There was once a little American girl who liked to feed birds.
There’s nothing unusual about that, you might think. Lots of little girls are American and a great many of them also feed birds. What was unusual, because a part of this story is true, is that the birds noticed her kindness and the persistence of her charity. Eventually, they started to leave her gifts.
At that point, the local newspaper caught hold of the story and, for a week, she was a famous little American girl. No one thought to interview the birds to see if they had anything to say, and no one asked the girl whether she had set out to run an avian restaurant. Either would have been remarkable. Instead the local press got about a week’s worth of amusement from the story and then, as the relentless news cycle rolled on, the story faded away and everyone forgot about it.
Apart from the little girl and the birds. They didn’t forget.
It helped that the birds were, with a couple of exceptions, crows. The newspaper man who wrote the original story knew that crows were the big black ones, but after that he had to consult an expert. He spoke with a professor, who used words like “habituation” and “pattern”, and who successfully avoided the suggestion that the crows might have invented their own currency with which to pay for their food. It’s that sort of talk that makes people nervous, because birds are meant to be all sorts of things other than smart. But the important thing about crows is they like the occasional meaty snack, and the important thing about the little girl was the first thing she fed them was a chicken nugget. You can’t just have one chicken nugget, not if it’s a really good one that’s made with actual chicken. So, when the little girl accidentally dropped a chicken nugget in her front yard – and that was an accident, which happened in the mad rush to get from the car into the house because sometimes, when you’re seven, priorities can change at a moment’s notice – a nearby crow snapped it up and, on sharing the experience with other crows, wondered if there might be something a crow could do to entice further fried meaty goodness from this benefactress.
Crows are quite bright, but it took a raven to see the pattern. Some of the crows had taken to wishing the little girl a good morning as she went to school. They were being smart about it, sitting on the fence near her front yard and cawing at her in a friendly way, instead of speaking to her directly which freaks people out. A couple of them became daily visitors, but there were no more nuggets and the crows were about to give up when a raven asked them what they were doing sitting on a fence like they were waiting for Walt Disney to turn up and transform them into a mildly offensive racial stereotype. The crows, who knew ravens liked nothing better than the sound of their own reasoning, told their story and the next day the raven joined them. The little girl waved hello as she walked past on the way to the school bus but no food was forthcoming. Once she was gone, the crows sulked.
“Oh come on,” said the raven, “be patient. Trust me.”
There were comments about trusting ravens, as there often are, because even among the Corvidae there’s such a thing as too clever for your own good. But that afternoon, back they came. Three crows and a raven to welcome the little girl home. And it worked. She was delighted to see the birds waiting for her, and she – joy of joys – reached into her backpack and dug out a lunchbox. What was inside the lunch box turned out to be a sandwich that she pulled apart. The birds got the bread, which was coated with something the raven tentatively identified as mayonnaise. They split it three ways, the raven insisting that he’d have some if it worked again the next day, and though it wasn’t a nugget, wasn’t even remotely meaty, it was still a minimal effort meal and when you’re a crow these aren’t as easy to come by as you’d hope.
From that day forward, the crows and the raven saw her off to school and welcomed her home. On the days when they got fed, they made sure to show her they were happy. In return, the little girl started purposefully saving part of her daily sandwich to give them when she got home. And instead of just throwing it on the grass, she’d carefully count the birds present and divide the sandwich up into roughly equal portions, then lay them neatly on the grass so the birds could hop down and take their pick. Unbeknownst to her, the raven had instituted a rota system to determine who got the biggest piece so there were never any squabbles in her presence.
“It’s not what she’d want to see,” said the raven. “It’s not really crows we’re selling here, it’s more than that…it’s like a dream of what crows could be!”
And then the raven had stopped talking, because everyone was looking at him funny.
Their diet had improved, to the point where it now included whole sandwiches, which sometimes meant a lot of bread, with some bologna (which, the raven admitted, is still not a chicken nugget but is at least heading in the right direction), and the quartet had reached the stage where something needed to change if meaty snackness was to be theirs.
