by Susan Taylor Chehak
It’s called a murmuration, when the starlings flock together and swoop like that, as one, a great cloud of them, moving in synchrony. How do they know? Who keeps the choreography?
Elf is considering the squalor of the kitchen at the north end of his (ex-)girlfriend’s trailer. Ariel. Or: that tramp, as his mother calls her, which never fails to make Elf wince and flinch, even though he knows that’s just the purpose and the point. His older brother only smiles; his younger brother elbows him and laughs. Elf is a small man, in full sync with his name: Elf, short for Elfred, and he doesn’t know why they can’t just call him Fred. He’s not quite the runt of the litter, but that same laughing younger one of his two brothers—the latecomer, as he’s sometimes fondly called, though not by Elf—isn’t yet full-grown, and because his father doesn’t happen to be the same as Elf’s, it very likely won’t be long before he’s outpaced his older brothers both.
Elf’s hands hang at his sides, useless to him and to Ariel too, it seems. She’s still in bed, at the south end of the trailer, a distance away that isn’t much but might as well be forever. The TV set on the counter is always on, with the sound turned low. Just now it shows a news reporter standing in a field with the starlings murumurating above and behind her. When Elf reaches to bring up the volume, there’s a buzz and a fizzle as the screen goes black. He slaps the side of the set with the flat of one hand and hammers the clenched fist of the other on the top. But it looks like the damned thing is dead at last. Elf whips a glance over his shoulder at the dim length of hallway and then on down to the bedroom door beyond—where Ariel isn’t standing, where she’s not smiling at him, where the diamond that he bought for her isn’t glinting on her finger—before he yanks the plug out of its socket, lifts the TV from the counter, tucks it under his arm, and turns toward the outside door.
What Elf can’t see from where he stands: Rose is watching closely there in her own loneliness at home, in her own kitchen mess, in her own squalor, if you want to call it that. She’s peering out her own grease-grimed window to see the starlings flocking in the sky, and she’s turning to the TV on her own counter. Rose’s set is a new one, bright with color, and she’s got the volume up so she can catch mostly every word, because her hearing has been fading to gray too, along with her hair and all the rest. That woman on the screen—with her lipstick and her smile and her coiffure just a little too stiff, a little too bright blond—shuffles papers, looking important and all business, while the man across the desk leers at her, listening like there must be more to it, this story of the starlings that she’s been talking about.
It isn’t just that strange and disturbing murmuration that makes the news. It’s the problems the birds have been causing in the chimneys and the rafters, the barns and the feedlots. It’s the beleaguered farmers who have loaded their guns and aimed them at the sky. Plus boys in trucks, out there picking the birds off the lines—pow, pow, pow. It’s all a game to them. And there’s a woman leaning on the railing of her front porch, the toddler at her side clinging to her skirt and her hand in his hair. She says she’s been poisoning the birds and hoping for the best. A cat slinks on past the dogs barking behind the chain-link in her yard.
Rose dumps her coffee in the sink and pulls her sweater tight and flips the photo of Emily facedown on the counter. Then picks it up and sets it right again. Then throws it in the trash. Like that.
She wipes her hands on her pants. She straightens her shirttails and buttons the top button, runs her fingers through the scrub of her hair, puts on her boots, and heads on outside. Down the steps, into the yard. Stops to examine the sky, searching for another sighting of those black birds. They are a sign of something, she’s thinking. The end, maybe. A shift, anyway. An omen of death, is Emily would call it if she were there, but her absence turns out to be just another omen of another kind, or maybe it’s only one small part of the very much larger whole. Emily actually slammed the door on her way out. Said: No more. Said: I’ve had it with you. Said: Rose, you need to get help.
And Rose has to admit she let that happen, as easily as if that might have been what she was after all along. Her rage subsided and the air cleared, once Emily was out of sight, good and gone. It didn’t last long, though, that relief. The sun hit a high point in the sky and sank back down again. Day shortened the fall toward winter and now the spreading umber of Rose’s lonesomeness has come creeping in to drown her out altogether. Rose pouring another drink. Rose weeping into a kitchen towel. Rose holding herself. Rose in the bathtub with a razor in her hand. Feeling ridiculous as the water turned cold. Her breasts helplessly afloat in the bitter soap scum.
