It’s the beginning of the month, so it’s time to share another short story. This will be available for a week. If you like it and want a copy or want to support the author, it is available for sale as a free-standing ebook here, or in the collection Crow Feather: Ghostly Tales and Perilous Adventures in the Rocky Mountains, published in August of 2020, and available here.
In this short story, Martina and Jim make a surprising discovery of an Indian burial in the New Mexico Desert. Martina is soon haunted by visions. Can she make the right choices before increasingly terrifying events lead to tragedy?
Crow Feather, by Heather Ormsby ©2014,
published by Moonlit Skies Press
Jim’s ass looks great in those jeans, Martina thought, as she watched him walking ahead of her through the dry, red-brown landscape. She’d had a lot of time to study it the last hour or so on this hike that he’d insisted on taking. She didn’t really enjoy being out in the wild, and she wasn’t nearly as fit as he was. Martina stopped to take another sip of water.
“Will you hurry up? There’s another mile to go before we reach the overlook.”
Jim was looking back at her now, his hands grasping the padded shoulder straps of his backpack where he carried his camera, tripod, and his own bottle of water. Martina’s own pack only held a jacket he had insisted she bring. She was hot and sweating now but Jim said the dessert got really cool at night. She was looking forward to it.
“I don’t know why you wanted to bring me out here,” she said. “You know I’m not good at this.”
“You’re doing fine. The trail isn’t difficult and the view of the mesa will be beautiful. It’s better than hanging out at the bar all Saturday afternoon.”
Martina thought the bar sounded pretty great, but she kept her mouth shut. She capped the water bottle she was carrying in her hand and walked up to where Jim was standing.
Jim put his hand on her shoulder. “I promise you a good dinner after we’re done here and I’ll take you into town tomorrow. We can window shop or whatever. Okay?”
“Sounds great, babe,” Martina said, smiling up at him.
At least he was spending time with her. She’d driven to New Mexico from Denver just to see him, but the last two times she’d made the trip he had spent most of his time in his art studio working on his gallery shows. She liked telling people her boyfriend was an artist, but the reality was he lived in his head most of the time and he rarely saw or listened to her.
Martina shrugged her shoulders and Jim’s hand dropped down to his side.
“All right then,” he said. “Let’s get this last mile done. I want to be in place before the sun starts to set.”
Jim had been right about the trail being fairly easy. The mile went by quickly and when they came out of the scrubby pine trees onto a flat section of rock, the view of the valley and of the flat-topped mesa out in the distance was beautiful. The red color of the landscape and the darkening blue of the sky were impressive. Martina felt she could see for miles. Maybe even as far as Colorado if she tried.
The ledge they were standing on dropped away with at least a fall of twenty feet before you’d hit rock and scrub brush if a person took a bad step. The hiking trail had followed an arroyo much of the way, a ravine that Jim said filled with a flowing creek in the spring from snow melt. Martina liked the view but not the height they were on, so while Jim set up his tripod and exclaimed over how the light was going to be perfect, she walked over to a rock wall that stood to the right of the ledge, opposite of where they’d come out off their trail. Cresting that hill might provide an even better view, but the slope looked unstable, covered in rock and boulders. A particularly large boulder was at the foot of the slope, so she took her pack off and sat down on it. She could feel the warmth of the sun that had soaked into the rock all afternoon.
After a few minutes of watching Jim, Martina grew bored and turned her attention to the rock she was sitting on. The smaller rocks and stones around her looked loose and she spent some time pushing them over and causing miniature rockslides around herself. When the dust settled, Martina’s eye was caught by a rock that looked different than the rest. She reached down, picked it up, and found it was smooth and flat. What had caught her eye was a geometric pattern that she realized was painted on the shard. She could tell now that it was clay – it felt smooth, yet raw in her hand. A piece of pottery?
Martina stood up, bent forward and started to dig with her fingers in the scrabble, looking for more pottery pieces. She had loosened a lot of rock at this point and a heavier, head-sized stone above her right shoulder started to slide. Martina bounced back out of her crouch as rocks tumbled down where her head had been.
