A Crow Named Black – by Debasri Mukherjee

by TBLM

Aww! Sweet! That’s my boy. Kill. Kill. Kill…No, no, no… it’s pecking his eyes out… Yess! Grabbed it by the neck. Now one snap and the head’s off, rainbow neck and plumage an’ all. I think it’s time to land on the nearest branch. A few of my brothers might be on the lookout too. Best be the first off the block! I dip down, circling the topmost branches, looking for a sturdier lower branch to land on while keeping one wary eye on the prey, or, to be honest, on the severed head of the prey which the dog has very obligingly thrown aside while starting on the body.

There! There’s a likely looking branch. I land, silent as a shadow. I have always prided myself on my landings. Even when I was an ugly cawing irritating little chick learning to fly on my mother’s insistence (accompanied by a lot of hard painful pecking by the way), my landings were my specialty. My brothers and sisters made fools of themselves trying to land on their feet after their first attempts at flying, but I, I was sublime. I may not have been able to stay afloat for more than a few minutes, but I always landed on my two feet. And always silently. Nary a twig or leaf was disturbed when I landed. My mother was so proud. She showed me off to her friends, puffing her dark chest in pride every time I executed a perfect landing. Boy, was everybody jealous! I remember our neighbour the crow-pheasant. A big beast of a bird as she seemed to me then. Her chicks weren’t much older than me but were more well built and had strong brown wings. You should have seen the way the mother cavaliered them through the day trying to make them learn to land like me. Oh, the antics they pulled… and I would caw myself hoarse expressing my amusement at their desperate attempts to outshine me. I, was the king of the block… No one, not even the kites or the occasional hawk that visited our tree could outdo me in executing the perfect landing. Those were happy days.

A sudden movement on the left of my peripheral vision jerk me out of my happy musings of bygone days. Oh no! It’s a kite. He has seen my prize too and has just landed on the topmost branch of the adjoining tree, and is biding his time. If it came down to a race for the peacock head I know I wouldn’t stand a chance. The kite’s young and healthy: way stronger than I am and much faster. I wouldn’t be off the block before he is off with the head. I must think fast. He may be faster and stronger than me, but he’s also dumber. He’ll never make his move before the dog finishes his meal and saunters away because that’s the rule of the jungle. You respect those stronger and higher than you in the hierarchy, or you pay the price. I was never one for rules anyway.

I decide fast. Desperate times require desperate measures. And besides, the harder and more dangerous the game, the sweeter is the reward. I glance once at the kite, gauging its distance from the target. If I take it by surprise I might just gain those crucial few seconds I need to reach the finishing line first. Alright then, here goes nothing. I give a muffled caw to draw the kite’s attention, spread my wings and dive. Straight towards the peacock carcass. High above myself I can hear the kite spreading its wings to follow. My subterfuge seems to have worked. I fly as fast as I can but can feel him gaining ground. Below, the half-eaten peacock carcass and the feeding dog are coming nearer and nearer. Now I feel a faint pull down my slip stream; the kite is at my heels. I’m almost eye to eye with the dog. I’ll barge right into him.

Focus. Sharp twist of the left wing. A tearing pain through my side as I turn against the wind pressure without slowing down. I almost hit the ground as I stretch my feet to grab the head. With a burst of speed, I’m rising again. Faster than I’ve ever flown in my life. Through the screaming air in my ears I hear the screech and growl as the kite barges into the dog. That would have been an encounter worth watching. But by now I’m high above the trees, their canopy hiding everything on ground level. Not that I’m much concerned. I have my prize. This’ll be the best meal I’ve had in three months. So, presently, I don’t care if the world breaks apart so long as it does so after my meal. Oh, sweet life! I can’t wait.

I circle above the roofs of the buildings looking for potential landing ground. It must be a secluded spot or else I’ll not know a moment’s peace. My fellow crows may not be very visionary in exerting themselves to improve their lot, but if someone among them by some lucky chance, or a lot of effort like I put in today, does manage something good, the others seem to feel that they have a divine right to a share just by virtue of being from the same species and social order. Bunch of crap I say. I earned this prize and I’ll enjoy it in solitude.

I see a prospective tin shade and head towards it. It’s late afternoon and the sun is on its return journey, it’s day’s work done. The soft slanting rays reflect off the jungle of concrete rooftops. A decade old memory fleetingly passes before my eyes. I’m flying high in the sky, looking down at a dark green stretch interspersed with a few rooftops. My vision clears and the present looms up before my searching eyes. An impersonal grey mass interspersed by a few lone green trees, the last remaining survivors. It fills me with a strange sadness as I circle down. Like a well drying up. Like a living body decaying part by interminable part. I’ve never been anywhere other than this city in my fifteen years of life, yet I learn about the world beyond from my migrating friends. Every year they come with new terrifying stories of dead seas, burnt forests, molten glaciers and barren lands. So many of them are vanishing. Each time I see fewer of them. I don’t know where the missing ones have gone. I never get a straight answer from the ones that do come. It is as if they fear even thinking about it. I don’t pester them. I hate those who prod and pry.

