by M. A. Akins
It started with the crow.
I reserved my Saturday mornings for long walks with Rufus and Max, my dogs, my boys. I always referred to them as The Boys, which sometimes confused people when meeting me for the first time. They got used to it. Fortunately, I had met a couple of like-minded spirits, Anke and Robi, in August after my transfer to Stuttgart, Germany, and we enjoyed each other’s company on most mornings while their dog, Daisy, and my two frolicked.
After our walk in the fields one Saturday in October, Anke invited me to join them for brunch. She said the warm day demanded some leisurely balcony time, so she dropped us off at the apartment, and I told her I would be there after feeding The Boys and showering, about an hour or so.
I opted to wind my way through the small back streets of the village to avoid the bustle of the last shopping day of the week. The blackbirds and sparrows sang and rustled around in the brush near a small lake as I passed by. Regardless of whether other people stood nearby or not, I greeted the birds with a good morning and wished them a nice day. I always did this. I knew they didn’t understand, but on more than one occasion, I felt as if one of the blackbirds was following me, landing on a fence or a sign or a bush a few feet ahead of me. I could almost reach out and touch it when it would flutter off.
Robi and the smell of bread greeted me at the door when I arrived. On the balcony, jams, cold cuts, cheeses, butter, and breads filled their small table. After I sat down, Anke poured coffee. I sliced a baguette in half lengthwise.
“There is a rumor the pasture and surrounding trees in our forest up the street are going to be cleared for more housing,” Anke said while spreading butter on her brötchen. “They will have to rip out a third of the trees at least. The mud will run down the paths and destroy most of the trails for who knows how long.”
“I love walking there in the evenings,” I said. “Mornings in the park are great, but The Boys and I will get bored if we have to do that twice a day.”
“It’s only a rumor,” Robi said. “For now.”
“Have you talked to the Forstmeister?” I asked.
“He would never tell us anything.” Anke sipped her coffee.
“I don’t suppose there’s a way to stop it.” I said, as I rolled up a slice of meat and cheese together, then bit off a chunk.
“We could protest, but housing is a priority,” Robi said.
“Let’s hope it’s a rumor then,” I said.
We discussed other locations to walk, the pros and cons of each, but I couldn’t help but feel cheated, robbed of a location near enough to my apartment where I didn’t need to drive, burdened by the heavy traffic the Stuttgart area had become famous for.
A part of me wanted to stir into action, but as had happened so often in my life, I knew I would let the moment slip by and return to a more passive self. I would once again become the person who had allowed my wife to walk out of my life without a fight, had allowed a well-deserved promotion to pass over me without contesting its validity, had allowed my neighbor to destroy part of my lawn without demanding compensation. Within moments, I had rationalized and decided this was not my fight.
After finishing the bread, we packed the leftovers away in the kitchen and returned to the balcony. I crossed my legs and turned my face to the sun. Crows squawked across the street, and battled over something or other on the sidewalk.
“Would you look at that?” Robi said, after he returned with a couple of beers.
I turned to see a crow with its head wedged between two pickets while two others bounced around on the sidewalk below him.
Without putting my shoes on, I rushed out the door and across the street. The crow beat its wings and cried out. The other birds scattered as I approached.
“Calm down, little one,” I said as I approached. The crow’s head rested on the upper rail, and I feared it might break its neck if it kept thrashing about. I placed my left hand under the bird’s body and lifted enough to relieve the stress on his neck. The crow’s wild eyes looked into mine.
“I forgot gloves mister, so please don’t bite me.”
With my other hand, I took the crow’s head. It relaxed and seemed to settle its body’s weight into my hand. The wings stopped flapping. The eyes closed. I feared it might have died of fright, but then the eyes opened again. I lifted body and head together till it was no longer trapped. I only then noticed how majestic, how large it was. It rolled from my palm and opened its wings, catching the wind and flying into the nearby tree. We watched each other for a moment, and then feeling I had saved a life, I took a deep breath and turned to cross the street. The wind blew before I stepped from the curb, and I thought I heard the words Thank You, but when I looked again to the crow, it had already taken to the skies.
“You have a friend for life, you know,” Anke said after we settled back into our seats on the balcony. “They have a long memory.”
“Besides, crows are good luck,” Robi added.
