20 June 2005

(79) Conversations with a crow

Chapter 1

How did the Conversations start? A crow built a nest in the tree next to my window. It's as simple as that. I'm not sure I ever thought about crows nesting; I assumed they did and but never really thought about it. Actually, not thinking about crows is a common predisposition among humans. We usually don't see them, except at roadkills and in loud flocks raising a ruckus in the morning. I discovered later our inattention is intentional. It's part of their agenda. The primary question on my mind at the time was "why". That question was followed closely by "how". But answering those questions, if they can be answered, is an exercise in philosophy, mechanics and more than a little necromancy that is neither appropriate here in the beginning nor interesting to you who read this. Let's instead, start with the crow's nest.

As she-I never really learned her name so will just call her Morgan-built her nest, she would murmur in a low under-current, mantra-like tone. It's not all that common to hear a crow murmur. Usually we notice them only when they are cawing loudly. As I awoke every morning when I was just on the edge of consciousness, this crow's monologue started to break through, invading my conscious mind. She started to make sense, a few words at first, but with increasing familiarity. At some point, while I was learning more and more about her language, she became aware that I was listening. Consequently, she began to adapt her speech to my ears, to speak about every other word in the language of humans so subtly that I didn't notice it. This was a sacrifice for her, but a minor one in retrospect.

So in my half conscious state, on the edge of waking, the crows murmurs became words and phrases. I can't remember any of those discussions. Nevertheless, talking through the window, I got the idea that she had stories she wanted to tell me, a fact confirmed one morning as I walked out my door and saw twigs strewn all over the front walk, beneath the pine tree. A very messy nest builder, I thought to myself, a fact later confirmed by someone who knew it firsthand. That fact was, however, unrelated to what I was seeing. The murmurs continued to filter through the branches as I left for work. Each day I'd sweep her leavings away, but every morning there would be more. After three or four mornings of this, I stopped my morning ritual and just looked at the twigs. Something the crow was saying from her nest and the arrangement of the twigs began to make sense, to coalesce into something meaningful. On a conscious level, I began to understand the twigs and murmurs. Together they told a story.

They told the story of the Grackle that Learned Wisdom before Death. Morgan was the protagonist of this tale, though, as with most story tellers, you can never tell whether she speaks from personal knowledge or puts a personal spin on the yarn to catch your attention. She explained, matter of factly, that she'd been killing grackles all morning. She had about 100 dead and buried birds to her credit, including the entire family of the one she just called Grackle. Grackle had witnessed the slaughter, watched his mother, brothers, and sisters fight valiantly and die. Now he was prepared to fight, but decided against a direct attack, since that had failed miserably even with 100-to-one odds. Crows are tough customers. Instead he hid in a bush and taunted Morgan. Next to the bush was a rose vineclimbing a trellis and Grackle had pulled back one thorn-filled branch of the rose, holding it like a taut spring, waiting for crow to come and get him. This, thought Morgan to herself, shows the limits of the grackle mind. This constitutes their best thoughts, best efforts, best ideas of ambush. She indulged him, let him spring his trap, let the thorns bounce off her, catching a yellow rose bud in her beak and neatly clipping it off. Grackle looked triumphant for a split second, then looked up at the crow towering over him, the rose in her beak proffered like a gift. "There is a wisdom that is woe," wrote one of your authors, Morgan told me. And the wisdom born of Grackle's desperation made him speak. He begged her to wait, to listen to him. It was then he sprung his real trap, she explained, though he probably didn't know it at the time. Grackle started telling Morgan about his family, all dead now. He spoke of his sisters, how they played together, found food for mother when she was sick.
Grackle spoke lovingly of his brother, the strongest grackle he had ever seen, of another brother who survived a storm that killed many friends. He told of cold winters without food, how they huddled together for warmth and how they lost father when he went out in a blizzard to find food. He spoke of good times too, of mud and spring, of cool autumns with lots of food, of love and sex and life. After what seemed like hours, he was done. He had put a face on most of her kills, given them context, made them real and subjective. Somewhere during the monologue, Morgan had dropped the rose. She stepped back, out of killing range. She explained to him what he had done, that he had crippled her as a grackle-killer. The black birds weren't just her targets, her numerical quotas, anymore. She would see the faces of his family forever now in her memory, and she would kill his kind less efficiently now. But, don't get her wrong, she explained, she would not stop killing grackles. There were times when she had to kill other birds for reasons they both understood (though I didn't). Nevertheless, there would never again be murder with impunity for her.She shivered and let him go. She named him Grackle, and he and his wisdom were protected and set apart by her edict. Since he had opened a dialogue with the "enemy," he would come to Morgan often, tell her stories from his point of view. Eventually though, he grew tired of other grackles' noise, their inability to think beyond a moment or two. One hundred years after that morning of desperation, he passed on.
There it was; a simple tale of twigs and murmurs for a simple man. Me. I listened and I learned and I asked no questions. I thereby passed my first test, though I didn't figure this out until later.

Chapter 2

At first, I called Morgan "Builder," a rather sarcastic reference to her nest building techniques, which were at best slap-dash. The twigs and branches strewn about my front walk and lawn weren't just messages, they were also errors in her architecture. I know she did considerable damage to the tree as well, like a barber with a hedge trimmer, cutting too much in a frantic attempt to compensate for the wrong tool. She lashed together a nest outside my window, but never really used it as far as I could tell, to lay eggs or raise young crows. She herself never sat in it. When I joked with her about her nest, she revealed her sense of humor. I shouldn't have been surprised to find it dark. She, and all her kind, she explained, were indentured to Death. "Death," I ventured, "with a capital D?" "Yes," she assured me, "Death as in the spirit that controls the ending of life as you know it. You humans fear him but he is not the enemy. We crows are his representatives, his lackeys, his gophers, if you will. We bring his messages from time to time and do other errands. Though we rarely actually kill humans, we do most of his work with the birds, so he rarely has to worry about killing them. I thought the concept of gophers of Death was funny and said so. She laughed too. "If Death isn't our enemy, who is?" I asked. She told me that our free will is the true enemy, but that such a discussion must wait for later. We must build up to it. So instead we talked nests. "I can't get those twigs to stay together," she growled. "I don't know. Maybe they're too short. Maybe I need glue." I offered to get her some, but she said that the other crows would know if she used glue and she'd never hear the end ofit. "No," she shook her head, "I'm just not much of a nester. None of us are. It's not built into our instincts like it is with other birds, though we continue to build them out of habit. There's a thought: habit without instinct." She stopped for a second, as if she were writing it down in some notebook in her head. "What?" I interrupted, breaking her concentration. "Oh, nothing," she off-handed me. "Still, instead of laughing at my nest, you could offer some help." "If you won't take glue, what can I do? I'm afraid I don't have any how-to books on nest building. Why not ask some other birds?" "They don't talk to us much, as you should have already concluded. Are you that obtuse?" "Uh, well..." I said, confirming her worst suspicions. "You're going to be a slow one, aren't you?" she said, like a patronizing teacher talking to the kid destined to be the village idiot. "Still, what can I do? Maybe you don't need a nest?" "Of course I don't need a nest." "So why build it?" "I'm giving you context, but you probably don't understand that yet." She paused. "You'll hear that phrase a lot, even near the end." She paused again and sighed. "If you make it to the end." "You're talking about the end and it seems like we've just begun. I think." "That's good," she says smiling*. "Keep that attitude and you'll have a chance. So what do you know about nests?" "They are a beginning. Which makes me wonder why you talk about endings." *It's important to remember that, when I describe the facial expressions of crows, it's with the understanding that their beaks are not really capable of a smile or frown. Nevertheless, you could tell much about the way a crows are feeling by the way they cock their heads, move their bodies and the inflection in their voice. They have a highly inflected language and are not at all circumspect about fully disclosing their emotional state. One might say they are too expressive, once you get to know them, than not expressive enough. There were times I would have appreciated a bit more reticence."Just a habit I've got. It's part instinct, but it's also something I know a lot about. As an emissary of Death, I know endings well. You see, the distance between Death and crows is a blur, the boundaries changeable, the borders malleable." I didn't understand and she knew it. "What I know about nests is just about nothing," I admitted, changing the subject. "Let me tell you the story," she said, "of the Saddest Woman Who Ever Needed a Nest." She paused, wondering if I would interrupt, wondering if she had my attention. I'm a natural listener; it wasn't a problem. She started, "Sometimes a crow can hear despair for miles, like sharks can smell blood in the water. This was the loudest, clearest despair I had ever heard. The woman who had called out hadn't made a sound, but I could smell death and worse in her silent emotional scream nonetheless." "So I called her in a way that I knew she would hear. And I waited. A couple of hours later, she arrived. She was in a nightgown, barefoot-her feet were pretty raw from the walk. She was carrying her dead child." I raised my eyebrows but didn't ask the many questions on my mind. "Actually, the child's body was at the hospital, but the empty space in her arms testified to its heavy weight of dead hopes and horrors and ache and concepts you humans don't have words for. And if I used our language," Morgan digressed, "you might have nightmares for months. You're at a danger point of partial understanding where the wrong word in my language could scare the bejeezus out of you. But by the time the Sad Woman had walked to my
tree, she was barely human. The horror of what she felt had stripped away her humanity. The spirit of the child hovered around, but she couldn't feel it. The message the child tried to give her, he gave to me instead. I delivered it years later when she was ready for it." "Anyway," Morgan continued, "the Sad Woman wasn't human anymore. At that moment she was just a mother whose child had only survived a day and she had become all women who had lost children. She existed in all times, felt all the mothers' pain. Every tear was a thousand tears that had been shed and a thousand more that would be shed. She was the devastation that cannot survive. The pain threatened to overwhelm her with its energy, to burn her out and ignite her body, actually physically killing her. I was prepared to lose her, when she spoke." "'I need a nest,' she said. It was totally without emotion and, surprisingly, in our crow language. I knew she didn't understand a word of our language, but I've heard of humans who, pushed so far past the brink of despair, can actually speak crow. She used the crow word for 'nest' which also means 'safety', 'sanctuary', 'comfort', and of course the absolute security of the grave. It actually means more but I'd have to use crow words to explain." "I told her 'let us build one together. It will be big enough for your child and your pain and the end of hope and the nine months you gave the and the 63 years you will give, not forgetting. Let this nest reflect your womb and the wound that will not heal.'" "The Sad Woman put her baby down and I flew to the ground. We started to build with twigs and mud. Her nightgown quickly shredded and we added it to her nest for strength. She was a good builder, unlike me, and wove the materials together so it was tight and strong. I helped her bite off a long strand of her hair and that was instantly woven into the nest. The pace increased and the nest that should have taken days to build, took hours. At one point, the Sad Woman grabbed an iron bar -since we were near the railroad tracks-as thick at your thumb, and twisted it into the framework of the nest. As I said, she was no longer human, being just this side of frenzy. I just tried to keep up." "When it was done, she walked to where her phantom baby lay and picked it up. In long measured steps she approached the nest, kissed her child and lay it in the nest." "'Now?' I asked." "'Now we burn it,' the Sad Woman said." "'I can help' I told her, since she clearly had no way to make fire. I gathered clouds until there was rain, and gathered more until there was a storm. The first stroke of lightening hit the iron bar in the nest and turned it white hot. The nest ignited, and with it, all the pain and sorrow bottled up in the Sad Woman. It burned hot, hot enough to melt the iron and cauterize the wound that was her womb. It was a very deep wound and this merely closed it with a scar. I can't think of anything that would have healed it." "I've never seen a fire burn on the energy of pure emotion like that," mused Morgan. "I guess there was more than a little magic in that woman." She seemed finished, so I asked "Magic?" "Oh, don't tell me we're going to have that discussion?" her school marm voice creeping into pure sarcasm. "I'm not going to get into that whole 'do you believe in magic' shit. You're young and stupid, but you're not a moron. If you've got problems with magic, then we'll stop talking right now because I won't be able to explain the rest of what we need to discuss. So just get over it, all right?" I agreed, feeling a fool for too readily accepting this new information. "So what did he say," I asked, changing the subject, "what message did you deliver later?" "Good," she said, "keep me on the subject of the story. So when the rain doused the fire, the Sad Woman thanked me, turned, walked away, and slept for many days, healing. I looked at the pool of molten iron and started molding it into a twig shape. I coded her baby's message in the iron twig and when she wore it, years later, the message would start to flow innto her subconscious and then into her active consciousness. A simple spell, really," Morgan tried to sound nonchalant. "So what was the message?" I persisted. She cocked her head, paused for a full minute. "Her baby's message was simple: 'Thank you for our time, for giving me life, even for so short a time. Nine months may seem like it was not enough but we were close and I know you loved me. I am sorry to leave you with so much hurt, but I've got to go. I've got things to do, an eternity of things I want to try. I'll come back and check on you from time to time. When you need it most, I will help you. We will be close again when you come over. I will wait. Thank you Mother.' More silence and I suppressed my tears.

Morgan broke the silence, "Good story, huh?" "I think you broke my heart," I gasped out. "The heart is a muscle," she said, again in her lecturing tones, " it only strains and usually only when it's being stretched open wider than it's used to." I wanted to pursue that thought, but she refused. She just muttered to herself, "I'll never forgive Death for that one," and turned her head away.

Chapter 3

"So are all your stories so cheerful?" I asked wryly, when next we met. "If you don't want me to talk about Death, you better say so now and I'll shut up. But since Death is inevitable, it's easy to acquire a sense of humor about him. You'd be surprised how often he messes up, with hilarious results. Like the time he went after Dylan..." "Bob Dylan?" I asked. "Yes, that motorcycle accident was supposed to kill him, but Death missed. And you see the results." "And Jonestown," she laughed, "what a fiasco that was! Death goes in to take out Jim Jones and accidentally takes out everyone. What an idiot." She was laughing too hard to continue, so I interrupted "Forgive me for being a little sensitive, but a lot of innocent people died there. I'm finding it difficult to see the humor." "Two mistakes," she says, instantly serious. "First off, the term 'innocent people' is usually an oxymoron and that's certainly the case with the screwballs in Jonestown. Seondly, you'll find that I, and most crows you will meet, are rather maudlin about death in general and Death in his particulars. If you're going to do this work, you must have a sense of humor.
It's no accident that our calls sound like mocking laughter, slightly tinged with darkness. That's intentional, though most humans don't catch the nuances. You will." "So Death," she says, returning to her theme, "has all this power and responsibility, but none of the foresight and omniscience it takes to do the job right. When you wake early in the morning and you hear us calling in unison,we're usually laughing at something Death did. He gets it right more often than not, but with his workload there are bound to be some slip ups. That's why, to you, death seems so unfair. It usually seems that way after he's botched up, gotten the wrong target, mis-timed it or just didn't see the future ramifications. He's got good instincts, and when he trusts his gut, he does Ok. But he's a busy guy, and odds alone favor some noticeable mistakes." "Fortunately for us, he's got a good sense of humor, doesn't mind us laughing at him. Like the time he came early at Golgotha," she chuckles. "You'll forgive me," I said a little shakily, "if I don't discuss religion with you. All of this talk, these stories, are a bit unsettling to my grasp on reality. I think if we get into theology, I'd freak out." She smiled and cocked her head. "You're wise," she finally concluded, "to recognize when you're digging too deep, too fast. Most people don't know when to stop digging, and that's an easy way to find yourself in a hole 6'x6'x3', a hole you never get out of." "So Death has a sense of humor?" I asked. "Yes, but even he draws the line somewhere. The incident with King Sam is something we laugh at but Death doesn't even acknowledge." I waited because I felt a story coming. "Good," she said, approving of my patience and silence, "I knew my instincts about you were right.

It was during the plague years and Death was busy. We all were. And there was this king in what you call Eastern Europe. Well, King Sam wasn't anything special, just somebody with a castle and an army, so he got to be in charge. In a bitter twist of irony, King Sam was destined to die on his son's wedding day. Death had been planning it for a long time because he's got an overblown sense of drama and he wanted it to go down with a sense of denouement, spiced with a little irony and a great deal of fate." "Well, it had been a long awful day for Death when he showed up for King Sam's final opus. Ok, so he'd grabbed a couple of pints at the local pub before he went to the wedding so he was both wobbly and tired. He went straight to the kitchen and tripped over a dog or something, dipping his scythe into the wine cask and poisoning all of it." "After a few more drinks from a bottle he found in the cellar, Death stumbles out into the crowded main hall. The first person who bumps into him is the kingdom's treasurer. The angry exchequer pushes him away and calls him a lout. It was an easy mistake because Death was in robes, could have been a local monk, and had left his scythe in the kitchen. As I've explained, Death had had a bad day and is unaccustomed to disrespect. A good rule to remember: don't piss off Death, especially when he's drunk." "So he reaches out and kills the poor sod, drops him right in his tracks. Well, that gets more attention than he wants and people start pushing and shoving each other to see what's going on. Death is still pissed, and the first guest to bump into him also drops. Then another. Soon it's like dominoes, but the bleary and determined Reaper sees the King and decides to clear a path to his target so he can get this over with. Everyone he touches on the way croaks. So about 50 people are dead when the rest start to figure out that this robed figure is the one creating all these corpses." "King Sam's brave son, the bridegroom, tries to stop Death. He crumples quickly. Then the bride hits the floor, another brave defender of her sovereign. So, by the time he gets to King Sam, about half the guests are dead and the poisoned wine gets the rest, including the kitchen staff, later that evening." "So all this pandemonium reaches a climax as Death stands before the King. His planned drama is already abandoned, but there is a poignant moment when silence settles on the hall and Death slowly reaches for the paralyzed King. All of a sudden the fear switches on in his addled brain, and Sam just cuts and runs." "Death is dumbfounded, stares with empty eye sockets as what's left of the crowd, shakes his head in disgust and just gives up. He walks soberly from the hall and tromps to some other medieval backwater where the black death can get him some of the respect he deserves.

We all kept quiet about it around him-still do-but that was the funniest goof up we ever witnessed." "You were there?" I asked, incredulous.
"When I use 'we' I mean it collectively," she said sharply. "It's a
story-teller's prerogative." "So you're a story-teller?" "I suppose for your
purposes, I might as well be. I'm certainly not an architect," she joked, "as
you've seen." "So, story-teller," I asked, " what's the lesson from that last
story?" "If there's a lesson in the last story, I'm not going to just hand it to
you. You must work for it or, as I'm sure you already know, the lesson won't
take. What do you think the lesson is?" I felt chastened again and not for the
last time, I guessed. Crows don't appreciate familiarity unless they initiate
it. I switched gears. "So you're expecting me to accept magic, Death as a real physical manifestation complete with personality, AND a collective crow consciousness? Anything else?" "Plenty." "Why should I care? Why should I believe? This is stretching even the bounds of my gullibility, which tend to be broad. I think these are just crow stories, stuff you tell humans who are so lonely they will listen to you." I was more than a little afraid of her and what she stood for. The fear, which usually makes me flee, made me angry, and I wasn't hiding it very well. "I'm sure you don't mean that," she said very patiently. "It's pretty simple: you were chosen. You were chosen to listen. But I don't expect you to
accept all this without some proof." "I was chosen?" I interrupted. "Yes, but I can't explain how or why. You're going to get that answer a lot from us. You and I can only hope that it becomes clear piece-by-piece over time." "Us? I'll be talking to more crows?" "Yes, I'm just paving the way for other conversations. I'll teach you the language, stretch your credulity, get you ready for what you have to learn."
She waved a talon at me, cutting off the next question I was about to ask.
"Enough questions for now. Are you busy tomorrow night? Good. I'm bringing a
friend here that can clear up a lot of this unreal stuff yo u've having trouble
with." I answered with a nod.

Chapter 4

I wasn't worried about the next night. I figured Morgan would just bring another talking crow and that would be proof enough for whatever doubts I had. Maybe it's a further testament to my gullibility that I so readily accepted another talking crow, but what I got was very different. I was sitting on the porch, watching it get dark, trying to disbelieve everything that was happening to me. I was sitting there trying to rationalize it, explain it away as a hallucination. Maybe it was some tragedy in my past. Maybe I should go back to my childhood. I knew none of these rationalizations work because if I couldn't trust my senses and how my brain processes that information, the consequent avalanche of dis-reality would push me over the edge. I didn't have much time to ponder the vagaries of unreality, though, because there was a tap at the screen. Morgan was here. I opened the screen and she came in. "I've brought a friend," she said. She always opened our conversations with that tone in her voice, what I call her teacher voice, establishing me firmly as a pupil before an aged mentor or guru.
I looked around for another crow, but nothing walked through the open window.
"Where's your friend?" I asked. "He'll be here any minute," she said. "Oh, here
he is." A human figure was suddenly on the porch with us, appearing out of
nowhere. Black robe, bony fingers, grinning skull, scythe. Ok, I thought to
myself, Death. Morgan brought Death to see me. I gave her a sharp look. Cognitive dissonance is a tricky thing. It never quite shows up when you want it to, like when you're facing a mythical walking metaphor; It only hits me with little things, like when I'm going up the stairs in the dark and I take that last step and it doesn't happen to be there. Or when I step on something that crunches like a bug, and my brain suddenly won't function rationally. "You brought Death," I said between clenched teeth, "to my porch." "You said you needed proof and, I've found, a brush with Death tends to broaden one's perspective considerably." She smiled. He just stood there, bony fingers absently tapping on the scythe. "Ok," I said, "I believe. Make him go away." "I'm not here to 'take' you," he finally spoke. I don't know what I expected from Death's voice, but he
sounded young and very, I don't know, alive. He sounded like maybe a 22-year-old college student, speaking quickly and confidently. I expected...well you know what I expected. I looked at Morgan quickly, but then back at Death. He fairly had my attention. "So what are you here for?" I said, finally filling the blank silence around us. Death let out a disgusted sigh. "I don't know," he said exasperated, "Morgan asked me to come, so here I am. I suspect I'm supposed to scare you bad enough so you'll believe whatever she says. Then I'll be expected to do some stupid tricks-like walk through walls, eat a sandwich, turn water into blood-and then be on my way. I think she may be over-doing it on this visitation nonsense. But I owe her." "Fear is an over-rated method of coercion, if you ask me," he said to no one in particular, "You humans have too short a memory for fear to be effective; you forget what frightens you too quickly. But I sense we've already got your attention." I nodded. "So I don't have to do all those-what does Letterman call them?--stupid Death tricks? You're convinced?" "Yes," I said, feeling a bit more confident. "And you're not going to pretend this never happened, that this was some kind of dream? You accept that I actually showed up here and that Morgan and I are friends?" Death asked, making sure I got it. "Yes," I said, my brain becoming a bit clearer. "Well, my continued presence here will only confuse you and your task. Even now you're brain is formulating dozens of questions you want to ask me, and that's not what I'm here for. I'm here to sweep away your preconceptions and disbelief and any reservations you've still got. Trust me, you're in too deep already. Listen, learn and your sanity may be able to scratch its way back to something approaching normalcy." I didn't feel very reassured. What started as a nest in my tree had become a visit with Death and a threat to my sanity. "One more thing," Death said as he turned to go. "Don't believe everything she tells you." Morgan opened her beak in protest, but he continued. "Most of the stories she'll tell you are true, but any grandiose claims she makes about crows my be hyperbole. They are thieves, so watch your valuables. They also think they have all the answers and are good at keeping secrets. Neither is true. Their alleged humor is tiresome after many years and they think I know don't know about the King Sam story they always tell each other." It's rare to see a crow surprised. I only say that because, in all the time I've spent with crows, I've only seen it once (I saw the results of a surprised crow later, but the surprise killed the crow in question). Morgan was surprised. Since Death was already grinning-permanently-I can only describe it by saying that his face lit up with humor. "So I think this visit is over," Death said with finality, "and it probably wasn't necessary in the first place." He shot Morgan a look. "She tends toward overkill, though some have accused me of the same. See, I do have a sense of humor, though it can be a bit deadpan. See, I did it again." God, I thought to myself, Death likes puns. "Anyway, she can be forgiven much. She is a friend. She's saved me many times and..." Morgan interrupted him with some clucking, a sound of warning in the back of her throat. "That's all he needs to know, until the end," she said. "You're not going to tell him?" Death sounded surprised. "Where's his frame of reference?" she asked. "He wouldn't understand. He doesn't have the background or the mythos. We don't even know if he's capable of understanding." This was the first reference to my limited mental capacities, but certainly not the last. I didn't
take it personally. "OK," says Death, and turns to me again. "Listen, write and wait for understanding," he said to me finally. The whole sentence was in crow, but I understood it. Death just disappeared, but I felt less alone than when he was present. Morgan looked at me quizzically. "You get that?" she asked. "Yes," I said, somewhat surprised myself. "When you turn over a tombstone, all you get is dirt" she said in crow. "Repeat what I said in human language." I did, in crow and in my own language. "Good," she said, "now we can meet the others." I thought that a visit with Death was enough for one night and I had to work the next day. Morgan didn't seem to care and said, "let's go," in crow.

"What's the hurry?" I thought to myself. As I walked and she hopped, I asked
where she was going. "We," she corrected, "are going to the cemetery. My friends
will be more comfortable meeting and talking with you there." "More friends," I
mumbled to myself. I was tired and feeling sorry for myself, dragged into this
surreal landscape of gloom and death and madness at midnight. I began to think
in terms of darkness and shiny blackness that was the world of crows. It was a
world I was being sucked into, and I would be mad to pretend it wasn't
extraordinary. "Now don't go feeling sorry for yourself," she said with more
sympathy than I expected. "I know this is a lot to handle in one night but your
ability to understand our language came earlier than I expected and we have to
build on it now if we want to get you fluent quickly. You're doing very well."
Again with the school teacher voice, but I didn't mind so much. I was getting
the feeling that Morgan was old, very old. There was less a feeling that the
stories she told were hearsay, that maybe she had witnessed much of what she
told me. There was an authenticity to her inclusion of details, something many story tellers forget and others can only fake. You watch the thoughts behind the eyes
and you can tell they are making it up. Of course, you look into crow eyes and all you get is dead blackness. If you're lucky and watch closely, you'll get a glimmer of light from time to time. But mostly crow eyes are as revealing as the blackest dirt at the bottom of the deepest grave. Nevertheless, I didn't think she was making up her stories or giving a seconnd-hand account. Clearly, thestory about the Saddest Woman was first-hand. I wasn't sure about King Sam. If she was a witness to the latter, I didn't want to think about how old she might be. I recovered from my wonderings just in time to see the last starling die. We were at the cemetery and a crow stood amidst a circle of dead starlings. The last was diving down on the crow, but near the end of the dive, it just
crumpled, like it had had hit something invisible, yet solid at a stone wall.
The way it crumpled in mid air, like no bird ever hits the ground, told me it
was dead when it hit the ground. It was like watching someone else get hit in
the stomach, and you're so close you can feel it in your gut too. Morgan hopped
over the cemetery fence and beckoned me to do the same. It took me longer; the
chain link was 8 feet high and I had to find a place where the barbed wire had
been pulled away. I got over--finally--and approached the two birds. "They
wanted a fight and they got a fight," the new crow said. I immediately named her
Fighter and approached her. She was talking too fast, in crow, for me to follow.
Morgan asked her to slow down and use as much human language as Fighter could
manage. "Well, you know how starlings can be," she started over. "Very clannish and taking things too personally. So I show up to take one over to the other side," she continued, " and the rest foolishly think they can stop me. Not even much of a fight. I killed half with my eyes and the rest I just killed." Those are the ones, I thought to myself, that are torn apart. About half of the 20 birds on the ground looked like they'd been in a fight with a very big cat. The other half didn't have a scratch on them except the twissted wreckage of their bodieswhere they'd bounced off the hard earth or a headstone. Their feathers were bent at odd angles and their heads were twisted under wings like they were sleeping. "Killed them with your eyes?" I asked after looking around. "Does he know about the death magic?" Fighter asked Morgan. "I can't explain it to him sufficiently yet," she answered, "but he knows enough to just accept it and not ask too many questions. It will come with time." Fighter looked at me, and if a crow can be said to look dubious, she gave me that look. She picked up a tattered feather, one of hers, off the ground. "Twenty starlings and they barely touched me." It was the kind of comment you get from an experienced scrapper and I knew I had chosen the right name for her. She sounded disappointed with the fight.

"I'm surprised," I said to fill the disappointed pause, "that they could even
get that close if you can kill them with your eyes." I didn't mean the comment
to sound insolent, but I think it did. "Watch your mouth boy. It's not like
you've killed anyone before, let alone this many." There was a note of warning
there that reminded me a lot of Morgan, but then she calmed down. "When you kill
with your eyes, with death magic, it takes time and timing," she explained.
"With this many, there just wasn't time. I had to go physical with them. Still,
I should be more banged up than I am. They should have gotten a tail feather at
least, or something important. Hell, they didn't even draw blood. Hardly worth
dying for," she said examining the feather. Then she hopped over and gave me the
tattered feather as a gift. I said "Thank you," because I didn't know what else
to say. "This is the first of four," she said prophetically. "Keep it. Keep it
as a reminder." "Of anything in particular?" I asked. "Yes," she said
emphatically. "Of weak enemies. They make you weak. If you take something down,
kill something strong. If you feel weak, if the bonds that tie you to life seem
shaky, if your sanity seems about to snap like a dry squirrel bone, remember
this feather and remember what I've said. The feather will help you
understand-at least in part-the nature of strength. It may help." I spoke my
thanks with reverent silence.

She nodded. "Now, did you bring anything to eat?" Morgan and I moved on,
further into the cemetery. I was quiet, a combination of awe and weariness, and
she noticed. "Now is a good time for questions...or comments," she said. I twirled the tattered feather between thumb and forefinger. "Did she mean it, about the feather?" "She meant it. It has both memory and magic in it. It will also help you understand our language better by giving you a context. Never forget what we do. Watch that starling die in mid air every time you think you've got a crow for a friend and remember who we are." Changing the subject, she said "You did well back there. She told you most of that in crow and I could tell you got it. You're learning fast." I put the feather behind my ear, like I remember my father did with pencils when he was in his workshop. If it had magic, I can't say it made me feel any different; I always thought something magic would feel different. Morgan led me over to a spot near the center of the graveyard, a clear area where all the markers lay flat. It was past midnight and very quiet. I felt
eyes on me from the trees and no sound at all. Morgan pointed to a place where I should sit and I did. The murmuring in the trees started almost at once. I realized I was surrounded by about 100 crows, dark shapes in the trees, and I started hearing words and phrases I understood. The conversations weren't with each other. The comments were directed at me and Morgan. It was like having 100 people talk at you at once; you only get words and snatches of phrases. One crow was just firing quote after quote at me from
his favorite philosopher or book of scripture. That was an interesting thought:
crows have their own philosophers and holy books? I didn't even want to think
about that. I had too many other things on my mind. Anyway, the noise grew and
my brain accelerated, trying to keep up with both the language and the concepts.
These crows weren't talking sports or their favorite movies. Their monologues
were about life, death, the nature of humanity and the purpose of crows. Fairly
deep stuff. The words and phrases were bouncing off me rapidly, and in the
deeper part of myself I realized this was a kind of cultural immersion exercise,
a way to engage my mind on a very intense level and teach me their language so
hard and fast that it would sink into my bones. And most of what was sinking in
was anger and a vague sense of malevolence. I got the idea very quickly that
these crows weren't happy with me, that somehow having me learn their language
was a violation of their racial privacy, that I was someplace I wasn't wanted.
Nevertheless, I didn't get much more than general hostility through the din and
I didn't have long to ponder that. One voice drowned out the rest. A crow flew
down from the tree and confronted me. "Why you?" she said loudly. "Why should we
talk to you, teach you our language, tell you our stories, give you our magic?
Who are you, human?" In my own mind, I named this crow the Examiner. She used a
form of the word human that I learned later was fairly derogatory. I sensed this
was some kind of challenge and I looked over at Morgan. She shrugged, telling me I was on my own. I tried to come up with a reason or some profound thought or perhaps of answering the question with a question ("Why not me?"), but I
didn't think any pretense or false sense of confidence was going to fly with
this crowd. They were tough, smart and I was on their ground. Instead, I looked
over at Morgan one more time and spoke to my audience in crow.

"Let me tell you a story," I said loudly, pausing to see what effect, if any, that had. The crow in front of me ruffled her feathers like a breeze had caught her off guard. And one by one the black shapes started dropping from the trees, the crows gathering around me. I knew instantly I had said the right thing. "His name was Michael Fate," I started, "and he lived, appropriately enough in Extinction, North Dakota. He was a very average man with very average looks, an everyman if you will, though quite a bit quieter than most you will meet. He was a study in contrasts," I said, trying to think as fast as I was talking, not wanting to lose my momentum or my rhythm. The fact was, I had the story in my mind, but being an unpracticed story-teller, I had trouble stringing it out as a skilled story-teller might. This was tougher than I thought. "His ordinariness," I stumbled, "warred with his gift, which was anything but ordinary. Michael was,
for lack of a better term, a catalyst. Some would call him a catalyst for
disaster, and some called him a jinx throughout his life, but that wasn't
exactly accurate. His friends, and he had a few close friends, consider him and
his gift the best thing that ever happened to them." "If you believe in the
concept of justice, especially swift justice, that would probably describe
Michael's gift better than anything. If you've heard the scientific theory that
for every action, there is an equal reaction, that's what Michael was but on a
more human level. Whatever a human did to Michael, exacted consequences almost
immediately. If someone cut him off on the freeway, you could expect to find
them with one or two flat tires about a mile ahead on the side of the road. If
someone called him a name or committed any petty cruelty towards him, you could
expect to find them writhing in bed with a migraine for days, or audited by the
IRS, or some other misfortune. The bully at his grade school, unfortunately,
didn't understand the direct relationship between being mean to Michael and some
seriously bad luck. Ten minutes after beating up Michael, as a way of introducing himself, the school bully was crushed under a falling tree. Larry was paralyzed for life, or so they thought. Michael ended up being his friend later on that year and they got to be very close friends. Strangely, a year after the accident, Larry became eligible for some revolutionary experimental surgery that completely restored movement throughout his body. It's not hard to imagine that these life experiences changed Larry from the school bully to the designated saint of the schoolyard and defender of all those who couldn't defend
themselves. So Michael's gift worked both ways, but because it was often
difficult to connect the cause and effect, the gift remained hidden. When people
figured it out, it often resulted in disastrous consequences. His mother, for
example, was somehow miraculously cured of a faulty valve in her heart when she
gave birth to Michael. Her constant attention and nurturing of Michael had amazing results in her life. Her husband became more attentive (not surprising since she somehow became more physically fit and beautiful without exercise, effort or diet). And as their marriage became stronger, the environment around Michael became more pleasant and the family's fortune expanded on many different levels. Michael's father got progressively better-paying jobs that required no extra time at the office. So he and Michael spent a lot of time together, fishing, playing baseball and generally bonding. Dad, consequently, trimmed down and was soon being eyed by most of the women in town. Michael's mother was already the most beautiful woman in town-probably the whole state-and her first novel was published about 2 years after Michael was born. Michael's gift didn't hold back when it came to his family. Trouble is, when people started putting two and two together, they figured out the relationship between Michael and what happened to them. Larry figured it out early. It took his mother and father years to figure it out. Their reaction was predictable. They became afraid of Michael, afraid to hurt him because of the consequences. That fear overshadowed everything they did, and the distance grew between Michael and his parents...with predictable consequences. The family quickly disintegrated in a flurry of lost jobs, foreclosed mortgages, failed novels, and finally divorce. Michael was in his teens when all of this happened, and he ended up living with his mother. But her fear of Michael and his gift still pervaded their life together, so things just got worse. Larry, on the other hand, had had a lot of time to think when he was in that wheelchair and became what you might call a deep person. He understood that Michael was a catalyst for good or bad consequences, but he also understood that if he let that get in the way of being Michael's friend, it created a progressive downward spiral for both of them. He saw good evidence of that with Michael's family. So Larry decided that he would be Michael's true friend, regardless of the consequences. He never shied away from telling Michael the truth, even when he knew he would take lumps for it later. He also knew, from some elaborate experiments that Michael didn't have any control or even knowledge of his gift. If, for example, Larry did something mean to Michael but he wouldn't realize it for a few days, the consequences were still immediate and dire. If someone could be punished for acts that Michael didn't even know about, Larry concluded that the gift must be totally independent of his control.
So Larry became Michael's one, true close friend, totally disregarding the consequences. Finally he decided that, if he was Michael's true friend, he must tell him his suspicions about the gift. Michael would not, of course, believe him. Larry anticipated that, so he set up an experiment for both of them. Extinction, North Dakota doesn't give a gift like Michael's much chance to reveal itself. There just aren't enough people. So Larry bought two plane tickets, making sure to seat them both in first class (for safety reasons), to New York. There, thought Larry, Michael's gift would reveal itself so clearly that even Michael would see it. He was right. New York is both the coldest and warmest place in the country in terms of human behavior. People there can be incredibly cruel and incredibly kind, and you're likely to encounter lots of both as you wander around town. The taxi driver that drove them in from the airport, for example, spent several days in the hospital after totally destroying his cab in an accident. The bellboy at the hotel, who helped Michael with his bags, got a date with the hottest maid in the hotel as they all rode to the tenth floor in the elevator. After he loudly complained about Michael's tip, however, he fell down the stairs and broke his leg. It didn't take long to prove to Michael that he had this quality about him. A rash of freak accidents plagued the city while he was there, filling emergency rooms and persuading him that what Larry said was true. After three muggers ended up shooting each other while robbing the two of them, Michael was horribly convinced that his friend was right. Michael determined to do something about it.
That left him with the perplexing question of what to do. He and Larry talked
it over, but the image of three dead muggers on the streets of New York haunted
Michael. He thought back on all the good times his family had and then all the
bad times. Larry told him of his theory that knowing about Michael's gift tended
to screw up interactions with him and created situations where people really got
hurt. Michael trumped the discussion, however, by mentioning that he himself now
knew about the gift. How, he asked Larry, would he ever be able to live with
himself knowing that he, or the gift at least, was causing all this havoc. He
decided that he must live alone, as far away from all humans as he could get.
Only then could Michael be sure that he wouldn't do irreparable damage to the
people around him. Larry tried to point out that he had only benefited from
knowing and befriending Michael, but Michael countered that Larry's enlightened
friendship was rare and could not be counted on in the general populace. In the
end, all of Larry's arguments couldn't dissuade his friend from pursuing the
path of a hermit. So they went to the track and by manipulating Michael's
gift-Larry would buy him a hotdog and then bet a chunk of money on a
long-shot they won about $200,000. That, Michael concluded, would be enough to
buy a house in the wilderness where his contact with people would be minimized.
And that's what he did. He bought a house in the mountains, got a good reliable
car, purchased all he would need to survive on his own. He didn't exactly rough
it; he bought all the modern conveniences that would keep him connected to the
world at large (satellite TV, a computer, a cell phone for emergencies and a hot
tub). All he had to do was drive into town for food now and then.
The one thing both he and Larry didn't take into consideration was that
Michael's gift didn't discriminate and wasn't particularly protective of him.
When people were either kind or cruel to Michael, the consequences were immediate and often severe. It never occurred to Michael that he himself could be a victim of the gift. As long as he was good to himself, he did fine. But as the loneliness took its toll, his gift did too. Small accidents started to happen. That got him feeling sorry for himself, and his gift did not react well to self-pity. It was a kind of self-inflicted cruelty that raised the stakes, and truly dangerous things started happening to Michael. The combination of
loneliness and self-pity soon conspired to create a self-destructive
depression--one that finally resulted in a terrible fire in Michael's house that
consumed him and his gift.

There was a deep silence among the crows. I wasn't sure if they liked it, but I was sure that they were scrutinizing it, and me, carefully. Finally one crow broke the silence. "He's too sentimental," the crow in front of me said to Morgan like I wasn't there. "And he doesn't think clearly and is a lousy story-teller. But he's ideas and some sense of the darkness. And he's got the iron," she shot another look at Morgan, who ruffled her feathers. "He'll do well at night. He seems to listen well. At least he understands the importance of the story, even if he's no good at it. I think we can work with him." She turned to me, "But mind yourself, human," she said, "your sentimentality had better be the first casualty of our interactions. You can't afford it, and we won't put up with it. We have too much to tell you and sniveling will get in the way."
I didn't say another word. I slumped toward the gate of the cemetery and home
to bed. I was past exhaustion, and no one tried to stop me. I don't know if Morgan even followed me home.

Chapter 5

I'll never say I'm fluent in crow, but some of my understanding of their words may shed some light on their thinking. Crows, for example, have three words, maybe four, to describe the human race. The first is derogatory and one they apply to the majority of the humans they encounter. Unless a human has proven otherwise, crows use a word for us that means "someone as stupid as a dog and dangerous as a poisonous snake and whose potential to be anything better is mostly gone." That's how my Examiner in the cemetery referred to me. It's also a racial word, so when they talk of groups of humans or of our entire species, they use this word. Needless to say, they don't think much of us. The second word is for individuals who have proven themselves worthy and translates as "future walker harmless enlightened," meaning a human who still retains the potential to be something more than a feral biped, doesn't harm things intentionally and shows some intelligence. This intelligence primarily
means that you have a strong idea of where you are going in your life. Their
third word for human just means "food," meaning a dead human. This is a holdover
from ancient times when a dead human really did constitute food, before we
started burying and vaulting and sealing up our dead. In Celtic cultures, the
burial practice of excarnation, where the body of the deceased was left on the
moor to be picked clean by scavengers, was particularly crow friendly. Even up
until recently, crows could dig up human remains if they needed food, but with all the embalming fluid, air tight caskets and cement vaults, we've made our remains unpalatable and too much work to retrieve. If they really want to eat human, most crows go to third world countries, battlefields or the Ganges river where the word for "human as food" is still part of the vocabulary. Nevertheless, the word for "human as food" came up a lot in discussions since dead humans became the central theme in our dialogues. The fourth word I only heard once, from one particular crow. It referred to a human who became a monster, though the roots of the word came from combining the crow words for "food" and "maker." These are the conscience-free killers who are so evil, even by crow standards, that neither Death nor crows want anything to do with them. The criteria for achieving this last moniker from the crow community has increased significantly over time. It used to refer simply to murderers, but those became so commonplace, the term grew meaningless from overuse. Now it's reserved for special monsters: serial killers, some generals, certain politicians and those who misuse Death's power to control others. More on that later. As for other important human words and their crow equivalent, there are some special cases. Unlike the Greeks, crows have only one word for love. It actually means "temporary surcease of pain" and comes from the same root as their word for death, similarly translating as "permanent surcease of pain." Their other words for death refer to (1. the physical or spiritual manifestation of the personality they work for or (2. a special word for the death of a crow, which translates loosely "escorted journey to another purpose." Our word "truth" doesn't even register in the crow language, though they often use their word for "purpose" in places where I would use truth. Purpose is thier overriding
principle, a clear sense that they know what they're about, that they
know what they are supposed to do. Perhaps their constant close association with
Death keeps them clear about their purpose. Nevertheless, you'll rarely find a
human as sure of his or her purpose on earth as your average crow. It also lends
to their arrogance when they speak to you, or speak of humans in general. The
unwritten subtext of their attitude is "I know what I'm about. Why haven't you
figured it out yet?" That clarity of purpose-as ambassadors or messengers of
Death-also makes them seem more intelligent than most humans. Maybe it's just
that extra confidence factor. Though there is no crow word for truth, there is
one for "lie." It roughly translates as "self-delusion," mostly because they
think that anyone, crow or human, who doesn't have a firm grip on what exists is
probably touched in the head and irretrievable. You don't hear crows arguing
about the accuracy of each others' perceptions of reality; there's general
agreement about what is real, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Humans,
as you might guess, are often described as self-deluded liars, but I have heard
crows direct that phrase at each other on rare occasions.

Chapter 6

I didn't go back to the cemetery right away. I was tired, a bit overwhelmed and was being called out of town on business. I ended up in a little town in New England, by the ocean, where the sea mist blew in thick in the morning. I was accustomed to walks early in the morning and late at night, because of my dog, so I went out walking before my day-long meeting. Visibility was near zero. I don't know what I was thinking -- I guess I thought that perhaps these talking crows were a localized phenomenon -- so I wasn't really looking for crows.
Nevertheless, recent events must have been playing with my subconscious, because I ended up walking by an old cemetery. With the mist so thick, I couldn't see very far into the graveyard, so I was surprised to spot him. He was in the shadow of a standing tombstone and he stood motionless, dew dripping from him like he was a statue. I don't know what made me stop and look, but I've got to believe that previous contact with my black friends back home had something to do with it. Maybe it was that tattered feather Fighter gave me, though that was safely stowed in my
briefcase. Still I stopped and stared, because I sensed life there. As the dew dripped off him, I watched his eyes go from dull gray to jet black. As light from the dawn filtered through the mist, the eyes became clear. I'd seen that look before. Suddenly inside my mind there was a screeching like a mile-long freight train had slammed on its brakes, the sound of metal grinding on metal, slowly and inexorably and just goddamn loudly. The first of his wing feathers twitched, like something waking up. Still, the screeching continued, loud enough to wake up everyone for a mile radius. I looked around, while wincing, and no one seemed to notice the noise. No doors opening, no dogs barking, no runners stopping to plug their ears. One by one each wing feather separated itself from the rest as he stretched. The tail feathers were next, making a sound that almost deafened me. As suddenly as it began, it ended. The silence was a relief, but I sensed more was coming.
The crow that had been statue shook himself completely free, and the sound of
one hundred crystal goblets, falling ten stories onto white cement bounced
through my head. It cleansed me with the din and without knowing it, I moved
closer. What looked like dust was shaken from his feathers and I stepped even
closer. I was about three feet away from him. He looked at me and cocked his
head. "Who are you?" I asked in crow, because I didn't know what else to say. It
may have been the first words he'd spoken in a century, but they came out clear,
though with a thick accent I couldn't place. "Strange," he said, "to be welcomed
back by a human who talks crow. Have things changed so much?" "Uh, no. I'm the
only human...at least I think I am, that speaks crow. I just learned how." I felt awkward with so many questions jockeying for position in my brain, mixed with my shame at being so rude with my first words. I retrenched. "Welcome. I hope your journey has wind, your flights are short and there is food along the way," I said, using a traditional crow blessing, though where I got that I couldn't say. "Thank you, human. Still I am surprised. Most crows have more sense than to be here when I awake." I looked around and noticed that there wasn't a crow in any of the graveyard's trees. That's almost unheard of. "The noise?" I asked. "That and fear. The noise hurts, but they know when I awake that something important is about to happen, something world-shaking. Often I can't control the energies and bystanders are killed. "Oh," I said looking around at how close I was. "I'm sorry to intrude..." "You're lucky to have seen me at all, human." He used the derogatory form of the word, but I sensed I was lucky to be alive so I didn't protest. "Where did you learn your crow? There's magic about you and the crows have been telling you things. Who are you, human?" He emphasized this last question like the wrong answer would be a very bad thing. "I learned the language from a crow I call Morgan. She taught me some, and I learned the rest from the crows at the graveyard." "This Morgan you speak of. She likes to tell stories about Death and King Sam, right?" I nodded affirmatively. "And she's black, about my height, dark eyes?" I laughed, "all crows are black, about your height, dark eyes." He stopped, thought about it, and laughed too. "I suppose so. I forgot that you humans have such poor eyesight. It makes it hard for you to distinguish us." He laughed again. "That feels good. I haven't laughed in a long time. Didn't get a chance last time I wakened." "Which was?" "During the wars with that little French General," he answered without thinking. "Why? How long ago was that?" "About 150 years," I stammered. "Still, that's not too bad. I must have needed the rest. I've been out longer than that." "Out?" I asked. "Never mind. Well, I feel good." He shook his feathers again. "So I should be off." "What woke you up?" I blurted out. He gave me a look. "I mean, you said it took something earth-shaking event to wake you up. I'd like to know what's going on-plague, war, famine?" He gave me that dubious crow look and answered, simply enough, "You wouldn't understand," and he flew away. I was startled by the abruptness of his exit, but watched as he flew 100 yards ahead, did a 180 degree turn and flew back toward me. As he flew over my head, clearing me by about four feet, he looked me straight in the eye and spoke one word: "Yet." I stepped toward the spot where he stood. The moss was deeply embedded with two crow prints and you could tell some of it had grown up over his feet because some of the moss was recently torn away, probably to get his feet free. I bent down and examined the dust he shook off his feathers. It was rust.

Chapter 7

"So you saw an Iron One," Morgan said within minutes of my return home. She was at the screen, scratching and clucking to be let in. My dog was on the porch and I told her I'd let him out so he wouldn't bother her. "No bother," she said and he instantly fell asleep. I glanced down to make sure he was alive and let her in. "Yes," I said, sitting down. "Is that what they are called? Iron Ones?"
"Yes," she said with more reverence than I'd heard in her voice. "They are old
and there may only be seven or eight in the whole world. You're very lucky to
have seen one. I'm still not sure how you spotted him. You're even luckier to
have survived your crazy stunt, walking up to him like that. Not all crows want
to talk to you, just because you can." "How did you know?" "When an Iron One

wakens, all the crows in the world know about it. When a foolish human steps up
and engages him in a pleasant chat, it's, to say the least, unprecedented.
Besides," she finished up, "you look different. That encounter changed you
subtly. I don't know how that will affect our project together." This was the first time I had heard her reference our talks in a larger context. I think she saw me thinking about it, so she changed the subject. "When
an Iron Crow awakens, it's for a special purpose. He or she will sit in one spot, invisible, storing up years of magic, to be unleashed for a particular task. Sometimes the task is historical-the death of a monarch, two people fall in love which starts a war, a plague breaks up a siege-but sometimes you humans never even notice. About 80 years ago, for instance, an Iron Crow awakens, flies to Albania and saves a little girl from a horrible accident. Her name was Agnes Gonxha Bojashin, but she later became Mother Theresa. No one, even the little girl, suspected anything was amiss. That's how Iron Crows work sometimes." "So Iron Ones can see into the future?" I asked. "Not precisely," she said. "They can see potential and get a general sense of whether to continue that life or end it. With Mother Theresa, it was easy. This time it's a chemist near a war zone who is creating a drug, highly addictive, that will turn humans into killing machines. It would have made soldiers stronger, feel less pain and heal faster. It would change your horrible wars into something unspeakable, beyond even your ability to imagine. So the Iron One you met flew off to kill this chemist and destroy his work and kill anyone he may have told." "Just like that you go off and save us from ourselves? I can't help but wonder why. It's never struck me that crows have a deep abiding affection for humans." "You have a talent for understatement, human," she chuckled. "No we don't have any love for your race, though our destinies are so tightly interwoven there doesn't seem to be any point in hating you." She paused. "Not all my friends would agree with that. But to answer your question, we don't usually save you from yourselves. We save the world from your race. You and yours are a scourge and we've started as many plagues as we've forestalled. Since you don't seem capable of controlling your procreation, culling is often necessary and we do some of that. War, to us, seems a particularly horrible and inefficient way to trim your numbers, and we've ended more of those than we've started. Even though you've become more efficient at killing each other, we still haven't been able to see the sense of your wars. We had a lot of hope for your nuclear weapons-quick, total, relatively clean-but you didn't seem to have the stomach for the contamination left behind. It didn't bother us much, but we were surprised you didn't resort to using them more often. I guess there are some things even humans won't do." "But I digress," she said finally. "We do what we do and I don't expect you to understand it yet." "That's what he said," I added with a smile. "I'm not surprised. So is there anything else you need to know about the Iron Ones?" She clipped this last statement short, like there was more to know but she didn't want to talk about it. That was ok; I felt like I had enough to think about for awhile. "One last question, about crows in general," I asked. She nodded. "You've mentioned that crows will sometimes kill a human directly. Now we've got this Iron One out there about to kill some mad scientist. How does this work? How do you do it?" "Mostly we just gather together, eight or ten of us and just will the person dead. Usually we do it when Death requests it. And we don't do it often. Every once in awhile we do it on our own initiative, but Death
generally frowns on that. It's much easier, really, to make two or three instances coincide at the same time and kill someone. You know, make the wrong guy mad, give another a bad day, trip one into the other and one ends up dead. We like to conserve our resources and, frankly, you humans are pitifully easy to kill." "I see," I said uneasily. "It's nothing personal," she said.

That night, we both went to the graveyard to talk to the other crows. They had clearly heard about my encounter and showed a bit more deference. They used the less derogatory term for human when they referred to me. They seemed to take turns talking with me. The others didn't really listen, just milled around in the trees talking amongst themselves. One crow came forward. I'll call her Farm Crow since that's where she came from and that's what her stories were about. "I flew in to talk with you," she said with not much hostility, though I sensed coming to the city was an inconvenience. "Thank you." "Ah, your crow is good," she said cheerfully. "A lot better than I had heard," she looked around at the trees and the murmuring died quickly. "I come from the war zone, the farms where humans actually try to kill us. Your farmers are foolish. They waste a lot of energy and accomplish nothing." I remembered that farmers sometimes shot crows to protect their fields. Knowing what I now knew, I sensed that shooting at crows would be a bad idea.

"Once," she said, "there was a farm boy. Blonde hair, blue eyes, shiny new rifle. He had trouble written all over him. So he comes out to the forest, to the trees, to my trees, to hunt crow. I couldn't believe it at first: to hunt me in my own trees, in my territory? He clearly wasn't aware of the war." She paused to let that sink in. "So I let him come. It was good fun leading him around, making him think he saw me, hearing him load and shoot with his shiny new rifle. I even helped him get good with it, aiming it at shadows in the trees he mistook for me. I always stayed about three minutes ahead of where he thought I was, so there wasn't any danger." "But as I got more complacent and he developed his aim, I started letting him get closer. Then, out of the blue, he lands a shot not ten feet away. Well, that startled me out of my reverie. A piece of bark splintered off the tree and landed on the same branch I was on. Can you believe it?" She clucked like a disapproving mother. "Well, I couldn't let that go on," she said, "so three days later I followed him. He and his brother were walking out to the pump house. Both had their rifles and they were fooling around, pretending to shoot each other. There I tricked the brother's eye. A little air, a little feather and the boy's brother thought the empty space he fired a real shot into was just trees and brush. Instead, the crow hunter was in there and the bullet took him in the chest." "Well, you can imagine how upsetting that was," still the motherly tone, a bit of an anachronism coming from this homicidal trickster. "So the brother looked him over and realized he was just stunned, not dead. It wasn't a very powerful rifle, so the boy could walk, though he still had quite a hole in his chest. His brother ran the mile back to the farm house to get help. Meanwhile, the boy staggered as far as he could, about a quarter mile, before he collapsed. They came and got him and I think he was still alive. That was as far as I followed him." "It was a painful walk for him, but I think he learned his lesson." "That's quite a lesson. Makes me wonder if he survived it and grew up to be a wiser human?" "Don't know. Don't care really," Farm Crow admitted. "It's so hard to teach you humans anything without half killing you. It's a wonder we even try anymore. If he did make it, I guarantee he has more respect for crows...and guns." Before I began wondering how his brother felt, not knowing he'd been tricked into shooting his sibling, she cut me off. "And right near where he got shot," she began cheerfully, "is our crow tree. Ever seen a crow tree?" If I had, I probably didn't recognize it as such and told her so. "No, they don't have them in the city, only out on farms. In the cities, you don't need crow trees because you've got so many cemeteries. Out our way, the cemeteries are sparse, and some are so old Death can't even find them anymore. Crow trees are a good substitute for graveyards, a kind of gathering place for us out in the war zone." "Well, we have a real nice crow tree where I live. Lots of branches, all the bark cleared off and right on the edge of the woods so we can see the moon rise most of the time." "The bark's gone?" I said. "Then it must be a dead tree." "Oh yes, it's got to be dead to be a crow tree. But there's more to it than that. We've got to kill it and that takes time and planning." "You kill the tree?" I asked. I was getting less surprised every time they told me they killed something. "You bet. You start with bugs, but you've got to get the right kind. Once you find them, you drop them on the tree,
usually in crooks or in any old scars, somewhere the bark is weak or thin. Then you wait, let the bugs do their work. Sometimes you get lucky, you get a dry season or a really wet one that weakens the tree. If you pick the right bugs, a good selection of disease carriers, you can have the tree dead in two or three years." "Then you have to wait for the bark to fall off and there's no way to hurry that, unless you want to peck it off yourself, which to my way of thinking is too much work.
Once it does, you've got a crow tree. Death himself came by and blessed ours
for us," she said proudly. "Sounds like a church," I said. "It is," she said,
"though not like the ones you humans build. It's a place to gather, tell
stories, talk of friends. It's sacred, but it's also like a tavern. No rituals
or prayers, but it's a good place to do magic with so many of us there. Mostly
we just talk about sick and dying friends or grudges we aim to settle the score
on. Often they are imagined offenses; it doesn't take much to piss us off." This
was the first self-criticism I'd heard from a crow. She struck me as less
pretentious than other crows I'd met, and in spite of myself, I liked her.
"That's when the magic starts," she continued, "when the talk turns to grudges
and offenses, imagined or otherwise. We can get pretty worked up." "Well, that's
about it," she ended. "That's all I've got to say about life on the farm. Thank
you very much. You're a very nice young man and a good listener. She," Farm Crow
nodded at Morgan, "said you were but I didn't believe it." "So, do the farmers
ever hit you?" I asked before she left. "Nope. But we sometimes like to let them
think they do. We'll give them a corpse of another bird and make it look like a
"There were the poisonings a few years back," chimed a crow from the trees.
"Oh yes, I forgot about those," said Farm Crow. "The farmers escalated the war a
few years ago and we lost a few crows to poison, about one per farm, before we
figured out what they were doing. We went into hiding to let them think they
won. That's when the farm accident campaign really started in earnest." She
finished that statement with more than a little pride. Morgan clucked a bit, like that was more than I needed to know and Farm Crow stopped, bade me farewell and flew off.

The next time Morgan came for me was a week later. She had a feather in her beak and I remembered what Fighter had prophesied. I still had the tattered feather she had given me, part gift, part talisman. I credited it with magic, with the ability to understand their language better, so another feather so soon caught me off guard. She dropped it in my hands as I met her. We walked together to the cemetary. "What's this one for?" I asked, holding it gingerly, though it was for all intents and purposes like any feather you might find in the grass.
"It's a flight feather," she said curtly. "Which means?" "It's a feather from a
crow's wing, built for power during a climb and reach in a wind." I felt like I
was asking stupid questions--her tone game me that impression--so I shut up.
There was a long pause. "Tonight you learn to fly," she said finally. She stopped abruptly to punctuate the remark. She looked at me without moving, almost as if she were trying to stare me into believing her. I was tempted to pass it off as a joke, but something in her demeanor stopped me. "Fly?" I finally squeeked out. "Me? But I don't want to fly. Never have. I mean I know guys who love to fly. But they're pilots. I'm not. I've never wanted to be..." "You're afraid to fly?" she asked. "Well, not really. I mean if we're talking airplanes (I knew we weren't) that's no problem. But that's more like a ride really. I'm not actually piloting the thing." "Good, because you won't be piloting tonight either. You'll be flying." "Um, how do I put this? I don't want to fly." "Then it's fortunate for me that you've got no choice. You've got the feather and I've got my orders, so it's all beside the point. If it will help, I'll make a note of your unwillingness, but it won't change the fact that you are flying tonight." "Did I ever tell you of the re-occuring dream I have that shows me dying from a long fall? With that kind of omen, do you really think I should be trying this?" "Don't talk omens with me, human. Are you afraid of heights?" I think if I had said yes, she would have let me off. If I lied, however, I suspected she would have ways of finding out. So, God help me, I told the truth. "No." "Strange, don't you think, to be convinced that you will die of a fall and not be afraid of heights?" I had no answer. "Calm down," she said with more patience than I'd heard from her before. "I'm a very good teacher and this is a very good feather and you won't die unless you do something stupid." "You see, that's my point exactly. How can I avoid doing something stupid? I'll be completely out of my element. It's like being told to be very careful with a tool that you are totally unfamiliar with. How can you help but hurt yourself if you don't even have an idea where the business end of the tool is. I don't think this is a very good idea." "I agree," she winced, " but again, it's all beside the point. The feather's already infected you with flight. You're not going anywhere but up."
We were at the cemetery fence now and she hopped over. I followed without
thinking about it and found myself on the other side right behind her. She
usually had to wait for me to climb the chain link fence, but not this time. I
only remember touching it once, when I reached the top. I then landed eight feet
later without the traditional jarring through my bones I would normally get from
that kind of jump. "See," she said, as if that explained it all. I looked at my
arms to make sure they were still arms and not something black and feathery. I
still had my fingers. I continued to protest this-that it wasn't necessary-as we
kept walking. She paid little attention to me. As we approached a large maple
tree, she said "We're here." "What do you mean 'we're here'?" I said. She didn't
let me get any further. "Listen, I only know one way to teach someone how to fly
and it involves pushing them out of a nest. Well, I don't have a nest big
enough, so I've got to push you out of this tree." That stopped me. I just
stared at her back, hoping she would turn around with a mocking smile on her
beak, telling me she was just kidding. Nope. She just hopped to the lowest
branch and said "follow me." I didn't move. She looked back at me and looked all
the world like a disapproving mother, with fists on hips, foot tapping and very
angry (only she didn't have fists or hips). I think she actually did tap her
foot once on the branch to signal her impatience. "There are things I can only
teach you aloft, things you must understand if you want to relay these stories
and their meaning. Believe me, this is necessary." "Would it help if I lied to
you?" she finally asked when I still hadn't moved. "A little," I admitted.
"Ok, the truth is you can't fall because you've got that feather. You can
completely screw up and never hurt yourself. The feather has magic that will
keep you safe." "That's better," I said, acknowledging the bad lie which is
often more convincing than a good truth. "And this is a first," she continued,
warming to her subject. "No other human has ever been given this kind of feather
and no other human has ever flown with crows. You are the first and maybe the
last. Can you pass up this opportunity?" Ego food, I told myself, but good
stuff. "And what about your writing?" she said, pushing the most volatile of my
hot buttons. "You'll only have an elementary understanding of us if you don't
try flight. That gap will show itself in your work. Do you really want to spend
all this time, risk your sanity, and do an incomplete job?" This was the first
time Morgan had acknowledged that I was writing down what we talked about, and I
sensed that this was part of her agenda all along. I think she wanted me to
write down these stories, these discussions, but never said so explicitly. Maybe
she didn't want me to approach all of these experiences like a detached writer
or maybe, as was her wont, she didn't think to mention it because she didn't
think it was important enough to mention. Anyway, those three lies seemed to be
enough for me. I hopped to the lowest branch, alighting with perfect balance
eight feet above the ground. I heard Morgan mutter under her breath "the things I have to do to get these humans..." and I lost the rest. I knew I was testing her patience but I didn't care. Listening to stories, meeting Death, braving things I didn't understand-like the Iron Ones-were intellectual and emotional hazards, but what she was asking was purely physical and I was scared. I'd had a long relationship with gravity and I didn't want to damage it. Morgan went higher in the tree andd I followed as best I could.I even picked the same branches she landed on, afraid to deviate from her lesson by one jot. Unfortunately as we ascended, the branches got smaller and I was worried that I'd begin to snap them and fall through the branches, hitting the ground hard. It wasn't until then that I noticed a feeling in my bones that's difficult to describe. It was like a wind was blowing through my bones; a cool, dry feeling stretched through my ribs, rippling through heavy leg and arm bones and flowing into the tiniest bones of my hand. Everything about me felt lighter and when I looked at the branches I was leaping onto, they barely reacted to my mass. When we got half way up, I was landing safely on branches the diameter of my thumb. By the time we reached the top, I was perching on a branch the diameter of the end of a fishing rod. "So far, so good," she said. "Now, unless you just want to glide to the ground, you must exert yourself. The magic in the feather works with you. If you learn and try to follow my instructions, you will fly better. If you fear and doubt and second-guess yourself, the feather won't do much to compensate, and you won't learn a thing." I heard her murmur under her breath again "except how hard the ground can be." So she was still lying about how dangerous this was, trying to protect me from myself. "Now it might have been more efficient to turn you into full crow to get you in the air, but I want you to retain your humanity for reasons of my own. So we must work with the body you've got." "Remember to stay horizontal most of the time, until you land. You might want to tuck your legs under your chest, but since you don't have a tail for guidance, your legs might do that for you. We'll just have to see as we go." The experimental nature of her directions didn't ease my mind much, I must say. "You've got that long body and it will affect your glide if you don't keep your body parallel to the ground." She leapt from the branch and took flight. I just watched. She looked back, then circled back to the branch I was on. "Uh, you were supposed to follow me." "Was I?" I tried to feign innocence but I don't think I was convincing. "I don't want to be forced to push you," she said. "You're a grown man and no nestling. So let's go." I didn't doubt she would push me and as afraid as I was, I didn't want to look foolish in front of her and the other crows. I couldn't actually see others, but I sensed there was an audience out there in the cemetery trees. "Just leap high and flap your arms," she said. I imagined myself flapping my arms and trying to fly and knew I would feel foolish. There didn't seem to be any way to avoid some kind of embarrassment, so I leapt from the branch, flapping my arms hard and, as per instructions, going horizontal. I didn't plummet. In fact I pumped my arms so hard I overcompensated and climbed very steeply into the air. "Slower," Morgan called out from behind me. I held back a bit, regulating my arm beat to something more rhythmic and measured. I leveled out and Morgan flew up next to me. "You can look around a bit," she said, "we're above the trees now." I hadn't realized that I had my eyes riveted straight forward, looking for things I might run into. I looked right, left, then down. We were only a couple hundred feet up, I thought, and that didn't seem too bad. The urban landscape, houses trees, ponds, factories slipped beneath me like a river. It wasn't so much the view that affected me as the actual feeling of flying itself. The wind, the air, didn't flow over me and my arms and body; it sluiced through me. It gave me a kind of energy that seemed to conquer time, gravity, emotional attachment and spiritual connection. At the same time, it drained me, but I didn't know that until later. Right now, it was enough to be one with the air, to be part of wind, to see columns of hot air as it rose and to rise with them. I had to keep looking at my arms and fingers; I imagined that I felt feathers there, rustling with the air as it flowed through them. I closed
my eyes and I was a crow. "Don't do that," Morgan said in a commanding voice. "Do what? I just closed my eyes." "You almost went over," she said, "almost turned yourself into full crow. That's not part of this lesson and I don't want to have to change you back. So knock it off." "Sorry." "So do you feel it?" "Air? Magic? Intense energy? Yes I feel it." "Let me tell you a story," she said. And she did.

It was one of her worst, a heart-rending tale about a farmer, trapped by a snowstorm, watching his family die of influenza one by one, finally succumbing to it himself. She used all the storyteller's tricks to draw tears from an audience: tearful parting scenes, death-bed forgiveness, assurances of love that were never there in the normal day-to-day living, the blackest despair, the final redemption. When she finally finished, she looked at me. "Sometimes you learn so well you almost scare me," Morgan said. We were still flying, in circles around the cemetery, and I said, "What do you mean?" "No tears, no emotion, no rebukes about how grim my stories are. That was one of my best and you barely blinked." "I don't know what to say," I said. "It just didn't seem to matter as much up here." "Precisely," she said, "that's why we crows are the way we are. You think us callous, but we're just detached. Now you know what flying does to a crow. It enables us to sublimate our emotions and see things in a different, less myopic, perspective. Now you know why." "And it's not just because you can fly from trouble, escaping death and sorrow and tragedy," I added. "Right," she said excitedly. "It's something else, something I can't put words to. The energy that flows through you up here gives you something...perspective isn't the right word, but it's close. Maybe your word "purpose" is what I'm looking for. But that's not precisely right either." "It's close enough," said Morgan. I felt like Eliza Doolittle, finally catching on to everything Morgan had been trying to teach me. "Now just let the wind and magic tell you stories. Concentrate on the air that flows through you, but don't close your eyes. Listen and relax." I did and we flew in circles. It seemed like we were up there for a long time, but because what I was experiencing was so intense, time also failed to register with me in a conscious way. Finally she said, "Time for you to land." "No, I'm fine," I argued. "This is great. I could fly all night." "You're almost spent," she said, "you will collapse in about three minutes. We must get you down." She pointed at a clearing in the cemetery with her beak. "We will land there. Now use your legs to slow you down and get more verticle. Flap your arms against the forward motion." I did and I began to slow down and drop through the trees. In the last second, I got my legs underneath me and landed without falling, only dropping about six feet at the end. Morgan landed next to me, smiling. "Nice landing. You've got a knack for this kind of stuff." She paused. Other crows in the trees started a chorus of congratulations and I felt very proud of myself. Then, as Morgan predicted, I collapsed, falling to the cold wet ground without a shred of strength left. I tried to break my fall with my arms, but they just crumpled. I lay on my back looking up at the sky, more exhausted than I've ever been, more than I thought possible. I started giggling. It was that kind of exhaustion. The crows surrounded me, looking a little
concerned. "We'll take you home," said Morgan, "but first, tell us your wind story before you forget it. Wind stories don't last long after you're grounded."

I knew what she was talking about-my insight seemed sharpened by the flight-so I
began the story that wound itself through me during my interaction with the
wind. It wasn't a story you had to concentrate on during flight. It was more
like a peripheral story, one you caught out of the corner of your attention. But
just as peripheral vision is sometimes more acute, especially for catching
abrupt movements, my peripheral consciousness caught this story. So I started,
"There once was a tree, much like all the trees around him. Early in his life,
he decided to grow a strong root system instead of growing tall like everyone
else. He spent his time and energy stretching further into the ground,
finding new soil, new sources of water and spreading his roots in a wider
circumference. This concentrated effort downward, however, stunted his growth.
He was half the height of all his neighbors, which had serious drawbacks. Did
you know trees communicate through their leaves?" This seemed to surprise all of
the crows except Morgan. "It seems," I proceeded in my professorial voice, "they
talk to each other where the branches overlap. The wind carries messages between
trees through the leaves. That's why winter is so sad and quiet and why
evergreens are so well informed. Since they keep their leaves all winter, they
constantly communicate all year round and are always know what's going on." The
crows shuffled nervously. They clearly didn't feel comfortable discovering that
I knew something they didn't. Morgan just watched me carefully, cogitating. "So,
this tree-I think the wind named him Hal-had some obvious shortcomings in
communicating with the other trees. His stunted size made his branches so much
lower than all those around him that he was effectively cut off from all of
their conversations, stories and general news about imminent weather systems."

"So a tree alone on a prairie doesn't get any information because it's not
touching other trees?" said one particularly rapt crow. Morgan silenced him with a look. "That's right," I said. "They tend to be hermits, telling themselves
stories and making up crazy news. Anyway, Hal could only talk to other trees
through the roots and only the barest elements of tree communication can happen that way-the equivalent of tree small talk." "So Hal spent most of his time in silence, surrounded by a crowd of fellow beings who were communicating with each other constantly and unable to talk to him." "Of course, having deep roots had its advantages too. When the wind got angry and tipped his neighors over, Hal stood his ground. He faced some of the fiercest storms with barely a broken branch. In fact, as trees fell near him, they would brush against him and he would hear their final words. He fancied himself quite a collector of the dying words of trees he lived near." "The other advantage to deep roots was his ability to survive droughts. In years when other trees suffered, and sometimes died, from drought, Hal always had enough water. As a consequence, he got old, much older than the trees around him who were much taller. Hall also started to look like his roots, where most of him was located, making him gnarled and twisted and as immovable as stone. He was so different, in fact, that a human painter once came out deep into the woods to paint his picture. Hal had to imagine what the painting looked like, for the human never showed it to him." "So Hal lived a quiet life, thinking, sinking his roots ever deeper, past clay and rock and the resistance of the earth itself. The only contact he had with other trees was when a sapling would spring up near him and their branches would intertwine for a time. For those short years, he would teach them what he knew, what he learned, the collected wisdom of dying trees and the taste of different soils his roots had found. As these neighbors grew, his legend spread, though many still disapproved of a tree that hadn't striven to grow to its full height.
Still, he raised many generations of saplings on their way up and was quietly proud of how many turned out. He never once suggested to them that they should emulate him or follow his path of deep roots because he knew what a lonely journey that was and what strength it took to pursue it. "The second time the humans came, it was not with paint and canvas. They advanced toward Hal and his sons and daughters-that's how he thought of them-like an army. Humans with axes and saws and wagons cut down grove after grove, inexorably advancing toward him. He heard news of it, through his roots, before he saw them." "The horror of that time was a blur to Hal, feeling his friends and neighbors die before their time, the echoes of their dying words piling up like the clouds of a thunderstorm. When the humans finally came to him, they stopped. They told each other he was too short, too gnarled, to be of any use to them. Nevertheless, he was in the way and should be removed. The old man in charge of the army stepped forward and looked at Hal. "You can try to cut this one," he said to the other humans, "but I wouldn't advise it. I've seen a tree like this before. You'll dull a dozen saws and break a hundred axe handles and exhaust many men trying to cut this old tree down. Let's leave it alone and go around it." And the humans did. They left Hal alone, more alone than he had ever been before. In this new silence he mourned the friends lost and hoped for the saplings to come. The last words of the story were barely a mumble because I was so tired. Some crows were very close, some even perched on my chest, listening intently to the last bit of
the story. They all nodded as I finished, as if the story somehow rang true
to them. The last words I heard from Morgan, before I drifted off, were "let's get him home."

I woke in my bed, my flight feather next to me. I don't know how they got me home, but I could just imagine six or seven of them half flying, half dragging me home and my neighbors catching a glimpse of it. I suspected there was enough magic left in the feather to keep me light; otherwise they would have had to leave me to sleep it off in the cemetery. All of this thinking was interrupted by a single thought: hunger. I was famiished, more hungry than I had ever been. I stumbled out of bed, my legs weak, and half slid down the stairs. I made it to the refrigerator and just started in on anything I could find. I drew the line at raw bacon or hamburger, but just barely. I ate about half the contents of the ice box before I turned around to find Morgan sleeping on the counter behind me. "You want anything?" I said, waking her. "Some of that raw meat looks good." She looked tired, so I put some in a bowl for her. "Why am I so hungry?" "All that flying last night. Flying takes a lot out of you physically and spiritually. We crows are used to it; but you'll notice we eat constantly. Got any crackers?" I fetched her some. "That story you told, the one you got from the wind..."
"Yes." "It was good-very good." "Thanks." "We hadn't ever heard it before.
Not even me, and I'm old." "So." "Well, don't you think it's strange that the
wind would tell you a totally new and different story, one none of us, who fly
and tell stories constantly, have heard? I , for one, think it's strange and am
more than a little peeved. The wind has been holding out on us." I thought
about it as I ate. Morgan kept eating crackers, but I could tell she wasn't'
enjoying them. "Maybe," I said finally, "it's because the ending, with the main
character having survived, was the wrong kind of story for crows. I mean, most
your stories end in death . Perhaps this story was too upbeat, too hopeful, and
the wind thought you wouldn't be interested in it." "Hmmm," she mumbled, "I
hadn't thought of that." She gave me a look. "You're getting smarter the more
you spend time with me. Maybe there's hope for you." I left her endearing
comment alone and we ate in silence. "So, what's next?" I said between mouthfuls. "Now you rest," she commanded, "and we'll see how you're doing in two or three days." She sensed my protest and interrupted. "You're completely drained. You need physical and emotional rest. Stock up on food. You're restricted to the house, except to walk your dog. I'll have your house under surveillance, so don't try to sneak out." Changing the subject, because I knew I couldn't escape the observation of crows determined to keep an eye on me, I said "So I did good last night?" "Yes, you did good." Almost a smile from her that time. "I think you learned everything I intended, and then some. I'm proud of you." "Stay and talk?" I asked. "Until you drift off," she said. "You need your sleep. What do you want to talk about?"
"Purpose." That one word froze in mid air. It was so real you could almost touch it, could almost reach out and remove that last silent E at the end of the word and take it home with you. "You want to have that discussion?" she asked astonished. "You're way too tired. You'll never make it and what you might miss as you lose consciousness is very important." "Why that word?" I persisted. "When I was flying, why that word above all others? What does it mean, especially to you crows?" "You know what it means. You just can't put it to words," she said. "Help me." "Purpose is about
foundation, about knowing why you exist. But it's stronger than that, more
omnipresent. A crow's purpose is like the ground you humans walk on. You take
the ground for granted and so, too, do we take our purpose for granted. It may
be our one blind spot. But without it we would be in chaos, with no place to
find purchase. We would never get anywhere, never grow, never improve. Crows
know what we're about. We have a foundation, an invisible plane of existence
that's as stabilizing and vital as your earth. We are about Death: his servants,
his emissaries, his omen deliverers. All of those and even more weighty concepts
are wrapped up in that one word--purpose." I smiled. "This purpose guides all we
do. Within it we can do much-write poetry, compose music, invent new ways of
flying-but it's always centered around that single purpose. Without our purpose,
we couldn't be so dispassionate about the humans we watch die every day. It
clarifies things, wipes away pretense and sentimentality. Without it, we'd be
just like you humans: directionless." "You think us directionless?" "How else
would you describe it? No, let's put a positive slant on it: What do you see as
humanity's central purpose?" "All my time with you has made me cynical," I admitted. "All I can think to say is that we procreate and kill each other fairly efficiently." Morgan laughed. "But you and I know there's more to it than that. We've done our share of art and invention." "Not nearly what you could have accomplished," she interrupted. "Still, I think there are some things we can be proud of. And who are you to predict how short of our potential we've fallen? How can you know?" "Trust me, we know. You were given gifts far beyond all other creatures and as you yourself pointed out, you've squandered them on putting more humans on earth and then killing them with remarkable efficiency. Sisyphus looks wise in comparison." "Your black-and-white outlook made you decide that you had to choose between free will and purpose and you chose free will to the exclusion of purpose. They are two sides of the same coin and you're spending counterfeit money to the detriment of us all...all except us crows, that is. The more you procreate, the more you kill each other, the more Death needs us. Your failure is our full-employment contract, though we are too wise to celebrate our good fortune, owing as it does to so much suffering." She grinned, and I knew she was gloating a bit at our self-imposed hell. I was taken aback by the introduction of free will into the conversation, but I did my best to think of a good defense for our race. Before I could, she continued. "Free will without purpose-direction if you will-is like throwing a fish onto the shore. It's got all the free will it needs to flop back into the water, but it will probably choke to death while it figures out which way to flop. Actually, free will is more dangerous, because without purpose and direction, its just pure energy without focus. That's why humans are so good at sex and killing. Those are predictable outcomes of that kind of random release of energy without any focus. You humans wield your free will like a toy, but it's powerful and destructive if you are not careful. And you," she gestured wildly with her wing to include the whole race, "are not careful." "We crows have free will too, but we also have our roles as Death's servants to guide that energy, to focus our attention, to accomplish a greater good." "Your race is like a bunch of infants, able to walk and destroy things, but rarely able to master the higher functions that would make you civilized and almost redeemable." "Surely not all of our free will is so destructively concentrated?" I finally managed to get in. "No, just the majority of it. And what have you got to show for it? Some art, some buildings, some books, and a path of destruction and mayhem whereever you look." "So what did we miss?" I said. "Where were we when God was handing out purpose? I mean, it's easy for you. Death is omnipresent for you, showing up and manifesting himself physically. You get constant confirmation of your purpose. At best, we have to guess at ours or try to glean it from ambiguous nonsense carved into tablets or badly transposed into scriptures. Hardly the recipe for discerning one's clear and overpowering purpose."

She gave me a look, like I, as a representative of my race, was missing
something important. Finally she said, "Do you know what the original word for
human was, back when there were only seven or eight crows?" "No." "Guardian,"
she said. It was spoken with a finality, or perhaps I should call it a damning
certitude, as thought that one word was judge, jury and executioner for our
race. As I was gulping the word down, she continued. "So, you see, you did have
a purpose, back in the early days. You were supposed to take care of this
planet, be custodians for this complex system of living beings. You were given
astounding intellect to understand how it all worked, to fix things when they
got broken, to even change whole environments when your guardianship called you
in that direction. You can deny it all you want, can pretend that your purpose
wasn't clear and obvious, that your inscrutable god was just too vague about
your direction for you to get it. But all I had to do was say that one word
'guardian' and watch your face fall, watch the shame rise into your eyes, to
know that I'm right. You know I'm right too. You feel it deep within you. What
you call your subconscious is just the stunted purpose squirming inside your
soul, trying to make itself known. But frankly, your denial of that purpose is
too strong and too well ingrained." "So instead," she continued, "you have
turned all your intelligence and strength towards destroying the earth you were
designed to protect. I probably don't need to say it, but never has a species
fallen so far away from its original purpose. You used your free will as a
license to kill, to destroy the very thing you were meant to protect. In fact,

we all marveled at it. It was almost as if you sensed your purpose, and as soon
as you could, you went entirely in the opposite direction."
"So where does that leave us?" I said, thinking aloud. "I mean, it seems that
we are seriously damned, by your reckoning, and I don't see any chance of going
back, having come so far in the wrong direction. Do we all become conservationists?" "No," she said vehemently, "this isn't about tree-hugging or
animal rights or even pollution. It's a given that you will cut and kill and
pollute. We're talking about your emotional maturity as a race, about taking up
your roles as custodians of the earth and acting like something other than
spoiled children who refuse to do what they've been told. You must change your
collective minds and grow up. That's the first step, a philosophical step. But I
shouldn't be preaching," her tone changed, "especially since it's all a bit
beside the point." Her voice changed, acquired a finality to it I hadn't heard
before. "What do you mean?" I asked. She wouldn't answer. "No Morgan, what do you mean?" Still no answer. I felt like Ebeneezer Scrooge arguing with the silent ghost of Christmas yet to come. I slumped where I stood. "Ok," I said, "say it." "Your race is irretrievably doomed. You'll die in your own poisons and the earth will be glad to be rid of you. So will all the animals...except us." "The crows will miss us?" "Not much, mind you, but we did have a certain affinity for your race. You
were fun to watch. Our fascination with the fatal made your homicidal antics very entertaining. And you must admit, you had a flair for the dramatic. How could we love Death and not love you humans?" I slid to the floor, stunned and silent. It's impossible to describe the thousand directions my mind went as she sat there, contentedly eating my crackers. After ten minutes of silence, I said, "So this is why you're here, why you've come to me, started talking to me, telling me stories. You've really come to pronounce our doom, explain the world to at least one of us before we exterminate ourselves." She laughed, "Heavens no, it was nothing so altruistic. You humans," she said dismissively to herself, "You're so caught up in your own existence, individually and as a race." Then she said directly to me "You needn't worry. You've got plenty of time left. Your race probably has 40 generations left before you completely die out. No, this is about something very different...and I'm not willing to talk about it," she added with emphasis. I was silent. After another long pause, she said "So you still want to talk about purpose, or are you too tired?" I was tired and admitted it.
We gave each other a look, a glance of distrust. She didn't think I was being
honest about wanting to talk about it and I somehow didn't want to believe what
she had told me. We didn't part on friendly terms.

Chapter 6

"So do you still want to talk about purpose?" she asked when she returned two nights later. "Just one question," I said, "what about humans who have purpose, real purpose?" "For instance?" "Oh I don't know. I guess I mean really driven people. People like artists who are so focused that they can't exist without doing their art." "Artists and crazy people. Yes, sometimes humans find purpose, actually limit their carte blanche you call free will and pursue a higher goal. We watch them." "Watch them?" I interrupted. "Yes, we keep an eye on them to see where they go, what they do. We're trying to learn what makes them different. About all we've found so far is that most have experienced some kind of trauma, and most have an inordinate amount of difficulty with the way things are, the status quo if you will. Often these humans with purpose are just too sensitive-like you-and are traumatized by things that normal people encounter all of the time. Many are just normal people who have seen too much suffering, and it has busted open something inside that drives them to create, to express their pain through art." "My personal theory," she continued, "is that artists hear the voice inside them, the one that tries to dictate your race's true purpose, and they try to puzzle out the message. What the artist gets is fragments and shards of meaning that they then try to communicate in words, images, dance, music and all the other artistic forms of self-expression. Art, good art anyway, is just an incomplete missive about your true purpose. That's my theory." I didn't want to argue with that, though there were holes in that theory I could drive a truck through, so I asked, "So these humans with purpose?" "Humans that have found purpose is probably a more accurate than actually saying they have purpose. If they had purpose, they would have stayed true to the original mission of stewardship. No, most redeemable humans find a different purpose. You, for example. You found your purpose." "I have?" "Yes, writing about us. All of these discussions and experiences have essentially focused your attention, changed you into something civilized, able to look beyond yourself and see fragments of the truth." "Thank you, but it might be more accurate to say my purpose found me." "Well, we may have been a bit more aggressive about recruiting you, but we were anxious to get our message across." "Thank you," I said without feeling. I was bitter about Morgan's predictions and my role in this whole strange journey. I wasn't hiding my feelings well. "You're ungrateful," she said without any inflection at all. "You could do worse, a lot worse. These stories, these lessons, are important for your race, no matter what your future may hold." Animosity was rising between us; I could feel it in the air. "To put it bluntly, we've handed you your purpose on a silver platter. You just sat there. We approached you, took the risk of teaching you and gave you some of our magic." Clearly, Morgan thought I didn't fully appreciate the gift and I, for my part, wasn't happy about being recruited into a position where I knew more about the fate of my race than I cared to know. I was rattled and showed it. "Thank you," I said again without feeling." Morgan clicked at me dismissively. "Well, I'm sorry," I said, "but this hasn't been exactly risk-free for me. I risk my sanity by listening to your stories, risk my neck flying with you and risk god-knows-what in the future." "And I?" Morgan replied. "You've no idea what
I've risked, what energies I've loosed, what deals I've had to make to get these dialogues started." This was as close as she ever came to shouting at me. "So let's just agree that we're all out of our element here and get on with it." "What is it exactly we're getting on with here? That's my point. If this is my purpose, I'd like to know why and what your motivation is. I mean, what are we accomplishing?" "We're telling you our stories," she said, regaining her
composure, "helping you get some perspective. Humanity's obsession about dying
skews your clarity as a race and it makes you commit some of your more
horrendous crimes. We hope to lend you that clarity, to help you see the world
from our eyes. That's your purpose, to help us tell our stories." She didn't let
me interrupt. "As to why you were chosen, it was a combination of reasons. First, you listen well. You fancy yourself a writer, so that was a whole set of skills we didn't need to teach you. That also meant you had an affinity for language, so you could probably learn ours with more ease. And at night, near the beginning, I put some dreams in your head that didn't frighten you out of your wits, so I concluded your fear of Death was under control." "Your decision?" I asked, surprised. "This was all your decision? All these other crows went along with it?" "Well, yes. I do have some clout in the crow community and they'll help me out if I ask. Fortunately they've become
interested in you." "And why is that?" "The flight, the stories, the language.
They've decided you're worth the effort, though it took some doing to get that
concession from them." "We've been telling our stories for years," she
continued, "though only a handful of humans have bothered to listen. Ted Hughes
comes to mind, at least during this century. Some native groups, people closer
to the earth, heard our stories and even tried to deify us. We put a stop to
that. With you, we've decided to take a more direct, less subtle approach." She
paused, "So, how's it working?" There was a hint of a smile about her, which cut
the rest of the tension between us. "Good," I laughed, "not subtle at all. Very
direct if I might say so. I'm not sure how it will come out on paper, but your
message is getting through to me loud and clear."

"So where do we go from here?" I asked after a long silence. "More stories,"
she said, "Did I ever tell you the one about Terry and the Soul Poison?" "No," I
shivered. "Terry was a quiet woman, loved nature, and tended an extravagant
garden. No flowers for her, just vegetables and herbs. She had a particular talent for vegetables and a rare connection to the earth." "Anyway, as is often the case, she married a monster. He was an evil violent bastard who beat her often. He made her life a living hell. I won't go into the details. You can probably already guess them." "Secretly, Terry was a fighter, but she knew better than to get into a physical confrontation with her husband. She would lose and she knew it. After the third beating, she started pricking each of her bruises, drawing a drop of blood from each. She added these to her garden. After the sixth beating, his cat disappeared, but her garden flourished. After a few more months Terry got pregnant. Her husband wanted lots of children, especially sons, so she aborted the child, adding that and more than a few tears to the garden." "The meal she served him after the twentieth beating-she kept careful count of each one-was a feast. Fresh vegetables and meat, fabulously prepared. They both ate until they were stuffed and he drifted off to sleep soon after dinner." "He woke a few hours later writhing in horror. No physical pain, just
uncontrollable fear at so intense a level that it can destroy a person. Terry
didn't respond. She listened to him scream and thrash for hours before he died.
The hospital never found out what killed him. I've heard of a poison that can
kill a soul and I can only conclude that was what she rather intuitively
concocted. The only drawback was that her garden never recovered. No grass would
grow there. She even tried to cover it over with sod. Finally she put a concrete
patio over it and started a new garden in another part of the yard."

Chapter 7

"It's called a preemptive strike," said the crow I decided to call Crow General.
He was my mentor the next evening when I arrived at the cemetery, about five
days after my flight. He was telling me about eagles. This was the first male
crow that I talked to at any length. Perhaps the only crows that wanted to talk
to me up to this point happened to be female. Anyway, there was a fair
representation of males among the crows at "our" cemetery. They were just a bit
more reticent. So Crow General was telling me about eagles and infanticide, in a
crusty voice that made me think him old. It turned out, he was. "Eagles are
stupid creatures," he asserted, "so that's why preemptive strikes work so well.
I got that word from you humans. Good word," he congratulated me. "Anyway,
you've got to admire your average eagle. Big, powerful, beautiful, dangerous and
kick-ass flyers. I mean, you see them gliding around lazily and you don't think
much of their abilities, just up there riding warm air like they were in a bath or something. But they're damnable flyers when they set their minds to it." "That's the trouble. They don't like crows. They blame us for a lot of dumb shit and take after us when we are flying around. Once you've got an eagle mad at you, there's no shaking him, unless you find some trees. Still, the acrobatics I've seen from eagles gives me the shivers." "So that's why we kill them when they're small," he said matter of factly, "right out of the shell when we can." "They are built for pure offense, eagles are. They've got no sense of defense or
stealth. You see those claws, those wings, that beak and you see the perfect
killing machine. They think they are so fierce that no one would ever mess with
them. They are the bimbos of the bird world. All show, no brains." "Well, I'm
sure you understand we can't have a lot of eagles around, chasing us, sometimes
catching us. They even kill us on occasion. They think we're food until they get
their first taste. No eagle ever thought that again, I can tell you, once
they've tasted crow." "So you kill them when they're small?" I asked, getting
him back on track. "Yes, that's how we fight. We crawl into the nests and steal
the young. Then we take them somewhere safe and kill them." "Pretty ruthless," I
said. "This is war," he replied without missing a beat. "Fortunately," he said,
changing the subject, "their eyesight up close isn't too good. Some say it's
physical, but I say it's psychological. I think eagles are so intent, so focused
on potential prey off in the distance that anything close falls into a deep
psychic blind spot. I've often theorized that since they are a purely offensive
creature and seem to have this field of vision that doesn't include anything up
close, a crow might be able to kill one in claw-to-claw combat-if you get the
jump on them. Of course, you'd have to conquer the kind of pure terror that few
of us ever encounter and survive. I could never do it. I mean, imagine looking
an eagle in the eye and have a knock-down-drag-out with him, knowing he is
stronger and faster in beak and claw and just a whole lot bigger. That would
take the scrappiest fighter among us, or the most foolish. Still, I've been
tempted, during raids, to just whack some eagle good." I wasn't getting
something. "Yeah, but the eagles aren't there when you steal the babies, right?"
"Of course they're there. It's a snap to get the babies when they're gone, but
they never leave the nest without one of them standing guard. Hell, it's more
dangerous if they're flying around because they'll spot you for sure. And then
you've had it. They may be dumb and myopic, but they have a shred of maternal
instinct that makes them purely homicidal when anything gets near their nest."
"No, what you've got to do is use complete stealth. You crawl through the brush
until you get to the base of the tree where the eagle has put her eyrie. Then
you must carefully go up the tree, silently and patiently. Once I get close, I
prefer to hang on the underside of the nest until I get an opening. That's hard
on your head because you must hang upside down a long time. The last job I did I was under there for almost two hours. God, it was horrible." "Anyway, you then wait for the eagle to get up and stand on the edge of the eyrie, usually when something catches her attention-in a word, food. She will train her attention on the target and that's when you slip in behind her and grab one of the eaglets. If you grab it gently enough, the tone of their cries doesn't change and the eagle never notices. I've grabbed and flown miles away before I hear the screech of horror from the
mother. Then I just kill the eaglet and eat it." I started to image the scene and stopped myself. It was a bit too terrible to contemplate. "How do you do it?" I finally asked in a hushed voice. "Hey, every one I get saves me a fight later on," said Crow General. "These are just dumb, albeit beautiful, birds that kill and kill and never stop. They don't care who or where or how. They are machines." It occurred to me that he might be describing his own race, the crows, the emissaries of Death, but I knew it was more complicated than that.

They did more than kill, as evidenced by their discussions with me, but I
wondered if complex, philosophical, intelligent killers are so much different
than an idiot with a shotgun." He must have read my mind or my face because he
said, "Death isn't absolute." And he flew away. "What did he mean?" I asked Morgan later. "He meant he was pissed off because you were thinking in your human limited way and didn't pick up the meaning of his story. When he says death isn't absolute, he means it isn't an event. It's the other side of life's coin, a continuum of experiences. Humans think that death happens to them, but death is a state of being, or not being, depending on who you believe." Before I could ask, she said "And no, we're not going to talk about what happens after you die. That's a fool's errand and even if I knew the facts, I wouldn't tell you. You humans have a way misinterpreting the most important truths, so anything I told you would be misconstrued. For example, you talk about 'life after death' without even contemplating the contradiction. There's no life after death, or existence, as you pretend to understand that word. Of course, I could be wrong since I've never been dead. And my familiarity with the person of Death gives me no advantage; he's never even hinted at what's beyond. But I've got theories." "Such as?" "I suspect death is so different we don't have the faculties to imagine it." "Oh great! That's so helpful," I interrupted. "No, hear me out. We have a precedent. Imagine explaining to a human fetus, or in my case a chick still in the egg, what life is like outside in the physical world. You could try, but you and I know they don't have the facilities, the intelligence, the experience, to grasp that. It's like trying to explain to a blind person what sight is like, but multiplied by a factor of five or six. Imagine all your senses didn't work and having someone try to communicate with you about this physical life? And what if death is similar and that this 'life' as you call it is some kind of womb where we incubate until our new spiritual senses are developed enough to experience death? In fact, we use the word spirit to describe our limited understanding of what the death experience might be like. What you humans call spirituality, I call stretching your perceptions into the realm of death." "That's one hell of a womb," I said. "Not exactly the safest environment to incubate a life...or should I say existence?" "See, that's just it," she said. And for the first time she seemed intellectually excited, something I hadn't seen before. "What if this is a safe haven compared to the experience after death?" "It's always bothered me that you humans imagine the experience after death as a kind of paradise-except for the bad people whom you put in hell-or at least some kind of restful existence or non-existence. Trouble is, your race either believes there's nothing after death or some kind of happy sanctuary where everything is fine, all problems are fixed and you get whatever you want. You've taken the "grass is always greener" mentality so far, you've turned it into a religion. Hell, half of your world religions anchor themselves in this mythical half-assed optimism that there's something better on the other side of life.What if it's worse than what you've already got? What if it's more chaotic, more beset with problems, more tragic endings, less control? What if that's what you've got to look forward to? Maybe it's just as bad as what you've got here, but you can feel it more intensely, on a spiritual level." "Jesus," I said, "I don't even want to think about that. If death is worse than what we've got now..." I paused. "Not only worse," she said, warming to her subject, "but what if we feel the suffering on many new levels? The joys and triumphs too. I don't mean to suggest death will be all bad, just more intense than what we've got now." She paused. "That's my theory anyway." This was the first time she didn't lecture me. It was more of a discussion. She was clearly out of her "these are things I'm sure of" mode and was actually sharing ideas that were not solidified in her philosophy. I realized this was the first time she had been vulnerable with me and I thought on that for some time. Was our relationship-if you could call it that-changing?
"What are you thinking?" she said, breaking the silence. "That there is something beyond life, that we don't just end here. You've rather confirmed that for me." "If there were nothing after life, you wouldn't need us," she said. "We are the ones who escort human...souls, I guess...past life and into death. We are proof there is something beyond life. And we are everywhere. You should take some comfort in the fact that, every time you see a crow, it's a reminder that this is not all there is. Good or bad, there is something beyond this life as you know it." "But," she said, warning creaking through her voice, "you shouldn't depend on it. Too many humans throw their life away, hoping for some kind of resolution in death. If my theory holds true, they severely cripple themselves for the experiences that come in death. A wise old crow once told me, 'Live your life like there's nothing beyond. If you're wrong, you've got a life to show for it and a new adventure to look forward to. If
you live your life half-heartedly, hoping for some kind heaven, and you're wrong, how much life you will have wasted.'" "So play it safe and live your life now?" "Precisely." "What if we humans are right about death and you're wrong?" "Not likely," she said with finality.

Chapter 8

My next foray into crow culture put me in the midst of a large crowd of people. Morgan dropped by and told me to meet her at the river. She told me precisely where to meet her, which ended up being a sidewalk café in the midst of a summer celebration. It was wall-to-wall people, all waiting for a fireworks show to start. I got the last table and ordered a drink, all the while wondering how Morgan and I would talk to each other in such a crowd. She landed on the table after I got my beer and, to my surprise, not one seemed to notice. "Hello," she said. "How do you do that?" "What? Avoid their gaze? That's easy. Humans are accustomed to ignoring crows anyway, so I just intensify that predilection. If they really looked, they'd see me. And what would they see? A crow on a table seemingly unafraid of the man sitting there. Not too unusual, under most circumstances. Now if I ordered a drink, people might notice." I smiled. "There," she said, "I thought you'd lost your sense of humor." "So why are we here?" "I like it here," she said. "I like crowds of humans. The energy is both intense and unfocused-it's mob energy. Anything can happen, though it rarely does." "Happen? I don't like the sound of that." "Yes, happen. Calamity, disaster and loss of life are completely present in the mob, just waiting for someone to catalyze the whole mess. There, beneath your human veneer, is the beast that you are capable of becoming. You are monsters, and that's always just below the surface, peaking out from time to time, in a mob." "Mob energy is music to me, makes me feel like a conductor. I don't even have to do magic, just focus the energy. Close your eyes and listen." I did. "Listen hard. I'll do a crescendo."
It started imperceptibly, but the crowd got louder. A car, jammed in by the
mob, honked its horn in futile frustration. A cheer went up from one group like
they were celebrating a birthday or something. It got louder until I opened my
eyes and looked at Morgan. She was smiling, moving her beak in time to a rhythm
only she could hear. "Now I'll introduce a new, dissonant, melody," she said. I
closed my eyes and heard it, or should I say "him." He was drunk and homeless
and certainly an affront to this affluent crowd. He mumbled loudly and quickly
silenced any table he encountered. Some he railed at, some he preached to,
others he just begged money from. He spread discomfort as he moved, facing us
with the worst of ourselves, the answer to that question we always ask
ourselves-what if we don't make it? It was a crow-like melody of despair and
darkness and I tried to listen to it with my crow sensibilities. I heard lines
and phrases in this moving, drunken, smelly song that spoke of his death. He
died years ago, but his body had a few months left in it. Finally he wandered to
my table and I opened my eyes. "Give him a buck," Morgan said. I carefully counted out $12.50 and gave it to him. He smiled, thanked me and wandered off, away from the crowd. "An unusual amount," Morgan finally said. "It's the cost, plus tax, of a ticket to the orchestra," I told her, "in the cheap seats." She thought about it for awhile and smiled. We continued through the rest of the evening, listening to and conducting the human mob music. When the ashes from the fireworks started falling among the crowd, I could only think how appropriate it seemed. I had to continually brush the black soot from my hair, shirt, table. We left when everyone else had gone and the bar closed. The silence after this odd concerto was restful and enveloping.

Chapter 9

Two nights later, when Morgan showed up on my front porch, it was a full moon. It wasn't the first one since all of this had started, just the first one I had noticed. I may be a good listener, but I'm not always terribly observant. It wasn't hard to notice the full moon since Morgan was staring at it. She was silent. "So what's on the agenda for tonight," I said cheerfully, "star gazing?" "Follow me," she said, dead serious. I'd never seen her so reticent, so I just followed her to the cemetery in silence. I was tired of climbing the eight foot fence, but she never seemed patient enough to wait for me to walk the quarter mile to the gate. So I climbed. When I got to our traditional spot, there were about a hundred crows on the ground and one on a tombstone. He lowered his head a bit and then hopped off. Another crow replaced him and, too, lowered her head and jumped to the ground. They kept this up, one after the other. "What are they doing?" I asked Morgan. She shushed me.

Seven crows approached me and, for the first time in my experience, spoke in
unison. A crow chorus. "It is the full moon," they said, "the only time crows
are allowed to cry. One tear apiece is all we are given for the grief we have
seen, for the evil we couldn't stop, for the children we have lost. Sometimes,"
they paused, "we gather the tears together and use them to change things. Our
tears have potent magic, the magic of sorrow. And it can kill or heal. Tonight
we gather them for you." Then the chorus dispersed and drifted off while I stood
there not knowing what to say. Finally Morgan stepped up to explain. "We use crow tears in extreme cases. Drop them into the food of a tyrant, he dies. Drop them in a babies open mouth, he survives a deadly disease. Sometimes we use it to help our own. Sometimes we shed our one monthly tear alone in the dark, letting it fall to the ground to do whatever its wild magic might do. You must drink it for it to work." "You must be getting tired of me asking this, but why me? Am I such an extreme case?" "We need to purify you with sorrow. Where you will eventually go, you must be free of guilt." "Guilt? What's going on here? What did I do?" "Nothing we can put a name to," she said, "but chances are you've done your fair share of evil in the 30-odd years you've been on this earth. We can't take any chances, so you must drink this." She started walking toward the tombstone. I didn't like this. "Can't I just go to a priest or confession or something?" "No," she said abruptly. Then under her breath, to herself, I heard her say "they don't know the first thing about penance. I'll show them penance..." and the rest vanished into incoherent grumbling. I followed her to the tombstone and saw the cap from an acorn sitting there, half filled with a cloudy liquid. "This will hurt," Morgan warned. "So let's skip it. I'm not particularly fond of pain and I usually do just fine without it," I said trying to sound upbeat and optimistic but ended up sounding scared. "Sorry," she said, as if everything was a forgone conclusion, "we collected the tears for you and now you've got to drink them." "I don't want to." It occurred to me as I said it that this was the first time I'd stood up to her. Unfortunately, I sounded infantile. "I know you don't and I can't blame you, but it's already been decided." I felt like a child who didn't want to take his medicine. Without another thought, I took it and drank it in angry defiance of all the stunts Morgan had forced me to do. That was a mistake. Fortunately, the anger didn't last long.

The liquid was thick, almost pure salt, and as bitter as you can imagine. It
couldn't have been any more salty. Once I choked it down, however, the saltiness
was gone. Then I felt like I was falling into a warm, long, dark sadness-like a
well-but somehow comforting. There are many kinds of sadness and sorrow. Most
ache, some dull your ability to feel, still others shock you, knocking you
emotionally unconscious. The sorrow I ingested burned like a flash fire but with
a little more stamina. I lost my balance and tried to hold myself up on the
tombstone. I squeezed my eyes shut, clenching my jaw tightly, and tried to hold
onto my sanity. I lost that fight. Images flooded my mind in a torrent that
contained within it all of humanity's pain and misery. I only got glimpses, as

if I was being rolled and buffeted in a white-water river and bits and pieces
were being washed past me. Then things got more focused. First there was the
mother, relentlessly beating her child. God only knows what he had done, but
that was the least of my trouble. I was not just an observer of this horror;
every swing connected with my face too, every bruise lodging itself in my back
and head. I had curled over to protect my face, chest and abdomen, but it didn't
do a lot of good. The physical pain was bad, but the emotional despair was
worse. I was pushed inside this kid's head, and discovered this beating wasn't
his first. It wouldn't be the last either. The beating was bad, but the fear was
worse. The anticipation of each blow drove the child to madness, though he
probably wouldn't know to call it that. The fist across his/my mouth finally
knocked me out and into the next scene. More fear, more madness, but now I was
the mother...at gun-point. The son I had raised was whacked out on the drug du
jour and waving a gun at me, demanding money. I saw through her eyes that the
streets, the gangs, had turned her child into an irredeemable monster, one without a future. The accidental bullet that ripped through her
shoulder left me bleeding and transported me into the darkness. Here, the little girl, me, was crouched in the basement as her older brother looked for her. His game wasn't sex or physical violence, just terror. He found new ways every day to psychologically torture her. Some might write it off as typical sibling antics, but her older brother really got off on it. When your only salvation is to be alone in the dark, you've lost all there is to being human. She closed her
eyes and wept, and so did I. When I opened them again, I was in a high school,
immersed in shame and fear as the popular kids taunted me. Then I was a junkie,

looking at the empty syringe with the sure knowledge that there was no money
left and no friends or family to turn to. I'd never felt such emptiness. Each
time the scene changed, I was both observer and participant. Whatever misery was
being visited on the subject, I felt. I was the old man, confused, alone and
dying in a nursing home. I was the AIDS patient at the edge of despair, the
abused wife, the cop with the half-empty bottle, the father who can't feed his
kids, the homeless bum mumbling to himself. Through all the pain and fear and
hopelessness, I began to realize that these views were what the crows see in

their omnipresence. What I was seeing was actually the accumulated memories of
the 100 or so crows that had wept into the cup. Worse than that, this was only a
month's worth of misery, just what they had seen since the last full moon. They
saw it, distilled it, carried it around inside them and then released it.
Tonight, they fed it to me.

It finally subsided, like a decrescendo of pain, and the scenes and visions
stopped. I slumped to the ground, all bruises inside and out. My shoulder hurt
like a sonofabitch where the mother had been shot by her son and it still aches
to this day, every time the full moon comes around. I won't go into the
nightmares I still have once a month. I sat there on the ground, gasping for
breath. What I'd hoped were merely psychic and psychological scars were actually
physical. I had bruises on my arms and swelling underneath both eyes. I felt
like one of my ribs was broken and probably my nose too. The bullet hole in my
shoulder bled freely. "I'm beat up," I finally croaked out. "Yes, that was a lot
of suffering to put you through. It's not always like that." I didn't want to
hear any explanations so I shushed her. "Just take me home," I said. And she
did, taking me the long way around to the cemetery gate because she knew I
wouldn't be able to climb the fence. I limped home in silence and she left me
when I got to the door of my house. After I bandaged my shoulder-the hole went
clear through so I assumed the slug was somewhere other than my body-I took a
drink, some aspirin and settled in for a fitful sleep.

Chapter 10

I was right about the ribs; they were broken. The nose was not. I tried to explain to the doctor that I fell off my bicycle after getting shot in a bar-room brawl, but I don't know whether he believed me. He patched me up and didn't ask too many questions once I assured him that I had reported the whole thing to the police. The next time Morgan came by, there was tension between us. Maybe I mistakenly thought of us as friends, when she was purely a mentor, an instructor in life's lessons. The last lesson was painful, permanent and I blamed her for it. I don't know what I wanted her to have done differently, though I thought perhaps her magic could have lessened the lesson a bit. All I knew was that I hurt and it was her fault. It was an animal reaction.
"Sorry about the other night," she said as she walked onto my porch. "The
effects were more extreme than I anticipated, than any of us anticipated. We
didn't know it would hurt you so much. Wild magic is like that." "Is that an
apology?" I asked sullenly. "Yes, I'm sorry. All the crows are. We don't expect
you to forgive us right away. We just want you to understand on some level and
learn from the experience. Have you got a sandwich?" I knew what she was doing.
She was appealing to my exaggerated sense of hospitality. It made me feel
better, however, that she didn't know what would happen when they fed me the
tears. That made the other night more of an accident and less like an
intentional lesson in pain. We went into the kitchen together, my dog already
fast asleep. He had become accustomed to falling into a deep sleep whenever
Morgan showed up. Now he did it out of habit and she didn't even need to use any
magic anymore.

I made her a sandwich, with mayo, though it was difficult doing it with only
one arm. "Last night's lesson wasn't just about pain, it was about perspective.
You saw what we see in the course of our wanderings through your society. You
took a lot more physical damage than we encounter, but the sorrows we see
between moons are a heavy burden. Do you know why crows don't soar and glide
like hawks?" I said I didn't. "We've got the equipment," she said, holding out a
wing, "got all the feathers and physiology to soar with the hawks and eagles,
but we cannot. Why?" I shrugged. "We're too heavy, weighted down with human
sorrow." I looked dubious. "No, I mean it. Crows and humans have a linked
destiny. What happens among you has an effect on us and vice-versa. We
accumulate the suffering we see and release it in our single tear every full
moon. I know you saw all of that." "That could have meant anything," I said,
unconvinced. It sounded too full of self-pity to me and that didn't resonate
with my experiences with crows up to this point. She sensed that. "I'll prove
it!" she said. "Come outside." My first limp forward and the ache in my ribs
when I breathed made me hesitate. "Please, leave me alone. I'm still in pain.
I've learned enough for awhile." "This won't hurt." I could tell she was trying
to cheer me up, the kind of nurturing that was probably against her nature. I
appreciated it...and followed her outside.

When we got outside, she clucked a couple of times and a hawk appeared from
out of the trees. Never mind everything I'd seen so far, this took me by
surprise. The hawk landed about six feet from us, and from that distance was
very intimidating. Crows can get pretty close to you, even initially, before
they take on a sense of menace. A hawk is very different. It exudes menace. "Put
out your arm," she said. I hesitated. She gave me a look. "Hey, are you sure
this shirt is thick enough?" "I'm certain." I stuck out my arm and this
incredible bird, with its two powerful quadruple meathooks, landed gently on my
good arm. Its grip was firm but there was no hint of piercing as its talons
wrapped around my forearm. Nevertheless, the suggestion that there was a lot of
power there in those feet was not lost on me. I got it. I immediately imagined
both arms in slings and trying to explain to the doctor what happened again.
"See how much it weighs?" she said. I did, and had to admit that, though it was
a very large animal, it weighed almost nothing. It flew away and to my relief
left my arm behind. She clucked again and a crow arrived. I held out my arm,
much less intimidated, and the crow lighted on it. Although it was a smaller
bird, it was much heavier, the added weight shooting pain straight through my
arm and into my broken ribs. "Ok, ow! I admit crows are heavy. But why should I
believe that has anything to do with us humans?" "You'll have to take my word for it." And that was the end of that. "Before you go," I said, because I sensed she was leaving, "Could you do something to make me sleep. When it hurts to breathe, you'd be surprised how little sleep you get." She searched around the lawn and grabbed a bug. "This one will work." She mumbled a bit and handed me a beetle-looking thing. "Eat this and you'll sleep." "Morgan, I know I hang out with crows, talk to crows, fly with crows and spend most of my time with crows, but I don't eat like a crow. I don't eat bugs." "Have you ever tried?" "No, and I'm not about to." "Just drink it down with water, or whiskey if you prefer. You'll never taste a thing. Besides, if you want to sleep, that's all I can do." A human will do a lot of unusual things when alone, things he would never do if people were watching. So I took my bug inside and poured myself some whiskey. I stared at the now dead bug for a long time, trying to decide what to do. Finally, as the pain in my chest got worse, especially when I lay down, I swallowed the bug. Damn, now I was eating bugs. What next? Roadkills? But she was right; I slept all night without nightmares and felt more healed the next day.

Chapter 11

Morgan left me alone for a whole week to heal and I began to miss her company.
I asked a couple of neighborhood crows where she was, but they wouldn't say much
beyond "she's got her work to do" and left it at that. When she finally showed
up again, I was glad to see her. "How are you feeling?" she asked. "Are you up
for a walk?" I greeted her enthusiastically and told her yes. I never had to ask
where we were going anymore. When we got there, she made a lunge toward the
cemetery fence, but thought better of it when she remembered how beat up I still
was. We walked the long way around, through the gate. The regular contingent of
crows was waiting for us at the clearing. One crow stepped out from the rest and
asked me to sit down. "You'll like this guy," Morgan whispered to me. I sat on the wet grass in a way that put little strain on my ribs. The crow at the center of attention hopped up on a tombstone. He scratched at it a bit, looked thoughtful, and spoke, like a preacher. "I take for my text, my friends, James Mendek, 1893 to 1967." I looked and that was the name and date on the tombstone he stood on. "Jimmy, as his friends called him, was an average man with an average job and an average family. He didn't think too much about what he was doing, and consequently saw enough success to survive. But the war changed him. The war took him into the trenches for a long time, dodging bullets, breathing gas, killing people. He was unremarkable as a soldier except by virtue of the fact that he had this gap in his conscience. Whether it was an inherited trait or grew there as he advanced through years, I cannot say. When he killed a fellow human being, he forgot to feel bad about it. In fact, he sort of enjoyed it. He knew he wasn't supposed to, and knew he couldn't tell anyone about it. Nevertheless his commanders recognized this gap in his conscience and therefore assigned him some of the cleanup duty that goes along with war-killing women and children left behind. It was work other soldiers couldn't stomach. But Jimmy did it and secretly enjoyed it." "But then Jimmy just stopped. When the war was over and he went home, he got a job, married a woman, had some kids and remained a faithful husband, father, and grandfather until his death decades later. No one back home ever knew his secret, and if he drank a little too much every Veterans Day, well, nobody much commented on it. There was a lot of that after most wars. When Jimmy died, he was in a delirium and he could hear the screams, the gunfire, the killing as it was dredged up from deep within him. Jimmy died smiling." Crow Preacher jumped from the standing tombstone to a flat one, embedded in the grass. "Helen Dietsch," he spoke loudly, "1909 to 1985. The girl most likely to...sleep with as many boys in her school as she could. Actually she only had sex with two or three dozen boys, though many more thought they had accomplished the same end in their drunken stupor. She moved to Uruguay. No one knew why. She didn't either. She arrived at the decision after her third random stab at a spinning globe with her finger (the first two landed in the ocean). She married a man in a small town there who loved her well and often. She had some children, wrote some poems that no one ever saw, started a riot against the government once and died of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. Her one wish, to be buried in Uruguay, is betrayed here by the last of her ruthless brothers." He hopped to the next tombstone. "This is his talent," whispered Morgan, "to be able to read tombstones and the lives of those buried beneath. He is a revealer of secrets, an over-taker, one who unearths the dead with his stories. I wonder, sometimes, if it's unsettling to the dead. Does it bother them when he is about to jump on their gravestone and reveal all the secrets they took with them to the grave?" Morgan asked aloud. The next story was about a very devout, very conservative man who was secretly a homosexual but never admitted it to his friends, his family or himself. His dreams, however, got more and more tangible, more wild, more unacceptable. Finally, his dreams swallowed his sanity and he, true to form, put a bullet through his head. No one ever knew why. This was a fairly consistent theme with Crow Preacher's stories: the hidden secret that shaped a life or a death, the end that came too early or too late, the private tortures we put ourselves through or get put through. He was good, warming to his sermons from time to time, each one caked in loss and sorrow. I sat there for hours, growing melancholy and contemptuous of the human obsession with illusion, rationalization and living a lie. It would be difficult to say I enjoyed myself, but the time passed quickly and I learned a lot. There is in me, all of us probably, a sick fascination with knowing secrets, even dead or unimportant ones. To sit there hearing them for hours probably doesn't speak well of my character. But it gave me a sampling of stories about my fellow human beings that still haunts me. I can't watch people pass me on the sidewalk without wondering what's behind their facade.

I often imagine I see Crow Preacher poised on their tombstone, proclaiming their
secrets to his rapt audience. He finally finished up. He got the congratulations
of all the crows present, like he was a celebrity. I got up slowly and
congratulated him with a traditional crow salutation, including the head cock
and bobbing (which really hurt). "I'm glad you could make it," he said. "And
thank you for straining yourself in order to congratulate me according to
tradition. I saw the strain on your face," he said as I was trying to discount
the pain in my ribs. "I hope to someday read your tombstone, to reveal the
secrets we can only guess at." That initially sounded a lot to me like he was
wishing me dead, but then I thought about it some more. Did I really want this
crow climbing on my tombstone and telling all of these others my darkest
secrets? "In light of your work for us, it should be an interesting sermon." I
was left without a word to say.

Chapter 12

The next time I encountered the crows, it was by accident. Actually it was by an accident and there was quite a ruckus. There were crows screaming loudly, about 60 of them, and the chorus of "dumb fuck, dumb fuck!" rang through the trees if you had the ears to hear it. To most people, it would just sound like a two-syllable cawing, but it was loud and sustained and other humans were actually paying attention to the tumult, at least peripherally.
When I arrived where they were all concentrated, I looked out in the street
and saw a dead crow, run over by a car. He was completely smashed. The chorus of
cawing seemed to be a joint condemnation, not mourning, and I heard words like
"fool" and "careless" used frequently. "What's up?" I asked the crow closest to
me and surreptitiously looking around to make sure no one saw me talking to the
crows. It was the middle of the day and I really only talked to crows at night.
"A crow died here," she answered, thick with sarcasm. "Shoe on the other foot?"
I joked. "A crow death," she said with no trace of humor, "is very serious.
Especially one like this." I gave her a look that said I hoped she would
explain. In broad daylight on a busy road, I wanted to keep my obvious
communication with them to a minimum. "Just look at him. Smashed by a 93'
Oldsmobile. It's just not natural." "Why not?" I murmured. "People die by
accident all the time." "Crows don't!" she snapped. "We die with plenty of
notice. Death sends us a message about our final moment months ahead of time.
Otherwise, how would we prepare?" I shrugged to indicate my failure to understand. "Crows are told when they will die," she explained, "so we can assemble enouugh souls to escort us to the next step in our existence. We need others to escort our spirits across. A human would work, but its a bit much to ask for a human to die just so we can make the journey. Besides, a human would probably get lost. Usually we take about 20, maybe 30, birds during our final journey. "They die?" I asked. "Yes. They don't do it voluntarily. It's the dying crow's job to assemble and kill them. Then
Death shows up," she interrupted herself, "Have you met Death?" "Yes," I said, even though it still sounded strange to me to admit it. "So Death takes the crow, physically, along with the bird souls, to the other side. The body gets left somewhere along the way; we've never found out where. There's a lot of space between here and the other side, so it could be anywhere. Right before he leaves, Death reminds anyone in attendance of the purpose of the crow, we bow our heads, and the dead crow is gone. It's very ceremonial and very moving. This," she nodded toward her dead brother in the road "is very wasteful, very difficult to accept." "What happens now?" I asked. "Now we must bury him-we'll need your help with that-and his soul has to find it's own way across, unescorted. That takes a long time. He will be lost and it serves him right, dying like that." "What's the deal? I've never heard of anyone being so criticized for their accidental death." It was pretty obvious by this time that I was talking to the crow, but I didn't care. It wasn't my neighborhood. I lived in a city where mentally ill people mumbling to themselves in the streets didn't raise too many eyebrows. "You're not a crow," she said, "so you wouldn't understand that there are few sins among us-but dying by accident is one of them. You must never be surprised by death. It's a direct
reflection of our purpose." There was that word again. "If you keep your purpose
constantly in front of you, you'll never be surprised like this one was. If you
forget your purpose, you forget yourself. And then you get hit by a 93'
Oldsmobile." That seemed like a wry comment, so I grinned. She did too. I
thought about what she said for the rest of the day and met the crows that night
at the graveyard. I brought a shovel, for I could do more in 10 minutes of
digging, even as injured as I was, than they could do in hours of pecking and
scratching. The sense of criticism was gone and everyone seemed sad, not so much
because he had died, but because he was lost. When the hole was dug, two crows
brought his body forward, wrapped in a white shroud. Crow Preacher stepped
forward as they put the corpse in the hole and said, "Find your way, brother,
through the white fog of death, through the lies and treachery, through the
heaviness of sorrow and the peril of hunger, to the other side." Then he dropped
a rock in the open grave. Each crow, in turn, stepped up and put some token in the hole-a bone, a feather, a bottle cap, a scrap of cloth. I dropped one of my favorite pens into the grave as a sign of my hopes
for his journey and out of respect. Morgan showed up at the end but brought nothing. I filled in the hole and we walked home together in silence.

A few nights later, I had a dream. I'd been having odd dreams every since this whole thing started, when Morgan and her nest arrived. But this was one I remembered. It spooked me more than the others. After all I'd seen, nothing should have surprised or scared me. Maybe I was just sensitive about my chest because my ribs were still broken. The dream started with me in the graveyard, on my back and naked. There were about 10 male crows surrounding me. I couldn't talk, couldn't move. With their combined strength, the crows cracked my chest open. No pain, no blood, just this cavity in my ribs. The crows, just like at the funeral, had brought stuff with them. They started weaving the stuff into a kind of lump: a dead June bug, river silt, moss, coins, a cigarette butt, a feather, a patch of anonymous fur and a live frog. They wound it into a bundle with dry grass and without ceremony, dropped it into my chest cavity. Two or three crows hopped to the edge of the hole in my ribs and started jostling things around, like mechanics under the hood of a car. I couldn't see what they were doing, but it seemed like they were rearranging things. All of a sudden, I felt my heart beating, or more accurately, a heart beating. It didn't take me long to realize that whatever was in my chest wasn't my heart, since it was beating at a different rhythm than the heart I was born with. There was suddenly a kind of syncopated rhythm in my chest resonating throughout my body. This was not a settling experience, even in a dream. After 30 seconds of this, the crows closed up my chest and my mind began to race. With two hearts beating, my mind was getting twice as much of everything. The initial euphoria soon gave way to the darkest thoughts, murderous contemplations, a laundry list of people I'd like to kill, of whole countries, races, religions I'd eradicate in the service of making a better world. I felt myself being pulled away from what I can only call my moral center. I know it's difficult to kill a fellow human being
-physically, psychologically and spiritually-but not where I was at that moment. I visited that still place outside yourself where actively pursuing the death of another human is not fraught with the typical baggage. Where I was-where this new heart had taken me-I was coldly calmly, rationally capable of killing. This was the place of crows, where they dwelt most of the time. I will never think so clearly again and never will my purpose be clearer. One can talk of goals, aspirations, and quests, but it is the pathetic whining of aimless individuals until one visits that place. Everything comes clear and focused when I journeyed that far into the darkness, the darkness where my new heart took me. I could see myself from that place, as if I were having an out of body experience, watching myself do stupid things. It's very frightening because I wasn't sure I'd get back or even how to get back. This was compounded by ideas generated by my new dark heart, ideas that weren't mine. These ideas were recipes, methods of tapping into my own evil, turning toward that soul destruction a tiny step at a time. While these recipes were not that appetizing, more intriguing were the instructions on how to find and promote darkness in others, ways to pervert perfectly useful ideas and emotions to create chaos. As I drifted further and further into darkness and madness, something in my moral center, conscience, twanged. I was suddenly hurled back to reality and out of that dream.
But I remembered everything, all the darkness, all the recipes. I even
rememberd how that extra heart felt, beating in my chest like something only
somewhat a part of me. It was energy and life and the kind of rush that drug
addicts must feel when they are high, but where it took me left me curled up and
shivering and wide awake all night.

Chapter 14

I think I've mentioned it before, but it's important to point out that most of the crows I met were females. How I knew this I can't say. How any of this happened is only vaguely coherent and beyond the pale of any logic I've tried to apply to it. Still, their voices were female and I just had the feeling that I was talking to someone who had had female life experiences. There were males involved in my training, but whether they were uninterested in my project or were in fact more scarce, I only encountered them rarely. I asked Morgan about this once and she surprised me with the facts about crow procreation. Males were not involved in propagating the species, she explained, and in fact most female crows only had chicks once in their lifetime. "Death is the father of all crow children, not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real physical sense," she told me. "Once in every crow's life, when she is ready to have children, Death will come and impregnate her." "The act itself is subtle, like a dream, and unremarkable. But actually giving birth to Death's children takes a physical and spiritual toll that no crow wants to pay more than once. It takes many years off your life."
"You have children?" "Yes, three children. Elizabeth, Alan and Sam."
"Names?" "Yes, we name our children though over the years they may choose
others. Often the original names get forgotten." "What's yours? I mean, I've
been calling you Morgan and I think of that as your name, but what's your given
name." "It's gone. I've forgotten it. For years I abandoned all names. Now I
think I'll take the name Morgan and be known that way until something more
appropriate comes along. Thank you for naming me again." I was quiet. The moment
seemed to beg for silence because something important had just transpired
between us. I had named my friend, picking it off the top of my head. I wished I
had been more careful. "So Elizabeth," she continued, "flew off to become a farm
crow. It suited her sensibility and I'm very proud of her, though it means I
don't hear from her often. She's become very adept at magic and battle. She
fights the farmers. We talked about that before." "Where is she?" "The other side of the world, on a different continent. I intend to go see her when I'm finished, I mean, when I get a chance." "Alan is worse than useless. I don't know what he's up to, but he's always been a wanderer. Bit of a
story-teller in him, but that's all he got from me. I never hear from him. I wish he'd get more focused, but some crows are travelers, they never actually settle down. I miss him." "Sam is in town right now, killing pigeons. He sees that as his civic duty. He's very civic minded and probably would have made a great politician if he had been human. But Sam's my joy, brings me presents, visits his old mother often. Yes, he's a good son. You should meet him." It was difficult for me to force the sheath of motherhood over Morgan, this crow who had become friend and mentor. "I would like to," I said, wondering what new insights into her would arrive with Sam. I discovered that two nights later, when Morgan and Sam showed up on my porch. I had become accustomed to her arrival by now; whenever my dog fell asleep suddenly, I knew she was on the porch. I walked out from the kitchen to see her and another crow, who was quickly introduced as Sam, her son. He was big for a crow. "My mother has told me a lot about you," Sam said, "You must be something special." Part compliment, part challenge, very typically male. "I listen well," I said, establishing my credentials by snagging the common denominator in the scarce praise I'd received from Morgan and the others. "But I'm too sentimental." I said, as a way to modify my own estimation of my worthiness to be the target of so much crow attention. It was a complaint I remembered from my first encounters with them. "Not any more," he said smiling. "I've heard about some of your exploits. You have survived much. Exposure to the magic alone can drive you mad. I come into your company already impressed." I hesitated. No hint of irony or sarcasm revealed itself in his words. "Morgan says you're interested in politics." "Yes," he brightened, "but not crow politics, which is almost non-existent. Human politics are very interesting. I study the range of political structures and am very impressed. You humans have innumerable ways of organizing yourselves and most are quite functional." He surprised me with that. I am, like my kin and peers, vehemently critical of politics, and I don't recall the last time I heard someone say something nice about politicians. "Of all the
criticisms I've heard from crows about us humans, I'm a little shocked to hear that you like our politics," I said. Morgan clucked under her breath "He's a human lover." Sam ignored her and continued. "I think you humans forget the reason you've got politics," he said. 'The real reason is to prevent death, to keep you from killing each other. That's why you create politics, and you must admit, it's remarkable good at death prevention." "How so?" I said, thinking of all the wars and genocide that had been ordered by the world's politicians. "If you allowed yourselves free reign, without politics, and just roamed around in chaotic self-interest, you'd be killing each other at an alarming rate. Politics is the wise recognition that human conscience is too weak to deter much of anything. You look at any political structure or regime and it has almost always prevented more deaths than it's caused. With the exception of Hitler, the Dutch East India Company and a few other genocidal anomalies, politics prevents mass murder." "But politics allows governments to organize vast populations to go to war with each other. You call that wise restraint of our murderous nature?" "Actually, most wars would occur anyway. Governments actually lessen the carnage by imposing rules, military discipline and strategy to a situation that would have been much worse without governmental control. What's the worst kind of war, the type that results in the most death and horror?" I shrugged. "A civil war," he answered without a pause, "is one where chaos reigns. No governmental control over the combatants exists and no rule or law is recognized. It's during a civil war that you will see atrocities that no sane man would ever contemplate, even during a regular war." "No," he finished, "I think human governments are remarkable at controlling death. Even the worst totalitarian tyrant saves more lives than he takes, though he probably doesn't intend to." "Is that all?" I asked. "A government is supposed to restrain carnage and that's it?" "What else would you have it do?" "Make people's lives better, equalize imbalancess in wealth, take care of thepoor, the sick, build roads..." "Ok, I'll give you the roads," he interrupted, "but the governments I've observed are useless for all the other things you
mentioned. None I've ever seen can actually accomplish good, except in restraining mass murder and building roads. Everything else a government tries
seems destined to fail or make things worse." "And how many of these governments have you seen?" I asked. "Many," he said, being purposefully vague. I waited. He finally said, "I've been alive 400 years. How many do you think I've seen?" It was the first I'd heard of how long crows live, though I had a vague feeling many of them were ancient. Still, I didn't expect that kind of longevity. "A lot," I finally said. There was a pregnant pause between us. I wanted to pursue the longevity of crows and all that implied, but I sensed he didn't want to go any further on that subject. I retreated.

"So tell me more about Morgan," I said, trying to lighten the mood. "Another
time," she interrupted, "Now we've got something to do." I rubbed my ribs as if
they were sore, hoping to buy time and sympathy. "You won't need your body," she
added cryptically, "so come on." I didn't argue. We walked, the three of us, but
not in the direction of the cemetery. After going one block, we headed south
instead of east and walked for about a mile before we came to a stream. It was
approaching evening and the large elms cast deep shadows on the hollows the
creek had carved in the landscape. It was old, felt old and even I, who was now
accustomed to frequenting cemeteries at midnight, thought it uncommonly dark.
"Sit here on this park bench and look at that house over there," Sam said. I sat
and looked at a large house across the road. It was expensive, but needed some
repair work. Not really neglected, but showing signs of wear like an old suit.
"I'll stay here with him," she told Sam. He flew off toward the house. "His name
is Andrew and he's very old. Tonight he dies," she nodded toward the house. "Sam
is going to kill him?" I blurted out. "No, don't be ridiculous. Andrew will die

of natural causes. Sam is just there to escort him to the other side. He will
bbring him this way." "And you want me to watch?" I said, incredulous. "No, we're going with him." Silence. "You mean..." "Yes, we're going to help escort Andrew to the other side. This is the essence of a crow's purpose and you should see it first hand." I had given up protesting Morgan's assorted plans for me by this time, but I was still upset. It seemed like we would be going right to the brink of death and that, in my opinion, was a bad idea. "No thanks," I said timidly, "I'll just stay here." She wasn't buying it. "Remember the crow tears?" she asked. "You went through all that so you could do this. We purified you so you could make this journey. You want all that pain and horror to be for nothing?" I knew she had me, but I sensed this journey was far from safe. There was something she wasn't telling me. "It won't be safe," she said like she read my mind, "just safer than it was. This will be hard for you, but I think you're ready. Here we go."
And before I knew it I saw two forms approaching us from the house about 10
feet off the ground. Both bird and man were dark and shadowy, but outlined in a
white glow that made them hard miss. All of a sudden I let out an involuntary
groan and felt my self-because I don't know what else to call it-break free of
my body. I rose quickly with Morgan next to me and noticed that I had wings
instead of arms. In fact, I had become a crow, and as I flew away from my body,
I noticed that Andrew was the only human shape among us. My first thought was
how good it felt to be free of my body, since I was in constant pain from my
ribs and shoulder. "You're a lucky man Andrew," Sam called out. "Most people
only get one escort. You get three." Andrew looked around, confused, and asked
"Am I dead?" "Yes," Sam said with finality "and now we're taking you to the
other side. We will show you the way." He was talking to Andrew like the
recently dead human was a child. We flew, or that's how I saw it, into the night
sky. It was strange to have wings, actually be a crow, even in a spiritual
sense. My previous experience of flying helped me. Flying faster than was
physically possible, we found ourselves over the ocean. Sam dove into it taking
Andrew with him. Morgan and I followed, into absolute darkness. "We just left the world as you know it," Morgan whispered. I felt the change in speed. The darkness around us wasn't just water, it was too black for that. And it provided resistance to our wings, was actually more like air. We worked harder to stay aloft. It's difficult to conceive of flying without any reference point, without any ground, without any down. But there was a kind of spiritual gravity here pulling against us and I sensed that falling, even here where there was no ground, wasn't a good idea. I don't know how Andrew was staying up, though Sam may have been helping him since he was holding onto his collar. Anyway, we were working hard to keep aloft, but I didn't know which way we were going. With only ourselves as reference points in the middle of the blackness of death, or near death anyway, any direction could have been correct. Then I noticed Morgan had her eyes closed, so I tried it. When you weren't looking around, getting panicky about your position in the universe, you could feel a pull in a certain direction and, without context, it would have been madness to ignore it. When I opened my eyes again, I noticed both Sam and Morgan had their eyes closed, concentrating very hard to steer us right. Andrew and I had our eyes open. Before I could speak a word to him, we were both transfixed by a bright light at a distance below us. I closed my eyes and realized that the source of the light was what drew us, gave us our direction. "This will be tough," Morgan said loudly. She meant that for me, not for Andrew; he was still mesmerized by the light. "I want you to circle and stay close to me," she said. At that point the light seemed to pull hard on me, like lust, but on a spiritual level. It called to me on as primitive a spiritual plane as air calls to the lungs of a drowning man. Sam let go of Andrew and he half dropped, half dived into the light and
vanished. I wanted to follow him more than anything I'd ever wanted before. "Now
we'll see what you're made of," Morgan said. Sam flew next to me so I had them on both sides. "Now you come to the decision we crows make every journey; to fall into the light or make the trip home. Do we go back and live?" I gasped some kind of acknowledgment that I heard her. "This is why I had to make sure your soul was strong, that you went through purification with the crow tears.
Remember what you saw that night. Then you must decide whether you will fight
those harmful things by living and striving against all the cruelty and
stupidity, or despair and fall." "You've always chosen despair in the past," she
continued, "and you've felt this pull before. It's never been this easy to
choose before, however, and the pull has never been this strong. I knew I could
lose you if I brought you here, and I really couldn't blame you if you chose the
other side. But I think you've got more to do back with your old life...and I know you think so too." She didn't let up, speaking quietly, with a consistent rhythm that reminded me of distant drums. "Remember back ten or twelve years ago? That night you gave up. That night you took the pills, drank the gin and wandered out to the closed garage. You heard this song, felt this pull of something different, perhaps something better. Life had nothing more to offer you and anything was better than the empty shell of existential despair you inhabited. Nevertheless, you couldn't go through with it. Even then it was too difficult to kill that body and let your crippled spirit find it's way here. Now I fear I've made it too easy for you to just fold your wings and fall into the light." "Your friend," she continued, "felt the pull, stronger than you, and actually killed her body. Her spirit was almost extinguished by the world and its heartless indifference to her suffering. That's when she heard the light you now see, felt the pull and made her choice. Remember Jenny?" "Yes," I sobbed, but no tears could come forth here. I was, after all, a crow now. "Bartholomew escorted her to the other side. She spoke of you during the journey. He told me the story. She was brave and hardly needed any guidance to get here. Her spirit was almost burned out before she made it here, to the other side. Now you must
choose." I didn't answer, just circled above the light. I tried to fuse
intellect and emotion together in order to make the choice before me. "Jenny was
my first choice," Morgan continued, "did you know that?" "First choice for what?" I barely whispered. "For all of this. For first contact, to teach her our
language, to tell her our stories. I was going to have her write all of this and
be our emissary to your race. She recommended you as she journeyed to the other
side. That's why I started talking to you, because Jenny said you'd do a good job and would listen."
I still didn't know what to say. I closed my eyes and imagined my friend
flying into the light just as Andrew had. I felt her lifelong sigh of relief,
the first tinglings of a peace she never felt in life. I wanted that too.
"When a spirit gets beaten down and tired" she continued relentlessly, "it longs for this place. When it gets so battered that the spark almost goes out, a person will take their physical life and end it, free their spirit to come here and begin the new journey. Many of your friends have done that. Their spirits were broken, crippled and hanging by a thread. So, how's your spirit?" Finally the question. "My spirit is in love with death and never wants to leave this place," I admitted. "I'd be content just to fly forever above this light. But I'd get weak and fall." There was a long silence. I finally pulled a tail feather from my crow self, held it in my beak for a moment, and dropped it into the light. I looked at Morgan and said "that's a cryptic message for Jenny. Part of my soul will always be here. I know I'll always be able to find my way back to this place."

"After another long thoughtful silence, I said, "Let's go back." We turned out
of our orbit around the light and, guided by Morgan and her son, I found my way
back to life. I flew tiredly and barely had enough strength to get back.
Fortunately the last part of the journey was easy, and I landed in my body
gently. The pain in my ribs returned immediately and I slumped on the park
bench. Morgan and Sam were right next to me, also visibly exhausted. "Can we sleep here?" I asked timidly. "No, we better get home and sleep there," Morgan said. We rose off the bench like creatures cast in lead, legs buckling under the weight of life, eyes adjusting to the drear and washed-out color of mortality. It began to dawn on me that these journeys would take a terrible toll on you if you had to do them often. I looked at Sam. "Is it bad for you? Are you as tempted to go over to the other side as I was?" He nodded affirmatively. "How do you do it then? I mean, doesn't it wear you out? Does it get easier after you've done it many times." "It gets easier with time and experience, but it's always taxing." "That's why you needed to go," Morgan interrupted, "to see what we do, what we go through when one of you dies. You need to know the price we pay, the debt you owe us. And you need to tell others." As I drifted to sleep, with Morgan and Sam in the room, both sleeping on a makeshift perch, I could still see the feather, the part of my soul, as it drifted into the light and beyond. I could still feel the pull of the light and my connection to it. The image of my glowing feather was painted in phosphorescence on the interior of my eyelids. It took a while to fall asleep.

Chapter 15

It was many days after our journey to the edge of death before Morgan returned. As soon as my dog hit the floor, I opened the screen. She greeted me cheerfully.
"Tonight, what ever happens, it was not my idea." I shivered. The events
that she took credit for almost killed me; if she wouldn't be accountable for
this, it meant whatever was going to happen would be worse. The color must have
drained from my face, because she quickly added with a laugh, "No, it's not
dangerous. It's more on the ridiculous end of the spectrum." "We have among us
crows one who thinks he is a writer...a poet actually. He heard about your project and wants to make sure you understand enough about writing to commit our stories to paper." "A test?" "No, probably just a lecture. I think he needs to get it off his chest and have someone listen to him. We never do. But in your case, he's insisting. Sorry about this." She sounded sincere, so we walked up to our traditional clearing in the cemetery. It had just gotten dark when we arrived. Some crows greeted me for the first time; I guess making the "journey" earned me some more respect. We talked for some time before he showed up." "Are you him?" the new crow asked. I thought that was self-evident, but didn't say so. I'd faced enough editors to know a dressing down when I saw one. I kept my mouth shut. "So you're assigned to chronicle the crows for human consumption?" "Not by my choice," I said, glancing over at Morgan. "But since you've been eating us humans for centuries, I don't suppose this tiny reversal will do much harm." "Are you a poet?" "Only way down deep, where I often can't reach it." "Can I hear some?" If you're all set for some harsh criticism, reading your poetry aloud is tantamount to giving your abuser the weapon to beat you with.
Nevertheless I read him one of the poems I had written about the crows and my
experiences with them. He clucked when I was finished. "You use far too many
words," he chided. "I think you'd better leave the poetry to me. You can sign
your name to it, if you want to, just to keep some consistency in your work. I
assume most of what you'll be doing is prose?" "Yes." "Then I'll do the poetry,"
he said, plucking a tailfeather and clipping off the root end to make it into a
pen. He flew with his pen over to a scrap of paper blowing around the cemetery.
He stood on it, dipped the pen into the blackness of his feathers, as if he was
a living inkwell, and wrote on the litter. I read it as he composed.
Black scry, silvered mirrors laughing at the scaffold crowd cut and dive,

scratch the surface dirt watching with joke eyes we kill all we love. "You see,"
he said, looking up, "how poetry can sum up so much in so few lines. I've
accidentally written all you know about crows in a few lines." He was smug and
self-satisfied. "So you would like me to reconsider my prose approach to this
work?" "Actually I want you to let me write this stuff, in poetry, and you put
your name on it," he whispered. Morgan shuffled closer. "You could translate it
and..." he looked at Morgan and shut up. I didn't know what was going on but I
sensed more authority from Morgan than I had previously. The crow poet looked at
me, shrugged and flew off. "I thought he might try something like that," Morgan
said, mostly to herself. "So if he wants to write, he should write. What's
stopping him?" I asked. "I am," she said with finality.

Chapter 16

"Someone wants to talk to you," Morgan said four nights later, after the sun went down, after the dog fell asleep. "Come on, we must hurry." There was an urgency in Morgan's demeanor, another facet of her personality I hadn't encountered. But when we walked out the door, I was jolted. A full compliment of crows-about 100-waited for me. I looked around and asked "What's the deal?" "Don't talk. Just get going. He might change his mind." "Who?" I asked, as I started walking quickly toward the cemetery. "He will explain. You won't be harmed." Then she shut her beak. I couldn't get anymore information from her. I was healed enough to go over the fence, a hundred crows around me,
flying and calling loudly. There were only stars in the sky, no moon to speak of. I followed the crows to a mausoleum, a new structure that had just been finished in the cemetery. It had no occupants yet. The door was ajar. The crows stood in two rows on either side of the door, motionless, heads bowed. Morgan was at the end of the line, head up, and watching me as I walked between this unnerving display. I felt as though I was about to have an audience with some king in some medieval court. Morgan nodded to me to continue. I walked in.

At the far end of the mausoleum, away from the door, was what seemed to be a
crow. I say that only because it had the form of a crow. But it was entirely
white. This crow was as hypnotically white as a normal crow is black; my eyes
got drawn into the intensity of the color or lack thereof. It wasn't the
brilliant white of an angel or star. It was the color of true horror, the color
Melville pinned on the whale, the whiteness of a snow so cold it kills hope
forever. It was the whiteness of the clear morphine overdose that kills you hard
and long and dead. I walked closer, fascinated and without enough sense to be
afraid. He turned his head and I saw his eye, got caught in his stare. It
knocked the breath from me. It too was solid white, but not blind. There was the
spark of age and wisdom there, as clear as when he saw his first moonrise.
"Greetings human," he said in a gentle voice, tinged with sadness, as deep as an
ocean. I noticed he used the honorable term for my kind. "I am the white crow
and I mean to talk with you. It is difficult for me to be here, physically here,
with you. I usually live only in dreams, for I am old." I didn't ask. I was
cold, beyond fear, transfixed by voice and feather. "It's all right to ask," he
said after a pause. "I know you're used to being lectured at, that you listen
well, but I am here to answer questions, not tell stories or string out
declaratives." That put me a bit more at ease and I tried to ask "how old?" only to realize that I'd forgotten to breath since he turned his gaze on me. I gasped and then asked. "I existed when the first humans appeared. I was one of the first crows. All my siblings have since passed over or turned to iron ones. I've been around since humans first began to die." That old, I thought to myself. "The obvious question I suppose is 'why are you white?'" I finally said. "I witnessed the first murder. The first time a human consciously killed another human, I was there. We might as well call them Cain and Abel since I can't remember their real names anymore." "Oh." What was I supposed to say? I was standing and talking with someone so ancient that it defied my ability to grasp it. "Witnessing that act turned one of my feathers white. No one knows why. I took that soul to the other side and rather unofficially became the de facto escort for all the subsequent murder victims. The rest," he looked at himself in a curious human gesture, "have followed suit." "In the early days, I was assigned to deal with all the human murderers, but, as you can imagine, that became too big a task. Now I just handle the monsters." "When you say 'deal with' you mean...?" I asked. "Oh, right. I think I mentioned that I now only exist in dreams: That's what I do. I infect their dreams. I suppose nightmare is the proper term," he paused and smiled. I think my heart stopped just for a moment. Watching the white crow smile was like looking into a vortex of pure annihilation. Mystics speak of nothingness. I saw it that night. It is like being alone in the dark, crying for a century, knowing you can't stop, knowing no one will ever even hear you. White crow smiled and my whole world changed. I will never use the word lonely again without thinking of that look he gave me. It was a physical manifestation of all the retribution for all of the evil ever done. I sweat. I prayed to wake up. I froze. "Even so," he said, breaking the spell and releasing me, leaving me shaken. "That was just a taste of my more pleasant side. Imagine me in your dreams every night. Imagine me angry. Imagine that for a lifetime." More silence
from him. He was letting those thoughts sink in. "Sit down. I'll tell you of monsters." He used a word for human in this case I've explained before, but this was the only time I encountered it.
"In every generation, there are between seven and ten monsters, humans who kill for pleasure. They are-to cite people you might recognize-the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Mansons, the Dahmers. They have no conscience or else they've consciously destroyed it. They are worse than irredeemable; they are predators who kill and feed off the energy of death. These are your monsters and what's inside their head is so terrible I cannot describe it. If you went there with me, your sanity wouldn't survive. I, unfortunately, have grown accustomed to it." "These monsters are given to me and I destroy their souls." That stopped me cold, and he waited for what he said to sink in. "It's a slow process, but I come into their dreams and turn all their horrors and fear and hatred inward until it strangles their souls. Sometimes when I get them, they've lost the ability to dream, so I teach them," a glimpse of that smile again. "Rather ironic that I must help them build the weapon that I use to annihilate them. Ah well." "Usually the mind snaps first," he said clinically, "then I can go to work on the soul, helping it collapse in on itself. When it finally winks out, it's gone forever. No journey to the other side, no reincarnation, no judgment or hell or damnation. Just the final
eradication of their life force. Sometimes the soul dies years before the body, but I keep visiting their dreams to make sure." He almost seemed to enjoy his work, though I looked at his plumage and imagined what kind of toll all those millennia of madmen took on him. "The other ironic thing is they often seem unchanged after I go to work on them. The man sitting next to you in the restaurant or on the bus could belong to me and you might never know it. A human without a soul is remarkably similar to one who is still intact." "The only hitch in this process is that sometimes the monster dies before I'm finished with him. Your societies' death penalties and such often rob me of my opportunity to bring real justice to bear on the situation. Then their soul makes the journey to the light and beyond. I've seen a few souls bounce, but that's rare." "Bounce?" "Yes, they fly or drop towards the light and then bounce off it when they reach it. I don't know what happens to them after that, and frankly I wouldn't even hazard a guess." "So why you? Seems like a terrifying ordeal and you've been doing it, for all practical purposes, forever. Have you ever wanted to stop, to rest, to go to the other side?" "No," he said cheerfully, and that cheerfulness, though brief, hit me in the stomach hard enough to make me go fetal, "this is my purpose. It's why I exist. I am content with that. When I think of myself in grand terms, I see myself as Death's Sword of Justice. Though I mostly exist in dreams, it's good to talk to a human face-to-face. I'm glad I did this. It's been a long time." Whereas I had just been exposed to the oldest terror, the personification of distilled nightmares, the last word in fear and retribution, White Crow seemed cheered up, more peaceful and rested. There was quiet between us. He turned one dead white eye on me, and the then the other. I shivered. "I like you," he blurted out. "I didn't expect to. It's so difficult becoming physical that I dreaded this meeting. I only did it as a favor to the one you call Morgan. But I actually enjoyed myself. You do something so long and never explain it, even to yourself, and you forget. It's helped me to reiterate my life, my purpose." "It will also be helpful for you," he said, "though I hope I didn't frighten you too much. I'd like to talk with you again some time." The human in me screamed "No" in recognition of what he was, the monster he had become in order to kill the monsters. But the writer in me said "think of the stories he could tell." I nodded, "Morgan will tell you where to find me or," he continued, "you can always find me in your dreams." That didn't set well with me. The experience left me shaken and with a feeling of expectation liberally spiced with fear and dread. He smiled and disappeared.

I exited the mausoleum, the full contingent of crows still there, still in two lines, still with heads bowed. Morgan stepped forward and said, "You never cease to amaze me." "Why?" "You were supposed to talk, listen and learn. Instead you make friends with him, the oldest most powerful crow ever. We all fear him. You were supposed to be so scared that you should have been dumb-struck. Instead you've agreed to talk to
him again. Unthinkable." "I did nothing. I just listened." There was a long pause between us as we just stared at each other. Finally I said, "but now when I think on it, who needs a friend more than he?" And once, just this once, I got the last word.

Chapter 18

That was the end of my education under the tutelage of the crows. Morgan showed up three, maybe four, more times but the visits were more social than anything else. She explained how all crows revere White Crow for his age, his wisdom, and the role he has accepted. We talked about weather, hunger, winters, food and great cemeteries she had visited. I asked questions about stories she had told me, clarified details, had her retell one or two. One day, Sam and Preacher showed up on my porch. My dog, out of habit, fell asleep. Before I could ask, Sam said "Morgan is gone. She told us to say goodbye to you for her." I felt my soul drop into that dark place where there is sadness but no tears. "She doesn't like to say goodbye," Sam continued while I fought with my emotions and lost. "She left something for you." Past my blurry vision I saw Preacher holding
something in his beak. I reached out and he handed it to me. It was a twig, but
actually it was an iron representation of a twig, about two inches long. It was
wound in a string, woven from grass, and clearly was meant to be worn around the
neck. I looked over at Sam and he had one around his neck, though it was easy to

miss it among his plumage. Preacher didn't have one. "So she's dead?" I finally
managed to say. "No," Sam corrected me quickly. "No, what made you think she was
dead?" Then he paused, thinking. "Although for you, she might as well be. I'm
sorry, I'm being cryptic and she told me not to say anything at all. I was supposed to give this to you and ask you to follow me and say nothing along the way." I smiled, though my vision was still blurry. Those instructions sounded like Morgan. I
walked out the door and, again, a full 100 crows waited for me in the trees. Sam didn't need to lead the way. When I put the iron twig around my neck, I knew we were going to the cemetery. Sam landed on my shoulder, something Morgan never did, and we walked. Thankfully it was late, so that didn't attract a lot of attention. We got to the cemetery fence and I laboriously climbed over. Then I let Sam guide me, past the clearing, past the mausoleum, to the headstone of Mother Mary O'Connor. Behind the stone stood Morgan. I reached out and touched her. She was frozen, a statue of iron. I stepped back, trying to think faster than my emotions would allow me to. "She is one of the iron ones," I said to Sam without turning around to look at him. "Yes." "She's gone back now?" "Yes." "For how long?" "A hundred years, 200, maybe even 500. Who knows?" "But you will see her again?" "Yes, as her son I live a long time. I'm always here when she wakes up." "But I won't." "No, not while you still live." "She did promise," Sam said, "however, to escort you to the other side when you die. She can do that without waking up. That's as great an honor as any among us can claim, to have an Iron One take us to the other side. And she gave you that," he pointed to my chest. "She only gives these to her children," Sam said quietly, "and those few humans that have made an impression on her. It will help you now that she's gone. If you miss her or need to feel her presence, just hold it and close your eyes. You will feel her close-not speaking or walking around-just a gentle impression that she's close. When you sleep, she may come into your dreams. There you can talk. But be careful and ready. She is weak, depleted of energy by this last visit. You must be prepared to help her as she helped you. Always have stories ready and use the twig as a focus to give her some of your energy. The twig works both ways, to give you comfort and to give her energy." "As I remember, the Iron Ones only come awake for a special reason, a mission of some kind." "You were her mission," Sam said flatly. "She came awake to tell you her stories...all our stories," he pointed behind him to the hundred crows intently watching me. "She knew if she told you that up front, you would be intimidated, that it would affect what you experienced, what you wrote. She used all her magic getting you flying, taking you over to the other side, teaching you our lessons and our language." I held my hands out like a confused supplicant. He cut me off, "because she believed in you. She knew your sense of purpose was strong. She knew you could write our story and that it was time to tell it to you humans. She has shown much confidence in you, human. Be worthy of it." This last phrase Sam said in a rather harsh tone. I realized how little he got to be with his mother, that I had taken valuable time from the both of them. I realized the great faith that had been invested in me. Morgan was right. It was intimidating. I fiddled with the twig, looked at the string woven out of grass. "She wove it herself," Sam said, all of a sudden standing right beside me. I chuckled. "She couldn't build a nest to save her life, so she must
have spent a lot of time to do this." "Tell me about it," Sam said. "I had to try to grow up in one of her nests. Every wind that came along had me hanging on for dear life." I and the 400 year old crow reached out to touch the black iron crow before us. The twig around my neck grew warm and I was suddenly very tired.
He and I smiled at each other and went home.


I never spoke with Morgan again, though I crawled over that fence into the graveyard often, to look behind the tombstone of Mother Mary O'Connor. It felt right, sitting there with her sleeping form, holding the twig, shaping stories in my mind for her when she made rare visits in my dreams. I continued to understand the crow language, even without Morgan's magic, and the crows in the area still talked with me, warned me of upcoming weather systems, and just gossiped. Mostly, I told them stories-all with happy endings, i.e. where no one died. Since they could not conceive such a tale, I think I was a welcome addition to their community. Soon after Morgan left, I was struck with the
obvious conclusion that she had started the dialogues as a way to tell the
crows' stories to humans, to write them here for you to read. As I got older,
however, I wondered if the dialogues didn't start so that I could continue the
tale-bartering between the crows and myself. I told them many stories and they
seemed to enjoy them. I would hesitate to say they were actually enlightened by
what I told them-crows as a race are a stubborn lot-but I sensed subtle changes
in a few that convinced me something was getting through. The White Crow
returned from time to time, always arriving at my house and frightening my dog
for days. Rather than discussing the nature of crows, I learned more about my
fellow human beings from him. I cannot help but learn, of course, more about my
race now that I've been given the eyes of a crow.