“What’s going on over there?” Jim had turned to look at what she was doing. “You’re making a racket.”
Martina didn’t look at him but stared at the rockslide. She beckoned to him with her hand.
“Come look at this.”
“What is it?”
Jim walked up to her and she pointed at a dark gap that had appeared farther up the slope. Climbing up and peering into the gap, Martina could see what looked like more pottery shards. She stretched her hand in the gap and slowly pulled them out. It was two pieces that together looked like half a bowl made of red clay with a black geometric pattern painted along the outer curve of the bowl.
Jim climbed up beside her and delicately took one of the shards from Martina.
“Very nice. Do you see anymore in there?”
“I’ll look. But keep an eye on the rocks. I don’t want my head getting crushed.”
Martina knelt down in front of what she could now see was a small cave. It appeared to go back about four feet into the hillside. The floor of it was filled with rubble but she couldn’t tell what the objects were. Reaching in, Martina felt around with her hand until she grasped a large round shape. She could lift it off the ground, but it seemed stuck to something, so with her other hand, she twisted and jerked the object toward her. It gave with a snap, nearly sending her flying backward off of her knees.
“Steady.” Jim put his hand reassuringly on her back.
Martina looked down and turned the object in her hands. She gasped and dropped it. She scrambled back against Jim.
“It’s a skull,” she shrieked.
She rubbed her hands up and down against her jeans, wiping off dust and the gritty feel of the bone.
Jim knelt down and picked up the skull to look at it.
“This must be some kind of burial. Amazing.”
Martina looked up at him as he stood there staring at the skull. The sky had turned a brilliant red behind him from the setting sun, the distant mesa in stark black outline against the sky, but he only had eyes now for the dead.
“Let’s just leave it be,” Martina said. “Put it back and cover the hole.”
“No, this is too good an opportunity.”
“We can tell someone about it,” Martina said as she stepped carefully down away from the burial and crossed her arms over her chest, holding herself away form the scene. “We should go to a museum or something and tell them what we found.”
Jim glanced back at her.
“No. Stuff like this could make us a fortune on the antiquities market. Help me with this and let’s see what we’ve got.”
“A fortune? Someone would really pay for old bones?”
“Collectors like this old pottery. There may even be jewelry, old turquoise, or other things. We won’t know till we look.”
Curious, Martina stepped back up and pulled out her cell phone. Using the flashlight application, she shone the light into the darkness. Jim knelt down beside her and pulled more loose rock out of the way, widening the cave. Then, reaching in, he pulled out a long, oblong object that could only be the rest of the body.
When they got a better look at it in the dying sunlight, they could see it was wrapped in some kind of animal skin that was dry and started to crumble to bits as Jim tried to unwrap it. It soon became pretty obvious that there wasn’t anything of value on the desiccated corpse itself, so Jim laid the body aside and turned back to the burial cave.
Reaching in he began to pull out smaller objects wrapped in skin as well as some pottery. All of the pottery was broken except for one small bowl that was red clay with black bird shapes painted around the bowl. The wings were stylized, geometric shapes.
Martina picked up the bowl with both hands and gently nestled it inside of Jim’s backpack.
Jim unwrapped the other bundles. One held a bundle of feathers wrapped with sinew to hold them together.
“What is that?” Martina asked.
Jim gave it a gentle shake.
“An old style feather duster?” He winked at her.
He laid the bundle down and picked up the smaller parcel and unwrapped it. Inside were red, black and turquoise beads. They looked as though they’d been strung on something that had disintegrated. They still had the shape of a necklace but as Jim moved the wrapping in his hand the beads loosed and rolled around in his cupped hand.
“Careful, they’ll fall out,” Martina said.
“I’ve got it.”
Jim slowly stood and backed away with the package and started to roll the hide back over the beads to hold them together. He glanced up at the sky and was startled at how dark it was getting.
