Yes, we have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes’ kings in the old days – how the princes of that people did brave deeds. - Beowulf
The Raven heir’s eyes snapped open. He grimaced. Sleep had only just come, and undisturbed rest eluded the young man all too often. But the sharp rapping at his window wouldn’t halt until answered. He turned and rolled his shoulders in an attempt to work out the tight knots that never left. The effort proved futile. He frowned and wondered if the ache resulted from football practice or his volatile dreams. No matter the source, the boy’s tension lived in his muscles and pestered him mercilessly.
He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His feet brushed the floor, its cold bite caught him by surprise. Though it was early September, a chill cloaked his room. The first frosts of autumn had seeped into the smooth, wooden boards. The boy pressed his weight against the cool surface, rose from the bed, and moved to the tall window. In a deft motion, he unlatched the glass barrier that separated his room from the natural world and let the crow fly in. The ink-dark bird settled comfortably on his shoulder. The boy’s eyes flickered rapidly as though some unseen being had stoked a fire within his coal-hued irises. He stroked the silky wings of the crow and drew a slow breath that reflected his unsettled state. The bird croaked an acknowledgment of their communion and then soared back into the night sky. The young man closed the window and locked it once more. He pulled a sweater from his closet and drew it over his long, lean frame. The tall boy sighed as he abandoned his bedroom and the possibility of sleep for that night.
The steep, narrow stairs creaked as he moved towards the kitchen. Light crept up the shadowed steps, notifying the young man that, as he’d expected, the kitchen was already occupied.
A self-mocking smile haunted the boy’s lips when he saw his father seated at the kitchen table. A steaming mug of tea lay in front of the Raven King, his hands cupped the ceramic container as if drawing comfort from its warm contents. Tendrils of evaporating moisture curled around the king’s face, the silvery wisps enshrouded him in a mysterious veil.
The boy swallowed a chagrined laugh as he drew up a chair near his father. The man had loved him openly, taught him everything he held in reverence about the world and his own life. Yet anytime he encountered the head of the Raven clan in these solitary moments, the young man remained in awe of him.
The king watched his son approach with a kind, expectant smile. It was clear he’d been waiting for the boy to appear.
The Raven heir lowered himself into the chair.
“You’re awake,” the king’s gaze traveled to the clock that hung above the stove. It was four in the morning.
“That’s not unusual,” the boy returned calmly. The Raven King smiled but his eyes pierced the young man with a question.
“A crow came to me,” the heir offered in response. The tense aching in his shoulders and back made him shift uncomfortably in his chair. He grimaced as he spoke.
“They’re about to leave. She’ll be here in a few days.”
The king’s eyes briefly flickered silver, like moonlight. “Yes.”
“Are you certain this is the right course for us?” The boy’s own, much darker eyes, bore into the elder man’s slate-tinged irises, but the father’s gaze proved even more unyielding than that of the son.
“We can’t leave her there. Not with the signs pointing in the direction they do now. If our adversaries find her, it could mean blood. And that blood would be on our hands.” He paused and assessed his son’s disconcerted face in a slow, cool inspection. “Could you live with that?”
“I don’t know,” the boy murmured. A scowl briefly ghosted across his face.
“You’re angry,” a glimmer of amusement touched his father’s words.
“It’s a terrible risk.” The heir crossed his arms over his chest and endured his father’s steady watchfulness. The boy put questions into his face, and wondered whether the king would answer them.
“A risk to us, yes,” the older man replied in a calm tone. “But more of a risk to the girl to leave her unattended.”
“Maybe,” the boy countered swiftly. “You can’t be certain.”
A wry smile flickered on the corners of his father’s mouth. “You disagree with my decision.”
The young man didn’t answer. He fought the urge to recoil at the question; voicing his doubts about the Raven King’s decree would have been painful, perhaps even impossible. The heir continued to hold his father’s gaze, though doing so had become increasingly difficult. The king’s steel grey eyes reflected more depth than the boy could yet fathom. The younger Raven had just reached his seventeenth year, and as such the fledgling man had not fully claimed his inheritance.