The raven, of course, had ideas.
The raven had followed people to find out where chicken nuggets came from, and had observed the process by which they were acquired.
“Well, that was a waste of time,” said a crow, “because we know that you can sometimes get them from the bins around the back of the burger place. If you’re quick.”
“Granted,” said the raven, “and you share that bounty with every other scavenger that has the wit to dumpster dive at closing time. So that’s feral cats, dogs and Harry, the indigent alcoholic who lives in the bark park.”
The crows nodded. You could generally impress a cat with sheer wingspan, and most dogs didn’t risk the beak twice, but Harry was surprisingly persistent for a man who professed to love the taste of Sterno.
“What’s your plan?”
“Well,” said the raven, “let’s talk money…”
An hour later, one of the crows said, “But none of us actually make anything, so how can we accept even a fiat currency for goods? And it’s not like we have much of a base for offering services…”
“Unless you have a particular need for someone to eat some roadkill,” offered another crow.
“Face it,” said the third, “in a post industrial economy, we’re a bit stuck for something to offer.”
“No,” said the raven. “No, you’re listening but you’re not understanding. Would it help if we went over the work of Adam Smith again?”
“I could stand to know more about Keynesian economics, I thought there were some quite promising ideas in there.”
“You’re fooling yourself,” said the third. “We don’t own the means of production so we’ve got to work on developing a political consciousness in the working classes.”
The raven sighed.
“I can see what we need here is a practical demonstration,” he said, but it was mostly to himself because two of the crows were arguing about whether the working classes included starlings.
Truth be told, the little girl was having an average day. She went to school on the bus and a girl sat next to her because there wasn’t anywhere else she was cool enough to sit. They didn’t talk, other than to acknowledge the presence of the other. There were lessons, and in each class she had her own desk to sit at in a place determined by a teacher. But between lessons she had the choice of hanging out with kids that she neither liked nor understood or being on her own.
Some girls would have joined the group of unpopular kids. To her, that felt like giving up. There was a core of popular kids. Eight of them, in fact. They all liked each other and tended to treat everyone else – the entire rest of the grade- as if they were second class citizens. No one else liked the popular kids, because by and large they were asshats, but everyone wanted to be as pretty as them or have their parents. The girl had literally done the math and couldn’t understand how the eight least pleasant people in her grade were the “popular” kids, but there seemed to be some rules to the situation she wasn’t aware of. She spent recess times reading, or sometimes drawing. The pencil always did exactly what she wanted it to, and generally what she saw in her mind’s eye was translated faithfully to the paper she doodled on. Sooner or later, someone was going to notice and then she’d be the Arty Kid. For now, she was one of a small flotilla of loners who no one paid much attention to and no one really bothered. It didn’t make school fun, it did make it survivable and she could go home to reassure her parents that she was doing OK.
But it would have been nice if someone had wanted to be her friend, and say nice things about her drawings.
The bus took her home, pretty much the same way she’d gone to school in the first place, but when she reached home there was a large bird with glossy black feathers. It was holding something in its curved beak, something which it hopped forward and placed on the ground in front of her. The bird hopped back two or three times and tilted its head, blinking at her. She looked at the ground. On the beige concrete blandness of the path through her front yard, something caught the sunlight and glittered. She knelt, and picked it up. It was a fragment of fine chain, attached to which was a single small glass bead. The bead was multifaceted, polyhedral, and it reflected a little light whenever it moved. She looked at the large black bird and stood, stepped respectfully around it and ran for the house.
“Oh well done,” said a crow from underneath a hedge, “you’ve scared her off!”
“No,” said the raven, “she’s coming back.” And he said it with such certainty that the crows abandoned their plans to give him a good pecking as well as a talking to about the nature of hubris. They waited.
