Fiction: Before Crows’ Eyes

Banner for Nine Laws: Aromantic Asexual Fairy Tales. Image features a tree in the foreground, lanterns hanging from its branches, against a background of heavily-overgrown grey stone walls and archways leading into smaller courtyards. Vines and ivy cover the walls, archways and steps; an array of grasses grow around the bases of trees and walls. Text is set in a white, slightly-curving serif type; white curlicues matching the text, set in each corner, form a broken frame around the text.

Even knows himself: son, baker, non-partnering. He doesn’t want to want sex, marriage or children; he wants the village’s acceptance of a life best lived crafting seed buns and fruit pies. He doesn’t want the local flock of crows as his only companions; he wants human friendships free of pressure and expectation. Most of all, he wants Ma to let go of the idea that a sorcerer’s magic can and must “fix” him.

Desperation leads Even into the forest to seek the only person who can advise him on resisting a sorcerer: the witch Miser Felled, “skilled purveyor of magic and pleasure”. A master of scandal-provoking arts never undertaken before open windows and watching birds. A mysterious figure who has more in common with Even than just an affinity for crows … and offers a more extraordinary solution than he ever thought possible.

Why weep for something no more rightly part of him than garlic in a recipe for apple pie?

Contains: A cis, non-partnering, aro-ace baker who defies convention but craves validation; a trans, non-partnering allo-aro witch who celebrates sexuality but accommodates convention through its rejection; gods observing the human world through the eyes of crows; and proof that all fairy-tale witches are aromantic.

Setting: Nine Laws but entirely stand-alone.

Content Advisory: This story depicts a background culture of sex negativity, heteronormativity, amatonormativity and allonormativity, including the presumption of one’s possessing a binary gender, experiencing sexual and romantic attraction, and marrying someone of the other binary gender. Please also expect moments of ableism and degendering as well as antagonism targeting the non-partnering and childless/childfree. The aro-ace narrator, who isn’t sex or romance favourable, is pressured into dating and marriage to the point of his mother’s threatening the magical equivalent to conversion therapy.

Sex, sex work and sexual attraction are referenced. Romance, romantic relationships and marriage are referenced.

Length: 3, 828 words.

Note the first: While this story’s treatment of sex as something not only kept behind shuttered windows but also away from gods’ eyes is little different from Western social norms, I want to acknowledge this miasma of sex negativity (one that requires allosexual alloromanticism as long as actual sex is never visible) is also harmful. Miser’s relationship to his sexuality, attraction and gods, not to mention his occupation as a sex worker in a culture that marginalises him because of it, is not explored in this story (but will be later on).

Note the second: Australia’s crow and raven species develop white-ringed eyes in adulthood. We also colloquially refer to both crows and ravens as “crows”, so the bird that I think of as the archetypal crow is in fact the little raven.

Great boughs shield the track against the sun’s dying rays, creating a tunnel of chill breeze and looming shadow. Even yawns and quickens his step, cursing Ma’s last-minute deliveries. Few care to traverse the forest after sundown, given its rocky outcrops, mouldering ruins, blackberry tangles and damp gullies. Never mind the ways, when the wind blows strange and the mist descends, once-familiar paths twist, meander and vanish into nothingness!

No youth raised beside the forest’s fringes easily forgets the stories of creatures best described as “fell”.

Even considers himself versed in the mysteries of flour, yeast and fire, but as a woodsman he makes for an excellent baker. He won’t get lost by wandering in the dark, but Ma’s delaying additions to his work put him at risk of a night spent beneath a tree if the witch’s hut lies much farther along. Curse her! Shouldn’t she accept by now that sending him on unnecessary detours to visit the village’s unwed and widowed does nothing but consume his time?

Caw!

He jerks, stumbles, rights himself. In the gloom, it takes Even a moment to spot the cause: a young crow perched on the protruding edge of a rocky shard.

It took him years to understand why most people avoid a crow’s gleaming gaze.

“I’m sorry. I’ve no food with me.” He bows in respect to the crow if not the gods before following the sunken track in its serpentine around a tower’s weathered, moss-encrusted remains.

Time and trees have rendered unidentifiable the ancient structure’s purpose; only its glassy planes of obsidian, cursed with a sickly glow, suggest unnatural origins. Like a wounded dragon inhaling its final breath, Even oft thinks, or a living tombstone for a long-forgotten age. The forest devours sorcery like all other things, but that hasn’t stopped Ma from deeming such power the solution to their problems … and Even can’t let go of the terror that she may be right.

No. Not their problems—hers. How can they be his, save that none listen when he insists upon his own contentment?

Caw! The crow lands upon a lichen-festooned branch hanging over the track, its blue-ringed eyes bright and alert.

“Someone not a crow,” Even says, peering upwards to check the fading light. Should he have waited for tomorrow, given that the witch doesn’t travel and Ma, fearing to journey alone, wishes an accompanying trader or woodsman for her journey citywards? Perhaps … but now that he is decided on seeking the witch’s wisdom, delay feels as oppressive as the humidity betokening a summer storm. “But thank you.”

Nowhere else does Even know to look for protection against the threat of a sorcerer’s reshaping his personhood. Nowhere else does he hope to find a magic he can wield against Ma’s need for a cure. He yearns, though, for something more fanciful: a shield against objections, a ward against suggestions. Maybe, just maybe, the provision of a truth with power such that the storm must break, despite risk of a flooding deluge to follow.

If the witch offers him nothing, he’ll know that his options are spent.

If the witch offers him nothing, he’ll know that he must submit.

The townsfolk recognised something amiss in Even long before he did. The first sign, however, provoked their approval and respect. “I wish I had a son like yours!” the innkeeper proclaimed every time he settled the account for the previous week’s bread. “Always working, never wandering at night—a thousand grey hairs mine’s given me, sneaking out after girls!” He clapped a hand on Even’s shoulder, while Ma beamed fit to show all her teeth, before handing over the billed coppers plus a quarter bit: “Because a hardworking son deserves a good coffer.”

Even, bewildered by such comparisons, just smiled and stammered his thanks.

Whilst he remained of an age for schooling in the afternoons and the kitchen’s countless tasks in the mornings and evenings, other adults bestowed him with similar praise if not largesse. Parents so often begged for Ma’s secret in raising an obedient, work-minded son that she memorised a speech mingling her philosophies on strict, unrelenting discipline with softer, grandmotherly platitudes. This cost Even all welcome among the village youths, but the moral fire in Ma’s heart burnt hotter than her ovens.

He washed dishes, wrote lessons, split wood and rose early, and while loneliness plagued him, Even took comfort in the adults’ good opinion of him. “All the coins in the world won’t buy the community needed to survive the forest’s ills if you’re proved lazy or unreliable,” Ma said at least once a week—before warning that his skimping on chores must end with bare plates and chill rooms. “Better to have respect than to roam the street like a young wastrel!”

Whenever he found a spare moment, he fed the crows: at least they regarded him with nothing more than relieving indifference.

Upon schooling’s end, Ma surrendered to him the dough and ovens in favour of the lighter work. “You’ve cursed hours and sweltering summers,” she said each evening, hemming and darning in her rocking chair while Even mixed and kneaded at the table, “but you’ve also a purpose. We might get on without a teacher or scribe, but all villages need someone who knows flour’s ways.”

No disaster befell the change in baker. Customers reckoned the bread “as good as ever” and Even’s new seed bun recipe “passable, I suppose”, which he took as insult until he realised that they rarely left any to stale. He shared pleasant exchanges with his former schoolmates when celebrating namedays and weddings. Perhaps now he could weave his adult self among the village’s warp threads, youth’s pains and animosities forgotten?

Ma shattered such illusions of contentment with an addition to her nightly speech: “Such a man, with his place, makes a wife a solid husband. Not one fancy or rich, but the right kind of woman values solidity more than looks or wit.”

Even knew that adulthood brought courting, sex and marriage, perhaps children if the gods judged well one’s deeds—or if one’s misdoings happened away from crows’ eyes. Nor had he missed the village’s youths spending their free hours walking out together; he’d long pondered why his schoolmates so frequently exchanged whispers about courting. By the usual reckoning of things, his season for such pastimes had reached its zenith.

A baker must have a wife.

The longer Ma’s speeches grew, the fewer excuses Even found. He was too busy … but other men made time to court. He was too shy, quiet, homely … but the miller’s stutter hadn’t kept her from marriage. “If you care so much about the cursed pans,” Ma shouted one day, twisting a dish rag in her broad hands, her cheeks a frustrated purple-scarlet, “I’ll wash them! Be a man and just talk to a girl!”

Such desires possessed so little substance that recognising them in himself felt as impossible as viewing the back of his own head. Even knew no void or absence in him, just something imperceptible and inaccessible. Something so inconceivable that it lay forever past his insight, observable only in his attempts to reason other people’s behaviour—longing stares, flesh brushing flesh, lifetimes built on togetherness’ foundation. He pondered this conundrum for weeks while he worked the dough and washed the dishes, but only one conclusion awaited him.

