Cat or Crow by Edward Black
Edwin Charles peered skyward with distrustful eyes, wary of the bulbous grey clouds, thick as porridge, that threatened to void their contents onto him. He had very much looked forward to enjoying a stroll in the sunshine after completing his duties at the bank, but the chances of that currently seemed grim.
He wondered, perhaps, if he should try banishing those clouds from the sky.
Standing idle for a moment, he watched the few horse-drawn carriages pass, the rhythmic clop-clopping of the hooves on the cobblestones vying with the squeaking of the wooden wheels on their axles for the prestige of being the most distinct sound on the nearly-deserted streets.
Not too many folk in town, Edwin mused to himself. I’d mostly only inconvenience myself if fortune favors the Crow. Then, after another brief period of consideration: Very well.
Edwin retrieved from his pocket the Coin, ever within reach. An aged antique—gifted to him by his itinerant brother after returning from an overseas adventure—any brilliance it once shone with had been replaced with a thick, copper-colored rust that only barely didn’t conceal the depictions on the faces: on the obverse, a cat, holding an olive sprig in its mouth, and on the reverse, a crow, macabrely presenting a human eyeball in its beak.
Indeed, the Coin, rusted and decrepit as it was, would barely merit a single, terse glance from anybody but Edwin, for nobody but Edwin knew the secret it held.
Cat, he intoned in his mind, these bleak clouds vacate the skies to make way for a pleasant afternoon of sunshine; Crow, they dump their rainy loads onto my shoulders with all the sympathy and disregard of the natural phenomenon of weather.
Edwin Flipped the Coin, sending it spinning measureless times into the air, until, with a quick swipe, he caught it during the second half of its parabolic journey. He held his hand closed against the unseen metal for three beats of his heart before uncurling his fingers to witness the result.
The Crow’s mischievous, abyssal eyes stared at him.
The Crow began to glow a sinister black.
Edwin looked aloft. He didn’t know how long it took rain to reach the earth but surmised he had a few minutes until his appointment with the deluge, and so decided to produce as much distance as he could toward his estate while he still enjoyed a dry jacket. He stepped onto the cobbled street and walked as hastily as decorum allowed.
As Edwin hadn’t doubted for a moment, within a couple minutes—yet tragically still a fair distance from his home—the Crow’s promised torrent of rainfall descended upon him without the courtesy of even a few individual warning drops. His jacket, his hat, his trousers—all became as sodden as if he walked the ocean floor. Even his boots filled with water, and that was the worst of all.
As he walked—or rather tottered, given the strength of the downpour—he reflected upon the curious piece of magical metal in his pocket that granted wishes. A fine thing, magic, but regrettably, users of the Coin were chaperoned always by a quantity of strict conditions. After all, nothing in the mundane world is free of cost; why would a magical trinket promise any different? Edwin had spent several months thoroughly testing the Coin after first discovering its magic and noted his findings in a notebook kept in a locked drawer in his study.
Condition the First: Each wish wished must be accompanied by a negative desire. Once both the favorable clause and the less-than-favorable one have been voiced in one’s mind, the Coin can be Flipped. The resulting face determines the outcome: The Cat grants your wish, and the Crow ruins your day.
Condition the Second: The negative clause must be equal in magnitude to that of the positive, according to the beliefs and perception of the user. One cannot offer the Coin a choice between a fortuitous acquisition of vast wealth and a particularly unpleasant sneeze. The Coin knows the user’s mind and the disparity between the choices, and if Flipped, will grant neither, regardless of the outcome.
Condition the Third: Both potential outcomes must obey this universe’s natural laws of physics. One cannot be granted a wish to turn the sky purple; one cannot be granted a wish to revive the dead; one cannot be granted a wish to soar through the skies as if a bird; and so on.
Condition the Fourth: A negative outcome will always come to pass. Retreating indoors to avoid a rainstorm, for example, will serve only to collapse part of the ceiling upon the user, allowing the aforementioned rainfall to fulfill the destiny determined by the Flip.
