Black Feathers, Beady Eyes
Caryn Studham Sutorus
Erin left her students sprawled on the edges of the green, watching the men of the village play bocce. The chaperones waved her away, and she was grateful for the opportunity to explore the perched city on her own. Choosing a well-worn path into the labyrinth of shops and restaurants, she lingered to admire the jewelry, scarves, and paintings at the tiny shops. French, English, and Arabic words bounced back and forth between the other tourists and shopkeepers who jockeyed for her attention in the narrow streets. Erin brushed them off, catching sight of a bronze plaque that marked the alley across the way. She ran her fingers over the lettering, smoothed down from centuries of curious visitors.
I really should have learned more Latin, Erin thought, making out the words closest to French but little else. She stepped into the alley, refreshed by the shadows that flitted around her sunburned ankles and the scent of the lavender fields that draped the hillside town. Silence enveloped her, its cool fingers soothing her fatigue as the chaos of the tourist town melted away.
The alley meandered through the heart of the shopping district, its buildings close, almost within arms length in some places. Lines of laundry flapped in the breeze two stories above, emerging from open windows adorned with colorful flower boxes and clay pots filled with herbs. Around the next corner an aluminum sign, white with black letters painted beneath a Star of David, hung from rusty nails on a stone wall. This plaque was printed in French, and she translated as she traced the words.
“On August 19, 1944, nineteen Jewish men, women and children were evicted from Bagnolle to be sent to Drancy, and from there deported to Nazi concentration camps. Instead of facing this indignity, the families chose to end their own lives, here in the ancient path of the moon.” Erin stopped reading and looked around. “Ancient path of the moon?”
The narrow way ended in a semicircle, its walls meeting in an abrupt dead end. A fixture of mottled stones jutted up from the cobblestone path, flat at the top, crumbling at the sides. She crouched down to get a closer look. Brown splotches darkened the middle. Blood stains? She twitched her nose at the rusty smell that overpowered the lavender.
A breeze ripped through the passage, lifting the edge of her linen skirt and raising goose bumps on her legs. Erin shivered, rubbing her arms, and pulled the scarf down from her neck to warm her shoulders.
The pattering of feet interrupted Erin’s solitude. A dozen school children, dressed in identical navy uniforms, chattered in French as they convened around the slab of rocks, banging on the smoothed-down stones. They called it “l’autel,” the altar. Their voices echoed through the narrow way, driving Erin back.
A flock of crows descended on a third floor balcony, flapping and cawing at each other as they jostled a window box perched on the iron railing. Turning back to the sign, she re-read the memorial, until the children’s chattering turned to shouts of fear.
Frantic faces stared up, pointing at the birds above. Too late Erin realized what they were saying. Her instincts took over, and she ducked, her arms bent over her head in protection.
Time stood still as she froze, wind whistling around the window box as it pitched over the side of the balcony and sped toward the group below. The crunch of bones and smashing of wood echoed through the alley, followed by gasps and screams. Erin elbowed to the front of the group, crying out when she saw the blood pooling between the stones of the altar and dripping down its sides. Tears flooded her eyes as she reached out her hand to feel for signs of life in the tiny, mangled figure sprawled across.
Erin brushed aside blood-soaked hair, starting back as a jolt of electricity ran from her fingers, up her arm and lifted her off her feet. Wind blew around her face, and the world faded to gray as she began to spin. She screamed, but the wind swallowed the sound. Blurred shapes whizzed by as she spun faster and faster. Ebony wings flapped around her head and beady crow eyes glowed in the whirling dust. Spinning and falling, she watched, immobile, as the alley closed in around her, pulling her beneath its cobblestones. Flashes of buildings appeared between the whirling dust and lunging crows. A bright light shone from underneath, its warmth inviting her down. She wanted to reach for it, but as the conscious thought formed, a dirt path rushed up at her and she landed with a hard thud, no longer in the alley.
