The crow stood awkwardly, its leg bound by a snare. The noose had been fashioned from a sturdy piece of rope. The crow had struggled and lamented and was now resigned to die. Not high above the earth, gored by a honey buzzard or a kite -- not even at a place of his own choosing, where he might drag himself to recite the names of his ancestors. AllTheJewels, LastToFlee, BornTooSoon, EatsAlone. No, he would die tethered to this crude nest. Proud crow who’d once known the arc of the horizon and the dome of the sky, an amusement for any passing creature to see.
He’d discovered the eggs at sunset -- pristine and seemingly abandoned. No longer the hunter he once was, his rheumy eyes were fooled by shadows and practically useless by moonlight. When the snare had cinched he’d known it at once. He’d flapped his wings as hard as could -- had tried to tear the rope from the tree or, if not that, then rip his leg off his body. Maim himself. Leave this gnarled limb behind while the crow ascended. But no.
Enough time had passed that he was resigned to his fate. The moon was high in the sky. Sooner or later a predator would come along, something with hindquarters powerful enough to climb a tree. He would’ve welcomed that fight, but instead the crow was apprehended by a man. Of course -- the owner of the snare. This person took ginger steps as he walked, as if every shadow were a deep puddle and every stone a slumbering beast. He stopped a short distance away and looked up. Should the crow hide? Or should he intimidate the man? The crow decided on the latter course of action. He spread his wings, his fearsome, wretched wings, and announced his presence.
Much was contained in this syllable. The crow’s name. The name of his father and his father’s father. The many animals he’d hastened to the netherworld and his own time spent in that place. Of course the man couldn’t understand any of this. In the crow’s experience the humans’ language was inefficient, requiring too many syllables to express even the most rudimentary idea.
The man continued to look up. If he hadn’t seen the crow at first he certainly did now. Some time had passed and still he continued to stare, showing no sign of moving. The crow’s wings tired. Eventually he was compelled to lower them. He could sense other animals around the tree, could feel the warmth of their mammalian hearts and the pulse in their veins. They too observed the man, who betrayed none of the restlessness of his kind. What about this person could the crow sense? Nothing. He stood there like a stone idol to the gods.
Finally the man broke his reverie and approached the tree. The crow immediately retreated down his branch. This time he did get caught in the snare, or doubly caught, and was forced to free his other leg with his beak. By the time he’d done so the man was already halfway up the date palm, shaking the leaves with his effort. Perhaps a puma would still come along, the crow thought to himself, and catch both of them unaware. The idea was briefly satisfying.
The man paused, close enough to see more clearly but not so close that the crow could reach him. He supported himself with one arm slung over a branch and his legs hugging the tree. With his free hand, he reached for where the snare had been anchored -- again, too low for the crow to reach.
You’re an old one, aren’t you? said the man.
The crow didn’t respond. There was something unnerving about this person’s voice -- perhaps the calmness with which he spoke or his feigned curiosity.
Old, the man said again. I can tell from your scars -- that one around your eye and on your foot. I can see them better from here. But not so cautious, hmm? Those eggs were too tempting to pass up?
The crow bristled. He turned to walk away, but the man tugged on the snare -- yanking the crow back a few steps and forcing him to correct his balance.
Don’t be angry. There’s no shame in hunger.
Shame? He would speak of shame to a bird in captivity? The crow opened his mouth to speak, but before he could the man did something unexpected. He began to climb back down from the tree -- which was unremarkable, except that he’d untied the anchor and was now dragging the crow through the branches. The crow could only half-hop, half-fly from one perch to the next as the man made his way.
When they’d both arrived on the ground they stood facing each other. The rope was twice as long as the man was tall. The crow didn’t know why this much slack was necessary -- perhaps to offer the illusion of freedom? He considered attacking the man, but a voice in his head urged caution.
The man’s skin appeared blue in the moonlight. He looped the piece of rope around his palm three times, shortening its length.
Come with me, he said. I want to show you something.
It wasn’t a request. Walking more confidently than he had before, he led the crow by the leash -- the crow once again half-hopping and half-flying. The crow knew he was being watched. He knew he’d always be remembered this way, no matter what efforts he made to redeem himself. Even if he managed to kill the man, the details of his servitude would temper any animal’s admiration. The crow had these thoughts and wanted to die, but his body persisted -- legs moving, wings flapping. His body obeyed the man’s will.
He knew where they were going—to the ravine, that recent addition. Man and beast alike had been fascinated by this development, while birds had scoffed from on high. What was one more divot in the landscape? And what about the gods’ behavior was so vexing? They routinely flooded the rivers and aimed lightning strikes -- how was this really so different?
Once they had arrived at the ravine the man approached the edge. The crow hoped he might loosen his grip as he peered over the side, but the man was not so easily distracted.
Do you understand my words? he said.
The crow considered his reply. While he was doing so the man yanked on the leash again. He pulled so hard that the crow toppled over and had to resurrect himself.