Condition the Fifth: The Coin, upon first glimpse after the Flip, must be lying on its face—slanted at no greater angle than an estimated forty-five degrees—for the magic to take effect. Viewing the Coin in one’s hand, as well as any other reasonably flat surface, will suffice, so long as the Coin is not tilted more substantially than this value at the instant the Flip’s result is viewed.
Edwin retrieved the Coin from his damp pocket and examined it as he had countless times before. He silently chastised the Crow for dashing his hopes of a jaunt in the sunshine. The bird in question looked at him with its piercing eyes as if to say, You knew the rules and chose still to flirt with fate. I am merely the deliverer.
Edwin could find nary a flaw in the Crow’s unspoken logic, but knowing it was he himself who had made the choice to gamble with destiny hardly served to soothe his discomfort over the current calamitous precipitation. He stuffed the Coin back into his pocket and trudged the remainder of the way home, more than a trace of annoyance wetting his humor as if the rain itself could sop his emotions alongside his trousers.
Still, the sight of his wife’s smile warmed his mood—if not his clothing—when she spotted him from the porch of the estate as he nearly swam through the carriageway to the door. Under the protection of the roof, Bernadette kissed him. Their proximity resulted in his jacket sharing some of its wet with her dress, but Edwin knew she didn’t care, and neither did he. He held her kiss for a long time.
“I wish to try again,” she whispered when they parted, as if she needed to inform him after the hundreds of times they had performed this ritual: Edwin would come home, Bernadette would kiss him at the door, and the two of them would try for a child later that evening. Though there was a trace of hope in her eyes, it was overshadowed by the ever-present dread that once again they would fail. After all, if she hadn’t conceived in their first thirteen years of marriage, why would she this time?
Edwin shared the trepidation that Bernadette’s eyes expressed, and wondered if she could see that fear reflected in his own gaze. He knew that after so many years of failure, there was little that could offer hope.
In the two years that Edwin had possessed the Coin, tonight was hardly the first time he had considered using it to chance granting his wife a pregnancy. But the Crow loomed always, ever watchful, ever dutiful. What could he possibly offer the black bird for the Flip? There were scarce things in this life Edwin felt he didn’t want as strongly as he did want to start a family with his wife.
Indeed, he knew that if he were to ask the Cat to bless Bernadette with a pregnancy, there would be no other choice than to offer the Crow their ability to conceive at all. Any possibility they had of starting a family naturally would be forfeit if fate were to withhold its blessing and favor the Crow during the Flip.
But thirteen years is many. At this point, could anyone blame a man for choosing the only path available to him? And besides, if fate felt disinclined to grant his plea, his life with Bernadette would proceed exactly the same as it had since they had married. It wasn’t as if they were unhappy without a child. Would it really be so terrible to never conceive? He shared a glance with Bernadette once more.
Yes, he decided, after a sliver of a second exploring the desperate desire in his wife’s hopeful, yet doubting eyes—it would be so terrible to never bear a child. Raising a family had always been Bernadette’s strongest desire. While a childless life would be a disappointing yet surmountable fate to Edwin, he couldn’t fathom a word suitable enough to describe the despair his wife would suffer over it.
And thus was the plight Edwin vexed himself with each time he considered using the Coin to bless his wife with a child. Each time that troublesome acquaintance visited again, he rolled it in his mind over and over, back and forth, this way and that, only to cravenly settle, once more, on procrastinating the decision for another day.
But not this time. Edwin had suffered the dilemma’s prodding for too long, and decided he would brook its harassment no longer. Tonight—yes, tonight—he would beg the Cat for a boon of fertility. He stifled the nagging guilt over risking his wife’s greatest ambition and led Bernadette into their estate.
Supper passed quietly. Edwin absorbed himself with his concern over the upcoming Flip—undoubtedly the most consequential one since he had come into possession of the trinket—and the bottle of wine they chose to accompany their lamb. The latter did not soothe his nerves as he had hoped, and neither did the following bath that had been drawn for him by the maid. He lay in the tub, turning the Coin over and over in his fingers to glimpse first the Cat, then the Crow, then the Cat again, and so on, until, in drunken annoyance, he tossed the damned thing across the room to clink as it collided with the wall and plink as it fell to the floor. Curiosity roused him to lean forward over the tub and inspect the result; the Cat was peering toward the ceiling, as a real cat, one of flesh and not rusted metal, watches a spider trespassing in its home.