“Then I better buy a lottery ticket.” I raised my glass and we toasted luck.
And then there was the bunny.
One morning, one very early morning, The Boys and I walked in the park without Anke, who had decided to take a day off and sleep in. It was one of those early November days where it felt like there should have been frost, but there wasn’t. The grass had recently been mowed, so the deer stayed hidden away in the trees. Darkness blanketed everything.
After we left the street, away from any possibility of running into a car or jogger or biker, I turned first Rufus, then Max, loose from their leashes. They bolted down the path. I didn’t worry about them straying too far, and they enjoyed the freedom to explore the nearby stream and wander a few yards into the open grass area.
They wore illuminated collars, Max in red and Rufus in blue. I could see the bright collars right halfway across the park. A blue glow approached from ahead, so I thought Rufus was returning for a treat, but then a shadow fell in behind it. I pulled my flashlight from my coat just as a greeting reached me.
“I don’t run into too many people at this hour,” I said.
“I am running a bit late, I’m afraid,” said a man. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”
“Late? It’s only 5:30 a.m..”
“Yes. And I must be going. Sorry to be so rude. Maybe another time.”
And with that, the man vanished into the darkness. His passing happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to see what kind of dog partnered him, something I am usually quite keen to know. To be honest, I didn’t even get a good look at the shadow. I turned once again to my own task to see the red and blue of The Boys bouncing in the middle of the park.
As we approached the far side, a place on the path where the stream burbles under a small bridge and The Boys on warm days quench their thirst, a place you can choose to venture up into the forest or go around the corner to follow a line of houses, I saw another shadow dart up into the trees. Or had I? The Boys would certainly have taken notice, but then they had not alerted me to the presence of the stranger and his dog. I shook my head and laughed as Rufus drank from the cold water near the bridge.
I then remembered a meeting I needed to prepare for and hurried The Boys along. Max stopped near a fence and busied himself more so than I had ever seen him previously. He ran back and forth from a meeting of two fences, one chain link, the other wooden, painted red. I didn’t have time to investigate his finding, a mouse I reasoned, and urged him onward. Rufus flew ahead, but Max did not want to leave. Despite my demands, he remained. I put him back on his leash and dragged him along until we were far enough from his obsession to free him once again.
My decision not to consider Max’s finding troubled me throughout the day, and while I had convinced myself there could not have been anything to see, I concluded we should take our evening walk in the park again to satisfy both his and my curiosity.
That evening The Boys and I returned to the park. The sun settled just below the hill casting a slight orange glow at the top as if the trees had begun to burn. Few people continued to mill about as the air chilled and the sky darkened. The lampposts, set every fifty or so meters apart next to the path, flickered on against the dimming twilight.
Max ran ahead and stopped at the spot once more. His head turned to make sure I followed him, then back again to the object of his intense interest.
Upon arriving I turned on my flashlight and scanned the area in front of the fence. I could see nothing.
I stepped back and panned the beam up and down the path, then into the park where Rufus ran in the direction of the stream. I searched the walkway again not wanting to be thought a burglar or peeping Tom should a passerby happen to see us nosing around outside someone’s house.
Max grew more excited and stuck his nose against the metal post of the fence, clawing the dirt underneath. I moved him aside and shined the light where he had just scraped away some earth. On the other side of the fence, the beam struck white and gray fur. At first I thought the poor animal was headless, only seeing a body, but then it moved.
I ran to a low gate and leapt over it. When I reached the corner, I dropped to my hands and knees and returned to the corner area of the fence. Once again, I found a white and gray fur body, but this time with a head and long floppy ears attached, stuck under the chain link. I tried to free it, but feared I would kill it or cause it great injury in the attempt to pull it from under the metal.
I rang the doorbell of one of the houses sharing the yard. A young woman I recognized from my walks answered the door, and while I might have otherwise made some small talk, I told her about the trapped bunny. She pointed to her neighbor’s door. I thanked her and quickly rang his doorbell.
A tall, stooped man with gray hair came to the door. He had a gentle look in his eyes, and given my appearance, dirt-covered knees and black knit cap, showed no apprehension. In broken German, I asked him if he had a bunny.
