Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
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A Peril in Trophies

A Story of the Crow Witch

by Mike Phillips

Crows gathered at a carcass. Together they worked the stomach of the dead, pulling the rope of gut askew and puncturing what remained of the rich organs in greedy mouthfuls. Their heads, beaks tipped crimson, dipped in and out of the spoiled flesh in a gesture of caution and fear, ever alert to the danger of larger scavengers that could come and challenge their positions at the feed.

Having eaten its fill, a particular bird stepped away from the glut and circled the fetid and lifeless form. The dead thing had been a black bear and an animal of unusually large proportions. The particular bird inspected each of the four limbs, finding at the end of each an absent paw, severed neatly at what on a human would have been the wrists and ankles. The head was gone too, as were many of the animal's internal organs, the gall bladder, the kidneys, and the genitalia.

"Why the genitals?" the crow wondered. "There's no use for those in the enchanted arts with which I am familiar."

The singular bird cackled with delight in sudden realization, "Must have something to do with virility, some superstition. Men are silly that way."

Making two quick hops to a place where the scant forest grass had been torn, the crow made an inspection of an odd mark upon the ground. With the anxious look of its kind, the bird raked the dirt of the footprint into a small pile and collected it in a bony claw. After one last look round, shaking its head as if to express disgust and sorrow, the crow cawed fiercely and took to the sky.

Upon the wind it soared, rising higher and higher, not at all in the way of a crow, traveling great speed and distance with little concern for friend or foe. In this way it flew until, caught in its sharp eye, it came upon the figure of a man laboring near a small house with a ramshackle shed. The man was bare-chested and with his thick hands he worked a mound of clay at a wheel. The crow circled once then dove sharply and lit upon the roof of the shed.

"Yes, hello there," the man said in what was nearly a growl without turning away from his labors. "It's been some time. How have you been? Keeping out of trouble?"

"I am very well, thank you," the crow replied in a warm voice, a woman's voice.

Not at all surprised by a talking crow the man replied, "Yes. Good. May I offer you some ice tea? I just made it fresh." His hands skillfully shaped the clay, lovingly drawing the mound into a bowl.

"No thank you. I've come on business and have no time for pleasantries."

"Oh? Business? And what business may that be my feathered friend? I am at my business. I have a commission for an entire dinner service. That's twenty place settings with serving dishes and all. I might even be able to sell them matching cups."

"Sounds like you need a break."

"Better busy than broke."

"I see." The bird flew down from her perch, landing in front of the man and ruffling her feathers. "I have come to ask your assistance. Until I've made my case with you, I won't leave."

The man smashed in the bowl, let the wheel spin to a halt. "I don't see why it's my problem, these causes you involve yourself in."

"Your gift makes you responsible to others. Why do you think you were chosen?"

The man stood brusquely and walked over to a bucket of water that rested on a roughly hewn workbench. As he washed his hands, he said, "To become a werewolf? Gift? You call it a gift? You know how and why that happened. A sick old man wanted to punish me for beating him at cards."

"No. Oh no, it's more than that," the crow said in a soft voice. "Don't you see? Yes, he bit you out of spite, but his plan failed. Remember that it was his ruin that came about rather than your own."

"So what?"

The crow's next words broke the sky as a clap of thunder, "You enjoy running free with the wolves in the wild but I say that gift comes with an obligation to protect those creatures that can't protect themselves. Once you have learned the trick of speaking to the animals you must from then on take it upon yourself to speak for them as well."

Shocked and cowed, the man said, "Careful, the neighbors. Don't..."

"Don't fear tales of a talking bird, my friend, and don't think that any but those of my choosing can hear me."

"Yes," he replied in a whisper, unable to meet her gaze. "Ask your favor."

In a normal voice, the crow said, "There is a killer in the forest. Several fine animals are missing that shouldn't be. Others have been found in a horrible state."

"Come now, that's the way of things. A hunter? Okay, this time of year a poacher? Around here? You know better than that," the man said with a laugh, sitting back at the wheel. "Deer are pests to the farmers anyway. I'd thought after all that hullabaloo you'd have something serious. Poacher! Goodness! You'd think you were from down-state."