“I think that was everything in the hole. Let’s wrap up these beads and the bowl in our packs. We’ll take the other pottery shards as well. There’s collectors who’ll pay for the larger pieces.”
“What about the body?” Martina pointed to the head that still lay out in the open Dry wisps of black hair floated in the light desert breezes.
“It’s a bit of a mess. Let’s lay it back inside and put some rocks in front of it to cover it back up.”
After the clean up and packing was done they went back on the trail. It was dark now and Jim pulled a small hiker’s headlamp out of one of his backpack’s pockets. There wasn’t room any more in his pack for his camera, so he had its strap around his neck and it bounced along on his chest as he walked.
Martina followed behind carrying his tripod in her arms and in her backpack she had some pottery shards and the bundle of feathers wrapped up in her jacket. She had her eyes fixed on the circle of light that Jim’s headlamp cast out on the ground. The desert was dark all around them. She felt uneasy about what they’d done, but Jim had promised her some of the money. She just wanted to get back safely to the car so she could then more comfortably think about how she’d spend it.
A breeze played with the scrub pine and grasses along their path. The rustling of the vegetation and scurrying of small animals would startle Martina. She imagined that something was following them.
When they made it to their parked car it sat there, dark and cold. They got in and Martina shivered, she wished she’d been able to get her jacket but it was padding now for the pottery. Jim started the car and turned on the heat.
“All right. Let’s get this stuff back to the house. Then we’ll celebrate with dinner out.”
Jim pulled his car out onto the gravel road, headlights cutting a path into the dark. When they reached the black top of the highway, he turned left onto it and picked up speed. It seemed there was no one else around for miles. The car started to warm up and Martina felt sleepy, her eyelids just starting to drag down when she saw a dark shape on the road ahead.
“Look out,” she cried as the shape – a bird she could see that now – spread its wings out wide. A huge wall of black feathers flashed in their headlights. Jim slammed on the brakes and the tires of the car slid out to the right into the gravel. They heard small popping sounds as the gravel flew up under the car. Martina wrapped her arms around her head. A squeal leaked out through her clenched teeth.
“Shit,” Jim shouted. He wrestled with the wheel and got the car stopped. They were pressed up against a speed sign on the side of the road.
“What the fuck.” Jim put the car in park and got out, looking out into the night. There was nothing to see.
Getting back into the car he looked over at Martina who sat with her arms wrapped tightly across her chest.
“Are you ok?”
She nodded. “What was that? Birds don’t fly at night.”
“It looked like a crow. A damn big one. They eat carrion. There must have been a tasty morsel on the road.”
“We didn’t hit it did we?” Martina unwound herself and looked back over her left shoulder, trying to get a look at the highway.
“I don’t think so. I didn’t hear a thump, and I didn’t see it out there. It must have flown off.”
The rest of the night went smoothly but Martina was still feeling anxious. She didn’t eat very much of their steak dinner and the margarita she ordered tasted too sour and didn’t sit well in her stomach.
Before they went to bed, Martina insisted that the artifacts be put away in the closet with the door shut. She didn’t want the items lying out in the open. Jim scoffed but he didn’t argue with her, mostly because he wanted sex and a big argument wouldn’t help.
After a perfunctory performance, Jim fell asleep right away. His face was nestled against her neck and his arm lay heavily over her chest. He was warm against her, almost hot, but she felt comforted by his physicality. She lay there listening to Jim breathe softly and she stared at the crack in the ceiling until her eyes grew heavy and she fell asleep.
Martina opened her eyes. The room was dark and she felt cold now, but her limbs were heavy and she felt as though she couldn’t move if she tried. Just as this thought flitted through her mind, she saw a soft glow across the room. She squinted and tried to focus. Slowly the shape of a man appeared. The image wasn’t clear but he didn’t seem very tall, his back was to her and his head turned slowly from side to side, as if searching for something. As she stared, Martina could see that the man was bare-chested. He wore some kind of legging or pants and his hair was black and pulled back from his face into a long tail.
