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A Murder Of One

by Ileah
First Place Winner

(Note from Phaedrus:  This story was originally posted in three parts.  The horizontal lines in the text mark the original part boundaries.)

A Murder of One
by Ileah

The moon rode full and white in the orange-hazed night sky, myriad streetlamps reflecting off the ominpresent layers of smog. Despite this, the light from her threw shadows into sharpness, giving the eye plenty to both see normally and to glimpse unknown forms in the dark.

In a small city park consisting of three acres of grass, struggling trees, and diffidently placed benches, a young man worked to set up his intended ritual in the dubious shelter of a half-grown ash. Thin faced and dark eyed, his body had a sparseness attributed more to genetics than diet. A somewhat shapeless mop of brown hair tumbled to just past his shoulders, gleaming in a chance moonbeam against his black t-shirt. He worked quickly, setting up a small portable stereo on the nearby bench which was already serving as shelf and worktable for an incense holder, a mask, and two long, curiously fringed strips of fabric.

Aaron, for that was the young man's name, set the stereo to play the tribal drumbeat track on repeat, hit pause, and fumbled in the pocket of his black jeans for a matchbook. He struck one, the match flaring into life with its usual acridic smell, and lit the incense, hand shaking only slightly. His self-consciousness at this entire project had grown acute with the preperations. A small mocking voice in the back of his head was sneering gleefully at his presumption in trying to enact any kind of ritual with his poor trappings. He pushed it away fiercely, and picked up the first of the pieces of fabric.

A sleeve, or half of one; the strip of fabric had a fastening at one end, to go around the shoulder, and a loop at the other to slip the hand through. Aaron applied it, pressing shut the velcro at the shoulder fastening (-Velcro!-, screamed the mocking voice, in perfect hysterics) and sliding his hand through the loop at the end. He gave it an experimental shake, gratified by its stability on his arm and the rustling of its feathers.

Crow's feathers, the genuine article, donated by his friends all over the country in ASCAR, the American Society of Crows and Ravens. They lined the outside of the fabric like an eagle dancer's costume, flight feathers sweeping along behind his arm, lending bouyancy to the movements. Aaron grinned and repeated the operation with his other arm and the remaining strip.

Yes. This felt right. He spread his arms, the feathers rustling and spreading with him. Just as he'd planned! And now, for the final article to begin the ritual: the mask.

The mask had started life as a stiff canvas masquerade-ball mask from an art supply store, unadorned. Aaron's efforts had transformed it, with paint and black feathers, into the visage of a crow. His heart beat faster as he lifted it from the bench and slowly fit it over his face, tying the black ribbons in back to secure it.

The feathers caressed his cheeks, tugged ever so gently in the air. Through its eyeholes, the world seemed different; mystical, haunting, ripe for the knowing. Aaron straightened up, spread his arms again and raised them to the moon, hanging nearly at apex in the sky, and stood silent for a moment, breathing, feeling the cool grass beneath his black-moccassined feet. He concentrated on the essence of Crow, the mystic wanderer, the trickster, the divine messenger of the gods, whose feathers are the primordial black of the womb, of space and sea. The world quieted.

Aaron opened his eyes, hit the pause button again on the stereo. Low and throbbing, the sound of the tribal drums rolled out along the ground, and disregarding a sniggering comment from that mocking voice, Aaron stepped back, arms outstretched, and began to dance.

It was hard at first, harder than he'd expected; that damn voice would not shut up. It commented nonstop on the ridiculousness of his dress, the absurdity of his dance, and what anyone who saw him would be thinking, once they got over their hilarity. Aaron gritted his teeth and kept going, turning in long graceful swoops, the feathers catching at air. He focused on the drums, on the pattern he'd worked out, stepping with surety. And slowly, the intended effect began to take hold.

The drums and the lift of the feathers along his arms took precedence, suddenly, over the mocking voice. Aaron closed his eyes without being entirely aware of doing so, moving purely to the rhythm of the drums. Wings, black wings, swept him along the wind paths, carrying him over desert, then mountains, sloping down to the sea breaking on rock crags... then the wind wasn't any earth wind, but ocean currents, down into the depths, past where sunlight ever touched, past strange and wondrous beings and into pure darkness, so black that the eyes sparked in defiance of it... and the sparks were stars, and he rode the solar wind, into a multitude of light...

