During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the eight (eight!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. The deadline for submitting to the anthology has passed, but you can still submit and maybe have your story published this year!
This story weaves fantasticism with harsh reality. It depicts a little girl with a mysterious background who becomes friends with a crow. Solace from tragedy can be found in the strangest of places, and justice can be delivered in the most unexpected ways. These are the lessons I learned from this beautiful story. -Sydney Culpepper, Anthology Editor
by Zoe Brook
The little girl is running; she's out of breath and stumbles as she stops at the corner of the lot. She stands still for a moment, then as her breathing evens out, she looks over her shoulder, all around her. There's fear on her face, but it's almost a resigned fear. As if she's used to whatever she's afraid of. It fades as she turns to the chain link fence she stopped next to. Curiosity sparks, and a second later she's pushing through the loose fencing at the corner post.
She pulls the ends of her light pink sleeves down over her hands to protect against the sharp points of fence and crouches close to the ground to scramble under and through. There's a plaque on the fence at the same corner, marking the lot as under the protection of Ye Olde Watch Services.
There are a few trees on the far side of the lot, but most of the place is dusty bare ground piled with lumber, some crates, and various other building supplies. It's flat and open, but in this early night darkness, a little girl, even a little girl in pink and purple, can easily be lost within the strange shapes and shadows. She creeps further around a giant crate, as high as the refrigerator box her mommy used to let her play in. Growing out of the ground just past the crate are the bones of a structure. The darkness warps the lines, but to the little girl it looks like an adventure waiting to be created. Maybe an abandoned pirate keep, or where villagers started rebuilding after the last dragon attack.
She smiles, half skipping toward the skewed lines and oddly placed shapes. She's clambering over the pile of various shaped lumber when she spots the dark bird at the top of the structure. It's watching her steadily as she scrambles. When her feet touch the ground, she stops and leans against the pile to stare back at the bird. Her smile is open and expectant. The bird still regards her, even in her flurries of awkward motion, it has not shifted or seemed nervous. It's made no move to fly away.
“How do you do, Mr. Crow?” The little girl's voice is soft, playful. The bird tilts its head. The girl holds up an arm and points to the sleeve. “Do you like pink?”
The bird's feathers are shiny black. Even in the gloom they shine, and his eyes are intelligent and watchful. Blending into the night, but holding itself aloof.
The girl scuffs her untied shoes against the dirt, tracing a pattern in the dust. “I think pink is okay. I think I like dark green best. My favorite tree is dark green.”
The crow's wings swing out and he's airborne in a moment, swooping down to a corner of lumber only a little bit away from the little girl. He lands softly, his entire movement nearly silent. He regards her again; the little girl hasn't jumped, only continued to watch him, turning to face him straight on. Pink is a fine color, miss.
The girl beams. “My name is Fiona. What's your name, Mr. Crow?”
It is lovely to meet you, Fiona. I am called Sebastian.
The girl giggles. “That's a funny name!”
Heh, I suppose it is.
“The funniest names I've heard are always rich people's names. Are you rich, Sebastian?”
What is rich?
She shrugs, suddenly looking down at her shoes and frowning. “I dunno. My uncle doesn't like the rich, but they all seem nice enough.”
Sebastian's head tilts. Yes, Fiona?
“Do you want to be my friend?”
It would be my utmost pleasure to be called friend of yours.
The girl's sad face brightens, a smile flashing across her face. “Awesome!”
What is your favorite tree, Fiona? You mentioned it was green?
She nods emphatically, hopping on the tips of her toes. “It's this huge, dark green tree. It lived in my old backyard. I think mommy told me it was called cedar. I named it Toby though. We were best of friends.”
Sounds like a very worthy tree indeed, my friend.
She nods. “Yes! Toby was the bestest.”
Fiona, have you ever been afraid of the dark?
She shakes her head. “No. Not really. Mommy used to say that the monsters didn't live in the dark. But I don't think she knew I was listening.”
Your mommy sounds very wise.
“Yep!” She bounces on the slightly springy lumber, staring absently at the strange structure. “Why are you here, Mr. Sebastian Crow?”
I guard this place. Why are you here, Miss Fiona?
“Cause this place looks like fun.”
Why were you running, Miss Fiona?
She makes a face and hops to her feet. “Nevermind that! Do you want to play adventure?”
