Issue 193 – October 2022

4970 words, short story

Fly Free


“I needed a true monster, so I went with a bird.”
“It’s impossible to reach an accord with a bird.”
—From a conversation with film director Juraj Herz

Bird-speak was the only reason Crowley got this job.

Without it, he couldn’t have dreamed of landing such a cushy, well-paying gig. He had cautiously constructed a resume and left it at the Bird Court three weeks prior. He’d recorded the tape in Sparrow, a language all birds more or less understood.

Reciting the fifth statute had been especially difficult for him. Birds are fantastically sensitive to the tiniest tonal shifts. Compared to their ability, a lie detector is a useless hunk of metal, and regular human ears are dead meat. And when you lie the tone unfortunately rises as the effort overstrains the throat muscles.

“Chip chirp fuirr chak.” He just couldn’t get the “fuirr” right. It sounded like “foirr” which meant “love very much.” He could’ve easily ended up paying a pound of flesh for such a mistake in pronunciation.

Crowley had struggled with this for two evenings straight until he was satisfied with the sound.

Now he sat in the aviary, his perch directly across from the Boss Lady’s, and labored to translate a response to the manager of a poultry farm who was begging for a reduced sentence. It was a hopeless case. All poultry farm managers were automatically sentenced to being immediately utilized at the feed mills. Their employees were to serve life sentences at those mills and be utilized posthumously.

The Boss Lady wasn’t there, praise the Lord. Through the half-open door of the aviary he could see her table, littered with cassette tapes and a few half-pecked apples. Her perch was the tiniest bit soiled. Just enough to show that she remembered her true nature.

Indistinct shouting and squeaks emanated from the nearby enclosures. Crowley understood only a fraction of it.

Back in the before times he ended up studying zoolinguistics in college for a simple reason. For three simple reasons, to be precise.

Number three was the severe shortage of applicants. Everyone who took the exam had been accepted.

Number two was that it had been only a seven-minute walk from his home to the university.

And the number one reason had been that Leda applied there, too. She had enrolled in a high school that specialized in ornithology and was obsessed with this stuff. She taught herself Cockatoo by ear, without study books or courses. She’d owned two locally bred cockatoos, listened to “The Cockatoo Screams” regularly at night, and her sailor brother would smuggle in foreign paperbacks and recordings in Cockatoo.

Crowley had courted her for two semesters. On occasion, when the mood would strike, they’d make out half to death on staircase landings. Then Crowley decided to propose and went away on a construction gig, to “make some cabbage” and cover the costs of their wedding. Incidentally, he had been involved in building the very same poultry farm to whose director he was presently translating a response.

Crowley shuddered. These days, that was a considerable black mark on one’s biography. God forbid the woodpeckers might drum up the truth.

Chirrup-chirp-cheep-cheep-che-firr. Your request has been denied with no possibility of an appeal.

Crowley set the microphone aside and took off the headphones. His bruised cartilage burned. In his head, ringing cries dashed about like sparrows under a church dome. This was the eighteenth translation that day, not even counting the written ones. His lips cramped, his tongue trembled with fatigue, his throat stung. He knew the birds flocked together to make fun of him and the other translators, knew that macaws masterfully mimicked human mistakes and mispronunciations. Screw them all. This was still better than working at the feed factories. Chirp-tweet-chip.

Leda never ended up marrying him. While he worked his ass off at a construction site, she “got hitched to a naval pilot,” as her grandmother had said. She got pregnant with impressive speed and ease, gave birth to twins, named them Castor and Pollux, and promptly lost touch. Crowley rarely thought of her and when he did, it was usually due to a severe hangover.

He couldn’t even look at women for two years after that. Even the harmless models on magazine covers had made him nauseous. Which isn’t to say men didn’t make him sick just as much. Everything had made him sick. Except bird-speak.

He defended his diploma with flying colors. Professor McKingfisher had even offered him a position at the department but he left for the Curonian Spit instead, and was stuck for nearly four years there. His efforts on that sand dune were pure academic fun, with few practical applications, but it was a good time overall.

And then everything changed. The Bird Court had taken over.

Hunting was prohibited. Libraries were purged of any books pertaining to the subject, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Turgenev and London. Rumor had it, certain living authors of banned works had gone underground somewhere in Moscow. Literally. Seeking political asylum with the rats was an unreliable thing, and yet . . . And yet, it was better than the fate awaiting anyone accused of “inciting interspecies hostilities.”

