Jane and the Crows

There was once a young widow named Jane whose husband, John, had been a merchant who sailed the seas. They had lived well until the day he fell, painfully grasping at his heart.

Every night since John’s death, without fail, Jane was plagued with horrifying dreams in which men fought and died in darkness. She could see moonlight glinting off their swords and hear their screams of agony.

Above her small house, on the widow’s walk, seven black crows perched. For twelve months, the birds had watched Jane, their eyes following her when she stepped out to gather firewood or go to the market.

The poor woman bore it as long as she could, but after a time, she got no rest at all, for fear of the terrible dreams and the crows, ever wakeful, that gave her no peace. Finally, one morning, Jane left her house and turned toward the woods, following the foggy path between two hills.

The small shack with earthen walls was exactly where the townsfolk had said it was. The townsfolk had much to say about its occupant as well.

The door creaked open almost immediately, as if Jane had been expected. An old woman peered out. Her face was lined with wrinkles, like roads on an ancient map, and her bright eyes, one brown and one blue, regarded Jane in silence.

“I seek advice,” Jane said, “to rid me of the nightmares and the crows that plague me these twelve months.”

“John Llewelyn’s widow,” the wisewoman said. “Come in.” She pulled two chairs before the fire and bade Jane sit down. In the simple room, dried plants hung in clusters near the ceiling; stoppered vials of liquid filled rough-hewn cabinets. From the shelves, carved and painted figurines seemed to study Jane.

The wisewoman said, “I cannot say why these visions plague you. But I know who might have the answer. Perhaps he will speak to us.”

The woman fetched a bucket. From this she poured water into a bowl, reached into jars she had about, and cast herbs into the water, adding two drops of a deep red liquid. An aroma of burnt meat mixed with the dirt smell of the cabin. She brought the bowl, set it on a stool before Jane, and bade her look into it.

“Speak to him,” the wisewoman commanded Jane. “Speak to your husband.”

Jane’s voice trembled, but she called toward the water, “John? …It is I, Jane.”

The water swirled, and Jane watched the liquid darken to the sinister hue of a stormy sea. The room filled with the sharp, salt scent of the ocean. Jane cried out when, from the shell’s echoing depths, she heard her dead husband’s voice.

“Jane, my love. How I have missed you these many months.” Then John began his tale, which neither Jane nor the wisewoman ever forgot.

“It is my fault you have suffered so. My soul has never been at peace. I have tried to explain. But I could not reach you, except in dreams, those inferior messengers.

“Two years ago, I made my final voyage on the ship Dolores. Our crew numbered eight, including myself. Six of us had sailed together before, and we had two new deckhands, strong young lads. Together we were a jolly crew, and we looked forward to a profitable voyage.

“We delivered goods in Lisbon and took on more cargo in Porto. Among our stores was a green glass bottle, given to me by a Moroccan merchant. I had been pleased to receive such a gift from him, as our negotiations had cost several days and much bargaining. He said the bottle contained a mixture that could open the mind to a pleasurable state.

“One night, alone in my cabin, I cracked the seal, opened the bottle, and swallowed a mouthful. But it produced no change in me except a giddy feeling, much like the effects of rum.

“During that night, I heard noises and awoke. With absolute certainty I knew we were being boarded by our enemies. In panic, I set about defending the ship. All at once, the clouds parted, and the moon shone upon the decks. I was struck with horror as I saw that I had slaughtered my own crew. All seven men lay dead, by my own sword.

“Twelve days and nights, I sailed the ship, leaving the corpses where they lay. I could not bring myself to close their eyes. They seemed to watch me, accusing me of the terrible thing I had done. I tossed our cargo overboard. When we reached Aberystwyth, I gave out the story that pirates had attacked us.

“After you and I married, I tried to forget. But everywhere I went, seven crows followed me. I knew exactly who they were, and what they wanted, but I could not bring myself to confess. My secret ate away at my heart until it could beat no more.

“My dearest, you must go into the woods by our house, and look for the twin sycamore trees. If you dig between them, you will have the gold from that unlucky voyage. Please, my love, be well, and say a prayer for my soul.”

And so it was that Jane returned to her home, found a spade, and set about moving the earth between the sycamores. After many hours, the spade struck the lid of a wood box. Inside was more gold than Jane had ever seen, reeking of salt brine.

Jane divided the gold into eight sacks. The first of these she took to the wisewoman. Then, saddling her horse with provisions for a long journey, she visited the seven families of John’s sailors. To each family, she told the tale, and gave the gold which the crewman had earned on his final voyage.

When Jane returned, the seven crows had gone. She married a baker the following year. They had seven children, and they lived contentedly for the rest of their days.