Gwyn moved through the dark, a lifetime’s economy bedded into his stiff-legged gait. He knew his goal: the deeper shadow of Da’s old steel gun box, bolted to the wall at the far end of the passage. No need for light, the thick walls and uneven flagstones known to him as intimately as the deep creases under his lengthening stubble. Unlocking the cabinet, he closed his fist around the cold weight of a double gun barrel, his skin prickling with half-remembered anticipation as it lifted. With his free hand, he felt around for the cartridge belt, and bore his trophies back up towards the kitchen. Beth’s ears pricked up as he returned, her tail drumming in the dust. His arm swept across the kitchen table, sending invoices, statements and dirty crockery crashing onto the flags. He lowered the gun onto the cleared surface as though offering it up to an altar.
The single light bulb fizzed under its shoulder of dust as he began to clean, rodding and oiling the barrel, buffing the action, smoothing imaginary deposits from its surface, running the bolt to check for friction. His hands slid in a sudden ecstasy of possession over the smooth wooden stock. He cocked and un-cocked the shotgun, then lifted and sighted along the barrel once or twice, the stock nestling hard back into his shoulder. Satisfied, he began to place fresh cartridges one by one into the belt, pushing each tube under the canvas so that the brass heads showed clean. As the last cartridge rammed home he reached for the switch, his euphoria blinking out with the light.
Da’s old chair creaked as Gwyn settled back to wait for dawn, this time with the un-cocked gun bent across his thighs. The old oak clock showed 3.30am. The need to sleep was dragging hard but Da’s face rose from the wall like stone, weathered and remorseless. Gwyn sat straighter, his shepherd’s instinct still aroused and watchful, wary of attack. Rising nausea reminded him of the tablets lying untaken beside the sink.
“Don’t need doping when there’s gun work to do,” said Gwyn to the empty air. “Vermin needs dealing with, once and for all.”
The collie lay on the mat in front of the stove, her ashen muzzle resting on his sock. Daft bugger, thought Gwyn, but he left his foot where it was.
A spark winked out as the logs in the burner broke to greying ash without a murmur. His calloused palms rested gently on top of the gun, its comforting solidity pressing him down into its seat, anchoring his depleted body to the chair, the dying warmth of the stove, the ticking clock. Gwyn felt that without that steel weight his body would simply detach itself from its surroundings and float away, its pinprick consciousness spinning into a dizzying maelstrom thick with midnight feathers. The fiery ache deep in his belly forced his eyes to open again.
The outlines of table, sink and stove stood unmoving against the night, but the dizziness remained. He stared at the great bulk of the far wall, at the dark eye of the stairwell. It was a good few years since anyone other than Gwyn had climbed that steep little flight of stairs to the tiny bedroom with its sagging roof, and in a harsh winter weeks might pass uncounted before he could be bothered to make the solitary trip.
There had been that one, though. What was she called, that girl with the hip bones jaunted like a skinny heifer’s? Her rump had swayed its empty promise before him as he followed it up those narrow steps. A while back, anyway. Not a pick on her, whoever she was. He remembered lying on the bed and watching as she tugged her flowered dress up over her head; the sudden disappointment of her tiny breasts, little bigger than the feeding teats of his ewes.
A bitter sun had tinged the discarded snow with ruddy streaks as Gwyn rolled the last ewe over with his boot. The matted fleece was rank with the stench of ditch water, eye sockets scraped to yellow bone. She’d gone in labour, the bloody afterbirth frozen to her legs. The crows had found her and her young before the snow blew in. Grunting, he dragged the bloated carcass down the muddied grass towards the pickup and heaved it onto the others, tossing the final scrap of skin and bone on top.
Spring always turned up, but this time too damn late for anything. Too late to save the wild ponies, the hares and fox, the sheep that crept against the stone walls that had entombed them. Christ, even the birdsong was missing now. Nothing wanted to settle up this high any more. Only the carrion crows thrived. As the white tide receded he had seen countless black spots fluttering high up on the hillside, feeding on exposed remains, tiny portents of disaster dancing from one point to another.
He chewed his lip and stared past the stinking fleeces, seeing hoped-for salvation rotting within every swollen belly. Gwyn wasn’t one for looking in the mirror, but he felt the chill had touched him too. As he fastened the tailgate, his arms were leaden, as though the weak spring sunlight had come too late to warm his bones.
