A tiny heartbeat with ferocity inside the mottled breast; Sumi could feel the minute vibrations through her clumsy fingers, more talon than flesh. From her beak she passed a mealworm to the thrush chick she’d found that morning. It had no idea how lucky it was. Sumi had chanced to rise with the dawn and taken a turn about the undulating trunk of their great cryptomeria. She had happened upon the child before any of the others heard its cries. A shudder ruffled under her midnight quills.

Sumi wouldn’t linger on what might have been. The chick was safe. It was alive. The soft corners of her shallow beak curved into a deformed smile at the sated chirp the chick gave in thanks for the worm. She could find the nest it had fallen from; she would return it to its home; she was going to save it. Bright eyes blinked at Sumi and the chick cried for another worm. She was happy to feed the babe and hush its hunger.

“What have you got, Sumi?”

“Nothing.”

Her talons curled over the thrush, a cage to protect it.

“Is it food?” The crow-woman hopped closer, eyes on Sumi’s half-formed wings.

“No.”

Alarmed by the cramped dark the chick sang to its doom in a shrill cry. Wings flapped at her, the wind trying to rip the babe from her. The sound of branches snapping rippled along Sumi’s body as bones dissolved and formed, trading fingers for wings. Feet tucked tight under her body she jumped off the bough; plummeting with gravity and the chick in her clawed foot. The caw of her sister screamed a summons, a call to feed. Ripples danced across clear waters as Sumi skimmed the surface with her long flight feathers. She would not surrender the child.

Three sisters joined the first in pursuit. Sumi weaved through the cryptomeria branches; she raced skyward along the knotted, gray bark away from the curses at her back. Once she cleared the canopy the sun would scorch her feathers but her kin would not chase her further. Outstretched claws slashed across Sumi’s shoulder in a blur of shadows where another sister had been waiting to strike. Fire in her blood and her wing crumpled Sumi fell again, but not by will. She beat the bloodied wing. She had to fly.

Her sisters pecked and struck at her. Focus to carry the child fought with the focus needed to stay airborne. It took only one rake from her sister’s talons to slacken the hold and the chick fell with Sumi. Before she could blink the tiny body was plucked from space. A panicked cry was the last she heard of its life before she plunged into water warm as blood. The once black swamp waters were leached of life and clear as crystal; the picked bones of their meals decorated the swampbed turned graveyard.

Precious flesh and blood, more difficult to find fresh with every passing year. It sustained the crows of the cryptomeria. Precious life and freedom, Sumi had forgotten what they felt like. Under the swamp’s dead waters, above the bones and below the boughs, Sumi wished for her own death–the only freedom left to her.

(I) (III) (IV) (V) (VI) (VII) (VIII)

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