Thinking in Pieces by Rhiannon Held

When the woman built her mind from crows, she chose them for their cleverness, their puzzle-solving. She had not expected to find them so stubborn, so resistant to thinking together. But she’d had few good choices with no mind of her own, she supposed.

The crows chose a seat at the coffee shop’s picnic table, outside in the intermittent spring sunlight, so her sunglasses wouldn’t excite notice indoors. Not that normal people ever seemed quite easy around her, however she tried to act. She set her croissant on the table and tore off tiny pieces, holding it still with her other hand. She scanned her surroundings as she ate. The coffee shop was a white, free-standing building, with long eaves. The garbage bins were stored at the side of the parking lot in a square of fencing.

But that wasn’t the direction the crows needed her thoughts to go. She reached for her truth to steady herself. The crows’ truth was that she would kill the sorcerer. It had been her truth for years, but soon that would change, and she’d need that truth no longer. She wouldn’t need any truth, because she would be able to rest.

But first she needed to find a way to enter his home without breaking his wards and warning him. He traveled in and out in his car, but that was warded too, taking him to places where an attempt on his life would be seen, stopped before it succeeded. The crows had trained her thoughts into enough order to get this close, but now she could get no closer. The waiting tried her control.

That was when the crows saw the sorcerer’s servant. She was surprised, then wondered why. She’d been the sorcerer’s servant, once, before she was the crows. There had been servants before her, perhaps stretching all the way back across the centuries to when he began his quest for youth. There would have been servants after her.

This servant had properly black hair and the sorcerer’s magic in the spaces behind her eyes. The crows wondered if the servant was far enough from the sorcerer the servant would not recognize the crows for what she was. The crows beckoned her over. The servant was interesting. The crows wanted to see her.

And perhaps the servant was the key, for the crows to kill the sorcerer. The wards would open for her and the crows could follow behind. The hard part would be preserving the servant when the sorcerer discovered them both. The crows did not wish another servant to die. The sorcerer had killed so many. After the crows was done, he would kill no more, but if his toll could be one less, that would be well. If, however, one more was needed to save all that would have come after, the crows would also make that trade without hesitation.

“Do you know your name?” the crows asked the servant, in her harsh voice, when the servant approached. The crows looked at the young woman from one side, and then the other. She had a lean face.

The woman’s brow furrowed. “I’m…getting coffee. I’m sorry. It’s very hard to remember.” Resolution firmed her expression, and she took two more steps for the shop’s front door. “I want…”

The crows knew what the servant wanted. To be able to think straight. To be able to escape. That she had made it so far in this small rebellion spoke well of her strength of character. But it would fail. That was why the sorcerer allowed it.

“Maybe I should go home.” The servant turned away, head down.

“I will come with you.” The crows left her unfinished pastry for those of a similar mind to hers who would come after, and stood. “Tell me when you remember your name.”

They let themselves out onto the road through a gate at the side of the parking lot. In this rural area, there were no sidewalks, only gravel settled flat by feet beside the asphalt. The crows walked on the asphalt because it was easier, and moved aside each time she heard a car. There weren’t many.

“Ashna,” the servant said, with dawning frustration, after they had traveled some few steps. The crows didn’t bother to concentrate enough to count. More than five, anyway. “I can’t believe I forgot that! I hate the way I can’t–can’t–” She pressed the heels of her hands to her forehead.

A car-crushed squirrel sprawled across the gravel, eyes not yet eaten. The crows stepped over it. “We draw closer. Do not fret.” That was all that was necessary, but curiosity caught at the crows. Memories of being like this woman made the crows feel a little more human. “How long have you been with the sorcerer?”

With each step, Ashna’s face tightened and her eyes filled up so the sorcerer’s magic was not so visible. “About two years. I met him my junior year at UVic, he was talking about hiring a research assistant, but then he showed me magic. And of course I wanted to learn magic–” She gestured, helplessly.

She planted her feet suddenly, blocking the crows’ way. “Who are you? How did you know about the sorcerer?”

