The King of Crows – Libba Bray

On the last day that the town of Beckettsville would ever know, the weather was so fine you could see all the way to the soft blue skin of the horizon. The land in this part of the country was beautiful. Tall wheat tickled the spring air. Fat maples offered summertime shade. There was a fine-looking Main Street boasting a post office, a hardware store, a filling station with two gasoline pumps out front, a grocery, a pharmacy, a small hotel with a downstairs cafe that served warm apple pie, and a barbershop whose revolving red-white-and-blue pole thrilled the children, a daily magic trick. A round clock mounted to the front of City Hall’s domed tower showed the passage of time, which, in Beckettsville, seemed to move slower than in other places. The people worked hard and tried to be good neighbors. They sang in church choirs and attended Rotary and Elks Club meetings. They played bridge on Friday nights. Held picnics near the bandstand under the July sun. Canned summer peaches for the long winter. Got excited by the arrival of a new Philco radio, electric icebox, or automobile, everybody crowding ’round to see progress unloaded from the back of a truck by grunting, sweaty men. The people lived in neat rows of neat houses with indoor plumbing and electric lights, attended one of the town’s four churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregationalist), sent their dead to the Perkins & Son Funeral Parlor over on Poplar Street for embalming, and buried those same dead in the cemetery up on the hill at the edge of town, far from the bustle of Main Street. As the clock counted down to the horrors awaiting Beckettsville, population four hundred five souls, Pastor Jacobs stepped out of First Methodist Church thinking of that apple pie over at the Blue Moon Cafe—so delicious the way Enola Gaylord served it, with a dollop of cream, and it really was a shame he would not get to enjoy Beckettsville’s favorite pie today or any day thereafter. The pastor nodded and said “Afternoon” to sweet Charlie Banks, who swept the sidewalk free of spring blossoms in front of McNeill’s Hardware.

Charlie mooned over the approach of pretty schoolteacher Cora Nettles. As Cora marched past him (her own thoughts occupied by a silly but maddening argument she’d had with her mother over the new pink hat Cora now wore—it most certainly was not “unbecoming of a serious woman”!), Charlie sighed, thinking that tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, he would finally summon the courage to ask her to the picture show over in Fairview and that she might answer sweetly, Why, Charlie Banks, I would love to! so that the world of his heart, which Charlie held so tightly in his fist, would open into the bright, fresh bloom of his long-desired future. Down that same Main Street, Mikey Piccolo, age ten and with his mind firmly fixed on baseball, tossed the day’s Beckettsville Gazette over picket fences from a satchel stretched around his neck as if he were Waite Hoyt. He could hear the imaginary crowd roaring inside his head as he narrowly missed Ida Olsen, who played with her rag dolls under the leafy canopy of a sycamore tree at Number Ten Main Street. She stuck her tongue out at the back of Mikey’s head but quickly moved to the other side of the giant tree to continue her game, out of sight of the Widow Winters, who had just come onto her front porch. Ida did not care to be pulled into a long conversation about boring things from the past—cotillions, which were dances, apparently, and Times When Neighbors Acted More Neighborly. It was never worth the butterscotch candies the old lady offered from the pocket of her apron, and so Ida kept well hidden. From her perch on the porch, Mrs. Euline Winters soothed herself with the gentle seesawing creak of her rocking chair and a lapful of knitting yarn as she watched the citizenry going about their busy business in the noonday sun. (What a glorious afternoon it is! So warm and fragrant!) Her crepe myrtle had blossomed, and the flowers, planted in happier times, reminded Euline of her husband, Wilbur, dead and gone these eight years, and did those people out there, her neighbors, know how lonely she was, sitting alone at her supper table each night, listening to the mocking tick of Wilbur’s grandfather clock, with no one to ask, And how was your day, my dear? There were other citizens out and about on this beautiful day.

A mailman and the Rotary Club president. A dotting of mothers gathered around the butcher’s counter, giving the day’s order while scolding their unruly children. The town crank, who complained under his breath about the unruly children and spat his tobacco into the bushes. The young people restless to grow up and leave Beckettsville or restless to stay right there and fall in love, sometimes feeling both in the same moment, as young people do. This town held many stories. In a few minutes, none of them would matter. For weeks, some of the town’s ghosts had tried to warn the people of Beckettsville. Newly awakened from rest, aware of the terrors to come, the ghosts swept picture frames from mantels. They spilled the milk. They caused the electric lights to flicker until the fragile bulbs exploded with a pop.

