Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Ted Hughes’s Crow poems. Aesop’s Vain Jackdaw. Othello, Macbeth. Ngugi’s The Wizard of the Crows, which I started reading last night on a plane to Nairobi. Crows are notoriously freaky. As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel in Zanzibar having come in to escape the bone-stiff smile of a single skinny crow I met in the higgeldy piggeldy streets of Stone Town. His back was curved like a piece of calligraphy punctuation, and he quivered his whiskers at me.
When I was last in Stone Town three years ago, the place was overrun with crows. Where did they all go? No wonder the last skinny crow in Stone Town looked a bit irritable. I remembered the streets as having a similar crow-density to Kochi, Southern India, where I was just before Chistmas. There, shiny storybook crows waddle on the roofs of colonial houses and swarm the papaya trees over your head. They sit atop archaic Chinese fishing net contraptions, laughing at the fishermen, and argue with each other while shitting on tourists.
But in Stone Town they’ve been exterminated, all 5,000 of them according to the hotel manager I just asked. They were becoming a nuisance, killing indigenous bird species and spreading disease.
In a way I’m relieved to avoid another swarm of them. It makes me shiver when they stare. I feel like they’re ridiculing me. “He laughed himself to the centre of himself,” as Hughes’s poem Crow’s Fall goes, where a white crow attacks the sun and returns char black, with his words all mangled and charred too. “He aimed his beak direct at the sun’s centre.” The audacity of them, the cheek! The horror.
But I also feel shaky, like a terrible thing has happened and the crows will somehow reek vengeance. Possibly, illogically, on me. The truth is, I wasn’t scared of crows until I went on a taxidermy course in London a few months ago, where I became unusually intimate with a jackdaw. (He died naturally, I’d like to add, I’m scared of the crow family but not vengeful.) I spent two days sewing and blow-drying him and now he’s propped up in a cheap black velvet stiletto heel on my bookshelf in London, beady (literally, made of beads) eyes watching me all the time.
You’d think that this experience would have made me less scared of crows, but it hasn’t. There’s too many crow deaths in my life at the moment. Perhaps, somehow, I think that all the other crows in the world know what I’ve done to their cousin. Perhaps I deserve their derision.