For many years, Franklin Long took morning walks along the river. When he was young, his walks were runs, even in the winter when it snowed. As he got older, the runs slowed to walks. Finally, in his twilight years, he started using a long stick to support himself and he rarely walks alone anymore.
“What’s that over there, Grandpa?” Franklin’s youngest grandson, twelve-year-old Foster pointed away from the river bank, just a few hundred feet ahead of them.
“We must wait, Foster. This is a solemn ceremony.”
“But Grandpa, they’re birds.”
“No, Foster. They are crows.”
They both watched with interest, though Foster’s hands and feet were starting to get cold.
“There must be a hundred of them in that circle. Aren’t groups of crows called a ‘murder’?”
“Yes, Foster. Europeans in the 15th century coined that term, but it’s inaccurate and disrespectful.”
“But they’re just birds, aren’t they Grandpa?”
“No, Foster. They are crows.”
“Why are crows so different from birds?” The boy was rubbing his gloved hands together and wiggling his toes inside his boots to keep them warm. He looked and the old man didn’t seem to notice as their breath rose in white mist from their mouths.
“They respect their dead. Why do you think they are gathered together in a circle?”
“I don’t know Grandpa.”
“At the center of the circle is one of their dead. They have come to pray that its soul will ascend to the Creator.”
“Grandpa, how can birds…uh, crows pray?”
“They used to pray all of the time, like the angels, to show their devotion to the Creator. Then they got lazy and finally forgot how to pray, bringing upon themselves misfortune. Now they try to rekindle their bond with the Creator and the Creator has made them just a little lower than humans.”
“Grandpa, I love you and I respect you but where do you get all this stuff?”
Franklin had been looking as the solemn convocation all this time but now he turned to look at Foster. “From the crows, of course.”
“In a manner of speaking, Foster. Once, after I came home from the war, I got sick for many days. As I got better, I was able to sit outside. My house was on the river not far from where we are now. One day a crow fell onto the grass in my yard. It was sick, too. I managed to nurse it with a little food and water and when it was well enough, it left.
“A week later, it came back to thank me, but I didn’t understand. So I listened and the crow was patient. He taught me the language of the local crows and then he taught me of their ways. I came to realize that perhaps a crow isn’t quite like a human being, but they are much like the great apes, some of which use tools like man, and some of which have been taught to use sign language like man.”
Foster didn’t really believe his Grandpa, but he loved the stories that he told. It was fun to believe that there were other creatures besides people who could talk, use tools, and love the spirits of those who have died.
“Where is your friend now, Grandpa?”
“His name was Atsina and he has long since passed to the Creator. There have been many generations of his family since we first met. One of them called Haaninin is there among the gathering. He is young and this is his first time representing his family. Oh look. Their prayers are near an end. The departed one’s spirit is about to ascend. Pay attention, Foster.”
“To what, Grandpa?”
“Few people have ever been privileged to witness this.”
“Be silent and watch closely.”
The old man held onto his long stick with one hand and pulled his Grandson tight with the other. Both watched, Franklin with utter devotion and Foster mainly out of obedience with a hint of fascination.
Then a mist rose from the center of the crow gathering. It was white at first, and then grey, and then black. Then the mist became multicolored and shifted and twisted into the shape of a bird…a crow.
The Holy convocation gazed up as the rainbow spirit took wing and rose higher and higher until it was finally lost among the clouds.
The crow gathering once again bowed their heads and after a few moments, scattered on the wind in a hundred different directions.
“What…what did I just see, Grandpa?”
“I told you, Foster. The Creator answered the prayers of the crow brethren and called the rainbow spirit of their deceased relative up to Him.”
Foster was a child of the 21st century and didn’t want to believe. It was against everything he had been taught in school and against what his friends and most of his relatives believed. But he had seen it with his own eyes. It wasn’t an illusion. A crow that looked like it was made out of rainbow colors rose up from the center of a hundred regular crows who all stood together in an exact circle. With their heads bowed down, they really did look like they were praying.
Then Foster heard a noise from a tree branch to their left. First it was “caw, caw” like a crow would make, but then it made many other bird-like sounds he couldn’t understand.
“Oh Hello, Haaninin. Yes old friend, this is my Grandson Foster. We are both pleased you allowed us to stay and witness your brother’s ascent to the Creator.”
The crow made more sounds and Franklin smiled. Then he turned to Foster. “Haaninin says I am growing old and not so far into the future, it will be my spirit making the same journey to the Creator.”
“Grandpa, don’t say that. You’re just fine.”
“I feel fine but I’m old Foster. When I’m gone who will be Haaninin’s friend? Who from among men will talk to the crows?”
“Can you teach me, Grandpa?”
“If you are willing Foster, Haaninin and I will teach you. Someday he too will pass away to the Creator but you will still be here to talk to his children and then to their children. So it is with the ways of the crows…and of men.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt – Crow #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. The idea is to use a photo Sue has published as the inspiration for writing a poem, short story, or other creative work.
Yesterday, I responded to a prompt involving a spider web by writing a piece of flash fiction based on the mythology of American Indigenous Peoples (Native Americans). When I saw Sue’s photo of a crow, I looked for something similar.
As it turns out, you don’t have to turn to mythology to discover some amazing qualities possessed by crows. Mental Floss listed twelve such fascinating facts including how a large number of crows will sometimes gather around the body of one of their dead but won’t touch it (so it’s not for scavenging purposes), how their brains are proportionally larger than those of the great apes or even humans, how they have a sort of “language” which includes regional dialects, and many other indicators of their intelligence. I encourage you to click the link and read the entire article.
There are a number of tales among Indigenous Peoples that speak of a relationship between the Crow and the Creator including how they once prayed constantly to God, as well as the Lenape legend of the Rainbow Crow, and the involvement of a crow in the creation of the world.
For the names of my two crows, I borrowed from names associated with the Gros Ventre tribe which include A’ani, A’aninin, Haaninin, and Atsina.
Obviously, I’ve loosely adapted this information in the creation of my own bit of folklore, but I hope it is as satisfying as the other tales of the crow.