His father sighed and leaned forward; he folded his hands in a contemplative gesture and rested them on the table.
“She is innocent in this. As she always has been,” the grey gaze of the older man gained a hard, flint quality. “You would weight our lives with more worth than hers?”
At that question the boy averted his eyes from the king’s. The breath he drew was sharp; it sliced him like a finely honed blade.
“I can’t say,” he stared at the kitchen clock, watched the hands move forward with inexorable steadiness, and tried to sort through the tumult of thoughts that assailed his mind. The king remained calm, silent, waiting.
The boy forced his eyes back upon his father. The king regarded him with an unwavering, steely contemplation. Sorrow infused the heir’s next question. “How can I be sure?” A desperate note hovered in the words.
“You can’t. No ruler can,” his father’s voice was low, soothing. “But you must try. Know your mind and heart. Learn about her. See who she truly is. In time, the substance of my decree will reveal itself to you. Measured decisions, slow contemplation – therein lie the only ways to lead your people.”
“You would have me welcome her then?” Hesitation and a cold skepticism imbued the boy’s query.
The Raven King shook his head. He laughed. “Your uncertainty about her arrival, while good-intentioned, makes you a bit intense. It could intimidate the girl and she’ll have much to face even before she comes to know us. Leave it with your sister. In time your own role in this matter reveal itself. Don’t force it. Be patient. Wait until the knowledge comes to you. If you have doubts, it would be futile to try to bury them in false niceties.”
The boy nodded and sighed. “Grandfather said the same thing.”
“Yes, I know. You should try to sleep,” the king said softly. A gentle smile appeared on his lips. “I know it doesn’t come easily to you.”
“I’ll read first. It always helps. Will you sleep?” the heir returned. He scrutinized his father, wondering what he should emulate about the Raven King and what he should question, or perhaps fear.
“I will. Soon.”
The Raven heir watched his father silently for another moment, then the boy turned back toward the darkened stairwell.
Ellis stepped quickly up the curb. Dusk had thrown its dark mantle over the rising buildings of the city. Her eyes traced over the deepening shadows that etched the contours of the street; the muted light of evening had always been her favorite. A rat skittered in front of her path. As she passed it stopped to watch her. The rodent’s black eyes glittered as it gazed at the girl.
Ellis shook her head. It seemed to her that the rats, which appeared almost everywhere in New York, were oddly observant. The little animals carefully took in everything that humans around them did, even as this lone rat paused momentarily and held her in its unflinching stare.
Ellis sighed. Maybe I’ll even miss the rats.
The now-disconsolate girl frowned and wondered why her parents couldn’t seem to do anything that was normal. A lot of people worked their entire lives to make it into New York City, but her mother and father had jumped at the chance to get out. Worst of all they had elected to do so exactly at the start of her sophomore year of high school. Her mother, the sociologist, and her father, the history professor, both worked in much-coveted positions at New York University. Ellis had assumed they would always stay in the addictively vibrant metropolis. But in the last weeks of summer, her father had received an unexpected phone call from the chair of the history department at the University of Wisconsin. An endowed professorship in U.S. immigration history, her father’s specialty, had opened up. They invited him to apply.
It had all happened so fast: the interview, the offer of the job, plus a position in the sociology department for her mother. Though taken aback by the speed of it all, her mother and father had been ecstatic about the opportunity. Her parents had flown out to find a house only two weeks after her father first received the phone call. Now it was the beginning of September and Ellis was moving almost 1000 miles from the city she loved.
The rat scurried along the sidewalk. It ducked between the feet of a man who casually leaned against the front steps of a nearby brownstone and then it disappeared from sight. The man didn’t seem to notice the furry rodent brush against his shoes; he continued to be engrossed in the newspaper spread open before him. Ellis frowned. The man was meticulously well-dressed for her neighborhood. He looked more like a CEO returning to the Upper East Side than the normal frequenters of her parents’ beloved bijoux residence on the West Side. Just after the rat passed him, the man’s eyes lifted from his paper. He gazed at Ellis and smiled.
