Fiction: A Murder of Crows

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Francie always had an affinity with animals. As an infant, she rarely cried when she woke but lay quietly in her crib taking in the antics of our old hound as he tracked smells, real and imagined, through the nursery. She was only a toddler when the dog started to fade. I can still picture her sitting beside him on the floor, gently patting his back with chubby, dimpled, hands. She understood animals. Once at the zoo, she must have been around four, Francie was chattering away about the chimpanzees when another mom marveled at my daughter’s observations. A baby Jane Goodall, she said, which made me laugh. But Francie took a keen interest in all species. Most recently, it was birds. She loved birds.

Our new neighbor hated them. Francie and I were filling one of the bird feeders in the backyard when he knocked on our fence. It wasn’t a privacy fence, just a few horizontal boards at waist height to delineate property lines but he rapped his knuckles on the wood to get my attention. I suppose that was polite but didn’t feel it. He was short and muscular, the kind of body built at gyms. He wore jeans and a tight black t-shirt to show off what he obviously worked hard to achieve. He introduced himself.

“Howard Johnsen, with an e,” he said as though I might mix up the man with the motel chain. “I see you like birds.”

“Yes, well, my daughter is the real ornithologist,” I said walking over to the fence. “I’m just the birdseed buyer.”

“Do you have a key to my house?”

I hadn’t even had a chance to introduce myself yet but thought I recognized specific desperation in Howard’s question.

“Oh no,” I said, “did you lock yourself out?”

“The previous owner said she gave a set of keys to the neighbor.”

“Maybe you can get in through a basement window?”

“I’m not locked out.”

“Oh.”

“She said she gave you keys to feed her cat while she was away.”

“Oh, the poor dear, her cat died a couple years ago. Such a sweet woman but she obviously couldn’t live on her own anymore and her sons were .. . “

“Do you now or have you ever had keys to my house?”

I was a taken aback. My new neighbor sounded curt or at least direct like a military man or maybe a cop, so I responded as I would to a traffic stop.

“No,” I said firmly. “No keys.”

Howard stood eyeing me, arms crossed in front and slightly away from his chest the way ten-year-old bullies do to make their biceps appear bigger. The silence between us stretched to awkward. Had it been night, we would have literally heard crickets. As it was, we heard the chattering of chickadees.

“Man, those birds,” he finally said. “They’re driving me crazy!”

“The birds? Really?”

I understand when people don’t like crows because they are bossy and noisy. But the crows hadn’t taken over yet. We had nothing but songbirds when Howard first moved in. I wasn’t sure how to respond to his comment and didn’t need to. The birds were just Howard’s jump-off point for a litany of complaints that followed. The neighborhood was noisy. The street was busy. The schools were dicey. I didn’t point out that I worked hard to afford the neighborhood he so causally disdained. People say things without thinking. I wanted to give Howard the benefit of the doubt. Besides, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

“I had to sell my five-thousand square foot house in the hills for this pit thanks to my ex,” he said.

Ah, and there it was, the reason for his bitter diatribe, that sharp-bladed scythe that makes short straws of half of all marriages; divorce.

“Sorry,” I said. “The first year is rough.”

“My bitch ex is making it rough!”

I glanced at Francie hoping she hadn’t heard. I could tell by the way she was suddenly intensely interested in the grass under the bird feeder that she had.

“She sold my virgin scratch-offs,” he said in a can-you-believe-it tone.

“Virgin scratch-offs?”

“I had two from every state that has a lottery, and I come home to find out she sold them on eBay for next to nothing,” he said. “They were in vinyl sleeves to protect them and then — pouf — gone!”

“You collect unscratched scratch-offs?”

“Limited editions,” he said, “highly collectible.”

“OK,” I said kind of laughing, “I’ll have to trust you on that.”

“You sound like my bitch ex.”

I’d had enough of Howard. I excused myself to see to my daughter but, hoping to end on a positive note, officially welcomed him to the neighborhood.

“You might find you like living here,” I said brightly.

“I suppose you can get used to anything,” he said.

The next day, Howard replaced all the locks on his doors.

Francie was trying to convince me to buy the twenty-five-pound bag of birdseed. The weekend forecast said snow and the birds needed fuel.

“More cost-effective,” she said, trying to appeal to my bookkeeper side.

We stood in the garden section of the big box store at the edge of town. I’d always shopped at a family-owned hardware store in our neighborhood. Philosophically, I objected to patronizing chains and franchises. But a few crows had discovered our bird feeders by then, and they ate a lot. So there I was with a metal shopping cart in the wildlife aisle with my twelve-year-old. We squatted down to better read the fine print on the bags.

“This one lists sunflower seeds as the first ingredient,” Francie said.

“So does this one,” I said of a cheaper brand.

“What’s the second ingredient?”

“Golden millet.”

“That’s just filler, a total waste of money. Most birds won’t even eat it. This is the one to get.”

“But it’s so much more expensive.”

“Mom, seriously, we’re better off with the better stuff.”

“Well, they all smell like the bottom of a gerbil cage to me,” I said.

