ESSAYS ABOUT PEOPLE AND CROWS - AND CREATURES THAT YOU WON'T BELIEVE
AN ESCORT OF CROWS
I tell people that the crows who live in my woods follow me to the grocery stores, but I suspect that nobody believes me. Just to make things more difficult, one of the crows has taken to leading me around the corner to my house and walking down the driveway, looking back frequently to make sure I'm following.
This is true!
All my life I have known people who were not as smart as crows. (Or perhaps not as smart as the rocks the crows drop on me sometimes.) But these birds pay more careful attention to what goes on in this house than a burglar would. Of course their sentries notice when I pass a window - the Steller Jays post sentries, too - but now the crows begin shouting when I'm moving from one room to another and not close to a window.
I'd like to think they have special powers. Mystical powers, like the ones in my books. But more probably they have installed high-tech listening devices in my house, keyed to broadcast the smallest movement I make.
"She's getting up. She's brushing dog hair off her shirt. She's turned off TV. She's looking around to see where she left her teacup. She's on the move! Everybody yell!"
The man in the grocery store who carries out my sacks always asks, "Do you feed squirrels?" I feed one squirrel (more about that some other time when I'm discussing humans murdering wildlife) and eight crows. Well, usually eight. Sometimes there are only four. The other four are searching the area for other people who buy lots of stuff at the grocery stores.
I have other birds. Once I had a very fine rat who was named Walter in honor of an excellent book about a rat named Water who also befriended a writer. Walter came to the same sad end as squirrels do around here, due to the prevailing belief that leaving creatures alone is some sort of ancient Hippy ritual left over from the time when young people thought killing was stupid.
The crows are waiting. The one that mutters is sitting on the roof over the deck, and I must take care of the matter or I will find a dozen rocks on my steps. Some with hex signs on them.
This is serious.
Oh. One more thing. Crows are legally protected. Leave them alone.
THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH ABOUT CROWS
Someone special gave me a book about crows, and I was relieved to discover that I am not the only person to have had a curious relationship with these birds. The book does not make clear, however, why some humans are chosen to suffer at the feathers, beaks, and claws of these creatures, and I don't want to speculate, because I suspect that they read my mind.
I don't remember being tormented as a child by crows. My first remarkable clash came years ago, when we moved to a new house, and my first hour spent weeding flower beds was disturbed by the incessant ringing of a phone. Each time it began, I ran inside, expecting a call. My phone was not ringing. Or the caller had hung up.
The ringing would begin again, and I would run inside again. Finally, in exasperation, I decided to ignore the annoying caller. At that moment, a large crow settled down beside me in the flower bed, and he rang. He rang, clearly and with great sass.
I told my family, and they did not believe me until they heard him themselves. It took a few days before we discovered where he had learned this stunt. One of our neighbors had an outside bell, and she never answered her phone until it had rung at least twelve times. She wasn't handicapped; she was simply arrogant and rude to her callers. And she never, ever, shut off her outside bell. We listened to it for twenty seven years, which is long enough to begin wishing somebody would simply drop dead.
The crow, however, lived a long and noisy life, and singled me out to torture because, most of the time, I fell for his ring and ran inside to see if somebody wanted to speak to me. Unlike my neighbor, who apparently was beloved by many, I didn't get enough calls. But I didn't get fat, either.
When we moved to this house, we had a larger window put in the office, and this window overlooks the back yard - and the fence by the birdbath. This is where I met Horrible. I saw him first as he sat on the fence, dangling an awful string of roadkill, and when he saw me flinch and jump back, he lunged toward the window. I jumped back even farther. With great satisfaction, he settled down, dangled the roadkill enticingly (as if he had won a prize I had wanted) and then dipped it into the birdbath, obviously washing it off before he carried it away.
It took weeks of seeing him dip strange things, including chocolate cake (which dissolved) into the birdbath before I learned that parent crows wash things before they feed them to their young. I have known human parents who did not regard their children so carefully.
But that's all the credit I am prepared to give crows. They have dropped rocks on me, as well as twigs, fir cones, bits and pieces of dead things that they didn't want, and the odd pork chop bone. They obviously hate Jack and Ben, and have dropped all manner of things on them, and sometimes they have swooped down on them, terrorizing them into trembling little heaps on the grass.
Why? I would like to know why. I actually feed these demons, and yes, I grant that I only feed them because they shriek at me through windows until I take the peanut sack outside. But unwilling or not, I still feed them. Doesn't that earn gratitude?
No. It earns contempt, attempts on my life, and messing with the things on the deck table. Yes, they do that, too. And they tap on the roof of the deck, at dawn.
And (you will not believe me) three or four have followed me in my car to the grocery store three miles away. Yes, they are my own. They hang about my car like thugs, waiting for me, and when I come out, they caw loudly, drawing attention to the scanty, half-empty bags I carry, the poverty of my choices, and my selfishness in keeping it all for myself.
People stare. They don't care. And on this rhyme, I shall close the subject, perhaps forever.
Murder By Tape
I'm going to have trouble explaining my mutilation of a book - and the associated murder. I take good care of books. When I move, they are the first things I pack. If there were a flood, probably I would grab favorite books before I'd remember my wallet. I have never destroyed a book, or even dog-eared a page or written in margins.
