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POE THE CROW

by

jan devereux

illustrations by roxy vanslette


~ To Olivia, Cecily, and Graham, and maybe one day, their children.

POE THE CROW jan devereux

~


~

Copyright © 2004 by Jan Devereux All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,

TABLE OF CONTENTS

transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical,

~

including photocopying, taping, and recording, without prior

Chapter 1

A Crow Problem

1

written permission from the publisher.

Chapter 2

Lost & Found

9

Chapter 3

The Hatching

17

Chapter 4

Save the Music

26

Chapter 5

What's in a Name?

31

Chapter 6

Secret Homecoming

41

Chapter 7

Good or Bad Omen?

47

Author’s Note:

Chapter 8

The Crow & The Pitcher

55

This is a work of fiction. If you should happen to find a wild

Chapter 9

The Fledgling

60

Chapter 10

Show & Tell

69

Chapter 11

No More Secrets

74

Chapter 12

Peace Treaty

81

wild bird, such as a crow, as a pet. Another good

Chapter 13

Summer Changes

89

source of information about crows is www.crows.net.

Chapter 14

Paradise Lost

101

Chapter 15

The Artist's Muse

109

Chapter 16

Dinner Guests

116

Chapter 17

The Auction

122

Chapter 18

Don't Forget to Call

132

ISBN 0-9749677-0-X

Thank you to Betsy Whitters and her fourth-grade class at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, my first readers.

bird’s egg, it is very unlikely that you will succeed in hatching it. If you find an orphaned baby bird, please consult the instructions on the New England Wildlife Foundation’s web site, www.newildlife.com, before trying to raise the bird yourself. It is illegal to keep a

Printed in the United States of America

Lakeview Press 255 Lakeview Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138 www.PoetheCrow.com


CHAPTER

1

A crow Problem Everyone agreed that it was a pity. The Wootens’ ancient hemlock tree had to be cut down. The towering evergreen was diseased and couldn’t be saved. One of its main limbs was rotten and hung perilously low over the family’s garage roof. “That big branch will fall in the next storm, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of it rots,” the tree surgeon from Lakeview Landscaping predicted. Nine-year-old Ellie Wooten was puzzled. She hadn’t even known there were doctors for trees, and it didn’t seem very doctorly to suggest killing an elderly patient. “Isn’t there anything you can do to save it?” she pleaded. Gazing up at the doomed tree, Ellie noticed a pair of crows harassing a cardinal as the smaller bird tried to approach the hemlock. “I’m afraid not, honey,” the tree expert said. “This tree’s probably at least a century old—it’s lived 1


POE THE CROW

a good life. There’s really no choice.” “Well, if you say so,” Mrs. Wooten reluctantly agreed. “Can you come back and do it tomorrow? If we put it off any longer the tree could fall right through the roof.” Silently she wondered which would cost more—cutting down such a large tree or fixing the roof if the tree fell. Insurance might cover the cost of repairing the roof, but what if someone was in the garage when the tree fell and was hurt? Too risky, she regretfully concluded. “I suppose you’re right,” Mr. Wooten said wistfully. “But I hate to see her go—she’s like an old friend. And without that tree there’ll be no privacy in my studio. Mrs. Smitty will be able to see right in.” Mrs. Smitty lived next door. She and Mr. Wooten did not get along. Alexander Wooten was a painter whose art studio was in the family’s converted garage. The garage building had been a carriage house in the days before there were automobiles. Horse-drawn buggies had probably passed by the hemlock when it was just a sapling, it occurred to Mr. Wooten. The studio’s thick rafters that had once held harnesses now served to store scores of rolled-up canvasses—old paintings the artist couldn’t bear to part with. His wife was forever pointing out that if they just sold a few of those early works they could afford to pay some of the 2

A CROW PROBLEM

overdue bills piling up on her desk. But Mr. Wooten always found a sentimental reason why he couldn’t sell this one or that one, and in any case there weren’t exactly buyers clamoring at his studio door. Mr. Wooten painted landscapes—pictures of beaches, fields, forests, and mountains. Unlike some landscape painters who traveled to far-flung locations to find fresh subjects, Mr. Wooten preferred to depict what he called the “landscapes of his imagination.” Seeking inspiration inside himself instead of outdoors, the artist virtually never left his studio. The landscape of his own back yard apparently bored him, and he had never thought to paint the old hemlock tree. Now it was too late. Lately when Ellie came to call her father to the dinner table, she was more apt to find him gazing absently into space than painting. “I’m waiting for inspiration,” he explained when his daughter asked him why the canvas on his easel remained empty. That was when he wasn’t ranting about the crows. Last September a large population of crows had chosen to roost in the pinewoods behind the Wootens’ house. Identical and impossible to count precisely, the crows numbered well over one hundred, and their piercing, strident calls could be heard from dawn to dusk. Often, above the noise of the crows, 3


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Ellie and her mother could hear Mr. Wooten in his studio yelling that the crows were driving him crazy and cursing that he couldn’t work with their incessant cawing. The artist was an early riser whose creative juices flowed fastest at dawn. Unfortunately dawn was the hour when the crows were apt to be their most vocal. It had been a year since the painter’s last gallery show had opened, to poor reviews. Once the darling of the art world, Mr. Wooten lately found himself eclipsed by younger artists. “Wooten’s Water Series: All Washed Up,” the fickle critic in Art World magazine had pronounced after his last show. The more the critics carped (“Wooten’s Ocean: Another Low Tide” was the title of another unfavorable review), the edgier the artist became, and the less he painted. Mr. Wooten’s agent had scheduled a solo show at a prestigious city gallery next fall, but so far the artist had produced no new work to exhibit. The agent’s calls were becoming more frequent and anxious, and the pressure had paralyzed Mr. Wooten, creatively speaking. “He’s got painter’s block,” Mrs. Wooten sighed when her husband had another one of his tantrums and broke another brush in frustration. Mrs. Wooten was a patient woman, but at this point her patience was running as low as the family’s savings account. She tried not to think about what would happen if 4

A CROW PROBLEM

her husband didn’t create—and sell—some artwork soon. Even the cost of new brushes to replace the ones he broke cost a small fortune. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” she was fond of saying, but she wished it did. There was no shortage of trees behind their house—the crows could attest to that. Ellie was worried, too. She was worried about what would happen to the crows if her father followed through with his dire threats. Last fall Mr. Wooten had declared war on the crows. The battle lines had been drawn—one angry artist against an unsuspecting army of crows. “Do you know why a flock of crows is called a ‘murder’ of crows?” Mr. Wooten had once asked. “Because they deserve to be murdered!” he had said, answering his own rhetorical question. Ellie was appalled. Her normally gentle father had been acting like a monster lately. Mrs. Wooten just shook her head. She understood that the crows weren’t the real problem; her husband was frustrated because he wasn’t painting well, or at all. She knew that the problem was inside his head, not outside in the trees. But where was the solution, she wondered? The one-sided warfare against the crows had flared up last fall, and the artist had tried a variety of weapons and tactics, all without success. Mr. Wooten’s attempts to shoot the crows with his boyhood 5


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BB gun had backfired, instead damaging Mrs. Smitty’s fence and wounding the painter’s pride. The fence was repaired (another unnecessary expense, Mrs. Wooten had noted glumly), but Mr. Wooten’s boasts about winning the riflery award at Camp Robin Hood were suddenly hard to swallow. The Halloween scarecrow displayed long past autumn in the Wootens’ front yard hadn’t seemed to frighten off any of the crows either. (The scarecrow’s continued presence through the winter had annoyed Mrs. Smitty, however, almost as much as the damage to her fence. She had said she would call the neighborhood association if the scarecrow weren’t taken down by spring. Mr. Wooten had merely moved it out of sight behind the garage where the crows continued to flout it.) The plastic owl decoy that Mr. Wooten had mounted atop the cupola on the garage roof hadn’t fooled the crows either, even after he had begun playing a recording of real owls hooting. (That time, Mrs. Smitty had threatened to call the police if Mr. Wooten didn’t turn down the volume.) Actually the fake owl had only aggravated the crow problem since, as Mr. Wooten had discovered to his dismay, crows gang up in large numbers to chase away predators like owls. As a last resort Mr. Wooten had mused aloud about the efficacy of “chemical warfare.” “Out of the question!” Mrs. Wooten had 6

A CROW PROBLEM

declared, “What if Mrs. Smitty’s cat ate the poison by accident?” Mr. Wooten appeared unswayed, even pleased, by this possibility, having no great affection for cats. The cat at risk, Butterball, was an obese tabby that was a frequent and unwelcome visitor to the Wootens’ yard, where he preyed on birds smaller than crows. With annoying regularity, Butterball slipped into Mr. Wooten’s studio and made himself at home curled on a stack of cartons holding extra paintbrushes and leaving behind long, orange cat hairs that made the artist sneeze. The artist was allergic to cats. Between the crows and the cat, Mr. Wooten felt under siege. His life was hardly the tranquil one he had envisioned when the family had moved to the country from the city.

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The Wootens lived in Lakeview, a town small enough to have just one elementary school, one zip code, and a single traffic light. The once-sleepy town had recently awoken to the threat of commercial growth and development, and its citizens had just elected a young mayor whose top priorities were maintaining open space, building bike lanes, and rewarding recycling. Still, Lakeview remained a quaint town with an old-fashioned general store where regular patrons had store charge accounts, although the Wootens had accumulated so many unpaid bills that their charging privileges had been revoked. The Wootens had moved to Lakeview just before Ellie was born with the good intention of raising their only child in a peaceful place where she would be shielded from the violence of the big city. Little did they expect that one day their own backyard would become a battlefield. The battle of Mr. Wooten versus the crows was now at a stalemate. The more the crows cawed, the more the artist fumed—and the less he painted. Something had to give.

8

CHAPTER

2

LOSt & FOUnd “But what about the birds who live in the tree?” Ellie asked, as her mother tucked her into bed the night after the landscaper had delivered his death sentence against the hemlock. Tomorrow the hemlock tree would be chopped down. “Where will all the birds go?” she worried. “Don’t worry, honey. The birds will survive— there are plenty of other trees,” her mother assured her. Indeed there was a 50-acre forest in the conservation land behind the garage—that was probably what had attracted all the crows in the first place. But Ellie did worry. Unlike her father she loved the morning chorus of birds—the bass cooing of the mourning doves, the lilting soprano of the cardinals, the drumming of the woodpeckers, even the staccato cries of the crows. She liked lying in her bed listening to the crows, wondering what all their urgent caw9


POE THE CROW

caw-cawing meant. Were they arguing or laughing? Scolding or singing? Threatening or teasing? As she drifted off to sleep Ellie imagined what it would be like to be a crow, the most unpopular bird of all. Two landscapers arrived in a giant truck at seventhirty the next morning, as Ellie was getting dressed for school. Sadly she looked out her bedroom window at the doomed tree. She said a silent good-bye and a little prayer for the birds. The first angry buzz of the chainsaws sounded as Ellie was pouring cereal into her bowl. The whine of the saws was deafening, even inside the Wootens’ kitchen. Ellie had to mouth “celery” to her mother’s pantomimed question of whether she wanted celery or carrots in her lunchbox. (She didn’t really want either, but celery was easier to trade, especially if her mother spread peanut butter on it.) Ellie wolfed down her breakfast and rushed outside. Her father was watching the landscapers from the porch, sipping his coffee. The noisy sawing was an unassailable excuse for him not to paint this morning. “Stay right here, honey,” he said. “I don’t want you in the yard when the tree falls.” Ellie held her hands over her ears to muffle the painful drone of the saws. She hoped that the noise was enough to warn away any birds left in the tree. By eight o’clock the landscapers had sawed nearly through the hemlock’s thick trunk. By cutting at different 10

LOST & FOUND

angles from each side they were positioning the tree to fall squarely across the Wootens’ lawn, away from the studio, and away from Mrs. Smitty’s fence. At the first sound of saws Mrs. Smitty had charged across the dewy lawn in her fuzzy slippers and bathrobe to make sure of that, and to take Butterball inside. Assured of the safety of her fence and her cat she had retreated behind her kitchen window, another opportunity to call the police lost, or just postponed. “Ready?” the head landscaper shouted. “Let her rip!” The assistant fired up his chainsaw and tilted the blade toward the smaller of the two chinks in the trunk. Weakened, the proud hemlock began to wobble and sway. No one yelled “Timber!” as the tree hit the ground with a tremendous thud and shuddered briefly before settling at last, its branches still rustling. Ellie and her father left the protection of the porch to take a closer look. As Ellie approached one of the tree’s upper limbs, her eye caught something dark amidst the green of the pine needles. Peering through the branches she saw a good-sized bird’s nest neatly constructed of sticks, bark, moss, and leaves. Inside was a single speckled egg. The egg was olive-green with brown and gray blotches. On closer examination of the area Ellie noticed that three other eggs lay on the ground, each broken in the fall. “Daddy, come look! There’s a bird’s nest with an 11


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egg still in it,” Ellie cried. But Mr. Wooten couldn’t hear her, and besides he wasn’t listening—his attention had turned to a pair of crows that were circling in the sky above where the hemlock had stood. The awful buzzing of the saws had resumed, drowning out the two crows’ outraged caws. The men were already busy sawing the thick trunk into sections that would furnish firewood for the Wootens all next winter, an economy that had mollified Mrs. Wooten when she had learned the cost of removing the tree. Ellie carefully picked up the egg and tucked it gently into her jacket pocket. Her father’s back was turned as he looked toward the woods where the pair of crows had retreated to join the rest of the flock. From the porch Mrs. Wooten called out, “Ellie, time for school!” Holding up her daughter’s backpack, she strode closer to hand it to her. “‘Bye Mom!” Ellie shouted over the din of the saws. She walked gingerly down the driveway to the bus stop on the corner, trying not to jostle the fragile secret in her pocket. On the school bus Ellie kept the egg safe and warm in her pocket. The last thing she wanted was to expose her newfound treasure to the prying eyes and rough fingers of her seatmate, Ricky Collins. Like Ellie, Ricky was a fourth-grader in Miss Peterson’s 12

LOST & FOUND

class at Lakeview Elementary School. Unlike Ellie, Ricky was what Miss Peterson politely referred to as a “handful” in her frequent conferences with Ricky’s parents. In the privacy of the teachers’ lounge Miss Peterson was somewhat less polite. The veteran teachers smiled and told their younger colleague that there was a troublemaker in every class and that Ricky was a piece of cake compared to his brothers. 13


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“Stop it!” Ellie said as Ricky twisted around in his seat to grab a younger boy’s hat and elbowed her. Aside from not wanting anything to do with Ricky, Ellie was protecting the egg in her pocket. She slid away from Ricky and leaned against the window, trying to cushion the egg during the bumpy bus ride. At the next stop Ellie’s best friend, Mimi Lowell, boarded the bus and gestured to Ricky to move so she could take her customary seat next to Ellie. Ricky shrugged and stood up, continuing to tease the younger boy by dangling his hat just out of reach. Finally the bus pulled into the school’s parking lot, and Ellie piled out along with the other students. She put her backpack in her locker but kept her jacket on, despite the warm spring day, as she entered Miss Peterson’s classroom. On the bus Ellie had formulated a plan. Her class already had an incubator warming a dozen chicken eggs as part of the science curriculum. Ellie saw no reason why her egg couldn’t be hatched along with the chicks. “Miss Peterson, look what I brought,” Ellie announced proudly. Unfortunately Ricky Collins picked the same moment to clap a chalky eraser right in front of Mimi’s face. Mimi was Ricky’s favorite target to annoy, which didn’t make any sense to Ellie since 14

LOST & FOUND

everyone knew he had a crush on Mimi. “Quit it!” Mimi shrieked, as Miss Peterson pried the eraser from Ricky’s hand and glared at him. Mimi sneezed and Ricky snickered. Miss Peterson reminded herself that all Ricky wanted was attention, and she assigned him the job of passing out papers for the class’s first activity, math. “Miss Peterson, look,” Ellie persisted. “I found a bird’s egg. Can we put it in the incubator and hatch it? Please?” Ellie slowly opened her cupped hands to reveal the egg. Miss Peterson and the other students crowded around Ellie to look. “Well, I don’t see why not. But don’t get your hopes up. It’s very hard to hatch a wild bird’s egg,” Miss Peterson said. “Where did you find it?” Ellie recounted the morning’s sad tale of the hemlock tree, while Miss Peterson took the olive-green egg and carefully laid it in the incubator next to the twelve, white chicken eggs. Ellie’s egg was smaller than the others. “Do you know what kind of egg it is?” the teacher asked. Ellie shook her head. “Anyone else want to guess?” Miss Peterson asked. “A robin’s?” suggested one student. “A cardinal’s?” guessed another. “A woodpecker’s?” ventured a third. “A dinosaur’s!” joked Ricky. The girls groaned, 15


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the boys whooped, and the teacher rolled her eyes. The classroom had an encyclopedia of birds, and Miss Peterson suggested that Ellie and Mimi consult it to see if there was a picture of an egg that resembled Ellie’s. After several minutes of paging through the book, the girls found a picture that seemed to match. “It’s a crow’s egg,” Mimi declared with authority. “My dad’s going to kill me,” Ellie thought. Unwittingly she had rescued one of the enemy. Now what should she do?

