“The Crow at the Door”
Copyright 2020 Jack Sutter
It was the last days of winter. The air was still cold and crisp, and the trees were still barren as they slept. All save one. Amidst the leafless, spidery limbs of her fellows, one tree was already wide awake, and her graceful limbs were layered with an abundance of lacy white flowers.
At the base of this conspicuous tree, a young woman sat cross legged. Spread out on the ground before her were several sheafs of music, and in her lap she cradled a large, violin like instrument, with a set of keys on the fretboard and crank handle at its base which was connected to a wheel inside the soundbox, which served in place of a bow. As she turned the handle, the wheel spun against strings and filled the air with a deep, reedy drone not unlike a bagpipe. As her fingers worked the keys, the drone was joined by the staccato chant of an ancient melody.
Abruptly, the music stopped, as the woman’s hand froze over the crank of the instrument. She peered at the music in front of her, with a frown on her face. Then with a sigh, she began again, and the air was once again filled with the throaty voice of her instrument.
Deeper still in the base of the tree, hardly visible amidst the grass and clover, there was a deep knot in the wood, hardly more than four inches high. And set within this knot, there was a tiny blue door. With a click and a creak, so small as to be inaudible, the door opened, and a tiny, sleepy face peered out. After listening for a moment, the door opened the rest of the way, and a tiny little man stepped out into the sunlight.
He was barely over three inches tall, though if you’d asked him he would have insisted he was more near three and half than three. His eyes, ears and nose were all a bit too large for his face, and his skin was brown and wrinkly like a walnut. He was dressed in a little yellow nightgown, and on his head was a matching yellow nightcap, and on his feet were a pair of little wooden shoes, hastily put on over a pair of green and yellow striped socks. He blinked and rubbed his heavy eyes as he stood at his doorstep and listened to the great music which was booming down from the heavens. It was still a bit too early in the year to wake up for anything other than winter tea and Christmas. But as the music filled his ears and the sun beamed down on him through the shady grass, he felt the light of springtime warming his sleepy heart, and a smile began to spread across his lips, and slowly his feet began to shuffle. The tiny clicks of his wooden shoes on his bark doorstep were utterly drowned out by the woman’s instrument, but the little man continued to clog merrily to the music.
Then abruptly, the little man froze.
Perched on the desolate limb of a bare tree not far away, was a large black crow, which was eyeing the little man keenly with a dark, beady eye. Swiftly, the little man darted back inside his door, and closed it behind him, while outside the music continued to play on.
The woman continued to play for some time, stopping and starting now and again as she hit upon more difficult passages in the music, and eventually she found herself stuck on one particularly troublesome section, and try after try she could never quite get it right. At length, she saw that the sun was nearing midmorning, and with a sigh she gathered up her music and instrument and departed.
Shortly after the woman had left, a large, black crow landed on the ground beside the tree, and hopped over to the tiny blue door. He cocked his head a couple of times as he eyed the door, and then with a couple pecks of his beak he knocked.
“Open up, little man!”, the bird chirped. “I know you’re awake!”
“Go away!”, a tiny voice said in reply. “I’m not awake at all!”
“Liar!”, the bird scoffed.
“No really!”, the voice said. “I am gone back to bed, and I shan’t wake up again until next month. You’ll have to wait until then.”
“Why should I?”, the bird retorted. “Now is just as good a time.”
“Our agreement was that it should always be on the first day of spring precisely!”, the voice protested. “Now is much much too early! I shan’t be ready before then!”
“Liar!”, the bird cried again. “I know you have enough silver hidden away in that tree to pay your rent a hundred times over! These are my woods, little man, and you will pay your rent as you have sworn!”
“Not until the first day of spring!”, the voice replied firmly. “That has always been the agreement, and I stand by my oaths just as you do.”
“Very well”, the bird grumbled. “But on the first day of spring I shall be back, and if you know what’s good for you had better produce the silver promptly. Otherwise, you may have a very difficult year ahead of you. Very difficult indeed.”
And with that, the great black crow flew off.
Deep inside the tree, the tiny little man curled up sadly inside his tiny little bed. Things had always been so peaceful in his lovely little corner of the woods. But ever since the crow had come, everything had changed. King Crow, so the bird called himself, sovereign of the woods and ruler of the treetops. The little man had no idea whether the old crow was really king of anything at all, but either way the wretched bird was very good at making a nuisance of himself to all and sundry, whether it be harassing the little Treefolk or mobbing the great birds and beasts of the woods with his gang of followers. With a sigh, the little man curled up deeper within his sheets, and tried his best to go back to sleep. Someday he would run out of silver, and then he didn’t know what he’d do.
He didn’t get to sleep long. Hardly more than a day, in fact! The very next morning, he was again awakened by the sound of music outside his door. With a sigh, he climbed out of his bed, and wearily made his way to his door.
Outside, there was no sign of Old King Crow. But there was a great shadow cast over his doorstep, and as the little man looked up he saw a great shape.
She was radiantly beautiful, a great human giantess looming over the grass like a goddess. The Treefolk always did their best to avoid humans. Not that there was anything really wrong with humans. But it’s hard, really, to get on well with people who are twenty-five times your size, and history had taught the Treefolk that it was generally best to leave humans to themselves. But that didn’t change the fact that humans were ever such magnificent and beautiful creatures nonetheless. Even seated the human woman still towered above the world like a titan, with a great machine resting in her lap from which the celestial music came.
