By Dez Walker
The thing about a baby bird is you can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl. When they’re older, sometimes they look different. Usually it’s the boys that are crazy fancy and colorful. But some birds, you never know. My crow, I’ll never know. I call him a him, cause that’s what he seems like, but I’ll never know for sure. And some people say that no crows are pretty—not the girls or the boys. But I think they’re all beautiful. I see the blue and green and purple in their black feathers. I see in their eyes how smart and funny they are.
I found him on a cold day in a slow spring. It was damp and chilly, but I saw things flying in the air. Small glowing specks—bugs or seeds or dust or who- knows-what flying like crazy all over in the air, catching the little bit of light. Some things don’t care if spring is slow and cold. They don’t get dampened, these spirits. They go about their business according to some schedule. We’ll never know about that. They just float on in their dizzy way. And maybe they regret it when the world is so cold they can’t survive, but at least they’ve floated for a moment.
So I found him on a cold morning. He must have fallen out of his nest, but I didn’t see any nest up in the bricks and the fire escapes, like skeleton trees, like a weird metal forest. I’d been chased back there, of course, like all the other times. That first time they’d caught me, and they were as scared and surprised as I was. They didn’t know why they chased me, and they didn’t know what to do with me when they caught me. Like the dog that finally catches the squirrel and just drops it cause they don’t know what else to do with it. Like that. So they hurt me, cause they didn’t know what else to do with me.
I cried like crazy, but I stopped by the time I got home. I knew my grandma wouldn’t like it. She could tell, of course, she could tell I’d been crying, and she told me to man up. She wiped the dirt and blood and tears off my face, though. She spat in her soft old yellow handkerchief and washed my face clean. I could tell she was thinking about crying, too. I could tell she had heavy tears pricking the back of her eyes, but she didn’t cry.
Then we watched some TV. We sat in her old room, on her bed, with the yellow smell of her all around, and the only light all that flickered from the TV in a cold blue moving glow. And the window open just a little so you could smell cool fresh rain mix in with the warm powdery smell of grandma.
There was a woman on the TV playing guitar like a man. I thought she was really pretty and great. She sang about music in the air up above our heads and I really liked that idea. Music flying in the air, like birds or bugs or seeds in spring, even in the rain. My grandma got sleepy, her head fell to her chest and then she picked it up and then it fell again. She held my hand in her strong hands and pushed all the muscles with her strong fingers, and she said, “pretty pretty hands, such pretty hands, poor boy.” And then she fell asleep.
So one time I was chased, and they’d pretty much stopped trying to catch me, cause you can only hurt the same person so many times before it gets pretty boring for everyone concerned. But I ran anyway, cause that’s what I did, and they chased any way, cause that’s what they did. And they yelled stuff about me being a fairy, which is just a person that can glow and fly, so who cares, really.
I ran up the fire escape, even though they’d pretty much all disappeared, and that’s when I saw the ugliest thing I ever seen. Pink and grey and tufted with crazy black feathers. With a freakishly long beak for its size and angry beady eyes. There was nobody around. No birds, no people, nothing. Just the cold damp drip drip drip all around us. I picked It up in my hands and it felt so strange. Prickly and oddly heavy with a crazy beating heart. It looked cross as hell, but I swear to god it settled in. It waggled its scrawny feathered butt and settled into my hand like it had found a home and it had nowhere else to go. I nearly cried but I didn’t want to scare it.
I took it up to my room. I put it in a box with one of my t-shirts in it. It looked weak and I didn’t know what to feed it and I was scared so I showed my grandma. She frowned and said, “Well, the damn thing’s probably going to die, so don’t get attached to it,” and took a big drag on her cigarette and coughed. But she showed me how to set it up with a lightbulb to keep it warm, and she helped me feed it, and she didn’t know it but I slept with it warmed next to me in bed.
Well the damn thing didn’t die, he grew crazy big, with fine shiny feathers and a ridiculously long beak and angry, funny eyes. He stayed by me all the time. I let him fly out the window, and I was scared to lose him, but he always came back to me. My grandma pretended to hate him, but sometimes when we watched TV she’d let him eat popcorn right out of her hand. He laughed like my grandma—hoarse and raucous. They laughed together.
My grandma told me a story about a crow with rainbow feathers and a pretty voice. It flew to the sun to bring some warmth to make the spring come along faster, but it got burnt. Its feathers turned black and its voice grew hoarse. But somebody felt sorry for it and said it could still have a rainbow in its black feathers if you looked at it the right way. And said nobody would chase it any more. My grandma said that’s what the damn bird got for being so pretty, dumb bird.
When my grandma gave me her watch I got scared. It was a really pretty watch—thin and elegant. I’d always loved that thing. But it wasn’t a boy’s watch and she knew it would be trouble for me, and she wouldn’t have given it to me if everything was normal. She frowned fit to break her face when she put it on me, tutting and shaking her head, clucking sadly like some old crow.
I was scared to think about why she wouldn’t need it any more. I was scared to think about who would take a boy with pretty hands and his grandma’s watch and a pet crow. We went out back and sat at the top of the fire escape, in the high metal trees. We looked down on our world. I felt his familiar impossible light-heavy weight on me. I felt his sharp claws on my arm, his sharp eyes on my face. I wanted to be with him forever. He pecked at the watch—he liked shiny pretty things. We sat and listened to spring and change come slanting towards us, coldly, slowly, surely.
Edward Steichen, Milk Bottles on a Fire Escape
Dez Walker is currently based in Lisbon. He’s traveling as much as possible because he couldn’t stay put in case they shut it all down again. His stories have appeared here and there, and he’s proud that anybody ever has read them.