Saturday morning turns ugly for the Andersons when a one-legged crow stops by for a visit.
|A Murder of Crows
by Sean Johnston
James Anderson didn't notice the bird at first. It was only when he turned to dump yesterday's coffee grinds that he caught a glimpse of it, looking in on him through the build-up of dew on the kitchen window. The crow's eyes were fixed in their sockets--tiny black marbles staring intently back at him. It was missing a leg but the bird didn't seem to know or care. It screwed its neck at Jim, twisting it's head almost upside down. Jim shuffled across the kitchen toward the window, his slippers brushing lightly against the linoleum tiles like short strokes of sandpaper on drywall.
He placed the filter carriage on the counter and tapped at the window with his wedding ring. The bird crouched down on its leg as if preparing to launch into flight. Instead, it extended its leg again, making itself taller, lifting its head like a child straining to see over a crowd at a parade. Jim tapped on the glass a second time. The visitor opened its jet black beak, letting go a strident caw before spreading its wings and taking flight.
Jim looked outside, his bright blue eyes taking in all the beauty that spring and the country life had to offer. There was a group of crows sitting on the fence. Beyond that was the rest of Maryland. An hour of highway stretched eastward between the rural serenity of his modest home and the hectic streets of Baltimore. By the time the Mr. Coffee had emitted its first gurgle, the image of the black mono-pod had abandoned Jim's mind, the way a dream dissolves from memory before the sheets have had a chance to cool.
Jim sat on the couch in front of the television, sipping from a mug that read "# 1 DAD," watching Lester Holt talk about the link between sugar and childhood obesity.
"Morning!" he said, as his wife scuttled down the stairs pulling at the belt of her pink terrycloth robe. "Did you sleep well?"
Paula looked at Jim, her eyes red and puffy from the work-induced coma she had slipped into the night before.
"Why are you up so early?" she asked, her voice dry and cracked, "It's Saturday. I thought you'd still be in bed."
"I don't know," Jim said. "I guess I was just...finished."
Paula rolled her eyes at Jim, grunting an inaudible epithet as she dragged herself to the kitchen, squinting against the sun that had just crested the crop of trees in their backyard, piercing the windows on the east side of the old house, invading the kitchen with light. She pulled a yellow mug from the cupboard and filled it with coffee, then three teaspoons of sugar. The spoon clanked against the sides of the mug as Paula looked out the window at the day. Lined up along the fence was a small army of black crows, motionless save for the quick snaps of their heads--left, right, up, down. There were more on the lawn--dozens more.
"There's a flock of crows in the backyard, Jim. A whole bunch of them. Why do you suppose they chose our house to gather?"
"I wonder if they--What? What did you say?"
"I said murder. It's a murder of crows, not a flock," Jim said.
"Really? Why is it called a murder?"
"I don't know for sure. But I'm certain the information is reliable. It did, after all, come from this steel trap of mine." Jim tapped a finger on his temple.
"It's because they hold court, Dad." Christopher said from the stairs.
Jim looked over his shoulder at his son.
The heel of Christopher's hand rubbed vigorously at a sleepy eye as he paused, three steps from the landing.
"They hold what?" Christopher's mother asked from the kitchen.
The boy jumped from the third step, landing with expert skill on the tiles at the base of the stairs.
"They single out one of their own," Christopher continued. "Then the whole group attacks that one crow, like he was found guilty of a crime and given the death sentence. It's called Crow Polident...or something. I saw it on Animal Planet a few weeks ago."
Jim pictured the one-legged bird grinning back at him with a mouth full of sparkly white dentures and held back a laugh.
"Crow Parliament," Jim said.
"Whatever. I killed one with the Daisy yesterday. I didn't mean to. I only meant to scare it off the fence, but I shot it in the head by accident. I felt awful, Dad. I even had nightmares about it."
Jim looked at his son.
"That's not like you, Chris. Why would you do something like that?"
"I told you. I didn't mean to. I gave it a proper burial though. Out back, in the flower garden by the shed."
Paula looked across the yard at the shed. Crows lined the eve of the small structure. Near a row of petunias, she saw the cross that Christopher had fashioned out of sticks and twine. A crow sat perched on the horizontal twig, where Jesus' left hand would be. At the base of the makeshift crucifix was a small mound of dirt and a few wilting petunias that Christopher had plucked from the garden and placed on the mound as an offering to the dead bird. Paula smiled at the sweetness of the act, thinking that her son must be the most caring nine-year-old on the planet.
"Did you say a prayer for it, Christopher?"
