Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Flight of the Crow Boys

People around here never wanted our family. Crow boys, they called us, a flock of five brothers and our father, all of us with long black hair. Flapping our over-sized, garage sale sleeves and falling over the fences the neighbors put between us and them. And maybe too because of the feathers. Our father hung black feathers from the side mirrors of his truck, along the eaves of the house, and he dangled them from the shriveled limbs of our dying fruit trees. All those feathers spinning in the hot wind. They were painted in rows along the wood siding. Our father had tiny feather tattoos between every joint on his hands, three to a finger. Paid us in change from his pockets when we found feathers on the ground and put them in his hands, no matter if they were bent or broken a little or crawling with lice. “We get enough of these, we’ll fly right off,” he said.

We didn’t believe him. He said he hurt his leg fighting in the war and couldn’t work, but we’d seen him dance light on his boot heels when a woman came to see him. He always said that our mother, someone we’d never known, was the only one for him, but he had other women. It didn’t bother us. We understood the kind of liar he was, the kind who wouldn’t hurt anyone. We were the same.

Police knocked on our door always, not for anything really, just because of how we lived. We dragged broken furniture and appliances back to the yard and stacked them on the porch. Anything somebody put on their curb with the trash could end up outside our house, a graveyard of worthless and sun-bleached things, and our father would labor to fix them. “Might be useful,” he’d say. “Might be worth something.” We never made any money off it. Father let the yard go wild and told us it was to keep us healthy. Had us keep a dollar in our shoe so we’d walk to lost money on the ground. Told us to love things hard so that we’d be loved hard back. “The whole universe,” he said, “has sympathy for itself. You learn to play on that. Not like people.” He clenched his fists, hands balling into feathers. “People don’t have sympathy for anything.”

Father trapped animals and kept them. Filling the back of the truck and stacked under the carport, we had raccoons in cages, one-eyed jackrabbits, bobcats worn bald from throwing themselves at the wire, a bunch of armadillos. Of course we had birds. Father raised his hands to the sky and said, “This is how you make magic.” Wild animals full of life surrounded the old truck to keep that metal heart pounding. If a rabbit sneezed or raccoon lay over in its cage, he took it away. “Get gone, broke alternator,” he shouted, and ran the animal back into the woods. All the animals made a good racket, and that brought cops. They told us we weren’t supposed to even keep them, that wild animals weren’t pets. Our father shook his head, hair swinging. “Not pets,” he said. “I ain’t pet them once.”

The landlord hated us most. Came over wearing his big boots and hanging gut, squinting in the sunlight. He told us, “Y’all’s the worst tenants I got. Bring down the whole place.”

“I always pay my rent,” our father said. Tall and quiet, our lanky father in worn-out denim.

The landlord spat at his feet, right there on the ground we paid him for. “You always pay it late.”

“You can’t put people out in this weather.” Our father under an open sky, sly and terrifying. He knew things no one else could.

The landlord looked up, the air hot and heavy and Texas dry. “It ain’t rained in a month,” he said.

“There’s a storm coming, sure.” Father looked up to the clear blue like he could see it.

We ran around the house, knocking into each other and tripping over furniture, getting all tangled up until we couldn’t tell our brothers from ourselves. “What are we going to do, Father?” we asked him. We started picking up boxes full of trash—this one stacked with newspaper, this one with rain-rusted screws and bolts, another one full of feathers. “We’ll clean it right up,” we squawked. “We’ll make it right, and he won’t put us out.”

Father swore and smacked our hands. “Sit right down. I’ve got a refrigerator full of scrap metal and gravel buried in the back yard. All that weight. He can’t make us budge.” He fried us up something for dinner, made us shower in twos except for the oldest to save hot water, slicked down our dark heads with his hand and put us in bed. Like every night, we asked him why we didn’t have a mother. Like every night, he said the same damn things.

“She was beautiful,” he said. “But her parents didn’t like me much.”

“Where is she?” we asked. “Is she dead?”

