The following tale is the fourth in the series of tongue-in-beak stories I made up concerning the ancient relationship our species has had with the corvids-a group of birds whose most familiar members are crows, ravens and magpies. Though I have been accused of anthropomorphizing these birds, I beg to differ. Perhaps they corvo-morphized us.
Let Them Eat Corn
As the populations of all three species grew, Raven, Crow and Human strode hand-in-wing into the future. While Humans grew smarter and smarter, Crow and Raven grew wiser and wiser. By and by, humans began to take on an air of superiority over the other animals and looked down upon Crow and Raven because the birds have tiny brains and lacked opposing thumbs.
“We are best,” they boasted. “We are smart too, smarter even than Raven. Look at all the stuff we can make. Whatever the gods did not give us, we can invent. We can out-fly, out-run, out-swim, out-dig, out-build and out-tool-make all the animals on Earth.”
“But look at the mess you’ve made!” Raven scoffed. “Much of the livable places on Earth have been despoiled by your inventions, to say nothing of your greed. You lay waste to everything you touch.”
Humans wasted a great deal, it was true, but there was no real complaint from Crow or Raven. And, there was another plague on, so carrion was everywhere. Life was good.
“I believe we have erred, Cousin.” Raven said after a gluttonous meal at the landfill on the outskirts of a great human settlement..
“How so, Cousin?” Crow opened an eye.
“Haven’t you noticed our human brethren are getting just a bit too big for their britches?” Raven said. “They’re all attitude these days. This tool—making thing you taught them—that was a big mistake. Remember I warned you: ‘No good deed goes unpunished’? But no, you had to be the do-gooder. First you taught them how to make fire.”
Raven had never told Crow that he was the one who brought fire to the humans. Best let bygones be bygones, Raven thought. And why spoil his perfect non-interfering image?
“Then you taught them to cook, and then to make leather,”he railed at Crow. “And then clothing. You taught them how to till the soil and plant seeds, and how to irrigate. You taught them where to find clay, and how to make pottery. You taught them to read and write, and then, then you moved on to architecture. You taught them how to build stable structures that withstand wind and earthquakes and keep raindrops from falling on their heads. And finally,” Raven stopped to inhale. “As I live and breathe I hope this is your final teaching moment: you taught them how to smelt ore. Give it a rest, OK? Give them a rest.”
“Well, excuse me, Cousin!” Crow was offended at the tone in Raven’s voice. “I was just trying to help. Remember how skinny and cold they were in the old days? I just couldn’t stand their misery. I had to do something.”
“Next time try minding your own business.” Raven said.
He and Crow had revisited this argument a million times. Raven thought Crow spent too much time dabbling in human affairs. “It’ll end up kicking you in the butt. And mine.” Raven predicted darkly. “Leave them be, I beg you.”
Crow found Raven’s complete lack of compassion hard to take. “I don’t know how you sleep at night, Cousin, after eating at their table the way we do and then bad-mouthing them as soon as your stomach is full. You refuse to lend a wing to help them when you so easily could. That’s what’s going to come around and kick you in the butt. Taking more than you give back.”
“Bad-mouthing?” Raven said with a great deal of irritation in his voice. “You want to hear bad-mouthing? Try listening to what these ‘poor skinny humans’ are saying.” Raven mocked.
“Here’s a good one for you: ‘Crow is the harbinger of death. Where Crow goes, Death follows. Beware of Crow.’ And they have begun to fear and hate you, and by extension me because they still can’t tell us apart. After thousands and thousands of years, they can’t tell you from me. The dopes.”
After a few minutes of silence, Raven said in a low voice that rose with each word: “You want to know what just slays me? We corvids supposedly bring death, yet do we we kill? Maybe an egg now and then, and we could argue for millennia about whether that is really killing…but otherwise—Nope. Not us. We are not killers. Humans, now that’s a whole other story. Humans kill. Just for the heck of it.” They kill us, they kill each other—they freaking kill everything!”
Raven towered over his cousin, glaring angrily. “Yet, you continue to mollycoddle them.”
“Well, disease kills too.” Crow said, still trying to be fair to the turncoat humans. “Look at what West Nile does to us. And humans, they get more diseases than we do. Their plagues, you know, those killed millions. Wiped whole villages off the map. Not once. Not twice, because here we go on plague number three. And that was just the bubonic.”
