Gentle and silent, living in his caravan, out in the trees, in the edge land, nestling in the selvedge of the town. Beyond the high tide mark of broken bikes, empty bottles, cans, old mattresses washed up against the tree line. In wordless, instinctive agreement, we would gather at the end of the street like starlings each evening, a murmuration of children swirling into the woods, following the deep brown smell of woodsmoke and stew.
Crow Joe was a magician. He uncovered hidden things with a wave of his earth-stained hands, knuckles twisted and swollen like oak galls. Revealed fragile blue eggs in the robin’s nest built in an old wheelbarrow next to the caravan door. That whole spring, he climbed out of the window until the babies had fledged rather than disturb them. He showed us spider webs, jewelled with diamonds of dew, an amber and gold spider set in the middle. He taught us the difference between tawny field mushrooms and scarlet fly agaric oozing death and glamour. The places where the badger cubs would tumble out of their set to play at sunset like children released from a classroom. Like us.
He mended broken wings and legs, spoke to the anarchy of jackdaws that held their town hall meetings in the oak tree peppering us with acorns as we approached the clearing. They left him gifts of keys, brooches, old coins, and earrings, laid out on the caravan steps.
Crow Joe. He had a familiar. A one-legged magpie that he had rescued from a trap. It sat on his shoulder, shared his meals. Watched him perform kitchen magic turning blackberries and crab apples into deep purple jars of jam.
Crow Joe. He was there until he wasn’t. No one knew where it started, only that the gossip spread like a fungus, running underground from the mothers at the school gate until it reached his clearing, building and rumbling like a summer storm making the air crackle. After dark we heard the motorbikes snarling in the wood, saw lights playing above the trees.
We set out to look for him the next day. We found his hat,his brown trilby hat with a bright blue jay’s feather tucked into the band. It was crushed into the muddy ground, a vicious boot print across the flattened crown.
The caravan windows were smashed, vile words scrawled along the walls, black and tarry. The jackdaws were silent and drops of water dripped from the trees, hissing like adders as they hit the still warm ashes of his cooking fire.
Next morning,at the school gates, adult eyes skittered away from our faces like bugs under a lifted rock. No one could look at the litter of broken spells, eggshell thin on the floor at their feet.
Karen Arnold is a writer and psychotherapist . She came to writing later in life, but is busy making up for lost time. She is fascinated by the way we use narratives and story telling to make sense of our human experience. She won the Mslexia prize for flash fiction in 2022. She has work in The Waxed Lemon, The Martello,and Roi Faineant amongst others. She can be found on twitter @aroomofonesown_4