Copyright is held by the author.
The boy’s heart beat hard against his ribs. He raised his arm and took aim. It was an easy shot; any fool could make it. Well, maybe not anybody. He grinned recalling the praise and gifts so recently lavished upon him celebrating his hunting prowess and his transition from boyhood.
A blue, woollen cloak, woven by his mother, hung in soft folds from his shoulders to his knees. The sturdy, red calfskin boots were a gift from his father. Together, they put swagger in his step, and he knew for the first time the thrill of young women’s come-hither smiles. Friends vied for his attention and he enjoyed their envious looks when they believed he wasn’t looking. He closed one eye, held his breath, and released the stone. It cut through the late afternoon air and found its target with a dull thud.
The bird swayed before toppling to the dirt at his feet. Its body, now a clumsy lump-of-a-thing, lay splayed on the ground, all evidence of its vibrant and mysterious life erased. A trickle of dark blood seeped out from under the raven’s iridescent feathers and formed a crimson pool that set like custard on the cool dry earth. The raven’s black bead eyes, already turning milky, remained fixed on the human holding the slingshot.
He nudged the motionless bird with the toe of his polished boot to confirm his kill. Only then did he allow himself to exhale. His warm breath exploded into the chilly evening air, creating a fog of pride and exultation. He listened, waiting for the primitive, adolescent baying of his friends as they celebrated his cunning and bravery. But there was only silence. A backward glance told him his comrades had abandoned him. At the last moment their bravado and courage faded along with the daylight, and they ran from the fool who had just murdered a raven.
Standing over his dead prey, the truth seeped into his core. There would be a price to pay, he saw that now. Why else had his companions, who had so recently spurred him on, slipped away down narrow lanes and through back fields like silent wraiths the moment his back was turned? Glancing up into the evening sky, he felt the change in the air. An unusual darkness blotted out the evening stars.
His slingshot fell from his hand and bounced on the hard ground. Why had he made it in the first place? There were so many useful things he could have made with that sturdy maple branch. And why had he aimed at the black bird that perched on the low hanging oak branch? The rationale for his actions deserted him, skulking into the gloom after his friends. He was alone.
“Never kill a raven.” The words resounded in his ears as the impenetrable darkness descended on him. All the childhood warnings about ravens had flown from his brain, driven out by his need to prove something. What had been so important? He couldn’t remember now. He did recall boasting his contempt for the counsel and the old ways of the elders, who oft times filled dark, smoky rooms with fearsome tales of the wrath of the Raven clan.
The night air chilled his bones and threatened the summer crops still in the fields. The world grew still. No birdsong or insect chirping broke the quiet. No breeze ruffled the grasses, and the leaves hung motionless on the trees. The urge to run overwhelmed him, but the pain in his hands and feet made movement impossible. The agony travelled up his legs to his torso, doubling him over with its force. His breath came in ragged gasps. His fists clenched and his arms contorted; his world spun.
The pain in his face was the worst. His eyes seemed to pop from their sockets and his teeth were falling from his mouth. He clutched at his face to keep it from falling away, but found to his terror his hands were not hands. His screams came out as dry, raucous cries. He thought of his mother’s warm kitchen and the family waiting there for him. Please, he begged the darkness that engulfed him, please. I just want to go home. It was too late.
Spring came after a long and vicious winter. An early frost had destroyed many crops. Famine and illness, death and grief had kept the villagers company during the dark time. But the sun returned and the snow shrivelled leaving mud and hope in its place. Daffodils raced to the surface of the soggy earth with their relentless enthusiasm while violets followed with dignity and restraint. Buds were fat and plentiful on trees, and birds returned to the valley.
A woman walked along the river’s edge. Her steps were slow and heavy and she kept her head down as though searching for something. Her small son dawdled along behind, revelling in this new season. A harsh cry from a low hanging oak branch made the little boy look up.
“Mama,” he called, his stubby finger pointing to a scrawny raven huddled amongst the budding leaves. His mother looked up, gasped and fell to the ground. The bird hopped from the branch with awkward, outstretched wings, its calls plaintive and hoarse. The little boy’s eyes bulged and his jaw gaped as he watched his mother pick up the bird. Tears ran down her face onto its dull black feathers as she cradled it to her. “My boy, my boy,” She sobbed. The raven, wearing small red boots and blue, woolen cape, breathed a sigh of relief. He was home at last.