The late afternoon sandwich was supplemented with a handful of trail mix. This was a definite improvement, and the collection of nuts and dried fruit along with what was undeniably tuna fish in wholegrain bread, made for very cheerful crows.
“I admit, I had reservations about this plan,” said one.
“So, you’ll go off and find an interesting thing to give her every day?”
“No,” said the raven, “we’re all going to do that. Everyone brings an interesting thing. I predict it’ll go over very well. I wouldn’t be surprised if she got quite attached to the process. Do you trust me yet?”
The crows considered this.
“Well, you haven’t explained what a Corvus Corax Corax is doing in North America which is more traditionally home to Corvus Corax Principalis, and I still think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick about fiscal policy in a post scarcity economy, but you do get results.”
“Your trust is touching and edifying” said the raven. “Stick with me, boys, I’ll see you right.”
That was how it worked for several hundred days. Three crows and a raven would scour the neighbourhood for interesting trinkets to present to the girl and her growing delight with the little gifts led at first to a greater variety of treats and then, as time went on, food that might actually do the crows some good. Research into what made her visitors happy educated the girl to the point where she included regular servings of meaty, chunky dog food – something the crows delighted in.
“I swear my coat is shinier and healthier,” said one.
“You’ve got feathers”
“Shinier, healthier feathers.”
“Does anyone else want to chase cars?”
The raven sighed.
“No, and neither do you. I told you it would go well. Do we mess with a good thing now?”
“No!” chorused the crows, which is not a pleasant sound. They may have a relatively sound grasp of economic theory but what crows are to harmony British Petroleum is to coastal conservation. Settled and happy, with the number of regularly visiting crows, rooks and local ravens growing slowly and carefully, it seemed like things couldn’t get better. That’s when the reporter showed up.
The reporter had heard, from a friend of a friend in a bar somewhere, that there was a kid who had made friends with some birds. It was the sort of human interest story that filled column inches and sold local papers. In theory it was a couple of hundred words bashed out over the course of a Wednesday afternoon and a picture of a cute, hopefully gap-toothed, kid next to a bird table with maybe some seeds on it. The reporter, a sagging middle aged man called Roy, followed up and asked questions of the appropriate people. It took a week or so to get a name for the little girl (Chloe, aged nine, feeding birds since she was seven, would probably insist on being called nine and three quarters or something in the copy, but you could edit that) and then an address. There was a polite, cheerful initial phone call to the parents (because you didn’t just saunter up to the front yard of a pre-teen carrying a camera and asking to take their picture) and an equally polite reminder to the editor that this story wasn’t going anywhere, but after some more careful adult conversation a meeting was arranged.
Chloe stared at the man, who was staring at the raven, who was staring back at him. They blinked in unison.
“You know, “ said Roy, “I’m pretty sure when I heard about your little bird friends I was given to understand they were smaller.”
The three crows looked at one another and shuffled uneasily. The raven had taken the lead, as usual, but they’d come to trust him. They kept silent, although at least one of them was worrying that he’d put on weight and was thinking about skipping the dog food for a couple of weeks and maybe flapping a bit more when he flew.
“No, they’ve always been about this big,” said Chloe. She had decided to be a nine year old as hard as she could, because kids can often tell when adults aren’t prepared for children under the age of 21 to be intelligent.
“Uh-huh. Do you have any cuter birdy friends?”
“These are the ones that bring me things,” said Chloe, “and those are the ones you wanted to see.”
Roy felt that the raven was sizing him up. He didn’t like that feeling one little bit. No mere bird should look at a man like it knew something he didn’t. He was also dimly remembering that his Grandpa had never liked crows. Rooks, ravens, crows, magpies, Grandpa had a name for all of them: murder birds. He was also dimly aware that the collective noun for crows is “a murder”, and that the one for ravens is “an unkindness”. He’d been hoping for bluebirds. He’d been hoping for anything remotely photogenic, not a large inky black intelligence with appraising eyes and the impossible suggestion of a smirk in its beak.
