Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office analyzing data on wool apparel. She blogs about writing and science at susancunninghambooks.com.
The following is an excerpt from “Crow Flight.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Award finalist for Young Adult Literature
The sky was gray and the sun was low. It was the day after Thanksgiving and Gin still felt full from the pre-made turkey dinner her mom had heated up. Chloe hadn’t come home, instead electing to video call from her boyfriend’s house in Rhode Island, where she was spending break. At least, Gin’s mom said, it was better than staying at the Alpha Phi house for the week.
For some reason after dinner, Gin decided to ride her bike. The old Blue Schwinn was heavy and rusted but still functional. The wind kicked up as she left her neighborhood, and she almost turned back. But then it calmed, the sun nudging itself out from behind the cloud cover. Gin pedaled through neighborhoods and a wooded park, along sidewalks and winding paths, until she found herself at her old elementary school.
She rode up the grassy hill to the brick building and stopped at the top, the playground and wide field below her.
Her body was warm from the exertion, her breath exploding in iced puffs as she leaned over her handlebars. The dried grass was pale yellow and brown, and the ground was edged by shadows of bare oaks.
She stood, prepared to ride home, and that’s when she noticed the flash of feathers.
Black. Soft in the sky. Catching the afternoon light. Pushing back the air, like smoothing a child’s hair.
Flying fast, up and around, as though it were flying with a purpose.
She scanned the sky, the field, and then she froze, mouth opened, unable to believe what she was looking at.
Because down in the middle of the field, was Felix.
He looked smaller in the big open space. But still exactly like himself. Shaggy, gold-brown hair. Jeans, low on his hips. The bottom of a pale yellow t-shirt just visible under his forest green fleece. Instead of his sandals, he wore old tennis shoes. She had never seen him wear tennis shoes.
But the most amazing part was his focus. It was like every bit of his body was tense, ready. His feet firmly planted, back straight, one hand at his side and one held halfway up in the air. Eyes narrowed. Lips barely opened.
She followed his gaze—he was watching the crow. And when she saw what was happening, she gasped. Because the bird was coming right to him. It got closer and closer, and for a strange second, she worried that the bird was going to attack, to heave its body into Felix and pierce him with its thick beak.
But there was no attack. Instead, just as the crow was within reach, Felix stretched his right hand further up, and the bird flew to his fingers. As though it were completely ordinary to walk out to a field, raise a hand, and have a bird fly down to you.
The crow stayed there, perched on Felix’s right hand, totally, unimaginably relaxed. Felix moved the crow to his shoulder, then pet its head.
Gin bit her lip, gripped the handlebars harder. This—whatever it was—was what she’d been wanting to ask about. And it was crazy. Felix was strange, but in a popular, athletic sort of way. Not like this. To be out here with a crow sitting on his hand. Like an animal whisperer or circus act.
Felix squatted down, crow still on his shoulder, to a black mesh box near his feet. Felix opened it, reached in, and took out another crow.
With a crow on each hand, he held his arms up to the sky, and whistled. Immediately, both crows took off, flying a long wide arc to the right, around the field. Wings easing up and back, up and back. Black bodies like holes in the sky.
It was beautiful. Why had she never watched birds like this before? After reaching the end of the field, the crows angled back and flew towards him, making a loop.
He turned, following the crows’ flight, and that’s when he saw her. Her heart beat fast, her face turned bright red, like a flag, and all she wanted to do was leave.
The birds flew so close overhead she swore she felt the rustle of their feathers, and Felix raised his hand, almost tentative—if anything Felix did could be considered tentative—to wave. And then, he smiled.
She couldn’t help it. Her hand shot up in a wave, and before she knew it, she was riding towards him. As though everything in the universe had set itself up to create this moment: her flying downhill, bumping over the wintry dirt, bike jolting beneath her, and him standing there, a crow on each shoulder.
She pulled her brakes hard, the thin pads rubbing the steel rims, and put her left foot down while staying on the bike. She tried to act as though it were comfortable standing like that—body leaned over the bike frame, arms rested on the handlebars, everything balanced on one foot—when in reality, it felt extremely awkward.
“Hey.” There was no silliness or charm in his voice. He sounded nice.
The quiet wrapped around them for a second. This field, tucked away from busy roads and surrounded by trees, felt as still as the Old Pond. And Gin felt like the frog, poised to jump.
“So . . . you like crows?” It was not at all how she had planned to broach the topic.
The smile hit his eyes first, then the corners of his lips angled up, those lips that were somehow always slightly puckered. And he grinned.