Erin remained on the ground, curled in fetal position. The bright sunlight burned her eyes. She shook her head to clear her vision and sat up, bracing her sore body on shaky arms. All around her, the same schoolchildren from the alleyway approached, chanting with blank faces, staring above her head.
“Save our lives that you might live.” They spoke in clear English. “Save our lives that you might live.”
Erin unfolded her body and stood on trembling legs, holding her arms out to the side for balance.
“Save our lives that you might live,” they repeated.
“What do you mean?” she whispered. As she spoke to the children, their faces turned to meet hers, and a swirl of wind and dirt flew up from the ground, enveloping them in its cloud. She saw only their eyes — blue, green, and all shades of brown —as they faded, one by one. The call of a crow drew her eyes up to the burning sun. A black spot in its golden midst grew larger and larger, undulating and breaking through its own edges, until it burst into a flock of crows speeding toward the earth. Erin ducked, covering her head as they zoomed around the hillside, trapping her in a tornado of flapping wings and sharp claws.
And then the world was spinning again, though her eyes remained fixed on one point on the hillside. As the dust and feathers swirled around her, she watched a pile of stones turn into an altar, unseen hands stacking, chipping, and carving it into elaborate relief that showed phases of the moon, interwoven with grotesque canine and avian faces. She couldn’t avert her eyes from the vision of a priestess, veiled in crimson, holding up a dagger that glinted in the silver moonlight and brought forth rivers of blood to drench the stones. Like magic, carts rolled through the scene, unloading stones and wood. Buildings flew up, cobblestones flew down and time raced over the hillside, building a world around the moon altar. The priestess raised her arms to the moon, chanting through smoky incense that burned Erin’s eyes and throat. Crows swooped in and out, drinking from the rivers of blood that soaked into the ancient stones, flowing as people of all ages and classes lost their lives on the altar.
Erin cried out, her mind screaming from the carnage, exhausted by the volume of change speeding through her line of vision, until darkness fell again. The flapping of feathered wings around her head dizzied her, and then numbness settled over her body and the wind whistling around her ears slowed and stopped.
# # #
Disoriented, Erin rested her chin on smooth cobblestones, her nose inches away from the now-crumbling altar. Men’s voices and the sound of shoes scuffling all around brought her to her knees. Her stockinged legs scraped against the uneven stones, and she turned her head, recognizing the alley. She was back, but the plaque on the wall was missing. Old men, women and children piled out of the houses, crowding into the alley and lining up against the walls. Navy-uniformed gendarmerie prodded them, yelling out orders in French.
The old women wore scarves over their heads, faces drawn and eyes sad. The men who weren’t police limped or leaned on canes and family members, passive expressions as they followed the orders, waving their children against the walls.
How did I get here?
Erin cringed at the beat of a stick against her back and looked up into the dark eyes of a policeman. A shiny, navy blue cap swallowed his head, leaving only a thin, cold face.
“Line up with your family,” he barked at her.
She scrambled to her feet, brushing the dust off her wool skirt and tucking in a white cotton blouse. The policeman grabbed at a pendant around her neck, eyeing the gold locket before pulling it, chafing the back of her neck as it broke.
“You won’t be needing this.” He snarled at her as he shoved her toward the wall.
A young boy looked up at her with wide, brown eyes. He reached for her hand as she settled into the line, nudging the child on her other side, a small girl wrapped in a colorful shawl that hung to her knees. The children’s faces were gaunt, their cheekbones protruding underneath dark circles and sunken eyes. “What’s going on?” Erin asked.
The girl shook her head and stared at the ground, but the little boy looked up at her and leaned in. “Papa said they want to send us away to work, but I don’t want to go.”
“Shh.” The man on the other side shot the boy a weary look.
He whispered again. “Are you a Jew too?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, looking around at the crowd. She began to count the men, women and children. When she made it to nineteen her heart sank. The words of the schoolchildren danced through her mind. Am I supposed to save these people? Is that why I’m here?
