by Raoul Biltgen
Translated from the German by Mary Tannert
He counted five and seven. Five children, seven ravens. No, not ravens, crows. That’s what they were called, those flying black critters that shat on everything that happened to be underneath their feathered assholes—sidewalks and streets, cars and strollers, hats and hair. The corrosive, yellowish-white shit branded the facades everywhere, as it did the eyes of the people, who were angry about the slow, sure destruction of their beautiful city, angry about the malicious laughter that the crows, after shitting, cawed into the rain-hung, early November sky. Five children, seven crows. The number of trees never changed. And the year was drawing to a close.
He sat there on his bench in the park near the children’s playground, bundled into a gray wool coat, a scarf wrapped around his neck, a cap on his head, a pad and pencil in his hand, and watched them—the crows and the children and the mothers, who likewise looked up into the treetops from time to time, into the bare branches where they sat and cawed, the enemy. As if the mothers could have protected their children when they saw the bird shit falling toward their offspring. They were too slow for that, the mothers, and the crows were too fast and too far up for the unpracticed eye to register that a crow was lifting its tail that decisive centimeter that always announced a precisely aimed attack. You couldn’t even do it with a practiced eye, and his was a practiced eye; but even he rarely succeeded in anticipating an assault, which was why he always sat on the same bench, the only one that wasn’t under a tree. Best to be sure, even if it meant sitting directly in the hot sun during the summer. It was autumn. And besides, this bench was so far away from the playground that it was always unoccupied. Mothers need control, and the extent of that control is in direct proportion to their proximity to the person being controlled. At least in the eyes of the mothers.
And when a projectile then found its target, but even more so if it just missed it, he asked himself whether he wasn’t doing the crows too great an honor to credit them with any other intention when shitting than merely relieving themselves. And when he had spent some time thinking about the intentions or nonintentions of the animal kingdom, his mind lurched involuntarily to people, who, after all, only needed their own notions of badness as an excuse for being angry about the guileless birds: It’s true; they do it on purpose. They’re trying to drive us away from our parks, the miserable, the miserable, the miserable what? That’s right, nothing. And just before he started thinking about all the habitats that humans had taken away from animals and lost himself in the kind of humans-are-to-blame-for-everything thoughts that led nowhere, he decided it was better to concentrate on his job.
His job was to count. Seven. And five. And whether it stayed seven. And five. Although, of course, one count naturally wasn’t enough. They came and went, the children; the crows flew here, flew there, it varied. When he counted seven, that didn’t mean that only seven lived in precisely this park. Generally, there were more. The seasons played a role, but so did the time of day, the weather. It could even happen that suddenly there wasn’t a crow far or wide where one minute earlier, a good dozen had been sitting there. And then, a little later, mostly when the mothers and their children had gone home, ten or fifteen of them could be found sitting in the sandbox and on the crosspiece of the swings, quarreling loudly over the abandoned bits of croissant and half-eaten sandwiches and soggy zwieback. It wasn’t easy to distinguish individual birds from one another and know which of them merely stopped by now and then for a quick bite and which belonged to his population.
It wasn’t his population, just like it wasn’t his bench or his job. He had assigned himself the job, chosen the bench himself. The population had turned out to be suitable after two others that were larger; the park was small, situated between long rows of buildings, and the huge swarms of more than twenty or thirty specimens didn’t come here. That way, he could keep everything in view. That was important.
Esch had once been a dirty town. A working-class town. It wasn’t dirty because it had been a working-class town; Esch was a working-class town because of the iron industry in and around it, and Esch was a dirty town because the smelting furnaces in and around Esch spat their reddish-brown soot into the sky day and night. Everything in Esch was reddish-brown—the streets, the facades, the brains—and nobody worried about it. Not that Esch wasn’t proud of itself and its workers. Esch had every reason to be proud of itself. After all, the ore extracted there had laid the foundation for Luxembourg’s wealth long before anyone had even dared to dream about banks and clean business. And because Esch was a proud city, it didn’t give up when suddenly no one was interested anymore in its iron ore and the smelting furnaces could be set up elsewhere more cheaply and the red earth was beaten bloody but left behind with gangrene. Because it was then that Esch saw its opportunity to change, to declare war on the grime, to make clean citizens out of dirty workers, to pressure-wash the facades or even repaint them, repair the streets instead of just patching them, create seating areas in well-tended parks, turn the only big shopping street into a pedestrian zone, tempt people to Esch, turn the city into a metropolis, be beautiful, present something to the world—present itself.
And lo and behold, suddenly people were saying there were hardly any rats left in the little Alzette River, which had been covered over long ago so that people didn’t notice it anymore as it wound its stinking way through the city.
And lo and behold, the people of Esch discovered a head for business. Prosperity had become acceptable; people had made something of themselves.
And lo and behold, what the rats didn’t like anymore was just right for the pigeons.
And lo and behold, the city put little metal spikes on top of the billboards or even electrified them. The people in the city were advised not to feed the pigeons, but to chase them away and spray them with water if they became a nuisance, and the citizens discovered a whole new ambition, namely the desire to keep their beautiful city beautiful, and sales of air guns went up.
And lo and behold, the plan succeeded, and apart from a pigeon corpse or two the city was clean again, the people were happy, and the parks were well-frequented green spaces where you could let your dog off the leash and your children could run around and play without worry.
And lo and behold, the crows liked that too, because they weren’t bothered by a metal spike or two or a little electric shock. They were cleverer, they took over all the areas that were easy to invade and they thrived, cheerful and contented.
Until the people of Esch had had enough.