CHAPTER

3

The Hatching Over the next two weeks Miss Peterson’s class watched the incubator and waited. Every day the class checked the thermometer in the incubator to make sure it remained at a constant temperature. Every day they took turns gently rotating the twelve chicken eggs and the single crow egg. Every day they wrote observations in their science journals. And every day Ricky Collins did something that made the girls shriek, the boys laugh, and Miss Peterson lose her temper. Once he nearly knocked over the incubator when he tripped on the power cord and fell against the table. Another time he alarmed the class by announcing that the temperature inside the incubator had dropped below freezing, then realized he was reading the degrees in Centigrade instead of Fahrenheit. At the end of the second week, there was great

16

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excitement as, one by one, eleven chicks fought their way out of their shells and emerged bedraggled from their eggs. They were not yet the fluffy, yellow Easter chicks that the children had envisioned; their feathers were sticky, damp, and rumpled, and their over-large beaks and eyes made them look more like insects than birds. After waiting so long for the eggs to hatch, the students were somewhat surprised to see that the chicks didn’t look more fully developed. In the commotion around the incubator Ricky stepped on Ellie’s toe. When her elbow found his ribs of course Miss Peterson was looking and glared at them both. Two days later when one egg still hadn’t hatched, Miss Peterson pronounced it a “dud.” She explained that sometimes not every egg is fertilized and that an unfertilized egg won’t hatch. Ellie worried that her egg might be another dud and kept her fingers crossed that it would hatch eventually. The class voted, more or less democratically, to name the eleven chicks after Spanish numbers in the order of their hatching—Uno, Dos, Tres—right up to Once. Spanish instruction started in fourth grade at Lakeview, and by this time the class had learned to count to twenty. They had also been taught the Spanish words for chicken (pollo) and egg (huevo), vocabulary Ellie knew already from eating with her parents at their favorite Mexican restaurant. (Meals 18

THE HATCHING

out were increasingly infrequent, given the Wootens’ strained budget, but the Mexican cantina was the town’s least expensive restaurant, and Ellie loved their chicken enchiladas.) After she had found the egg, Ellie had looked in the Spanish dictionary and had learned that the word for “crow” is cuervo. There was considerable excitement two days later when Uno attacked Dos and had to be put in a separate cardboard box. Sometimes Miss Peterson wished she had a cardboard box big enough to contain Ricky, yet she marveled how quickly the chicks worked to establish their pecking order—just like kids on the school’s playground, she mused. The incubator was now empty except for Ellie’s egg. Ricky said it was probably rotten and held his nose as if there were a bad smell in the room. “Rotten like you,” Ellie muttered under her breath. Miss Peterson overhead and suppressed a smile. Sometimes Ellie felt sorry for Ricky but not at the moment. He could be nice enough when he wasn’t showing off and trying to get Mimi’s attention. Mimi was Ellie’s best friend, and it was annoying that Ricky was always following them around and teasing them. Ellie, Mimi, and Ricky had known each other their whole lives. Their mothers were friends and had thrown the trio together to “play” as babies. There were embarrassing pictures in the Wootens’ photo 19


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album of them all as toddlers, naked and splashing in a plastic pool. The children’s friendship had lasted as long as their mothers still had the power to pick their playmates, but now the girls and boys had divided themselves into warring camps at school. Miss Peterson smiled to herself when she imagined how all that would change in just a few short years. Ricky would probably end up escorting Mimi or Ellie to the senior prom, she guessed. “I don’t know how much longer we can wait for your egg to hatch, Ellie,” said Miss Peterson on Monday. “We have to return the incubator to the poultry farm when spring vacation starts at the end of this week.” Like her students, Miss Peterson was counting the days until spring break. Left unsaid was the dismal fact that the chicks soon would be leaving for the poultry farm, too. Ellie had stubbornly refused to eat Sunday night’s dinner of fried chicken—usually her favorite meal. She simply could not bear the fact that one day Uno through Once might appear fried on her plate. Last night Ellie had declared herself a vegetarian and had informed her parents that she would no longer eat eggs either. Her mother had rolled her eyes at the thought of cooking for a nine-year-old vegetarian who had never particularly liked vegetables. On Tuesday nothing happened in the incubator, 20

THE HATCHING

but Ricky got in trouble for trying to feed the chicks popcorn at snack time. “I thought chickens liked corn,” he protested innocently, as the other boys snickered. The girls were less amused. Miss Peterson felt a sore throat coming on and assigned the class extra silent reading. On Wednesday nothing happened in the incubator, but Miss Peterson called in sick and the class had a substitute teacher. The substitute didn’t know Spanish and kept calling Dos “Deuce.” This time, the girls and the boys snickered together. On Thursday something finally happened in the incubator. Ricky was the first to notice since, as usual, he had found an excuse to be out of his seat and was sharpening his pencil for the third time that day. As he passed by the incubator he interrupted Miss Peterson’s lesson on long division: “Holy crow!” he shouted. “It’s hatching!”

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Twenty-two math books hit twenty-two desks as all twenty-two students rushed to crowd around the plastic dome of the incubator. Inside, the speckled egg was rocking slightly, and a tiny hole had appeared at one end. Miss Peterson called for order. “Everyone calm down,” she said, the barest hint of panic in her voice. Miss Peterson honestly hadn’t believed that the egg would ever hatch, and she hadn’t thought to find out what a baby crow eats, or what she would do with it if it did hatch. The poultry farm had sent a supply of pre-formulated food for the chicks and a long list of instructions on how to care for them, but she didn’t suppose that crows and chicks ate the same things. All she needed now, just two days before spring break, was the added responsibility of keeping a wild baby bird alive. (The death last fall of the class’s guinea pig, Homer, had been traumatic enough; she wasn’t anxious to have another class pet die on her watch.) The teacher figured she had a couple of hours before the baby crow would break free of its shell and demand its first meal. Fortunately it was time for gym, then lunch and recess. When the students left the classroom, Miss Peterson headed straight to her computer. Logging on to the Internet and searching for “crows,” she learned that baby crows require a high-protein diet 22

THE HATCHING

and that they demand hourly feeding for the first month or so. Hourly feeding! She didn’t have much time to prepare the crow’s first meal. In the cafeteria she found just what she needed on her own students’ lunch trays: a slice of turkey from Ellie’s sandwich (now that she was a vegetarian she only ate the bread) and the untouched yolk from Mimi’s hard-boiled egg (she only liked the white part). She took some tofu and brown rice from Sierra Smith. (Poor Sierra, her parents were health-food nuts, but what Sierra craved most was baloney sandwiches and barbecued potato chips.) Ricky offered to contribute a chocolate cookie “for dessert” but Miss Peterson politely declined. By the time the students returned from recess, their teacher had mashed up the lunch leftovers, adding a few drops of warm water to make a thin paste. “We’ll try this out once it’s fully hatched,” she explained. Although she tried not to show it, Miss Peterson was a bit squeamish about having to thrust the food into the tiny bird’s gaping beak. She was thankful, at least, that she didn’t have on hand some of the other recommended foods—crushed insects and chopped worms. For the rest of the afternoon the students were too distracted to concentrate on their spelling lesson. The baby crow, unaware that it was preventing the children 23


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from mastering the difference between “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” doggedly pecked through its shell until it finally broke free. The class cheered, the dismissal bell rang, and Miss Peterson was left alone with a baby bird that more closely resembled a prehistoric creature than a crow. Hatched with its eyes closed and without feathers, the baby crow was mostly mouth and utterly helpless. Miss Peterson didn’t think she had ever seen a homelier newborn. “Don’t worry,” the teacher called to Ellie, who lingered as the other students hurried to catch their buses. “I’ll take care of him tonight. But you’d better ask your parents if it’ll be okay for you to bring him home over vacation.” Miss Peterson had plans to spend spring break in Jamaica with her boyfriend, and the baby crow was definitely not invited. But Ellie did worry. She had never told her parents about the egg she'd found or about keeping it the incubator. She knew it would set her father off on another of his tirades if she so much as breathed the word “crow.” The only adult friend of the Wootens who knew about the crow egg was Erin O’Neil, Ellie’s piano teacher and favorite “baby”-sitter. Erin also taught music at Lakeview so she had heard Miss Peterson talking in the teachers’ lounge about trying to hatch Ellie’s crow egg. As a regular visitor to the Wootens’ 24

THE HATCHING

house, Erin was well aware of Mr. Wooten’s hatred of crows and of his so-far unsuccessful crusade to scare them away. When Ellie had confessed her fears about trying to hatch a crow egg, Erin was both sympathetic and pragmatic. “Don’t count your chickens—I mean crows— before they hatch,” Erin had cautioned. “If the egg does hatch, then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Now that the egg had hatched Ellie was in a real bind. How was she going to tell her parents that the family’s newest addition was one of the enemy— a baby crow!

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CHAPTER

4

Save the Music That night at dinner, Ellie pushed her food around on her plate. Her parents were eating hamburgers, but now that Ellie was a vegetarian she was faced with a tofu burger instead. Knowing that tofu was a high-protein meat substitute made from bean curd didn’t make it any more appetizing; it was still beige and jiggly like jello. “Try it with some ketchup,” her mother suggested when Ellie wrinkled her nose after the first bite. “I don’t know how Sierra stands this stuff,” thought Ellie. She ate the roll, all her French fries, and some applesauce and asked to be excused. She had decided to keep the news of the baby crow to herself until tomorrow. By then it would be too late for her parents to say “no.” She’d simply bring it home, and they wouldn’t have the heart to tell her she couldn’t keep it. 26

SAVE THE MUSIC

“Anyway the crow might not even survive tonight with Miss Peterson,” Ellie thought glumly. As she carried her plate to the kitchen sink, she paused to listen to her parents’ conversation. “Any progress today, dear?” Mrs. Wooten asked her husband in a chipper voice. She was practiced at sounding happier than she felt. “Sort of. I don’t know,” Mr. Wooten sighed. “I started a new painting but then I quit. It looks too much like the ones I painted last year, and no one liked them very much,” he said, balling up his napkin and pushing away his plate. Unlike his wife, the artist made no effort to conceal his true feelings; he wore his moods on his paint-splattered sleeve. “My agent says I need to find a ‘new direction.’ What if we went away this summer—how about a trip out West? Maybe a change of scene would help me come up with something fresh. What do you think? Wouldn’t it be great to show Ellie the Grand Canyon?” “You know we haven’t got the money for a big vacation this summer,” his wife stated flatly, neatly folding her napkin beside her plate. She glanced at her watch. “I have to leave in a few minutes. There’s a PTO meeting at seven. Your turn to do the dishes,” she said brightly as she rose from the table. Caroline Wooten was a tireless volunteer at her daughter’s school. As one of the dwindling group of 27


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stay-at-home moms, she felt obliged to help out with the school’s many bake sales and library book drives, and any other fundraisers that the Lakeview PTO dreamed up. A successful advertising executive in the city before Ellie was born, Mrs. Wooten was creative and well organized, and her professional skills were much appreciated at the school. With just one child (well, two if you counted her husband; being married to an artist wasn’t easy, as her own mother had warned her), she had a good deal of time and energy to devote to the school. Staying busy helped keep her mind off the family’s mounting debt—and off the fact that if her husband’s painting career didn’t bounce back soon she’d have to find a job. She wasn’t exactly sure what kind of paying job she could find in a small town like Lakeview, but she was sure that their meager savings account was shrinking every month. “Did you hear that Erin may lose her job?” Mrs. Wooten asked her daughter, peering into her purse and beginning her perpetual hunt for her car keys. “She may not be re-hired next fall because the school district is cutting the budget for Lakeview’s music program. That’s what tonight’s meeting is about. I think it’s horrible—how can a school just eliminate music classes?” Without waiting to hear the answer to her question, Mrs. Wooten hurried out the back door. She had located her car keys beneath a stack of unopened bills. 28

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Lakeview Elementary’s music teacher, Erin O’Neil, was a special friend of the Wooten family and was like a big sister to Ellie. While Erin was in high school, she had become Ellie’s baby-sitter. After graduating from college last year she was thrilled to be hired as the music teacher at Lakeview. Popular with her students (“Miss O” taught them Beatles songs on their recorders), Erin came to the Wootens’ house every Monday after school to give Ellie piano lessons. She remained Ellie’s favorite sitter, and Ellie wished her parents had the money to go out more often so Erin could come over. When Erin did come to help, she and Ellie would play music and dance and make brownies and paint their toenails together. It was just like having a real big sister except that they didn’t 29


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argue, as Mimi was quick to point out. (Mimi had a crabby older sister she would have traded any day for a nice one like Erin.) It was Erin who had taught Ellie to identify and appreciate songbirds. Erin was fond of saying, “the birds are nature’s symphony orchestra.” She had a recording of birdcalls that she played to teach Ellie to distinguish among the different songbirds. At home Erin’s family had a clock that chimed the hour in birdcalls; Ellie laughed when Erin told her that the O’Neil’s beloved spaniel Teddy always howled at seven o’clock when the mourning dove sounded. That night Ellie had something besides the baby crow to worry about. She loved Erin and her music class at school. If Erin lost her job at Lakeview she might have to move far away to find another teaching job, and then Ellie would hardly ever see her. The prospect of losing touch with Erin was even harder to accept than the fact that she wouldn’t see the Grand Canyon anytime soon, or that the baby crow might not survive its first night.

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CHAPTER

5

What’s in a Name? The next morning Ellie awoke earlier than usual. She lay in bed and listened to the household’s morning sounds. From the kitchen she heard the coffeemaker spitting and sighing. From the bathroom she heard her mother’s off-key warble over the hiss of the shower. From outside she heard the songbird orchestra tuning up, and loudest of all, the quarrelsome crows going at it again. And from the studio she heard her father curse the crows as he slammed the windows shut. “There he goes again,” Ellie thought. Excited that it was the last day of school before spring break, and anxious to find out if the baby crow had lived through the night, Ellie dressed quickly, hardly stopping to brush her long hair. She found an empty shoebox in her closet and made room for it in her backpack. “What happened at the PTO meeting last night?” she asked her mother at breakfast. “Is Erin going to 31


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lose her job? I hope not!” “We voted to have a ‘Save the Music’ fundraising drive to keep the music program going. In fact, I volunteered to chair the committee. It’s going to be a lot of work—we need to raise $100,000 by August, but if we do, then Erin won’t lose her job,” Mrs. Wooten explained. One hundred thousand dollars sounded like an impossibly large sum to Ellie, whose allowance was only three dollars a week, but she nodded in agreement with her mother that saving the music (and Erin’s job) was worth the effort. She grabbed her lunch box and backpack and headed outside to wait for the school bus. As she passed her father’s studio she tapped on the window and waved. Her father looked up and waved back absent-mindedly. Ellie observed that the canvas on his easel was still empty. The bus ride to school seemed longer and more irritating than usual. Ellie and Mimi sat together and talked about the trip Mimi’s family would take to visit Washington, D.C., over spring break. Ricky Collins sat a row behind and lobbed Fruit Loops into the girls’ seat. At first the two girls pretended they didn’t notice, but later they started tossing the pieces of cereal back over their shoulders. “I’m looking forward to visiting the Library of Congress,” Mimi said. Mimi was something of a 32

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bookworm. Picking up a Fruit Loop from the bus floor she continued, “But I have to share a bed with Dede in the hotel. That stinks.” Dede was Mimi’s thirteen-year-old sister—the crabby one. On her last birthday Dede had announced that she no longer wished to be addressed by her childhood nickname and from then on would only answer to “Deirdre.” Since then, the teenager had done her best to recast her family in a less humiliating light, and failing that, to pretend she had never seen them before. In public she insisted on calling Mimi by her full name, Miriam, though in private she still favored “Pond Scum.” Their father, Oliver Winthrop Lowell III, was “Terry” to his friends and “Owl” to his wife. The former Dede cringed when her father called her mother “Dodo” instead of her given name, Dorothy. The Lowells’ oldest child, Oliver Winthrop Lowell IV, was away at boarding school where he went by “Cuatro” and wore the number four on his ice hockey jersey. When Ellie visited the Lowells she had gotten used to answering to either “Lele” (Mrs. Lowell’s pet name for her) or “Eleanor” (her real name and the one now favored by Deirdre). Sometimes Lele/Eleanor/Ellie wished she wasn’t an only child, but visiting the Lowells usually nipped that fantasy in the bud. Thankfully Ricky ran out of Fruit Loops just as 33