Her mind spun as she tried to pull up details of history, stories that she had read countless times to her students over the years. If it’s August 1944, then Paris will be liberated soon, she thought. Even if they are sent to Drancy, they could be freed before they get to Auschwitz. Right? But exact dates eluded her. She needed exact dates. She looked around at a dozen gendarmes, tears filling her eyes.
She pushed down the rising panic and took a breath, studying the actions of the gendarmes. One policeman stood near each doorway and counted the family members. Then he marked the number beside the doorframe in chalk. The officer with the booming voice spoke to the gathered families.
“Be out here tomorrow morning at sunrise. One small bag per person, that’s all.”
He turned and strode around the corner of the alley, followed by his policemen. A collective sigh of relief spread through the alleyway, as children pulled away from the walls and mothers and grandmothers slunk back inside their houses. The five men remained outside, circling together, their voices quiet as they began a fevered discussion.
Erin hesitated. Surely, they know I don’t belong? And yet no one questions my presence?
She moved forward to the men’s circle and scanned their faces. The looks of defeat had transformed into defiance, and fervor shone in their eyes. Erin listened as they stoked one another’s fire of rebellion — the only rebellion they could achieve.
Erin held up a hand.
“Please, may I speak?” she asked. The men spun around, studying her with surprised eyes.
“I think you should know that this war won’t last forever,” she said. The men stayed silent, wary and watchful.
“Germany will lose.” She stepped into the center of the circle, leaning in to each of the men as she spoke these words in a low voice.
The men exchanged glances. One with a gray beard spoke up. “How can you know this? Are you Resistance?”
Erin shook her head. “I know that Paris will be liberated any day now.”
“So it’s true?” asked a man with wire-rimmed glasses. “The English and Americans have invaded?”
Gray Beard waved a dismissive hand in her face. “So, this is not news. Anyone traveling from the north would know this.”
“How does an invasion of Paris help us?” asked the man with the glasses.
Erin threw up her hands, shaking her head as her mind raced to think of something, anything to get their attention. “I am here to save you and your families from suicide,” she blurted out.
Behind his glasses, the man’s eyes widened. “How can you know of this?”
“Does it matter?” she asked. “What matters is that you might be able to give your children a future after this war. But not if their lives end here. Give them time.”
Anger filled the faces of the leaders, while shame and questions filled the others.
“My children might still have a life one day,” another man said. “Can I take that away from them?”
“But they will face indignity in a Nazi camp. Have you heard of anyone who returns from the work camps?” came the answer.
“You say you are sent to save us,” Gray Beard said, walking closer to Erin and searching into her eyes. “But what about tomorrow? Will you save us from the Nazis?”
Erin’s stomach twisted and she shook her head. “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Who sent you here?”
Erin shrugged. “Again, I don’t know. Children? I was surrounded by schoolchildren, and…” she walked over to the ancient altar and ran her fingers across the bumpy stone. “If I save your children, maybe I save myself?” Do I even believe that?
She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I’m not saying it won’t be Hell, but if just one or two of them survive and live a full life, can you take that away from them?”
Silence met her question. One of the men wiped tears from behind his glasses, and Erin hoped their hearts had been won. The leaders eyed each other, shaking their heads.
“Just talk about it,” Erin said, backing away. “Think about the future.”
“It’s all or nothing,” the leader said. “We must be in agreement.”
The three that Erin won over exchanged looks of support, nodding at one another. The one with glasses spoke. “We will not agree to suicide, not when there is a shred of hope.”
They’ll survive the night, Erin thought to herself, but what about tomorrow? She hurried down the alleyway, following the twists and turns as twilight set in. Excitement built in her mind, tingling throughout her body as she formulated a plan. She would find the soldiers’ vehicles and sabotage them. I can do that. I can slash the tires or pull out some wires from the engine. She hurried her steps, relieved to see the end of the alleyway ahead.
When she stepped onto the street her foot met a barrier. She reached out with her hands, feeling for something solid. A jolt of electricity slammed through her body, as she flung her arms into whatever was holding her back.
