I kept backing away, and the ravens calmed a bit. Some returned to their places, voices simmering, until there was only light protest from under their breath. Others spiraled upward, rising like a swirl of black wind between the cliffs. Those who stayed groused their wings and neck feathers. They looked like judges settling into their chairs, eyes grave, heads turned toward me, waiting for my imminent departure.
I turned and walked out of the canyon through eroded stone gates, my face blank with confusion.
I was here with three other men. They were nowhere to be seen. We had been walking for twenty-some days together, and this morning we had scattered, looking for routes. I had to find them before nightfall. I needed to bring them back to this canyon and show them this spectacle, the place we had all imagined, a sanctuary of ravens.
It took about five hours to collect my companions. They looked like mad desert folk, bearded men wearing heavily abraded gear and clothing. Tidy as you might be, you cannot help appearing this way after enough time traveling in rock piles. I told them what had happened. There was no need for a protracted discussion. For those of us who travel in this desolate terrain, ravens have become gods. An observation like this is a breakthrough, a glimpse into a social animal world otherwise kept invisible from us. November sunlight slanted between rock towers, inclining toward evening, as we walked quickly to the canyon.
One man led the way, following my earlier tracks. He was a raven talker, meaning that over time in the wilderness he had acquired the skill of talking to ravens by using their own vocal styles. Not to suggest he understands them, or they understand him; I have seen him carry on fi fteen-minute dialogues with ravens, imitating them, cawing back and forth. As I watched these interactions, it became clear to me that ravens have almost nothing to do with us. They live in their own raven-centered world, and come to speak around us only if we have food, or if we trick them into thinking we indeed have something to do with them.
The raven talker was the most curious of us. He got well ahead, disappearing into the canyon through boulders as tall as cliffs. When we came around a bend behind him, we found him standing still. Ravens were watching him. Exactly where I had left them, the ravens lifted their heads to see the rest of us. They glanced at one another with ticking motions, obviously concerned to see so many people in a place where they had rarely before seen a human.
The raven talker said, in English, “Very strange.”
Looking up at the ravens, I wondered whether they recognized me. Among their numerous uncanny talents, ravens can pick out and remember individual human beings, knowing them even by facial features. A corvid researcher banding young birds in their nests on the MIT campus noted that he was frequently picked out from the campus crowd and was followed and even attacked. The ravens in this canyon had to know it was me, the one they had dealt with earlier, and this time I was back with reinforcements.
We continued into the canyon, and the ravens again unfolded their wings and began calling. They were more reserved this time, threatened by our numbers. Still, some stepped from their perches and swung through the air, flying from one wall of the canyon to the other. Irritated, gravelly voices called down at us. One picked up a pebble and, with its beak, tossed it in our direction.
Never had any of my companions, even the raven talker, seen such an unkindness. Their dirty faces tilted up, mouths hung open. We had found the secret place where ravens go, a party we were not welcome to attend.
The talker began snooping around. “Something happened here,” he said. “The ravens are protecting this place.”
I showed him the stone I had noticed earlier, the one capping a feather on the ground. He knelt at it, and we stood around him. He lifted off the stone beneath a siege of protesting ravens, and he picked up the feather. It was not a raven feather.
“Owl,” he said.
It must have been caught in a rockfall or been brought by a small flood, the only way it would be deposited under a stone. But the feather turning between his fingers was clean. He looked up at the ravens, puzzled, and then looked back at the feather.
“They put it here,” he said. “They stuck it under this rock. That’s why they’re here.”