My grandfather was, for lack of a better term, an ass. Unfortunately, he suffered a lot of symptoms of what I often referred to as “Old Man-itis.” On top of the real-life ailments that forced him to live at home with us, his general abrasiveness made me avoid him like the plague.
Growing up, this was something that deeply bothered my dad. He’d make it a point to tell me to “Go learn from your granddad.” He’d say things like, “He won’t be here forever,” and “You’ll regret not talking to him when you’re older.”
And every time, I’d give a very non-commital, “Yeah, sure. Maybe.”
When my grandfather’s health started to take a turn for the worse, my dad started to proactively force these interactions. And after each one, I’d leave feeling annoyed. Slightly bigoted statements and complaints about how I wasn’t “Living up to the family legacy” were par for the course.
One night after coming home from hanging out with my friends, I saw dinner on the stove and went to grab myself a plate. Before I could even make it to the cabinet, I heard my dad yell from the living room to bring an extra dish to my grandfather’s room. I instinctively went to protest my dad’s request but thought better of it to avoid an argument as I’d likely end up doing it anyway.
Reluctantly, I grabbed two plates, filled them up with the remainder of the food, and walked them to my grandfather’s room. A split second after opening the door, cigar smoke and the smell of cheap whiskey stung my nostrils. At the center of the room sat a lanky man with pale skin in an oversized chair faced towards a television. A gravelly voice greeted me with a stern, “What the hell do you want?”
Only a few seconds in his room, and I was already beyond irked. I decided to match his energy with a dry… “Food’s here, dude,” and proceeded to drop the plate on his empty nightstand. Hoping this would end our “conversation” for the week, I turned toward the door and attempted to go about my business.
To my dismay, the old man was in a talkative mood. “Hold on there.” He said. “That’s it? You drop off my food and what? Nothing? You go to play your E-Box and talk to strangers online but not your own flesh and blood? Without me, you don’t exist, boy. Kids these days… No respect…”
I rolled my eyes and let out a sigh. I turned towards my grandfather and informed him that I didn’t know what an “E-Box” was and that I wasn’t in the mood to hear what the idiots on Fox News had to say. And that if it made him feel better, the people I was picking over him were friends I knew in real life.
He spun around in his chair and scoffed. “Inconsequential.” He spat. “Both of your parents know how vital our legacy is, and I’m the only one is interested in maintaining that.”
That was it. He had me. Knowing I’d regret it later, I engaged with the old man. “What legacy?” I half-shouted. “What could you possibly be talking about? You’re a veteran! My mom does real estate! My dad manages an office! None of those things are related to each other. What occupation could we possibly need to continue on? Even if there was a family legacy to maintain, I personally don’t care to maintain anything.”
He shook his head and pointed a bony finger at me. “See this! Your father isn’t man enough to tell you anything. And your mother wants to avoid it altogether. Of course, they leave everything to me.” Despite his age and health, he shot up from his chair, pulled out a stool, and waived for me to come to sit down.
I considered his invitation for a moment. I couldn’t know what exactly he was referring to. Still, I was already invested in the conversation and eventually acquiesced to what I assumed would be another nonsensical rant. As I sat down, he took another two shots of whiskey and a puff from his cigar. And with a deep breath, he began to tell his tale.
My grandfather started with the story of his family’s farm. His family had come from poor beginnings and he quickly learned that hard work was the only way to make it. All he knew growing up was getting up to tend to the farm, sleeping, and then getting up to work some more. The idea sounds utterly foreign to us today, but that was life for him and his family back then. Tough and monotonous but simple.
And yet, even in that simplicity, far from all the temptation and excitement of city life… Uniqueness still managed to find its way home. My grandfather was very close to his mom. In a place like that, the simple pleasure of having a home-cooked meal and a shoulder to cry on when the work becomes just a little too harsh was valuable to a young man.
Every so often, from the time he was a kid, his mom would come into his room after a hard day’s work and tell him stories about the woods beyond their farm. She’d tell my grandfather about the beings that dwelled there. Thin women that towered over people and stole their children. Strange beings that mimicked people and animals. Giant insects with intelligence beyond our own that feed on our fear. All this and more was ever-present, not just in the woods but in every dark corner of this earth.
But even though these beings have roamed our world since before our species carved rocks into tools, he wasn’t ever to worry about them. At the end of every story about a ghoul, animal, or evil person, there was one consistent message. He was always protected. He was special. “The crows are always watching you.” She’d say. “They watch all of us with curious eyes. But you? You’re rare. The crows do more than watch you, son. They love you. They know that you have a purpose in all of this. They will always protect what they love.”
