High on a wave-battered cliff is a simple cottage built of stone. It clings the black rocks above a churning wide-grey sea. Smoke from a narrow chimney is beaten horizontal by the wind.
Inside the cottage a girl tends the fire.
But her baby will not sleep.
‘Do stop crying,’ the girl says. ‘It’s only September and not too cold.’ She picked the child up and held it in her arms. ‘I’ll tell you a story if you’re quiet for a second.’ She went to the window. ‘Look. There’s Da coming up the path.’
It wasn’t long before a young man stooped in out of the wind and laid a fish on the table. ‘I ain’t gonna go out no more in that wind, Mary,’ he said, pulling a chair up to the fire. And his dog – which had slunk in from outside – lay down at his feet like sensible dogs do.
‘The baby been quiet?’ he asked.
‘No,’ said the girl.
‘Ain’t got no rope trailing behind it,’ he said. ‘Nothing tying it to before. No wonder it blubs all day long.’
‘I’m going to tell her a story to keep her quiet.’
‘What do you know about Magda? I can tell the kid some things.’
‘I know what Da told me,’ Mary said. ‘But I can’t do it with you sticking your nose in.’
Willo sat back and took off his boots. ‘I won’t stick my nose in – even if you do get it all wrong. I’ll just sit here quiet and listen. Ain’t heard a good Tell in a while.’
So Mary took a place by the fire. And comforting the baby in her arms she closed her eyes – and began:
‘Once upon a time. When Crow again came to walk about on this earth amongst men, and a shadow came to fall over the land, there lived a poor woman and her granddaughter – hard by a Great Forest.’
Of course there were summers.
But not then.
January. When the low wooden cottages with their greying boards and damp-swollen shutters and rickety porches on wide-planked verandahs sat buried in whiteness at the foot of the hill.
When stacks of split logs were piled under snow-heavy roofs and animals shifted in dung-smelling barns and dogs forever tied bored on heavy chains.
It begins here.
With a priest.
Pulling his collar close as he limped along the snow-covered track that ran through a village called Morochov.
How will it end?
With children digging graves.
The priest grabbed a burnt coal from the cinder-strewn path: Bugger off! He threw it at the cawing crow. Aagh – He gripped his aching knee. Limped towards a small cottage, the hems of his coat growing damp as they skimmed the banks of shovelled snow.
He peered over the broken stick fence bounding the garden. Just a bloom of smoke hovered about the roof of the house. Icicles hung under the eaves – the faded shutters were closed tight against the cold.
Inside the cottage an old woman was dying. The priest had come to hear her last words.
How long since anyone official has been? he thought. There has been no one since the power lines came down.
As his hand rested on the gate, he caught a movement in the garden. In the deep snow under the bare apple trees a girl hacked at a half-dug grave. He could see her belted coat straining as she lifted the heavy pick above her head.
Clud clud clud. The fresh earth piled black against the snow.
‘Magda,’ the priest called out.
The girl stopped her cludding and came over. Breathless, she leaned the handle of the pick against the gatepost. Sweat dampened the fur under the rim of her hat. She led him silently up the icy steps of the verandah. Stamping snow in the small, open porch, they took off their boots and went into the house.
In the darkened bedroom, her grandmother lay on a high iron bed like a statue under the heavy covers. The old woman’s lips were dry and her breathing was slow and her skin had begun to tighten and sink on to the bones of her cheeks.
The priest pulled up a chair and the old woman opened her eyes.
‘I am here,’ she said.
‘Babula –’ Magda held the pale fingers and kissed her grandmother’s face and offered a cloth. The priest wiped his hands, heard the old woman’s whispered secrets and late in the afternoon, after anointing her, he closed her eyes for the last time.
‘By the sacred mysteries of man’s redemption, may Almighty God remit to you all penalties of the present life and of the life to come. May He open to you the gates of paradise and lead you to joys everlasting.’
Magda, bowing her head, said:
Shh! The nuts and bolts of dying are nothing more than that. Sentiment, like the big bottle of iodine that stings in a wound, was locked away in the cupboard.
So the priest said his words, drained the cup of vodka set out on the table and fetched the Dudek brothers from the neighbouring house. The snow fallen from their boots melted on the floorboards. They helped lay the body in the open coffin between the chairs in the kitchen, their damp soles shuffling on the bare scrubbed planks.
They didn’t talk much.
Looked at Magda as she lifted the hatch in the floor and stepped down into the cellar.
‘Thank you,’ Magda said, handing them a bag of potatoes. The priest too.
‘She was a good woman,’ said Aleksy.
‘What’re you going to do now?’ asked his brother Brunon, staring at the hatch in the floor.
‘I don’t know,’ Magda replied.
‘I mean – with all them potatoes?’
Magda stepped back on to the closed cellar hatch. They left.
But when they had gone the priest asked the same thing.
‘What are you going to do, Magda?’
‘What do you mean?’ she said, washing his cup at the sink.
‘You can’t stay here on your own now your grandmother is dead. Bogdan Stopko is growing lonely. You know he has two fields – a tractor and a pony. You’re sixteen, aren’t you? He is not a bad man. And good men don’t grow like brambles.’
Magda turned from the sink. ‘You’re saying he’s rich – not good.’
‘He’s rich in those things which I say. That’s half and half of his being good.’
She dried her hands. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I should do. It’s the middle of winter. I haven’t heard from Mama since the power lines came down.’
‘Then maybe you should go to London. You can’t stay here alone forever –’
‘London? How will I get to London?’ Magda hung the cloth, bent down and riddled the stove; she threw in a few logs, and looked up at him. ‘How will I do that?’
Having no answer, the priest picked his hat up off the table and left. It was growing dark outside.
His own fire needed tending.
Excerpted from One Crow Alone by S.D. Crockett. Copyright © 2013 by S.D. Crockett.
First published 2013 by Macmillan Children’s Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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