Matthew had only signed up for the writing retreat because he’d been assured there would be no mentors, instructors, facilitators or teachers of any kind. Only fellow writers sharing their work, and only if the spirit moved them. After years of study, Matthew had concluded that writing was best shared but not taught. Either that, or he was unteachable. Probably the latter, in light of what a creative writing professor had once told him: “You are the most attentive student I’ve ever had. You listen closely to my advice, then do the exact opposite.” The problem had been some sort of cognitive dissonance—writing classes had laid out a roadmap for something that ought to be an ineffable, transcendent experience. Or maybe he’d just been too bullheaded to listen to teachers.
So now he was engaged in a last-ditch attempt to tap into the élan vital, that life force from which creativity sprang, if it existed at all. He’d rented a cabin at the retreat where he could write in peace, a musty little domicile that smelled of ancient books. But the writing retreat was turning out to be more like a retreat from writing. On day two, the blank page in his notebook somehow became even blanker. Here he was, amidst a burbling stream and rustling cottonwoods, or maybe it was a rustling stream and burbling cottonwoods, and the muse had only deigned to give him the middle finger.
His presence was expected at the communal dinner every night, an opportunity for everyone to share their bon mots that had dropped like manna from heaven, but he hadn’t bothered out of embarrassment that he was manna-less. Maybe it was time to throw in the towel or the stylus or whatever it is one throws in when quitting the whole writing shtick.
Finally, though, an idea came to him, born out of desperation: haiku. A compact form of expression to break the creative logjam. Quickly, he scribbled in his notebook:
A burbling stream. What the hell
Does all of this mean?
Famished after this burst of creative energy, he left the notebook on his picnic table and went inside to make lunch. As he assembled a pastrami sandwich, a dark shape whizzed by the kitchen window. He ran outside in time to spot a black bird swooping upward toward the tallest cottonwood. Too small for a raven, so it must be a crow.
And the crow had left a calling card. White guano had scored a bullseye on his Basho-worthy masterpiece, now rendered unreadable.
“Critic!” he yelled at the crow, now only a black speck at the top of the enormous tree.
Well, he couldn’t take his soiled notebook to tonight’s dinner. He sat down, intending to copy the poem on another page in the notebook, but the crow, cawing its lungs out, stole his attention. When he finally pulled his gaze away, he wrote:
The rushing stream lined
By cottonwoods. The crows’ nest
Crowns the tallest one.
Okay, that didn’t entirely suck. Courtesy of a random act of crow. He took the poem to dinner that night, where he felt inadequate because other writers had finished entire stories or long poems. However, he was heartened when everyone complimented his efforts. A woman named Margaret, with intense blue eyes and gray hair pulled into a bun, attempted to explain how he could more fully use Basho’s techniques to awaken the senses.
“I thought we were here to share our work,” Matthew replied, “not share our insights about Basho.”
Margaret bowed her head. “Apologies. It seems like you’re searching for something, and I just wanted to help.”
He felt terrible afterward and knew Margaret meant well, but his teacher defense shield had been activated.
The next morning, he awoke to a raucous call, which sounded like the same damned crow. He heaved himself out of bed and stumbled to the picnic table. The breeze had the tang of coming rain, and dark clouds massed in the distance. The crow cawed even louder. On impulse, Matthew retrieved his notebook and opened it. He’d figured he was well and truly done with writing after the embarrassing display last night, but another haiku insisted that he write it down:
The first morning light
Touches the high nest. Silence
Broken by the crow.
“Thank you,” he called to the bird. He felt like an idiot, but the crow squawked back at him, then launched itself into the dawn. Matthew kept writing:
The sky filled with sun
And clouds. Yet it is the crow
That consumes the eye.
Not Basho exactly, but inspired nonetheless. After breakfast, he packed another pastrami sandwich along with the notebook and hiked along the stream. The riparian habitat gave way to an open, cultivated field, where his friend was waiting for him, perched on a cornstalk. He quickly wrote:
Ebony crow lands
On a cornstalk. Now he must
Sway with the breezes.
Everyone at dinner appreciated his offerings. Matthew apologized to Margaret, who patted his hand and said, “I think you’ve found what you’ve been looking for.” Had he? What was that, exactly?
Later that night, the wind picked up, becoming a gale. The cabin shook and creaked, resulting in a sleepless night. The red light of dawn filled the bedroom as the wind finally died down. Something was missing. What? Then he had it: no morning wake-up call.
He stepped outside to check the tallest cottonwood. No crow’s nest. At the base of the tree, he found the tattered remains of the nest. Three smashed eggs lay amid the twigs and leaves.
He scanned the sky for the rest of the morning, desperate to see the crow, or at least hear a distant caw. Nothing. “Margaret,” he whispered, “you were right.” He opened the notebook and wrote very slowly this time:
Without the crow, all
Is silence. Good-bye, my friend.
Good-bye, my teacher.
John Christenson lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife and a cat who is fond of penguins. His publications include short stories in the New Mexico Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and several anthologies. A piece entitled “A Tree Grows in the Man Cave” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
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