The crow paused, allowing the boil to vent. "I saw a black bear today. His paws, head, skin and genitals were taken."

The man looked up, his face pale. "A bear? It wasn't…?"

"No, not your friend Jack, not today, but our friend is a natural bear, at least in most ways. He's not at all like you. He can't change into a man whenever he feels the need. It could have just as easily been Jack."

The man let out an angry huff and crossed his arms, thinking. "Genitals, uh? Horrible thing. Why do they always do that?"

"You tell me."

"Well, I'll help, but I've got work to do. I can't be chasing you all over the forest whenever the moon's not full."

"I will send word only at need, I promise."

"Okay. I'll do it then."

The crow shook her feathers and flew away. "Thank you. I'll send word as soon as I may."


Taking to the sky, the crow came to a small farmhouse with fields at the edge of a mountain. It was a small, serene place with wooden siding in need of paint and a roof well past its second layer of shingles, but the gardens were properly tended and arrayed with both brightly colored flowers and bustling vegetables. Potted herbs of peculiar sorts lined a brick paved patio in the shadow of a scraggly oak out back.

The bird landed on a wicker table placed near a much used fire pit, snatching a spider and making a quick meal of it. "I suppose after all that flying it wouldn't be too much of an indulgence to enjoy the pleasure of some lunch," the bird said aloud, though talking to no one in particular.

The crow bustled about, shaking its feathers, cawing in all directions and none, challenging the unseen. It hopped down to the patio, picked some insects from the potted plants and from between the brick pavers. Methodically the search continued, but to a trained eye it would almost have seemed like the bird was less looking for lunch and more trying to determine if any unwanted eyes or ears had set about the place.

Satisfied with the condition of its stomach or the absence of visitors, the crow flew up to and in through an open second story window. It landed on the floor of a bathroom, pausing as if it expected to find some unwelcome guest.

"Now for the start," the crow said. "I mourn the loss of wind and sky, goodbye my friends." And by that, the change began.

The way of the change was in part the speaking of ancient words and in part thinking what it was to be a human female. The crow pictured what it was to walk in shoes and to sleep on a bed. It saw holidays and dinners at table and clothes and decorations. It remembered books and music and a particular poem about her kind.

In this way, slowly the beak softened to a nose and the eyes became less fiercely black. Feathers thinned to hair. Wings splayed to fingers. Then in a rush, upon the tiled floor stood the transformation in its completion.

"Now to put to the task of finding the culprit," the woman who had just been a crow said, bending to take from the floor the grains of sand she had so carefully saved. These she held tightly in her hand, pausing only a moment to cover her nakedness with a floral print, summer dress before heading down into the kitchen.

The early summer corn had come in sweet, and the woman had a few ears still in the husk left over from dinner the night before. From the freshest of these she pulled a single green leaf and laid it flat on the counter. She spread the sand over the leaf, careful to line the grains with the straightness of the veins, and twisted it into a small packet. The packet she placed into the safety of a large, black, cast iron pot.

"Good, the hard part is done, now for a few more ingredients and then to set about the task at hand."


A bowl of blue flame erupted from an iron ring. The flames licked a cast iron pot and burbled the brew within. Vapor thickly rose and was caught by a copper cap, wound crazily with pipe that twisted and curled in hackneyed coils and gathered a clear liquid into a glass jug at the spout.

"Now for da' second batch," Red Grimly said as he traded the nearly full jug for a new one and hefted the first to his lips for a long pull, "but first I'll take a nip from da' new stock for myself."

After a hearty draft Red made his way to a table and poured five mason jars nearly full with the liquid. "And 'da restist if for da' business, then," he said, laughing, having already had too much to drink before his first sip from the jug.

He went to work. Into the jars he neatly sectioned and placed the innards of some nameless animal. These he sealed with a screw top lid and labeled in code.

"There," he said, satisfied with his labors. "That's all done, then. 'Da rest is being dried and there's nothin' more to do until tomorrow. That there will finish 'da orders early for next month, easy as cash in 'da pocket."

