Crows in the Autumn Sky is a novel loosely based on my childhood love affairs with a gray-and-white kitten, a scab-nosed stray tomcat and a strutting, fast-talking, hat-stealing, tail-pulling, ear-tweaking, let-me-sell-you-a-used car pet crow named Sam. When you're a kid and you love animals, you're going to get wounded when they die. I was wounded when, at age four, I saw my kitten slowly strangled by neighborhood bullies. I was wounded when my old tomcat died from rat poisoning, his belly wrenching as foul goop oozed from both ends. But the unkindest cut of all struck when two drunken hunters shot Sam, the love of my young life, off a telephone wire one cold November morn. Now, over fifty years later, I can still see him tumbling across that cold, blue sky. And in my imagination, I run as I did half a century ago, trying to catch Sam before he hit the ground. And I relive the fight I had, an eleven-year-old kid, kicking, clawing and biting two grown men armed with shotguns before they picked me up and flung me into a muddy ditch. Those two hunters are the last of a series of bullies I had to contend with as a kid. The kitten strangler, Richie Baldini, haunts me still, gap-toothed, grinning, a greenish-yellow snot bubble ballooning in and out of one nostril as he swings my kitten around and around at the end of a piece of yo-yo twine. And there is The Man with Sunburned Arms. He grabbed Sam when the silly bird hopped into the cab of his pickup truck to swipe a piece of tinfoil jutting from a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. I still remember the knee-knocking, pant-piddling terror I felt while trespassing into the man's yard to release Sam from the three-foot by three-foot cage into which he'd been stuffed. Another bully is myself, confronted when I'm part of a gang that catches Richie when he's at the "Frog Ditch," stuffing firecrackers into frog's mouths, lighting the fuses and throwing the frogs like hand grenades. We catch Richie, peel his pants down around his knees, then prepare to let a tin can full of irate crayfish pinch him where it'll do the most good. I can still see my mother as she comes running in answer to Richie's pitiful, calf-like bawls. Her brown hair tracing frantic streaks before her eyes, she digs her nails into my arm, yanks me out of the frog ditch and rescues me from the dark, slimy side of myself. Since the setting of "Crows" is Small Town, Illinois in 1943-1945, WWII provides the backdrop of the adventures and conflicts experienced in those days. We kids fought battles against Jap snipers and Nazi SS troopers with pea shooters, rubber band guns and crab apple hand grenades while the battles of Normandy and Leyte Gulf boomed out of the big floor model Philco radio in the living room of our old, creaky-floored house. Our imaginations, mine especially, ran like energetic kittens scurrying up and down living room drapes. The old storage shed in the vacant lot next door was an Egyptian tomb. The garbage cans in our back alley were either German Tiger tanks or woolly mammoths, depending on my mood. But something I had difficulty imagining, however, was a God who could create a world that, as I grew older, seemed driven by stuff more rotten than good. To the rescue comes my old man. A few days after Sam's death the two of us go hiking through the Illinois Dunes, inhaling and enjoying the variety and energy of life. Canadian geese are veeing up and honking their way south. Flocks of redwing black birds warble and chirr. Passing by a nearly dried up pond, we see dozens of huge carp stranded in the muck. And this is how the novel ends. My old man and I slog into the muck, grab the cap one at a time and, pretending they are lovely princesses struck by an evil spell, kiss them on the lips before dumping them into nearby stream. What a strange, exhilarating joy gushes from our Quixotic deed. I couldn't save my crow, but Dad and I are saving those muddy, slimy carp. And there is beauty in their being alive, just as surely as if they really had been fairy princesses. And as the last carp swims off among the pondweed and lily pads, a flock of curious crows flies out of a grove of jack pines and circles overhead. I call out to tem in the language of crows taught to me by Sam. Nearer and nearer they swoop. Louder and louder Dad and I caw, flinging our voices skyward to mingle with the sound of crows in the autumn sky.
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August 27, 2011
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