“If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows”
– Reverend Henry Ward Beecher
He clenched the nest-edge with hoary claws, his body a balanced knot of avian muscle.
Widely-spaced eyes inspected wings now clear of first-year molt. Dark wings. Black wings. Or so they would appear to lesser eyes. Beneath his own exacting vision they shimmered in swirling patterns of cobalt and cerulean, azure and sapphire. Likewise elaborate were the subtle decorations adorning his bullet-like body, distinctive, unique, his. His birthing rotte would recognize him a mile out, knowing him by these markings before placing his rasping caw, or closer, his name.
Which was Tuft.
He perched on the edge of his parent’s nest, a first-year cock, his recently-hatched siblings chirping at his back. He spread wide his wings, his helmet-round head swiveling to review his featherlines; order and lay. He flexed his wrists, feeling the smooth play of muscle and bone, the cartilage and membrane giving him absolute control of every feather and flight surface. With adolescent pride he savored the perfection.
Grow, he silently commanded his siblings. Grow and seek the ideal that is me.
As noted, he was young.
From the vantage point in the fork of a venerable oak, he looked out over his domain. At his back, pines and scrub; dull, hardscrabble, worthless. Yet before him lay a new and bountiful world. Soil churned and raw, its delectable crawlers exposed. Flight-restricting pines toppled. And standing in pastel newness in this fresh clearing, a line of tallpink hives reverberating from thudding music and whining tools. In a single lunar span, progressive change had swept away the sober forest and seated these hives. Now the world held easy food and interesting amusements, the two primary essentials of the crowfolk.
Beyond the new hives stood others, a grid stretching south. Tuft and his parents had joined loose schwarms with other crowfolk, mapping out the new paradise, marking howler food bowls, translating the cycle of the refuse-bags, noting the hunting blinds of the slinkers. The world was theirs for the pecking.
But this world wasn’t enough.
Nights ago, he’d stood sentry over the nest with this father, Twig-Fallen. The two shared a branch and scanned the nocturnal heavens. Beyond the hivegrid with its blue-flickering windows and moon-barking howlers, beyond the lighttrees and blindly meandering shells, the southern sky glowed.
It hung like a golden curtain across every night of Tuft’s singular year of existence, a luminosity bold enough to challenge the moon and sweep away the stars. Jewels moved across the garish radiance. Beams tickled cloud bellies. Tuft had viewed its cellophane-sparkle with wonderment, his dark eyes mirroring its radiance.
“What causes it, father?”
“Hives,” Twig cawed low. “Many, many hives. Hives stacked upon others, more than you can imagine.”
Tuft studied the radiant glow, head cocked, not sure if he believed such a thing. There were so many tallpinks in the hives arrayed nearby. How could there be any more in the world?
“Hundreds of hives,” Twig continued. “Thousands of hives. And shells. And howlers and slinkers. So many tallpinks that they fill every scrap of ground, wiggling like crawlers in a stump. More than all the feathers you will ever molt.”
Tuft glanced over to see if the elder’s beak chattered with laughter but his father seemed sincere. Finally: “Why don’t we go there?” More daringly: “We should go there.”
“My rotte is here. My nest is here. Besides, more of my life is pastward than comeward—I am too old to find my place with them.”
“Them? So there are other crowfolk there?”
“A geschwader of them. Enough crows to blacken the sky.”
“Nothing can blacken that tallpink sky,” Tuft observed, eyes mesmerized by skyfire.
“You have everything here,” his father noted, distractedly scratching his beakline with a claw. “Here lies your rotte. Here lies your nest. Here lies easy food and open spaces. The tallpinks’ commotion keeps the shadows away. The howlers are dumb and the slinkers predictable.” As if to end it, Twig hopped away to another branch, positioning himself to face the dark forest, the siren lights to his back. “I see no reason to consider such a flight.”
The young cock remained facing south. Reason has nothing to do with it, his internal voice cawed.
But this had been his pastward-self, which he consulted little more than its comeward counterpart. Tuft stood true in the present, on the rim of his parent’s nest with his back to the siblings he’d helped raise, resolve crystallizing. He flapped, once, again, the air pillowing beneath his inner wings. Farewells were not the way of the folk. Without an explanation to his parental rotte nor a word to his tiny siblings, he beat his wings a third time, harder. His claws left the nest and folded neatly against his belly. And he was gone.