The blood was everywhere now. It had ruined the bed sheets on which Laura now lay. The walls were riddled with smudges of it left by handprints, and it was clear that someone was dragged along the wall, leaving a streak of red behind them like paint on a canvas. The jagged edges of the broken glass in the window pane were also outlined in crimson. The dog, Phoenix, was laying in a puddle that was dying his wild gray fur a dark shade of cherry maroon.
At the foot of the bed stood Patrick, covered with blood and waiting for the police to come.
Later that same day, the phone rang in Professor Quentin Bolvere’s office.
“Oh my God,” he said into the receiver.
“Exactly,” it spoke back.
“What happened?” he said.
“It was the dog,” the phone reported, “He just snapped and completely mauled her. It got killed, too.”
“Killed? How did she kill it?”
“That’s just it. She didn’t. At least, the cops didn’t think she did.”
“Laura didn’t have anything on her except her two fists, and it was pretty obvious the dog wasn’t beat to death.”
“Dear God...” Prof. Bolvere swallowed, his throat going dry. “How did the dog die?”
“It was ripped apart. Shredded.”
Prof. Bolvere put his hand to his temples, trying to massage out the bloody image that had invaded his brain.
“Thank you for telling me,” he said dryly before hanging up.
He closed his eyes tightly and put his head on his desk, but splotches of red still swirled and stained his imagination.
It was about 5:15 P. M. when Mickey Connelly pulled into the driveway. The gravel crunched and hummed beneath the tires of his olive green Jeep. He got out and shielded his eyes against the stooping sun.
Mickey was twenty-six and six foot two. His cheeks looked like he had just stuffed two Hostess Snowballs into his mouth so he could save them for winter, his maple-toned hair had the appearance of once being smoothed and slick back but was now starting to prick and fluff up in messy tufts, and even his ears were a bit high-set on his heads and slightly pointed. He would have had the face of the perfect Human Squirrel, were it not for his silvery hazel eyes, which, despite being completely open and awake, somehow still had that foggy, tired shine that was normally found in slug-minded brutes and booze hounds. Of course, he was neither of those things, being of average wit and disliking the taste of most beers and spirits.
The wide, paranoid eyes of squirrel-being, however, was epitomized in the balding Prof. Bolvere’s own adobe browns when he opened the door.
“Ready to go, Mr. Bolvere?” Mickey asked, trying not to notice the man’s pale, horrified expression.
“Mickey!” he said, “My God, I forgot to call you. Come inside, quickly!”
He slammed the screen door, and then the wooden one, behind Mickey as he walked in.
It surprised everyone when Prof. Bolvere decided to buy this house, the very place where his sister-in-law was mangled and his brother was found in the dining room with a rifle in his hand and some of his brain on the wall behind him. They knew that it all effected him very deeply, and that he had to do something, anything, to find closure with the brother that he had always shut out, but they just weren’t sure that this was the way to go. Still, it seemed to help. He was able to end the grief more quickly then, that’s for sure.
Of course, he rarely came into town and visited anyone, mostly staying on the property, but that was just Quentin, always focusing on his studies. It was that quirk that helped make him into the ornithology teacher at the state university.
Mickey followed him into the study, a room that was once intended to be a nursery and then became a guest room and was now filled with volumes with sketches of birds, both their insides and beautifully plumaged outsides, paintings of them laced with yellows, blues, and reds, and even a few taxidermy specimens ranging from hawks ready to pounce at you to sweet little songbirds looking up in perpetually curiosity from their twigs.
The blinds, usually open and letting sunlight reflect in metallic shades off the feathers, were closed, leaving everything in the dark. Prof. Bolvere opened the slats with his fingers and looked through them, the sunlight hitting his eyes and making his skin even paler.
“Mr. Bolvere,” Mickey said cautiously, “is something wrong?”
He looked behind him towards Mickey, down at his empty hands.
“Get the guns and bring them here.”
It didn’t surprise too many people, when Prof. Bolvere decided to take up hunting. Not that anyone was expecting it, but it was a bit of a cultural staple in the town that was nestled within the largely untouched forests. Many of the men, and women, admitted to using it as a form of stress-relief, and God knows Quentin needed that. What did surprise many people, and worried many more, was what he chose to hunt.
