Hill Murder

06/12/23

Dad was gone. Mom, her cheekbone cracked from his most recent liquor-fueled rage, mourned only the loss of his truck, not that we left home much. We were the last of the holdouts, still living on the hill in the season of endless fire.

The crows stayed with us despite the smoke. They were so loyal Ava wanted to sew them little masks and bandanas like the ones we had to wear outside. Three days after Dad went missing, they stationed themselves in the trees outside the sunroom where we had our meals. Mom served corn soup in our antique silver tureen, and while we were eating, the crows made a low clicking noise that doesn’t even sound like it comes from a bird.

“They only rattle like that when they’re with family,” Mom said. “They must trust us.”

#

Not getting hurt was our goal growing up. We didn’t want the black eyes and belt marks Mom got. We learned to be silent and stealthy and to clear out at the first sign of trouble. Home was blissful when Dad was gone on a bender, and I could imagine a better life with the three of us alone in our little house, the canyon spread out below. He always came back, though, like an old dog with nowhere else to go.

The black sky and constant sting of smoke turned up the pressure on our fragile household. Dad threatened to leave for good, going so far as to load the truck with his possessions. One afternoon I noticed something glinting in the bed of the truck, so I went out to look. I wasn’t the only one. Three crows, drawn by the beguiling object, had perched nearby. I saw immediately what they wanted: Mom’s beloved soup tureen. “Oh no you didn’t,” I whispered as I grabbed our family heirloom and headed back to the house.

Dad flew out the front door and blocked my way. “Stop right there, Tara.”

“This is Mom’s, from her side of the family. You have no right.”

“Everything here is my property. Unless you want things to go badly for you, you’ll put it back. Go ahead, I’ll wait.”

He was twice my size, but I stood my ground, furious with adrenaline. He pushed me down, knocking the wind out of me. When he drew his arm back, I turned my head to spare my face, but the blow never fell. I heard a fatal crunch and then Dad collapsed on top of me. The tureen slammed into my chest.

I looked up to see Ava standing over us, a bat in her hands. There was blood everywhere.

“Get him off me,” I said.

I flashed back to all the war stories Dad used to tell although he never saw combat. He loved the idea that people will commit atrocities to survive during wartime. He even told us stories of women suffocating their own babies while hiding from soldiers, or people cannibalizing their relatives in the dead of winter.

Ava and I were two girls in a war, taking care of the homestead, saving our family.

#

Crows mate for life; the whole crow community bands together to take care of the chicks. The one time they’ll keep quiet is when they’re protecting their young.

Crows are good parents. Other birds will lay their eggs in crows’ nests to give their offspring a better chance at survival. The thing is: crows are smart. They know how many eggs are in the nest. If you want to sneak your egg in, you have to push a crow egg out first.

Ava recited these crow facts after we had made everything disappear. The body, the truck, the blood. She was able to cry, finally, as we sat down for a meal in the sunroom.

There was fresh soup in the silver tureen. Mom served us and smiled. “You two must have come from the crow eggs that were pushed out of the nest.” The rattling sound began in the trees all around us. “Just listen to them.”

~ fin ~

Jan Profile 2023

Jan Stinchcomb is the author of Verushka (JournalStone), The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have appeared in Bourbon Penn, SmokeLong Quarterly and Menacing Hedge, among other places. A Pushcart nominee, she is featured in Best Microfiction 2020 and The Best SmallFictions 2018 & 2021. She lives in Southern California with her family and is an associate fiction editor for Atticus Review.