OYSTERBACK, Md. -- Edgar Allan Crow perches uneasily on a crape myrtle branch. Uneasily because he's too heavy for the delicate twig. Uneasily because crape myrtle blooms make him sneeze, if the noise coming from his beak could be called a sneeze.
It makes Jeanne Swann laugh.
"You think you're smart, don't you?" he demands. "You try coming back as a crow sometime and see how you like it."
"I'm surprised you didn't come back as a raven," Jeanne says around a mouthful of clothespins. "That at least would have made some sense."
The crow, large and black, feathered with an iridescent green and purple sheen, cocks its head to one side and sneezes again. "No, seriously, lady, I'm trying to tell you something here," he says. "What, do I look like a raven? No way, man! Edgar Allan Crow's the name."
"Be that as it may," Jeanne Swann replies. Almost anyone else who encountered a talking crow while hanging out fine washables on the backyard clothesline would probably run away shrieking or call the National Inquirer, but this is Oysterback, where anything can happen and frequently does.
"But you know," Jeanne says, pinning up some pantyhose, "living this far out on the marsh, I'd think -- well, never mind." She doesn't want to be rude.
"What?" the crow asks. "What?"
"Well, a talking red-wing blackbird or a talking eagle, maybe but I don't know. Somehow a talking crow just isn't the same."
"That's exactly what I'm telling you!" Edgar Allan Crow says triumphantly. "My point exactly! We don't get any respect, us crows."
"Then why are you telling me you're the reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe?" she asks reasonably enough. "I should think you'd want to come back as a raven."
The crow hops to the clothes pole, where he sits, looking dejected. "Stereotyped!" he squawks. "Believe me, the last thing you want to be is a writer or a crow. No respect either way. Unless you're John Grisham or Big Steve King. Then, hooo boy, bar the door, every idiot with a half-life IQ point thinks you're Great Litter-a-chure. I ask you." The crow laughs bitterly.
Jeanne shakes out a thin cotton blouse, pins it carefully to the line. "I dunno," she says doubtfully. "When the label says DRY CLEAN ONLY, do you wash it out by hand or do you take it to the dry-cleaner?"
The crow bends down to peer at the label in the blouse. "Too late now," he says wisely. "You hand-washed it already. It's gonna shrink a little now. Anyway, like I was sayin', when I was alive, I couldn't get arrested for awfulness. We starved. Literally starved. Dead? All of a sudden, I'm a genius. Listen, you can have your genius, all I ever wanted was a decent living wage for the work I did. Was that too much to ask? Apparently so. Now that silk jacket, you should never dry-clean. Always wash it in mild soap and cold water."
"Thanks," Jeanne says. "So, anyway, you starved."
"And died in a charity hospital raving. And now look, I'm a whole industry. People I wouldn't have given the time of day to when I was alive get six-figure advances for writing what purport to be psychological biographies of my life. Academic nodcocks go around saying they're deconstructing my work. Deconstructing? What the hell does that mean when it's at home? "And the movies. Have you ever seen any of the movies that are supposed to be based on my work? If I could, I'd ask for my name to be taken off the credits!
The point of the pyramid
"No, the last thing you want to be in this planet is a writer! You're the point of an inverted pyramid. Where do all these snobby uptown publishing types think they'd be without writers like me? I'll tell you; nowhere! And yet do we get any respect? Hah!"
"Well, perhaps if you'd finished West Point, gotten a degree and a job," Jeanne comments. "Acted more like a responsible citizen, and less like an artist . . ."
"Look, lady, I was an artist! I took the risks! I suffered for my art! And what did I get? Ripped off at every turn! And I had some talent! You don't believe me? Ask Shelley! That poor fool didn't have enough sense to hold water in a bucket and he got reincarnated as a flight attendant in Saddle River, New Jersey. I'm not even going to tell you where Louisa May Alcott is, but if you've ever wondered what moron is in charge of programming at CBS, well!"
The crow is really working himself up now; shiny black feathers are flying everywhere, and he's bouncing up and down on top of the clothespole.
"I could have been a screenwriter, you know; they offered it to me, but I turned it down. 'Screenwriting is what closes in New Haven on Saturday night,' is what I said. Who knew? I could have been in Beverly Hills right now, schmoozing with Sharon Stone, but nooooo! A crow. That was what I chose. A crow!" He shrugs if a crow can be said to shrug. "Who knew? It sounded good."
"Well, you could have gotten something worse," Jeanne says consolingly. Her mind isn't really on this discussion. When you have to stand on your feet all day doing hair and listening to people spill their anxieties, you learn to tune it ll out. Most people and nearly all writers who have been reincarnated as crows never notice.
Dickens in Galapagos
The bird takes a deep breath and calms down a little. "Yeah, I suppose you're right," he says reflectively, "Look at what happened to Charles Dickens. He's a monitor lizard in the Galapagos Islands. Of course, his agent got him on one of those nature documentaries on this Discovery Channel, but Chuck always was a publicity reptile." Edgar Allan Crow chuckles at his own joke.
The carillon down at Oysterback Hardshell Methodist Church peals out the noon hour with the Doxology. "Is it that late?" he asks, and looks at his wing as if expecting to see a watch there. "Look, hon, I'm late. I'm supposed to meet Sinclair Lewis and May Sarton over on a cornfield in Wallopsville like 15 minutes ago. Not that it's that far from here, as the crow flies," he chuckles. "Get it? Get it?"
"Mmmm," Jeanne says around another mouthful of clothespins.
"Anyway, it's been nice chatting with you," the crow says, baiting his wings a little. "We'll do lunch soon, OK?"
He doesn't even wait for Jeanne's reply, but sails out across the yard and over the trees, disappearing in three or four strokes of his long black wings.
Jeanne pins some bras and a nightgown on the line. "I've really got to get that dryer fixed soon," she mutters to herself.
Helen Chappell's latest novel is "Slow Dancing with the Angel of Death."
Pub Date: 7/03/96