Coincidentally I was reading the chapter entitled ‘The Crow’ in Rennie Sparks’ new book Wilderness. Rennie Sparks is half of, and writes the words for, my favourite band The Handsome Family. Wilderness is an amazing transcendent book of essays about the infinite weirdness of the natural world of which we form such a clumsy part. Everyone should read it. You can get a Kindle download from Amazon and you can order the book itself from the Handsome Family website. It accompanies their latest CD, also called Wilderness, and everyone should get that too.
I was reading about how Rennie Sparks saw a crow flying and she thought that it was a hole in the sky, it was so black. She draws attention to the fact that the collective noun for crows is ‘murder’: a murder of crows. She writes about the cawing of the crows and how they gather in the trees to witness some crow drama as if for a ritual execution.
Engrossed as I was, it was gradually borne in on me that outside my window was just such a cawing, and when I went to look I saw just such a drama.
I should explain that we are living temporarily in a flat in a Victorian school building that education has abandoned. The conversion is complete but some of the flats are still unlet, and the whole building has yet to settle down to its new identity. Outside our window is the former playground. It is now a car park for the tenants. The development is aimed (obviously not exclusively) at the aspirational young and the car park is dotted with Audis and BMWs. At the far end of the space are the enormous plane trees of which I wrote last time. Maybe they were planted in the Nineteenth Century to imbue a sense of the grandeur of nature into the heads of the pupils, and just allowed to get on with it. In any case they are magnificently out of scale and the wind moves constantly in their branches which, come to think of it, is probably what reminds me of the seaside, resembling as it does the sound of the sea a few blocks of villas and an esplanade away.
If you were fanciful you might imagine hearing in their former playground the ghostly cries of children long dead or lost to adulthood.
It was the playground and the plane trees that were the setting for the drama. There were four main players, one of them dead.
In the foreground was a dog fox. In his mouth was a crow. It appeared to be fully grown. For that reason, and also because it appeared to be lifeless, this was not a case of attempted rescue.
Beyond, in the plane trees were two magnificent and very much alive crows. It was they who were making the noise. One after the other they flew down from the plane trees, flapping their wings over the head of the fox and screaming. The principal attitude of the fox was embarrassment – he was after all only doing what foxes are supposed to do – and irritation that having been clever enough to catch the bird he was now being frustrated in his natural desire to do unspeakable things to its corpse and then eat it. He let the body drop from his mouth, though keeping it securely between his legs, and stared malevolently at his tormentors.
It was stalemate and the crows raised the stakes. For the next few sallies they flew lower, actually scoring the fox’s head with their claws and drawing blood. The fox sought security in the lee of an Audi. The crows flew down from their perches in the plane trees at opposite ends of the car park and took up aggressive forward positions side by side on top of a BMW only a regulation parking space away from the Audi. From there they descended on him in turn, inflicting their injuries and then flapping vertically up to avoid smashing their bodies against the Audi.
The fox broke cover. He set off across the car park with the dead bird in his mouth. It was not the arrogant gait to which, as a fox, he was no doubt accustomed, but it was nevertheless clear that he had not forgotten that an arrogant gait would have been expected of him had the circumstances been less unusual. Three or four corvine blows to his back later he had attained the relative safety of the undergrowth around the largest of the plane trees.
Again he took stock. At last admitting defeat, he deposited the bird ruefully on the ground and trotted off with some dignity across the car park again. If he thought that that would be an end to things he was wrong. It had never been about rescue; now it was about revenge. The two crows hurled themselves repeatedly at him. He finally panicked and fled. They pursued him down the street and in the end could no longer be heard.
All dramas need a conclusion, the minor character who draws a moral or buries the dead. An aspirational tenant, who had been on her way to the communal rubbish bins with two bags differently denominated, had stopped to watch the end of the action, as I had from my window. She walked across the empty stage and inspected the Audi for claw marks and a possible insurance claim. She drew her conclusions – I cannot tell you what – and slowly walked off.