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the bus arrived at school. (The girls had chorused, “Dis-gust-ing!” when they discovered he was eating the cereal on the rebound.) Not stopping to put her lunch box in her locker, Ellie raced to the classroom to find out about the baby crow. Prepared for the worst, her heart was pounding. “Please, let him be alive,” she prayed. “Relax,” Miss Peterson said when she saw Ellie rush in all out of breath, an anxious look on her face. “He made it through the night just fine. See? I made him a nice, soft nest, and I kept it right beside my bed. I fed him several times last night, and he slept like a baby.” That was more than Miss Peterson could say for her own night’s sleep; she felt more than a tad cranky after having been awakened at four-thirty in the morning by a hungry bird. Ellie and the rest of the class crowded around the cardboard box containing the tiny bird asleep in a “nest” their teacher had made from pieces of torn fabric and shredded newspaper. The creature didn’t look anything like a crow yet with its raw-looking skin. Its pointed beak and scrawny legs and feet were pink—not black like the students had expected. “I did some research on crows last night on the Internet,” Miss Peterson explained, as she dabbed a bit of brown mush onto the end of a Q-tip and inserted it into the bird’s gaping beak. “He needs to be fed 34

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

every hour or so for the next several weeks. He also needs water,” she continued. She demonstrated using an eyedropper to squirt a couple of drops of water into the bird’s open mouth. “If he had hatched in the wild his parents would have taken turns feeding him. But since he’s an orphan we’ll have to do our best. Ellie, did you ask your parents about bringing him home?” “I brought a shoebox to carry him in” Ellie replied, dodging the question. Miss Peterson had found out a lot about crows on the Internet last night between late-night feedings. She had been surprised to learn that crows are among the most intelligent and sociable birds. Scientists 35


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studying crows have determined that they are anything but “bird brains” and are, in fact, as smart as dogs. Crows are also talented vocal mimics and have a repertoire of more than twenty distinct calls. They live up to two decades and they mate for life, with both parents helping to feed and raise their babies. Yet despite their unusual intelligence, crows are often maligned by humans. As noisy scavengers, crows have acquired the undeserved reputation as troublesome thieves in folklore and stories throughout the ages. Miss Peterson had never given much thought to crows before, but now she had begun to wonder why such smart creatures seemed so universally disliked. It didn’t seem right to criticize crows for playing the thankless role that nature had cast them in. Scavengers of all kinds were an ecological necessity, after all. The teacher shared some of her new knowledge with the class. “He’s called a ‘nestling’ now. He’ll get his feathers in about five weeks, and then he’ll be known as a ‘fledgling.’ He won’t be able to leave the nest or learn to fly until then,” Miss Peterson informed the class while writing the new two words on the board at the bottom of this week’s vocabulary list. “I wonder when he’ll start cawing?” Ellie worried to herself. The tiny bird couldn’t even squeak. “Maybe if he doesn’t grow up with other crows he 36

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

won’t learn to caw,” she hoped. “Has anyone heard of ‘imprinting’?” Miss Peterson asked. “Is that like fingerprinting?” Ricky joked. “I have,” another student answered. “I read a story about a duckling who thought its mother was a dog because the dog was the first thing it saw when it hatched. It followed the dog everywhere.” “Did it quack or bark?” Ricky asked. The class laughed. “That’s right,” Miss Peterson said, ignoring Ricky’s interruption. “Imprinting is when a baby bird forms an attachment to whomever—or whatever— takes care of it first. This baby is going to imprint on people, and since Ellie is going to be taking care of him he’ll think she’s his mother.” “How do you know it’s a boy crow?” Sierra asked pointedly. Sierra was a feminist as well as a vegetarian. “I don’t,” the teacher admitted. “It’s almost impossible to tell the difference with most baby birds. And when crows grow up both males and females have black feathers, so even then it’s really hard to know for sure.” Maybe I am being sexist, she thought to herself. Miss Peterson, like many people, had always thought of crows as loud and mischievous, a little like Ricky. But she reminded herself that not 37


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all boys misbehaved. It had been a long school year, and she was ready for a vacation. “Can we name him—or her?” a student asked. “Good idea. Let’s think of some names,” said Miss Peterson. She went to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk. “How about Midnight?” a boy suggested. “Or Inky?” a girl offered. “What about Baldy since he doesn’t have any feathers!” Ricky interjected. “Charcoal?” one student said. “Pepper?” said another. “Or Cocoa,” someone said. “What about Shadow?” someone else suggested. Miss Peterson wrote all these names on the blackboard. “It’s the thirteenth egg; let’s name him Trece,” said one student recalling the Spanish word for thirteen. “That’s an interesting coincidence,” the teacher noted. “Did you know that in many cultures people believe that crows are a sign of bad luck, like the number thirteen? In Scotland people used to think that if they saw a single crow circling a house it meant that someone who lived there would die soon.” “That’s creepy,” a girl said. Ellie wondered if the crows actually could be the cause of her father’s bad luck in painting, after all. 38

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

She thought it was unlikely since there were dozens of crows in their yard, not just one. But it was hard not to be superstitious when it seemed as if all the family’s troubles had started when the crows came to roost. “If he’s evil, let’s call him ‘Lord Voldemart,’” Ricky wisecracked. “Only then we’d never be able to say his name out loud,” he joked. Like most of Miss Peterson’s students, Ricky was an avid reader of the Harry Potter books. “He’s not evil! That’s so unfair—he’s just a baby!” Ellie already felt protective of her new charge. “I have a good idea for a name!” Mimi said excitedly. “On Halloween my father read me a really spooky poem about a crow that kept saying ‘Nevermore.’ The author’s name was Edward Allan Poe,” she explained. “I think we should call him ‘Poe,’” she declared. Mimi’s father was an English professor at the local college and, as a result, Mimi was extremely well-read for her age. Miss Peterson had a hard time finding books in Lakeview Elementary’s small library that were challenging enough for Mimi. “That was Edgar Allan Poe, but you’re absolutely right, Mimi. Poe did write a well-known poem called The Raven—that’s a type of crow. The raven appeared mysteriously late one stormy night in the poet’s room. He kept asking the raven questions 39


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about his dead girlfriend Lenore but the bird would only answer ‘Nevermore’—it eventually drove the poet crazy,” Miss Peterson explained. “‘Quothe the Raven, Nevermore,’” she recited, looking dreamily into space. It was at times like these that Miss Peterson wished she were teaching high school English instead of fourth grade. But when she imagined what the high school version of Ricky Collins might look like—pierced, tattooed, and dressed head-to-toe in leather—she shuddered. “‘Poe the Crow,’” Ellie repeated. “I like that name. It rhymes.” The rest of the class agreed to let Ellie have the final say since she had found the egg. “‘Poe the Crow’ it is, then,” the teacher agreed.

40

CHAPTER

6

Secret Homecoming On the bus ride home from school, Ellie sat alone holding the shoebox in her lap with Poe nestled safely inside. She wanted to make sure no one bothered her or touched the tiny bird during the bumpy ride home, so she had taken the seat directly behind the driver. Normally she would have sat farther back, noisily celebrating the start of vacation with her friends, but not today—she was taking her responsibility as Poe’s new mother very seriously. Miss Peterson had given her detailed instructions on how to take care of the bird, and Ellie had practiced feeding him with the Q-tip and eyedropper before school ended. Now she just had to break the news to her parents, and she rehearsed the scene in her mind as the bus turned onto her street. She imagined coming home with the box hidden under her jacket and going straight to her room 41


POE THE CROW

where she would hide Poe under her bed. But she knew she would never be able to keep such a big secret from her mother, a woman who sometimes seemed to have eyes in the back of her head. Her mother was sure to find Poe the next time she went on one of her frequent “We’ve got to clean up your room!” campaigns. Besides, Ellie recognized that she would need her mother’s help caring for Poe. Reluctantly Ellie decided that she would have to be honest and hope for the best.

42

SECRET HOMECOMING

“Hi Mom,” Ellie said breezily, entering through the kitchen door. “I have something to show you. You’ve got to promise not to get mad.” She placed the shoebox on the table and lifted off the top. Her mother jumped back, startled. “What on earth is that?” Mrs. Wooten asked in surprise. She had thought the box probably contained one of Ellie’s many messy art projects-in-progress. The last thing she had expected to see was a bald baby bird cradled in a newspaper and fabric nest. “We hatched him at school,” Ellie said matter-offactly. Then she told her mother the story of how she had found the bird’s nest the day their tree was chopped down and how she had taken the egg to school to hatch. She assured her mother that she knew how to take care of him and promised she would do all the work. “Can I keep him? Please?” she pleaded. “Well of course, honey. He’d die otherwise,” Mrs. Wooten answered. She had a soft spot for animals. Growing up she had had two dogs, six cats and a succession of hamsters, guinea pigs, and gerbils. She missed having pets now, but her husband complained of allergies. The family did keep an aquarium stocked with tropical fish, but Mrs. Wooten always felt that fish weren’t real pets because she couldn’t pat them. She wouldn’t be able to pat this new pet either—at 43


POE THE CROW

least not yet. The baby bird’s featherless skin looked raw and its tiny bones were fragile. “Do you know what kind of bird it is?” she asked her daughter. Ellie drew a breath and hemmed. “Um—we think it’s—a crow,” she finally ventured. “We named him ‘Poe’ after the famous writer,” she added, hoping that the literary connection would enhance his pedigree. Mrs. Wooten loved books and whenever she and Mimi’s father, Professor Lowell, got together their conversation always turned to literature. Ellie often felt that her mother wished her own daughter were an avid reader like Mimi, instead of just an average fourth-grader who preferred Nancy Drew mysteries to Jane Austen novels. “Well, I like the name, but I know someone in this house who’s not going to be pleased to meet Poe,” said Mrs. Wooten shaking her head. “I know. Dad’s going to flip out, isn’t he?” Ellie asked. “Not if he doesn’t find out. I’ll tell you what: let’s keep Poe in your room for now, and we’ll wait for the right moment to introduce them,” Mrs. Wooten suggested. To herself she wondered how long they would be able to keep this tiny creature alive. They might not have a secret to keep for long anyway. Mrs. Wooten didn’t like keeping secrets from her 44

SECRET HOMECOMING

husband, but she didn’t want to upset him right now either. He had always been moody and whether he was up or down depended on how he felt about his painting. Just this morning, at breakfast, he was the happiest he had been in months. “I found it!” he had announced triumphantly upon entering the kitchen. “What, did you lose your pipe again?” Mrs. Wooten had inquired. Mr. Wooten liked to chew on a pipe while he painted, that is when he wasn’t tearing the house apart looking for one of the many pipes he’d misplaced over the years. The artist had quit smoking several years ago, but he still liked the familiar feel of a pipe in his mouth, especially when he was trying to work. “No! I mean I’ve found the ‘new direction’ for my painting,” he had said, refilling his coffee mug and hurrying back to the studio. Mrs. Wooten had known better than to get her hopes up; by lunch time her husband was down in the dumps again. “The critics are right. I am a has-been,” he had concluded glumly. His flood of inspiration seemed to have dried up already. “You are not,” Mrs. Wooten had insisted. “You’re someone who has been successful and will be again—I’m sure of it. You just need to stop worrying about what the critics say and paint from your heart.” She had always been a good cheerleader, but 45


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her husband had been off his game for so long that, by this stage, her encouragement sounded hollow. It didn’t help that the artist’s agent, Mr. Rimbaud, phoned several times a day to inquire how the new work was progressing and to give suggestions that Mr. Wooten invariably rejected. Mr. Wooten recently had unplugged the phone in the studio, and Mrs. Wooten had begun screening incoming calls before answering. Even so, their voice mail was full of increasingly frantic calls from the agent reminding Mr. Wooten of how many weeks remained before the opening of his next show at the gallery. So far the artist had completed only one new painting, and he needed to paint at least ten more by the end of summer. Later in the day Mrs. Wooten wondered what her husband’s mood would be at dinner. As she started to prepare two pork chops, one tofu burger, and some high-protein mush for Poe, she wondered how much longer it would take her husband to climb out of his slump. As Ellie watched her mother cook, she wondered how much longer she would be able to hold out as a vegetarian—and how long they would be able to hide a baby crow from her father.

46

CHAPTER

7

Good or Bad Omen? In other years, the week of spring break had always passed too quickly for Ellie. Just as she had settled into the relaxing routine of staying in her pajamas until late morning, painting beside her father in his studio, helping her mother start seedlings for the family’s vegetable garden, and having sleepovers with her friend Mimi, the idyllic week would suddenly end, and school would resume. This year was different. The week seemed to crawl by. Perhaps it was because Ellie, like other new mothers, was sleep-deprived and tied down by her baby’s almost constant need to eat. Every morning before dawn Poe awoke “with the birds” to demand his first meal of the day. Ellie kept his special food in a container on her bedside table and his shoebox nest on the floor next to her bed, so she could lean over and feed him without even getting out of bed. She still 47


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stayed in her pajamas late into the morning, but this was because she remained in bed later too: feeding Poe and dozing off, feeding Poe and dozing off. She stayed in her bedroom most of the day because she didn’t want to leave Poe alone too long. Once she took Poe with her to the living room to watch TV and had to quickly hide the shoebox under a pillow when her father wandered in hunting for his pipe. Ellie’s visits to her father’s studio were briefer than usual; his mood continued gloomy, and she didn’t feel right asking to paint beside him if he wasn’t painting himself. Despite the lovely spring weather the artist kept all the windows in the studio firmly shut, but he still complained that the sound of the crows was driving him crazy. He had begun wearing earplugs or headphones while he tried to paint, but that meant he couldn’t hear Ellie either when she tried to cheer him up. She used to love being with her father in the studio, but now she felt almost as unwelcome as the crows outside. Plus, now that she had grown attached to Poe she could no longer agree when her father blamed the crows for all his problems. Ellie wanted to spring to the crows’ defense but instead she bit her tongue. There was no point in trying to change her father’s mind. She had tried once before. “Daddy, why do you hate crows so much? They’re just birds,” she had asked timidly. 48

GOOD OR BAD OMEN?

“No, they’re rats with wings! And at least rats aren’t so noisy,” her father had replied crossly. Pointing to a newspaper article he had recently read, clipped, and pinned to his easel, he had quoted: “In Tokyo, Japan, the crow population has tripled in the last 15 years, and as many as 21,000 of the winged pests now plague the city with frequent pecking attacks. Experts believe that the birds have migrated from the jungles of Southeast Asia in search of garbage in the sprawling metropolitan area. The government announced a crackdown to eliminate the birds from the city.” Ellie’s mother wasn’t her usual cheery self this vacation either. She was busy organizing the “Save the Music” auction and spent most of the day on the computer or the phone, leaving little time for projects with Ellie. Each spring, Ellie and her mother always planted seeds in small containers, but this year they were both distracted. While they planted, Mrs. Wooten talked on the phone and Ellie worried about whether Poe was getting enough to eat. They planted lettuce, tomatoes, squash, corn, carrots, and for the first time this year, eggplant: “It’s a great meat substitute for vegetarians,” her mother pointed out. Ellie who had never tasted eggplant, had her doubts.

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GOOD OR BAD OMEN?

