They come so quickly, a swoop of black flutterings. We watch them dip and turn, trace inky sketches on a darkening sky. More arrive, then more, and a man passing says, Just wait. There’ll be thousands in a minute. And sure enough, more wings whoosh over us, the black cloud grows larger, the air pulsates.
We stand on the river bank and tilt our heads upwards. The birds twist one way, then another; liquid shapes of shimmer and shadow. They glide across the sky, a school of blue-black fish, swimming through electric air.
I’ve never seen a murmuration of starlings before. A few years ago, I saw a murmuration of dunlin, a silvery dance of poise and elegance. But this? This is something else. The sheer number of birds; their blackness; their speed. Something catches in my throat, and I’m not sure if it’s fear or gratitude.
The days accrete; assume a familiar shape. But the shape dissolves in a wingbeat, acquires a new and unexpected form.
Last year was a difficult one. A daughter sick; a son struggling. This year, I turned fifty.
My husband stands beside me and the starlings sweep and soar. There must be a predator lurking, a merlin or a kestrel. The starlings’ dance is a feint to confuse.
Who knows what terror binds them together?
The screams wake me: high pitched, urgent. Terrified, I wake my husband. “Foxes,” he says. “Mating call.”
I lie awake, listen to the tortured sounds.
Jesus, I think.
Is anything worth it?
I stand at the sink, wash the same dish over and over. I’ve been trying to remember all of the things that might be wrong with this baby; all of the things I’ve been told to prepare for.
“Mom,” says the toddler and takes my hand. She and I listen to the strange keening that fills the room.
It takes me a while to realize it’s coming from me.
The wailing doesn’t make sense on my suburban street. I look out the window and see a woman standing at the gate, a child limp in her arms.
“Help me!” she screams and places her lips over the child’s mouth.
I stumble out the door, but the phone I’ve grabbed seems unfamiliar, my fingers too big to find the buttons.
The dog is sick. The vet tries a new medicine, warns against possible side effects. They don’t take long to manifest themselves.
The dog loses his footing, walks into the wall, looks at us with bug-eyed terror, and all the while he cries a low, piteous cry, so that even my husband, who doesn’t like dogs, is distraught. “Jesus,” he says and scoops him up into his arms.
“The poor thing. The poor dumb animal.”