Volume 23, Number 4

Old Crow

Scott R. Brownlee

Eighty-five-year-old “Three Fingers” John Wilkes walked steadily down the side of the highway. He was a light-skinned black man with straight white hair on the sides of his head. A faded Carolina Panthers ball cap shielded his shiny bald head from the coming warmth of the mid-April day. He could already feel the humidity hanging heavily in the air. A white t-shirt clung to his medium-sized chest, showing his pectoral muscles through the fabric, a sinewy strength still there, leading to his muscular arms. One of his hands was missing three fingers. He wore loose blue dungaree overalls and well-worn brown leather work boots that slid silently along the asphalt.

The sun was beginning to rise over the rolling hills of the Piedmont. Sunbeams were piercing through the brilliant green oaks, maples and even through the darker green pines. The air was still pleasantly cool. Cars buzzed past Three Fingers as he strode languidly along. When he turned down a street into the outskirts of Conover, near a copse of dogwoods and Bradford pears, Three Fingers saw a group of black crows flying amongst the trees. He stopped to watch the crows.

“C’mon now,” he said. “Old Crow, you got to be minding yo own business. Why’s you takin’ they trash? You got all these woods to fetch food from but you gots to take it from people? Been watching you fo twenty years now. I quit smokin’ when I retired from the furniture mills. You can quit stealin’ food from people. Goin’ to get yo family in some bit of trouble, you hear? I seen you go from yo-self to you and yo wife, second wife and now third wife. You got more wives then me. I only had one. But you’s still with yo family. Mine’s all gone up and moved away. Still got my sisters and they kids, but you now all that, Old Crow, it’s been twenty years now.”

Old Crow was coal black like his much younger mate but he was distinct from the flock because of a string of alabaster feathers along the tips of his wings. Six other crows were in the flock: two yearlings, a two-year-old female and the new crows, a set of mates and their yearling male. The new male began cawing as Three Fingers walked into the copse of trees. Cawing loudly and flying directly at Three Fingers, the young male crow flew boldly near Three Fingers’ head. The old man stopped as the young crow flew up to a barely discernible nest thirty feet up in a sycamore tree. The crow cawed brazenly down at the old man.

“Mmm, hmm,” he said, looking up into the dense green foliage. “So that’s yo decoy nest, young crow. Yo real nest, don’t know what you done with it. Old Crow, he know me fo years. He see to it that we be all right. You’s the only friends I got.”

The old man left the woods. He strode past Old Crow, who cawed at him in a recognizable manner, not a rude manner or anything menacing, just a similar caw he made almost every morning to the old man who walked back and forth along the miles’ stretch of highway. Three Fingers came upon the city limits and stepped into a diner, sat down on a stool at the counter and set his cap on his lap. The old white lady, corpulent and overly laden with make-up, merrily served him a cup of black coffee.

“Miss Darlene,” he said.

“Mister John,” she said back. “I pray that you had a lovely walk today.”

“Yes, ma’am, it was. Always a good day when you wake up in the mornin’. Especially on Monday, always hated Mondays, starting back at the work week at the mills.”

“Don’t know how you do it. Walk them ten miles every day.”

“Fo yo delicious peach cobbler and persimmon pudding, Miss Darlene.”

“Bless it.”

* * *

The next morning around the same time Three Fingers was walking along the highway just before sunrise again. He wore the same attire. Before arriving at the turn-off, he saw six of the crows flying parallel to the highway, twenty feet up in the air, with Old Crow in the lead of the flight, him dropping a pecan nut onto the highway and the other crows, at least one or two of them, dropped pecan nuts as well. Three Fingers watched the nuts bounce on the highway. He shook his head.

“Damn you, Old Crow,” he said. “I told you to stop messin’ around with folks. Where’d you get them from anyway? Ain’t time fo pecans to ripen yet, not time fo it. Old Crow, you gots to be taking care of yo youngins. Damned foolish nonsense, Old Crow!”

Cars sped along the highway, crushing the pecans with their tires. In the middle of traffic, Old Crow dove down, his few white feathers standing out as he flapped his wings. He snatched up the broken nuts with his smooth tan feet, black talons grasping, and then he flew up and over oncoming traffic. Old Crow flew past Three Fingers and landed in a nearby field. The crow ate the pecans as his flock flew down wirily, nimbly to snatch up the other broken pecans and dexterously fly upward over the traffic. The flock stood together around Old Crow to eat their pecans.

“I’ll be damned.”

