Crow brides did not dream. Their sleep was an empty void. Sumi woke each morning feeling the same as when she’d fallen asleep. She wondered if crow brides truly slept at all and if it made a difference. At least while she slept Sumi wasn’t weighed down by the lives that had sustained hers for the centuries since her hatching. When she had hatched from the milky green shell the swamp was already withering; now though, now it was dead. The roots of their terrible cryptomeria the heart leeching life from the world around. Sumi alone mourned the deaths.
The other brides, her sisters, were not weighed by guilt. They didn’t have a scrap of conscience between the ten of them and did not share in Sumi’s love for the living. To the brides beating hearts meant a full belly; and filling oneself with lifesblood in turn fed their king. It was a good bride’s duty to glut for the king’s health. He had given them eternity and they were his pride, his murder.
Hunger needled through Sumi. She was the smallest of the crow brides, malnourished by her own making. She supped only when the hunger became unbearable and even then, salt from her tears seasoned the metallic tang of blood. She had, once long ago, tried to starve herself until death took her. The attempt only served to weaken her to the point when her sisters had taken her to a small town near the edge of the swamp–
Only empty houses and old ghosts lived there. Their screams of terror and pain forever echoing in Sumi’s mind. She swore she’d never let her hunger become something she could not control again. It was a balancing act. Killing to sustain herself only enough so that she didn’t become that monster again. Oh, Sumi had tried innumerable ways to end the suffering she caused on the world around her. But crow brides were made of stronger stuff than death could touch.
A sound like rocks breaking bones stopped Sumi. It was an old sound she had heard many times. Being the fourth crow bride she had heard this sound eight times, and once when her body had played the pain. She had avoided the pallid egg. It reminded her of the chick she whose death she had aided. The new bride’s egg had been still for so long they had grown worried the bride inside was stillborn. Yet their king assured his fretful brides that this bride, the twelfth bride, had insurmountable energies. She was the final bride in their family. They would need no others.
The crunching and cracking rolled to Sumi’s ears. But this time with a soft cry. A cry: more human than crow, more fear than pain. Sumi followed the shallow breaths and drip-drop of falling tears with the same hunting skills she so despised. In a hollow nook of the cryptomeria’s trunk, rotted by time and deeds, Sumi found the twelfth bride. She was round and her hair was the color of fresh tilled earth. Blood ran over the bulge of her lower lip where she was biting into it. Tearing her skin to hold in the screams as the bones of her body broke and grew again, preparing her for transformation into a fledgling crow bride.
“The pain will lessen,” Sumi said, kneeling down and offering the bride a rag that had once been a handkerchief. “You mustn’t hurt yourself so.”
The bride recoiled from Sumi. Green eyes stained red; tracks down her face where tears had flowed; and blood pooling on her lip. The bride backed deeper into the pocket of wood. Who could blame the girl? Sumi dropped her eyes to her feathered hand. It was exerting to look human, and no bride could succeed at the task entirely. Something about them always remained ever so slightly wrong–corvid. It was a chore none of them endured happily and so, seldom bothered. Only Sumi, the strange sister, insisted on taking as human a form as possible. But even struggling as she did to shape herself into a mimicry of what she’d once been Sumi saw herself how this hatchling bride did. A monster.
“Who…” the girl trembled with words, “who am I?”
The question every bride had upon hatching. The answer the same for each of them.
“You are no one until your third eye blinks. Then the king will name you.”
Sumi repeated what she’d been told and had told each bride after her. The tears welling in the girl’s eyes—eyes still human—made Sumi continue with untrained comfort.
“You had a name. Before you hatched you were human,” Sumi reached out and patted the girl’s bowed head. “You are someone.” Her voice dropped to a gravely whisper, “With your name, he ate your memories and your essence. And so you will become a crow bride. Please, don’t be afraid. Be brave.”
Sumi said what she wished an elder bride had told her when she had hatched. It was not true comfort, but understanding. That was as close to comfort as she could offer.
It did little to console the girl. Tears flowed like fat raindrops, dripping from her nose and chin to fall upon the makeshift dress of rags. Crow brides did not wear clothes. But to Sumi, the dress of scraps was more beautiful than any plumage she could dream of. Those green eyes lifted and met Sumi’s. Hatred and pain mirrored the hatchling Sumi had once been.
“I would rather die a human than become a bride for a demon.”
When had Sumi’s bravery faltered so? She had once thought the very same thing. She had once woken to the nightmare of life here and had been determined to die as a human. Decades had softened her hatred into sadness into self-pity. This hatchling bride rekindled ire forgotten where Sumi’s essence had been ripped from her. Perhaps—perhaps allied they could change their fate. It was a small hope. And yet, merely the thought of hope gave Sumi courage.
“Come with me,” she helped the nameless bride to her unsteady feet, “I’ll take you somewhere the others won’t bother you.”
Soft human hand in pin-feathered fingers, Sumi led the girl higher into the cryptomeria’s branches. Whispering leaves curtained their trespass and soon the pair were winding along the precarious boughs leading to the canopy. The sunlight bled like light from behind closed eyes as the girls emerged from the parapet of the crow king’s living castle. A gasp trembled in the air, delicate and uncertain.
Flowers bloomed in the sky. Pinks and yellows, silvers and greens; fast as a blink and blown away like dandelion fluff. Beneath the sky flowers, dabs of color blanketed the fields. This was all distant, miles from the cryptomeria swamp, but their crow eyes saw it all clearly. People scurrying from tents and stands, eating food off of sticks while children chased one another and young lovers snuck kisses in shadows. Sumi did not know what to call the things: the sky flowers, the reason the humans had left their city, or even the feelings inside her when she saw everything. But it came once a year and watching the week-long affair was her greatest joy.
“The magic flowers bloom once a year,” Sumi said, “watching them makes me happy.”
“Fireworks.” The girl breathed the words out with wonder in her voice.
“Those are fireworks,” she said it in almost a trance.