Then suddenly, the little man had an idea.
It was a thoroughly daft idea. No sensible Treefolk in his would ever dream of doing such a thing. But it was such a simple and straightforward idea, and quite respectable, really. After all, why should humans be exempt from neighborliness? True, they were gigantic (perhaps dangerously so), but they didn’t seem to be all that different from Treefolk. Really, they seemed to be quite respectable creatures, all things considered. With a sense that he might possibly be mad, the little man ducked quickly back inside his house. A few minutes later, the little man emerged once again, groomed and dressed in a striped green and yellow hat, green trousers, and his best yellow tunic.
Outside, the music had stopped. The woman was peering at the music before her. That same passage was making a nuisance of itself again. She gently brushed away a small twig which had fallen on her instrument and began again, only to stop a moment later as she stumbled over the notes. Why couldn’t she manage to get it right? She brushed away another twig which had fallen on her instrument, and started yet again.
Abruptly, a third twig landed, this time right on her hand. She had seen it come just out of the corner of her eye, and it didn’t seem as though it had fallen from the trees, but had rather come from just to her side. As she brushed the twig away she chanced to glance in that direction, and then stopped as her eyes alighted on a tiny, yellow clad figure standing on an exposed root. In its hand the figure held a tiny twig, and as she stared the figure gently threw the twig in her direction.
“Good morning!”, the little figure said in a tiny, shrill voice. “I do hope I haven’t disturbed you.”
The woman’s eyes were wide, and her mouth hung slightly open as she stared speechlessly back at the little man.
The little man cleared his throat. “I say!”, he repeated, “Good morning! I do hope I haven’t disturbed you.”
The woman choked a little, and swallowed hard.
“What on earth….”, she stammered.
“I do apologize if I have disturbed you”, the little man went on hastily. “Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Daffeldim, Pucklegood Daffeldim, and this tree is my home.”
The woman swallowed hard again, and crossed herself.
“…fairyfolk!”, she murmured.
“Well, I’d hardly say that”, the Daffeldim replied. “We Treefolk are only distantly related to any fairies, you know. We’ve hardly anything to do with them at all, really. We Treefolk prefer to keep to our own kind for the most part.”
“What do you want with me?”, the woman stammered.
“To say ‘Good morning’”, Daffeldim answered. “And also to thank you for the lovely music.” Daffeldim then bent over, and with a heave he picked up a small silver ring which was lying on the ground beside him, and held aloft towards the woman.
“I also wanted to give you this”, Daffeldim said, “to thank you for the lovely music. Go ahead, try it on!”
Her eyes still wide, the woman reached out and gingerly took the ring from the tiny man’s hands.
“It’s only the tiniest bit magical”, Daffeldim said as the woman slipped the ring on her finger. “But it was blessed long ago by a great fairy with the runes of spring. Your music carries the magic of spring too, and I thought you ought to have it.”
“Thank you”, the woman murmured as she stared at the ring on her finger. “But I cannot accept this. It is dangerous for a human to accept the gifts of the fey.”
“Have no fear!”, Daffeldim protested. “I’m not some pixie that I should try to ensnare somebody with an enchantment. That’s not the way us Treefolk do things, you know. But I was wondering if you might help me with a small matter.”
“Ah?”, the woman replied. “What could I ever do for a fairy?”
“Well, it’s like this, you see”, Daffeldim replied. He then proceeded to speak at length. As he spoke the woman listened attentively, and giggled now and again as the tiny little man said something amusing. Every now and then she interjected with a question, and soon enough the pair were chatting away merrily as if there were no difference between them, save a few dozens of inches in height. And it was at that time that a most extraordinary thing occurred:
The human woman and the Treefolk man became friends.
Many days later, the first day of spring arrived at last. A shadow passed over the tree of Pucklegood Daffeldim, and with a whoosh the Old King Crow landed again at the the little man’s doorstep, and pecked authoritatively at the door.
“Open up, little man!”, the bird cried smugly. “It’s the first day of spring! I shall fulfill my part of the oath this year, but only if you give me double the silver! Otherwise, I’ll see to it that you shan’t have a moment’s peace all year!”
“That was never our agreement!”, Daffeldim replied from behind his door. “But it doesn’t matter anymore, I think it’s high time our agreement came to an end.”
Old King Crow was about to reply, but instead fell over with a squawk as from out of nowhere a sizable stone hit him square in the side.
“What is this!”, the old crow cried as he hobbled to his feet, only to stumble over again as another stone ploughed into the ground beside him. “I am King Crow, ruler of these woods! Who dares to…”
The crow didn’t have time to finish his statement, as another stone hit him square in the belly, knocking the wind out of him with a whoosh. With a squawk, he fluttered up into the top of the tree, only to take off and fly away as more stones came flying in his direction.
As the crow flew away, a young woman stepped out from hiding nearby.
“That’s right, crow!”, she cried as she threw one final stone at the retreating bird. “Fly away! These woods belong to a noble human house, not you! Be gone and never come back, or next time I’ll bring a pack of dogs with me!”
The next morning, the woman returned to the tree, and began her music once more, with a silver ring on her finger. Perhaps it was the magic of the ring, or perhaps it was just practice, but over the last several days she had gotten much better, and had moved on to even more challenging pieces. As so she sat at the tree, playing a sprightly tune while a tiny little man in wooden shoes clogged atop the face of her instrument.