In late summer, when the corn had ears growing fat and milky, she woke before the sun and jumped to the floor. She had slept in her shorts and t-shirt, sandals foot-ready beside the bed, her knife a heavy flop of weight in her pocket when she rolled from side to side.
The morning before she had hung around the edge of the garden, trying to help her father empty the rat traps he set to catch the crows. He ignored her mostly as he carried the traps from the corn to the burn barrel, where the black promise of soil met their yard. One wood and metal device held only some feathers, an unfortunate escape, but in others the dead birds were sliced nearly in two at the neck, dying with their eyes open to the sky.
Standing on tiptoes to look while he pulled back the quick metal bar and released the captured prize, she saw a flutter of white clouds reflected in the depth of one eye. A soft slide of feathers crossed her hand, and she pictured the wings lifting, the careless rise of feet off the ground, a pledge of air she longed to inhale.
“Can I have the eye?” she asked. Her knife, always in the pocket of her shorts, was ready to carve out the black hope of this death, the opportunity presented and in reach.
“Get in the house.” He didn’t look at her as he spoke. “No place for a girl.” Tossing the dead body into the burn barrel, he started around the garden to the next trap, canceling the magic she longed to possess. Jodie watched his stride, his angled heels in the boots he always wore, grounded and stuck, a part of the earth even as he stepped. In the barrel, the feathers hissed as she slipped her knife back in her pocket. It should be her place, a girl’s place, just as surely as it was his, she thought as she stepped lightly across the grass and closer to the house, where she would watch and wait for another chance.
Now she moved through the yard in the silhouette light of pre-dawn and settled herself on the edge of the garden where the churned earth was cool with dew and night remnants. The rows of corn with their sawing green leaves shielded her from the house. In the air above, the crows circled; their shadowed air and beauty made her long to fidget, to leap and join them, but she held herself down, rooted and waiting. They lowered themselves, and she struggled to keep her eyes on them in the gloom, until a smack and flutter echoed, followed by another. Her breath caught as she rose and gained her footing in the loose earth. A few strides and she was in the middle of the patch, the leaves rough and slicing against her face and arms as she searched in the gray light of sunrise for his traps. She moved with her blade open; it was important, she knew without thinking, to reach the bird quickly. The eye must still contain its light and sky, like the one she had seen the day before.
She almost stumbled over the first body. The trap had severed the neck. With her toe she nudged it, anxious about its size; for here in the corn and the dark, alone, it was larger than she had expected. Nothing moved, and she bent over to squint at the head, searching for the magic of the eye, its power so close, its talent now useless. No gleam of sky reflected back as she poked. She stepped deeper into the rows, listening. Soon came a cry from above and a quieter one to her right. Following the sound, she reached the next trap and could see the twisting of a body, a lifted wing circling and stuck in place because her father staked the traps to the ground. Morning light had edged toward peach, a glow that fell on the black feathers before her and made them shimmer like jewels in a chest. Her plan had not accounted for a bird still alive; she could see its small chest pulse and the good wing beat uselessly on the ground as she drew close. The eye swiveled toward her as she looked down through the web of stalks. It took her in; she felt the seeing and then opened to the exact possibility of morning sky. She wanted this for her own, for the treasure of possessing it, the hope it filled in her with its infinite assurance of flight among the clouds.
Without thinking, she slammed her foot down on the space between its turning head and body. The beak reached once in her direction; she felt the brush of feathers at her ankle and almost leapt back, but the eye had shown her too much. She would have it. Increasing the pressure of her foot, she bore down, twisting against the neck until the head slumped. In the dirt, she knelt and readied her knife as the body settled into death. The head was soft in her hand. She touched the point to the eye’s edge and carved around the space of the socket. The blade pushed below the surface to pop out the marble possibility. It landed in her palm, sticky and lighter than she expected, but rolling. She held it close, waiting. Across its bottomless dome, the clouds appeared. A cheer rose in her throat, and then the bang of her back door. She froze and hunched low, even though the corn hid her.
He had come to empty the traps, and his whistling reached her ears. She could creep to the bottom of the corn, edge herself out and along the back of the garden, but there was so much open space to cover, past the low green of beans and carrots and potatoes. He would see her. There wasn’t even time to choose an action as he rustled in and began his circuit of the traps. Two rows away, he paused, and she heard the metal snap as he opened, then released, the dead bird. His boots appeared moments later. Readying herself for discovery, she held tight to the tiny orb and looked up. The crows circled above her still, slow and unafraid, calling, basking, free of the ground and biding their time. He could never get them all, no matter how many mornings he emptied their bodies into his barrel. This was their real secret. The cry began deep in her lungs and blocked out the startled sound of her name. Squeezing her legs together, she lifted her arms and called again, willed her feet off the ground. Her flip flops slipped from her toes, and she felt his rough fingers on her foot, almost pulling her back, but she flapped once more, and her head burst out of the corn, soared into the gathering of black wings. The sky pressed close enough to embrace her as she rose and received this new height.