Here I sit out in the garden, enjoying the sunshine, trying to connect to the writing task I have ahead of me … when I am interrupted by someone who sees himself as more important than writing, more important than letters, perhaps more important than the sun itself. You see, a week ago we rescued a baby crow from a local park and we have been looking after him ever since. He had just been attacked by a buzzard when we first came across him and was in a sorry state and in a very vulnerable position out in the middle of the busy park, having apparently fallen out of his nest, which was way, way up in the top of some pine trees. There was no way of getting him back up there, so we decided that we would see to his injuries. We were relieved to find out (with the help of a vet) that apart from being very stunned and unable to move, he had nothing broken, so we installed him in one of our empty rabbit hutches and left him for the night. This little bird is now flapping around my feet trying to coax me into getting up and finding him some more food. He is cheeky like that.
The first morning we went to look in on him I expected him to be dead, but he was as bright as a button, waiting for us to feed him, stretching this way and that to get a better view of us. We gave him bread soaked in water and baked beans and soon he graduated to raw chicken. Whenever we made an appearance near the hutch he would caw and caw until we fed him. Two days ago we decided that he needed to spend more time around the family, as crows are very sociable and of course intelligent beings and therefore suffer when they are alone, so we left the door of the hutch open and soon he was strutting round the garden like he owned the place (much to the dog’s initial delight but later disdain). Then of course, we couldn’t catch him again, so ever since, he has been living free.
His name? My daughter wanted to call him Phoenix but he seemed like such a bundle of black feathers and scrawny legs that we settled on Matches; a phoenix who decided to stay in the ashes. Whilst researching what to feed him online, I came across an account of a group of crows who had learnt how to strike matches and set fire to a car. I laughed for about twenty minutes.
This morning at six a.m. he proceeded to rattle and tap on the window to get us out of bed and when we finally went out to see him, he took his first nearly-there flight – from the window ledge to the hedge, all of ten feet, but most importantly instead of just controlled falling, he swooped and made height as he approached his landing, which for all intents and purposes was, in my book, a maiden flight. He may set fire to a car yet.
We do not know whether he is a girl or a boy and probably never will. To me it does not really matter, all I am deeply interested in is his otherworldliness. And so I find myself beguiled not just by his funny ways but also by the omens and meanings behind him appearing to us. Some days, I think of him as the wild familiar I always wanted to have in my life.
Crow – Creow – Corbie – Krka – Gaagii – Rocas – Kråka – Karga – Corvx – Vorona – Aandag
In traditional societies, they were the tricksters, the playful ones, the creatives, forever hungry and forever in search of a kind of mash-up which would ultimately create a New Order to the world. They were also the gatekeepers to the doorway into the darkness; the shaman’s passageway – seers, protectors, fore-warners, battlefield mavens.
In a Haida myth cycle, which retells the long history of Crow, we first learn how he steals the light through trickery, in order to re-illuminate the dark world again. He succeeds in obtaining it by gaining access to the hut where it is being kept; it has no doors or windows, even though the occupants – an old man and his daughter, whom the man worries may not be beautiful because he cannot see her in the blackness, can move inside and out of it at will. Crow sits and watches but cannot see how he can possibly get into the hut until he observes the young girl at the river collecting water in a basket. Crow quickly turns himself into a piece of grass and drops into the water, floating into the basket where the girl scoops him up in her hand as she takes a drink. He embeds himself in her womb and starts growing there.
It is a strange creature that is born inside the hut nine months later, black, scrawny, feathered yet naked, half boy, half crow, with an insatiable appetite, emanating a loud cawing cackle. In the darkness however, neither old man nor young girl can see his true form. Through incessant calling to the man, he succeeds in gaining access to the light, hidden as it was inside hundreds of tightly nestled boxes in the corner of the house. His insatiable desire fools the compassionate grandfather into opening just one more box until the ball of light is released and at that moment, as the house is ruptured by the commotion, Crow catches the ball in his beak and flies upwards to hang it in the sky and illuminate the world once more. Seconds later, the man lays eyes on his daughter, who has been quietly regarding the strange happenings from the corner of the house and he observes that she is beautiful beyond belief.