Sebastian's eye follows her, contemplative. He finally blinks, his head bobs slightly. I would like to very much. How do we play?
It would be a very strange sight to anyone watching. A girl running and jumping across lumber and half built concrete platforms. Brandishing imaginary swords and speaking with great seriousness, as if to nobility, in turn. A crow flying around her during the fighting, patiently perching in response to her diplomatic talk. Sometimes resting on her shoulder or raising a foot to shake her hand. Her play voices, and his playful caws, carry in the night. But no one is there to see. No one is there to hear them playing.
Fiona flops down on a tiny patch of grass, panting, and Sebastian alights beside her. “You're excellent at adventure!”
Adventure is excellent. I am glad you showed it to me.
“There's adventure everywhere! You just have to look.”
Does your mother know where to find your adventures?
She shakes her head, looking a little sad. “Mommy died a month ago. She told me there was something eating her insides, and she couldn't stop it. She made me promise to find adventures for myself, ‘cause she wanted to see me happy when she looks down from the cloud windows.” She smiles, faintly. “I think mommy would've liked you.”
Oh Fiona, I think I would have liked to know your mother, too.
Sebastian pushes underneath one of Fiona's small arms, and looks up at her, his eyes warm. Fiona hugs him back.
“I should probably go home, Sebastian. Will I see you again?”
Fiona, child, I'd like that.
“Are you always here?”
Yes, I will be here until the fence is gone.
“I'll come visit you all the time!”
I look forward to seeing you. Please be safe on your way home.
Fiona nods and waves as she pushes through the fence and runs in the same direction that she came from. Calling over her shoulder that she'd see Sebastian the next night.
She did see Sebastian the next night, and every night that week. Pushing through the sharp fence and meeting him in the ever-changing piles of lumber and progressing building. She tells him how she felt about the color of her shirt each night, and they play adventure together. Sometimes she tells him something about her mother, or about something simple and innocuous she'd done that day. Somedays when she comes to the fence, she is running. She pushes through the fence faster, sometime scraping the edge of her arm, and crouches down behind one of the huge crates. Sebastian sits with her, but after a while, when she is satisfied that what she watched for isn't coming, she smiles and they play.
Tonight is the last night of the week, and they are sitting together on a stump, after having played adventuring pirates. She's fiddling with the edge of her orange shirt sleeve, around her wrist. Every few moments, her knuckles would rub against the skin underneath and she'd wince.
Does your wrist hurt?
“No, not really.” She shrugs. “Sometimes.”
Why does it hurt Fiona?
She turns to face him fully, her face faintly illuminated in moonlight and her expression is utterly serious. Much more serious than even her most important diplomatic talks. “Can I show you something, Sebastian?”
Of course, you can show me anything, Fiona.
She pulls the edge of her sleeve up carefully, revealing a bruise just above her wrist. She twists her wrist, the bruise wrapping all the way around her arm. In places it looks like the shadow of fingers digging in.
Sebastian's feathers puffed out angrily, his eyes sharp and flashing. Who did this to you, Fiona?
She pulls down the sleeve. “It doesn't really matter. This one doesn't hurt as much as the others have. I just wanted to show someone.”
Fiona, who did this to you? This is important.
There's fear in her eyes again and she shifts down closer to the ground, listening carefully. Looking intensely at Sebastian. “Promise, Sebastian, don't tell anyone, please!”
I can't make that promise. Fiona, what's wrong?
It happens so fast, neither of them has quite enough time to react. There's a sharp shout from the front of the lot and the sound of a gate opening in the fence. Flashlight beams streak across the ground in switching patterns and half angry voices yell to each other.
Fiona grabs Sebastian and shoves him away from her, half behind a pile of small crates. “Hide, Sebastian!” she hisses,
Fiona – !
The men's lights have landed on Fiona and they're surrounding her. She's cowering against the crate, her arms thrown up against the bright lights. “Is this her, Mister?”
“Yes, that's her. About time! Young lady what do you think you're doing here? We're going home!”
Fiona stands and shouts angrily at them, the man in normal clothes and the three men in their dark blue uniforms and funny square hats. “NO! GO AWAY!”
The man in normal clothes grabs her arm and yanks her toward him as they all stomp toward the road. Fiona yelps at the man's touch and when she looks over her shoulder, the fear in her eyes is sharp and bright. She's searching for Sebastian's calm eyes. “Sebastian, the monsters live in the daylight! Sebastian!”
