Three Crows Rising
On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in late February 2004, I opened the front door and stepped outside my house to retrieve a small cardboard box delivered by UPS. As I reached down with my left hand, my Congo African Grey parrot fell off my shoulder where she had been snoozing while I watched television. Pepper was young and had not previously attempted to fly. As she fell, she spread and began flapping her wings frantically. She turned left, as if she wanted to return to me, but she didn’t turn quickly enough and got caught in the narrow gap between my house and the next door neighbor’s house. The houses are situated on a hill above Lake Union in downtown Seattle and the ground between them slopes steeply down toward the back of both lots and the lake, which is four blocks away.
I stepped off the porch and turned into the gap between the houses, catching a brief glimpse of her before she veered left and disappeared behind the house. When I reached the back of the house a few seconds later, she was nowhere to be seen. Although my wife, whom you know as Crane-Station, and I searched the rest of the day and most of the night, we saw no sign of her.
We were too exhausted to continue searching but too upset to sleep, so we lay in bed alternating between attempting to console and reassure each other and staring tearfully at the ceiling. I got up just before dawn and walked down to the lake. As I walked beside the water, my mind was blank and my eyes were thick with grief. For no apparent reason that I can recall, I stopped when I reached the base of tall maple tree about 75 yards away, and after watching the smoky layer of fog take shape above the surface of the lake in the early morning light, I looked up at the tree and spotted Pepper perching on a branch about twenty feet above my head and looking at me.
“Come here,” she said and then she switched her scarlet red tail and ruffled her grey feathers as if to say, “where the hell have you been?”
I tried to get her to fly down to me, but she wouldn’t leave the security of her perch. I finally realized that she lacked confidence in her ability to fly and was afraid of the height, so I climbed the tree up to the point where the branch she was on branched off from the trunk of the tree. I straddled the branch and cautiously inched my way toward her, but I couldn’t get any closer than about ten feet because the branch was bending and starting to crack beneath my weight. She started inching her way toward me, but couldn’t navigate her way through clusters of twigs that shot off from the branch. She got to within about six feet, but couldn’t get any closer. I urged her to fly to me, but she was too afraid to try. I spotted a broken branch hung up in a hedge next to the tree and below me, so I inched my way back to the tree trunk and climbed down to a place from which I was able to reach the branch and disengage it from the hedge. Unfortunately, it was too long and too bushy, heavy, and unwieldy for me to carry it back up to my precarious perch, so I dropped it to the ground and descended to retrieve it hoping that I would be able to extend it close enough to induce her to jump on it. The branch wasn’t long enough and she wouldn’t budge.
“Wait here Pep,” I said. “I’m going to get Rachel. I’ll be right back.” I ran home and returned with Rachel about ten minutes later. Pepper was right where I left her, but she was no longer alone.
Three crows had joined her.
Two were perched next to each other on a branch about five feet above her and to her left. The third one was perched on a branch below her and to her right making it difficult for her to see all three of them in her range of vision at the same time. The crows above her coordinated their movements in such a way as to draw her attention enabling the crow below her to move closer. It stopped as soon as Pepper turned her head to see where it was. The two crows above her inched closer while her head was turned. Pepper began to fidget, so I started backing away from the tree hoping she would be less fearful of leaving her perch and flying to me if I were not standing below her. As the crows inched closer, I kept my voice calm and called out to her asking her to come to me.
Meanwhile, Rachel had been climbing the tree with a broomstick in her hand and when she reached Pepper’s branch, I saw her stand up on it, instead of straddling it as I had done. Clutching the broomstick in one hand, she gingerly reached up with her other hand and grabbed the branch that the two crows were sitting on to steady herself and secure her balance.
Just as she gripped the branch, one of the crows spread its wings and dive-bombed Pepper passing close to her head. Pepper flinched and leaped into the air, uttered a loud warning growl that is disquieting and unique to African Grey parrots, and started flying toward me as though she’d been shot out of a cannon. She flew directly over my head without losing any altitude and as I turned to follow her, I stumbled into a hedge and fell down losing sight of her.
I heard Rachel scream. I glanced back at the tree, but she was not there.
She’d lost her balance and fallen on the far side of the hedge from which I had obtained the loose branch earlier. The ground on the other side of that hedge precipitously dropped another ten feet before leveling out at the edge of the lake. Rachel lay crumpled like a broken doll thirty feet below the branch from which she’d fallen. She’d broken her back and both of her legs. Her right heel bone was shattered and she had suffered a severe concussion that rendered her confused and delusional for the better part of a year.
I had to quit working to take care of her and whenever I had an opportunity to get away for a few hours, I searched for Pepper.
I reported Pepper lost in the local newspapers, veterinary offices, pet stores, and animal control. I stapled thousands of flyers throughout the city and notified local internet groups of birdwatchers. I searched for months but I never saw Pepper again. Fortunately, Rachel recovered from her terrible injuries. However, her medical bills eventually forced us to declare bankruptcy, but not before both of our cars were repossessed and we were evicted leaving us homeless.
I had been a successful criminal-defense attorney with my own practice for 30 years specializing in death-penalty cases, forensics, and complex federal-court conspiracy and racketeering cases. Ten years before losing Pepper and witnessing Rachel’s terrible injuries, I had placed my elderly and sick parents in a privately owned and operated long-term nursing home. My dad suffered from Alzheimer’s and my mother from a debilitating stroke that affected her mentally as well as physically. The cost of their medical care and prescription medicines exceeded $10,000 per month. He died six years later and she died a year after him. Fortunately for both of us, I was at her bedside when she passed. She uttered her last strangled gasp as I held her in my arms and kissed her goodbye on the cheek. Time stopped as my tears cleared away all the detritus of a lifetime of a complex mother-son relationship confused by pain, molestation, hatred, and regret.
With my life in ruins and suicidal, I finally did what I should have done long ago. I did an exhaustive recapitulation of my life and dialed up Yogi Berra. I consulted my Death.
I closed down my practice at the end of 2004, rented a truck, packed up my law books and all of the framed degrees, licenses, honors, awards, and photographs that I had collected over the years, drove to the dump, threw everything away, and left town without ever looking back.
Cross-Posted at my blog and Smirking Chimp.
If Not Now, When? is my intellectual property. I retain full rights to my own work. You may copy it and share it with others, but only if you credit me as the author. You may not sell or offer to sell it for any form of consideration. I retain full rights to publication.
My real name is Frederick Leatherman. I was a criminal-defense lawyer for 30 years specializing in death-penalty defense and forensics. I also was a law professor for three years.
Now I am a writer and I also haul scrap for a living in this insane land.