Posted By Lauren, MKB Publicity on Monday 17th Dec 2012
There were footsteps on the wooden boards of the porch. Stomping footsteps. The rattling of the flimsy door. Bashing on it.
‘Open up! Open up in there!’
One Crow Alone
Read the first three chapters from One Crow Alone, the haunting new book from Sophie Crockett
High on a wave-battered cliff is a simple cottage built of
stone. It clings the black rocks above a churning wide-grey sea. Smoke from a
narrow chimney is beaten horizontal by the wind.
Inside the cottage a girl tends the fire.
But her baby will not sleep.
‘Do stop crying,’ the girl says. ‘It’s only September and
not too cold.’ She picked the child up and held it in her arms. ‘I’ll tell you
a story if you’re quiet for a second.’ She went to the window. ‘Look. There’s
Da coming up the path.’
It wasn’t long before a young man stooped in out of the wind
and laid a fish on the table. ‘I ain’t gonna go out no more in that wind,
Mary,’ he said, pulling a chair up to the fire. And his dog – which had slunk
in from outside – lay down at his feet like sensible dogs do.
‘The baby been quiet?’ he asked.
‘No,’ said the girl.
‘Ain’t got no rope trailing behind it,’ he said. ‘Nothing
tying it to before. No wonder it blubs all day long.’
‘I’m going to tell her a story to keep her quiet.’
‘What do you know about Magda? I can tell the kid some
‘I know what Da told me,’ Mary said. ‘But I can’t do it with
you sticking your nose in.’
Willo sat back and took off his boots. ‘I won’t stick my
nose in – even if you do get it all wrong. I’ll just sit here quiet and listen.
Ain’t heard a good Tell in a while.’
So Mary took a place by the fire. And comforting the baby in
her arms she closed her eyes – and began:
‘Once upon a time. When Crow again came to walk about on
this earth amongst men, and a shadow came to fall over the land, there lived a
poor woman and her granddaughter – hard by a Great Forest.’
Of course there were summers.
But not then.
January. When the low wooden cottages with their greying
boards and damp-swollen shutters and rickety porches on wide-planked verandahs,
sat buried in whiteness at the foot of the hill.
When stacks of split logs were piled under snow-heavy roofs
and animals shifted in dung-smelling barns and dogs forever tied bored on heavy
It begins here.
With a priest.
Pulling his collar close as he limped along the snow-covered
track that ran through a village called Morochov.
How will it end?
With children digging graves.
The priest grabbed a burnt coal from the cinder-strewn path:
Bugger off! He threw it at the cawing crow. Aagh – He gripped his aching knee.
Limped towards a small cottage, the hems of his coat growing damp as they
skimmed the banks of shovelled snow.
He peered over the broken stick fence bounding the garden.
Just a bloom of smoke hovered about the roof of the house. Icicles hung under
the eaves – the faded shutters were closed tight against the cold.
Inside the cottage an old woman was dying. The priest had
come to hear her last words.
How long since anyone official has been? he thought. There
has been no one since the power lines came down.
As his hand rested on the gate, he caught a movement in the
garden. In the deep snow under the bare apple trees a girl hacked at a half-dug
grave. He could see her belted coat straining as she lifted the heavy pick
above her head.
Clud Clud clud Cludclud. The fresh earth piled black against
‘Magda,’ the priest called out.
The girl stopped her cludding and came over. Breathless, she
leaned the handle of the pick against the gatepost. Sweat dampened the fur
under the rim of her hat. She led him silently up the icy steps of the
verandah. Stamping snow in the small, open porch, they took off their boots and
went into the house.
In the darkened bedroom, her grandmother lay on a
high iron bed like a statue under the heavy covers. The old
woman’s lips were dry and her breathing was slow and her skin had begun to
tighten and sink on to the bones of her cheeks.
The priest pulled up a chair and the old woman opened her
‘I am here,’ she said.