He slumped back into the tub, sending a quantity of water spilling over the lip and onto the tiles. Had I made my wish before I tossed it right then, this maddening affair would be well and resolved. Indeed, the Cat did not emit the warm golden light that indicates the user’s wish is well on its way. It lay dull, the thick rust denying the Coin even the glow of reflected candlelight.
“Darling?” Bernadette’s muffled voice called from behind the door. “What was that sound?”
“Nothing. I’ll be with you in a moment, my sweet.”
Edwin emerged from the tub, plopped water across the floor as he strode to the Coin, and picked it up. A brief pause preceded a sudden surge of courage, as he thought, right then and there, while naked as a babe and dripping as much water as the clouds had earlier that day, Cat, my beloved Bernadette conceives a child this very night; Crow, our potential for conception is lost forever. He then Flipped the Coin high into the air—higher, indeed, than he had ever Flipped it before, if only to serve as a last, desperate act to put off the dreaded answer for another sliver of a second. The Coin rotated in the air with seemingly infinite speed, yet he swore he could make out the distinct sides as they spun by: the Cat, the Crow, the Cat, the Crow, the Cat…
He caught the Coin with a dexterous hand, yet nerves forbade him to open his palm to face the future he had selfishly taken upon himself to chance. He stood there until the chill from his sopping nudity shook him from his daze, then finally uncurled his fingers.
Bernadette Charles had never known her husband to be a more passionate, enthusiastic lover than on that night.
Two months later, Edwin Charles took a holiday to the tropics with his wife to celebrate their pregnancy. He and Bernadette were over the moon over their long-anticipated conception—or rather, one could say they were over the stars, or even whatever lies beyond them. Edwin was so jubilant, in fact, that he didn’t Flip the Coin even once during their trip. After all, there wasn’t a single thing in this life he could have desired now that Bernadette was with child.
Until she got sick.
She didn’t exhibit symptoms until halfway home on the ship. It began with minor headaches, then severe ones. A fever followed, and joint pain shortly after that. By the time the ship docked in their home port, Bernadette couldn’t rise on her own.
Edwin summoned half a dozen doctors to their estate to see to his wife, but none were able to grant the miraculous cure he had so fervently desired. One evening, while engaging in an only half-lucid conversation with Bernadette, her nose began to drip blood at random. Edwin dabbed it dry with his handkerchief, jested about the stain it would produce on the satin, then excused himself to the balcony to quietly sob.
And all the while, the Coin rested snug in his pocket, tugging at his awareness. I could cure her, it silently spoke to him, and, I know, I know, he thought back to it. But the Crow, that infernal winged demon—what curse would it demand, should fortune blow its way? Edwin had thought his dilemma regarding their pregnancy had been worrying. Oh, how blessed the ignorant are.
Indeed, the Coin very well could save Bernadette’s life, but what could he offer the Crow to reflect that desire? The only thing he could think of was…
No, there had to be another way. He only had to discover it, and to assist in that endeavor, he descended to the cellar of the estate to retrieve a bottle of whiskey. He placed it, an empty glass, and the Coin upon the single table, then sat down, drank, and thought. Regrettably, he made far more progress on the whiskey than the dilemma, for after an hour, he was no closer to an answer but was alarmingly close to the bottom of the bottle.
Damn it all, he thought, so drunk even his inner monologue slurred the words. I care too much for Bernadette. Nothing I could offer the Crow would be anything less than a tragedy itself. He slammed a fist onto the table; the Coin hopped an inch in the air, as if startled by his sudden outburst. Damn the pestilences of the tropics! Damn the child that inspired us to…
The child. He could offer the Crow his as-yet born progeny in a gamble for the health of his wife. Bernadette would be beyond heartbroken if the Crow claimed its prize, yes, but if she survived this sickness on her own, perhaps they could try for another. Would he risk a Flip again for another pregnancy afterward? He shook that question from his head, for only Bernadette’s life mattered right now; everything else could be swept aside for later consideration.