She’d felt calm, almost as if she was in a trance, but when the man turned and looked at her she saw that his eyes were completely black and empty holes in his head. Martina whimpered. She tried to speak but her mouth wouldn’t open and her limbs still lay heavy and inert.
The man slowly raised his right arm and she could see a bundle of feathers in his hand. He used them to point at her and he began to sway back and forth. She couldn’t hear him saying anything but his lips moved as if he were speaking or chanting.
After a minute, he stopped swaying. He raised both arms up high at his side as if they were wings. His mouth opened wide into a crack of darkness. Running straight at them he leapt when he reached the bed.
Martina jolted straight up, her heart pounding. She shook Jim who snored next to her.
“Wake up, wake up, wake up.” Her throat felt tight and she sounded hoarse, as though she’d been screaming.
Jim swatted her hand away and raised his head and shoulders.
“What is it?”
“I saw something. A ghost. Jesus, it looked right at us.”
Jim sat up with groggy interest.
“What did it look like?”
“He looked Indian. He was short and stood over there by the closet. He turned into a bird.”
“Babe. You were dreaming. You just had the one margarita, right?”
“I know what I saw and I wasn’t dreaming.” She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him.
“Okay fine. It’s gone now. I’m gonna get some more sleep. Sun isn’t even up yet.”
Jim lay back down and turned over onto his right side, his back to Martina. She knew she wasn’t going to get any more sleep. She got up and wrapped a robe around herself and padded on bare feet into the kitchen.
Martina turned on the light over the stove and made some tea. The sound of the kettle, the scent of the brewing tea, and the warmth of the cup in her hands, soothed her nerves.
She just knew that the ghost had followed them from the grave. The question was, is it just angry or is there something it wants? She knew they shouldn’t have taken anything. Whatever money they got for the artifacts wouldn’t be worth it if they were haunted the rest of their lives.
Sitting at the kitchen window, she stared at her reflection in the window glass, waiting for the sun to rise.
Jim didn’t say anything about Martina’s ghost sighting later that morning and she kept quiet as well. She asked about his plans for the pottery and feathers and beads and he said he would take some pictures that day and email them to a friend of his who had sold some things like this before.
While he worked in his studio on this project and on editing the few photographs he had taken yesterday, Martina walked into town. She wanted some time alone to think about what she had seen.
The town square had the usual jewelry and New Mexico art shops as well as tourist places selling bags of ground red chile and T-shirts and aprons with chiles dancing along the cloth. It being October, there was also artwork featuring decorated skulls to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos – the Day of the Dead -a holiday celebrated by Mexican culture to remember the dead around All Souls Day. The decorations were friendly and colorful but Martina shivered when she saw them and quickly glanced away.
Mid-afternoon, Martina got a coffee and sat on a bench in the plaza. Sitting in the warm sun, she slowly relaxed and closed her eyes, drifting into a doze. Images of jewelry she’s seen that day floated across her mind’s eye. Maybe she could use the money to buy some?
The rough cawing of a crow broke through her reverie. She opened her eyes and saw a crow perched on the top of the bench facing her own in the plaza. Its head was turned sideways, a glittering black eye looking right at her. The bird’s beak opened and it released another cawing sound.
“I’m sorry,” Martina whispered.
The crow didn’t reply but spread its wings and flew up and straight towards her head. She ducked and flung her arms up to cover her hair. She felt the wind from its wings as it passed over her and then she could hear it cawing from wherever it had settled.
Someone chuckled and Martina looked up and turned to see an old man standing there, leaning on a cane carved out of wood. The man looked at her.
“Crow has his eyes on you. You best be careful or he’ll carry you to the dead.”
“What? What do you mean?”
The old man turned away, lifting his arm and flicking his hand toward her. He shook his head, his long white hair swinging along his back. He shuffled away in his dusty jeans and cowboy boots. Martina wanted to follow but she didn’t think he’d answer her questions.
