Feathering, or tarring and feathering, is a term that few people are familiar with due to its relative obscurity within lynch punishments.
In brief, feathering is the process of hot tar being thrown onto a victim, usually the offender of some sort of crime, and then, when he/she holds his/her hands out and screams for the pain to stop, has a bucket of feathers thrown over them.
It was common in feudal Europe and its colonies, usually directed at war deserters. That, you may have realised by now, is where the word chicken comes from.
But for the millions of tarred and feathered people throughout the ages, there has only ever been one person who died.
For every millions of chickens, there was but one crow.
John Meints lived in Minnesota in 1918 during World War I, which was bad enough to begin with.
He was against the war and refused to promote war bonds.
So he was feathered and tarred, but never had a public feathering been this awful.
I should probably explain.
Pine tar, the tar used prior to the industrial revolution, was a completely different substance compared to modern tar, also called bitumen and asphalt. Have a guess which kind of tar that involves? Pine tar.
In the media and literature today, tarring and feathering is presented as funny and jocular, inflicting public humiliation and discomfort, but not grave injury.
John walked out to receive his punishment, shrugging and grinning at his wife Sally who tried to hold back a giggle whilst she looked on with their four-year old daughter, Emily.
A large crowd had gathered to watch and whisper about the steaming barrel of black sludge, dredged around in the barrel by a bored-looking city guard.
Nobody knew. How could they?
The tar was poured over John and he disappeared under it, emerging to cackles and cat-calls which soon died down as he bellowed out in agony.
The feathers were thrown, but John Meints had become a disfigured mess.
He tried to crawl towards his family, looking on in horror. He reached out his hand in desperation, only to watch his fingers slough off in a molten goop.
He cried out for his wife, who had taken the child and sprinted back into their family home, bolting the door.
And then he moaned for his daughter.
You should never have to watch a fully-grown man melting away and wailing pathetically for his four-year-old daughter to come and save him.
The mob closed in. Maybe they would have helped, maybe they wouldn’t have. It didn’t matter.
In that moment, John let out an ungodly cry that caused three market stalls to soar into the sides of houses that crushed into twigs on impact.
All windows in a mile-wide radius shattered and the onlookers quickly muffled their ears with their hands.
A small hurricane of feathers was surrounding the dying man. The very feathers thrown on him seemed to multiply and spin rapidly, ever increasing in speed and volume.
Then he simply vanished into midair.
Nothing major happened for the next few weeks. The Tribunal did a couple of words on it, but it was all lost for the next few days amid commonplace articles of missing cats, general complaints about unruly neighbours, and all manner of petty social happenings.
On Tuesday to Thursday of the following week, however, stories began to crop up of Minnesota residents suffering from bad dreams.
On top of this, Jemima Warner found long and strange black feathers on her windowsill that couldn’t be identified and her husband heard strange “air whipping” sounds between the houses of 2AM and 3AM, coming from their roof.
Old Barry Winsmere thought he saw a large outline of a man briefly cross over the sky.
But of course, he was considered locally to be a little heavy on the ale on weekdays.
But that was it. No other reports of anything abnormal or out of the ordinary.
For three whole years.
On June 21st, 1921, Emily Meints had just turned seven and was heading out to school.
She was in high spirits and had good reason to be. Today was her birthday, after all.
She rounded a corner and ran headlong into the mayor’s son, along with his two thuggish friends.
The mayor’s son was a piece of work. Petty robbery and vandalism were commonplace in the town, but Carl Galloway took it to a whole new level. He could get away with it too. His father would bribe the shopkeeper, or the innkeeper or whoever he fancied.
He was only seven, but already most could tell that he was on his way to becoming a criminal, and one of the worst.
Carl tore the paper package in Emily’s hands away from her and threw it on the ground, stomping on it over and over again as Emily began to cry softly.
Just because he could.
One of his thuggish friends punched Emily across the face, bloodying her lip and knocking her to the ground.
As Carl’s other crony raised his fist over the girl, the three were brought to a sudden standstill by a single noise.
Carl’s boot hovered in the air above the already crumpled package. The noise rang out again.
Slowly, the group turned around and were met by a blanket of thousands upon thousands of crows, covering the shingled rooftops like a blanket of death.
It all happened so suddenly, Emily barely even saw it.
They dived as one mass, a big writhing sheet of angry birds that pecked and slashed and bit and tore.
Carl’s friends fell to the ground and the crows desisted, moving onto Carl himself.
As if they had planned it beforehand, the crows sunk their beaks into Carl’s tunic and burlap trousers.
He yelled, but it was just no use.
Emily watched dumbfounded as Carl seemed to levitate up into the air, attached to this cloud of crows.