‘Babula –’ Magda held the pale fingers and kissed her
grandmother’s face and offered a cloth. The priest wiped his hands, heard the
old woman’s whispered secrets and late in the afternoon, after anointing her,
he closed her eyes for the last time.
‘By the sacred mysteries of man’s redemption, may Almighty
God remit to you all penalties of the present life and of the life to come. May
He open to you the gates of paradise and lead you to joys everlasting.’
Magda, bowing her head, said:
Shh! The nuts and bolts of dying are nothing more than that.
Sentiment, like the big bottle of iodine that stings in a wound, was locked
away in the cupboard.
So the priest said his words, drained the cup of vodka set
out on the table and fetched the Dudek brothers from the neighbouring house.
The snow fallen from their boots melted on the floorboards. They helped lay the
body in the open coffin between the chairs in the kitchen, their damp
soles shuffling on the bare scrubbed planks.
They didn’t talk much.
Looked at Magda as she lifted the hatch in the floor and
stepped down into the cellar.
‘Thank you,’ Magda said, handing them a bag of potatoes. The
‘She was a good woman,’ said Aleksy.
‘What you’re going to do now?’ asked his brother Brunon,
staring at the hatch in the floor.
‘I don’t know,’ Magda replied.
‘I mean – with all them potatoes?’
Magda stepped back on to the closed cellar hatch. They left.
But when they had gone the priest asked the same thing.
‘What are you going to do, Magda?’
‘What do you mean?’ she said, washing his cup at the sink.
‘You can’t stay here on your own now your grandmother is
dead. Bogdan Stopko is growing lonely. You know he has two fields – a tractor
and a pony. You’re sixteen, aren’t you? He is not a bad man. And good men don’t
grow like brambles.’
Magda turned from the sink. ‘You’re saying he’s rich – not
‘He’s rich in those things which I say. That’s half and half
of his being good.’
She dried her hands. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I
should do. It’s the middle of winter. I haven’t heard from
Mama since the power lines came down.’
‘Then maybe you should go to London. You can’t stay here
alone forever –’
‘London? How will I get to London?’ Magda hung the cloth,
bent down and riddled the stove; she threw in a few logs, and looked up at him.
‘How will I do that?’
Having no answer, the priest picked his hat up off the table
and left. It was growing dark outside.
His own fire needed tending.
Then she saw the men. Two figures. Coming
along the fence.
She pulled back.
In the darkness under the trees three trucks came to a stop.
Engines ticked over in the freezing night air. Men jumped out on to the
hard-pack of the road. Moved like shadows against the snow.
Under the higgledy roofs of the wooden houses scattered
along the valley, everyone slept.
But Magda heard a dog. Bogdan Stopko’s dog. Why did it bark
in the middle of the night?
She sat up. Lit the candle by her bed. The ice on the inside
of the window was as thick as glass. She rubbed her finger on it. Peered
through the cracks in the shutter.
Against the pale snow she could see the silhouette of the
fence and the lumpen, snow-topped shadow of Bogdan Stopko’s house off on the
other side of the street.
The dog stopped barking.
She should be praying over Babula’s coffin not sleeping. But
she had been so tired.
She rubbed at the glass again.
If the marauders come stealing, you must hide, Magda.
Quickly. A fumble for matches. Out of bed.
With a small candle trailing shadows behind her in the dark,
she tiptoed across the bare wooden boards, stopped, and crossed herself over
the body of her grandmother.
Lifting the hatch in the floor, she looked down into the
dark cellar. Before you have stepped into the cellar with Grandmother, your own
Babula, clucking like a hen, passing down the sacks of potatoes or calling for
you to fetch the salted butter – Close the barrel tight, Magda!
There was a scraping on the porch. Magda blew out the
fluttering candle and it was as dark as Hell. Her feet in woollen stockings
fumbled for the cellar steps. Heart pounding, she felt her way down and pulled
the hatch over her head.