He lost himself in the vision, half imagined and half given, and danced until the sights of his mind wound down, leaving him cold and panting in his own mortal, dressed-up body.

Exhausted and delighted, he carefully took off his trappings, bundled everything up, and went home.

He slept hard that night, although it seemed to him that he dozed but fitfully, tossing and turning, trapped in his dreams. Harsh voices asked him questions he couldn't make out, and it felt as if a sharp, glinting black eye was locked on him throughout his sleep. A hard eye, a demanding eye that saw too clearly, yet not without compassion. And an eye, finally, that winked in a disturbingly conspiratorial manner, as if somehow it had found a partner in crime, and vanished with a cawing laugh.

Aaron awoke with a start, that caw lingering in his mind. It swiftly cleared, however, when he realized he was having some considerable trouble breathing. He opened his mouth automatically to gasp, air pulled down unfamiliar passageways and whistling through the hard beak...

He stopped breathing. His heartrate leapt, the strong beat shaking his relatively fragile frame with each thump. He turned his head to eye himself, black gloss. He had become in flesh what he'd aspired last night to become in spirit.

Shivering, Aaron stood, claws indenting the bedsheet. He turned his long head this way and that, wide-angle vision taking in almost his entire room at once: Crow movie posters, comic posters, pictures of the birds he'd found in books or magazines, or ones he'd taken himself, crow statues and a velvet crow plush. He opened his wings, stretching them to their full span, feathers rustling and spreading, but these feathers with the oily sheen of life. He could feel them, curious extension of his flesh, as dead as nails to the sense of touch but exquisitely sensitive to the tug and push of air as he fanned experimentally.

He strutted anxiously around his bed. All right; he was a crow, or so it seemed. He could be dreaming still, or comatose, or simply insane. Or, he admitted, he could really be a crow.

His mother's voice drifted in from the hall. Aaron froze in fear.

"Aaron?" She knocked at the door. "Get up, I need you to do some things for me. Aaron?" The knob turned. Aaron fluttered in agitation, unable to hide and equally unable to flee.

The door opened. His mother peered in, then gasped at the sight of the large black bird flapping on the bed.

"What the--what are you doing in here?" She frowned darkly, slipped in and closed the door. Edging against the wall to reach the window, she slid it open wide. Aaron watched her every move.

"Get out of here, now!" His mother backed away from the window and, seizing his shirt from the floor, flapped it at him. Aaron hopped, uttered a croaking call, and fumbled for the window, flapping clumsily, a sore spot in his breast.

He barely managed to catch the windowsill in his claws, then gave a startled cry as he was swept from behind with his shirt, shoving him firmly out the window. Panicked, he flung his wings wide and beat hard, and frightened himself even more by swiftly gaining speed and altitude away from his home. The window slid shut with a bang.

Aaron wheeled and found himself flying over, then away from, his house in four wingbeats, soaring quickly across the neighborhood. His fear subsided in the sudden fierce joy of flight, the lift of his wings and the dizzying scope of his vision. Distance fell away beneath him, reduced to bizarre glyphs of streets; streets made by men, and he realized with a sudden jolt that they no longer had any meaning for him, other than what he chose to give them. He also had no need any longer to pretend he was mad, or dreaming; he knew himself for what he was now. The grand gleam of his feathers as they lifted him on the air and the view of the land laid out below and behind him were convincing enough.

These things also convinced him quickly that flying was bloody hard work, and he dipped down to backwing to a landing on a telephone wire, balancing shakily until he learned to simply let his weight rest on his folded legs, which would automatically lock his feet around his perch, granting instant stability.

Thus situated, Aaron shook out his feathers, beak slightly open to pant, and considered.

Around him, the day went on, irritatingly normal. Cars growled by, people walked or ran or skated up and down the sidewalk below him, other birds swooped and twittered about their own business. Aaron watched it all with a sense of pure unreality, and a growing uneasiness.

