People around here never wanted our family. Crow boys, they called us, a flock of five brothers and our father, all of us with long black hair. Flapping our over-sized, garage sale sleeves and falling over the fences the neighbors put between us and them. And maybe too because of the feathers. Our father hung black feathers along the eaves of the house, from the side mirrors of his truck, dangling from the shriveled limbs of our dying fruit trees. All those feathers spinning in the hot wind. They were painted in rows along the wood siding. Our father had tiny feather tattoos between every joint on his hands, three to a finger. Paid us in change from his pockets when we found feathers on the ground and put them in his hands, no matter if they were bent or broke a little or crawling with lice. "We get enough of these, we'll fly right off," he said.
We didn't believe him. He said he hurt his leg fighting in the war and couldn't work, but we'd seen him dance light on his boot heels when a woman came to see him. He always said that our mother was the only one for him, someone we'd never known, but he had other women. It didn't bother us. We understood the kind of liar he was, the kind who wouldn’t hurt anyone. We were the same.
Police knocked on our door always, not for anything really, just because of how we lived. We dragged broken furniture and appliances back to the yard and stacked them on the porch. Anything somebody put on their curb with the trash could end up outside our house, a graveyard of worthless and sun-bleached things, and our father would labor to fix them. “Might be useful,” he’d say. “Might be worth something.” We never made any money off it. Father let the yard go wild and told us it was to keep us healthy. Had us keep a dollar in our shoe so we’d walk to lost money on the ground. Told us to love things hard so that we’d be loved hard back. “The whole universe,” he said, “has sympathy for itself. You learn to play on that. Not like people.” He clenched his fists, hands balling into feathers. “People don’t have sympathy for anything.”
Father trapped animals and kept them in cages, stacked under the carport and filling the back of the truck. We had one-eyed jackrabbits, bobcats worn bald from throwing themselves at the wire, a bunch of armadillos. Of course we had birds. Father raised his hands to the sky and said, “This is how you make magic.” Wild animals full of life and surrounding the old truck to keep that metal heart pounding. If a rabbit sneezed or raccoon lay over in its cage, he took it away. “Get gone, broke alternator,” he shouted, and ran the animal back into the woods. All the animals made a good racket, and that brought cops. They told us we weren’t supposed to even keep them, that wild animals weren’t pets. Our father shook his head, hair swinging. “Not pets,” he said. “I ain’t pet them once.”
The landlord hated us most. Came over wearing his big boots and hanging gut, squinting in the sunlight. He told us, “Y’all’s the worst tenants I got. Bring down the whole place.”
“I always pay my rent,” our father said. Tall and quiet, our lanky father in worn-out denim.
The landlord spat at his feet, right there on the ground we paid him for. “You always pay it late.”
“You can't put people out in this weather.” Our father under an open sky, sly and terrifying. He knew things no one else could.
The landlord looked up, the air hot and heavy and Texas dry. “It ain't rained in a month,” he said.
“There's a storm coming, sure.” Father looked up to the clear blue like he could see it.
We ran around the house, knocking into each other and tripping over furniture, getting all tangled up until we couldn’t tell our brothers from ourselves. “What are we going to do, father?” we asked him. We started picking up boxes full of trash—this one stacked with newspaper, this one with rain-rusted screws and bolts, another one full of feathers. “We’ll clean it right up,” we squawked. “We’ll make it right, and he won’t put us out.”
Father swore and smacked our hands. “Sit right down. I’ve got a refrigerator full of scrap metal and gravel buried in the backyard. All that weight. He can’t make us budge.” He fried us up something for dinner, made us shower in twos except for the oldest to save hot water, slicked down our dark heads with his hand and put us in bed. Like every night, we asked him why we didn’t have a mother. Like every night, he said the same damn things.
“She was beautiful,” he said. “But her parents didn’t like me much.”
“Where is she?” we asked. “Is she dead?”
“I saved her.” Father put his hands around the lamp bulb and shadows writhed over the walls. “There was a black storm rolling in, ready to carry me away. She was always the one for me. So I tied my last feather around her wrist. The storm hit, and we flew right through the air. We were like birds. We rode the storm to a new land where people weren’t so hateful. Or maybe all the people looked like me and were magicians. Or maybe there weren’t no people at all. Anyway, that part ain’t important.”
“What happened to her after?”
“We lived,” he paused here to kiss our foreheads and stuff the blanket under our necks, “so happy for the rest of our lives.”
Getting ready for school in the morning, we pulled out an old shoe box and looked at the tiny shirts again. There were five in the box, and we used to think they were baby clothes. But we could put our arms into the shirts and stick our fingers out of each sleeve and the neck, wear them on our hands. No baby was that small. And the inside of the shirts was studded with soft, black feathers, small as our pinky nails. We heard father coughing and kicking through the house, and we hid the shirts away.
On the bus to school, the other kids put their feet up and wouldn't let us sit. The five of us crammed ourselves into two seats near the front. People said we had lice, but most days we didn’t believe it. An older boy stood with his head by the open window. He screwed up his mouth and spit part of his breakfast across the neck of our smallest brother, something brown and dirty and thick as bird shit. We were too busy laughing about the little shirts to notice, or that’s how we lied to ourselves. We grinned. It was ridiculous. Of course we’d never been crows. We had always been brothers.
At the stop after ours, five sisters lived. They were older than us, but poor like we were, and that made us the same. They had holes in their stockings, all their clothes bleached pale as the white-blond hair that fell down their backs. They squeezed our shoulders with their sticky fingers, sat on and between and around us, making our circle their circle, splitting us up and making us bigger. Their breath of milk in our faces and roving green eyes, their scuffed knees and elbows, the way they listened to us like we were worth something. They made us believe everything our father said about magic.
Not crows, but we were something. We decided that we must be Indian. One of us wanted to be Cherokee. Another said we should be Huron. Our oldest brother said that we could be the Iroquois nation, each brother from a different tribe. We couldn’t decide. This is why it was hard having brothers. We asked the sisters what they thought, and they said that they’d already decided to be Mayans. And Vikings. And warm little doves. We nodded. We weren’t going to be the ones to tell them what they couldn’t be.
When the bus stopped at our house that afternoon, we saw a pink paper flapping on the door from the bus window. All the kids on the bus were whispering about it and staring at us. We heard the words, “Eviction notice.” When we fought our way out of our seats and scrambled to the front, behind us they stood and cheered, whooping and clapping and telling us to go. They said to take our lice with us. They said that their fathers worked hard while our father did nothing, that we were scavengers, crows eating their scraps. The bus driver stared at us in his mirror but did nothing, letting us know that he felt the same. We hoped we ended up living next to some of them one day, on a quiet street with not many houses. At school, they had us outnumbered. But that was what was good about having brothers. We could count on each other for fighting.
Our father was cracking trays of ice cubes onto the yellow dirt around the house, wiping his brow and exaggerating his limp. “Have to do something about this heat,” he said. We read the eviction notice. It seemed clear enough. We had a month. We filed in, loose sleeves hanging toward the ground.
Father came inside, knocked a foot-high stack of junk mail off his chair, sank down heavy on the old springs. “We’re flying out of here,” he told us.
We nodded, finding a stack of old liquor boxes and opening them up, starting to pack.
“What are you doing?” father asked.
“We have to move.”
“No, no, no.” Father took the boxes out of our hands, threw them out the door and into the hot yard. “Not that way.” He got a cigar box of old feathers and a spool of kite string. He had us help him tie feathers to every individual thing: coffee mug handles, key rings, door knobs, shoes, chairs, even the silverware, a feather tied to every spoon. “When the storm comes to take us away, everything has to fly. Tie a feather to what you want to save.”
We didn’t believe him, but we loved him. So we did what he wanted. Some of the feathers were broken, and we held them up.
He smiled. “Use those for things that aren’t so important.”
We found five perfect feathers, big and satiny black, the edges like blades. He closed our hands around them, one for each of us. “Use those for what you want to keep most.”
It was an easy choice. That afternoon we ran over to the sisters’ house, each of us holding up our one perfect feather. We’d balled the others into our pockets, and they shed in the wind as we ran, floating off through the air. “A new game,” we told the sisters. “Wear a black feather in your white hair and live happily ever after.”
The sisters laughed. “Not our hair,” they said. “Not those dirty feathers.”
“You have to,” we told them. “This is the only way to be safe from the storm that's coming.” We lied a little, but only because we wanted them so much. We'd trust in any magic that would make them ours.
“If you're sure this will protect us,” they said, putting the feathers in their hair. We told them that their lives depended on it. We took more feathers out of our pockets and showed them how to tie them to anything they wanted to take when the storm carried them off. “Where will the storm take us?” they asked, and we told them about the most amazing places. Castles made of star and cloud, places with snow in the winter and fields of thick grass in the summer, with fruit trees that were heavy with peaches, and somewhere a dark and smiling woman who was our mother, just as our father had said. We ran circles through the yard, chasing sisters and stabbing feathers into the ground, and for a little while, we even believed it.