Ell cried as her pathetic whisper gave out. No, no, no. Jac’s brother Raif clacked his strong beak against her flushed cheek. Pushed. Cawed. Shhhh, gal, shhhh.
Yellow-orange light flickered through the trailer’s one window, parking lot bonfires gilding the crow boy’s near-sharpest edge. His face-blade pressed close, closer. Black feathers glinted on head and shoulders, so close. Springs screeched. Well over six foot, Raif hulked over her. A giant perched by her frozen knees. Leaning in and down and on. Bare from chest to hips, skin smooth as brown toffee, sooted wings folded against his broad back. Muscles hard in his jeans, legs hard, tapering to honed claws. Callused fingers pinning one slender wrist.
Ell sank into Jac’s unmade sofa-bed. Her fine hair snarled to knots. No no no.
Whoops and clanking bottles in the lot outside. The other coal miners croaked, hip-hip-hoorayed, drank to the season’s best haul. Slurred through their beaks for Raif.
Ell scrunched water and snot from her pretty face. Nonono. Hoped to repulse him soft.
Raif held firm, breath hot, reeking of gut. He stared. He pecked.
Ell mouthed okay without meaning it. Surely he could see that. Surely he could tell she wanted to wait. Surely he could feel her quaking, crying like a kid.
The crow boy climbed on.
But that were Raif’s job, weren’t it. Ploughing on when others might stop. Chasing shaft girls like Ell down the mines, rarely waiting for the go-ahead. Spearing after them, danger-fast, nipping their little arses if the pace slowed too soon, too close to the surface, where the veins had long been bled dry. Urging them deep, deeper. Pointing out fissures only slim gals could fit into—cracks too narrow for regular men, much less them with wings spanning twelve foot. Circling as lasses sank into the stink damp, their bright heads gleaming in the near-black. Diving at the first blow of their whistles—Clear! Clear!—then snatching them gals, flailing in their coveralls, and hauling them topside before the dyn-o-mite they laid blew its load.
Nine shifts out of ten, Raif were first to hear the girls’ cues: the snick of their zippo lighters, the fizz of fuses catching, the shrill tweeeeeeet of come-get-me calls. He only ever worked with gals what was fit enough to dislodge the priciest nuggets, the stuff buried in the skinniest chasms. And he were first to scoop them chicks in his talons, first to fly them wriggling up out the holes, first to dive back down—solo, mind—to glean what them girls had exploded.
Raif were first to cram the ace hauls between his pinions and fluff.
First to carry the heavy loot topside.
First to cash in.
First to choose which gals earned what part of his payload.
Ell closed her eyes, retreated behind her lids, the only place she could escape now her favourite cargo pants was tugged, kicked, roped ’round her pasty ankles. The waistband on her embarrassing unders tore. Raif shifted his weight. Unzipped. Snapped rubber.
Gotta plan ahead, girl. Now that were Ma’s voice rattling inside Ell’s mind, chastising. She imagined her in the kitchen, as ever. Apron girding her suet waist. Bleach masking the greys in her once-golden topknot. Scarred arms hugging a huge bowl, mixing batter. Tone rougher than the spoon scraping round and round on old plastic. Such a small woman for such big opinions.
Take two sharp borers whensoever you head below: one for drilling, one to keep from being drilled. You hear? Stick to the middle of them shafts, away from mine-shadows. Walk heel-toe, heel-toe along them chutes; softens the tread, keeps you from stirring what don’t need to be stirred. And no shorts at work, my gal. No tees or tanks. I know it’s stifling down there—Lord do I know—but a fair child like you, well, don’t you just glow in the dark! Trust me, Ellie-girl, you gotta snuff that shit else you’ll blind ’em senseless . . .
On and on Ma went, blending chunks of advice into each batch of cookies. Ell loved to sit, cross-legged on the linoleum, and watch them blobs swelling into sweet golden discs in the oven. She never could wait for them treats to cool, but pigged them right off the tray. Never did mind the hard bits, the black chunks and grit no amount of chocolate could disguise, the smoky shards what sometimes loosed her baby teeth, sometimes saw her spitting them onto the floor. The sugar made up for the burn, she thought then. The butter for the blood.