“I’m trapped in this alley,” she whispered, shaking her head. She stepped back. Nothing visible prevented her passing. She ran, headlong into the intersection, only to slam against the invisible wall. She reeled back then kicked at it, grunting in frustration as she slid to the ground.
Then why am I still here? If all I can do is prevent the suicide, why am I still here? I did it.
A crow landed at her side and stared up at her. Shadows lengthened in the alley as the sun dropped down over the village. Two more crows screeched down from above, wings flapping as they danced around her legs. The clatter of silverware and the hum of voices rang through the alley as its inhabitants gathered for their evening meals.
Curious, she wandered back toward the dead end. Standing over the crumbling altar, she looked up at the moon. “Now what?”
The pleasant hum of dinnertime buzzed around her ears, until a new sound took over. Choking. Frightened voices hushing one another. Erin shot up and sprinted into the nearest house, horrified as the inhabitants slumped from their seats onto the floor. She threw her hands over her mouth as she caught the eye of the mother, who stood with tears streaming down her face as she lifted a bowl of soup to her lips. She lowered her bowl and stared back, defiant.
“No,” Erin whispered. “It was the women?” She leaned up against the doorway and cried as the woman drank of her bowl, careless of the soup that spilled over the edge onto her blouse and onto the floor. The woman dropped the bowl onto the table, and it clattered onto its side. Falling to her knees, she gathered her dead son in her arms and collapsed.
“No!” Erin called out, but the wall behind her head disappeared, sending her spinning into the abyss once again. Colors whizzed by — the yellow buildings, the blue clothes, the eyes of green, blue, and brown watching her, reprimanding her as she spun. Her ears filled with the sounds of screams until the wind whipped over them, obscuring all but its own whistling thunder. The buildings disappeared around her, whirling into nothingness.
When Erin slammed to the ground, her body screamed with pain. A baton slammed against her back — the prelude to a harsh directive to line up. The little boy next to her filled Erin in on the situation, and she looked over at an empty space on the opposite wall, remembering, the plaque. There’s where the plaque will be hung to commemorate the suicides here. She counted the families gathered and felt sick to her stomach as she studied each face, marking the sunken eyes, and bright eyes, faces dust-streaked and meticulously cleaned. Real people, she thought. These are real people. I cannot let them die here today.
When the gendarmes tromped off, leaving uneasy silence in their wake, she followed the council of men gathering around the ruined altar to debate the fate of their families. She recited her impassioned plea, relieved when their faces changed from desolate to hopeful. As they dispersed to their houses, she stood silent over the altar, waiting for the world to spin.
Wait a minute, she thought. There was something else. What was it?
Erin frowned, running her fingers over the mottled stones. It was very important that she remember. Her life, or death, or something in between, depended on it. “Oh,” she cried aloud. I was going to sabotage the army trucks! Smiling, she rushed to the end of the alley.
The jolt of electricity that coursed through her body sent her reeling back. She collapsed in a heap on the cobblestones, looking up in confusion at the end of the alley. Brushing off her arms, she stood up on wobbly legs and stretched out her arm. An invisible wall blocked the path, trapping her in the alley. She cried out in frustration, kicking at the unseen force that held her in.
“This is insane,” she said, panic rising in her stomach. She threw up her hands in surrender and wandered back to the end of the alley, listening to the sounds of dinner being served. A memory flashed through her mind.
“No!” She ran into the nearest house and dove onto the table, knocking over steaming bowls of soup. “Don’t eat it,” she yelled. The little boy sprang up from his seat, screaming as the hot soup soaked his shirt. His sister and father jumped back, frightened faces staring at her. The mother stood, motionless, watching Erin with large eyes.
“What have you done?” the mother whispered.
Erin eased herself off the table, holding out her arms in a motion of peace. As she turned to the door, she heard the sounds of death echoing across the alleyway.
She raced outside to the next house, just in time to see the mother topple over, joining her family members sprawled on the ground. The scene was the same in the next house. Erin rushed out into the alley, scattering a noisy flock of crows, and collapsed against the ancient altar.
