» Fiction

Are they starlings?

Should we go outside?


He sat out for the birds most evenings if he was able. Clipboard in hand, a drink to make it feel casual. As the minutes ticked on, a momentary panic could take hold: suppose they shouldn’t come? When they finally would arrive, he allowed himself modest satisfaction. The surge of a small hope realized.


When his birds finally would arrive, w hen the first group would pepper the horizon, he noted the time. Solitary birds didn’t count—it had to be a murmuration, a movement. On October 3rd, the first true group had shown itself at 5:31 p.m. They had risen like smoke over the horizon. They tumbled around the eastern sky together with one pulse. Then, as he had expected, they fanned out into a running stream. A chorus in cloud that streaked toward the blue-blush of the sunset.


His task was to record. The minute of their arrival, how long they held tenure over the little patch of sky capping his garden. Logging their departure, of course, was an unfair exercise of guessing and waiting. Suppose the last one should have been the last one? Yet he endeavored to maintain a faithful record. Most evenings, he faced the usual challenge: to lose one’s self entirely in the face of overwhelming spectacle. When his birds were thick overhead, the little edges of his day could curl up and allow the part of him that tired of a life in this body—a life without her—to slip out.


When his birds were kind, they were generous in number. They washed over him. The following Thursday, though, their advance lasted only eleven minutes. They were true to the sunset—just moments after—but on the whole, an anemic group. There were fewer birds in total, which distressed him more than he liked to say. However, the morning (and he recorded this on the line for observations) had been foggy.


Will it be any moment?


When he sat out for the birds, they eventually appeared. Not always when he expected, or in enthusiastic numbers. Occasionally, they crested the hill much farther south than he was accustomed to looking. His birds had their own brand of constancy. It comforted him very little.

He’d feel fairly sure that he had pinned down the window of their arrival, and then they would break with tradition. They might show up blindingly early, eclipsing a corner of the kitchen window as he washed up at the sink. Elbows dripping, he imagined confronting them over their indifference. “We are governed by different rhythms,” they would shrug, forcing him to see how petty and small were his complaints. Perhaps he’d love them all the more for this nonchalance. Such a response would speak well of him, he thought.


Are they starlings?


His birds were black without jeweled throats. They likely weren’t starlings. What’s more, they seemed quite large at times. He’d point at one and feel it drag his finger in a lazy arc across the sky. Large as a crow, perhaps.


The booklet said it had everything to do with self-preservation. They were afraid of being the first to roost. So they would take to the sky en masse, moving as one, where they could expect protection from the things gentle birds fear. Then they would alight together on waiting branches. It was defensive. Yet he feared for them all the same. His birds were nothing like the circling hawks, red in beak and claw. How easily they could be picked off, and how little they seemed to realize! Their numbers would not guard against disaster– they only promised a witness.


He greeted them prone on the 16th, his eyes fixed upward, filtering in the last of the evening light. They scrolled across the sky. He could not bear to check his watch and later found himself able only to record that there had been “a great many birds.”
How they were pitiless! His birds could not trouble themselves for the cares of a man outside on his back, crying to the heavens.


Will they come much after sunset?


It had seemed almost cruel to hazard a guess as to when they would appear. Then she would count the minutes starting in the late afternoon. The hands on a clock’s face eluded her, but she could still stand in front of the microwave.


“Now, it’s 4:24, and I’m sure of that.”


Depending on the season, when he came home it was straight out to the garden. In winter, there would not be a moment even to unlace his uncomfortable shoes. She’d see him coming up the walk and clap her hands.


Summertime, though, saw the evening stretch. She’d ask to fix herself an orange squash; he would assent. He knew when the sun would set and didn’t like to rush her if needn’t be. He’d leave her alone in the kitchen and listen from the hallway, warmed by the small sounds of her industry. If anything broke, he would be near enough to lift her bare feet.


She loved best the settling in. As twilight fell they would take to their chairs, side by side in repose. It was a happy ritual. He’d caution her against upending her drink, and she’d ask for the clipboard. Holding the pen aloft, she would nod gently while ticking off each cell—“There’s some writing there.”


They took such pleasure in these moments, lived in the anticipation of a great movement. Sweeping across the sky, the birds were haughty, exclusive. Yet at the same time, one felt urged along with the group. Their appearance was a nightly invitation to weep for the lack of wings.


Should we go outside?


He consented on November 7th to be taken out by cheerful friends, knowing full well this outing would make it impossible to collect the numbers. Rain was coming down in driving sheets, and the birds might respond in any of a number of ways. They could conceivably set out earlier due to the darkened sky, but it was possible they would wait for the sunset’s usual glory. They might hang around uneasily, exchanging glances: “It’s time to go.” “No, it’s not.” Surely, even now, he thought, they were squinting for the definitive signal. The one his birds must feel sure that they had been promised.


