This story was previously published on Dread Imaginings. As the contract has expired and the story is no longer on that site, I am making it available here for you to read. It is also included in my short story collection Dead Elise & other stories, also available for free on this site.
The first in the series of strange events that Dana would come to think of as ‘omens’ was the most mundane. It was, for that, no less disturbing.
She was walking to the corner store, one July morning, when she saw a seagull across the street, feasting on the innards of a dead crow. It had ripped the bird’s stomach open and was dragging out the guts in long, thin strips of bloody viscera.
Dana stood and stared for a moment, transfixed by the sight. She sometimes fed the local crows—and other corvids—after work, and liked to think they were on friendly terms. To watch one of them eaten made her sick.
She rushed across the street, unwilling to let it carry on. It was too late to save the crow—as she came close, the smallest doubt that it was dead was proven false—but the animal at least deserved to be left untouched in death; not borderline cannibalized. To let it be consumed in open view, two feet from the pavement, seemed wrong.
The gull didn’t so much as stir until Dana was almost on top of it. She hadn’t wanted to come too close, but it was so enraptured in its meal that it ignored her angry shouts and arm-waves; she could have kicked it by the time it finally moved off, hopping a yard or so away.
It studied Dana with indignant, beady eyes, vexed by the interruption. Growing angry, she strode toward it, and it finally flapped off into the trees.
She looked at the crow, whose guts were more outside than in. She might have buried it, except she had no shovel, nor any permission to dig here. Nor could she bring herself to pick the dead crow up and carry it elsewhere.
After some hesitation, she gave in and moved on.
When she was headed back the same direction, the gull was back as well, continuing its meal. She left it, this time.
The second omen was milder. It might have gone forgotten if not for the events that were to follow so soon after.
It happened an evening or two after she’d seen the dead crow. She was in her room, and staring out the window; blinds down but open. Though her thoughts were elsewhere, her eyes were on a mosquito that had landed on the other side of the glass.
Probably it was trying to figure its way inside to get at her blood. It tried, twice, to fly a couple of inches out and circle back to attack the window in a different spot, meeting each time with the solid panel of glass. With the blinds down, Dana lost track of the insect, for a split second, every time it moved behind them; only to spot it again as it landed.
On its third attempt, however, it did not land where its trajectory suggested. Instead a fat, brown-winged moth sat in the spot, though no such insect had been on the window before.
Dana blinked, and looked around for the mosquito, but it was nowhere to be seen. Flown away, probably. Or it became the moth, whispered the tiny part of Dana’s mind that still, secretly, believed in magic.
She smiled, pretending for a moment that she had truly seen the thing transform before her eyes. Then she dismissed the thought.
The third omen could not be so easily dismissed.
There was a dirt track, not far from Dana’s apartment complex, that wound and winded itself in a large circle, surrounded on the outside by trees. People would sometimes go there to jog, or walk their dogs, or simply walk; enjoying the illusion of privacy offered by the tree barrier. Depending on where you were, you were invisible to everyone save yourself.
There were, however, sections where it opened onto a central, overgrown grass field that had once been used for soccer. The overturned metal skeletons of the two goals still lay in the grass, and made for perching spots for crows.
It was here that Dana came to feed the local corvids. A park bench was placed along the track, and though its left half was covered in bird shit, the right was relatively clean. Dana would throw handfuls of peanuts into the grass (shelled, because the birds enjoyed the extra puzzle of breaking them open), and retreat to the bench to watch.
After the first few weeks, the birds had grown comfortable in coming close enough to her to pick at the nuts, so long as she stayed seated on the bench. Still, they were wild creatures, and did not stoop to come so near that she could feed them from her palm; indeed the larger-beaked carrion crows would often pick up two or even three peanuts at once and fly away somewhere to crack them open in peace, undisturbed by both Dana and the other birds.
It was surprising, therefore, when a crow landed on the bench and stared at her. At least, it mostly resembled a crow, though it had a white neck, and slick white feathers in its wings. It took Dana aback for a moment—not because she doubted that a corvid could be black and white, but simply because she’d never seen one before. All the crows and crow-like birds she’d seen in the area had until now been monochrome.
The black-and-white bird showed no fear of Dana’s proximity. Nor did it flinch when she reached out a hand, offering the bird a peanut.
It stared at her, then hopped forward. Dana lowered her hand so it could get the peanut while standing on the bench; she didn’t want the bird to try to fly onto her arm and dig its talons into her flesh. The crow bent over the palm, but did not try to peck open the peanut. Instead it stretched out its head and began to make noises in its throat, as if it had something stuck there and was trying to cough it up.
Dumbfounded, Dana didn’t even think to pull back her hand until it was too late. The crow deposited its prize and flew away.