She took a step backwards. And then another. It was odd enough for a stranger to acknowledge her, much less smile at her. But it was the smile itself that troubled her more. What should have been a pleasant expression instead offered barely masked unfriendliness. Her skin began to crackle with nervous energy. Ellis quickly pulled her eyes away from him. She was surprised by her sudden need to draw a deep, calming breath.
Fortunately, her route wouldn’t take her past the man. Ellis glanced one last time around the darkening street then she trotted up the steps to her home. The mouth-watering aroma of take-out from her family’s favorite Chinese restaurant greeted Ellis as she came through the door.
“Did you get that last neighborhood stroll in?” her father’s question drifted towards her from the kitchen.
“Yeah, Dad,” she called back. She shrugged away the last creeping nerves that played along her skin after the strange encounter with the man who’d watched her on the street.
Ellis slung her bag over the post at the bottom of the staircase and walked to the kitchen. Her parents were already dishing up platefuls of food from neat white boxes.
“We got your favorite,” her father grinned broadly.
They were both smiling too much. Ellis groaned and slumped into a chair.
“There’s no good Chinese food in Wisconsin, is there?”
Her parents looked away for a minute. Rather than answer, they both started eating.
“You’ll love Madison,” her mother finally piped in a cheerful voice. “It’s a fantastic university town. Very original, quite artsy.”
“And it’s the state capitol,” Ellis’s father chimed it. His eyes gleamed with boyish pride.
They’d been through this same conversation so many times Ellis thought her head would explode.
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, of Wisconsin.” She dropped her forehead to the kitchen table with an air of melodrama.
“Now, now. That’s your dad’s home state, remember Ell?” Her father’s tone chided her slightly even as he continued to smile at his daughter.
“And technically it’s yours too,” her mother added.
Ellis sighed and lifted her face to glower at them. “I don’t think it counts when I can’t remember anything about it.”
She only had vague memories of Wisconsin. Though they’d met as graduate students at Columbia, both her mother and father were Wisconsin born and raised. Their daughter was somewhat loathe to admit that while her parents were well-acclimated to life in New York, the couple remained Midwestern to the core. Ellis’ mother was from some remote place in the north called Hayward, and her father had grown up in the suburbs of Milwaukee. They had made trips back to their home state regularly when Ellis was a little girl. But when Ellis’ grandparents passed away while she was still in grade school, their visits to the Midwest had abruptly halted. Instead, their family travels shifted to California, where her mother’s sister, Julie, lived. Like Ellis, her father was an only child.
“It’s still where you were born!” Her father insisted as he grinned at his sulking daughter. Ignoring her accusing stare, he began dishing up a heaping plate of food for her.
Ellis couldn’t fully repress her grudging smile. Her parents, Robert and Sarah Jensen, had always maintained an unbelievably cheerful outlook on life. They’d even named their daughter after Ellis Island. The name had become something of a cross to bear for the young girl.
“It was a symbol of hope for generations of newcomers to the United States,” was her father’s response anytime someone queried about his daughter’s unusual name.
That story always got an eye roll from the teenage girl. Ellis would then launch into a diatribe about the darker side of U.S. immigration history: discrimination, draft riots, ethnic tensions, and labor problems. She liked to give her dad a hard time. She was, after all, sixteen years old, and she’d read all of his books.
The exchange had become a familiar routine between father and daughter. After Ellis had sufficiently chastised his naivete, Rob always just chuckled and ruffled her hair. Ellis still found it odd that despite his career writing narratives of human conflict and violence, Professor Robert Jensen maintained a positive outlook about people and the world.
“Gotta see the silver lining, Ell,” was her father’s mantra.
Her parents’ attitudes ran counter to the cynicism that pervaded Manhattan. Maybe that was why they’d found it so easy to abandon the city.
Though she didn’t want to leave Manhattan, Ellis couldn’t really blame them for dreaming of greener pastures. At that gloomy thought the girl abruptly hoped that her parents’ search wasn’t literal. She couldn’t be sure if Wisconsin had anything other than farms and cheese. She’d seen too many of those bizarre cheddar-wedge hats atop heads when her father engaged in his ritual NFL game-watching every Sunday of autumn.
