Excerpts for Wildwood


Wildwood

The Wildwood Chronicles, Book I
By Colin Meloy

Balzer & Bray

Copyright © 2011 Colin Meloy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780062024688


Chapter One

A Murder of Crows
How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy
into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least
of her worries. In fact, if she were to list her worries right
then and there as she sat spellbound on the park bench and watched
her little brother, Mac, carried aloft in the talons of these five black
crows, puzzling out just how this feat was being done would likely
come in dead last. First on the list: Her baby brother, her responsibility,
was being abducted by birds. A close second: What did they
plan on doing with him?
And it had been such a nice day.
True, it had been a little gray when Prue woke up that morning,
but what September day in Portland wasn’t? She had drawn up the
blinds in her bedroom and had paused for a moment, taking in the
sight of the tree branches outside her window, framed as they were by
a sky of dusty white-gray. It was Saturday, and the smell of coffee and
breakfast was drifting up from downstairs. Her parents would be in
their normal Saturday positions: Dad with his nose in the paper,
occasionally hefting a lukewarm mug of coffee to his lips; Mom peering
through tortoiseshell bifocals at the woolly mass of a knitting project
of unknown determination. Her brother, all of one year old, would
be sitting in his high chair, exploring the farthest frontiers of
unintelligible babble: Doose! Doose! Sure enough, her vision was proven
correct when she came downstairs to the nook off the kitchen. Her
father mumbled a greeting, her mother’s eyes smiled from above her
glasses, and her brother shrieked, “Pooo!” Prue made herself a bowl
of granola. “I’ve got bacon on, darling,” said her mother, returning
her attention to the amoeba of yarn in her hands (was it a sweater? A
tea cozy? A noose?).
“Mother,” Prue had said, now pouring rice milk over her cereal,
“I told you. I’m a vegetarian. Ergo: no bacon.” She had read that
word, ergo, in a novel she’d been reading. That was the first time she
had used it. She wasn’t sure if she’d used it right, but it felt good. She
sat down at the kitchen table and winked at Mac. Her father briefly
peered over the top of his paper to give her a smile.
“What’s on the docket today?” said her father. “Remember, you’re
watching Mac.”
“Mmmm, I dunno,” Prue responded. “Figured we’d hang around
somewhere. Rough up some old ladies. Maybe stick up a hardware
store. Pawn the loot. Beats going to a crafts fair.”
Her father snorted.
“Don’t forget to drop off the library books. They’re in the basket
by the front door,” said her mother, her knitting needles clacking.
“We should be back for dinner, but you know how long these things
can run.”
“Gotcha,” said Prue.
Mac shouted, “Pooooo!” wildly brandished a spoon, and sneezed.
“And we think your brother might have a cold,” said her father.
“So make sure he’s bundled up, whatever you do.”
(The crows lifted her brother higher into the overcast sky, and
suddenly Prue enumerated another worry: But he might have a cold!)
That had been their morning. Truly, an unremarkable one. Prue
finished her granola, skimmed the comics, helped her dad ink in a
few gimmes in his crossword puzzle, and was off to hook up the red
Radio Flyer wagon to the back of her single-speed bicycle. An even
coat of gray remained in the sky, but it didn’t seem to threaten rain,
so Prue stuffed Mac into a lined corduroy jumper, wrapped him in
a stratum of quilted chintz, and placed him, still babbling, into the
wagon. She loosed one arm from this cocoon of clothing and handed
him his favorite toy: a wooden snake. He shook it appreciatively.
Prue slipped her black flats into the toe clips and pedaled the bike
into motion. The wagon bounced noisily behind her, Mac shrieking
happily with every jolt. They tore through the neighborhood of tidy
clapboard houses, Prue nearly upsetting Mac’s wagon with every
hurdled curb and missed rain puddle. The bike tires gave a satisfied
shhhhhh as they carved the wet pavement.
The morning flew by, giving way to a warm afternoon. After
several random errands (a pair of Levis, not quite the right color,
needed returning; the recent arrivals bin at Vinyl Resting Place
required perusing; a plate of veggie tostadas was messily shared at
the taqueria), she found herself whiling time outside the coffee shop
on the main street while Mac quietly napped in the red wagon. She
sipped steamed milk and watched through the window as the cafe
employees awkwardly installed a secondhand elk head trophy on the