She stared at the thing that now lay beside the peanut. She had read that it was common for crows to give gifts to humans that were kind to them; often bottle caps and other shiny bits of junk, not because the crows put any value in them, but because they knew that humans valued shiny things.
The thing this bird had given Dana wasn’t shiny, though. Glistening was perhaps a better word. It was a tiny lump of flesh, blood-slick and glistening in the sunlight. A crow’s heart, she was suddenly sure.
That night, and many nights thereafter, Dana had uneasy dreams. She dreamt both of the black-and-white crow coughing up a heart, and of the seagull feasting on the innards of a crow—a memory that had slipped her mind until drudged up by the former event.
In her dreams, the part of her mind that entertained the possibility of magic ruled supreme, inventing impossible scenarios. Again and again, it imagined the gull—once done picking the crow clean of its guts—burrowing inside the carcass, hiding behind the skin and black feathers.
It made sense, in the dream, that the crow that had coughed up the heart had been the seagull in disguise, its true nature betrayed by its white spots where it had opened the crow’s belly. If a mosquito could become a moth, why couldn’t a seagull become a crow?
And the heart, of course, was the crow’s heart, disposed of as the final piece of crow anatomy to take up space within the skin.
No, not disposed. Given to Dana. As a gift, perhaps—or as a small revenge for bothering it during its meal and transformation? Or was it a threat?
The morning after she first had the dream, Dana skipped her breakfast to have time to walk past the spot where the dead crow had lain. It wasn’t there.
She told herself that somebody had simply moved it—probably dumped it in a garbage container—and she believed herself. The superstitious mind did not believe, however, and when she slept, the dreams continued.
She began to sleep poorly and wake up tired. The weariness gave strength to her dream-mind, which started to invade her thoughts, in subtle ways, even when she was awake.
After a few days, she saw a crow’s feather lying on the side of the road, and an instinct she would usually dismiss as silly led her to pick it up and take it home. She bought some ink, and tried to use it as a feather quill, doodling out some scratchy blotches before deciding it was not a very good pen after all.
She left it on the table though, and found herself occasionally sticking the point into her mouth while thinking of other things, without consciously meaning to. The first few times, the taste of dried ink and the fear of whatever bacteria the feather may carry made her put it down, but time and time again, she found herself sucking on it.
Everywhere she went, she saw another omen, or another sign of something that did not fully congeal with reality as she had always understood it. Simple things, like the way crows were always staring at her, or the cockroach that crawled out of a frozen microwave meal packet, or the violent thunder that began one night, after a sweltering summer that had seen next to no rain.
The day after the thunderstorm, she took ill, with some kind of flu or bug. Dana took a look at her feather, whose point was by now a chewed mess, and finally threw it in the rubbish.
She called work and was granted a sick-leave, and spent the next few days barely leaving her bedroom.
Fuelled by a slight fever, her bad dreams evolved. Now she was the gull, eating the crow’s guts—the dream was vivid enough to taste them—and crawling inside of its skin. It fit her like a glove.
She flew and met herself, and got to experience first-hand what it was like to regurgitate a heart, and then took off, flying through the air in feverish spiralling circles that set her head spinning long after she woke.
Even when she woke, she couldn’t help but remember—guiltily—what it had been like to eat the crow. Though her stomach churned in protest, her teeth itched at the memory. A forbidden thought crossed her mind, and made her even more nauseous: what was to stop her from eating a crow in real life? And again, her teeth itched unbearably.
She ran into the bathroom and was sick, and forced herself to push aside the thought. After she flushed her vomit, she studied herself in the bathroom mirror. She did not look good. Her face was grey, her eyes baggy. They were also large, and dark, and gleaming with fever. Like a lunatic’s eyes. Or a bird’s.
Her arms began to shake, and she had to grip the sides of the sink. She was suddenly suffocating with the fever and the heat, hardly able to think or stand.
To clear her head, she went outside to feed the crows.
Her mother came by later in the day. She brought soup, which Dana barely managed to eat, and several comments about how unwell she looked.
As her mother set to brewing tea, Dana leaned back in one of her kitchen chairs, her head spinning slightly. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply.
Her nausea was not quelled.
‘Are you all right?’ mother asked. Dana heard her set down a cup on the table, and opened her eyes.
‘You really don’t look well.’
‘I think I’m going to be sick.’
Shakily, Dana stood up and staggered towards the bathroom. She didn’t make it, but had to stop in the middle of the tiny kitchen and wretch the half-digested soup onto the floor.
‘Jesus Christ,’ her mother said, rushing to her side. ‘Are you all right? I’m taking you to the emergency room.’
Dana stared at the heap of vomit. It was red with blood, which was what had so upset her mother. But there was something else in it that the older woman had missed:
A tiny thing, small enough to fit in her palm. It was all wrinkled skin and blood and beak, and beady little eyes. It wriggled in her vomit, making tiny squeaking sounds. It was a just-born baby bird.