Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Flash Fiction
722 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

A Crow Makes Me Think

by Michael Plotkin

I was roused once, a long time ago, by an eruption of frantic caws at dawn. Peering out of my tent, I saw a group of a dozen crows standing around the ashes of the previous night’s campfire. They took turns jumping up and down, each jumper eliciting a fresh crescendo. What acute issue had convened this gathering and compelled them to such passionate discourse? I remember wondering if perhaps it was bird flattery. Were they imitating what they had seen us do the night before as we drank and joked and argued around the fire? Was it reverence or an attempt to placate us with ritual? Or was it payback to wake us up so early, as we had no doubt disturbed their rest long into the night?

One ordinary morning, many years later, when I was at home in a settled life, another band of garrulous crows arrived—and my tranquility soon lay in ruins. Morning crows typically do not vex me much. I admit to mild guilt when birds pour out their inscrutable enthusiasms to the dawn and I am still in bed, but I am usually willing to suffer that particular negative self-assessment if I want more sleep. The band of crows that arrived one early summer morning, congregating in the almond tree in front of my house, proved harder to ignore.

A peculiarity of their relentless bickering rankled me. One crow, one lone crow in this flock had a voice so exquisitely unpleasant I could barely believe it came from a natural bird. It was stretched, nasal, with an exaggerated, demanding timbre. Even among crows—whose songs do not soothe—it drilled impressively into the still air. An aria of lost tempers and distracted nerves, it began as slow, well-spaced, plaintive notes, but soon escalated in tempo and pressure, becoming frantic, an all-out bleating apparently tuned to the precise frequency that evokes acute displeasure in humans. It was a voice deranged by unaccountable urgency, rising to hyperbolic crescendos of unmet need, the pure voice of agitated immaturity, frustrated, wildly piqued, rasping. How could a bird be so horrible to hear? Did it not hate its own voice enough to shut up? Why was it perched in front of my house?

I surmised this was a young crow being raised by its kin group. Perhaps the adults had been feeding it dutifully, but as maturity approached, they tired of the work and cut it off. The crow responded as youth does on the occasion of forced independence, with more dramatically importunate demands. A young crow, like a young human, I imagined would whine and grow petulant over its newly realized burden of self-responsibility.

When that crow came to my tree, my anger soared. I stood below where the little flock perched and yelled curses up into the branches. Sometimes they left, flapping off unhurriedly one by one. Other times they ignored me, remaining hidden in the foliage. And they kept on singing. I threw rocks, banged pots, paced around the yard. I began to feel like a cartoon victim harassed by cunning and indestructible cartoon wildlife. The clever imp would ultimately drive me crazy. I wanted desperately to be rid of this feathered thing, and as cartoon characters are wont to do, I obsessively considered more elaborate and more final deterrents.

One day, in the midst of this conflict, my four-year-old son was sitting on the front step. He began making a nasal, honking sound at the top of his lungs, expelled in bursts of accelerating tempo. It had the same effect on me as the crow’s strident bleating. My blood rose. “What the hell are you doing,” I snapped.

“I’m communicating,” he replied.

And then I heard my nemesis reply. My son called back; the crow responded, moving closer.

I saw my son’s wild glee as the crow hopped to a lower branch in the almond tree and tilted its head to gaze at him. Youth had recognized itself. Phylogeny was no barrier. A wave of shame passed through me. This sweet drama in which I played the clumsy foil profoundly saddened me. How had I become so peripheral to what I cared about? So staid and stuck up and easily irked? So triumphantly intolerant?

When, I wondered, had I grown up?

SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Michael Plotkin

lives in California, works at Mt. San Jacinto College, and loves plants above most other things. His work has been published in Peregrine, The Yolo Crow, and GreenPrints.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury