[Image from The Farmers’ Almanac, http://www.almanac.com]
The crows, on winter nights just before dusk, fly in to roost in the trees by the old folks’ home.
The home sits on the edge of the city’s highest hill, two houses down from me and across the street. We walk the paths that wind behind it, that skirt the hill’s ledge. Standing there, when weather has bared the trees, the little dog Greta and I can look to the east and watch the un-iced portion of river ripple. To the south, as darkness falls, city lights flicker on, then glow bold against the winter night.
But on these late January days the crows fly in by the hundreds, by the thousands. They are random and disorganized and relentless. The trees, all of them, are weighted black and heavy, and still the crows come, wheeling in from all directions. They are raucous, and they feel threatening.
I get home from work just as the light is changing; the little dog waits for her pre-supper walk. When I leash her up and we step into the front yard, she freezes, her ruff rising ragged.
They spook her, those crows, with their swooping, rough-edged cries. They converge and there are awful moments when their individual caws merge into one swelling unpleasant pulse. Their harshness sands off the ‘kuh.’ Aw-aw-aw, they chorus, full-throated, beaks wide-open. Delighted, magnified, they get louder, bolder: AWawAWawAWawAW!
It is the shrill sound of chaos, the melody of madness. It lands in the pit and squirms.
Some nights the dog resolutely plunges forward into her regular walking route, wary but determined, heading toward the home, toward the roosting crows. Then, my neck prickles. My shoulders grow cold beneath the collar of my plaid-lined cloth coat. I pull up my hood and I follow her, but cautiously. We do not dilly dally.
Other nights Greta turns quickly away, her back to the screaming, shiny birds, and she heads down the hill to the quieter end of the street.
Crows, I have read, are for the most part solitary, preferring their individual lives in warmer months or climes. It’s in the cold and chill of winter that they cluster, in murders, for night-time survival.
And animals, I think I know, are not inherently evil–nor good, for that matter; they just survive with the tools they’ve been given.
But I have seen, on a summer’s walk with my tender granddaughter, a pair of crows pluck a baby from a smaller bird’s nest and fly off jeering. The baby’s frantic parents raced after them; the crows soared nonchalantly on ahead, one dangling the feebly fluttering fledgling from its beak. The other crow swooped in to peck and torment; both turned their heads toward the parents, black eyes alight, and then flew on. My granddaughter, animal lover and nurturer, one born to help and heal, begged them, running after, please, to stop.
They seemed to us gleeful.
They seemed to us psychopathic.
I have seen crows strutting in the middle of a busy road, pecking around a carcass, unwilling to move before my speeding car. They shuffle into flight at the last minute; I can almost smell the rotten stench beneath their wings, feel that warm decay pass me by too closely. Their leisure feels a lot like arrogance.
My head knows it’s silly to dislike a bird, but still. I don’t like crows.
And I especially don’t like the pulsing mayhem on these winter nights, their triumphant cawing infestation. I am glad to turn the little dog back toward the bright windows of home.
Inside the house disorder rankles. With an energy stoked by some sort of anger, I pull bags and packages from the pantry and stack them on the counter. I climb on a chair and denude the highest shelf, discovering things plunked there and untouched since we moved in.
I sort–some to donate, some to discard, some to store and use.
I fill the sink with hot soapy water, plunge a soft cloth into the suds. I scrub each shelf mightily, and then rub each shelf, hard, with a towel. I reorder and replace the saved items on shelves, neatly, pleasingly. Balsamic and apple vinegars, western New York barbecue marinade, soy sauce and hot sauce, perch on the very top, a bottle-wall in front of cookie cutters and cake decorating things used only occasionally. I put basmati rice and fettuccine noodles more easily to hand. Crackers share space with cans of tomatoes, and prettily-bottled olive oil with its clunky, contained-in-plastic, canola oil kin.
I box things to go in the trash, to take to the food kitchen downtown. I load boxes in my car. I sweep and wash the kitchen floor, and I stand, in my sock-feet on the still damp tiles, in front of the open pantry door. I breathe in the new-made order.
The crows are gone, the trees empty, just after dawn when I take the dog out for her morning rites. But the wind has picked up; it skirls dead leaves into the ivy that hugs the ground in front of the house. Across the street, a long, thick, electrical extension cord snakes from New Neighbors’ house to the place they park their truck; on the end, some sort of element glows red and wobbles gently. The truck is long gone. The element seems like a story left dangerously without an ending.
A coil of blue packing twine skitters in the street, and still, these many weeks later, a shard of Christmas wrapping flips up into the leaves huddling by the retaining wall.
The sky is a lowering gray, full and ominous. It will snow today, although the experts told us it would not. The snow will be thin, light, whipping stuff that only sticks in hidden crevices and corners; it will taunt ankles and sting cheeks and have none of the beauty of a Christmas card. This wind will blow it anywhere it likes.
I am reading a book set in Provence, in the time of the mistral. The author talks about the wind-induced madness, a kind of craziness that lifts and tears and finally, cleanses. This weather–and last night’s crows–make me think of that powerful, externally-imposed chaos. I hurry the dog along; we shiver our way back inside.
This day, the dog suddenly hurls herself at the door, snarling, when a frail old man shuffles past the house. Cars careen out in front of traffic, stealing right-of-way for themselves. At work, people plod grimly and bad news is completely expected and checks have come unloosened on ordinarily civil tongues. I am glad when it is time to go home, to rub the dog’s silky head, to talk with Jim, warm and settled with his writing.
The fine and taunting snow swirls outside; I put potatoes on to boil. I roll a pork roast in a skim of oil. I pat it with a crust of herbs, and I put it in the warming oven. It will perfume the house. I will shake the boiled potatoes with their own light film of oil and herbs, and put them, too, in to roast. Mark will arrive, shedding his long coat, rubbing his cold hands, ready to eat. I will dress a spinach salad and we will light a candle tonight as we dine, a shot at warmth and comfort.
After dinner I clear the desk, carrying a basket of unsorted papers to the dining room table. I sift them; some I can act on right away, filling out the form, writing the check, sealing the message into its envelope. Others must be filed, labelled and alphabetized and easy to find; many can go into the recycling basket. Some few head to the shredder. I work diligently, surprised when my knees begin to jelly on me. I look at my phone and realize I have been standing in this one spot for two uninterrupted hours. I clear off the table, move everything to its appointed place, and celebrate finding the missing paper that had been eluding me.
Another surface cleared; a little more order imposed. I will sleep well tonight.
So we plunge into the infant year, with its unformed, uncommitted potential. We try to steer it away from the random, toward the light, out of discordance, into order—into warmth and meaning. The raucous noise, the threatening wind, the mindless creatures flapping: we’ll tame them with our light and with our bravery. We will hold them at bay, we promise ourselves, with the strength and ferocity of our belief.