“I tell you what,” said Roy, relief washing over him as the new idea took form, “let’s get a picture of you with your collection. How would that be?”
Chloe, who thought the collection was one of the coolest things that had ever happened to her, waved goodbye to the raven and the crows and ran inside after the reporter.
“Seriously, though,” said a crow, after a moment more of silence, “do my tail feathers look big in this?”
A few days later, when the newspaper printed the story, Chloe celebrated with a trip to a fast food place. There were chicken nuggets. There were deliriously happy crows. But better than all of these things, all of which were pretty good in their own right, there was her picture in the paper.
She’d never had that happen before.
No one she knew had ever done this before.
Arguably, you could take a selfie and tweet it or put it on Instagram. Millions of people would see it, maybe, and that was way more than the people who would read the crummy local newspaper. Arguably, you could make yourself more famous with the right kind of picture, or the right kind of caption. You couldn’t go viral in the Nowheresville Rag.
But the internet didn’t send people to your house to ask you questions and then listen carefully to the answers. The reporter had explained it was his job to listen carefully to her answers, because he needed to cover the story properly, so Chloe had spoken at length and with full consideration of his questions. It didn’t matter that almost nothing she’d said made it into the story either. Her picture was there, and her name was on it. She was the girl with the collection of stuff given to her by birds. That was just cool, any way you looked at it.
The buzz of this event lasted a week, which is about as long as the media lets most things go on even when they continue actually happening well past that point, and during that week the crows ate better than they ever had. They stepped it up on the gift front too, naturally, but after a week things got back to normal. Since it’s surprising how acclimated you can become to living well in a very short time, this bothered the crows and they decided to do something about it.
The raven stared at the wallet.
“And where did this come from?”
“The driver’s licence says ‘Mandy’,” said a crow helpfully. The raven nodded.
“Did Mandy hand it over willingly?”
“Oh yes,” said a crow, “once we’d explained the situation to her.”
“I want to be absolutely clear on this. Did you speak to her?”
“Of course not!” said a crow. “That would be ridiculous. That’s a one way ticket to getting all sorts of the wrong kind of human attention. No, a few of us got together and indicated to Mandy that we’d like her purse.”
The raven closed his beak with the sort of click you hear when you’ve unexpectedly run out of ammunition. He wanted, so very badly, to ask whether they’d done so through the medium of interpretive dance but he knew they hadn’t and didn’t want to give them ideas.
“How did you achieve that?”
“A few of us got together…”
“How many is ‘a few’?”
The crows considered this.
“Thirty. Maybe forty.”
The raven blinked. He knew the crow clientele of Chloe’s avian eatery had grown, but this was something of a surprise.
“So forty crows got together and just gently indicated?”
“We sat on her purse.”
“All of you?”
“Some of us. And the rest of us just kind of…occupied the rest of the available space and thought hard about what we wanted to happen,” said a crow. “It’s a thing we read about in a book.”
“You’ve mugged a woman” said the raven.
“Pretty much” admitted a crow. The raven kicked the wallet open.
“This is just cards. Credit, debit, a store charge card – haven’t seen one of those in a while – and a gym membership card.” The raven sighed. “Next time, boys, try to get cash.”
“Really?” The crows seemed excited.
The raven exploded. He hopped into the air and failed his wings in utter exasperation.
“Of course not! Only a very sophisticated idiot would think that getting forty crows to gang up and mug humans for cash would be a good idea!”
“That’s true,” said a crow sadly, from somewhere in the background. “Let’s face it, we’re bound to get caught and then all of us are doing time because, you know, a human won’t ever be able to pick one of us out from a lineup. And we’ll have to cop a plea…and then we’ll have to join a gang…” The crow trailed off as he became aware that everyone was staring at him.
“I’m too pretty to do time,” he explained.
“No,” said the raven, “we’ve missed something important. I need to think.”