They appeared briefly at windows and in mirrors, their mouths opening in silent screams. The ghosts moaned into the night, but who could hear such alarms over the noise of the radios in every house? The dead of Beckettsville had done what they could, but the people refused to see. Anyway, it was much too late now. It was Johnny Barton, age twelve, who noticed first. Johnny was upstairs in his bedroom, pretending to be sick again and tending to his model planes, far from the other boys at school who bullied him so mercilessly. (“They’re just teasing,” his mother would say, as if that was supposed to be a comfort. “Hit ’em back. Be a man,” his father would say, which only made Johnny feel bullied twice.) Johnny liked birds and flying things in general, things that suggested you could soar up and away anytime you liked, and so he was zooming his balsa-wood flier past the window when he took note of the curious dark clouds gathering now along that promising horizon. Plenty of storms blew in across the land in spring.

But this was something different. These clouds pulled together like filings drawn to a magnet, massing quickly into a living wall. Blue lightning sliced through that thickening dark, as if something terrible was trying to birth itself. Still gripping his plane, Johnny Barton raced down the stairs. He pushed through the white picket gate of his parents’ foursquare and out into the street, not caring about the Model T that beeped its horn angrily as it swerved around him. “Watch out!” the driver, Mr. Tilsen, barked. But that’s what Johnny was doing, watching out. Every night, he read with relish stories of the Great War. He’d read that, on the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, fat clouds of smoke and dust announced the arrival of the Germans’ monstrous war machines.

That’s what this strange formation reminded him of now—an invading army. Others were coming to look at the storm blowing in out of nowhere. Wind whipped the leaves of the maples. A sudden gust blew Cora’s fashionable spring hat clean off her head and sent it rolling down the street, where Charlie picked it up, happy to touch something that belonged to her at last. Reluctantly, he handed it back, his fingers grazing hers for one charged moment. Then he, too, turned his head in the direction of those foreboding clouds. Cora snugged on her cloche and held it in place with the palm of her hand. “Mercy! I hope it’s not a twister!” “Never seen a twister look that way,” Charlie answered, his mind more on Cora than the storm. “Maybe it’s the Huns!” Johnny said and scraped his plane through the air. His skin prickled, though he didn’t know why.

“Looks like a big old ball of dust,” the Rotary Club president said in wonder. “Should we ring the church bell and get to the storm cellars?” Pastor Jacobs asked. “Let’s wait and see,” the president said. He did not like making decisions until he knew what the popular vote would be. The mothers had left the butcher shop. Their children stopped squabbling and moved close to their mothers’ sides. The town crank slowed his chew. The restless young people greeted the arrival of the storm with excitement—finally, something! Euline Winters’s rocking chair stilled; her knitting needles lay in her lap. “I saw a dust storm like that once when I was a girl. When it was over, little Polly Johansen was missing.

They never found her,” Euline called, though no one listened. The clouds had spread out. The citizens of Beckettsville could no longer see the horizon. The high-pitched whine of insects filled the charged air. The birds shrieked and flew away from Beckettsville with a startling suddenness. Ida Olsen left her hiding place and came out of her yard, dragging her dolly behind her. Even though her mother had told her that pointing was rude, she jabbed a finger toward the spot of road still visible. “What’s that?” Ida asked. A lone man emerged from those billowing clouds. He was imposing in stature, with a stovepipe hat atop hair that was kept longer than was the fashion in this part of the country, and an old-fashioned undertaker’s coat made of blue-black feathers that fluttered in the gusty wind.

The people of this small town were unaccustomed to strangers—there wasn’t even a train depot here—and this man was strange, indeed. He walked with a deliberate stride, and that made the people wonder if he might be important. A beautiful crow perched sentinel-straight on the man’s left shoulder, cawing like a town crier. To Johnny Barton, it seemed the crow wanted to fly away from its master but stayed as if an invisible chain held it firmly in place. The man trailing the storm reached the citizens at last. His skin was the patchy, peeling gray of a rotting shroud, and Cora Nettles tried to hide her distaste. She hoped it wasn’t catching, some foreign disease. The man tipped his tall hat with easy formality. “Good afternoon.” The president of the Rotary Club stepped forward.

