Raven Woman's Tavern by Laura Koerber Genre: Dystopian, Magical Realism
A backwoods bar run by a shapeshifter.
A road that changes length, direction, and destination.
A young man, lost in the forest and dying, hears the cry of a raven.
Set in a dystopic near future, Raven Woman’s Tavern is the story of a collection of survivalists who are squatting in the remains of a dead timber town in the Northwest. The residents—most of them old, sick, and in need—help each other by means legal and extralegal under the watchful eye of Rachel, the tavern keeper. When the peace of the community is disturbed by the sudden visit of four members of the local militia, the survivalists are frightened; not all of them are law-abiding and some are not citizens.
But, as Crazy Mary said to Charlie the Poet, “You don't piss Rachel off. She's got her ways.”
Rachel and Jimmy
go into Rainier to Shop
They did a drive-by, rolling along just beneath the speed limit.
There wasn’t much traffic in town: just a few bicyclists, a
motorcycle, and an electric delivery truck. Their old-style hybrid
car stood out, which was bad, but there was nothing they could
do about it.
Jimmy drove while Rachel checked out the pharmacy parking
lot and the parking spaces in front of the adjacent stores. They
saw no sign of the militia. Jimmy popped the blinker on and
they turned the corner, giving Rachel a view of the pharmacy’s
solid, windowless wall. He hit the blinker again, and they turned
into the grocery store parking lot behind the pharmacy. It was
six o’clock and near closing time for most businesses. Jimmy
navigated through the grocery parking around to the far side of
the pharmacy and parked where their car couldn’t be seen from
the pharmacy’s back door.
They got out and strolled casually around to the front of the
building. Though they were trying to look inconspicuous, they
were a striking couple. Rachel was short, lithe, and dark, while
Jimmy was as lean and sharp-eyed as a sheep-killing dog. They
ambled together through the front parking lot the pharmacy
shared with its neighbor businesses. The one functioning shop,
a secondhand store, was just closing. They picked up their pace
and hit the door of the pharmacy just as the clerk inside was
preparing to close up.
Jimmy strong-armed the door and strode in. The clerk, a
young woman, startled but friendly, almost staggered to get out
of his way. Jimmy took a quick scan of the interior as Rachel
flipped the sign to “closed.” The clerk stuttered, “Can I help
“We’re the last customers,” Rachel told her. She smiled into
the clerk’s confused gaze and repeated firmly, “You’re closed
now, and we’re the last customers.”
“All clear,” said Jimmy. He pulled his gun out from the back
of his jeans and pointed it at the clerk. Her wide-eyed gaze went
from startled to frightened, and her mouth opened. Before she
could scream, Rachel locked eyes with her and stated firmly,
“You are going to close your mouth and stay calm. And you now
are going to lock the door.” She backed up her words with a
focused thought: Shut up and lock the door.
The clerk swallowed hard and clamped her mouth shut. Still
round-eyed, she fumbled the key in the lock.
Rachel and Jimmy knew that the pharmacy had one clerk out
front and a pharmacist and tech in back. They also knew that the
front door was out of sight from the back, blocked by stacks of
shelves loaded with sundries, over-the-counter medicines, and
candy. Rachel took the young woman’s arm and told her, “We’re
going to the back now. You will not speak. We aren’t going to hurt
you if you follow directions.”
“Yep,” Jimmy told her. “This is a stick-up. So, get moving.”
They marched to the back of the store.
The pharmacist, a thin white man of middle age, was frowning
at a computer screen on the far side of a counter. Behind him in
the stacks of medicines, someone was whistling aimlessly. They
heard the rip of a cardboard box being opened. Jimmy held the
pistol up and barked “Hey!” to get the pharmacist’s attention.
“Uh, what?” Understanding dawned on the pharmacist’s face,
and his mouth dropped open.
“Be calm,” Rachel told him. “Don’t resist. Call your help to
come out here.”
“There’s no one,” he stuttered, his eyes darting around.
“Yeah, there is. Do it,” Jimmy’s voice was knife-sharp.
The pharmacist cleared his throat and called, “Joanie.”
“Huh?” Joanie emerged, a short, round, white woman with
grey hair and thick glasses. She saw the gun and came to an
“Okay, everyone,” Rachel said. “I’ve got a simple direction
for you to follow. Place your hands on the counter and keep them
flat. Got that, everyone?”
They all just stared, too scared to move. Jimmy snapped,
“Is there anything in this place worth dying for?” Three pairs
of frightened eyes blinked at him. “So, get those hands on the
counter.” They complied, the two clerks shakily, the pharmacist with
his lips compressed in disapproval.