The crows gradually dispersed, taking with them an argument about whether they should join the Crips. The raven sat in the branches of a nearby tree, staring at Chloe’s front yard, lost in the maze of his own thoughts.
Chloe was pretty sure she was dreaming. Her bedroom window was open, and there was a very large black bird sitting on her bedside table. That sort of thing didn’t happen if you were awake.
“Hello,” said the bird, which sort of clinched it. Birds don’t talk.
“Hi,” said Chloe, “why am I dreaming about you? Aren’t you one of the birds I feed?”
“Of course not,” said the bird, “those birds don’t talk. So, I’ve been thinking and thinking, and I wanted to ask you a question.”
Chloe sat up in bed and looked around. It looked very much like her bedroom. Normally, her dreams were a lot less realistic than this. She’d even remembered to dream the small stain on the wall, near the closet, where she’d spilled the root beer that one summer and the hot sun and warm air had baked the colour into her wallpaper. She remembered her Mom’s reaction, and that they’d never bought that kind of root beer again.
“Excuse me,” said the bird.
“You’re very pushy for someone I’m dreaming,” said Chloe.
“Maybe I’m a representation of your subconsciousness, busy puzzling through something tricky from your day-to-day life, and I need to ask you a question?”
“If you like,” she said, “but my water glass is right behind you and I’m also dreaming that I’m thirsty. Could you move?”
The raven obliged.
“Thanks,” said Chloe, and took a long sip of water. She kept the glass in her hand.
“OK, so, my question…”
“Are you a raven?”
The raven blinked.
“If you like,” he said, “it’s your dream. Can I ask a question now?”
“Sure,” said Chloe, “go ahead.”
The raven wanted to start with a winning smile, and remembered at the last moment that Chloe wouldn’t be able to read his body language. He settled for relocating to the end of her bed.
“Just recently, when you fed the birds you really put some effort into selecting excellent food. You know it made the birds happy, but why did you stop?”
Chloe pulled the duvet closer.
“I haven’t stopped.”
“No, but why did the quality of the food go back to what it was before?”
Chloe wrinkled her nose. She was feeling slightly hunted, a feeling that she was sure wasn’t supposed to get past the pink and pastels of her bedroom. Even in a dream, she was pretty sure that the little collection of plush animals at the foot of her bed, and the photos of her extended family by the dressing table, were meant to armour the room against unpleasant feelings. She chose to feel annoyed by this rather than scared.
“I think because while it was nice to be the centre of a lot of attention for a while, I really liked how things were before. I think the birds bring nice things, I think they like what I feed them, I think if they had a problem with it they should come talk to me.” She put some snark into that last bit. The raven didn’t notice.
“I’m sure if they could they would. But everyone knows birds can’t talk.”
“Shame,” said Chloe. She made an elaborate show of plumping her pillows and snuggling back down to sleep.
“Ummm,” said the raven.
“If I’m really asleep and this is really a dream, “ said Chloe carefully, “then I can decide when the conversation is over. If this isn’t a dream, if it turns out you’re not just my imagination, I am gonna scream so loud. So, dream bird, is the conversation over?”
She peaked over the edge of her duvet. The raven had gone, so she settled back down and closed her eyes.
Sailing through the night air, which birds often don’t because, like us, they need to see where they’re going, the raven had thoughts.
“Attention,” he thought. “More of it. For longer.” He found himself somewhere to perch. “Television,” he thought, and knew just the person to help.
Professionally, she was Krista. A one woman reporter for the local Fox affiliate, with year upon year of scouring the local area for stories to put on the 5pm news. Her mother still called her Cindy, and worried about her because of the long hours and all the driving she did. It would have worried Cindy’s mother even more to know that her daughter sometimes parked her station branded vehicle somewhere quiet and took sneaky power naps. Occasionally, cops would come and tap on the windscreen to make sure she was OK and, in ten years, the worst thing that had happened was a drunk student relieving himself against one of the rear tires. Her on-air persona was warmth and smiles but Cindy was nails hard and running out of time to make Anchor, so she chased everything harder, worked longer, and was currently snoozing, just for five minutes, in the hope that it would give her some get up and go. The tap on the windscreen was unwelcome.
