Starlings

Fiction
Andrew S. Taylor


Flock of Starlings swarm the London Eye
Photo Credit: Alison Kinsey

He saw the reflection of a flock of birds in the store window. He stopped. They swarmed across the dome of the reflected sky, black and rippling with energy. He turned around, but over the busy city street he saw nothing—just street lamps, with their long necks and beady heads asleep in the late morning sun, and over them the heavy lozenges of the financial center skyline. No birds.

He turned back to the window and the flock swarmed. Now that, he thought, is quite peculiar. He lifted his hand—the left hand, for the right held a small, worn briefcase—and pressed the palm against his lips. His own reflection in the window, making this gesture, reminded him of his father, who would stand there in the doorway, just like that, each morning before leaving for work. He would be wearing overalls rather than a tailored suit and would be holding a metal lunchbox rather than the briefcase, but he would stand just like that—a silhouette hesitating, looking upon his children with a kind of quiet astonishment, as if amazed at their existence.

There were birds like that always hovering over his father’s house. They would swim and spiral, and sometimes nest in the chimney or the attic. Small birds, many of them. Starlings, they were called. They had to be flushed out by fire, by poison, by loud noises, exhaled from their home like smoke. Angered, they would emerge into the dusky light, forming a scattered array that merged with the trees and telephone poles. As a child, he had yelled after them, and sang to them, the Song of the Starlings, the sort of thing children make up when they are not yet convinced that animals do not understand human speech. The birds would circle and the boy would sing, and men in overalls came and went from trucks, with brooms, with canisters and things that stank and smoked to chase the birds away.

Something beeped inside the man’s jacket and it occurred to him that he might be running late. He turned to leave and bumped into a woman moving in the other direction. “Watch it!” she snapped at him, then stalked away with her blouse in slight disarray, her curly hair bouncing with determination.

Watch it, he repeated to himself. Was that an order?

He turned to the store window once more. The mannequins were barely visible behind the reflection of the sky, through which the birds still swarmed.

He shook his head and quickly moved on. Knowing the way, he walked forward without looking. He flipped open his phone and checked the name on the inbox, his fat thumb blundering across the tiny buttons, his thumb with its smooth nail, creamy and pink, not like the chipped mica of his father’s, and the call was from a client and the battery was draining and just where did all those birds go after the fire anyway?

The image came back to him. The bright orange crown, searing and bearing down from above and the infernal, midnight dance of shadows in the hedgerows. The neighbors gathered in their bathrobes, women wearing curlers, men with hair wisped around sunken eyes, standing on the crooked sidewalk, standing next to cars—Packards and Edsels—vehicles like giant mollusks, watching and crying and holding him close, away from the fire, holding his face and his sister’s face and his brother’s face, holding and watching the open front door, the deep throat of their burning house. Orange sparks, beads of fire as large as fists, floated up out of attic windows, and he had cried because he thought the starlings were burning.

The elevator opened and he crossed the corridor and pushed aside the glass door. It was wiped clean every morning so his hand print was not on it yet. He did not look at his reflection in the glass but in the corner of his eye he could see the birds swarming behind him in the reflection. The secretary was new and she smiled affectionately. He gave her a wink and a grin and a little flirtatious banter. She leaned sideways and ran her fingers through her hair. Her neck was gentle and smooth. He imagined his thumb there, just under the ear, his fingers behind her neck. He reached down and took a butterscotch drop from the glass jar.

The attic was where his father sometimes went with Mattie. Mattie was mom’s cousin from upstate who was there to take care of them when his mother was at the hospital. His mother’s lungs were worse, and then they were better, and then they were worse again. They burned sometimes, and her face was red, and her eyes moist, but she smiled at them always. She held his head and touched his neck and even though she burned she smiled, touching his face the way he thought about touching the secretary’s face. Mattie was smaller and slimmer and looked like a kid next to his father, with freckles and curious, searching brown eyes. And Mattie’s face was red when he found her and father in the attic with their clothes scrambled and their mouths open like blind sockets, with their backs bent and their arms and legs impossibly tangled. Their fingers wormed through long swirls of hair. Hands moved underneath. The attic smelled like a hospital then: sharp and antiseptic. The chemical men had come just weeks before and purged the attic of the starlings, and now the attic was supposed to be clean. But outside, on the roof, he could hear them shuffling, beating, trying to break in again.

He sat at his desk, which was polished mahogany. His office was empty, full of empty chairs, but in the reflection on the desktop the shadows of the birds moved in great whorls. He rolled the candy back and forth across the surface of his tongue, and pressed it into the roof of his mouth. He tickled it, savored its melting roundness. He missed his mother’s lap, how he pressed his face onto it as a child and fell quickly into a deep summer sleep. His mother, breathing slowly and carefully, would stroke his hair and sing to him. Mattie would take him to Coney Island and buy him carnival rides and ice cream but she would never let him sleep in her lap like that. Mattie didn’t want children to touch her. After the long days in Coney he would go up to his bedroom and look out the window and watch the swarm, and sing, and for a moment be amongst them.

Two computer screens hovered before him, displaying tables, graphs, charts, accusations, prophecies. He pushed his fingers into his tired eyes and there were white sparks. His mother had just been back from the hospital when it happened. She had come back from the hospital, very oddly, late at night after he’d gone to bed. He didn’t know she was home until he heard her yelling. The sound was painful, and it came from upstairs in the attic. His mother’s voice was rending and bleeding. He never understood if it was the fire or the screaming that came first. He wanted to believe it was the fire, and that his mother knew the fire was coming and that she came home from the hospital to rescue them. But there was screaming from above and he sat up in bed, in unison with his brother and sister, looking at each other across the darkness, with the unnatural, early dawn arising outside the window, the flickering and dancing. And his mother pulled them out, carried them out, and they stayed there on the sidewalk and she stayed there with them, unmoving and silent, looking up at the swarming sparks of orange, and in the attic window he saw the figure of his father standing, rippling, immersed in a blinding sunrise from within their house, standing the same way, looking down in astonishment at his children as if wondering once again why he had to leave them.

He sat in the empty clean space, and checked his watch. He had gained some time on the way over. Five minutes before the conference. He would need that time, as he often did. He stood and closed the office door. He disabled the phone.

He put down his briefcase and turned to the light from the window. Outside, high up in the eaves of the city, a cloud of birds merged into the sky. On the other side, he was barely visible behind the glass, obscured by reflected blue, but the tiny creatures were just able to hear him.
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Andrew S. Taylor’s first short story was published nine years ago in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Since then, his work—both fiction and non-fiction—has appeared in numerous publications online and in print, including Pindeldyboz, The Dream People, Menda City Review, Thieves Jargon, Underground Voices, Word Riot, Anime Insider, American Book Review, and many others. His flash fiction piece “Punctuation” appeared the December 2009 (9:4) issue of Toasted Cheese. His novella “Swamp Angels” is included in the anthology Needles & Bones from Drollerie Press. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart, and was recently selected as a “Notable Story of 2009” by storySouth‘s Million Writers Award. He also served for three years as Associate Editor of Menda City Review. Email: blueshift22[at]gmail.com

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