Rachel pulled a black garbage bag out of the pouch of her
sweatshirt. Moving briskly, she worked her way down the aisles
toward the front of the store, scooping band-aids, toothpaste,
over-the-counter pain killers, and vitamins into her bag. She
hit the cash registers and cleaned the money out of the till,
her fingers quick and efficient. Then she paused, her attention
snagged by the glittering display of Halloween-themed key rings
and jewelry draped over a plastic statue of a witch. Rachel’s
hand hovered over the witch. Then she snatched it up, shook it
until the necklaces and key rings fell off, and dumped it headfirst
into her bag. Conscious that she was taking too much time, she
headed at a trot up the personal hygiene aisle, tossing shampoo
and soap into her bag on her way.
Jimmy watched his three hostages while she worked. The
older clerk’s fingers trembled on the counter, and the younger
one’s mouth worked incessantly as if she wanted to speak. The
pharmacist worried Jimmy a bit; he was visibly seething, and he
was clearly planning his call to the militia. Jimmy’s mouth was
tight with irritation when Rachel finally joined him, hauling her
“Now we’re coming around to your side.” Rachel grabbed the
young clerk by the arm and marched her around back. Jimmy
followed, keeping the gun aimed in their direction.
“Okay, almost done,” Rachel told them. “We need some
antibiotics, some pain killers, and some of your meds for crazy
people. Then we’re going out the back door. Lead the way.” They
pushed the pharmacy staff along in a little herd through the maze
of stacks while Rachel grabbed bottles and boxes and tossed
them into her bulging bag.
“Done now!” Rachel sang out cheerfully.
“Back door,” Jimmy told them. “Move.”
He made the staff sit on the floor along the wall beside the
back door. Rachel pulled a roll of black electrician’s tape out of
her pouch and taped their hands and feet. They’d get free in a
few minutes; all she really wanted to do was slow them down.
Jimmy stood by the door with his hand on the knob. He
shoved the door open the minute Rachel finished taping the last
pair of hands. Rachel directed her black eyes at each frightened
face in turn and stated firmly, “You will not remember what we
look like. You will not be able to describe us.”
Then, black bag bouncing on her heels, she followed Jimmy out the door.
They walked briskly but calmly along the back of the pharmacy and
around the corner to their waiting car. Rachel tossed the bag in
the trunk and climbed into the back seat. She ducked down out
of sight while Jimmy got the car started. He drove carefully right
below the speed limit down the main drag.
“That was fun,” Rachel called from the floor of the backseat.
“Stay down, we ain’t out of town yet,” Jimmy told her.
Laura started off life as an artist. Even in early elementary school she could draw with near-photo realism. She liked to tell herself stories while driving, or doing boring tasks such as housework, but never thought of herself as a writer.
That is, until she got involved in the rescue of an abused dog. Her first book, a collection of short stories entitled The Dog Thief, made the Kirkus Review list of one hundred best indy publications and set her on a course of writing.
With one exception, her subsequent novels are in the genre of fantasy, though four have themes relating to current events, and three are also dystopias. Wild Hare, the story of a half/man-half/nature spirit and his feud with the local civic powers also made the Kirkus Review “best of” list.
The exception, I Once Was Lost But Now Am Found, is the nonfiction account of the largest dog rescue in the US to succeed without help of local authorities.
Laura is a retired teacher and lives on an island in Puget Sound with her husband; her one-eyed cat; and her elderly, disabled and chronically grumpy shih tzu. She is volunteers at a rescue for unadoptable cats.
The Raven of my novel is not the Raven of Coastal Salish tradition. I’m not Native and I don’t feel comfortable using a concept from a tradition that is not mine. So when I was rummaging around in my imagination, sorting out ideas for this story, I went to Ireland, the land of some of my ancestors. A puca is a pre-Christian Celtic shapeshifter or trickster who could be helpful or harmful or humans, but always acted on it’s own agenda. The puca was to blame if drunken revelers got lost or harmed on their way home.
Genius loci is the Latin term for a spirit of a place. Many pre-Christian Europeans believed that rivers, ponds springs, or other natural features had a guardian spirit who could be appealed to in times of stress or needed to be placated to prevent trouble. In Ireland these spirits were usually associated with water or hills.
So my Raven is both a puca and a genius loci; she is the spirit of a bend in a river where she acts as a guardian of those who honor her or an enforcer to those that don’t.
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