Mickey himself wasn’t all that concerned. When, after teaching Prof. Bolvere the basics of camouflage and shooting, he was asked to join him every Saturday and shoot at all the ravens that would cluster on his land, he didn’t think it all that strange. The old teacher had always come across as mildly eccentric to him, so he just chalked it up to another trait on the long list of quirks. Once, after a few weeks of witnessing his somewhat creepy overzealousness towards the deaths of some of the creatures he had dedicated his life to studying, Mickey thought to ask him why exactly they were doing it, but the professor just became flustered and changed the subject by pointed out another one of the black cawing birds. He never asked about it any more. Prof. Bolvere was still a nice enough man, and besides, he was paying Mickey fifty bucks for each visit.
Mickey came back into the study carrying a shotgun in each hand.
“Good,” Prof. Bolvere said, “Excellent. Are they loaded?”
“You brought in extra shells?”
Again, he nodded.
“Good. Now, I think its time I explain to you just what its going on here. When I get done, I want you get out of here and go home as quickly as possible, understand?”
“Yes,” Mickey said, with a stomach that was twisting slightly.
“Okay. Just leave one of the guns here with me and the extra shells you brought in. Do you have any more in your jeep?”
“Shells? Yeah, a whole box.”
Prof. Bolvere looked through the blinds once more before gesturing for Mickey to give him one of the guns and offering him one of the chairs that was with the table littered with open books and two stuffed birds: a raven and a blue jay.
“You’ve asked me before,” he started once Mickey was sat down, “why we were always going after ravens.”
Mickey nodded, his right hand resting relaxed over the trigger guard of his shotgun lying on its side on the table.
“When I had heard about Laura’s death, I visited Patrick to just try and...I don’t know...be there, I guess. Just help in some way.”
He had to pause for a minute to fight back the images of his brother, dazed and numb. Dead, essentially.
“Well, while I was there,” he continued, “he and I would go out and just walk around a lot. I suppose we thought that the fresh air might help, make us happier, or more...accepting of everything. But on one of these walks, he had asked to be alone for a minute, to just walk by himself. I understood, and I let him go off and made my way back to the house to wait for him.
“Well, when I got to the house, I just happened to pass by the broken window of Laura and Patrick’s bedroom.”
The window was all boarded up with plywood that looked too flimsy to hold back anything. His stomach began to churn, and he averted his eyes to the ground and...
“I found a feather. It was right by the wall, covered by some grass. But...I saw blood on it.”
Blood? Mickey thought.
“At least, I thought it was blood. So, I picked it up and saw that it was a raven’s feather. Right there, it hit me. I was wondering about what had killed Phoenix. He was cut up in a way no human could have done by hand, so Laura couldn’t have done it. It had been eating me day and night: what killed the dog and why it attacked Laura in the first place. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on which way you look at it, I had never seen either of the bodies, the police couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me anything, and I knew better than to try and get anything out of Patrick.
“But as I stood there, holding the feather, I was suddenly reminded of the broken window. Now, I didn’t think much of it before. It could’ve easily been broken in the struggle, but as I put it all together, feather, window, Phoenix’s death, I began to get an idea.”
“Ravens?” Mickey asked, eyebrow arched, “You figured out that ravens were behind all this from a bloody feather?”
Prof. Bolvere nodded, saying, “I know it’s a jump, and the idea didn’t last too long. There were no feathers found inside that I knew of, and without the body, I had no evidence whether or not Phoenix was pecked to death. Still, I found myself watching the ravens more closely, even going on little bird-watching trips to look for them. I started to notice something strange.
“You want to know what’s interesting about our town? We rest between two territories. We have ravens and crows living practically side by side.”
“But they’re pretty common birds,” Mickey said, “I’m sure lots of places have them living together.”
“That’s true, very true, but haven’t you ever noticed that if you see crows, you almost never see ravens, or that if you see ravens, there’s almost never a crow in sight? Or that if you ever see two birds fighting over a scrap of thrown away sandwich, it’s almost guaranteed that those birds will be a crow and a raven?”
He shook his head.
“Well, I have. I did when I was a kid, and I did now. Only now, I also noticed that they happened with more frequency than when I was a kid, and they were usually around certain places, one of them being the land surrounding this house.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“Mickey, I’m saying that we are in the middle of a war between birds.”
Mickey just stared. He thought about leaving, but looked at the shotgun in Prof. Bolvere’s hands, the hands of a man whose aim had been improving.
He decided to stay.
“A bit of a turf war,” the mad man continued, “Better yet, think of it as a form of natural selection. These two species are fighting to see who will live here, to see who is strong enough to keep this land for their own.”
“But...they’re birds, Quentin.”
“So what? Ravens and crows were already very intelligent, very adaptable creatures. Now, they’ve evolved. They’ve become even smarter. Smart enough to know how to wage war. It’s basically how we got to where we are, fighting all the other apes.”
“Well, then what about Laura and Phoenix?”
“I finally managed to get one of the officers on scene to tell me something. That the window was broken from the outside. Something broke into the bedroom.”
“Okay, but that still doesn’t mean—“
“What animal can be small enough to fit through the window and strong or smart enough to break the glass? Dog? No. A large one wouldn’t fit and a small one would not have killed Phoenix, a sheep dog, in the way I was told. A cat? Not strong enough. A person? If it was, then why was no one ever asked anything about Laura, if she had any enemies, if there was anyone who would want to kill her? So no, not a person. But a flock of birds? Pecking at the glass? Maybe one of them thinks to throw a rock? That is very plausible.”
Mickey rubbed his temples. “Okay, then why? What would a bunch of ravens want her dead for?”
“A power play. This land is practically paradise. Wild raspberries and blackberries grow everywhere. There’s enough trees so they can build nests without having to worry about any ground predators. In fact, they wouldn’t have to worry much about any predators at all. Fence keeps out all the four-legged ones and I suppose it’s just dumb luck that there aren’t any raptors that might swoop down on them. The only thing that wasn’t perfect about this place was the dog.
“Phoenix always loved to terrorize birds. He’d run at them, howling like a demon, and send them flying. My theory is that the ravens were trying for intimidation, that if they could kill such a monster, the crows would feel that they didn’t have a chance. So, the swarmed in on him, right in his own home, right when he’d least expect it. It all worked out perfectly until Laura walked in, probably to see what all the commotion was about. The birds either killed her themselves or Phoenix was so spooked that, when they started to peck at her, he panicked and lunged.”
“Quentin, this is just all so...”
“I know. And it’s why you have to leave now.”
“I told you that ravens were smart. Smart enough to know how to fight back.”
“But there are no ravens!”
Prof. Bolvere raised his shotgun and pointed it right at Mickey’s forehead.
“Get out! Board your doors and windows. Or better yet, leave the town stay in a hotel somewhere. Just leave!”
Mickey slowly got up, eyeing the barrel even after it was lowered to its wielder’s side. He then backed out of the study, out of the house, and into his car, and left.
Back in the study, Prof. Bolvere watched them come for him. They were a few little black dots on the horizon, but soon there would be more of them, and they’d be bigger, armed with sharp swords on their mouths and feet.
He had lied to Mickey a couple of times during his story.
The first time was about the feather. It was a mistake. A very, very stupid mistake, especially considering his profession.
It wasn’t a raven’s feather. It was a crow’s.
He had realized this a few weeks ago, when was finally able to bring himself to look at the blood-soaked thing. Before, he had hidden it in a book, wanting to keep it as a testament to his war but not yet strong enough to handle the imaginings that the light gleaming off the brownish stain would conjure, daydreams of a woman screaming and blood flying everywhere like it was coming from a garden sprinkler. As he held it in his fingers, fighting back a surge of nausea while remembering just what he was fighting for, he felt something was wrong, off-kilter. After staring at it through a magnifying glass and flipping through many, many pages, he had fully realized his error.
Still, he continued with the genocide. He couldn’t stop now, now that he had almost rid the property of those damn birds. If he stopped, they wouldn’t just let him go, no. They’d seize the opportunity. They’d do to him what he now knew the crows did to Laura and the dog.