Back home, we wrestled the bag from the trunk of the car. I lifted with my knees to protect my back. How much money had I spent on these birds already? We’d gone through pounds of seed. Plus, I paid $65 for a storage bin to keep the bags in after squirrels chewed through one too many. The bin was actually an old gym locker. Francie’s middle school auctioned them off as a fund-raiser. She wanted number one-sixteen. So did someone else so we paid a premium but I was okay with that because proceeds went to the drama department. My daughter was a self-described “theater nerd.” She wasn’t one for the spotlight but liked the machinations of backstage. I think she liked the camaraderie, too. Francie was always on the shy side.

“You get the locker door,” I said.

I’d spent an additional ten bucks for brackets and screws to keep the thing from toppling over every time it was opened. Those I got at the local hardware. The grandson of the store owner was so helpful, walking me through my choices and explaining how to install them, I bought a screwdriver, too.

“Ready? Watch out,” I warned, then dropped all twenty-five pounds onto the metal floor. It thundered like the sound effects of The Tempest. Francie had banged thin sheets of aluminum backstage for the school production. Another kid flicked the overhead lights off and on for lightning.

Francie’s phone rang. It was her dad. Winter break was coming up and they needed to make arrangements. I nodded for her to go ahead while I finished up in the garage. My head was still half in the gym locker when a voice boomed from behind.

“More birdseed? Are you kidding me?”

I turned around.

“How are you doing, Howard?”

“Not so great because of those damned birds,” he said.

He stood under the raised garage door, silhouetted by the fading daylight. He was just a loud voice and a shadow of complaints. The birds woke him every morning, he said. They pooped on his car. They teased his cat.

“They tease your cat,” I echoed his words hoping he would hear how ridiculous he sounded. “The birds do that?”

“They do!”

I laughed. I shouldn’t have, but I did.

“You and your goddamn birds,” he said.

I apologized for laughing, which only made things worse. That’s when Howard totally lost his shit. He said birds carried disease and lice and mites. He claimed he got chiggers from the wrens. He threatened to call county, something about the plague. I stood in silence while he ranted on. Finally, having exhausted himself and his vocabulary, Howard resorted to a terse “fuck you,” and stormed off. Had I at any point before then pushed the button for the garage door, it would have come down smack on his head.

It snowed overnight. I woke to find Francie elbow-deep at the kitchen sink. We didn’t have a dishwasher. I hung a feeder by the window so Francie could wash and watch the birds but she had put the dirty mugs and cereal bowls on pause.

“Look,” she whispered.

A crow had landed on the window sill. It strutted back-and-forth on the narrow ledge leaving little tracks in the snow. He looked hilariously proud. He cocked his head as though trying to make sense of what we were doing on the other side of the glass. Francie watched him watching her. After a while, he flew off.

“That was cool,” she said.

We marveled at how curious he appeared. A minute later, the bird was back. He held something shiny in his beak. He hopped over to set it on the window ledge closest to Francie; a foil gum wrapper.

“I think he likes you,” I said.

A few days later, Francie came home from school to find a small silver heart on the window ledge. She showed me the second I walked through the door.

“Another gift from the crow,” she said holding out her palm to show me. “It must have come off a charm bracelet.”

“No, that’s a milagro, a sacred heart,” I said hanging my coat.

I spent twelve years in Catholic school and a lifetime trying to sort through the damage. The one thing on which Francie’s father and I had effortlessly agreed; no religious education for our daughter. We wanted her to find her own way, and she did. Francie discovered her God in the earth and the sky and the animals.

“I want to keep this,” she said of the bead then disappeared upstairs.

I heard her rummaging around the linen closet. I checked the fridge for something resembling dinner. The veggie burgers I’d bought when Francie tried to go meatless had freezer burn. I wondered if I could doctor them with bacon and make them edible. Francie came back down to the kitchen carrying the pink jewelry box her grandmother had given her for her fifth birthday. She lifted the lid. A plastic ballerina on a spring popped up.

“I finally found a use for this,” she said.

In one of the pink velvet lined compartments meant for jewelry, she’d tucked the red glass bead.

“If the crows bring anything, save it. Even gum wrappers,” she said because I’d thrown the first away without thinking.

“Sure.”

Then Francie did something she hadn’t done in years; she turned the key on the back of the box. A plinkity-plink rendition of My Favorite Things followed. The two of us stood watching the plastic ballerina pirouette in front of the mirrored lid as though it were really something.

In the following days, more gifts appeared. Francie said it wasn’t just one crow but several that took to leaving tiny, shiny, treasures on the windowsill. Sometimes we saw the delivery. Other times, we’d come home to discover bits of broken glass, a silvery dime, or a fragment of copper wire placed just so on the snowy ledge. Francie, never one to anthropomorphize, surprised me by saying she thought the crows were leaving us thank-you gifts for keeping the feeder full.

“Let me see, twenty dollars worth of birdseed for one metal pull tab off a Coke can,” I said. “I think we’re getting ripped off.”

Francie knew I shared her fascination with the crow gifts. For her birthday I gave her a pocket-size moleskin with crow-print endpapers. She decided to use it to record dates and descriptions of each item left behind. Her handwriting was tiny, the letters meticulously shaped.

By March, the snow had retreated to the shadows on the Northside of the house and the crows dropped off newly discovered treasures; a penny, a bit of tinsel, a strand of metallic, curling ribbon.

One Saturday afternoon, I pulled into the driveway and Francie jumped out to see what gift await her on the windowsill. Howard was in his backyard, removing the thermal cover from his barbecue, one of those stainless steel gas ones that cost more than my stove.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to touch disease-ridden crap,” he asked Francie. “You’ll get bird flu.”

My daughter, normally pretty placid, deadpanned, “I’ll take my chances.”

I stayed behind the wheel of the car pretending I hadn’t heard their exchange until Howard went inside.

A reporter from the Greater Heuertown Weekly phoned. The Weekly had actually been a monthly for more years than I could count though the name remained. The woman said a reader called to suggest an op-ed on the health hazards of feeding wildlife but the more she learned the more intrigued she became by the story of the girl and the crows. She asked if it was true the birds delivered gifts. I told her Francie kept a detailed record of each crow delivery and stored the trinkets in her ballerina jewelry box.

“How enchanting,” she said. “I would love to interview her.”

Much to my surprise, Francie agreed. She considered crows greatly misunderstood.

The reporter came to our house with a photographer and Francie quietly showed them her collection. I feared they would be less enthralled when faced with the reality of Francie’s carefully inventoried rubbish. But in fact, the article and photos were sweet. The corny headline — Young Girl’s Hobby for the Birds — didn’t do it justice.

The day the weekly arrived on our doorsteps, Howard was in his backyard spraying the spring lawn with something indisputably toxic. Even from a distance, the smell caught in my throat. Howard didn’t seem bothered by it. He wore a plastic container of weed killer on a strap slung across his body and clutched the sprayer in one hand. Bent at the waist, he searched the ground for signs of the enemy.

“Did you see the article,” I asked.

He had. Howard pumped the plastic plunger on his weed killer to get more juice flowing.

“You know what a flock of crows is called, don’t you,” he asked. “A murder.”

“I know! A murder of crows! Isn’t that hilarious? Who names these things, Edgar Allen Poe?”

Howard didn’t even crack a smile. He pumped a few more times then turned his back to me, aiming his wand at some imagined evil lurking in the grass.

My Wednesday meeting ran late. Francie understood these things happened. I texted her, said I’d pick up something on the way home. Pizza? Chinese? Her response: Just come home! Maybe she’d made dinner for us. Her specialty was mac-and-trees; a box of Kraft macaroni with sprigs of frozen broccoli stirred in. Anything, so long as I didn’t have to cook. We could light candles and celebrate something. We were good at making up fake holidays.

By the time I rolled up the driveway, it was almost seven. Francie met me at the backdoor.

“Sorry! My boss is such a . . .,” I stopped when I saw her eyes, pink and swollen. “What is it?”

“They’re dead,” she said.

“Who?”

“The birds.”

She’d found them when she got home from school, a half-dozen crows on their backs on the ground, feet up.

“One was still alive,” she said, “barely.”

Then she started crying again. All I could do was hold her. She felt as fragile as a broken bird.

Francie didn’t want to go to school the next day. I called in sick, too. The dead crows, still scattered on the grass around the bird feeder, were visible from the kitchen window. I knew Howard had something to do with it. I had no proof and no doubt. I pulled the curtains closed before Francie came downstairs.

We had breakfast. We talked about the birds. She wanted to bury them. She didn’t think it was right to toss them in a mass grave.

“Separate holes,” I agreed.

She cried some more. I held her close. I worried.

“I’m fine, Mom,” she said.

I knew she wasn’t but I knew she would be.

Francie went up to shower. The kitchen was a mess. I cleared the dishes, wiped down the counters, swept the floor. I filled the sink with hot water and too much soap until the bubbles spilled over into the adjoining basin, then slowly, ceremoniously, submerged each bowl, cup, and plate one by one, like burying sailors at sea. I stared out the window following some faraway fragment of an idea until a sudden a swoop of black brought me back: A crow. The bird was about to land on the window ledge when it startled to see me. It turned sharply skyward and in doing so dropped something sparkly from its beak.

I considered calling my daughter. Instead, I slipped outside. A fat crow sat on the low fence between Howard’s yard and my own. I took slow baby steps down the back stoop stairs. The grass felt cold on my bare feet. In a few weeks, I’d need to mow. Tulips would bloom. With my eyes on the crow, I toe-combed the lawn until I felt it. Slowly, I crouched down to pick up this latest gift; a single key on a shiny silver fob. The raised HJ monogram glinted in the sunlight.

END

This was first published in the Dunes Review print edition. I’m a journalist by trade. This story was inspired by an article I read about a little girl in Germany who received little treasures delivered by crows. She believed they were thank you gifts for feeding the birds.

Career journalist, essayist, fiction writer, and life-long spirit-quester.

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