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The Crows
The Crows

The Crows

davidDavid E. Cooper

The Crows

Arthur Blazdell rarely missed his daily walk on the moorland above and to the east of the Northumberland village of Chatton. Today, unfortunately, was one of those occasions. An appointment at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle meant that he was back in Chatton too late to walk. At this time of year – early December – it was already dark by 4.00pm.

Arthur was the only person he knew who enjoyed walking on this moorland. For most of the local people, the name of one of its low hills, ‘Woeful’, suited the whole area. The boggy terrain was largely featureless: little grew on it other than coarse grass, bracken, gorse and heather. The fact that no one else walked there was one of the attractions of the place for Arthur. He much preferred this austere, uncluttered and unfussy landscape to the chocolate box charms of popular beauty spots.

Indeed, the proximity of the moor was a main reason he had chosen to move to Chatton after he retired, two years earlier, from his job as a librarian in Newcastle. With the sale of the Jesmond house he’d inherited from his mother, Arthur could have bought a substantial home on the edge of the village, but he preferred to rent a small cottage in a terrace close to its centre. Arthur disliked the responsibility of ownership.

It was only a minute’s walk from his cottage to the village store, which provided for most of Arthur’s modest needs. The brief encounters he had in the shop with other villagers were almost the only social contacts he had. He was unfailingly courteous towards the villagers, but took no part in village life – in the annual carol singing, the Murder Mystery Nights, the coffee mornings, amateur dramatics and so on. He enjoyed Northumbrian pipe music – especially the laments played by a single instrument – but did so by listening to CDs at home through earphones.

Occasionally Arthur would go to the village pub, but only on a Monday evening and only in the winter months, when very few people were likely to be there. When, in the summer, the place was full of young farmers and their girl-friends or families of holidaymakers, he would instead drink his beer in the tiny garden at the back of his cottage.

That he had no friends in the village did not concern Arthur. His friends were elsewhere, up on the moor. It was, in fact, the presence of the crows as much as the landscape itself that had decided Arthur on coming to live in Chatton. On the west edge of the moor, before the hill descended down to the village, there were several patches of woodland – roosting or nesting places for a variety of corvids: carrion crows mainly, but also several pairs of jackdaws and a few rooks. Arthur’s daily walk was along a path that skirted the woods. As he passed them, he would take from his backpack a plastic bag full of cereal, scraps from last night’s dinner, pieces of dry bread, and mealworms bought in bulk from a garden centre in Berwick. As he walked, Arthur – now followed by a dozen or more noisy birds – would scatter the food in large handfuls along the path.

These creatures were his friends, especially a carrion crow with a distinctive white patch of feathers on its chest. He – or, as Arthur suspected, she – would fly or hop closer to him than the other birds and let out a chirp of appreciation when picking up an especially juicy piece of chicken or sausage from the ground. Like those great lovers of crows, the Norsemen, Arthur gave suitably Nordic names to the birds he’d come to recognise. A particularly large rook, for example, became Thor and the crow with the white patch Fricke.

When still working, Arthur had filled the many hours when there was little to do in the library by reading its collection of books on birds. He enjoyed the accounts of the emotional complexity, intricate social lives, and above all the Machiavellian cleverness of the corvids. How could one not admire crows that drop nuts in front of cars and then retrieve the kernels from the shells obligingly cracked open by the cars’ tyres? Or a raven that steals four donuts at a time from a coffee stall by plunging its immense beak through the centres of the donuts and flying off with them looped around it like rings on a curtain rail?

It was his fascination with crows that prompted Arthur to take one of his very few holidays abroad. In another library book, he’d read of a town on the coast of Kerala ‘notorious’ for being ‘infested’ with crows. Inspired rather than deterred by the guidebook’s description, Arthur booked a flight to Kochi and a hotel in the coastal town referred to in the book. While his fellow guests spent their days in markets, temples and elephant sanctuaries, Arthur spent his watching the local crows. Their ingenuity in extracting scraps of food from seemingly sealed containers, their skill in stealing and opening packets of sugar from the tables around the swimming pool, their acrobatic manoeuvres to avoid the stones aimed at them by a hotel employee armed with a catapult … these and much more endeared the creatures to Arthur.

