Crow Boys

Jessica Peng

Vanderbilt University


1)  From 7PM to 7AM, the Crow Boy must be at the top of the North Tower of Castilla Libera Academy.

2)  From 7PM to 7AM, the Crow Boy must prevent the pajalunas from stealing the academy’s prize pigeons.

3)  For as long as the Crow Boy guards the pigeons each night, he will be allowed to attend Castilla Libera Academy free of charge. Attendance includes classes, uniforms, meal tickets, and one weekend excursion.

4)  For each pigeon stolen, the Crow Boy will be deducted one week of meal tickets. If more than three pigeons are stolen under his watch, he will be expelled.

These are the first words anyone at Castilla Libera Academy ever spoke to me. Except they didn’t use the term “Crow Boy,” they used “scholarship student.”

We are so pleased to accept you as a scholarship student.
Follow these guidelines and you will remain a scholarship student.

The Crow Boy Rules are also what I fall asleep to every night. They are etched into the wall of the Boy Coop, close enough to trace as I lay in my hammock. The Boy Coop version is correct; every “scholarship student” has been scribbled over with pencil, then pen, then marker, until only the “Crow Boy” scrawled above it can be read. Each “Crow Boy” boasts different handwriting: big looping letters from savage small boys, tight slashes from smirking older boys. I think it was a rite of passage, once upon a time, to climb to the top of North Tower and vandalize the Crow Boy’s living space.

The four Rules of being the Crow Boy leave out a lot. For example, scaring away the pajalunas is the easiest part of the job. The pigeons whistle when they sense a threat and all I have to do is jump out of bed, walk over to the bird cages, and wave my arms until the pajalunas go away. The pajalunas are paper predators. They pretend they’re scary, with their wings as wide as a teacher’s desk and their knife talons and their red feather crowns, but they prefer easy prey. They flee within ten minutes after I show up, and they never try more than twice a night.

In the two years I have been here, only one pigeon has died, and that was from some kind of illness. I made the mistake of removing the body from the cage when I found it, and Gary the American who takes care of the pigeons told the admissions officers I was covering up a pajaluna attack. I had a hungry week. I have not lost a pigeon since. But I have eaten breakfast and lunch and dinner alone every day since I got here—except the week I didn’t eat. The hard part about being the Crow Boy is that nobody can be friends with you. It is socially unacceptable. I was starting to talk to this one boy, Marco, during tennis lessons, but that ended after everything with Tomás.

They found Tomás broken into angles at the bottom of North Tower. He was thirteen, a year older than I was, and everyone said it was suicide until someone whispered homicide and now they do not know what it was. I was in class when they found him. Eleven other boys and one teacher can tell the world it was not me. I did not even know who Tomás was until he was dead. But when I explained that to Marco, he said for my own good I should keep my head down and it was better if I left him alone.

Tomás died eight months ago, and now I am thirteen. When I look in the bleary bathroom mirrors, I have black hair and brown eyes like Tomás did, only his hair was long and curly in the picture they had up at his funeral service while mine is short. He looked older than I do. More muscle. Sometimes, I try to imagine I am Tomás, standing on top of the low wall, the parapet, that wraps around North Tower. I have never dared to climb onto the parapet. It is a long, long, long way down.


Castilla Libera Academy is at the foot of a mountain, five bus hours away from Bogotá. It is an old-old school, around for at least a hundred years. The building is supposed to be a castle, left from some Spanish war, except it is missing three out of four towers and therefore does not look much at all like a castle. North Tower alone remains, forty-five spiral steps enclosed inside rust-colored brick, rising to the flat landing where the pigeons and I roost.

It is the third of April of my second year when I am informed North Tower is no longer my own. Well, I am never actually informed. I finish eating dinner in the courtyard, sprint to the separate athletic building to shower before evening sports practice ends, climb up the steps of North Tower, and he is there. Standing, back to me, in the propped-open doorway of the Boy Coop. Docile, as if he has not broken all logic with the hammock he strings up across from my own. He says his name is Rubén. He has a nose like a falcon’s beak.

