The first time I saw one, I was seven. That was the night the neighbor-girl Cindy died. We were friends.
It was October and hot and the marsh was foggy and the frogs were all going at once, making an awful racket with their obnoxious noises.
I saw her go. She was holding his hand as he led her. Well past midnight, from my window, I watched the little boy, the Crow Boy, lead her away and down the sloping path through the cypress knees. Back into the sunken trees at the edge of our property. There were three crows circling them overhead. I knew she was gone before anyone told me she was. They told me my friend was dead the next day but I didn’t tell anyone about the Crow Kids.
I don’t even know if that’s what they’re called, if they’re called anything at all.
The next time I saw one of them, I was 17. She was leading Jeremy from up the road. That was October too. I knew it was Jeremy because he was in some of my classes. I knew it was him because of his size. He was tall and big for 17. He wore a pair of swimming trunks. He wasn’t old enough yet, but he liked to have a few drinks and swim on the warm Florida nights. His daddy didn’t pay him no trouble about it on account of the football and him having good grades.
They must have met him in the pool; the girl and her crows. His hair was slick and wet but not just from pool water. While they walked, Jeremy swiped blood away from his eyes several times. He and she and the crows made their procession through our backyard to the marsh. A crow perched on his left shoulder. It occasionally pecked at him below the eye. Pecking at the blood. Jeremy didn’t seem to mind. It skittered between them, hopping down his arm to peck at the inky black of the girl’s wet hair and then back up to his shoulder. Two other crows were with them. The one that led would take flight for five or seven feet, land in the grass and look back at them to be sure they were keeping time. The third flew in slow figure eights behind.
They liked that path because it was well worn and when the moon was full, that part of the marsh would be bright while the rest of the world was dark. It seemed easier when leading new ones down. They were already confused and wary. If they could see the path, they seemed more at ease following the trail to the black waters and below to the mucky, algae and sand at the bottom.
The next October they took Bobbie-Joe, she was 21; and the next one they took Elena. She was only five.
Later I realized in October it was happening all the time and it weren’t just kids they were taking out there to meet the ‘gators and moccasins and the frogs. It was all kinds. My momma told me it takes all kinds to make a world. Same seems true for that sludgy world out there in the wetland. From what I can tell, it’s man and woman, young and old, black and white…and the kids. They send the kids and their escort of crows to come show you the way to go.
Sometimes I stand at the edge of the marsh in the beginning of fall. I don’t listen to them. I never listen to them and you shouldn’t neither if you see them. At the edge of the marsh, I can see some of them lyin on their stomachs, faces in the mud. Some on their backs with their eyes full of black staring at the stars. Some have been out there so long, out there so deep, it’s just the tops of their dirty hair flitting heavily in the breeze or their toes if they’re flyin’ the other way. If you ever find yourself out here after dark, don’t look them in their black eyes. Not the crows, nor the children. Either can bewitch you if you do.
Sometimes they say things, these souls; these wretched drowned creatures. Whispers on black wings.
Elana fell off her daddy’s airboat. They never did find her. Bobbie-Joe got sad, stole some of her momma’s Ambien and laid down in the tub. Jeremy died in that pool he loved so much. Hit his head on the bottom, diving drunk. And I was seven and I probably shouldn’t have, but I saw the story on the news: Cindy’s momma held her underwater in their kitchen sink, probably kicking and screaming until the water filled her lungs. Until she stopped breathin’ air.
Sometimes they say things, when no one’s around, these souls in the bog; a quiet croaking awful sound mixed right in with the frogs. It’s a chorus of whispers and caws and moans, these voices of the crows. If you get too close to the water at night you’ll hear them softly as the pitch and volume grows. If your extra unlucky they’ll come and whisper their hellos in person from their own beaks. Don’t listen to what they say. Such awful things they speak: “Take a dip.” or “Take a dive.” And “The water here’s just fine. Sink with us forever and we’ll teach you how to fly. Don’t you want to be a crow? You’ll never know if you don’t try. Come soar with us through clouds of muck beneath our black and murky sky.”
I used to ignore them. Even calling from my own backyard, my whole life, I ignored them. I never knew what any of it meant till now. They don’t reveal themselves to everyone, these spirits of the drowned. Soaking in this tub, with depression devouring what’s left of me like a dark storm cloud, I understand. The little girl and her squawking friends are here in my bathroom to hold my hand. I can sink. It’s a way out of this life. A way out of this town. I can fly my way out, but to go up, I have to start by going down.
As I submerge my shoulders, I feel a tickle in my throat. There’s something in my mouth. I pull it out. A long black feather. I consider it a moment, then return it to where it was found and I swallow it whole.
I don’t know if it’s what I want or if it’s what they do. This little girl with her beady eyes and her friends. It doesn’t matter.
“You’ll fly upside down” she says and I know that voice. I was seven then, but even after all these years I could never forget Cindy. I didn’t recognize her after so long. She’s wet and rotten and stinks like stagnant swamps. I feel the pressure of her push as she takes a page from her mother’s book. I feel the water fill my lungs and it burns, but with relief, as she places a delicate yet slimy palm upon my face and I sink to fly beneath.