He went to a wide frame, a circle of birch upon which was strung a massive skin with thick black hair. This he lovingly tended with a knife, scraping away what little of the fat remained. "And you will fetch some fine coin too my big friend 'da bear. Now, don't you go letting them there edges curl too much, now eh?"

When Red had enough, he sat down and watched the still work away, having again switched the jugs. He took another long pull, regretting what had been lost to the mason jars.

The sun was setting and it was quiet. Though the camp smelled of old mash and rot, Red felt at peace. He sat back in a chair and let his mind wander to the next kill, the next dollar. A crow cawed.

Startled, Red shook himself awake, ready to pull his rifle, ready to be set upon by someone wanting to steal his money or to steal him away. "Oh, it was only a stupid bird," he said, indignantly. The crow sat facing him, looking at him as if to blame, piercing him with its black eyes.

"What do ya' want, eh?" he shouted. "Now get! Get you!"

The bird didn't move. It didn't ruffle a feather.

"Oh, I'll teach you, then."

Red lifted the rifle to his shoulder and took careful aim. The small fire that serviced the still suddenly billowed and fumed, filling the clearing with a thick smoke that clung to the leaves of the surrounding trees and stung the man's eyes.

Angrily, Red drew sight upon the bird as best he could and fired. The crack of the shot broke the silence of the forest. The stench of powder fouled the air. When Red's slow eyes could again focus upon the tree, the bird remained upon its perch, unharmed.

"I'll show you!" Through the smoke he fired again and again, blindly showering the air with lead, emptying the rifle.

The bird was unharmed. It lifted from the branch and settled on the ground not far from where the hunter sat.

"Blasted crows are nothing but a nuisance," Red muttered, standing, taking the rifle like a club in his hands.

He ran at the bird, kicking and swatting at the black shape as it lightly hopped to and fro to avoid the violence. At last he collapsed, drunk and exhausted and most definitely defeated. The gun was broken to pieces.

Cawing to rouse and torment him, the crow took a short flight into the cabin through an open window. The man stood and stumbled after, rage feeding exhaustion. He kicked open the door, and in the dark, he beheld his treasures in full. A pair of eagles sat upon a tree sharing a rainbow trout. A mink arched its proud back upon a square of polished black granite. Three deer with great racks were hung upon the wall in a row. A cougar cub slept atop an oak table.

"Come out," he cried.

"Come in," a woman's voice sweetly replied.

"What? Who?" Red shouted, not certain he had really heard what he thought he had heard. Stumbling over the threshold, he walked inside, letting his eyes adjust to the dimly lit room. He looked for the crow, listened for the voice he wasn't sure was there.

"I'll get you. I'll get that other gun and then we'll see, eh?"

Searching the shadows, he passed by a particularly large black bear among the other beasts. Lost in his drunkenness, it struck Red that the bear was not supposed to be there. The crow cawed. He pushed further inside the cabin, careful after the crow, a strange sense of fear building within him. A wolf, oddly colored and also particularly large, stood with teeth bared where there should have been a clear way into the kitchen. This too struck Red as strange. He began to hurry.

Before Red could get to the gun cabinet, the crow cawed again and the door slammed shut. All was quiet. The room was black as night. As he reached for the lamp, Red could see three pairs of eyes glowing in the darkness. A wolf howled.


© 2010 Mike Phillips

Bio: Mike Phillips grew up on a small farm in West Michigan. In addition to hard work and responsibility, his father gave him a very special gift. Each year during summer vacation, the television was turned off. This meant that when not tending sheep, mending fences, gardening, building furniture, chopping wood, or goofing off, Mike’s summers were spent reading. In memory of all the wonderful stories and things he didn’t understand at the time, Mike hopes that through his writing he can, in some small way, share this gift with others. This is the third Crow Witch story to appear in Aphelion; the most recent was Corruption's Device, in the February 2010 edition. For more Crow Witch stories, visit Aurora Wolf.

E-mail: Mike Phillips

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