wall. Traffic hummed on Lombard Street, the first intrusions of the
neighborhood’s polite rush hour. A few passersby cooed at the sleeping
baby in the wagon and Prue flashed them sarcastic smiles, a little
annoyed to be someone’s picture of sibling camaraderie. She doodled
mindlessly in her sketchbook: the leaf-clogged gutter drain in front
of the cafe, a hazy sketch of Mac’s quiet face with extra attention
paid to the little dribble of snot emerging from his left nostril. The
afternoon began to fade. Mac, waking, shook her from her trance.
“Right,” she said, putting her brother on her knee while he rubbed
the sleep from his eyes. “Let’s keep moving. Library?” Mac pouted,
uncomprehending.
“Library it is,” said Prue.
She skidded to a halt in front of the St. Johns branch library and
vaulted from her bike seat. “Don’t go anywhere,” she said to Mac as
she grabbed the short stack of books from the wagon. She jogged into
the foyer and stood before the book return slot, shuffling the books
in her hand. She stopped at one, The Sibley Guide to Birds, and sighed.
She’d had it for nearly three months now, braving overdue notices
and threatening notes from librarians before she’d finally consented
to return it. Prue mournfully flipped through the pages of the book.
She’d spent hours copying the beautiful illustrations of the birds into
her sketchbook, whispering their fantastic, exotic names like quiet
incantations: the western tanager. The whip-poor-will. Vaux’s swift.
The names conjured the images of lofty climes and faraway places,
of quiet prairie dawns and misty treetop aeries. Her gaze drifted from
the book to the darkness of the return slot and back. She winced,
muttered, “Oh well,” and shoved the book into the opening of her
pea coat. She would brave the librarians’ wrath for one more week.
Outside, an old woman had stopped in front of the wagon and was
busy searching around for its owner, her brow furrowed. Mac was
contentedly chewing on the head of his wooden snake. Prue rolled
her eyes, took a deep breath, and threw open the doors of the library.
When the woman saw Prue, she began to wave a knobby finger in her
direction, stammering, “E-excuse me, miss! This is very unsafe! To
leave a child! Alone! Do his parents know how he is being cared for?”
“What, him?” asked Prue as she climbed back on to the bike.
“Poor thing, doesn’t have parents. I found him in the free book pile.”
She smiled widely and pushed the bike away from the curb back onto
the street.
The playground was empty when they arrived, and Prue unrolled
Mac from his swaddling and set him alongside the unhitched Radio
Flyer. He was just beginning to walk and relished the opportunity to
practice his balancing. He gurgled and smiled and carefully waddled
beside the wagon, pushing it slowly across the playground’s asphalt.
“Knock yourself out,” said Prue, and she pulled the copy of The Sibley
Guide to Birds from her coat, opening it to a dog-eared page about
meadowlarks. The shadows against the blacktop were growing longer
as the late afternoon gave way to early evening.
That was when she first noticed the crows.
At first there were just a few, wheeling in concentric circles against
the overcast sky. They caught Prue’s attention, darting about in her
periphery, and she glanced up at them. Corvus brachyrhynchos; she’d
just been reading about them the night before. Even from a distance,
Prue was astounded by their size and the power of their every wing
stroke. A few more flew into the group and there were now several,
wheeling and diving above the quiet playground. A flock? thought
Prue. A swarm? She flipped through the pages of Sibley to the back
where there was an index of fanciful terms for the grouping of birds:
a sedge of herons, a fall of woodcock, and: a murder of crows. She
shivered. Looking back up, she was startled to see that this murder
of crows had grown considerably. There were now dozens of birds,
each of the blackest pitch, piercing cold empty holes in the widening
sky. She looked over at Mac. He was now yards away, blithely
toddling along the blacktop. She felt unnerved. “Hey, Mac!” she called.
“Where ya going?”
There was a sudden rush of wind, and she looked up in the sky and
was horrified to see that the group of crows had grown twenty-fold.
The individual birds were now indiscernible from the mass, and the
murder coalesced into a single, convulsive shape, blotting out the flat
light of the afternoon sun. The shape swung and bowed in the air, and
the noise of their beating wings and screeching cries became almost
deafening. Prue cast about, seeing if anyone else was witnessing this
bizarre event, but she was terrified to find that she was alone.