“I am afraid I lost her two days ago,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“I found it, but we need to hurry. I need wire cutters. Do you have any?”
He didn’t understand, so I rang his neighbor’s door again. She spoke English better than I spoke German; I asked her to translate for me.
She told him about the bunny and repeated my question.
He quickly ran back into the house, returning a moment later with cutters.
We jogged back over to the bunny. I put my free hand on her body to calm her and keep her from jerking at a bad time, or at least, I hoped it would. I tried to cut the fence near her head, but feared hurting her with the cutters. I worked my fingers up to the neck and slid the blade along my finger also hoping I would still have the finger after squeezing the blades together. A welcome snap rang in my ear. After two more snips, I pulled the bunny from her self-imposed snare and handed her to the old man.
He held her firmly under her chin, and kissed the top of her head, caressing and crying. He tried to thank me, but could not say the words, not in any language. I understood. I imagined in that brief moment how I would feel if either of The Boys went missing and then turned up again.
I handed the cutters to the young woman and turned to leave, when the wind gusted from nowhere. I heard Thank You in that wind and whipped my head toward the bunny, now draped over the man’s shoulder on his way back home. The bunny looked at me and blinked.
And along came a deer.
Winter came early to Stuttgart that year. A blanket of cold, white powder greeted me and The Boys when we stepped outside for the morning walk. Rufus dipped his nose in it. Max ran in circles. They love snow.
“Typically, the snows fall in January,” Anke said when we met on the way to the park. “We might get a few flakes in December, but certainly not this much, and it’s still coming down. It really is quite amazing.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. I had grown up with snow in the winter, but since moving to a warmer climate years before, had not seen it in some time.
We walked through the streets without talking and enjoyed the muffled silence.
I freed The Boys from their leashes at the park entrance, after Anke turned Daisy loose. The dogs ran ahead. Daisy threw herself to the ground and rolled around as if making a snow angel. Max plowed snow with his nose.
The snow lessened the darkness normally oppressing the wide open grassy park. I could see farther than when a full moon glows brightly in the early morning sky. The colored light from the dogs’ collars reflected on the snow as they roamed. The park resembled a live action snow globe in grand scale.
“I can’t remember seeing this place looking so lovely,” Anke said.
“It truly is,” I said. I had seen wondrous snowscapes in both pictures and as a child growing up in Indiana, but something made this setting even grander, both in its simplicity and beauty.
As we walked, the conversation drifted to building snowmen, making angel forms on the ground, and hoping for a white Christmas, something Anke assured me had never happened in her lifetime. I told her it was not all that common where I had grown up.
When we arrived at the fork in the path, the dogs turned their attention in the direction of the forest. They stared as the walkway vanished into a curtain of falling snow swirling in a tunnel of barren trees. I wondered what had arrested their attention from their need to explore and joined them in their waiting.
A gust of wind blew the snow sideways and halved the distance we could see. I looked down to the dogs now sitting on their haunches, then felt a gentle tap on my side. I faced Anke who motioned forward with her chin. From the wall of white stepped a buck. His antlers told me he couldn’t have been more than three, old enough to know better than to present himself to three dogs, two big enough to run him down. But the dogs sat there. I had seen Max run after a deer much farther away, yet with this one a mere fifty feet away, he did nothing, not even bark. The wind blew hard, harder than at any other time that morning, mixing the snow on the ground with that coming from above. The white engulfed everything. We could see only each other. When the wind settled, the buck had disappeared. We walked to where he had stood, but could not find him or even a footprint.
“I would never have expected to see something like that,” Anke said as we stood there with the dogs sniffing around. “And he was so big. I have never, ever seen a deer like that here.”
“No, me either. Do you think the snow confused him?”
“Who knows,” she replied. “Deer are not smart animals. Come on, I have to get ready for work.”
I looked at my watch and realized we were running well behind our usual schedule. The dogs had already turned back to the main path to resume their playfulness and exploring in the snow.
The snow tapered to flurries by the time we reached the street again, and ended completely before we parted ways. Before I said goodbye, I asked if we could go together into the forest for the evening walk; maybe the buck would show himself again. Anke told me she would return too late to go with me and that Robi would be taking Daisy with him to work.
“Besides,” Anke said, as she departed. “The forest is too dark after work. It’s dangerous.”