Another thing he learned in India was the ability of corvids to remember the faces and clothes of human beings who had harmed or helped them, and to react accordingly if they saw them again. Amazingly, these memories were passed from generation to generation. Arthur heard the story of how, fifteen years after some men in red uniforms tried to poison a hotel’s resident crows, the descendants of these birds mounted a concerted attack on some unfortunate construction workers who happened to be wearing a similar uniform.

Like one authority on the life of corvids whom Arthur had read, he experienced the birds, on this holiday in India, as ‘kindred beings’, ones whose nearness made him feel ‘less alone’ in the world. And it was because he felt this way that, only a few years later, he chose to live in a place in Northumberland guaranteed to have a healthy population of crows. Here, he knew, he would be with his kin.

When he returned from his check-up at the Freeman hospital – too late to walk to the moor – Arthur decided to eat at the pub. He’d forgotten to buy anything to cook. Maybe, too, a beer and the glow from the pub’s wood-burning stove would cheer him up, for he was depressed at having disappointed the crows who would have been waiting, without success, for the food he regularly brought them. He’d make it up to them the next day, with extra rations.

The bar, fortunately, was fairly empty and Arthur took a table close to the stove. At another table sat a young couple, immersed in each other, and at the bar stood a farm worker with whom Arthur had a nodding acquaintance. Indeed, they nodded briefly to each other as Arthur sat down. The man, if Arthur remembered rightly, was a farm worker named Dobson who lived in a small house on the far, eastern side of the moor. He’d sometimes seen him in spring and summer bringing feed in a trailer for the cattle that roamed in the marshy grass.

Arthur had just settled down, his beer in front of him, to enjoy the warmth of the stove when the door into the bar opened and a large, florid-faced man walked in, dressed in a Barbour jacket, corduroys and green Wellingtons. He went up to the bar, greeted the farm worker and ordered a large whisky. Arthur recognised this man as a ‘gentleman’ farmer and land- owner from near Bamburgh, though he couldn’t recall the name.

‘Just on my way back from Rothbury,’ explained the new arrival to Dobson, ‘and I fancied a drink before driving home.’

Arthur managed to ignore the two men’s agricultural conversation until he heard the red-faced man respond to his companion’s question about how his day had been.

‘Damn good, actually. Didn’t find any foxes, but managed to shoot five or six damned grey squirrels. Little blighters. Good mind to take them to Newcastle and dump them in front of the office of that Animal Rights outfit.’

Dobson laughed in agreement. ‘It’s a shame,’ he added in his strong local accent, ‘that they don’t pay you for each one you shoot, like they used to do for catching moles.’ The man in tweeds in turn laughed in agreement.

Arthur disliked hearing the two men joking about the killing and persecution of grey squirrels, but it was the next remark of the farm worker’s that was really disturbing.

‘Did a bit of shooting myself this morning, only with an airgun, mind you. No squirrels, but I got a couple of them crows up on Chatton Moor. There’s a lot of them buggers living in the trees up there by the old quarry.’

‘But now there’s a few less, right!’ guffawed the red-faced man, who then ordered more drinks for himself and his companion. ‘Did the storm do much damage, by the way, to the trees?’ he asked when the drinks appeared.

‘Aye, quite a few down,’ replied the farm worker, ‘that’s why I was there this morning – to take a look. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll take the Quad bike up there with a trailer: saw off the hanging branches and turn them into good firewood.’

Arthur had heard as much as he wanted or needed. He finished his beer, got up, forced himself to nod to Dobson and the barman, and left the pub. Had Dobson really killed some of Arthur’s crows, or was he just boasting to impress the squirrel-shooting land-owner? He would find out first thing in the morning.

It was hard for him to sleep that night. It wasn’t simply the fear of what he might find in the old quarry plantation next morning, but the sound of the two men’s laughter as they joked about killing squirrels and crows. Had they no idea of the esteem in which crows have been held in many cultures? A raven was the messenger of the Greek god, Apollo. The Norse god, Odin, was kept informed about events by the two corvids, Huginn and Muninn, that returned to perch on his shoulders after their daily tour of the world. Among the Tlingit people of the American North-West, it was a raven that assembled the world out of the contents of the boxes created by the Great Spirit. Many Englishmen believed that the ravens of the Tower of London were guardians of nation and Empire, and mourned when the birds disappeared at the end of the Second World War.

