The Dark Hangnails of God

Last winter I was followed by crows.


Last winter I was followed by crows. They waited for me in barren trees that waved goodbye crazily in the cold January wind; they waited for me outside on a supermarket roof, lined up like a death squad, heavy-hooded, bare-chested, staring vacantly from their ancient glass eyes; they followed me on walks, hopping in the middle of the street like disfigured madmen come down to mock me; I saw one of them pick at a Burger King wrapper on the sidewalk and shimmy down a cold fry like a shot of rye whiskey. One even stood vigil outside the neighborhood library, three stories up in a naked elm; she was beautiful in the white sky (I call it “she” on a hunch, out of hope), holding on to one slender twig that defied my sense of balance and proportion. How could she stand there at the top of everything, hanging on to a thread of tree? But there she was, perfectly poised, her roof the sky as her black feathers were lifted but not ruffled by the buffeting wind. The branch went up and down, loopy-de-loop, each revolution a small, haunting reminder that she’d been here before—would stay standing until the sun burns out and implodes into darkness, until my bones and your bones are scattered in a field wherever our family and friends take them. I stood there many minutes staring at her perfect aloneness. She was moved neither by loud noise nor by distraction; she was seeing the wind, tasting it through her scimitar beak. It was clean and pure and went through her wings forever, like a light sweeping down a dark hallway We call them scavengers, but the only phrase that came to mind was “the dark hangnails of God.”

For two months last winter, they were everywhere—and the snow took on new meaning each time it fell, crow fodder and crow meaning where everything was white, blank, beautiful and merciless.

One night I dreamt they were out there, circling the apartment in great numbers, staring through the walls and windows to the middle of my bones; they wanted to have me, eviscerate but alive, out there in the white open where everything was plain to see. They were flying around in circles high above the trees, their black wings so many planks of death waiting in the blanked-out sky, eyes the size of Christmas bulbs hung from a tree and staring back in odorous greens. Their world was not my world, but it was where I would end up, indeed where we all end up: at the mercy of scavengers or time or the fatal combination of both. Crows do not so much announce these facts as embody them in each swoop and turn of their bodies or in the gangly plunder of their walking. In my dream they were nearer than fear, close up; they seemed to come out of the purpose of my life like dead relatives or the common chant of a tribe I couldn’t name.

One crow was apart from the rest, miles away in a tree. In that high perch, she was riding the roller coaster of life and death and watched me patiently from afar. It was her patience and beauty that moved me to recognize we were both in this dream together, caught at the wrist and the wing, and together we would sooner or later succumb to the inescapable dichotomy of living and dying. I did not die in the dream but saw it coming like a cold wing turned sideways and blown directly to my hand where I could touch and feel its black heaviness that became lightness after a while—it turned white while I watched, peeling back its true color until the blackness was a memory that faded like dusk or evening. The new wing, the one that I came to hold, evolved out of the old as necessarily as the turning of leaves or watching a kind man’s hair go through a lifetime of loss, travail, and ineffable small joys in a few brief seconds; it was a shock to come this far in the weird timelessness of a dream, as I knew the crows were still circling, and the she-crow was watching from her distant perch that made her the queen of crows, or the one who had flown away to be my guardian and killer on the edge of a dream.

All of this happened instantly yet took a night to unfold. There was no sound to this dream, just silence and waiting. I expect no one to believe me, but her wing, her dark presence got me moving in a new direction, past the banality of my own life into the greater migration we cannot name. She came to warn me. It was all right to be afraid but somehow beside the point. The point was her perch and vigil miles from here in a dream, where even now I can see the tremendous thrashing of the trees and her simple hold on a top branch so beautiful and calm I can only call it finality in the terrible grace of a life coming to its end.

Crows remind us that we come from the natural world and will return to it one day, whether we want to or not. They are emissaries of that world and keep vigil over everything because it is their purpose to do so. But in this dream, they were waiting, and I cannot say I was fully afraid, for in their blue-black wings, there was something necessary for me to recognize and to understand, some glimpse of another world and reckoning that I had up until then ignored or forgotten but had known a long, long time before. High above they were waiting for me to come out and join them; they would not attack; they were simply awaiting the natural, inevitable catastrophe that would lure me out, and then they would do their proper job of wiping my body clean from the face of the earth.

I got up and went to the window. It was one of those winter nights that swells in secrecy, each drift and swirl of snow another movement toward some uncompleted monument. But there were no crows. I watched the snow whip up a snowstorm before my window and tumble under the gray street lights that stared unblinking like a night watchman on his last cup of coffee. I went back to bed and remembered the green glass eyes that showed myself looking back, peeled and curved at the spine, even as they floated and careened over the sleeping world. The wind rattled the apartment as one more night slipped away to darkness and winter.


