It was the third time that week that I was spotting the two baby crows in the Parc Royal, where I go for my runs. They were on the same patch of grass where I last saw them, a few meters away from each other, striding around or standing suspiciously still even when approached by people or by dogs, as if sick, injured or simply suicidal. They looked shabbier than before, perhaps a bit thinner too, I couldn’t really tell. They were dirtier, that’s for sure, but it had rained earlier that day. I was glad to see them again. I quite enjoyed observing them whenever I passed by their strip of grass in my laps around the park. I took mental notes of their progress when catching them mid-air, fancying myself something of an ‘on-the-run’ ornithologist.
After dutifully and repeatedly speeding up the demise of a considerable number of winged creatures in a deluded attempt to rescue them, you eventually learn: the best approach when finding uninjured fledglings is to leave them alone and keep going. They are probably in the middle of a flying lesson so unless you can provide them with a private jet, there’s nothing you can do to help. Besides, crows are known to jump out of their own nests once they have their full set of feathers and just take it from there. With their parents usually nearby, they’ll just practice, gain altitude and endurance and after mastering the basics, begin to fine-tune: learn how to use the wind for lift, how to identify the rising thermal columns, how to control landings… All in all, a lengthy process involving at lot of falling and lots of ‘groundwork’.
I had just completed my sixth lap of the park when I noticed I wasn’t the only birdwatcher around there. My interest in the young crows, those absolute pariahs among urban birds, was shared by a tall elderly man, standing very still, at arm’s length from the fledglings, watching them intently. He looked familiar. I had seen him around before, in that very park and in the whereabouts of the central train station. He was one of the many to whom the streets o Brussels are not just roads, but tragically endless destinations. His long, frail form, his grey unkempt hair and shaggy beard made him the spitting image of Home Alone’s Old Man Marley. I realized that I had never seen him stand still before, he was always in motion, always going somewhere. He had a slow yet purposeful gait, much like a mountaineer’s. Though it was mid-July, he was wearing several layers of clothing and, as always, he had his two large plastic bags that probably contained most if not all of his earthly belongings. The homes of the homeless are permanent carry-ons of overlapping shreds of past, present and resigned future.
They were an odd picture to behold the three of them, the old man and his crows. Standing perfectly still, gazing at each other, appraisingly. A staring contest between pariahs, improbable equals paying tribute to each other through an obliging immobility and gracious distance.
I had already finished my eight laps of the park so if I kept going it was out of pure curiosity. Running one and a half kilometers for ten seconds of inconspicuous observation… Until suddenly, I just stopped in my tracks. The old man had stepped onto the grass and gently yet firmly grabbed one of the crows which, to my surprise, allowed itself to be picked up rather unprotestingly. He then proceeded to open one of his bags and take out a bottle of water. Pressing the baby crow to his chest with one forearm, he painstakingly opened the bottle and poured some water into the cupped palm of his free hand. The bird wouldn’t drink despite the man’s best attempts at forced hydration. He spilled the water more than once in his struggle with the noncompliant crow but instead of giving up, he just started over. I was surprised at how relatively calm the bird remained throughout the visibly unpleasant maneuvers inflicted on it. Was the fledgling lacking all self-preservation instincts? Why didn’t it try to escape the old man’s hold? Why didn’t it protest more, was it really that weak? Out of exhaustion, hunger…thirst?
I just stood there. Completely still. Thinking about how acts of kindness are often misunderstood. By the benefactors themselves that is. Perhaps because we tend to do for others precisely what we secretly hope others will at some point do for us. How blatantly mistaken that is. How arrogant we are to bestow unsolicited favors upon unwilling recipients as if our own needs are bound to converge with those of everyone else. There’s a line to be drawn even when it comes to our most basic of needs: if one is not hungry, one will not eat. If one is not thirsty, one will not drink, end of story. Nature takes care of its own and interference is rarely helpful. It can on the other hand be perfectly ridiculous, unpleasant, painful even for both benefactor and beneficiary. There it was, a clear example of how more is less. Of how certain worlds are meant to touch but never to collide, of how we should all mind our own damned business. Pariahs or not, entitled or not. Just stay out unless explicitly invited in.
And then it happened. It was maybe the fourth time the man had refilled his cupped palm with water, with a still noticeable difficulty, careful not to spill the content of his palm or have the crow escape. All of a sudden, somehow hit by the realization of its own thirst the crow started drinking. Hastily, desperately, as if its survival instincts had unexpectedly kicked in. I looked at the man’s face, searching for some expression of relief or triumph but noticed nothing of the sort. No signs of satisfaction, no illumination of self-pride. He just poured more water into his palm and repeated the operation several times. His movements became more fluid though, as if he was acquiring some sense of purposeful precision. As if he had found the right series of movements, the necessary gestures, the right ‘words’ to get the crow to obey. To understand. As if the time he spent watching the crows had taught him some secret code, a hidden language, accessible only to some pan-species of the urban pariah. A language he needed to learn first by observation and by imitation, that he then needed to practice before finally acquiring the level of fluency that would get his message across.
When the first crow had finally quenched its thirst he put it down, observed it for a few minutes and proceeded to capture the other one, who wasn’t as willing to oblige. The old man walked with a limp, I hadn’t noticed that before, but perhaps he was just numb from standing still for so long.
Indeed, I too felt a certain discomfort in my back so I looked at my watch. I had been there for almost forty minutes. Watching the old man and his crows in self-forgetting stillness. Not caring, for some reason, about how conspicuous my immobility made me.
And, as I watched Old Man Marley force-hydrate the second crow I couldn’t help but wonder whether he too had hopped out of his nest ahead of time Whether he had ever learned to fly. Whether he was still learning. I had a weird feeling in my numbed limbs and this rather uncanny dryness in my mouth: a thirst that was not my own.