By Kimberly C. Lundstrom
The autumn sun shone brilliant on the still-wet leaves, flashing orange and gold against rain-slicked trunks. Crow perched on the uppermost branch of a swaying hemlock and surveyed the beauty below. He called out a greeting to a couple of relations as they winged past, and received their replies with a bobbing head. Life was good.
A movement beyond one of the glass surfaces in the nearest human dwelling caught his attention. His favorite adversary – the plump tortoiseshell cat who fancied herself a hunter – crouched over something that occasionally flashed in the light. Crow sailed down to the top of the fence to get a better look.
Cat nosed and batted at a Thing like nothing Crow had ever seen. Long ribbons of plush fabric flowed and danced in brilliant colors – red! Blue! Purple! Yellow! And at the end of each twinkled something metallic. A marvelous thing! Crow cocked his head. He heard a faint tinkling each time Cat hit one of the tiny metal balls. The Thing was not only beautiful, it made music. A marvelous, wonderful Thing.
Crow arched his shoulders and stretched his wings. “Cat! Cat! What have you got there?”
But Cat turned her back on him and blocked his view of her treasure. Crow called out to her. He hopped along the fence flapping his wings. She glanced over her shoulder at him, but said nothing.
The next morning Crow banked toward the highest branches of the hemlock with a chewy morsel from the road in his beak. He alighted to enjoy the rising warmth of the sun while he warmed his insides with breakfast. With a few gulps and a caw of pleasure he downed the food and surveyed the yard below for anything more.
At that moment, Cat emerged from under a square flap on the back of the house. The flap closed behind her. In her teeth she carried the marvelous, wonderful Thing. Crow watched her drop the Thing, then snatch it up and toss it into the air, tiny bells ringing. Cat leaped to bat it down, only to take it in her teeth and swing it over her head. Colors whirled, shapes danced. Shapes that bore a tantalizing resemblance to the undulations of the freshest of entrails. A thrill passed through Crow’s body. His feathers tingled to their roots.
Cat couldn’t be much more than twice his size, and she was soft and slow.
Crow watched her grab a purple tail and pin it to the ground with her claws. Purple fuzz floated in the sunlight around Cat’s head. One of the bells made a dull, scraping sound against her teeth.
How could he best separate Cat from that marvelous, wonderful Thing? Crow cocked his head the other direction to change his perspective.
The door opened. A human emerged and gave a loud call. “Itty-itty-itty-itty,” it said, and looked expectantly at Cat.
The human didn’t seem to notice Crow, so he held his ground on the fence. He hunched his shoulders and prepared to scare it away, just in case. “Go to your human, Itty-itty,” he said.
Cat gave him a baleful stare and shook the Thing in her teeth. Colors swirled and bells flashed.
“I’m sorry, Cat,” Crow cackled. “I couldn’t resist. You let it call you such ridiculous names.”
Cat gnawed on the Thing’s red tail.
The human made more coos and clicks. It looked at Crow and waved its skinny forelegs in the air.
Crow crouched low and raised his wings. “I’m not afraid of you, human! You couldn’t hit the broad side of the fence, even if you had something in those paws to throw!”
The human made some low noises, but was clearly subdued by Crow’s display. It turned and went back into the house.
A warm meat smell wafted from the open doorway. Crow hopped along the fence to get a better view. He looked from Cat and the Thing she tossed and captured with ostentatious grace – all the while studiously ignoring Crow – to the inviting but dangerous human dwelling. He had almost made up his mind to get closer when the human returned, carrying a small metal cylinder.
The pop of that can opening brought both Crow and Cat to attention. Cat’s ears perked up. She turned toward the human, and her toy dropped from her mouth. Crow leaned forward on the fence. Cat licked her chops as the human peeled the top from the can, releasing a salty meat-like aroma. Crow began to salivate. Cat looked from the can to the marvelous, wonderful Thing, and back again. She bent to pick up her toy.
Crow dived at the can of cat food almost before he had made up his mind to do it. The human shrieked and waved its forelegs at him, but he wheeled in time to evade a blow. Crow screamed for the joy of it, his heart hammering as he alighted on the fence. He couldn’t help laughing at the human and the mess it had made splattering Cat’s dinner all over the square of pavement.
Cat, of course, rushed to lick up this gift from heaven.
And Crow swooped in and grabbed the marvelous, wonderful Thing for himself. He shook it in his claw as he cawed in triumph all the way to the top of the hemlock.
