Watching for Murders

I wrapped both of my arms around my shaking legs, already pressed together and raised in front of my chest, drawbridge-like, to ward off the gruesome attack I knew was coming.

It could happen any second, I thought. Any second, those windows are going to shatter, and a hundred crows will come in here and tear out my eyeballs.

I tilted backwards against the hardwood frame of the lower bunk, my big sister’s half of the set we shared, and fixed my eyes on the windows, cycling rapidly between the four of them; left to right, right to left, and back again. In the dark of our bedroom, they were illuminated deep admiral-blue by the last vestiges of dusk. I imagined that at least when the crows came for me I’d see their silhouettes, and have a moment’s notice before they broke through the glass, thrashing, feathery, and inky black, to end my life before my ninth birthday.

OH SHOW ME / THE WAY / TO THE NEXT / WHISKEY BAR

I TELL YOU WE MUST DIE…

I TELL YOU WE MUST DIE…

My parents had put on our best-of-The-Doors CD again, and Jim Morrison’s sultry voice rose easily through the floorboards of our little rowhome, arriving in my anxious, attenuated ears like an elongated rock n’ roll scream.

Our family was going through a Doors phase at the time. We were always going through phases, usually a few at once; this one lined up with the audiobook, bulk grocery shopping, and Alfred Hitchcock phases. We’d seen North By Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window, and earlier that night, The Birds. It was the latter which had convinced me so completely that I was toast.

If you haven’t seen the film, the conceit is simple: What if birds just started attacking people? Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers were mostly lost on me at that age, but I understood The Birds perfectly. It was a documentary.

Sure, the people in it weren’t real, I knew better than that, but, Christ, why wouldn’t birds get together and kill everybody? Even then I knew enough about how people had treated birds over the centuries to be sure they had plenty of motive, and the film made a convincing case that they had the means: talons, sharp beaks, numbers, and the element of surprise. It was only a matter of time.

But it wasn’t going to happen that night, I eventually realized, after an hour had passed and the CD downstairs had almost run all the way through again. After inching slowly up the ladder to my bunk, one eye glued to the windows, I fell into an uneasy sleep, and dreamt of black wings and hollow, blood-soaked eye sockets.

I only really got worked up about crows, although the threat was broader in the film. Maybe it was a matter of recognition. It was autumn, when tens of thousands of them descended annually on our little old Pennsylvania town, filling up tree branches and power lines with their bodies and the air with their strange language. Or maybe it just seemed more plausible that crows could be capable of premeditated violence. Crows are smart. They hold grudges. They plan.

And in any case, they were inescapable. I would see them on drives as I stared out of the back-seat windows of my mom’s Mini Cooper, or when I went out walking, or in my backyard, haunting almost every fence and roof and tree and shrub. My fear faded a little after days, then weeks, went by without an attack, but I still knew better than to let my guard down. I stayed wary, watching for murders.

There were a few unseasonably warm days around mid-November. The leaves had fallen from most trees, but a balmy wind blew in from someplace and carried sixty-odd degree days with it. It was irresistible weather for a bike ride, eyeball-pecking be damned, and so my sister and I went out together one afternoon on a ride down the long, steep hill of our neighborhood to the festival grounds. There was a parking lot there, a huge, flat expanse of asphalt interrupted by the towering concrete arches of an enormous bridge, a perfect place for all kinds of wheels.

We stayed there for hours, pulling tight loops and circle-eights and racing one another, until we had tired ourselves out. By then, the air was getting cooler, and it was almost all the way dark. We paused under one of the arches and stood quietly together, tried to inhale the last breaths of the day, and looked across the long expanse of the lot towards the tree line. Past it, a path led along a creek to the north, but we couldn’t see it. The sycamores which grew by the water had all kept their leaves, somehow.

And then we were bored, and it was time to go home. But we knew we had to do one more thing before we left, an absolute necessity, communicated in the wordless way that siblings do. We looked up into the vaulted concrete ceiling fifty feet above us and called out in one voice,

“WOOHOOOOO!”

The arch amplified it and echoed it back, as we knew it would. “Woohooooo! woohooooo! woohooooo!”

And the trees all started rustling.

We turned to look, and saw the whole canopy start to shift before it lifted into the sky, like a cloud of dark smog, and revealed what it had always been. They were cawing now, a collective corvid roar, and forming a cyclone above the blacktop.

It was useless to run. Even if we hopped on our bikes and rode as fast as we could, we couldn’t hope to outrun them. For a few endless minutes we watched every tree empty into the storm above. It was awesome, terrible, all-powerful. If they all swooped down at once, it wouldn’t even be worth it to resist; they’d rip us to shreds, peck out more than our eyes, tear the meat from our bones, whittle us down to bleached skeletons for our parents to find later. But I didn’t feel afraid. What would be the point of that? I couldn’t do anything about it. If I was going to die now, that was that.

But death never came. The crows just gathered themselves up and flew away, their opportunity for violence unused. When they had all disappeared to the southwest and the sky grew totally dark, we got on our bikes and started home.

As we rode back in darkness, our way lit only by the dim, yellow street lamps of our neighborhood streets, I knew I’d never fear crows again.

Illustration by Ethan Carroll

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