* * *

On Wednesday morning, a slight misty rain peppered Three Fingers’ blue poncho as he neared the field where the crows had eaten the pecans. He walked past the field and turned onto the street off of the highway. A wind blew up on him. An empty plastic bag of pecans floated on the breeze up out of the field. Three Fingers smiled. As he came up on the copse of trees leading into the decoy nest, Three Fingers stiffly stepped into the trees and carefully stepped along the ferns and undergrowth until he was far enough away from the street that he could urinate privately.

Once he was done pissing the old man began walking back toward the road, but he heard a quiet caw. He stood still for a while as the misty rain became a drizzle. Another soft-sounding caw was emitted from deeper into the patch of woods. Three Fingers curiously and silently slid through the trees until he came out to the field minutes later. He saw the highway full of zooming automobiles. Three Fingers walked back into the patch of woods. He sat down on the dry insides of his poncho underneath the protective branches of a very large black gum tree. For some time Three Fingers sat there at the base of the gum tree, running his calloused black fingers through the nutty deep ridges of the gum tree bark. His index finger sank up to his knuckle in the furrow of the bark. He looked up through the high braches of the gum tree, blinked away the heavy drops of cold rain and realized that highest branches towered above the other trees in the copse.

“Old tree, you probably been here since the slave days.”

* * *

Thursday morning was unusually cool. The asphalt of the highway was slick still from the waning rains. Clouds hung low and dreary over the Piedmont; the vehicles still raced along but now headlights were on, a long stream of mesmerizing lights blending together, zoom, zoom, zoom, light, light, light, a rhythm developing like a song or dance. Three Fingers was walking backward enjoying the hypnotism of this walk, especially fascinated by the glow of light beneath a car from the headlights of the vehicle behind, making the car seem somehow surreal and paranormal, a glowing amber light shining in a realm of gray and sodden green.

“Wonder if Heaven look like that when we get there?”

A car pulled over onto the side of the highway in front of him. The blinking red light was blinding. A young white man rolled his window down but stayed inside the car. Three Fingers walked up to the window. There was a pretty blonde-haired girl with dreads in her hair on the front seat. In the back were two men, young hippies with long hair and woolen ski caps on. A scent of something smoky and stinky hung in the interior of the car. Three Fingers liked the smell of the rain better.

“Hey, dude,” a hippy from the back said. “You need a ride?”

“No sir, no suh,” Three Fingers said. “But thank you. I appreciate it. Doin’ all right?”

“It looks like it’s gonna rain,” the girl said, friendly and sweet.

“Oh, I got time to make it, just under a mile now.”

“Are you sure, dude?” the hippy from the back implored. “We got some good bud.”

“Nah, nah, but I appreciate it. When it rained in Korea I got used to it. It was a hard rain.”

“Are you wearing a gun?” the driver asked nervously.

“Oh shit, it hanging out again?” Three Fingers stood back from the car and lowered his woolen sweater back down over his holster. “I apologize, suh.”

“No, dude, that’s cool,” the hippy in the back said. “Us damn Yankees aren’t used to that Constitutional right.”

“Not used to young folks paying no attention to the U.S. Constitution.”

“The education system is being dumbed down.”

“Maybe so. Maybe so.”

“You look like you’ve been around for a while. Are kids any smarter now than they were back in your day?”

“Son, I am eighty-five years old. A black man from the South, Jim Crow era. It changes the way I see things. I say they’s better now than they was. Maybe not smarter, but it better now.”

“There is no way you’re eighty-five!” the girl exclaimed. “What’s your secret?”

“Only the good Lord knows that, ma’am.”

“You inherited good genes,” the hippy in the back said. “Did your parents have longevity?”

“Was my folks long?”

“Did they live a long time?”

“Oh, yes suh, now I see. My paw paw lived to be over a hundred. Pappy, he was lynched, so I can’t say fo sho bout him, but Momma, she only made it to fifty-three. My sisters, they still livin’ too, they say momma died of a broken heart. My wife’s in Heaven now too. Maybe so, maybe so.”

“Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” the hippy asked again.

“No suh, no suh, but I appreciate it. You Yankees ain’t so bad.”

The car of hippies drove off onto the highway, and Three Fingers smiled.

“So it come from paw-paw? Wonder if Old Crow got a paw-paw like me? How long do crows live?”

Once Three Fingers made it to the copse he stood still for a while to listen. The warmth in his body began to dissipate shortly thereafter; an ache throbbed in his crippled hand, in his lower back and in his knees. The longer he stood there the colder he felt. Yet he stood there some more in the chilly morning watching a strong breeze blow the green leaves about. A gust of wind blew up his wool sweater, revealing his .40 mm pistol again. After pulling his shirt down, Three Fingers hiked into the wet patch of woods again and walked around for an hour with his head up, always moving to keep warm, but quietly. The lower of his pants were soaked but his feet were still warm and dry inside the boots. He was walking back out of the woods when he came upon Old Crow, sitting aloft a perch in a magnolia, moving his head watching as Three Fingers got back out onto the highway. Old Crow cawed once, flapped his wings and flew off back toward the highway. Three Fingers watched Old Crow fly back toward the field, then cut across it and fly toward the highway.

