It's official: today saw the launch of Cherry Crow Children.
I had Squawk with me during the launch, because of course I did. She may not have been around when I wrote and submitted "The Wages of Honey", but I fell pregnant with her while I was trying to write the three stories I'd promised Alisa, and she was simultaneously the reason the collection was late and the reason it exists at all, because without her and my experience of motherhood, I'm not sure I would have found the focus of this collection. Or I suppose it's better to say, without her, this collection would have had a different focus and been a different book. In my head, Cherry Crow Children is therefore very much entwined with Squawk.
She was sadly sick, and so wanted only her mum, because of course that's the way life rolls when you have stuff that needs doing and you also have a two year old — so I did my reading with her cradled in my arms, her hot little head resting against my shoulder while I treated the audience to a passage from "The Cherry Crow Children of Haverny Wood" which I couldn't quite see over the ears of her beloved bunny stuffed up under my chin:
I meant and of course totally forgot to make any speech apart from my reading, so I'll put it up here:
Thank you to everyone who came to see this book let loose upon the world, and see this ambitious and momentous and worthy project of Alisa's concluded.
Thank you to all my friends and family who helped me along the way, even if it was just a kind word or a faith-filled smile.
And to Alisa, who stood by me and never stopped believing my promise that I would write those stories, I honestly would finish them, once motherhood let me, I offer my most heartfelt gratitude. I'm honoured to have your name alongside mine, and on such a beautiful book.
After the reading, Squawk helped me sign books (appropriate in its way, as this is how I wrote most of the book anyway) and I have it on good authority I managed to actually talk coherently to people, although I personally have no memory of it.
— Stu Ash (@RattusAsh) April 3, 2015
For those who missed the launch, this is the passage I read aloud:
Claudia and her mother were the poorest residents of Haverny Wood, having but a single aging she-goat to call their own.
…They had survived the summer on charity: Brynja Foth dropped around a modest stew every fortnight, and Ida Scult donated them a half-dozen ham hocks, the meat serving them a hearty few meals each and the remaining knuckle bones making good stock for more. And Nonkle Vigi, as generous as he was wealthy, always had milk and greens to spare.
But soon they must face the freeze, and on charity alone they'd not starve—but they might well prove too frail or poorly, come the thaw, to fend for themselves again.
So it was that, as even the memory of summer faded, there came a day—a little after the sporadic snows had begun to muffle the nights, but before the hunter's moon promised winter's final grip—when Claudia, just as her mother once had, did the unthinkable.
She risked venturing out alone.
She chose north because the registry indicated no one else had.
It meant being stumbled upon was unlikely, but the price was slim pickings: north was uphill, toward the tree- line, where the white sallee held sway and the silky topaz seldom blossomed. She faced, therefore, all the dangers of a prolonged hike; but balanced against it was her talent for gathering.
Foolish as it was, she couldn't banish the hope her only problem would be answering (or evading) the questions put to her when she returned with a new-plucked topaz.
Slipping out unremarked proved simple enough: those not gathering or shielding were tucked indoors. Cosy sounds issued from the byrehallan as she passed: the stamping and bleating of goats behind the stone lower walls, and the muted chatter of their owners drifting from the wooden living quarters above. Only Nonkle Jochem saw her, when he reached out to draw in his shutters, and he merely gave her a hearty smile. The dear old man had never entertained a stray thought in his life.
The outermost byrehallan all faced inwards, with no weakness such as door or window presented to the wilds. A narrow span of open ground separated Claudia from the first of the trees, a row of wind-swept white sallee with here and there a grey stringybark. Fear prickled the length of Claudia's back as she crossed that span, the thorned grass blades tugging at her trousers.
Then she stepped into the patchwork shadows of the trees, and the bush closed in around her—offering, for the first time in her life, true solitude.
Her skin crawled with it.
Despite the passage of months, the black of burnt things was still conspicuous, crumbling charcoal edges stark through the white clumps of last night's untracked snow.
The fire-crumbled undergrowth shifted and crunched with her passage; the ghostly sallee and the stunted stringybarks alike all groaned of listing backs. Brushtails lurked in the empty branches, too hungry to sleep, beady eyes watching from their pointed faces.
And beneath the wind's bluster, setting her nerves to twanging, came the crow-song.
There was no mistaking the liquid melody, calling of blood and slashed flesh, which warned of those red and black birds, small as a fist and swifter than sight. Most of the calls were distant, but that didn't slow the drumming of her pulse. The cherry crows must be as hungry, these fading days, as every other forest dweller.
Following the closest call, with no warm and wary body at her back, set Claudia's every sense on edge. She kept scanning the branches for silvereyes, since they were a sure sign no predators lurked, but their flittery little bodies remained unnervingly absent. Instead, the crow-song grew louder and the grey boughs began yielding up pockets of fine-shredded flesh stuffed into crooks or crevices.
…Each larder she passed brought her closer to the crows, the meat increasingly pink and moist, blood still dripping from some. At least there were no human eyes today.