In the grey light of morning, four black shapes dropped out of the sky and landed in a cornfield. They had not come to make a meal of ears alone, however, as they gathered around the cadaver laying in the crop. They were two adults and two children, descending in size from father to mother to daughter to brother. It was this one, the youngest, who made the first move, reaching towards the dead flesh with outstretched beak. "Thaddeus," his father scolded, "you know better than to take sustenance before offering thanks."
"Sorry, Paw," the young crow mumbled. "I weren't thinking."
His sister Tabitha - older, and always happy to see her younger sibling put in his place - let out a low caw, just loud enough to needle Thaddeus, but below Father’s register. If Mother was aware of their joshing, she chose not to show it. Tabitha had come to the realisation that she had seldom seen her mother talk without Father's permission and with this insight came the question of whether she would be expected to do the same when she found a mate. It was the way of crows, she knew, it seemed like a strange way to live.
"It's a big'un, ain't it paw?" the youngest crow said to his father. "I ain't never seen a feast this big. I bet we could live on this for two weeks, if we had to."
"Wouldn't last two days the way you eat, fatso," the older sibling muttered.
"Thaddeus is blessed with a healthy appetite," their mother said. She heard that all right. “It means he has to work extra hard to make sure that his needs are met."
Tabitha scowled. Thaddeus had been their mother's favourite ever since he hatched, just two minutes after Tabitha himself.
"Come now," their father said, “enough of this chitter-chatter. Let’s give thanks in the proper manner before we go any further."
The four crows bowed their heads around the carcass.
"Oh, great and plentiful provider, we thank thee for the bounty we are about to receive. We approach you as humble servants, conduits for your good grace and benevolence. We ask that you guide us, not merely to our next meal, but to guide our thoughts and actions so that that we may be servants to your message and spread the word of your almighty works to others, who have yet to receive the good grace of your mighty judgement."
The elder crow looked down at the large body before them.
"I don't know what this meal did to bring it death, oh lord, but we offer our thanks to you for bringing us to it and we are comforted by the knowledge that these sins will be absolved by the sustenance provided to us, your loyal servants. You provide flesh when we are hungry, blood when we are thirsty, but we pray for the day when the world is free of sin and that we might starve, for there is no more flesh to strip from the bone. Until that day, oh lord, we give thanks for the meat that sustains us. Amen."
"Amen," the group echoed and, when Father indicated they may proceed, started tearing at the flesh in front of them.
"Slow down, Thaddeus," Mother said to the youngest crow. "The meal isn't going to get up and run away. Take the time to chew your food."
"Yes, ma'am," Thaddeus mumbled. He had never tasted meat so succulent and sweet. His appetite, healthy at the best of times, was sent into overdrive.
"This is some fine eating," Tabitha said through a mouthful. "What kid of meat is this, paw?"
His father continued chewing for several moments, taking so long that Tabitha wondered if he had heard the question, or was just ignoring her. He did that sometimes.
"It's man. And don't talk with your mouth full."
"Yessir," Tabitha mumbled and kept her beak down for the remainder of the meal. The younger sibling was not so circumspect, however.
"Paw, how come we always pray to starve? It don't make no sense."
Everyone stopped eating and there was a long pause. Each crow was stunned by the magnitude of the blasphemy the young crow had uttered. Eventually, his mother tried to gloss over the heresy of the youngest crow.
"Thaddeus Ezekiel Moses, you hush your beak right now," she hissed.
"Now, now - no need to scold the boy," Father said. "He asked a question, plain and true, and there's no reason to fear the answer. Listen, youngest, we give thanks to the provider for every meal we receive, true?"
"Yessir," he youngest crow said.
"Do we catch our own animals to eat?"
"Do we kill the meat ourselves?"
"Naw sir. That would be a sin."
"So how does it get to us?"
"We... find it?"
"Scavenge, son. The word is scavenge."
"Stupid," Tabitha muttered.
"Right. I knew that," Thaddeus said, abashed.
“Ask yourself, in all the days that you have been alive, has their ever been a day where we have not had something to eat?"
"So, you must ask yourself: are we finding the meat or is it
being provided for us? Even the best finders of things sometimes have days where they are unable to locate what they're looking for."
“So… provided, right?"
"That's correct son. Each of these meals we receive are gifts from the provider."
"So... the provider kills things for us, so we can eat them?"
The young crow stared at the meat in front of him. Suddenly, it didn't taste so sweet and delicious.
“But... if killing's a sin, how come the provider can do it?"
Thaddeus's mother and older sister looked at Father to see what his reaction would be. The pious elder crow was known as a staunch defender of the old ways and had been known to peck the eyes out of impetuous birds who dared question the teachings. Indeed, a female chick in the couple's first brood had been pushed out of the nest before she could fly, simply for refusing to bow her head before receiving food.
Despite this history of harsh retribution, the elder crow did not attack his son for his enquiry.
"There's only one way that killing is not forbidden, and that's if the thing that's killed has sins so great that they don't deserve to live. That's determined by the provider. It’s his judgement and no-one else’s."
"So... if there was no meals... it would mean that there was no sin, right?"
"That's right, son. Just think about that. A world free of sin. To die there would be the best service we could ever hope to achieve. Until that day, we keep giving our thanks and we keep praying for the day when we no longer have the opportunity to eat."
The youngest crow nodded sagely. "I understand, father. I see it now."
"Well done, Thaddeus," his mother said quietly. Tabitha thought his brother was an idiot, but knew better than to say it. This was obviously just the latest opportunity to shower praise on the young male. Interrupting it wouldn't do Tabitha any favours.
"That's enough talking for now," Father said. "We have a long distance to cover."
Thaddeus nodded and used his beak to tear flesh from the body in front of him. As he did, he wondered what sins this "man" had committed in order to end up as a meal for him and his kin.