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“Crows are the harbingers of doom,” my grandmother would say. “Especially if one gets into the house.” When the birds gather upon the line, their condemnation becomes clear. Woe to any who comes close to the marked one. Black eyes, feathers too, no color assigned but judgement. A murder of crows brings death.
And she was right.
When I was ten, the parlor window lay open to admit the cool breeze of late spring. A bird flew into the room, silent upon the almond-scented air from the purple heliotrope outside, and landed on top of the bust of some long dead poet laureate. The crow, that majestic bird so regal dressed in black, looked around the room as if holding court.
Not a sound did he make.
Grandmother came looking for me. As she bustled into the room, her taffeta skirts rustling, cawing in her high-pitched voice, cross at me for not being able to find me—I was there, in plain sight, just under the pie table—the bird responded in kind. Feathers ruffled, wings fluttered, the cry of agitation pierced through any semblance of misunderstanding.
My grandmother shrieked and grabbed the fire poker from the hearth. Brandishing it like a sword, she swung at the crow. He, that impressive beast, jumped into the air and took flight, cawing his way around the room. Grandmother screamed, ducked her head, and swung the poker wildly.
I found it most amusing.
The bird finally gave up his torment of her and flew out the window with a final ca-caw! My mother, as usual, came too late upon the scene to do much good. Grandmother laid the poker down and flung herself upon the pink cushioned chair, gasping for breath while my mother fixed her gaze upon me. Mother strode to the table and fair yanked me out from underneath it. Her grip tight upon my arm, I felt her nails digging in and the slight rattle of my brain as she shook me.
I hated her for that—amongst other things.
And wished her dead.
Two days later, I saw my wish come true.
It was a small funeral, to be sure. Only family and one or two friends—of my father’s—not hers, as not many cared for her sneaky, venomous ways. I shed not one tear for she never acted the mother of my needs, only that of show for the neighbors and my father, who was the only one who wept.
Grandmother knew though.
That was a problem.
I liked her.
No fool, her, my grandmother. She kept a close eye on me after that and I knew enough then not to bring attention to my activities. We got along fairly well for a few more years, her and I, but as you’ve probably heard, these things tend to come in threes.
When I was two and twenty, I wished to marry. The man I chose was “Most unsuitable!” Grandmother said, and since my father listened only to her, I was denied my wish. My love wed another. On their wedding day, as I walked through the graveyard to the church to give them my well wishes on the happy occasion, I happened upon the crows. All lined up on the headstone of one of the defunct whose epitaph one could no longer read.
Three big, black beasts with eyes that stared right into your soul. The clouds passed by, hiding the weak autumn sun, and a mist appeared to rise out of the ground. No sound did the birds make, nor I, transfixed as I was by their gaze. The judgement was clear, and, I knew what had to be done.
Funny how a little sugar goes a long way in making peace, and, in covering the slight burnt almond taste in cakes or biscuits for that matter. It helps if you have a good hand in the art of bakery goods, knowing what flavor palates to appease.
And it wasn’t long before the bride was a bride no longer.
We fair drowned in tears at the funeral. In fact, I found it rather vulgar. But I was there, consoling my love, under the ever-watchful eye of my grandmother. I didn’t care. I turned my chin up at her but quickly lowered my head, daubing at my cheeks before turning my tear-welled eyes upon him, whom I admired. He, that gentle soul, saw my quivering lip, and shared his grief with me.
We wed in secret—after the appropriate waiting time.
To the day.
Does the appropriate waiting time really matter, if it’s in secret?
Grandmother weaseled her way into my childhood home, where upon my husband and I had no choice but to set up our own household. Would she never give up? Was I doomed to hear the rustle of taffeta, the reeking smell of liniment she used to oil her old joints, see that weathered face and beady eyes look at me knowingly?
I could no longer stand the sight of her or her high-pitched chattering. I had to do away with Grandmother, but she would not go quietly into that long sleep.
Just as I’d done before.
I poisoned her tea. Well, her sugar, really. The sugar bowl only she used—it being an heirloom from her grandmother’s mother passed down to her. The little bowl, made of white porcelain, had dainty yellow flowers painted ‘round the rim. Its lid, with a slot cut for the small spoon, also boasted the carnations. Tiny things, almost imperceptible due to the dulling with age. They echoed how I felt—distain, rejection, and an almost imperceptible disappointment that Grandmother wasn’t as all-knowing as I’d once thought. Into this bowl went the granular sugar—now mingled with arsenic.