At first, I ask if he is lost. The Castilla Libera uniform hangs off his tall frame and it looks new, new-student-new. “They didn’t tell you about me?” is his response. He speaks with a Spanish accent and I am doubly confused why he is here on the roof, with me. International students are wealthy and best accommodated: lunches with the dean, special classes, ask if you need anything.

I shake my head. “No.”

Rubén plants a hand on an object beside him, a suitcase. “I enrolled last week. The dorms are full, so they said I could stay up here with you. Are you Elías?”

I nod. Frown. “There are no more beds in the entire Lower Space?” The roof has only ever housed one boy at a time: the Crow Boy. The Boy Coop is barely large enough for me. Surely I would get more warning if I were being replaced?

And who enrolled in school in the middle of the semester?

“Are these the pigeons?” Rubén crosses to the cages. His legs are spider legs, covering my expansive roof as if it were the claustrophobic living room of the house I grew up in. The sunset blurs him into a black shadow. The pigeons coo when he lifts the corner of a cloth cover, exposing them. It is warmer weather, so the cages simply sit in a heap. In colder weather, the school erects a small shelter for them, complete with heaters. “They run experiments on them, right? Something about breeding for good traits?”

“Something like that.” I have never cared to know much about the pigeons. Every few months, the cages are removed for twenty-four hours and returned with new, unfamiliar birds. What happens to the old birds is a mystery that I do not wish to solve. It is easier not to think much of the current birds, either.

Rubén lets the cloth cover fall back in place. “You guard them?” He does not wait for me to answer. “Other places are starting to use predator proof cages. Or the new pressure plate system, where alarms go off when the pajaluna lands.”

I do not know about any of that. “How old are you?” I ask.
“Fifteen.” He pushes light brown hair out of his eyes. “How old are you?”
“Thirteen. There really are no more beds?”
He surveys North Tower, its stone floor, its parapet, its Boy Coop, and its pigeon cages.

“None. You have a nice place up here.” He catches me staring at his suitcase and hammock, shoves his hands in his pockets. “I’ll be a good roommate, promise. I can help with the pajalunas, too.”

It is not like there is anything I can do about this. The administration makes the rules. Rubén does not seem like a bully, even if he is Spanish. Maybe there really are no more beds. Maybe we will be friends.

“Alright.” I walk to the Boy Coop—the roof is low, Rubén will have an uncomfortable time coming and going—and drop my backpack in my hammock. “I sleep on this side, and the iron chest is mine.” The chest is technically Academy property, but I have nowhere else to keep my things. Rubén has a suitcase. I climb into my hammock, gather my homework, and tug the string that turns on the Coop’s single lightbulb.

I am halfway through a page of reading when Rubén says, “There was that boy who jumped off this tower.”

I glance up to find him a distance away, leaning over the parapet. Night wind blows hair back from his forehead. I am terrified for an instant that he will tip over, but he is looking forward, not down, and the wall is enough to support him. “Tomás,” I say. “They think he fell.”

Rubén says, “There is a big difference between jumping and falling.”


Rubén is no favorite, but by miracle or magic he fits in. He has people to sit with at lunch. A group lets him play ball with them in the courtyard. Nobody pushes at him in the hallways, sneers Scarecrow Boy, Scared Boy, Crow Boy. We are two weeks into his arrival and I am desperately hungry to know his secret. Is it because he is older? Is it the Spanish accent? He is not rich, I have asked him. I want to scream in the ears of everyone who nods at him, who leaves him be: he lives on the roof too, he wakes up in the middle of every other night to guard the pigeons, why do you not hate him, why do you hate me and not him?

I try to pay less and less attention to him, even when he does homework in his hammock beside me. What worth is my attention anyway, when he has the acknowledgment of better people? Like the mystery of the old pigeons, I cannot dwell on the mystery of Rubén. It is green poison. It is simple: in the universe of Castilla Libera Academy, there is one coin with two sides. Rubén is the scholarship student, a poor boy propelled by the elite school into a bright future, and I am the Crow Boy, poverty like a target on my back.

