"The Left Ventricle of the Corvid Heart," A Short Story About Savagery and Friendship
There is a lot to be said for watching faces in absorption, and the old Harmony theatre on Brookview was an ideal venue. It was possible, from a seat at the rear of the room and in the corner, to see the profiles of the entire audience spotlighted from the stage. It was a chance to become a detached voyeur without restraint or restriction, free to roam at leisure from left to right, with a pause here and there on a subject of interest. It was at the expense of the speeches, often, that I came to this stuffy room on a weekly basis and did little but marvel at my fellow human beings.
The composition of the crowd had changed so much with the end of the fighting. Life was changing, the world shifting at breakneck speed. At least we wouldn’t be blown to kingdom come! The air in the place was stiff. The windows, painted shut during one of the numerous redecorations that had been visited on the hall in previous decades, were never opened. The only freshness drifted through the entrance. Outside temperature largely dictated how pleasurable the evening would be. On hot days, rivulets of sweat would pool on the upturned faces of the crowd and the speaker, whoever he or she was, would reach for water provided by the dusty old man who ran the venue.
The speech had reached its zenith when I noticed the figure by the entrance. I was struck at once by its unusual size. I had been without men for five long years and their presence would always remain unfamiliar, like something buried and found. The man swelled to fill the proportions of the frame. The lighting, reflecting back from the stage and casting him in shadow, only added to the impression of his size. He had approached the room in silence, a task in itself due to the age of the building. The small audience gathered to watch the speaker were therefore unaware of the intruder.
one of the three arches that made up each side of the room bathed me in penumbraTaking an atavistic thrill that I seemed to be the only one to notice the new arrival at the rear of the room, I hunched deeper into my chair, my eyes swivelling from left to right to make sure my advantage had not been lost. My customary position in the hall was to the rear of the four rows of seating, on the farthest left extremity. From this position, one of the three arches that made up each side of the room bathed me in penumbra (I had seen others in this chair, it was almost as if they didn’t exist, as if the man who laid the hall out had neglected to place the final seat of the aisle), and I could browse to my heart’s content. At full capacity, the hall sat about thirty, and from my position of privilege I could see most. The angles fascinated me.
I turned my head to regard the stranger in the doorway, noticing that he had taken several steps forward and was slightly better lit by the weak bulbs that illuminated the stage. He had an indelibly handsome face I now saw, an imperious visage with a large nose and thick eyebrows. I had not been wrong about his size, for he was nothing less than a giant. As I said before, the speech was approaching its pith. The speaker, who had drawn the attention of the crowd, was approaching his summit. He had been composing a parallel between human processes and the savagery of nature, and was finishing up with observations of a rookery. It was incredible that even during the war with the Chinese, these convoluted speeches continued.
“I considered them just like people by the culmination of my research. I had identified clear leaders, and conversely losers. Some were obviously alpha, and through my binoculars I observed them keep control of the rookery, regulating. These were the police force. The rooks had roads, just like we do. I became aware of standard passageways used by the whole colony, and smaller side roads that fewer numbers used. There was a particular short-cut through the hook of a grand old oak tree that only two rooks (one young, the other very old) would use.”
The speech was captivating. One of those incidences when paying attention could have been beneficial. On the final point the speaker drew a great breath, and almost before the applause started he had leaned into an enormous bow. The watching throng breathed the collective sigh of relief that (no matter how good the entertainment) always leaks from a group who have been confined and are suddenly free to disperse, to discuss, and to discover. Nothing renews the novelty of freedom like confinement.
This was another part of my routine and ritual, keeping an astute eye on who was leaving with whom
Orderly, the crowd lined up and began to file out from the hall. I checked behind me to see the behemoth by the door. He had taken up residence slightly to one side and if it hadn’t been for his strange manner, he could have been mistaken for an usher or an ice-cream seller at the cinema. One or two of the dispersing crowd (who by this point had emptied up to the first row, with a few stragglers remaining in their seats) nodded at the man and, seemingly politely, he nodded back. I remained comfortably in my shadow. This was another part of my routine and ritual, keeping an astute eye on who was leaving with whom, who was conversing with whom.
