A Murder of Crows

I’ll admit the whole thing was probably my fault. I’m a man, a full-grown man, and damnit if I can’t take responsibility for the fact that it’s my sentimental ass that started the whole thing. Any boy scout knows not to get friendly with the forest critters. No matter how cute they look, wild things aren’t pets.

I was on my way to work when I saw the crow. I’ll admit I’ve got a soft spot for animals, especially lame ones. This one was pretty obviously young, he hopped away instead of taking wing the minute I walked up to him. He let me get too close before he flew away. That was where it started.

Next I saw him, (and I only guess it was him, I wouldn’t be surprised if after all this he was actually a bunch of small crows playing my heartstrings. Nothing would surprise me now) he’s out balancing on that sad excuse for a fencepost I’ve got the mailbox nailed to. It’s still got a few strands of barbed wire from when the folks before me owned horses, and he’s hopping post to wire, wire to post, and there’s a mockingbird dive-bombing him. That’s how I know he’s really too young, any crow worth their salt would’ve had their beak through that damned car alarm’s eye. Crows around here will take on barn owls alone, so he must be too little. Or a gimp. Me and my big soft heart, I run up and that thing beats it out of there, aping a cellphone. The little guy just huddles on the wire and stares up at me like I’m God descended from the clouds in a big rainbow wig, and the house phone rings.

I start. “Aw, hell.”

The little guy beat it out of there.

That night I got a couple of cheap steaks and I fired up the hibatchi. There isn’t much to do out at my place but look out to the hills until the dark hides them. TV can’t pick up shit around here. Anyway, I’ve got one side too well done, trying to unstick it from the grill, and I hear a flutter and thump on that old Ash stump I used to split firewood on.

This is how I started the beginning of the end, I pinched a snip of meat off the steak, trying not to swear too loud at the juice searing my fingers, and tossed it behind me.

Like I said, I’m a sentimental old idiot.

It might’ve been one crow or lots, for all I know, but there was always someone sitting on my stump when I got up in the morning, and when I get home from work. An old bachelor like me, that’s the only routine presence I got. I never told anyone, you can imagine how it’d look. I ain’t got the patience for a cat and a dog…well I just can’t. Long story, for a different day.

Round this time I did a little research and found crows are actually pretty clever animals. Aw, hell. Dogs’re clever. Crows are what you’d call intelligent. They can use tools, they can even learn to talk. Not like parrots, more like myna birds. Not as many words, but they sound like the people they’re copying. It got so I would go out there mornings, calling out “hello there, boy!” and have my own “aw, hell,” answer back. We had great one-sided conversations, him and me, I’d bullshit about any old thing and he’d listen and watch with those black eyes.

I never come up with a name for him or none of that Beatrix Potter shit. Crows aren’t pets. But I guess despite myself I started calling him Jeremy in my head. Not sure why. Still, it’s a good crow name.

Anyway, it was nice for a while. But then Larry caught wind of the whole thing and…aw, hell. I’ll back up.

Every workplace has a Larry. Everyone said he was touched in the head, but me, I think he was smarter than he let on. He was smart enough to use it to his advantage. Whenever he said or did something you’d deck anyone else for doing, he’s laugh and grin and all the sense would go out of his eyes and you knew you’d get nowhere.

One lunch break he comes over to me grinning and he’s still got Salisbury steak sauce on his chin and he says “I know what you got going on over at your place, Martinez.”

I say “do you now,” and try to sound bored. Sometimes he talks just to get a rise out of you, and if you cut it off at the source he’ll back off. But then he says:

“Ain’t a crow a funny thing to have for a pet? Pests, my daddy said.”

And right then and there the cold struck me and I knew he was going to try something. See, that’s what made me think he wasn’t as stupid as he let on, he was good at blindsiding you with those kinds of questions, digging into you until he found what you valued.

So even though I told him, “it ain’t a pet, Lar, it’s a wild animal,” he knew and I knew he knew it wasn’t going to be as simple as that.

I didn’t get trouble for a good long while after that, but all that did was put me more on edge. If he felt the explosion was worth it, he’d take his time getting there. Like our other receptionist and her baby bump. It took a while, but he picked out that there was no Mr. F waiting for her, and she’d copped her dead daddy’s ring to pass muster. Lar’s personal like that.

It seemed stupid, but I didn’t think he’d actually get up the gumption to come by my property. Old men get too stuck in their ways, and I was too comfortable in my skin to get properly paranoid. Not like I could’ve driven Jeremy off anyway.

I was down by the road. Some enterprising asshole had gone after my mailbox, which ain’t used so much since this isn’t a county road, but they bent my garden fence, too. I was out there in my slippers and robe and pliers, swearing up a storm and putting my pinched fingers in my mouth.

When I heard the crack I knew goddamn exactly what it was.  Deer don’t come this far down, and the kids with the air rifles prefer to dick around the dump and take potshots at that upended Volvo. I dropped everything and went running, robe blowing up around my skinny shanks. I was probably a sight.

