Essays > The Crow

From The Marlboro Review, No 17/18


“I was of three minds,

like a tree

in which there are three blackbirds.”

Wallace Stevens,

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

A baby corvus brachyrhynchos is interfering with my life. That’s an American crow, of course, black and hunched and ugly and refusing to leave the patio. I got the scientific name from my new book, Birds of Los Angeles, which I picked up at the Del Amo Mall. Does that mean “of love”? I’m new around here, and my field trips into the hot concrete byways of Los Angeles are all beginning to blend together, but whether it means “of love” or not, it was the same place I bought a hummingbird feeder, lingering long over all the options, and selecting a mid-priced plastic one, red, of course, with a brass hook. If I only do things right, I can attract hummingbirds to my boyfriend’s place.

I am bringing a woman’s touch to his place, he assures me. It’s a big two-story apartment a block from the water in San Pedro, and I think having hummingbirds (selasphorous rufous, most likely) flicker at my boyfriend’s kitchen window would be a particularly fine and poetic achievement. But so far, despite my conscientious production of the proper four-to-one nectar, stirred and shaken at the kitchen sink, and despite the fact that I empty, clean and refill the feeder every four days as the directions instruct, and despite the fact that I have planted morning glories on the pole where the hummingbird feeder hangs, and they are energetically climbing, the hummingbirds have eschewed me.

Instead, we have this stranded baby crow. Did I say the poor thing’s ugly? Did I say it’s leaving blobs of crow poop, which smells faintly ammoniac, like chicken gone bad, in a messy zigzag between an abandoned spare tire and a disheveled Christmas wreath?

Did I say I’m lonely here, in this beautiful spot, because I’m the only woman in this “boys’ house” and I’m far from my own home in Michigan and I’m trying hard not to show it, because my boyfriend is a great-hearted man and I love him and want to be here with him by the sea?

So I ask myself, why do you think your life matters more than a crow’s anyway? That crow is in a desperate situation. And I realize that I’m not speaking just for myself, but for somebody else – some reader I’m imagining, somebody who cares about me but won’t let me get away with sloppy thinking. When I was a kid I invented a girlfriend named Jane Purzer, and here, today, looking at the latest shiny lump of corvus scat, I wonder if I’ve just resurrected her. Whoever, I’m talking to you. Dear reader, as Charlotte Bronte would say. Dear reader. I’m also imagining a professor I work with. Not you, I don’t mean you. I want you to know what’s going through my mind, is all. Supposedly he has a photographic memory, and when I think about that, I’m back to growing up in the Fifties and wanting to get hypnotized and hoping I’d be a National Merit Scholar. That was the time we always used to hear about ESP and could get our arms to rise on their own accord by pressing them hard against the doorframe to the count of 20, and we first heard of Area 51 and things like that. So he impresses me. He’s the kind of handsome intellectual who knows everything – even the name of Rochester’s dog in Jane Eyre, while I’m on that subject -- and gets very funny when he’s drunk. I think he doesn’t like me. I think he didn’t approve of how I left my husband for the man who says I’m adding a woman’s touch to his big neglected California apartment. I’m worrying. I’m worrying about whether this is the right thing to do. I’m worrying about what Professor X, way back in Michigan, thinks of me. Probably not much at all.

Worrying about an audience can be so, well, worrying. But sitting here, in my boyfriend’s shabby (or funky, as I could just as accurately put it) apartment, I can’t help wondering what you might think. Frankly I don’t know who you are – I’m making you up, trawling in my head for allies and friends. I am making you up to understand me, me and this waylaid baby crow. That’s your job, just to be clear. I suppose this means I’m losing my nerve. But if you understand me, I’ll get it back, and get back into the game – the game of making it. This summer is about starting over, trying new things, seeing what happens when I don’t live in Michigan for three whole months, and I have unlimited time to write. I’m supposed to thrive. And, well, I do think my life matters more than the crow’s, but that’s probably because I am me and not the crow, and if I was the crow I’m sure I’d look at it quite differently.