“I saved her.” Father put his hands around the lamp bulb and shadows writhed over the walls. “There was a black storm rolling in, ready to carry me away. She was always the one for me. So I tied my last feather around her wrist. The storm hit, and we flew right through the air. We were like birds. We rode the storm to a new land where people weren’t so hateful. Or maybe all the people looked like me and were magicians. Or maybe there weren’t no people at all. Anyway, that part ain’t important.”

“What happened to her after?”

“We lived,” he paused here to kiss our foreheads and stuff the blanket under our necks, “so happy for the rest of our lives.”

• • • •

Getting ready for school, we pulled out an old shoebox and looked at the tiny shirts again, like every morning. There were five in the box, and we used to think they were baby clothes. But we could wear them on our hands, could stick our fingers out of the sleeves and neck. No baby was that small. And the insides of the shirts were studded with soft, black feathers, small as our pinky nails. We heard father coughing and kicking through the house, and we hid the shirts away.

On the bus to school, the other kids put their feet up and wouldn’t let us sit. The five of us crammed ourselves into two seats near the front. People said we had lice, but most days we didn’t believe it. An older boy stood with his head by the open window. He screwed up his mouth and spit part of his breakfast across the neck of our smallest brother, something brown and dirty and thick as bird shit. We were too busy laughing about the little shirts to notice, or that’s how we lied to ourselves. We grinned. It was ridiculous. Of course we’d never been crows. We had always been brothers.

At the stop after ours, five sisters lived. They were older than us, but poor like we were, and that made us the same. They had holes in their stockings, all their clothes were bleached as pale as the white-blond hair that fell down their backs. They squeezed our shoulders with their sticky fingers, sat on and between and around us, made our circle their circle, split us up and made us bigger. Their milky breath in our faces, their roving green eyes, their scuffed knees and elbows, the way they listened to us like we were worth something. They made us believe everything our father had said about magic.

Not crows, but we were something. We decided that we must be lost magicians, strange and powerful like our father. Waiting for the lightning to wake up in us and a storm to take us home. Waiting for people to see that we weren’t the nothing they thought we were.

We asked the sisters what they thought. They’d already decided they were witches, brewing truth cut with loneliness in their kitchen sink. We nodded, sold on it. We would never be the ones to tell them what they couldn’t be.

When the bus stopped at our house that afternoon, through the window we saw a pink paper flapping on our door. All the kids on the bus were whispering about it and staring at us. We heard the words, “Eviction notice.” When we fought our way out of our seats and scrambled to the front, they stood and cheered behind us. They whooped and clapped and told us to go. They said to take our lice with us. They said that their fathers worked hard while our father did nothing, that we were scavengers, crows eating their scraps. The bus driver stared at us in his mirror but did nothing, letting us know that he felt the same.

Our father was cracking trays of ice cubes onto the yellow dirt around the house, wiping his brow and exaggerating his limp. “Have to do something about this heat,” he said. We read the eviction notice. It seemed clear enough. We had a month. We filed in, loose sleeves hanging toward the ground.

Father came inside, knocked a foot-high stack of junk mail off his armchair, sank down heavy on the old springs. “We’re flying out of here,” he told us.

We nodded. Finding a stack of old liquor boxes and opening them up, we started to pack.

“What are you doing?” Father asked.

“We have to move.”

“No, no, no.” Father took the boxes out of our hands, threw them out the door and into the hot yard. “Not that way.” He got a cigar box of old feathers and a spool of kite string. He had us help him tie feathers to every individual thing: coffee mug handles, key rings, door knobs, shoes, chairs. Even the silverware, a feather tied to every spoon. “When the storm comes to take us away, everything has to fly. Tie a feather to what you want to save.”

We didn’t believe him, but we loved him. So we did what he wanted. Some of the feathers were broken, and we held them up.

He smiled. “Use those for things that aren’t so important.”

We found five perfect feathers, big and satiny black, the edges like blades. He closed our hands around them, one for each of us. “Use those for what you want to keep most.”

It was an easy choice. That afternoon we ran over to the sisters’ house, each of us holding up his one perfect feather. We’d balled the others into our pockets, and they shed in the wind and floated off as we ran. “A new game,” we told the sisters. “Wear a black feather in your white hair and live happily ever after.”

The sisters laughed. “Not our hair,” they said. “Not those dirty feathers.”

