Starlings by Solrún Michelsen
Translated from the Faroese by Kerri Pierce.
This is part of our special feature, New Nordic Voices.
Truth to tell, I’ve always thought that, when it comes to the animal kingdom, starlings are the creatures that most resemble humans. Could be that’s just wishful thinking. Still, they do engage in all the things certain men prize: They quarrel, fight, eat, and love.
Some species can be taught to talk. All they do is repeat what you say, like parrots, but hey. Isn’t that what the majority of us do, when it comes down to it?
When a starling sits there swaying on an oak branch, people like to say the bird is singing. Some use the word chattering, but what they mean is singing. Starlings sing. That’s just how it is.
First, I must say that I have no idea how the bird manages to sit there. Just thinking about it makes me nauseous. The only thing I enjoy about such oak branch swaying is the way raindrops run off them. It’s almost like I lose myself while I stand there and watch.
Second, I don’t believe starlings merely sing. If, as I suspect, they resemble us so thoroughly, they could be talking about anything without us knowing it. Just like certain women say one thing while meaning something completely different. They also tend to infuse more into what’s said than the words actually warrant. Set their hopes and beliefs on promises, which are never given.
Understand that, who can.
No, it’s not clear that a starling sings. Perhaps he’s complaining about the weather or crying because someone took his woman. Who knows? But we should always be conscious of all the possibilities when we say he sings. Perhaps he also thinks we’re singing whenever we open our mouths. All I’m saying it, we are dealing with an oversimplification here.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so outlandish, when you heard something you didn’t like, just to smile and say: “You’re only singing, child. It’s good to hear folk sing.”
No. It’s not so simple. Angels sing. Starlings chatter. Maybe that’s just where the misunderstanding originates.
Wings are the only common denominator.
That’s the big advantage starlings have over other mortals: The ability to fly. To see everything from above.
When I glimpse a large starling flock on the wing, it grips my heart.
It’s like witnessing a part of eternity. That great, undulating flock, which moves as one being in gentle and also abrupt motions, as if following the baton of someone who’s conducting a beautiful piece of music. Back and forth, up and down, weaving in and out.
I hear that music in my heart.
Yet, when they descend back to earth, they’re as common as we are.
Also, they don’t visibly age. I’ve watched quite a few starlings but I can’t distinguish the older ones from the younger. Some might be rounder or slimmer, but so what? I must say, that’s also human.
And they’re full of fleas. That makes me wonder. Do fleas have a cleansing property? Starlings do receive a kind of bloodletting.
Furthermore, our ancestors were more hardy than men are today. They tolerated a bit of adversity. Didn’t bitch and moan about every small injury. And their clothes and beds were swarming with fleas and lice.
Not that I envy them that. I’ve also dealt with these damned starling fleas in my bed. Anybody’s guess how they get in. I lie there and scratch myself bloody while the birds are nesting.
One night I got so angry that I opened the window and shouted that I was going to shoot every last bird I saw the next morning. When the light came at the neighbor’s, I went back to bed.
A moped approaches. I hold my breath. No. It kept going.
Look at me. In the morning, I’d forgotten all about it and stood looking out the window, where spring rain and sun and rainbows were all trying to delight the growing things around the house. I wanted to go outside so I could partake.
And now? Well, at this moment I’m a starling. Perched on the gutter and holding tight. I’m petrified of heights, but today I have the urge to see everything from above. Before now, no one has ever heard of a starling that won’t dare to look down while in flight. What I need to learn, though, is starling speak. Learn to understand what they say. Understand what’s going through their heads when they so easily take to wing when there’s something they don’t like. That que será será thing they have.
Then I could also talk to them about keeping the fleas away. Strange creatures, fleas. Think about it. Unable to fly, they just suck fast to a starling, which means they get meals and also to see the world.
Perhaps I’m jealous of them. I imagine what it would be like to be born in flight when, suddenly, you become a dark cloud in the sky. Just cling on tight and sit and enjoy the ride and every once in a while drink your fill.
It’s not the same kind of wings we’ve got when we roar, loud and polluting, through the air, us inside, everything compressed somehow together.
No intoxicating of freedom here. No.