He didn’t yearn for what others enjoyed. He couldn’t make himself want to want. Why weep for something no more rightly part of him than garlic in a recipe for apple pie?

The village, however, had no taste for such a simple truth.

No longer did the innkeeper praise Even’s steadfastness; the adults that once craved Ma’s wisdom now openly queried her failure. Why did her son turn away any girl who came calling? Was he queer? Or ill? He didn’t seem soft in the head, so why did he act like a frightened boy instead of a responsible man? Was he just that selfish?

Everyone’s good opinion now relied upon his possessing their expected set of desires.

So too did Ma’s.

Only a waning western glow passes for sunlight when Even happens upon the witch’s hut—an irregular-shaped building set back from a willow-lined creek. A tangle of cords encircles both the hut’s roof and the boughs of trees surrounding it, forming wards festooned with rainbow-coloured beads, twinkling white lights, glinting mirror shards and intricately-knotted threads. A third ward, similarly crafted, swathes the ford and part of the track. Normally, people hang charms of string, flowers and buttons above their front door—before closing the curtains—to distract crows from those activities best kept unwitnessed, but the witch has so protected the entire clearing.

His visitors must fear the gods below, for all know that they survey the world above through crows’ bright eyes.

Even, too tired to care about watching gods, straightens his shirt and reties his hair before crossing the thin grass between the trees and the porch. Up close, all looks ordinary: the front window’s half-drawn curtain reveals only a calico cat dozing on a couch by a sideboard. Wooden lanterns, enclosing craggy lumps of an orange-glowing quartz and hanging from the roof, provide light enough outside to see a rough-carved bench and a row of potted herbs. The creek’s calm trickle and woodsmoke’s rich tang tease homeyness, not eroticism.

Only a sign attached to the door by a length of twine looped over a crooked nail speaks elsewise: Miser Felled, skilled purveyor of magic and pleasure. Now accepting custom.

Curious, Even turns the plank to find lettering scorched onto the reverse: a repeating of the witch’s name and occupation followed by the words Currently occupied. Please return after.

“Do you like my sign?”

Even jumps high enough that his head clears the top of the doorframe.

The window now opens to show another cat-occupied chair and the witch, trailing a sable arm over the warped windowsill.

How did you—”

“Magic.” He leans out the window, surveying Even with restless eyes as dark as his skin. Slender to boniness, Miser best resembles a child’s attempt to draw a foal: all sharp angles, jutting shoulders and arms too long for his chest. Tight black corkscrews crown his scalp, hanging long enough to sway and bounce with his frequent, fidgety movements. Only faint creases at the corners of his eyes suggest youth’s farewell. If he is clad, Even can’t tell: Miser’s chest, marked by twin curving scars and the absence of nipples, bears a plain mirror pendant dangling from a leather cord. “You, given your newness and the hour, arouse my curiosity. Why do you call?”

A sudden, horrified nervousness tangles his thoughts, and Even blurts the first words come to his tongue: “Aren’t you cold? Without … without clothes?”

Miser chuckles, his purplish lips too wide for his narrow face. “Yes, but I endured too much to conceal my chest with clothing.”

A witch in his trade of magic and sex should have been handsome or beautiful; gossip depicts an otherworldly being so alluring even men bow at his feet. Instead, he seems a normal amalgamation of features both, as people discuss such things, appealing and unappealing. Ears too protruding for his curls to conceal. Smooth, dewy skin. A high, melodic voice stressing a word’s concluding syllables. Elongated fingers putting Even in mind of a water hen’s legs.

He understands, theoretically, one’s submitting to intimacy or partnership with a creature of extraordinary prettiness, talent or power, but Miser doesn’t seem to offer anything that can’t be found within the village.

“Does my disregard of a chill evening bother you?” Miser waves a hand, beckoning Even closer. “Or is it something else?”

Even remains by the door, his cheeks smouldering. “I … ah…”

Never has he engaged with another’s nudity outside of non-sexual instances—a chest bared when pitching hay, clothes removed when bathing in the pond. Such things, too public for anyone’s using their nakedness to attempt seduction, never concern him. But nothing here can be so ordinary: Miser may peddle in daylight charms, but in the village his name has become the byword for doings concealed by drapes, darkness and distance.

If one wishes protective spells, contraceptive cantrips or mirrored wards, one visits the witch. If one craves intimacy without question or rejection, one visits the witch. If one fears their performance—or their virginity—prior to bedding their chosen partner, one visits the witch.