It was criminal to laugh about shooting beautiful creatures that had, for millennia, been companions to human beings. This much was self-evident to Arthur. During his sleepless night, it also became clear to him how he would respond if Dobson’s boast turned out to be true.

Arthur got up early, drank some tea and ate some toast, and then filled a plastic bag with food for the crows. Since time was short for all that he might have to do, he decided to drive, rather than walk, up to the moor. It was barely light when he parked his small Fiat at the edge of the road where a path led to the clump of trees that was the roost of most of the birds. A pale sun had risen by the time Arthur reached the plantation, and his fears were being confirmed. The crows were much quieter than usual, and only a few flew from the branches to greet him in expectation of their food.

He scattered some nuts, seeds and pieces of bread on the path and walked slowly and carefully around and among the trees, his eyes scouring the ground. It didn’t take long before he saw them – two crows lying among the twigs, heads lolling and wings stuck out at strange angles. Arthur knelt next to them and picked them up. He could feel dried blood on their chest feathers, and the coldness and rigidity of their little bodies. One of them was Fricke, the crow with a white patch, the one whose friendship he treasured most. He gently wrapped the two birds in a cloth he had brought with him. He would take them back home and bury them in his garden, rather than leave them exposed to the elements and scavengers.

So, Dobson had not lied, and Arthur now had to work fast in order to execute the plan that he’d formed during the night. He would need to be back here, at the plantation, by lunchtime, assuming that Dobson stuck by his intention to come in the afternoon to cut down some branches for firewood. Arthur walked quickly – at a run almost – back to his car and drove home.

Although time was short, Arthur did not hurry the little ceremony he needed to perform in his garden. When he got back home, he took the bodies of Fricke and the other crow from the cloth in which he’d covered them, and wrapped them again, separately, in two fresh, white handkerchiefs. He then went into the garden and dug a hole nearly two feet deep in the soil of the flower-bed beneath the window of his sitting-room. He then placed the two crows carefully in the hole, covered them with soil and placed on top of their grave a plastic rose taken from his mantelpiece. Arthur wished that it wasn’t winter, so that he could have cut some fresh flowers from the garden. Finally, he stood looking down on the birds’ grave, bowed and let out a half-suppressed cry.

After assembling on the kitchen table some equipment from the garden shed that he would need, Arthur got into his car and drove, faster than usual, to Berwick. There, he would find the other items he required for the afternoon. He bought everything he wanted either at the garden centre or the hardware store on an industrial estate. By the time he got back to Chatton, it was nearly 11.30am. He added his Berwick purchases to the equipment already on the kitchen table, and then began methodically to pack all the items into the largest of his backpacks. Some of these items would stick out of the top of the backpack, but could be covered by a tarpaulin flap. Before attaching the flap, Arthur placed in the backpack as much food for the crows as would fit in.

He needed some food himself. The afternoon’s work was going to be strenuous, so before leaving his cottage, he ate the two sandwiches he’d bought at the café of the garden centre. After a swig of instant coffee, Arthur was ready. Since the equipment was heavy, he decided to drive part of the way. After crossing Chatton bridge, he parked at the bottom of the track that led up the hill to a farm at Shielhope. He would walk up this hill, pass the farm, and continue for a few hundred yards to the clump of trees where, he hoped, Dobson would soon appear.

Given the purpose of Arthur’s expedition, the weather was appropriately sombre and ominous – the sky dark grey, the air damp and still. This was just the weather he wanted, not the kind to bring out walkers. By the time he reached the farm, he had not seen a soul. What he did see, though – a few hundred yards ahead – was an unusually large number of crows circling in the sky. This was not their normal time of day for flying about, nor for producing the chorus of sounds – caws, kraas and croaks – that, when Arthur had walked a bit further, he could hear. Was Dobson already there, he asked himself, earlier than anticipated?

