“They’re all afraid of you, you know,” said the owl to the raven, who was trying to smooth out his ruffled feathers.
“Then they’re not very bright, are they?” croaked the raven. “I was just trying to warn them that the cardinal has made his home in those trees up there. Why was that a reason to throw rocks at me? No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.”
“It’s your dark color and raspy voice, I think,” the owl mused. “They find those things creepy.”
“Oh, go back to sleep if you can’t say anything helpful,” snapped the raven. “It’s not like I can change my feathers or my voice. And I still don’t think those things would matter if that stupid poet hadn’t written that stupid poem.”
“Never….more…,” chuckled the owl.
“Shut up,” said the raven. His feathers were back to normal and he looked properly disgusted. “You don’t exactly have the friendliest reputation with them. All that flying around at night when everyone else is sleeping. Are you telling me that isn’t creepy?”
“Yes, but they love me,” preened the owl. “They think I deliver mail for magical people.”
A derisive caw was the only answer that deserved.
“Don’t worry,” said the owl, his voice getting sleepy again. “Look. They didn’t listen to you. They’re about to go into the woods, so you’ll get the last laugh after all.”
“Serves them right,” said the raven, but he didn’t mean it. His black feathers hid a very soft heart, and he really hated that two-faced cardinal.
As the owl went back to sleep, the raven flew up over the distant woods, just to keep an eye on things.
Tommy had an uncomfortable feeling. He wished they hadn’t thrown rocks at that nasty raven. True, it had freaked him out perched on that fence post and cawing at them like it wanted to eat them for lunch, but he would have just hurried away if the other boys hadn’t dared him to hit it with a skipping stone. He hadn’t wanted to look like a chump. And for a minute it felt good. His rock was the only one that landed. He’d always had the best aim. Still, his grandmother had told him once that people who were cruel to animals would be visited by crows in the night and have their eyes pecked out. Of course he didn’t believe that. But he didn’t feel comfortable.
His friends were laughing and joking as they ducked into the woods. Tommy laughed with them. He didn’t want to seem weird.
Jimmy saw the cardinal first, pointing at its bright red body and daring Tommy to hit it with another rock.
“Nah,” Tommy said. “That’s a cardinal. They never hurt nobody.”
Jimmy said it was too small anyway. Tommy heard the taunt in the words, but he ignored them. Just like he tried to ignore the cardinal as it hopped from branch to branch, following them.
When they got to the stream and the log that made a rough bridge across it, the cardinal was still with them. Tommy watched it as he waited his turn to cross. He had always liked cardinals, liked their bright color and distinctive plume, but this one felt wrong. It sat glaring at them out of one beady eye, and Tommy wondered why he had never noticed how black a cardinal’s eye could be.
On the other side of the creek, the boys came to the meadow where they usually played ball. A strange rustling sound greeted them. Carl had the ball under one arm, but no one started the game. Instead, they all stood staring around. In every branch of every tree were birds, not scary birds, just little robins and sparrows and finches. They chirped and twittered and sang, a cacophony of cheerful noise.
“What the…? Where did these come from?” Jimmy asked.
“My sister’d go crazy if she saw this,” Jason said. “She’s always beggin’ my mom for a pet bird.”
“You could take one home,” Carl said. “Enough to go around.”
Tommy said nothing. That uncomfortable feeling was growing.
Something whooshed right past Tommy’s ear, and he ducked without thinking. The other boys laughed.
“Just that cardinal, scaredy-boy. You think it was going to take your head off or something?” Jimmy had barely finished the words when the cardinal landed on his own head. “Hey! get off me! Get off, you!”
Jimmy batted at the top of his head, but the cardinal just hopped out of the way of his waving hands and pecked hard at Jimmy’s ear.
Jimmy screamed. “Ow! Get it off! Get it off me!”
Tommy and the other boys rushed at Jimmy, yelling to scare the bird away. It landed two or three more strong pecks on Jimmy’s head before flying off to the top of a nearby tree. Jimmy was yelling and crying and blood was dripping down his forehead. Carl had dropped the ball and was yelling already under the trees, yelling at them all to get out of there. Jason and Tommy grabbed Jimmy by the arms and hurried him away. Even with all of Jimmy’s yelling, Tommy could hear the silence behind them. Every single one of those sweet little birds was silent and watching them.
“Tweeeee, twerp, twerp, twerp, twerp!” the cardinal called loudly. Tommy heard the taunt in the song, but he ignored it.
Suddenly all the birds burst into joyful song again.
The boys ran full-out down the path, leaving the twittering meadow to the care of the bright red bird, calmly smoothing his feathers.
The raven circling high overhead saw the red spot and heard the laughter of his little friends, and his heart was heavy. He had known that cardinal was no good, but he hadn’t heard that so many had flocked to his side.
The raven watched as the boys ran crying through the woods. It was too late for them. They had already proved that they couldn’t listen. The hunting birds needed to be warned, though. The success of this attack would just encourage the cardinal to make more.
The raven wheeled away, his harsh caw drowned out by the wind and the sound of a thousand tiny wings.
To be continued…