Throughout the day, my thoughts of the buck distracted me from my work. I wanted nothing more than to see its beauty standing before me once again. I hoped to finish early and get home before the dark set in. This did not happen. In fact, I returned home much later than planned.
After I changed into my hiking clothes, I gathered The Boys and rushed them outside, barely remembering their leashes and a flashlight.
No more snow had fallen since the morning and the walkway in the park was well worn from the many people taking advantage of the fresh and powdery snow. Fresh tracks from cross country skis had cut grooves just off to the side of the path, while toboggans had worn the side of the hill down to the grass. But the park lay still now.
The half-moon, hidden behind clouds that morning, illuminated the park so completely, I didn’t need to turn on my flashlight. The Boys ran and chased each other through the snow and, as if they could read my mind, turned up the path into the forest.
Upon reaching the cobblestone road, a road built for tanks and military vehicles to run between two bases, a road now used by hikers, bikers, and people walking their dogs, we turned to journey further into the forest. Powdery snow glazed the cobblestones, and in the moonlight, they looked as if no person, dog, or bike had yet disturbed them. I considered what I had seen just a few yards earlier and doubted what I saw. The moon and the trees played tricks with my vision. I turned on my flashlight and pointed it to the ground, sweeping the beam this way and that. The snow lay unbroken.
I reached in my pocket to pull out my smart phone to take a picture, when I discovered I had forgotten it in my haste to get here. After another minute, I switched the light off, and we moved forward.
In one hundred yards, we reached an intersection, where a dirt and stone path crossed the road. If we turned left, the path would lead us up a hill, deeper into the forest, while turning right would take us in a circle back to the park. I debated the wisdom of proceeding. If Max or Rufus became injured, or worse still, I did, hours would pass before anyone would find us. I nearly turned around when I heard a grunting sound unlike anything I had ever heard. I looked up the path to see the buck from earlier that morning. When had he come? I had heard nothing. The Boys did nothing.
The buck stared at me. Maybe he was surprised to see us here in this place at this hour. He stepped forward, nodded his head, and then wheeled around to face up the hill. After five steps, he stopped and looked back to me. Elated as I was at the opportunity to once again see such a magnificent animal, I had not moved an inch in any direction. I didn’t even know what direction I should go at that moment. The buck signaled me to follow and then proceeded once again. I followed.
Halfway up the hill, perhaps no more than five or six hundred yards, the buck turned right, down a small path no wider than one person. The path appeared to exist due to animal traffic, and I couldn’t be sure it would even be visible without the snow exposing it. Surely the plants would hide it throughout most of the year.
Before my nervousness overtook my courage to continue forward, the trees thinned and the path opened wider and wider until we came upon a clearing. The moon shone brightly on the snow in the open area, casting a blue light on every bush, every hedge, every tree, and every animal. Badgers, fox, deer, and almost every other creature that lived in that forest stood there. A swoosh by my head made me spin around. By the time I returned my gaze to the buck, a crow had landed on his right antler. It stretched its wings, then folded itself back up. It cawed at me.
“Well, hello again,” I said. “If you are the crow I saved, that is.” The bird darted its head up and down as if to tell me it was.
The Boys sat, one on each side of me.
I heard a man’s voice say hello from behind, and when I turned to see who had called out to me, I saw the man who passed me a month ago. His dog ran past me to land beside the buck, which bent down and sniffed him.
“Welcome to night in the forest,” he said. “I did not expect to see anyone else here. Not many people are brave enough to come here in the darkness, even though, I am sure you have noticed, it is not all that dark. You are American, are you not?”
I told him I was. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on where I knew him from other than that brief encounter.
“I did not mean to be rude when we passed—when was that? November?—but it was a long night and I needed to get to work.”
“I understand,” I said. “I was a bit behind that morning as well. I was only surprised at how quickly you came out of nowhere.”
“I have learned to be quite light on my feet,” he said, once he reached the buck and patted him on the side of the neck, as if he were patting a horse. It was then I realized the buck stood at nearly the size of a small horse, a Haflinger perhaps, certainly greater than any I had seen thus far here. The crow cawed.
“I hear you are the one who saved my friend here,” the man said. He pointed to the crow, which once again stretched its wings. “He is very grateful.”