They had flown in from across the sea. Crowley had personally witnessed the beginning of the Great Migration—first it was a few individual birds, then small flocks, and then entire caravans: loud, cackling, constantly pecking at something.

The door squeaked and was pushed slightly ajar, the width of three fingers. A pair of fogged-up glasses appeared through the crack, followed by a sweaty brow, and then a curved belly covered by a tie.

“Uk-huu!” Owlson said in lieu of a greeting. “Tea tweet?”

He perpetually ran out of tea leaves first.

Crowley reluctantly climbed off his perch and said, “Are you chewing them or something?”

“No. I make soup,” said Owlson as he settled in the corner. He was also here by accident.

Owlson was among the first people to study zoolinguistics, among the first to earn a diploma on the subject, graduating top of his class. He was part of the renowned Duckworth Group, participated in the experimental flight along the migratory pattern of Canadian Gray Geese—by the time Crowley graduated this was the stuff of legends. It ended quickly, and even turned out badly for some overly notable persons. Owlson got lucky. When passports were being replaced by name rings, someone screwed up while loading the engraver and accidentally added a W to his original surname of Olson. The Department of Owls was most respected and prestigious. The Owl language was the language in which the most important documents were written. That’s where Owlson had landed. If not for that, he would’ve been dead as a dodo. Birds did not like the elderly.

Owlson worked as a lowly translator in the department, but he’d helped Crowley out with information and timely warnings about impending nest-cleanses more than once. Which was strange, since the two had competed for the attention of Wren Chickadee back at the Curonian Spit. Crowley ended up being married to her for a year. Back then, though, tensions escalated all the way up to a fistfight.

At the Bird Court, Owlson greeted Crowley like a brother. After all, mammals had to stick together.

Crowley scooped up two dozen spoonfuls of tea into a small yellow skull and handed it to Owlson.

“I’m speechless,” said Owlson as he accepted the container. “Don’t you drink it at all?”

“Not enough time,” Crowley offered in dull reply. He stretched and yawned with a crunch.

“That’s unwise,” Owlson noted. “There should always be time for tea. This is the last freedom remaining to us. Speaking of which, I’m not hearing your ostrich overlord.”

Crowley waved him off. “She’s running around somewhere.” He spat into a corner. “I’m on my last nerve with her. She jumps from one thing to another, nothing is to her liking, and everything is a rush job. She expects results in a flash.”

“It’s simple enough for an egg to understand,” said Owlson as he focused on sniffing the tea leaves. “They have an accelerated metabolism, which is why their body temperature is through the roof. And that inevitably affects the brain.”

“In people,” Crowley said darkly. “But them . . . You know what my boss’s favorite chirping is? Fichi-chewirr-chi-chi-chirr!”

“Very human-like.” Owlson translated the expression easily and grinned. He knew virtually every dialect. Back in the day his work on the limits of magnanimity in gray crows made quite a splash. “What a scarecrow!”

“Right,” Crowley confirmed bitterly. “Even the start of the mating season brings no joy. It’s their males that sit on the eggs.”

“Ah, but what the hell is the difference? Suppose it was a male who was perched here, in charge of you. Their males are aggressive, especially while courting a mate. One of them pecked Val Katz so hard in the head, the man had a concussion. And then the birdbrain fired him, citing the seventh statute, over his surname.”

“How do you mean?” Crowley asked. “I thought it was Egretsky that was fired.”

“That’s right,” said Owlson. “When that fool changed his name, he didn’t grease the right claws. Egretsky was his wife’s name, and it wasn’t even related to birds but a white egret flower. A pretty little orchid. The stool pigeons informed on him, and that was that.”

“Cold-blooded bastards,” said Crowley forlornly.

“That’s nothing,” declared Owlson. “If they charge you under the fifth statute, that’s when you’re in real trouble. I hope you, personally, are safe and sound in that regard?”

Crowley opened his mouth to reply with “Of course not” but he swallowed his words. The Father of Ornitolinguistics had become suspiciously curious. He should’ve known better than to ask these sorts of questions.

“I’m fine,” said Crowley. “Remember how I only ever had goldfish?”

“Ahh, yes.” Owlson smiled as he began a cautious descent from his perch. “You used to be the pride and joy of fish keeping. I seem to recall Wren switching over to fish back then as well?”