Despite her affected sullenness, in secret self-confessions Ellis admitted that she was a more than a little curious about the mid-country state that would soon be her home. She didn’t know if it was simply her parents’ influence, but the girl usually preferred their sunny idealism to the razor sharp edges that often characterized New York attitudes.
Determined to maintain her façade of discontent, Ellis shoveled noodles into her mouth and mused over her last day in the city. Most of it had been devoted to her favorite galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A week couldn’t pass without the girl wandering in those halls for at least several hours. She’d dawdled in front of massive and miniscule canvases in that gargantuan institution for as long as she could remember.
Since neither of her parents tended towards the fine arts other than for entertainment purposes, Ellis traced her own proclivity for creation to the irrepressible art culture of New York. Public and private, outrageous and subtle, opulent and gritty; its five boroughs pulsed with artistic fervor that she reveled in, drank to the point of ecstatic drowning. Even as she silently mourned what she perceived as an impending loss of that thriving, infectious art world Ellis realized she’d pawned off most of her final day in the city for hours where she stared at the museum’s nineteenth-century American landscape paintings.
What was I thinking? Ellis cringed, fairly certain that she faced exile to what she anticipated would be a quasi-rural environment.
I should have spent more time in Union Square today. Or maybe the East Village. Or Williamsburg. She chided herself as she made an unending list of all the places she’d long for after the move.
Ellis maintained unwavering devotion the city’s vibrant culture and diversity. Few of the city’s neighborhoods lacked enticement for the girl. With one exception. Ellis avoided the financial district as much as was possible. Since she was neither an investment banker nor a stockbroker, that practice wasn’t too difficult. Her best friend Kate had gone through a brief phase of drooling over young banking interns who bustled through the district’s narrow corridors looking important. But Ellis had refused to accompany Kate’s romantic scouting after the first trip.
“I’d swear you’re allergic to Wall Street, Ell,” Kate whined when, shortly after their arrival, Ellis complained of her discomfort and ran for the subway station on Broadway.
The description wasn’t far off. Kate presumed it had something to do with post-9/11 trauma as Ellis was, in her best friend’s words, “a sensitive old soul.” But Ellis knew the reaction ran much deeper than that. The first time she’d experienced her strange aversion to New York’s frenetic commercial center had been on one of the many walking history tours her father so loved. Wall Street and Battery Park were among Rob Jensen’s favorite sites since they housed some of the oldest colonial markers of the metropolis. He’d attempted to take Ellis on a pedestrian history lesson through the neighborhood when she was still in primary school. Her reaction had been sharp and immediate. Too young for anything other than a vocal protest against the sudden spiky assault on her skin, she had cried out fiercely.
“I want to go! I’m itchy! I’m itchy!” The small child had shrieked to her father’s dismay. The girl had always been thoughtful, if slightly precocious, never given to tantrums. The sudden outburst and exclamations of physical distress bewildered her father. Rob panicked and took her to the emergency room. But Ellis returned to her normal guise of contentment as soon as they entered another neighborhood. Her father and the physician asked over and over what had caused her urgent discomfort, but “it itched too much” were the only words she could find for the steady, somewhat painful prickling along her skin that she felt amidst the hordes of business men and women.
The memories, though mixed in the emotions they produced, made Ellis ache enough to kill her appetite. She excused herself from the table and sought the solitude of her room. When she walked in, the cavernous quality of the space assaulted her. The wooden floor creaked too loudly. Nothing was left to absorb the sound but a mattress for her to sleep on.
Why did I always think this room was too small?
Bereft of all its furniture the square space yawned accusingly at her, abandoned. Needing human contact, Ellis pulled out her phone and called Kate.
“Hey Ell,” Kate’s tone was mournful. Ellis imagined the pouted lip that obviously accompanied her friend’s greeting.
“You promised – “ Ellis sighed into the phone.
“I know, I know,” Kate quickly reformed her voice into a more cheerful, if artificial, tone. “But we really need you in madrigal choir; you totally carry the second sopranos.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine. Chelsey Barnes will step in,” Ellis replied in an off-hand tone.