I land safely on my tin shade and skip to a comfortable spot. It’s not easy while holding the head in my talons but I manage well enough. I let go of the head finally and settle myself down to enjoy my hard-earned feast.

Bang! The sound’s like a gunshot startling me so badly I almost fall off the shade. Correcting my position, I peer upwards. No, it’s not a gunshot. From what I can see, it’s a door banging off the wall. Oh bother! That’s a human woman coming this way. She has the entire roof to herself and she chooses to head my way. How bad can one’s luck get? I consider ignoring her and continuing with my meal, but even I, who risks getting eaten by a big bad dog, am wary of humans. That’s because these two-legged creatures do not exhibit any rational behaviour at all. A dog, or any other creature for that matter, you can trust to behave in a certain predictable pattern. If you are prey your predator will attack you when they are hungry or leave you alone. I have taught myself to recognize signs of aggression in all the other creatures with whom I co-exist. But not humans. You can never tell what they’ll do or why. They don’t eat us, yet for no apparent reason they often try to hurt us. We could have lived with that and adjusted ourselves accordingly if that was the established behaviour of their species against ours. But it’s not. There is this whole other bunch of them who try to be so sweet and feed and shelter us. And there are still others who ignore us completely. We are left totally confused. How do you behave with creatures who are perpetually unsure as to how to live in harmony with the other occupants of their planet? That’s why I’m wary of this approaching woman. I do not know which faction she belongs to.

She’s coming too close for comfort. I give an irritated caw and take off from the shade leaving behind the peacock head, praying it wouldn’t be noticed. As the woman walks towards the edge of the roof I circle above her head hoping desperately she’ll leave soon. She has reached the edge. I think she’s talking but I don’t see anyone else around. That is another strange thing about these humans. We crows are talkative creatures. We are always conversing or rather arguing amongst ourselves about something or the other, never coming to a consensus. But that’s not really the point of the exercise. We talk to hear each other’s voices. To remind ourselves that we are not alone. But I see these humans often in cheerful conversation with empty space. They have built these big machines to help them do what we do with our talons and eyes and wings and beaks. But they seem to have forgotten about each other. Each seem like an island. Existing all alone with no connection with each other. That’s why they are so unpredictable. You cannot predict what you might find on an unknown island.

The woman is leaning over the parapet. She seems to be looking at something keenly.

Oh crap! She’s seen the peacock head. I don’t think she realizes what she is seeing. I see her leaning farther and farther down. Any further and she’ll topple over. Not that I mind but in that case she’ll dislodge my precious head. Oh my God! What’s that horrible sound she just made. She must have realized what she was looking at finally because she shrunk back from the edge of the parapet as if struck by something. Now she’s running back inside. Good. I’ll just swoop down, pick up the head and head off from here. Then I’ll find some other safe place and devour my dinner. Just as I am thinking pleasurably of that last bit while extending my talons towards the colourful head I hear sounds of running footsteps. Oh no! The female is back. And she’s brought a male with her. I fly off again reluctantly. Now they are both staring at the peacock head with eager and slightly repulsed interest. At least that is what I think they are feeling from the expression on their faces. I keep circling overhead and wonder at the strange contradiction of these humans. If we feel revolted or repulsed by something, we will not stare at it with such interest but rather avoid it at all costs.

The humans are consulting about something. Now the man is walking off but not inside. He moves to the other side of the roof, seemingly searching for something. Oh, he’s found it: a long wooden stick. He’s walking with it towards the edge of the parapet again… What! No, no, no, no… You can’t throw my prize away like that. I risked my life to get it. Noooo… he’s pushing it off the parapet. I’ll never find it again! No, no, no, no… I give a cry almost like a wail and dive to follow the peacock head down. Down…down…down… it’s falling and I can’t see where it’s going through the shadows along the side of the building. But I follow anyway. I’ll not give up that easily. It’s mine and I will have it.

I land beside the door at the side of the building and slink in the shadows. It must have fallen somewhere around here. My eyesight isn’t good in the dark, but I strain to see anyway, skipping here and there. But it’s nowhere to be seen. The sun has gone down by now and heavy black shadows spread their silent wings, slowly engulfing the world around me.

It’s time to go home. All my friends and family are either already back home or on their way back, leaving the world to darkness and to me. Yet I refuse to leave. I search and search.

A sharp cry reverberates in the silence around me. The owls are awake. An idea comes to me. Maybe, just maybe I might be able to find my prize again. I hop out of the door’s shadow and look up the nearest tree. The cry had come from somewhere up there. I spread my wings and fly towards the branches hoping against hope I’ll find help there.