When, after another couple of hundred yards, the trees came into view, Arthur saw that the answer to his question was ‘Yes’. Beneath the circling and angry crows was parked a Quad bike, to which was attached a trailer from which Dobson was unloading a chain-saw and an extendable ladder. By the time Arthur reached him, the man was propping the ladder against a pine tree two of whose larger branches were dangling – victims of the powerful storm a week before.

‘Thought I’d see if you wanted some help,’ began Arthur. ‘Heard you saying you’d be here. I could do with a few logs myself.’

Dobson nodded and replied: ‘OK, if you could pick up the branches that fall and put them in the trailer, that’d be a help.’

‘You haven’t got a helmet?’ asked Arthur. ‘They’re pretty high up some of those branches.’

Dobson laughed before saying, ‘I’ve done a lot of this before, man. I won’t fall off. Mind you, those bloody birds don’t help, shrieking and squawking.’

He then began to climb the fully extended ladder, his chain-saw slung over his shoulder. Just as he reached the rung on which he would stand to saw off the branches, he heard Arthur call up to him.

‘It’s because they’re angry. You shot some of them yesterday.’

Dobson laughed again: ‘They’d be a lot more angry if I’d brought my gun with me today. I’d shoot some more of …’

He didn’t finish his sentence. Arthur had bent down, grasped the bottom of the ladder and pulled it sharply away from the base of the tree. With no chance of grabbing onto a branch, Dobson fell backwards and screaming onto the ground twenty feet below. When he thudded onto the ground, his head was thrown backwards, making – to Arthur’s ears – a pleasing crack as it struck a thick branch that had fallen in the storm. This saved Arthur the task of hitting Dobson on the back of his head with one of the wooden stakes concealed in his backpack.

It was no part of the plan to kill Dobson with a blow from the stake, and Arthur was glad to see that the man was still alive, though barely conscious, after hitting his head on the fallen branch. It was not, after all, he – Arthur – who should carry out the sentence on Dobson. That should be entrusted to those whom he had wronged – the crows of Chatton moor, who were now silently watching the events unfolding below them.

Arthur ignored the incoherent noises coming from the injured man’s mouth while, after checking his height with a tape-measure, he unpacked the backpack and laid out its contents on the floor of the trailer. Four wooden stakes; four short lengths of rope; a roll of duct tape; a mallet; a spade; a Stanley knife. Everything was there and in order.

Arthur chose a piece of ground only twenty yards from the clump of trees. It was flat and the soil beneath the scraggy grass was firm. Using his tape-measure, he scraped with his left heel the outlines of a rectangle. At each corner, he then drove in one of the four sturdy stakes with his mallet. Only a very strong man using both hands would be able to pull them out. Around each stake, finally, he looped a length of rope.

It was now the moment to fetch Dobson. Badly concussed, the man made no effort to resist when Arthur pulled him by his feet to the rectangle of ground he’d prepared. It was still impossible to identify what Dobson was trying to say: anyway, Arthur was in no mood for conversation with him.

To two of the stakes, Arthur tied Dobson’s wrists with rope that he then further secured to the wood with duct tape. The man’s ankles were then similarly attached to the stakes at the other end of the rectangle. Spread-eagled and utterly helpless, Dobson stared up at Arthur, eyes popping and lips quivering. Beyond Arthur, he could also see, looking down on him from the tree that he had just fallen from, dark ranks of carrion crows, rooks and jackdaws.

Before he left, Arthur fetched the food for the birds from his backpack and sprinkled it not just on the ground, but over Dobson’s face, torso and limbs. He then collected the backpack, heaved it onto his shoulders and set off across the moor. Before he began the descent from Shielhope to the village, he stopped, turned around, looked and listened. As he’d hoped and expected, the crows were circling above where he had placed Dobson. Some of them, he could see, were diving downwards, and all of them were joining in a pleasing cacophony of rasping cries.

Arthur had given a lot of thought to what he should do once he had left Dobson staked to the ground. From what he’d heard, the man lived alone and was almost as much of a loner as Arthur himself. There was only a small chance, therefore, that in the next few days anyone would notice he was missing. It was, after all, winter and Dobson wouldn’t have been doing much work for any of the local farmers. Arthur also knew that at this time of year, and in such gloomy weather, it was very unlikely that anyone would go walking over the moor. He was confident, therefore, that he could, for the time being, safely leave Dobson for the crows, before making arrangements for a disposal of the body.