The crows looked to the sky and thought briefly of gliding, wind ruffling–No. She had her truth. She was going to kill the sorcerer and the servant was the key to let her in. “My name is Virginia.” That was what it had said on her driver’s license, when she’d been able to read again, so she’d written it on everything since.

Ashna examined the crows. For an instant, her eyes were so full of intelligence that nothing of the sorcerer could be seen. “You’re the one he says died by her own hand, aren’t you?”

The crows took a moment to admire the conclusion, the beauty of it. Assembled whole, so easily. “I’m going to kill him. Will you stop me?”

Ashna kicked the gravel savagely. “Of course not. I’m a prisoner. The farther I get from him, the more I lose myself.”

“First you can’t remember how you were going to escape. But if you push on, you can’t remember why. And if you are too stubborn to stop then, you can’t remember that you were escaping at all and the only thought left is a longing to go home and have thoughts again.” The crows smiled in empathy, an awkward-feeling expression. Her attention skittered back to the squirrel they’d left behind them and the sky above and the metallic glint of a beer can in the weeds. She waited impatiently for her thoughts to align again.

Ashna nodded, eager now. “And he pretends like all his other assistants died from accidents, but I don’t believe him. You obviously didn’t commit suicide. Did he try to kill you? Is that how you got free?”

“He eats all their minds eventually.” The crows let her expression fall away again. “The minds won’t make him young, but they keep him from dying. When he first showed you magic, did he tell you that if you helped him find youth, you’d live forever with him? I don’t know if he believes that anymore. I don’t know if he ever did. But he still gathers young minds. First he gets his hooks in deep, and you can’t leave without your mind pulling away. And then he grows hungry for the time a mind grants him, and eats yours. I did not wait for him to grow hungry. That is why he thinks I killed myself.”

Ashna paced around her, so expressive in her face, in the wariness of her body when she could think. “But you’re–what’s wrong with you?”

The crows had known, she supposed, that when Ashna regained enough of her mind, she would notice the crows’ strangeness and be bothered by it. “I thought with bees first, when my mind tore free.” Memories of that buzz and wiggle and a certainty of a path were as removed from the crows’ thoughts as that human smile, but she touched their edges. “As I had planned. Bees already know how to think in pieces. That helped me, when I collected the crows.”

Ashna was directly before her, so the crows took off her sunglasses and showed the servant her eyes. They were so dark as to seem black, side to side. Ashna flinched, because she was more human than the crows would ever be again.

The crows resettled her glasses and started on her way again, toward the sorcerer’s house. Ashna jogged to catch up with her. “What about me? What happens to me when you kill him?”

The crows did not mention the danger the servant was in, if the crows failed. She suspected the woman could guess, and if she could not, the crows could not afford to have her take fear. “You take your mind back, quickly, before he’s gone.” She sought the servant’s eyes. “I need you to take me through the wards. Will you help me?”

They drew nearer to the house as Ashna thought with every bit of her mind allowed her. “Yes,” she said, finally. “I will.”

#

The sorcerer’s house had its garbage bins hidden away behind it. It was too grand for them, so much glass and stone facade. It was not the house that the crows remembered, but the crow was not sure she remembered houses. Faces were easier. They passed through the wards with no shouts inside, no signs of alarm at all.

Ashna opened the house’s door, and the crows walked in rhythm with her steps, into the hall, so extra footsteps would be blurred. The crows withdrew her knife from the sheath tucked into the back of her waistband.

“Dinner had better not be late,” the sorcerer said, emerging from a door.

The crows remembered his face. He was white-haired and so thin, balanced forever at the last moment of straight-backed power before he dwindled to nothing more than an old man. He looked no different for the passage of time, no older, but no younger either. No closer to his all-consuming dream of youth. The crows supposed her face had not changed either. She’d eaten the minds–and time–of so many crows she’d lost count, but then again she found it hard to count very high anymore.

“You–” he said, and his face went slack.

She stepped into him and gutted him in one smooth stroke across the abdomen, then another across the other way. She’d waited so long for this. She’d thought with sharp pieces that did not want to be whole thoughts, inhuman and alone among all other humans, for this.

He collapsed, no more dignity than the dead squirrel now, as the blood and the bowels slipped out between his fingers. Soon he would be tasty carrion, but not for the crows. She would be able to rest.

The crows found Ashna and pointed to the sorcerer with her knife. A single drop of blood gathered and trembled at the tip. “Take your mind. Quickly.”

Ashna stared at her and his magic shimmered in her eyes, filling rapidly widening gaps. “I don’t know how.”

The sorcerer smiled a rictus grin. “You can’t save her.” He relaxed his head back from trying to see what his fingers could not hold, and seemed to resign himself to death, if he could take one more servant with him.

“Please…” Ashna said.

The crows lowered her arm. The drop of blood fell. Her truth was that she would kill the sorcerer, and then she could rest, and no longer think with thoughts unsuited for the kind of thinking she needed. No longer pretend to be human, and fail at it. She had killed the sorcerer. But if she let the crows go now, Ashna would die too.

And if someone had saved the crows, once upon a time years ago, she wouldn’t be the crows now. It would be well to save someone else, the crows decided. It was not such a hard thought to think as she had expected.

The crows knelt in the blood and pulled minds from the sorcerer instead. His eyes widened at her strength, and she realized that she was stronger than him now. Crow thoughts did not hold together so easily as young human women’s thoughts pulled away.

She gathered up what she thought was Ashna’s mind, but the thoughts kept coming and coming. Too many minds, too many pieces of minds. Ashna, Virginia, a cascade of other names, growing more worn with the centuries. She could not sort out one set without all the rest slipping from her grasp, and she couldn’t grasp them all without continuing to think thoughts of her own.

The woman who didn’t know who she was, now, locked her strength onto a few crows, because they were familiar, and used that foundation to push half the thoughts into Ashna. The vacancy of her eyes filled up with the roil of Ashna and others and perhaps a crow or two, swept up by mistake.

Virginia and crows and others breathed for some space, while Ashna began silently to weep. With the shock of her new thoughts, perhaps. The hallway stank of blood and worse. She’d saved the servant. Now she could let her thoughts go.

“There’s…pieces of other people. Virginia, I don’t know how…” Ashna curled over on herself. “Please, help me.”

Not saved quite yet, then. Virginia and crows let the others go, and the crows filled the cracks to create something that felt almost…whole? At least in comparison. Virginia and crows wondered that Ashna was so upset. Thinking in pieces of humans was nothing to thinking in bees. “To think in pieces you need…your truths,” Virginia and crows said carefully. New thoughts shifted how she spoke. “What are your truths?”

“I don’t know. What are your truths?” Ashna knelt in the pool of blood too and clutched at Virginia and crows’ hands. Her eyes were all colors, blue and green and brown swirling like paint that would never agree to mix.

“I am Virginia and crows.” She’d killed the sorcerer and she’d planned to let all her thoughts go then, but she wasn’t so sure now. Virginia was sticky and held the crows to her when the crows had always been eager to fly apart. What was her truth now?

“I know how to think in pieces,” Virginia and crows said slowly, feeling it out. “But I want to think whole.”

“Yes.” Ashna squeezed her hands tightly. “Yes, how do I think in pieces?”

“I will teach you.” Virginia and crows smiled and it was so natural. Natural like grief that was welling up now, an emotion that needed more wholeness to encompass it than she’d had in a long time. Grief and fierce joy. “I am Virginia and crows. I want to think whole. And I will teach you to think in pieces so eventually you can think whole as well. Those are my truths.”

“I am Ashna and Virginia and crows and so many others…” Ashna’s breath made a sob, but she continued. “My truth is that I will learn to think again.”

“We have many things to learn together,” Virginia and crows added, because that was a truth, too.

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