“I guess. I can’t tell one crow from another, to be honest. If it is, then it was my pleasure. No creature should suffer and die the way he was going to.”
“I also heard you saved a bunny down in the park,” he said. “Is this true?”
“Yes, that would be me,” I said.
“And what are you doing here? In Stuttgart, not here in the forest.”
“I’m sorry. Who are you?”
“I am being rude once again. Sorry. My name is Volker Haidele.” He reached out his hand to me, and I shook it while giving him my name.
“I’ve heard that name,” I said. “You’re on the city council, or something like that. That’s where I recognize you from. I saw your poster in a few places during the election.”
“Now that you know what I do…”
“Ah yes. My turn to apologize for being rude,” I said. “I work at the Stuttgart University as an exchange professor teaching American literature and English. I’ll be here a couple of years. I have to tell you: I love the culture.”
“And yet it is not perfect,” Volker said. “Have you heard they plan to destroy the forest here?”
“This can’t be the same forest,” I said. “I heard it will be the upper part of the small wooded area nearer the top of the hill. We can no longer be anywhere near that. This can’t even be the same forest. I’ve been walking there almost daily, since I moved here, and have never seen this place nor walked over the small path that led us here. We walked a very long distance to get to this clearing; at least it felt like we did.”
“What seems small in the day can be very big at night.”
I didn’t know what to think of that, so I said nothing.
“In a month’s time, the destruction begins. I have stated my opposition to this, commissioned studies, and even proposed alternatives. All of this falls on deaf ears. I’m in the minority party, and have even fewer fans in the public. These creatures consider you a savior of sorts. Do you think you can help me save the forest?”
“Rescuing a couple of animals in distress does not make me a savior. I was at the right place at the right time. I’m sure anyone else would have done the same. Besides, I’m not even German. What could I possibly do?”
“I can only tell you what I am doing and what I will continue to do,” Volker said as he raised his hand to the crow, who climbed down from the antlers to perch on the back of his hand.
Volker strode over to me and raised the crow. I looked first to Volker, then to the bird. She stared at me, and without warning hopped to my shoulder. I was startled, but did not jump. I felt her and thought I could hear her heartbeat. She stretched out her wings, the left one lengthening behind my head. Rufus looked up to the crow, but remained in place.
The buck walked over to us and sniffed Max, then me, then Rufus. He stepped away afterwards, and his dark eyes met my eyes. I wanted to tell all of them how sorry I was I could do nothing, how weak I felt as a human, but the words did not come to me.
“I’m not sure I can help you or even what I can do, but let me think about it,” I said.
“I guess that’s all anyone can ask from you.”
A breeze tossed the snow about, and the crow leaped from my shoulder and alighted once again on the buck’s antlers. Unseen birds flapped their wings and took to the sky, bringing down curtains of snow, while the other woodland animals turned away to leave the great clearing. In a few minutes, only Volker, the buck, the crow, the dogs, and I remained.
“Come,” Volker said. “Let us return to our homes. I need some coffee before the day begins.”
I didn’t understand what he meant by that, but the buck suddenly walked around us and proceeded back down the small path. We followed in silence until we reached the cobblestone street, where we made our farewells. As the buck wandered into the trees, the crow leaped into the air and vanished into the high canopy.
As we walked back to the city, Volker and I talked about the politics of the region while the dogs returned to their frolicking, kicking up clouds of snow at every turn. Once we reached the point to part ways, he gave me a business card and told me to call him for a beer. I agreed.
“I apologize for once again having to rush off,” he said, as he jetted down the street.
I hurried the rest of the way home eager to put on some hot water for tea. After I put on my pajamas, I looked at the clock on the stove as I turned on the burner and was shocked to see that it was morning. It was not time for tea. It was time for coffee as Volker had said. We had been out all night, and I had no time to go to bed.
As I showered, I reached my decision to come to the aid of the forest. I didn’t yet know what I could do, how I would go about doing whatever I decided to do, or even where to begin. I only knew something had to be done. I could not allow others to fight this fight alone. I too needed to be a part of it.
M. A. Akins is an emerging writer of speculative fiction. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Fiction at Lesley University and lives in Indiana, where he spends his non-writing time wrangling nine cats.