“You have to,” we told them. “This is the only way to be safe from the storm that’s coming.” We lied a little, but only because we loved them so much. We’d trust in any magic that would let us save them.

“If you’re sure this will protect us,” they said, putting the feathers in their hair. We told them that their lives depended on it. We took more feathers out of our pockets and showed the sisters how to tie them to anything they wanted to take when the storm carried them off. “Where will the storm take us?” they asked, and we told them about the most amazing places. Castles made of star and cloud, places with snow in the winter and fields of thick grass in the summer, with fruit trees that were heavy with peaches, and somewhere a dark and smiling woman who was our mother, just as our father had said. We ran circles through the yard, chasing sisters and stabbing feathers into the ground, and for a little while, we even believed our lie.

We left the eviction notice on the door and had a month of feather play. We ran through the town with the sisters and put the feathers everywhere. At the bank, where sprinklers fought to keep the lawn green, we sent handfuls of feathers shooting up the tubes. They spiraled around inside like tornadoes of oil smoke. We went into the neighbor’s yard at night, the one with the yellow sports car, and put a single feather in his gas tank. We left them rocking like ships on the water at the wishing fountain in the mall. At the comic shop, we slipped big ones into comic books and small ones into decks of cards. There was a thin creek we loved, a place where we played with the sisters, damming it up with stones and digging it out deeper, catching crawdads and baby jackfish. We studded the hard clay bottom of the creek with feathers, their points sticking up like weeds, the slow current waving their tips. If we were going somewhere, we wanted to take this with us. That month, playing with the sisters and working our father’s sympathetic magic, we looked up at the stars at night and found it easy to believe that the universe might care about us.

Coming and going from the house, we saw our father laboring over a pile of quilts in the kitchen, fabric shears and heavy needle and thread on the table, heaps of feathers scattered around and settled deep onto the floor. His fingers fluttered up and down, the feather tattoos on them swirling in and out of each other. “It’s going to be a big storm when it comes,” he told us. We’d been putting feathers on everything we owned for weeks. Father had been covering the old house in feathers since the day we’d moved in, but it wasn’t ours. We understood him wanting to believe that it was. Sometimes belief was the only thing that was yours.

• • • •

Tomorrow was the day we would have to leave. Cop cars had been creeping by the house all week. An officer stopped, parked his car behind father’s truck, and got out. He came onto the porch and looked in through the open doorway, fingering the little feathers hanging off our belongings like yard sale price tags. Light slid metallic off his sunglasses. “How’s the packing coming?” he asked. “Won’t be any trouble come time to move, will it?”

“Won’t be any trouble at all,” Father said. “It’s all ready to go.” We weren’t sure what our father believed or what he might do, why he wouldn’t let us fill boxes. We loved him. But we were also afraid of him.

On his way out, the cop stopped at the cages where animals growled and cawed at each other. “What about all this? You just setting them loose?”

“I’m bringing every one,” said our father.

That night, he tucked us into our old bed for the last time. It was too much finally, and we cried. We begged to pack, but he made us lie in the bed. We thought of all the things we had marked with feathers—the car, the bank, the fountain, the creek, and the five sisters. We would go some new place and lose everything that we loved.

“Where will we go?” we asked him. “Will we be with our mother?” We meant dead, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to say it. Because on the same day that we’d been spit on and found found out we were being evicted, that we realized we were nothing and everyone knew it, we had decided that our mother must be dead.

“The storm coming tomorrow will be big,” father said. “Five times bigger than the one that picked up me and your mother years ago. But it’s nothing to be afraid of. It took us to a new land.”

“Everyone here hates us,” we cried.

“Me and your mother were brought to a place where we had everything. A beautiful house, green hills, a river crashing down a mountain, and cool wind at night. We lived our whole lives there, happy.”

We buried our faces in the covers and spoke through them. “Father,” we said, “we don’t have anything beautiful. This is the desert. Our mother is dead. We have never been happy here.”

When we stuck our noses like beaks over the edge of the blanket, he was gone, back in the kitchen stitching and cutting. We held each other, talked about the very worst thing that could happen, and we waited for it.

