ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Four Crows," a story by Richard Risemberg


Four crows were foraging in a vacant lot in the rain. It was a light rain, and the crows seemed to ignore it, though of course they understood rain. They pecked methodically among the rangy weeds, one crow always watching for cats and dogs while the other three rummaged through leaves and debris. They would regularly change watchers so all could eat.

The lot was surrounded by a chain-link fence, but teenagers and derelicts inevitably found their way in to eat and drink, mostly to drink; but they ate enough that there were always old fastfood cartons to rummage in, rich with bits of hamburger bun and cold french fries. Most prized were the half-empty ketchup packets that the crows had become expert in tearing open to peck at the sweet syrupy crust inside. One time the discovery of a nearly-full package of butter-toffee peanuts engendered a scuffle among the crows, one resolved only when a larger crow dove down from the tree next door and arrogated the package to himself. When the larger crow had eaten to satisfaction and flown back up into the tree, the original four gathered peacefully around the remaining butter-toffee peanuts and ate without squabbling. On the rainy day in question, there were no such treasures to be found. It had been raining for four days, and the local humans stayed indoors.

Most of them, that is. The crows were aware of two humans watching them through the chain-link fence that separated the vacant lot from the sidewalk. An older man and woman, bundled up in dark-colored jackets, both holding umbrellas. The crows took their turns keeping an eye on them. The flock remembered, or the older members did, when there were two houses on the vacant lot—the lot cut through the block from street to street. The crows associated humans with houses, and regretted the tidy back yards, which did not offer much in the way of forage and, worse, were often patrolled by dogs and cats. But one day the growling metal boxes also associated with humans came and, along with much shouting and the sound of crunching wood, destroyed the houses and took away the pieces.

They also cut down and took away two large trees, one of which had provided seeds to the crows. Fortunately the meeting tree that the crows settled into at night, when they were in that part of their range, still remained. This was the tree next door to the vacant lot. It was behind the house in which the two watching humans lived. It was too tall for the young humans of the block to climb, and anyway young humans rarely entered the house of the two elderly watchers. More important, the bark was too smooth for cats to climb well. Squirrels could climb it, and sometimes did, but the crows could chase them off with ease. It was a good meeting tree, and even better now that the vacant lot had had time to grow weeds and berries and accumulate the food trash of humans. The crows came more often to the meeting tree now that the vacant lot was there. The four crows watched the humans watching them and continued foraging under the gentle rain.

The two humans had lived on the block for over thirty years. They had moved there when the female was first pregnant, and together they had raised two children in the house that was shaded in the mornings by the crows' meeting tree. The children had often attempted to climb the meeting tree, but had never succeeded; the bark was too smooth, and the first branches too high off the ground. A succession of cats had likewise not climbed the tree. All four humans as well as of course the cats had been aware of the crow flock's use of the tree. The humans found it endearing, though their immediate neighbors occasionally complained of the noise the crows made. The flock was raucous at times, as crows often are. But the female human, Betty Engberg, had recently retired from her job as a biology teacher in a nearby high school; the male human, Ralph, who had worked in an insurance company, was a passionate amateur genealogist, and often pointed out that their surname meant "hill and meadow" in Swedish. Since Betty's family name had been Fields, they thought of themselves as well-matched, and as appropriate custodians of the small patch of land on which their house stood, and of the meeting tree.

However, their gardens offered neither mountain, meadow, nor field, only rectangles of severely-trimmed grass, bordered with imported flowers that demanded regular attention. The vacant lot, in its evolution to a true if somewhat trash-strewn meadow, had engaged their attention and even, lately, their affection. They characterized their corvid neighbors as teachers, and observed them carefully while they pondered the fate of the lots. Their bodies felt at peace as they stood under their umbrellas watching the crows. However, they couldn't put it out of their minds that the lots might be developed soon, and not gracefully.