Think afore you act, girl. Ma cracked the spoon across Ell’s scorched fingertips, then passed a tea towel to wipe the pink from her mouth. We need you in one piece, got it? Stop and think.
Ell’s innards churned, then and now.
Ma weren’t never wrong.
And Ell hadn’t planned, had she. She hadn’t thought.
No no no
Now Raif shoved himself in ’til it burned.
Outside, Jac sung a tune he wrote just for Ell, though it ain’t mentioned her once by name. A ballad about lovers—all his songs was—devised after a half dozen pints, best heard when none else but them two was around. Tonight Jac were far enough into the sauce not to mind what folk made his audience, nor how many, nor to notice its true heart were missing. Fires popped and bottles dropped from drunken hands. Gals giggled and squealed. Men and crows alike hollered for another round. Over it all, her boyfriend’s thready voice warbled, high and true. Without shame despite being off-key.
Maybe it were Jac’s pluck what drew Ell in the first place. Sure as hell weren’t his looks—the little daw’s hood and mantle was faded grey, his wings stumped, his yellow eyes bugged like one always surprised. He weren’t strong like his brother; Jac’s man-parts was shrunken as a boy’s, the bird-bits only just past fledgling. Jac and Raif had different daddies, weren’t no doubt about it. Folk reckoned the younger crow were part jay, but the elder were quick to snap the tongue off anyone with the balls to say so.
Still, Jac weren’t given nowhere near as many mine-shifts as Raif—he hadn’t the stamina for it—but he were far luckier than featherless men. His coffers weren’t never empty. He weren’t forced into the fields to rustle grub. His clothes-rack weren’t hung with scraps and hand-me-downs, but real clothes he bought in town, tailored to fit round his particular figure. Already, at seventeen, Jac’d flown enough good coal topside to buy a new trailer all his own.
Not that it were the boy’s wallet what kept Ell around. Raif had black gold aplenty, and a house in the foothills that weren’t even on wheels. Maybe it were simply Jac’s kindness, that he made her feel special for a time.
Jac weren’t nothing like his brother.
Last week, Jac’d took Ell to the roadhouse to meet his Maven. You’re my gal, ain’t you, he’d said, the down at his throat proud-ruffling. Go on, now. Go on in first.
In a back room with shag carpets and veil-dimmed lamps, a great rook sweated in a floral muumuu, too lard-bloated to get up from her bunk. Incense clogged the small space, failing to mask the reek of old sheets and unwashed creases. More woman than bird, Jac’s Ma spent her life flapping fat lips, entertaining what lonely folk dared pay for such a visit. A scraggle of blue-black feathers was plaited on her huge head, dripping grease, adding shine to her plum-glossy skin. Cherub wings jutted above her round shoulders—them tiny things ain’t stood a chance of lifting Mave’s bulk, though the wizened chook-legs under her slop of a belly sure as hell wished they’d give flight a try. Ell coughed at the foot of the bed, tried not to stare. Stared.
Lashless eyes fixed on Ell and her boy, taking stock. Blue smoke swirled as Jac’s ma finally stretched out a dimpled brown arm, grabbed a paper fan off the quilt, waved them closer.
Youse gotta love each other, Mave had said, slow and heavy. Sighing, she slumped against a mound of pillows. Lit a cigarette. Puffed. Youse gotta be true to each other, no one else. Just youse two.
But Ell knew she didn’t really love Jac, not really. Not then, not now. He were sweet and soft but temporary, like them stale candy canes Paster doled out in church on Christmas Day. Jac were scatterbrained, barely a man. He were a dalliance, Ma said. Nothing more. Nothing more. And Ell were only fifteen, for God’s sake. Too young for any real sort of devotion.
Hell, she were still cutting teeth on Ma’s treats.
Raif grunted and grunted.
Chafed in and out.
No more’n twenty feet away, through plywood and veneer, someone wolf-whistled as Jac’s song hitched back to the chorus.
