dedicated to the crows of Vancouver
Anyone will tell you, Halloween past is a far darker neighbourhood than Christmas past. The property values are lower and the sun never shines very brightly through the smoke of burning leaves and spent firecrackers. And it was once in the dimness of Halloween past that the Queen of Halloween cast her spell on the crows. Ever since then, the crows have never flown over a Halloween to serve themselves. Since the casting of that ruinous spell, the crows, on All Hallows’ Eve, have done only as the Queen of Halloween decrees and maraud on her behalf alone.
What is less well known is that the Queen of Halloween lives in a discarded refrigerator in an abandoned warehouse, off Terminal and Main Streets. She often presents in the guise of an old woman, wondering back alleys by the light of the moon in search of bottles and cans and the occasional human soul. Other times, she’s a black coyote that feeds on children’s pets. Mostly, however, after dark, she will open the door of her discarded refrigerator home and emerge as a pale young woman of unrivalled beauty, dressed in a splendid flowing gown of ravenous cockroaches. And it is this ghastly writhing gown that is the source of her shadowed magic.
* * * * *
The Crow King walked the branches of the castle tree like a sea captain made mad by an unachievable horizon. His eyes, bottomless black, swallowing the dregs of chemical light at dawn. His coveted crown of shiny, found items askew. His fragile mansion on the edge of creation, tilting on the lip of a chasm. The Crow Court watched and pondered disaster.
“Bring me news,” he cawed, “bring me news. Fly out and bring back news. Find the Queen of Halloween and ask of Her demands. It is impossible to do bidding unknown.”
The flock surrounding him cawed loudly, a cacophony of assent. There was much flapping, bobbing of heads and shifting from side to side.
The Crow King’s Wizard sidled near to him with his scaled and talon feet, his taxidermy eyes too deep to be real, his told-you-so voice hissing like a maleficent snake. “Your Grace,” he rattled and cooed, “perhaps there is no bidding to be done this year. Perhaps this year we maraud freely over Halloween and take what we will to line our own nests. We have been Her slaves long enough.”
“Yes we have,” clicked the Crow King thoughtfully. “We have been her slaves too long, surrendering our plunder. But a spell was cast long ago and we still suffer beneath it. What is the remedy?”
“A child, I foretell,” the Wizard cooed. “One to challenge Her on our behalf. One to end the spell that holds us in thrall.”
“Who is this child?” the Crow King crackled.
“She sits in this castles tree, among us now,” clucked the Wizard with a conspiratory voice. “But none can point to her. She must fly as the flock flies and be divided by fortune. Only then can she face the Queen of Halloween.”
“Then let it be so. Morning breaks,” cawed the Crow King looking east. “It is time for us all to fly.”
And with that the inhabitants of the castle tree took to the sky, flying en masse toward the city.
It was a massive flock of thousands that flew into the city, blackening the sky and obscuring the setting moon before scattering to feed. The flock made a terrible noise as it flew, knowing it would wake the city below from its safe and contented sleep.
Tibbit Crow Girl flew among them, still young enough to fly at her mother’s side. And Tibbit’s mother preferred the grounds round the abandoned warehouses off Main and Terminal to feed.
“It be a good day to fly,” Tibbit’s mother cackled. “And I smell nuts and tender bits of carrion on the wind.”
Tibbit Crow Girl liked nuts and carrion just fine but also enjoyed the bread and seeds handed out by elderly humans all over the city. Devouring this free meal involved little effort and the elderly people seemed so pleased by her and the other crows. Of course the pigeons ruined everything with their gluttonous inhalation of the handouts. But occasionally, a pigeon would eat too much to fly away, and made delicious eating.
“Let’s land and see what’s to eat,” Tibbit’s mother cawed, and they banked away from the main flock and whirled and spiralled down toward the ground. They flew low over the busy intersection of Terminal and Main, over the speeding trucks and cars. And Tibbit’s mother cawed, “Be careful. Not too low. Watch the trucks.”
Tibbit had heard this before, however, and thought her mother worried too much. She’d seen other crows fly much lower than she ever did. It was a thrill and a good way to observe what tasty bits of food might be lying round on the ground. Tibbit flew lower that morning than she ever had before. She flew in and out of the traffic, laughing in the faces of the wide-eyed drivers. Laughing, that is, until she was struck by a passing delivery truck.
The truck knocked Tibbit high in the air and she fell onto the sidewalk. When she hopped to her feet, she felt a sharp pain in her wing. Suddenly she couldn’t fly, and had a paralysing thought of the pigeons that ate too much to fly and what happened to them.
“Fool of a girl,” Tibbit’s mother cawed from overhead. “What will you do now? You be food for the rats.”
These were not the comforting and encouraging words she’d hoped to hear from her mother. Tibbit saw the road that lead into the old industrial park of abandoned warehouses and began to hop toward it, looking everywhere for rats and humans with their big feet and unpredictable tempers.
