The Crows were Our Company

Feasting at the end of the world

When my son was a toddler, we began feeding crows.

I’m sure how it started exactly, only that we had moved into a strange, free house. It was a housesitting situation, passed along, in the way these things work in rural Appalachia, by a friend. She had been the house sitter first, but now she and her husband were moving on.

The house came down to me, its opportunity: to live rent-free in a place newly remodeled inside with a dishwasher and whisper-close drawers, and its burdens: to live in the middle of nowhere, at a crossroads in the country, with an elderly landlady just up the road who had a habit of dropping by unannounced. She didn’t like anything on the walls. She didn’t like the busyness of my young son.  It was like living in a sterilized pod, maybe milkweed: sealed, coolly white, and prickly. 

A terrible crime had taken place in the house, which I managed to keep a secret from my son while we lived there so he wouldn’t be scared. An old woman had been robbed, tied up and beaten. She survived, and the men were sent to prison. I wrote a poem about it. The landlady had bought the house after, cheaply I think, and redid only the inside. The exterior walls peeled, the gutters tilting. My friend had seen a ghost there once, she thought maybe—but it was a child, not the ghost of the old woman who, presumably, still survived. The house was next to an graveyard. Did I not mention that?

I used to watch the tombstones through the bathroom window when I took a bath on sunny afternoons before it was time to pick up my son from daycare. The only trouble we had with the graveyard was around Halloween, when teenagers ran through, laughing and drinking. The only visitors we had to the house were lost: college-aged hikers looking for an infamous local hill.

And the crows. The crows were our company, every night.

I’m not sure how it started, except there was a cement slab on a high part of the large, grassy yard, which sloped to meet the road on two sides. It seemed perfect for a small picnic, or some kind of offering. One night, I left table scraps out on the slab. And crows came.

The crows started to come regularly. I gave them our leftovers, right after dinner. They knew the time. They would line up in the driveway if I arrived home late, strutting and cawing at my car. 

They did leave shiny things for us, what you may have heard is true. Old rusted coins, and once, a toy hammer, just the right size for my son’s hands, my son who loved tools and construction. The hammer had a red handle. They left it on the slab. I baked a quiche for them, after that.

We don’t feed the crows anymore, not in this new city. The first day we arrived at the house, there were big crows waiting on the neighbor’s lawn. I saw them a lot in those first few weeks. It’s like they’re telling you it’s okay, my partner said. We talked about putting a crow bath in the backyard, but it has to be larger than a bird bath, and crows might wash their food in it, which is sometimes smaller, dead birds. I don’t mind cleaning dead birds out of the backyard if it makes you happy, my partner said. 

The other night, I did a reading, and I was struck with how it felt different than most of the other virtual events I’m doing these days, except for my book launch. It seemed like old times, before we had to meet on screens—and I think I figured out why: it felt like community. I liked the writers I read with, though we didn’t know each before. There was an intro, a guest speaker. It felt friendly and warm, like we might all go out for drinks after, had been to a big dinner before.

This has to last you awhile, I thought. This is what you get.

Patterns are important now, and events to look forward to that mark a break. The changing of the season seems more meaningful and magic. We went for a walk the other night before dinner and I was amazed at how many leaves are already on the ground. I’ve gotta pay more attention to you, trees, I thought.

Maybe your community is with the trees now. Maybe it’s with the creatures there with you at home, which are cats. Or the neighbors you only see in passing, masked, and do not know or get to hear their names. 

My community now is my partner, my child, our cat, crows, and trees. The neighbors behind their windows, the family we see masked at a distance, the beloved friends I see only on screens. We’re doing the best we can, not only to survive this but to be happy, to make it special how we can.

People say to scale back Halloween this year. I say the opposite. Make it the biggest Halloween yet, with decorations that last to December. Watch a horror movie every day. Dress up. And cook a feast on Halloween night—it’s a Blue Moon. Make it a big deal, even if the only thing you’re celebrating is yourself enduring this darkness.

Stuffed Pumpkin

I dislike cooking, though I love to eat. If I’m cooking for anyone other than myself, I feel too anxious about pleasing them to do a good job. Potlucks—remember those?—always made me nervous for that reason. 

Then I stumbled onto this recipe years ago: Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good. It isn’t really a recipe, so much as a guideline. I find the pumpkin often takes longer to cook, and I use more of everything than the recipe calls for, while usually leaving out the bacon (it gets soggy) and chives. But this pumpkin is a show-stopper. Early in graduate school, I started bringing this to parties, and then it was all over for potlucks for me. Other people started making the pumpkin too, and then my go-to was no longer mine; I went back to bringing store-bought cookies to parties, too nervous and tired to do more. But this quarantine Halloween, we’re cooking a feast: a roast, stuffed mushrooms, molten chocolate cupcakes in a skull mold … And I’m re-claiming my pumpkin.