No one else used the bowl but her, that beady-eyed-black-clad-taffeta-wearing old crone. Within no time at all, she was dead. Oh, what a beautiful morning it had been too! All sunny, with a crow sitting on a branch of the heliotrope directly outside the open parlor window, his eyes so knowing as he looked upon the scene. Grandmother and I sat opposite one another. Our tea lay across the polished mahogany table.
With all grace and flourish, I poured—not one single drop did I spill! Although I was agog with nerves. My grandmother, that dame of all knowingness, sat there with her back straight as a poker—and as unyielding! However, I would not be daunted nor deterred from my task and I took comfort in the bird who observed my ministrations with his imposing countenance. Not one ca-caw sounded from him—only silent approval did I notice.
The tea poured, the doctored sugar spooned into her cup by her own hand, now dissolving nicely while we chatted. Briefly, I held my breath as she drank the ill brew. Would she notice a difference in taste, I wondered? Would she smell the almond upon the air and think it only that from the flowers of the heliotrope outside? Would this be the final dose—I’d been administering the poison for a week now and decided to up the amount of arsenic.
It had been different with my beloved’s first betrothed. I’d made her favorite baked good, the almond cakes only she liked. The arsenic and sugar mixed in the batter and baked to perfect little treats she alone would eat. I’d wanted to be sure, so the concentration of poison had been high. So high in fact, it only took two to do the job. Since I couldn’t have her round to our house, I’d gathered the treats in a diminutive basket lined with a tea towel and tied a ribbon around the handle. Humming, I’d walked the lane to my rival’s house. Once arrived, I’d taken a breath before knocking and managed to keep a happy countenance when she exclaimed her surprise at seeing me and then adamantly invited me in for tea for two.
But that was then.
And now, the thing I wanted most happened.
Quite quietly too.
A widening of her eyes. A startled look at my face, then at the cup of tea in her hands. A quick sniff as she brought the cup up, then down to the saucer with a clink! A glance at the sugar bowl—a jerk of her hand, a spasm in her posture, a gasp! out of her lips—the final breath escaping her body as her head slumped forward, her body gone slack, her bowels let loose. Her corset, the only thing keeping her otherwise limp body upright in the chair.
Oh, how I savored the look of wide-eyed horror upon that leathery face! I sat, enjoying the rest of my tea, inhaling the scent of almonds as the breeze gently lifted the hair off the nape of my neck. I heard a rustling outside and turned to look.
A murder of crows sat upon the sill. Glaring at me with their black eyes—silent as death. They looked at me, one by one. I could hear their converse of condemnation. They sat there, resplendent as ever. Their judgement final. I was doomed.
Terrified, I slipped under the pie table as if I were ten years old again, trying to hide from them. But no use, as one by one the birds descended into the room. Black wings light upon the air. They settled silently. Not one sound nor ruffle of feather once they found a perch. Their beady black eyes narrowed at me, all of them! They surrounded me!
Convicting. Until the authorities came to take me. That’s when I and the birds flew away.
Interview with TC Grassman, Author of “A Line of Crows”
What inspired your story?
I’ve always enjoyed how a line of crows is called a murder and one of my favorite authors happens to be Edgar Allan Poe. The Love Letters to Poe call out for submissions inspired me to combine these and create the story.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
I can never pick just one. I’ve been drawn to the gothic since childhood and am now just understanding how many of the stories I’ve enjoyed over the years fit into the genre. Poe’s stories, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Masque of the Red Death, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Purloined Letter are some of my favorite stories. I love the dark atmosphere—place as a character—how clever and rich the language, and who can resist an unreliable narrator? I sure can’t. There are other authors that I enjoy but my go-to is Edgar.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing stories for years. Even in elementary school. I’d walk home with my friends and tell a story. Somehow, they all involved finding a dead body. I guess I was destined to write gothic fiction. Who knew?
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
Murder. Insanity. The coping mechanisms of the mind and how many different ways we have to protect ourselves from trauma or vise versa.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
Not a quote necessarily but the idea that beauty lies in our imperfections and that no one is or can reach perfection. What we can do, is try our very best and in the end, embrace our imperfections and realize we are who we are because of them which is the beauty of our life.
What are you working on now?
A retelling of a classic monster story exploring the nature of evil and the human condition.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
I don’t like to be pigeonholed or in other words typecast. I write stories. Period. Regardless of genre. I’m not afraid to explore writing something I’ve never tried before. I embrace the unknown (in creative terms). I’m a fan of the best nation in the world—the imagination. If you like, check out my website and blog at TCGrassman.com or engage with me on social media through Facebook and Twitter.