As I near the sweeping branches of the banyan tree I can vaguely make out a white outline sitting on the branch nearest to me. I was right. The cry I had heard did come from this tree. I stop in mid-air before the faint white shape and approach with caution. When I’m near enough to be heard I clear my throat and speak, “Hello Mr. Owl Sir. Your humble servant…” I wait for an answer. Then I try again. “Er… My name is Black Sir. I am a crow. A black crow named Black…” No answer… I lose hope and am just about to turn back when I hear, “Isn’t that a bit obvious?” I turn back towards the white owl but it’s not he who has spoken. In the heavy darkness under the leaves and with my poor night vision I had only managed to make out the shape of the white owl because of his colour. I had completely missed the tawny one sitting a few feet farther. “So? What do you have to say to that?” he asks again. “To what?” I enquire. “To the ridiculous situation where a black coloured crow is called Black,” he explains patiently. “Well, I suppose that’s all my mother could come up with seeing as she had to name seven squealing and cawing chicks who’d forget what they were called the moment they left the nest,” I say.

“Then how come you remember?” the tawny owl queries. “I don’t really know,” I muse, “perhaps that’s because I have always been more aware of myself and my surroundings than any of my siblings.” “Hmm. Well, that’s what you say. But how do I know it’s a real name and you didn’t just invent it for my grandfather’s benefit?” he asks nodding towards the white owl who seems to be sleeping through the entire conversation. “Well, you don’t know” is my rejoinder. “But since there is no one around to either confirm or deny my claim, I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.”

“You’re pretty wise for a crow,” he says. “Where’d you learn to speak like that?”

“Well I have a lot of friends who are not crows. They have travelled the world and tell me about the places they visited, the creatures they met, the humans they came across. I have learnt to speak on varied topics because of them. Besides, I was born curious.”

The tawny owl looks across to me and seems to consider what I said; at least that’s what I suppose he is doing, since I can’t really see him. My wings have started to pain badly from trying to keep myself upright and still in mid-air. I hope I can convince the owl to help me soon or I’ll drop like a stone. “So, what was so pressing that you had to disturb my grandfather in his sleep Black?” he asks. It’s just the opportunity I am looking for. “Oh, I’m in a bit of a fix”, I say. “You see, I risked my life to snatch a peacock head from the beaks of a kite and jaws of a huge dog only to have it thrown out right before my eyes by a human. It fell somewhere near that door down there and I can’t see in the dark. I need your help to find it.”

“Why should I bother to help you find a dead peacock head when you don’t seem to have any intention of sharing it with me”.

“I’ll share if you help me find it.”

“Nah. I don’t eat peacock.”

“Then what do you want?”

He ponders awhile, then suddenly spreads his wings and flies towards me. I jump out of the way as he passes me with a whoosh of his wings, heading towards the door. “Come on. You want your head, don’t you?” He shouts back. Stunned, I follow sedately, not wanting to injure myself against the vaguely visible building walls. By the time I reach the said door the tawny owl is nowhere to be seen. A shiver of fear passes through me. What if he finds the peacock head and takes it away? I’ll never find him in the dark. There is nothing I can do but wait and place my trust in the goodwill of this stranger.

I hear a shuffling noise from somewhere around the corner of the door and skip towards it. “Are you there?” I whisper to the darkness. No answer. “Hey? You there?” I ask again. Silence. I strain to see in the darkness. I can still hear shuffling. Whoa! I stumble back as the tawny owl suddenly appears before me. “What were you thinking? That I’ll take your prize for myself?” there’s a hint of laughter in his voice. I have the grace to look ashamed. “You know that’s the problem with you crows. You don’t trust anybody. We owls are proud. We hunt for our food. We don’t steal it. Here, it got wedged in the hedge over there so took me a bit longer to find. Hope you enjoy it.”. He throws the peacock head near my feet.

I look at the pale shadow then up at the owl. “Thank you. If you don’t want to share it then I don’t know what to give you in return.”

“I’ll hold you to it”, he answers. “For now, just be thankful for a random act of kindness. They are few enough.” He spreads his wings and takes off. I stare at his dark form as it gets smaller. Midway up the tree he stops and turns around. “By the way, my name’s Jerome. You never asked,” he shouts, then flies away. I am left staring at him long after he’s gone.

I finish my dinner at leisure then decide to spend the night on the hedge around the corner where the peacock head had stuck. The moon is out now, and the night is awash in an otherworldly hue. The creatures of the night make a cacophony of sounds. It’s a soothing lullaby to my ears. The day’s exertions have taken their toll. I fold my head into my wings and fall asleep to dreams of a beautiful peacock head with an owl’s face. It’s a weird dream and a fitting end to a weird day.

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