One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a wedding, Four for a birth, Five for rich, Six for poor, Seven for a witch— I’ll tell you no more. With Mimi away in Washington for the week, Ellie was lonely. The week’s highpoint was Friday night when Erin came to baby-sit because Sierra’s parents had invited Mr. and Mrs. Wooten to a dinner party. It was Ellie’s first chance to show off her new pet to anyone besides her mother. After her parents left, Ellie brought Erin to her bedroom and revealed the tiny bird in his shoebox nest. Erin was immediately smitten with Poe and very impressed with Ellie’s maternal dedication. “You’re doing a great job—it’s a lot of work being a mom, isn’t it?” The oldest in a close-knit family of six children, Erin knew about such things. “Did you know that in Ireland crows are considered fortune-telling omens?” Erin asked. She knew all kinds of interesting trivia. That was one of the things Ellie liked best about her. “I remember a counting rhyme about crows that my Irish grandmother taught me,” Erin said and recited: 50

“That’s cool. But what does ‘mirth’ mean?” Ellie asked. “Mirth means happiness, or joy. My grandmother told me that people used to think they could predict the future by counting crows—that’s what the rhyme is about. She also had an expression: ‘It’s the raven’s knowledge’ for when someone seemed to have an uncanny ability to see into the future,” Erin explained. “Then I guess we need a second crow—or maybe four more—if this family’s ever going to be happy or rich!” Ellie calculated, thinking of her father’s moods and the family’s financial worries. “That’s right,” Erin laughed. “And what do you think your little friend Poe would say about whether or not I’ll still have a teaching job at Lakeview next year?” Erin asked more seriously. “I know my mom has been working really hard 51


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to raise the money. I hope you’ll be able to stay,” Ellie said earnestly. “Me too,” Erin said. “Let’s give Poe a snack and then let’s go make some brownies.” Later, as Erin and Ellie were cleaning up the kitchen, Mr. and Mrs. Wooten came home from the dinner party. Mr. Wooten headed straight for the refrigerator and opened it, surveying the array of choices. “Your father didn’t care for what Sierra’s dad served for dinner tonight—bell peppers stuffed with tofu, rice, and beans,” Mrs. Wooten explained. “They’re strict vegetarians just like you, Ellie,” she said, a hint of irony in her voice. “Don’t rub it in,” Ellie thought. Her mother had mercifully stopped serving her tofu burgers, but Ellie was getting tired of eating pasta every night. She used to love macaroni-and-cheese but not anymore. Mr. Wooten opened a plastic container and sniffed. “What’s this brown stuff?” he asked, dipping his finger in to take a taste. “Don’t eat that!” Ellie shrieked, snatching it from him just in time. He had discovered some of Poe’s food—moistened puppy chow mixed with egg yolk and dead flies purchased from a pet store. “It’s my new vegetarian sandwich spread. You wouldn’t like it,” Ellie explained to cover up. Mrs. Wooten and Erin stifled giggles. 52

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“And you do?” Mr. Wooten remarked, raising his eyebrows. He made himself a thick roast beef sandwich and cut a still-warm brownie from the pan. As Ellie headed to her room to get ready for bed and give Poe his final feeding for the night, she heard the adults discussing the “Save the Music” fundraising campaign. “I really appreciate all the time and effort you’re devoting to the auction, Mrs. Wooten,” Erin said sincerely. “I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t come back to the school next year. Teaching there has been perfect because I can live with my parents and save money for graduate school. If I have to find a job in the city I’ll barely be able to afford an apartment on a teacher’s salary. And I hate the thought of being so far away from my family and friends.” “Thanks,” Mrs. Wooten replied. “I just don’t see how the school committee could be so shortsighted. I mean, isn’t learning music just as important as football? The budget for the high school’s football team is twice what the music program costs, but they’re not talking about firing the football coach!” She shook her head. “I suppose art will be the next thing they cut,” Mr. Wooten remarked glumly. Alone in her room Ellie gently stroked Poe. His first dark, downy feathers were beginning to grow in, 53


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and his eyes had finally opened. The young girl and the baby crow had bonded deeply in the week they had spent together. “Maybe I’m crazy,” Ellie thought, “but I think Poe is some kind of an omen.” She just hoped his presence spelled good things, both for her family and for Erin.

CHAPTER

The

8

Crow & T e Pitcher h

The Monday following spring vacation Ellie was surprised to feel relieved to return to school. After a week in close confines with a busy mother, a moody father and a demanding baby bird, Ellie felt she had earned a break from her vacation. Her mother had agreed, as cheerfully as could be expected, to take over the care and feeding of Poe while Ellie was at school. “I suppose I can put his box on the bookshelf in my study,” Mrs. Wooten said. “That way I can keep an eye on him while I’m working on the fundraiser.” Luckily Mr. Wooten normally avoided his wife’s study. Wary of technology, the artist maintained that “computers have no soul.” His stubborn resistance to learning to use a computer gave him a convenient excuse to let his wife handle the family’s precarious finances and correspondence with bill collectors. 54

55


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Poe wasn’t concerned about the soullessness of technology—he only cared about his next meal—and he slept soundly in the study despite the constant ringing of the phone. Between calls from Mr. Wooten’s agent and calls about the auction, the phone almost never stopped ringing. Every day Mrs. Wooten worked from the moment Ellie left for school until the moment she returned home, calling local businesses and writing letters to solicit donations and items to be auctioned. “It’s for a good cause,” she would say, launching into her standard sales pitch. “If we don’t save the music our children and society will suffer irredeemable harm.... I know I can count on you to give generously.” In the Wooten family it was already well known that Mrs. Wooten could be very persuasive; now the rest of the town was succumbing to her charm and persistence. Mr. Wooten had a favorite expression to describe his wife’s powers of persuasion—“she could talk the chicken off the bone!” Ellie had never liked that expression, and she liked it even less now that she was a vegetarian and a bird-lover. Thanks primarily to Mrs. Wooten’s hard work, the PTO committee had already raised $5,000, but they were still $95,000 short of their goal. On the bus to school, Ellie’s friends peppered her with questions about Poe. She told them that his eyes 56

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were now open and that he was starting to grow feathers, or “fledge.” She promised she would bring him back to school for show and tell when he was a little bigger and stronger. “How was your family’s trip to Washington?” Ellie asked Mimi. “Okay, I guess,” Mimi said. “My parents got a new camera, and they took about a million pictures of us. Mom made us pose in front of the cherry blossoms and in the White House rose garden. Dad made us sit in the lunar capsule at the Space Museum and on the Lincoln statue’s lap. And, naturally, Dede had to brush her hair and take out her retainer before every single shot,” said Mimi in an exasperated tone. “She doesn’t want any unflattering old photos around when she grows up to be a movie star.” At school Miss Peterson was tanned and unusually relaxed. Her boyfriend had proposed and now she was wearing a shiny new diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand. Not even Ricky Collins could get under her skin today. She smiled to think that by the start of the next school year, she would be Mrs. Peterson-Jones—and Ricky would be a fifth-grader. With the egg-hatching project complete, she announced that the class would be starting a new science unit on liquids, solids and gases. “No, Ricky. Not that kind of gas!” she said, giggling. 57


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“In honor of our absent classmate Poe,” she began, “I’d like to begin this morning’s science lesson by reading a short story.” She opened a book of Aesop’s fables and read aloud one called, The Crow and the Pitcher. The fable told of a thirsty crow that found water in a pitcher but couldn’t reach far enough down into the pitcher with its beak to drink. Desperate with thirst, the crow devised a clever solution. It dropped pebbles into the pitcher, gradually raising the water level up to the brim where it could take a drink. “And the moral of the story is: Necessity is the mother of invention,” Miss Peterson concluded. “Or, in plain English: we’re most creative when we’re desperate.” “Why didn’t the crow just knock the pitcher over?” Ricky asked half-seriously. Miss Peterson just smiled at his comment and continued her lesson on the displacement of water, handing out plastic bottles and a supply of small stones for the students to experiment with. Ricky spilled his bottle of water on the way back from filling it at the sink and soaked Mimi’s sneakers in the process. She had to go barefoot while her shoes and socks dried on the sunny windowsill. Ellie only half-listened to her teacher. She was thinking about the fable’s moral and its possible application to her own family. Her father was 58

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certainly growing desperate—maybe that meant he would have a creative breakthrough soon. If not, she wondered, would her own crow Poe grow up smart enough to help figure out a solution?

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THE FLEDGLING

CHAPTER

9

The

Fledgling

For Ellie, spring and the remaining few weeks of school seemed to pass as quickly as Poe grew. By Mother’s Day Poe was five weeks old and almost entirely covered with dark feathers. He had outgrown his shoebox nest and needed more room to move around and a place to perch. In the family’s cluttered attic Mrs. Wooten found an old birdcage that she dusted off and brought to Ellie’s room. “Poe’s a wild bird—I hate the idea of keeping him in a cage,” Ellie complained to her mother. “Wild or not, he’ll have to spend time in a cage, at least while you’re at school. I have work to do, and I can’t chase him around all day,” Mrs. Wooten replied. “Besides he’ll make a terrible mess in your room if you don’t keep him in a cage.” In addition to the bird poop Poe dropped indiscriminately, there was the newer problem of his pecking things with his 60

increasingly sharp beak. Already he had pecked large holes in a succession of shoeboxes. So Poe moved into a birdcage that Mrs. Wooten carried to her study when Ellie went to school. She spent the day working on Lakeview’s fundraiser, while Poe perched in his cage next to the phone and fax machine. Frustrated with how hard she had already worked to reach just a quarter of the school’s goal, Mrs. Wooten looked at Poe and thought, “nevermore.” The $25,000 she had helped to raise so far was a lot of money, but she knew it wouldn’t be enough to save the music. She only had a couple of months to raise the remainder, and she was feeling discouraged about her prospects. Now that he was older, Poe was becoming less needy and more entertaining. One day when Ellie and Mimi came home together after school, they let Poe out of his cage in Ellie’s room. Using an elaborate dollhouse that had belonged to Mrs. Wooten when she was young, the girls made Poe a house. First they removed all the dolls and the miniature furniture and folded up a soft baby’s blanket for him to rest on. Next the girls positioned the dollhouse in a corner of the room, placing it on top of a towel to protect the carpet. Finally they built a barrier around it with stacks of books and blocks, so that Poe could move around freely but could not escape the enclosed area. 61


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“It’s sort of like a baby’s playpen,” Ellie noted. “Look, he’s exploring his new house,” Mimi observed. Indeed, Poe was enjoying himself immensely, hopping up and down the dollhouse stairway and passing back and forth through its doorways. He used his pointed black beak to peck at the tiny ruffled curtains in the dollhouse windows and at the miniature chandelier in its dining room. Then he went into the dolls’ bathroom, where the girls had made him a birdbath by filling the dolls’ bathtub with water. When Ellie’s mother knocked and asked if the girls wanted a snack, they said they would like to have a tea party with Poe in his new house. Mrs. Wooten was momentarily dismayed to see that her beloved dollhouse had been converted to a birdhouse, but she had to admit that Poe looked cute as he studied himself in the miniature mirror over the dolls’ fireplace mantel. She returned with some milk and cookies to find the girls serving Poe “tea” out of a small china cup from Ellie’s tea set. Ellie offered him a raisin from one of the cookies. He snatched it eagerly, then pecked at the side of Mimi’s milk glass as if requesting milk to wash down the treat. Now that Ellie no longer had to hand-feed Poe, he ate a wide variety of things, including chopped fruit, vegetables, seeds, and bits of fish, egg, and meat. He 62

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was particularly partial to the roasted peanuts that Ellie shelled for him. Inquiring at the local pet store, Ellie and her mother had learned that crows, like most humans, are omnivorous, meaning they eat everything. Resourceful scavengers, crows are a familiar sight at garbage dumps, where the menu of discarded food is richest. Unlike Ellie, Poe was not a picky eater and was definitely not a vegetarian. The woman at the pet store suggested they give Poe vitamin drops to make sure he got the proper nourishment. Ellie took vitamins now, too, because Mrs. Wooten was worried that her daughter’s vegetarian diet was inadequate. “Now that you’re a vegetarian you don’t eat enough to keep a bird alive,” Mrs. Wooten frequently exclaimed. “Look how much better Poe eats than you do!” she often chided. Of course, Mrs. Wooten didn’t admit to knowing that Ellie secretly snacked on extra slices of the bologna, turkey, and ham that she fed Poe.

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THE FLEDGLING

By Memorial Day Poe was eight weeks old and fully fledged. Although not as large as an adult crow, he was about three times as big as when he hatched. He was beginning to test his new flight feathers, and Ellie watched anxiously as he learned to fly between the first and second floors of the dollhouse. He made many crash landings on the soft carpet before he got the hang of flying short distances. Once he gained more confidence in his ability, he liked to flutter up to the dollhouse roof and perch atop the chimney. From there he could fly up to Ellie’s bed and then over to her bureau. As he grew bigger and stronger Poe became more active and curious about his surroundings. The bird’s newly acquired mobility and size presented a new set of problems. For one thing, Mr. Wooten still didn’t know that he was sharing his home with a crow. Ellie made sure always to shut her bedroom door tightly to keep Poe in—and her father out. She posted a stern sign on the door that warned: “KEEP OUT! PRIVATE. GIRLS ONLY.” Mr. Wooten, who had reluctantly accepted reading Ellie her bedtime story and kissing her good night in the living room, was hurt to be banned from his daughter’s room. Mrs. Wooten assured him it was “just a phase” most girls Ellie’s age go through. The secret of Poe was getting harder to keep, but the Wooten women had decided to wait 64

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a little longer to break the news to the Wooten man; his painter’s block persisted, and the calls from his agent had became even more frantic. If the crows roosting outside continued to distract the artist as much as he still insisted they did, what would he think of the crow roosting inside? Fortunately Poe hadn’t yet learned to caw, but Ellie and her mother knew it was only a matter of time. At present his vocal range was limited to youthful squawks which Ellie tried to conceal by playing loud music in her room. Mrs. Wooten again assured her husband that it was “perfectly normal” for a girl Ellie’s age to want to have the radio on day and night. One Monday when Erin came for Ellie’s weekly piano lesson, Ellie brought Poe with her to the grand piano in the living room. Mr. Wooten was in the city that day meeting with his agent, so the coast was clear and Poe could have the run of the house. At first Poe sat quietly on Ellie’s shoulder while she practiced her scales. Then his curiosity got the better of him, and he flew over to the top of the piano, which was propped open, exposing the mechanism inside. The crow seemed fascinated by the movement of the hammers and the musical tones they produced, and he hopped in to take a closer look. Erin quickly extracted him before he could hurt himself or the instrument. 66

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Now that he could fly, Poe could easily escape his makeshift playpen, though he still liked to perch on the dollhouse chimney. Released from his cage, he would fly to the bookshelf and peck at the spines of the books. Or, he would land on top of Ellie’s bureau and peck at her trinkets and jewelry. Once he put his head through one of her silver bracelets and wore it like a collar until he managed to shake it off. He often lingered in front of the mirror, preening his feathers and admiring his own reflection. When Ellie was doing homework at her desk, Poe would fly over and perch on her shoulder, or sit on top of her computer and preen her hair as she studied. Poe was playful and quick, and often it was hard for Ellie to get him back into his cage when she needed to leave her room. Luring him in with a bit of food usually worked, but sometimes he turned it into a game of tag and refused to come down from the top of the bookshelf. To outsmart him Ellie would have to pretend she had changed her mind about catching him, and turn around and walk away. Poe, hating to be ignored, would fly down and land on her shoulder. In the early morning and again at dusk, Poe’s favorite perch was on the windowsill, where he gazed out and cocked his head, as if listening to the chorus of wild birds. Watching Poe listen attentively and peck at the window screen, Ellie wondered if he 67


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understood the wild crows’ cawing and missed his real family. In her heart she knew she would have to set Poe free one day. But she was glad the young crow wasn’t quite ready, because she wasn’t quite ready yet either.