On the 10th, they were chaotic, outrageous. The birds arrived with the fair weather and apparently no idea of where they should go. Rather than their usual purposeful stream, they parted into opposing groups, dovetailing, wheeling back and rounding in on themselves. A piteous spectacle, these instinct-driven creatures who were suddenly unmoored.


The very next day they’d regained their composure. It was maddening in a way. It made him quite angry, come to think. They flew in a proud trajectory, as though the day before hadn’t been a sputtering disaster. His birds weren’t visionaries; they could be made so unsure of themselves. An early moon looming over the hedge or a stiff wind might send them into disarray.


By the end of the week, he no longer felt that he could trust them. Suppose the last time had been the last time? Sunday evening, he took to his car at their first appearance, determined to follow them to the place they roosted. He craned his neck out the window as he drove, cursing as their swooping progress turned in directions counter to his own. His breath shortened each time he reluctantly dragged his focus back, back into the vehicle, the body. Then he soared to join them. Back into the seat, a glance into the rear-view. A searching of the horizon. Pulling up short, he narrowly avoided a young woman and her dog who had stepped from the curb. Just as soon as he became aware of barreling through their shared space, he was past them. She had worn slim, reflective bands around her upper arms that bounced back the light.


He discarded this uncomfortable fact. He could not both drive and dwell on the boundless possible tragedies of each moment. His birds had presented themselves once more—(was it the group he had initially set out to follow?)—and their pace appeared to slacken as they neared their destination.


From the garden, it had always seemed they were chasing the setting sun. In reality, they streaked toward a stand of eucalyptus trees across from the Fred Meyer’s. He’d parked underneath those trees before, been irritated by the smattering of bird shit.


How long will it last?


The public broadcast station was playing that special on Western migrations again. Chinook salmon. His birds would have tucked their heads under a wing by now. He nursed a gin and tonic while not looking over to the picture window.


Her perch. She had installed herself on the tufted cushions after the incident with the pilot light, which he had said was no big deal. He trusted her, of course, and there was no need. He could switch off the line behind the range. It would be simple. Why had Mrs. Temple said she’d been on the bench all afternoon again when she was perfectly welcome? There was no need. She stopped thumbing through her book then, smiled at him dazzlingly.


“It’s cheerful here, really.”


How will we know when it’s really begun?


A group of six, though slight, might signify that it had begun. If they clustered together in formation, they could very well usher in the movement. They became together something far more urgent, more striking than they ever seemed alone. Once the beginning announced itself, it couldn’t be denied any longer.


One imagines a flock as a single mind, but surely one bird has to strike out for the sunset first. Was it a drop in the temperature, felt by those hollow bones?


Who could say the exact date it had alighted upon her? The first day, perhaps, it would have shown up on a test? The dawning realization of its inevitable course, the dread he had carried alone. He dutifully held and guarded her, tracked and fed and made the thousand loving gestures that measured a day. He saw to the milligrams, the ounces, the critical levels.


He had pictured such a disaster as theirs before. In his mind, the earth had rent in two; his birds on the wing would drop from the sky. He had never expected that anyone should have to preside over the fracas. In reality, their disaster was a startlingly quotidian affair. One that came with armfuls of bills and bottles. Over and over, the administration of it alarmed him – samples to be monitored, appointments to be scheduled. The slow thick glide of a dark, astringent syrup to be given up to three times daily.


Who will be the first to roost?


Nights he sat out for the birds, he bore witness to a homeward journey.


He was an imperfect observer. At times, he came in because he was cold. There was always the chance that he had missed an earlier group as he made his way outside. He usually sat in a patio chair, but once had chanced to stand and saw a dotted black trail disappearing over the valley’s edge. A group completely hidden from his previous vista. He felt abashed that he had failed to detect them when they were so close. But he couldn’t deny that these movements were happening in many places, so very many places he couldn’t see. And this felt like both a betrayal and a great relief.


No one had ever said what should be gained by recording these figures, he thought with no small amount of bemusement. He’d busied his hands taking down the information. Capturing the data resulted in little more than a ghastly approximation of the experience, though. There was a part of him that wanted to snap the clipboard over his knee in a great act of violence. It was a false prophet, a soothsayer. It promised regularity where there was none. Still, how easy it was to forget. He continued to sit out nights with his pencil poised, ready to fill in the next cell.


He came to understand how she must have felt when he smiled benignly and said, “Experience tells us, any moment now.” He came to understand that while there was a range of normal values, one couldn’t possibly produce any sort of estimate worth a damn. He came to see what it was not: which was to say not a dike against rising waters, not even an answer to the pestering of a sharp-eyed changeling. He ventured to the shore each night if only to unroll a feeler—a filament, a sustaining thread. He came to remember in his bones what it was like to be a pilgrim in a strange land, a visitor to a landscape whose patterns she had yet to discern.


Emily Lohorn Carpenter

Emily Lohorn Carpenter writes and teaches in San Diego. Her writing can be found in The Harry Potter Generation (2019, McFarland) and occasionally at @elc.writes.