We are thrilled to share an exclusive extract from Joanne M. Harris’ stunning fairy tale A Pocketful of Crows. A perfect autumn and Christmas read, A Pocketful of Crows combines the harshness of nature with the spookiness of a ghost story and the comfort of a great folk tale, in one beautifully told novella. A Pocketful of Crows is fully illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins.
Following the seasons, A Pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.
Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape.
I am as brown as brown can be, And my eyes as black as sloe;
I am as brisk as brisk can be, And wild as forest doe.
The Child Ballads, 295
The year it turns, and turns, and turns. Winter to summer, darkness to light, turning the world like wood on a lathe, shaping the months and the sea- sons. Tonight is May Eve, and the moon is full for the second time this month. May Eve, and a blue milk moon. Time for a witch to go travelling.
Tonight I am a vixen. I could have been an owl, or a hare, or a lark, or a wolf, or an otter. The travelling folk can take any guise. But tonight – this special night, when wildﬁres burn and witches ﬂy – tonight, I am a vixen.
I leave my clothes by the ﬁreside. The feather skirt, the wolfskin cloak, the necklaces of polished stones. Naked, I turn in the ﬁrelight; moon-silver, ﬁre-golden. And now I can hear the sounds of the night: the lap- ping at the water’s edge; the squeak of a mouse in the long grass; the calling of owls in the branches. I can hear the tick-tick-ticking of a death-watch beetle in a beam over half a mile away; I can catch the sleepy scent of lilacs on the common. I cast my gaze further. The vixen is near. Half-asleep in her warm earth, she senses my presence and pricks up her ears. The three fat cubs beside her are sleepy, ﬁlled with warm milk. But the vixen is restless, sensing me so close, so unfamiliar.
I send her the small, persistent desire for a run beneath the stars. She lifts her head and ﬂexes her jaws, wary but still curious. I send her the feel of the cool night air, the mossy ground beneath my feet, the hunger in my belly. Shivering, I turn from the ﬁre and walk into the forest. The ground is soft and damp and cold. It smells of rain, and bluebells. My skin is striped with moonlight, brown and silver under the trees. For a moment I see the vixen, red as embers under smoke, a single ﬂash of white at her throat, trotting alongside me.
The scents of the forest intensify, a tapestry of shin- ing threads that run in every direction. The vixen’s fur is warm and thick; I am no longer shivering. For a time I run alongside her, feeling her strength and the ﬁerce joy of hunting under a blue milk moon, with the promise of blood in the air and summer no more than a heartbeat away. Then, in a moment, we are one.
Wild creatures feel hunger diﬀerently. My own is deep as wintertime; frugal as old age. The vixen’s is joyous; exuberant; sniﬃng for frogs under the turf; snapping at moths in the shining air. We reach the river – voles and rats – but I am hungry for something more. I follow the river until it leads to a place of open ﬁelds, and from there to the edge of a village, where the scent of prey is strong. I follow the trail of a speckled hen into a wooden henhouse, and there I am without mercy, leaving nothing but feathers.
The moon is ringed with silver – a sign. The air is sweet as summertime. Belly full and with blood on my jaws, I linger in the meadow mist, under the bank of hawthorn that marks the village boundary. Then after a time, smelling smoke, I leave the vixen to return to her cubs and, naked in my own skin, I lie down in the sedge-grass and listen to the sounds of the night, and hear the owls a-calling, and watch the long, slow dance of the stars.
Tonight marks the coming of summertime. Four- teen summers I have known. Wildﬁre, hearth ﬁre, bonﬁres lit against the dark. Cherry blossom, love charms, village girls with warm hearts, dancing in the circle of stones that stands around the fairy tree. The village girls are white and soft. Their laughter sounds like tame birds. Geese, perhaps, their wings clipped, plump, well fed, obedient. Village girls are new-baked bread. Village girls have blossom skin. Village girls have braided hair that shines like evening sunlight.
I am not a village girl. I am brown, and brisk, and wild. I hunt with the owl, and dance with the hare, and swim with the trout and the otter. I never go into the village, except as a vixen or a rat. The village is dangerous to our kind. The Folk would kill us if they could. But tonight is diﬀerent. The hunt has made my blood sing. And so I linger under the thorn, smelling the scent of the young grass and listening to the dis- tant sound of voices from the clearing.
There comes the sound of footsteps on the path by the hawthorn. A village girl with primrose hair is standing by the fairy tree. The Folk call it that, even though they know nothing of the Faërie. But there are charms – the bone of a hare; a name, stitched on red ﬂannel – that even a village girl can use. And on May Eve, by a blue moon, a love charm hung from a fairy tree may bring even a village girl the quickening of summertime.
