Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Murder of Crows

A "murder of crows" is a collective noun for a flock of crows. Wikipedia


       It was early March, with freshly fallen snow on the ground, and John and his four-and-a-half-year-old daughter Molly, whom he tended to coddle because she was born with a milder form of albinism. She wasn’t completely lacking in pigmentation, as albinos were, but she was alabaster and had the pale blue eyes and red irises characteristic of albinos. Father and daughter were taking advantage of the blue sky and windless day to get a little relief from their cramped apartment in a run-down building in a crime ridden-neighborhood. They were walking hand in hand, with John having the upper hand, with their earmuffs and boots on. When a policeman on a horse passed by and made a condescending tip of his cap to them, John felt safer, because even in daylight there were risks strolling in the neighborhood.

       Pointing to the horse, Molly said to her father, “Hossy,” and he had replied, “Yes, Molly, hossy.” Not far from John and Molly the horse deposited a small pile of steaming manure on the snow, triggering a series of events John would not soon forget.

       Molly who had watched the horse intently, pointed to the steaming pile and asked her father, “Poopy, daddy?”

       “Yes, Molly,” her father answered. “Poopy.”

       As if continuing a game they were playing, her father, to turn her attention away from the manure, pointed to their left at a prickly evergreen bush under which crouched a cat. “Look, Molly,” her father said. “Under the bush. There’s Kitty.”

       “Kitty?” Molly asked excitedly. That’s what they called the pink-eyed feral albino cat they occasionally saw in the neighborhood. Molly squinted to see the cat whose whiteness had lost its luster and was now a sickly gray as a consequence of its homelessness. John was not religious, but he was superstitious and when he had first seen the albino cat, he could not believe it was just a coincidence. When it came to spirits, he was more inclined to believe in the devil than God.

       Kitty would not allow anyone to get close enough to pet her, not that any adults would be tempted, and even most children, with the exception of Molly, looked upon Kitty with fear and a few with loathing. “Ugh!” John had heard one disgusted teenage boy say. “Somebody should shoot that ugly bitch.”

       John looked around, trying to figure out if the crouching Kitty was in a stalking state or whether like Molly she was simply looking at the steaming manure left by the imperturbable passing horse. Skittish and unsociable, never knowing where her next meal was coming from, Kitty looked starkly undernourished. But John never heard of cats eating excrement and doubted Kitty would ever, even if she were starving, stoop to manure.

       “Daddy, look,” Molly said, pointing again, this time at the huge ancient sycamore tree to the right of the manure.

       “Look at what, Molly?” he asked, looking to where she pointed. “The sycamore tree?” Because of a genetic glitch in their make-up, the bark of a sycamore tree lacks the gene that makes the bark of most trees elastic, like human skin. Consequently, as the width of sycamores expands with growth, the bark splits in response, like a wound, and then subsequently heals, giving the titanic trees the appearance of a battled-scarred veteran of sylvan wars. Since they are long lived, sometimes as long as one or two hundred years, leafless sycamores look scarred to death in winter, like pale but beautiful asymmetrical skeletons.

       “No, Daddy,” Molly said, shaking her head rapidly to emphasize she was not pointing to the sycamore tree but to the birds that filled it. “Look at black birds.”


       “God!” John exclaimed, looking at the sycamore, astonished at the number of crows that were perched quietly in its limbs and branches. How long had the hundreds of crows been perched there without his having noticed them? Or had they just suddenly swooped in noiselessly, like refugees from night, a minute ago?

       “Where did they all come from? How long have they been there?” John asked. Of course, he was asking himself these questions, not his daughter. The numerous crows made the sycamore, instead of its customary mottled white and gray, look black as midnight. Crows fascinated John, especially when they formed a dense black cloud swirling in the sky like a black tornado. He wondered whether it was only one crow that led the rest of them to suddenly change direction, or did they collectively knew which direction the flock was going, as an oil spill flows in the direction dictated by the composition of the soil and the inclination of the landscape.

       John’s wife Daisy had been murdered late at night, coming alone home from the local tavern, carrying her white pocketbook whose glass mesh exterior glittered under the streetlights like tiny diamonds. Because the neighborhood they had moved to was crime-ridden, John had tried to dissuade her from carrying the bag, especially at night, because it was an invitation to the predatory boys that lived in the nearby housing project who roamed about the neighborhood after dark. Turning state’s evidence, one of the boys had subsequently confessed to the police that John’s wife had refused to give up her bag, even with the knife at her throat held by a hopped-up member of the gang. When she started screaming, the hopped-up member had slit her throat.