“No,” said Crowley. “She was a bird person, just like us. You should know. Anyway, pardon me but I still have a ton of whistling to do. The ostrich could hop back any minute . . . ”

“Of course, of course.” Owlson panted as he headed for the door. He stopped at the threshold, turned, and measured the aviary with squinted eyes. “You know, you should sprinkle the perch with whitewash. She’ll pick on you less after that, you’ll see. Do you want me to introduce you to a decorator who’ll paint it in the natural guano colors?”

“Cool,” said Crowley. “Is there any cologne to give it the natural smell, too?”

Autumn had always brought him a certain sense of peace. Some classic authors claimed that they bloomed anew with every passing autumn. Crowley had no use for blooming, but a bright cold sky, a sweet aroma of fallen leaves, the decelerated pace of days all offered him a measure of comfort.

Distant, dreary wails sounded from the blue sky. He cocked his head, trying to make out the wavering dotted line above the sparse clouds.

Only the committed naturals among the birds migrated south anymore. The rest flew free, where and when they liked. Some even began quietly availing themselves of airplanes. Quietly, because the owls didn’t approve.

Having failed to see anything, he rubbed at his eyes and turned from Crane Street onto Dove of Peace Prospect. Booths of booksellers lined the sidewalk, but he didn’t bother to peruse their offerings. He knew what he’d find there: The Song of the Stormy Petrel, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Nightingale, The Ugly Duckling, etc. They hadn’t come after personal book collections yet, but things were clearly moving in that direction.

He nearly collided with a pair of drunk girls headed somewhere with a huge and equally drunk ostrich. His beak and facial feathers were covered in lilac and orange lipstick. It made Crowley wonder how exactly the interspecies relations would work . . .The ostrich could get into a heap of trouble if this indiscretion was noticed by his own kind.

It was getting cold, but all the windows were open. It was permissible to mostly close the windows in the winter, but not all the way. There had to be enough room for the small naturals to fly in and out unobstructed. If a bird approached the window, it had to be immediately opened to full width. And one could never even dream of punching a bird in its beak.

His building’s courtyard was mercifully inconvenient for nesting. The roof was too sloping, the tree branches too thin, the attic too cramped, and there were no antennas. There were only a couple of nests on the neighboring roofs, but even those were clearly abandoned.

As he entered the lobby, Crowley grinned and shook his head as usual. In spite of everything, the scent of cats—powerful, lively, and victorious—permeated the building from the bottom of the staircase to the landing of the third floor, where he lived. This was quite good, at least to him. It was impossible to pinpoint exactly where the cats dwelled.

He barely had time to wash up and eat; when he was getting ready to head out into the courtyard again, there was a sharp, rapid knock on his door. His heart pounded, but he immediately realized that if they’d come for him, it would’ve been through the window. Crowley stopped, and spread his arms mournfully. He took a deep breath and bit back a string of curses. Then, with the gait of a condemned man, he went to open the door.

The first thing Crowley saw when he opened the door was an unthinkable, overly luxurious even by current standards, wide-brimmed black felt fedora. The black cloak descended as though directly from the fedora, its dusty hems spreading out across the yellow floor tiles.

“Barev dzez!” The voice spoke in Armenian from under the fedora.

“Hello, Raven,” Crowley said tiredly and stepped aside to let the guest in.

His feet couldn’t be seen from under the dragging cloak, but the tortured shuffling unmistakably betrayed shoes, put on with tremendous difficulty. Raven dragged himself into the living room and stopped, breathing heavily. He then headed for the armchair and took a long time settling in it, grunting very much like a human. Crowley imagined the acrobatics his guest had to pull off and habitually, if not too warmly, felt pity for him.

“Pardon me, my dear Raven,” he said. “I was napping after work. You always tap so faintly, I scarce was sure I heard you . . . Why don’t you use the doorbell, by the way?”

“Because it doesn’t worrrrk,” the guest replied hoarsely. A round, mocking eye gleamed from under the hat.

Crowley nodded.

“I was never too friendly with electricity,” he admitted. “Although, who was it that severed the cable with his beak last time?”

“That doesn’t excuse yourrr laz . . . lazz . . . indolence.” Raven folded his sleeves. “I’d love to peck . . . err, to eat something.”

Crowley went to the kitchen, inwardly swearing and working on his breathing again. He brought over a plate with a cutlet and was about to cut it up with a fork when a sharp black-and-gray something appeared—a mighty beak picked up the cutlet, tossed it up in the air, opened wide, and caught it again. The cutlet went down the goiter in three spasmodic thrusts.

“Not bad.” Raven leaned back in the armchair. “Rrratherrr good.”