I found him out by the stump, poor sheltered bastard hadn’t known to be afraid of an idiot with a gun. I dove to my knees and scooped him up. I’ll admit to a few manly tears on his behalf. He just looked so damn pathetic with his wings all spread out and spasming like he could still get away.

I told him, “Shit, Jeremy, I’m sorry.” Which was the first time I’d called him that outside my head.

He lifted his head up and croaked, “aw, hell,” and died.

I almost buried him at the foot of the garden, where the yard meets the trees, but argued myself out of it. He wasn’t a hamster or a hound, he was a wild thing I really had no call interring.

In the end I built him a little stick tower in the trees, just out of sight of the house, and laid him on that. Kind of like those towers of silence people build in India. I figured his family would appreciate the gesture.

I went to work like normal that day. Had to. The whole day I tried to work like nothing was wrong, and every second I could feel that beady-eyed sumbitch watching me. He was never one for subtlety, though, so at lunch he just came over and asked me how the pet was.

I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I wanted to smash that shit-eating grin of his, how I wanted to jump over the table and sink my fist into his face until the red went away. But shit, then I’d be the crazy one, not him.

So I told him his mom was fine and sends her love and that got a laugh. One thing he couldn’t defend against, couldn’t fight without looking even more like an asshole, so he made his exit.

I kept finding bits of dead animals on my doorstop after that. Thought it was Lar until I saw a few crows winging it away from my porch. Felt I deserved it after what I’d done. Crows, being intelligent animals, must have their own kind of justice too.

They started showing up more, mostly around my work. Guys would be out there with chainsaws, sectioning 100-year-old cedar trunks, and the crows would be hunched in the next tree over. Just staring. None of them did crow things, dive-bombing, going after the food, they just sat and watched. Studied. Me and Lar were the only ones they left alone.

It didn’t bother me so much but it bothered Lar a whole awful lot. He didn’t like being alone in the woods anymore, even asked for company during a piss. We stopped indulging him after the first few times, no one liked Larry to begin with but now he was really dragging on our nerves.

The whole thing came to a head late September. I remember it started getting dark early. I was packing my shit up, had my magnalight out on a tall stump, when I heard this crashing in the woods. Now, bears ain’t exactly unknown in this part of the state, so I get ready to run, but then a voice calls out.

It’s Larry. And he’s lost. And I’m so relieved he’s not a bear maybe I forgive him a tiny bit and call out to him. But before I can someone else does. It’s Mckenna, one of the loggers. Big guy, big voice. Here’s the thing, it’s coming from the opposite direction, from in the trees. And I guess Lar hears and he’s so relieved the idiot drops his gear and runs to the sound.

I’m getting the creeps pretty strong so put my fingers to my mouth and whistle. That slows him. Then someone else calls. Ruiz. He’s calling “hurry up, dickhead.” Not just once, but again and again. Lar still hesitates. Then comes the chorus.

I get the creeping chills up and down my arms as the entire logging crew calls for him to hurry up, we have to get back and clock out. The weird thing about it, though, is they’re all just saying the same thing over and over again, repeating it back like a tape recorder. Lar runs towards the trees. I nearly drop my magnalight when I run in the opposite direction.

I don’t say anything. I know what that sounds like. What could I say? We wait until we get tired of waiting and the foreman volunteers to stay while we clock out and then we come back and wait some more. People have dinners waiting for them, and me? I just want to get the hell out of there. We’re slapping a search party together when the scream comes peeling out of those trees. It’s that scream you get from people who step on a nail or find out that the rotor’s still going the second after they stick their hand in the mower. Surprise pain.

We all bunch together in the dark. I should really say something. Then, a bird swoops by and perches right there in the light of the floodlamps. It could be Jeremy. It could be any other crow. But it perches right there and cocks his head and we’re all reflected back in his big black eye. Then he ducks his head like he’s swallowing and that scream comes out of him.

Mckenna drops his hard hat and breathes, “Jeezus.”

The bird flits away.

Nobody really found Lar, but I guess no one looked too hard either. Sad to say, but he didn’t have a whole lot going for him. Some hunters found this long femur somewhere around October, picked clean as a whistle. Human. But never the whole skeleton. I read that the forest had use for the whole shebang, no part of the corpse goes to waste.

Me? I took one step outside my door the next morning and nearly shit myself. All those beady eyes staring back at me. They must’ve turned out the entire county to see me.

Now, even on a good morning I’m not conversation material, so I just toss out the first thing on my mind. “Breakfast?”

Then the crow nine down, twenty-third from the left, says, “please.” He says it in Larry’s voice, sounds like he’s about to burst out crying. Then they all take flight.

That’s all there really is to it. I learned my lesson, crows aren’t pets. They’re wild things with their own damn sense of justice. If I drag roadkill to my property, it’s because I’m doing a civic service, I’m not like those cat ladies who set cans of tuna on every available surface. And I ain’t teaching the little ones to talk, either.

They do that on their own.

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