Besides, he had rationalized to himself, if I kill their enemies, won’t they see me as their ally?
So he had planned it out. He would finish of the species he had started on, and then continue on to the next, the one that thought he was their friend. They’d never see it coming.
They were almost to his house now. They had started disappearing, soaring above the scope of vision that the window provided. He didn’t need the see them, though, to know that they were hovering just above his roof. He could hear their powerful, dare he say boastful, battle cries: caw, caw, CA-HAW!!!
The second lie was about the motive behind the attack.
Even when he thought it was the raven’s move, he had never thought, not once, that it was an intimidation tactic against the other bird. It was an act of intimidation against the people.
Throughout all his years of studying, all the countless hours of just watching the majestic beasts soar overhead and live as they saw fit, he had a secret revelation.
Birds, for all their beauty, their grace, their intelligence, their perfection, could be very, very greedy.
He knew that the birds wanted not just the land, not just the nesting ground, but the house as well.
They wanted all of it. They wanted all of it to themselves.
Rain fell in sheets against his roof, despite the fact that there wasn’t a drop on the window he was watching from.
All the crows were gone from sight now. He could still hear them, however, as they pecked and clawed away at his house. They were pounding at all sides, it seemed like. Thousands and thousands of pebbles being shot at the walls. It was a wonder the whole thing wasn’t being shaken apart.
It wouldn’t be long now before they managed to break a window or maybe even a door. Then they’d swoop in, an ink black tsunami.
Prof. Bolvere would be standing there in his study, waiting for them, shotgun in hand and shells within arm’s reach. Although, when faced against a legion of flying rats, what good would it do, really?
He heard a window shatter. It now rained inside the house as the glass tinkled as it hit the ground. Amidst the rat-a-tat-tats that were their flapping wings, he could still make out their screeching.
Caw. Caw. CA-HAW!!
Suddenly, two birds appeared at the window, pecking and clawing at the cracks their comrades had left earlier like starved dogs straining against their leashes. Prof. Bolvere didn’t try to shoot this time. He didn’t open the window. He knew better.
He looked at the dead black bodies littered amidst the strewn papers, gutted books, and toppled feathered statuettes, a testament to the ambush he had survived.
I know better. I know better than all these damn birds!
Staring at the window, he slowly reached for the shells at his side and stuffed as many into his pocket as possible.
The thunder of the storm had gotten close, very close.
The crows were so close, in fact, that the incessant cawing and fluttering was starting to drill into his ears.
He just clutched the shotgun even more tightly, his knuckles showing white.
Machine-gun fire on the door told him they had found him. As he heard the wood begin to splinter, he watched the cracks on the window grow under the striking of the beaks outside. They crept across the window like lethargic earthworms.
He looked behind him, back at the rattling door. He thought he saw miniscule cracks begin to burble up in the wood.
Something made him look back towards the window. When he did, he had just enough time to saw the branches of the cracks meet together, forming a bridge between two dead trees, before the glass shattered and the black rats rushed in.
Now Prof. Bolvere started shooting. Actually, he only shot three times.
Once into the face of a crow that was headed straight for his.
Once into the sudden cloud that had congregated at his window, right before he jumped out.
Once at his shoulder when he accidentally pulled the trigger when he scrambled up amidst the crows that had already descended upon his head and began to claw and bite.
Fortunately, only a small part of the shot of the shell actually embedded itself in the very upper part of his shoulder. It still hurt enough for him to clutch at the bleeding wound as he ran, though.
The crows followed him, clinging to him like aerial leeches. He pried his red hand off his shoulder and shot blindly.
Nothing came out of the barrel.
He kept firing still, in denial of his situation. His gun, though, immune to all emotion, still shot nothing.
Survival instinct kicked in as he held the empty gun by the barrel and started swinging at his attackers. They parted and swirled about for an instant before closing in the gap with greater energy than before, pecking at and even grabbing the stock of the gun. They pulled with such force that he thought they would pull it right out of his hand. Still swinging, he reached into his pocket and grabbed a shell.
One of the crows, realizing what he was doing, dived for his hand, making him drop the red cartridge on the ground. It only made him swing and flail harder, trying desperately to drive away the crows for just long enough to load even one shell into the gun.