Ell clenched all over, became thin and flat and stiff as a board. Holding her breath, she pictured a plate piled high with warm biscuits. Not that she ate many, not lately. To help feed the family—she were one girl of three—it were her job not to feed, but to keep skinnier than her sisters, to wriggle deeper into the mines, to go farther down them tunnels, to blast out the good big nuggets, them ones what fetched the best prices when hill crows bartered with valley folk. If Ell stayed scrawny enough she might learn to slip between shadows. She might earn a bigger piece of them boys’ prizes. She might buy her way out of this place.
She might even sneak up on a way to make Ma proud.
Plan ahead, girl. What with that blonde head of yers, that slink in yer step, yer a real target. Them gimlet-gazed crows gots both power and intention, you hear? Keep them nails of yers sharp, yer wits sharper. You listening to me, Ellie-girl?
Maybe I should find somewheres else to scrape a wage, Ell had once said, half-floating the notion of following Pa to the fruitlands, hopping whatever trains might lead south, migrating wherever the ripenings took ’em. She could earn a dollar plucking melons with bearded men by day, then plucking six strings for them same blokes by night. But Ma burst that hopeless bubble quick-smart.
She weren’t one to waste time on no ridiculous honkytonk dreams.
She wouldn’t never drive Ell to open mic nights. Said they started too late. Said she couldn’t see the road for darkness. Said she couldn’t abide the untried talent with their ukes and banjos and mouth-harps. A pack of cat-stranglers, Ma called them, on account of their cheap twangs, refusing to admit her own girl could truly croon.
Sometimes, most times, Ell thought Ma were lying.
She were just fine behind the wheel, just fine, never mind what goddamn time of day it were. And there was spangles and sequins tucked far back in Ma’s closet. A well-used harmonica. A pair of red glitter shoes—heels so fine only a star wriggler could’ve earned ’em. A gal what once went deepest and farthest down the tunnels. A woman who ain’t got no fear of the dark.
But music weren’t nothing but distraction, Ma had decided. No point in Ell rousing cattle-wranglers in the town hall. No real cash to be grabbed there—nothing but dust and spirits was stirred when them bare-backed men clomped sore feet on the floorboards. Bluegrass wouldn’t fill a girl’s belly the way the mines could. There weren’t no future for Ell, not really, but the one carried topside on broad wings.
Hate me now, thank me later, Ma always said, stirring, baking.
Ell did neither.
The only songs Ell could stomach right about now was Jac’s, them feeble things drifting through the screen, and even them she rathered not hear.
She weren’t too keen on spoiling melodies what othertimes brought her comfort, ones she hummed to herself while planting fire-sticks down the mines. She didn’t want them beats forever keeping time with this one’s, this particular rhythm of what Raif were now doing.
Ell didn’t want to feel this hollow song ever again.
She didn’t want it to echo through her soul the way that famous fox-haired lady’s tune did—Ell knew all her lyrics by heart—singing how she’d had her own grunt and fumble with her own Raif in her own town, not so many years ago.
Saltwater dripped down Ell’s temples, plinked into her ears.
There weren’t no lying to herself: she knew her situation were different from that beautiful singer’s. Weren’t it. Raif weren’t no stranger, Raif ain’t clocked Ell or pushed her into the back seat of a rusty old car, he ain’t held her head down while struggling with his buckle, he ain’t pressed no gun to the back of her skull. He ain’t forced her, Ell thought, not really. Had he. He only wouldn’t listen close to what she were saying, only held the scraped-up machete of his beak right sharp against her neck, he only clutched one of her wrists overhead—the other were still balled by her side, not punching, not beating him away—he only nipped her a bit with the point of that beak, nipped with each thrust, nothing worse than what she got in the shafts.
And she ain’t cried out even when it hurt, even when Raif drew blood in two places at once, above and below.
And she’d followed him to Jac’s trailer willingly, hadn’t she. Hadn’t she.
No, Ell reckoned. She’d ruin no music remembering this night. This stupid, stupid mistake.
“Come with me,” Raif’d said, and she had. Easy as that. He weren’t sloshed like the rest of them boys, neither were she, though she’d had a jar or two, maybe four, just enough to feel warm and free and light. Only just.
“I gots to talk to you,” he’d said. “Know what I mean?”
And Ell didn’t know, not really, though later she’d think she must have, she weren’t retarded, she must have known, but maybe didn’t quite at the time, not fully, so she’d followed.
