Harrisonburg,VA – Crows

A flock of crows roosted over the eaves of my grandfather's barn. If I hadn't known any better, I would have thought they were working in shifts; there always seemed to be five of them there, running their yellowed beaks through their oily feathers, cawing insistently.

The sudden slash of birdcall irritated my grandfather. Grandpa had lost his daughter, who was my mother, and his own wife, three months apart. For the past two years, my dad sent me to work on his farm every summer. In order to live with Grandpa every summer, I was consigned to do numerous chores of varying decency. So it fell to me to get rid of the crows.

I was only twelve at the time, but I still clearly remember thinking to myself that, well, the crows wanted to be there for a reason. Remove the reason, and there would be no more crows.

What could keep them there? I could not find a nest. As I descended the ladder, they landed again, their piercing voices splitting the cooling air of the autumn afternoon.

Inside, Grandpa fixed me some sausages and mashed potatoes. Along with hash and mashed potatoes and corn and mashed potatoes, this was all the man fixed for himself. The old black and white TV rattled and hissed behind me. Grandpa's eyes were fixed on the game until he heard the crows again. Then his eyes moved toward mine. I turned to look at the game.

"Crows still there?"

I kept looking. Grandpa tapped his fork on his plate.

"Crows still there?"

I turned and nodded. I was about to open my mouth when I saw Grandpa eyeing his rifle in the corner.

"I was trying to figure out why they were there. I thought maybe they were protecting a nest or something "
This was the most I had ever said at Grandpa's dinner table. He held his fork up in the air.

"It's not a science experiment, Jody," he said.

As soon as Grandpa finished his last sausage, curving it through the mashed potatoes before scooping it all into his mouth, he stood and put the dishes in the sink. Then he picked up the rifle, checked the sights, and then the chamber, in the same scientific way he always did, whether to scare away a coyote or some drunken teenagers spinning donuts in the front yard.

I followed him out the door, catching it before it clacked shut. The crows were all lined up on the eave, their beaks open, their calls echoing through the evening air. To the west, a storm was forming, low and black.
Grandpa fired the rifle above the crows. Before the echoing report could sound through the hills, the crows had lifted off, circled, and landed again.

I watched as he ascended the ladder, rifle in hand, and ran his hand through the gutters. He came back down, holding a small ball of black in his hand.

It was a dead crow chick, its feathers parted in strange places.

Grandpa pulled out the shovel and walked several yards out into the field. The rain had begun to splatter the first cold and hard drops of a downpour. I realized that the drops were all I heard: the crows had stopped chattering, and instead, they circled the sky over Grandpa as he buried the chick. When he was done, one of them landed near Grandpa, and then they all flew away, toward the storm.

"Grandpa," I started.

"It's not a science experiment, Jody."

And that was all he said of it.

-- Jason Barr teaches at Blue Ridge Community College