An Unkindness of Ravens

Monday, July 15, 2013

“I’m going to kill him,” my husband, Erik, says. This seems like a normal response to finding out someone molested a little kid at the daycare where your son goes every day.

“Don’t kill anybody,” I say. Also seems like a normal, if predictable, response to say to someone who claims he’s going to kill. But I envy Erik a little. He knows which side of good he’s on. I am never all that sure.

I had just gotten off the phone with a woman named Andrea, the mother of a kid who goes to the same school as my son Max. I already knew what the phone call would be the second I opened the e-mail that asked me to call her.

I knew what she would say as if I had always known it. In my bones. In the past. Wisdom is nostalgia for the dream that you can predict the future.

I let her tell me anyway. “This is so hard to tell you. Someone, a little girl, was molested by Lisa’s son.”

It is my job to say it’s okay, even when it’s not. I don’t say okay to mean it’s natural. I say okay to mean, don’t kill that kid.

“Max is okay,” I tell Erik.

I know Max is, I tell myself. He is OK. He’s the same kid now as he was before daycare—kind of stubborn, a little bit yelly. He’s no more clingy, no more scared of strangers, no more likely to rub his penis against the couch. And even if something happened, which it didn’t, I’m almost sure. I don’t know that it necessarily justifies the killing of someone. I don’t think it’s okay. I don’t mean to minimize, but even if something happened, Max would be okay. Okay. Normal. Fine.

Except, I say to no one, why am I always the one balancing equations, seeking to find the median, the middle ground, the status quo? Can’t I just let a bad thing be bad?


Ravens are scavengers. Incredibly smart scavengers that will gather keys and glass and marbles in their nests, but scavengers nonetheless. They like already-dead things. So what was this raven doing attacking this live mourning dove in the middle of the road? Ravens aren’t killers. I needed to intervene. This isn’t how it works. I ran up to the raven, tried to scare him to fly off. He bounced a couple of feet away but didn’t fly off. The dove hopped around in circles. Maybe he was sick and the raven knew it. A preemptory scavenge. The prediction of a short future. Darwin.

But maybe he just sensed weakness. Doves aren’t so smart. They collect nothing. Perhaps ravens do attack and kill. The idea that ravens only scavenge is a dream I had about intelligent creatures and their dislike of hurting other living things. Perhaps I am wrong about everything.


The district attorney held a meeting. Social services, victims’ advocates, Flag PD, attorneys in the juvenile system, and attorneys for the rest of the system. Andrea wanted to know what went wrong. I bit my tongue. What went wrong? Don’t you watch Law & Order Special Victims Unit? This happens everywhere, every day. I understand the outrage but not the surprise.

One of the kids’ moms said, “I work at an elementary school. This would never happen in public school systems.” I thought of public schools—closets, empty classrooms, bleachers, offices, bathrooms. Such great places for pulling down a girl’s pants. Almost as easy as in your mom’s bathroom, at her daycare, while the other kids played innocently outside the closed door. Or perhaps not so innocently. My thoughts are bad thoughts. I can think the worst of anyone. I wonder when the good kid shifts to bad. Or, rather, when the kid does the thing he wants regardless of its goodness or badness. When he does what he wants and want pervades like scavengers at roadkill. How pervasive do these things become? Did normal shift to the new normal? Will Max, when he’s sixteen, think, this is what five-year-old girls are good for? Opportunities to talk to five-year-olds exist everywhere. Sixteen-year-old boys—natural opportunists.

I think about Scott, the sixteen-year-old boy who molested a girl at my son’s daycare. Possibly when my son was right there. In the other room. Even Erik, who does a much better job than I do drawing boundaries between right and wrong, wonders if something similar happened to Scott. What sixteen-year-old kid does think that it’s okay to pull down a five-year-old’s underpants? To put his fingers inside her? When was he insided out? You’ve spent so much time thinking it happens to little girls. Don’t let yourself think about what might happen to little boys. What happened to Scott when he was five? Never-ending chain? 


As soon as I leave the dove and walk back to the house, the raven is back. I only watch out of the corner of my eye. Is he pecking him to death? Is his beak strong enough to crack his throat? It must be. The dove’s head looks limp, tilted upward, skyward, ravenward. The dove seems as confused as I am.