But I cut one in half. The book, a complete collection of E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia stories, was huge, heavy, limp, slippery, and about as easy to hold as the Yellow Pages. These stories are what I reread every night to clear the daily news from my mind. All the characters are wonderful, but my favorite is Georgie Pillson, so polite and gentle, whose most critical comment is never more harsh than, "How tarsome." (Not "tiresome." It's important that you remember this.)
If I were going to maintain my serenity, I needed something more manageable that this volume, which always ended up sliding to the floor with such a thump that the entire household rose up shouting, "What? Who? When?" Georgie Pillson would say, "Tarsome."
I decided to cut it in half and make cardboard covers for the raw ends, to be held in place with wide sticky tape. I needed help with the cutting, since this book, which was so flimsy that it could slide sideways out of my hands, had a spine tough enough to need a trip to the garage with my husband. While he took care of the problem, I cut new covers - using great care, with the hope of feeling a little less guilty about the whole thing.
I laid out all the bits and pieces on my desk (not cleared for the occasion, of course, because that would have taken an hour) and I carefully placed one piece of cardboard over one raw end, and then cut off a piece of wide sticky tape long enough to do the job.
This sticky tape is somewhat like that awful plastic stuff that we are supposed to use to keep things fresh in the fridge. But you know what happens. The plastic stuff sticks to its roll as if it were being kidnapped, and eventually you are left with a wad of gummy stuff that you could not use to cover a pea. This tape is the same, except that it has vicious glue on one side and a serious personality problem.
The tape stuck to itself, my shirt, the desk, some notes on Medieval nightwear, my arm, and the phone cord. By the time I got it unstuck (more or less) and plastered it on the spine of the "half-book," I discovered with horror that I had trapped a small fly underneath.
Yes, there it was, stuck between that ghastly tape and the spine, and by that time it was surely dead. I was horrified, and let out a yell that probably was heard in the next block. My husband rushed in to see what had gone wrong (this time) and I showed him my murder victim.
He examined it closely, and then said, "Tarsome."
I could not stop laughing, and the more I laughed, the guiltier I felt. The poor fly - the mutilation of the book - and the thought of Georgie Pillson, overlooking the whole dreadful scene and gently saying, "Tarsome."
It was indeed. But the half-books are successful.
Let me off
It's the time of year again when I begin to think about traveling. I love the idea of a long train journey, but I can't think why, since my train trips have been short and disastrous. What's even worse, I don't like to be close to trains - on foot, in a car, or on a bridge over one. My romantic ideas about trains have been formed by novels and those delightful travel shows on PBS, where everything is always tidy and efficient, and the views out the windows are wonderful. The PBS shows have impressed me so much that I often have put my characters on trains, where they enjoy the trips that I have not had.
My earliest experiences with trains were awful. My paternal grandmother, a women who evoked terror in me, always arrived by train, and I was dragged to the station to help greet her - or perhaps to serve as a useful distraction. If "distraction" was what my mother had on her mind, she was deluding herself, because my grandmother especially disliked me, even telling me when I was three or so that the "real" Jean had been kidnapped by the "little people" and one of their own left in her place. She knew this because my eyes were green with yellow circles around the pupils. I spent years worrying that the "little people" were coming back for me.
It's easy to see that I associated trains with bad news.
Years later, Mother and I traveled to Oregon to visit a cousin as charming as my grandmother was terrifying. Mother assured me that train travel was delightful (she read a lot, too), and so we made the arrangements for the day-long trip.
The train was crammed. Half the passengers were soldiers, most of whom were drunk and boisterous. My mother, who never drank or behaved boisterously, was disgusted, and she warned me not to make eye contact with anyone. I didn't need the warning. I looked out the window instead, watching ugly mud flats roll by.
There was no dining car. The train, which stopped at every station along the way - and some places where people simply were waiting beside the tracks - occasionally let vendors aboard. Mother bought two sandwiches (only tuna was available), examined them critically, and told me that we'd probably die before the day was out if we ate them. The soldiers ate stacks of them, no doubt fortified by the amount of alcohol in their systems, so to our regret, they felt even better - and they began singing obscene songs late in the afternoon.
"Don't listen," Mother said, as if I'd had a choice.
The train was hours late. We arrived at our destination at eleven-thirty PM, and the station was closed and dark. We got off the car alone and stood there uncertainly. Our cousin would have come and gone hours before, and the only pay phone in sight was on the other side of the window of the locked station - and we knew no one in that small town.
Then a boxcar door opened and a ramp was put out. A man walked down, followed by an enormous docile elephant. The man strolled away without looking back, the elephant trailing close behind, its trunk touching his shoulder. They disappeared into the dark.
"Well, I certainly don't believe that," my mother said.
The train left, and we, with nothing better to do, followed a block behind the elephant until we found a phone where we could call our frantic cousin. An hour later, we were speeding away in her car.
"How was your trip?" she asked, worriedly.
"Fine," Mother said. She gave me a look that clearly warned me not to bring up the elephant or the drunken soldiers or the spoiled sandwiches. Among the women in my family, no one dwelled on the unpleasant - or mysterious - aspects of life.
My next train trip was in Italy, fifteen years ago, and I'm not yet ready to discuss it. Just trust me that it involved wrong dates, tattooed giants, and a seat companion who announced, "I don't like women." I spent the entire trip with one hand protecting my money belt.
I will not be traveling by train this year, but one of my characters might.
(c) Jean Thesman, 2003 through 2009.