If you had a light, it would warm your fingers and you would
see the jars along the beam. Pickled mushroom and cabbage and wild
But the darkness was a shelter and she crept further into
it. Listening. Waiting. Felt the cold, packed earth under her feet. Like a
mouse, she tried to make herself small amongst the musty sacks of potatoes.
But you are not a mouse and cannot hide like one, and if
they come down here they will find you. Maybe they will only
There were footsteps on the wooden boards of the porch.
Stomping footsteps. The rattling of the flimsy door. Bashing on it.
‘Open up! Open up in there!’
Her hands were shaking. She pushed her face into the sacks
and breathed in the smell of the earth.
If you smell the earth, then you will remember the things
that are good and not the footsteps.
Smells that conjure so much in an instant: Babula is in this
smell. Mama, she is here too, helping Babula lift potatoes from the dark soil.
Mama, bringing money and soap and sweets from London. Always telling Babula: You
have no need, old Mother, I send money so you do not have to lift your potatoes
every year. Sit back, eat cherries. Magda is here to look after you.
But when Mama has gone, Babula leans close and whispers: I
lift these potatoes because I have been hungry before and the potatoes kept me
alive then. Remember that. But you – she will put her hand out, bent like an
old root and pale. But you, little Magda – why do you stay? Go. Do not stay
here with the old ones. Keep learning to speak your English. One day I will be
And if you cry, and tell her that you do not really know
your mother – that you will never leave the village, Babula will tell you a
These are real stories, Magda, she says. Because the
television is no good when you have no electricity. And we’ve had no
power all winter. No power, no television, no telephone.
The old stories that Babula tells with her soft hand on your
face. They are good; they do not need electricity to hear them.
The story of Crow is coming right out of the sacks of
The men outside are shouting and bashing.
Thump. Thump. Walls rattling.
I’ll tell you the story of Girl and Crow, Babula begins with
a warning look. Oh, the girl was poor – but she was good. And the crow was a
beast of a crow. It had dark eyes, Magda, Babula whispers. Dark eyes. In its
‘Open up I tell you!’ come the voices loud and impatient.
It was winter. And the girl went to the forest for firewood
– as she must. Her feet were cold and her hands were cold. And when she had
gone some way she found Crow in the thicket.
‘Goddamn this cold. Open up!’
Crow was eating – Babula will make an ugly face – like this
. . . with its dirty claws bent over a dead wolf. Ripping the bloody entrails
with its strong beak. The girl saw that it was just hungry, and she felt sorry
and held out the last piece of cake from her pocket. It was a good cake –
There was a splintering of wood.
And the footsteps were inside the house. Right above Magda’s
She heard the striking of a match. Something fell on the
‘Use the bloody torch.’
The footsteps moved across the room. Light fell between the
floorboards above her.
They had found the coffin.
Magda felt the beating of the blood in her throat. She
clamped her fingers into her hand so hard it hurt. Please, God, make the men go
‘They’re dropping like flies out here,’ said the voice.
‘No wonder in this cold.’
‘Look at the old woman. These village people. Their old
ways. They should be left out here to die in peace. What good will it do taking
‘Come on. I’m not carrying out a stiff.’
There was a shuffling on the boards. The strangers tramped
about the cottage, heavy footfalls in the small room beside the kitchen.
Magda heard the broken door scraping on the floor overhead.
And then she was alone.
But she didn’t move from the corner of the cellar. Just
drew up her feet and pulled the old sacks over her body. You
prayed to God, she thought. And he made the men go away.
Lifting the hatch, barely able to feel her fingers, Magda
stuck her head up into the kitchen. An icy wind gusted through the broken door.
A thin drift of snow had blown in across the floor.
She heard a cockerel crowing. It was far off – muffled by
the shuttered windows. Morning had come. There was no sound except that
You’d think the villagers would be out in a gaggle on the
street after marauders had been stealing around in the night.