The winter light filtered blue grey through a low-slung blanket of clouds. A damp wind ruffled Crow’s feathers. But he didn’t care. Red and yellow tails clutched against his favorite branch, he pulled at the purple tail of the marvelous, wonderful Thing with his beak. The bell rang in his ear. He closed his eyes to listen.
“Hey! Hey!” A voice cackled on the wind. “Hey! Hey!” It circled Crow.
Crow opened his eyes to a blue flash, inches from his face. “Watch it!” he cried, and nearly lost his grip on the branch.
“Hey, Cousin Cousin. Whatcha got there? Whatcha got?” Jay dove and climbed, circled and twirled. His black eyes flashed.
Crow gathered the Thing close and hunched over it. “Nothing,” he croaked.
Jay landed on the branch and hopped closer to Crow. “Don’t look like nothin’. No, it don’t. No, it don’t.” He cocked his head and peered at the bell dangling from the blue tail. “Looks like a prize.”
“Well, maybe it is,” said Crow. He pulled in the blue tail and crouched lower. “But it’s mine.”
“Sure, it is. Sure, it is.” Jay bobbed on the branch. “Don’t see that every day. Must’ve took some doing. To win such a thing.”
Crow looked at Jay sidelong, took in his cousin’s expectant gaze. “So it did,” he said.
Jay cocked his head to listen.
“Took it from a tomcat, biggest, toughest one in the neighborhood—“
“Sweetums? Was it Sweetums?” Jay bounced on the branch. “Roughed up three dogs last week, I heard. Three! And one of them was a pit bull.”
Crow hesitated. “No. Not this neighborhood.” He waved a wing vaguely eastward. “Another one. That way.”
“Oh,” said Jay. “Oh.”
“Anyway…” Crow continued his tale of epic battle with the mightiest tomcat in the area. And as he talked, more relatives joined Crow and Jay. They bobbed and swayed in the branches of Crow’s favorite hemlock, and listened to his every word.
Crow glanced into the window below. Cat lay curled on the windowsill, staring up at him.
Soon curious corvid cousins began arriving daily to see the marvelous, wonderful Thing. Many brought him gifts: juicy slugs, salty fries in crinkling paper bags, even a nice bit of possum. They listened in rapt attention to the heroic story of the Thing’s capture by Crow. As is often the way with such things, the tale grew in the telling.
“If you want to know the truth,” Crow told the crowd one grey afternoon, “I was being modest. Look! See how this bell has been damaged?” He dangled the Thing’s red tail before them. “Now, was that done by a tomcat?” He drew the tail away with a flourish. “No!” He looked back and forth, and down toward the ground. Then he drew close to his listeners and whispered, “Bobcat.”
Thus the original owner of the prize went from the toughest tomcat in a nearby neighborhood to Bobcat to the elusive Cougar herself. All the relations for miles were talking about it. Others passing – a flock of sparrows, the local swallows, pigeons, and even a gull – saw the crowd and alighted. Soon all were engrossed.
In the window Cat stood, yawned, and arched her back in a stretch. Crow thought he saw her arch her brow as well, but he couldn’t be sure.
For a while, Crow basked in the attention his visitors lavished on him. He always did enjoy telling a tale, even more being the center of one. But now his relations seemed to press close, to look long with greedy eyes at the beautiful Thing in Crow’s claws. The others looked more and listened less. Crow lost sight of Gull once during a telling, and turned to find a curved beak closing on the Thing’s yellow tail.
The would-be thief cocked her head at him. “Can’t a gull have a look-see for herself?”
Crow stared at her until she flew off, his relations providing a squawking, bobbing backup chorus behind him. Still, he suspected even them. And now he barely had a moment to gaze at the marvelous, wonderful Thing himself, the prize for which he had worked so hard.
And always Cat stared at him from her windowsill below.
“What?” Crow squawked at her one day, although the window was closed. “What? What are you looking at?”
Cat switched her tail back and forth, stood to stretch, and hopped from the sill.
Crow hunkered down in the thicket of his nest, belly pillowed in fine yellow grasses and a snarl of discarded yarn. Here he concealed the marvelous, wonderful Thing.
The longer Crow crouched over the Thing, the more he knew it needed protecting. From Gull, from Cat, even from Crow’s relations. He would stay here with it at all times. He would wait for them to come to him with their offerings, and then he would dole out stories and peeks at the marvelous, wonderful Thing.
But little by little Crow’s listeners drifted away. The relations had heard the tale in all its incarnations, more than once. The story lost some of its appeal now that Crow guarded its subject so jealously. The old listeners flapped by without pause and new ones stopped coming.