A shadow passed over him. He glanced up, cocking his head, and saw another crow, a female, dropping out of the sky to land on the wire next to him. The wire careened up and down, causing Aaron to snap out his wings for balance. The female crow had no such difficulty, and grinned at him, beak open.

^Greetings, little brother.^

Aaron blinked, opening his mouth to reply, and got only a harsh caw for his efforts.

^No, not like that,^ chuckled the other, eyes sparkling. ^Like this. The voice we use for influence on the world of man. This is the way we speak among ourselves.^

Hesitantly, Aaron replied, ^Like... like this?^ A talking without using the voice was quite a new experience for him, yet the communication was easy and clear.

^Good! You learn very quickly. I'm glad. Eagle gave me only one try at this.^

^Eagle?^ Aaron gaped. ^You're--you are Crow?^

^The same,^ she whispered, and suddenly his vision filled with blackness, shot with stars, swelling with life, rich fecundity, death and the life that springs from it, and turns back to death...

And then she was just a female crow, sitting on the wire in the bright sun, looking at him.

Aaron trembled.

^Don't fear,^ she said gently, a hint of amusement in her not-voice. ^You're my chosen. My ambassador to the world of men.^

^Ambassador? I don't... I don't think I understand.^

She shifted her weight to one leg to stretch out her other wing. ^Men have always looked to us as creatures of prophecy,^ she said, almost absently, ^and we are, and have been. Much more besides,^ she added, ^but for now, concern yourself with that. The winds and our own whims have carried us where we've needed to be to fulfill our role in the dance, and that's as it should be.^

She paused, refolding her wing and smoothing out her feathers. ^However, there's a new era coming. A new measure in the dance, and there are changes under our wings. What's gone before will no longer be enough to guide and prophecy for the sons of men. I saw this in the winds, and the trees whispered it to me. I went to Eagle, and he granted me that a son of man should be my emissary for the new age.^

^Why?^ asked Aaron very softly, after a few moments. ^Why do you need a human, and...why me?^

Cocking her head at him, she studied him. ^The lines that man has drawn between himself and we his brothers are going to come down,^ she answered, calmly. ^And the poor creature having blinded himself for so long is not going to take it well. As messenger, as prophet, as servant of the Crone, it falls to I, Crow, to warn him and to perhaps smooth his path. And to you, my fledgling, to be my agent.^

Aaron looked away, at the bustling and ignorant streets of men below. ^I see,^ he said, slowly. ^It's only reasonable that as a former human, I know what goes on in their heads, and how best to communicate with them.^ And apparently, he realized dryly, already reaffiliating himself with his new race.

^Good, good,^ she crooned, sidling closer to him. ^My poor lost fledgling, you were so perfect, dancing alone and fighting against every man-made inhibition you'd been raised with, and winning! You were beautiful, and I sped to Eagle, crying that one! that one! he's the one! and oh, little blackwing, do not fail me. Your destiny is too grand to succumb to human fears.^

Aaron's throat was not dry, his palms were not sweating, his vision was clear and his body steady despite the fear wracking him. And these things, perhaps more than any others, convinced him of the truth. His reactions, physically, no longer human. His thoughts, yes, but even now they turned to explore the possibilites his new goddess laid out for him. Crow wisdom and curiosity; human depth and knowledge.

Yes. It felt right.

^Goddess,^ whispered Aaron, ^I won't fail you.^

^You exceed all my hopes,^ she whispered in reply, and vanished in a flurry of black, sunk in a sudden skirl of wind, scattering to the street as no more than a handful of ash.

The crow looked up, at the endless sky. With firm resolve, no nagging and mocking human-bred voice in his mind, he crouched and leapt from the wire, wings beating strong. A wind sprang up and seemed to fit itself under his wings, carrying him along to the tune of the new measure of the ancient inscrutable pattern, towards his destiny in that infinite sky.

Copyright 1997: "Ileah" <dhelsing@primenet.com> . If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask the author for permission first.       Thank you

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