Gwyn whistled the old collie back from the wall where it was still nosing the trodden slush. She sprang onto the passenger seat and settled herself, head on paws, for the jolting ride back to the yard, her eyes watchful. The truck ground its tyres deep into ruts as Gwyn forced it down the mountain, the air that whistled though its cab dispersing the cloying stink of decomposition. The dog’s calm gaze stung like a rebuke. As he tipped the foetid carcasses out, the weight of his losses dropped hard onto his shoulders.
The lime-washed stone of the house had shifted haphazardly like the old walls that divided the hills, settling inexorably back into the landscape from which it had risen. Its face was a child’s imagining, four tiny cross-paned windows set deep into thick stone below sagging slates; a squat chimney at each end, a bleached wooden door tucked back beneath a central porch. The tattered poplars behind its crumbling chimneys served as a ragged windbreak. It was hard to see where the hillside ended; rock and scree skittered to a halt where the old yard wall, thick topped with grasses, leant against the wind. Dewi had called with the mail; a fresh crop of brown envelopes lay tucked under a corner of the old iron boot scraper.
As Gwyn lifted the latch, post in hand, he could hear the roosting jackdaws squabbling in the disused chimney. Behind its heavy door the house was silent, its air musty and undisturbed. Only in the darkness of the tiny kitchen was there any breath of warmth, and that came from the chipped blue range that Gwyn had been feeding since he was a little boy. Now he tossed the mail aside and bent to the waiting log pile, even as the tiredness rose in him like a tide. The discarded letters slid unnoticed from the crowded table to join the heap gathering on the stone floor below.
Gwyn tipped hot water onto powdered soup and stirred it, steam dampening the cold skin of his cheek. Without glancing he lowered himself backwards into the rubbed wood of his father’s chair, its threadbare cushions stitched sixty years ago as a bridal bulwark against the walling, foddering and slaughtering of the hill farmer’s daily round. The seat’s horsehair stuffing squeaked and groaned against his angular frame. Daylight had faded, but the effort of crossing the kitchen to flick a switch seemed too great. He had spent so much of his indoor life in that dim place by the stove that its obstacles could be negotiated without light, without touch, almost without consciousness or the energy that any other form of existence seemed to demand from him.
His bones ached from the chill and the effort of locating the final missing sheep. Gwyn drained his mug and allowed his eyelids to drop.
That next morning had broken cold and clear, a faint pink light softening the deep window recess as Gwyn pushed his head under the kitchen tap. A sudden pain drew his stomach up hard towards his ribs, more insistent than the sullen ache Doc Evans had located in his guts, a pain that spoke instead of living, of bread and meat, eggs and honey. Da had sat at this table with laver bread, sausage and eggs piled high; Mam would’ve thought shame to send a man empty-bellied to work. Duw! Just as well they weren’t around. The fodder bins in the long barn are as near empty as the pantry shelf, mused Gwyn, staring at the western skyline for signs of snow. He rubbed his head with the rough towel so that his eyes watered and his sunken cheeks began to sting under their covering of stubble.
Beth was whining and scratching behind him, and above the hills the clouds lingered like fading bruises. He pulled the door open to release the collie, steadying his back against the doorframe as he pulled on his boots. The air was sharp, his breath escaping in irretrievable trails.
The hens were clustered in a corner of the run, bobbing and clucking with fright. Gwyn could hear movement inside the nesting boxes. He lifted the shovel that propped the hen house door shut, and leaning forward, lifted the lid. A deep yellow beak spun around, and then ragged black feathers burst upwards into his face. He staggered back, swinging the shovel up and across his body as he did so. There was a muffled sound as the metal connected.
“You thievin’ bloody bastard, you!” Gwyn swung wildly again at the injured crow. It dropped the egg in its beak, and fluttered against the wire netting, wing dangling. Gwyn stretched for the struggling bird and struck hard. It lay fluttering in the dirt, the broken egg seeping from its shell. He stood panting over the crippled bird, his mouth dry. The crow uttered a single harsh caw, its pale eye fixed as he stooped and drove the shovel through.
Gwyn tossed the battered carcass onto the top of the wall as he passed its flank. Back in the kitchen, dog and master shared a bowl of cereal, the stone-flagged floor cold between them. The collie licked the last milk from the bowl as Gwyn lifted the latch and stepped outside.
