A Murder of Crows or The Defense of Marriage and Other Things
A murder of crows, not to be confused with an ostentation of peacocks or a descent of woodpeckers, gathered on the branch of an old chestnut tree. This was their favorite gathering place to debate the issues of the day. The tree provided them with a prime vantage point from which to spy dinner, being next to a treacherously curvy country road. They had been gathering here for as long as any could remember. As the wind rustled the leaves, the crows became restless and this led to reminiscing about creatures that they had eaten. They became wistful, with a gnawing and rumbling nostalgia.
The meal that changed the murder was, in effect, as violent as a murder: a delivery truck rounded the bend on two wheels as the driver tried to avoid an oncoming sports car. The truck hit a patch of gravel, slid out of control, and crashed into the venerable chestnut tree while the sports car sped on. The driver was thrown through the windshield and landed out on the hood like Christ on the cross. He was bleeding from his hands and feet, had been pierced at the side by the windshield wiper, and was crowned with chestnut bark across the forehead. As his heartbeat became fainter, the dinner bell rang louder in the crows’ ears. That night they feasted as never before but they did not realize the implication of eating human flesh. The ramification was that they absorbed much about him: his memories, his prejudices, his convictions.
As crows, they had had no word for marriage but did consider themselves monogamous at least. They coupled faithfully within the murder and also cared for one another’s offspring within the community. They were one group and also a collection of many couples. They became conscious of their individual relationships as they digested the driver and his revolutionary notion about relationships. The crows began to wrestle with this concept of marriage. As the driver’s blood dripped into the cab, it was sopped up by the book lying open on the seat. The crows found the book to be nearly as toothsome as the driver. As was God’s plan, the murder internalized the book’s narrative in the same way that it adopted the driver’s values. Deuteronomy was an improvement on Numbers, which was better than Leviticus. Leviticus was tastier than Exodus, which was more satisfying than Genesis. If beaks could smack like lips, theirs did.
Sated, they settled back on an uppermost branch of the old chestnut to debate what they had discovered from this sumptuous banquet. The crows now realized that they each had a name and that these names mirrored those that they had learned from their dinner-cum-book. Samuel looked over to a perch where David and Jonathan had retreated. Curiously, he had never been concerned about these two old crows. David and Jonathan had been as good as any others in the murder at caring for the young, at protecting the group, and at sharing found meals. Samuel became fixated on this couple because he suddenly realized that they were a couple. He was disgusted by them as never before. He feared their corrupting nature on the fledglings as never before. He knew that they should be punished as never before. “What this murder needs are laws against such deviants,” he cried out and then clamped his beak shut because he also wondered whether it was appropriate to judge his fellow crows lest he be judged. His stomach roiled. Clearly, dinner was not setting well with him. He hoped that Levi (short for Leviticus) had the stomach to make the case for him.
Levi was the next to pontificate about how they should all conduct themselves. “All aberrant crows should be killed.” It became so quiet that you could hear a feather fall. Everyone shifted to David and Jonathan, whom they had liked up until the moment that they realized they didn’t. Levi jabbered on about sex and who was an appropriate partner. He laid out rule after rule, factoring in considerations that they had never even thought to be options in the past. He started squawking about male “emissions” and the importance of cleaning surfaces should crows have these “emissions”.
Levi’s newly found wisdom knew no limit. “I think that we need to be more mindful about what we eat. I know that you just feasted on this poor truck driver and his blood but, from now on, you can’t eat blood anymore, no black pudding or boudin no matter how much the English and French rave about it. You can’t eat the fat from cattle, sheep, or goats. If you do, I say that you should be exiled from the murder. Also, I now realize that it is wrong to eat rabbits, pigs, mussels, clams, lobster, oysters, or scallops. The good news is that you can eat locusts, katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers.” Levi’s train of thought seemed to jump from topic to topic. What started as an argument for killing Jonathan and David was now a culinary inquisition. “And speaking of nestlings and families, from now on, after an egg hatches, the mother has to sacrifice a lamb and, if she can’t find one, she has to sacrifice two doves or pigeons.” Their language was changing: sacrifice used to mean going without but it now meant wasting food for simply giving birth.
