The Crow Tree

A strident crow call woke him out of his thin morning sleep. It sounded as though someone were yanking old rusted tenpenny nails out of hardwood. Three harsh caws, then a rest, then three more. He sat up in bed, still vague with slumber. The caws were loud, insistent, and dominating. The window was already bright with daylight. It was hot, and they’d left it open all night. His wife stirred beside him, muttering random swear words. Three demanding caws filed the room again. Had a damned bird actually come inside? He fumbled for his glasses. The room was empty. His wife struggled up on her side of the bed. “What time is it?,” she mumbled.

“What’s the difference? We’re up for sure now. They’re at it again.”

Three more caws scraped the last sleep from his brain. He wobbled to the window and looked outside. The tree in front of their apartment building reached up well past their third-floor rooms. A little above the window, but on the street side of the tree, the crow perched on a swaying twig that seemed far too small to hold it. Its head turned briefly to note the man looking out the window, and then its black beak opened and emitted the three caws.

His wife stood at the window beside him, her black hair a shambles. “It’s amazing,” she said, “how a damned bird can sound so loud.”

“And it’s just one of them so far. I think he’s calling the rest. This happens every year or two in this tree.”

Two more crows plummeted into the tree, landed heavily on small branches, and added their voices. Then three more, and then the tree was strafed with crows, flapping their wings heavily as they chose a perch. The cawing became louder and almost continuous. “Like a diabolical orchestra tuning up,” he said.

His wife yawned, “Oh, not so diabolical. I bet they’re just socializing.”

“Sounds more like arguing.”

“It’s the only voice they have,” she said. She leaned on the windowsill and looked out. He followed suit. The nearer crows hopped out to branches slightly more distant from the window. He craned his head out to see how many more crows there were. They seemed to fill the entire tree, starting about ten feet out from the ivy-bearded brick wall of the building. As if it had suddenly borne fruit.

A crackly human voice startled him. “Guess they’re having a conference,” it said. He looked to the side and saw the old man who lived across the hall. His white hair stood up in tufts around his bald spot. “Seen it plenty of times. I used to live about three blocks away, and this same flock would crowd into an old fir tree now and then and do the same thing. Them and me’s old friends.” The old man lit a cigarette while a nearby crow examined him quizzically. The barrage of caws continued.

A sweet female voice: “Well, tell your friends it’s six a.m. on a Saturday.” A head of lustrous brown hair stuck out from the window below them. The newest tenant smiled up at them, blinking in the morning light. “They’re kinda fun though. I’ve never seen so many so close up.”

“Wish I had me a shotgun,” shouted another voice from above them.

The old man shouted back over the incessant croaking. “Like that would be any quieter,” he said.

“A firecracker, then. Scare ’em off.”

The wife twisted her head and smiled at the shotgun man. “We’d all be awake then anyway, wouldn’t we?”

“We all are,” said another voice, the little pudgy man who lived below the older fellow. “May as well make something of it. I’ve just put a big pot of coffee on. Let’s meet in the courtyard in ten minutes. If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.”

“What a great idea,” said the wife. “I’ll heat up some rolls I baked yesterday. We’ll have a crow party!”

Heads nodded in agreement all along the front of the building. The wife turned to her husband and said, “I’ll get those rolls warming up and then put on a basic face.” She wrapped her robe around herself and shuffled off to the kitchen. The man took off his glasses and rubbed his face. The racket from the crows had become continuous but irregular, like factory noise. He changed into jeans and shirt. A few minutes later, they were padding along the hallway to the elevator. His wife was still in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers. She carried the plate of rolls.

“Smells right good,” said the old man, who was padding along in his ragged old robe behind them. The elevator doors squeaked open. The shotgun man was inside it, smiling at them. He raised a bag in his hand. “I brought some butter and jam for those rolls. Sure smell good,” he said.

The courtyard was on the side of the building, in a sort of niche. It was full of potted plants, and there were wobbly metal chairs around a table. The pudgy man was there when they arrived, and the coffeepot steamed fragrantly on the table. He had brought an assortment of mugs in a plastic bag and had set them up in a row. The brown-haired girl arrived, fully made up, and wearing a new robe and flipflops. She was carrying little porcelain pots of cream and sugar. They matched. The pudgy man poured coffee, while the wife arranged the rolls. They chose among the mugs.

The man breathed over his brew. The smell of coffee always made him feel warm even before the first sip. The pudgy man raised his mug in a toast. “Here’s to the crows,” he said.

“To the crows,” they chorused. The crows, just out of sight around the corner of the building, croaked in their sociable frenzy. “To neighbors,” the wife said, “feathered or not.” They drank down their coffee in the cool morning air.