The metal between my fingers was cold, and the flimsy wall bent with every step up I took, shoving another toe for purchase in one of the many holes. Clara was just ahead of me, moving with confidence. She reached the top before I did, swung her legs over, and dropped to the ground. I mimicked her movements, except the drop, and instead lowered myself carefully down to the ground, step by step.
We were standing in a great meadow of tall grass. Weeds and dandelions lay scattered about. Up ahead was a hill, which I could not see beyond, and this was what Clara started heading toward. The summer air was humid and muggy, and I found myself wishing that I had prepared better for the weather, and worn shorts.
The top of the hill yielded a good view of the surrounding area. Off to the left a ways were the buildings of a nearby apartment complex, and I could see cars driving by a street in the distance. Directly in front of us, down the hill, was a small cemetery. An old church steeple stood by it, and a road wide enough for a single car winded down and around toward the main roads. To the right were tall, thin trees; the beginning of a shady wood that stretched and wrapped around the edge of the last row of headstones. I had no idea that such a place existed not a hundred yards from my new home, but was strangely comforted by this. The headstones were laid in neat rows, and there was something familiar to the steeple, and the whole place, for that matter.
“We’re looking for a plant with many small, white flowers on it,” said Clara. “It grows along the edges, where the trees and the field meet. Keep your eyes open. It can be tricky to spot.” And with that she began walking down the hill and to the right, toward the line of trees. I walked next to her, scanning the ground any hint of white.
We walked through fields of clover and dandelion, which gave way to sturdier brush as we came up along the edge of the wood. I saw berry bushes and nettles, yellow wildflowers, and more weeds, but nothing that looked like upright bedstraw. We kept walking.
Naturally, as we searched, Clara and I spread apart, to cover more ground. I walked right on the line where forest met field, while she was drifting closer to the graveyard, which we were coming up behind.
As I was scanning the ground, swiveling my head from left to right, a flash of movement behind a tree caught my eye. A flapping sound to the right, followed by a pitch black blur as my eyes tried to follow the movement. Then nothing. I stood, staring out into the still trees.
Another flapping sound, this time above me. I looked up, and saw a raven perched on the branch of a nearby tree. It cocked its head at me.
“Hello,” I said. The raven squawked. A deep, throaty croaking sound, so near to human speech that I almost jumped back in surprise. It hopped down to a lower branch and peered at me with coal eyes, a darker and deeper black than its plumage.
“Caw-mm,” it croaked at me. “Caw-mm.” The raven swiveled its head as it regarded me, and fluttered its wings. It sounded like it was trying to say, ‘come’.
“Caw-mm,” it said again, and fluttered to another branch, deeper into the wood.
In nearly every book that I had read at that point, the hero, on his noble quest, would always have some kind of animal companion, or have a meaningful interaction with one that would plunge him into a world of wonder and magic. The raven reminded me of this, and opened my mind up to the possibility that those things could be real.
I took a step, past the border of trees and into the wood.
The raven hopped on its branch excitedly, and flapped over to the next tree. I followed, picking up my pace, but no matter how quickly I walked the raven would always stay one to two trees away, leaving one for the next just before I could reach it, as if taunting me to try and catch him. I pushed past brambles and bushes, as the underbrush grew thicker.
I came out on the other side of a particularly dense thicket and into a clearing. A clear patch of green grass lay ahead, enclosed by a ring of stones. The raven sat on a small boulder in the center of the ring, waiting. The small stones around the grass looked old and worn, and some were chipped and jagged, but the boulder was smooth, egg-shaped. I walked into the ring slowly, approached the raven.
“Why did you bring me here?” I said. The raven cocked its head, said nothing. I lifted my hand across my chest, so that it could hop onto my forearm. It didn’t move, so I stepped closer, proffering my arm. “Go on. Caw-mm,” I said, trying to imitate it’s voice.
The raven lunged forward with its beak and snipped my hand, between my thumb and forefinger. A sharp, and searing cold pain hit me, and a crimson spout of blood burst forth and fell, staining the bright green grass below. I clutched my hand and staggered back, feeling the tears welling, and trying to hold them at bay.
The raven was hopping up and down on its boulder, clicking its beak against the stone, where flecks of blood had splattered. It squawked and croaked a deep, unnerving cackle.
The blood was still pouring out of my hand. I cradled it against my chest, pressing against it with my left hand, and turned around and left the clearing. I wanted to find Clara. I was not having fun anymore.
I pushed back through the brambles that scratched at my face and clawed at my clothes, and I stumbled, half-running, back toward the grassy field.
I heard Clara calling for me, and ran toward the sound of her voice. When I emerged from the woods I called to her, and she ran to meet me, eyes widening and face going white when she saw the blood.
“Let me see,” she said, and moved my hand, taking it in both of hers. “Shh, it’s okay.”
I realized then that I was crying, had not been able to stop myself. A dribble of snot slid down my upper lip. I licked it off, and could taste the salt from my tears.
“This is bad,” she said. “This is really bad. I think it cut through a tendon. What happened.”
I told her everything. I told her about the raven, how I had followed it to the clearing with the ring of stones, and stuck out my arm and let it bite me. I felt stupid and scared and angry at myself for all of it, but I told Clara anyway.
“You shouldn’t have done that. Ravens are nasty, tricksy things. But, I think I can fix this. Here, put some pressure on it. I’ll be right back.” And she darted away,head bent down, searching through the tall grass.
The pain was intense. It felt as if the raven had clamped its beak down and still my hand in its grasp, if its beak was made of icy blue fire that burned skin and chilled to the bone. I groaned and pressed against the hand as hard as I could, biting my lip in a vain effort to keep my mind off of the pain.
When Clara came back, she was carrying an armful of leaves and wildflowers. She bit off several of the buds of one, the roots of another, and chewed them. Then she took the wad out of her mouth, pressed it into the wound, and wrapped a thick leaf around it with a cotton string from her pocket, pulling it tight.
The searing cold fire ebbed, and I managed to reign back my tears. My shirt was stained with dried blood, and some had fallen to ruin my pants as well. My mother would be furious.
Clara gave me a minute to compose myself. Then, “How’s it feeling?”
“Better. I think I can walk back now.”
We cut through the graveyard on the way back. The bleeding had stopped, and my hand felt better, the pain at a dull, but constant throb. I remembered then why this place had struck me as familiar at first; it was the same graveyard where my father was buried, and his service had been in that church.
Part of me wanted to go and find his headstone, and show it to Clara, but I was tired, and ready to go home.