“Ugh,” was Kate’s only reply. Ellis smiled wickedly into the receiver. Kate despised Chelsey Barnes.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to audition for choir in Madison.” It was an issue that nagged Ellis. The best choirs always held auditions in the spring, she worried she might be too late to find a place. Singing was her favorite extracurricular activity. She didn’t know how she’d fill such a large gap in her life if she were excluded from choral groups at her new school.
“I’m sure you will, Ell,” Kate supplied encouragingly, “You have a great voice.”
“Thanks,” Ellis replied warmly. She wished her certainty could match Kate’s enthusiasm for Ellis’ vocal prowess.
There was a light knock on the door. Her dad’s thinning head of hair appeared along with his gently smiling face.
“Don’t stay up all night, Ell. We’re leaving early enough to beat city traffic.”
“I know, Dad,” Ellis replied sourly as she put a hand over her cell phone. “I’ll hit the sack soon. Good night.”
“Night, Ell,” he smiled. “Say hi to Kate for me.”
“Sorry, Kate,” Ellis returned to the phone. “My dad stopped to say good night.”
“Are your parents still excited about the move?” Kate remained convinced that Ellis’ mother and father would have an epiphany and change their minds about relocating to Wisconsin.
“As ever,” Ellis replied. Her eyes shifted to the collage that leaned against one corner of the room. She’d refused to pack it. Not wanting to risk its damage in the move. Instead she insisted that the amalgam of art and casual photography ride with her in the backseat as they made the cross-country trip. The square canvas was covered with photographs documenting Ellis and Kate’s childhood adventures. They’d been nearly inseparable since kindergarten.
Alongside the photos were small sketches and miniscule paintings that Ellis had created. Besides singing, her only other inherent passion manifested when she worked in oils on canvases of every shape and size. The paintings that accompanied the many photos on her wall were odd for someone who’d been raised in the one of the world’s most dense metropolitan centers. They reflected her dreamy idealism. Ellis knew she could tend towards the quixotic, but she embraced that characteristic. It balanced the feverish pace of life in Manhattan.
Ellis painted images that came to her as she slept. For reasons she couldn’t fathom, her dreams often brought her to idyllic forests and lakes that she only visited in her night visions. Her wall was covered with trees, rivers, and pastoral landscapes. More striking still, many of her paintings featured dark eyes that gleamed from behind the canopy of leaves or out of the deep shadows of the forest. Those eyes. They came to her constantly, rising in her sleep from the depths of her subconscious. Despite the haunting, and rather disconcerting watchfulness the forest eyes introduced to the otherwise peaceful scenes, Ellis felt utterly compelled to paint them.
Aside from the somewhat bizarre natural worlds represented in her artwork, the collage had been her shrine to her best friend. Kate’s impish smiling face appeared everywhere on the surface. Ellis bit her lip. She couldn’t think about missing the effervescent, unflappable, and consistently outrageous girl. It was the only crack in her resolve about making the best of the move.
As if she’d read Ellis’ mind, Kate’s voice crackled over the phone, “You could still move in with us.” Her best friend’s voice dropped off into a hopeful, anticipatory silence.
It was a serious offer. Kate’s mother, Ruth Cohen, thought of Ellis as a second daughter. Ellis spent nearly as much time at Ruth and Kate Cohen’s apartment as she did in her own home. Both of the Cohen women had been devastated and astounded by the news that the Jensens were leaving Manhattan.
Ellis laughed quietly. “Thanks, Kate. But I’ll be okay.” And she believed it.
As much as she would miss her best friend, she loved her parents. The idea of splitting up her small family simply wasn’t a viable option. No matter how much she feared the move.
“You’re going to call me every day right?” Kate pressed.
“And you’re sure they have cell phones in Wisconsin?” her best friend’s teased.
“Hah, hah,” Ellis groaned. “You know you’ll have to visit me there.”
“Of course I will.” Ellis could see Kate’s smile in her mind as she heard the girl’s voice.