CHAPTER

10 Show & Tell

June arrived hot and muggy. It was the last week of classes at Lakeview Elementary, and the school building was not air-conditioned. Everyone, students and teachers alike, was ready for summer vacation to start. Miss Peterson, who had already finished teaching the year’s required lessons, had agreed readily when Ellie had asked if she could bring Poe to school on Monday for show-and-tell. The fourth-graders didn’t officially do show-and-tell anymore, but the teacher had made an exception for Poe. The whole class, Miss Peterson included, was curious to see how much he had grown. Bringing Poe to school required telling another white lie to Mr. Wooten. Ellie couldn’t carry a birdcage on the school bus, so her mother offered to drive her and Poe to school. She told her husband that the “Save the Music” committee had a meeting at school early that morning. 68

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“How’s it going with the fundraising?” Mr. Wooten inquired at breakfast. He had been up and at work in his studio before dawn, but had returned now for a second cup of coffee, banging the screen door on his way in and cursing about the crows, as usual. “Pretty well, I guess, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Mrs. Wooten said. “We’ve raised $40,000, but with school ending, I’m afraid it’s going to be harder to find people to help out with the auction and raffle we’re planning in August.” “Mimi and I can sell raffle tickets door-to-door,” Ellie offered. “That would be great, honey. Thanks,” her mother said. “Oh, look at the time! We’d better get Poe—I mean, get go-ing to school,” she said, thinking fast. Fortunately Mr. Wooten didn’t seem to notice his wife’s slip and headed back out to his studio. Ellie exchanged relieved glances with her mother and went to her room to get Poe and his cage. In Miss Peterson’s class Poe and Ellie were the center of attention at morning meeting. Ellie felt a surge of maternal pride as she described to her classmates how quickly he had learned to fly and related some of the funny things he did. The class laughed especially hard when she told of how, one time, Poe had pecked her computer’s keyboard and had typed a sentence on the screen before she had noticed. 70

SHOW & TELL

“It was written in crow so I couldn’t translate what he wrote,” she said smiling. “I bet he’d like to eat the mouse,” Ricky Collins joked. “Crows don’t eat mice, not live ones anyway,” Ellie pointed out. “Yeah, but they sure love road-kill!” Ricky teased. “Yum, yum!” The rest of the class reacted in disgust, “Ewww! Gross!” Ricky’s teasing about Poe wounded Ellie. Like any mother, her immediate response was to rise to the defense of her offspring. But she knew Ricky was right; wild crows did eat dead animals. She herself had often seen crows picking at the remains of squirrels run over by cars on the road near her house. Still, she found it impossible to accept that Poe, her own sweet baby, would ever develop a taste for road-kill. Ellie was relieved when her mother offered to take Poe home after the show-and-tell session. She didn’t want Ricky making any more snide comments about her pet. As Mrs. Wooten parked the family’s nine-year-old minivan in the driveway she noticed Mrs. Smitty motioning at her from her porch next door. “I’d better go see what she wants this time,” she sighed, and left Poe in the back of the van while she walked to her neighbor’s house. 71


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SHOW & TELL

Just as Mrs. Wooten rounded the fence out of sight, Mr. Wooten looked out of his studio window and noticed that the family’s van was back home. Deciding that he could stand a short break, he got into the vehicle and drove to the art supply store where he purchased some new pigments and some more brushes. (His wife lately complained that he ran through an alarming number of supplies for an artist who produced so little finished work.) On the way to and from the store he played the “oldies” station on the radio loud and sang along even louder, something that he only dared to do when he was alone in the car. When Mr. Wooten returned home half an hour later, his wife was still trapped in Mrs. Smitty’s house. Mrs. Smitty’s ability to talk without drawing a breath was legendary around the neighborhood and, more than once, Mrs. Wooten had found herself held a conversational prisoner next door. As the artist walked behind the van carrying an armful of art supplies, a glint of metal caught his eye. He stopped to peer through the rear window and saw something surprising. Shifting the bags onto his hip, he opened the hatchback door. Faced with the sight of Poe perched casually in his cage, Mr. Wooten screamed in alarm, dropped the bags, and raced into the house, locking the door behind him. Certain that he had just seen a live crow in a birdcage in his own car, he took it as an omen—that he had gone stark, raving mad! 72

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11 No More Secrets

CHAPTER

When Mrs. Wooten finally escaped her neighbor’s conversational clutches, she entered the kitchen only to find her husband distraught and pacing the floor. “Honey, you’re not going to believe what I found in the car,” he began. “I think this crow problem has finally gotten out of hand. Believe it or not there’s a crow in our car—in a birdcage! I swear, I saw it with my own eyes—unless I’m going crazy, that is. I’ve just called the game warden to come take it away,” he said anxiously. “Oh no, dear!” Mrs. Wooten gasped. “That’s just Poe,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Poe? Like Edgar Allan Poe? What’s he got to do with this?” Now Mr. Wooten was truly baffled. He thought he must have lost his mind. “No, no—I mean Poe is Ellie’s—our—pet crow. We brought him to school today for show-and-tell, 74

and I left his cage in the car when I went to talk to Mrs. Smitty—” Mr. Wooten interrupted his wife. He was furious. “You got Ellie a pet crow?” he asked in disbelief. “I can’t believe it—my own family has been consorting with the enemy!” The artist felt betrayed, rightfully. “It’s not what you think, dear,” Mrs. Wooten insisted. “It’s a long story. Please, just listen before you court-martial us for treason.” Taking a deep breath, she told the whole story of how Ellie had found Poe’s egg when the tree was cut down and hatched it at school; of how she and Ellie had hand-raised the helpless bird; and of how they’d felt they had to keep it a secret—all because Mr. Wooten was on record as being “Public Enemy Number One” of the crows. “I’m sorry, dear. We didn’t want to lie to you, but it just never seemed to be the right moment to tell you,” she apologized at the end of her confession. Mr. Wooten was stunned. On the one hand he was relieved to know that he was not going insane. On the other hand he was surprised, and sorry, that it had been so easy to pull the wool over his eyes. “I guess I have been pretty self-absorbed lately,” the artist admitted. “Ever since the crows came to roost, my painting has been going so badly. I suppose it was just easier to blame the crows than myself. But 75


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I feel terrible that you and Ellie were afraid to tell me. Now I feel like a lousy husband and father, as well as a lousy painter,” he concluded glumly. “No, dear. You’re not a lousy anything,” Mrs. Wooten assured her husband, hugging him. “You’re just a bit temperamental, but we’re used to your moods by now.” “That’s exactly the point,” Mr. Wooten replied. “You and Ellie shouldn’t have to tiptoe around on eggshells—pardon the expression—because of my moods. From now on it’s going to be different, you’ll see,” he promised, returning his wife’s hug. “Well in that case, would you like to be officially introduced to Poe?” she asked playfully. “I’ll bet he’s tired of being left alone in the car.” But Poe was not alone. As the Wootens approached the car they saw Butterball crouched beside Poe’s cage, ready to pounce. The cat’s tail was twitching, and his mouth was fairly watering. Poe appeared unperturbed. This was his first encounter with a cat, or any other predator for that matter. “Scat! Shoo! Get out of here!” both Wootens shouted, waving their arms. Butterball lumbered away, thwarted but unrepentant.

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Just then, a van with the official state seal painted on its sides pulled into the Wootens’ driveway. A woman dressed in a khaki uniform and ranger hat stepped out and introduced herself. “Hello, I’m Officer Bertelli, the game warden. You called about a problem with a crow?” Then, noticing Poe in his cage, she said, “Oh, I see you’ve managed to capture it. I can take it off your hands—” “No!” the Wootens said in unison. “I’m afraid there’s been a terrible misunderstanding,” continued Mrs. Wooten. “This is Poe, our pet crow. My husband didn’t know about him when he called you.” And then, for the second time in less than an hour, Mrs. Wooten told the story of Poe’s being hatched at school and hand-raised by Ellie in secret. When Mrs. Wooten had finished explaining, Officer Bertelli said, “Your daughter deserves a lot of credit. Successfully raising a wild bird in captivity is quite a feat. 77


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But I am obligated to inform you that it is against the law to keep a crow, or any wild bird, in captivity.” “It is?” the Wootens said, again in unison. “We had no idea we were breaking the law, Officer,” Mrs. Wooten apologized. “My daughter and I were just trying to do the right thing—Poe would have died if Ellie hadn’t found his egg and taken care of him after he hatched.” “Relax, I’m not going to arrest you or put your daughter in jail,” Officer Bertelli said, smiling. “But I strongly recommend that you release Poe later this summer when he’s fully grown, so he can lead a normal life. Crows are very social birds. He wouldn’t be happy living in a cage for the rest of his life.” “You’re probably right, but Poe and Ellie are so attached to each other. She’ll be very upset if she has to let him go. And what about Poe—will he know how to find food and defend himself on his own?” Mrs. Wooten asked anxiously. She, too, had grown fond of Poe. “Crows are unusually adaptive and highly intelligent birds. A healthy bird like yours will do just fine in the wild. I’ve noticed that there’s already a large crow population in this neighborhood,” Officer Bertelli remarked. “There wouldn’t be if I’d had my say,” Mr. Wooten muttered. 78

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“In most cases another crow family will readily take in an orphaned juvenile like Poe,” the game warden continued. “Young crows stay close to their parents for a couple of years, learning the skills they need to survive. Poe is like a teenager—almost grown up but still needing some adult supervision,” Officer Bertelli explained. The Wootens discussed Poe’s future with Officer Bertelli a while longer and then thanked her for her being so informative and understanding. As the game warden got into her van, Mrs. Smitty appeared in her yard, calling, “Butterball! Here kitty-kitty!” She did a double take when she saw the game warden’s van pulling out of the driveway. In the heat of one of their prior arguments, Mr. Wooten had threatened to call the game warden about Butterball’s late-night caterwauling. Now, seeing the game warden’s vehicle, Mrs. Smitty jumped to the conclusion that her neighbor had followed through with his threat. She started to scream before Mrs. Wooten interrupted. “Don’t worry, we just saw Butterball heading over that way,” Mrs. Wooten said pleasantly, pointing toward the woods. “And, by the way, I want to thank you again for your generous contribution to the school’s ‘Save the Music’ campaign.” Mrs. Smitty breathed a sigh of relief and retreated 79


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to her porch, continuing to call for her cat. Mr. Wooten raised his eyebrows in a question. Mrs. Smitty was not normally known for her generosity. At Halloween she doled out only one small piece of candy per child. “You’ll never believe who just gave $500 to our fund,” his wife said, holding up the check Mrs. Smitty had written earlier. “It appears that Mrs. Smitty’s mother and grandmother were both music teachers. She made a donation in their memory.” Mr. Wooten shook his head and picked up Poe’s cage to carry it inside. On the way into the house he mumbled something about people doing surprising things, though it wasn’t clear whether he was referring to Mrs. Smitty or himself. He still had reservations about harboring one of the enemy in his own home, but there was a saying, “All is fair in love and war,” and he supposed it might apply in this situation. In any case, he knew that he loved his wife and daughter more than he hated crows. He recalled another saying: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Maybe it was time to surrender, after all.

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CHAPTER

12 Peace Treaty

When Ellie came home from school that day, her mother was waiting in the kitchen, a plate of fresh-baked brownies set out for a special snack. Her father was sitting at the kitchen table, too, a rare sight in the middle of the afternoon. As Ellie entered, her parents exchanged a tense glance but didn’t speak. “Okay, what’s up?” Ellie asked guardedly. This was too weird, both of her parents, together, waiting for her to come home. “Did someone die? Are you getting a divorce? Do we have to move?” she asked, running down the list of catastrophes that could possibly make her parents look so serious. “No, honey, it’s none of those things,” Mr. Wooten said. “We have some good news—and some bad news, dear,” Mrs. Wooten chimed in. “Okay, spill,” Ellie said and took a brownie. 81


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“Well, the good news is that your father knows about Poe, so we don’t have to keep him a secret anymore,” Mrs. Wooten said cheerfully. She was trying to put a positive spin on this unexpected turn of events. “If that’s the good news,” Ellie said guardedly, “then I’m not sure I want to hear the bad news.” “The bad news is that the game warden says it would be better for Poe if we set him free. It’s not natural—and it turns out it’s illegal—to keep a wild bird as a pet. It would be for his own good,” Mr. Wooten said gently. “You called the game warden? Dad, how could you?” Ellie asked angrily. “But I didn’t know Poe was your pet—” Mr. Wooten said, trying to justify his mistake. Ellie was too furious to listen to reason. “Where’s Poe? Did the game warden take him away?” she asked, looking frantically from one parent to the other. She was on the verge of tears. “It’s okay, honey, calm down. Poe hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s safe and sound in your room,” Mrs. Wooten said, trying to smooth things over. Leaving her brownie unfinished on the table, Ellie stormed out of the kitchen and ran to her room to see Poe and find out what he thought about all this. Poe was perched in his cage looking as if nothing 82

PEACE TREATY

out of the ordinary had happened. Ellie opened the cage door, and he hopped onto her extended finger. She stroked his glossy black feathers and said, “Why does my father have to hate crows so much? You can’t help being born a crow. Poor baby, he doesn’t even know you, and he already hates you. It’s so unfair!” Poe, unaware of the central role he was playing in the family’s drama, looked unfazed and cocked his head inquisitively.

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Ellie heard a tentative knock on her bedroom door and looked angry as her father entered sheepishly. “Honey, will you let me explain? Please?” Mr. Wooten asked contritely. Ellie looked away and continued to stroke Poe. “I’m sorry I called the game warden. Poe caught me by surprise and I over-reacted.” Ellie shrugged away her father’s apology. It was too late. “I don’t care if it is illegal to keep him. I can’t set Poe free. He still needs me,” she said, starting to cry. “Of course he does, honey” Mr. Wooten said kindly. “You don’t have to let him go right now. The game warden recommended that you wait a few weeks until he’s a little bigger. She said that the other crows would adopt him and teach him everything he needs to know to survive in the wild.” “Really?” Ellie said, looking up and wiping a tear with her sleeve. “And besides, that’ll give me some time to get to know him. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Poe from your mother,” said Mr. Wooten. He sat down next to Ellie and put his arm around her shoulder. “Will you introduce me?” he asked. He extended his index finger and Poe hopped on, as if shaking hands upon making a new acquaintance. Ellie showed her father how to stroke Poe along the center of his broad back, in one direction from the top of his head to the base of his tail. “He doesn’t 84

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like to have his wings or tail feathers ruffled,” Ellie explained. Mr. Wooten followed his daughter’s example and stroked Poe’s back. “His feathers feel like silk,” the artist observed. “He’s pretty friendly, isn’t he?” he said when Poe turned and nudged his hand with his beak. Ellie was still confused and upset. Her father’s apology seemed sincere. Was it possible that he and Poe really could become friends? Sometimes people did surprising things, she thought. Like today, Ricky Collins had actually been nice to her during gym. The class was playing softball—Ellie’s least favorite sport —and instead of pitching fast balls at her the way he usually did, Ricky had intentionally slowed up his pitch enough so that Ellie could get a hit. An outfielder’s error had meant that Ellie had scored her first-ever home run. But her father’s peacemaking overtures did nothing to lessen the sadness she felt when she thought of having to say good-bye to Poe. When Erin arrived later that same afternoon for Ellie’s piano lesson, Mrs. Wooten told her that Ellie was still upset about what had happened earlier. “I know just how she feels,” Erin said sympathetically. “Let me talk to her.” Erin went to Ellie’s room, and instead of practicing piano they spent the time talking and playing with Poe. Erin told Ellie about how, when she was 85


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younger, she had found a baby squirrel and had kept it as a pet for several months before her parents had made her set it free. Afterwards the squirrel (“Simon”) had remained unusually tame and would come back to her family’s doorstep to eat the acorns she left there for him. Erin also recalled one of her all-time favorite books, Born Free. “It’s a true story about raising a lion cub in Africa,” Erin said. “They made it into a movie. We should rent it the next time I baby-sit. It’s pretty sad, though—Elsa gets killed by hunters,” she said before thinking that maybe she shouldn’t have mentioned this unpleasant detail. Seeing Ellie’s stricken look, Erin added, “But don’t worry—this isn’t Africa. I’m sure Poe will be safe. Hunters aren’t interested in crows.” “What about my dad? Remember when he tried to shoot the crows in our yard?” Ellie pointed out. Erin had an idea. She knew all about Mr. Wooten’s war with the crows and thought it was high time to end it, once and for all. “Let’s make him sign a peace treaty,” she suggested. “I’ll help you write it up.” Ellie got a piece of paper and wrote while Erin dictated: “I, Mr. Wooten, do solemnly declare that I will no longer take hostile action against any crows. I hereby promise that I will surrender all my weapons and live in peace with all crows, including Poe, forever.” 86

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Ellie finished writing and drew a blank line below for her father’s signature. They put a gold star sicker in one corner to make it look official. Later Erin went with Ellie to the artist’s studio and witnessed as Ellie read the peace treaty aloud to her father. Mr. Wooten chose one of his smaller brushes and dipped it in red paint. “I think you have a future as a diplomat,” he chuckled as he signed the treaty with a flourish. “Peace,” he said, holding up two fingers in a “V.”