Ain’t no one forced her, had they.
She were flattered—was that wrong?—that Raif might pay her particular attention. That he might woo her, tell her secret things he couldn’t say in front of his friends. He were so popular, so sure, he were all confidence, all strut with a hint of danger. Raif never showed no fear. Was it wrong that she were flattered? That she’d left the parking lot, left the party, gone to Jac’s trailer because it were much closer than Raif’s own house in the woods? That they’d skirted the other crows’ tents, dodged booze-driven brawls, avoided moans and slurps in the bushes, and gone to Jac’s little place, where once upon a time she’d lain on this very couch and listened to records, where she’d sang unembarrassed, where she’d been safe, and she’d not really loved, but definitely liked?
Was she wrong not to have fought back?
Raif groaned, thrust hard, once, twice more, and pulled out. A smear against her thigh. A shift in the cushions, pressure released. A cold breeze across her bareness as he stood, preening.
Ell’s pulse thumped where he’d been, nowhere else.
Removed from her neck, the beak now buried itself in Raif’s plumes, began rummaging. A shower of coal gravel sprinkled Ell’s naked skin, collected in her dips and cracks, before the crow boy dug out real treasure—one, two great chunks of coal, each the size of a fist—and tossed them into her lap.
“Bet you feel weird now.” A smile in his tone as he brushed filth from his palms. Zipped and straightened his baggy pants. Raked the proud feathers on head, face, collar. Hooked the screen door open with his taloned heel spur. “Eh?”
“No,” Ell replied, pulling up her cargos, retying her shoes, not meeting his gaze.
“No,” she said, firm too late.
After, at home, Ell will hide the expensive charcoal in her wrecked unders—babyish wildflowers on a white field—and cram the whole bunch to the back of her bottom drawer. She’ll tell no one about them, or this, not even after the vivid red stains on the cotton have faded to brown.
I wanted to be your first, Jac will say in the morning, when he phones to see why Ell left the party early. Soon he won’t write any more songs for her. Won’t bring her to visit his Maven. Won’t call.
All day she’ll lie quiet on her bed, atop Gran’s old quilt, new heat throbbing up from her nethers, heat in her mind, and she’ll stay there for hours, so still Ma will have to come down the hall to double-check she’s awake when it’s high time for supper. She’ll stay quiet throughout the meal, then and for weeks after, and if anyone asks what’s wrong she’ll say nothing.
And if they ever was to find out—Ma, or Gran, or her chubby sisters—if they ever was to ask about it straight on, she’ll fib. She can’t do otherwise, no she can’t. Can’t bear their disappointment. Can’t handle the guilt on Ma’s face if they was all to sit ’round the table and ask point-blank What happened to you, Ellie-girl? Can’t take the pain of finally telling them true.
But they don’t never ask, so she don’t really lie.
Ell will run away when she sees Raif after work on Monday, girlfriends giggling by her side, the chase a laugh to them, nothing but a hoot. Raif will fly fast to catch her up, faster than he did that night, but for once she won’t be caught. He won’t get why she’s running. No one will think to tell him, and he won’t never think to ask.
From then on, she’ll get the foreman to assign her to other shafts. She’ll wriggle the mines more careful. She’ll keep from the shadows. She’ll plan. She’ll be a board, stiff and hard, impenetrable. And when she loosens a bit, months and years later, when she softens just enough to meet and marry a guitar-playing wrangler, when they live in a much smaller house than she could now afford, when she accidentally has her own girls, well, she’ll bake chunky cookies for them, exactly the way Ma did for her.
Day after day, Ell will feed them, hoping to plump them right up so’s they’ll be too fat for the tunnels. Secretly she’ll lace biscuit after biscuit with chocolate and coal chips, cracking and jagging the girls’ teeth so’s they’s too ugly to catch crow. And when they complain their mouths is sore, when they spit pink and crumble the cookies in their stout little hands, when they try to feed gritty scraps to the dog, Ell will whack a spoon across their knuckles then pass them tea towels to wipe their faces.
“Stop and think,” she’ll say, taking another hot tray from the oven. Inhaling sugared steam off the toffee-brown treats. Refusing to eat even one single bite.