The crow hops toward her, but the men are walking away too quickly. As they move past the next building, Sebastian spreads his wings and flies.
The couple is walking past the nearly completed construction site, its fence halfway gone. The woman listens intently as the man gestures and shakes his head, explaining something to her.
“It was the damnedest thing I've ever seen! No one would ever believe me. Old man Grant, he was up on the roof. Must've been trying to fix the leak. His wife's always on him about getting it fixed, especially since they got her sister's kid, but the cheap sonofabitch, I guess he didn't want to pay anyone. Anyway, he was up there doing god knows what, and this slick black bird's just there out of nowhere, diving on him, attacking him. Scratching him and cawing somethin’ fierce, knocks the fucker off the damn roof. His eyes were messed up, his hands too! Scariest shit I've ever seen. Time the ambulance got there, he was gone. Hit his head in the fall, I think. Bird's nowhere to be seen. I can't explain that shit to the cops, y'know?” He runs a hand through his hair. “One of ‘em looked like he'd seen a damn ghost though, muttered to his partner something about 'remember the other night? Remember that?' I think he was starting to say bird, but the other guy shushed him so fast, it was real freaky.”
The woman shudders. “I'm just glad the kid wasn't home. She's been through enough, what with her mama dying with that awful cancer? I'm sure glad she wasn't home.”
It's almost a week later, and Fiona's walking past the site, holding a woman's hand and smiling up at her. The day is bright and cheerful. As they walk past, Fiona looks into the site, the house inside already taken shape, albeit a crooked one, and the fence is gone. But she still looks, as if searching for someone. The woman stops to talk with a man on the sidewalk and Fiona lets go of her hand and slips into the lot, looking around the corner of the house.
“Sebastian?” she murmurs.
The crow is sitting on an upturned barrel, cleaning its feathers. At the sound of her voice, the crow looks up and meets her eyes straight on, half flying half hopping over to where she stands at the corner. Fiona!
The girl laughs and flops down to her knees. “I thought I wouldn't get to say goodbye before you left! I'm so glad to see you!”
And I you, Fiona. Are you alright?
She nods. “Aunty Agnes is going to take care of me still. It's been so strange, she seems so much happier now that Uncle Grant is gone. She's talking to me, telling me all kinds of things and saying she was wrong about Grant, and so many things. She sounds so much more like mommy now. She wants me to tell her all about mommy. She says they were sisters, but she didn't get to talk much cause of Grant.”
I am so glad to hear that, Fiona.
“I think you're my best friend, Sebastian.”
The crow presses its head into the little girl’s hand. You are the best friend I have had in a long time, Fiona. I would have made sure to say goodbye.
The girl presses her cheek against the bird's head. “I wish you could stay.”
I will be, Fiona. The man who will live here now, he has hired me to guard his house. I will be here whenever you need me. But Fiona, promise me you will find adventures with other kids your age too?
She smiles. “You're staying! This is the best news. And I will always find adventure!”
Thank you for being my friend Fiona.
For years, the slightly strange man wonders why little Fiona always waves at his house when she passes by every day. She isn't quite waving at him, but she always waves, smiling and laughing. When he once asks her aunt, she doesn’t know why either.
He is glad though, that he isn't the only eccentric element in the neighborhood. Instead of being the weird half-pirate neighbor, he is but one of the slightly strange occurrences in the slightly strange neighborhood, that no one ever really talks about, but everyone sees. The little girl who waves at his house every day, even when she is grown. The retired cops that seem afraid of crows. The neighbors that whisper to themselves that anyone who hurts children gets fiercely punished.
And then there is the neighborhood crow. It must be a different crow, sometimes. But it didn't entirely seem different. More always present and watchful. As if it is guarding something. These crows that look like the same crow, like his house the best. Whenever the crow is there, it is on his house.
And he loves this weird neighborhood where he fits in, where he falls in love with Fiona's aunt a little more each year. Where he can delight the kids at the library story time with the stories of his adventures on the sea.
He chuckles to himself, holding the curtain back slightly, watching the all grown up Fiona walk past his house with her fiance, and even now, she turns to his house, smiles, and waves.
Zoe Brook lives in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle, where she works as a stagehand. She graduated from The Evergreen State College after studying the interactions of social movements, queer history, literature, and sexuality. She continues to follow her passion for learning and writing as she focuses on her novels and begins her career.