It was Betty who first proposed that they should try to persuade the city to make the consolidated lots into a small park. There was a similar cross-block "pocket park," as it had been referred to in the newspaper, not too far off, but it had been sponsored by a large corporation touting it as an amenity of the luxury condos it had built on the busy boulevard at the end of that particular block. The pocket park was open to all but sprouted numerous admonitory signs restraining behavior in various ways, and surveillance cameras gazed down on it from the austere concrete walls of the condo building. Ralph and Betty and the nearby neighbors they had first exposed to the concept had hoped that the municipality itself would buy the lots. The city, they felt, would design a friendlier park. But, according to their city council representative, a gladhanding longtimer whom they suspected of favoring the developer, the city's budget would not accommodate such a purchase. Ralph, whose best friend was an insurance company lawyer, had muttered something about "eminent domain," but the council member had shifted his considerable belly around behind his desk, pulled thoughtfully on his necktie, and retorted that perhaps a neighborhood built on the suburban pattern, such as theirs, with extensive lawns and trees, was not short of green space. Ralph pointed out that the developer's work in other neighborhoods comprised primarily what Ralph derived a certain satisfaction from calling "oversized garage-fronted sugar cubes," which would destroy the neighborhood's ambience, clash with the existing classic houses, and, with their wide driveways replacing front yards, considerably diminish the very green space cited by the council member.

Although Ralph felt secretly proud of his eloquence, it did not endear him to the council member, who promised to "pursue the matter further" in a tone that left no doubt that he would ignore them henceforth.

This is what Ralph and Betty were discussing, in low voices, as they stood under their umbrellas in the rain, watching the anonymous crows.

The sky lay low and heavy over the city's rooftops, the rumpled dark-gray cloud bottoms shredding themselves as they lumbered slowly across the neighborhood. The rain fell steadily but not hard, dimpling the puddles that had formed overnight. Betty pointed out tiny new leaves sprouting from the mud at the base of the chain-link fence; their bright green seemed to be lit from within. After that they both saw new shoots everywhere, a floral exuberance which lifted their spirits even as they hunched against the chill in their dark coats. "Imagine," Ralph said. "If this soil can sprout new life after being mashed by bulldozers, what would it do if it were a real garden? Imagine a park here."

"Imagine a farm here," Betty said. "Why not? One of those community gardens." She gazed past the rain dripping from the edge of her umbrella and into an unlikely future. "The city would let us do it if the owner agreed."

"The owner will never agree," Ralph said.

"How about if we were the owners?"

Ralph snorted in derision. "Our pensions and Social Security put together wouldn't cover the monthly payments on two city lots. Let alone a down payment. And what bank would ever finance something like that anyway?" He shook his umbrella to disengage the drops that clung to its edge.

"Not just us," Betty said. "The whole block. And the folks across the street on both sides too. Pool our money and buy it. For ourselves. For the neighborhood."

Ralph stood silent for a while. He stared at the four crows as they pecked into a tangle of bright green weeds. The weeds were supple and tall, almost in the center of the lot. It would be a pity, he thought, if that were buried under a pretentious and ugly McMansion. "Do you think," he said, "enough people would go for it?"

"One way to find out," Betty said.

"Who's to say they wouldn't vote to sell it for profit later?"

"You know I've been reading about community land trusts. Maybe we could do it that way. Ask your lawyer pal Richards." Betty did not care for Ralph's best friend, whom she thought tedious, but she acknowledged that he knew his stuff.

* * *

"Sounds like communism to me. I don't buy land to share it with lowlifes." The heavyset fellow from the far end of the block snapped out his objections while slouched in a folding chair that barely held his bulk.

An indignant murmur swelled and subsided. Betty spoke up, a little more sharply than she had intended. "We're hardly lowlifes!"

"Parks draw lowlifes. Lazy bastards from apartment houses. People who can't afford yards. I'm not their social worker."

