There were always crows in Stevenage. They loitered on the grassy banks on the main roads into town, watching and waiting as thousands of tonnes of metal shot by at forty miles an hour. In the last three weeks they had trebled, maybe quadrupled in number. Some mornings entire banks of grass undulated in glossy black.
Aria walked past them every day on the long treks to and from work. She thought their increasing numbers portentous of something. Her mother said she was ridiculous, that birds were birds, that they flew and shit everywhere and you couldn’t tell anything from them at all. But then her mother was a disgruntled drunk who did nothing save sit in darkness. What did she know?
It was one of those days that felt awfully stretched out, even though it was not yet sundown. Summer was giving way to autumn, but the trees remained green and the breeze was warm and comforting. Aria had been awake since sunrise to get to her cleaning job, then her pub job, and now her feet ached with hot pain that she might try to soak away later.
She watched the birds as she walked because they watched her – their eyes curious and intense.
Now and again a new crow swooped in, cawing happily as the others shuffled up, hopping from foot to foot to make space. Sometimes fights broke out, small but extraordinary beak-to-beak tussles, before calm settled again.
Aria wasn’t calm. She didn’t like this difference, that things were not the same as last week or the week before it. A sense of happening sang on the air.
There was no one else nearby. As the crows had increased in number, pedestrians had faded away, put off by the shrill cries, the pellets underfoot, the predatory stalking. They had found other routes home, less direct and less feathered. A girl with three jobs and sore feet could not afford such wandering.
A gust of wind brushed hard to the north and half of the crows nearby rose up and away with it, as if it was their signal for action. Those left behind screeched noisily.
Aria pressed on because her mother would be angry if she arrived late and her rages were best avoided if possible. Corvid clouds soared overhead.
She walked down into a thankfully birdless subway, but inevitably had to walk up again. A small murder of crows sprang into the air when she approached, becoming a dark flurry that shifted across the sky and dipped down near the town’s football club.
They sailed to an area in-between the two lanes of traffic, where there was an old maintenance underpass – a well-trodden path about thirty metres long that went under two arches. Police cars sometimes sat there to monitor traffic. Now it was occupied by hundreds upon hundreds of birds. Aria couldn’t help but stop and stare.
One of the arches looked diseased, its columns dressed in black plumage that moved and sank and rose as more and more crows joined the mix.
A bird landed at her feet.
“What do you want?” Aria asked. “What are you doing?”
The crow did not answer of course, but coasted a short way across the road and waited, as if it were asking her to join them.
This was Aria’s moment to go home, to ignore the birds one more time.
But home did not particularly appeal. When did it? So she crossed over when there was a gap in traffic and stood at the top of the path. It began at road level, then curved down to go under the arches. The crows busied themselves at the first arch, frantically working at its edges.
Aria crept closer, impatient to see what they were doing. A car horn sounded loud above and an abundance of crows scattered upwards.
There it was. Built from twigs and grass and leaves and suchlike, but it wasn’t a nest. Instead, the crows had fashioned some sort of the gate under the arch, for Aria could think of no other name that suited it better.
It was built all around the inner perimeter, a densely stacked mass of materials about a metre thick. That left enough space in the middle for man or birds to pass through. But in that middle, something was wrong with the air. It shimmered in a way it shouldn’t. It blurred where there should be focus. The ground on the other side was not clear.
One of the remaining birds cawed loudly then flew through it, or flew into it, because they didn’t come out of the other side.
Aria stepped closer again.
The other crows had regrouped, and now they flew too, four or six or twenty at a time into the arch. None of them reappeared.
Aria touched the edge of the gate. The twigs and sticks felt warm and packed firmly in place; the air nearby seemed heavy. There was plenty of room for her to step through.
She knew she ought to go home, to her mother sitting in the dark.
She ought to do a lot of things.
The crows ought to be searching for food.
The gate ought to be nothing but dead wood, a useless nest with a hole in the middle.
Nothing was as it ought to be.
So Aria steeled herself and took one step forward. The last thing she saw on Earth was light; the last sound she heard was birdsong.
Afterwards, she flew on a new world with feathered friends and it did not occur to bird-Aria to wonder where they were, or why they’d built the gate. Her feet didn’t hurt anymore and that was what mattered.
Flying was freedom.
Helen French is a part-time digital producer (which essentially means she looks after some websites and email newsletters), and a full-time writer, book-hoarder and TV-soaker-upper. You can find her on Twitter @helenfrench