She gossiped with Kate late into the night and then sighed when her eyes wandered to her alarm clock.
“I have to go, Kate,” Ellis complained. “My dad’s going to be waking me up in a few hours.”
“Sure, Ell,” Kate replied. “Call me tomorrow, you’re just going to be stuck in the car anyway.”
“Yeah, I’ll call you. Probably from somewhere in Pennsylvania.”
“Good luck, Ell.” Kate murmured.
“Thanks,” Ellis did her best to sound like a martyr. “It’s a good thing I like my parents.”
She flipped the phone shut and pulled pajamas out of the bulging suitcase she’d packed in case the moving vans got lost. She flicked off the ceiling light. The sudden darkness only increased horrible emptiness of her room. She snuggled into the sleeping bag that lay atop the mattress. The street lights cast a dim glow throughout the small, lonely space. Ellis fixed her eyes on the collage in the corner. The contours of Kate’s smiling face were obscured by shadow. Oddly the forest eyes almost gleamed despite the poor illumination in the room.
“I’m so scared,” Ellis murmured and then laughed roughly at her foolishness. She’d addressed her fear to the eyes in her paintings. How ridiculous. She grunted and rolled over to face the opposite wall. It wasn’t as though they could answer.
She woke up choking. Ellis struggled to draw a breath through the flood of tears and mucus that clogged her airways. She coughed several times, which effectively, if painfully, cleared the path for oxygen. The girl drew deep, ragged breaths and tried to shake the nightmare from her vision.
It certainly wasn’t anything she could or would want to paint. She closed her eyes. Wished the images weren’t so vivid. She’d been back on the street, but the soothing evening light had transformed into oozing tar. The one rat had been five. And then ten. And then one hundred. The rodents had herded her along the street, bitten her ankles, drawn blood. The river of silver gray fur and scrabbling clawed feet had pushed her along towards the suited man with the newspaper. His eyes gleamed as he smiled at Ellis. His smile grew ever wider, contorting his face until he was no longer a man but a gaping, fanged maw. She screamed as the rats surged forward. And then she was swallowed whole.
Ellis shuddered and wiped the film of sweat from her brow. The door opened and she gasped. She pulled her covers up around her in a lame defensive gesture.
“Ellis, it’s time to go.” Her father smiled with surprise. “You’re already awake?”
She nodded and wondered if her dread of the move would outmatch the horror of her dream.
The city retreated before the looming countryside with alarming speed. Far behind her Ellis could barely make out Manhattan’s skyline. She sighed and tried to embrace Rob and Sarah’s cheerful chatter that drifted towards her from the front seat. If her parents’ had indeed shaped her attitude about life, it made a good case for the nurture over nature debate in child development. Unable to have children of their own, Rob and Sarah had adopted Ellis when she was an infant. What similarities their small family shared ended at personality traits and culinary tastes.
Her parents had the stereotypical coloring of Midwestern immigrants: milky skin, stick-straight flaxen hair, and clear blue eyes. They might as well have stepped out of the pages of Giants in the Earth. Anyone who didn’t already know Ellis was adopted would have probably guessed. Her peachy golden skin, lightly dusted by freckles, was several shades deeper than her parents cream-colored complexions. Her face was the sort that people described as “natural,” rather than striking or exotic. Her slightly wavy hair boasted an array of shades that altered by season with eerie regularity. The most consistent tone was light brown, but her locks gained sunlit blonde streaks in the summer and burnished red tones in the autumn. Inevitably the red faded back to brown as winter set in. The color of her eyes shifted as well. They moved from deep brown, to gold, to green. When Ellis had applied for her driver’s license early that summer, she hadn’t really known what to write down. She doubted the New York DMV would accept “variable.”
That she was obviously not her parents’ biological daughter, failed to disconcert the young girl. Rob and Sarah had made a pointing of talking openly with Ellis about their choice since she’d been a young girl. When the couple brought the infant into their home they’d promised each other and the tiny child that they would always be honest about her past. That commitment hadn’t done much to increase Ellis’ familiarity with her biological roots; little remained for them to disclose to their young daughter. All the Jensens could tell Ellis of her life before becoming part of their family was that she’d been born prematurely and her mother had passed away in the hospitable. The records listed her simply as “Jane Doe.” Ellis’ biological father had apparently disappeared, leaving his infant child as a ward of the state. She had absolutely no memories of her birth parents.
