When the first raven came it was alone, a piece of blackness laboring across a cold dawn sky. I too was alone, walking on an early-winter morning in southeast Utah, crossing a hard desert basin studded with towers of eroded rock. Three companions of mine were somewhere within a several mile radius, but we had
split up with the fading stars, not planning to find one another back at camp until nightfall. With nothing else but Jurassic sandstone to look at, the raven and I took an immediate interest in each other. The
coal-colored bird turned its head midair, its powerful beak pointing at me like a librarian’s finger. I stopped and watched.
It was a big bird, a sorcerer wearing sleek black robes, its two talons tucked against its body as if each grasped a marble. It altered its path slightly, making a jog around me, wings laid out as it banked
twenty feet off the ground. It obviously wondered what I was, and what I was doing here, one eye tagging me as it circled. It was close enough that I saw clearly into that one dark eye, the one that observed me with incredulous focus, as if to say You again. Had we met before, glanced at each other between buttes, passed each other a week or two ago elsewhere in the desert? But ravens, they all look alike. You cannot even sex them without elaborate manual procedures. They stay hidden in their cloaks, notoriously intelligent birds, a shrewdness I could sense in this bird’s stare. The raven swept close.
“Good morning,” I called.
Startled, the bird flustered away from me. Its wings beat loudly as it let out a cough of a sound, a surprised quork.
The raven resumed its course. I watched it fly, projecting its path into an empty bay of cliffs half a mile away. I wondered what it was up to this morning. I recognize myself in ravens. The way they timidly
approach unfamiliar carcasses, ready to fly at any second — a tug with the beak and a quick leap backward — is something I personally know. When I have seen their wild, screeching attacks on falcons or owls that could easily disembowel them, I have gotten behind them, up on my feet, boxing their enemies out of the air. Their unbridled orations, calling from cliff top to cliff top, are not unfamiliar to me. Down to their every gesture, ravens are rich with character, more so than most people. Their sentiments are not disguised. They are theatrical birds. Even quietly perched on a church roof or under the arm of a bridge, ravens are obviously brooding, grumbling among one another, plotting the end of the world.
This lone raven had plans this morning, oaring its wings through air cold from the night before. It had a destination. Perhaps there was an animal carcass to attend to, some dead, gristly heap of a half-frozen corpse belonging to a mule deer or bighorn. It was early in the day, even for a raven. Usually they are not up until sunrise, when they can glide above warming, south-facing cliffs, flying in pairs that seem comfortable together, old family friends, mates.
The raven kept a straight course across the basin, passing rock towers that stood like chimneys of houses burned down long ago. There was nothing ahead for a raven that I could see, just vacant rock faces with no exit. I thought that it better start working to get some altitude, otherwise it would smack into a cliff. But the raven kept on, and without hesitation or even slowing its wing beats, it flew straight into a blank cliff. It vanished. I frowned, not sure of what I had just seen. I looked at the cliff the way you might tilt your head at a magician’s trick. The bird seemed to have turned to solid stone.