Dad watches the crows every morning from the kitchen window. A young family has roosted in the hedgerow trees and each day they line up on the fence and scream at each other, at the sky, at the Universe, at my Dad. Dad sips his tea and glares. He knocks on the window, but the crows dance along the fence and shriek louder.
‘That fence is covered in shit,’ croaks Dad, his voice thick with sleep. The kettle boils. ‘I’ll have another one, please, love.’
I pour hot water, milk, a white flower blooming in the muddy tea.
‘And how are we this morning?’
I reach into the cupboard and finger-hunt through half-empty boxes of cereal, energy bars, pop tarts. ‘I’m hungry,’ I mutter.
Dad scuffs across the lino in his slippers, collects his tea. ‘Hi hungry, I’m Dad,’ he grins, and shuffles upstairs.
Later, he picks me up from college, shirtsleeves rolled up, blasting the Eagles.
‘Fish and chips?’ He says. We order two cod and chips, plus extra chips, drench it all in vinegar and BBQ sauce. We watch old episodes of Friends while we eat, drop our forks to clap the theme tune.
In the morning, the smeared boxes are scattered on the lawn, the greaseproof lining shredded and sprinkled on the hydrangeas. The crows squawk their gratitude. Dad bursts out the back door, arms flying, screeches their cry back at them in a horrible parody. The crows thrash their wings and scramble skyward. They return to the fence quietly, one by one, and watch as we file out to the car, flint eyes trained on us.
Dad starts the engine. ‘I’m going to kill those birds.’
I tell myself he could never catch one, and if he did, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. But more than once I catch him skulking around the hedgerow with his gardening gloves on, fingers twitching. He stands at the kitchen window and matches their stony stare with his own; mocks their rattling squall until his throat is ragged. I sit at the computer and find tabs open on bird poison, BB guns. He says the thing to do is to string one up by the feet, as a warning to the others.
I get the bus to college and leave him kneeling on the lawn, rope and netting spread out on the grass. One night I come home after a shift at the supermarket and all the lights are off, his car a slippery shadow in the driveway. I find him on the bench under the garden fence, heedless of the white crust left by the birds on every surface. A still black heap is hunched in his lap. The dark shapes of the crows guard the fence, but the garden is quiet. I tread the grass.
Dad whispers my name. ‘Look,’ he says.
I hold my breath and peer into his lap, his fists closed around wing and tail. He has done it.
‘How did you—,’
‘Shh,’ he says, and the heap of feathers stirs, flashes a hard eye, a blunt beak. Dad loosens his grip, and the bird opens the palm of its midnight wing. It stands, feathers bristling into a ragged mane. With a harsh departing ‘Caw,’ it bursts up from Dad’s lap into the sky. The air stirs as the other crows follow.
‘They’re beautiful,’ says Dad, staring after them.
This is the first day Dad skips work. He doesn’t go the next day, either. He stands in his usual spot at the kitchen window, but now, when he shrieks at the crows, it’s like he shrieks with them, not at them. He moves slowly through the house so as not to startle them. When the sun sets and they scatter back to the trees, he goes out in his dressing gown and collects their glossy feathers, fills vases and old jam jars with bouquets of them.
‘Did you know,’ he says, ‘birds are directly descended from therapods. Their bones are just the same, only smaller. Birds are the only surviving dinosaurs.’ The crows scream at this as if in applause. Dad smiles.
At college, I find myself striding down the Science corridor, seeking out a teacher to ask whether crows are dangerous or somehow addictive. But I can’t form the right words for what I want to know, so I pretend to look at the notice board and turn around.
I take more shifts at the supermarket, bring home milk and microwave lasagne. Dad stops cooking, eats only what he can fit in his hand while standing at the kitchen window. Eventually, I bring him a chair and a blanket. He loses weight, grows a beard which stretches down his neck. Angry-looking letters pile up on the doormat, but neither of us opens them.
‘Dad,’ I ask, ‘What are we going to do?’ I kneel down to him and he looks past me with dark, corvid eyes. ‘Dad?’
But Dad has stopped speaking and the only rattle left in his throat is for the crows.
One morning I come down to the kitchen and Dad isn’t there. I go to his bedroom, find his pillows strewn with opalescent feathers, and I know.In the garden, perched on the sun-warmed fence, is my Dad. He looks almost like the other crows, straight beaked, smooth headed. But his soft eyes give him away. My feet whisper across the grass. The crows side-step the fence, give me a wide berth. Dad holds my questioning stare, croaks a caw. An apology, a goodbye, or both. His wings bristle and I push out the palm of my hand, a stop sign, but it’s too late. In a thrum of wing and wind, Dad rises off the fence and heads skyward, a black knot in the clear blue sky. I watch him and wonder how the air feels underwing, the freedom whistling through his dinosaur bones.
This blew me away, personally. It draws you into a seemingly mundane familial relationship then swells, twists, crescendos and soars like the very best writing. It also made me cry, twice. Extraordinary.Rachel Edwards
Hard to imagine a steeper flash character arc than what happens in this piece, which one of the other judges said made her cry, twice. A depressed father, whose life is irrevocably changed by an encounter with a crow, and the narrator who is forced to witness the father’s transformation. Does the father experience a breakdown, or a liberation? By the end, we’re not completely sure, but we feel for both the father who glides away forever, and the college-age child who’s left behind, awe-struck.Eliot Li
I love the way the story appears to be straightforward, then veers off into a surreal place that somehow feels more real than the real. Fully engages the head and heartPatricia Q. Bidar
2 thoughts on “Second place: Dinosaur Bones by Emily Ives-Keeler”
Great story-like all the best ones, thought provoking.
The first time I’ve seen the juxtaposition of the words ‘crow’ and ‘beautiful.’ I will look at these birds and their not-too-good reputation rather differently from now on!
This piece is so deep. A ‘simple’ story with underlying meanings that are open to interpretation. Such great imagery too. Had me quite teary at the thought of what happened to the dad. Amazing work!