Physical disparities aside, the fair-haired Jensens always said they’d known Ellis was their daughter from the moment they saw her. The strong bond was mutual. Though she knew it wasn’t the case for many adoptees like herself, Ellis didn’t long for a life other than that which Rob and Sarah had given her. Their small family shared a fierce closeness. Without the reassurance of that bond, Ellis doubted she could face the upcoming stress of a move during high school. She shivered slightly at the thought. Transferring socially as a teenager was destined to be a brutal process.
The drive wasn’t too bad. Ellis enjoyed losing her mind in the swiftly rushing environment that blurred on the other side of the car windows. They stopped in a small town in Ohio for the night. She lay awake and stared at the stucco ceiling of the Super 8, afraid to let herself drift into sleep. The terror of her nightmare remained fresh. But this night, when sleep finally took her hostage, she once again dreamed of the eyes in the forest. The familiar, if bizarre, visage came as something of a relief after the previous night’s horrible visions. While the piercing eyes that gazed at her from the dark cover of leaves could be disconcerting, they were never menacing. The forest eyes had a thoughtful, almost protective quality. She woke with a start; the overwhelming sense that she was being watched clung like sweat to her body.
As they trundled out to their car the hazy dawn light of the next morning, Rob stopped abruptly. He stared at the vehicle.
“What the – “ he began.
Through her groggy vision, Ellis followed her father’s gaze to the car. Perched on the roof, with ink-dark eyes locked upon her family, were two large black birds.
“Are those crows?” Sarah’s tone was as puzzled as her husband’s.
“I’ve never seen birds do that before,” Rob replied with a slight frown.
The ebony birds remained perfectly still. Their eyes glimmered subtly in the dim golden light. Though it seemed ridiculous, Ellis thought the crows’ expressions were almost contemplative.
Her father finally just shrugged and continued to walk to the vehicle.
“Shoo!” He flapped a hand at the birds. They blinked at him once and then took flight.
When they at last arrived in Madison, Ellis had to admit her pleasant surprise. The city looked and felt fresh, unique in a way she hadn’t anticipated. Houses and businesses jostled merrily against each other as they dappled the long isthmus that stretched out between two broad lakes.
It may not be an island like Manhattan, but it’s not bad, Ellis thought.
More points in the city’s favor accrued because her parents had purchased a home on the east side of the city close to the lake. The four-bedroom Victorian was quite a bit larger than their home in New York. It even boasted a yard with mature oak trees rising alongside the narrow frame and smaller apple trees neatly lining with almost fence-like precision the space between the Jensen’s home and their neighbors’ house. Though it had been meticulously maintained, the house still had the gravity of age that accompanied the high ceilings and arched doorways of turn-of-the-century architecture. Ellis fought off her urge to proclaim it too creepy and gothic. No ghosts sighting as yet though, she smiled to herself.
Even as she admired their new home, she turned a warning glance on her father. Whenever the house came up he tended to ramble endlessly about the reasonable price of property in Wisconsin.
“I’m willing to admit that I like it,” she began. “But if you mention real estate again, I’ll start my walk back to New York right now.”
“My lips are sealed,” Rob beamed at his daughter.
Ellis grinned at him.
“We thought we’d have the master bedroom and the office on the main floor. You can take either of the upstairs bedrooms for yourself, we’ll use the other as the guest room,” her father continued.
“There’s a surprise for you on the top floor.” Sarah Jensen assumed a sly expression.
“A surprise?” Ellis raised her eyebrows.
“Go check it out.” Both her parents had conspiratorial looks on their faces now.
Ellis rushed up the stairs to the second floor. At the end of the hall she was surprised to see a small, wrought-iron spiral staircase leading up to a third floor of the house. She climbed the short, tightly-wound steps and found herself in the attic.
