Late April, 1971
“Touch it,” she said.
“No way. Gross.”
“I dare you.”
“No way. God, what happened to its eyes?”
“Pecked out, I guess. Or just dried up and fell out.”
“Sick.” I shivered. Partly from the cold breeze, partly from the idea of those eyes. It was early spring. The ground below us was thick mud, still half frozen. The week before we’d had the last snowstorm of the season and there were still patches of it clinging to the ground, melting in pools and rivers across the lumpy field.
“Come on, Kate, you gotta do what I say. When you’re at my house, I make the rules. You were the one caught trespassing. I could have you arrested. Or get my daddy to come out here with his shotgun. Now touch it!”
“I will if you will.”
Del’s pale face contorted into a smile. She reached out and stroked the dead bird, starting at its head and moving her fingers with their dirty nails all the way back to its tail feathers. Her touch seemed almost loving — like the bird was her pet parakeet, a creature she’d named and fed. A bird whose song she knew by heart. Some Tweety Bird, Polly-Want-a-Cracker kind of pet.
The putrid crow swung heavy on its wire. She gave it a shove, making it fly toward me. It was as if Del and I were playing some sick game of tetherball. I jumped back. She laughed, throwing back her head with its stringy blond hair. She opened her mouth wide and I noticed that her right front tooth was chipped. Just a little corner was missing, not something you’d notice unless you were looking.
The crow swung, its left foot wrapped and tied with white plastic-covered wire — tougher than string, Del explained. It dangled about three feet from the top of a tall wooden stake driven into the center of the small field where uneven rows of green peas were just coming up. Smaller wooden stakes lined the rows, and rusty wire mesh was stapled to the stakes, forming a trellis for the peas to climb.
Del said her brother Nicky had shot the crow two weeks before. He caught it pecking the pea seeds up out of the dirt before they’d even had a chance to sprout and got it with his BB gun. Then he and his daddy hung the crow up just like they did each year, a warning to other crows to stay away.
I reached out and touched the greasy black feathers of its ragged wing. Bugs crawled there, working their way under the feathers and into the flesh. Metallic green flies buzzed in the air. Although dead, the bird pulsed with life. It stank like old hamburger left in the sun. Like the raccoon my mother once found under our porch back in Massachusetts, way back under the floorboards where no one could reach it. It just had to rot there. My mother sprinkled quicklime through the cracks in the porch floor, letting it fall down onto the bloated corpse like Christmas snow. For weeks the smell permeated the porch, worked its way into windows and open doors, hung on our clothes, skin, and hair. There’s nothing like the smell of death. There’s no mistaking it.