“Curiosity kills the cat, they say.”

So Three Fingers walked back to the highway. An opossum had been struck by a car recently, lying freshly killed in the middle of the slick highway. Old Crow stood on a guardrail, looking not at the opossum but at Three Fingers. As he walked toward the spot, Three Fingers heard the crows before he saw them, cawing noisily away. He knew Old Crow’s mate wasn’t there. Another crow was missing too. The remaining six swooped across the highway gallantly, loudly and landed on the side of the road that Three Fingers regularly walked on, to gather behind Old Crow who was waiting for them to arrive. The man stood there to watch the crows forage for the carrion.

The young male hopped in front of Old Crow, who merely glanced at him, focusing more on the highway and vehicles now that Three Fingers just stood there watching him. The young male persistently hopped in front and then all the way around Old Crow until the bird looked at him. Then he bowed before him. Old Crow bowed back. The young crow cawed wildly and leapt into the air, flapping his silken black wings as the other crows stood on the ground, hopping madly about as if in a deranged dance. An orchestra of cawing became a cackling din, rivaling the sound of the speeding automobiles. A car hit the opossum again, flattening it some. The intestines spilled out of the belly. The young crow flew down in-between the cars zipping by, thrust its talons at the intestines but missed. He was jettisoned up in the aerodynamic draft of the speeding car. Protesting with a loud caw, the young male crow flapped his wings and flew above the carrion. His shiny black feathers glinted in the beam of headlights. Again, he shot downward, clawed the intestines up and he flapped his broad wings mightily and pulled the intestines out five feet to the side of the highway. Cars beeped at the crow as he dropped the intestines and flew above the fray again. All of the other crows but Old Crow flew over to the carrion and began pulling on the intestines, hopping and flapping in unison of two, then they would break off and let another two pull at the guts. Finally the body of the opossum began to slide across the highway. Each time a car hit the body the crows all leapt back to the guard rails, some standing on the rail, others flying and some hid behind it in the tall rye grass. As the cars went past, a gap in traffic occurred. The team of crows flew back to the dead body and began tugging away on the carrion until the body lay safely on the side of the road. Old Crow flew over to the feast. The crows danced excitedly about him, bobbing and bowing. Old Crow took the first bite.

“Good boy, Old Crow. That’s how you get a meal, honestly.”

* * *

Sipping his second cup of coffee at the diner counter, Three Fingers was shivering, and his shaking fingers made him spill a little splash of the hot beverage. He sneezed.

“Catch a cold, honey?” Darlene asked.

“No, no, Miss Darlene, just my allergies is acting up. Didn’t get no allergies until I was sixty years old.”

“They say you can catch it at any time in life, just like the Lord.”

“You got that right.”

“Maybe you should drink some local honey. Pollen can’t be from any bee. It’s got to be a local bee. My allergies is pretty awful these days. Bee pollen helps with it.”

“You’re sweet enough for me.”

“Quite the charmer, Mister John.”

“Do you have any aspirin, Miss Darlene? This damp, cold weather, it does a number on my bones. I got sidetracked on my walk today.”

“Here, honey,” Darlene said, placing a fat white pill with speckles on the counter. “Eat your pudding before you take it so it doesn’t upset your stomach. My drugs is bad for that.”

“This is a big aspirin, Miss Darlene. Don’t think I’ll be needin’ this much. Didn’t know they made aspirin so big.”

“No, no, it’s a Vicodin.”

“Isn’t it fo the bedroom troubles?”

“No, no, Mister John,” Darlene laughed. “You’re thinking of Viagra.”

“Okay, okay,” Three Fingers laughed. He swallowed the pill. “It’s been a crazy day, Miss Darlene. Yes, ma’am.”

* * *

Walking near the copse of trees where the crows were nesting, Three Fingers stopped at the spot where he had ventured earlier in the day. He heard cawing in the lush green of the trees. A vine of kudzu was on the trunk of a maple. He pulled out his pocketknife, cut the vine in half and followed the severed kudzu to its root, pulled it out and threw the vine onto the street.

“Damn Japanese,” he muttered as he strode into the trees.

He felt warm now with a belly full of coffee and pudding. Time slid by and his aches were gone an hour later and he still wandered around in the patch of trees, looking for a crow’s nest. Looking at his watch, Three Fingers saw that it was already past noon. He felt very warm and energetic.