"I did. And I said another one last night, before I went to sleep. But I don't think it did any good. Animals don't go to heaven. Father Connolly said so."
"Where do they go?" Paula asked.
"I don't know. Someplace else, I guess."
Jim's back cracked from across the room as he stood up stretching his arms to the ceiling, his balled up hands twisting in circles, giving off tiny pops from his wrists. He surrendered to a long gaping yawn.
"Well, I wouldn't worry too much about it, son," Jim said. "But you need to be more responsible with that BB gun. We don't kill anything we're not prepared to eat--I doubt you'd be interested in a bucket of Original Recipe crow. Am I right?"
"KFC," he said. "Kentucky Fried Crow. Yummy!"
The Andersons broke into laughter.
Jim rinsed the last of the conditioner from his hair. In the kitchen, Mr. Coffee had shut himself off, leaving an inch of cold Joe at the bottom of the glass pot. When he came back downstairs, Jim found Christopher and Paula with their noses pressed against the glass of the double French doors that separated the living room from the patio at the back of the house.
"Look at them, Jim!" Paula said, a circle of fog bloomed then shrank on the glass with each word. "They're everywhere!"
Jim walked over to the window, his freshly combed hair still wet.
"What are you talking about?" Jim said, leaning in to look over Paula's shoulder. "Holy shit!" he said. Jim quickly covered his mouth with his hand as if he could somehow shove the word back in before it reached his son's ears.
Paula turned her head and shot Jim a scolding look.
"Sorry," Jim said from behind his hand. "It's just that I've never seen so many birds in one place."
The yard was covered in crows. The lawn itself was a vast moving carpet of black. What had started out as one, then a dozen, had turned into thousands--tens of thousands. They covered the branches of every tree, the roof of the shed, the swing-set, the grill. Where they had stood staring, motionless earlier that morning, they were now a chaotic swirl of movement. There were birds lined up, wing-to-wing along the power lines. Crow-covered cables dipped between the endless row of telephone poles that ran through the back of the Anderson's property. They fluttered about, switching positions along the power lines like schoolchildren trying to organize themselves into alphabetical order. Exposed wires hung from a transformer and a group of crows picked at the fuses, tearing at strips of black sheathing that dangled from the cable, exposing the bare braids of silver wire that made up the guts of the power lines.
Jim looked away moments before a brilliant flash of green light illuminated his peripheral. The light was accompanied by an epic BOOM! that rattled the windows in their frames. Paula screamed as she and Christopher jumped back from the French doors shielding their faces instinctively with their forearms. Jim's neck disappeared into his shoulders as if he expected to be crushed beneath a falling tree. The television went silent, the clock on the microwave blinked off. Jim looked out at the back yard. Green sparks poured from the transformer in an electric waterfall. Half a dozen crows laid dead and smoldering at the base of the telephone pole. The smell of static filled the air. Paula looked wide-eyed at Jim.
"We need to call for help!"
Jim was already holding the Uniden in a shaking hand. He pushed the green button, then three more. He held the phone to his ear--nothing. He glanced at the black screen of the television. Telephones aren't effected by power outages, he thought. But this is a cordless phone, he remembered. His eyes traced the power cord form the telephone's base unit to the electrical outlet on the wall.
"Where's your cell phone, Paula?"
"I left it in the van." She had planned on leaving it there until Monday, letting the handful of weekend warriors at the office make their own decisions for a change.
Jim ran to the front door pulling aside the sheer drapes that covered one of the narrow windows flanking the door. His eyes widened. Outside, black chaos swallowed the day. Crows flew in every direction like giant, black gnats buzzing around in an unorganized swarm. Jim watched as two birds collided in mid-flight, both of them falling broken-necked to the ground, disappearing beneath a churning sea of black feathers and beaks. The minivan was parked forty feet from the door. It was covered in crows. The windshield was caked with droppings and two birds sat perched on the driver's side rear-view mirror, bobbing their heads up and down as if taunting Jim, daring him to come out.
"I'm going for the cell," he said as he pulled a set of keys from a hook. "I just hope the damn thing still has a charge."
Jim twisted the knob and pulled on the door. The noise from outside grew instantly louder. Several crows immediately infiltrated the crack, pushing through the opening, inviting themselves into the Anderson's living room. Paula shrieked from the kitchen. Jim slammed the door, severing a tiny black head that fell to the ground at Jim's feet, its glassy eyes looked back accusingly. Before Jim had a chance to react, he heard Paula and Christopher screaming from the kitchen. He ran toward the back of the house to find Christopher lying on the ground. The boy was on the kitchen floor, face down, with his knees in his chest, shielding the back of his neck as birds pecked at the small hands and feet that jutted out from beneath a pair of blue pajamas. Paula was screaming and beating at the birds with a magazine. She managed to hit one and it tumbled across the kitchen landing feet up, lifeless in front the refrigerator.
"HELP ME, JIM!"
Jim grabbed a folded newspaper from the green recycle bin that sat next to the trashcan. He beat at flapping wings and sharp, pecking beaks as Christopher pleaded to get them off of him. The newspaper blossomed with splatters of red as crows dropped dead on the linoleum floor. When the bedlam was over, eight feathered corpses lay bloodied and broken in the Anderson's kitchen. The cuffs of Christopher's pajamas had gone purple from blood that ran from the wounds on Christopher's hands and feet. Paula held him in her lap, rocking the crying boy back and forth, ignoring her own tears, concentrating solely on comforting the terrified child.
Jim pulled a heavy winter coat from the downstairs closet.
"Chris, go get your Slugger."
Christopher's head cocked sideways reminding Jim of the way the one-legged crow had screwed its neck at him, twisting his head to an impossible degree. Jim pushed the thought out of his mind.
"Your bat, Chris! Go get your bat!" The boy traversed the steps two at a time and was back before Jim could finish zipping up the thick, green coat. Christopher handed the Louisville Slugger to his father. Jim held the bat's business end in one hand, offering the neck of the bat to his wife.
"Take this, Paula." Jim pulled the coat's hood over his head. "Chris, get in the bathroom. Don't come out until we say its clear."
"Okay, but what if..." Christopher looked down. "Never mind." Jim hooked a finger under Christopher's chin guiding the boys face toward his own, forcing the child to look into his eyes.
"It's going to be okay, Chris. Do you trust me?" Christopher blinked. A tear crested his right eyelid and rolled down his face, settling in the corner of his mouth.
"I trust you," he said.
Jim looked at Paula.
"Feel like a little batting practice?"
"I...I don't know, Jim."
"You'll do fine. It's just a few birds." Jim pulled on the draw strings that hung from the coat's collar. The hood cinched and tightened around Jim's face. "I'm going to open and close the door as quickly as I can, he said. "You stand ready to knock a few out of the park if they get in." Jim winked at Paula.
Paula rolled her eyes at Jim for the second time that day. "Just a few birds. Right. I'll try to keep that in mind." Jim smiled at the display. Sarcasm had always been Paula's strong suite. Especially when she was under duress.
Jim put his hands on Paula's shoulders, his blue eyes staring into hers.
"Everything is going to be alright, honey. I'll get the cell phone, and call for help, okay?" Paula nodded reluctantly.
"What do you think they want, Jim? It's as if the entire flock has the same objective. What could they want?"
"It's not a flock," Jim said. "It's a--"
Paula covered his mouth with her hand, cutting him off.
"Don't say it!"
Paula thought about the crow parliament that Jim and Christopher had talked about. She looked toward the bathroom door where her son was now holed up. She thought about the crows that had gotten into the house, how they had gone strait for Christopher, almost ignoring her and Jim entirely.
"You think they're after Christopher, don't you?"
"I think that the crow that Chris killed yesterday had already been found guilty by the...parliament--that it had already been sentenced to death. When Chris stepped in and killed it, he became the accused. I don't think they'll stop until..." Jim couldn't finish the thought out loud.
"Oh my God, Jim! Could that be?"
"I don't know. But it's the only thing that I can come up with." Jim put his arms around Paula's waist and pulled her close. "We'll get through this. It's all going to work out fine. You'll see." Jim kissed her on the lips then, placing his hands on her shoulders, he smiled at Paula. "Ready?"
Paula looked into her husband's eyes and forced a smile.
When Jim opened the door, more crows found their way into the Anderson's house. This time, Paula stood ready with the baseball bat. Jim quickly shut the door behind him and disappeared into a cloud of black feathers.
Paula didn't take time to count the crows but she guessed there were about twenty of them. Earlier, the creatures had flown directly to Christopher. This time, they scattered, finding perch in various areas of the house. On the mantle, a large crow scanned the living room from atop a silver picture frame that held a family portrait. Three more black demons looked at Paula from a curtain rod on the other side of the living room. A crow sat perched on the edge of a porcelain fruit bowl that sat on the dining room table, its squared tail covering a red apple like a feathery awning. There were more scattered about the room and Paula watched as they looked at each other with quick snaps of their heads--left, right. Cawing to each other in hellish screeches--up, down.
Paula walked slowly toward the dining room table, choking up on the bat like Sammy Sosa. The crow had let loose his bowels on an apple and the sight of the white goo dripping down the Red Delicious infuriated her. The black invader looked at Paula, spreading its wings out at her before letting another collection of white ooze land with a tiny splat on the apple. More rage rose and she cocked the Slugger back on her shoulder. The bird looked up at her laughing in a hideous caw that sent a chill up Paula's back. She furrowed her brow at the crow, the thick end of the bat tracing tiny circles in the air. Paula thought of her son holed up in the bathroom. Her lips pulled back from her teeth, and she swung. SWOOSH! POP! The bat connected with the crow and the bowl sending pieces of apples and broken porcelain across the dining room, toward the kitchen. Black feathers and bits of bones and beak spread out in a bloody fireworks display above the table. The ruined bird flew in a shapeless mass, landing on the kitchen floor, sliding on the tiles, leaving a brush-stroke of red across the waxy surface of the linoleum.
"What was that?" asked a muffled voice from the bathroom door.
The other birds stood at attention at the sound of Christopher's inquiry. Their heads shot in the direction of the bathroom and they all took flight at once, as if following some unspoken command. They converged, mid-air in the the living room, flying at great speed through the house and toward the bathroom. Their beaks hit hard, jack-hammering at the door. One of the crows hit with enough force to break its own neck. Paula watched as it fell lifeless to the floor.
Christopher screamed from behind the bathroom door. Paula swung wildly at the birds. She managed to hit two of them, exploding them like Kool-Aid-filled water balloons. A crow landed on the floor and slipped its head through the crack at the bottom of the door. Still swinging, Paula watched as a shadow moved across the light at the base of the bathroom door. She heard the sound of Christopher's bare foot slap hard against the tile. The sound was accompanied by a small pop as blood sprayed out from underneath the door. Good boy, she thought.
The crows were still primarily interested in Christopher, but it was clear to Paula that they weren't opposed to attacking anyone that stood in their way. More crows attempted to gain entry into the bathroom, wriggling under the door--more slaps from the boy's feet, more pops, more sprays of blood.
There were seven or eight birds left and they abandoned the bathroom door in favor of Paula. Sharp beaks tore pieces of skin from Paula's neck, wings flapped at her face, tiny talons scraped at her cheeks. Paula dropped the bat and swatted at the giant gnats with her hands as she fell to the floor screaming. She assumed the same position that Christopher had demonstrated earlier. Apparently, there was a singular method of protecting oneself from a group of crazy, hell-sent crows. She covered the back of her neck as black beaks tore at her fingers. She felt sharp pokes as the birds continued their relentless biting, crawling up the sleeves of her robe, penetrated the soft skin on her wrists, ripping holes in her forearms. Paula was losing the battle.
She was curled up in a ball, screaming, as wings flapped, and beaks poked. Hope drained from her resolve and she prepared herself for death. Somewhere between insane screeches and maddening caws Paula heard a swoosh followed by a pop. Then more--SWOOSH! POP! SWOOSH! POP! She looked up at Christopher. He stood over her gripping the Louisville Slugger in his small hands, swinging, landing one home run after another, sending bloody birds soaring across the room. There was one bird left and Christopher chased it through the house swinging and missing as the bird flew from perch to perch looking for safety. Pictures were smashed to pieces then a mirror, a glass vase, the television, and finally a lamp--blown to oblivion by the boy and his bat. As the black menise flew across the room, Chris landed a swing, sending the crow, this time unwillingly, through the air. It landed with a loud, wet splat against the wall, its blood-soaked feathers gluing it in place before the weight of the carcass slowly peeled the bird away, letting it land on the carpet in a mangled mess of bones and feathers.
Christopher, still holding on to the bloody bat, struggling to regain control of his breathing, looked at his mother who sat on the floor on the other side of the demolished living room.
"Got him," he said.
Paula looked at Christopher and smiled.
"You sure did, Sweetheart. You got him."
Dead birds littered the Anderson's house and Paula stood up, blood dripping from the open wounds on her face. She thought about Jim, wondered if he had made it to the van, wondered if he had succeeded in calling for help? She ran to the front of the house and looked out the window toward the minivan. Paula stood gaping at the scene outside. Noon had turned to night and she watched as thousands of birds fluttered wildly in a mad riot of feathers. Only small glimpses of blue sky were visible through the confusion of flapping black wings. She looked for her husband. She could make out the shape of the van through the chaotic swarm of crows, but she couldn't see Jim.
Paula ran across the house to the French doors and looked out. More birds blanketed the back yard--still no Jim. She ran to the kitchen window, leaning over the sink to get a better view. Paula let out an ear-piercing scream, cutting it short with her hand as she covered her mouth. Paula was staring at a one-legged crow that sat just outside the window, looking in on the kitchen. A bright blue eyeball stared back at her from between the crows ebony beak.
"NO!" she screamed, shaking her head as if she could reject the reality outright.
"NO! NO! NO!"
Paula thought of Jim, lying bloody and dead somewhere between the front door and the minivan and her heart sank. "Murder," Jim had said. And Paula hadn't understood. But she understood now. Christopher had been found guilty and the crows intended to see that justice was served. But something tugged at Paula's reasoning. She couldn't help the nagging feeling that she was missing something. But what? Paula's eyes widened.
The bird! she thought. They want the bird that Christopher shot with the Daisy!
Paula looked at Christopher, who stood in the living room at the far end of the kitchen, still holding the bat in his blood-covered hand. He hadn't seen the one-legged crow and that was good.
"Back in the bathroom, Kiddo," she said. "I want you to take a towel and shove it in the crack at the bottom of the door." Christopher nodded and moved toward the bathroom without a word. She waited for Christopher to ready himself before turning her attention to the French doors that separated her from the madness taking place outside. She walked slowly, a determined look evident on her bloody face. Standing at the French doors, Paula placed her left hand on the knob. She thought about Father Connolly. How he had said that birds don't go to heaven. He had been right. And Paula was sure they didn't come from heaven either. She took in a long, deep breath. With her right hand she made the sign of the cross and flung open the door.
Paula ran from the house, slamming the door behind her. She fled across the patio toward the shed wearing a pink terrycloth robe. In the distance, she thought she heard sirens, but through the cacophony of shrill caws, and her own screams, she couldn't be sure. Maybe Jim made it to the van, she thought.
The crows came down hard on Paula, poking and tearing at her, covering her, biting at her like a school of airborne piranhas. Arms flailing, screaming, Paula ran faster trying to shield herself from the angry birds. She was ten feet from the bed of petunias, where a wooden cross made from broken tree branches and twine sat in the middle of a small mound of dirt. She extended her hand, preparing to grab at the cross (she would use the stick to dig up the dead crow) when her foot caught in a loop of garden hose sending her smashing face-first into the bird-covered ground. She could feel the wriggle of crows beneath her stomach as they squirmed, trying to escape Paula's crushing weight. Black beaks picked and ripped at her skin, tearing more pieces loose. Paula looked up at the makeshift cross. She thought of Christopher locked in the bathroom. She thought of Jim lying dead, bloodied next to the minivan. The images of her son and husband let loose an untapped reserve of adrenaline and Paula pushed herself to her knees. Crawling toward the tiny grave, she reached out a bloody hand, wrapping her mangled fingers around the top of the cross.
She pulled hard, but was surprised at the ease with which the ground gave up the wooden cross. Christopher had sharpened the end of the stick before driving it into the dirt. He had inadvertently stabbed the dead crow, impaling the creature. A small nub where Christopher had torn off a rogue twig fish-hooked the bird to the cross. With a shaking hand, Paula held the dead bird to the sky. The sound of screeches and caws filled Paula's ears--a symphony of lunatics--as crows swooped down at the stiff bird, tearing pieces of it from the stick. More birds rained down, flapping their wings, hovering above Paula. She felt the cross being pulled from her hand and she loosened her grip. Looking up, Paula watched as the crows lifted the skewered bird into the air. An upside down cross floated skyward as black feathers fell gently to earth. She watched as the last of the dead bird was torn from the stick. The cross, now hovering fifty feet above the Anderson's house, was released, breaking apart as it fell. Pieces of twine and more black feathers floated downward as two sticks landed on the roof in a double whack.
Paula collapsed to the ground, exhausted. She laid in the back yard among feathers, and blood, and dead birds. The crows were leaving in mass exodus from the trees and power lines. A giant conveyor belt of dark wings moved eastward through the afternoon sky. Paula could hear the sirens clearly now, growing louder, closer. Jim must have made it, she thought. He must have made it to the van and called for help. He had been hurt badly, but somehow Jim had managed to survive the angry flock of crows.
No. Not a flock, she thought....a murder.