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By dinner time Ellie felt better. Erin had convinced her that if she really loved Poe—and Ellie did—then she would do what was best for him, even if it hurt her. “That’s what being a good parent is all about,” Erin had said. After dinner Ellie removed the “KEEP OUT” sign from her bedroom door and invited her father in to play with Poe. Ellie let Poe out of his cage and showed her father some of the bird’s best tricks. Poe’s favorite game was “which hand.” Ellie hid a peanut in one of her hands, and Poe picked which hand by pecking softly on her closed fist. He never missed. Ellie also showed her father how Poe could play fetch (she tossed an eraser across the room and Poe brought it back), and how he could “play dead” by hanging upside down from her wrist. By the end of the evening Mr. Wooten was utterly charmed, and Poe was eating out of the hand of his former enemy, literally. As Ellie lay in her bed that night, she thought about Poe’s future. She wished she could stop time and put off forever the moment that Poe would have to leave. The weeks since his hatching had passed so quickly, she thought, and now Poe was almost all grown up. In her heart she knew that she couldn’t stop time, any more than she could hurry it to bring her tenth birthday in July. When her father came to tuck her into bed and say good night, she hugged him extra hard. 88

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The last day of school was bittersweet for Ellie. She was glad that summer vacation was beginning and that she and Mimi had been assigned to the same class again in fifth grade. Ricky Collins would be in their class too, but during the past week or so Ellie had begun to feel differently about him. Yesterday during Ellie’s oral presentation on the Ancient Greeks, Ricky had listened attentively and had actually complimented her clay model of the Parthenon. Miss Peterson had seen a change in Ricky, too, and had praised his “growing maturity and cooperation” in his final report card. But Ellie also felt sad because of the likelihood that Erin would not be returning in the fall to teach music at Lakeview. Earlier she had seen some of the other teachers hugging Erin in the hall and wishing her luck. The giant wooden musical note that the 89


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“Save the Music” committee had displayed in front of the school was painted red mid-way up, indicating that $50,000—half of the total goal—had been raised so far. Although Mrs. Wooten maintained an optimistic outlook (“Always look at the glass as half-full, not half-empty,” she was fond of saying, much to Ellie’s annoyance), her daughter was a born worrier and a pessimist at heart. Ellie worried equally about what she could control (her grades, her clothes) and about what she could not (her freckles, the weather on her upcoming outdoor birthday party). And lately she had begun to worry about something she had once been able to control but could no longer—Poe.

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As Poe grew in size (he now measured nearly fifteen inches from the tip of his beak to the end of his tail and weighed almost one pound), he was becoming more of what Miss Peterson would call a “handful.” Poe had outgrown his original birdcage, and Mr. Wooten had constructed a larger one made of chicken wire nailed to a wood frame. The new cage overwhelmed Ellie’s small room, so Poe had taken up residence in the Wootens’ seldom-used formal dining room, next to the aquarium. Poe’s physical growth was accompanied by a greater need for supervision when he was not in his cage. Although he remained affectionate and playful, his play sometimes turned innocently destructive. For instance, he was no longer allowed to perch on the piano after he was found pecking on the keyboard and left beak marks on some of the black keys. He was also fascinated by the tropical fish in the aquarium and pecked relentlessly at the glass, alarming the fish and necessitating that the tank be moved to the living room. Then, too, there was his penchant for swinging on the crystal chandelier and pecking at the cut glass, producing a terrible racket. Finally, and most inconveniently, there was Poe’s unpleasant habit of leaving what Mrs. Wooten euphemistically termed his “calling card” anywhere he pleased; Poe taught the Wootens that it is impossi91


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ble to housebreak a crow. Poe’s poop was easy enough to wipe off the dining table, and the swirling pattern of the oriental rug “disguised all sins” (another of Mrs. Wooten’s euphemisms). Cleaning the chandelier was possible with a lot of patience and paper towels, but Mrs. Wooten declared the soiled curtains a lost cause. “Oh well, I’ve been wanting to redecorate anyway—that fabric was a mistake in the first place,” said Mrs. Wooten, looking on the bright side, as usual. But until her husband’s painting career took off again she would have to settle for sending the curtains to the dry cleaner. Even that would be too expensive, she suspected, so she simply took the curtains down and stored them in the attic.

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The most troublesome development was that Poe finally discovered his voice. Up until now the young crow had produced an array of sounds—low, throaty squawks, croaks and rattles—but his first real caw took everyone by surprise. The family was eating dinner informally in the kitchen, having left Poe to dine in more elegant surroundings in the now-curtainless bay window of the dining room. His alarmed caws brought all three Wootens running. The cause of Poe’s distress was the sight of Butterball crouched menacingly on other side of the window. When Ellie rapped sharply on the glass, the cat slunk away, taking his sweet time about it, as cats will. Poe’s alarmed caws continued until the feline predator was completely out of sight. Having discovered his caw, and its powerful effect on the members of his adoptive family, Poe began to caw any time he wanted attention, which was most of the time. He cawed when it was time for his morning feeding (Ellie surrendered any hope of sleeping later during vacation), he cawed when his water dish ran low, and he cawed when he wanted to play. Cawing was not the only new trick in Poe’s vocal repertoire. More surprisingly, he learned to mimic the sound of a telephone ringing. The first time it happened Mr. Wooten was alone in the house. He heard the phone ring and went to the nearest extension 93


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to answer it. There was no one on the line. Mr. Wooten scratched his head, relieved to have missed another probable call from his agent. The ringing continued, though. Puzzled, he traced the sound to the dining room, where he found Poe “ringing” in perfect cadence. Having spent so much of his impressionable youth in Mrs. Wooten’s study, Poe must have made the association between the sound of the phone ringing and a person’s response, and the brainy bird had rightly concluded that ringing was an effective way to attract attention. Once Poe learned this trick the Wootens were constantly confused— and amused—whenever the phone rang. It was becoming all too clear, even to Ellie, that Poe’s days as a family pet were numbered. Now that he was nearly full-grown, the crow needed more space and attention than the Wootens could provide. As Poe’s antics became more bothersome, Ellie reluctantly concluded that he might be better off living outside with other crows. She decided that she would set him free on the Fourth of July, Independence Day and the day after her own birthday. By then the crow would be twelve weeks old and, Ellie hoped, ready to begin a new life in the wild. Meanwhile Ellie planned to spend as much time with Poe as possible.

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The first two weeks of summer vacation passed quickly. Ellie helped her mother plant the vegetable seedlings outside in the family’s garden. They made a scarecrow (or “scare-Poe,” as Mrs. Wooten dubbed it) using some of Ellie’s outgrown clothes and shoes. The scarecrow didn’t deter the crows, but the netting that Mrs. Wooten put up to keep out the rabbits did. During the summer’s first heat wave, Ellie and Mimi set up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk in front of the Wootens’ house. They brought Poe outside and placed his cage under a nearby shade tree, so that the passers-by could admire him, and hopefully linger long enough to pay a quarter for a cup of lemonade. As she fielded people’s questions about her unusual pet, Ellie felt like a proud mother showing off her baby in its carriage. The girls caught a glimpse of Mrs. Smitty peering through the ruffled curtains on her front windows, and they were initially dismayed when she came out to chat. But all her talking made her thirsty, and she bought three cups of lemonade. At the end of the afternoon the girls donated the entire proceeds ($12.75) to the “Save the Music” fund. The two friends also sold raffle tickets door-to-door in the neighborhood. They put Poe (temporarily housed in his old birdcage) in the back of a wagon that they wheeled along after them. As Mrs. Wooten had predicted, bringing Poe along proved to be an excellent 96

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conversation starter: “A good saleswoman always finds a way to get her foot in the door,” Mrs. Wooten had coached the girls. With Poe’s help, the girls sold $100 worth of raffle tickets to add to the fund. Mrs. Smitty bought two tickets—one for herself and one for Butterball. The grand prize would be a trip to Bermuda, donated by Miss Peterson’s fiancé, a travel agent. Uninterested in travel, Mrs. Smitty instead hoped she would win the gift certificate to the local pet shop. When they couldn’t bear the sweltering heat any longer, Ellie and Mimi rode their bikes to Lakeview’s town pond. Poe could not go swimming, but he cooled off another way; Ellie put his cage within range of the revolving lawn sprinkler, and Poe enjoyed a simulated rain shower. Ellie had a theory, as yet unproven, that it would be beneficial for Poe to spend time outside (albeit in the safety of his cage) to prepare him for his future life in the wild. Evenings, the family cooked outside on the grill (chicken for the elder Wootens and grilled eggplant for Ellie—smothered in steak sauce it was palatable enough). While the family ate, Poe watched from his cage next to the picnic table on the lawn. “I wonder if Poe’s crow parents can see him and if they recognize him. Maybe they’re talking to him right now,” Ellie said, hearing some cawing from the trees above. Mr. and Mrs. Wooten didn’t argue their 97


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daughter’s earnest logic and indulged her by lugging the heavy cage in and out of the house, so that Poe could acclimate himself to the great outdoors. The family had to keep a close eye on the cage, however, in the event that Butterball decided to pay another visit. The only thing that was not idyllic about the start of summer was the fact that Mr. Wooten still had made no progress toward his goal of finding “a new direction” for his work. Now instead of cursing the crows, the frustrated artist blamed the “ungodly heat” for his inability to paint. He kept several fans running at top speed in his studio, to no avail (except to inflate the electric bill, his wife pointed out). The prospect of having nothing to exhibit in the fall gallery show would have made him sweat even if the studio were air-conditioned. He was pinning his creative hopes on having the week after Ellie’s birthday entirely to himself. Ellie and Mrs. Wooten had been invited to spend that week with the Lowells at their beach house. In leaving her husband behind to work in peace, Mrs. Wooten said she was looking forward to “plopping down on the porch with a good book.” Ellie looked forward to swimming in the ocean and sailing on the Lowells’ boat. Mr. and Mrs. Wooten also thought it would be good for their daughter to have a change of scene immediately following the difficult task of releasing Poe. 98

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All Ellie’s worries about the weather on her birthday vanished when she awoke to a glorious summer day, her first as a ten-year-old. After a violent storm the night before, the heat wave had finally broken, leaving a cool breeze in its place. Good weather was important because Ellie’s party would feature an outdoor treasure hunt. Mr. and Mrs. Wooten had stayed up late the night before working on the clues that would lead, hopefully not too easily, to the small “treasures” (beaded jewelry, hair clips, candy, nail polish etc.) hidden in the yard. “This one shouldn’t stump you long,” read the clue for a treasure placed near the stump of the hemlock where Ellie had found Poe’s egg. For a treasure hidden in the family’s mailbox the clue said: “Special delivery.” In the end, the party was a huge success. In addition to Mimi, Ellie invited six other friends from school, and Erin came to “DJ” a dance contest after the treasure hunt. Poe was an honorary guest, and Ellie brought his cage outside during the treasure hunt, “so he can watch,” she said. The girls found all the treasures quickly (“I guess fifth-graders are smarter than we realize,” Mrs. Wooten concluded), and they worked up an appetite for pizza and cake dancing to Erin’s selection of songs. (Sierra ate three slices of pepperoni pizza, and shrugged guiltily when Mrs. Wooten asked if she was still a vegetarian.) Poe was 99


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the center of attention without even trying, especially after Ellie told her friends that this party was also his going-away party. As the guests left they all said “good-bye” to the crow and wished him luck. That night Ellie lay in bed reading the new bird-watching book that Erin had given her as a present. Being ten years old (a double-digit number at last!) made her feel very grown up. She thought she might even be grown up enough to face tomorrow’s difficult task. She hadn’t outgrown her worrying however. She worried about tomorrow’s weather— she hated to think of it raining on Poe’s first day of freedom. She worried that he might not know where to find food, that the other crows might shun him, or worse, that they might attack him as an interloper. She also worried that Butterball might try to eat him. She even worried that the sound of tomorrow’s July Fourth fireworks might frighten him. Most of all, she worried that Poe might forget her and how much she loved him.

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14 Paradise Lost

Ellie was subdued the next morning. Mrs. Wooten tried to keep up a cheery front by talking about the coming week they would spend together at the beach with the Lowells. “If we get an early start we can get there by lunch time, unless the traffic’s bad. It looks like a great beach day!” Mrs. Wooten said brightly. Their packed suitcases stood ready by the back door, and Mrs. Wooten was bustling around collecting odds and ends they would need for the trip: sunscreen, hats, beach towels, bug spray, books, and a camera. Ellie shrugged. “At least the good weather means Poe won’t have to spend his first day outside in the rain,” she thought. Ellie was in no hurry to hit the road, since leaving meant saying a final farewell to Poe. She ate her breakfast very slowly, as though it were her own last meal. 101


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At eight-thirty, when the suitcases, beach umbrella, and lounge chairs were loaded into family’s van and Ellie’s bike was secured to the bike rack, Mrs. Wooten was ready to go. The time had come to set Poe free. Ellie had already procrastinated by insisting on feeding him a second breakfast to tide him over in case he couldn’t find food right away. Her mother was impatient to leave, and Ellie knew that there was no point in delaying the inevitable. Mr. Wooten carried Poe’s cage to the back porch, and kneeling beside it, Ellie opened the cage door. She stroked his glossy black feathers and said a last good-bye. “I’ll miss you. Be careful out there,” she told Poe tenderly. If the crow sensed that this was a momentous occasion he didn’t show it; he cocked his head and gripped tightly to her arm. Ellie’s eyes were wet and there was lump in her throat as she carried Poe to the back yard toward the pinewoods where the wild crows roosted. “Okay, buddy, take it easy,” she said as she raised her arm high and gave it a little shake, her signal for Poe to take off. Poe hesitated for a moment, as if questioning the permission Ellie had given him, or perhaps unwilling to appear in a hurry to depart. Then he lifted his broad wings, gave a few powerful strokes and flew away toward the trees. Ellie watched as he soared, admiring how easily he flew. Landing near the top of 102

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a small tree he rested briefly then took off again, circled once and finally disappeared into the woods. Ellie felt both filled with emotion and empty. She was proud, and relieved, that Poe flew so confidently, as if he had a familiar destination in mind. But her stomach felt hollow, as if she had been kicked. She felt hot tears well up in her eyes and blinked them back. Ellie waited a few minutes to see if Poe would reappear, but when he didn’t she turned and trudged solemnly back toward the house. Watching this scene from the back porch, Mr. and Mrs. Wooten admired Ellie for facing this heartbreaking task so bravely. Mrs. Wooten, feeling a lump in her own throat, remarked honestly, “I’ll miss Poe, but I won’t miss the mess he made.” Mr. Wooten gazed into the distance and said, “She’s growing up fast, isn’t she?”

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Mrs. Wooten had been right, as usual. The trip to visit the Lowells’ beach house was just the right tonic to lift Ellie’s spirits and to take her mind off missing Poe. To everyone’s great satisfaction, the glorious summer weather continued, and it was hard to feel blue amidst all the summer activity. Ellie and Mimi spent nearly all their time on the beach, dashing in and out of the ocean to cool off, while the adults watched from the shade of the deep porch overlooking the water. Professor Lowell and Mrs. Wooten dove into their summer reading, all the while bemoaning the fact that “kids these days watch too much TV.” The Lowells didn’t have a TV at their beach house, but everyone was too busy to mind. Mrs. Lowell and Deirdre played tennis, and Cuatro held court as a lifeguard at the club pool surrounded by a bevy of girls his age. Although forewarned by Ellie, poor Mrs. Wooten had slipped and called Deirdre “Dede” and had gotten an icy stare in return. Mrs. Wooten didn’t make that mistake again. When the shore breeze came up in the afternoon, Professor Lowell would rig his sailboat, “The Gentleman’s Sea,” and take everyone out for a trip around the harbor. For dinner they cooked fresh fish on the grill, and one night there was lobster. Ellie renewed her vegetarian vows after witnessing Professor Lowell drop the lobsters alive and kicking into a huge cauldron of boiling water. “It’s bar-bar-ic!” she protested. 104

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Ellie was having so much fun that she only thought of Poe from time to time. Once when she and Mimi were netting minnows on the beach, a pair of crows landed next to a crab shell that a seagull had let drop. As the gull shrieked in protest, the crows savored their crabmeat bounty, and Ellie was reminded of Poe, and of what Ricky had said about crows eating anything, even road-kill. She wondered if Poe would find his way to the seashore some day and whether he would develop a taste for seafood, even lobster. Ellie thought again of Poe one evening when Professor Lowell offered the adults a round of Old Crow, his favorite brand of whiskey. Mrs. Lowell giggled, “My ‘Owl’ can’t live without his Old Crow.” One morning Ellie awoke to the sound of several crows honking like bicycle horns in the tree outside her open window, and in her half-sleep she thought it was Poe demanding his morning meal. Most mornings, it was the dull roar of the waves and the shrill cries of the gulls that registered first; by bedtime she was so worn out from the day’s activities that she could have slept soundly with a dozen of crows cawing directly into her ear. On the fourth day of the visit, Mr. Wooten phoned early in the morning with some urgent news. “Put Ellie on the line,” he demanded, his voice agitated. 105


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“It’s too early for ‘please’ I guess,” Deirdre sniffed, passing the phone to Ellie. The teenager was grumpy at having to get up early for a tennis lesson. “It’s the only time the pro has available all day, dear, and you need to work on your backhand before the club championships,” Mrs. Lowell reminded her older daughter, as they left for the tennis club. “You’ll never believe what happened last night, honey,” Mr. Wooten started once Ellie was on the line. “I was up way past midnight painting. It was raining here, and the wind was howling. Suddenly, I heard this rapping sound, like someone knocking— but no one was at the door. I thought I must be hearing things, but then the rapping started again. I couldn’t figure it out until I looked at the window—and there was Poe, sitting right on the windowsill, pecking at the glass.” “Are you sure it was Poe?” Ellie asked dubiously. “I’m positive, because when I opened the window he flew right in. He landed on top of my easel. He was soaking wet and he let me dry him off with a towel. I found some peanuts, and we played fetch and ‘which hand?’ He even did his ringing phone trick if I ignored him and tried to paint some more. When I was ready to pack it in for the night, I showed him the open window. The problem was, he refused to leave. I guess he didn’t want to go back out in the 106

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rain. So I left him in the studio for the night. I figured, what harm could he do? I left the window open in case he changed his mind.” “Poe slept in your studio?” asked Ellie in disbelief. “Well I don’t know how much he slept because when I came back this morning, there was a BIG difference,” Mr. Wooten reported. “A big difference?” echoed Ellie. “Dad, what are you talking about?” “A big difference in the painting I was working on. It was different—and better—than when I left,” the artist insisted. “Different, how?” said Ellie skeptically. She wished that her mother had been listening to this conversation—maybe she’d understand what he meant. “He—Poe—stuck bits of trash onto my painting. The paint was still wet, and the trash stuck right onto the canvas. A polluted landscape—it’s the perfect political statement! I’m going to call my new series Paradise Lost. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done!” Mr. Wooten was shouting with excitement. “Mo-omm!” Now Ellie was shouting too. Covering the receiver, she said, “I think Dad has finally lost it.” She held out the phone to Mrs. Wooten and explained, “He says Poe put trash on his painting, and he’s happy about it. Here, you’d better talk to him.” 107


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Mrs. Wooten took the phone into another room for privacy, and when she eventually re-emerged she looked perplexed. “I don’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about, but I’ve never seen him so excited about his work. Who knows? This could be that ‘new direction’ he’s been talking about. Maybe we should stay here a little while longer and let him concentrate on his painting.” “Do you think he’ll be okay?” Ellie asked, referring to Poe. “Yes, I think he’ll be just fine,” replied Mrs. Wooten. “After all, he has Poe keeping an eye on him, and I’ve heard that crows are very intelligent birds.” Ellie couldn’t argue with that, and the Lowells said they would be delighted to have Ellie and her mother stay as long as they liked.

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15 The ArtiSt'S MuSe

CHAPTER

Ellie and her mother enjoyed another ten days with the Lowells at their beach house. During that time Mr. Wooten phoned regularly to report on his progress and on Poe’s continued presence—and inspiration—in the studio. Each day Poe returned and hung around watching the artist paint. Mr. Wooten left the studio window open so that the crow could come and go as he pleased, day or night. And, just as he had that first wild night, Poe delivered little bits of litter—shiny gum foils, colorful candy wrappers, crumpled store receipts, cigarette butts, bottle caps, plastic straws, and an assortment of coins and buttons. Everything that Poe collected and deposited on the studio windowsill, Mr. Wooten incorporated into his new paintings. The studio walls were filled with new landscapes— paintings of mountains and valleys, rivers and 109


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lakes, hills and fields—all littered with the bits of trash that Poe supplied. Mr. Wooten was tremendously excited about his new paintings and invited his agent, Mr. Rimbaud, to Lakeview to see for himself what the artist called his “new direction.” Mr. Wooten was careful not to mention anything about the help he had had from Poe, however. Equal parts elated and relieved, the agent rushed back to the city to inform his coterie of collectors and, of course, the critics about the artist’s renewed creativity. He felt sure that the addition of what he called “urban flotsam and jetsam” (or more plainly, trash) would put Mr. Wooten’s paintings back on the cutting edge of the art world, and hopefully gain the artist lots of publicity. “I love it! Wooten you’re going be ‘The Next Big Thing,’” the agent gushed. “I’ll get you on the cover of Art World magazine. I can see the headline now: ‘Trashy Chic: Wooten Cleans Up.’ You’re going to be hot—I feel it!” With such lavish encouragement the artist was more productive than ever and finished a dozen new paintings while his wife and daughter were away at the beach. After two weeks as guests of the Lowell family, Ellie and Mrs. Wooten were looking forward to being home again. Ellie was eager to see Poe, and Mrs. Wooten was anxious about making the final 110

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preparations for the “Save the Music” auction. After savoring their last day on the beach, they gathered their belongings, said their thank-yous, exchanged hugs all around, and then headed home, with their deep suntans and the sand in the minivan as souvenirs. Arriving home after dark (the traffic was terrible), Ellie and her mother were not surprised to see the light still shining in Mr. Wooten’s studio. Ellie, who raced straight to the studio from the van, wriggled free of her father’s hug to ask excitedly, “Where is he?” As if on cue, Poe swooped in through the open window and, seeing Ellie, landed on the girl’s shoulder. She reached around to stroke his strong back and fully-grown tail feathers. “How are you, boy? I think you’ve grown,” she said softly. In the crow’s beak was a rubber band. Ellie took it and handed it to her father. “I think this is for you, Dad.” The artist stuck it into the thick wet paint of his current work-in-progress, a view of a lake overflowing with bottle caps and plastic straws. “I’m calling this one Don’t Drink the Water,” he said with a satisfied smile. Ellie nodded and looked around the studio. The new paintings displayed floor-to-ceiling on the studio’s walls were definitely different. “My father 111


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has that right,” she thought to herself. She was no art critic, but she had listened to enough of her parents’ dinner-table conversations to know that, in the cold calculus of the art world, “change equals good” and that the right kind of change sells paintings. “A great artist must constantly reinvent himself, like Picasso,” her father had remarked more than once. She hoped that the “new direction” in which her father had embarked was the right one. But at the moment Poe’s direction was Ellie’s foremost concern. “Where’s he going?” she asked in dismay, as the crow flew out the window. “On a treasure hunt for me,” replied the no-longer-frustrated artist, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that he and a crow were now creative collaborators. After she helped her mother unload the luggage, Ellie returned to the studio in her pajamas to say good night to her father and to Poe. In the brief time it had taken Ellie to change clothes and brush her teeth, Poe already had presented the artist with several more bits of material, including a plastic lid from a carryout coffee cup, a hardened wad of bubble gum, and a popsicle stick. Mr. Wooten was busy finding just the right spot to attach each item to the painting. As Poe perched on her father’s easel, Ellie fed him a handful of peanuts. She went inside shortly to go to 112

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bed, and Poe disappeared on another of his trash-picking errands for the artist.

That night Ellie had a series of odd dreams. The strangest featured her father dressed in a tuxedo fishing from the stern of the Lowells’ boat and catching nothing but empty bottles of Old Crow whiskey, while Erin and Poe swam alongside the craft, unable to climb aboard. Ellie tried in vain to throw them a life preserver but kept losing hold of the rope. “Where did that come from?” she wondered when she awoke. She dozed until half-past nine, trying to push her worries aside by thinking of all the fun she and Mimi had had at the beach. 113


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As she was brushing her hair Ellie heard a tapping on the window, and there was Poe, head cocked and eyes bright. She opened the window and let him in whispering, “Shhh! You’re not supposed to be in the house.” They played a few of their old games together, and then she heard her mother calling, “Ellie, are you up yet? Do you want some breakfast?” She let Poe out the window and went to the kitchen. “I think Poe misses us,” Ellie announced to her mother. “He’s lonely—can’t we let him move back in?” she pleaded. “Now that he and Dad are friends it would be different,” she reasoned. “I don’t think that would be the right thing for Poe, or us,” said Mrs. Wooten kindly. “This morning I phoned Officer Bertelli, that nice game warden, and asked her what she thought of Poe’s visits. She said that it’s perfectly normal for him to stay close through the summer, but that by autumn he’ll come back less and less often. She said that right now he’s testing his independence, but that soon he’ll be ready to leave us behind. She suggested that we resist the temptation to feed him, however, or else he won’t learn to find food for himself.” Ellie understood this logic, but she thought it was supremely ironic that once her father met a crow that actually helped his work the family couldn’t keep it. 114

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She wasn’t old enough to have heard of artists and their muses, but she instinctively recognized the contribution Poe had made to Mr. Wooten’s creative comeback. “Dad said he was looking for inspiration,” she recalled. “I’ll bet he never thought he’d find it in a crow!” As she thought about it more deeply, however, she realized that her father really didn’t need Poe’s help any longer—anyone could pick up trash, after all. Now that the artist had shaken his painter’s block and had regained his confidence, he was in control of his own destiny. Poe had merely helped the painter redirect his creative energy. Now it was the family’s turn to help Poe take charge of his own destiny by loving him enough to let him go for a second time, and for good.

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DINNER GUESTS

CHAPTER

16 Dinner GueStS

With just a week left before the “Save the Music” auction, Mrs. Wooten was in full-swing organizing the last minute details of the important fundraising event. To date, the PTO committee had raised $60,000—a great deal of money to be sure, but still $40,000 short of their goal. Most of the amount raised so far had come from large corporations based in the city. A grant received from a local arts foundation and a sizable contribution from an anonymous benefactor had substantially increased the total. But, by and large, the Lakeview community was not wealthy, and many families already had contributed as much as they could comfortably afford. If the auction did not make up the difference, the school’s music program could not continue, and Erin would lose her job. Erin had spent the past week in the city looking for other jobs, but so far she hadn’t 116

found one. The stakes were high, and even Mrs. Wooten’s earthquake-proof optimism was beginning to show fault lines. “I’m worried,” Mrs. Wooten admitted, talking to another PTO member on the phone. “We only have 50 couples coming to the auction dinner. That means we’ll have to raise $800 from every family present. Even if people are able to contribute that kind of money, I don’t know if the items we plan to auction will bring the bidding up that high.” The PTO’s auction committee had worked very hard to persuade local businesses and individuals to donate various items that the dinner guests would bid on. Some of the most valuable items were: a digital camera; a dinner for two at the town’s best restaurant; a week at the Lowells’ beach house; a new pair of skis and boots; and two round-trip plane tickets to Paris. There were also some items whose value was harder to predict, including a small bench hand-painted by the kindergarten class at Lakeview, an antique cuckoo clock unearthed in someone’s cellar, and an entire weekend of baby-sitting by Erin. Ellie hoped her parents could afford to be the highest bidder on the last item. The auction dinner was also when the winners of the raffle would be announced. The topic of the auction arose one evening when the Wootens had invited the artist’s agent, Mr. 117


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Rimbaud, to eat dinner with them. The agent wished to discuss Mr. Wooten’s upcoming gallery show and the publicity campaign he had in mind to re-launch the artist’s stalled career. Even though she had always insisted that Mr. Rimbaud was an “unbearable snob,” Mrs. Wooten had conceded that it would be diplomatic to invite him to dinner. She had spent the better part of the afternoon fretting over what to serve a man accustomed to being wined and dined in the city’s finest restaurants. She couldn’t decide between veal cutlets or lamb chops. “Why does he have to eat baby animals?” Ellie had protested. Lamb was chosen over Ellie’s objections, since tonight she would be eating pasta in the kitchen, while the adults sat down to talk business in the dining room. Earlier Ellie had helped her mother clean any remaining traces of Poe off the chandelier and the chair cushions. During the main course, the agent informed the Wootens that he planned to ask upwards of $10,000 per painting for the works in the artist’s new series. Stunned at this unexpectedly high valuation, the artist and his wife simultaneously choked on their lamb chops. After they swallowed hard and recovered their composure, they grew giddy with excitement about the imminent improvement in their financial situation. 118

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Over coffee the agent made a surprising proposal: “What if we donate one of your new paintings to your school’s auction?” he suggested. “Oh goodness, I don’t think any of the parents in our school are serious art collectors,” Mrs. Wooten said. “No, of course not,” Mr. Rimbaud sniffed. “My dear, you miss my point entirely. I will get the word around to the top collectors in the city, and we’ll invite them all—and the press—to your school’s little auction. The collectors will each want to be the first to own one of the new series and they’ll bid up the price. And if they do drive up the price, then we can charge more for the paintings in the fall gallery show. Of course, I couldn’t possibly forego my commission, but even after my fee your painting should net a princely sum for your little cause,” the agent noted, keeping his eye fixed firmly on his own bottom line. The Wootens agreed wholeheartedly to the agent’s proposal, and Mr. Rimbaud rose to take his leave. Just then, there was a loud tapping at the window. They all turned to see Poe looking in. On an impulse Mr. Wooten opened the window and let the crow in. Poe landed gracefully on the chandelier and cawed a hearty greeting. “Rimbaud, I’d like to introduce you to my assistant, Poe the Crow,” the artist said with mock seriousness. 119


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The smooth-talking agent was flustered at the sight of a large, jet-black bird swinging on the chandelier. At first he looked alarmed, then he froze in fear as Poe swooped down and began to pick at the uneaten meat still clinging to the chop on his plate. “I gather crows aren’t a regular sight at restaurants in the city,” Mrs. Wooten deadpanned, playing along with the game. For once the agent was speechless, and his face turned ashen. When Poe flew out the window carrying a bit of meat in his beak, the panicked agent backed hastily out of the room, muttering something about “crazy artists and cheap wine not mixing well.” The Wootens laughed and watched from the window as the agent ran toward his car. They agreed that Poe had both brains and an uncanny sense of timing.

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Mr. and Mrs. Wooten couldn’t wait to tell Ellie about Poe’s latest nocturnal visit and about Mr. Rimbaud’s exciting idea—and hasty departure. Ellie was already in bed, reading a book. She grinned broadly as she listened to the part about how the crow had snatched food right off the agent’s plate. “I thought we weren’t supposed to feed Poe anymore,” she teased. Her father laughed and joked, “Then I guess you and Poe both have a bone to pick with Mr. Rimbaud!” Mrs. Wooten smiled. “Well, at least Poe has a better sense of humor than that patronizing Mr. Rimbaud!” she noted. Later that night, flushed with the anticipation of a positive cash flow, Mr. and Mrs. Wooten began to plan the trip the family would take next summer to see the Grand Canyon.

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THE AUCTION

CHAPTER

17 Th

e

Auction

The day of the auction Mrs. Wooten was a bundle of nervous energy. In the morning she and the other PTO volunteers set up big round tables and folding chairs in the school’s cafeteria and covered them with crisp white tablecloths. Ellie and Erin helped put up the theme decorations: black and white balloons with musical notes printed on them, small candles in the shape of drums, and kazoos dangling from crepe paper streamers. The centerpiece of each table was a French horn overflowing like a cornucopia with fresh fruit. The chicken dinner (“Sorry, Ellie, chicken is what everyone serves at charity events,” Mrs. Wooten said) would be provided at cost by the catering company managed by Ricky Collins’ parents. Sierra’s mother, who had volunteered to sell raffle tickets at the door, brought her own vegetarian dinner. Several of the younger teachers, including 122

Miss Peterson and of course, Erin, had volunteered to serve the meals. As promised, Mr. Rimbaud had invited the city’s five foremost art collectors to attend the fundraiser. A few days ago Mrs. Wooten had inquired as to whether they would be dining along with the other guests, and whether they would like to reserve their own table. The agent had replied disdainfully, “Dear me, no! They’ve come for the art, not the rubber chicken.” The agent himself had declined, saying that he “regrettably had a prior engagement.” Mr. Rimbaud had arranged for a fleet of limousines to deliver the collectors to the school in time for the auction. For maximum dramatic effect, Mr. Wooten’s painting was to be the final item auctioned. The painting now stood draped with a velvet cloth on an easel beside the podium.