Satisfied with how the day had gone, Arthur decided to go, by way of celebration, to the pub – the first time he’d ever been there on successive evenings, but this was special. Instead of his customary pint of beer, Arthur ordered a large malt whisky, and sat, as he’d done the evening before, at the small table by the stove. The only other people in the bar were the same self-absorbed young couple he’d seen yesterday.

Again in a repeat of the evening before, the door opened and the Barbour-jacketed, red-faced land-owner strode in. His name, Arthur now recalled, was Royston. He, too, ordered a large malt whisky and then, looking around him, recognised Arthur.

‘Good evening,’ Royston began in his booming voice, ‘have you by any chance seen the bloke I was talking to here, at the bar, last night? You were sitting in the same place as tonight, I remember. His name’s Dobson.’

Arthur had not expected this, but concealed his surprise and calmly replied that no, sorry, he hadn’t seen Dobson.

‘You see,’ continued Royston, ‘he was supposed to bring round a load of firewood to my place this afternoon. I was rather relying on it for this weekend, so I need to chase him up.’

Arthur again apologised and said he didn’t know where Dobson might be found.

‘Right,’ said the man at the bar, ‘I’ll go to his place tomorrow morning and tell him to get the wood to me right away. Can’t rely on anyone these days, right!?’

Arthur shrugged his shoulders, swallowed down his whisky, stood up, nodded to Royston and the barman by way of bidding them good night, and left the bar. He needed to get home and reflect on what he’d just been told.

The main thing was to remain calm and think clearly. Arthur sat in his armchair, in front of the electric fire, put on a CD of Northumbrian laments, closed his eyes and concentrated on what to do. His initial response, on hearing Royston say he would look for Dobson the following morning, was to go up to the moor at first light or even earlier, in the dark. But Arthur soon rejected this. For one thing, it was unlikely that Royston would, when he failed to find Dobson at home, report him as missing. He’d assume he was out somewhere on his Quad bike. Second, if Arthur were to remove the body early in the morning, he would be depriving the birds of a whole day’s enjoyment.

He decided that, rather than rush things, he would go up to the moor tomorrow afternoon, assess the situation, and then do whatever was necessary. Feeling more calm, Arthur found a half-empty whisky bottle in a cupboard, and poured himself a small glass. It would, he trusted, increase the chances of the sound night’s sleep that he needed.

The following afternoon just after 3.00, Arthur was approaching the tree plantation, but not from the usual direction. He didn’t want to be seen by anyone walking up to the moor, so had taken a circuitous route, via Chillingham, Ros Hill wood and Sandyford moor – a place sufficiently bleak and raw in December to deter even the hardiest walkers. The path he followed gave Arthur a good view of his destination, and it was with some amazement that he saw what looked like a black cloud swirling above the spot where Dobson was stretched out. He had never seen crows in such numbers, not even above the rubbish tips in Kerala.

As he drew near to the spot, the birds ceased their screeches and assembled on the branches of the nearby trees. Astonishingly there were birds there that are hardly ever seen in Northumberland – some choughs and a few gigantic ravens. The local birds, Arthur reasoned, must have flown west to invite their fellows to what was both a feast and an act of retributive justice.

More astonishing still was what the birds had done to Dobson. Arthur had expected, of course, that by now they would have made considerable inroads, but not that there would be nothing left of Dobson besides bones, teeth, nails and hair. As for his clothes, these lay around the skeleton in shreds. Much of the credit for this, he judged, must lie with the ravens and also the rooks, like Thor, whose numbers had swelled. None of the other crows had the length and power of beak to have done so thorough a work of demolition.

Arthur’s own work was now fairly short and simple. The crows had made unnecessary some of what he’d expected to do. He’d planned, for example, to erase any sign of chafing on the skin of the man’s wrists and ankles. But since there was no skin left, this was no longer required. The first thing he had to do was collect the bits of rope and duct tape that lay close to the limbs from which the birds had ripped them. Then he needed to loosen the soil around the four stakes, pull them out, and refill the holes. Finally he walked around the area, scuffing the ground with the soles of his boots to erase any indication that Dobson had been dragged from the base of the tree where he had fallen. But here, too, the crows had done a good job. Marching over and scratching every inch of the ground with their strong, four-clawed feet, the birds had made it impossible to tell how Dobson had got to the place where he died.