He crossed his arms and in that second, with a crow on each shoulder, he looked like some strange medieval prince. Or a king. Someone from an old Norse legend, who ran around with crows and wolves and conquered lands with his bare hands.
She breathed in deep, and it smelled like wet ground and geese and gray skies.
“Yes, I like crows.” His answer didn’t sound silly or condescending but seemed genuine. “Actually, I train them. Want to see?”
She tried to consider the offer, to tease out what Decider would say. Situation: In a strange field with a strange boy and his trained crows. Decision: Stay or go? But instead, she set her bike down on the ground. The bike’s left pedal sunk slightly in the dirt and her pants scraped along the chain ring, leaving a narrow smear of grease, but it didn’t even bother her.
She stood by Felix’s side, close enough to see what he was doing, but not too close to scare the crows. Because she was certain she would scare them. They were right there on his shoulders, and she was so near, she could reach out and touch them. Glossy bodies like bundles of energy. Stocky with compact muscles. Onyx eyes that blended in with their midnight feathers but caught the light and shone.
The crow closest to her tilted its head to the right and held Gin’s gaze.
“This is Maggie.” Felix pointed to the bird that was watching Gin. “And this is Frederick.” He pronounced it “Free-derick.”
“Maggie and Free-derick,” she repeated. “Good to meet you both.”
“They were doing some simple flights. But we’re about to practice retrieval. It’ll only take a few minutes. Ready?”
At first, she thought he was talking to the birds, but his eyes, with their flecks of green and gold, were still locked on hers. “Ready.”
He straightened his body and touched each bird on the head. They immediately stilled. He whistled two low tones—Phee-Phaa—and the birds were off. Wings beating fast, moving them farther and farther away, until they had disappeared over the trees at the far edge of the field.
There was a breeze, soft and cool, and Gin pulled her sweatshirt around her tighter. Her nose felt iced, and her hands ached. A plane flew across the sky and for a second, she imagined the rows of people tucked neatly inside, watching movies and sipping sodas. No idea they were flying over a boy training crows.
She waited a second longer and turned back to Felix. His eyes were set on the horizon.
“Are they supposed to disappear like that?” she asked.
He moved a little closer. “Are you worried?”
Her face flushed, and she felt the muscles in her body tighten. “No, not worried. Just curious.”
He stepped closer again, so he was standing right next to her, their feet and legs and hips inches apart, and watched the sky. “They’ll be back. They’re both old pros at this.” He looked back at her, eyebrows furrowed. “You must think it’s really strange?”
It was strange. But instead of telling him that, she just shrugged.
“My dad travels a lot for work,” he continued. “And my mom has her own stuff going on. So I’ve always had copious free time. So much free time, I learned to work words like ‘copious’ into sentences. And I worked with the crows. It’s kind of a family thing. My dad trains them, too. He started it all. Frederick is almost as old as I am.” He stopped talking and pulled his hand through his hair. “But that’s a lot of information I’m sure you don’t care about.”
“No, I don’t mind, it’s interesting.”
“Interesting. I like that.” He looked at her closer and reached a hand out. For a full second, she had no idea what he was about to do. And suddenly, his hand was on her cheek.
It felt like every sensor in her body had pooled in that one spot. A jolt ran through her, as though his touch had reached down to squeeze her stomach and tighten her throat. She could barely breathe. She couldn’t move. Like her brain had stopped processing.
He pulled his hand away. “Got it. Mud splatter. That’s what you get for biking down a wet hill.”
She put her hand to her face and felt the heat still there. “Thanks.”
“And here they come,” he said.
She turned to watch, the sleeve of her jacket brushing against his.
The crows were flying straight for Felix, their bodies dipping and rising with each stretch and release of their wings. Contractions, like a heartbeat. In a bustle of movement, they were there.
Gin stepped back and lifted her face up, feeling the wind from their wings. In another second, the crows were perched on Felix’s shoulders.
Felix held his hands up in front of the birds, and they both dropped something from their beaks.
“See?” He opened his palms flat to show two small, blue bells.
Gin picked one up, felt the cool metal in her hand. She shook it, but it didn’t make a sound. “Magic bells that only birds can hear?”
“Just broken. So they don’t ring. The birds like them for the shine and the color. And believe it or not, different colors can mean different things.” He jammed his hands in his pockets.
She liked how it felt, standing there with him, crows perched on shoulders and all.
“That’s amazing. I didn’t know anyone could do this. I mean, training crows? Where do you even start?”
He laughed. “Where you start everything: at the beginning. Want to see some more?”
And before she could answer, he whistled again, the crows taking off in a dark, cool wind.