The old door had muffled the whirlwind of noise that filled the yard. A thick knot of crows were circling above the roof tiles, their long, repeated cawing echoing between house and barn, increasing in intensity as, in twos and threes, other crows joined the swirling group. Gwyn watched, unmoving, as the great black birds flew together in repeated waves of darkness, then apart, and then together again, their wings rolling and unrolling as they rode the air, all the time uttering strange, prolonged cries. The sky above the farmyard filled with thirty or forty crows wheeling and turning above his head until his ears were full of nothing but their harsh calls and the sound of beating wings.
He picked the dead crow up by its stiffened feathers and threw it high over the wall, its battered corpse fluttering and tumbling in mockery as its brethren continued to curse from the skies.
Inside the long barn, the air was thick with the milky warmth of nursing ewes. The depleted flock was restless, its anxious bleats increasing as he approached. Like his animals, Gwyn gazed through the open doors to the distant peaks. The drifts had only just melted, and the tough upland grass was as colourless and patchy as his beard. But under the corrugated roof the air was warming up, and beyond it the walls undulated in ribbons of grey stone across hills that grew greener by the day.
Gwyn picked up a pitchfork of fodder, and tossed it into the nearest pen. Then he moved down the line, and did the same. A shadow moved silently across the light. The farmer looked over his shoulder. A single crow had drifted in from the open side and perched on the rail behind him, eyeing the sheep. He took a step back, and swung with the empty pitchfork. The nearest animal started in surprise. The giant black bird fixed Gwyn with one wary eye, and then moved sideways with a tiny, almost careless, hop. Gwyn turned back to work. Pitch, toss. The hay fell heavily into each pen and the lambs bleated.
The sense of being watched became more unbearable with each load. Slowly, Gwyn rotated his own head so that one eye could observe the intruder. The bird continued to watch his movements with quiet attention. Like Da, thought Gwyn, spitting into the straw; I never worked hard enough for that bastard, either. Pitch, toss. Pitch, toss. Gwyn turned his back and continued to work, but the back of his neck began to tighten. He lifted the worn wooden handle with both hands, felt his skin rubbing against its curve, his arms dropping and swinging with the rhythm of the task. The crow had hopped further along the rail, and was close behind him again.
He lunged toward the bird like a battered scarecrow. The crow half extended its wings, and floated towards the rail in front of the next pen. Gwyn knew that it was waiting for him to catch up. He waved the pitchfork once more, but his heart wasn’t in it. The space was more open; this time there would be no opportunity to catch the bird unawares. He sensed the bird knew this too, for as he turned away, the crow just tilted its head, and then flapped its wings back into order, like a tail coated undertaker settling respectably at a graveside.
As Gwyn left the barn that evening, he glanced back up at the darkening sky. It was empty and thick with cloud. Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow I’ll put them back on the hill. Even if I have to truck the hay up after.
It had been Dewi’s idea, back in the beginning. Gwyn had called into the Woolpack for a pint on market day. Post round finished, Dewi had been there as usual, his ham-pink face scrubbed clean of stubble. Gwyn had stared across the bar at the rare combination of collar and shiny tie and raised his glass.
“You’ll be to see the magistrates, then, Dewi?”
“Can I not dress smartly for once without my friends thinking the worst?” retorted Dewi. “As it happens, I am meeting a friend. A lady friend, that is. For a drink.”
The idea of Dewi getting a date, short and round as he was, had stirred a hard knot of jealousy in Gwyn’s groin. He sucked at his beer.
Dewi slid around the corner of the bar and leant in towards the older man, his face ruddier still. He lowered his voice.
“Internet, boyo. Go online, man. Shopping made easy.”
Gwyn had heard tales of mail order brides. He wasn’t sure he was ready for anything more complicated than the ordering of machine parts.
“Don’t be a daft bugger. Internet dating. It’s bloody marvellous, no buying a cat in a sack, look you. There’s my face up there too, but it’s all in the pitch, see. I tell’em I used to sing club nights down in Cardiff. Gets me a first date anyway, and…well, then it’s down to charm and a bit of sweet talking, mostly.”