“I can’t do this.”
The crows rose high in the sky, and then descended into her line of vision, cawing and crashing into one another as they careened down to the earth. She covered her head, cringing at the air from their beating wings and the brush of their feathers. The ground slid under her feet, whirling her around in a tornado that dragged her under the earth, its gusts filled with stones, walls, the faces of children, and the cawing of crows.
A wall of light danced in front of her as she spun around, until she finally dropped in a heap on the stones. The shimmering wall faded away, leaving Erin leaning up against the invisible barrier. She took in her surroundings. The alley seemed unchanged from the World War II scene, but she remembered it this time, all of it.
Excitement coursed through her veins, and she jumped up, hurrying through the curving alleyway. She flattened herself against the wall when a contingent of police moved out, holding their chalk. They paid her no mind as they melted right through the invisible wall. When Erin turned the corner into the dead end, the families were just breaking up and heading their separate ways. The fathers began to congregate.
Erin rushed over. “No, wait,” she said, holding up her arms and turning around to address all of the families. “Not just the men today. Can we please have a meeting with all of the adults?”
Silence met her words. The people of the alley exchanged uncomfortable glances until one woman bent over to pat her daughter on the back. “Go now, Rosalyn. Watch your brothers for me.” The other families followed suit, sending children into the houses as the grown ups gathered near the crumbling altar. They stared at Erin expectantly, shifting from foot to foot and brushing invisible dirt from their clothes as she waited for everyone to gather.
“I know that you are planning to end your lives,” she said, then waited for the shocked cries to dissipate. “The reason I know this is because it is considered a great tragedy, one of those moments in history where one thinks ‘if only they had known.’”
“If only they had known what?” a woman asked.
“Who are you?” Gray Beard asked, red-faced and angry.
Erin held up her hand. “It is not as important who I am as what I know. I know that the war in Europe ends in eight months. I know that the Allies will defeat Germany and Italy, and France will rebuild.”
Half of the crowd watched her in awe, their faces filled with hope, but derisive laughter clouded the conversation. “This is ridiculous. How can you possibly know that?”
“How can I know that there is cyanide in each of your kitchens right now? Ready to drop into the soup that you will feed your families tonight?”
One woman shook her head, tears in her eyes. “But it’s the right thing to do.”
“I cannot argue morality with you,” said Erin. “I can only say that your children have survived five years of warfare. Who’s to say they cannot make it through eight more months?”
“She’s right,” a man with glasses said. “Call it off.” Indignant responses met his words.
“Are you an angel?” asked a woman with dark hair. She approached Erin with wonder in her eyes.
“No. I just need to save these children.”
The angry bearded man spoke up. “And then what? Who is going to save them from the Nazis?”
Erin shook her head. “I am so sorry that I cannot do anything further.” She remembered her history, remembering how the work camps turned to death camps as the war came to a close, Germans desperate to exterminate as many Jews as possible in the last years. She looked around at their hopeful faces. They could all be dead in a week anyway. I can’t do anything to help them.
An old woman approached Erin, patting her on the back. “Death brings peace,” she whispered.
Erin turned back and held the woman’s gaze, wondering at her meaning. She shook her head. “No. It does not bring peace. Not as far as I know.”
Conversation rose up around her, the men and women debating their futures. The tide was turning, Erin could feel it. She sat down on the edge of the altar, listening as the passionate debate raged around her. Finally, stoic faces turned to her, hope glinting in their eyes.
“We will give our children the opportunity to survive the next eight months.” The words came from an old man brandishing a wooden cane. He waved it around as he sounded the decision. “Now, let’s eat our supper.”
The crowd disappeared into the doorways around her. The clinking of silverware and stoneware punctuated the murmurings of the supper table. She remained seated, waiting until the noises changed to scraping chairs and stacking dishes before she looked up at the glowing moon.