The third week of April, Rubén sees someone stick gum in my hair. It happens by the door leading to North Tower; I am heading in, and Rubén is coming out. I run up the stairs before he can say anything because I do not want to watch him stand there, side by side with the bullies, untouchable. Maybe he asks them what happened and they have a perfectly nice conversation. I rip the gum out and chant over and over I will not cry until Rubén finds me an hour later, undisturbed and immersed in arithmetic.

I do not hate Rubén. I barely talk to Rubén. I think Rubén thinks I am shy, perhaps cold. I spend more time studying, hoping to bring my grades up. Does Rubén get good grades? Is that why everyone likes him?

Administration visits us, which they never do. They come before class on a Wednesday. It is the dean, a woman who paces the hallways and straightens our shirt collars, a strange woman, and Gary the American. North Tower is too crowded. They look at the pigeon cages. They look at the Boy Coop and I hear the word small. They cluster around Rubén for ten minutes, whispering. They pull me aside for thirty seconds: How often do the pajalunas come? Do you get enough sleep? You look tired. Can you manage your schoolwork and your pigeon duties? I am flattered by the interest until they leave and I have time to think. To compare.

There has only ever been one boy on the roof at a time.

I dream of my mother that night. She is a thin woman, brown with sun and Chibcha blood, the blood of the first Colombian people. She is sitting in the dirt patch outside our house, holding a baby in her lap. She is teaching the baby, me, to wake up to the sound of wingbeats. I do not know how she does it but she whistles the tune of pajalunas descending, whirls of air, almost silent. Baby Elías opens his eyes and she beams, and claps her hands. This is the generation someone from our village goes to Castilla Libera, she says. Elías, it will be you.

In reality, being chosen as the Crow Boy has little to do with sensing pajalunas. There are intelligence tests, interviews, and physical exams unrelated to the Crow Boy’s actual duties. No one knows what they are looking for, only that they are looking for something. But there is a superstition that they pick boys with good hearing and good reflexes. The villages around Castilla Libera have been known to train their boys, to keep them up at night guarding dolls or kittens from fake attacks. Maybe it improves their chances.

My mother transforms into a rippling valley of people, all the faces that said goodbye when the Academy miraculously decided on me. Hope is a flood that drowns me. I am letting everyone down.

I wake heavy and panicked. I wake with a renewed sense of purpose. It is a privilege to be here. It is a privilege to be picked, to be picked apart by the rest of the boys. It does not matter that Rubén is better liked. It does not matter that some days I am miserable. What matters is that Castilla Libera Academy continues to need me.

I have awoken just in time for a pajaluna visit. Rubén is already out of his hammock, stumbling out the door and toward the cages, but I am faster and intercept him. “I can take care of it,” I say.

He turns to me, bleary-eyed. “It’s my night.”
I grab his shoulder. “I can take care of it.”
He shrugs me off. “Go back to sleep.”
“No. I can do it.” I do not realize how loud I am until I see the circling pajalunas circle away, sufficiently frightened.
Rubén is wide awake now, staring at me. “What’s your problem?”
I shrug, rubbing my palms down the side of my nightshirt. I am sweaty from my dream but cold at the same time. “Nothing.”
“We agreed on alternating nights.”
To the darkness over his shoulder, I say, “You don’t have to get up anymore. It’s my job. I haven’t been fair, making you do the work with me.”
He glances toward the pigeon cages, then back at me. “I don’t mind.”
“You don’t have to do it anymore, okay?”
“Because. It’s not your job.”
I move to return to the Boy Coop, but he catches my forearm. “Hey. Do you have a problem with me?”
I look back, up the length of his imperious nose to his sharp gaze. “No. Just leave the pigeons alone.”


It is announced during the all-school assembly. An investigation is being opened into the death of Tomás. Anyone with information is to report to the dean’s office as soon as possible. As I file out of the athletic building with the rest of the shocked students, a teacher pulls me aside. I am wanted in the dean’s office. The other boys overhear, and whispers and glares follow me back to the castle. A stone is tossed at my back. “Murderer,” comes a hiss. It is Marco. I refuse to cow. I have nothing to do with Tomás. But being wanted in the dean’s office cannot be good; I furiously straighten my jacket, my tie, my collar, until I am invited through the gilded office doors.