But there was nothing. Just a great silence.
The coffin lay untouched. Babula’s face staring at the
ceiling with closed, sunken eyes.
Magda went to the bedroom. Everything was untouched: the
blankets thrown back as she had left them in the middle of the night.
She took her sweater from the chair. Pulled it over her
frozen arms, rolled on thick woollen tights, stuck her legs fast into her
The oven was growing cold. Just a few smouldering embers
left. She lit a candle and took the pot of kasha from the bottom oven where it
had been sitting all night. She sat on the stool and gulped it down. It warmed
You have to be strong. You have to get out there and see
what has happened.
She took a pair of gloves, stiff and dry, from the peg above
the stove. The broken front door scraped noisily as she wrenched it over the
floorboards. The Stopko dog heard the noise. It began to bark. Loudly.
Magda looked down the street. The snow was falling thick and
heavy. An occasional gust of wind blew it up in clouds around the house, with
the smell of cold spiking the blustery air and the drifts growing deeper.
But there was nothing. No one. No sound coming from any of
The dog continued barking.
You have to go and see what has happened.
Magda came down the steps from the porch, her boots creaking
on the newly fallen snow. The wind stung her cheeks and she pulled her hat low
and made her way along the track towards the Dudeks’ house.
There was no smoke coming from the chimney. She climbed the
steps of a long wooden verandah under the frozen eaves.
She knocked on the door.
She knocked again.
A crow cawed and flapped from the top of a tree,
dislodging a clump of snow. It swept down behind Stopko’s
barn far off on the other side of the street.
On a clear day, you could have seen the mountains, and the
dark trees of the forest on the slopes not far behind the village. Now
everything was hazy in the blizzard. The dog barked again.
She felt a sweat under her clothing. Turned the handle of
the Dudeks’ door. Pushed it open.
‘Hello? Brunon? Aleksy?’
The kitchen held the remains of warmth.
‘Brunon? Aleksy? It is only me, Magda.’
But there was no answer.
She made her way to the next cottage, up to Kowalski’s
porch. Opened the door. Nothing.
Her pace quickened.
Magda left Stopko’s door until the last. It was a hope. If
Stopko had disappeared, then there was trouble that wasn’t going to go away:
you don’t just turn up and drag Bogdan Stopko out of his warm bed in the middle
of the night without a fight.
But she knew as she turned the handle.
His kitchen would be as empty as the others.
The village was deserted.
Just that dog. ‘Stop your barking, Azor!’ And when she
side of the house to his kennel the dog did stop barking. He
wagged his tail and grimaced with his teeth all at the same time.
He was a big white sheep dog, tied on a chain all winter.
But he didn’t try to bite, seemed pleased to see her, so she untied his collar
and set him loose.
The dog shook himself hard. Then came leaping and jumping at
her as she made her way to the long barn back behind the sticks of the hazel
copse. He cocked his leg against a tree, yellowing a hole in the snow.
The dog bounded over, chest high in the drifts. Magda pulled
open the doors of the barn. The smell of hay and animal came rich from inside.
There in the stall was Stopko’s pony, picking at forgotten
wisps of hay on the ground. It whinnied when she came in. She threw a bundle of
hay into the rack, then went outside and hauled a bucket of water from the
well. Leaning over the bitten wooden rail of the stall, she filled the stone
trough and the pony drank, long and grateful.
Magda sat down on the log pile. Her head sank into her
hands. You are alone. And you have no idea why. Or how.
A startled cat hissed from the top of a haystack – its back
arched like a briar. The dog barked loudly, throwing himself back on his
haunches. The pony started at the commotion, flinging its head up from the hay.
Dog gave up: sniffed along the haystack. Came over and stuck his cold nose
under Magda’s hair. Sparrows flitted in the
beams. Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow, or
reap, or gather into barns.
She pushed the dog away.
You must get back and light the stove.
