Harbinie of Death
By J.J. Litke
“I just saw a raven riding a bicycle,” Eva announced.
Parker kept staring into his computer monitor, his forehead wrinkling while he pondered the statement. Finally, he swiveled his head to Eva, who was standing across the kitchen with her arms folded. “What?”
“You heard me,” she said. “A raven. Riding a bicycle. A blue and silver bicycle.”
This extra detail didn’t add much comprehension to the original statement. “What color was the raven?”
Eva rolled her eyes. “Black, of course. Have you ever heard of a raven that wasn’t?”
“I guess I haven’t,” Parker conceded. “But why was it riding a bike?”
“Well I didn’t ask him.” Eva turned back to her shopping bag and started unpacking groceries.
“Maybe you should have. Where did you see it?”
“In the front yard, riding around in circles.” She frowned at the romaine and picked at a brown spot on an outer leaf. “He’ll wear a path in the grass soon, no doubt.”
Parker hauled himself to his feet. “Well we’ll see about that.” He didn’t feel as confident as he pretended, but he felt some obligation to protect his lawn. He stalked to the front of the house and peered out the entryway window.
A small figure on a miniature bicycle rolled across the grass, moving in a clockwise path around the yard. The bicycle was indeed a lovely royal blue with shining silver chrome. Rainbow tassels streamed from the handlebars. The figure riding the bike was also as Eva had described—a glossy black raven, though the largest raven Parker had ever seen. Its legs pumped evenly, claws gripping the little pedals, as it steered around the rose bush near the mailbox.
“You didn’t mention the streamers,” Parker called over his shoulder.
“Go send it away,” Eva called back.
Parker didn’t want to admit how very much he did not want to do that. A bicycling raven in theory was one thing; seeing it in reality was rather intimidating. “I don’t know why you didn’t just do it yourself on the way in. Why is it my job?”
Clattering sounded from the kitchen pantry, followed by some muffled comment from Eva.
“What if it’s dangerous?” he suggested. That was, in fact, exactly Parker’s concern. Ravens didn’t seem particularly safe to begin with, and one insisting on engaging in such an odd activity was probably even less so than usual. The idea of confronting this creature dashed his hopes for a nice, peaceful day.
The only response from Eva was more bumping around in the pantry.
“Guess it’s just up to me then?” Parker paused, but Eva didn’t come rushing out of the kitchen to relieve him of his assigned duty. He squared his shoulders and opened the front door.
The raven-on-a-bicycle was just passing the rose bush again, turning alongside the driveway and up toward the house. Parker folded his hands in front of him, then dropped them to his sides, endeavoring to appear naturally authoritative. As the raven came closer, Parker cleared his throat.
“Uh, can I help you?” Darn, that didn’t sound authoritative at all.
“No, thank you,” responded the raven as it pedaled past.
“See here, what are you doing?”
That was difficult to argue against, because circling was exactly what the raven was doing. “But…why are you circling?” He raised his voice, since the raven was back on the street side of the yard by now.
“It’s a sign,” the raven called back. “Like an augury, or a harbinie.”
Parker considered that for a moment. “You mean a harbinger?”
“Oh, yes!” The raven had circled back to Parker and passed behind him, between Parker and the front step. “That’s the one, a harbinger, thanks!”
“Okay.” Parker stuffed his hands in his pockets and watched the raven a moment longer. “Why are you riding a bicycle?”
The raven waved its left wing at him. “Injury. Flying is right out for another week at least. A bicycle seemed the next best thing.”
“Ah, I see.” Parker wondered how the raven managed the handlebars with its wings, but he didn’t have the nerve to ask. Presumably it was less stress than flying. The raven kept pedaling, and Parker kept standing and watching. “So you’re circling my yard as some kind of omen.”
“Well, your house, really,” the raven said. “Seeing as that’s where you were when I got here, and it’s an omen for you. But your back fence was in the way. I had to settle for circling the yard. Now that you’re outside, I’m including you in the circle.”
“Naturally,” Parker said. “But, uh, listen, what is it that you’re an omen or a sign of?”
“Oh, something ill, I expect.” The raven looped around the far side of the rose bush on its current circuit. “I don’t have much information on the nature of whatever it is that’s impending, you see. I just execute the augury. That’s my job.”
Parker nodded, rocking slightly on his heels. “That makes sense. Everyone has their own job, right? So, what do you think, should I be worried?”
“I should think so,” the raven said. “I’m generally only sent out for grim events. Not that I usually know all that much about them. But the people involved seem to find them very unpleasant.”
“Naturally,” Parker said. “Any chance of avoiding it?”
“Well if I’m here to foretell your doom, I’d put myself out of a job if I told you how to avoid it, wouldn’t I?”
“Oh, right.” Parker nodded again. “Of course you can’t, sorry.”
“No worries.” The raven passed close by Parker again. “Say, you’re being awfully polite about all this. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is.”
“Oh yes. A fellow actually cursed at me a few days ago. And me just doing my job.”
“How rude of him!”
“That’s what I thought,” the raven said, leaning into a turn back toward the street. “I circled ‘round him while he lay on the jogging path—I was running late that day, should’ve gotten there before he dropped. I believe he’d had a heart attack or something.”
“Oh.” That did seem like curse-worthy circumstances to Parker. “Couldn’t you help him somehow?”