The fairy tree is a hawthorn. Twisted and raddled, old as Old Age, half-eaten with mistletoe, she stands inside the circle of stones that some Folk call the fairy ring. Every year, I tell myself: maybe this is the year she will die. But every year the pale buds break from those cracked and knotted boughs. The fairy tree is hopeful. Her blossom barely lasts a week. But every year she quickens, and bears a handful of scarlet berries.
The girl has a charm. They always do. A love charm, or perhaps a spell to make herself more beautiful. I watch from the hedge as she ties it in place. The shad- ows of the fairy stones ﬂicker in the moonlight.
Tonight she will dream of her young man, restless on her virgin’s bed. Perhaps she will watch the bright May moon slicing past her window. And tomorrow, or the next day, he will see her standing there – a girl he has seen many times before, but never noticed until now – and he will wonder how he could have been so blind as to miss her.
When she has gone, I take the charm. She will think the fairies have taken it. A scrap of red fabric, the colour of blood, torn, perhaps, from a petticoat, and pushed through a polished adder-stone. I had such a charm-stone once, but I lost it long ago. Where did the village girl ﬁnd hers? How long did she take to embroider the charm, by the light of her candle? What name did she speak as she knotted the thread?
I look at the tiny stitches. Six little letters, embroi- dered in silk. I myself cannot read words. There was no one to teach me. But I do know letters; those magi- cal signs that speak from the page, or even the grave. There is power in them, a power that even the Folk do not understand. Letters have meaning. They can make words. And words can build almost anything – a law, a chronicle, a lie.
The name in the letters is W-I-L-L-A-M. This is the name his mother gave him. This is the name his lover will speak into his ear, in the dark. This is the name they will carve on his stone, when they put him into the ground.
I have no name. The travelling folk have neither name nor master. When I die, no stone will be laid. No ﬂowers will be scattered. When I die, I will become a thousand creatures: beetles, worms. And so I shall travel on, for ever, till the End of the Worlds. This is the fate of the travelling folk. We would not have it otherwise.
I carry the charm to my place in the woods. A hut of split logs and willow and moss, all lined with skins and bracken. My ﬁrepit is just outside, and my iron cooking pot. Hungry, I fry some ﬁddleheads, and with them some bacon, a handful of herbs and the hindquarters of a rabbit that was hanging in the smoke. And then I tie the village girl’s charm over the entrance to my hut, with all my beautiful coloured things. A blue glass bead, some yellow wool, the whitened skull of a magpie. The coloured things that I collect and hide away in the forest.
Coloured things are forbidden to us, we the canny travelling folk. Colours mean danger to our kind; they reveal us to the enemy. Our folk hide from everyone – even from each other. Our folk know to keep aloof, to never show their colours.
Village girls wear coloured things. Ribbons on their bonnets. Scarlet ﬂannel petticoats. Village girls are not afraid. Village girls like to be noticed. But brown is easy; brown is safe. In the forest, no one sees a brown girl slip from tree to tree, to vanish in the bracken. In the forest I am a doe, a stoat, a fox, a nightingale. Berry-brown, I live in the trees. Brown, I cast no shadow.
This is how I go unseen, untroubled by the village folk. Only their dogs know where I am, and they have learnt to keep away. I have eaten dog before, and will again, I tell them. I sit on my wolfskin blanket, wrapped in my skirt of homespun cloth and my coat of sparrow feathers and I look into the smoke to see what the future will bring me.
Tomorrow is May Day. The ﬂowery month: the month of hawthorn and of bees. Tomorrow, there will be merriment, and dancing on the village green. Tomor- row, the village girls will dress the springs and wells with ﬂowers, and leave oﬀerings for Jack-in-the-Green, and crown a maiden Queen of the May. But that’s no concern of mine. I have no need of garlands. I have the bluebells in the wood, and the hawthorn in the hedge. No young man will steal my heart with words of love and garlands. No young man will catch my eye. When the heat is on me, I will go into a doe, and take my pick of the young bucks, and never once look back.
The vixen sleeps in the warm earth, surrounded by small, furry bodies. The brown hare in the moonlight dances on the hillside. The barn owl hunts: the ﬁeld mouse runs; the ﬁre dies down to embers. And I will go into my hut and draw the deerskin curtain, and go to sleep on my narrow bed of brown wool and of bracken.
Excerpted from A Pocketful of Crows © Joanne M. Harris 2017