An old man sat on the step of his stoep. There was nothing to be done. His head was hanging, its bald top shining, exposed to the soon to be setting sun.
A black crow flew in, landed, and instructed the old man to lift his head.
“Take one last look at this land,” the black crow said.
The old man looked – bleached grasses swaying in the wind, ants busy at recycling bins, the slow turn of a tired windmill, the slant of sunlight on a shed door.
Before the old man’s dim, sad eyes, the crow grew bigger, more than tripling in size. It spread its wings, shook itself hard, then stood still for the longest time in the stones-and-sand front yard.
What’s it waiting for? thought the old man, when he got over his surprise.
A rushing wind filled the old man’s ears. Once again, the crow grew, this time until it resembled a donkey in size. Two feathers at the back of the crow’s head were now much longer than the rest.
“Hop on,” said the crow to the old man, “be my guest.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” said the old man to the crow. “Are your feather reins secure? And where will we go?”
The black crow stared at the old man with one hard, dark eye, not turning its head. “You questioning my workmanship? And what else have you got to do? Got an urgent appointment or something?” The old man thought this response quite rude.
Author’s opinion: When a crow does extraordinary things – grows to such a size, talks to you, and offers you a ride – you don’t get fussy and difficult. Yes, you are filled with dread, but there’s really nothing to decide. Do as you are told, is my advice. The tone of the black crow’s reply suggests that what I’ve advised is wise.
The old man realized he’d offended the crow. He said sorry and mounted just in front of the black crow’s wings (with some difficulty – he had arthritis in both hips and both knees). It is not easy to sit astride a bird like that but the old man didn’t complain. The way the bird had spoken encouraged the old man to squash what he felt like saying.
The black crow dipped, spread its wings, and flew up into a fading blue sky. The old man gripped the feather reins.
“Kiss that sorry land of yours goodbye,” the crow said. It was being rather rude again. The old man said nothing. They were so high up the farm looked like a speckled stain.
The crow flew toward a mountain, a mountain the old man had wanted to climb once upon a long-ago time. From the crow’s back the old man had a spectacular view of its jagged peaks and purple hue.
The sun was now a wide tangerine strip at the bottom of the sky. In the twilight glow the old man saw a sight that had him almost letting go of the feather reins he held with all his might. With an effortless glide the black crow had taken him to the other side.
Below, the old man saw all he had ever longed to inhabit, enjoy – a strong body, green fields, a stone house on a hill, a smiling wife, a child, and rich chocolate-brown soil. Tears spilled from his eyes, a river of joy and grief. Here was his life, but not the one he had lived.
The crow circled the blissful scene, once, twice, and a third time. After one last pass it took the old man over the mountain again, flapping those wide wings fast.
“No, no, no,” cried the old man, sobbing his longing and regret, “take me back, you ugly black bird! Take me back to myself, my life at its best. Please, please, take me back!”
The crow said nothing at first, just took the old man on a tour of the mountainside – the side the old man liked least, the side of his life that was wrinkled and creased.
In a kinder tone, with the volume required to be heard over the old man’s heartbreaking cries, the black bird finally spoke, “For many, many years you longed to see beyond the peaks to what lay on the other side. Now you know. Climb the mountain, old man. Over the mountain is where your heart wishes to go.”
The big black crow alighted on a mountainside rock. On one side of the rock there grew a big tree fruiting fat figs (Author: try saying ‘fruiting fat figs’ with speed, out loud, again and again). Against the trunk of the tree there rested a wooden staff, a leather satchel, and a comical sunhat made of straw and twigs.
The old man slid down the shiny black body of the crow, exhausted, and stood on the rock, moaning low. The crow began to shrink, went back to its original size. It flew up into the branches of the tree, selected the best one to grip, and called to the old man, “It’s getting dark you know.”
The old man shook his head in disbelief. How was he to climb this mountain at night, without a torch, without food (he was hungry, very hungry, by now), and with his poor, fuzzy sight?
It would take him days. He would die here, be left to decay under a shrub, have no decent burial, or anyone to prepare his body, give it a good scrub. Wild animals would eat him, bit by bit, until there was nothing left but his skeleton, a staff, a bag, a ridiculous hat, and a horrible, alive, black bird.
As if it read his mind, the black crow said, “There’s a torch in the satchel, some good food too. I’ll perch on your shoulder, be good eyes for you. I’ll sing good songs to keep you awake.” The old man knew this would work – crow song is hardly a song, make no mistake.
Author’s suggestion: If you’re feeling sleepy, and there’s a risk you’ll nod off, go to this link and listen to the recording. It’s better than coffee, or sugar, and not at all boring.
The old man understood there was no turning back. How could he, anyway, when he’d seen what he had? No, there was only this climb, this mountain to scale. He had no choice but to put one foot in front of the other, a mountain goat on a rocky trail.
The old man hiked for three nights and three days with that annoying black bird on his shoulder, cawing him awake to slip down one more slope, scrape yet more skin clamoring over one more boulder.
In the dusk of the third day, he arrived.
He could not believe he was there, in a young life that was truly his.
Forgetting the past, the hardships, the despair, he took care of his green-green world with the utmost care.
He loved his wife, they loved their child, and together the family took care of all that is wild – the wild within that shouts and sings with joy, the wild without that grows their favorite cabbage, pak choi, the wild black crow who guided the old man and always perches in the same old place (a wash line post) and caws at the top of its voice:
“This old man, he climbs BAD, can’t see a thing which makes me SAD, but with a song from me, and a screech in the EAR, I fi-na-lly-hee got us here.”
An Old Man & a Crow by Michele Damstra
PS Stoep is a South African word for a veranda in front of a house. Also, after writing this story I went searching for the caw of a crow and was delighted to find that Black Crow is another name for our very own Cape Crow. Even more delightful, its feathers are tinged with purple. Isn’t that lovely?