“Can you taste it?” asked Crowley, surprised, as he glanced at the empty plate.

“I’m not a tasterrrr,” Raven cawed. “We judge by arrromas.”

“Scents would be more accurate,” Crowley corrected him.

“Thank you. Scents. It’s a bad habit to swallow food whole. A rrremnant from when I was a chick. Mother brrrings food and you rrrush to devourrr it.”

Crowley sat down across from Raven.

“How goes your work?” he asked politely.

“Thank you. It goes well but slowly,” the Raven said hoarsely. “Chertovy burrreaucrats cause obstacles. Aberr the firrrst chapter is almost done. I prrroved pourrrquois the grrreat Edgar chose a rrraven and not anyone else. You must agrrrree, no one else could so well embody the human’s impending doom.”

Raven’s life was difficult. Birds were suspicious of him. They acknowledged his necessity but despised his predilection for all things human. He responded in kind, despising their stupidity and unwillingness to change. An ancient enmity between diurnal and nocturnal birds played a role in this, too.

When Raven had first approached him at a banquet, and declared without preamble that they were of like mind, that he read Crowley’s work on the dialects of small Corvidae naturals, Crowley was so confused he didn’t know how to respond.

Birds never read anything. They only listened, and only in translation. Raven, on the other hand, not only read, but also wrote and spoke three human languages reasonably well. He could curse fluently too, though he clearly didn’t fully comprehend what he was saying.

He also couldn’t stand Owlson. It’s very hard to gauge how birds feel about you, if they have any feelings on the matter at all. Except when they really dislike you, that’s immediately clear. When Owlson addressed Raven at the same banquet and spoke to him in pure Polycorvidae with all the tonalities, Raven looked at him askew and suddenly lunged, pecking at the bridge of his nose. His attack was so precise that he broke Owlson’s glasses neatly in half, without touching his skin.

“Why don’t you use the window?” asked Crowley.

“To tap on the doorrr,” said Raven, knocking his hat to the back of his head. “I love it when the doorrr is opened wide for me.”

“You’ve been reading your favorite author,” said Crowley.

“Not at all,” declared Raven. “I simply love it. How’s your worrrk?”

“It’s not work.” Crowley reached for his cigarettes, but recalled in time that birds hate smoke.

“Rrright,” said Raven. “You call it serrrvice, ja?”

“Almost,” Crowley said evasively. “You could call it hackery.”

“Hackerrry,” Raven repeated, bewildered. “What a strrrange exprrression. It’s not in the dictionarrry. At least, not in mine. What does it mean?”

Crowley explained, grinning. Raven fluttered in a very bird-like fashion and shook his head.

“A verrry, verrry human exprrression,” he said. “Also, verrry rrraven-like. I’ll memorrrize it. What was it you told me last time about the rrraven verrrse?”

Crowley furrowed his brow, trying to recall the Scottish poem.

“Charrrming verses, very accurrrate,” prodded Raven.

“Oh, of course,” said Crowley. “‘The Twa Corbies!’”

“Raven to the raven crrries, wherrre’s our supper, raven, wherrrever on the grrround is it ever to be found. How does it go after that?”

Crowley wanted to reply, but his throat caught suddenly. Swallowing hard, he managed: “In behind an old turf wall . . . ”

His throat tightened further. Even Raven sensed something was wrong; although he didn’t say anything, his round eye stared at Crowley with some alarm.

Having recovered his composure, Crowley continued: “A slain knight rests upon a clearing; no one knows he lies there, save his hawk, his hound, and his lady dear . . . Err, no, his lady fair.”

Raven shuddered in a very human way and pulled up his feet. Only a tear pooling under his eye was missing. Instead, Raven spoke:

“His hound’s gone hunting, his hawk to fetch a wild fowl, his lady’s taken another mate, so we may make our dinner sweet.”

He fell silent, and Crowley was stunned. Finally, Crowley spoke.

“You have an amazing memory.”

“It’s norrrmal for a raven,” said Raven. “These are wonderrrful verrrses. They capturrre our spirrrit. But it was foolharrrdy to mention the hawks.”

They both fell silent again.

Indeed, it wasn’t a good idea to mention hawks, especially as it was getting dark. Powerful and ruthless, these half-diurnal, half-nocturnal birds were something like a police force. All birds had claws and beaks, but hawks used them most efficiently and cruelly, and they had very sharp eyesight, too.

They talked more, like a pair of people connected through a mutual calamity. Crowley knew that Raven would clearly sense the stress and trouble in his voice, no matter how much he tried to suppress them. Thankfully, it was beyond Raven’s abilities to understand its underlying cause.

