I went out bird watching that morning. The irony of that is not lost on me. I was in a large park not far out of town, and had just sat down to record the kinds of birds I‘d seen on the way there when a crow landed about twenty feet away.
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At first I thought it hadn’t seen me, so I stayed real still and watched. The crow sidled in my direction, tilting its head to one side and then the other, as if looking at things on the ground. As it got closer, I began to have misgivings. (Funny, isn’t it, how first impressions are so often right?)
I started wondering, do crows get rabies? Do they attack you if you’re near their nest? Finally it stopped nine or ten feet away from me, cocked its head, and seemed to eye me coolly.
“Hi,” I said, hoping to scare it.
The crow made a sound that sounded suspiciously like “Hi” back, but I was sure it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. I put the cap back on my pen, put the pen in my journal, and closed the journal carefully. The crow stood there looking at me.
“So, what’s up?” I said, as my mind raced to the movie The Birds and other possible reasons why a wild crow might approach me. Didn’t they like shiny things? But I didn’t have any shiny things. Was I threatening its young? But there weren’t any young around, and I wasn’t even sure it was the right season.
Then the crow spoke. I couldn’t understand at first that it was speaking to me in English. When I did, it was a strange feeling, like the first time you see a picture appear in one of those Magic Eye things. The implications were rocking my subconscious mind.
“Greetings, earthling,” it said, “Take me to your leader.” Then it almost fell over laughing.
Since then, I’ve had plenty of time to get used to crow humor in general, and that crow’s sense of humor in particular, but I’ll never forget the effect that first joke had on me. It really pissed me off. I finally get a chance to converse with a non-human creature, I thought, and it turns out to be the same kind of wise guy I’ve had to deal with all my life. Cut me a break!
I calmed down, reminding myself that it was a momentous moment. “Hi, “I said again. “May I ask what you want?”
“The pleasure of this dance,” the crow said. “Or, better yet, got a cigarette?” It looked me right in the eye and, I swear, it grinned.
“Look,” I said, “I came here to enjoy the beauty of nature and to record my observations of the season. The birds I came to see do not include a wise-ass crow, talking or not.” Even to me, my level of irritation seemed unwarranted. I wish I could go back now and tell myself it wasn’t. And maybe give myself a large, heavy club.
“Hey! Like, what’s with the ‘tude, man?” the crow said, strutting toward me in a clear imitation of adolescent challenge. “You call yourself a bird watcher, nature lover? Where’s the childlike wonder, where’s the love of Mother Earth’s children? C’mon . . . Get a grip, honey!” At the words get a grip, the crow’s voice went into falsetto, and it turned around and shook its tail feathers at me. Who was this guy anyway?
I took a deep breath, and put my journal down. “Is there something I can help you with?” I asked.
“I can say with some confidence,” the crow replied, “that there is nothing with which you can help me. However, it may not be too late for me to help you.”
Precognitive parts of my brain were desperately attempting to signal me, but I plunged on. “Too late? What do you mean? What could you help me with?”
He grinned, or something. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “How lame is your life?”
I narrowed my eyes. “Somehow, I have a feeling that our opinions are going to differ on this.”
“Oh, and do ya now, begorrah?” he said in what was probably meant to be an Irish accent. “Bless and save us, why would you ever be thinkin’ the likes of that, now?” He kicked up his feet in an approximation of an Irish jig, and then one of his legs gave out and he all but toppled over. He winked, and pretended to hobble around. “I’m afraid it’s pretty lame,” he said.
I tried to formulate an argument, but off-hand I couldn’t come up with much evidence to offer a wise-guy crow to convince him that my life was worthwhile. There wasn’t much to convince me. But that was none of his business.
“And how do you think you could help that?” I asked. “Are you going to introduce me to the delights of day old roadkill? Teach me the Zen of owl-mobbing? Have you, in your bounteous mercy chosen me to be the first human to reach crow enlightenment?”
“Maybe, maybe,” he said blinking his eyes and nodding his head in mock sagacity. “I picked you out of thousands. I didn’t like the others, they were all too flat.”
