by Hailey Piper

     The name was a joke.

    It was our playful way of saying “what a filthy house.” We visited with purest intentions the first time, hoping the weather-worn brown paint and grimy windows were an ugly cover on a beautifully-written book. One step through the door told us better. Watery outlines showed where picture frames used to hang. Crow feathers lined window sills or showed their silhouettes inside overhead lamps.

     The red stains were the worst: a big crimson splotch where the living room ceiling sagged, another in one bedroom closet, and a streak across the kitchen tile that would’ve been easy to clean, except no one had bothered.

     We kept stone-faced and silent until we got back in the car, and then we burst into laughter. They thought they could sell this place? What a riot!

     And that might have been fine had we never gone back, had we never named it Crow-House.

     But we did.

    It became a kind of date night. Every two weeks, the real estate agency held an open house, and we went every time. We said it was people-watching, that we wanted to see other home buyers react to the house that was thrown on the market in brazen disregard for its drudgery.

    It was vanity that drove us back. Looking over that mess, we gloated on finding our lovely home when we moved into the neighborhood first weeks, then months back, how easily our old house sold because we’d bothered to clean it. We liked to feel superior.

    The Crow-House was not fond of that.

   Crows began attending open house. One week, the Crow-House roof was bare as if every living creature knew better than to touch it, and then two weeks later their black silhouettes lined from edge to brick chimney in dusk’s purple light. I should have known something was wrong when you said, “Well, that is a lovely chimney.”

    Every visit, the crows’ numbers grew, until one autumn night their cawing was so loud that they drowned out the real estate agent’s sales pitch. Curious couples had to shout their concerns in each other’s ears.

   “A gathering of crows is called a murder,” I blurted out when we returned to the car. Neither of us laughed.

  Not long after on my way home from work, I started to pass the Crow-House and spotted you in its driveway amid a circle of crows. Yes, you hopped in when I called, but you wouldn’t explain. Where there was once a “we,” I found a “you and I.”

   And soon, not even that. You’d wander there at dawn for a while when you thought I was asleep, and then again at dusk while I dozed, my crepuscular spouse and your Crow-House.

   At the next open house, I didn’t want to go. You went alone. I waited up for you, but you didn’t come home, and instead of fetching you, I went to bed angry. How could you choose that house over me?

   I woke alone, didn’t shower, didn’t go to work, only tore up the street to the Crow-House, hoping to find you in the driveway. You must have heard my knocking, my hand jiggling the doorknob. I know you heard the glass smashed by a rock. Black feathers lined the countertops, the refrigerator neither of us dared open, the low ceiling fan that we once joked might slice off a head.

   A new red stain marked the upstairs bedroom wall around the window. Had you been staring out? I asked these questions aloud, but only crows answered.

   “Murder,” they said. “Murder.”

   I looked to the feathery thrush, but there were no birds to see. The crows have faded into the Crow-House, and no one else even remembers they were here.

   They still hold open houses. Now I attend alone, first to arrive, last to leave, spending every minute at your window. I kneel beside the stain of you, whispering your name, but only unseen crows answer, “Murder, murder,” whispers I alone can hear. The house is gloating. It won’t accept my apologies, won’t give back what’s been taken, like it has no sense of humor.

    Why can’t it understand? The name was a joke.