Nakedness, here, serves the same purpose as the bakery’s window displays … and never has Even felt more certain, in his mingling of embarrassment and distaste, that he can’t bear or feign desire. Not even to please the villagers. Not even to avoid Ma’s displeasure.

“Speak your truth. Shame doesn’t dwell in my house.”

“I’d … prefer you to have clothes.” Even looks at his feet. “On.”

“Why?” Miser’s soft voice suggests only curiosity. “If you need me to dress, given my preference elsewise, I deserve to know the why of it.”

Even’s throat tightens. The first time he told Ma what he didn’t feel, he didn’t struggle to explain. Each attempt’s inevitable provoking of the listener’s confusion, disbelief, denial and mockery, however, made more frightening the next, until his stomach knots in anticipation of both his fear-tangled words and their dismissal.

“I don’t want … to do that. Or to be made to want anything.”

A frown cuts deep crevasses across Miser’s brow. “Do what? You are here, I presume, to negotiate an act of my service. My forcing anything upon you … I’d hardly call that ‘service’.” He pauses, running his tongue over his lips. “Why did you come here?”

No, this won’t work! The villagers asked those mild, curious-sounding questions preceding their blinking incomprehension, surprised laughter or scorned incredulity. The mild questions preceding their inevitable insistence that Even will love desire if he settles with a girl, if he calls upon the gods, if he lets himself be ensorcelled—if he does anything but accept his existence as a man who doesn’t partner.

Foolish, really, to imagine that a witch will differ from Ma’s threatened sorcerer.

Well, then. Even will walk down the track a little way—to avoid any appearance of camping on Miser’s doorstep—before finding a sheltering tree. Perhaps a cold, sleepless night will give him clarity on his next step; perhaps the gods below will do more than pay witness through their avian avatars. Perhaps Ma will think his absence a night spent with a girl, her anger over being left to work the evening’s dough becoming delighted relief. At least he now knows that he can’t feign interest, and shouldn’t that make his submission easier to contemplate?

What good are the cursed gods if they never act on the pain expressed before crows’ eyes?

“I’m sorry,” he says, turning away, “for disturbing—”

“No. As you have disturbed me, you owe me truth: what do you want?”

Owing debt to a witch is no small matter … but it isn’t obligation that drags honesty from Even’s mouth. “I don’t! Not for a lover, a wife, having children. I want to bake the perfect loaf and converse with creatures that aren’t birds! I want a home that’s mine, friendship that remains friendship, a community that—lets, lets me be as I am. That stops treating me as less of a man! I want to stop fearing Ma’s leaving to find a sorcerer who’ll fix me. I want—I need to know how to stop a sorcerer from making me desire sex and marriage! But you all won’t do that!”

Even stops only to draw a gulping breath, his chest heaving, his teeth gritted. If he thinks on what it means that Ma insists on his becoming something else, he’ll break … so he folds his arms and stares up at the strings of lights, twinkling like too-bright stars against a too-black night. Mistaken for the real thing at first glance, perhaps, but no more real than the relationships the world requires of him. Just a pretty, soothing, deceptive falsehood.

“No sorcerer can accomplish such a thing,” Miser says softly, “although I wouldn’t put it past many to take your mother’s coin and wriggle their fingers.”

Even blinks and turns his head. “They can’t?”

“You can control people with magic, but that’s crude, obvious puppetry; a sorcerer must guide the strings. You can shape people with manipulative words, but such twisting of the mind doesn’t require magic, is seldom better for it, and works poorly on those who know themselves. You can’t, however, use magic to force someone into being the person you wish.” Miser’s lips curl into a smile’s crooked, mocking mimicry. “It’s easier to raise towers of black glass and shatter the world, so I wouldn’t fear a sorcerer a tenth as much your mother’s ignorance.”

The nagging feeling that Even owes response to that startling speech does nothing to conquer his tense throat, parched tongue and stunned bewilderment. He stumbles backwards to slump against a supporting post, giddy with confusion. Did he hear that aright? Surely Miser didn’t speak words, albeit in convoluted fashion, that possess a seed of understanding? Didn’t finish with something so shocking in its provision of relief that Even doubts his own ears?