When she’d finished telling her tales, he’d always hear that familiar “Caw-caw” just outside his window. When he’d ask what his purpose was exactly, she’d just smile and point outside.
“You’ll see them in the trees, and they’ll always guide you to where you’re supposed to be,” he remembered her saying. He became lost in thought for a moment. He muttered the phrase to himself repeatedly before snapping back and continuing on.
One night, his father caught his mother telling him these stories, and he became violently angry. He rushed into the room, grabbed his mother by the arm, and whipped her towards him. He got nose to nose with the terrified woman and boomed, “What in the hell are you telling him these fairytales for?! You don’t ever tell my son this bullshit! Not behind my back. Not in my house. Don’t you…!” He paused to look at the young boy trembling on his bed. His gaze shot back to the now crying woman, “Look what you did…”
The room went silent for a moment as he thought. Anger visibly welled up inside of him. The grip on his mother’s arm tightened. Without warning, he dragged her out of the room, slamming the door behind him, cursing all the while.
My grandfather could hear muffled screams and cries and then… nothing… He recalled spending the rest of that night sobbing to himself in the dark.
The following day, he sat alone with his father at the breakfast table. A poorly made platter of eggs, bacon, and toast lay before him. Working up the courage to ask the obvious, his question escaped as a whimper. “Where’s mom?”
His father threw the fork containing rubbery bacon onto the table. He pointed a calloused finger into the young boy’s face. “She’s. Not. Here.” He stated. A deep breath followed, and he retracted his hand. “It was her decision to put lies into your head. So, for the time being, she’s staying at gran’s house. That’s it. We never speak on it even if she returns.”
My grandfather knew better than to question his father but deep down, he wondered if he’d ever see his mother again. He’d later find out that he never would. But on that day, he did as he had always done. He nodded, finished and cleaned his plate, and returned to work on the farm.
That night, he lay in his bed, thinking about the stories his mom had told him. He looked out into the woods beyond the farm, thinking about all the things that lurked in the shadows.
A familiar “Caw-caw” rang out from just outside his window, and he remembered his mother’s words, “The crows are always watching… They love you… They will always protect what they love.”
He couldn’t explain why but an urge came over him as he looked out into the woods. It was as if the trees were whispering to him. Telling him to come out and meet an unknown fate. Almost mindlessly, he peaked his head out his door to listen for his dad’s loud snores.
After confirming the old man was asleep, he quickly gathered his jacket, flashlight, and hunting knife for the trek out. Silently, he crept out his first-floor window. He was careful to tip-toe until he hit the end of the gravel road leading to his farm and not turning on his flashlight until he was behind the wall of trees.
Slowly he made his way through the dark woods. He was unsure where he was headed or why he was heading there. His only guide was the dim flashlight and the faint “caw-caws” he’d hear in the distance.
He remembered walking in those woods for what felt like hours. It was as if he was weaving between an army of tall wooden soldiers. He could recall temping voices clearly calling out to him and large figures moving just out of the corner of his eye.
Many times he wanted to turn and run. Part of him knew that if he dwelled in the shadows for too long, they’d surely consume him like his mother had warned they’d done to so many others.
But every time that feeling rose to a fever pitch, a soothing flap of wings or “Caw-caw” would remind him that he was protected for as long as the crows saw fit. And so he continued on, bravely walking into the dark until he hit a clearing.
Taking the opportunity to sit down to rest, an ice-cold hand touched the back of his neck. Quickly, he spun around, throwing a wild punch at the figure behind him. He screamed and went for his hunting knife, telling whatever it was to back away. He went to shine his flashlight on the thing in front of him, and he was shocked to find a young girl no older than he was.
The girl was wearing a large overcoat and had a warm smile. Soft-spoken, she introduced herself as Mia and walked towards him. Cautious, he held the flashlight between the two and kept a hand on the knife. He asked her where she was from, and she pointed vaguely in the direction he’d come from and claimed she was from one of the neighboring farms.
Unprompted, she followed up by saying she’d understood why he was scared but to not be afraid because she was led there for the same reason he was.
He asked what she meant, and in response, she laughed, made an “Shhh” sound, and pointed to the sky. My grandfather pointed the flashlight upwards and waited, unsure of what he was supposed to be looking for. Suddenly, the snapping of branches and a great gust of wind filled the air. Momentarily, the dim light caught a massive twisted black figure above them in the sky.
It let out a grossly distorted “Caw-caw-caw” that sounded more akin to that of a broken horn than an animal. Drips of what looked like tar hit his face as it swooped by, and the creature’s smell was more pungent than any dead animal or droppings he’d had the displeasure of encountering.