The dean’s desk is wide and gleaming, which I remember from the last time I was here— the beginning of this school year, when we reviewed the terms of my scholarship. There is still a photo of him in a military uniform hanging on the wall. Nothing here has changed, except for the woman who walks in after me; it is the strange one from the visit on the roof, in neat black pants and a black jacket. There is something official about her today. Wintry. She settles behind the dean’s desk. The dean takes a stand by her shoulder. They both look down at me.

“Elías, I’m Laura Monteru,” says the woman. She is friendly, but it is a careful friendly. “You’re aware that we’re looking into the death of your classmate, Tomás?”

My mouth is ashy and sour. “Yes.” I cannot believe it. I have nothing to do with Tomás. I know nothing about him.

“We’re talking to several students”—a lie—“and we just had a few questions for you,” says Laura. The entire conversation is a series of yesses and nos. Yes, I live on the roof. Yes, I watch the pigeons. No, I was not friends with Tomás. No, I was nowhere near the roof at the time he fell. Yes, I am sure.

Laura lets me leave after an hour, but by then it is six-thirty in the evening and I do not have time to eat or shower because I have to be on the roof by seven. When I arrive at the top of North Tower, Rubén crouches by the pigeons, prodding at the cages. How grand it is that he is so peaceful, that he can sit and play with birds; nothing ever touches perfect Rubén in his perfect Rubén world. You would never find Rubén interrogated for a crime that is not even a crime. I hate him. I hate him so big it bleeds like ink and makes me hate myself.

He turns when I arrive. “Hi,” he says. The greeting is cautious, but in the week since I have retaken all pajaluna duties he has not greeted me at all so I know what he is going to ask before he asks it. “I heard the dean wanted to talk to you.” He does not even have the decency to word it as a question. I ignore him and make for the Boy Coop. “Hey.” He is on his feet, intercepting me. “Was it about Tomás?”

I try to shove past him. “Leave me alone.”

“Hang on.” He spreads his arms and plants his feet, a wall. “Did they ask you about Tomás?”

I tear my backpack off and throw it at him. It smacks his chest but he doesn’t move. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way.”

He is scowling now, too. He rubs the spot where my backpack made contact. “Can you just tell me what they told you? Then I’ll leave you alone.”

“Go ask them yourself. I don’t know anything about Tomás.”
“You live on the roof, did you—”
“Just because I live on the roof doesn’t mean I have anything to do with Tomás!” I scream it, so loud the pigeons cluck and flutter. “Why does everyone think it was me? Why?” I whirl on him. “Did you report me to administration? Is that it? To kick me out sooner?”

Rubén makes an incredulous face. “What? Why would I report you to administration?”

“Why are you asking about Tomás?” I step toward him. “Do you know something?” Another step. “A policewoman is in the dean’s office—”

Rubén uses both arms to shove me away from him. “Back off.” There is ice in his eyes. “And I ask about Tomás because he was my cousin.” I surge forward again, goading, but freeze. He huffs. “I haven’t been telling people…it’s a lot of attention…” He stops. Studies me. Analyzes my posture and narrows his gaze. “I’d beat you in a fight. Don’t even try it.” I had been curling my fists. “This is not the place for a brawl,” he continues. The wind picks up as if on cue, to remind us it is a long, long, long way down.

I am too fire-fueled to care, war paint, and outstretched talons. A fight sounds great. No more words. No more thinking. But Rubén is strategic, putting distance so that we circle round and round, the pigeons between us. “I was never supposed to come here,” Rubén says. “Tomás’s family are the rich ones. Sending their children to fancy private schools, while my father struggled to keep his mechanic shop open. I spent last summer at Tomas’s house in Barcelona and it was like a fairytale.” I hear his breath catch. “Then, less than a month later, we get the call. Tomás is dead. Castilla Libera is offering a scholarship in his honor, and would I like to be the first recipient?” He coughs up a hard, bitter ball of laughter. “Suddenly, my life is a golden opportunity. My life is a golden opportunity because someone I loved is dead.”

I charge to the right; he copies. We remain in limbo.

“You probably don’t care, do you, Elías? You’re so self-centered. Everybody is out to get you, you, you, you.” I lunge again, but he dodges. The setting sun is dazzling my eyes and I have to squint to see. “I only want one thing. I just want to know how it happened.”

