Wesley remembered how they’d stand at the bus stop, holding their bagged lunches and watching the crows gather on the power lines alongside old woman Rian’s house. All birds loved Willa, but crows, especially, seemed to show up wherever she was.
“Look,” Willa said, “I bet I can get them to come down from there.”
She’d reached into her lunch bag and pulled out some crackers to throw to the crows. Within minutes, Wesley remembered, they were surrounded by dozens of shiny black birds. He’d opened his own bag, as well, excited by the birds, and thrown Cheetos out for the crows. That afternoon at lunch, Wesley was still hungry, but Willa was just busy drawing crows.
It was that evening that Willa came home to find a red glass bead on the windowsill outside her bedroom. She showed it to Wesley and then slipped it into her pocket. The next morning, there were more crows at the bus stop and Willa gave them her crackers and her peanut butter sandwich. Wesley remembered being hungry, and he looked away, and then got interested in Paul’s discussion of fantasy baseball. That afternoon, there were two pennies and a shiny bit of gum wrapper on Willa’s windowsill. Willa took a shoe box of out her closet and labeled it “Gifts from Crows.” Wesley went on line and looked up ways to select players for fantasy baseball games. It drew a lot of expensive electricity off the grid and his dad yelled at him for it, but Willa gave him one of her pennies and told him not to cry.
Things were never the same again, really.
Willa’s mother encouraged it all, at first. “Maybe she’ll be an ornithologist and work at the university or a zoo,” she said. “She might be a scientist or write books about birds.” Willa did like to read books about birds. She’d read every single one in the local library, but she seemed more interested in just watching and drawing them than in categorizing or dissecting them.
When the winters became increasingly bitter, Willa and her brother shoveled walks and ran errands for homebound neighbors. Willa saved all of her money to spend on food for the crows. Even her mother began to find it a little bit weird: the way Willa wanted to care for the crows and the way the crows kept leaving gifts for her.
When her mom lost the bracelet she’d gotten from her old college friend, Willa “talked to the crows,” and they brought it back to Willa’s windowsill the next day. “I think Willa took it and then said the crows returned it,” Wesley said. That afternoon, the crows took Wesley’s locker key. He never got it back.
People mostly couldn’t get to work in the ever-snowier winters. Some people, the ones who worked on computers, were able to keep working for a few years; they could “telecommute.” But the ice and the winter winds began taking down towers and wires on a more regular basis and almost no one got paid in the winter anymore. Offices and stores closed down; you couldn’t run a business when your workers and customers were homebound five months out of the year.
Everyone was scared; when all the religious men got together and said that the bad weather was due to too much science and not enough religion, well, people were willing to listen. They wanted their winter paychecks back, their cable TVs, their grocery stores with strawberries in February, the years when flu didn’t kill their children, their vacations to Disney World. Giving up science seemed a small price to pay.
And so Willa never did get many real science classes and she never did become an ornithologist, or work at the university, or have a job at a zoo. The school board kept the science requirements in place, but the books now said that evolution was a lie, that “man” was destined to dominate the Earth, that animals had no feelings and no souls, and that it would put people out of jobs to say that animals had “intelligence.” The chapter on birds discussed the dove who brought a branch back to Noah. Willa decided it was all “crow crap,” and sat sullenly in the back of the classroom, drawing pictures of crows in the edges of the textbooks.
Willa dropped out in 10th grade when they cut the art classes for lack of funds. All of the good, Christian art had already been made, they said. No one wanted sketches of crows. The other kids called Willa “Bird Girl,” laughed, and threw crumbs at her to make themselves feel safe as they chaffed their arms and scratched their chilblains. Willa just crossed to the other side of the street and it was never long before crows showed up to eat the crumbs.
Willa dressed all in black, wore too much eye make-up, and paid an old man in the back alley to tattoo a crow on her shoulder. It got infected, but Willa rubbed it with some leaves that the crows brought her and it cleared right up.
Willa took a job at the local pot store. One business that continued to thrive was pot — now that it was legal, everyone seemed to want some. As long as you bought a supply by around late October, you’d have enough to get you through a long, cabin-fevered winter. What else was there to do, now that the tv towers no longer worked and the religious men had burned the library books? When the store owners decided to move to Mexico, Willa offered to buy them out and they were glad to sell. Willa saved her money and bought a tiny house on the outskirts of town. It had a fenced yard, lots of trees, and a solar-powered bird bath so that the crows could drink water all winter long.
It got to be known that you could visit Willa in her tiny house — she wouldn’t talk to you at the store — and ask her to help you find something you’d lost. If you’d lost it outside, Willa could often return it to you, in return for some vegetables, some bird food, some wool. Whatever was returned, Willa would say that the crows brought it to her. People began to whisper that Willa was not just weird; Willa was a Witch.
For an even more serious payment, Willa could sometimes find out things that were meant to be secret. She told Hope Rollins that her husband was having an affair with the minister’s wife. She watched the skies for a week and then told Starren Beriaman that he would, indeed, soon die of the lump he felt in his balls. She gently told old woman Rian that all of the money had been siphoned off by her darling son. It got to be known that you should only ask Willa questions that you honestly wanted answered.
Willa did fall in love, once. He had red hair, and strong arms, and a voice that gave Willa goosebumps. He grew pot for her store, but he could grow anything that you wanted, even in the short summers, and he had learned a lot from his old grandfather, who taught high school science “back before it got sanctified.” He was a farmer and he wanted Willa to move out of her tiny house and onto his farm. But Willa couldn’t live with a man who put scarecrows in his field, who shot at birds to keep them out of the corn, who went to church every Sunday and prayed that God would reinstate “man’s” dominion over nature.
And, so, as the years slipped by — one long, long, longer winter after another — Willa spent less and less time with people and more and more time with her crows. One old crow adopted her and there came a time when no local child had ever seen Willa without that crow on her left shoulder. Willa still opened her shop every morning and closed it every afternoon. And she still opened the door of her tiny house to those who had lost something and wanted it found; Willa had never turned anyone away, it was said. Well, anyone but Rian’s son, and even the crows would have been hard-pressed to find his squandered fortune.
/To Be Continued