Gwyn had risen early to move the sheep, unsteady but determined. His night had been fragmented by forms that rose in clouds and fell back across his face in layers of suffocating dark. Struggling for air, he’d surfaced with his face buried in a cushion, his breathing choked by the exhausted feathers escaping through its disintegrating cover. The dawn light had roused the birds, the raucous chatter of rooks and crows audible in the dim silence of the kitchen. Unwilling to close his eyes again, he unlatched the door for the dog and watched her pad out onto the stones.
The crows were waiting for him. Several were already ranged in uncharacteristic silence along the grass thatch of the old wall, black-cloaked against the biting easterly wind. As the door rattled Gwyn saw beaks swivel as heads turned, then settled back. One solitary sentinel lifted, stiff winged, from the wall’s end to rise backwards against the wind, leaving the main group undisturbed. Gwyn stood firm in the doorway and watched the hunched shapes, equally silent, until the ache in his belly gripped him hard, and the cold metal latch gnawed into his thin fingers.
"To hell with you too,” he said, and closed the door.
Gwyn towed the trailer up the hillside to where the track ruts petered out. As he dropped the ramp the returning sheep began to tumble out, frantically at first, and then more slowly as the wind filled the trailer and the frontrunners stopped to crop the scanty grass. The barn-reared lambs quivered, tight curls rippling as the wind plucked their skin. He hunched his back and fingered tobacco into a paper as the lambs scurried away, bleating for their dams, ears pricked for an answer from the surrounding flock.
The sheep began to spread out into small groups of two and three, and then as the leading ewe began to track the ancient paths back up the hill, the others fell gradually into line behind her. Hands cupped to light his roll-up, he watched the flock move off, the old ewe picking her way through the worn tussocks on the way to better ground, the rest following.
Gwyn envied his flock their shared consciousness, the physical contact when they huddled together around the hay feeders, even the constant bleat of communication, just as he envied Dewi his sense of optimism, his frequent successes. His was a hardy breed, as Da had always boasted, knowing nothing else, no more capable of living down in the valleys than the sheep were of surviving on rich pastures. Gwyn had survived without a woman, true, but he’d failed on the ground of his rearing. Truth was he’d been no better’n a wether; unable to find a girl, one hefted to the mountainous slopes as his sheep were.
There had been that one though. He shifted his legs to ease the weight of the old gun. The old collie was snoring gently, her jawbone pressing down on the bones of his foot. Doc Evan’s pills were making him sleepy, making it hard to remember. Had he even taken the damn pills? Too-bright lipstick and chest flatter than a boy’s.
He had watched her from the truck. Smoothing his hair back over its old hairline, using a finger to loosen his collar, waiting in his pickup outside the railway station for a fun loving girl from Swansea; a skinny girl, stepping through the swing doors onto the street, heels like needles, lips a slick of carmine. As he jumped from his cab she’d tugged her thin jacket across her body and bent the line of red into a smile, revealing small red streaks on her teeth. Pamela. Pam. They had walked around town, slowly because of her shoes, and he had told her how farming women wore wellington boots all year round. She had giggled like she saw a joke. He didn’t think to tell her about the lipstick.
He had raced the truck back up the long climb to the village, full of plans for sprucing up the farmhouse before she saw it, and if he had time over, of planting some proper flowers under the little windows where Ma used to plant daffodils for Easter Sunday. Roses, and maybe those fancy gladioli, something showy and scented to match his girl. He fancied standing by the porch, one arm across her shoulders, pointing out his plans, while the musky scent of roses would drift across the yard to mask the smell from barn and sheds.
With the sheep back on the hill, Gwyn set to the task of repairing fences as though against an old adversary, fighting as he had seen the old man fight, but this spring he felt unsettled, as though the savage storms had left as deep a mark on him as they had his farm. Each day he moved further across his land, forcing each line of broken fencing back upright with repeated blows, each defiant section stretching back across the hillside like troop positions on a map. He saw no-one else up on the hill. Some mornings he could see a little red flash moving along the lane below, and then when he returned to the yard more letters would be tucked under the iron boot scraper.
Eyes fixed on the top of each post, Gwyn swung the fencing mallet over and over, while crows performed aerial manoeuvres in the open skies above, landing to pick over dried out droppings, scavenging along the tussocks for the foxes’ leavings, and taking off when the dull smack of the mallet came too close.