“Now what?” she whispered. “I am done. I am finished, right?”
From the center of the white moon, a black dot grew, bulging and breaking into the silhouettes of crows, swooping down to earth. Erin kept her eyes on the chattering flock as it rained down on her, surrounding her with cawing sounds, the flapping of wings and burning of beady eyes as the crows flew in a close circle around the altar, trapping her on its stone platform. They whirled around her, blowing her hair into her face and mouth, wings beating on her arms as she refused to cover her head. A glimpse of crimson peeked in and out of the crows, until the vision of the veiled priestess, her arms held high above her head, solidified next to the altar. Her voice thundered across the chaos. Erin screamed, but the sound was lost in the cacophony.
And then they disappeared. The wind died and the alley was peaceful, a gray tomb of uneasy silence. Erin looked down, gasping at the sight of her linen skirt and colorful scarf draped over a navy tank top. She reached down and felt her bare arms, squeezing them to make sure they were real. When she jumped down from the altar, she noticed that the historical plaque was gone. She ran over to the wall and ran her hands over the blank spot. I changed history, she thought.
When she lifted her hands, dark red streaks remained behind on the wall. She turned over her hands, shaking when she saw the blood that covered them. She looked up at the moon altar, puzzled by the pair of feet that blocked her vision. Women’s feet, freshly pedicured in Hawaiian Orchid, wearing black leather walking sandals, size 8. Her eyes traveled up the legs, over the tan linen skirt and navy tank top to her own face, looking down at the altar.
Erin’s heart stopped, and she leaned against the wall, mesmerized by the specter of herself. Or am I the specter? Is she real? A flurry of footsteps interrupted her thoughts. A dozen schoolchildren burst around the corner, chattering in French. Erin watched as her double turned around and sighed at the intrusion on her solitude. The children gathered at her left, stepping between Erin and her double, oohing and aahing at the altar and running their hands over the bumpy stones. Erin’s double stepped back, looking up, startled by the sounds of fighting birds three stories above. The children noticed too, pointing and screaming as a large planter toppled off its iron railing.
My opportunity to save myself.
Erin had only a moment to decide.
With all of her strength, she lunged at the schoolchildren, tackling them away from the altar. The planter crashed down, and she turned her head just enough to see the crushed body of her double, arms splayed out over the slick stones, eyes unseeing under wet, matted hair.
The screaming intensified as the children opened their eyes to the sight of blood-splattered cobblestones. Erin stood up, reaching out her hands to help the children to their feet, but they didn’t see her. They jostled around her, crying and hugging, unaware of her presence.
A murder of crows ascended, their silhouettes shrinking as they disappeared into the light. The alley began to glow around Erin. She turned around in a circle, reaching out her arms that now shimmered and passed through the children’s bodies like air. She could no longer feel the chafe of her sandals or the bumps of the cobblestone under her feet. Her bones weighed nothing and the lightness freed her. One last time her eyes were drawn to the crushed figure of herself draped over the ancient altar. She felt a stab of regret, a brief sadness for a life ended too soon, until a sense of peace drove the sadness away.
Bright light shone up through the cobblestones below, a powerful glow that eclipsed the solid forms around her. The children’s cries faded away with the buildings and stones. Then there was only white light that embraced her in its warmth. She closed her eyes.
Caryn Studham Sutorus writes historical and contemporary fiction for young adults and grown ups. Her short stories include tales of Viking villages, medieval saints, and modern day horror, and have been finalists for the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, Writer’s Workshop Fiction Contest, Stonethread Publishing’s SpecFic III contest, and Grey Wolfe Publishing’s American Short Story Contest. Her publishing credits include short stories published in The Grotesquerie: an Anthology of Horror, Darkhouse Books’ And All Our Yesterdays, and the Ni Bona Na Coroin anthology of American stories. As an active member of the North Carolina Writer’s Network and Charlotte Writers, she enjoys creating, editing, and discussing both fiction and nonfiction. In the professional world she writes freelance communication materials for financial companies.