22 Nov

A Murder in the Backyard

“Autumn thoughts of roots and roosts” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 22, 2015).

The late November sky, cool grey as it begins to surrender to the approaching winter, hangs low, lonely, quietly foreboding.

The marching band, the loudspeaker, and the cheering crowds — they no longer carry across town as if one were eavesdropping on a party to which you weren’t invited. Snares and sax are packed and lugged away for the winter, and cold bleachers are left behind to hibernate beneath ice and snow.

Trees, naked, show off their form, reminding us that beneath their leafy cover is a raw, imperfect beauty much like our own. Woody arms grasping, bending, clawing for heaven, but with roots holding them back. The trees want it both ways — heaven and Earth. We all do. Reaching for one while grounded in the other — it is a lifelong struggle measured in the worn and ringed timeline found within.

And without warning, they begin to arrive, landing, lumbering on the limbs.

First, one comes cawing. Then two, and then two dozen. And dozens more. Within moments, a flash mob of countless crows descend upon the bare trees, taking roost, clamoring and cawing. The November sky shrieks and trees grow black with winged leaves. And still they come cawing.

Rake at my side, crackling leaves underfoot, I watch and wait. Those in their perch seem to do the same. Minutes pass and still more arrive, and as their numbers grow, tree after tree turns to crow, limb after limb alight with darkness. Their schoolyard chorus echoes through the air, each dissonant shriek a competing caw.

I picture their cousin, a wayward raven, roosting atop a lonely alcove high above Grand Central Station, looking down at the throngs of travelers far below. Trains and buses to catch, cabs to hail, and flights to make. The mob migrates with its own cacophony of hurried and harried voices while station announcements conduct their marionette movements. Homeward bound, thinks the raven, I wish I was. Soon the station will go still; travelers home, tracks silent. Separated from his flock, the lonely and lost raven will scavenge for fast-food flotsam, carrying a French fry or two to his cornice roost and eating the loneliest of Thanksgiving dinners.

I gaze at the roost surrounding me.

As suddenly as they came, the crows above me begin to take flight, as if one caw from one crow stood out from all the rest, conducting the raucous choir. Their maestro had spoken, and the murder takes off.

It seems my yard is just a stop on their travels, a rendezvous as feathered friends and family from far and wide gather together for the flight home. Trees go bare, branches once again show off their form, and the sky is peppered with thousands of thrashing wings. Soon the soaring congregation is but a thousand distant specks on the horizon. And before long, they are only echoes.

Their winter roost awaits. Gathered together with kin, they will find sanctuary high atop tree tops still stretching for heaven. A congregation, a community, homeward bound.

Silence returns to the yard.

I breathe in the incense of autumn’s decay, and a prayer of gratitude takes shape in the form of a solitary smile.

I give thanks for my kin, those rooted to Earth and those who have already taken the holy flight toward heaven.

I give thanks for my roost.

And I trudge through the leaves, homeward bound.