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Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Once upon a crow hunt weary


This story is true. Most of it.

"Look! There's one now! Behind you! Get it! Get it!"

My wife thrusts a finger to the trees beyond my back and without a word, I spin, uncap my camera and dash, my hat flipping off as I run.

Yet my feet soon slap to a halt. For what I was seeking has already flown the coop.

You see, once upon a time I was commissioned to write a magazine article about Edgar Allan Poe. That's right -- Edgar . . . Allan . . . Poe. You know, the "Black Cat" Poe, the "House of Usher" Poe. Him.

Not many writers get assigned to write about Edgar Allan Poe. Especially writers who reside in Tokyo, Japan.

Yet, the assignment turned out to be halloweenishly fun. I received funding to visit Poe sights in America and interviewed a bunch of weird-but-delightful Poe fans. I was also appointed to get photographs.

It turns out photos of dusty museums and cantankerous curators were fairly easy to come by. But the one photo that I felt the magazine wanted most was not.

A closeup of a raven.

For you can't run a Poe story without an image of a raven! That's like painting a nudist from the neck up. Yet those inky birds of literary yore now live deep in the Alleghenies and no longer frequent the spot where Poe penned his famous poem "The Raven." Which was perhaps . . . the Bronx.

But, hey, raven schmaven. Tokyo is overrun with monster-size crows. Why, the crows here almost outnumber the roaches. Plus, who would know the difference? Ravens and crows are cawing cousins and an ugly black bird is an ugly black bird is an ugly black bird. I would return home and have a roost of counting crows to choose from.

Or so I thought.

For the uninformed, a little background on Tokyo crows.

Imagine a Plutonian bird similar to an eagle, minus the nobility. Imagine some city trees thick with these creatures, a la a vision from Alfred Hitchcock. Imagine Tokyo promoting different eradication campaigns, all with various degrees of nonsuccess. Imagine the birds cawing, a sound not unlike the cackle of an unwanted house guest, one who cannot find the door.

And intelligent?

I once saw a crow lead a cat out onto a tree branch. Instead of flapping away to safety, the crow kept hopping one wee step beyond the cat's grasp until the branch became too slender. The cat then fell 3 meters and the crow looked down and cawed a caw that sure sounded like a laugh.

And evil?

If the cat story isn't proof enough, then there are probably a hundred thousand Tokyoites who will testify to being dive bombed by these Darth Vaders with wings, for what reasons only the birds themselves know.

"They're like yakuza," says my wife. "Whatever you do, don't look them in the eye!"

Do not imagine crows with body tattoos and truncated talons. But maybe you get the picture. Tokyo crows are ubiquitous, obnoxious and malevolent. I was sure I could "get the picture" too, with only a short walk around my house.

But a funny thing happened on my way to the crow gallery. They somehow knew I was coming. And they skedaddled. Each time I carried my camera, the only crows I spied were those flying quickly away, each with a mean snigger on its beak.

The time of day did not matter. I went crow hunting at daybreak, at dusk, and every time in between. Nor was the place important. I frequented garbage bins, parks, and riversides. The birds were like mirages from hell, always there in the distance, but disappearing whenever I drew close.

Except on those occasions when I forgot my camera. Then . . .

A crow perched itself on our neighbor's tree, five strides from our door. Another clattered along the windowsill of one of my classrooms. Yet another sprung along a concrete wall by the train station, so close to me I could have reached out and throttled it. The bird cocked its head and shook off a spray of rain, its eyes fixed right on mine, as if to say.

"How's this for a pose, dummy?"

"I tell ya," I told my wife, "They know. Soon we'll no doubt hear a rapping, a gentle tapping at our chamber door. Yet outside we'll find but feathers, only that and nothing more."

"Stop it," she said. "You're not Poe and crows aren't that clever."

"But how do you explain this? I forget my camera and the crows are thicker than drun ks on the midnight train. Take the camera and suddenly no crows at all. Sparrows, yes. Pigeons, yes. Mosquitoes, butterflies, yes, yes. But not one crow. They know! And my deadline is almost here."

"Why not download a photo from the net?"

"Well that would be. . . . "

"Smart?"

"No, cheating. I've got to do this on my own!"

So I tried bait. Garbage . . . An audiotape of crow caws . . . A bust of Pallas . . .

I tried hiding in one spot and not moving at all, a ruse I finally gave up on, otherwise, this cameraman, never flitting, still would be there sitting, only leaving to take a . . .

Enough rhyme, enough Poe. The crows never came. But my deadline did.

And along with it came an e-mailed pic from a photographer buddy in Kamakura -- that of a crow virtually grinning at the camera.

"How did you get this?!"

"I dunno," he said. "I just hoisted my press card and the bird landed nearby."

"Do you know what this means?"

"That I'm the better photographer?"

"No, Kamakura crows aren't as cunning as those in Tokyo. Maybe they're not real crow s at all. Maybe they're part ham."

Ah, there's nothing like a bad joke to end an assignment with. Poe and the crows are behind me now, only this time I'm not sprinting for a picture. And when might I need one again? There can be but one answer (and you knew it was coming).

Quoth the crow, "Nevermore."



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