Every late afternoon crows came from all over to stand and caw in a neighbor’s trees. I could not figure it out. After I realized the crows were watching me (or so I almost believed), I started to watch for them. I trudged the narrow, shoveled ravines of sidewalks and followed them to a single tree that held them like a scattering of winged pepper held in the veins of a mapped-out tree. Some perched apart from the rest in nearby trees, more singular for their nearness. I stood under a stark oak, looking up. Then such a stillness came over me, a recognition of something greater, the natural world come down to visit in a midtown neighborhood where the houses are close together and mantled with snow, crows to bring the winter sky into sharper focus. It was not that they were here together, waiting something out; it was that they’d been here all along. Everything around them was an approximation of their intent, as I watched them heel-bound on earth. They were high up and grimmer than cold. They were built for their purpose. They wore the naked camouflage of death.

I looked for them every afternoon and lost myself in the process; just these black birds holding to a ritual older than humankind that for my meager understanding I had come to watch. If they were really symbols of foreboding and decline, why not go all the way? I had crows on the brain, heard their calls from everywhere. They would not leave me alone. Sometimes an animal and a person can collide and become a fugue, a time and two movements together that, however briefly, mark them as partners in a dance the person comes to recognize as significant to him or to her; the animal, of course, is usually oblivious. I don’t know what they wanted. I don’t know what I wanted, gawking at them from the ground every late afternoon. But even here on the sidewalk, I was a part of something, the spectacle of winter and sacrifice, as lights in the houses began to glow and the world turned darker.

I imagined they were talking to set the world straight, that the cacophony of their caws matched the direness of cold and ice. They were talking in response to the season, something we have lost the ability to do. Their talk was the screech of stone on stone, wave becoming foam, the almost human plea of loneliness in the universe; for each crow, I noticed, was talking to herself, looking away, not holding dialogue with anyone but the immutable and silent all that binds everything together, you and me, crow and wrapper, weather vane and snowman. From the harsh beseeching of their cries, you could tell they did not expect response, but crying out seemed to make the burden (whatever it was) less great, less a prayer than a need to make noise for its own sake, for their own sake, to see and make sure that the equipment of living was still valid. They were checking their parts, going over them piece by piece, confirming their efficiently knit wings as the clouds moved on, mile by epic mile, above them. I watched them every afternoon until my wife asked me, “Where are you going?” and I answered in all complicity, “I’m going to follow the crows.”

One day the racket became too much, and a man came out on his porch with a shotgun and shot a round into the sky. The crows scattered. They took off into such an elegant and purposeful flight that I did not think it only fear, although surely that had been the cause; they took off in all directions, blowing apart, and I thought then maybe they knew something we didn’t: that they’d be back, not to sneer or taunt but because it was their rightful place to pick up where they left off, regardless of interference. They were brainless motes in the sky, coming apart in all directions; I do not know how they kept themselves up until distance vanished them speck by speck, wing by wing.


You’ve been waiting for a story to see how these things connect; you’ve been waiting for a reason why crows visited me one winter and why I paid them mind. I do not have an answer. I simply turned around and they were there. I began to notice them everywhere: in parks and trees; on benches, roofs, sidewalks and parked cars; in a ramshackle alleyway between spilled garbage cans of debris and frayed tires. We bumped into each other and stared each other down. Sometimes they came upon me unawares, like the subconscious relics of old dreams and fears. One crow looked at me with a belt in its beak, the tarnished buckle on the end hanging like the lolling head of a doll that had been snatched from the Tuesday pickup, discarded here because childhood was finally over. You can believe that of people and crows: that they work in symbiosis, that crows pick up what we leave off, that they have the final say by picking us up when we pass over the killing mound of time and decrepitude. How could it be different? If “all ages are equidistant from God,” as Leopold von Ranke once said, then crows know this and do their jobs of erasure and maintenance, no other, combing the ground with their huge eyes whether we ride a horse or drive a Ford.

Sometimes winter has this effect of emphasizing the profound negatives, the things we cannot escape or the things we try to avoid. Being people, we want comfort and consolation. In winter (and crows) there is none. Just a sweeping aside of buds and flowers until the branches are bare, as we huddle inside in wool socks or take baths while the TV blares in a freakish light and the black birds circle and wait, circle and wait. Once I began to look for them, I saw that they came out of the fabric of the past and present, were agents of history themselves, veering into future, as if they knew something I didn’t. I knew they were only animals, but somehow their presence became something else, a reckoning or harbinger of something I could not name. So I looked for them singly and en masse; I began to chart their progress and work out a system of hypothesis whereby I could predict and understand their pow-wows in the sky and sudden defection by twos or threes to other high places. It never came together. For the paradox of crows is that they wait high up and then get in close where the work is dirty, offal and aftermath, manipulating with their own mouths and tongues that which we would touch with sticks and rubber gloves; they are not glamorous birds as they clean up the waste of those who came before. They are time janitors, and their glory comes from action, not knowledge. They know the final score before the players have even arrived. This is why we respect and hate them: because they dwell in death as we ourselves dwell in death but with a simpler force and recognition. If you look for crows, you will find them, and not only in the archetypal places. They will find you anywhere. And really I was no different; they watched and saw everything. I was just a part of the moving landscape that briefly caught their eye.

I dusted off a circa-1958 Encyclopedia Britannica and looked for some kind of explanation:

Crow, a general name for several birds of the genus Corvus of the family Corvidae. It is applied particularly in England to the carrion crow (C. corone) and hooded crow (C. cornix) and in America to the American crow (C. brachyrhynchos) The Corvidae are the most highly developed family of birds, and include, besides the crows proper, the magpies, jays, choughs, the rook and the raven.

Not much here. The entry went on to portray and explain the crow in very general terms, in terms of its scavenging and migration habits. It was up to me to make personal sense of the bird. They would not stay still in the pages of the encyclopedia, would not, in fact, reveal themselves except as outlines of a shadow creeping forward in awful, sloping inertia.

How we become bird watchers is always a mystical event, something between waiting for God and watching for Him in winged particulars. Birds are moving souls. The magic of the sparrow or the robin is their ordinary exercise of magic in a world where magic is often hidden; they prefer to be spectacular just by being themselves, perching on a wire and then diving off in arcs toward the ground. They don’t need our linguistic hang-ups, our need to make money or take vacations. They have the whole world in their wings.

But the crow is different; it won’t sacrifice purpose to dazzlement, vigilance for beautiful singing. The crow is not a performer but a grim participant; I sometimes think that is why they are hounded in the sky by other birds: because they are not theatrical or brightly plumed or possessive of a certain trait that makes you want to keep one for a pet. They are built perfectly for the work at hand, and the work at hand is always up close and terrible. They do not have the majesty of hawks or eagles, but nor do they have those birds’ problematic relationship with time or death; they are the river between both, where the eagle is only one. The eagle, too, is devoured, sometimes by the crow, and so the eagle’s wait carries less meaning than the final vantage point of the crow, who lives on predator and prey, accident and system, fatality and newness, just to name a few. They are somehow outside of time. And that is why they hold such menace and mystery.


During that same time, I started a poem. The poem is still unfinished, but the second stanza is pertinent here, something that for a time gave me no peace:

Only the crows watch now,

recording the movement of footfall on ice

as old women throw bread crumbs to the sparrows

or scatter a few kernels of corn from the back door.

Do they wait to see what will happen?

Do they wait to see what we will do?

But they know what we will do.

We will do nothing.

If you take a bird and focus on it, you run the risk of making it your prophet. Many people seem to work just this way: by the power of suggestion and the power of symbol becoming manifest in their lives. For some it is the $ sign, green cut grass in the suburbs, a new pair of running shoes. I am susceptible to all these, but arching above them is the presence of the natural world, even where nature is cramped and crowded out (seemingly) by jets overhead and rush-hour traffic. We can’t seem to avoid it forever, which is why those crows have the final say. I had no business following them or trying to figure out their methods, except that I am a living creature myself. So putting on my boots at the end of the day and walking out into winter stillness seemed to be a necessary corridor I had to enter. When you get right down to it, none of us is spared, so why not follow the instruments of transfer for a few days when you don’t think they’re looking?

When you find a crow close up, take a careful look and see what’s in its eyes: if the angle of light is right, you are likely to see yourself diminished and staring back, just a window of pale light that seems minuscule in the daytime, but for its absence, the whole world would roll over in darkness, betray you in leaving. You are not looking for yourself in those eyes but the glimmer of a hope that gleams there like a hand-held star. No matter how large the wings or gaping the mouth, the star is what there is to save the crow and you from final damnation, and the crow becomes the hideous bird that carries brightness in its beak, or the radiance of a sun you must squint at to notice. Then there is a reason for all that loathing and dread, and the reason is itself a sacrifice to knowing deeper than mere understanding, which betrays in the intellect what the soul knows forever, because the body knows what the mind refuses to acknowledge: a certain creeping forward over the cattails of a life, over thorns and berry bushes. Seeing it is the one grace we have. Crows help us to see it. They confront with their blackness the terror in ourselves and finally the consolation of dying. Common bird, crow is the sacrament of death and is therefore valid in a park or on a windowpane—and will not give up its place as the worker of a mystery.

I imagine another dream like the crow, but in this one, she is resting on my arm, wings spread and beak apart, as I feed her a cracker or bit of bread. She gawks at me in surprise, tearing the food from my hand but not splitting the skin. On a wire 2 feet long, she is tied to my arm. I carry and balance her like a statue and move around in slow circles to show her off in all light. She pirouettes with me, eye to eye, wings outstretched for balance while my free arm does the same. We’re in a dance of life and death, turning slowly on the axis of our bodies.

We lock souls as we are tied together, me a little cringed that at any moment she will go for my eyes and I will dash her down against a stone. As long as we’re moving, everything is all right, as movement becomes the antidote to sudden violence. Like all living parts, we must hang together or forego movement. But the violence is always there, waiting, not hidden away, just separated by a stare and a turn. I hate and love this bird equally, just as I hate and love my own, small life that is scraping and soaring by turns. We both know how the dream will end, but for now the movement calms us, as the dance continues. And it will continue, for seconds, hours or years, and I must not flinch or look away, because looking away would be sacrilege in the crow’s eyes, as it would be in mine. The snow is thick, the sky is gray, and the wood is stacked for the fireplace. But first I must gaze into the crow’s eyes, as she must gaze into mine.

About the Author

Robert Vivian

Robert Vivian is a graduate student at the University of Nebraska. Several of his plays have been produced in New York City.

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