by Roger Lacher
Dead of winter Friday, booted writer holed up by stove, the window shows monochrome for miles.
Itís been a quiet week here in Minnesota. Seldom above zero. The oak goes in and the smoke comes out, ashes get sprinkled on ice underfoot. Most sounds and sights are puffled under a foot of snow. At night the trees crack and coyotes howl in packs. Those hours pass with the bittersweet speed of blackstrap. Sunís seemed kind of shy - out with a pair of dogs just one day lately, then blurred back over the hill by flurries and nightfall. Sundogs are important omens. But one forgets, the whole skull becomes numb with cold and darkness.
The real dog is out just long enough to track her circle by mailbox, bridge over steaming creek, pasture fence, shed, woods edge, cornshock, rabbit lair, junk trunk, perimeter of smelly yellows. She gnaws at frozen venison swinging from a tree, a salvaged buck too far gone for me. Then back to scratch at the door, pine fibers pile up from the pawing, someday sheíll be through without my help. Someday weíll all be in and out of the cold.
DEAD OF WINTER
Crows on snow. Is it true they live to be 100? Is it true they assassinate a bad crow in the band? A bunch last fall had one down, pinned and pecked, on the ground. I followed my binoculars down to find just a spot of blood, no body, few feathers. Itís not the first time Iíve witnessed this.
A crow on snow is like a dotted ďiĒ or period on a page pretty much vacant. Trees, their stumps, fenceposts and angry wire stand stark out on the white sheet. The margins move in slow, like cold in bones, to see if something black can escape, take wing. The crow, no dummy, does.
The sunís a joke in Minnesota until the Equinox. Itís up late and weak, bleary with hangover from the bluffs, needs a couple dogs to brave a flurry. The dogs just hang there on East and West, no bark or bite, drooling uselessly into the pink sunset. Crow flies as close as she wants. Nothing melts. Her feathers are a veritable solar collector and from up here sheís hot to spot brunch.
At 20 below smoke rises slow and straight. Creeks steam. Semis on I-90 whine frozen tires for miles. Cattle hunch with frosted muzzles. Coyotes curl up on a goat prairieís yellow sandstone. Bright schoolbuses shift the inclines of country roads, growl on toward the big river. A shotgun blast on the ridge is a red oak finally fractured by this cold. All this the crow knows.
Thereís corn and plenty of it. Standing fields are shopping malls open 24 hours for wildlife. Snow tells the tale in tracks of all configurations. The farmers ink those tracks on their 1040ís, hope for the best. But cornís boring to a crow with class, black as a briquet in a cave, savvy as a snakeís patience. The last snake I saw taken by a crow was a big one, 30 inches or so. The bird worked for altitude, the garter snake writhed for leverage, they went fighting out of sight over the ridge. I bet the bird won, sort of a dinosaur itself, using wits instead of cutlery of raptors. Probably called a friend, cah, cah.
Except for snow snakes, yuk, and the same old frozen field corn or warm manure spreader corn, thereís not much out there except that possum from last Tuesday. Most crows watch their diet. They discuss food at length. They ignore microwaves and calories. Proteinís nice but what about variety? Taste?
At 800 feet itís obvious, a deer crumpled up by a pickup late for work. The crow drops down, no falcon by far, but fast enough. Good, itís dead. Itís a real drag waiting around for canines or the elements to finish off breakfast. Crows arenít much equipped for killing meals over 8 ounces. But theyíre real social: friends and neighbors! Guess what! I found a whole bunch of bank bags from a leaky Brinks truck, come on down! I canít count the sacks, but the first oneís full of 100ís.
The crows converge and descend, just like commuters streaming into a business. The boss gets the easy eye looking at the sky side of winter, yum. The crows discuss the feast of the week, nibbling all the while at each end featuring tender parts. They rejoice, in a dark knot full of anticipation, the damage the Chevy did to the chest cavity, the neat wreckage exposing mushies theyíd never get to with blunt beaks. And the absence of pushy vultures too stiff this icy morning to get there in time.
Time is nothing to a crow. You freeze, you sweat, you enjoy the interim. Thatís a year marked mostly by an event all local crows can relate to: fireworks over Lake Winona. They agree itís ridiculous, most of them have been shot at, albeit in daylight. Uncle Benís left wingtip was lost to a long-range sniper. Catherine carries a few BBs in her breast. After dark itís worse, horned owls come out of nowhere and, thump, Junior or Sis cry under silent wings off through the woods to erehwon, a winter without end or even an inkling.
But the crows are stoics. They stay in the neighborhood, learn the vagaries of air and lush buffet of summer and sparse tidbits of the Hunger Moon. This roadkill is a real windfall, but secretly during the feast they dream of tasting one of them people, maybe me.
A guy worn down by the season, sick and tired of this climate, in a black mood. Heís done everything dark there is to do for months. Crows have been watching with drainoil eyes from the corners of winter. They wait for a mistake or slipup on the ice slope. Tougher than buzzards, they perch there on the fingers of stiff trees.
February clenches its fist to wring out the last of color. It grips the yellow truckís engine. It pinches the woodpile down to sticks so the last red ember will be soon. It scoops snow in huge handfuls packed against doors and windows. It squeezes the guy until plaids and paisley, even blaze orange are all gone. Snow drifts higher. Heís out kneedeep in greasy gray hacking at the last of pallets to keep the fire alive. His hands have memorized the rough oval of axe handle until they canít forget. They wonít work to open the door of this feverish cabin. They canít carry coals to heat the frozen engineís oil. The black dog is no help whatsoever.
Heís skiing. The crows laugh to each other. The dog romps ahead but the skier is slow. His hands are rusted wrenches on the ski poles, his feet go South in strides instead of glides. At this rate, with the wind picking up, itís going to take longer than he thought.
Thinking of winter takes a lot of experience. There are the hard ones of cold spells and snow depth, the forgettable and memorableólike blood red aurora smearing the whole sky for hours when even the springs froze down to burbles.
Or skidding accidents on ice, tongues stuck to steel, ducks locked in by their webs, snow burying the heifers, Buicks breaking through en route to the fishing shack, black flesh of frostbite, pheasants stuck under the crust, long nights.
Itís morbid business, being a Minnesotan this time of year. Immortality spent the summer and fall like a roommate, then borrowed the keys to go for candles. In Tallahassee it turns out. The long-distance call came unexpected, collect, like the blizzard. Mounts up by the minute to bad news.
The bends of ski tips demarcate the drifts, a two-track filling in behind the escaping skier. He unwinds the miles of valley toward Iowa. The saved string, knotted in past winters, runs out in scant mile and a yard. Crumbs take up the trail in measured pinches from two crusty loaves in his heavy pockets.
Thatís where the crows come in. From the black North, behind his back, they flock down to eat the bread, hop and cavort, cah, cah.