Early one morning, in the cool of a new Autumn, a sad, beautiful girl wandered alone in the woods.
The chill frosted Tabitha’s cheeks a soft, pliant shade of pink as she buried her hands in her skirts to keep them warm. Her task was to gather mushrooms, and she bore it the best she could, her young body aching as it was with bruised tributes of her Stepmother’s hatred.
Tabitha was kneeling next to a thick tree trunk, hands busily working to unearth a crop of mushrooms, when a large black crow appeared in the sky.
She marveled at its magnificent wingspan as it descended lower and lower, finally coming to land beside her wicker basket. The force of his landing fanned the fragrant woodland air onto Tabitha’s face, as she gasped at his closeness and boldness. The black crow hopped a few steps closer to the girl, never taking his gaze off her. He was huge, larger than any bird she had ever seen up close. She stared into his tiny black beads of eyes, mystified at the shrewdness she saw there.
As he regarded her, head cocked slightly to the side, Tabitha recalled an old proverb about black crows. Legend said that they were messengers of death. Or was it messengers of divine providence? She couldn’t remember. Surely, a black crow had delivered a message of the Great Flood to Noah in the bible. It was a warning; a message of salvation. Perhaps, she mused, this crow was bringing her a message from the gods?
The silent exchange between girl and crow continued, taking on an otherworldly intensity. She almost expected him to open his beak and talk to her. “Will you tell me a story, Crow?” Tabitha said to the creature, her soft voice startling in the stillness of the wood. He blinked at her quickly, three times.
In her next breath, she began remembering a tale from her childhood. It was a German folktale about seven boys who were turned into crows, and the younger sister who set alone out to search for them. She recalled one ghastly image from the story most of all; that of the sister cutting off her own finger to fashion the bone into a key, which released her brothers from their captivity inside the Glass Mountain.
“Are you here for my finger, you black-hearted beast?” she giggled to the darkly feathered bird, who cocked his head quizzically in reply.
Tabitha had once seen a man’s hand severed clean from his wrist in the marketplace, as punishment for stealing. The bones had looked like perfect white spheres in the midst of the dark red flesh, before the blood had surged forth and enveloped everything else.
Shocking, she had thought, that underneath our skin we all look like raw cuts of beef, and nothing grander than that.
She brushed the earth from her hands and regarded one of her slender, white fingers closely. She would part with it for her own freedom in a heartbeat, but what about the freedom of a beloved sibling? Perhaps if Tabitha had not been born an only child, she’d have an answer to that question.
Instead, she was born to a doting, if not very bright, father and a vain and disinterested mother. Her mother had stayed long enough to nurse Tabitha out of infancy, before leaving the village with a troupe of traveling actors. The girl only remembered snatches of her; golden hair and a laugh that sounded like windchimes caught in a hurricane.
Eventually her father had remarried in hopes of finding a maternal figure for his sweet little Tabitha. Unfortunately for them both, his choice of women was even more abysmal the second time around. His new wife was a cruel sadist, who quickly developed a sharp and all-consuming desire for the torment of her stepdaughter.
Tabitha snapped out of her reverie, knowing that if she was late home she’d be beaten worse than she had been yesterday. “I have to go,” she whispered to the crow. “Fly away for me. Far, far from here.” The strange bird watched her leave, her scared, pretty little face turning back several times to see if he were still there.
Later that night, as she cooked a mutton stew for dinner, Tabitha realised that her father was not coming home. He must have opted to escape the hostility of their cottage for the local tavern, instead. Wracked with guilt and misery, he’d been poisoning himself with ale more and more these days.
“Serve me quickly, stupid girl,” her Stepmother snapped. “You’ve kept me waiting long enough.”
Tabitha swiftly ladled the stew into her Stepmother’s bowl and brought it to the table, set for one. As she placed it before her with a shaking left hand, her right hand was grasped brutally by much stronger, sharper fingers. The girl stifled a cry as the woman twisted her wrist back painfully, pulling her close to her face, mangled into a snarl.
“Don’t you dare keep me waiting next time.”
She released Tabitha suddenly, causing her to stumble back from the table and almost fall over. The girl recovered her footing and limped back to the kitchen to the worn chair facing the wall that she was required to sit in while her Stepmother ate her meals. She stared at the wall silently as her heartbeat slowly subsided.
She could hear the rhythmic sound of her tormentor’s chewing, smell the delicious, hearty aroma of the stew, and her stomach growled miserably. She’d be lucky to get a hunk of stale bread before she was sent to bed this evening.
Alert as she was to her senses, the sound of a sharp intake of breath, followed by a distinct “aaack” sound startled Tabitha. She risked turning her head to discover the source of the disruption. Her Stepmother sat at the table bolt upright, hands desperately clutched to her throat, eyes opened wide in fright. Heaving, guttural noises escaped from her, sounds that possessed no air to soften them.
Stepmother was choking.
Tabitha watched in fascination as the woman’s body became a primal thing, entirely a slave to its will to keep on breathing, keep on living. She pushed out from the table with flailing legs and fell to the floor, writhing and ripping at her chest and throat, tearing the fine fabric of her gown. She fought hard for breath - perhaps the only valiant thing Tabitha had ever seen her do.
The violent bodily spasms eventually became less and less energetic, as her Stepmother’s reddened face began to turn a bluish shade. The dying woman fixed her eyes firmly on the girl’s in a silent plea, reaching her arms out toward her chair in the kitchen.
Tabitha sat, frozen.
Stepmother’s arms finally fell to the floor beside her, her tongue lolling slightly out of her mouth. The girl watched as one second there was an ounce of life left in her eyes and the next, it was gone. The silence in the room in that moment hit Tabitha like a slap in the face, breaking her trance.
Her Stepmother was dead, and she’d done not a single thing to help her.
But what had she choked on? Tabitha had deboned the mutton thoroughly before cooking it. Moving slowly, her soft steps danced across the floor to where her Stepmother’s body lay, glazed eyes open. The woman looked malevolent even in death.
Tabitha knelt down and reached the fingers of her right hand into the woman’s mouth, pushing deeper past the back of her throat until she felt something hard. It took a while to loosen it, embedded as it was in the flesh of the throat. Finally, she pulled it clear and out of the mouth of the dead woman.
Tabitha regarded the object closely. It was the colour of ivory, slickened with saliva. The shape of it didn’t make sense at first, yet as she handled it a strange feeling of deja vu struck her, hard.
“No, no, no…” Tabitha groaned, dropping the object to the floor. “It can’t be!”.
She felt nauseous as she peered down at it again. Yes, there it was. Plucked straight from her morning’s morbid reverie.
A long, slender piece of bone, carved into the sharp shape of a key.
Slowly, Tabitha forced herself to look at her left hand. Her empty stomach retched violently when she saw it. There, where her ring finger should be, was nothing. Nothing but a fresh wound, neatly cleaned and sealed.
The crow waited on the windowsill, watching as Tabitha sobbed.
He waited until the moment she gathered her wits and hardened in resolve, dragging the body to the large fireplace and heaving it in there, replacing the logs and kindling around it, lighting the fire. He waited as she observed the flesh char down until it was nothing but ash. He waited as she swept the hearth and straightened the furniture. He waited until she walked back the kitchen, and sat down silently.
The black crow waited until he saw the secret smile form on Tabitha’s lips, and only then did he stretch his wings and fly.
Far, far away.