Crows were worse than pigeons. They were louder, bolder, bigger, and made a bigger mess into the bargain. They had to go. But—and this was the problem—suddenly people were saying that these days, you couldn’t just poison or shoot animals that bothered you because along with prosperity went a new awareness of how people treated the nonhuman occupants of a city. And that’s why it became more and more difficult to get rid of the crows. And that’s why they were still there. And that’s why the people of Esch were even angrier.
He could have been like all the others, watching and blaming someone else for the problem. The people of Esch were good at that. But that wasn’t his way. He wasn’t from Esch. He took care of things. He wanted to give something back to the city that had taken him in nearly twenty years ago, back then when the idea got started that you’re not allowed to just shoot the birds. He was neither an animal expert nor an exterminator. He was a statistician. Once. He could observe, he could count, he could draw conclusions and derive recommendations from them. He was a statistician. Again. He observed, he counted. For three years now. Three populations, three parks, three pads, three pencils. And now, after the third year, the first possible conclusions were visible. His experiment had reached a decisive phase. It was necessary to be vigilant, because the decision was at hand. Now, soon. Soon he would have certainty.
And a solution.
* * *
He counted eight and nine. Eight children, nine ravens. No, not ravens, crows. That was all right, nine, that was within the normal range of the daily fluctuations. It was late morning; soon there would be fewer of them again. It wasn’t raining, but he felt clammy and damp, inside and outside; it was unpleasant. His black-and-gray folding umbrella clamped under his left arm, he made tally marks on his pad. Nine. First four, then the fifth crossing the four, then another four, then the time.
The crows squatted in the bare branches, sporadically cawing their annoyance over the nasty weather, their squawking rising from the little park up into the low-hanging and seemingly eternal cloud cover. When they weren’t cawing, they ruffled their feathers so that their legs and heads could scarcely be seen from below where he was sitting. Only their big beaks stuck out of the black puff, like, like, like what? Yes, that’s right, a beak.
The children didn’t seem to mind the weather. The mothers, on the other hand, they minded. They walked up and down beating their arms around their bodies, hoping noon would come so that they could go home to warmth with a clear conscience. But the children played and laughed and dropped down in the damp, sticky sand without taking any notice of their mothers’ warnings and dirty looks.
And the children were the problem.
The eight children were the problem.
Eight children, now, that was too many.
His hand chilled, he made four marks on his pad, a fifth crossing the four, then a sixth, and then, reluctantly, seven and finally eight. Eight marks. Eight children. For nine crows. That was too many. Over the long run. He would have to add a new formula, now, in mid November. Of the third year. That was impossible. It was too late. Time.
For three whole years he had done nothing but count. First at the Dellheicht school: a big courtyard, big trees, lots of children, lots of crows, lots of complaints, except in summer. Then the park at the Galgenberg: lots of trees, children mostly on the weekends, family groups, especially in summer, and the number of crows fluctuating strongly, but people paid them no attention; they kept walking, they were only visiting. Now this small park in the center of the city: thick with trees, quite a few children, relatively speaking, always the same children, suitable to the number of crows. He had filled three pads over the last three years and entered all the numbers in the computer at home. When he came to Esch, he had assumed he could get along without a computer. But he was wrong. He had only one program on the computer: SPSS, Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, which compared values at the press of a button, set them into relation, spat out correlations. And now he had three children too many. The standard check for Gaussian distribution excluded occasional peaks, visitors, and family parties. But children six, seven, and eight were not visitors he could have ignored. They had been there since the beginning of the week, and they would stay. From now on. He had eavesdropped. He had left his post and approached the mothers under the pretense of cadging a cigaret, had stayed near them, smoking and suppressing the urge to cough, had sat on another bench than his usual one, ignoring all the danger from above, and had discovered what he had feared: a move, an addition, a young family, three children, three now, and the young mother so happy to meet people, now that her husband, her husband, now that he . . . crying. Consolation.
It was mid November, mid November. At the end of November he wanted to—no, should—conclude his calculations. And now this.
Everything is connected to everything else. Children, adults, crows, trees, planting density, the distance to other parks, schools, weather, time of day, season, traffic conditions . . . Everything flowed into his calculations. The first provisional runs led to initial provisional results, provisional results that promised significant results that would deliver conclusions about which changes on one side of the equation would automatically mean changes on the other side. On the other hand, it was about reducing the number of crows to a volume tolerable for humans without having to resort to violence. His numbers were supposed to tell him in just a few weeks what needed to be changed on this side to achieve this. His numbers were reliable. His numbers had always been reliable. He took his time. The interpretation had to be clear. He was a patient person. He always had been. He had come to Luxembourg a little over twenty years ago. He had settled down here. He was not from Esch—the people of Esch valued this distinction—but he belonged there; there were people who knew his name when he encountered them in a store or cafe. His name was Pol.
His name wasn’t Pol, but that’s what they called him, Pol, the Pole, and he knew why. A little over twenty years ago, he had come from what people then still called an Eastern Bloc country. It wasn’t Poland. But he was a patient person; he didn’t need to run around correcting people. If they wanted to call him Pol and think he came from Poland, it didn’t bother him. Pol was a nice Luxembourgish name; he liked that.
So his name was Pol. And Vito, who owned his favorite cafe and who spoke neither German nor Luxembourgish, had caught wind of the thing anyway and called him the quiet Pole, like an axis that was calm while everything spun around it, because Pol didn’t talk much when he drank his beer alone before he went home. Even when he didn’t drink it alone. Pol never said his other name, the one that was in his passport; he never said which country was in his passport, he never said what he had done in this country or why he had left it. He said that he counted, day by day and week by week and month by month. Some people shook their heads; others asked questions. And then he explained. Some people even understood.
But now, suddenly, there were three children too many. Mid November.
Copyright © 2022 Quiet Pol by Raoul Biltgen