Without thinking, he collapsed to his knees on the ground, shielding the weapon while the crows scratched viciously at his back. He gritted his teeth as he dug another shell out of his pocket and loaded it into the gun.
The crows were smart enough to scatter when they saw him turn around. He saw two of them fall down in a cloud of red mist when he fired. The kick knocked him off balance and he fell on his back. He started to frantically scramble up before he had a realization that made him stop on his knees.
The crows had all left.
He stared at the sky as he slowly stood and began unconsciously reloading the gun. All of the crows that attacked him were flying away, gradually disappearing as they seemed to melt into the sun.
He held the gun at ready, perplexed at what could have caused the birds’ retreat.
He found the answer coming towards him. Just over the trees came a line of black dots soaring like an airborne Calvary.
Ravens! Prof. Bolvere thought. They must be ravens! My God, I’ve been saved by ravens!
In his momentary euphoria, he cackled and nearly dropped to his knees in gratitude. Then they got closer. He could make out their tails, pitch black fans that could be used to decorate a rich man’s walls.
Mickey was right. There were no ravens left on the property.
He fired again and again into the murder of crows that was descending upon him. His vision was filled with black and red as they came down from all angles. They ripped at his back, his torso, his face, everywhere. They cut and tore like they were a feathered species of piranha.
Yet somehow, he still had enough of a trachea left to scream when the weight of the birds forced him to the ground.
Mickey was standing by his Jeep, waiting for the small red pump to finish filling the tank with gas, when he heard the squawk behind him.
He turned around and saw a raven standing on the ground. It stared at him, as if waiting for an answer to its question.
He heard the gas pump shut off behind him. He set it back into its niche, all the time looking back at the raven standing on the ground. It never moved, and that made him very nervous.
It meant that the bird was waiting for something.
He slowly got back into his car and sat there for a minute, waiting for the raven to fly off, but it still just stood there, staring at him in the driver’s seat.
The thing was right in the path of his front left wheel. If it didn’t move out of the way, he’d end up flattening it.
Actually, he thought, that’s not so bad.
The bird flew away as soon as he started the engine. He rolled out onto the street and straight into a red light.
Two ravens perched on top of the traffic light, standing across from each other like they were guarding a door. Like the one back at the gas station, they just stood there, waiting for something. Mickey apprehensively tapped on the steering wheel, praying that the light would change soon. More ravens started floating down, landing on nearby rooftops and lamp posts. He ran his fingers through his hair in a habitual attempt to hide the fact that he was wiping off the cold sweat that had broken out across his forehead.
The light turned green. The tires squelched as he speed off.
He kept driving. He slowed down for a second at the turnoff for his house before he saw a blurry black shape flutter in the branches.
He floored the gas pedal. He continued on at brake neck speed for three hours straight.
At that time a strange sensation came over him. His heart was threatening to burst out of his chest, yet his eyes were drooping and he was dangerously close to passing out. He reluctantly pulled over to the side of the road and leaned back his seat, praying that he’d either fall asleep or wake up.
He shot up. He thought he had heard something, a muffled ka-haw.
He got out of the Jeep. His headlights were off, but the sky was clear and the light of the stars and the mostly full moon allowed him to see just about everything.
He saw no birds, heard no calls. They were there, though, watching him as he turned and twisted about to try and see them.
Why don’t they just come now? Lord knows I’m too tired to try and fight them off!
Perhaps they weren’t just waiting for a moment when he was weak, but a moment when he was damn near dead. Perhaps they were just hounding him until he killed himself with exhaustion, until he slept and ran his car into a tree or had a heart attack from an overdose of adrenalin.
He again spun around and around and around, trying to see any ravens. Seeing none, he got back in his Jeep and proceeded to slap himself a few times, trying to thrash in alertness.
He started the car, despite the fact he was dog tired, despite the fact that he knew that he would crash if he went any further like this.
But still, dying that way seemed better than the alternative they had planned for him, just as long as he was sure to floor it enough so that he’d at least be unconscious when they started tearing at him.
“Damn birds,” he mumbled, and then sped off.