He looked at the Coin, flat upon the table. The Cat peered up at him, the olive sprig dangling from its mouth. I’ve never needed your favor more than I do now, he pleaded. He tossed back his glass, slammed it upon the table, and picked up the Coin. Cat, my darling Bernadette overcomes the illness that harries her so; Crow, our growing child is lost in miscarriage. He hesitated only a second before Flipping the Coin.
His drunken hand botched the catch, missing entirely, but the Coin landed flat on the table without even a single bounce. He had to focus to clear his double vision, but when he did, he nearly wept to see the ever-welcome face of the Cat staring back at him.
But it did not glow. It lay lifeless and dull, and Edwin realized no magic would be granted by that Flip. It knew, he despaired. It knew that I valued Bernadette’s life more than our child’s. The Crow cannot be fooled.
In a sudden burst of frustrated rage, Edwin grabbed the neck of the whiskey bottle and threw it against the stone wall, shattering the glass into a myriad of shards so small, it appeared almost as if the bottle had turned into dust upon impact. He slapped his hand loudly on the Coin, slid it off the table into his palm, dropped it, fumbled picking it up again, nearly fell over onto his head, finally managed a firm grip of the thing, then stumbled up the cellar stairs and out the front door of the estate.
He was standing at the head of the carriageway, swaying wildly in the light breeze as if it were actually a gust, when an idea presented itself to him. Despite the suboptimal state of his wits at that moment, Edwin made an effort to carefully consider the idea, spinning it about his mind as thoroughly as the world was spinning about his vision. Deciding—remarkably calmly, given his prior bout of rage—that he had few other choices, Edwin trod down the carriageway and into the streets of the city to find a beggar—but not before making a quick sojourn to his study first.
His search didn’t take long. The city offered him enough vagrants that he could afford to be selective, seeking one who seemed reasonably sane and negotiable. His eventual choice could hardly be distinguished from the other tramps at a glance, yet behind the filthy clothes and the dirt, Edwin spotted a measure of shrewdness in the eyes of the man who sat against the hard bricks of an alley before him.
“A coin for a man down on his luck?” the beggar begged.
“How about more than one?” Edwin replied. “If you can help me with something.”
The tramp looked suspiciously at him, eyes narrowed. “How much?”
Edwin tossed a small bag at the tramp’s feet, producing a jolly jingle that opened the beggar’s eyes wide. He looked up, the suspicion in his eyes turning to hopefulness.
“Take it,” Edwin said.
The tramp complied, hoisting the bag, loosening the drawstring, and peering inside. The value seemed to satisfy him, for he said, “What do you need?”
“I need you to follow me,” Edwin said over his shoulder as he trudged farther into the alley. Save for the tramp and Edwin, it was abandoned.
The tramp hesitated only a moment before lifting himself off the ground, holding one hand to his back as if the movement pained him. He soon joined Edwin in the depths of the alley.
“What is the value of an unknown woman’s life to you?” Edwin asked.
“A woman you don’t know—say her life is in danger. What is the value of her survival? Would you say that you care for her life more than you care to eat supper this evening? Less so? Or about the same?”
“I…” the tramp began, but hesitated.
“Answer me, man. This is paramount.”
“I suppose I’d care for the lady’s life more than a meal.”
“Are you being honest? I don’t care if you’d much prefer a full belly. I do care that you’re honest about it. Is a stranger’s life more important than you eating tonight?”
The tramp didn’t meet Edwin’s eyes, as if ashamed, when he said, “No, sir.”
“Very well. What about the rain? How would you find the balance of a woman’s life over a dry night for yourself? I expect the same honesty here.”
The tramp’s brows furrowed in thought before responding. “I suppose they’d be about the same.”
Edwin proffered the Coin to the tramp. “This one isn’t for spending—it’s for Flipping.”