Down there is the netherworld, said the man, staring into the ravine. He returned to where the crow was standing and towered over him. Am I wrong to think so? The gods have created this path for me and I intend to follow it. You will be my guide.
The crow was shocked -- not by the man’s assertion, but by his foolishness. Yes, the ravine might’ve represented a path to the netherworld, though whether the gods had created it for this purpose was less obvious. Why did he think the crow would help? And why would the man want to travel to the netherworld? Didn’t he understand that such a journey would render him dead, whereby he couldn’t return?
Again it was impossible to express these thoughts in the human’s language. The crow had to settle for a more terse reply.
That would be it, he thought -- now the man would surely kill him. After that he didn’t care what happened. He could be plucked and boiled for soup, or fed to a dog -- neither idea troubled him. He relaxed his wings and waited for the death-blow.
The blow came, but not as he was expecting. The man stared at the crow while he continued to loop the leash around his palm. The crow wondered if he’d misunderstood -- perhaps substituting KNOW for NO and thus mistaking the word for an affirmation. Then the man spun, swinging the rope. There was no slack remaining. The crow was whipped in an arc -- over the man’s shoulder and onto the ground.
The impact was painful. The crow’s fragile bones warped as the air left his lungs. While still on the ground he felt the man’s hands upon him -- exploring, probing, ruffling his feathers in a most vulgar way. Then the crow realized what he was searching for. Before he could struggle the man had located his tailfeather.
Having that piece of himself removed was a violation beyond comprehension. The crow wasn’t dead, but he should have been. He twisted and flailed -- it no longer mattered that his bones ached or that his lungs were empty. He made terrible sounds. This couldn’t be happening, he told himself. In the space of an instant the crow weighed every decision he'd made and recognized his error, his arrogance. He felt nauseated and overwhelmingly sad. If it had been possible to plunge his own beak into his heart again and again he would’ve done so, again and again, and again and again.
Somehow his contortions arranged him on his back. Looking up at the man, who possessed his tailfeather.
Stiff, stark, and apart from him.
Now, the man said. You will do as I say.
A man's hair had grown so long that the town barber knocked on his door.
“You’re making me look bad!” the barber complained. “Please, let me give you a trim -- I'll just take a little off the sides and the top.” But the man sent him away.
Eventually, he got so thin that the town baker knocked on his door.
“You’re making me look bad!” the baker complained. “Can I give you something to eat? Maybe a nice loaf of bread?” But the man sent him away.
After more time had passed, the man appeared so haggard that the town innkeeper knocked on his door.
“You’re making me look bad!” the innkeeper complained. “I’ll give you my finest room for free -- just, please, rest for a bit.” But the man sent him away.
It was later that same evening that Death let himself inside (Death doesn’t knock). He found the man in the kitchen, seated at the table. PEOPLE WILL SAY I’VE BEEN REMISS, Death observed. ARE YOU HUNGRY? YES, LOOK AT YOU, YOU MUST BE FAMISHED. LET’S SEE WHAT THERE IS.
Death rummaged through the ingredients in the man’s pantry and threw together a simple meal, which the man promptly ate. When he was finished, Death tied a bedsheet around the man's neck and gave him a trim, gently turning his head from side to side. Then Death encouraged the man to get into bed, clucking as he covered him with a quilt.
REALLY, BERNARD, he said. MUST YOU BE SO STUBBORN?
But the man didn’t reply. He’d already drifted off to sleep.
Teetering Thomas was the most popular attraction at Zyke’s Famous Circus and Menagerie. People would come from far and wide to see The Ultimate Gareth, whom one could kick and punch repeatedly for the duration of twenty seconds; or they could spend their hard-earned cash on Sweet Yasmine, who ate broken glass without apparent concern for her digestive system. But without Teetering Thomas, Zyke’s commercial enterprise would’ve failed.
Teetering Thomas was billed as a balancing act, but his performance entailed so much more than that. “Balancing act” doesn’t do justice to the tower of detritus he perched himself upon, the sheer magnitude of this column. Desks, palettes, and crates -- wider things were stacked at the bottom. Suitcases, stools, and stemware -- narrower things were stacked at the top. Barrels. Egg cartons. Flashlights. Medicine balls. The whole thing was over forty-two meters tall.
(It should be noted that a column of stuff is not a ladder. A ladder is a metaphor; this stuff was only stuff, foremost and finally.)
The pivotal innovation came when Dr. Florence K. Detweiler, best known in her capacity to guess the condiments associated with your last three meals, designed The Earwig™. This device allowed the user to hear sounds normally too faint for the human ear. Dr. Detweiler's intent was to explore the mysteries of the lower intestines; but when a young consumer inadvertently pointed The Earwig™ at the sky, she found that Teetering Thomas’s voice, heretofore inaudible due to winds and high altitude, was now clear as day. The potential for profit was immediately obvious.
One wondered: what had Teetering Thomas been saying to himself, all these many years? Alone atop his giant column, where he was neither bothered by unwarranted attention or the frivolous demands of small talk?
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