The crow has been out there for two days so far, usually perched on the grapevine wreath, which must remind the poor thing of a nest. We speculate that there is a nest somewhere nearby, maybe in the jacaranda tree in a neighbor’s back yard, and that in its early attempts to fly, it stumbled or tumbled into our patio and couldn’t get out. Even though the crow is almost full-sized, its tail feathers are stumpy and ungrown, and poufs of silver-gray pinfeathers stick out like dandelion fuzz from under its wings, giving it a comically sloppy appearance. It’s hard not to feel something for it, looking like that, when fully adult crows are so serious, so brazen and all-business – the Taliban of birds, in a way.

My bird book affirms that, for “unknown reasons,” the crow population in Los Angeles has exploded in recent years. Here in Pedro, the crows are an irritating alarm clock, perched on the power lines between my boyfriend’s apartment and the ocean, cawing ear-splittingly at 6 a.m. One of those raucous birds is probably our crow’s father – certainly one is its mother…I think it wants its mommy, and once or twice we see a big crow perched on the power lines, cocking bright eyes down at the stranded kid and letting out a squawk or two. But if it’s her, she keeps her distance, seemingly devoted to tough love: if it is her corvus, the fledgling will have to get out of this pickle on its own.

I have been spending a lot of time on the patio because to apply my woman’s touch to this place I have been politicking to get this small square of concrete cleaned off so I can make it into a garden spot for me and the resident human males. I envision a table and chairs, an umbrella, a jungle of green, a Buddha, perhaps a little tinkling fountain, a subtle wind chime, the whole thing lit at night with strings of tiny twinkling white lights, like a merry, mini-Italian piazza. In Michigan I never get to sit outside enough, and I’m nuts for the rare al fresco. In the winter it’s too cold, of course, and in the summer, there is about one week suitable for sitting outside, between the black fly season and the horse fly season…though that season corresponds to the mosquito hatch season. You can try to sit outside in Michigan but you really can’t sit still, what with all the swatting and spraying and yelping at the mosquito version of Guerilla Girrrls burgling their syringes full of blood.

My boyfriend will tell you that whenever we go out to eat, I say, “Let’s go where we can sit outside,” and I keep him searching out cafes with decks, the best small tables up against stone walls, or perched on narrow strips between boite and street. Even a spot with stools that tip perilously on uneven flagstones will do, even a table that won’t hold a cup of chicken tortilla soup upright, so that you have to keep one hand on it continually while you manipulate the soup spoon with the other, as long as it’s outside, I’m happy.

So I’m thinking this patio, which has deteriorated in the way things do in a world without women, into a storage area for male cast-offs like used oil, abandoned exercise equipment, an engine and a hopeless rusted barbecue grill, is an unhappy waste, a sad reflection of the state of the male gender. My boyfriend lauds my goals, but he has a bad back. He’s waiting for his strong and wiry kids to help. It’s a delicate matter: I’m the interloper, and I’m trying to be tactful. So every day I go out and sort of stand there sipping my cup of herbal tea, looking mournfully at the squandered possibilities, hoping somebody will see me and understand that they really should get their asses in gear and clean the patio up so we can eventually loll out there like the cosmopolitan savants I assume we all aspire to be. What? This sounds like passive aggression, not tact? You’re probably right. Whatever, I am momentarily stopped when my boyfriend tells me he said to his son, “This place needs a woman’s touch,” and his son looked around innocently, at the dishes piled up in the sink and the dirty socks on the coffee table and the oily bolts in the fruit basket and said, “What’s wrong with it?”

Then Corvus arrived. And suddenly everybody wants to be out on the patio, to see, to comment. The bird doesn’t seem to be injured, just stuck. A bird out of place is an event. The sweeter son says “I think it might need water.” We put out a little bowl. The ambitious son, the big house cat slavering in his arms, says, “Want to see what the cat does?” I see this is a moral palette, on which we are exposing ourselves.