From time to time Gwyn would stop to roll another thin cigarette and stick it to his lips. Doc Evans couldn’t stop that. The blows that echoed across the valley were measuring out his life enough. As the blue smoke puffed out he added to the list of tasks in his head.
The black soil was warming again underfoot. Da had passed buckets of berries and beans to Mam like he was showering her with flowers. It wasn’t proper farming, according to a younger, more confident Gwyn, and the fruit cage had collapsed in a tangle of rotten poles and wire netting, while most of the beds were overrun with buttercup and groundsel; the ground not worth the clearing, until now, anyway. Gwyn attacked the old seed beds, turning the neglected soil over and then over again with his spade. In the evenings he sowed peas and carrots in neat rows eight inches apart, and planted seed potatoes and cabbages like his life depended on the outcome. As days passed, he found himself inspecting the ground for signs of growth, counting the little green shoots as they uncurled into the light. “There you go, Da,” he thought, “there’s life here yet.”
The ache in his gut had spread to his back now, too. Gwyn felt too tired to head to the Woolpack any more. Dewi’d be there; he always had a tale to tell and another in his pocket, and the bar rocking with laughter. Fair enough, knew the length of his horns, did Dewi. The little postman had never been diminished in the slightest by his failure to keep the same girl for more than a few weeks over the last ten years; if anything his standing was increased by the number of women of different nationalities he had talked into bed. Dewi didn’t waste time promising them a future: it was enough for most people that he promised a little fun. He’d never been Tom Jones, as he admitted, “But they still toss their ruddy knickers, boys, when I sing Delilah.” Gwyn added the latest envelopes to the pile on the floor and lifted the kettle onto the stove.
That year’d been a good one for lamb prices. In the end, he’d not had the time to do much; bought a tray of flowering plants down in the market the day before she came, scurrying back to the farm before anyone spotted him. He’d yanked out the few bulbs that remained under the windows, and thrust marigolds into the gaps. The shop-forced orange had glowed against the faded lime wash of the wall as he knelt to push the broken earth back with his hands.
Pam had been waiting for him outside the station in a dress covered with strange printed blooms and an even higher pair of heels. It had taken a bit of time to dust a decent space in the back of the truck and place her holdall down on the cleaned metal. It had weighed heavy in his grasp as he lifted it; he struggled to imagine what it held.
She’d wanted to head into town but Gwyn needed to turn her out on his land, watch her find her way. He’d helped her out of the truck at the Woolpack, steadying her as she dropped to unfamiliar ground. The voices checked as he held the door open, and then started talking over each other louder than ever, like market day with everyone leaning on the metal rails alongside the sale ring. Dewi bought a few drinks, just to be friendly, he said. Pam had winked at Dewi, and giggling, emptied her glass in one, the pale skin of her throat stretching tight as she swallowed.
Back at the yard, she had picked her steps across the uneven stones as carefully and directly as his best ewe on the steepest of slopes. Gwyn stumbled on the porch step in his haste to reach the door before her. She’d looked back over her shoulder as he tripped, and then down at the drooping marigolds he had forgotten to water in.
"Some farmer," was all she’d said.
The clouds had rolled in across the peak, and the wind was driving a warning smatter of rain across the yard. Gwyn downed tools as the little red post van turned the corner and began to bump up the track towards him. He swung the gate open and nodded at the driver.
“Duw, Gwyn,” choked Dewi. “Will you look at yourself, now? You’ve a beard would shame the Apostles, for a start. “
Gwyn held out a hand for the post.
"There’s some official looking stuff there, by the looks of it.” said Dewi. “Are you keeping well, man?”
Gwyn stayed silent. The pain would see him out, Doc Evans had said. The letters’d stop soon enough.
“Come down for a square meal, why don’t you?” Dewi shut the van door and wound the window down. “You can leave this place for a while, boyo; it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Gwyn placed his hand on the thin rim of glass, and bent his head so that his mouth drew level with Dewi’s ear.
"You see the crows?”
“Which crows is that, then, Gwyn?”
“On the goddam wall. Over there.”
“Can’t say I did. Still, there’ll always be bloody crows, my friend.”
Gwyn stood back, away from the van.
“Pick the place clean as a whistle if I let’em.” said Gwyn.
