I was in the backyard filling one of the bird feeders with my daughter when our new neighbor knocked on our fence. It's not a privacy fence, just a few horizontal boards at waist height, but he rapped his knuckles on the wood as though on a door. Francie, who'd just turned twelve, looked at me like, Am I supposed to answer the fence? Before I could respond, the guy knocked again. I set down the bag of seed.
"You must be our new neighbor," I said walking over to the fence. Francie stayed put.
"Howard Johnsen, with an e," he said, as though I might mix up the man with the motel. He was short and muscular, the kind of body built at gyms and on full display in tight jeans and a tighter black T-shirt. He looked me in the eye and said, "I need the keys to my house."
I hadn't even had a chance to introduce myself but thought I understood Howard's lack of decorum.
"Oh no," I said, "are you locked out?"
"The previous owner told me she gave a set of keys to a neighbor."
"Maybe you can get in through a basement window?"
"I'm not locked out."
"She said the neighbors had keys to feed her cat while she was away."
"Oh, the poor dear," I said. "Her cat died a couple years ago. Such a sweet woman but she obviously couldn't live on her own anymore and her sons moved to … "
"Do you now or have you ever had keys to my house?"
I was a taken aback. My new neighbor was commanding 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, the chattering of chickadees filled the air.
"Man, those birds," he finally said. "They're driving me nuts!"
"The birds? Really?"
I understand when people don't like crows because crows are bossy and noisy. But the crows hadn't taken over yet. The bird feeders were Francie's birthday present from her dad and 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 a jump-off point for his 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 so many 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.
"I had two from every state that has a lottery, and I come home to find out she sold half of them on eBay for next to nothing," he said. "She knew what the collection was worth."
"You collect unscratched scratch-offs?"
"Limited editions," he said, "very valuable."
"OK," I said kind of laughing, "I'll have to trust you on that."
"You sound just like my bitch ex."
I'd had enough of Howard Johnsen. 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.
About a month later, I was wrestling a twenty-five-pound sack of bird seed from the back of the car. How much money were these birds going to cost me? First there was the seed. Then the plastic guards to stop cats from getting to the feeders. Then I paid sixty-five dollars for an old metal gym locker to store the seed bags after squirrels chewed through one and left the garage a mess. Francie's middle school auctioned off the lockers as a fund-raiser for the drama department. My daughter wasn't one for the spotlight but liked the machinations of backstage. I dropped all twenty-five pounds onto the floor of the metal locker. 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 lights off and on for lightning. 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?"
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 birds and 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 that moment 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 don't have a dishwasher. I hung a feeder by the window so Francie could wash and watch the birds but the dirty mugs and cereal bowls sat untouched.
"Look," she whispered.
A crow had landed on the windowsill. 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 sparkly, red, cut glass bead 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 the bead with a bit of silver metal still attached. "It must have come off a necklace."
"I think it's from a Rosary," I said. "You can tell by the chain."
"I want to keep this," she said and disappeared upstairs.
I heard her rummaging around her 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, I want to save it," she said. I'd thrown away the gum wrapper earlier without thinking.
"Sure," I said.
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.
The crows left more 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 bird seed for one metal pull tab off a Coke can," I said. "I think we're getting ripped off."
"Maybe they'll bring us one of Howard Johnsen's unscratched scratch-offs," Francie joked, "and we'll win the jackpot!"
By March, the snow had retreated to the shadows on the North side of the house and the crows dropped off newly discovered trinkets; 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 prize awaited 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.
Francie spotted a vintage printer's cabinet at a garage sale. She thought the tiny divided drawers, meant for metal type, looked perfect for cataloging her ever-growing crow collection. It was oak and heavy as hell, but it was a bargain. The sellers helped us load it into the back of the station wagon.
At home, Francie and I carried it inside, one drawer at a time. Howard eyed us from his backyard where he was busy 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. I waved and held up one of the shadow box–like drawers.
"Pretty cool, right?" I called out.
"I don't know where you are going to find room in your house for something like that," he said, "or why."
"Francie's going to keep her crow treasures in it," I said moving toward the fence so we weren't shouting.
Howard remained at the far end of his yard. He pumped the plastic plunger on his weed killer to get more juice flowing.
"You know what a flock of crows is called?" he asked. "A murder."
"I know! 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. I had a text from Francie: *Come home!*I texted back: I'll pick up something on the way. Pizza? Chinese?
Her response: Just come home!
By the time I rolled up the driveway, it was after 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.
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 pulled the curtains closed. We had toast and tea in our pajamas. Neither one of us spoke. I offered sugar. Francie declined. She stared into her cup like she was reading fortunes in the leaves even though I'd used Lipton teabags.
"I hate Howard Johnsen," she finally said.
"We don't know if it was him," I said.
"It was him."
"Well, even if it was, I'm sure it was an accident," I said.
I stayed quiet. After a while, Francie announced she was going upstairs to shower. She asked if I'd help her bury the birds later. She wanted to dig six holes, one for each crow.
"It doesn't seem right to toss them in a mass grave," she said.
"Separate holes," I agreed.
I cleared the table. I filled the sink with hot water and too much soap. Bubbles spilled over into the adjoining basin. I slipped dirty cups and plates and knives one by one into the water, slowly, solemnly, like burying sailors at sea. I stared out the window following some unformed thought 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 standing there and turned sharply skyward and dropped something shiny from its beak. It glinted before it hit the ground.
I considered waiting for my daughter. Instead, I headed outside and paused on the back stoop. A fat crow sat on the low fence between Howard Johnsen's yard and my own. Three more perched on the wire. All remained eerily silent. I stepped down the 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 crows, I toe-combed the lawn until I felt it. Slowly, I crouched down to pick up this latest gift from the crows: a single key on a shiny silver fob. The raised HJ monogram shone in the sunlight.
Notes from the Author
Several years ago, I read a news article about a young girl in (I think) Germany who began feeding crows and the birds responded by bringing her shiny trinkets. I was charmed. Months later, a follow up article said neighbors complained the birds had multiplied and they cawed constantly, made a mess, and dove down at neighbors' heads. It intrigued me.