Levi’s list of acceptable behaviors seemed to be getting rather off-topic and silly to his fellow crows. He was talking about farming, wages, and types of cloth that they could wear. Firstly, they were crows so had no need for clothing. Secondly, did Levi really believe that God would be angry if they wore blended fabrics? “But first, we have to consider our murder and David and Jonathan. While we are at it, we should also consider Ruth and Naomi.” It became still. It became quiet. The occasional flap of wings punctuated the air. Daniel and Ash (short for Ashpenaz) took flight, never to be seen again. Several other crows, who had yet to be named, also migrated to other trees, in other lands, away from curvy country roads. They even tried to hide amongst the occasional gulp of magpies and unkindness of ravens.
“You male crows can’t marry whores, crows who have been known by other crows, or divorced crows. You can’t pluck the feathers from the edges of your beards or pluck the feathers from the tops of your heads. And if any of your daughters act like whores, they will be burned to death.” This would be a challenge because crows have no pockets in which to carry matches. Those who want to be priests can only marry virgins but these priests can also own slaves. And if crows are imperfect in any way, by which I mean that they are blind, lame, have scars on their faces, or short wings or legs, have boo boos on their claws, are hunchbacks or dwarves, have poor eyesight, or crushed testicles, they simply can’t approach the altar of God.” Levi had a preacher’s zeal. He was so focused on his own view of the world that he became deaf to the world around him. Slowly, but with a tidal rhythm, crows began to fly off. They all worried that they were less than perfect in the eyes of Levi. They all worried that they were next on Levi’s list. He knew who was naughty or nice. He knew who should die. “So, I propose that we kill the following crows to build a better murder: anyone who has committed adultery; anyone who has had gay sex; anyone who is a medium or a wizard (sorry Harry).”
David and Jonathan were the last to fly away. Out of loyalty, they had stayed as long as possible. But with the murder reduced to three crows, they no longer cared for the neighborhood. They flew up to a great height where a glint of light caught their eyes. They swooped down to settle on the main limb of a beech tree. What caught their attention was the glitter from a ring as two men stood under a chuppah, exchanging vows. The rustle of wings caused the men to look up as the beech tree filled to capacity with crows. Noah held his husband’s hand as he looked up to the crows where a bright spot caught his eye. Mixed into the blackened beech sat a pure white dove.
Levi articulates much from the Old Testament and the Book of Leviticus in particular. Woven into the text is common sense, wisdom, and idiosyncrasy. Discerning betwixt the relevant, out-of-date, and simple prejudice becomes the challenge to the faithful and apostate alike. Many who profess to be devout “cherry pick” the text to make an argument against equitable marriage but ignore other strictures which no longer seem relevant or would simply be inconvenient to adopt.
Surely, the faithful don’t cut their sideburns, eat shellfish, or wear blended fabrics. Right? Surely the apostates don’t believe in sex between siblings. Right? Surely, some amongst the faithful marry divorcees, plant gardens with more than one food type, or eat pork. Right? Surely the apostates don’t have sex with animals. Right?
Marriage between two men or two women should not lead to their deaths. Right? Marriage between two people should remain a quiet, resilient bond between them. The beech does not judge. The crow does not judge. The chestnut does not judge. The dove does not judge. Men and women do judge. They should exert all of God’s wisdom lest they disappoint God and experience his flood of disapproval, forcing us to wait upon the crow and the dove, again.
The first paper selected for this book was made to emulate vellum with a mixture of flax and other fibers. But a year later, Brian Borchardt, Lisa Beth Robinson, Caren Heft, and I (a deckle of papermakers who formerly migrate through Stevens Point in the heat of summer) made a stack of bilious yellow paper which just seemed to make more sense. The color combination of the book was also oddly compelling to Max Yela, who has always been so supportive.
The text was written in 2014 to enshrine the national debate over marriage equity. The text type is Gill Sans, designed by Eric Gill and cast decades ago by Mackenzie & Harris Type Foundry of San Francisco. The display type is Hobo, designed by Morris F. Benton and cast by American Type Founders starting 1910. The crow images started as monoprints, which were translated into serigraphs at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD). Courtney Parbs, printer’s devil extraordinaire, editioned each of the crow images in January of 2016.
In an edition of 50, this is sacrilege number __.