• • • •

Before the sun was up, the landlord was there, beating on the door and shouting. We could hear him kicking things off the porch with his boots and swearing at us. Police car lights flashed through our window. Our father waited in the cramped living room with a coat for each of us. “Put it on before you walk out.” He’d taken quilts and sewn them into loose jackets, but they were studded on both sides with overlapping black feathers. Down feathers underneath and stiff ones for catching wind on top. The coats shimmered blackly. We put them on, tight under our armpits and hugging our sides, and we felt like crow boys for sure.

He opened the door and gestured for us to walk out. We hopped blinking into the sun, and the cops made way for us. The landlord said that social services should take us away. Then our father stepped through the door. He had taken off all his clothes, and we saw that he was covered in feather tattoos. He had them inked down his arms and legs. Fans of them turned his shoulder blades into black wings. They threaded in and out of each other on his spine. The wind started up blowing hard, and his hair drifted in it, long and dark like a ribbon of smoke. We bounced on our toes and waved our arms to let the breeze flow under and around us.

The cops, trussed up tight in their blue uniforms, grinned at our father. “You’re not taking anything, huh?” one of them asked. “Not one stitch.”

Our father smiled. “No,” he said. “I’m taking it all.”

The wind blew harder and harder, picking up loose sand and throwing it against the line of cars. It was easy then to lift our arms, to hop on our delicate feet, and let it carry us up. We looked at each other, beaked and winged, our legs little more than sticks of bone and claw. We laughed in our harsh voices, rising up on the wind and circling one another. It was ridiculous. Of course we’d never been brothers. We had always been crows.

Below us, we saw that our father had risen too, but clumsily, his body thrown around by the wind. He curled into a feather-covered ball of skin, protecting his head with his hands. We spread out and let the air twist beneath us. Below, hundreds of tiny feathers waved, some breaking free and getting sucked up into the storm that was gathering around us. We were each the eye of a tornado, wind and sand and black feathers coalescing into something that could shake the earth.

From the air, the landlord and the police were only mites, jumping into their cars and fleeing, driving blind through wind and sand, running off the road in their hurry. We rose higher and higher, and the earth lifted beneath us. The first thing pulled up was the house. The roof split apart and was sucked up in pieces, then all the things inside went, and finally the boards below broke loose like piano keys and swirled around us. The animals rose in their cages, an inhuman cacophony, and we screamed too in our throaty way. We raked our five funnels across the neighbor’s yard and picked up his yellow car. It collided through the wreckage of the house, battering itself to pieces in the air, until the windshield powdered and the doors knocked in.

We drifted. The creek blasted apart under us, and the air turned bloody with clay and water; our tornadoes became cyclones of red dirt and black feathers. The bodies of fish tumbled, arced like silvery boomerangs on the air. We drifted into town and found the bank. Peeled it apart brick by brick, and then gathered up everything inside, a shower of pens and paper. The vault lay exposed beneath us, a heart too heavy to lift.

We moved farther and faster, headed for the wide horizon. Our father shouted through the wind, “Take me to fruit trees and green grass! Take me to the girl I’ve always loved!” He had told us that he saved the woman he loved, the one who should have been our mother. Maybe he’d tried. That’s what he wanted to have happened, anyway. But our father couldn’t save anyone.

We came to the home of the sisters. They pressed their pale faces to the windows and held their perfect black feathers. In an instant, their lights went out and we could see them no more. Their small house was pulled up whole into the storm, rolling between the five of us, a hail of debris strafing it from every side. We screamed our chorus, booming caws that echoed up from the mouths of five tornadoes, answered by thunder and lightning. Our father spun through the air and moaned, carried along as helpless as the rest of us. He was a liar. We were the same.

Micah Dean Hicks

A white man with a shaved head, glasses, and red goatee smiling in front of a forest of twisting branches, vines, and saw palmettos.

Micah Dean Hicks is the author of the novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones and the story collection Electricity and Other Dreams. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, has been awarded the Calvino Prize, and is a two-time finalist for the Nelson Algren Award. His writing has appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The New York Times, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and elsewhere. Hicks grew up in rural southwest Arkansas and now lives in Houston.