The Big Man is taking the tree. But the great oak is the home of the murder and Mac must do everything he can to save it. Will he be able to persuade his people of what needs to be done? Or will the murder turn and end his life?
‘Bill, you taking the tree as well?’
Bill rested the box against the side of his truck and took a deep breath. ‘I’ll take it down after lunch.’
‘Jo and Jeff are coming for lunch.’
‘Fine. I’ll do it later, after they’ve gone.’
He hefted the box over the edge of the truck and thumped it down, picturing his wife staring heavenward and throwing her hands up in disgust. Did other people have this? Were other people’s lives organised with such military precision. He’d ask Jo and Jeff. He bet they didn’t have every day written down on a chart. His wife didn’t either, but sometimes, it felt like it.
He glanced at his feet as a huge black crow flapped past. It paused, cocked its head to one side, and stared at him. Probably looking for worms, or hoping he was going to toss some old grain out. Such simple concerns. He stared enviously back, then sighed and climbed into the truck.
Mac swooped away from the Big House until he reached the field. His wings shook as he flapped down towards the cold ground. His caws rang out over the farm, filling the grey sky with the lonely cry of his people. He ruffled his feathers until they sat perfectly against one another, then settled himself into the snow that lay an inch deep across the world.
One by one, his people came. Black shapes against the sky, swooping and wheeling, each proclaiming his or her entrance with a cry and a turn. Not one of them wanted to land on the snow-covered field, but a murder had been called, and you didn’t ignore the call.
They gathered, forming lines like waves to listen to the teller. Mac felt a momentary pang of panic. He hadn’t spoken in months. It hadn’t mattered, there were always plenty who wanted to be teller. Would his voice be up to it? Would they approve?
He knew they wouldn’t. The world was coming to an end, of course they wouldn’t.
As the last of the murder settled, he cleared his throat and rose to his claws.
‘My people. I come to you today with truly dire news. The great tree is being taken away.’
His people gasped, turning to stare at the mighty oak that formed the centre of their world. ‘I heard it only a few heartbeats ago, from the Big Woman Man and the Big Man. He’s taking it this afternoon.’
Cut flared his wings and hopped out of the snow closer to Mac. ‘What proof have you?’
Mac was ready for this. He spun his neck and blinked, refusing to look Cut in the eye. Then he repeated, word for word, the conversation he’d just overheard. By the time he was finished, the murder was once more chirping and screeching. The proof was good. It wasn’t approval, but he was safe from the judgement.
A hundred conversations broke out, filling the field with the squawkings of panic. Mac turned to How. His old friend had settled himself into the snow and was pecking absently at it.
‘What are we going to do?’ Mac asked.
How shrugged. ‘Dunno.’
‘Is that the best you can do?’
‘When the Bigs say they’re gonna do something, you just have to go along with it, don’t you?’
‘But we can’t. It’s our tree.’
‘So we find a new tree.’
They paused and looked around them at the vast flat fields that ran in all directions. From their vantage point on the floor, the oak towered majestically, the only tree visible in any direction. How wiped his beak in the snow and nodded. ‘Fair point. What are we gonna do?’
Mac sighed and jabbed his friend with his beak. ‘That’s what I asked you.’ He took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. How was a nice fella to have around, always shared a worm and kept his nest tidy, but he wasn’t one of the farm’s deep thinkers.
He looked again at the tree and the memories came flooding in. He could remember his hatching and learning to fly. He could remember the day his feathers turned. Every year they sat up there and watched the seasons roll round. From harvest to sowing, when the big Rumble Rollers came and churned the soil, they watched. And they remembered.
How grunted and shifted, flicking snow in all directions as he struggled to get comfortable. Mac watched him and, just like that, it came to him. He bounced out of the snow and landed again, wings flaring. ‘How about a sit in?’
‘A sit in. We fill the tree with our brothers and sisters until he has no choice but to see us.’
How cocked his head to one side and blinked one idle black eye. ‘You sure that’s gonna work?’
‘Of course not. But what other choice do we have?’
‘Fair point. May as well give it a go. Don’t fancy your chances much.’
Mac jabbed him in the wing. ‘Thanks for the support.’
‘Hey mate, that’s why I’m here.’
Mac thrust upwards and spread his massive wings, crying for silence. The ‘roark’ cut across the conversations and the murder quietened. ‘My people. We have the answer.’
He took a deep breath. ‘We shall stage a sit in.’
He was met with a wall of objections, screeches and caws, shaken beaks and glaring eyes. But he weathered every one, arguing, cajoling, pecking where necessary.
Cut shouted the loudest, raising memories from generations ago, of failed sit ins. He cawed of the mighty birch that had been hacked down many winters ago.
Politics was brought into it, that ugly and demeaning beast. There were accusations of Mac’s affiliation with the upper branch dwellers, and murmurs of back claw deals with the worm gatherers.
But Mac persevered. Every argument, he countered. Every disagreement, he met with logic. His throat was hoarse and his wings aching when finally, grudgingly, the murder agreed.
Just as the Big Man’s Shouty Rolling Thing came down the track to the farm, the murder rose up from the field. Their black wings blocked out the pale sun as they wheeled and dived as one. Within moments, the great oak was covered in crows.
Every branch and every empty piece of trunk was covered in black feathered protesters, every one glaring down at the Big Man. He stared up at them before going into his house.
Mac clung to the branch. His claws were hurting, though the snow was as much to blame as the tension that made his wings ache. The day went agonisingly slowly.
Every time the Big Man or the Big Woman Man emerged from the house, Mac covered his eyes with his wing, waiting for the rough throated call of the Shouty Cutter. Other Bigs arrived, declaring good intentions that Mac knew to be lies, hiding their true calling as killers of the great tree.
But as the sun dipped, and the shadows signalled the work day over, the crows declared their victory and rose screeching into the sky.
Mac stayed where he was, perched modestly as the murder offered their congratulations. This was a great day for his people, and his contribution to it wouldn’t be forgotten for a long time. He straightened one wing and began to preen, sighing contentedly.
Bill dragged the old Christmas tree out into the garden and tossed it onto the fire. He looked at the sky. Clear night, should be dry tomorrow. He’d burn it then. A vast cloud of crows rose into the sky, shouting and screaming. He watched them wheel and turn, and shook his head. He could handle that. No worries, no cares, just your wings and the wind.
He sighed, tucked his thumbs into his belt, and ambled back inside.