That night, Martina and Jim ate dinner at the kitchen table at home. Jim had picked up some tamales on his way home from the studio.
Sitting at the table, Jim talked about his day. His eyes gleamed and his cheeks were flushed pink.
“Mike got back to me right away when I emailed him those pictures of the artifacts. He’s offered a good sum for the lot, but I’m wondering if we couldn’t get more money? Never take the first offer right?”
Jim didn’t wait for confirmation but forked more stuffed corn meal into his mouth, chewed twice and swallowed.
“And who knows? There might be more burials at that overlook. We should go looking soon.”
A loud thump against the window shook the glass and frame. Martina shrieked and jumped up. She couldn’t see anything but her own reflection in the glass. The night was an inky blackness outside.
“What the hell.” Jim ran outside, throwing the porch light on as he went.
He yelled back to her. “It was a bird. Stupid thing broke its neck.”
Martina stepped outside, slowly placing one foot in front of the other. She could see Jim kneeling over a large black bird, its feathers shining in the light from the porch and through the kitchen window.
Jim stood up and toed the bird with his boot. The feathers rustled with the movement but otherwise the bird lay still. Martina came closer and saw that its eyes were shut and the neck was twisted at an awkward angle.
“Birds are flying at night now I guess,” Jim said. “Well, I’m not going to bury it in the dark. Let’s just pitch it in the garbage bin.”
“No.” The thought of the bird lying there among the table scraps made her stomach churn. “Let’s leave it alone, but cover it up with something so the animals don’t get to it. Then we can bury it in the morning.”
Jim nodded his head in agreement and went to the shed to find something to cover it with. He brought out a metal bucket and set it over the carcass. It just fit. For good measure, Jim set a heavy rock on top of the bucket to keep it from tipping over.
The night was cool and Martina rubbed her hands up and down over her arms.
“That’s enough excitement for tonight,” Jim said. “Let’s go inside.”
He draped his arm over Martina’s shoulders and led her into the house.
Later that evening, Jim and Martina lay in bed. Jim had the television on in the bedroom and Martina fell asleep listening to Jim chuckle at the jokes of a late night talk show host.
A few hours into sleep, Martina awoke. She lay there blinking in the dark. She didn’t see anything and wondered what had woken her. Then she heard it – the raspy cawing of a bird outside.
Caw, caw, crawk.
It seemed to some closer with each croak. She then heard a soft tapping at the bedroom window. The curtains were closed so she couldn’t see anything But she heard another louder caw and another harder tap and click at the window. It was as though a bird’s beak were tapping on the glass.
Martina refused to look out the window. She’d be damned if she got out of this bed. She burrowed in closer to Jim who was sound asleep and warm in the bed beside her. She pulled the bed coverlet up tight over herself and clutched it under her chin. She lay staring at the window, listening to the taps and caws, until they faded away as the sun rose.
When Jim woke up and went into the bathroom to take a shower, Martina unfolded her limbs and got out of bed. Her knees shook as she wobbled into the kitchen, but whether it was from exhaustion or fear, she wasn’t sure.
She made a pot of coffee and was sipping from a cup while she stood, leaning against the counter, when Jim walked into the kitchen.
“Are you feeling alright? You’ve got some dark circles under your eyes,” Jim said.
Martina nodded her head. “I just didn’t sleep very well.”
“You should take a nap this afternoon. I’ve got to run into the studio to meet with a gallery owner. You want me to pick anything up for you while I’m out?”
“Thanks, but I’m fine. I’ve got my car if I need anything.”
Jim filled his travel mug with coffee and planted a kiss on the top of her head.
“Can you take care of that bird? I don’t have time right now and I don’t want it to start stinking up the yard.”
Martina’s hand tightened on the mug, but she nodded yes.
“See you tonight then.”
Martina got dressed and then, taking a deep breath, she stepped out of the front door. The bucket still sat with its rock weighing it down. She walked past it and went to the shed where she found a shovel. She took it back to where the bucket stood. She’d use the shovel to pick up the carcass. She didn’t want to touch the thing with her own hands.