Betty pointed out that a community garden would be fenced in and that only they would have they keys, but she unwisely added that parks brought people together and cleaned the air, and they could all share the food they grew. The heavyset man repeated, "Yeah, communism. Count me out." He struggled out of the folding chair, which creaked loudly as he heaved, and stalked out the door. Another neighbor, the skinny old man with the ragged yard, followed him, while several of the denizens of the block who remained rolled their eyes. The meeting continued: Ralph's friend Richards presented an outline of community land trusts and how they worked, and heads nodded approvingly, but in the end, not enough of their fellows were willing to carry more debt and attempt to purchase the lots. Richards, being an insurance company lawyer, had an understanding of the numbers and let Ralph and Betty know, quietly, after the meeting, that they couldn't match the city's own valuation of the combined lots, let alone the developer's inflated expectations. The neighbors, young and old, retreated to their own houses and waited. Ralph and Betty continued to monitor the condition of the lot, which was after all right next door.

* * *

A series of gentle storms fed the soil throughout springtime. Grasses and shrubs grew high in the lot, high enough to hide most of the trash which continued to be flung over the fence or dropped by teenagers drinking quietly in the dark. Even the small pile of broken planks and two-by-fours in the far corner was barely visible. The four crows—Ralph and Betty were sure they were the same four, though they couldn't tell any single member of the flock from any other—the "Gang of Four," as they named the foragers, continued to favor the lot even when the rest of the flock was elsewhere in their apparently considerable territory. A homeless man set up camp briefly in the lot, but one of the neighbors called the developer who owned the lot, who then called the police—Ralph and Betty never inquired who, though they had decided between themselves not to bother the homeless fellow, whose name, they learned, was also Ralph. The police nagged him into gathering his possessions and his tent and then herded him off the lot. The curl of fencing that had let him enter, and the teenagers before him, was repaired the next day. The Gang of Four immediately set to exploring the patch of flattened grasses where the tent had been, expecting treasures. And indeed, as Ralph and Betty could see from their post on the sidewalk, the crows found a nearly full bag of french fries, a comestible for which they exhibited an irritable and competitive enthusiasm. Several other crows dove from the meeting tree to join in the feast, leading to much cawing and flapping of wings.

It was, unknown to crows and observers all, a sort of valedictory banquet, for two days later the bulldozers arrived, men in yellow vests and hard hats took down the fences and rolled up the chain-link, and the lot was plowed, graded, and prepared for the building crews. As soon as the dirt was bare and flat and a grid of rebar laid, a series of cement trucks visited, disgorging gray paste from their slowly-rotating vats. Ralph and Betty watched from a corner of the lot now, since their old spot on the sidewalk was cluttered with wheelbarrows, tools, dusty boards, and piles of white plastic piping. The workers were friendly but noncommittal on the aesthetic aspects of their work; they showed Ralph and Betty the plans, but the thin lines on blueprint meant little to them. They could see, however, that the houses to be planted there were much larger than their own and the others on the block, and seemed to consist mostly of hard corners. The crows, meanwhile, had of course abandoned the lot once the growling boxes had shouldered their way in. They were still audible in the meeting tree at daybreak and dusk, and visible if one squinted and looked for their distinctive shapes, but they no longer foraged in the lot, as there was nothing there but a concrete slab and inedible debris.


* * *

The sunny weeks typical of summer in that city let the crews work fast, and soon the gleaming new houses loomed high into the blue zenith. They were indeed vast sugar cubes, with large garages snouting out of their frontal façades; wide gray driveways edged with a frill of brick replaced most of what had once been front yards. The human-sized doors into the actual rooms were set far back from the sidewalk and seemed dark and perfunctory; it was obvious that one was meant to enter from the garages. The purchasers who eventually bought the new house next door were in their early thirties, dressed sharply, and drove immense four-wheel-drive ranger-type vehicles decorated with chrome and immaculately clean. Ralph remarked that the black-and-chrome color scheme made them look like hearses "big enough for mass burials," an observation that both amused and dismayed his wife. Their efforts to meet the new neighbors resulted in the compulsory return greetings uttered in dry sandy voices shaped by perfect teeth, followed by excuses of "so much to do, and I'm sure we'll talk soon" as the newly-arrived strutted into the garage and clicked their remotes to make the door roll down. They did not see much of their new neighbors until fall—the large boxy cars bore tinted windows, and they never walked anywhere, though a stationary bicycle was visible through a window in the back. In the fall, though, the neighbors actually knocked on their door.