Most of the time, though, because everybody else goes to work during the day and I am here, loading the dishwasher and writing, it is just the crow and me. It sits there on the wreath, mute and miserable, craning its neck, sharply assessing the trees and sky, calculating an escape route it can’t seem to manage. I check the clothes in the dryer, write a couple of lines, check on the crow, delete the lines I wrote before, look up my checking account balance on line, check on the crow, write a couple of lines. The crow is there, there, there -- ill at ease, ruffled. I don’t think it likes me coming out there: it pelts me with accusatory looks. Once in awhile it tries to jump away and falls into the crack between the hard old engine and the wall, trembling and hiding. I feel sorry for it but I want it to get on with things. I don’t want to worry about a baby crow all day. I want it to grow up and get out. I want it to be okay. I want it to move. I make myself think about Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and imagine that this is all material. You’re probably groaning and thinking, “She really is a coward, resorting to that old chestnut.”

Still no hummingbirds. I drag myself to the front of the apartment, where I’ve installed a big black shepherd’s hook and the red hummingbird feeder. I bring the feeder in, lethargically pouring out the old nectar, washing out the plastic insides, filling it up again.

Of course the irony hits me about then – what you’ve already been thinking, I’m sure. I want one bird and not the other. I don’t want random arrivals. I want something small and iridescent, that hovers and thirstily takes the nectar I’ve provided. A flash, a dot, a joyful surprise. Not this heavy unhappy fellow, crouched and pooping right in the middle of my nascent life.

He must know that I don’t like him, like a kid who knows his mother loves his sister best. He’s never happy to see me. I seem to frighten him – as much as the yellow cat groaning hungrily at the sliding screen door.

On the third day, I email my ex-husband, a sure sign that I am feeling guilty and disoriented. He quickly fires back, “Can’t you do something to get that baby crow off the patio?” I suddenly feel…slow. I am paralyzed in the moment, an interloper here just like the crow, and ill equipped for any kind of action. My sluggish brain tries to focus: on crow rescue units, animal control, humane individuals, people who do things. Then my boyfriend says, “Why don’t we give him one more day to see if he learns to fly?” I melt at his compassion, his warm-blooded beliefs. He makes me sure that everything will be all right. He wants me to be happy. Now I know more than ever why I am with him. He sees that my well-being and the crow’s have somehow gotten intertwined, like a failed cloning experiment, and he’ll have to tread nimbly to make this work out right.

I also see Corvus has gotten sexed: it’s now a he. I try to remember who first called it a he, as if that mattered. I think it was my boyfriend, and everybody else followed suit. At first, I’m smugly sure that no one thinks a female crow would have gotten into this predicament. She would have waited. She would have practiced. She would have taken the leap from the nest only when she was sure she was ready. And certainly the mother never would have booted a girl from the nest…Then, the more I think about it, the more I realize I’m getting huffy. What does my boyfriend mean by calling it a he? Why wouldn’t a girl crow take the risk? Why wouldn’t she strike out on her own or get into a tiff with her overcontrolling mother and get kicked out? And so what if things didn’t go so well after that, and she landed in a messy, oily concrete patio and couldn’t get out? Now hold on there, you’re probably saying, don’t make things so complicated. I know, I know, but what do you mean, that’s the way the world is, assuming males are the ones who takes the risks? This could get unpleasant. It could get into crow-gender politics. I don’t want to go there. Corvus stays a he.

But that night, when I go to bed, I keep my undies on, so to speak. Something about the crow is stuck in my craw: how nothing I do seems to help the crow, how his unhappy exile is delaying my own relief. If I was smart I’d let my boyfriend comfort me, but instead I pull the blanket up under my chin and get into the fetal position. I love the way he comforts me, but then again, I should be able to handle things on my own, shouldn’t I? I came here of my own volition, after all. The writing isn’t going well. I should be able to make it work, crow or no crow. I wonder if my boyfriend knows I’m taking this all personally. This has to stop. I’m starting to hate that bird. My boyfriend breathes softly on the far edge of his side of the bed, respecting my self-containment.