And they seem to us so insignificant. One bird more or less, we say. Yet, they’re nothing less than a masterwork.
Huff! Again, the familiar putt putt of a moped. Again, I hold my breath, but this time it doesn’t pass. Gets nearer and nearer until it stops right beneath my perch.
The young postman has on a blue uniform with a cap, so I can’t see who he is. He roots around in the large bag slung crosswise across his shoulder. He rummages and rummages, but doesn’t find what he’s searching for.
Maybe he didn’t bring it this time.
He withdraws a bundle of letters and sets it on the mailbox. Then he rummages again, removes a letter, and shoves it through the mail slot. He seats himself again on his moped and is about to leave but recalls the letter bundle. He stuffs it into his bag and noisily retreats.
I wait and squeeze the gutter so hard my feet pale. I stare down at the outer door. Yet, I know it will be a while before he comes out.
The starlings on the roof accept me. They aren’t friendly, but not unfriendly either. Not resentful about what I shouted at them during the night. The one perched closest cocks his head and blinks, as if to say: “Just wait. Life’s a blip and stability is a lie: Good deposits iniquity and iniquity deposits good.
Yes, I think. Old wisdom is all-encompassing.
He blinks again and turns from me to tamp grass strands tight into the nest he’s building in the gutter.
Build yourself a nest in the gutter!
That’s the ticket. Live in the moment. Maybe I should just turn around and become a starling full time. They’re so beautiful. Glinting green and red with light speckles on every feather. Their beaks are white now but during winter they’ll will be black.
Like certain people. Where all the color’s simply hidden in the soul.
Two others are nesting on the chimney. It smokes terribly since they send all their shit down it. But they don’t give up. Just shake their heads and flutter a bit when they can’t reach their goal for the smoke.
An envelope. Rectangular. Elongated. White.
The outer door has an opaque glass windowpane. Still, if someone’s on the inside, you can guess who it is.
I believe he’s standing there now. I turn away. As long as he doesn’t emerge, hope lies ahead.
The chimney pair have found a breathing space. They perch on the house ridge and chatter. Or maybe they’re singing. Who knows? Or cursing the smoke.
I’m unable to peer down at the outer door. I look other directions. Consider the red clouds piled to the west. Harbingers of a good day tomorrow. Considers the sea towards the east, but it’s so far away. So infinite. Just sea and sky. Were I a flea, I wouldn’t want to travel that way. The sight of land is safer somehow. Other birds fly over the ocean, but not my starlings. They’re non-migratory.
Sturnus vulgaris faeroensis. They stay at home. In the spring, they chatter so I think the oyster catchers have arrived, but it’s only a starling, sitting and mimicking.
Maybe we should be called Homo sapiens faeroensis.
I’m all alone up here now. The others have all left. They stop working this time of day and gather in the surrounding trees. All at once, as if they have their own shipyard horn. Sit to keep the twilight.
In the spring, they resemble black leaves. Twilight foliage.
Now the door opens. I start. He comes out in his shirt and socks. His hair is rumpled, as if he’s run his fingers through it several times. He stops now and looks at the mailbox. Wavers, turns to go back inside but pauses halfway. Walks back. Opens the mailbox and for a moment regards the single, white envelope. Dubiously, he reaches out and takes it. Opens the envelope and reads the letter.
I sit directly above him and try to read with him, but can’t because everything is swimming before my eyes.
All the world’s starlings chatter in my head.
He doesn’t close the mailbox. The hand holding the letter drops to his side. Then he goes in.
Now that I think about it, most of the wood poles on whose wires we used to perch have been pulled down, the cables buried beneath the ground, and iron posts set in their place.
The light is clear; the wind sounds different when winter comes on.
It was good to sit here alone, but the best was when we sat all in a row and warbled and sang about each other while we swayed. And the hum of the cable, a tone which always prompted someone to sing so beautifully.
We couldn’t do the same thing on a branch. But what of it?
I’ve come down from my gutter perch and have gone inside. When life’s truths are born to you in such a way, you can either rail against them or do like the starlings: Act like nothing happened. As previously mentioned, I could imagine being a starling.
There’s something eternal about them.
Published on April 17, 2018.