But something was wrong with Raven, too. Having worked alongside birds for eighteen months, Crowley learned to at least roughly understand their emotional state. He might not have been able to gauge the severity of such emotions, but he almost never misunderstood them.

Raven was unsettled. Despite this, he continued his favorite literary dialogue, jumping from language to language—he especially enjoyed speaking Armenian, even though Crowley didn’t understand it at all. Raven knew this, and the fact that he kept switching to it indicated that he was deeply occupied by some other thought.

Finally, Raven finished talking. He struggled to draw a golden pocket watch using his feathered wings and not his beak. He had no choice but to use the beak to open it, however. Finally, the cover clicked open.

“I’ve taken too much of your time.” Raven sighed. “By the pallid bust of Pallas, I must go, my frrriend.”

He said this several times, but kept stalling. Finally, Crowley found his courage.

“What's wrong? Is anything causing trouble for you?” he asked quietly.

“No,” Raven replied after a long pause. “For you.”

“What do you mean?” Crowley looked at him, confused.

Raven stomped on the carpet with dusty boots. The carpet responded with an equal amount of dust, gleaming in the light beam from the table lamp.

“You know,” he said reluctantly, “I’m not trrrusted. Not even by my own . . . Fools. A thousand yearrrs spent living alongside humans without even trrrying to underrrstand them. But the humans, they trrried. Like Edgar, or Pushkin. That fine ballad you told me about the hawk and the raven . . . there’s trrruth to it. Carrrion tastes better, it’s digested better. It’s noble to be a carrion eater and yet sometimes one wants to change their fate. To my misforrrtune I learrrned your letters and worrrds. Because of that I grrrew too close to you and furrrther from Corrrvidae people . . . ”

“Don’t let it trouble you, Raven,” said Crowley. “This isn’t the first time in history—”

“I’m awarrre,” Raven cut him off. “I’m not the prrroblem. Today I was summoned to the Deparrrtment of Owls on official business. They don’t trrrust me, either, but they need me. Therrre, in the office of a barrrn owl who flew out to dine on mice, a recorrrding was playing. It was turrrned down, but you know I have excellent hearrring. It was a recorrrding of a man who spoke fluent Owl . . . ”

He pecked nervously at a button on his own cloak. The button shattered into black shards.

“It was a reporrrt about you, my frrriend,” Raven said with distaste. “It said you’ve been intentionally brrreaking the fifth statute for months.”

Crowley slowly rose from his chair.

“What proof do they have?” he asked quietly.

“Serrrious prrroof. There’s cat fur on your jacket.”

“That’s all?”

Raven shook his head sadly.

“That’s morrre than enough, my frrriend. Owls don’t play games. And a bald eagle flew over from acrrross the ocean, complicating things.”

“What do I do now?” Crowley muttered wistfully. “This is some nonsense—”

“It’s not nonsense, my frrriend,” said Raven. “It’s a serrrrious offense. Even if they only firrre you, that’s already frrrightening. But they could do far worrrse, under the fifth statute.”

He shuddered.

“This is stupid,” Raven cawed angrily. “I hate those thieves and marrrauders myself. They rrraid the nests and eat the chicks. But any adult raven can crack their skull! In the end, this is humans’ own business who they prrrefer. They’re carrrnivorous mammals themselves. But no, they must inverrrvene, dirrrect, meddle . . . ”

Crowley only nodded; he struggled to parse what Raven was saying.

He was letting precious time go to waste.

The only thing he could do was to flee. His chances were reduced with every second that Raven lingered. Suddenly, a hot needle of compassion for Raven skewered Crowley. That eccentric being was neither man nor bird. Except, no. No bird would even consider doing something like this. They’d see more raw materials being sent to a feed mill as a good thing. Where they came from food wasn’t nearly as abundant. It was a struggle to survive, which became fiercer with each passing day. The Great Migration . . . the Bird Court . . . How could one get away from their past? The past felt bitter. We got too used to being at the top of the food chain, before the birds took over . . .

He turned toward Raven, wanting to pat his protruding shoulder blades, but Raven was already struggling to get out of the armchair. He got up, caught his breath, and shuffled toward the door without looking back. The door slammed, and Crowley was left alone.

“Well,” he said out loud. “I’m not one for long goodbyes, either.”

He turned off the light and put on heavy boots by feel, grabbed a jacket and a knitted hat. He grasped the backpack, prepared in advance, with his other hand.

