The crows call you Little.
They must have chosen the name because of how small you are, curled up into a tight ball, a tiny speck against the white. You accept the name as yours because you don’t know if you have another.
You listen to their squawking voices, wet and muffled against the snow. The tree branches creak when the crows settle to feed, clustered together as matted feathers and clawed feet, gnawing at the bark to pluck out the beetles that burrow there. They study you, with insects pinched between their stubbed bills, as though they wonder how you arrived here. You can’t answer that question, just as you don’t know your name. But you know some things. There had been walking, then darkness, and light, before you awoke in the murky forest with the crows poking at your shivering and naked body, combing through your hair to ease out the tangled leaves.
“Come, Little,” they say, echoing in the shadowed trees. “Little, Little, Little.”
You unstick your lip from your dry gums. “Why?” you ask, throat raw.
The crows peel away from the branches, disappearing above, and you force yourself onto your feet. Snow crunches under your toes, sticks stabbing your bare feet. You keep walking even as the rising sun burns your eyes and the aching in your body sinks to bone. You walk until the trees become sparse and open out to an empty corner road, where a cottage sits on the opposite side. Smoke wafts from the chimney, the wooden wind chimes hanging from the porch clacking together in the wind. Your hands hurt when you wrap your fingers around the door handle and push it open.
You notice the heat from the fireplace first, and hurry to sit in front of it. Feeling returns to your hands, flushing your pale skin and easing the tension in your jaw enough to unclench it. The living room is cosy, with the mellow yellow walls and blue-knitted rugs, blankets thrown across a suede sofa, and trinkets cluttering the many shelves. You sit on the sofa, welcoming the change from gritty snow.
One of the crows sits on the window sill outside. It studies you and waits. You know it waits for you. Why does it wait for you? Why don’t you follow it?
You look away when the door opens again and a woman walks in with logs bundled in her arms. She wears round, chained glasses on the end of her nose, and her cheeks are flushed and spiderwebbed with spindly veins.
She stops stamping her boots for a moment to look at you. “What are you doing?” she asks. “Who are you?”
You flex your tingling fingers. “I’m cold.”
The woman comes closer. Her eyes widen. “You’re a child.”
“My name is Little,” you say, because you can’t think of anything else.
She drops the firewood and flicks on the light. A warm glow basks the room. “Have you been outside long?”
You shrug. “I woke up in the snow.”
“Right.” She drags her hand through her hair, then grabs one of the scratchy blankets, throwing it over your damp shoulders. “You’ve been like this the whole time? Naked?” You shrug again, and the woman crouches down in front of you, knees popping. “Did someone leave you out there?” You frown. She tries again. “Are you lost?”
Something tells you that it is not exactly true, but it feels familiar enough to be the closest thing to right. You nod.
The woman stands, vanishing into the kitchen. She returns a moment later with a steaming mug, and places it in your hands, encouraging you to take a sip. You taste chocolate, as warm as the fire beside you. When the woman busies around with putting the wood in the fireplace and pacing with labored breaths, you stay seated, looking out the window. The crow has gone. Coldness dowses over you. You don’t look away until you’re sure the crow won’t return, when the sky bleeds orange.
You feel a prickling in your thigh, rubbing against the blanket. You pull it back. A tiny fleck of black pokes out from your skin. You pinch it and tug, wincing at the sting. You stare at the feather in your hand, its root stained wet with your blood.
Hope swoops within you. Maybe the crows have not left you after all.
You’re standing in the downstairs hallway when you overhear the woman talking in the kitchen. Morning light cuts through the blinds, shards across the marble tiles. She gave you old pyjamas to wear, not telling you where they came from, along with another serving of hot chocolate, which you now cradle against your chest even though it has gone cold overnight.
“—supposed to know that she’ll be taken care of? What if no one comes for her?” the woman says, voice rough around the edges. “What would you do, Paula?”
A kettle whistles and a chair scrapes, drowning out the rest of her words. You peer around the corner. The woman is washed out, with bloodshot eyes and fingernails chewed down to the quick, looking as though she has not slept. Something unpleasant roils in your stomach, making you step out into full view and edge toward her, hand outstretched. She startles when you stop beside her, and she opens her mouth, but then stops, her red-ringed gaze dropping down to your thigh. You had picked the fabric apart until it peeled and revealed your weeping skin, swollen with a new clump of feathers. A soft coat that shines iridescent under the light.
She reaches out and encircles your wrist, gentle, comforting. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” you say, and miss her touch when she lets go of you.
She studies your thigh a moment later, then nods. “Okay,” she says. “You’re going to stay here with me. Until we find you a home.”
With your third mug of hot chocolate, stomach growing heavy and sloshy, you go to your borrowed room. The woman seemed reluctant to give it to you, telling you not to touch anything. Last night you kept your hands to yourself, staying away from the picture books about space on the shelves and dolls on the dresser. You grab one of the blankets the woman laid out for you, and wrap it around yourself as you sit by the window.
Snow melts against the glass, blurring the bare and gnarled trees that shudder in the distance. The crows sit on the sill, preening their flake-covered feathers. Not one of them speaks to you this time. The one from the day before, larger and bill crooked, stares at your thigh. You down at the rest of your hot chocolate until only the dregs remain. As you rest your head against the window and watch the crows, you imagine yourself flying among them.
You wake at dawn to find the feathers continuing to grow, sleek as they bloom across your leg. Your first thought, aside from the crows, is to show the woman their progress.
The cottage is quiet and empty, save for the creaking as it settles. You spot the woman outside, standing alone and staring ahead. An axe dangles from her fingers, chopped logs scattered around her feet. She seems to shake herself and returns to her work, heaving groans each time she brings the blade down.
Once more you feel that uncomfortable feeling in your stomach. You turn away and head back to the kitchen, grabbing a mug and hot chocolate sachet from the cupboards you barely manage to reach on your tiptoes. You pour the water in from the kettle, and stir the thick mixture, mimicking the same way the woman has done it all those times for you. A twig snaps beneath you as you step outside, causing the woman to flinch. She relaxes when she sees it’s you, and when you hold the mug out, her eyebrows raise. She takes it anyway.
She takes a sip. “It’s cold,” she says. She forces a smile. “But that’s okay—”
You do it without thinking: you pluck out one of your feathers. You wipe away the blood and offer it to her.
The woman hesitates before reaching out, quiet. You smile, something rusty from the way it slopes, as her fingers close around it.
She looks up at you with watery eyes. “Thank you,” she whispers, then: “Excuse me.”
When she walks away, you stare at her back, chest sinking, before returning to your room, where the crows wait for you. Somehow they have opened the window a crack, slipping inside. They sit on your leg. They preen at your feathers with their bills, soothing enough to ease the sadness that threatens to overwhelm you. “Little,” they say in their symphony of cawing voices. “Come.”
The last time you had asked them why, but it had felt more like instinct than conscious questioning. A vague hesitation stirs within you. Do you truly want to go with the crows, or do you want to stay? The crows and the woman both welcomed you with open wings and arms. How can you choose between their kindness? Do either of them truly want the same? You press your hand into your feathers, scrunching them in your fist, and ask them again, “Why?”
They ruffle their coats. The one with its crooked bill speaks. “Need us,” it says. “With us.”
When they leave, you watch them go, disappearing into the dense trees, their voices drifting until they become an echo.
You straddle the threshold between here and there, and the question of whether to step back or forward stays with you as you lie back on the pillows. You try to imagine yourself flying among them, but another image pushes alongside: you sit at the woman’s kitchen table, talking with her, while you drink hot chocolate.
Throughout the days and nights that follow, you continue to transform. You shorten by five inches, unable to reach the hot chocolate sachets even when you stand on a stool. Your nose has sharped into a point, your tongue slimming and darkening. And your hands widen and blacken, like the shadows that dance across the ground as you dig into the slushy snow.
The woman comes over to you. She has seemed to have since forgotten the incident where you gave her one of your feathers. “Little,” she says, wiping her hands on her floral apron. “What are you doing?”
Leaves knot in your hair as you crawl out from the bushes, twigs scraping against your skin. “Food,” you say, and hold out a fist clenched around a wriggling, sodden-earthed worm.
She tuts and wipes your hands. “Wash it down with this.” She hands you a mug. The one you always ask for: chipped rim, with sparrows patterned over the porcelain.
You drink as much as your bill allows. A leaf falls down from your hair into your mug.
Something flickers over the woman’s face, as though torn with a decision, before she holds out her hand. “Want me to take care of that for you?”
You nod and take her hand, where she guides you over to the back door step. She goes inside and then returns with a comb, and crouches down behind you. Your scalp stings at the first pass, plastic teeth crunching as they catch on the knots. Once the passes become soft and comforting, you think about how the woman’s gentle touches remind you of the crows, how they had smoothed the damp tangles and tweezed out the twigs and leaves as you lay back in the forest and stared up at the sky. You lean back until you rest against the woman’s chest and ask, “Who is Paula?”
Wind rustles the trees and whistles between the branches as the moment stills. “She is—” the woman pauses. “She was my daughter.”
“What happened to her?” you ask, looking over your shoulder in time to see the woman briefly close her eyes and take a deep breath.
“She died, a long time ago,” she says, and nothing more on the matter. The next pause is long and bloated, and her voice cracks when she speaks again. “She liked to have her hair brushed.”
You lean into her hand as she runs it through your hair, then turn around to face her. You have no hot chocolate, and she already has one of your feathers, so you reach out and take her hand instead, lacing your fingers together.
She brushes her thumb over your knuckles, where bristles grow, and gives you a fleeting smile that wavers at the corners. “You watch the crows,” she says, and tucks a strand behind your ear, pausing to cradle your chin. “You can go with them, or you can stay here with me. Either place can be your home.”
The crows have been watching you from the trees since this morning, even pointing you in the direction of where to find the best worms. You stare down at your empty mug, tasting the remnant of sweetness on your tongue. Both the crows and the woman care for you, which makes it all the more difficult to know where you want to be. You sigh and say, “I don’t know.”
“You could do both, or neither, or something else entirely,” she says, “but don’t stay still when you could be moving.”
You keep your hand laced with hers, but turn away and watch the sunset. Hush washes over you both, leaving you with only your breaths to listen to.
You change when snow has fallen.
The woman kneels beside your bed when she finds you that way, taller and louder. In her front pocket is the feather you gave her. She holds out her shaking hand and takes you into her cupped palm. You nip at her thumb, leaning into her touch when she brushes down your spine. You both linger for a while more, before she reaches past and unlatches the window, swinging it open. A biting wind gusts over you, but you jump onto the sill and wait.
“Are you ready?” she asks, and waits for your answer, along with the crows from where they perch in the trees. You cannot choose.
Some part of you believes that you will never be ready for what paths may come, but another part of you believes that those paths were made for you to follow. How could you be ready when you do not know what lies ahead? What you can be ready for is finding out, because you cannot have the journey without discovery.
You hop forward, leaving imprints of your claws behind, and open your wings. The crows watch you, and the woman watches you, something open and bittersweet. You follow the urge to beat your wings, taking off into the pink dusk. You leave the woman, but you don’t fly toward the crows. Perhaps one day you will return for another hot chocolate, and perhaps one day you will fly with them, but today you will seek out yourself.
Today you soar alone, high into the sky, where it welcomes your arrival.