Box, my cat, who wasn’t afraid of anything, was afraid of ravens. In Salt Lake, he took on raccoons and once a fox. In Grand Rapids, owls and skunks. But in Flagstaff, where the ravens are twice as big as my head, Box wouldn’t go outside. He turned himself from an outdoor cat to an indoor one. When he was dying, he lay looking out the window. The sight of a raven startled him. The number of ravens flying into the yard doubled, then tripled. Before Box died, the backyard turned black with wings.


Inured. It’s one letter removed from injured. What amount of suffering removes a j? My mother uses the word “diddled.” A word that, inured as I may be, still makes me cringe. What can you get used to? Incorporate first natural things into your nest: grass, feathers, sticks. Then, ribbons, hair pulled from a hairbrush, marbles, baubles. Pretty soon, your nest is a normal as the next, just heavier. Thick 

I don’t mean to empathize with Lisa. I don’t mean to think about what her neighbors are saying. I don’t mean to imagine what horrific conversations happen at her dinner table. I don’t mean to feel badly for her when I imagine the police coming to her door, arresting her for failure to report, for child endangerment. I don’t mean to forgive her. She moved the daycare out of her house, next door, to her dad’s house. She claimed her father wasn’t feeling well. Who was feeling well, in that family, at that time? She thought she was keeping the kids out of harm’s way. Except one of the dads remembers Scott lounging on the couch one postincident afternoon. The dad didn’t know about the incident then. He just thought he was a normal boy, lying normally upon the couch, where normal boys normally lie, and normal parents like to know where their children are, lying on the couch, normally. 

But perhaps a normal person, a person who wasn’t Lisa, might have made an excuse to close up the daycare. “My father is ill. He needs my help” was the excuse she gave to move the daycare next door. Such an illness would have also worked to say, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to find another place to take your child.” But finding a daycare for a one-year-old in Flagstaff is nearly impossible. Lisa’s was one of the only places who would take babies. She felt for us. She was doing us a favor.

Late at night, when I can’t sleep, the wind bashes tree branches against the side of the house, telling me what I already know “You should have quit your job. You should have quit your job.” Even though my job is the reason we live in Flagstaff, where the university offers no daycare. You are on your own. You did what you could to vet her. Half the people in town claimed she was “the best.” State licenses all look alike, don’t they?

After Lisa and Scott told their neighbor, a counselor, what happened and asked her advice, the neighbor said to them: “You must go to the police.” “You must close your daycare,” she said. “You must get your son into counseling.” Scott went into counseling, but the neighbor noticed that the daycare kids continued to be dropped off every day. Eventually, after seeking counseling herself, for her nightmares, and then her insomnia, that neighbor called the parents of one of the kids in the daycare. Otherwise, none of us would have known. The parents of the girl didn’t have our phone numbers. The daycare would still be running. The police say “alleged.” The police say moved next door. The police say she wasn’t really licensed, which makes it our fault, I guess. When you don’t have much choice, you don’t look too hard at the license. Everyone else was leaving their kids with her. It must be okay. 


In the exact same spot where the raven attacked the dove, a squirrel has died the natural way. Or rather, the common way—being hit by a car. A raven does his normal work, cleaning up the streets. The same raven, maybe, that killed the dove stands over the flat mat that was once a rounded squirrel. Ravens are so black, from eyeball to talon, that it’s hard to tell them apart. This one was huge and brave. I drove toward it as he pecked at the open wound of the dead squirrel. It didn’t seem like he was going to move, but as I nudged the car nearer, he hopped away. In my rearview mirror, I could see the raven hadn’t returned. Maybe it wasn’t the same raven at all. Maybe all ravens are not the same. 

Some people, I think my mother is one of them, believe all men have the capacity to rape, that all boys have the proclivity to molest. Sometimes I’m in that camp. In some ways, it’s easier to believe that. You’re never surprised when you hear about how an uncle molested his niece, a neighbor boy, his sister, a father his daughter, a grandfather, et cetera. But when you think of individual people, my husband, my daughter, the brain resists. I could never consider Erik like that. But then, some dark part of me chides that “never.” “Never say never,” my mother does say.