       There had been nothing of value in her bag, nothing but lipstick, a compact, and other makeup. Daisy couldn’t pass a mirror without refreshing her makeup. She had been eighteen with a clear, glowing complexion when he married her, but after the birth of Molly, the bloom in her cheeks had disappeared rapidly, like a rose in an autumn drought. John’s own drug addiction hadn’t helped, he guiltily admitted to himself. Growing up, he had avoided all stimulants, even coffee, but not crack cocaine. He had a two-year degree from a community college, where he had studied animal husbandry but the only job he had been able to find was as an assistant inspector with the the county weights and measures office. If he hadn’t lost that job after a random drug test, he and Molly would not have had to give up their ground floor apartment in a well kept up building in a better neighborhood on the other side of the city. Haunted by guilt he had vowed after his wife’s death to kick his addiction, for Molly’s sake, but he hadn’t managed to yet.


       “Here, Kitty,” Molly called when she finally saw the crouching cat under the bush. But the cat didn’t hear her. It hadn’t heard her not because her voice was faint but because almost all albino cats are deaf, as white cats in general are inclined to be.

       As if on cue, like an actor in a play, one of the crows flew down from the sycamore and alighted not far from the pile of manure, But instead of approaching the pile, the crow strutted back and forth, glancing all around as if wary of predators. Did the crow consider the father and child potential predators? John doubted it because crows were supposed to be among the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom, with the exception of course of homo sapiens, the thinking hominid. Crows had been around humans long enough to know which types to avoid. But if it wasn’t John and his daughter the crow was wary of, was it the albino cat under the prickly bush? Was the crow even aware of the cat under the bush? John was pretty sure the crow was aware of the cat, because not only are crows smart, they also have acute binocular vision. They can see much farther and clearer than people. Why then did the crow suddenly turn its back on the bush where the cat was hiding? Why did the crow stand stupidly in the snow on one foot, staring at the pile of manure from which it was only a foot or two away?

       The albino cat took advantage of the crow’s apparent lapse of alertness to stealthily crawl toward the crow in the soft snow, hoping to pounce on it by surprise. But as if it had eyes in the back of its head, and saw that the cat was crawling toward it, the crow was playing cat and mouse with the cat. When the cat suddenly stopped and sprang toward the crow, the crow acrobatically lifted itself by its wings into the air six feet above the ground. Instead of sinking its teeth and claws into the bird, the cat sank its nose deep into the pile of manure. Before the albino cat, perhaps disoriented by the smell of the still warm manure, had regained its balance and composure, before it had extricated itself from the manure, the birds in the sycamore took flight en masse, swooping down upon the cat, clawing and pecking at it unmercifully. In a half a minute Kitty was bleeding and blinded, one of its eyeballs hanging by some kind of thin ligature or integument out of its bleeding eye socket.

       Afraid that the crows would turn on him and Molly, John picked her up and hugged her protectively. Turning his back on the carnage, he ran in the snow, putting more distance between him and Molly and the crows. When he finally dared to stop to catch his breath, he looked back. The cat was a writhing blob of blood-soaked skin, bones, and intestines. Most of the crows had already taken to the blue sky, circling over his head, blocking out the sun, perhaps reconnoitering. His heart was pounding and he was afraid the birds would attack him and Molly.  

      “Daddy,” Molly murmured, “Kitty dead.”

      “Yes, Kitty dead,” he answered somberly, and then repeated, “Kitty dead.” He took out a tissue and wiped her running red nose, He wondered as he continued to carry her in the direction of their dingy living quarters, wondering whether the solitary crow had lured Kitty out of the prickly bush by feigning carelessness so that the flock could kill it. Were crows that smart? And that predatory? Had they attacked Kitty simply because she was a genetic mistake, a freak whom mother nature had assigned the smart crows the responsibility of culling from the gene pool of cats? He was not sure. He was not sure of anything, especially not when, still carrying and hugging Molly, he looked up, not far from where they lived, and saw a murder of crows circling in the sky above, blocking the sun.

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