Regan Burke flew into my window through one of the three blogs I follow (this is a self-imposed limit): Center for Humans and Nature. It slightly bends my own rules as it’s a series of essays – rich, thought-provoking, humbling in their quality. This post is like the best short story – it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and plunges you into a different world demanding some kind of resolution. Along the way it surprises (another reason to admire it) and it made me smile. It illustrates how nature so often asks us to reflect on phrases we occasionally find ourselves farting!
The piece also flew me where I will never get to – a City apartment during Canada’s big freeze, reminding me of the company of corvids. I’m delighted our exchange of e-mails and reading a preview of this post inspired Regan to expand her original piece into this even more captivating short story!
“Grey Crow Morrigan” for the Murder of Writers in the Bird Garden
Whenever I settle my fingers onto the keyboard to write a chapter of my memoir, I have only a vague idea of where I’m headed. I pluck away at simple sentences until mental snapshots start to bubble up from an underlying current swirling with all the original emotions like debris from a dislodged beaver dam.
The publisher of my book, I Want To Be In That Number, thinks comparing my sister to a garbage-eating crow needs a few particulars to support the claim. I concede the point. When the 2019 Polar Vortex was on its way to Chicago at the end of January, I decided to spend the deep freeze at home writing about my strange and estranged sister. I opened my MacBook the night before the weather-forced hibernation to get started on revising my manuscript
I snapped shut the laptop, wallowed in self-pity for a while, then figured out how to tee up Amazon Prime with the full 18-hour series of The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel, a cheery antidote to agonizing over pilfered memories. I threw stale bread crumbs onto my 4’x10’ third floor balcony hoping to nourish the house sparrows, finches and chickadees before they huddled together in eaves and cracked soffits to wait out the cold. Then I shuttered myself in and Dapped all the little crevices around the balcony door that were spritzing air into my not-so-insulated living room. That was the extent of my preparation for the coldest two days ever recorded in Chicago.
Day One: Minus 23 Fahrenheit: I awoke to a thick film of silver ice covering all my windows. There were fractal peepholes to the outside world circling the balcony door handle and outlining my hardy geraniums on the indoor windowsills. The ice curtain blinded me to the humanity moving around behind the windows across the street and any fool pedestrian walking in the feels-like-minus-40 degrees. The windows emitted a luminous cold so I grabbed a goose-feathered blanket, hunkered down far away from the frozen glaze with Henry the dog and the TV remote.
My binge-watching was interrupted mid-morning by a thrashing whomp, whomp whomp on the concealed balcony. Henry, an old West Highland Terrier is unfazed by nature’s surprises. He remained in his sleepy stillness.
I rose to inch toward a clearing in the frosty glass.
A murder of crows had come to visit.
I once told Josh Engel, a crow expert at Chicago’s Field Museum, that I’ve tried everything to attract crows to my balcony, including bits of raw chicken.
“You don’t have to do that. They’ll eat anything. Try peanuts,” he said, “just a handful. They forage.”
The American Black Crow measures 20 inches long with a 3-foot-wide wingspan. The crow and its cousin, the raven, show up in every ancient mythology as bad omens of storms, disease, or death. Indigenous tribes in the US Pacific Northwest believed the raven was a keeper of secrets that he doled out to help or harm men, women and children. Eskimos thought the crow could steal souls, a Faustian trickster. Flying around all of North America, they scavenge garbage and munch on mice, insects, seeds, fruits, leftovers in the country, suburbs and cities. They’re smart. They hide their food and come back for it. Research shows they don’t forget a face. If a crow looks you in the eye, she will remember you, follow you down the street and caw to you for attention, like a wild pet. If you’re aggressive toward her or her family, she’ll call her friends over and they’ll all yell or even dive-bomb you.
One summer I monitored a group of black-crowned, grey-backed crows on the southwest coast of Ireland. The Eurasian Grey Crows flapped about the bee-buzzing fuchsia hedgerows surrounding the Crow’s Nest Cottage a mile up the hill from Roaring Water Bay. They settled on dead branches of a crab apple tree near the terrace where I had my morning coffee. I’m not a birder, but enough of a bird lover to know these tuxedoed beauties were not something I saw in the trees around Chicago.
In Irish folklore the Grey Crow is called the Morrigan, a female foreteller of doom. I learned from Hibernian folklorists the name Morrigan is derived from the word “maere” connoting terror or monstrousness as in night-mare. Maere is my sister’s name. The “rigan” in mor-rigan translates as queen, as does my name, Regan. Maere-Regan equals Mor-Rigan, or the nightmarish queen.
Dear god. Was the spirit world telling me I’m lashed to the monstrous Maere forever?