Ellis gasped. The airy room had been transformed into a studio. Gentle daylight filtered into the open space from a north-facing window. It was absolutely the best type of light for painting. A variety of easels, a work bench, a few stools, and a vintage-looking velvet armchair were scattered throughout the room. She heard footsteps coming up the stairs.
“This is incredible,” Ellis turned an expression of joyful disbelief on her parents.
“The previous owner was an artist,” her mother explained. “She had the upper floor converted to her studio space. We thought it would be perfect for you.”
“We know this move required a lot of sacrifice on your part, Ell,” her father added. “We really want you to be happy here.”
Ellis rushed over and hugged each of them fiercely.
“Thank you so much!”
Rob and Sarah looked pleased with themselves. They beamed at their daughter.
A shadow flickered across the room. Ellis’ eyes traced the movement to the attic window. Perched on the sill was a glossy black crow. The bird peered at them through the glass. Ellis blinked. Her mother and father followed their daughter’s disbelieving gaze.
“That’s odd,” Rob murmured as he stared at the bird.
The inky crow cawed once, flapped its wings, and flew from the window.
The crows kept coming. Ellis wondered if the birds followed a particular migration path in which Madison was the preferred stopover. Everywhere she went an inky shadow hovered just outside her peripheral vision. When she turned to catch the movement, there would be the inevitable crow, or crows – she corrected – there were more of the large black birds each time, perched on a telephone wire, watching from a nearby tree, clinging precariously to the sill outside her studio’s upper windows.
This morning they had gathered among the branches of the apple trees that grew between the Jensen’s new home and that of their next-door neighbors. The moving truck arrived just as Ellis finished her bowl of cereal; and now the girl eagerly hauled boxes of art supplies from the depths of the trailer up to the attic studio. As she trotted back towards the truck from her house, the birds gazed at her in silence. Ellis frowned at their mute observation. So many of the dark-feathered creatures filled the small trees, the girl expected they would be jostling each other, noisily fighting for space on the branches.
Crows are supposed to be raucous, troublesome birds, aren’t they?
With arms overly filled she started back towards the house. She paused to look at the apple trees once more. A slow smile appeared on her lips. The jet black birds gleamed against the lush crimson fruit that pulled heavily at the tree’s wiry limbs. The image locked in her mind and she mentally began the sketches for her next painting. The smile abruptly froze on her face and then ebbed away. It wasn’t only birds that watched her.
Beneath the canopy of ruby fruit and onyx feathers stood a boy. Ellis blinked in surprise; she could have sworn he wasn’t there when she’d come out of the house just a moment ago. He leaned casually against one of the trees; his arms were folded tightly across his chest as his eyes followed the overburdened girl. Two crows perched just above his shoulders on one of the tree’s lower branches. Ellis halted and tilted her head at him curiously. He looked about her age; he was tall and had a streamlined, lightly muscled frame. The boy’s dark hair set a striking contrast to his pale skin.
Maybe this is one of my neighbors. She gazed at the young man. She bit her lip and wanted to be brave.
Though a little nervous, Ellis fixed an open, friendly smile on her face and began to walk in his direction. She had only taken a couple of steps, when alarm overtook the dark-haired boy’s expression. He clearly hadn’t anticipated that she would attempt to introduce herself. The moment the boy abandoned his casual observation the birds exploded into deafening caws and most of them took flight. The shocking noise and rush of wings startled Ellis into tripping over the curb. She fell forward, her armload crashed to the sidewalk. The girl swore as the pavement tore skin from her palms when she attempted to catch herself.
She flushed crimson at her clumsiness and winced at the stinging in her hands. She glanced down and saw blood welling from thin tears in her skin. In anticipation that the boy would soon rush up to help her to her feet, she ran through verbal responses to her fall that could serve as a means to introduce herself. They ranged from sarcastic to demure to outrageous.
Not the best way to make new friends, but at least it’s a memorable first impression, Ellis thought wryly.
But the boy didn’t appear at her side. Gingerly picking grit from her scraped palms, she paused to look for the stranger. The tall, pale teenager, along with all the crows, had vanished.