“Afternoon. Walter Kurtz, president of the Beckettsville Rotary Club. And who might you be?” “I might be many things. But you may call me the King of Crows.” The citizens chuckled lightly at this. The Rotary Club president heard and grinned. “Well, we don’t get much royalty in these parts,” he said, playing to his bemused neighbors, happy to know the popular vote at last. “You on your way through somewheres?” “In a manner of speaking.” “We don’t get many strangers here,” Cora Nettles explained. “I am not a stranger,” the man replied, and it left Cora unsettled.

She could not place his face. “You might want to take shelter, sir,” Pastor Jacobs said. “There’s a storm right behind you.” The King of Crows glanced over his shoulder at the mass of dark clouds hovering on the edge of town, and turned back, untroubled. “Indeed there is.” With eyes black and lifeless as a doll’s, he surveyed the little town. He inhaled deeply, as if he were not merely taking in air but breathing in the full measure of something unknown. “What a fine claim you have here.” The Rotary Club president beamed. “Why, there’s no town finer.

You can have your Chicago, your San Francisco and Kansas City. Right here in Beckettsville—this is the good life!” “We’ve even got a hotel,” Charlie Banks said, and he hoped Cora thought he was clever to mention this. The corners of the stranger’s mouth twitched but did not extend into a smile. “My. And how many souls live here?” “Four hundred five. Almost six, seeing as Maisy Lipscomb is due any day now,” Charlie answered. “And how many dead have you?” “I… beg pardon?” Charlie said. “No matter.” The King of Crows smiled at last, though there was no warmth in it. “You’ve sold me.

We’ll take it.” “Take what?” the Rotary Club president said. “Your town, of course. We are hungry.” The citizens laughed again, uneasily this time. “The pie at the cafe is delicious,” Pastor Jacobs said, still trying to make everything seem perfectly normal, though his heart said otherwise. The Rotary Club president straightened his spine. “Beckettsville is not for sale.” “Who said anything about a sale?” the King of Crows answered. His gray teeth were as sharp and pointed as a shark’s.

“I think you’d best move along now,” the town crank chimed in. “We don’t go for funny business here in Beckettsville.” “Who is we?” Johnny Barton hadn’t meant to ask his question aloud, but now he had the attention of the King of Crows, whose stare fell on Johnny, making him squirm. “What was that, my good man?” he asked. Johnny had known lots of bullies, and this man struck him as the worst kind of bully. The kind who pretended to be on your side until he led you behind the school for the beating of your life. “You said we. Who is we?” Johnny mumbled. He blinked at the crow on the man’s shoulder, because he could swear it now had a woman’s face. The bird spoke with a woman’s desperate whisper.

“Run. Please, please run.” “Be still.” The King of Crows pulled his hand across the woman’s mouth and it became a beak once more, cawing into the wind. The King of Crows’s face lit up with a cruel joy. “How smart you are, young man! Who, indeed? How rude of me not to introduce my retinue.” With that, he raised his arms and flexed his long fingers toward the sky as if he would pull it to him. Blue lightning crackled along his dirty fingernails. “Come, my army. The time is now.

” A foul smell wafted toward the town: factory smoke and bad meat and stagnant pond water and battlefield dead left untended. Pastor Jacobs put a handkerchief to his nose. Ida Olsen gagged. The crow strained forward with frantic screaming. From inside the dark clouds, a swarm of flies burst forth, as if the town of Beckettsville were a corpse rotting in the waning sun. On that horizon that had seemed so fine moments earlier, the churning clouds parted like the curtain before the start of a picture show, letting out what waited inside. And though it was far too late for him, or for anyone else in Beckettsville, Johnny Barton heeded the crow’s advice; he turned and ran from the horrors at his back. THE END OF THE WORLD New York City The musty tunnel underneath the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult was as dark as the night’s shadow, and Isaiah Campbell was afraid. His older brother, Memphis, lifted their lantern. Its light barely cut into the gloom ahead.

The air down here was close, like being buried alive. Isaiah’s lungs grew tighter with each breath. He wanted out. Up. Aboveground. Memphis was nervous, too. Isaiah could tell by the way his brother kept looking back and then forward again, like he wasn’t sure about what to do. Even big Bill Johnson, who didn’t seem afraid of anything, moved cautiously, one hand curled into a fist. “What if this doesn’t go nowhere?” Isaiah asked. He had no idea how long they’d been down here.