I recognized that line from a famous comedy bit. “Listen,” I said, “crows don’t watch Monty Python, or speak in fake Irish accents, or know clichés about aliens. How do you know all these, um, more or less cultural references?”
“From TV!” he said, spreading his wings wide. “I’ve been watching it for months, studying to meet you.” He leaned forward as if sharing a confidence. “You know, you guys are into some weird stuff.”
“Hey, don’t blame me. I don’t watch it,” I lied. “But why were you studying for this? What’s going on?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he said. “Look over there.”
Two things happened at once. At a motion of one of his wings, a building appeared, with a wooden door covered with elaborate carvings of vines, birds, serpents and stars. At the same moment, another crow appeared out of nowhere.
“Wait,” it said to the first crow, “We should both be here. I don’t want to miss the fun. It turned to me. “Hello.” it said, “my name is Corbett. I am to help and keep an eye on Bartholomew. I’m very pleased to meet you.” Corbett bowed politely and ignored his companion’s snicker.
The first crow parodied Corbett’s bow. “Just call me Bart,” he said, “Black Bart.”
“Pleased to meet you, Corbett,” I said, “My name is Icarus. It is an honor to speak with crows, perhaps some more than others. And now I am curious to learn what’s behind that door over there.”
“That door there,” asked Corbett, opening his eyes very wide. “How about this door here?”
He moved his wing toward the building and it changed into a small version of the Taj Mahal, with a door slightly open. Before I could take a step toward it, Bartholomew cried out, “Or this door here!” and motioned toward it, changing it into what looked like a Hollywood movie studio with a big, glitzy sign above the door.
I yelled “Wait!” but there was no stopping them. Corbett kept changing it into places like the Dalai Lama’s palace at Llasa, one of the Mayan pyramids at Tula, or the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, and Bart kept changing it back into American cultural icons like the Indianapolis Speedway, Disney World, and Graceland. It finally stopped when Bartholomew interrupted Corbett’s creation of a scale model of the Rouen Cathedral and turned it into a huge fiberglass walk-in ice cream cone with a huge fiberglass licking tongue at the top.
“Where did you get that?” Corbett said, incredulous.
“I don’t know. I think I made it up!” Bartholomew answered. They looked at each other and fell on the ground laughing. I covered my eyes. This was too much.
When they had pretty much recovered, I said, “Hey, this is park land. Aren’t you afraid of causing permanent damage and attracting a lot of attention?”
“No,” said Corbett, still suffering small spasms of mirth. “We do it all by messing with your cerebral cortex. Only you perceive it. Saves moving all that matter around.”
“Not that there is such a thing as matter,” Bartholomew said. “But let‘s save that for later. For now, think of it as induced dreaming.”
“You mean I’m seeing things that aren’t there?” I said. My mind had not only entered unfamiliar waters. It was thrashing around in the deep end. “Doesn’t that mean I’m crazy?”
They exchanged a look, and I thought they were going to crack up again. But Bartholomew kept a straight . . . beak, and said, “Wouldn’t worry about that if I were you. Sanity is not a human strong point. “
“Fear not. All is well,” Corbett said liltingly. “Now, let’s enter the Devastating Dairy Delight, shall we?”
The monstrous cone still stood before us, like something you’d see along a New Jersey highway in hell. (I’m sure there are some.) Reluctance locked my feet. I wasn’t sure what to expect if I walked through the door, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t be a sundae.
“Look,” I said, “I’m not going in there. Find someone else. I have chores to do.”
“Yeah, well so do we,” Bartholomew said. “And this is it.”
Corbett shook his head at Bartholomew. “That’s O.K.” he said. “We can let him go. Here, let’s get rid of this.” He motioned toward the ice cream cone and it was gone. “Go ahead. Maybe we’re asking too much.”
I put my journal in my backpack. I felt shaky and disoriented. “See ya,” I said weakly to the crows. They nodded solemnly, watching me. I left. To go home I had to walk over the ground where the strange buildings had been only moments before. And when I reached the point where they had been, everything went black.
When one man has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to his understanding, I foresee that all men will at length establish their lives on that basis. ---H. D. Thoreau