Authors: S. D. Crockett
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For my mother
The Crow is a bird of long life, and diviners tell that she taketh heed of spyings and awaitings, and teacheth and sheweth ways, and warneth what shall fall.
âBut it is full unlawful to believe that
God sheweth His privy counsel to Crows.
De proprietatibus rerum,
High on a wave-battered cliff is a simple cottage built of stone. It clings to the black rocks above a churning, wide-gray sea. Smoke from a narrow chimney is beaten horizontal by the wind.
Inside the cottage a girl tends the fire.
But her baby will not sleep.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“Do stop crying,” the girl said. “It's only September and not too cold.” She picked the child up and held it in her arms. “I'll tell you a story if you're quiet for a second.” She went to the window. “Look. There's Da coming up the path.”
It wasn't long before a young man stooped in out of the wind and laid a fish on the table. “I ain't gonna go out no more in that wind, Mary,” he said, pulling a chair up to the fire. And his dogâwhich had slunk in from outsideâlay down at his feet like sensible dogs do.
“The baby been quiet?” he asked.
“No,” said the girl.
“Ain't got no rope trailing behind it,” he said. “Nothing tying it to before. No wonder it blubs all day long.”
“I'm going to tell her a story to keep her quiet.”
“What do you know about Magda? I can tell the kid some things.”
“I know what Da told me,” Mary said. “But I can't do it with you sticking your nose in.”
Willo sat back and took off his boots. “I won't stick my nose inâeven if you do get it all wrong. I'll just sit here quiet and listen. Ain't heard a good Tell in a while.”
So Mary took a place by the fire. And comforting the baby in her arms she closed her eyesâand began:
Once upon a timeÂ â¦ When Crow again came to walk about on this earth amongst men, and a shadow came to fall over the land, there lived a poor woman and her granddaughterâhard by a Great Forest.
Of course there were summers.
But not then.
January. When the low wooden cottages with their graying boards and damp-swollen shutters and rickety porches on wide-planked verandas sat buried in whiteness at the foot of the hill.
When stacks of split logs were piled under snow-heavy roofs and animals shifted in dung-smelling barns and dogs forever tied bored on heavy chains.
It begins here.
With a priest.
Pulling his collar close as he limped along the snow-covered track that ran through a village called Morochov.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
How will it end?
With children digging graves.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The priest grabbed a burnt coal from the cinder-strewn path:
He threw it at the cawing crow.
âHe gripped his aching knee. Limped toward a small cottage, the hem of his coat growing damp as it skimmed the banks of shoveled snow.
He peered over the broken stick fence bounding the garden. Just a bloom of smoke hovered about the roof of the house. Icicles hung under the eavesâthe faded shutters were closed tight against the cold.
Inside the cottage an old woman was dying. The priest had come to hear her last words.
How long since anyone official has been?
There has been no one since the power lines came down.
As his hand rested on the gate, he caught a movement in the garden. In the deep snow under the bare apple trees a girl hacked at a half-dug grave. He could see her belted coat straining as she lifted the heavy pick above her head.
Clud clud clud.
The fresh earth piled black against the snow.
“Magda,” the priest called out.
The girl stopped her cludding and came over. Breathless, she leaned the handle of the pick against the gatepost. Sweat dampened the fur under the rim of her hat. She led him silently up the icy steps of the veranda. Stamping snow in the small, open porch, they took off their boots and went into the house.
In the darkened bedroom, her grandmother lay on a high iron bed like a statue under the heavy covers. The old woman's lips were dry and her breathing was slow and her skin had begun to tighten and sink onto the bones of her cheeks.
The priest pulled up a chair and the old woman opened her eyes.
“I am here,” she said.
“Babulaâ” Magda held the pale fingers and kissed her grandmother's face and offered a cloth. The priest wiped his hands, heard the old woman's whispered secrets, and late in the afternoon, after anointing her, he closed her eyes for the last time.
“By the sacred mysteries of man's redemption, may Almighty God remit to you all penalties of the present life and of the life to come. May He open to you the gates of paradise and lead you to joys everlasting.”