After a long while of exhausting hopping, Tibbit was safe among the empty warehouses. There was no traffic there, only the occasional transient with a shopping cart. Tibbit’s mother landed next to her. “I can smell rats here,” she said. “They be watching us now. They be up on their haunches sniffing the air filled with the scent of wounded crow.”
“I will not be eaten by rats,” Tibbit cackled and cooed, hopping up a decaying wooden staircase. The staircase lead to a warehouse door that was opened just a crack. They both entered. It was dark and vacant except for a refrigerator. “I will take a corner here and fight all comers with my claws and beak. I will heal and fly again.”
Tibbit’s mother knew better of the plight of downed crows, how ill at ease a crow is when not in flight, how a crow should choose flight rather than fight. But she said nothing. She sidled about looking for something dead for the both of them to eat, but there was nothing.
The old refrigerator was an unfortunate 1960s shade of sky blue, and had a single door with a large handle of chrome and rust. Frigidaire said a rusting chrome name plate, hanging askew by a single remaining rivet. The refrigerator shook. Then it sat quietly for a moment, and shook once more. Then the chrome and rust handle was pulled out by an invisible force, and the door opened.
Inside, the refrigerator was completely black. It looked like a passageway into a dark incalculable recess. There was a cold wind blowing out of it as though it was still a functioning appliance. But it hadn’t been plugged into an electrical socket for decades. Screams, shrieking and human pleas for help could be heard on the cold wind emanating from within. And the smell was that of an animal so dead and far gone that even a crow wouldn’t eat it.
Tibbit’s mother hopped back from it and Tibbit sidled round for a better view. “What is it, mother?” she cooed.
“It be a human thing,” Tibbit’s mother cawed. “We should go. There be better places than this.”
Then there came a commanding voice from deep inside the blackness of the refrigerator’s interior, an evil, echoing voice. It said, “Who stands before the door to my bottomless pit without my permission? Speak now before I chew your souls in my mouldy mouth and swallow you into the abyss of my belly.”
Tibbit’s mother jumped back but Tibbit only cocked her head. “I’m hurt and in danger of being eaten by rats,” she cawed. “What difference would it make being eaten by a mob of rats or by you? I’ll fight you all and you’ll suffer for your meagre meal.”
Tibbit’s mother looked concerned when no reply came from the refrigerator’s dark interior. Then smoke began to spill from the derelict appliance, onto the floor. The smoke piled up and up into a column, and the column took on the smoky appearance of a woman. Finally the Queen of Halloween in Her grand and magical gown of cockroaches emerged and stood before them.
“Oh,” She said, wrinkling Her nose. “Crows. I’d hoped for something more interesting.”
“It be Her,” Tibbit’s mother reverently cooed. “The Queen.”
The Queen of Halloween walked around Tibbit and her mother, taking in the situation. As she did, her magical cockroach gown made crawling and clicking sounds.
“You’re the one,” Tibbit said. “The one who has placed a spell on the crows.”
“Really?” the Queen of Halloween said. “Am I? You must forgive me for not remembering. I’ve spun so many spells, it’s hard to keep track.”
“We are doomed to fly at your behest every Halloween night and place at your feet all that we find. It is a night of great treasure and we deserve to keep what we steal for ourselves.”
“Rubbish,” snapped the Queen of Halloween. “The rats, the bedbugs and all of the vermin of the world pay tribute to me on Halloween night. Why should crows be any different?”
“We are not vermin,” Tibbit cawed proudly. “We do not scramble about on the ground; we fly above the world and look down upon you.”
Tibbit’s mother felt fear but couldn’t help, at the same time, feeling pride in her daughter.
“I fly, too,” the Queen of Halloween said, and in a flash an ancient corn broom appeared in her hand. “It would appear, however,” She said to Tibbit, “that your flying days are over.”
“But you cannot fly faster than our flock,” Tibbit rattled.
Tibbit’s mother looked at her with a glint of worry in her dark eyes.
“You can try to out fly us,” Tibbit cawed. “You can try to fly faster and out manoeuvre us. You can even attempt to surpass us as marauders. But you will fail.”
“Ha!” the Queen of Halloween yelped. “Even if that were true, how would it help you with your broken wing, surrounded by a warehouse filled with hungry rats?”
“I challenge you,” Tibbit cawed. “Ride your broom tonight and try to beat my flock. And when you fail, you will use your magic to mend my wing and you will remove the spell that enslaves us.”
“And what if your flock does not out fly me,” said the Queen of Halloween. “What will I have?”
“You will have me,” Tibbit said. “To chew in your mouldy mouth and swallow into the abyss of your belly.”
Tibbit’s mother was stunned by this. “No!” she cawed.
“Yes,” cooed Tibbit.
“But I have you already,” said the Queen of Halloween. “I could chew you up and swallow you now, and be done with it.”
Tibbit thought about this and realised the Queen of Halloween was correct. “If the flock cannot out fly you, and you fly past them at dawn,” she cooed, “the crows will be your marauders every night, not just Halloween night, but forever.”
