Crow-Woman moved like a tree walking, in long, slow, rusty strides, as if her muscles did not exactly remember what they were supposed to do. She was twelve feet tall, with a head like a crow's and great dark wings obscured by molted grey down. Her body was human in shape, save for her scaled lower legs and taloned feet. Dead vines and brambles dangled from her torso, shedding bits of leaves and falling away as she walked down Highway 50 in the light of pre-dawn. She held a digital camera in her left hand, its strap around her broad wrist. Though clumsy, her progress was patient and inexorable.
It was dawn when she reached the town of Renwood.The few people up and about stopped to watch her progress, staring and whispering to one another. One old man out walking his dog stopped to wave at her, and scold his dog as it strained at the leash to reach her. Crow-Woman returned the wave with her empty right hand, and continued on her way.
At length, she reached a small strip of shops, including a camera sales and repair store. She bent to try the door: locked. Her crow's head cocked and turned, one grey eye studying the posted hours. The store opened at ten. Crow-Woman turned and stood before the shop window to wait. Her eye fell on the wisps of grey fluff her wings had shed in her wake. Her head rotated to inspect the disarray forty-two years of unpreened molts had made of the feathers on her wings. One wing curled before her, and her beak dipped to preen it.
The sun was high in the summer sky and Crow-Woman was mostly done with the right wing when a car pulled in and parked at the back of the lot. A middle-aged man with dark skin and graying hair got out and stared at her. "Crow-Woman?"
She dropped her wing. "Yes."
He seemed surprised that she answered. "What are you doing here?" he asked, walking gingerly to the door of the camera store, his eyes on the monster.
"I wish to have a camera fixed." She raised the camera in her right hand.
The shopkeeper blinked a few times, digging out keys from his pocket. "... really? You have a camera?"
"It is not my camera."
He unlocked the door. "Oh. Uh. I didn't think you ever left that one spot in the nature preserve, along Highway 50."
"I have left it now. Will you fix this camera?"
"Um. Bring it in, I'll have a look." A bell tied to the door jingled as the man opened the door and stepped inside.
Crow-Woman turned her head sideways and eyed the entrance. She dropped to her knees and one hand to crawl through, wings folded close to her back. At the front counter, she set the camera down and sat back on her heels. Her bird's head was scarcely lower than the human's. An orange tabby cat was at the man's feet, ignoring her and meowing impatiently at him. "Uh, just a minute." He went into the back room. Two more cats followed him, darting suspicious looks at the monster. After he put down fresh food and cat milk for them, he returned to the front. "Right. Camera."
The glass of the LCD display on the back was spiderwebbed with cracks. He tsked and powered it on. It lit, screen distorted. He clicked a few pictures, then powered it down and fiddled with it. "Looks like it's just the display. I can replace that for you, be about $80."
Her crow's eye looked at him.
"... you don't have money, do you?"
"I do not. May I barter for it?"
"Huh." He leaned back. "You know, back when I was young, I took some pictures of you. Where you used to stand."
"Yes. Near sunset, every week for a year, from the start of one summer to the next, thirty-one years ago."
The middle-aged man swallowed. "You remember."
"You said your name was Quentin Longfellow. The worst thing you had ever done was break your brother's arm when you pushed him out of your treehouse." The blank birdlike stare did not waver. "I do not forget."
"Did you mind?"
"I remember I asked if it was all right, but you never said. Yes or no. Just asked what the worst thing I'd ever done was."
Quentin swallowed again. "Are you going back there, to your spot? After the camera's fixed."
"No. I am done with that."
"What are you going to do now?" the human asked, curiously.
Crow-Woman considered that question. "I do not know."
"Well." He looked down at the broken LCD screen on the camera. "How's this. If you'll do some shoots with me -- you know, you let me take more pictures of you -- at different spots, not at the preserve -- I'll fix your camera for you. Say ... three shoots. Hour or two each."
"It is not my camera," Crow-Woman said. "But that is acceptable. Will you fix it now?"
"I don't know if I've got the parts. Let me see." Quentin checked his inventory, then disappeared in back. He returned brandishing a small cardboard box. "You're in luck." While she waited, legs folded beneath her and wings cramped to her back in the human-sized store, he removed the broken screen and replaced it. A few times, customers came in to interrupt him. Crow-Woman simply waited until it was done, then left.
It was after dusk when Crow-Woman approached the small house near the nature preserve. She bent almost double to knock on the human-sized door. A minute later, a pale human man answered, and gaped at her.
"This is yours." She handed him the camera.
"Uh ... what?" By reflex, he took it, staring. "But -- how -- where did you find it? I left it in my study -- "
"I took it from your study."
"I needed to." She turned and left.
"Hey! Hey, wait!" The man dashed down the steps after her. "You can't just go into people's houses and take their stuff!"
Crow-Woman did not answer. She kept walking.
"There are laws against that, you know! I ought to call the police!" He yelled.
A fair-skinned woman came out of the house, asking, "Honey, what's going -- oh! That's the monster from Highway 50!"
"She took my camera!"
"... the one you're holding?"
"Well, she just brought it back. Hey! Don't you walk away from me!" the man yelled.
Crow-Woman walked away. The woman calmed her husband down, leading him back into the house. From an upstairs window, a little boy watched, wide-eyed.
Three days later, at two hours before sunset, Crow-Woman met Quentin on the shores of a lake for their first photo shoot. She had finished preening both wings by then, and they gleamed black in the late afternoon light. She'd also cleaned off the remnants of the vines and plant life that had grown attached to her during her long vigil, and replaced the tattered remnants of her clothing with a simple toga-like garment.
Quentin was nervous when he saw her. "You, uh, sure look different when you're not, um. Rooted. Can I see what your wings look like outstretched?" She swept them out to either side, pinions spread to maximum extension. The brown-skinned man gave a low whistle, forgetting his nervousness as he started snapping photos. "Can you fly?"
"No. Too disused."
"But you used to?"
"Yes. Perhaps someday they will be strong enough again." She shifted her wings in uneven flaps, flexing the muscles.
Quentin spent the rest of the afternoon taking pictures. He did not so much pose her as ask her to do things -- walk down the lake shore, look over the water, stretch her wings back -- and then photograph her while she did them. "You're a very patient model," he told her, setting up his tripod for some final long-exposure shots while the sun set. "But I guess you would be." She cocked her head, and he added, embarrassed. "Lot of practice just standing there."
"How long were you there?"
"Forty-two years, three months, seven days, and twenty-three hours."
Another low whistle. "Lady, you are overdue for a new hobby."
Crow-Woman considered that. "Yes."
He clicked the next photo and waited a moment. "Figured out what you're going to do next yet?"
The twelve-foot tall monster stood silhouetted against the lake and the setting sun, wings outstretched and raised at her back. She thought about his question, then asked, "What is the best thing you could ever do?"
"What? Uh. I don't know. Save someone's life, I guess. Wait, do you mean 'best' like 'most heroic' or more like, the best occupation I could do?" Quentin smiled wryly. "I guess either way, it's not going to be 'running a camera shop in Renwood'."
"I don't know," Crow-Woman tilted her head. "I think I will make finding out my new hobby."