The last of the stragglers left their seats and headed for the door. I looked on as they walked straight through with heads down, as if in consideration of what they had just heard. The old man who looked after the place usually began to stack the chairs at this point, and I would spring from the shadows to surprise him before making my way home. Yet today he didn’t appear. From my invisible perch I shuddered in fear, quite frozen to the spot. Perhaps that great fellow had snapped his neck like a starchy twig? It wouldn’t take much, with those arms of his. Perhaps the poor chap was even now laid out in some shady corner, already beginning to stiffen, neck twisted at an unnatural angle.
The man advanced through the hall and took a chair at the opposite end of the row from me, two aisles to the front. As he sat down, the chair groaned and sagged under his weight. He did not look round, and I wasn’t the slightest surprised when he started to speak. “I have also kept my eyes on the Corvidae of these islands.” He started. “And I wonder whether you know why a gathering of crows is called, in some parts of the land, a murder?” I couldn’t believe that he’d spied my location. Anonymity was one of my reasons for inhabiting the hall.
I looked frantically around, but he can only have been talking to himself or me. Was he mad? He rotated on his seat and fixed me in his gaze. “Do you know why they call them a murder of crows?” He said.
There was an uneasy moment of silence, when I desperately considered my options. I couldn’t run, he would be upon me in a flash. My body had become somewhat weak, and I knew that the entrance of the hall was at least a hundred metres of gasping sprint away. He’d pull me down in twenty. I had no option but to answer. “No,” I said, the uneasiness I felt carrying through into my words.
“Let me tell you a little story then.” And as he said this he swivelled again to face the stage. “I grew up on a farm, and nearby lay a copse of trees, not dissimilar to the one described by the good speaker. The great black birds that cackled whenever anyone came near fascinated me. I began to watch them day in and day out, until I eventually witnessed something that few ever have.” His voice was placid, yet it contained an awful momentum, as if rehearsed. He continued. “It was the apex of my relationship between man and beast. At no time before or since have I come so close to the harsh reality of nature, or been so struck by the impermanence of existence.” I listened because there was nowhere else to look and nothing with which to divert the mind but my own terror.
“I had noticed, through my unremitting observation, that a particularly old and sick crow was causing a burden to the rest. Such was my affinity to the birds that I had marked several individuals and this was one of them. Wherever he went amongst the trees, the other birds would caw at him until he left. Eventually, he was forced away from the multitude to a lower branch or he flew away from the place altogether. This was how I first spotted him, for usually if there were no disturbances the birds remained in place after a certain hour.”
“One evening I witnessed his persistence in trying to be accepted, and I noticed a peculiar sense of anger from the majority of the birds. There was a particular intensity to the cackling around sunset, and it drew me back before first light the next morning. I was amazed, as I approached the trees, to see every tree completely devoid of birds. Silence ruled the roost, as it were, something I had never witnessed before.”
“Across from the copse ran a small stream, and beyond that a freshly cropped field of stubble, ready for burning. After searching around, I noticed that every last crow had left the trees, and together were sitting in an enormous circle in the centre of the adjacent field. They sat like a crop circle. Due to my slightly elevated position, I could see that the centre of the circle was not empty. Alone in the middle was a single bird, and I knew without seeing that this was the old crow.”
“The mob, unaware of my presence, started up a furious sound I had never heard before. The lone bird in the middle tried to face each of his assailants and it seemed as if he were bowing. There was an awful moment of silence before several crows flew at him headlong. Then a frightful clamour started again and the space in the centre of the ring was eclipsed by a surge of pecking, scratching, black-feathered bodies. This crushing, squirming mass lasted for minutes. Then, as if at a signal, the whole flock took off and made their way back, over my head, into their trees. Left where the circle had been, if that can be the word for the pathetic scrap of feathers and flesh that remained, was the body of the solitary crow.”
“So the speaker, when he allied human nature to that of the birds, even though he has likely never witnessed a murder such as mine, was particularly apt. From the child who pours boiling water into the ant’s nest, to the occupying power that invades, changes the system and leaves after ruining the infrastructure and the balance, there is a metaphor for the savagery of the human mind in nature. We are no more than animals, are we not?”
“Yes.” I murmured, and I stood up into the light. The man examined me, from head to foot. “Why do you hide in the shadow?” He said. I had no answer for him and instead put my hands up meekly like a child caught out at school. We fell to conversation and I found a delightful vulnerability in him. By the time we hit a silence, the night had long set in. Despite the shadows of war that haunted him, the bullets lodged in his body that doubled him over with pain each night, his mad and criminal past, Rawley and I were inseparable from that moment forth.
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