This is where I go wrong: acknowledging that it’s common, recognizing that it happens all the time, that everyone is capable, normalizes it. It’s so normal, it’s almost natural. Goethe said, “There is no crime of which I cannot conceive myself guilty.” Me and everyone else. I can picture Lisa's son's fingers on the buttons of her jeans. The aberration becomes the norm, and I’m painting the whole world with one wide, black-feathered brushstroke.

When I told my friend Okim, whose daughter had been in the same daycare as my son, she asked all the normal questions. What happened? How did you find out? What is going to happen now? She didn’t ask the questions that I couldn’t answer. She can’t say it (not her daughter not her daughter not her daughter) aloud. I couldn’t say no for certain, so she doesn’t ask. She’s not stupid. Only in not asking can it have not have happened. I did ask her if she wanted me to keep her updated on news from the DA. Will they file charges, et cetera. No, she said. She didn’t want to know. 

But now she tells me, even not knowing, she can’t drive past Lisa’s house, even though it’s on the way to the Grand Canyon, even though that road is the only road toward the mountain peaks. I nod my head. That seemed about right. If you can’t get to wisdom the regular way, take a detour. Head south, head east. Avert your eyes. No one really needs to go north.

This is another place I go wrong: as I face it, throwing my body full tilt into it, it becomes a part of me. I can think these thoughts. I can picture the young girl in the bathroom. It lodges normal inside of me.

My daughter Zoe, who never went to Lisa’s daycare (And yet, so what? She has left my sight before. She does go outside. To school. To public school. To bathrooms. Who am I to be confident about anything? Confidence is for people from families not prone to molestation), asks me why I like birds so much, why I like hawks and eagles. Because they’re rare, I say. You hardly ever see them. We’re lucky to live in a place where you can see them once in a while. A bald eagle sits atop a snag five houses down from ours. A blue heron stands on a rock in the pond a quarter-mile away from my front door. A red-tailed hawk, its belly feathers white for winter, circles overhead. I could reach out. I also have twenty-four ravens bouncing in my front yard. They like the rocks. Or maybe the scent of my dead cat’s old fur. Perhaps we spill more food out here than I thought. Or perhaps we’re dropping more baubles for them—paper clips and marbles, plastic bracelets and bottle caps. Ravens must love messy children. When Zoe asks if I like ravens, I shrug. I guess I do. They’re smart. In some ways as smart as humans. But maybe that’s a reason not to love them. Plus, there’s so many of them. It’s hard to be surprised by the presence of a raven. I’ll take a stupid, irregular owl any day.

I went to the meeting with the DA. The case is ongoing, but I tell myself it’s the last one I’ll attend. I’m going to Okim-it. Turn my head away. Stop driving by the scene of the crime. At the meeting, the other moms are so disgusted by the system, by the fact that Lisa won’t do time for failure to report, that Scott won’t have to register as a sex offender. How do we know he won’t take the child care classes they teach at the high school he attends? they ask. How do we know Lisa isn’t still running a daycare? That Scott isn’t taking those kids into the bathroom? How do we know this won’t happen again?

The DA looks at these parents. How can he say anything? He is only a wise man. He can’t predict the future. All he knows is that this will happen again somewhere, to some other children, by some perpetrator. Knowing this perpetrator’s name is a pretend kind of solace. A clanging placeholder for knowledge where only wind whispers in the hollow. Still, I suppose my job, the best thing I can do for my son, is to make a sound. Hear me clamor. 

All summer long, I’ve been seeing ravens dead in the road. I’m up to four and it’s only July. I’ve never seen this before. Ravens are smart. When they’re chewing on the ear of some sad road-killed squirrel, they wait until the last minute to jump away. They always make it. Or at least I thought so. But these four. They’re making me wonder. The roadkill eaters have become roadkill themselves. I feel bad for them. Their job is to eat decaying squirrels. Humans are the ones who laid down the road. Humans are the ones who drove the car. This training of nature, making it conform to such straight, yellow-lined paths—that’s what’s not normal. Maybe ravens would be happy eating lizards in the forest. Then again, without the roads and the cars and the poor squirrels just looking for a fast escape, maybe there wouldn’t be any ravens at all. But there’s no real way to tell what ravens would do without dead squirrels, and asphalt’s future is a long one. Maybe Flagstaff isn’t even their natural habitat. They go where the cars go.