Magda, bowing her head, said:
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The nuts and bolts of dying are nothing more than that. Sentiment, like the big bottle of iodine that stings in a wound, was locked away in the cupboard.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
So the priest said his words, drained the cup of vodka set out on the table, and fetched the Dudek brothers from the neighboring house. The snow that fell from their boots melted on the floorboards. They helped lay the body in the open coffin between the chairs in the kitchen, their damp soles shuffling on the bare scrubbed planks.
They didn't talk much.
Looked at Magda as she lifted the hatch in the floor and stepped down into the cellar.
“Thank you,” Magda said, handing them a bag of potatoes. The priest too.
“She was a good woman,” said Aleksy.
“What're you going to do now?” asked his brother Brunon, staring at the hatch in the floor.
“I don't know,” Magda replied.
“I meanâwith all them potatoes?”
Magda stepped back onto the closed cellar hatch. They left.
But when they had gone the priest asked the same thing.
“What are you going to do, Magda?”
“What do you mean?” she said, washing his cup at the sink.
“You can't stay here on your own now your grandmother is dead. Bogdan Stopko is growing lonely. You know he has two fieldsâa tractor and a pony. You're sixteen, aren't you? He is not a bad man. And good men don't grow like brambles.”
Magda turned from the sink. “You're saying he's richânot good.”
“He's rich in those things which I say. That's half and half of his being good.”
She dried her hands. “I don't know. I don't know what I should do. It's the middle of winter. I haven't heard from Mama since the power lines came down.”
“Then maybe you should go to London. You can't stay here alone foreverâ”
“London? How will I get to London?” Magda hung the cloth, bent down, and checked the stove; she threw in a few logs and looked up at him. “How will I do that?”
Having no answer, the priest picked his hat up off the table and left. It was growing dark outside.
His own fire needed tending.
In the darkness under the trees, three trucks came to a stop. Engines ticked over in the freezing night air. Men jumped out onto the hardpack of the road. Moved like shadows against the snow.
Under the higgledy roofs of the wooden houses scattered along the valley, everyone slept.
But Magda heard a dog. Bogdan Stopko's dog. Why did it bark in the middle of the night?
She sat up. Lit the candle by her bed. The ice on the inside of the window was as thick as glass. She rubbed her finger on it. Peered through the cracks in the shutter.
Against the pale snow she could see the silhouette of the fence and the lumpen, snow-topped shadow of Bogdan Stopko's house off on the other side of the street.
The dog stopped barking.
She should be praying over Babula's coffin, not sleeping. But she had been so tired.
She rubbed at the glass again.
Then she saw the men. Two figures. Coming along the fence.
She pulled back.
If the marauders come stealing, you must hide, Magda.
Quickly. A fumble for matches. Out of bed.
With a small candle trailing shadows behind her in the dark, she tiptoed across the bare wooden boards, stopped, and crossed herself over the body of her grandmother.
Lifting the hatch in the floor, she looked down into the dark cellar.
Before you have stepped into the cellar with Grandmother, your own Babula, clucking like a hen, passing down the sacks of potatoes or calling for you to fetch the salted butterâClose the barrel tight, Magda!
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
There was a scraping on the porch. Magda blew out the fluttering candle and it was as dark as Hell. Her feet in woolen stockings fumbled for the cellar steps. Heart pounding, she felt her way down and pulled the hatch over her head.
If you had a light, it would warm your fingers and you would see the jars along the beam. Pickled mushroom and cabbage and wild strawberries.
But the darkness was a shelter and she crept further into it. Listening. Waiting. Felt the cold, packed earth under her feet. Like a mouse, she tried to make herself small among the musty sacks of potatoes.
But you are not a mouse and cannot hide like one, and if they come down here they will find you. Maybe they will only take food.
There were footsteps on the wooden boards of the porch. Stomping footsteps. The rattling of the flimsy door. Bashing on it.
“Open up! Open up in there!”
Her hands were shaking. She pushed her face into the sacks and breathed in the smell of the earth.
If you smell the earth, then you will remember the things that are good and not the footsteps.
Smells that conjure so much in an instant: Babula is in this smell. Mama, she is here too, helping Babula lift potatoes from the dark soil. Mama, bringing money and soap and sweets from London. Always telling Babula:
You have no need, old Mother, I send money so you do not have to lift your potatoes every year. Sit back, eat cherries. Magda is here to look after you.