I approach him from the left, and his shadow slips into motion. Too late, I realize he is not mirroring me—he has gone for the center space, the pigeon cages. “I wanted to have this conversation as friends, or maybe you would simply offer the information.” We lock eyes for a second. No. He opens a cage. Time slows as a bird wanders out, curious, neck pulsating back and forth, back and forth. All my anger twists into fear—or, maybe, it has always been fear.

“I know you know,” he says. I am numb and struggling for thoughts. Run to the pigeon— no, it will fly away. Tiptoe over, slow and calm. Yes. “Tell me how he died and I’ll help you recapture it.” There is nothing to use as a trap, and I cannot catch a pigeon with my bare hands. In the corner of my vision, Rubén reaches for another cage. He does not open it, yet. A small relief. “Don’t tell me and I’ll release another one.”

4) If more than three pigeons are stolen under the Crow Boy’s watch, he will be expelled.

“I don’t know,” I whisper. The pigeon coos, a content noise. It must be happy to see space, fresh air. “Please.”

“Tell me.”

“We can talk about it all you want. I’ll tell you anything I do know. The dean, uh, Laura Monteru asked me—the policewoman—if I live on the roof, if I was friends with Tomás…” I ramble incoherently, trying to give him something. Rubén is unbearably still, I do not know how to persuade him—

Footsteps pound up the stairs. Rubén slams the cover back over the cage; the released pigeon flaps off into the looming night. I run after it, but it is too late. I turn back around and the dean is there, and Laura Monteru, and Gary the American.

“What’s going on?” the dean asks.

Rubén and I both tuck our chins. “Nothing, sir,” Rubén says. “Are you here for the blueprints?”

Blueprints? My gaze shoots up. Rubén reaches into his pocket and pulls out a folded sheet of paper, which unfurls into several pages. He hands them to the dean.

“Thank you,” the dean says. “We’re lucky to have you on this project. Your father did such good work on the castles in Spain; I hear they’re completely bird-of-prey free.”

Gary the American looks over the blueprints. “These are great. Hope you haven’t minded staying on North Tower this month. Once this is implemented, we shouldn’t have any of you boys up here at all.” The three adults huddle, and shuffle Rubén’s drawings; Laura Monteru glances up and catches my eye.

They disappear as quickly as they came. It is once more Rubén and I, the roof between us, the sky red and unforgiving above.

“They don’t usually come up here to talk to me,” Rubén finally says. Then, “I had to apply for the scholarship. Make myself valuable enough that they couldn’t refuse.” His hands wring. All I can think is We shouldn’t have any of you boys up here at all. We shouldn’t have any of you boys up here at all.

“I’m sure they won’t kick you out. How many years do you have left? Two? It won’t be finished in two years.” Rubén seems to sense my thoughts, and he has become the rambler, apologetic. “God. Opening the cage was dumb. I am so sorry. I was angry and I’ll tell them it was me, you shouldn’t be penalized for it. But, uh, if you do know anything about Tomás—”

I grab my backpack, enter the Boy Coop, and slam the door shut.

One boy, desperate for one scholarship; this is the end of the Crow Boy dynasty. Rubén is a dream breaker. But maybe I am too, when Castilla Libera looked over a hundred other village boys to pluck me from my mother’s arms.


It is early morning, just light enough to see. I come out of the Boy Coop to find Rubén

sitting on the parapet. “It’s a nice view,” he says. “Hills and trees and clouds close enough to touch.”

I am exhausted. Solid objects dance and blur. But I can think enough to say, “Be careful.” “Maybe that’s all Tomás wanted. To touch the clouds.”
“Get down from there.”
He swings his legs around, fully facing me. “Wouldn’t you rather I fell? You hate me.”

His eyes are a solid, shining black. “Everything has been wrong since I showed up.”
I walk until I stand off to his side, the sunrise landscape growing in my vision until it is all that there is. I rest my hands atop the wall. “It wouldn’t fix anything.”
We are silent for a long time. He watches me, then turns to stare at the horizon over his shoulder. “Go back to sleep,” he says. I do.

The End

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