“That is an intriguing offer,” said the Queen of Halloween.
“It’s not an offer,” said Tibbit. “It’s a bet.”
The Queen of Halloween rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue as she pondered the possibilities. The crows did deliver some impressive swag every Halloween. If She out flew them, She could have it every night of the year. Forever. And She could have this impudent little crow girl for dinner. She raised Her broom and brought it down on the ground, with a loud explosion of light.
“It’s a bet,” said the Queen of Halloween. “You are protected from the rats. For now, that is. Until after we fly tonight. Assemble your flock nearby this evening and we will see who will out fly who.”
Tibbit’s mother hopped and sidled out of the crack in the warehouse door and flew away to gather the flock.
And as darkness fell over the city, the magnificent flock of crows gathered and landed round the warehouse, creating a deafening and discordant cacophony of caws. Above them, out of the darkening east, flew the Queen of Halloween on Her ancient and twisted broom, cackling a crazed and demented laugh.
Seeing Her above them, the thousands of crows took off over the city blotting out the stars and the moon as they did, swirling in circles like a vast black tornado, then rocketing forward in an infinite swarm, leaving the Queen of Halloween behind. Then the Queen of Halloween, determined in Her evil cause, raced past the flock, leaving it in Her rancid dust.
The Crow King seeing this cawed and commanded his flock forward, progressing in the night. It traded the lead with the Queen of Halloween again and again. And when She realised that She might not fly faster than the Crow King’s flock, the Queen of Halloween decided to use magic to cheat Her way forward. She created a sudden pulse of blinding light and like a supersonic bullet shot past the crows.
Meanwhile, in the warehouse, Tibbit hopped into a corner and prepared to defend herself. She saw the bright red light in the eyes of the rats around her. They sniffed the air and licked their lips. And she began to fear for the first time that the rats might disobey the Queen of Halloween.
Above the city, the race continued and the Queen of Halloween was winning. She cast spell after spell, placing obstacles before the crows. She pelted them with stones and had Her ghosts fly against them. The Crow King wondered what to do. As the flock flew and manoeuvred as best it could, he consulted with his Wizard.
“How can we beat this evil witch’s magic,” cawed the Crow King.
“She is powerful and has many evil allies,” the Wizard cawed. “But I think I have a plan.”
“What is it?” cawed the Crow King. “Tell me fast or all may be lost.”
“My magic is no match for hers, but I might enchant two or three of our strongest youngsters with the speed to catch up with Her.”
“Will they be able to fly past Her by dawn?” the Crow King cawed.
“No,” rattled the Wizard. “But by now they will be hungry and the cockroaches that make up Her splendid gown, the source of her evil magic, will be tender and tasty.”
“That might be a very good plan, Wizard Crow,” cawed the Crow King. “Do it!”
And so, the Wizard Crow endowed certain of the younger crows with the power to fly as fast as the Queen of Halloween, and sent them in pursuit of Her with instructions to eat heartily. They flew fast and soon saw the Queen of Halloween ahead. Then one of them cawed, “It’s dinner time!”
There were three of them. All that the Wizard Crow could manage with his limited magic, but they were ravenous and fell on the splendid magical gown of cockroaches with gusto. The roaches squirmed and wiggled and scrambled to escape.
“What is this,” the Queen of Halloween shouted. “The impertinence! Get away.”
But the hungry young crows continued to feed. As Her gown and its magic began to disappear, the Queen of Halloween began to slow and the flock caught up. She had cheated with Her magic, so the flock of crows saw no shame in attacking Her gown.
“Stay away,” the Queen of Halloween shouted as she slowed and the flock caught up, falling upon Her in midair. As Her magic waned, spells were being broken all over the world. “Get away, get away,” She yelled as Her unrivalled beauty began to fade, and the pitiful thing that She was under the splendid gown was revealed. Soon Her gown was completely consumed and only a skeleton rode the ancient broom. It fell to earth like a meteor.
The flock cawed and cheered. They were free of the evil spell. But the Crow Wizard was still very concerned.
“All of that evil witch’s spells are broken,” he cawed. “Including the one keeping the warehouse rats away from Tibbit. Fly faster than you ever have before. We must get to Tibbit before that mob of rodents.”
The Crow Wizard was right. In the warehouse, Tibbit was fighting a brave fight but her time was running out. The rats attacked in waves. She used her beak and claws to flight them back, but they lunged and bit. The first crow through the crack in the door was Tibbit’s mother. She attacked with abandon and she and Tibbit fought gallantly together until the flock took down the door and flew in to peck and eat the rats that didn’t escape.
Then the flock lifted Tibbit high into the air and she was taken back to the castle tree to heal and fly again, just as she had predicted. But not before the flock pillaged what it could from Halloween night. And with it, the shiny objects, choice sticks and tender morsels of food, they lined their own nests.