It has been a week since I last wrote. Matches has disappeared. He had taken to sitting on the woodpile across the road and then going up into a tree for the night to roost and we had started to take him his food wherever he was perching. But two mornings ago, he was nowhere to be seen. I worry that the tree he roosts in hangs precariously over the river, which is in full flow at the moment with snow-melt from the higher plains, because if he has fallen in, he would have drowned. The most likely explanation for his disappearance however, is that he was taken by a buzzard. The valley seems to be full of them right now and they all have young to feed. A small bundle of black fluff would have been a welcome morsel for the buzzard babies back in the nest.
And so, he has gone and I have been left absolutely bereft. Although Matches was only with us for two weeks, I made such a connection with him. The house had seemed so full of activity, his quirkiness made us all smile and on the day I first wrote, I had spent a sunny afternoon sitting with him in the garden, just the two of us, him hunkered down on one of the cushions of our outside chairs, me sitting next to him watching his funny blue eyes darting around at everything and as the evening drew out, we had a slow conversation with each other about childhood and making one’s way in the world, about life and death and the strangeness of it all.
Since then, I have wondered up and down the river bed, scanning the banks to see if he has been trapped in a precarious position between the rocks and the water and taken my binoculars to search in the trees that line the river, to no avail. I do get a knot in my throat when I think about him being ripped apart high up on the cliffs somewhere, shared amongst four or five hungry buzzard babies. How tasty those blue eyes must have been for them.
And then I realise that I am such a soft-hearted person, I am inclined to cry at the slightest of things, my husband said I should be pleased that Matches died to feed birds that are more endangered than him; otherwise, I should just come to the conclusion that he has moved on and has flown back to find his real parents. Even that thought still leaves me saddened – in that crazy human, selfish way most of us have – thinking about all the investment I put into that helpless thing and how he now no longer needs me. I guess it is every mother’s pain to see all the birds she has nurtured, eventually leave the nest, be they creative endeavours, children, pets or other passions in life. And I worry that if he is out there looking for his parents, he may never find them; it fills my heart with such overwhelming pain thinking that he is so alone.
Yet writing this all down has helped me to understand the meaning behind the Haida Crow Myth and has taught me a lesson in letting go. ‘Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ my mother always used to say. It is true – no matter how painful that loss is.
Dear Matches, how funny you were, how deep your teachings. How I have been illuminated.
He tricked me into investing my love in him, that scrawny black thing, whose insatiable appetite only stopped when he was sleeping. I gave him everything, only to be left empty when he finally departed without a backward glance.
In that trickery however, he left me so much beauty; like our funny sunny conversation a week ago, whilst I sat and tried to paint his portrait (unfinished) or the night I stayed out on the balcony until way after dark, watching him sitting on the woodpile across the road, to slowly hop branch by branch up to his resting place for the night. If I had been watching him that night, I would have missed the waxing moon climbing up the shelf of sky, brightening from deep orange to pale yellow moment by moment as the sun slipped away to the West, I would have missed a bat crawling out from under the eaves and stopping in that momentary hesitation before lifting off in its awkward flitting path into the dusk and missed the cacophony of birdsong gently dying away as it was replaced by the gentle hoots of tawny owls at the edge of the wood behind the house. Such primeval and timeless visions before me that evening; such a slow creeping-in of the darkness as iridescent beetles in their minuscule worlds buzzed over the lawn. Without Matches – without his own primeval and timeless vision, I would have been inside doing all the things I normally do of an evening; missing the spectacle of dusk outside my window.
And I mentioned to my daughter yesterday during a random conversation – how strange it is to love something that is so utterly different from us; so utterly from another world. How strange it is not to be able to follow that thing into their world, not to be able to just stretch out our wings and fly away with them when they leave. Even though it is too late now to follow Matches into his world and too late to return him to his birth place, I still find myself taking a walk to the river each morning to stand with his food bowl looking up into the shadows of the trees to see if he may still be there. He has gone but his trickster spirit will be with be for a long time as I journey out into the night once again on my own dark wings.