It was early November when it happened.
Wrapped in a shawl, I hurried to meet my relatives whom lived on the far side of town. They did not expect my company, but it was most urgent that I got away. Best not to be near my burning cabin, where deep inside, hidden in the maid's quarters, lie the secret I was dying to destroy.
I cringed as I passed the gallows, seeing the torn nooses from the recent hangings. The crimes the poor souls were convicted of were manslaughter on multiple accounts; murder of the first degree, supposedly. The alleged killers hardly got a trial at all before they were sentenced to death the very next day.
As I scurried past it, crows flocked from out behind the branches of the trees there.
I was superstitious, like all of the townspeople. Crows were seen as a bad omen, to say the least. To see a dead crow meant that death and loss was in your near future; to be followed by one was even worse.
When I arrived at my aunts' estate, the two widows received me with warm hospitality. They were raised as gentlewomen, with manners and etiquette fit enough to have tea with Her Majesty, the Queen of England.
We sat in their parlor, having idle talk over the prices of sugar as we had a meager afternoon tea. It was thin and watery; the traders of our town were still overseas, purchasing only the finest of cloth, tea, sugar, and flour to bring back to our settlement here in America. One aunt said that it was a miracle that they had gotten there at all. Crows had been present on the decks as they departed for the Old World.
I flinched at the mere mention of crows, using the excuse that I was getting chills from the cold. My aunts moved me closer to the fire, sweet things they were.
A short while later, a young messenger boy came bearing the unfavorable news. I tried with all my might to seem grief stricken when he told us that my house had burned down to the ground, and that nothing could be salvaged. My aunts seemed distraught enough for me; immediately they started weeping and offering me to take residence with them for as long as I needed.
The messenger, however, looked at me with a wary eye. I felt on edge, unnerved of his possible suspicion. I had never met the boy before in my life, yet was there a chance that he knew something? Had I not hidden everything?
Days later, I was given a coach to take me to the ashes of my old home. The entire way there, I acted to be upset still. But as I attempted to keep my act up, the crows flocked around the cab. I trembled inside it as they pecked at the roof.
When we reached our destination, the horseman helped me out of the coach. I applied fake tears to my eyes, thinking of the saddest things I could so I could make myself cry. I needed to appear as an innocent woman whom had lost everything she owned. I had lost everything, that much rang true. But I was not the innocent woman I pretended to be.
Looking out over the piles and heaps of ash and debris, I scanned the wreckage for anything that may have survived the fire. I took solace in seeing no charred remains in the rubble. The naked eye could only see unidentifiable wreckage and the occasional smoldering cinders that refused to be extinguished.
I was more than willing to leave when the horseman turned to me and pointed out a sight that I did not want to see.
In the distance, perched in a tree that was large enough to see clearly, were thirteen large crows. They watched me with beady, blood-red eyes.
I screamed from the petrifying sight, nearly losing my nerve. The coachman gave me a gentle pat on the back and said there was nothing to fear, they were only trying to find a decent meal before they had to migrate elsewhere for the winter.
His comment was of little use to try to calm me; even as we drove away from the sight, the crows still watched me.
For days after, I tried to push the fears that came with the thought of the crows. I maintained my act as best as I could for the townspeople. Rumors were already beginning to form and circulate that the Reverend's son had gone missing. Others gossiped that my house had not burned down from an accident, but because of arson. Guilt filled my heart as I was the only one who knew the whole truth of what had really happened.
Several Sundays after that, we prayed for the safe return of the Reverend's son during Mass. I could not join in the prayer without feeling as though someone knew something. Nor could I look him and his wife in their eyes anytime they passed me in the village. The words and gospels of the sermons and Psalms were of no solace to my guilty mind.
The so claimed day of rest became my day of regret.
It wasn't until the fourth snowfall, late in December, that anyone began to question my story. My alibi of how my house burned down became less and less believable. Some spoke in hushed tones whenever I passed them in the village, discussing their theories that the missing boy and my house burning down may have been connected.
Not only that, but the crows stayed.
Upon sight of them, I would flee to the shelter of inside. My aunts noticed my peculiar behavior and they, too, began to question me. I feared for my life; I feared that my secret had not entirely died with the fire. I was still in severe danger.
The townspeople refused my excuses, my myriad of theories on how my house could have possibly burned down in my absence without my consent. It seemed more and more frequent that they found holes in my story, that they found questions to ask that I had not prepared an answer for. I was finding it difficult to not confess my sin to every person I spoke to. Yet I held my tongue.
