“Hold your breath when a black bird flies, count to seventeen and close your eyes.” – S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W – My Chemical Romance
Yorkshire in winter can be a savage place, the moors particularly so. There’s no buffer to the wind that howls straight off the frozen rock, flinging snow and sleet at anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves outdoors, it will leave you fighting for breath in a matter of seconds. Only the adventurous or the stupid ever wandered outside at this time of year. I didn’t consider myself to be either. I just needed to get lost in that whiteness, to numb the weight of grief and betrayal that had shadowed me since my father’s death.
The path that ran beside the river seemed deserted, my boot prints in the snow the only evidence of life as I made my way up to the churchyard cemetery. I checked the windows of the old Vicarage, but the curtains remained safely closed. As the new girl in town, it wouldn’t do my reputation a lot of good to be found haunting the graves of long dead locals in my free time.
Someone had chosen to place the stone angel facing the wrath of the moor, forcing her to endure centuries of whatever the weather chose to throw in her direction. Her features had been erased over the years, as had the details of whoever she watched over. I crouched down and ran my hands over the grave’s cold face, as if the texture alone might give me some hint as to who was buried there.
It was the scent of my mother’s favourite perfume that first alerted me to the fact that I had been followed. The woman had always had the uncanny ability to sneak up on anyone in silence.
“Lil,” Her voice was wary, “What are you doing here?”
Out of the litany of low and bizarre acts she had committed over the past few weeks, for some reason trailing me around in secret seemed the most despicable. The sudden wave of anger even took me by surprise.
“Just go back to your precious house and leave me alone.”
She took at cautious step towards me, pulling her coat closer around her. “Listen to me.”
The thought that my behaviour may be starting to scare her was strangely satisfying. It evened the stakes between us.
“No, Ali.” She flinched slightly at my sudden use of her Christian name, “You try listening for once instead of turning away from everything and running.”
“I’m not running, Lil.”
When the police arrived on the afternoon of my seventeenth birthday to tell us that my father’s helicopter had crashed on the way back from one of his archaeological digs both of our worlds imploded. After that my mother couldn’t stand the pain of being around anything that reminded her of him and I couldn’t bear to let him go.
I blinked back the hot tears of frustration the seemed ever threatening these days, “What do you call selling up and moving to the other side of the country without even asking me if I was okay with that? What do you call him being buried half a day’s travel away so that I will never even get to visit his grave?”
“Right, unlike the need for me to be able to go through some normal sort of grieving process. It’s just easier to send me to a shrink.”
She turned away from me.
“Don’t bother walking again. I’ll save you the effort.” I stormed back the way I had come. This time she didn’t bother to follow.
It wasn’t until I passed by the huge evergreen oak by the side of the church that I noticed the third set of footprints in the snow. They stopped in its shadows and then returned back the way they had come, the way we all had come, along the riverside. Somewhere in the tree above me a bird flapped its wings.
It had been twenty-one days since we buried my father, three days since we came to Ilkley, and less than twenty-four hours since the crows had started arriving.
Three of the birds were perched on top of the old gable above the front door when I stumbled up the drive. They watched my approach, remaining silent but constantly shifting, as uneasy in my company as I was in theirs. A faint light seeped out between the curtains giving the only soft touch to the heavy Victorian stone. The houses in this part of the world had been built to keep wild weather and superstition out, and the living safely in. For the first time since our arrival I was glad of their pure bulk. I gave the crows one last look before I went inside, the wind slamming the door behind me.
The kitchen was the one room in the house my mother I had managed to stake out as our own so far. Gourmet cooking magazines and fashion catalogues were strewn across the bench next to her half empty glass of wine and my school timetable. A framed photo of the three of us I hadn’t seen in years had been propped up against one of the cupboard doors. It was taken at one of my father’s excavation sites, we were all splattered with mud and laughing at some long dead joke. I wondered where she had found it, and if the picture was what had triggered her to come looking for me.
Because she wasn’t there to stop me, I picked up her drink and carried it up to the sanctuary of my room. The tiny Juliette balcony outside was where the first of the crows had arrived, just on dusk the night before. In the silence of the, fog the commotion of wings had startled me. There was enough light left to make out the bird’s black form and the way it perched on the railing, one dark eye trained on my room and the other on the moor. I had gone downstairs and dug an old torch out from under the sink in the kitchen, checking on it at regular intervals during the night, but it never moved or showed any sign that it knew it was being watched. When I woke in the morning it was gone.
In the fading light I checked for footprints around the exterior of the house but there was no sign of whoever had followed us earlier. A single black feather had become stuck in the ice on the balcony railing. I eased it off and ran it against my cheek, walking back indoors.
“What are you?”