Waking Up With a Crow’s Head In My Hands

by Jessica Johns

Before I look down, I know it’s there. The crow’s head I was clutching in my dream is now in bed with me. I woke up with the weight of it in my hands, held against my chest under the covers. I can still feel its beak and feathers on my palms. The smell of pine and the tang of blood sting my nose. My pillow feels for a second like the cold, frozen ground under my cheek. I yank off my blanket, heavy like I’m pulling it back from the past, and look down to my hands, now empty. A feeling of static pulses inside them like when a dead limb fills with blood again. They are clean and dry and trembling.

Shit. Not again.

[ . . . ]

I stare at my phone for a few minutes before finally calling Auntie Doreen. 

“What’d I tell you about calling on Thursdays, Mackenzie?” she shouts into the phone when she answers. I can hear the bingo caller’s voice echo in the background. I look at the time again. It’s an hour ahead in High Prairie. “Shit, sorry, Auntie. Bingo night. I forgot. This is important though.” 

“More important than a ten-thousand-dollar dual dab? I don’t think so.” She hangs up, and I wait for her to call me back, because I know she will. There is concern in her voice. Even though we talk at least once a week, I know never to call on bingo nights. 

“I was two numbers away and starting to sweat,” she says when I answer her call a half hour later. “What are you calling for, my girl? Text me like a regular person.” 

“I’ve been having some weird dreams,” I say. “Really, really weird dreams.” 

She laughs. “That’s a bit vague.” 

I swallow into the phone. “This is going to sound fucked up but stay with me.” I sigh and blink, see the flash of pine boughs in front of me, and hear the crunch of snow under my feet. “I had a couple dreams where I was running through the woods, grabbing at tree branches and shoving them aside, trying to get through. But when I woke up, I was still holding onto sticks. Like I brought them back from the dream world. When I blinked, they disappeared.”

She’s quiet for a while, and I almost think she’s hung up again when she sighs. “I see.” 

I pace my small apartment, lapping the entire space in a few steps. 

“How many times has this happened?” she asks. “Three times in three weeks. The last one was last night.”

She’s quiet and I hear the flick of a lighter, quiet talking and laughter from her end of the phone. She must be outside the Friendship Centre, smoking during the bingo break. I imagine her thin fingers pulling out a cigarette in the parking lot and lighting it. Smoke curling around her face and shoulder-length, permed hair. 

“That’s not all.” My voice is quiet. 

She inhales deeply. “Creator, what else?” 

I tell her about what happened in the dream the night before. The crow’s head and seeing Sabrina. 

She’s silent again and I listen to her puff on the cigarette. “And did you think I’d have an answer?” she says finally. It’s my turn to be silent now. 

“My girl, I might be an old Indian, but I’m not a goddamn dream oracle. That’s all really fucked up.” She laughs her loud laugh and I laugh with her, feel the weight of the day lift off my body. 

We’re quiet again for a moment. “Auntie, do you believe me?” I ask. 

She clicks her tongue and exhales, and I imagine her rubbing at her jaw, the way she does when she’s thinking. “As a kid, you used to freak me out. Sometimes when you and your sisters would have sleepovers at my place, you’d wake up in the morning and your eyes wouldn’t see me. Like they hadn’t left the dream yet.”

I suck in a sharp breath. Study my palm as I let what she’s saying settle. “I can still feel the beak, Auntie. It’s like a cut is underneath my skin.” 

The background noises start to slow and quiet. Auntie’s every inhale is deeper than the last. Her short frame is probably leaning against the outside walls of the building, strong enough to hold it up if she needed to, nodding at her friends and enemies as they head back inside. 

I keep pacing my apartment and glance to the closed curtains. “Also, this might be unrelated. But some crows have started following me around.” 

Auntie laughs again. “Unrelated? Crows are following you and then you murder one in your dreams. Keep your eyes on them.”

“Joli called them visions,” I say. I think about the dreams. The panic in my stomach as I ran. A feeling, deep somewhere, that I was missing something. “But they feel almost like memories.”

“Are they?” Auntie asks. 

“No,” I say. “I think I’d remember Sabrina being attacked by a murder of crows. Or killing one with my bare hands.”

“I need to think on this some more,” Auntie says. “You should call your mom.” 

The back of my neck burns at the mention of Mom again, and I keep pacing. She and I haven’t spoken in months. “Yeah, I’ve been getting that advice lately.” 

It’s been three years since I moved away from High Prairie. Mom didn’t like that I moved in the first place. Before I left, she came out to the back of the house to find me putting soil into a bottle. She shook her head and watched me. “Your body carries home just as much as the land.” 

I sat in the dirt and looked up at her, feeling small, a child again. “I know.”

I watched her walk back into the house, her short, greying hair catching sunlight. Now here I am, far from home with a bottle of prairie soil still on my nightstand. It’s the worst kind of loss for a Cree mom, splitting apart from her child. For her, it turned out to be the first nightmare of many. 

“Well, if you don’t call to tell her this, call to check in,” Auntie says, her voice higher than usual. Trying to be casual. I nod into the phone, knowing she can’t see me. 

“I gotta go back in, my girl. Stella will steal my good dabber if I’m gone for too long.” 

We laugh again and it’s all the medicine I need. I hear the scraping of her foot against concrete, stamping out her cigarette. 

“Kisâkihitin,” she says. “I’ll call you soon. And tell me if it happens again.” 

“I love you, too.” 

When we hang up, she sends me a praying hands emoji and a shooting star. I respond with a thumbs-up. 

I eat a couple of old chips in my cupboard for dinner, not hungry enough for anything more. When it gets late and I can’t put it off anymore, I take my time getting ready for bed, scared of where sleep might take me. I slide my jeans off slowly. Pull my shirt over my head and hold the cotton in my hands. Rub it across my palms, soothing the faint burn under my skin. I stare at them until they blur before pulling on a thick sweater and sweatpants, a double pair of socks. In case the dreams take me again. I leave the light on when I get into bed and pull the covers up under my chin. It’s only then I realize I’d been getting ready in complete silence, no music or audiobook playing. Outside, a crow caws. 

I don’t want to fall asleep for fear of where I’ll end up. I think back to my conversations with Joli and Auntie Doreen. I know they believe me, but the way their voices changed when I mentioned Sabrina makes me doubt. They know as well as I do that in six weeks, it’ll be a year since Sabrina died. I wish I’d fought harder through the crows, ran faster, got to her earlier. Something crumbles inside me and I sob into my pillow. Not even in my dreams could I save her.

cover of Bad Cree: A Novel by Jessica Johns; red tinted photo of birch trees against the sky

From BAD CREE published by Doubleday, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Jessica Johns.