Every summer for the past three years my sister Macey and I have stayed with our Aunt Penelope in Scotland. It started because Macey was having a princess phase and found out that the reason we never saw Aunt Pen was because she was restoring a castle. I hadn’t really wanted to go back then (Scotland was a long way from Virginia and I was pretty sure castles were for girls anyway), but Dad wasn’t about to send one of us and not the other, so I was overruled on the matter. So when I was ten and Macey was twelve, we flew to Glasgow and saw Aunt Pen for the first time since she’d left the US.
“Macey! Dillon! Oh, look how big you’ve gotten!”
Aunt Pen started fussing over us immediately, ruffling my hair and fawning over Macey’s princess dress. She was an eccentric lady, too. Every move she made was accompanied by the clinking of her bright gold bangles, and her dress was maroon with long dragging sleeves. Her nails were long and painted red, and her hair was pulled back by a flowered headband. Before we got to the castle we stopped in a nearby village, and she bought us each a cinnamon bun before going to the butcher and getting a bag of scraps. It smelled awful, and when Macey asked what they were there for, Aunt Pen just smiled at her, which put us both on edge.
Aunt Pen’s castle was about five miles from the village. The road curved through the woods, and the trees were so tall that we couldn’t see the castle until we were right in front of it. It was a large building made of stone, built at the bottom of a hill and overlooking a big lake. It was old, but it looked well taken care of, and I could feel Macey’s excitement finally rubbing off on me. As soon as the car was parked we jumped out, racing to the doors, Aunt Pen trailing behind.
“Just a moment, kids!” Aunt Pen called after us. “I want to show you something.”
We followed Aunt Pen around the side of the castle, towards the treeline. There was a wooden fence separating the castle grounds from the forest, which was dark and made me uneasy. Aunt Pen whistled. For a moment nothing happened, and then suddenly crows started lining up on the fence, cawing as they landed and eyeing us curiously. Aunt Pen started pulling the scrap meat out of her bag and feeding them one by one.
“This is Macey and Dillon, my niece and nephew. They’ll be spending the summer here.”
“Er, Aunt Pen? Are you talking to the crows?” Macey looked mildly terrified, and I couldn’t help but feel the same. One of the larger crows cawed at us, and Macey took a step back.
“Yes dear, crows are very clever and very loyal. One never needs to fear if they’ve befriended the crows. Would you like to feed them?”
Macey was horrified, but I was curious. The crows were a little bit creepy, but Aunt Pen seemed so at ease with them that I couldn’t help but feel more at ease too. So I nodded, and I reached into her bag of scraps.
“Hold it by the very edge, and reach out carefully,” Aunt Pen instructed, guiding me towards the large crow. “This is Baron; he’s the largest crow in the murder.”
“Murder?” Macey asked.
“Yes, that’s what a flock of crows is called, dear,” Aunt Pen said. “Now say hello and introduce yourself. Then give him the meat.”
“Hi Baron,” I said, only feeling a little bit silly talking to a crow. “I’m Dillon. It’s nice to meet you.”
Baron cawed at me, then snatched the meat out of my hand and scarfed it down in seconds. Baron cawed some more, and I smiled at him in return.
“Well done, Dillon! I think he likes you. Would you like to try, Macey?”
“She’s too scared to try,” I said, grinning smugly. Macey glared back at me.
“I’m not scared! If you can do it, I can too!” Then Macey marched forward and grabbed a piece of meat, only looking slightly disgusted by the feeling of it.
Aunt Pen led her to a smaller crow and had her hold her hand out. “This is Nixie. Go ahead and say hello, dear.”
“Hi Nixie, I’m Macey! Your name is really pretty,” Macey said, holding out the scrap meat. Nixie cawed softly, then grabbed the meat. Macey jumped a bit when she did, and Nixie cawed at her again.
“Well done, Macey! You two are going to be very popular; I can already tell,” Aunt Pen said, turning to look at the sunset and frowning. “It’s getting a bit late, so we’ll have to head inside now. While we’re out here though, I need to tell you the most important rule of staying here with me.
“See this fence? It goes all the way around the castle grounds. It is very important that you don’t cross it without me. The woods are tricky to navigate, and as you might have noticed during the drive up, the castle isn’t visible if you get too far away. So stay out of the trees, alright?”
“Sure thing Aunt Pen!” Macey said, smiling.
“Good,” Aunt Pen said, returning her smile. “Now let’s head inside and get washed up for dinner.”
We followed after her, and I quickly forgot about crows and forests and rules. For that night, all that mattered was me and my sister and our joint effort to keep Aunt Pen from making haggis for dinner. It was the first simple night we had at the castle, and, though we didn’t know it then, the last simple night.