“It’s fine, officer,” she said, fumbling for the window control.
“It is fine,” came a voice, “because you’re still asleep. You’re having a profoundly mystical experience! Open your eyes and look upon me!”
Cindy woke up quickly and completely, blinking at the large black bird sitting on the hood of her vehicle.
“What the hell..?”
“I am your Spirit Animal! I have come to set you on an important vision quest!”
Cindy made sure her doors were locked and the windows were up. They were.
“I was told my spirit animal was a moose,” she said. “An actual Medicine Man told me. Attention to detail, he said.” There would be a camera crew somewhere. Had to be.
“Moose? What has a moose ever known about journalism? No, I, a raven, am your spirit animal. On account of our long association with the written word, and such like.”
Cindy gave the bird her most sceptical frown.
“Oh, look, bloody hell,” said the raven, “it was ravens brought news to Odin. A raven once had a pet novelist called Dickens. Edgar Allan Poe! I’ve got form! I’ve got pedigree!”
“I’m calling the cops,” said Cindy, who hadn’t found any sign of cameras but who was not going to be weirded out by some try-too-hard novelty pet ventriloquist.
“Alright, alright, miss out on your big career break,” said the raven, and took to the skies.
The crows arrived bearing their usual gifts.
“Hello,” said Chloe, “I’ve got you some chicken nuggets because you seem to like those.” She spread them out on a newly installed bird table.
“You’re very kind,” said a crow, and then there was a horrified silence as a dozen pairs of beady bird eyes drilled into the head of the luckless speaker. Chloe sat down and nibbled a spare nugget.
“Don’t worry. I thought you might be able to talk.” She smiled, to show that it was OK. A crow sidled closer.
“And you’re good with that?”
“What gave it away?” asked another crow.
“I had a late night visit from a raven,” said Chloe. She looked around at the collection of crows.
“Sorry,” said a crow. “He means well, but ravens have a tendency to overdo things. They’re cursed, you see, with imagination.”
“And you’re not?”
“Oh, we’ve got imaginations,” said a crow at the back, “we just don’t get carried away. We’re pragmatists. Realists.”
“Crows,” said another.
“Well our friend the raven said you were unhappy with the food, so I thought I’d ask for myself. Are you unhappy?”
The crows huddled. There was muttering and a quick show of wings.
“We’re happy with the food. Are you happy with the shiny things?”
“I love the shiny things,” she said. “If we’re all happy, can we just continue with me feeding you and you eating?
“Can’t see why not,” said the crow. “And, ah, you won’t mention this conversation to anyone?”
There was muttering again. From the corner of her eye, Chloe saw the raven had arrived and was on the periphery of the little group looking shocked.
“You’re the coolest thing that could happen to anyone,” said Chloe. “I don’t think I want to share this with anyone else. I’ve been famous and it’s fun for, like, a day. Am I gonna tell anyone about you?” She pretended to consider this. “Nevermore.”
“Ooo, burn,” said a crow.
The raven shrugged.
“Be small time, then,” said the raven, “be satisfied with dog food and trail mix. I’ve done my best.”
Chloe waved as the raven flapped into the air.
The candidate straightened his tie.
“And you’re sure you’re my spirit animal?”
“Absolutely!” said the raven. “Now go out there and make America great again!”
David Webb, who prefers to be called Dave, and prefers that sentence to start, “Would you like a cup of tea,” is a Brit. He lives in Leicester (pronounced “Less-tah”), where his day job constantly gets in the way of writing, but he’s willing to live with that since it means not being homeless. When not writing, he reads. When doing neither of those he can be found on twitter as @dococcupant. He has a fiction blog on that Internet thing, which you should absolutely read and tell your friends about.