Next morning, still no hummingbirds. The crow crouches exactly where we’d left him the night before, on the wreath. I remember leftover sweet potato from last night’s dinner. I think, if I were a crow I’d find that quite delicious. I put little squirts of it, toxic-looking orange, on the old wreath, and, after as usual fluttering away in fear, Corvus comes back and pecks. He eats, peering at me jerkily between stabs of his beak. I feel powerful and righteous. My boyfriend gives me a hug. Relieved, I think maybe I will write a madrigal for the baby crow. “Pinfeathered one, you hulk in misery,” I begin. Or a haiku: “black bird, hot sun/you drop another load…” I slap myself upside the head, as we say in Michigan; my poetic efforts go nowhere. The crow begins to let out little hoarse croaks, keening sounds like a light snore. But the happy yam moment is short-lived, and despite my attempts to talk to him, crooning imaginative tidbits like “good crow, good little birdie,” he still doesn’t seem to see me as a friend, cutting his beady eyes at me, flapping wildly and trying to get away whenever I slide open the screen door and tiptoe out.

Obviously we can’t do anything about cleaning off the patio while he’s still there. I’m sure you understand. It wouldn’t be right. My days shape themselves around visits to the patio – I issue little communiqués to my boyfriend at work, by phone or email. He’s still there, I mutter. The writing is coming hard. Still there, I say. I start a new piece, throw away another. I time myself: once an hour is enough, I decide. Otherwise it’ll upset him. Dumb bird.

Whites and darks separated, I take a break to watch the crow and hope for the best. The big cat joins me at the screen door. But what is “the best”? The best for me: the crow gets away. The best for the big cat: a chance to stalk and catch it, perhaps even kill it. The cat is making that strangled throaty sound that means it’s got a bead on the prey. Terrified, the crow flaps up, off the wreath again, falls into a dark corner. The cat watches, galvanized, waiting for the crow to reappear. A minute passes, three, seven, ten. The crow wants that cat to disappear. Finally, it does, wandering away disconsolately licking its chops.

He disappears abruptly. Late one afternoon, when I wearily go out to see how he is, he manages to flutter up the brick wall and over the top into the neighbor’s yard. He lands hard and I can see him shake his head and pull up his floppy wings around him. Within minutes, he is gone. Nothing left on the patio but junk and odd silence, not even a pin feather. An absence of crow.

I walk back to my laptop and sit down. Where was I?

Now I should be able to concentrate. Once disposed of the crow, no thanks to any of my actions, I can settle back to the issues at hand. I almost forget what they were. Will I write anything? Will I win Professor X’s admiration, in some utopian End Time? Will the patio ever be mine?

My boyfriend remembers. He tells his sons this is the day the patio will be cleared, and somehow, miraculously, the stuff gets heaved up and out in an impressive rush of perspiration and testosterone.

Tomorrow, while the window of opportunity is open, I’ll take a break from the writing altogether. I’ll get potted palms for this place, and sprawling baskets of red impatiens. The boys will see how nice it can be. And I’ll have a place to sit in the fresh sea air and sunshine any time I want.

I imagine you understand that above all I have an urgent need to rinse off the trail of poop the baby crow left behind. I’m standing here on the empty square of concrete, and it suddenly looks small and trivial. I’m not even sure I still care. But I’m glad I have a broom, and a dustpan, and all afternoon to make the patio mine. It’ll give me something to do while I’m waiting for you to finish reading this, while I’m waiting for the hummingbird.


P.S. 7/3/06: I married this man on July 4, 2005. Eventually, hummingbirds found the feeder in droves, but then everyone moved on -- the sons, the cat, I suppose even the hummingbirds, since the next tenants took down the feeder. We have a new apartment now, on a hillside overlooking the L.A. Harbor. There is a wonderful porch with window boxes spilling over with petunias and nasturtium. At night we sit out there and watch the harbor. If it’s clear we can sometimes see Orion. There are crows here too, squabbling and squawking in the tops of palm trees.