Erik came up the driveway with the mail in his hand. He stopped on the porch. I could see him through the window. He opened a letter, read one side, turned it over, read the other. When he came in the front door, he handed me the paper. District attorney. Victim’s registration. It said that if we wanted to be considered victims, we had to submit this form by this date.

I walked it over to the recycling.

Erik asked what I was doing.

“What? I’m recycling this. I’m done. It’s over. Nothing happened.”

“But he was there, Nik. Our son. He could have been there when it happened. It happened just five steps away from where he played with the trains. This letter is for the trial against Lisa. For endangering our son. Child endangerment. It’s a thing.”

“She moved the daycare.”

“She moved the daycare? That it? That’s all she had to do and you’re okay with it? That one dad said he saw Scott over there. Do you have no idea how wrong that was?”

So I went to the next meeting with the DA. The DA. told us about his daughter who twenty-eight years ago was in a daycare. She came home one day, started touching her vagina in front of him and his wife. She was three. They knew immediately what happened.

“We got her counseling. We talked about it as a family. And now she’s thirty-one, she’s a lawyer with three kids of her own. She’s okay.” 

And I wonder, is he being complicit? Am I being complicit? Is believing that our kids will turn out okay anything other than being complicit to a false hope? It’s like loving the forest behind my house for the cool breeze and yellowing leaves but ignoring the one deer who limps through the forest, his leg broken by deep snow. The vulture stares patiently. The cougars watch deer from his invisible perch. I walk along the path. I see no cougars. No ravens. Nothing red. No tooth. No claw. My woods are a “naturescape.” I see a dog leash hanging from a tree. Some kind neighbor wanted to be sure it was returned to its owner. Humans are everywhere, taking the cruelty of nature out, replacing it with a park. “The Woods decay, the woods decay and fall,” says Wordsworth. Optimism is a human characteristic, not one derived from nature. I am a landscaper, not a woman who lives in the wild. I smooth and trim. I adorn. It looks so natural by the time I’m done with it.


When Scott turns eighteen, no matter that he was indicted, arrested, prosecuted, and convicted, his record will be wiped clean. Time can move backwards, at least in this case, erasing all knowledge. At eighteen he will go forth into the world, returned to innocence. Innocence isn’t a sweet place though, necessarily. Innocence is the first natural state. Real nature—not the parklike kind—is innocent, unknowing, but still covered in squirrel guts, twisted dove necks, lame deer. You can’t remake a nature, but maybe you can make a park or a naturescape. Something flawed but natural. Human. Raven. Except the difference between humans and ravens, scavengers both, adapters both, internalizers both, is that the raven doesn’t spend its days demarcating: this is normal / this is not. The bauble and the grass. Maybe that’s wisdom—not recognizing the category normal. 

I also have to return to a kind of innocence/ignorance. I have a job. I have to take Max back to school—another school, this one at a church, this one closer to home, this one with many more adults and very few teenage males. Max cries when I leave him. The daycare lady stands there, not holding him, just letting him cry. I’m half happy that she’s not touching him. No one should touch my kid. And I’m half collapsed that she won’t pick him up and make him feel better. Who is to say what does the most damage? There are finger marks where I pull his arms off me.

I turn and go. I almost run, try to outpace my imagination. Trying to fend off whatever shiny baubles in the form of wisdom are trying to stick with me.  I cannot know and so I don’t. I am guilty. The car goes forward. I do manage to avoid running over a squirrel that darts in front of me. A raven swerves to miss the car. Small steering victories. Even in nature, on the road, not everything collides just because it can. I am able to leave Max behind because, whatever inherent order there is in nature, people will mess it up and who am I to say which is the order and which is the mess? They both look pretty normal to me. I drive. I turn. The raven turns. Grass and baubles everywhere.

Monday, July 1, 2013