It shuffles along my outstretched arm in slow ungainly steps, taking a doleful look back at me before half hopping, half toppling, on to the pavement, like a drunkard at the end of a gangplank. I stand up, hands on hips. Crows, I am surprised to discover, can be quite heavy. I take a step back.
An empty crisp bag floats by on the breeze.
The bird remains perfectly still, gazing up at me, blinking slowly, so slowly that I see its eyelids are a soft hue of grey. Parked in the centre of the pavement, it looks anomalous, vulnerable. I can’t walk away. A sense of responsibility is weighing on me and I can’t shake it off.
Half an hour previously I had emerged reluctantly into the bright sunlight of a midsummer dawn. Insomnia obliged me to make an earlier start to the day than I would have otherwise wished, yet I was determined to be expedient with this unexpected chunk of time added on to the start of my day. Struggling against frustration and weariness, I laced up my training shoes and stepped out into the deserted street to begin an hour-long run in the nearby cemetery, which I hoped would lift my mood. I closed the front door and was pocketing the key when movement caught my attention.
On the roof of a nearby car a bird, a crow, was pacing, its claws grasping vainly at the metallic blue sheen for a foothold. I stared. It was undoubtedly pacing back and forth; its tiny talons were emitting teeth grating squeaks. I took a step forward and the bird registered my presence. It halted and turned to look at me. Now we faced each other. I took another step and it appeared to relax into its posture. Another step and it shuffled across the roof of the car toward me. I paused, unsure of how to interpret this apparent overture, unsure of how to assimilate the bizarreness of it. Curious, I took one more step forward and the crow flexed its wings, launching itself at me. I retreated in alarm. So did the crow. It returned to the car roof.
We regarded each other for a half minute or so, until it occurred to me to proffer an outstretched arm. This was when something miraculous took place. The gesture brought an immediate response and the bird glided confidently over to my forearm and settled snugly into its perch.
The action bespoke such trust, such immediate and inexplicable trust, that I was overwhelmed. The tectonic plates of my heart shifted.
I talked, using the same honeyed tones I charm my cats with. As if straining to catch my words, the crow turned its head slowly from side to side, ear coverts lifting and falling, in response to my voice.
“I’ve seen it all now.”
The sound of another voice startled the bird and it flew back to the car roof. My elderly neighbour (presumably another insomniac) sidled up to me. Mrs. C looked incredulous.
She suggested that it was a juvenile, still learning to fly. Testing her theory, she clapped her hands and the crow took flight, ascending effortlessly to the roof of the nearest house.
“Obviously not a learner then.”
Seconds later it glided back down to the car roof … as if to prove a point.
I wondered whether some cat food might be tempting, so leaving Mrs. C to keep an eye out, I went indoors to forage in Thelma and Louise’s cupboard.
Bills, being pointed, aren’t designed for flat-bottomed containers. Turning the head sideways facilitates the process, but it is also clumsy, undignified and messy. When I was sure the crow had tired of its efforts, I removed the remainder of the cat food and proffered my forearm.
At the end of the cul de sac I lowered the bird to the pavement, with a view to leaving it there, but now that I’ve done it and I see its vulnerability, the plan feels like a betrayal. I’ve even given it a name: Milana, after the crow that Uncle Azarías is so devoted to in The Holy Innocents. Milana has her freedom but the bond between them is so strong that she is rarely far away, often dropping down from the open sky to be with Azarías. Momentarily, I fantasise, but my cats would never tolerate it, so there is no option but to leave Milana to her fate.
I walk away. She shuffles along the pavement after me. I walk faster. She takes flight and makes an awkward landing on my head. Once she has settled on to the more comfortable perch of my forearm I take her across the road and into the cemetery. This is where Milana belongs and this is where I lose her that morning.
In the days and weeks ahead she tracks me down again and again. I suspect she keeps watch from a vantage point somewhere around my house, which I can’t identify. On seeing me, Milana swoops down to a convenient perch, a garden fence, a rubbish container or, more frequently, a parked car. I offer her my forearm If I’m quick enough, but I rarely am. She lands before I can extend my invitation.
Milana is waiting for me on my return from a two-week holiday in
. When I open the bedroom curtains on my first morning back home, I see her perched on my window sill. Mrs. C tells me later that this is where she’s spent the best part of the last fortnight, disappearing only at night, to roost somewhere safe, I presume. I race out into the street and she’s airborne, drifting down beside me in a sudden flutter of wings. By now I’ve discovered that she delights in having the back of her head rubbed softly with my thumb and forefinger. Her posture relaxes and her eyes close when I give her this much attention. Spain
Early one evening Milana lands on the wall enclosing my back yard. She turns her head from side to side, in that engaging way, when I talk to her. I’m marvelling at the granite sheen of her folded wings when my cat pads out into the yard. The sight of so many feathers so close, but so out of reach, is intoxicating. Thelma chitters and foams at the mouth in anticipation. Milana looks down at her … unruffled and unperturbed.
My last encounter with Milana is in late summer. I’m walking up to a friend’s house early one morning when I hear the breath of wings. When I turn Milana is flying in behind me at street level. Her appearance is so sudden and unexpected that I have no time to offer her a perch. She makes an emergency landing on my head, where her efforts to gain a foothold in my hair must have resembled a clumsy dance. The postman gapes. I smile and hurry off with Milana, who has just flitted onto my forearm.
In the autumn and winter, I scan the heavy skies over the cemetery, where large flocks cry out to each other. When I call for Milana they scatter in a frenzied ruffle of wings, leaving a few feathers behind floating in the air around the graves where they have gathered. Bereft, I walk on, accompanied only by the wind and the distant noise of traffic, a blunt end to the mystery of why she appeared and disappeared from my life.