Crashing back into the trees, the thing disappeared. My grandfather could hardly form words. He simply stood there in disbelief of what he’d seen, heart pumping out of his chest.
He shined his flashlight back on the girl and caught her, maintaining a calm smile. “Our guide watches over us all. Always.”
My grandfather looked at the girl with horror in his eyes. He couldn’t think of what else to ask other than just what the hell that was and how on earth that clearly demonic being could be any sort of a guide.
“Because they… because he loves you.” She said. “Don’t be afraid. You have nothing to fear. You’re more important to him than any of us are.” The next thing he felt was a kiss on the forehead. His mind became fuzzy, and the next thing he knew, her soft hand was guiding him through the woods back home. As they walked back, the shadows that stalked him earlier seemed further away now. The voices he’d heard before were little more than whispers in the dark.
When he arrived home with the girl, the whispers had gone silent. Only the faint “caw-caw” remained in the distance. My grandfather still had many questions about his experience and what this all meant. Mia smiled and promised she’d be back daily to answer anything he wanted. All he had to do was meet her at the end of the gravel road leading to his farm. My grandfather agreed, and from there, not a single day passed when the two didn’t see each other. Eventually, what started as something informative developed into something more.
Mia would bring my grandfather strange books with texts he had never seen before. She’d show him pictures of the crows and other creatures. Their evening rendevous would turn into casual chats in the afternoon. My grandfather would make it a point to go into town and surprise her with gifts. And should his dad ever leave for a day or two, he’d be so bold as to bring her into his home.
One night, after my grandfather was led to believe that his dad was going into town for the night, he decided to bring Mia over. The two were going over the strange images and texts he’d grown fascinated with.
A loud slam of the front door interrupted their readings. His father wasn’t supposed to be home for another day, so it seemed as though someone had broken into their home. My grandfather told Mia to hide while he scrambled to find his hunting knife and meet the intruder. When he arrived at the door, he was surprised to see his father holding a half-empty bottle of whiskey in one hand and a revolver in the other.
“Where’s the girl?” He grumbled.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My grandfather replied.
“The hell you don’t, boy… I… I know you’ve been sneaking out to see that witch. Black goddamn magic… In my household, no… Not here.”
“Dad, it’s not…”
“YES. Yes, it is!” He shouted before taking a long swig of the drink. “What she’s doing… What your mother did… It’s an affront to God. A black stain that I won’t let my son be tainted by.”
Instinctively, my grandfather went to raise the hunting knife in front of him, but before he could put it between him and the old drunk, bony knuckles collided with his temple, and he was on the floor.
Trying to fight off the dizziness, all he could focus on was the voice of an unhinged man rifling through the various rooms in the house, shouting, “Where is she? Where the hell is she?”
My grandfather stood to his feet to face his old man. He tried rushing him from behind but, in the ensuing struggle, once again found himself on the ground and receiving a steel-toed boot to the ribs for good measure.
“I’m doing this for you, boy!” His father yelled. “You don’t get that you’re a pawn in their fucked up game! As soon as they’re done with you, they’ll spit you out. Leave you with nothing. Alone to face the demons by yourself.”
As my grandfather writhed in pain, the sound of his father looking around the house continued. Under every table, around every corner, inside every cabinet. Until finally, the sounds of a screaming young girl hit his ears. Still trying to recover, he could only watch as his old man had a fistful of Mia’s hair and was walking her outside, repeating, “None of the devil’s blood will stain my home.”
With the last of his strength, my grandfather managed to force himself up just as the two made it out of the front door. Nearly doubled over in pain, he still managed to grab the hunting knife and move as quickly as possible to meet them outside.
As his hand reached for the doorknob, his hopes of saving Mia remained strong until he heard a loud BANG ring out into the air…
He screamed as he fumbled with the doorknob, unable to get it open in his panic. Time slowed as the reality of what had just happened began to sink in… “Mia was gone,” he thought. His mind fought itself as he internally argued about whether or not to rush out and face his father or cut his losses entirely and run out the back door to save himself.
But when another BANG rang out into the atmosphere, that sorrow was soon replaced with confusion. His father was an excellent shot. Surely he didn’t need more than one shot for one girl. When the third and fourth BANG BANG pierced the silent night, followed by a man’s scream, a pit grew in my grandfather’s stomach. He knew something was deeply wrong.
Taking a deep breath, he finally managed to unlock the front door. To his horror, the scene before him was unlike anything he could ever hope to comprehend.