She’s standing in the yard, up to her ankles in the unmown grass. There are feral cats living in the shadows and dirt beneath the porch. There’s junk piled up in the yard. The old shed on the far side of the driveway is falling to pieces too. Rose looks down to see the body of a dead bird nestled in the weeds near the toe of her boot. She kneels to touch it, pick it up, hold it. It’s limp, soft, still warm in the cup of her hands. Poisoned, she assumes. And the rage roils up again, and it brings her back to life.
Elf is pulling away from Ariel’s trailer and heading on down the long gravel drive that ends at the county road, where he takes the time to stop and hammer at the steering wheel with his fist. The broken TV set is in the trunk and the diamond ring is in his pocket, where he stuffed it carelessly after she spit it out, looked at it, laughed, and gave it back to him. Oh, Elf, she said. You know I can’t… I mean I don’t… Then smiled like it was nothing. Hon. She called him hon. Oh, hon. And Elf laughed too and said, No, sure, it was a joke, that’s all. He didn’t mean it, of course he didn’t mean it, and now he can almost believe that’s true. He’s sitting here at the wheel of his car, far enough down the drive that he can’t see the trailer anymore and she can’t see him either, though of course she isn’t looking, of course she didn’t even hear him go, will never know he’s gone. I’m not the marrying kind, she said. And, You know that. Her words echo in Elf’s head now. Because she’s right, of course. And neither is he. He’s got no use for a wife. Not now. Not ever. It’s Ma who’s been putting the pressure on, and her husband who is not Elf’s pa, who is a preacher who doesn’t even know anything at all about Ariel, or even where Elf has been taking off to every night. That man has too much God on his mind to bother with much else. Besides the infinite suffering of souls.
Rose finds an old shoebox in the closet. It once belonged to Emily, who loves her shoes, but when she didn’t need it anymore, Rose made it her own. She dumps the letters out onto the bed, then scoops them up and throws them in the kitchen trash along with the photograph that’s already floating there on top. Then she pulls up the bag and ties it tight and carries it out to the can in the garage. She secures the lid with a hammer of her fist and gives it a kick for good measure. She puts the dead starling in the old shoebox. She’ll take it over to confront that skank who’s been putting the poison out for the birds. Yes, Rose has a headache now. Maybe she’s hungover, who cares? Feeling sloppy and dissolute, like she’s coming apart, loosening at the joints, going all flaccid and soft.
Rose is running behind now. She’ll likely be late, then miserable at the front counter of the animal shelter where she works. The dogs in their cages. The cats in their cages. Humans all so careless and cruel. She thought it would be a good fit for her, taking care of the lost and abandoned critters, but it only serves to burn yet another hole there in her heart. Rose does her best to find homes for them, but some aren’t going to make it and that’s just a fact that you have to accept if you’re going to live in this world, is what Emily said.
Rose starts up the old truck and revs it with a fury that rattles the tops of the trees and sends the settled birds and bugs aloft.
Elf pulls out of the trailer park onto the county road. He’s going too fast, trying to make up time. The car shimmies in the gravel on a curve and he muscles it back into place, heart leaping at the thrill and his own sudden sense of control. That fucking ring is burning a hole in his pocket now. He resists the urge to stop and dig it out and toss it away, just like that. But he doesn’t really want to lose it, somehow. It’s a symbol of his failure, maybe. He can keep it as a reminder of a lesson learned. He slows at a crossing, then steps on the gas again. Making up for lost time. His brother’s going to be mad when Elf pulls in late, as usual. Never can be counted on, always the little fool at the bottom of the heap that is their tribe.
Elf will take the shortcut then. He’ll slice off a few minutes that won’t make any difference to anyone but him, he knows, but it makes him feel decisive anyway. At least he’s made a choice. He’s doing his best, and if that’s not good enough for anybody else, then that will have to be their problem, not his.
He takes a look in the rearview mirror to see that a convertible has come up behind him. It presses against him, pushing him on. He can’t see the driver. Man or woman, Elf can’t tell, but he slows down anyway and skids over onto the shoulder to let the convertible barrel past, a honk of the horn in acknowledgement, or thanks. A cloud of dust and the flash of taillights too, but now it’s gone and Elf has lost even more time. He pummels the wheel again. He climbs out of his car and opens up the trunk, brings out Ariel’s dead TV and dumps it in the ditch. He digs the ring up from his pocket now too. He studies it for a moment, then tosses it onto the road, leaving it there to be crushed by tires going back and forth across the gravel, or maybe rescued by a crow on the lookout for the tantalizing glint of treasure in the dust. Once he’s back behind the wheel again, Elf peels out, throwing all caution to the ill wind.
