A Continuity of Crows - JP

Word Association. The full pitch is "A Continuity of Crows-- A Story of Things Lost and Found

“Take the liver and put it on a rock,” Father Imbrahim said. I did as he asked without question. The dead flesh felt cold and slimy around my hands.

            “I bet you never thought you would be doing this yourself,” he said.

            “No,” I answered. The body of my father lay cold and expressionless on the altar before us, his clouded eyes staring straight up into the vault of heaven. “I don’t think anyone did.”

            Father Ibrahim nodded. He put on his reading glasses and bent over the liver. “You are a good student, Michael,” he said. “I don’t tell you that enough.” He reached out a hand and traced some invisible line across the organ’s flesh. Then he turned and looked at me. “You have every right to be here, you know. I didn’t just bring you out here as a favor. You’ve earned it.”

            I looked down at the body of the old man, naked save for the cloth concealing his shame. Each of his limbs was bound to a post at the corner of the altar, as the burial rites commanded. It seemed odd, to bind up one who is already dead, as though he might get up and walk away, or shoo away the birds and the flies as they ate at his flesh.

            “Father,” I said. “Do you think Jesus hated the birds as they fell onto him?”

            The priest regarded me intently for a moment. “No doubt,” he said at last. “Too many of us focus first on Christ’s divinity. We forget that the whole point is that he was imperfect, just a man like you and I, if so much more, too. He had his moments of weakness. And I would not be surprised if the Sky Ordeal were one. Why do you ask?”

            I shook my head. “I wonder if my father hates us right now. I wonder if he will hate the birds, too.”

            Father Ibrahim stood up from the liver and walked over to me, putting one hand on my shoulder. “Your father is passed, Michael,” he said. “Unlike Jesus at the time of his Ordeal, your father is with the Lord already. He feels no pain, and he feels no hatred.”

            I sucked in a breath and held it for a minute. Just a day ago, the old man had been bright and vibrant, in the prime of his life. Then, in a moment, he was gone. The doctors said the stroke killed him instantly, and that we were lucky. If it hadn’t, he might have lived for years as something less than a full person. The pastor said we were lucky, too, having a child in seminary who could see after the body, who could send his father off with his own hands, off to his final reward on the wings of a thousand birds. Father Ibrahim called it the greatest gift a child could give his parent, and one that few got to bestow. But I did not feel lucky, and my father-- splayed out, naked, dead-- did not look gifted.

            You’ve got a fine mind, Michael, the old man once told me. It’s not that you’re daft. You’ve got to learn to use it. You’ve got to learn how to look through the bullshit and see what it’s really about, son.

            “Michael.” Father Ibrahim’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Look,” he said, pointing to the sky. Already, a lone vulture had taken to the air and begun its lazy spiral over the hillock where the altar lay. “Isn’t it amazing? The creatures of the Lord come to collect His own. We’ll have to read the liver quickly. There’ll be more of them any minute, and they won’t mind us being here forever. Take the heart out and put it over on that far rock.”

            I did as he asked again, lifting the still organ from the old man’s chest and taking it to a low gneiss outcropping a few yards away. My father had never been a religious man. If it had been up to him, he would have been buried at sea, not in the sky. But my mother insisted that we do it the right way, the Christian way. At that moment, I wondered if God really cared which way we did it. God, they said, was in everything, every piece of us. But all I could see was uninhabited flesh.

            “The crows are moving in,” Father Ibrahim said. I looked up to see three of them, waiting patiently in a tree by the clearing, preening their sleek, dark feathers.  “They always make the first move, you know. Now come over here and look at this.”

            He pointed at the liver. “See those whirls and spirals?” I nodded. “They are the patterns of the past. Follow them, and you will find the patterns of the future. When Peter read the liver of Jesus, it is said that he saw the path and pattern of human history from the birth of Adam to the last breath of the millennium, and this knowledge he passed down through the mother church unto John of Patmos, who wrote it down in code. We cannot see the end of time in a normal man’s liver, but it contains more of God’s plan than say, a goat, or a chicken.”

            “I don’t see anything,” I said.

            “You do,” Father Ibrahim told me. “You just don’t understand what you see. You’ll understand more when we cut into.” He drew out a long bladed knife and began to dissect the liver. “It’s difficult to see God’s plan in the world,” he said. “Sometimes the world can be cruel, cold even.” I looked over my shoulder at the pale dead man behind us. Father Ibrahim caught me and smiled kindly. “Yes, just like the loss of your father. It seems callous. But there is design in it. See here.” He picked up a chunk of liver and held it out to me. “Right there, you see that thick dark line. That represents the day of death. Everything on one side of the line is the past, the rest the future.”

            I could see a darker band in the flesh, but the tissue on one side looked no different from the tissue on the other. “And here,” the priest droned on, “is your line, this thin fascia here-- wait, that seems to dissolve-- no, here it is! Yes, here! See, it is hard to follow at first, but gets clearer later, and stronger. Just like your life path, yes?” I squinted at it, but still, it made no sense. All my life, I had tried to see patterns, and still, it made no sense.

Exasperated, I turned from the liver and walked back to the body. Father Ibrahim, absorbed in the reading, paid no attention. Out around us, the crows had gathered in the trees, clouding the forest in hungry darkness. Waiting, just as they had waited through each ceremony for two thousand years, just as they had waited for the Romans to leave Jesus, still alive and bleeding, to their mercies. Just as they had even before Christ, when the pagans first called to them and offered them the flesh of the living and the dead in sky burial. All this time, and still they waited. The rites changed, the men changed, even the gods changed, but the crows stayed the same.

The old man looked tired, bound up and prepared for the offering. I grabbed his hand one last time, and allowed a single tear to roll down my face. There were no patterns in the liver. The truth fell in my gut, bearing down with it the weight I had tried to balance on my shoulders since the moment the old man died. There was no truth to see there, no divine inspiration. Just bullshit. Just useless bullshit.

“It is done,” Father Ibrahim said, walking up behind and putting his hand on top of mine, leaving behind a little smear of red. “Haruspicy is a difficult art to learn, don’t feel bad about being frustrated. We will try again another time, with someone less personal. You’ve done the important part. We can go now.”

“Go ahead,” I told him. “I’d like to stay for awhile.” He started to object, but I looked him full on in the eye, and he shriveled a little before me. Quietly, he gathered his tools and left me there alone as the afternoon wore on toward evening. I hauled myself up onto a large rock and sat back to wait for the crows to come.

“How many times have you heard this story?” I said to them, as the first one lighted on my father’s chest. The crow cocked its head at me, then plunged its beak into the waiting flesh. How many times had they heard every story? Another crow landed, then another, and more waited cautiously in the trees. I slid off the rock and walked slowly past them. One regarded me coldly with its dark eyes, but only for a moment before it went back to its meal.

I passed the liver where it lay in pieces and walked over to my father’s heart. “I’ll take this,” I said, “if you don’t mind. This one little bit. I’ll take this down to the ocean, and bury it at sea. The rest is yours.” More crows had moved in, blanketing the old man’s features in a dark shroud of moving bodies. I placed the heart in a little bag and walked off into the woods, knowing that the crows watched me as I left, just as they had watched men leave their loved ones for thousands of years.