wide open but, thankfully, he had installed a new screen last month. Charlie shrieked when the raven slammed against the screen, squawking wildly in frustration. The bedroom walls amplified the shrill cries to an ear-splitting pitch. The raven pecked at the fine wire mesh with its beak, causing fissures to fray open. Charlie slid the window shut with a trembling hand. Ice water churned in his bowels as he flipped the lock. He felt as though the raven were staring into him, raw hatred in its gaze. The old man backed out of the room. The bird's muffled cries still stung like needles. Sweat teemed down Charlie's flesh in rivulets. With both windows closed, Charlie feared he might asphyxiate in the stale, hot apartment.
Evangeline appeared to be staring at the brown water stains on the ceiling. Delicately, Charlie grazed his palm over her eyelids, giving his wife the appearance of tranquil sleep. He kissed her cooling forehead before pulling the bedsheet over her like a shroud.
"Rest a while," he told her in whisper. "We'll talk soon. He can't stay here forever."
He returned to the living room. According to the clock in the kitchenette, it was not quite five-thirty a.m.
The clock must have stopped. Evangeline had been dead for at least twenty minutes and Charles distinctly remembered that the clock had read 5:26 just before the raven came.
The bird once again slammed itself against the living room window with a startling thud. Charlie screamed, staggering backward like a burlesque clown. He watched in disbelief as the raven swooped in a great arc and again lunged against the pane. A tiny cobweb-like crack appeared in the glass. The window could not withstand many more blows. When the raven crashed a third time Charlie began to whimper.
The bird flailed and pecked and cried, all in one mad, frenetic motion. Now it was little more than a black blur. It continued for several minutes and then ceased altogether.
Had the bird exhausted itself? Why else would it be content to remain perched on the sill?
Had the clock been operational, Charlie would have counted the tedious minutes he was spending in this purgatory. He remained locked in a dead stare with the raven.
The sun didn't appear to have risen any further, but the cramped quarters did seem more stifling. Charlie felt his lungs tighten as if they were shrinking from the heat. Each breath was more strained than the last. But there was little else he could do but wait. Evangeline was gone now, and time was all he had.
Pushing a nest of old newspapers off the easy chair, Charlie sank into the seat, his sweat-saturated flesh gluing him to the vinyl upholstery.
All the time in the world and the patience of a saint, that's what I've got. Just you and me now, friend.
The last can of Miller Lite was empty. Charlie lapped at the last drop with his still-parched tongue before crunching the tin with one hand and tossing it onto the growing pile.
How long can a bird survive in this heat without water? he wondered.
Maybe that was how the showdown would end, a desiccated raven descending headlong into the trash bins below. Perhaps it would starve without Evangeline's soul. Yes, that would do nicely.
Periodically, Charlie crept away to steal glances of Evangeline, who remained stoic beneath the makeshift shroud. Charlie felt guilty for keeping her this way, but assured her (and himself) that it was only temporary.
She'd be back with him soon.
Charlie spooned up the last peach wedge from the bottom of the Del-Monte can. The fruit was much too sweet and tasted queer on his beer-tainted palate, but he chewed the soft fruit, setting the syrup-filled can down beside his chair.
The sun remained motionless, the clock dead, but Charlie could feel himself aging. He'd surely been sitting for hourspins and needles tingled through his buttocks and thighs, his back throbbed with a dull ache. Charlie tried using beer cans as a rough gauge to measure timesix cans and he was still stone sober. Sure, he'd sweated out most of it, but by his estimation he was creeping on the four-hour mark, maybe longer.
It was about this time that the second bird came swooping into view.
Funeral-black feathers rustled at his window as the bird joined his kin. They were perched side by side like old lovers on a porch swing. Glances flitted between them, spastic jerks of head and wing, talons moving as though they were kneading the stone ledge. They began to caw. Charlie's head lolled, defeated, exhausted. He pinched the flesh between his eyes and whimpered.
That must be one of the bosses, Charlie thought as he watched the new bird scolding the other.
The squawking increased by the presence of a third raven. Then a fourth.
The narrow sill was soon cramped with midnight down and beaks so shiny black they looked like pistol nubs as they rat-a-tat-tatted against the hot glass.
There was something unnerving about the birds' calls. Not just the shrill pitch; there was something else. The noises sounded too refined to stem from the throats of birds.
Of course, Charlie thought, of course. Those are people's voices.
Charlie heard the shrieks and his flesh crawled. A bitter, coppery taste filled his mouth. He fought an urge to vomit peaches and beer.
The unkindness of ravens continued to swell outside his apartment. From north, south, east and west they came. They idled around the crowded window.
The eternal dawn was quickly blotted out as all of the world's psychopomps converged around a stubborn old man's apartment.
The cries of a thousand souls in limbo washed over the paralyzed slum, assailing the ears of its sole prisoner.
Somehow, through all the cacophony, one voice percolated above the others. A voice that was convulsively familiar, one that echoed within the apartment walls.
Charlie shot up from his chair. Somewhere in that ocean of pain he thought he heard his soulmate's voice, crying as these others were, to be released. Evangeline's soul was drenched in anguish. She pined for freedom, as did all the recently dead.
Charlie advanced to the window, slowly. His brain pounded from the sound that was now so very, very close. In that ocean of screeching her plea rang out vividly.
I did it for you, Charlie thought, only for you.
The glass exploded as the old man pushed his way through. But Charlie Whitcraw did not fall far. His body became instant and tender prey for the ravens as they swarmed and pecked and clawed and tore.
The birds then dispersed like a storm cloud broken by a heavy wind, their firm beaks clutching this morning's harvest of souls, their bellies bloated with the flesh of the one who'd dared to sway them from the mission.
All the birds but one carried their souls to the next world. That one raven, its tongue still coated in the old man's blood, fluttered away, allowing the soul that hovered like within the apartment to rejoin its human host.
Evangeline gasped, hand pressed tightly against her chest. The breath felt glorious as it expanded her aging lungs. In the nightmare she had been drowning, drowning in a sea so impossibly black. A sea where screams flittered by like swirling fish. But she was awake now.
She rose weakly and shuffled toward the living room where the sounds of the city flooded in though the jagged hole in the window. With a heavy heart, Evangeline approached it and, hesitantly, looked down at the spray of shattered glass, which looked so very much like stars set against the night-black alley pavement.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM