Every morning, at the edge of dawn, squads of crows wheel down on Portland. They fan out over the neighborhoods, thousands of them, flapping and cawing, taking positions in trees, on power lines, and near our open windows. Crows enter our dreams.
It’s like that all summer; they start about 4:30 a.m., then come together again in the evenings, agitating long summer dusks, circling above elms and firs until the sky fills with their flapping black wings. Batches perch in the upper branches. cough with cigar throats, mock us. Later, just at dark, they all lift off again, loud, quarrelsome, mocking.
“No! ” she cried. She was sleep deprived and under siege. She had been wounded by the one who loved her, and they woke her in reminder, every day. In her dreams, they mocked her, threatened and mocked . Like something ugly she couldn’t forget.
So she clenched her fists and decided she would fight them, began collecting their feathers off the streets — black, glossy, sinister and thick — piled them in a basket, tied up its claw with them in the bundle of bad medicine she was making, a bundle of sorrow, and bundle of her rage. Oily feathers, scraps from the gutter, an ugly caricature from a minstrel show. Something she couldn’t forget.
The truth is, I didn’t think she had the power to fight the birds.
Just look at them, waddling and strutting toward scraps they pick at with their thick beaks picking at seeds with a swagger, picking at greasy wrappers and small dead things.
I didn’t believe her little talisman was going to work.
See, when I was a kid, I’d kept a pet crow. Yes, I was once close to them, I admit it. And they are smart. Nowadays people want exotic birds and nobody keeps crows. And that’s safest, because those birds end up stealing from their masters, stealing right out from under their noses.
Crows don’t have to work.
No wonder we have learned to hate them.
We don’t have to work, they say. They swagger. They mock. We don’t have to work. In huge flocks they descend and eat all the corn. They always post a sentinel. They are never caught. Thieves, bullies of smaller birds, carrion eaters. They are never caught … Something ugly she couldn’t forget.
So I didn’t believe she could beat the crows.
But one night in late summer, when clouds blew in on the south wind at dusk, when the crows were cawing, she took the bundle into the back yard and burned it.
She raised her arms. Smoke blew in ragged gusts, stinking of feathers. She raised her arms and cursed the crows, howled back at them. Mucus ran down her face. “You goddamn crows!” she said. “You goddamn crows, you goddamn crows.”
But they kept on wheeling, loud as ever, mocking and thick.
The next morning, though, she didn’t hear them. They had moved to more distant trees. So maybe it worked.
She sleeps more easily now that it’s winter and the windows are closed. Wind tears at the crows’ wings, while she’s inside safe and can almost forget.
They’re out there, though, flapping and waiting. Always a threat.
They swagger, they steal, and in the summer, they wheel down on Portland again, to enter our dreams when nights are shortest and we feel that something precious is slipping away.