By no means did I want to wind up like the poor people who were hung in the gallows. I did not want my death to be watched upon by many people who did not know me, did not know my real story. My death was not supposed to be a spectacle for them to enjoy, especially when they did not know why I killed the man. They did not know what happened behind closed doors.
My futile search for an alibi was all in vain. People suspected that murder had taken place in my incinerated house, and that I was the killer. Little did they know that they were completely right.
One morning, early in February, the accusations that were generally spoken when I wasn't around became real. I was hunted down in the middle of the settlement and told that I had been issued a trial for the next day; a jury of thirteen strangers was destined to decide my fate.
Thirteen. The very same number as the crows that haunted me.
That night I planned my escape. I had stolen my aunts' velvet pouch of money and jewelry, along with their finest mare. Under the black cover of the nightfall, I mounted the house and sped off into the darkness.
I could not breathe easily until I had made it far out of the town's limits. The horse whinnied shortly after that for rest. I was as equally tired as her; for several nights, I was incapable of getting restful sleep that was not poisoned by memories of the fateful day it happened.
We took confinement underneath a large oak tree, unaware of our surroundings. It was the coldest part of winter, and I was freezing. But when one was a fugitive, you could not be picky for shelter. This was all that I had to work with. My only home.
It was in my sleep that I heard their calls. They sent shivers down my spine. Fear ran, ice cold, through my already freezing veins. Though I was already very, very cold, it had suddenly seemed to get icier outside.
Eyes wide with fright, I searched ferociously for the ghastly birds. They were nowhere to be seen, yet I could still here their screeches. It was almost as if they were right there above me, trying to pick fun at my unknowing.
I tried to arouse the horse so we could flee once more. Yet as my hands desperately smacked at her head and neck, as I pulled them away, I could feel a wet sticky substance. Using the moonlight, I could see that they were covered in the poor beast's blood.
Shrieking, I leapt from the corpse. I tried to run, but my limbs were stiff from the cold. My thick muslin petticoats also proved to be a challenge, as they were water-logged; I tripped, landing in a deep drift of snow.
Despite my furious attempts to get out of the snow, I remained stuck. I struggled to break free, but the more I tried to get up, the deeper I seemed to sink. It felt like I had lost all feelings from my waist down to the tips of my toes.
Overhead, the crows flew around me in a circle.
They would lunge at me, swooping down at me with their talons and beaks ready to attack me. I swung my arms and the precious velvet bag at them. But beating them away did nothing to help me. If anything, it only seemed to increase their wrath and lust for my pain.
The crows used their talons like daggers, much like the one I had used to slit the Reverend's son's throat. They tore at my shawl and my gown, at my arms and face. The sharpness of them felt synonymous with a sharpened blade, and I knew my appearance was certainly maimed now.
Still, I tried to guard my neck. I knew it was exactly what they strived to attack, my total spot of weakness. As one lunged for me, I accidentally exposed the nape of my neck. The birds saw it immediately, and went in for the kill.
That was all they needed, that one moment of pure vulnerability. The pain was something I could never put into words. My screams continued until near daybreak, likely heard from miles away.
By that time, my blood had been seeping out for hours and I was giving up the will to live any longer. My blood had stained the snow a vivid shade of crimson, and I could feel nothing but searing pain all over.
The crows watched over me, making sure that I didn't attempt to escape. Every now and then, just to show that they had total dominance over me, they would swoop down and tear a piece of fabric off of my gown. And that was only if I was lucky; most often than not, they would fly away with a chunk of my flesh or several strands of hair in their talons.
Pieces of me were found miles and miles away from the place where my body lie. Yet my body was not discovered for another four days after that, perfectly preserved by the ice and snow like fish ready to be sold in a shop.
The townsfolk, upon finding that I had fled in the middle of the night, went on a widespread hunt for me. When they came across my body in the forest, they were all filled with fear. There they found my body surrounded by the very same thirteen crows that had killed me. They fled the scene immediately, praying in vain for their safe deliverance home.
As they walked away, before I had fully accepted death in my heart, I heard the vicious shrieks of the birds. I wanted nothing more than to die already. But in their wild and evil calls, I heard a message from one of the villagers.
"A life for a life, as far as I may be concerned. Justice shall be given to those who have been wronged, and misfortune will be given to those whom have done the wronging. The crows will kill those deserving of the punishment for thy crimes."
With those words, my heart stopped beating entirely, and I was no more.