The Bitching Tree
by Scott Hungerford
An urban fantasy novel about a very small crow.
Available on Amazon Kindle for $3.99
Set in the modern-day world of the Corax Chronicles, The Bitching Tree is a story about a very small crow named Cobb. A crow that loves to fly, he lives in Seattle as a member of the great flock that congregates around the majestic Bitching Tree. Serving both as a site of governance and a place to cast grievances, the tree is the center of Seattle crow society – and also a potent source of nature’s primal magic.
But when news arrives that an ancient enemy named the Red Crow is coming to claim the tree for his own, Cobb is given the task of journeying all the way from Seattle to Cordova, Alaska, in order to meet his new mentor and undergo the training he will need to both protect his flock and keep the Bitching Tree from falling into the hands of evil. But the quest will require Cobb to maintain a delicate balance between the crow he is – and the hero he needs to become.
Opening Pages of ‘The Bitching Tree’
Dawn rises over the Seattle skyline, painting rose over gray at the beginning of an early October morning. Bands of color warm the sky, spreading out across the sleeping city, warming cold brick and chilled metal with the first rays of day.
Hungry, desperately so, he keeps moving along the edge of the rooftop, ticking his way alongside the gutters, scraping along the tar paper, occasionally stopping to check out a glistening tidbit or morsel stuck in the old metal edges. Hunched shoulders, bent back, intent eyes—a wriggling bug becomes another tasty, crunchy snack. It doesn’t satisfy his hunger, but it’s an early morning start. Other crows taw and fly by in the distance, on their way to meeting points and secret breakfast spots they keep to themselves. By the sound of their calls they’re nobody he knows, but they’re kin nonetheless.
Hopping down, he makes an outstretched landing on the edge of an open garbage dumpster below, then conducts a hurried, quick series of motions along the rim, trying to mimic grace, balance, and dexterity. But just as he’s about to reach the center, without fluttering or flailing even once, he slip-slides off the slick metal. Instead of falling in, he falls out—and makes a hard landing on the pavement five feet below, a crash hard enough to clack his teeth, rattle his bones, and leave him sitting sprawl-legged on the sidewalk with pebbles and grit stinging his palms.
“Fuck!” he yells at the world, at the rose color already starting to fade out of the morning sky. Hungry and wet and exhausted, he’s tired of being tall, of everything being so out of proportion, so giant, so skewed. He knows that after the long trip on foot up the hill from the University he’s almost to his roost. It’s just up there in the square of glass and concrete situated above the alley, in the place his body knows deep down as his home.
He. He calls home.
“Fuck!” he yells again, frustrated, dragging it out, making his displeasure known. A dirty gray gull on the wing, feathers ruffling with the sound of its passage, flies over the alley and steadfastly ignores his plight. His eyes follow the scavenger to make sure it isn’t going to circle around and pick a fight. When he is sure that the gull is gone, the man looks back at the ladder that led up to the roof of the three-story tenement—the accursed ladder that got him nowhere but standing above where he lived, and most certainly not within it!
Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulls out the ring of metal bits, shiny and jagged. He remembers the fluid feeling of key in lock, of long appendages wrapping around a protrusion and clenching hard to open the portal wide. Getting up from the concrete, regretting the pain in his tailbone, he limps around the building to the glass entry at the front. He fumbles with the ring of puzzles until he finds the one he thinks he needs.
Following the man’s memories, he manages to insert the metal bit and deceive the door into opening for him. Once inside, he intuitively sprints up the carpeted stairs and down the hallway to his own scratched white door, number fourteen, as if he’s running for his life.
This door yields for him as well. Inside, it’s warm and safe. He knows he’s alone, in a small number of rooms with nowhere to hide anyone but him. After a lifetime under open sky and living at the roosting bridge by the University, the empty, low-ceilinged set of chambers seems impossibly vast and impossibly cramped all at the same time. Pictures, drawn with lead and charcoal and chalk, are displayed on the walls, showing people and places from all around the city. The bed is a mess. Clothes are scattered across the floor and the laundry basket is full to overflowing. The sink is filled with dishes that stink. The bag in the plastic bin beneath the sink smells of metal and spoil.
Taking off his coat, he drops it on the floor by the edge of the bed. Struggling, he manages to wrest off his shoes without untying the laces, mostly by standing on the heels and shoving down with his misshapen feet with all his might. When he is barefoot he feels better, he feels—
—like his mind is breaking. Wriggling, naked white toes instead of talons. His beautiful feathers are gone and his face is ripped apart, delicate beak replaced with brittle teeth that feel like they would break if he accidentally chewed a stone. Panicked, his body reacts, and he flees by instinct into the tiled room off the hallway. Presented with a low bowl of water and an empty knee-high basin partly protected by a hanging sheet of plastic, he chooses the latter to vomit and splatter into, not wanting to foul any water he might need to drink later. He messily throws up all of the bits and bugs he’s eaten since it happened last night at dusk. He is shocked at the fluid feel of his body giving up precious sustenance so easily.