“Oh yeah!” Raven said sarcastically. “Let’s talk about the Black Plague!” His irritation erupted into outright anger as he spoke. “They cluelessly spread a disease across Europe, letting it wipe out a sizable chunk of their population, and who do they blame? Not the stupid little flea that started all this. Not the cats who the humans foolishly killed, who otherwise would’ve eaten the rats that carried the fleas that bit the humans and made them sick. Oh, no! They never blame themselves for being relentlessly myopic and stupid. But they heap all their guilt and blame on us. Us!“
Raven stomped up and down the branch as he ranted, shaking it so hard, Crow tightened his grip, lest he fall off.
“They act like we killed all those millions,” Raven seethed. “There’s a difference between killing and eating dead things, you know!”
“For truth,” Crow agreed, nodding. He hated when Raven went off like this. But he had learned over the years that sometimes it’s best to shut the beak up.
“‘Harbingers of death’,” Raven mocked. “You like that name, Cousin? After all you’ve done for them? I’ve told you over and over and over again. No good deed goes unpunished, Cousin. One day you will mark my words.”
Crow was depressed. He’d taught humans everything they knew. They were naked,and hungry. Shivering. Without the sense to come in out of the rain. And now, they are fat. They walk the streets of glittering cities dressed in the finest fashions and they live in fabulous palaces.
“Well, I’ll show them!” Raven raged. “No more human flesh shall cross my beak. Until they start showing a little respect.”
For a while, Raven and Crow stopped eating the piles of dead humans resulting from their plagues and wars and the continuous epidemics caused by terrible plumbing. The one thing Crow knew absolutely nothing about.
During the boycott, Crow and Raven took to the cornfields, which provided them with a few of the necessary nutrients.
“It just doesn’t satisfy like meat.” Raven said, turning his beak in disgust. He didn’t care for corn as much as Crow did and he longed for the eight essential amino acids found in meat protein. Nonetheless, he refused to eat human flesh, at least where they could see him.
As it happened, Raven and Crow came upon a human in the cornfield. “Shhh!” Raven hissed, and stuck a wing out. “Wait. Watch.” After many minutes the human had not moved, so Crow and Raven moved closer, walking on the ground through the cornstalks toward the immobile human.
Raven flew up suddenly, right in front of the human’s face. It didn’t even flinch.
“Well, then,” Raven said. “It doesn’t seem to be alive.”
“But is it dead?” Crow asked as Raven leaped to the shoulder of the human. “Can we eat it?”
“That depends,” Raven said as he hopped over the straw hat to the other shoulder, “on your definition of dead, Cousin.”
Crow tilted his head to one side. “I don’t think it’s real human, though it’s wearing human clothing—it’s stuffed with straw.”
“It’s definitely not human, Raven said. “But it is a reasonable facsimile.”
“But what is a fake human doing in a cornfield?” Crow asked.
“Who knows?” Raven said, as he pecked at an ear of corn. “I stopped trying to figure these creatures out about a millennia ago. And you know, I sleep better for it.” He looked at Crow pointedly, a kernel of corn stuck to his beak.
Crow kept up the scrutiny of the fake human. “Wait!” he said, leaping up to stand on the hat. He peered downward over the brim of it’s hat.
“I know what this is!” he cried out, looking down at his cousin. “It’s art! It’s a sculptural piece.”
“In the middle of a cornfield?” Raven asked. “That is odd, don’t you think?”
“Tremendously,” Crow said. “But, on the other wing, it also could be quote unquote an installation. Meaning the cornfield is part of the Great Artpiece. You know, the Great Universal Narrative. Not that I get the association between the stuffed fake human and the cornfield, though.” He shrugged. “But modern art is sometimes like that.”
Crow and Raven polished off a few more ears of corn and took to the skies. While their stomachs hungered for flesh, Raven and Crow refused meat. At least that was the ideal; in practice, well, sometimes the instinct to survive is quite irresistable. Neither Crow nor Raven ever had their priorities so screwed up that eating ever took second place to politics.
“Looky there!” Crow said, his voice rising to the high-pitched squeal that meant only one thing: meat on the ground.
The two swooped down and perched on a rotting corpse of an animal that might’ve been a truffle-hunter once. Today it was food.
“The Food Chain is Always Right,” Raven said and buried his head in the dead flesh.
Crow nodded at the ancient corvid proverb and beaked himself another chunk.