Crow felt a gnawing in his stomach. He had eaten all the grubs he could find in his own tree, and had even pecked at the cones, but found the harvest of seeds dry and unsatisfying. He gazed out at the street, lined with the weekly buffet of grey garbage bins. Jay chattered and dove at an overfilled bin in the next block. “Beef! Beef!” he cried in triumph.
So much good food, just out of reach. “Cousin!” called Crow, “Cousin! Bring me some of that! I’ll tell you a story.”
“Heard it! Heard it!” Jay tore at the Styrofoam box under his claw and gulped its spilled contents without looking up.
Crow turned away. His gaze fell on the patio in the yard below his tree. What he wouldn’t do for a splatter of cat food there now. He might even choose food over the marvelous, wonderful Thing. Maybe.
Cat had it so good. The humans had tastier morsels even than canned cat food in there. Crow remembered the delicious warm meat smells. He eyed the flap at the bottom of the human door. Cat went in and out of that. He’d seen her do it. Where was she now?
Crow tucked the Thing back into his nest, ensuring that no glint of metal and no flash of color could be seen. He looked up and down the street, checked all the nearby trees, roofs, and light poles. Jay had moved on, and there was no one else in sight. Crow floated down to the fence.
He peered into the windows on the back of the house, but saw little more than a reflection of himself. A few pieces of furniture and a potted plant appeared just behind the glass. But the reflection helped him keep an eye on his nest.
He flew closer. Back and forth over lawn and patio he sailed, searching beyond the windows for Cat. He didn’t see her.
Crow landed on the patio and hopped to the square flap in the door. He gave it a tap with his beak. It didn’t move. He looked over his shoulder toward his nest. Everything ok. He hopped back toward the flap and put his body weight against it. Nothing.
“What are you doing?” The voice came from the other side.
Crow hopped and fluttered to the nearest place of relative safety – the slippery curved cover of a barbecue grill at the edge of the patio. He grappled for purchase and scrambled onto the handle.
The flap in the door rose and Cat appeared, her tail in the air like a flag. The cat door swung silently behind her. She looked at him, blinked once, and sat on the pavement. “Well?”
Crow (for once) was silent.
Cat watched him as she licked her ginger-colored paw and dragged it over each ear three times. “What do you want?”
“What do I want? What do you want?” Crow asked, swaying from foot to foot. “You’re the one always sitting in there watching me.”
“Who says I’m watching you?” Cat’s tail switched back and forth. “I enjoy surveying all of my territory.”
Crow cackled. “Is it because I have the Thing?” He preened a bit. “And I’m famous across the world for it?”
“What thing?” asked Cat. She tilted her head. “My old toy? I see you and the rest of the bird-brains are fond of it. Good for you.” She yawned. “I have other toys.”
“Nothing as wonderful and marvelous as that!” Crow shook his head and ruffled his feathers.
Cat blinked. “Each one is good when you have it.”
Crow stared at her.
Cat stood and turned back toward the house.
“You’re trying to trick me into giving it back.”
Cat looked over her shoulder and up. “You’ve got company,” she said.
Crow whirled in time to see something blue in his nest. He launched himself from the barbecue toward the intruder.
Jay hurtled from the nest, the multicolored tails of the marvelous, wonderful Thing flowing out behind him. “Selfish! Selfish!” he cried. “Why hide the pretty thing? Why?”
Crow screamed at his cousin and dove after him, over the treetops and between the houses. They careened along the curves of the neighborhood streets, stirring up sandwich wrapper whirlwinds and soda can windchimes at the feet of the overflowing bins. Jay laughed as he soared and banked. Crow shrieked in rage close behind.
When they reached the main street with its flashing lights and web of powerlines, Jay dipped low and looked over his shoulder. “Come and get it, Cousin!” he teased. “Come and get it!”
Crow’s brain buzzed. His vision narrowed. He saw only the colors of the Thing waving at him, taunting him. He heard only Jay’s sneering squawk. Crow didn’t see the traffic barreling down the main street. He didn’t hear the roaring engines. He didn’t see the red pickup truck with the shiny chrome grill as it picked up speed to beat the yellow light. And neither did Jay.
Crow plunged straight for his cousin’s head with a deafening screech. Jay took evasive action, canting left and down.
No one heard the impact, except perhaps the driver of the pickup, but even that is uncertain. Jay was small, his bones light. The truck was big and heavy and hard. No one (except maybe the driver) saw Jay again. But Crow saw what was left of the marvelous, wonderful Thing – a scrap of fabric red and torn in the street, buffeted from lane to lane in the wake of passing traffic.
Copyright 2018 Lundstrom