Rose has turned east now, onto the highway. She steps on the gas and lets her truck fly. What will she do when she gets to the murderous skank’s house? Confront her? Skid into the drive. Screech to a halt just shy of a mailbox post. Slam the car door. Stomp up the walk to the porch, then up the steps to the door. Bang with a fist or punch at the bell. Show the skank the bird. This worthless woman filled with the spite to poison the starlings and let them fall from flight to land in the grass and the fields for the carrion crows to dine upon in style, poisoning their own selves by the way.
Or will Rose take it slow? Move quietly. Somber and sad. Show the true story of the grief she feels welling up, burning in her eyes. Open the box and say: This is what you’ve done. Starlings, falling from the sky. And the woman will respond. Angry. Stiff. Silent, at first. Until she softens and cries too, and then Rose will take her into her arms and hold her. She’ll say: It’s all right now. She’ll say: Hush now, hon. As the unrestrained starlings flock and throw their squirming shadows over hill and dale, cloak the trees, blanket the fields with the black paint of their bodies against the fierce white burn of the sun. A storm coming. Clouds gathering. The sky turns green and the wind picks up, blowing the starlings, scattering them every which way, like leaves.
And if Elf’s brother fires him? What then? Will that be a tragedy or will it be a blessing in disguise? A push to get him going. Just what he needs at this time, to pick himself up and move on. And when his mother finds out that Ariel said no? She’ll go stone-cold and turn her back on Elf, this second son, the disappointment, the worry, the problem knot. Giving him the chance to walk away, fly free, head out, at long last, on his own.
That convertible that was tailgating Elf before comes toward him now and passes by in another cloud of dust, going the other way. Elf is a small man, as befits his name. He’s a young man with two brothers who have always called him The Elf, although his name is Elfred and they could just as well have called him Fred. He gets no respect from them, never has and never will. So now, instead of turning into the lot of his older brother’s shop, Elf flies on past, toward the highway, where he’ll turn away from the sunrise and drive on westward, on and on, away from all this, his brothers, his ma and his pa, his job, his world, himself.
At the intersection there’s the barbecue joint, where Elf was last night with Ariel when she spit that ring out into her hand. Broken glass glitters on the black asphalt of the parking lot. The train tracks gleam in the light of the morning sun and seem to leer at Elf—thin-lipped smile, false kiss. He could stop here. Leave the car. Walk the tracks. Jump on a train and ride… But nobody does that anymore. Elf is in the wrong time and the wrong place altogether.
Rose rounds the bend, and the glare of wild sunshine stuns her. The highway seems slick, watery beneath a mirage of reflected light. Her mind is on the starlings now, that’s all and that’s enough. A white SUV is rounding the corner, onto the intersecting gravel road. She accelerates to pass it on the left.
Elf doesn’t see Rose in her truck. He’s looking the other way when he pulls out onto the highway to cross the lanes and make his last left turn into forever.
Rose is standing by Elf’s ruined car. A shadow passes overhead, blotting out the sun. It’s the murmuration of those poisoned birds again. Beautiful and dark.
We’ll tell Rose she’s not to blame. Elf came out of nowhere, we’ll say. It was his own fault, not yours. And anyway, he never knew what hit him. Blunt force. Probably the airbags. Internal damage. Not a mark on him otherwise. All of that is meant to bring comfort. To Rose and Elfred both.
Susan Taylor Chehak is the author of several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her most recent publications include two collections of short stories, This Is That and It’s Not About the Dog, and a novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci. Her work has appeared in Green Hills Literary Lantern, Ragazine, The Minnesota Review, Moon City Review, Ducts, Crack the Spine, Pennsylvania English, The Chariton Review, Jet Fuel Review, Sliver of Stone, Limestone, The Literary Nest, and The Coachella Review. Susan has taught fiction writing in the MFA program at Antioch University, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa.