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The Fledglings of Time

You have to be careful, especially of the little ones. They’re clumsy but they’re faster than they look. Half-grown ones like to throw rocks at things. Also watch out for the ones who drink too much. The crazy ones. The angry ones. Sometimes they go crazy-angry together, from bad teeth I guess. Teeth are a burden feathered races are well rid of. Nothing but trouble.

The crazy-angry ones start by killing each other, not in the normal thinning-the-flock way, or pecking the sick to death like the rooks do, but groups of them travel about killing each other. It seems like good times because there is plenty to eat, but it can turn bad in a hurry because crazy-angry doesn’t stop, and sometimes they get to where they kill anything they catch, not just each other. Then there are fires. The ones that survive sit in the ashes with dogs they’ve caught, or cats or sheep or their own young, gnawing on their heads. Easing the pain in their teeth with grinding on a skull, like we polish our beaks.

The upside to the crazy-angry ones is that if you find one dead—really dead, it’s important to make sure, the best sign is if the head’s smashed in—they’re the tastiest. They’re soft and come apart like they’ve been rotting for weeks, but they haven’t been picked over by the dogs and rats already. The eyes, the genitals, all the good bits of the guts, still right there and waiting for you. Gobs of fat and marrow, and the brains, the brains are sweet and rich, not like any other brains you’ll ever taste.

Of course, you don’t see them go crazy-angry very often any more, sometimes in the dark north when the winters have been mild and every so often near Porton Down. The crazy-angry ones went the way of the wolves and wildcats. But there was a time when crazy-angry humans appeared in great herds, and even came into the city itself.

We lived in the tower then, not yet banished to the countryside in favor of the Clipped-wings who gobble up their mutton and strut for them now and imitate their bleating calls for attention. I had a story from our grandmother, who had it from twenty-three generations ago. It was a strange time, only a season long, and yet on the strength of it our family has dreamed of going back to the tower ever since.

Underneath the tower, you see, there was a head. The head of a human, full of teeth, buried with all the meat still on in their wasteful way. This human was attacked by a crazy-angry enemy, and so weakened that his followers pecked him to death with their swords. They cached his head beneath the ground, and built the tower around and above, and burned the rest of his body. This annoyed us. We wanted to taste his sweet brains.

Years went by, generations, and though we knew the brains were probably rotted and gone, we never forgot the site of the cache. There were plenty of other humans to scavenge—they left their dead lying about more often in those days, not bothering to lock them in boxes or poison the bodies as they do now. Sometimes they even hung a soft rotting corpse in a cage for us, like they hang out seeds for the smaller birds. I don’t know why they stopped. The world was better in those days. But sometimes, gorged on dead humans or on pigs or horses or the other rotting things they brought in their wake, one or two of us would scrape the earth and stones with our beaks, just to see if the earth was shallow enough to turn up its treat.

At the time of this story there were two human nestlings in the tower, being watched over by their uncle, much as I watch over you while our parents are foraging. We took some interest in these boys, though the young of families with shiny plumage were usually given prompt burials, not left about to be eaten. We were more immediately interested in the many beheadings that went on in those days. But it was important to keep an eye on the doings of the humans with the rich plumage, because you could follow them to the sites where plenty of humans and horses lay dead. They were better than wolves in this way. These nestlings were also worth keeping an eye on because they were boisterous and prone to give chase and, as I told you, the small ones are faster than they look.

There was also a drunk one—well several drunk ones, there always are, but a drunk one in this well-plumaged family, who we also kept one eye on. You always have to keep a lot of eyes, and that is why flock and family are so important. We were half keeping an eye on him as a threat, and half because it seemed likely that he might fall into a ditch and not be retrieved for some time. The other brothers did not look out for him as brothers should.

Our very own many-greats-grandmother, she was the one tasked with keeping an eye on the oldest living human brother, the one who had brought the nestlings to the tower. She’d been watching him since he first came to the tower,when his older brother was still alive. Sometimes she would follow him for great distances—this was when she was a nest-helper, before she mated, and finding the scenes of battles meant not only the chance to gorge but also an opportunity to meet plenty of young males, some of whom might even have territories of their own. This wanderlust has always run strong in our family, and it’s served us well because every time we’ve been evicted—from the tower, from the city, from the rich plowed fields and the sunny southern lands—we’ve been able to survive. In time, to return. I suspect this is why we are so fond of humans, though they chase us and throw rocks as you’ve discovered. They, too, bounce back.

And our greats-grandmother was very fond of the human she watched. The way she told the story she liked his face—it was a bit more intelligent, more bird-like, than the faces of the other humans, and the way he moved likewise, with just a trace of a strut and not so unnaturally erect as the others. At times, when she fell to daydreaming about a nest of her own and young, she’d have to resist the temptation to stuff choice bits of meat down his throat. He’d started riding into battles when he was little more than a fledgling himself by human standards, and she’d followed him many times thinking that she might end up feasting on his eyes, but as it didn’t happen, she grew more and more attached. That was the only defense she could ever offer for what she did.

The nestlings, yes. I’m getting to that. At that time our greats-grandmother’s older half brother, himself still a nest-helper as well, was watching the nestlings. He’d been attached to the drunk brother, before, and seen him drowned in a barrel; sharing his sister’s fanciful nature, he was prone to mope about this, and his new humans were too young to follow into battle—in fact, they never left the tower. Moreover it was a stormy year, and everyone was roost-weary and bored. The nest-helpers decided to go and dig for the legendary cache that they’d heard so much about.

The earth was rain-wet, soft and rich with insects. They had few other duties; thanks to executions in that year their youngest brothers and sisters were well-nourished without their parents needing to range too far from the tower. They made more progress than anyone had before towards uncovering the cache. And then the human nestlings, bored themselves, I suppose, for humans do bore easily, came wandering out into the yard.

They rushed the flock and scattered them, laughing, throwing clods of mud. Then they noticed the hole. The bigger one found a stick and poked about; before long the little one joined in. With thumbs and sticks they could dig much faster than any raven.

They turned up the skull and made their hooting noises of wonder. The younger one had it at first, but the older took it from him after a brief struggle and began to clean it, holding it up to the drizzle, poking his fingers into the muddy eye sockets. The jaw unhinged and fell away. The little one swooped on it but his older brother tugged it back. A classic squabble over prey, and all our ancestors could do was sit and watch while the head they’d dreamed so much of was tucked under a stubby human arm and rushed back inside the tower with the younger brother giving chase. Their only comfort was that it was clear, from the state of the thing, that none of the delicious brains were left. Still they felt rather embarrassed of themselves, getting out-scavenged like that, and decided not to tell any of the older birds what had happened.

A few days later, the human nestlings were ill. They lay moaning in their beds while adults flocked around them offering food that they refused. Greats-grandmother’s older brother began complaining that he should get to watch her human, and she should be stuck with the ones who never went anywhere and then died for a change. But when she tried to perch on their windowsill to see where the skull they’d stolen had gone, he chased her off.

It was early in the morning of the next day when a man came running to her human in a frenzy, plumage in disarray. She was intrigued, hoping this would lead them to another battle or perhaps a fire or outbreak of disease. But as she tilted her head to catch their inflections—sometimes, she said, it almost seemed as though they had a language and that she could understand a bit of it—an outcry went up from her brothers and sisters outside, a call of sheer delight, of feasting to come.

The human nestlings, her older brother croaked out with a combination of sadness and pride, had gone crazy-angry, right there in the heart of the city, in the heart of the tower. Already they’d seized one of the nest-helpers that tended them and started gnawing out the pain of their teeth. The rest had fled the room and blocked up the door.

The family settled in to wait. There was great jostling on the windowsill as they all vied to keep watch, and our greats-grandmother even ventured into the room. She bragged that she was the first to steal a scrap, a torn-away flap of flesh from the cheek, right under the beaks of the two crazy-angry humans. And as if she’d regained some honor, she caught sight as she flew away of the empty-eyed skull beneath a bed.

The sun had crossed its peak when the two tired of their kill, but there was still plenty of meat left, more indeed scattered about the room than eaten—one of the odd habits of humans that you’ll learn very well. They fell to scratching at the door, emitting deep moaning cries, so intent on getting out that the others felt brave enough to follow greats-grandmother’s example and start to scavenge their first of what they hoped would be many rich meals.

Of course, this meant that there was no challenge left, and greats-grandmother soon had her fill. She also remembered the interrupted alarm that had called her away from her human, and even if a battle or a plague wasn’t going to impress the family much now, she still felt she should find out what she could.

She found him with his flock around, deep in the anxious chatter that she associated with feasting, the tones and calls that they always made in the times leading up to battles, fresh executions, even the drowning of her older brother’s human. Soon they rose, and she followed them from window to window until they came to the other side of the door where the moaning was.

Her human twisted his face as she’d seen him do in battle, and gestured at a few members of his flock. They unlocked the doors. She could hear her feeding family retreat in a rustle of wings.

The nestlings rushed out and were caught in arms as thick as nets. Most of the humans, except the largest and strongest, retreated with their faces in their hands, but her human stayed. She watched him as his nephews were borne thrashing and biting back into their room, while sturdy members of his flock tied them to their beds, while an old white-haired human with frames around his eyes stooped to examine them. He never turned away.

She thought then, she said, of how she would feel were it her parent’s nestlings that needed to be pecked to death to save the flock. But that led to thoughts of the feast that was coming, and how fat her siblings would grow on all this flesh, and she resettled her feathers and slipped away to the roost.

There followed a frustrating time. More humans went crazy-angry, but nowhere near as many as the ravens had hoped. In such a small space, the humans quickly learned not to attempt to fight or call to the crazy-angry ones; each was quickly locked in a room or bound to a bed, and then pecked to death. Most had their heads off before the sun moved halfway across the sky, but those heads were buried in short order beneath the tower walls, the same frustrating cache a dozen times over. Only the nestlings, the first to go crazy-angry, were left alive.

Greats-grandmother’s thought returned to haunt her, because to her it seemed clear that her human was leading the flock, and that he was sparing those two, just as she might have been tempted to do herself in his place. It was then that she conceived her eccentric conviction that humans were too raven-like to eat, a conviction that she was the first bird on this island to hold, though it’s since become trendy. Not that any of us get much opportunity to put it to the test anymore.

Greats-grandmother took this idea to her older brother, because despite their feuding she knew he was fond of his humans too, and might understand. But he scoffed at her. He called her sentimental and silly, and when she tried to explain herself again, he said she was jealous that it was his humans and not hers who had led to a feast for once. Greats-grandmother always was firm that he started the fight, though she allowed that she might have thrown the first peck.

Their parents heard them before they separated, and as they preened the mud off their feathers they were both declared to be in disgrace. They could stay out the winter but come spring they must both be off to find their own territories.

Greats-grandmother knew it was high time that she had a mate and a nest of her own, might have been pleased under other circumstances, but that didn’t take away the sting of humiliation.

By now, there had been no new humans turning crazy-angry for three days. Still the nestlings lingered tied to their beds. They thrashed with as much energy as hatchlings trying to burst from the egg, although they’d had nothing to eat since their first kill. Their keepers no longer bothered to bar the door, with so many black-plumaged humans in and out to observe and cluck and try to help.

Greats-grandmother sidled up to her brother on their windowsill, ducking her head as though she wished a reconciliation. “I know,” she told him, “how we can both be in the good eyes of our parents again.”

He cocked his head skeptically, but he didn’t flare his wings and drive her off.

“Between us, if we pick at those knots, we can set your humans free. They’ll kill more of the others, and sooner or later there will be too many bodies for them to bury.”

Her brother bobbed his head.

Yes, he was not as smart as our greats-grandmother—in fact he was killed by a buzzard while gorging on a horse two years later, and never did find territory or leave descendants of his own. You, however, saw it at once. That’s what greats-grandmother was counting on.

So they untied the knots of the smaller human, and as he scraped on the door greats-grandmother slipped away, leaving her brother to unbind the other. She knew just where the nearest human was, and rapped at his door until he stuck his head out—just in time to see the crazy-angry nestlings stumble into the hall.

They bit only two men, both of whom were immediately pecked to death by their fellows. By the time greats-grandmother’s human arrived, they were once again tied to their beds.

He looked down upon them and shook his head, seeming to sink further into his brooding posture. This time he did turn away, and as he did so two burly members of his flock unsheathed their swords and sliced the nestlings’ heads from their shoulders.

They, of course, were buried at once and far deeper than the others. There was no hope of anyone, and especially not greats-grandmother’s older brother, getting so much as a taste.

Greats-grandmother’s human returned again and again to the nestlings’ room, to stare at their beds. Greats-grandmother was seized with the desire to give him some sort of reward for behaving as she’d hoped he would. So when she was sure no-one was watching from the roost, she dropped quietly into the room and pushed the much-contested skull from beneath the bed.

Her human knelt, and called out. In moments a black-plumage human arrived and covered it with a cloth. They took it out at once, and cached it again with smoke and bells; but greats-grandmother was never able to shake the feeling that her human had not liked the gift.

She and her brother did not speak the whole winter through, and when the oak leaves had budded to the size of a squirrel’s ear she set out north. She never saw her human alive again, though she, like most of the other ravens in the country, feasted at the battle where he died. She finally settled along the sea, and there we might have stayed had we not inherited her headstrong ways and her story.

Or if we had also inherited her diet. For having observed humans ourselves, few of us can believe that it is wrong to eat them. Especially not when they are crazy-angry and delicious. And all those heads still wait cached beneath the tower, with their infected teeth, to be unearthed again.

Originally published in Zombies: Shambling through the Ages, edited by Steve Berman.

About the Author

Carrie Laben grew up in western New York and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. She now lives in Queens. Her work has appeared in such venues as Birding, The Dark, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and Outlook Springs. In 2017 she won the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction for her story “Postcards from Natalie” and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize for “The Wrong Place.” In 2018 she was a MacDowell Fellow.