“Don’t know what Miss Darlene put in the puddin’ today. I gots to get some mo of it.”

Three Fingers turned to leave the copse. A car screeched to a halt on the street. Some woman was screaming. Feeling springy and sprite, Three Fingers jogged the rest of the way out of the woods and then suddenly stopped on the street when he saw a large young black male, wearing a sweatshirt with a bandanna covering his head giving the middle finger to a car that was screeching away. The young black man, deep ebony, tall and massively muscular, slipped his hood over his head. Three Fingers just stood frozen in the thicket at the edge of the trees. The young man pulled out a cell phone from his pocket, hit a button and put the phone to his ear. He turned around to see Three Fingers standing with wet clothes in the thicket. The man clicked off his phone and stuck it back in his pocket. A sick nervous feeling overcame Three Fingers.

“Doin’ all right?” Three Fingers said.

“No I ain’t doin all right, grandpa! What the fuck is you doin’ in these woods?”

“Just walkin’.”

“It raining, fool. You just get outa the home, nigga? You’s one of them cross-bred niggas, look Cuban, know what I mean?”

“No, sir. I is black as they come. Been around long enough to know it.”

“You bein’ smart with me, nigga? I been having a bad day, you got me?”

“It say black on my birth certificate.”

“What happened to yo fingas?”

“Battle of Seoul, lost them on a landmine.”

“You got a battle of the soul, nigga? You fuckin’ with me, Grandpa? How old is you anyway?”


“What the fuck is you walkin’ round in the woods fo? You definitely came out the home, know what I’m sayin’?”

Three Fingers was quiet as his heart beat violently against his chest.

“Your hearing aid ain’t workin’, nigga?”

“I hears just fine, suh. Just fine. I can hear Old Crow call my name.”

“Damn, nigga, you is crazy. Sheet. You know where you is?”

“Conover, North Carolina, suh.”

“Stop calling me sir, nigga, you got me?”

“Okay, suh, oh, I-”

The young black man charged at Three Fingers and struck him on the forehead with his balled fist. Three Fingers collapsed from the strike. He was unconscious before he landed back first onto a fern and some kudzu. Foraging through his pockets, the young black man took Three Fingers’ wallet out of his pocket, his pocketknife and some loose change. A caw came out from the forest, a loud shrieking caw, a blood-curdling scream almost. Then it was quiet again. The young black man flipped his hood down so that he could see around himself better. There was no crow to be seen. He looked along the street and saw neither crow nor man. It was oddly quiet. He walked away from the prone body of Three Fingers and got on his cell phone again.

“Yo, ran into some shit, yo, know what I’m sayin’? Conover. Don’t be askin’ me nigga, I ain’t from here. Check da shit on MapQuest and come get me, nigga! What the fuck?”

Old Crow and his flock came swarming down the street cawing wildly, flew over the two men and suddenly disappeared into the woods. The cackling caws awoke Three Fingers. As he lay in the moist thicket, sopping wet and woozy, he reached for his pistol and loosened it from the holster beneath his sweater. He sat upright dizzily but pointed the pistol at his assailant.

“What? You pullin’ Treyvon Martin on me, you old senile nigga? Put it down.”

Three Fingers pulled the trigger of the pistol. The report was booming, deafeningly loud. It made his hand thrust upward. His ears were ringing terribly. As his arm fell back down into an aiming stance, Three Fingers watched the young black man clutch at his chest and drop his phone onto the ground. He shot at him again. Managing the pistol report this time, Three Fingers re-aimed the pistol at the stunned man who kept staggering toward him, looking dumbfounded and angry with disbelief, still clutching onto the stolen wallet and pocketknife. Three Fingers kept the pistol pointing at the looming, staggering man, who held his stomach, still lurching forward. He saw the blood dribbling through the man’s fingers. Three Fingers raised his pistol slightly. He squeezed the trigger as the assailant was scarcely two feet away from him. The young black man turned around, his baggy pants with boxers sticking out fell down to his ankles and he tripped himself. He fell face first against the asphalt, shattering his front teeth. His blood kept seeping from his chest wound. He felt his warmth leaving him, becoming a wet stickiness beneath him on the asphalt and in his clothes.

* * *

Three Fingers awoke to a Hmong police officer pulling the pistol from his hand. The ambulance came and went away with the dead body of the young black man.

“Here’s your belongings back, sir,” said the Hmong police officer, a very young-looking man. “So you stood your ground and self-defensed your person? Your carry-and-conceal permit is valid for another month.”

“It sound about right, yes suh.”

“Okay, you’re free to go. Do you need a ride home?”

“No, suh. I can walk from here. I appreciate it.”