And then the crows dove.
Their cry became a single, unified scream as the cloud of crows
feinted skyward before diving at a ferocious speed toward her baby
brother. Mac gave a terrific squeal as the first crow reached him,
snagging the hood of his jumper in a quick flourish of a talon. A
second took hold of a sleeve, a third grabbing the shoulder. A fourth,
a fifth touched down, until the swarm surrounded and obscured the
view of his body in a sea of flashing, feathery blackness. And then,
with seemingly perfect ease, Mac was lifted from the ground and into
the air.
Prue was paralyzed with shock and disbelief: How were they doing
this? She found that her legs felt like they were made of cement, her
mouth empty of anything that might draw forth words or a sound.
Her entire placid, predictable life now seemed to hinge on this one
single event, everything she’d ever felt or believed coming into
terrible relief. Nothing her parents had told her, nothing she’d ever
learned in school, could possibly have prepared her for this thing that
was happening. Or, really, what was to follow.
“LET MY BROTHER GO!”
Waking from her reverie, Prue found she
was standing on top of the bench, shaking
her fist at the crows like an ineffectual comic
book bystander, cursing some super villain for the
theft of a purse. The crows were quickly gaining
altitude; they now topped the highest branches of
the poplars. Mac could barely be seen amid
the black, winged swarm. Prue jumped
down from the bench and grabbed a rock
from the pavement. Taking quick aim, she
threw the rock as hard as she could but
groaned to see it fall well short of its target.
The crows were completely unfazed. They
were now well above the tallest trees in the
neighborhood and climbing, the highest fliers
growing hazy in the low-hanging clouds. The
dark mass moved in an almost lazy pattern, stalling
in motion before suddenly breaking in one direction
and the next. Suddenly, the curtain of their bodies
parted and Prue could see the distant beige shape
of Mac, his cord jumper pulled into a grotesque rag-doll shape by
the crows’ talons. She could see one crow had a claw tangled in the
fine down of his hair. Now the swarm seemed to split in two groups:
One stayed surrounding the few crows who were carrying Mac while
the other dove away and skirted the treetops. Suddenly, two of the
crows let go of Mac’s jumper, and the remaining birds scrambled to
keep hold. Prue shrieked as she saw her brother slip from their claws
and plummet. But before Mac even neared the ground, the second
group of crows deftly flew in and he was caught, lost again into the
cloud of squawking birds. The two groups reunited, wheeled in the
air once more, and suddenly, violently, shot westward, away from
the playground.
Determined to do something, Prue dashed to her bike, jumped
on, and gave pursuit. Unencumbered by Mac’s red wagon, the bike
quickly gained speed and Prue darted out into the street. Two cars
skidded to a stop in front of her as she crossed the intersection in front
of the library; somebody yelled, “Watch it!” from the sidewalk. Prue
did not dare take her eyes off the swimming, spinning crows in the
distance.
Her legs a blue blur over the pedals, Prue blew the stop sign at
Richmond and Ivanhoe, inciting an angered holler from a bystander.
She then skidded through the turn southward on Willamette. The
crows, unhampered by the neighborhood’s grid of houses, lawns,
streets, and stoplights, made quick time over the landscape, and Prue
commanded her legs to pedal faster to keep pace. In the chase, she
could swear that the crows were toying with her, cutting back toward
her, diving low and skirting the roofs of the houses, only to carve a
great arc and, with a push of speed, dart back to the west. In these
moments Prue could catch glimpse of her captive brother, swinging
in the clutches of his captors, and then he would disappear again, lost
in the whirlwind of feathers.
“I’m coming for you, Mac!” she yelled. Tears streamed down
Prue’s cheeks, but she couldn’t tell if she’d cried them or if they were
a product of the cold fall air that whipped at her face as she rode. Her
heart was beating madly in her chest, but her emotions were staid; she
still couldn’t quite believe this was all happening. Her only thought
was to retrieve her brother. She swore that she would never let him
out of her sight again.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Wildwood by Colin Meloy Copyright © 2011 by Colin Meloy. Excerpted by permission of Balzer & Bray. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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