A crow objects to being experimented on, and decides to show his owner Dave how smart he can be; by Mandi S Lockley.
There you go big fella, Dave would say and then I would pick up the stones one by one and drop them carefully into the water. Plop, plop, plop. Out of one eye, I would see Dave's bald pasty face light up as the water rose with each stone. Attaboy, he would shout once the egg was near enough to the surface for me to fish it out with my beak, you're my star pupil.
Sometimes he made me watch as the other crows tried to win their breakfast. Some of them were clueless, just looked at the tube, the stones and Dave in turn and cawed in confusion. Others got it, but would drop the stones heavily on the egg, cracking it and losing most of it to the water. After a few days of this frustration Dave would get me to show them how to do it. Boys and girls, see how it's done. They watched, they learned, they copied and that was how I got to be king of the coop.
When the water trick got too easy and all the other bird brains could do it, Dave moved me on to locks. It worked like this. My meal, if I was lucky it was dried worms, was inside a locked box and I had to figure out how to get inside if I wanted to eat. It took me two seconds to work out the first one. All I had to do was lift the latch with my beak and I was in. Goodbye worms. They got more complicated after that. I had to poke sticks into the locks and wiggle them about to retrieve my reward. After a while, proving myself the cleverest crow in the coop got boring and the indignity of what Dave was making me do set in. I would watch him setting up a new trick and he would chatter to me throughout, telling me how he'd made it harder. See if you can solve this one big fella, he would say. I would squawk back at him, telling him in my own language what a bastard I thought he was. He always acted delighted to hear this. Perhaps, the idiot that he was, he didn't understand what I was saying.
In between these so-called challenges I would look out through the bars of my cage and through the glass beyond, watching the clouds pass and the sun rise and fall. The occasional small bird would fly through the scene and I would imagine myself up there with it, the air flowing through my stretched and beating black wings, chasing that bird, going in for the kill, swooping downwards as it spiralled to the ground, ripping into it while its heart was still warm. Sometimes, in my mind's eye, it had the face of Dave, especially after the sounds started.
Ahhhwooooo, ahhhwooooo, ahhhwooooo, over and over, rising and falling in pitch and volume. At first, Dave would watch my reactions, scratching his pen across his notebook. Can you guess what it is? he would ask. It was a living sound, for sure. Similar enough to my kind's call for me to assume it was a winged creature. Instinct told me I should be afraid of it. Ahhhwooooo, ahhhwooooo, it went, over and over. The other crows were terrified, tried to hide themselves in the straw in their small cages. I told them what I thought of them. Dave called me brave but more than anything I was curious and mightily pissed off. There was no sign of the thing making the noise, but I figured it was coming from inside a black box because when Dave fiddled with it the noises came on, changed or stopped.
The next time Dave let us out of our cages for a fly around, I investigated the box, pecked at it, cawed at it, but it didn't respond. No sign of life. Dave laughed while I was doing this. It's only a recording, he said. Then he turned it on. A swathe of black feathers filled the lab as the other crows took to the wing and fled to the safety of their cages. In the panic I almost joined them, but stood my ground and stared into Dave's horrible watery eyes. It takes a lot to scare you, you're a tough old nut, he said. Yes, I was tough, but smart too, because I realised the noises were fake, that there was no predator inside that box.
After that, the noises got louder and lasted for longer and I realised the mistake I'd made. Dave wanted me to be scared. That was the point. So I faked it, copied the stressed response of my fellows, but my act was too good and they wouldn't believe I wasn't scared and started to lose faith in my ability to lead them. I needed to think of a way to reassert my power. Fast.
By then the black box had been placed on top of a strange structure. It was the height of Dave and roughly the same shape, like a bad imitation of Dave himself with the box as its head. This scared the other crows even more. Dave seemed delighted at this development. He called it scarecrow. It freaked me too, but I managed to keep my cool.
The lock challenges continued and of course I cracked all of them easily and it was upon solving a particularly intricate bolt that the realisation came to me. It was so obvious I was cross I hadn't thought of it before. If I can pick any lock, then surely I can get out of my cage.
I hid a couple of twigs under my bed and after sundown when the lab was free of Dave and all the other tall, footed people who came in and out during sunup, I had a go at the lock. It wasn't as easily done as said. I couldn't get the twig into it because I was on the inside and the lock was on the outside. On the third night of trying tensions were running high. Dave had left the sounds on and no crow was getting any sleep. Ahhhwooooo, ahhhwooooo, ahhhwooooo. Everyone was cawing and squawking and it wasn't long before a fight broke out between two young crows who'd been forced to share a cage. The loser, forgetting where he was, tried to fly away, smashed into the ceiling of the cage and fell to the floor with a thud. When he tried to stand up, one of his legs was broken, bent right up. As he screeched in pain, the solution came to me.
I put one foot on one end of one of my twigs, holding it fast with my talons. I took the other end in my beak and pulled it up. I wanted to bend it to the same shape as that young crow's broken leg, but it snapped. I tried with the other twig, but stopped before it also snapped. My plan wasn't going to work. I spent the rest of the night as fractious and sleepless as all the other crows.
