My body arched under the defibrillators, again and again. Why wouldn’t they leave me alone?
A dull throb rose in my ears, quieter than a few moments ago; a regular, slight sound, washing over the other intrusions and my skin prickled. I looked around wide-eyed; dawn had broken, and tall trees surrounded me. I’d expected a tunnel, not a forest.
Soft light eked through the tree tops and early morning mist put everything into soft focus. The sudden shock of cold air forced me to cough and condensation rose from my breath as I looked round. Tall oak trees with gnarled branches dominated, smaller trees and shrubs jostled for space and light, the entire forest floor lay littered with leaf detritus and brambles. The place felt ancient and somehow, I knew I didn’t belong.
A damp smell—rotting leaves and dank, mossy branches—got up my nose and I pulled a face in disgust, but no-one was around to see. It was just me and the trees. I walked, realising I only wore one shoe, the other was missing along with its matching sock and mud oozed up between my toes with every step. Everywhere was sticky and vile-smelling with no clear path. Where was I?
Moving forward, I stumbled into a clearing. Here, more light shone through the trees, and a fallen log provided seated respite from everything underfoot. The grating sound of a crow cawing echoed round but otherwise everything was quiet and still, not even the trees moved. A second crow joined the first, and then another, disturbing the peace.
With rising noise, a mild breeze whispered through the tops of the trees. Hard to see at first, it fast became unmissable. The crows sounded riled, whipping themselves into a distant frenzy. Their cawing came faster, louder, more forceful until its deafening cacophony drilled through my skull. I tried blocking out the sound by shoving my hands over my ears but still it came. Louder. Louder. Louder.
The trees swayed and bent in the growing gust and I imagined the crows’ wings beating in time to their call, creating this phenomenon. But there were no birds, just their deafening noise and the wind. And then I saw them. A looming dark cloud moving as one body. Whump. Whump. Whump. The ground shook from deep beneath me as the shape veered closer and closer.
It spiralled inwards towards the clearing and in the semi, flickering darkness, I stumbled backward from it. My feet caught in the undergrowth and a thorn twisted into my heel, but I kept scrambling despite the pain, my hands desperate for purchase as they groped behind me. I pressed against a solid oak blocking my path, rough bark gouging my skin. I watched, trapped, as hordes of crows poured into the clearing: high speed, synchronised, taking up too much space. They couldn’t fit, they shouldn’t fit.
I screwed my eyes tight shut. I didn’t want to see the carnage, a thousand self-inflicted deaths, Kamikaze pilots in crow-form. But then, silence.
Hairs prickled on the back of my neck and I slowly opened my eyes. My vision jolted and jarred on the thing in front of me. Was I looking at a coalescence of winged shapes or something more solid? I shook my head a few times, things finally coming into focus, to see a woman standing there, watching me.
“So, you came,” she said. Her voice was smooth as honey and as rasping as a thousand crows. It cut through my overwhelmed senses, buzzing in the base of my skull until I didn’t know whether she was speaking out loud or in my head.
I stared. She stood, tall, regal, imperious. Where the light caught, an oily rainbow slick flashed over her jet-black hair. Her features were birdlike: sharp cheekbones, dark, penetrating eyes.
I didn’t know what to say, and she remained silent, contemplating. Cocking her head and fixing me with a piercing gaze, a wry smile spread over her face. She held out her hand and I grasped it, her skin delicate and bony in my rough, mud-hewn fingers, and with a strength that belied her frame, she pulled me to my feet. Standing so close, a shiver ran the length of my body and she didn’t let go, her fingers circling my wrist as though testing for a pulse.
“Can you hear it?” she asked.
“Hear what?” And then, there it was, the dull throb that had accompanied me into this dreamscape. A quiet beat; the opposite of the deafening maelstrom of only moments before. Reality bent and stretched in front of me as I listened pulled into a foggy, hypnotic state; I was no longer sure of the laws of physics and nature. I might have been listening for hours, the ability to understand time a long-lost luxury.
“Oh, you can!” Another smile crossed her face before it twisted into an unreadable expression. “It’s coming.”
A vortex opened beneath us and we tumbled down and down and… I was a bird on the wing, one of a flock. Wind rushed through my feathers, my eyes sharp, instinct telling me when to dip and turn. I whooped in unadulterated joy, a rasping caw leaving my beak in triumph. We swooped and dived, a dark cloud obscuring the landscape. This was freedom. This was joy.
But the ground rushed to meet me as my heart began to sing. I staggered, limbs awkward, suddenly unaccustomed to my body. Trying to speak, my tongue stuck, and no words came out, just a crackle.
“Shhhh,” the Queen of the Crows said, pressing her hand to my heart. “You’re not ready to become crow-mine yet. You are still one of the living. I will wait for you.”
She slapped her open palm against my chest. Once, twice…
My body arched.