The tramp didn’t take the Coin, or even speak. He only looked at Edwin with confusion.
“Just do what I say,” Edwin demanded, his impatience roused. “Take the Coin.”
The tramp did.
“Now position it atop your thumb in preparation to Flip it.”
The tramp did this, too.
“Now declare, in your mind, the following: Cat, Bernadette Charles is freed from the torment of her ailment; Crow, I suffer a soaking night of rainfall. After that, Flip the Coin into the air. Catch it or let it fall to the ground—it matters not.”
Again, the tramp hesitated. “Can you… can you repeat that?”
Edwin heaved an annoyed breath, then repeated his instructions, slowly. The tramp nodded along, then closed his eyes, presumably forming his offer to the Cat and the Crow. After a silent pause, he opened his eyes and Flipped the Coin clumsily. His attempt to catch it was even clumsier; he juggled it several times before it fell flat on the ground. The Crow stared skyward at both of them.
Damn, Edwin cursed in his mind. However, the Crow’s undesired appearance was but a minor setback. All Edwin needed to do was encourage the tramp to continue Flipping the Coin. His own testing of the Coin’s magic had proven that one could Flip repeatedly, seeking the same wish; as long as one offered new sacrifices to the Crow each time, one could make unlimited attempts until luck granted the Cat.
Edwin was just about to command the tramp to perform a new Flip when he realized something odd: The Crow hadn’t begun to glow the customary black that indicates the promised trouble is to come. This meant only one thing: The Flip had failed due to an incompatible bargain. This could have been for any of a hundred reasons. Had the tramp not correctly formed the words in his mind? Does the Coin believe he does not truly value Bernadette’s life and a dry night equally? Had his slow, clumsy Flip not activated the magic?
Would the Coin only work for Edwin?
His stomach twisted at the thought. If Edwin—for whatever reason—was the sole person who could work the magic of the Coin, his clever ploy to win Bernadette’s life from someone who didn’t particularly value it would never succeed.
Damn it! There must be another explanation. Perhaps…
“Do it again,” Edwin commanded. “But this time, speak in your mind the following: Cat, Bernadette Charles of 37 Grover Lane is cured of the miseries of her illness; Crow, I am subjected to a drenching of rain this very night.” He thought, perhaps, that because the tramp was not acquainted with Bernadette personally, the Coin did not know exactly upon whom to cast its magic. If he narrowed it down, however, the Coin might have enough information to glean the proper target.
It was desperate, but so was he. The tramp, his growing discomfort clear in the shifting of his feet, obliged, Flipping the Coin again after a moment of silence. The second Flip was just as clumsy as the first, and landed with the same result: The Crow’s dull, rusted image lay face up, once again bereft of the black glow. It was the first time Edwin had ever wished to see the portentous gleam of the Crow’s ill magic, for it would mean he had correctly identified the Flip’s obstruction. But it was not so.
“Do it again,” he commanded the tramp, “but this time—”
“I want no more of this business, sir. You can keep your coin.” The tramp dangled the coin pouch toward Edwin, who, in a sudden surge of intoxicated frustration, pulled from his jacket pocket the flintlock pistol he had retrieved from his study earlier and poked the tramp in the chest with it. The pistol was unloaded, of course; Edwin had merely decided to use it as a last, desperate resort if he could not cajole anybody into Flipping the Coin for him.
The tramp, however, had no reason to believe he wasn’t a pull of the finger from death. He seized in terror, and both he and Edwin stood frozen for a time, the tramp holding a coin purse out to a man with a pistol leveled at his chest.
Which is exactly what the guardsmen of the city watch happened to witness when they glanced into the alley while patrolling.
“Hold there!” one of the gray-uniformed men shouted, drawing the attention of his squad. “Put that weapon away!”
In a fraction of a second, Edwin divined the events that would transpire were he to obey that command: He would be thrown into jail, the Coin taken away, probably never to be returned to him, and Bernadette would surely fall victim to her illness, taking their child with her.
Hardly a decision to be made at all, really. He snatched the Coin from the ground and burst into a dash farther into the alley, where it turned at a corner to lead to an intersecting street. He left behind commanding shouts and rushing footfalls.