This surprised Ralph and Betty, until Ms. Curtis, the young wife, resplendent in vivid turquoise tights, a sweater that Betty judged to have cost several hundred dollars, and a gleaming leather bolero, explained that she was there about "those awful crows in your tree," which disturbed her sleep in the morning. "We'll gladly help pay for it to be cut down, since that's probably the only thing that'll get rid of them. They are just so noisy. I know it must drive you mad too..." The young wife let her eyes sag down to express sad sympathy. Ralph and Betty demurred, stating that they liked sharing their tree with the crow flock, at which the young wife's eyes narrowed. "But that tree is a hazard; it could blow down in a storm."

When Betty and Ralph demurred again, the young wife let out a short hiss of breath and turned away.

Two weeks later they received an official notice that the tree was in fact a hazard and would need to be trimmed or removed. The inspector must have studied their tree from the neighbors' property, perhaps from the second-story bedroom, with, Ralph imagined out loud, a cup of coffee thrust into hand by the solicitous owners. The expense, it turned out, would be considerable, and would impose an unbearable burden on the finances of the older couple. Betty took it upon herself to engage in verbal battle with the city bureaucracy, but her efforts only exhausted and frustrated her; the tree had been marked for doom; it was an old eucalyptus with long, heavy, fragile branches, and in truth a danger as much to their own house as to the brutal new one next door. "We'll have to refinance; there's no other way," Ralph said. Richards, the lawyer friend, concurred that the destruction of the tree was unavoidable. In the end, the neighbors, who had somehow heard of the older couple's financial worries, again offered to pay half of the cost, as long as Betty and Ralph would grant them contractual right of first refusal should they ever decide to sell their own house. The younger couple envisioned a tennis court on the lot. Betty and Ralph discussed it long and bitterly, but in the end they agreed, understanding that their only other choice was to sell out right away, an option which tempted them. Their children were in no position to help them with money.

Soon men with chainsaws arrived, accompanied by a crane, and after four days of intense noise, the tree was gone, leaving only chips and twigs and a circle of rumpled soil by the back fence. The sky seemed unnaturally bare now when they glanced out the back window, so they chose not to look. The back yard, which Ralph had habitually tended with a vigorous delicacy, grew ragged, grass stems poking out tall and thin among the jagged leaves of the dandelions, with rangy milk thistles springing up where the flowers had died off late in the summer. One rainy day in the middle of October Betty called Ralph to the kitchen window, which offered a view of the half-forgotten yard. "Look who's back," she told Ralph, who had come unwillingly from his computer screen in the darkened study, where he now spent what Betty felt was too much time. Ralph straightened his glasses and looked out the window while Betty smiled at him. Soon he smiled too. "I'll be damned. It's the Gang of Four, isn't it?"

"Hard to tell," Betty said, "But they sure act like it." The four crows poked their beaks peaceably into tangles of grass stem as rain pattered downward from a soft gray sky.

"Wonder what they're finding there. There was nothing but grass and dandelions last time I looked."

"The grass has gone to seed," she said. "And there must be bugs."

"That's not good enough. They deserve better after losing their home. Where's that bag of peanuts? I was just reading online that if you want to make friends with a crow, peanuts will do it." He looked at Betty and smiled. "Let's start a crow park, shall we?"

"Might get noisy," she smiled back.

"Would be music to my ears," he said. They looked out the window at the four crows pecking earnestly at the dirt beneath their yard. Hope rose in their hearts.


Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He's spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and writing stories, poems, and essays based on his experiences. He has published widely in the last few years, as you can see at”


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