Martina picked up the rock and tossed it aside. Then she picked up the bucket and turned it over. She stared at what had been inside. It wasn’t possible.
There was a single long, black feather on the ground. A slight breeze lightly ruffled its edges. On the quill end was a blood red thread twisted and knotted around the feather.
Martina dropped the shovel and went back into the house. Enough was enough. She quickly packed her suitcase. Then she grabbed one of the backpacks they’d used on their hike. She opened the hall closet and took out the pottery and feather bundle and beads that Jim was still keeping there after photographing them. She packed them into the backpack and took it and her suitcase to the car. She went back to the house to lock it up, and then, as an afterthought, she picked up the feather with its red thread and put it in the backpack as well.
It took her a few wrong turns to find the correct turnoff for the hiking trail to the mesa overlook. When she found the right place, she parked the car near the highway and locked it, put the backpack on her back and walked as quickly as possible to the overlook ledge.
When she got there an hour and a half later, it looked like no one else had been there since they’d left it. Martina took off the backpack and felt the sweat cool on her back as a breeze blew. She went to the rock pile, climbed up, and carefully pulled and lifted stones until she had uncovered the burial cave.
Martina grabbed the backpack and unloaded the parcels. Very carefully, Martina placed each package inside with the body. Once done, she double-checked the backpack to make sure there weren’t any pottery scraps left inside.
She stood up and carefully placed rubble and stones in front of the burial, blocking the entrance. She kept piling rock until she was sure no one could randomly find it.
She swept the dust from her jeans with her hands, then hoisted the pack and hiked back out. When she got back to the car she took off the pack and put it inside, then she took out her cell phone. She stood there and dialed the number to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Santa Fe that she had looked up the day before. She knew she had to notify the authorities or Jim would just come back here and loot the grave again.
She listened to the menu on the office’s recording and selected what she thought would be the best option. As she waited for her call to go through, she looked down and saw something black sticking out from under the car. Her heart sinking, she bent down and picked up the crow feather that must have fallen out of her pack as she got out of the car.
Jim was seething. His foot pressed down harder on the gas pedal. His meeting with the gallery owner hadn’t gone well, but he then got a call from his antiquities contact. They were offering more money but insisted on seeing the objects before closing on the deal.
Going back to the house, he found Martina and her car were gone. He hadn’t grown suspicious until he found that the closet was open and the artifacts were also gone.
He was sure she had taken the items to sell on her own. He didn’t know where she had gone, but he needed to have something for his meeting and he knew where there might be more.
“That bitch,” Jim said out loud. His hand gripped the steering wheel.
As he approached the turnoff for the hiking trail to the overlook he saw Martina’s car.
She’d come back for more! He couldn’t believe it.
He was going too fast for the turn and his foot slammed hard on the brake as he made the turn. When he felt the car slide on the gravel, he realized his mistake. He was trying to correct the spin when he saw he was hurtling towards Martina who had just stood up next to her car, a feather in her right hand and a cell phone in her left.
His car slammed into her and her car, pushing both over the side of the arroyo that ran alongside the road. His own car followed and flipped over and over. Jim lost consciousness when his head hit the roof of the car the first time.When the cars stopped at the bottom of the ravine and the dust had settled, a calm quiet filled the dry air. A dark bird fluttered and flapped and settled on a boulder that overlooked the scene. Opening its beak it let out a loud, raspy caw, then flapped its large wings and flew up and away toward the distant mesa.
2 Comments Add yours
Another great story, Heather! I bought and read this one when it first came out and had forgotten how it ended. Did they die? LOL! It was interesting how he thought she had taken the ruins for herself, but she was doing the right thing in putting them back. Too little, too late though.
Keep the stories coming. They seem to be all I can finish reading these days.
Love you, Sarietha ________________________________
Thank you, Sarietha! I’m glad you enjoyed it, even if it is tragic.