There was worse at home. Babula in her coffin. Heavy as
lead. No Dudek brothers to help carry her out now. There was just a cellar full
of potatoes, a pony – and Stopko’s dog.
In some ways it was better that Babula wasn’t alive to
witness such a morning.
The stove slowly broke into life. Magda regarded the flames
with an unfocused gaze and fed sticks through the heavy iron door.
The dog curled up underneath the porch, biting at his tail.
Then thought better of such wasted freedom and snuffled off along the drifts.
Magda managed to fix up the broken door so that it closed,
and the stove slowly seeped a sort of warmth into the room. She lit a candle
and sat beside the coffin.
They have all gone, Babula. Men came in the night. I heard
them. They broke the door.
But Babula could not help her.
And Magda pulled the sheet over the old woman’s face and
turned back to the fire.
Why had they taken the villagers? All of them.
Trouble had happened in the village of Zborov last winter.
The shepherds told Stopko: ‘Strangers have been.
They came and stole our food, Pan Stopko. What should we
do?’ Old guns were brought out and hidden under beds by even older men. But in
Zborov the strangers had only taken chickens and cheese. They had been hungry
marauders from the town, desperate during the long cold winter. Only a few men
standing firm over their cellars were hurt. No one taken away. Not like this.
And you heard other news when Bogdan Stopko came back from
the market, counting out a wad of zloty with his big, hard hands. ‘It is
snowing in Rome. In Paris. In London. Snowing everywhere! Everyone is hungry.
But our mutton and honey are fetching high prices! Keep singing, boys!’
Stopko had even bought a radio.
‘Made in China, my friends!’
The men listened to the music crackling out of it. Brunon
Dudek, kicking his heels up in the sawdust, a bottle of vodka splashing in his
hand; singing badly: ‘But if you will not drink up, whoever sticks two to it,
lupu cupu, cupu lupu, whoever sticks two to it!’
And Babula tutting over a stirred pot. ‘Our luck is
another’s misfortune, Magda.’
But she had been happy enough with their share of the money.
Outside, that wretched dog was barking again. Magda got up
from her chair beside the coffin. Peered out into the blizzard. The bad day was
slipping away. But the dog was
only chasing a whirlwind of snow.
You must put Babula in the ground.
Magda took the narrow wooden lid leaning against the wall
and placed it on the coffin. She hammered the nails in with a shoe.
Where are you all? Where have you gone?
Soon the dark would fall.
And, like wolves, the spirits of the unburied dead would
creep out of the forest, crawl along the frozen river, up the banks to the
house, slither through cracks in the door and come creaking over the boards.
Maybe the candle will gutter. And blow out. And it will be
the dead of night.
In the dark you will be alone.
And the spirits will tap tap tap to wake dead Babula. And
her old bent hands will scratch at the coffin lid. You nailed me in with your
shoe, wicked girl! And the dirty long fingernails of the spirits from the
forest will prise the lid open, laughing. You didn’t bury her! You didn’t bury
her! They will scratch and rattle, and you will be lying in your bed shaking.
In the dark. Because there is no weight of earth covering her. No. You must get
her in the ground before nightfall.
Magda lifted the foot of the coffin, she kicked the chair to
one side and rested it heavily on the floor – then did the same with the other
Grasping the coffin with both hands, she pulled it
across the floor. The rails grated, catching on nailheads
and gouging tracks in the floorboards. She kicked the front door open with her
foot. It was snowing heavily outside. The wind battered like a shovel, slapping
the hair across her face. Then she had it through the door. Out in the porch,
the coffin hanging over the step with the full weight of the body inside it
weighing on her arms.
The dog appeared at the gate.
She hauled the coffin down the steps. Cadunk. She felt the
boards sag. She stepped back. The path was icy. She squared her feet and pulled
Down came the coffin. Bump, bump, bump. Thumping to the
bottom of the steps. The body inside it slumping towards her as she fell.
