The starlings come at 11:00. They leave. They return. They leave. Every departure is as complete as the one before. An escape from certain death. And every return—I don’t know if they are going to come back until they don’t. It is then I start to expect them. I look for a long time without really seeing. I am never really seeing anymore. Always between me and the starlings, me and the awful little tiles of the shower wall, me and L, me and the Requester, is the thing that I am not doing. Not doing. Not doing.
Let’s call it going to sea—the thing that I am not doing that comes between me and whatever. No, let’s call it going to the moon. Let’s call it going to the moon, where there used to be seas. It is anything that never happens anymore or ever.
One time I went to the moon. It was lonely and I saw the other planets in a new way. I really noticed the stars. Weightlessness has that effect. It sharpens the other senses. When you don’t have weight, you have to rely more on imagination, on beauty, on ambiguity. I could think of myself then as a person who goes to the moon, who sees stars as if they are bare light bulbs close enough to unscrew and replace.
Requester. That’s what we call them now. We used to call them Clients. We call them Requesters now because what we do is who we are.
At 11:40, a man asks for a raise. This is a common request. I follow the script. It is a brief exchange. I record it in my log. Nature of Request. Resolution Valance.
Resignation. Despair. Frustration. Relief. These are some of the options for how to characterize a Resolution.
At 12:12 a woman asks for her mother to call her, for a change. That’s how she says it: “Can’t she just call me, for a change?” I ask her to rephrase her question in the form of a Request. She wears a cardigan sweater that is an unusual shade of blue. Both vibrant and far away seeming. Like a color from an old postcard. This is the sort of detail that has no importance.
Relationship. That’s what we have with a Requester. I record the Nature of Relationship. Withholding. Reassuring.
I have a relationship with L. When I say, “I have a relationship with L,” I could be saying “I have sex with L.” Or I could be saying, “I fight with L.” Or I could be saying, “I hate L because she reminds me of my failures.”
Between me and the Requesters there is a thick pane of bulletproof glass, which could account for my general sense of separation from life. If you were to stand out there and take a picture of me in here, I would be like a photograph within the photograph of the wall. In the bulletproof glass would be reflections of the people passing by and of you, the photographer. A Requester would be there; his back turned to the camera, he would seem to be contemplating me as if I were art.
People mostly look at themselves.
When a Requester pushes the button, the sound comes in like cold air.
Even though I couldn’t hear it, I knew the sound the starlings made every time they took off. The sound of all their wings together. Dull and sudden, arcing and easing off. When I saw them lift into the air, I imagined that sound. But because I couldn’t actually hear the sound of their wings, I didn’t feel the heartbreak that goes with it. Instead I felt the heartbreak that goes with not being able to hear it.
The seas of the moon are not actually seas. The Sea of Islands. The Sea of Tranquility. The Sea of Cleverness. The Sea of Crises. These are real places, but not real seas.
One time I found a baby starling in the park across from where we used to go for breakfast burritos. They say you aren’t supposed to pick up baby birds because if they smell like a person the parents won’t return to take care of them, but it isn’t true and it doesn’t matter. Whether or not the parents were to come back, the baby would die. There is no way a baby bird can survive outside the nest before it is able to fly. Plus, songbirds can’t smell.
I know this because when I was a kid, I did wildlife care with my mom, whom I’ll call Chappie. We mostly took care of birds, but we did raise one tree squirrel. Chappie’s specialty was loons. Think about that. My specialty was swallows. Swallows are tricky for a couple reasons. One, they are insectivores. Two, they have to fly to hunt.
Starlings are an invasive species, so we never took care of them. Some people say they are like rats. Dirty. But when I found the starling in the park, I knew what to do. I picked it up, holding it the way you are supposed to. I put it in a paper grocery bag and folded over the top. I bought Gatorade and an eyedropper. It helps with shock. I got wheat germ and Gerber’s baby beef puree. You don’t feed birds milk. When I got home, I put the bag in the bathroom where the cat couldn’t get it. I used a chopstick to mix up the baby food and the wheat germ. I tapped the yellow corner of the bird’s mouth to trigger its gaping reflex. She took a couple halfhearted bites. I gave her a minute to rest in the dark while I made her a nest out of a margarine tub and Kleenex. I named her Starla.
When I moved Starla from the bag into her new nest, I discovered she was infested with lice. It probably happened while she was on the ground in the park. Or maybe starlings really are dirty birds. The lice were even in her ears. L and I went to a pet store and bought delousing spray. I moved her back to the bag and sprayed her, then put her back in her nest. Every half-hour when I fed her, I changed the Kleenex. Eventually, there were no more louse bodies. She seemed to be doing okay, but I worried about brain damage from the spray. I thought maybe she would die in the night, but in the morning, she wanted to get out and hop around.
Sometimes something is yours to do and you know it. It isn’t convenient. It might make you seem like a freak. But you can tell, if you don’t do it, nobody else will.
I’m not really sure what happened. I know we were supposed to go out of town that weekend. I know L didn’t insist that I choose between her and Starla. But I felt as if I did have to choose. I can’t remember if we took the bird back to the park or if we took it to the vet or if we took it to animal services. There is nowhere we might have taken Starla that doesn’t mean she died. I don’t know why I never thought of this until now.
Calling them Requesters suggests that I have power. The power to grant. To deny.
If what we do is who we are. There is no not doing. To not grant is to deny. To not save is to kill. Granter. Denier. Saver. Killer.
Every departure is life or death.
Bullet proof glass. L. Starlings. Lice. Requesters. The absence of the sound that flight makes.
On the moon there is a sea called the Sea that has Become Known. Behind this glass, I am lying at the center of its silver-gray crater, arms and legs snow angel wide. A slow dust storm rises and subsides around me. The starlings are somewhere, taking off. Returning. Turning.
Anne de Marcken‘s writing has been featured in such publications as Ploughshares, Narrative, Quarter After Eight, Best New American Voices, Glimmer Train, Hunger Mountain and Southern Indiana Review and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She received Ploughshare’s Emerging Writers Award in 2018, and previously has been awarded the Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction, the Stella Kupferberg Memorial Prize, and the Mary C. Mohr Short Fiction Award, as well as numerous honorable mentions and short-listings. She’s received grant and fellowship support from The Millay Colony for the Arts, Centrum, Artist Trust, Jentel Foundation, and the Hafer Family Foundation. Her credits also include site-specific installation work and short and feature-length, fiction and nonfiction films and videos. She approach my interdisciplinary practice as a process of critical inquiry, centering questions about impermanence, absence and the abject. She lives with her wife in little old Olympia, WA.
featured photo art: Anne de Marcken