Just before sun up Dave came back and switched off the noises coming from the scarecrow. I was ready to claw his eyes out, but managed to control myself when he opened the door to my cage and set an egg in a water tube and a few pebbles in front of me. He wandered off to see to the others and I started to drop the stones plop, plop, plop and my breakfast began to rise to the surface, but before it was high enough I had a brainwave. I hopped back into my cage, retrieved the unbroken twig and dropped it into the water. I looked around. Dave was still busy elsewhere. I quickly dropped the rest of the pebbles into the tube and ate my egg, keeping one eye on Dave as he did his rounds. At the last possible moment, I snatched the twig out of the water and hid it in the straw in my cage. For the rest of the day most of the crows slept. I dozed and waited, occasionally filling my beak with water from the bottle attached to the bars of my cage, dripping it onto the twig to keep it damp.
When the sun went down and the noises began again, I dug out the damp twig. It bent easily. I poked it through the bars of the cage, positioned it at just the right angle and pulled. The bent end entered the lock and I twisted and twiddled until I heard a click. The door swung open. I was free. I spread my wings and I flew and I swooped again and again at the black box, pecking at the head of the scarecrow. The excited shrieks of the other crows sounded like a symphony, drowning out the predatory sounds. I'd watched Dave switch it on and off enough times, so all it took was one flick of my beak to silence that pretend owl or hawk or whatever it was. The other crows had been making so much noise they barely noticed it had stopped. I cawed them into silence and when I got their full attention I stood atop the scarecrow's head and took a bow.
The nights that followed were the best fun I ever had in that lab. I would escape from my cage and turn off the noise so we could all get some peace. Just before Dave was due to return I would turn it back on and lock myself back into my cage. But it wasn't just about fun. I had a plan which came to me on the day they painted Dave's ugly bald face onto the box, the scarecrow's head, and drilled two holes through it for eyes, filling them in with hard glass balls.
The other crows wanted out of their cages too, so I traded their freedom for treats. They had to give me a dried worm or a few of the kibbles that were our staple diet, or even some seeds and nuts. They didn't like to sacrifice their food but I promised that soon enough we would all be feasting. I was in control and never let more than a few out at a time. The treats I stored. Where did I store them? Inside the scarecrow's head. Am I a genius or what? I'd found a flap at the back of it. It was tricky to open and close but easy enough after I'd done it once. To protect my stash, I made sure none of the other crows saw me do it so they couldn't copy my method, and punished any who went near the flap by not letting them out of their cages for the next few sundowns.
During this time, Dave never tired of telling us how excited he was by how well the testing of the scarecrow was going, how he was almost ready to take it to market, whatever that meant. He said he was grateful for the work us brave crows had done for him. I hated him. For my incarceration, for the torture he'd put me through, but my time was coming.
When the scarecrow's head was full of food I let out all the crows at once. Feast time, I cawed. Flex your feathers, prime your beaks and fill your bellies. A flurry of feathers as dozens of wings spread and the lab filled with the joyous caws of my fellow crows, unaware I'd set them up. They went straight for the scarecrow's eyes. The marbles were pecked out, rolled to the floor and smashed. Beaks fought for the chance to retrieve the food I'd stored. When the feeding frenzy ebbed and they couldn't reach any more of the morsels through the eye holes in the scarecrow's head they became frustrated, tried to open the flap at the back or to steal food that other crows had pecked out of the eye holes and were trying to hoard in their cages. I'd planned for this, had primed a couple of the more vicious but less intelligent crows, and when I made the call they provoked a brutal fight. My timing was perfect. Amidst this cacophony of bird screams and shroud of flying black feathers, Dave arrived. The crows' blood was up and desperate for more treats; they went straight for his eyes. Dave went down screaming. I knew there wasn't a button to shut him up. That he'd only stop in his own good time.
Amidst this melee, no crow noticed me as I squeezed myself through the flap at the back of the scarecrow's head and closed it behind me. There was just enough space and plenty of food. All I had to do was wait. And hope. And watch, through the empty sockets of the black box. The other crows, my comrades, who had proved themselves so brave in the end were rounded up and taken away. I heard one of the lab people saying they were going to be put down. I never saw them again. Or Dave.
I stayed in the black box head for several sun cycles only slipping out after dark to stretch my wings and find some water to drink until one bright morning when two men came and I was on the move. I didn't dare look out of the box's eye holes, for fear they would see me staring at them. Once it was dark and I could hear no sound, I ventured out of the flap. I was in another room, vast, long and high of ceiling. Something shiny caught my eye at the end and I flew towards it. It was an open hatch and through it shone the night sun, full and silvery. I flew towards it, my black silhouette its perfect complement.
Now I am free to feel the air flowing through my stretched and beating wings, free to go for the kill, to chase down any small bird I like the look of, to let it spiral to the ground before ripping out its heart. Sometimes I hear the call, Ahhhwooooo, ahhhwooooo, ahhhwooooo and I fly in the opposite direction.