The dog barked.
‘Go away!’ she shouted.
He slunk backwards.
She untangled herself, kneeling in the maelstrom of
snowflakes, rubbing her bruised knee. She put out a hand, turning her mouth
from the freezing draughts of wind. ‘Azor – I didn’t mean it. Come. I won’t
Her head sank down on to the rough boards. ‘Babula,’ she
whispered into them. ‘Babula, give me strength. I am alone. Try not to be so
The dog sat a little way off, and Magda put her hands under
the coffin once more and began dragging it across the snow. She stopped to
catch her breath and looked up at the deserted houses, the rim of trees dark on
the hill behind the
village. Hadn’t she heard Kowalski say that wolves had been
seen at the forest edge?
The dog pricked his ears. If she let herself, Magda might
have thought he was listening for them. But Kowalski was a worrier: his
chickens always egg-bound, his potatoes blighted, his cellar damper than anyone
else’s. Wolves indeed. Had anyone even heard them?
With a final heave, she pushed the coffin into the shallow
grave. With a dull thump, it slid down on its side, sending up a puff of snow.
But the lid held. With the last of her strength, Magda hacked the frozen pile
of earth down on to it.
She said the prayers she thought the priest would have
But everything was wrong.
Even now it did not seem possible that Babula wasn’t
stirring a pot in the kitchen. Magda made her way, trembling, with sad steps
back to the house. ‘Azor. Come.’
He looked up. ‘Come,’ she repeated quietly.
Slowly the dog crept up the steps.
‘Come on. Come inside.’
He put his paw tentatively over the threshold. She dragged
him by the scruff of his neck. Pushed the door shut. Locked it. Breathed a
‘You can eat kasha, dog.’ She took an enamelled basin from
above the stove and ladled the remains of the morning’s porridge into it.
‘See. You are the man of the house.’ She placed the bowl
on the floor. ‘Fleas or no fleas, you have to look after me
It felt better not to be alone.
Mama said that in England people had dogs living in their
houses. They let them sleep on the bed. On the bed, Azor! They had coats for
their dogs. And chocolate. There were whole shops selling coats and chocolates
Azor wolfed down the kasha, sniffed about, slumped panting
beside the door and closed his eyes.
Magda piled fresh wood into the stove. Pulled off her boots.
At least Babula had died peacefully. Kowalski’s wife making the soup in the
last days, and holding Magda’s hand. What more could she do? Magda had no way
of contacting her mother even. No way to tell her: Babula is dead. I’m alone,
And now what? Wait?
Babula would have said. ‘If you have no answer, then make no
decision. Sleep on it. When everything stops making sense, then sense is all
that’s left. It is better, Magda, that you suffer for doing what is right, than
for doing what is wrong.’
A wind rattled the shutters.
In the fading afternoon light, Magda sat by the stove. When
her eyes could stay open no longer, she crawled into bed, pulled the cover over
her head and listened to her own breath against the pillow.
There is no use in crying. Death comes to everyone. It is
just the way. And whatever has happened in the village has
happened. There must be some explanation. Tomorrow, maybe
tomorrow, the storm will break. Tomorrow you will have to think what to do. But
now there is no better thing to do than sleep.
She kicked the blankets up around her cold feet, drew them
in and turned to the wall.
In that terrible dark loneliness she was thankful at least
for the dog guarding the door.
For a moment, as she woke, Magda forgot.
For a moment, everything was as it should be.
But the moment was gone with the opening of her eyes. She
pushed the blankets back and got up.
In the kitchen, the dog beat his tail on the floor a few
times. She caught sight of herself in the mirror above the dresser. Tugged at
her hair. Stoked up the stove.
What will you do?
Babula would have prayed. But it would be better to go and
fetch water from the well. There was the pony to feed.
She poured the last of the water from the pitcher into a pan
Magda flung the pan on to the stove. Threw on her coat and