Arthur packed the stakes and bits of rope and tape into his backpack, but not before taking out a bag full of mealworm, shredded wheat, minced beef and peanuts and tossing handfuls of these onto the ground where Dobson’s bones lay. If Dobson had been the birds’ main reward, here was a little bonus.

Dobson’s remains were discovered the next day, not as a result of a missing person’s alert but because of a phone call to a former RSPB Inspector, now living in Wooler, by a woman working at Shielhope farm. She’d noticed the day before, and again today, the unusually large numbers of crows flying above the moor, only half a mile away. He’d surely be interested and, hopefully, be able to explain to her what was happening.

Two hours later the former Inspector arrived at the farm and, together with the woman, walked in the direction where the birds were still massing. The crows dispersed when the two of them reached the plantation and went to inspect the Quad bike, trailer, and fallen ladder that they could now see. It was another three minutes before the woman, attracted by some birds scratching the ground a few yards away, walked towards the spot where Dobson’s remains lay. For a moment, she didn’t know what she was looking at. Once she did, she suppressed a scream, composed herself and called to the ex-RSPB man to come and see what she’d found.

The inquest into Dobson’s death concluded that the cause of death could not be determined, but that there was no evidence to indicate that the circumstances were suspicious. The pathologist ascertained that Dobson had fallen from his ladder, hit his head against a branch on the ground, and crawled or staggered a few yards to where the remains of his body were found. Whether he died as a result of the blow to his head or, for example, a heart attack induced by the fall, was impossible to tell. There was, the pathologist suggested, also a small chance that death was caused by an attack by animals – foxes, badgers, crows or even the feral cats that were rumoured to live in the area. As a footnote, his report added that the speed with which the body had been reduced to a skeleton was, in his experience, entirely unprecedented. He proposed that ornithological experts should be informed of the event so that they might investigate the remarkable behaviour of the crows.

Over the next four years, Arthur heard the story of Dobson’s death, usually dramatised and embellished, many, many times – especially in the pub and the store, where barmen or shopkeepers would regale tourists with the tale that had made their village a major attraction. It was hard for him not to smile when, for instance, he heard one villager informing a couple staying at the pub that the horrible death was the result of a curse placed on Dobson by the wife he had abandoned several years earlier. Some renditions of the tale, however, were close – though not uncomfortably so – to the truth. Arthur read a sensible piece in the Chatton News that not only argued that Dobson had paid the price for his shooting of some crows, but that the vengeful birds had flown off to get reinforcements from ravens and rooks living far away.

The affair had, for Arthur, one unfortunate consequence. Out of a mixture of misguided respect for Dobson and annoyance at the number of gawking tourists now marching over it, the owner of the land on which the man had died decided to cut down the trees where the crows roosted and from which they’d mounted their attack on the body. This forced the birds to move further south and west, towards Ros Hill wood, where the pine trees were densely planted.

This meant a longer and more strenuous walk each day for Arthur to reach and feed his friends. It was at the end of one of these walks that, one day in November, nearly four years after Dobson’s death, Arthur suffered a stroke and himself died three hours later, lying on the floor of his kitchen where he’d been preparing tomorrow’s bird food.

Few people attended Arthur’s funeral – either the service in the Church of the Holy Cross or the interment in the cemetery only a couple of hundred yards from his cottage. But in another respect, it was the best attended funeral the village had ever experienced. Massed on the many telephone wires, chimney stacks, ridge tiles, and tree branches close to the route from the church to the cemetery, were the crows – jackdaws, carrion crows, rooks, even some ravens, choughs and magpies from far afield.

The birds were totally silent during the hearse’s journey, and when Arthur’s coffin was lowered into the grave, they all bowed their heads forward in farewell. Then, as the grave-diggers covered the coffin with soil, the crows soared as one into the sky, letting out a single, fearsome shriek that, it’s said, people five miles away in Wooler could easily hear.

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david
David E. Cooper
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15 Mar, 2022
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