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I try not to be sentimental. Birds come, and then they go. In a nest of eggs, only half are likely to make it into adulthood. I told Cole about as much.
"Yeah," he said. "But I also think that sometimes you come across an animal for a reason."
It was a hot, sticky day that got away from us. Cole went rock climbing and I had writing to do. We never went back to check on the young crow.
Nature takes care of itself. It's got nothing to do with us. Still, we both wonder.
The world in its mouth
In some Native American cultures, black is the color of creation and the crow epitomizes the cycle of life and death. Ravens are magicians and shapeshifters. In this way, they're closely aligned with coyotes, which are also known as tricksters and wise beings both.
Earlier this year, I was with some friends about an hour outside of Missoula when a coyote jumped out from the woods and ran in front of our car. I'd never seen a coyote so close before, and it thrilled me. To anyone who would listen, I wouldn't shut up about that coyote I'd seen. The memory changed with so much retelling. Soon the coyote had something in its mouth.
The next day, I told a girl at a party about what had happened. Her eyes got wide and she gasped. "It's really bad luck to have a coyote run in front of your car." Two coyotes once leaped in front of her car just moments before a terrible accident, she said. She spoke with a frightening conviction.
"What if the coyote had a crow in its mouth?" I asked. Because suddenly, I pulled out the memory and there it was, black and dead in the coyote's jaws. I don't know if the coyote actually had a crow in its mouth or not. It seemed as though the crows were rearranging the thoughts in my head.
The girl and I decided that if there was in fact a crow in the coyote's mouth, two wrongs made a right, canceling out the bad omen.
Nothing particularly bad has happened to me since the beginning of the summer. Then again, nothing good has happened, either.
Sorrow, joy, marriage
"Have you heard the thing about crows following you home?" Dustin Gliko asked me. "One crow is supposed to mean sorrow." He sort of shrugged this off. He couldn't remember what two crows meant. (I looked it up later: It means joy.) "And three crows means marriage." Gliko talked about his girlfriend with a shy smile. I hoped three crows outside her window meant they're going to get married.
The crows of Missoula are tuned into our movements, waiting for us to attack, get married or just drop a Dorito on the sidewalk. The more I noticed them, the more I couldn't shake the feeling that the crows of Missoula were wielding their indifference over me like a sword.
It was time to get my head out of the clouds, so I went to get a more definitive answer to what Brian Donahue had against crows. On a recent late morning, I found him in his front yard, scanning the lawn with a metal detector. "I lost a screw to a machine," he explained.
"Why do you hate crows so much?" I asked yet again.
"Because they attack me!" he said. "I've been attacked by crows on multiple occasions."
"Did they start attacking you before or after you started shooting them?"
"Probably after," he said. "But like I said, crow hunting season is a big thing in Illinois. Let me think, what are some other reasons I hate crows. ... They will destroy a corn field."
Throughout our conversation, it became more and more clear that Donahue doesn't really hate crows. "I just like shooting birds," he said with a charming, Midwest contrition. His favorite birds to hunt are ducks and doves.
"Why doves?" I cried.
"They taste the best!"
"Oh, okay." I hadn't known people ate doves.
"I've eaten crow, too," he said. Crows are one of the Bible's many forbidden foods, but they're not as bad as people say, he told me. "They're pretty oily."
Edgar Allan Poe's protagonist took a raven waddling through his front door as a confrontation with his soul. That's pretty goth. Poe and I have this in common: Our imaginations get the better of us. At the site of smart black birds, we let billow inside of us a terrifying and unspecified dread.
Donahue just likes to shoot moving targets. The same way a crow remembers his face, Donahue remembers the crows messing with his family's crops back in Illinois and takes revenge.
"How many crows have you gotten off of your front porch?" I asked him.
He smiled and signed "zero" with his fingers. "The scope on my air rifle isn't sighted in right," he said. "I'm missing. But once I sight my scope right, they're done for."
I thought Mackenzie Cole had left the crow's talons with the corpse on the day we met the stranded youngster, but I was mistaken. A couple of weeks after our encounter with the fledglings, he texted me: "Do you want one of those crow's feet?"
This time, I said yes.
He met me at the café in Hastings and set the foot down on the table next to my coffee. It was just as I remembered, black and scaled like a dinosaur, with powerful-looking claws. The base of the foot met a tuft of black feathers and white bone.
"What did you do to clean it off?"
"Not much," he said.
"It creeps me out a little."
"It makes me sad," he said.
When you hold a crow's foot in your hand, you can see its black talons ripping through a squirrel's heart on the side of the road. You think that that's the way the world works, and it's fine, and what's the use of wanting to change it? But when you turn the foot around, underneath the curled talons are soft, black pads to stand on, just like a dog's.
Out in the parking lot, a murder awaits. Or is it an unkindness? They flit back and forth overhead, among the telephone wires. They recognize your face and they're talking about you.