If You Spot a Crow
With its folded, bark-colored wings the bald eagle seems part of the snag beside my sister’s cabin on Whidbey Island. Its bird’s-eye view surveys all of Holmes Harbor. The tide flats ribboned in kelp. The infinity of wave-smoothed rocks. The silly gulls shrieking and dropping cockles on the beach below. A knee-deep heron poised for fish.
Again and again, a daredevil crow bi-planes from high in the Douglas firs above the cabin. It dips, circles the eagle, and swerves upward. The caws and clicks that erupt after each safe landing sound like taunts. Lift off, circle, insult, repeat. The flight path tightens into triple-dare circuits. A flash of blue-black past the orange beak and talons, the white head that doesn’t turn, the yellow eyes fixed beyond. A redwing blackbird swoops into the crow’s tailwind. Emboldened by the crow, it flicks the eagle’s folded wings on each turn before swerving away. The eagle plays statue.
My sister shaved her head after the second round of chemo fried her hair follicles. She paints on the brows and lashes she is losing, dons colorful beanies. On our supply forays into town, she stays in the car while I shop. I insist no one will recognize her in a mask, but she doesn’t want to run into her former students. “Middle schoolers,” she says, “always point out the obvious.” On Mother’s Day, I give her a greeting card with a photo of a bald eagle. Inside, I write See? Bald can be fierce and beautiful!
Shaken by my sister’s cancer diagnosis, I braved the pandemic and flew to Washington State from Hong Kong to do what I could. I stay in my mother’s big house next door to the cabin and cook for the three of us, juggling needs and tastes. Sugar feeds cancer, but my sister has a sweet tooth and is thin as a wishbone. Leafy greens interfere with my mother’s heart medications, but my sister needs plenty of kale and spinach to pump her immune system. My mother likes chicken breasts, and my sister and I like thighs and drumsticks. My mother likes salad, and we like our veggies cooked. I scour the internet for culinary inspiration, eye plates to see how much or little of my efforts land in the compost bin.
We eat facing the garden off my mother’s kitchen. In the cluttered windowsill are field guides to local birds and a pair of binoculars. The yard is bedecked with feeders and birdhouses. A sign tacked to a tree says Wildlife Sanctuary. Halfway through dinner, my mother spots an empty hummingbird feeder and heads out the kitchen door to retrieve it. At ninety-four, she is so hunched from scoliosis she can barely reach the hook, but she has made it clear that my help encroaches on her independence. My sister and I roll our eyes at each other and keep eating. Through the open door we hear baby wrens peeping in the red birdhouse. For days we have watched the parents flit to and fro, dropping food into open beaks.
On the miniature TV above the kitchen counter, the news drones through dinner. Horror story after horror story all week. Another black person killed by police. Seattle’s Capitol Hill occupied by protesters. Covid-19 cases rising, and people refusing to wear masks. The president attacking the Washington State governor. Young people setting buildings on fire, spraying graffiti, toppling statues. People dying in overcrowded hospitals while others insist the death counts are a hoax. My sister wishes we would turn it off, but I have been cut off from American news and crave information. My mother, watching over my sister’s shoulder, starts sentences with I can’t believe or Can you believe or It’s hard to believe. She wants the looters and vandals to stop misbehaving. She thinks civility can stopper the rage and despair erupting everywhere like a wildcat oil well. I turn back to our salad and frittata, chew and swallow, so I won’t argue. She’s too old to be wrong.
Nature seems simpler, more sensible. A goldfinch poses on the arc of the feeder hanger like a flashy finial. Pine siskins take turns at the seed tray while towhees scratch in the chaff and woodpeckers and flickers vie over the suet feeders. A swarm of hummingbirds practices social distancing by dive bombing and levitation before cozying up at the sugar water dispenser like drunks at a bar. Then an enormous crow lands on the feeder pole. The pole sways and the smaller birds scatter like water after a cannonball dive.
A person who is jubilant crows. To get somewhere by the shortest distance is to travel as the crow flies.
Crows are divine messengers. Crows are harbingers of doom. One crow in a dream predicts a death. Seeing two crows on a wire means good luck. Spotting three means wealth and health. Five crows are a sign of impending sickness. Six crows and we circle back to death.
My sister doesn’t believe in omens. I wish I didn’t.
When I was three, I had a toy pie made of tin. If you turned the crank attached to its side, the pie played a rattly version of “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” My mother sang to us, so I knew all the words:
Sing a song of sixpence, pockets full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
At the end of the song, flat tin crows sprang from the openings in the tin crust with a loud pop.
Along came a blackbird and snipped right off her nose!
My sister, a year younger, laughed. I leaped back and cried.
Between the front door of my mother’s house and the car, I nearly step on the first dead bird. I can only look for a second. Mid-sized body. Dark feathers. Carcass splayed and eviscerated.
My mother’s elderly gardener crosses the yard to remove the mess. When he leans in to look, he jokes. “I think there’s enough here you could have it on toast.” I grimace and turn away.
The next morning my sister finds another dead bird behind the cabin. She reports that twigs and leaves are scattered alongside the body. I ask where it is on the path, so I won’t have to see.
The following day she finds a third bird on her front deck. “Mangled,” she says, “just like the others.” Unable to resist a pun, I mutter, “Murder most fowl.”
A group of eagles is called a convocation, a flock of starlings a murmuration, a collective of crows a murder, but does a triad constitute a collective? If so, what we have on our hands is a murder of murdered crows.
Drinking tea in my mother’s living room, my sister and I piece together clues. The crows were rioting overhead for three days. The twigs on the ground might be nesting material. We Google crows and discover that the fledglings spend two weeks hopping about before they can fly. We run through a list of potential predators. The crows are hecklers, so I think the eagle finally had it with their shenanigans and got even. My sister thinks maybe an owl or osprey made off with easy prey.
I text my friend who works at a wildlife shelter, and she says maybe a cat or dog mauled the fledglings. “Raptors,” she says, “would leave only feathers. They’d have the courtesy to feast in private.” Even in a text, I can hear the irony. I remember tagging along with her on an eagle release. The enormous juveniles snapped and struggled against their rescuers, looking more like ferocious pterosaurs than noble national icons. Once freed, they flapped and soared. I felt a tug in my chest as they pitched toward open sky. Nature doesn’t grapple with gray zones, but crows circle back. Holding vigil over their dead, they use death to instruct the living.
My friend asks the beak color. Yellow or black? I had only glanced, so I have no idea. When my problem-solving sister pulls up a photo on her phone, I see what I missed when I turned away. A yellow beak pokes out from among feathers that I now see are the dark gray of flecked granite. And just like that, the blame finger pivots.
Our martyred crow babies transform into starlings—those thieving miscreants of the avian world. Murdered by crows.
When he visits the next day, my brother shovels the bodies over the fence into the overgrown lot next door. The crows are strangely still. In the days that follow, my sister and I will start a new jigsaw puzzle. I will try out new recipes and buy sunflower seeds for my mother’s feeders. Walking between the house and cabin, I will scan the trees and ground, looking for signs, for what I don’t want to see.
Heather Diamond holds a B.F.A. in studio art, an M.A. of English from the University of Houston, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii. She has worked as a bookseller, college instructor, and museum curator. Her first memoir—Rabbit in the Moon—will be released in Spring 2021 by Camphor Press. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Memoir Magazine, Sky Island Journal, (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences of the Pandemic, New South Journal, and Waterwheel Review. She lives in Hong Kong with her husband and two cats.