Last spring when I was editing the manuscript of The True Story of Maddie Bright, a baby crow landed on a narrow branch in the jacaranda tree in our back yard. I say branch but it was just a twig really, not strong enough to hold even a baby crow. The crow clung for dear life, its claws overlapping themselves, its drunken form rocking back and forth, wings a-flapping in a futile attempt to establish balance, the twig swaying. Eventually, inevitably, the twig snapped and the baby crow was forced to take flight, although flight might be misleading too, more like fall, the baby crow took fall, towards the house, stopping when it met the glass door, dissembling in a pile of crow on the deck.
I assumed the baby crow had fallen or been pushed from its nest too soon and needed me to rescue it. I left the pages I was hoping to reorder into their perfect form on the dining room table to sort themselves out and called the bird folk. They are used to me. They told me in no uncertain terms that I should not rescue the crow (as they’d said about the pigeon and also the magpie I’d already rescued which I had to take back to where I found it), that I should look carefully and I would see the crow’s parents nearby making sure it was safe. They said this is what fledglings do; they fledge. Crows make good parents, they said. I should stick to rescuing the novel. They didn’t really say that. I just made it up. It’s rather good though.
I went back outside and was surprised to see that the baby crow had somehow managed enough uplift to find a low branch on the jacaranda, a better one than the first one.
I saw no evidence of parents, but deciding to heed the advice of experts, I left the baby crow to its fate. Still, going to bed that night, I was sure my baby crow would be killed. I resigned myself to the nature of life in the real world—baby crows die. I wished the world were different.
In the morning I’d moved from the dining room table to the small desk in my office—no longer needing to spread out chapters because I had found (again) the PERFECT structure for the novel.
I was amazed to discover that the baby crow had not only survived. It was now in the front jacaranda outside my office, an enormous feat of flight, from backyard to front, for a so far flightless bird. As the sun came up and I drank enough coffee to feel positive about page-by-page editing to make the PERFECT novel, the crow began its squawking for the day. The squawk of a baby crow, I learned, is just as you’d expect, lighter and more plaintive than an adult crow, charming initially and on repetition, not in any way charming. I also learned that baby crows have very blue eyes, the colour of lapis lazuli.
I began to notice and hear grownup crows in the jacaranda from time to time that first day but I didn’t know if any of them were parents. They sat higher in the tree or in the neighbour’s jacaranda, watching. The baby crow was not trained in stealth. It would sit on its branch outside my office window squawking, and that squawk, if not its flying skills, grew more effective in those editing days that followed. It got fed, a lot.
And then one morning—the baby crow squawking as usual, no parental crows in sight, the PERFECT novel unravelling with each page edited—a contraband of noisy minors arrived on the scene. Noisy minors are Australia’s avian mafia, small native birds that are only not culled because they were here first. Otherwise we would have no reason not to kill them in their thousands. There were at least a dozen that morning, swooping down on my baby, snapping their sharp beaks at its small head and screaming like the Nazgul. They are mean and they are mean-spirited.
The baby crow tried its hopeless best to dodge the minors, almost falling from its perch, the minors becoming major. I was at the window, helpless to intervene. I knew it would not be long before the minors added their vicious pecks to their scary snapping and the baby crow would be killed. All I could do was watch and wait for nature to do it terrible work. Those bird people were dangerously wrong, I decided, and now, I could not render aid. All I had was a manuscript and a pen, not mightier at all.
And then, suddenly, from the top of our hill, some seventy metres away, I heard then saw them coming, a totally murderous murder of crows, at least of whom was definitely a mother. I can only assume she heard her baby’s cry for help and abandoned her perch as resident raven on the spire of the church on Enoggera Terrace and called her crow people to her aid. She and the murder flew in formation, half a dozen at least, soaring down our hill and swooping low, swerving at the last minute so they passed the tree on the other side, the wrong side, not where their crow child was squawking but in the opposite branches.
‘Hurry!’ I yelled to the glass pane of the french windows. But before the word hit the glass the crows were upon the minors. And then, to my absolute wonder, the adult crows and the adult noisy minors flew off past the southern wall of the house to the west, with no crow or minor harmed.
What had just happened? I wondered. The baby crow was still there on its perch, squawking, fluffing itself up as if it had just singlehandedly disposed of the entire natural world of noisy minors using nothing but its stupid wings. The mother and murder of crows had flown off too. Why had the noisy minors followed them? And then I heard a chirrup chirrup coming from the other side of the tree, the exact spot where the crows had paused momentarily, and there were two noisy minor fledglings. The crows had let the noisy minors know what would happen if the baby crow was harmed.
The three little birds continued to squawk and chirrup to one another while their mothers and others fought it out somewhere in a faraway sky.
The True Story of Maddie Bright is about many things but at its heart it’s about what it’s like to lose a child, motherhood, the ferocity of love and the ties that bind us to our families. That’s what’s perfect about it, nothing to do with structure.
The baby crow stayed with us in the months that followed. I worried when it was nearly hit by a car one day, nearly caught by Spike the bird dog another. Its eye is no longer blue and it is now almost indistinguishable from its parents.
I like to think the baby crow knew I was there writing it into my novel in two places or perhaps three. I like to think my blue-eyed crow baby knew what it was doing when it came to my yard to show me what family means, what mothers do and don’t do, even if the novel never became quite as perfect as another few drafts might have made it (kidding, Annette).