When the spasms cease and he has the strength to stand again, he rises and washes his face in the sink. Cold water numbs his fingers and the skin of his face. He looks up, and that’s when he sees himself for the first time. Ridiculous rounded ears and brown hair and slight nose, the curve of his jaw and the strange hollow depression resting between his nose and mouth. He touches the weird spot, the inversion, marveling at its distinction, its lack of purpose, even as his wide brown eyes dart back and forth between his hands and the mirror, trying to make sense of his reflection’s naked truth.
Eyelashes are ridiculous, he decides, then looks away, unable to take the shame of his visage. No one would recognize him now, no one he knew and loved. He is a human now, with feet and hands and a history. He is a crow, too, lost in this skyscraper of a body, looking out through twin round-lensed windows at the ground far below, without wings to carry him and prevent him from falling. Just useless hands and elbows and knees, a featherless automaton that moves and repeats and remembers without being told.
Drying his face on a towel, he staggers into the kitchen looking for something to clear the taste of sorrow out of his strangely shaped mouth.
On the countertop he finds bread, a whole dark loaf of it, filled with cracked bits of grain and seeds. Stunned, never having seen such a cornucopia unguarded before, he messily tears open the plastic bag and lets the pieces of bread fall and tumble to the floor. Dropping to his knees, he begins to eat, cramming in mouthful after mouthful with both hands, ripping at the soft fabric of the food, stunned at the taste of freshness and softness that fills every bite. He resists the nearly primal urge to call out, to alert other crows to what he’s found so they can share the meal and safety in numbers together, proof from jays and gulls and whatever other thieves are nearby. But he manages to keep silent, to keep his mouth stuffed with bread, preserving the prize all to himself.
When he’s had his fill, when most of the loaf is gone, he lays down among the torn, yeasty remainders to make sure that no other crow gets his feast. There, half tucked beneath the sink, his head resting on a fallen hand towel, he looks at the art-covered refrigerator. He looks up at the early morning clouds moving slowly outside the window and feels a strange calm coming over him.
He remembers himself for a moment, from back when he had feathers instead of fingers. Amid all the noise and words and images that are in constant tumult within the human mind, he grasps a fleeting memory of why he is here in the human world, lost and alone. Of how it all started for him yesterday morning beneath the canopy of the Bitching Tree, a great sprawling oak with branches reaching high enough to meet the sky.
Protected by Old Thom, the sacred tree is the center of every crow’s world for three days’ flight in every direction. It is where the flocks that live throughout the vast human city come to argue disputes and serve justice upon one another with all the authority the tree offers. The old oak is the heart, their sanctum, the shared place where the old power rises up to aid those who seek wisdom or waking dreams within its sheltering branches.
But he knows the Red Crow is coming. He knows their most ancient enemy is coming to claim the Bitching Tree as its own, with a winged army big enough to blot out the sky. That is why he is here now, in this body. He must find the two-in-one who will teach him to fight. Not just as a crow, but as a man, before all he knows is lost to war and death.
But as terrifying as this knowledge is, he is exhausted. He lets himself fade into sleep, gently, bit by bit, until he makes himself dream of interlaced branches and the smell of warm feathers. But that soon changes and fades as the sacred tree vanishes from beneath him, from around him. Then he is gliding silently down into the unknowable darkness, with only the cold, wailing wind beneath his wings.
About the Author
Hello, there! My name is Scott Hungerford, and I’ve worked as a professional game designer and storyteller over the last twenty+ years of my career. While by day I currently work as a virtual reality game designer on game apps for medical therapy and training, by night I’m an urban fantasy novelist, an improvisational piano player, and a board and card game designer who just likes to build neat stuff for other folks to enjoy.
Beyond writing tons of short stories, novellas, novels, and all manner of game-related stuff, I’ve worked as a professional game designer and storyteller for the twenty-five+ years I’ve worked in the game industry, even running story for brands like Magic: the Gathering and Mage Knight. Through the course of my career I’ve worked on more than thirty published computer game titles, written for more than fifty board/card/RPG products, and have touched the lives of more than ten million people with my creativity!
While I’ve been publishing books since 2013, the first few fantasy novels I launched on Amazon are pulled down for the moment, as I want to do some rewrites and let my new book editor take a crack at them. But back in the day The Fire Cage landed #1 in Amazon’s YA Steampunk category, Goblin Girl landed #3 in Amazon’s YA Fairy Tales, and Wish landed in Amazon’s Top 20 Sword and Sorcery. With the recent success of Crossroads in August 2018, hitting #2 on Amazon’s Urban Fantasy lists, I’m really looking forward to seeing how my current series is going to play out over the next twelve months!
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