Standing in between Mia and his dad was a man-sized crow-like creature. The familiar pungent odor wafted through the air. The thing stood on two backward-facing humanoid legs. Long pale arms with crooked fingers hung loosely at its side. Its scissored beak extended far past its body, and what looked like large molars were growing out of the sides. Most striking were those “goddamn eyes.” Massive balls of white with veiny strings of red lead to a pulsating pupil.
He couldn’t explain why but as he watched the thing analyze the man before it, he knew this wasn’t just a mindless animal following instinct. It was intelligent. It was assessing the situation, playing out scenarios in its head, and planning out the best course of action.
His father screamed for forgiveness, said that he was a God-fearing man and that he’d promise to never hurt another soul if he could survive the night.
The crow-thing continued observing and outstretched its massive wings in an intimidating fashion. It took a moment and then hacked up black fluid onto the ground in front of it. And to my grandfather’s shock…, a twisted voice emerged.
“There is no God. There is no devil. There is only truth.” It stated. “The crows know this. You, however, hide truth for comfort. It…” The creature stopped for a second to hack up another round of black fluid. “Sickens us. You know who we are. You know our word will be spread. The truth will be everpresent. Your kind will no longer be blind to it.”
My grandfather didn’t know if what happened next was out of a genuine belief that he could harm the thing or out of pure fear. While the crow creature was giving its enigmatic speech, his dad managed to load up another round and again took aim. This time unloading as many bullets as he could toward the humanoid bird.
All to no avail. The thing made something akin to a sighing sound as it flapped its impressive wings once more. It let out the broken “Caw-caw-caw” and rushed forward on those disgusting legs with inhumane speed.
In an instant, its beak unhinged like a snake and swallowed the foolish man whole. The last thing my grandfather saw of his dad was his legs disappearing into the thing’s maw. An image that would be burned into his mind for the rest of his life.
And just as soon as it had come, it was gone. Nothing but a permanent black stain was left behind. He called out to Mia not only to ask if she was okay but for some kind of reasoning for what took place. What was that thing? How did it know to come to find her? Where did it go?
To his relief, she was okay. Scared but unharmed just behind where the creature had stood. “The crows will always protect those they love,” she reminded him.
In the coming weeks, the two would sell off much of the farm and many of the valuable family items my grandfather had admittedly had difficulty parting with. They’d keep the farmhouse, but the livestock and property around it went towards making the home as comfortable as possible Mia and their newborn child while my grandfather went off to join the Navy. He’d send back what he could, and they’d make it work until he retired. They’d eventually move into the city and spend most of their days together.
While I found the story absolutely fascinating and actually preferred it to playing on my “E-Box,” whatever that is, I still had one question. What did all of this have to do with me?
My grandfather wasn’t one to smile, but he couldn’t hold one back when I asked him that same question.
“You’re next in line. My role was to ensure that you were born and knew our history.” He stopped to take another puff of his cigar. “The crows have been watching over me my whole life. They’ve kept me safe from all sorts of evils. They brought me true love. A child. I thought it was so I could praise them for all the good they’ve done, but no one could know their true intentions. Only bits and pieces. Though they have told me this…” I leaned in closer to hear what he had to say, “A prophet would be born to deliver our message and change the world how they see fit. That prophet will create a better, more pure, truthful world. That prophet is you.”
I didn’t know how to take that. I felt that he was either crazy or messing with me. But another part of me genuinely wanted to consider that it was true. What if there was more to this? I was unsure. And to this day, I still am. I don’t feel any different from anyone else. I don’t feel that I’m meant to change the world in any fundamental way.
And yet, even on his deathbed… Even as I heard my grandfather scream about the demons finally coming to take him because the crows no longer cared to protect him from them, he still maintained that I’d know the truth. He maintained that everything was worth it for their wisdom to be spread to the people. No consequence was too great even if he had to be the one to bear it.
I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I’m sharing this. Perhaps I feel like someone else can give me the answers I’m looking for or a starting point with how to find them.
For what it’s worth, a guy tried to rob me the other night. I was coming home late, and he pulled a knife on me. I told him I didn’t have any cash, but apparently, that wasn’t good enough. Just as that “Oh, shit, I’m going to get stabbed” feeling hit, three crows swooped down and started clawing at the guy. Apparently, one of them got really aggressive around the eyes. From an article I read, he won’t ever see again. Weird coincidence or an intentional clue? I can’t say.
But what I do know is that I can hear a familiar “caw-caw” outside my window even as I write this. And I can’t put my finger on it, but whenever I drive by the woods on my way to work, something familiar has been calling me to the trees.
Credit: Bryan A Young
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