Felt like days. “Doesn’t go anywhere,” Memphis corrected, more of a mumble, though, and Isaiah didn’t even have it in him to be properly annoyed by his brother’s habit of fixing his words, which, to Isaiah’s mind, didn’t need fixing. “Don’t like it down here.” Isaiah glanced over his shoulder. The way back was just as dark as the way ahead. “I’m tired.” “It’s a’right, Little Man. Plenty’a slaves got to freedom out this passage. We gonna be fine,” Bill said in his deep voice. “Ain’t got much choice, anyhow.

Not with them Shadow Men after us. Just watch your step.” Isaiah kept his eyes trained on the uneven ground announcing itself in Memphis’s lantern light and wondered if the Shadow Men had shown up at Aunt Octavia’s house looking for them. The idea that those men might’ve hurt his auntie made Isaiah’s heart beat even harder in his chest. Maybe the Shadow Men had gone straight to the museum, to Will Fitzgerald and Sister Walker. Maybe the Shadow Men had found the secret door under the carpet in the collections room and were down here even now, following quietly, guns drawn. Isaiah swallowed hard. Sweat itched along his hairline and trickled down between his narrow shoulder blades under his shirt, which was getting filthy. “How much longer?” he asked for the fourth time. He was thirsty.

His feet hurt. Memphis’s lantern illuminated another seemingly endless curve of tunnel. “Maybe we should turn back.” Bill rubbed the sweat from his chin. “Not with those men after us. Trust me, you don’t want them to catch ya. Around that curve could be a way out.” “Or another mile of darkness. Or a cave-in. Or a ladder leading up to a freedom house that hasn’t been that since before the Civil War,” Memphis whispered urgently.

“A house that’s home to some white family now who might not welcome us.” “Rather take my chances goin’ fo’ward.” They pressed on. Around the bend, their tunnel branched into two. A smell like rotten eggs filled the air and Memphis tried not to gag. Bill coughed. “Look like we just met up with the sewers.” Isaiah pinched his nose shut with his fingers. “Which way should we go?” “I don’t know,” Memphis said, and that scared Isaiah, because if there was anything his brother was good at, it was acting like he knew everything. “Bill?” Bill held up a finger, feeling for air.

He shook his head. “Ain’t no way to know.” He took out a nickel, tossed it, and slapped it down on his arm. “Heads we go left; tails, right.” Memphis nodded. Bill took his hand away. “Tails,” he said, and they entered the tunnel to their right. “Maybe those Shadow Men left Harlem and went back to wherever they come from,” Memphis said. Water swished over their shoes and trickled down the narrow brick walls. It stank.

“Doubt it,” Bill panted. “They never stop. I know ’em.” “I didn’t even get to tell Theta good-bye. What if they went to her apartment to find me? What if… what if they hurt her?” “Only thing we can do is keep going,” Bill said. “Soon as we get somewhere safe, you can put in a call to her, and to your auntie.” Memphis snorted. “Somewhere safe. Let me know where that is.” Isaiah chanced another look over his shoulder.

Tiny motes of light fluttered in the vast dark. Isaiah blinked, wiped at his eyes. The muscles from his neck to his fingers twitched. Suddenly, his feet wouldn’t move. Isaiah felt as if a giant were squeezing him between its palms. The spots of light came faster, and then Isaiah knew. “Memphis…” was all Isaiah managed before his eyes rolled back and he was falling deeply into space as the vision roared up inside him, fast as a freight train. Isaiah stood on a ribbon of dirt road leading toward a flat horizon. To his left, a slumped scarecrow guarded over a field of failing corn. To his right sat a farmhouse with a sagging front porch.

He saw a weathered red barn. An enormous oak whose tire swing hung lax, as if it hadn’t been touched in a good while. Isaiah had seen this place once before in a vision, and he had been afraid of it, and of the girl who lived here. He heard his name being called like a voice punching through miles of fog. “I, I, I, IsaiAH!” And then, close by his ear: “Isaiah.” Isaiah whirled around. She was right there. The same girl as before. A peach satin ribbon clung to a few strands of her pale ringlets. Her eyes were such a light blue-gray they were nearly silver.

Who are you? he thought. “I’m a seer, a Diviner, like you.”

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