He heard the crackling squeal of the building’s front door. Crowley rushed toward the half-open window.

Raven stood in the yard, illuminated by a strip of yellow light. He was hunched over, staring at his feet. There was so much melancholy and hopelessness in his little black figure, far deeper than a simple autumnal ennui. Crowley’s heart froze and he was about to call out for Raven when two swift, noiseless brown bolts crossed the strip of light.

Two brutal glancing blows brought Raven down to the pavement. Scarlet blood poured from his slit throat. It mixed with the dirt and darkened.

Crowley’s knees grew weak. Vomit burned violently in his throat.

The falcons circled above the yard. One by one they landed near Raven, right on top of the crimson dirt, and looked around warily.

They examined the corpse and croaked something inaudible to each other.

Crowley couldn’t make out a word. This was the infamous Kwirr, the hawk battle language that even the falconers didn’t speak. But when both of them simultaneously looked up at his window with their round, fierce, yellow eyes, Crowley felt the chills.

He was about to run when a gunshot thundered.

When a swirl of feathers and fluff had settled to the ground, he could make out two motionless bodies piled on top of Raven. Half the courtyard was splattered with blood. Judging by the way the hawks were torn to pieces, it was buckshot. He wondered where the shot came from, and who managed to save the weapon and ammunition after the brutal “hunt for the hunters,” but this wasn’t the time to investigate.

He got dressed, put on the backpack, and rushed down the staircase.

He had to cross the yard. If a nocturnal bird came along with the hawks, he was a dead man anyway.

Crowley was running across, sticking to the shadows, when he heard a faint sound from under the pile of bloody feathers.

He couldn’t explain why—he had no intention of saving anybody—but Crowley stopped and walked over.

He wasn’t wrong. Raven was still alive. A faint, gurgling hiss came from a lacerated wound in his throat. A golden-black eye focused on him, and winked.

Crowley shoved the dead hawks aside and leaned over him. He made out the barely audible whisper.

“We may . . . make . . . our dinner . . . sweet.”

The whisper had ceased. The eye stopped and rapidly dimmed, like a drying stone.

Crowley patted the dead head and got up.

He made it to the descending staircase without trouble. He had oiled the heavy steel door regularly, so the lock and hinges worked in total silence.

It was damp, dark, and cold in the bomb shelter. The flashlight beam revealed the lock’s round handle on the second door. Gray lumps sprung in all directions from the steel coaming. The rats couldn’t wait to get inside, but the reinforced concrete was too strong even for their teeth. When Crowley approached the door, a soft mournful sound emanated from within.

“Wait, little one,” he whispered. “Wait a moment.”

The north gate was over two hours away by foot.

In the dead of night, he approached the titanic structure made of concrete and roofing iron long in need of a paint job. The shapes of golden eagles who perched atop the ridge guarding the gate were barely distinguishable against the background of a starry sky.

Crowley came closer, praying that the kitten would keep quiet. But the kitten, after spending three days locked up in the bomb shelter, having been fed and petted, slept deeply, warm against Crowley’s chest. He thought the eagles would be unlikely to hear two sets of breathing from such a height.

They called out to him in Sparrow. He responded, and continued on once given permission. He had to keep moving, while he could. Birds fly everywhere, but people can walk their way past any obstacle.

A damp, suffocating wind blew. The stars went out, one after another. The clouds loomed, pregnant with icy rain. That was lucky—birds didn’t fly in the rain. Whereas he could walk regardless of the weather.

They say more and more people refuse to live under the claw of the birds. Crowley was now one of them. There was also the person who shot at the hawks, though Crowley would never find them. Even if they were alone, he couldn’t live that way anymore.

As for the birds, let them fly free, where and how they wanted. The way they always had.

Originally published in Russian in Esli, 2001.

Author profile

Alan Kubatiev (1952–2022) is an award-winning writer, anthologist, journalist, and translator originally from Kyrgyzstan who worked and wrote in St. Petersburg, Russia. He’s the author of the first Russian-language biography of James Joyce (nominated for the national prize) and a translator into Russian of works by H.G. Wells, Michael Moorcock, Paul Anderson, Ursula Le Guin, and many others. His short stories and novelettes earned him numerous awards and have been collected in two collections. This is his first English language publication.

Author profile

Alex Shvartsman’s translations from Russian have appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s,, and many other venues. He’s the author of fantasy novels Eridani’s Crown and The Middling Affliction.

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