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Ornithology

by Michael Kiser

We’re walking to school and Claire is naming the birds. There’s a chickadee, she says. And that one is a nuthatch. I think that one could be a flicker. She’s usually right, though even when she is not, I don’t correct her. Dad, is that a pileated woodpecker?Brian Eno Photo

She’s holding on to the index finger of my left hand – always the left, the side away from the traffic – like a lifeline, and in that grip, her four fingers and thumb wrapped around my finger, is all there is to know about the relationship between a father and a child.

She doesn’t like the black ones. They’re too loud, she says. They wake me up in the morning and that’s not very nice. They’re probably mean to the other birds. I don’t like them much either, I tell her. What kind are they? she wants to know. We’ve never seen them in our book, have we?

The house in which my first marriage disintegrated was plagued by crows. Every evening, they gathered, flying low in pairs or triplets, flocking to a point that we couldn’t quite see but knew must be there, somewhere on the back side of the small knoll just opposite our front door. Their squawking and croaking echoed the discord that had settled over that house, and I came to avoid both by staying away. I claimed to be working late, though in truth, I had stumbled upon a life and an identity outside my crumbling marriage, an alternate version of me, one that took refuge in a dark bar not far from my office. At first one, then later two or three nights a week, I would go there after I finished up at work, sometimes even before I finished up. But still, on the way home, I would often see them gathering. Somewhere, just out of my sight, they congregated, blackening the branches of a tree – in my mind it was always a short squat oak – chattering and bickering with one another, yet remaining together in the shelter they had chosen.

One evening, too late for dinner and too drunk to go home to my wife, I criss-crossed the scrub land surrounding our house in the precise half-mile grids of the county roads, gravel popping underneath my tires and rattling against the floorboards. I searched for their spot, driving home in roundabout ways. But the tree remained obscure from every angle, as though they had made a plan to roost in a place where they could be seen going but not be seen staying.

While driving, I dreamed of setting out on foot into the woods, following a path that could only be seen when you weren't looking for it. The woods grew thicker and thicker until I was forced to stop. And then, in the moment before I turned around, I would see what I had come to find. Only in my dream, there were no crows there at all. The tree – yes, yes, it was an oak – stood just as I had so long imagined it: short, squat, and powerful. And though its branches were empty, I could tell that this was the tree. I sensed that they had been there the way you sense the presence of someone standing behind you, even though no one is supposed to be there. In the end, I never got any closer than I did a hour or so later, standing just outside my own door, teetering slightly, hand on the doorknob, watching them come from all directions, shadows moving against a darkening sky.

What are the black ones called? she wants to know. Why are they coming to our house? Why are they so loud? She worries the question in the same dogged way she holds on to my finger and I know that when we get home, we’ll have to get out the Audubon guide that we bought together and we’ll have to look them up. We’ll flip through the pages, looking at all the dark, perching birds: the grackle, the bronzed cowbird, the grooved-billed ani, the brewer’s blackbird, and there, there, the common crow.

 


Michael Kiser has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in fiction writing. He lives in the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains with his wife, his two children, an overweight cat, and a stubborn skunk in the crawlspace.