Cawing into the Abyss

Crows assemble at this U of M tower like children around a birthday cake, hoping for the killing to begin so they can have lunch.

You are fools they say, everyone is black until you pick our feathers.

Each December they fill the sky along the river in flocks too numerous to count.

Such gatherings are called a murder.

A five-year study by the University of Washington found that crows can recognize a human face in connection with a stressful event. I have never given them any reason to dislike me. Still, without a good lens, they make for very elusive subjects in spite of their commonness.

They perch on this bare tree like morbid Christmas ornaments.

“Who’s that? Who’s there? Yes, are they wearing a mask?”

My six-year-old son interrupts me as I’m using the voice text feature of my phone to capture my ideas. I decide to leave it in. Glancing out the kitchen window minutes later, I see that he’s the only one wearing a mask. He grasps a large piece of cottonwood bark in his hands, pretending, by the look of it, that it is a machine gun. I can never keep up with the shifting paranoia of my neighbors. We all do our best. Lately, it seems as if everything we are asked to do in connection to them runs contrary to basic parental instinct. They will always remember this chapter in history unfondly.

I was doodling in my notebook in geometry class so many years ago, when the principal announced over the intercom that the Space Shuttle Challenger had blown up. I didn’t much care even though I knew I was supposed to. My mother cried for three days after John Lennon was killed and I didn’t understand why. A few months later she made me come inside because something else had happened. I stood at the TV. There was a confused scene: gunfire, shouting, a black limousine speeding away and two bodies on the ground.

“It’s all right,” she told me. “You can go back out and play. The president’s just been shot.”

The coronavirus pandemic may be the first event in human history to directly affect every person on Earth. Much like the 9-11 terror attacks, there is a sense of a before and after. Our lives have been forever altered in a way we don’t like by forces well beyond our control. Maybe the crows overhead can teach us some acceptance.

The great storyteller, Jim Harrison, once wrote:

“Perhaps when we die our names are taken from us by a divine magnet and are free to flutter here and there within the bodies of birds. I’ll be a simple crow who can reach the top of Antelope Butte.”

It is a lovely idea, this poetically expressed notion of reincarnation. Crow populations have grown proportionally alongside their human counterparts. Messy beasts we are, killing all the predators and leaving so much garbage. Our collective mark on this planet is far from subtle and perhaps it’s tired of us. The pandemic’s second wave was well predicted. According to renowned epidemiologist, Michael Osterholm, two-thirds of all the birds in the world are chickens and this has only been a warning. The real plague will be a bird flu. Let it come. I’ll neither dread nor look forward to it. Life is always lived at the edge of the volcano and all we can do is caw into the abyss.

For most of recorded history, humans gave birth and died in their own homes. The blessings of modern medicine have artificially distanced us from death. Having worked in a nursing home for over forty years, my mother understands mortality in a way I do not. Yet, she still fears it. Each patient she cared for died. That is a unique way to go through life–to meet someone and know with certainty you will at one moment in the future find them dead. In Greek mythology, Charon was the son of Erebus (the night), the ferryman over the River Styx, guiding souls to that beyond the living can never know. He asked only for the coin in the mouths of the dead as payment. My mother is retired now. The Mississippi River flows black as ink in December and I would not recommend you drink from it.

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