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Even though Mrs. Wooten had checked and re-checked all the final details, she still wanted to arrive an hour before the guests were due, just to make sure that everything went without a hitch. As she gave a final glance around the festively decorated cafeteria, Mrs. Wooten was satisfied with what she saw; the Lakeview community had really pulled together to get this important event off the ground. She prayed that it would be a success. During dinner the Wootens were seated next to the Lowells, who had returned from their beach house especially for the big event. Children were not officially invited, but as chairwoman, Mrs. Wooten had made an exception for her own daughter so long as Ellie made herself useful. Ricky Collins also was present to help his parents with the catering. Ellie and Ricky stayed in the kitchen and assisted by putting rolls into baskets, garnishing each plate of chicken with a sprig of parsley, and filling coffee creamers and sugar bowls. Ricky was on his best behavior and caused only a minor disturbance when he accidentally dropped a heavy bag of ice on his own foot. Once the meal had been served, Ellie found an empty chair in the back of the room. She didn’t want to miss the excitement of the auction. Lakeview’s principal, Mr. Murray, acting as master of ceremonies and auctioneer, tested the microphone 124

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and then began a short opening speech. “I cannot emphasize enough the value of teaching our children to appreciate and to play music. Studies have shown that participation in music classes enhances brain development and helps kids stay in school and out of trouble,” he stated. He then thanked the PTO and the community for working so hard and contributing so generously to the “Save the Music” fund. Next, Principal Murray drew the winning raffle tickets out of an enormous black cauldron (last used —and then filled with yellow yarn to look like spaghetti—for the first grade’s performance of a play based on Strega Nona). The grand prize, a trip to Bermuda, went to none other than the Wootens' meddlesome neighbor, Mrs. Smitty, to whom Ellie had sold the winning ticket. The Lowells won one of the lesser prizes, a free dog grooming at the Hair of the Dog pet salon; their poodle, Gigi (“Georgina” to Deirdre) could use that after a summer at the beach. Miss Peterson was pleased with her prize, a manicure and facial at the local health spa. “I’ll make an appointment before my wedding day next week,” she declared in thanks. Upon conclusion of the raffle drawing, Mr. Murray announced that, all totaled, sales of the $5 raffle tickets had netted almost $3,000. The guests 125


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applauded enthusiastically, but Mrs. Wooten bit her lip, hoping that her husband’s painting would fetch as much as the agent had said it would. The auctioned items would have to bring in at least $37,000. As if reading his wife’s mind, the artist leaned over and whispered into her ear, “What if Rimbaud was wrong, and no one bids on my painting? Maybe those collectors aren’t even coming,” he fretted, scanning the faces in the room. “Don’t worry, dear,” Mrs. Wooten replied, patting her husband’s hand, but her eye was fixed anxiously on the main entrance, as if willing the door to open. As the teacher-waiters cleared the dessert plates and served coffee, the auction finally got underway with bidding on, fittingly enough, a child-sized drum set donated by the local music store. Mrs. Collins was the high bidder at $75; she planned to give it to Ricky’s equally boisterous little brother, Bobby, a secondgrader everyone called “Bam-Bam.” The room fell silent, however, when Principal Murray held up the antique cuckoo clock, an item so odd-looking (and dusty) that it must have been buried in someone’s cellar for quite some time. “Do I hear $25?” he asked in his best auctioneer voice. “I’m told it keeps perfect time,” he said, trying to drum up interest. No one spoke up until the kindergarten teacher 126

THE AUCTION

gallantly offered the suggested minimum bid. “It will be a fun way to teach telling time,” she explained to her dinner companions, and indeed, the teacher would hang the clock in her classroom to the hourly delight of her young students. The next several items readily brought slightly higher amounts: $100 for brunch for four at a nearby country inn; $125 for a fishing rod and tackle box; $150 for a case of wine; and $325 for lawn services by Lakeview Landscaping. The auction was a third of the way through and less than $1,000 had been raised. Mrs. Wooten looked anxiously around the room and saw only familiar faces—no one resembling a big city art collector had arrived yet. The bidding continued at a fast clip, with Principal Murray in fine voice as he warmed up to his role as auctioneer. The digital camera, the skis and boots, and a series of yoga lessons each brought around $500. A pair of rugged mountain bikes fetched $850 from the gym teacher. Watching from the rear of the room, Ellie held her breath as the bidding began for the weekend of babysitting donated by Erin. The Wootens were first off the mark with a bid of $200. The parents of triplets in the kindergarten class raised the bidding to $225. Ellie looked at Erin across the room and saw her shudder at that prospect. The bidding seesawed back 127


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and forth until finally the Wootens triumphed with a bid of $400. Ellie let out her breath and whooped, and Erin waved and gave her the thumbs-up sign. The next item on the slate was a week at the Lowell family’s beach house. Mrs. Lowell was dismayed when Mr. Collins opened the bidding. “The Collins boys will wreck the place in matter of minutes,” she whispered to Mrs. Wooten. To the Lowells’ great relief, the school nurse and her husband, whose three children were all grown up, ultimately topped all other parties with a bid of $1,250. Next there was spirited bidding between two individuals for the tickets to Paris, and in the end, the trip went for $1,800, the highest amount so far. By this time, the auction was nearly over. The total stood at almost $10,000, but still there was no sign of the promised collectors. With just one item left to auction before her husband’s painting, Mrs. Wooten left her seat to step outside for a breath of fresh air. She was pacing near the main entrance when she spotted five black limousines pulling into the school’s parking lot. She raced back to her seat in time to hear Principal Murray bring the gavel down on the $800 sale of a set of golf clubs. The entrance of five, unfamiliar latecomers caused quite a stir among the tight-knit Lakeview crowd. In sharp contrast to the printed sundresses 128

THE AUCTION

and bright sport shirts worn by most of the guests, the collectors wore the official urban uniform of black. The three men were almost indistinguishable in their black designer-jeans and black knit turtlenecks. Mrs. Wooten winced to think of their discomfort when they discovered that the cafeteria was not air-conditioned. The two women, both bottle-blond, wore nearly identical short black dresses and black high-heeled sandals. Eyeing them from a distance, Ellie couldn’t help thinking that they resembled nothing so much as a flock of crows. She recalled the crow counting rhyme that Erin had taught her and hoped that “five for rich” would hold true in this instance. With a dramatic flourish, Principal Murray unveiled Mr. Wooten’s painting. Disposable World, drew audible gasps from the collectors assembled at the side of the room. The large-scale painting was a map of the planet Earth with the continents shaped from bits of trash stuck to the canvas. North America, formed entirely of chewed bubble gum, was bright pink. South America was a tangle of green rubber bands. Europe was the muted brown and white of cigarette butts, while Africa shone with the silver of foil gum wrappers. Asia was made of multi-colored bottle tops, and Australia was fashioned out of popsicle sticks and drinking straws. Antarctica was shaped from little wooden ice cream spoons. 129


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Principal Murray, whose collecting expertise was limited to baseball cards, thought an opening bid of $500 might be appropriate. But before the auctioneer could even suggest an amount, one of the collectors shouted out an opening bid of $5,000. The audience drew its collective breath sharply. A second collector doubled that amount with a bid of $10,000. Quickly another jumped in at $12,000. Principal Murray did his best to keep order, but the collectors interrupted him as they scrambled to outbid each other, while the Lakeview parents watched in awe. “$13,000!” shouted one. “$14,000!” countered another. “$15,000!” signaled a third. “Do I hear $16,000?” a stunned Principal Murray asked when the bidding paused long enough for him to get a word in. “$20,000!” One of the collectors had boldly taken the bidding to a new level in the hopes of trumping the competition. “$25,000!” shouted another collector whose ego did not take kindly to being trumped. The bidding now bounced back and forth like a ping-pong ball between these two collectors: “$30,000!” “$32,000!” “$34,000!” 130

THE AUCTION

“$36,000!” “$38,000!” “$40,000!” The bidding rally stopped suddenly, as if one of the players had netted the ball. “Do I hear $41,000?” Principal Murray asked timidly. The tense silence continued for an agonizing moment as everyone stared at the group of collectors. Finally the auctioneer rapped his gavel on the podium and declared, “Sold! For $40,000 to the—to the man in black!” he stammered, trying to identify the mystery bidder. The crowd broke into sustained applause as the victorious man in black came forward to shake hands with the principal and the artist. Mrs. Wooten hugged her husband, and across the room Erin hugged Ellie. The breathtaking amount of the winning bid saved both Lakeview’s music program and Mr. Wooten’s career in one fell swoop. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you enough,” Erin said a few moments later as she and the Wooten family posed together in front of Disposable World. A photographer from the local newspaper snapped pictures for a front-page story in the next day’s edition, while a reporter interviewed the elated artist and his proud wife and daughter. “I couldn’t have done it without Poe’s help,” the artist said truthfully and squeezed Ellie’s hand. 131


DON'T FORGET TO CALL

18 Don't Forget to Call

CHAPTER

The headline in the next morning’s Lakeview Herald read: “Wooten Donates Work and Saves the Music: Bidding Sets New Price Record.” The Wootens’ telephone hardly stopped ringing the day after the auction. Mrs. Wooten received countless calls from other parents at Lakeview Elementary commending her for the stupendous results of the fundraising effort. There had been many doubters all along, and those who had not always shared Mrs. Wooten’s unshakable optimism were among the first to telephone their congratulations. “I knew we could do it!” declared one of the former naysayers, now anxious to take share in the credit. Mrs. Wooten, ever gracious, thanked each caller warmly, “I couldn’t have done it without your help,” she replied to all regardless of their contribution. At midday Erin arrived driving her father’s 132

pickup truck. In the truck’s flatbed was a thank-you gift for the Wooten family—a small apple tree to plant in the yard. Erin was wearing overalls and carrying a shovel. “I don’t know how to thank you enough for all you’ve done for me and the school. I thought you might like a new tree near the spot where the old hemlock used to be,” she explained to the Wootens. “Apple trees have beautiful blossoms, and the birds like to eat the fruit that falls on the ground. Poe likes apples, doesn’t he?” she asked. Ellie nodded and watched as Erin set about digging a deep hole. Mr. Wooten, too, received his share of congratulatory calls. The first was from his agent, who phoned to announce that he would visit later in the day to discuss the prices he intended to set for the rest of the paintings. Bolstered by the front-page coverage that the auction received in the morning newspaper, he planned to bring along a team from Art World magazine to interview and photograph the artist in his studio. When the agent mentioned that he intended to raise the price on all of Mr. Wooten’s new paintings to $40,000 each, the artist almost dropped the phone in shock. Since the phone line was busy all day, many neighbors dropped by to congratulate the Wootens personally. When Mrs. Wooten caught sight of the 133


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long-winded Mrs. Smitty poised to ring the doorbell, she pushed Ellie toward the door and said, “Tell her I’m in the shower,” and then dashed out of sight. Ellie opened the door, and Mrs. Smitty barged in holding Butterball. “I can’t believe it!” she declared. “All this time I’ve been living next door to a world-famous artist and I had no idea,” she gushed, trying to make amends. “Where’s your father? I want to commission him to do a portrait of my baby,” she said, thrusting Butterball forward. “I don’t think he paints cat portraits, Mrs. Smitty,” Ellie said politely. “He’s allergic.” Mrs. Smitty looked crestfallen. To cheer her up Ellie recalled that her neighbor had won a prize in last night’s raffle. “Remember those raffle tickets I sold you, Mrs. Smitty? Well, you won the grand prize—a trip to Bermuda!” “Oh dear me, I couldn’t possibly go to Bermuda. That’s an island—I’m afraid to fly. And besides, what would I do with my Butterball? He couldn’t stand being left in the kennel with all those horrible barking dogs,” said Mrs. Smitty, shuddering at the very thought. “That’s too bad,” Ellie said. “Why don’t you tell your parents to take the prize?” Mrs. Smitty asked. “And maybe, in exchange, your father could paint Butterball’s 134

DON'T FORGET TO CALL

portrait from a photo? I have a whole album full of photos of my handsome baby,” she cooed, scratching the cat behind his ears. “I can ask my dad—” Ellie offered dubiously. “Ask me what?” Mr. Wooten said, overhearing them as he entered the room. “I wanted to ask you and your lovely wife if you would like to take the trip I won to Bermuda— Butterball and I don’t like to travel,” Mrs. Smitty explained. “In return, I wonder if you would be willing to paint Butterball’s portrait,” she bargained. Mr. Wooten was taken aback at her proposition. “Well, goodness, I’m a landscape painter, not a portraitist. I don’t think I could do justice to a distinguished subject like Butterball. But I would be happy to take the tickets to Bermuda off your hands, if you’re absolutely sure you can’t use them. My wife and I haven’t taken a vacation alone together in years —it would be like a second honeymoon.” “And Erin could baby-sit for me!” Ellie enthusiastically agreed. Later in the day Mr. Rimbaud arrived with the reporter and photographer from Art World in tow. Mr. Wooten invited them all into his studio where he posed for photos in front of his easel. The reporter was curious to know what had inspired the artist’s new Paradise Lost series. “Were 135


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you making a statement about pollution and America’s ‘throwaway culture’? I noticed there’s been a good deal of development in Lakeview recently—I suppose there must be environmental problems even way out here in the country,” said the reporter, looking for an angle. “No, I really didn’t have any political message in mind when I started painting,” the artist answered truthfully. “It was all Poe’s idea.” “Poe?” echoed the confounded reporter. “Wasn’t it Milton who wrote Paradise Lost?” naming another famous poet. As if he had been waiting backstage for his cue, Poe flew in and landed on the photographer’s camera stand. Mr. Rimbaud, startled at the sudden appearance of the crow, shrieked, “Watch out!” to the others. But Poe wasn’t interested in the journalists from Art World. The crow aimed directly for Mr. Rimbaud, and flying low and fast, plucked the toupee right off the top of his head, exposing his shiny bald scalp. Poe kept on flying and disappeared out the window with the toupee dangling from his beak. “Just feathering his nest, I expect,” the artist remarked. The agent, hands raised to conceal his exposed scalp, ran out the door with the photographer and reporter trailing behind. 136

DON'T FORGET TO CALL

“You forgot something,” Mr. Wooten called after Mr. Rimbaud as he heard the agent’s sports car roar away.

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Later Mrs. Wooten sent Ellie outside to pick some vegetables from the garden. It was early evening and the trees in the pinewoods behind the house cast long shadows over the lawn. There was a cool breeze, and Ellie could hear crickets chirping. Summer was winding down. The days were getting shorter, and before long, school would start again. As Ellie approached the vegetable garden, she thought about what Officer Bertelli had said. Poe’s timely visit today to her father’s studio may have been one of his last. The tomatoes and eggplant were ripe, and she picked a few of each. Eggplant parmigiana had become one of her favorite meatless meals. As she was deciding what else to pick, she heard a rustle behind her and turned to look. She saw a large crow sitting on the scarecrow’s shoulder. The bird cawed once and cocked his head. Ellie extended her hand, beckoning. “Poe?” she said hopefully. The crow remained on the scarecrow’s shoulder and pecked idly at its straw hat. In the twilight Ellie couldn’t be sure it was Poe. She took a step closer, and the bird flew away into the woods. Poe didn’t visit Mr. Wooten’s studio again after that day. The artist continued to leave his window open until the cold weather came, but when his paints and fingers started to freeze he shut it tight. 138

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Out of habit he still checked his windowsill for another of Poe’s deliveries but found nothing. Not that he lacked for trash or inspiration—his wife had begun to save him odds and ends she found when she emptied the garbage, and he was painting better than ever all by himself. From time to time, Ellie heard a noise outside her bedroom window and looked out expecting to see Poe’s silhouette, but it was only the sound of a branch brushing the side of the house in the wind. As she lay in bed and listened to the birds singing in the morning, she tried without success to distinguish Poe’s voice among the caws of the other crows. As the weeks passed, the family’s only proof of Poe’s continued presence was the “ringing” they regularly heard outside. More than once, Ellie had heard Poe’s ringing and had seen Mrs. Smitty dash back inside her house to answer the phone, only to re-emerge a moment later, shaking her head in confusion. The mailman, too, had often been noticed rubbing his ears as the mysterious ringing sound followed him on his route. It always made the Wootens smile to think that Poe still retained this particular memory of his short stay with their family. He had not forgotten them after all, and they would never forget him. They just hoped that he wouldn’t forget to call now and then. 139


the end

~

~


About the Authors: Jan Devereux is a graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in English. She now works as a real estate agent. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and three children and the family’s pets (a dog, a cat, a lovebird and a chinchilla). Roxy Vanslette grew up in northern Vermont and majored in Art Education at the University of Vermont. Roxy also lives in Cambridge and has a boxer dog named Emma.


Can you keeP a Secret? Fourth-grader Ellie Wooten has a big secret to keep when she finds a bird’s egg and it hatches into a baby crow. The problem is, her artistfather hates crows more than anything else. He’d be furious if he knew about his daughter’s new pet! But luckily, Poe the Crow is no birdbrain. The clever and lovable bird comes up with a brilliant solution to all the family’s problems that makes even Mr. Wooten“eat crow.”

“A funny and captivating sto ry. My class absolutely loved it!” Betsy Whitters, Fourth-Grade Teacher

.in ... ily.” d u m alo e Fa d th a ee re in itt y m l l w om r, mi fa of O embeiew C l rfu on , M ev de diti nett ook R n n B wo tra Be s. “A the idgetn Mas r r B ste Ea

www.PoetheCrow.com Copyright 2004 by Lakeview Press Cover Illustration Copyright 2004 Roxy Vanslette Cover & Book Layout design by Sarah Beth Wiley

Poe the Crow  

A children's novel about a pet crow. Copyright 2004 by Jan Devereux. Illustrations by Roxy Vanslette.

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