The raven turned an exasperated look at Parker—at least Parker imagined that it was exasperated, the raven had a fairly set expression. “Well I certainly wasn’t inclined to help him after he cursed at me. I was just doing my job. It’s not like I enjoy people’s suffering. But what else is a raven to do for a living?”
It was a question Parker had never considered before, so he tried considering it now. There didn’t seem to be a lot of employment opportunities for ravens, not that Parker was aware of. He’d been laid off himself a couple of years ago, and hunting for work wasn’t an easy experience when one did have opportunities available. It must be even worse for a raven, whose skills were limited to things like circling and harbingering. Or something along those lines. Parker wasn’t sure what else a raven might be qualified to do. He couldn’t recall ever seeing a raven in any of his own workplaces. Perhaps a little sympathy was called for here; it might even make the raven more inclined to help him than he had the jogger. The thought gave Parker an idea.
“Seems we’re both in a rough spot,” Parker said. “You with your poor job prospects and me with my impending doom thingie. We should go have a drink to take our minds off all that. There’s a nice place just down the block we could go to. I’ll buy the first round.”
“That’s kind of you,” the raven said. “But what about my work?”
“Well…” Parker scratched his head. “If you’re supposed to be an omen for me, and I’ve seen you being an omen, then you’re all done, aren’t you?”
“Oh.” The raven tipped its head to one side and slowed down. It continued pedaling around to Parker and stopped, bracing its clawed foot on the ground and blinking its beady eyes at him. “Well what about your harbinie?”
“Right, that, of your impending doom. Aren’t you worried about it?”
“Well, I probably should be. But if something terrible is about to happen, and there’s really nothing I can do about it, I’d like a drink beforehand.”
“I like the way you think.” The raven stared at Parker for a long moment, its head twitching like a stuck clock hand. “No one’s ever offered to buy me a drink before. I didn’t even know it was a possibility.”
“That’s just what I do, I suppose,” Parker said. “No sense in getting worked up over the inevitable, right? But you know, if I die on the way there, I won’t be able to buy you a drink.”
“That would make it difficult,” the raven acknowledged.
“I’d even thought to offer up a second round.” Parker rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “But I’m sure to be dead by then.”
“This could have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Parker said, and he sighed. “Maybe I should just go back inside and wait for the end.” He started to turn back toward his front door.
“Just a moment,” the raven said. “You said you’d buy me a drink. Are you serious or not?”
“I’m always serious about that. But what’s the point?” Parker shook his head. “If we can’t do it properly, we might as well not do it at all.”
The raven chuckled. “You’re an interesting fellow, I’d hate to miss a chance to have a drink with you. Tell you what, friend. I can grant you a reprieve long enough for us to have a few rounds. How’s that?”
“Sorry, chum,” Parker said. “What kind of a man would I be if I knew I were about to die, then went out drinking instead of going to be with my wife?”
The raven let out a derisive cough. “I wouldn’t mind myself, but then that may be why I don’t have a wife. Well I can’t just let you off completely.”
“Well… just because, that’s why.”
The lack of a given reason convinced Parker that the raven really did have the needed authority and simply didn’t want to admit it. “But you could, couldn’t you? I’ll bet you have more clout than you’re letting on. I worked a retail job in college, and people sometimes asked for discounts or other considerations. I couldn’t make exceptions all the time, of course, but I could in special circumstances. Can’t you claim something like that now?”
The raven blinked rapidly.
Parker pressed on. “It’s not fair that you never get any appreciation, you should at least have enough authority for a little thing like this. Little to you, but it would mean a lot to me. I am fond of living, it’s very nice.”
“It is, isn’t it,” the raven agreed.
“And if you don’t, we’ll miss this chance to be friends.” Parker tilted his head to one side, matching the raven’s angle. “The pub is called the Blue Parrot. The owner actually has one right in the pub—a parrot, that is—she’s lovely. We could meet there regular, even.”
The raven appeared to mull this over while glancing around them. “Well, perhaps I could do that. The truth is, I don’t care for the arguments and begging when people want me to let them off. Better they think I don’t have any influence. And Death has been a little overworked lately. He’ll likely appreciate getting a bit of slack right now, though I’m sure he’d object if I impeded his business too much. But you can’t tell anyone. I can’t have it getting around that I make exceptions for friends.”
“Of course you don’t,” Parker agreed.
“And you’re buying.”
“As I said.”
“All right then.” The raven smoothed one wing over its head. “And perhaps you’ll introduce me to this lovely parrot.”
“Of course,” Parker said. “And… you’ll make sure I get home to Eva. Won’t you?”
“Yes, chum. I promise I will.”
The walk to the pub was brief, with the raven pushing his little bike alongside him. Parker appreciated details he hadn’t noticed before. Stringy weeds growing in broken pavement cracks. Rainbow swirls in an oily patch of water by the curb. Black scuff mark patterns on the sidewalk. The sunlight glinting off the chrome of the Omen of Death’s bicycle, and the way the handlebar streamers bobbed.
“So,” the raven said, “what is it that you do for a living, friend?”
“I work for an insurance company,” Parker said.
“Ah, a related field.” The raven let out a gravelly chuckle. “Would you be interested in a job?”
J.J. Litke lives in Austin, Texas, where she writes SFF and moonlights as a graphic design instructor. She can tell you more than you want to know about GREP styles and WordPress development. Her work has also appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and she has a story forthcoming on Cast of Wonders. Find her at jjlitke.com and on Twitter as @jenztweets.
"Harbinie of Death" Copyright © 2016 by J.J. Litke