The Morrigan bewitched me every morning of my month-long vacation. She lunged for the leftovers I threw out for her: plaice, red potatoes, asparagus, allowing her brood to pick up her scraps. I tried staring into her eyes, but she demurred, a typical cheeky Irishwoman playing hard to get. Or was this a shapeshifter, my sister reminding me she turned her back on me thirty years ago saying I was too fat and poorly dressed to be in her
Since I’ve come up blank in trying to write vignettes and anecdotes about Maere, I feel safe imagining the Morrigan simply stole the memories; that she’s trying to save herself from whatever nasty old childhood narrative I may expose in my book.
As the arctic blast began serrating its way from the North Pole down toward the Lower Forty-Eight, the goal of every bird in Chicago was to gorge themselves, find a safe place and remain still to conserve the calories heating their bodies. The weather should have kept the crows out of sight.
Instead, it brought them to me.
Day Two: Minus 21 Fahrenheit. The ice wall on one of my windows melted enough for a small lookout. I abandoned Mrs. Mazel and placed a chair well away from the clearing to observe the crows without startling them. I prayed. Come back. Please come back. They first landed late-morning. A mighty set of black wings fluttered a plumped-up body onto the balcony railing and the rest followed, a family of five, dipping to the balcony floor for leftovers. They flew off and came back. Again. And again. And again. I remained still throughout, trying to lock eyes with the alpha bird. After hours of transfixation, out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, I trembled. Uh-oh. Were these bad omens? The Morrigan, come to steal more memories?
In the late afternoon the temperature rose to minus two degrees. I strapped Henry into his dreaded boots, packed myself in layers of cold weather gear and set out. We clipped along the crackling tree-lined sidewalk. A crow cawed overhead.
Again. And again. And again.
The Polar Vortex ice curtain melted after the two-day blast moved to the east, opening up my quasi-natural bird blind. The cautious crows kept their distance when I was moving around inside. For days afterwards when I walked Henry in front of my building, they called to me. I watched them fly from the elms to the light poles to the ginkgo tree until they reached my balcony and dropped onto the deck to scrounge for the handful of peanuts I keep there.
One day, a few weeks after the first visitation, I walked out of my kitchen and spied a crow perched on the balcony. I froze. We locked eyes. He wiggled on down the railing and jumped into the balcony floor foraging for those peanuts, then flew off. Is it possible I bonded with this ominous creature I love so much?
It reminded me of a time I was in Los Olivos, California, visiting my friend Cappi. I noticed a gregarious Magpie couple nestled on a shed in the garden of a gift shop. Magpies are large black and white birds, the most intelligent of the crow family. They never fly over to the Midwest where I live, so I was quick to go round and have a chat with them. They yack yack yacked back to me. I was so enchanted that poor Cappi had trouble moving me on. We had been poking each other inside the shop to ask how to get to Michael Jackson’s ranch, each too embarrassed to admit our curiosity. Cappi finally pulled it off and we drove five miles up Figueroa Mountain Road to Neverland for a look-see. MJ had been dead for about two years then. We managed to snap each other’s photos in front of Neverland’s iron gates, just as the guard came along to shoo us away.
Two Magpies yacked and magged at us the whole time from the olive trees overhead. They followed us all the way back to town, swooping down on the car and yelling, as if they were chasing us away from some danger at Michael Jackson’s ranch.
“Cappi! Look! They’re protecting us! Look! Look” I yelled over and over. Cappi averted her eyes. She was terrified.
Los Olivos, a historic valley town in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara was established in the 1880s by a young farmer who planted 5,000 olive trees on its ridge. This is wine and olive country, a perfect place for late lunch. We sat outside in the afternoon chill at the Los Olivos Cafe, one of the dining spots in the movie “Sideways.” I had hoped those Magpies would join us before the sun dropped behind the mountains, but they returned to their perch behind the nearby garden shop. Cappi, a perfect host who never balked at my entreaties to mingle with California nature, hated the cold. Wrapped in her serape, she was just grateful she didn’t have to duck away from birds while we savored our olive-oil drenched capellini.
Years ago I bracketed metal plant hangers to my balcony railing and hung bird feeders from the hooks. The small birds entertained me into the summer months until one day I got a call from the building manager. A resident and chronic complainer (maybe more than one) reported that as she was walking up the sidewalk to the front door she felt bird droppings on her head which she was sure came from my third-floor balcony. The manager and I laughed that it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. Nonetheless I had to remove the bird feeders. How will crow droppings, five times the size of sparrows, look on the sidewalk below come spring? The new building manager will be hit hard. He vapes under my balcony.
Crows may be harbingers of doom, mythical tricksters and stealers of souls, but every species I’ve encountered has captured my heart, not my soul. If they’ve stolen the bad memories of my sister, I forgive them for all of it.
I gladly delete that chapter from my book.