Ignoring the curious glances of the few passersby, Edwin bounded down the street toward—well, nowhere in particular. He hadn’t a plan besides to make good his escape, then enlist another beggar to use the Coin to save Bernadette. He had left behind his coin pouch when he fled the alley, however, so he would be regrettably forced to employ his pistol as the means of coercion. It was a mad quest, perhaps, but he wasn’t mad. He just loved his wife.
He spared a backward glance to spot the city watch—directed by the finger of a passerby who had witnessed his passing by—racing toward him. He cursed inwardly, then rounded a corner to sever their line of sight. Yet any hope of shaking his pursuers was dashed as he soon heard again the dreaded sounds of guardsmen on the hunt.
Edwin, soon breathless from the chase, resolved to beg for magical assistance. He slinked into an alley, readied the Coin atop his thumbnail and forefinger, then made his mental declaration. Cat, my pursuers suffer amnesia of the last hour; Crow—here he hesitated, struggling to decide what to offer the black bird—I… I permanently lose the vision of my right eye. It was the first suitable offer he could think of. He Flipped the Coin.
While being trailed by a pack of city watchmen with arresting intent would generally be a sobering experience to most, the whiskey still addling his mind dulled his reflexes, and he botched the catch of the Coin on its way down. What was supposed to be a deft snatch turned into an awkward slap as he sent the Coin careening into the alley wall, where it fell behind a large pile of refuse. He had to crouch and paw about in between the sacks of litter to feel for the hard surface of the damnable piece of metal. When he was sure he found it, he hauled it to freedom, careful to keep it as horizontal as possible to ensure the Flip would still be valid as he viewed the result.
A loud curse, a furious stomp, and the loss of one eye’s sight later, Edwin pocketed the Coin, deciding to trust once again his own feet. He took but a few steps deeper into the alley, only to nearly collide with the gray-uniformed, rifle-wielding man who emerged from around the corner. Edwin retreated a few steps, turned about in preparation to make another mad dash, but froze upon seeing another man of the city watch blocking the other entrance. This man, too, wielded a rifle, a mirror image of the scene behind Edwin.
“Come quietly now, sir,” the watchman said.
The other one, behind Edwin, warned his fellow. “Careful, Warren—he had a pistol when we found him.”
Watchman Warren steadied his rifle at Edwin. “Markus—the irons.”
Edwin heard the soft rattling of chains from behind him. Manacles, no doubt, to bind him to ensure he caused no trouble on the way to jail. There, he would lose the Coin, and as a consequence, Bernadette and their child.
He had one final chance. In his mind, he declared his desperate plea: Cat, my beloved Bernadette triumphs over the malady that harries her; Crow, my heart ceases to beat and I perish in this very alley. As soon as the final word had been voiced in his mind, he shot a swift hand into his jacket pocket, retrieved the Coin, held it aloft, and Flipped it, all in one motion and in the space of a single beat of the heart. Destiny was now in flight.
Yet the Coin hadn’t been aloft for a fraction of a second before Watchman Warren, mistakenly believing that Edwin had reached into his pocket to draw the forewarned pistol, discharged his rifle. Edwin was struck by a bullet in the chest. He toppled over immediately, crashing against the earth at the same instant as the Coin, the trinket only a scant few inches from his face.
Edwin was subconsciously aware of the sound of the two watchmen shouting. He felt the cool dirt on his right cheek where he lay on the ground. Coppery blood welled in his mouth, tickling his tongue. Yet all of these sensory perceptions were dulled or muffled, given only secondary priority as his mind fixated on the most important sense: his sight, to determine what fate, in her absolute authority over all things, had decreed. He focused his quickly darkening vision on the thin disc of metal next to him.
Edwin Charles, lying prone in the dirt of a dingy alley, died from that gunshot wound. Yet despite that, he departed this world with a tranquil mind, freed of the distress that tormented him and with a thin smile on his face.
Edward Black writes short stories for fun. Sometimes they’re not terrible.