“Have you never pondered why I live outside the village? No, it’s just one oddness in a witch … and less concerning than my sexual exploits. Real and assumed.” Miser shrugs, resting both hands on the sill. His varnished fingernails look as though once dipped into liquid midnight—long like curved beaks, dark like feathered wings. “I like my work, you need me to do it, and I make coin enough to live. But a healthy distance between us, even more than magic, frees me from your tedious assumptions on gender and marriage.” A mocking laugh accompanies a flicker of light in the depths of Miser’s almost pupilless eyes—light the same hue of that inside broken obsidian towers. “Ask yourself: why are witches said to live alone? Dwell within the world’s darker places and beyond its farther reaches?”

No, Even hasn’t. Witches are … witches. Nobody expects to find them working alongside grocers and butchers; they lurk, unquestionably, upon ordinary’s edges. One sooner asks why the sky appears blue or the wind summons mist. One sooner asks why a young man, with a trade and business as much a pillar as that of the innkeeper and the barber-surgeon, doesn’t wish to court young women.

Speechless, he shakes his head.

“I grant that people like us exist in all endeavours, but many places best offer acceptance, of a sort, when we eschew the ordinary—when we queer creatures dwell on the outside of civilised things. Where lives also the witch.” Another loud, rasping laugh again provokes Even’s nervous twitch. “When your career shrugs at order and celebrates strangeness, they’re less able to punish the rejection of womanhood and marriage … or sex and marriage.”

Queer. Even hadn’t thought himself encompassed by such a dangerous word … but hasn’t Ma proven just how very queer he is?

“I don’t know that I want to be a witch,” he murmurs once he’s sure of his voice.

“Oh, not like me.” Miser claps his hands, his lips framing a grin far broader than Ma’s best effort. “But I have a sister whose kitchen magic lets her build houses and simulacra from gingerbread, and while she desires no lover or husband, like you, she welcomes apprentices with a heart for bread. Learning such an art may let you more easily inhabit the world beyond ordinary. Live past the edges.”

Never has Even pondered magic beyond a two-sided state of oddity and danger: either a useful spell as unknowable to him in form as baking powder or a threatening, overwhelming force wielded by the powerful. Truth, perhaps, exists somewhere between and outside … and only then does he realise how little he has pondered anything beyond recipes, ancient ruins and his own personhood.

What else has Even accepted without due question? What harm has he caused others from his failure to do so?

“How do you know I’m a baker?” he asks, knowing that neither Ma nor the villagers will permit such interrogation … and knowing, too, that he stands upon the precipice with trembling knees, an obedient lad trained to wash dishes and finish lessons. Part of him wants to leap, part of him sees no escape but to plummet, and part of him hesitates, still yearning for a way to avoid surrendering the familiar.

Miser blinks … and the glossy feathers of a crow’s head sprout from his scarred, human chest.

Even, reeling backwards, closes his eyes. Surely he looks upon a trick of witchlight and darkness? Perhaps a descending mist? Yet when he dares again open them, he finds a torso furnished with a giant crow’s head, a beak as black and sharp as shattered obsidian, white-ringed eyes glowing like starlight.

The cats, on their beds of chair and couch, sleep on.

“The gods below aren’t the only ones who see through crows’ eyes,” Miser murmurs—and as he clasps his talon-tipped hands together, Even again sights a long-limbed, curly-haired man with a broad grin and crooked teeth. “What think you, then, of embracing your inner strangeness?”

What truth? Even draws a shaking breath. If he puts his heart-pounding terror aside, it isn’t difficult to discern. Ma’s comments, schemes and threats leave him fearing for his sense of self. Miser is far more and much less than what rumour makes him, but he’s offered the impossible. An escape from Ma and her sorcerer. A promise of Even’s finding kindred. A brittle, shining word.

“I can’t be what they demand, but they won’t let me be ordinary my way…” Even barks his own laugh, wondering why this, too, never occurred to him. “Although I do nothing but live before crows’ eyes! Nothing! But, mostly…” He hesitates, embarrassed. “I haven’t spoken like this to anyone since … never. I want to talk to people. Even if they’re extraordinary.”

He wonders, too, how one builds a house from gingerbread…

Miser raises his arms, straightens. A black feather falls from the windowsill to land atop the porch’s weathered boards. “Would you like to take tea while I tell you about my sister? And pass the night in a spare room, not my bed?”

“Yes. Please—” The door opens inward. Miser, barefoot but clad in grey trousers rolled to bare his ankles, now stands in the doorway, waving Even into a sitting room crowded with chairs and bookshelves. “How do you do that?”

“Magic,” Miser says, his eyebrows raised. “Will you please turn over my sign?”

This time, when Even flips the board to the please return side and sees the words late tomorrow morning scrawled in chalk beneath the black letters, he doesn’t startle.

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