By Arlinda Vaughn, ~1100 words
A man passes by in an oxen-drawn carriage every day to his job as a blacksmith. He sees a beautiful baby with chestnut skin and curly hair, still donning its knotted loincloth. It is in the arms of a barefoot girl, her big sister perhaps. Rain, shine, the barefoot girl stands there. Tomorrow he will stop. Soon the big sister’s head hangs low. Soon she sits on the earth. She is pale and thin, yet the man passes her by.
But the ravens and the crows stalk and wait.
Tomorrow he will shoo the birds and offer the child some bread. Time passes, then more time, then more again. Today the child lies still on the clay earth. This time, he stops. He will help. It might not be too late. Later he will explain to the owner of the forge why he was tardy. Today, he will give the child bread. Today he will cover the baby with cloth. But today the child’s eyes are wide, unblinking. She is artwork, a perch. Ravens sit on her head. Crows on her hips.
This flesh that lies on this earth, to whom does it belong?
He swings wildly, frantically, desperately to rid her of these birds. But they are bolder than he could have imagined. Relentless. They dig their talons into her flesh. Ravens on her cheeks; Crows on her thighs. They try to lift and pull while soldiers push back this human intruder. However, they tug in two different directions and the prize is just too heavy. The oxen stare at the man.
Humans pass, oblivious, apathetic.
Her unblinking eyes tell him to move on. Yesterday was not too late. Today is. But where is the baby? Is it too late for it? Can he give it bread? He stands tall searching with his eyes and his spirit. Then he prays to the gods unseen.
“If you show me the baby, I promise to watch over it forever”, he says.
The ravens and the oxen hang their heads; The crows jeer and mock. But he sees the baby. She sits in a gilded cage in a dusty dwelling with a view of distant mountains. He is elated. He has made so many of these cages; he knows exactly how to get her out. But when he reaches, he can only touch its shadows. His flesh is an unmoving mass on the clay earth where he left it. And he cannot move beyond the sight of the child.
For when you make a promise to the gods unseen, you always keep your word.
The baby grows, fed and nourished by the raven, mocked by the crow, watched by the man. Words come to her as if by magic. She learns the language of the raven, the language of the crow and somehow the language of man, though she had never actually heard him speak.
Such a gifted child with natural talent. Nourished but not taught. Mocked but not loved; watched but not supported. If only he could get her to trust the shadows; perhaps she would be free. Until then he watches her absorb the world. She grows older still and gains the ability to write. Daily she draws her symbols in the dust and watches them blow away as the breeze comes through the window each night.
“Would you like a feather?” the crow asks.
Her eyes brighten. She is six years old and she has never received a present.
“Here, use it to write,” it continues as it presents her with a feather so white, it seems to glow.
“But I don’t have any ink”, the girl replies.
“You have all the ink you need. Let me show you. Do you trust me?”
“Yes. I love you. You and raven are my only friends.”
“Give me your hand”.
The child puts one slender arm through the bars of the cage and the crow promptly stabs her with its beak.
“I am your friend. Whenever you need more, I will get it out for you.”
With every scarlet stroke of her pen a little bit of her life force bleeds onto the floor of her cage. The man knows that if she finishes her story, she will have none left. He screams and screams to warn the child, but she cannot hear him. He yells at the raven, but its job is to nourish not to instruct. And the crow only laughs and mocks and smiles into the shadows.
The man wills and begs the shadows to bend to envelope the child.
“Grow” he commands.
And through the force of his will, the shadows encroach upon her space.
The crow and raven leap.
The child retreats.
She had never noticed the man who has always been by her side.
Emboldened, he forces the shadow around the entire cage and with a loud dark crack breaks it in two, the metal a slave to its shadow’s will.
She stands naked and afraid.
“Run!” He says. Though she can hear him this time, her muscles do not move.
The crow laughs.
The raven hangs its head.
“This is your home,” the crow says.
The cage is gone but she fears the unknown. Does anything exist outside of this room? Is the window simply a painting? Had she imagined the wind?
“Child,” the man says. “Sometimes you cannot trust what you have always known. Now walk!! I will always be with you.” He steps into the center of her shadow and waits.
She walks forward cautiously, awkwardly, but constantly until she steps out of the room.
The man opens his eyes to find himself lying on the ground outside of his carriage. He looks into the unblinking eyes of a little girl who lies on the clay.
“I’m sorry. I did not help you.” He cries.
The raven holds its head high and flies away.
The crow hangs its head low and does the same.
The earth opens and embraces the child, pulling her into itself until he can see her no more.
Next to the mound where her big sister lies, comes the weak cries of a baby still in its knotted loin cloth.
He picks her up and looks into her eyes before he climbs into the carriage. With heads raised, the oxen turn around.
He had been too late for her big sister.
But today he will bring her home. She will meet his wife who will become her mother. She will meet his children who will become her brothers and sisters.
Tomorrow he will explain to the owner of the forge why he had not come to work.
But today, he will nourish her, support her, teach her, watch her, and love her … until the end.