Gwyn shifted uncomfortably in the chair. The narrow stairwell was a dark cleft in the pale stone. He’d followed Pam up it step by steep step that night, watched her dress riding up into tight creases just inches from his face. The strange blooms had been purple and green, their petals outlined in black like a child’s drawing. Then at the top she’d gazed at the old oak bed where he had entered the world, at the faded nursery print of The Good Shepherd that swung on a nail above it, and placed her unopened bag near the door. Never did get to see inside.
Her body had been unexpected, stiffer and more angular than he had imagined. He could smell the brandy as she pushed her tongue between his teeth, silent as she straddled him, smoothing her hair back from her face. Her mouth had closed like a trap, then fallen into an ‘O’ of disappointment.
"Yeah, some farmer.” she’d said again.
Dewi hadn’t known the half of it. The previous day’s threatening skies had delivered morning rain rattling against the kitchen window. Beyond the glass, pulses of water were travelling in rippling veils across the hillside. The sheep had moved, were sprinkled like daisies on the leeward slope. One daisy remained obstinate, set firm in the path of the squall.
In the yard, the water was gurgling in the one drain, pooling and dripping under the wooden door. The wood had swollen; Gwyn had to yank at the door to get outside. The yard wall was empty, its weeds and grasses flattened and dripping.
He whistled the collie into the truck and set off up the track. The wipers pushed a wave of water from side to side, heavy drops splattering in rings between each stroke. The engine revved as Gwyn dropped the gears, pushed the tyres up through the mud and onto the grass. At the top of the track the wind snatched the opened door, slamming it back hard against its hinge. Gwyn turned his collar up and set to working his dog. He caught up with the lone ewe soon enough – she was standing, head turned into the rain, still bleating. Her head moved as he approached, and her blue eye flickered. She skittered sideways a step and stopped. Above him lay the outcrop of gorse and rock that sheltered sheep when the wind was in the other direction, the ground below it trampled and muddy. Nothing moved. He set his body to the rain, and started to climb. As he started to move around the rock the collie picked up scent and ran ahead, head down, working.
He knew as soon as she had found it. Easy pickings. Tangled up in gorse and bramble, eyes gone, its back end half eaten by crows, soft and bloodied guts spilling out pink over sodden yellow flowers.
Gwyn looked down across the valley. The lone ewe was still bleating below. Nothing was moving this high up, but he could see dark spots rising and falling behind the chimneys, looping in triumphant circles against the rain.
The turned earth had turned to silt, and in its dark pools, wings fanned slightly for shelter, were dozens of young crows tearing up the young plants, scrabbling for the worms and bugs rising to the surface of the wet earth. The peas dangled in their netting, the tops pecked out; the cabbage plants drowned and trampled into the mud. The rain had loosened the canes, which lay like fallen timber across the rows of crushed seedlings. The birds hardly stirred as Gwyn moved among them, his wet face upturned to the sky.
The shapes shifted into their daylight forms and Gwyn stretched in his chair. Beth rose to her feet and shook herself from ear to tail; whined gently. He lifted the heavy gun, feeling his breath catch in his throat, his heart pick up. He dunked his head under the tap, and shut the kitchen door on the collie.
“I don’t want you warning them bastards off.”
The wall outside was empty, its grassy top still flattened by the heavy rain. Beyond it the muddied track bent and turned, rose and levelled, rose again. The skies had cleared, and as Gwyn climbed he watched a thin yellow light spill from its edge to tint the eastern hills.
The sheep were still some distance away as he reached the steep slope of the top pasture. He sucked at the dawn air like a drowning man. The old house was drifting far below him, pale and insubstantial behind trails of early morning mist. Above its slates black specks fluttered as though roused too early.
Gwyn turned from flock to house and then from flock to house again, and then again, throwing his arms out wide, chest open, the cocked gun held upright in triumph. He turned slowly at first then faster and faster, the wind forcing tears down his cheeks, and him laughing with the sudden freedom of it all.
“Come on, you scavenging bastards! Come on!” He sank dizzily to his knees, arms and gun outstretched, roaring at the sky as the early morning light span into a crazy golden vortex above him. “Here I am! Here I bloody am!”
The nearest crow had just drifted down when the crack of the first barrel ricocheted across the valley and the flock scattered, causing the great black bird to beat back up into the sky.
Down in the silent kitchen, the old collie whined softly from beside the stove. Up on the hill the air settled, and then one by one the crows dropped forward onto the grass.