She watched them take him off over the houses and into the far distance, before he disappeared completely over the endless countryside, a disappearing speck on the horizon.
She picked up her box and said thank you.
She didn’t know why.
Now the mayor, a fat and balding man by the name of Rodric, didn’t hear about his son’s disappearance for two days. He had been counting his land, money, and “tax sacks” he had just received from villagers.
He had simply assumed that his son was playing truant and asked, in a rather bored tone, how much it was to get his son out of trouble again.
When he was told in no uncertain terms that no amount of money would bring his son back, he went ballistic.
His son was part of his persona and part of the reason he had been elected as mayor five years ago when the previous mayor had retired.
If I didn’t look like a family man, nobody would listen to me, he had reasoned drunkenly at the after-election party.
He had railed against the entire town for a week, raising taxes and ordering that withholding information about his son’s disappearance was a criminal offence. (Anyone who could not give any information was automatically suspected of withholding evidence and arrested.)
I shouldn’t have to tell you that his son was never found.
Five years later, when Emily was just thirteen, the family home was in the lengthy process of being repossessed due to her mother’s inability to pay back the mortgage.
It didn’t particularly help that she was suffering from late-stage dementia and it was a minor miracle that she remembered to eat breakfast, let alone manage the daily finances of the home.
She passed away peacefully in her bed before the presents and gifts arrived.
Small things that local residents wouldn’t notice were missing.
A small cluster of gold-plated earrings in a small nest that appeared on the windowsill.
Thick embossed coins sticking into the flowerbed.
Emily wasn’t rich, but she managed to pay the rent through these mysterious offerings.
The mayor noticed.
He raised it, and he raised it, until he summoned Emily before the town court to demand she explain her wealth.
She choked up a little bit and explained quietly before the jury, explaining that the house was being paid for by her “father in the sky.”
The case would’ve been closed, but the mayor simply refused to let it go.
In the coldest and bitterest winter of the last decade, Emily was forcibly removed from her home and left on the streets.
She wouldn’t have survived had it not been for the small food offerings that appeared in the middle of the night. Almost every night, Emily would wake to find a bowl of hot soup and something long and pointy, like a vulture’s light-brown wing, dip out of sight behind the cottages before hearing a flutter that echoed through the cityscape.
Apart from one night.
Rodric had turned in for the night after a heavy drinking session and sloshed himself under the bedcovers.
He heard a flutter across the room and jolted awake.
His room was empty, save for his ornate furniture and luxurious fireplace which flickered away lazily.
He felt his eyelids close again, but heard a swooping as soon as they closed.
He opened them and leapt out of bed, pacing the room multiple times, convincing himself that nothing was there, shaking his head a couple of times, stealing glances at the emptied gin bottle and angrily reminding himself to have his servant buy in a different type.
It took him thirty minutes to work up the courage to get back into bed.
He closed his eyes.
He could hear what sounded like a long fingernail tapping patiently against his metal bed pole at the foot of his bed.
He opened his eyes slowly and softly, but it didn’t make the grinning, beaked head that stared back at him any less terrifying.
His talons rested on the metal, his entire form leaning over Rodric like a crippled gargoyle, scars running up and down his deformed face that looked in no way human. Or animal.
Nobody even heard Rodric as he tried to get away. But then again, the winged creature had prepared for that.
The news ran the story the very next day, about how the mayor had slipped on the plush rug, falling onto his antique cabinet and filling his eyes with needle-sharp glass.
The Mayor, with a thick rag over his face, recounted all of this in a shaky and nervous voice. Newspaper journalists assumed he was simply shaken and didn’t quite recognise the tone of a man whose life had been threatened had he explained what really happened on that night.
As a final act of forced compassion, the Mayor gave Emily her house back.
And that was almost the story of John Meints. Almost.
On May 19th, 1945, Emily was wed. She was the happiest she’d ever been in her life.
In truth, she was marrying a rather plain man in a rather plain venue with very plain arrangements.
But after everything she’d been through, it couldn’t have been any more spectacular.
She’d gone outside for a breather after the ceremony, leaving everyone to their partying and festivities.
She listened to the muffled music inside the thick canopies and tents for a while, inhaling and exhaling the cold night air and looking up at the clear night sky.
Then her eyes fell upon a man standing at the edge of the Minnesota Peaks, a clifftop a mile away from the reservation.
He was just staring. He looked old.
She felt sympathetic. Any old man at this hour would surely catch his death, especially a man this aged, with creases and marks and lesions down his face.
But she never got up in time to yell out to him.
His white wings simply opened and he flew off into the darkness.
Such is the legend of the Crowman.
Charlie Chitty is a currently unpublished author from Cheltenham in the U.K. He has performed short pieces at Flasher’s Club, a local short story open mic club in his town.