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From the yard, Hank heard them coming—like a distant, electrical hum on the horizon. As the smoky, black mass in the sky encroached, the screeching static pierced his ears. A myriad of crows undulated above as they closed in then roosted on the towering rock walls surrounding him. Interlaced with the voices of the crows, a woman’s gasp screeched. A familiar, breathy shriek. Hank squeezed his temples to make the hallucination of her voice cease, but it persisted.
Each fall for as long as Hank could remember, sixty thousand crows swarmed the city of Auburn during their migration, isolating their murder to the area around the maximum-security prison. And each year, Hank avoided them because of what happened decades ago. While his father sat in another drunken stupor down the street, twelve-year-old Hank sat on his bike outside the walls. The silhouettes of the naked trees against the setting sun were adorned with false leaves—black, flapping wings took the place of the fallen foliage. Through those snaking black branches, he hurled rocks. One after the other, until his stone finally smacked into a crow. Gravity yanked its body from the branch, and the bird hit the sidewalk with a meaty thud. Hank ran to the fallen bird as it twitched and gyrated, unable to lift itself from the cold cement. Black, beaded eyes reflected a glimmer of the orange sky and the image of Hank’s sardonic glare. An expression he couldn’t feel on his own face, but there it was staring back at him—some impish stranger. He stumbled back, shaken by his own reflection. As the fallen crow’s tremors pulsed to a stop, and before it took its last breath, Hank rode away.
The birds overhead screamed and furiously shifted positions on their branches as he pedaled down the street, leaving it to die alone on the winter-parched sidewalk. Those angry and sorrowful calls of the crow’s family etched into his ears like a vinyl record, continuing to play in his head long after he was home, far from the crows. Years had passed before the sound of their voices finally faded from young Hank’s memory. He never intended to return to those walls because of their relentless cries, but justice summoned him back for his final years.
While he paced the prison yard, sixty thousand squawking screams judged the man inside, who had more than the blood of an old bird on his hands now. Hank blocked out his senses with his hands over his ears and his eyes shut, but feathers thrashed near his face, demanding his attention. A single swooping crow landed beside him. The bird remained steady, despite Hank’s effort to shoo it away. Its black and gray eyes mirrored the overcast sky, seeking answers, but Hank had none. He searched for his own reflection, as if to see the same child’s visage from years ago staring back at him, but it was not there. Instead, a soulless void filled the crow’s eye, until it appeared to him—not Hank, but someone else—as a projected image deep inside the tiny, cloud-reflected orb. A closer investigation revealed the gaunt and blood-soaked woman in the green dress. Hank staggered backward as the crow took flight to the top of the wall, cawing in that ghostly woman’s voice.
The sound permeated the walls day after day. Batting of wings stirred an uneasy feeling in his gut. Her shrill gasp escaped through the crows’ calls, conjuring memories of his victim in the green dress, and the fallen crow from his childhood. The birds’ waste splattered onto the cement and painted the prison yard, leaving the taste of culpability on the rim of Hank’s state-issued cup. They loomed for months, intimidating, tormenting, haunting. Time went by since they migrated on, but they lingered with him still— absorbed into his subconscious—shrieking obscenities and stirring him from his nightmares. A broken record in his head, reminding him of his actions. Each year the murder returned, and each year, it became harder to identify whether the crows were real, or dark apparitions of his fate. His mind edged toward insanity, as the relentless calls for justice rang a death knell in his ears. While Hank was escorted to the chair, the song of the crows loomed in his psyche. The murder perched upon the prison walls while the murderer was strapped to the seat. The woman’s scream and the screech of the crows entangled in his mind as the electricity coursed through his body. Shackled to the cold, hard surface, he writhed and twitched as he took one last cacophonous breath, and the crows finally settled into silence.
This piece of dark fiction is inspired by the annual migration of thousands of crows to the city of Auburn, NY. Red Lagoe grew up in a small town nearby and often witnessed the crows roosting on the walls of the Auburn Correctional Facility–home to the first electric chair.