“Ghost Birds” by Karen Russell


“You may be right, Starling. Would you like to take a look? »

I hadn’t set foot in a school for three decades, and the child in me shivered. It took us a long time to reach the hollow shell of the gymnasium at the base of the hill. There was an exposed stretch of asphalt with faint yellow markings that might have been an old basketball court; that’s where we’d be apprehended, I thought, if there were indeed Watchers. Starling followed me, dressed in her white Tyvek jumpsuit with the dull red visor that made her look like an astronaut on our own planet; whatever she might be thinking was not the smell of fresh September pencil shavings, hardcover books, bullies and locker codes.

Starling started ninth grade last month. She exists for her teachers as a lollipop-headed projection in the imaginary virtual high school agora, a scintillating state-funded art magnet. Only the wealthiest children can afford private home tutors; my daughter and her bad temper multiply pierced friends reciting sonnets of Neruda into their EduHelmet microphones. Snow days have been replaced by electrical storms in server farms. Starling’s connection seems to fail every two weeks, much to her relief.

“Did you like school?” Starling asked me. I stared at the windows, wondering what could make the plants sway on a windless indoor night. It was a subtle and unmistakable movement.

“I can’t say I did. I was rather self-taught. I drove my teachers crazy.

My daughter smiled into her mask.

“That doesn’t surprise me.”

Sometimes I think I should have left Yesenia years earlier. Sometimes I know I should have fought harder to stay. Neither scenario seems right for Starling. Even though the verdict is in and the papers are signed, I’m still running with the assumption that things could be worked out. I love being Starling’s full-time dad. Loved, past tense—that can’t be true.

Starling claims not to care about “time sharing”. It sounds so violent. I imagine him with safety goggles, bringing down the ax over a block of hours. She says she wants us all to be happy. Happiness for the three of us? None of my experiences gave any idea how this could be accomplished.

Cartoon by Roz Chast

The rubble was dreadful. We had to crawl on our hands and knees around the broken columns, and it was my daughter who found the hole in the east wall which we half wormed, half sled to get in, down to the ground floor floor, kicking up decades of dust. ; just when i decided we had to turn back, the ceiling abruptly flew off our heads. “Wow. It’s like someone took the lid off a box,” Starling said. We got up and turned our headlamps across what must have been the school auditorium – j I had the exciting and overwhelming feeling of being swallowed up by the school, transported from the throat of the building into its belly via a kind of architectural peristalsis. Above us, the corridors crimped and straightened. I had always had intended to call off our expedition at the first sign of danger, but in the putty gray illumination of our headlights, nothing seemed quite real, and it was getting harder and harder to imagine crawling back in defeat. when swifts could just glisten around the next bend in the elementary school maze. It took effort to imagine that generations of children’s laughter once echoed here. Or the chirping of birds, for that matter.

“Do you want to continue, Starling?” I asked, and she growled yes, or maybe the school itself did. The pipes seemed to be leaking, somehow. Or be alive with a watery echo. The light was almost nonexistent, and I helped Starling put her headlamp on for night vision.

“Starling?” I called from the sill under the school stairwell where she had been standing just a heartbeat earlier. “Stay where I can see you. . . .”

Starling decided not to listen. Even as a little girl, she had a knack for disconnecting us. She stared at the sky blue glow of her Hololite with the eyelidless concentration of a fighter pilot and ignored the hundred repetitions of her name. “Why can’t you be a good listener?” his mother would chirp. Once, around the age of seven, she had returned the voice to us: “When you say listen, you mean obey.

I hope you believe me, even if Starling’s mother one day tells the story of that night as if I were a criminal, using a verb like “kidnapped”, a noun like “danger”. I never imagined our trip could be so tight.

First, my headlamp went out. I still don’t know why – I’ve used it on half a dozen spots and never had any issues. The pink moon of perigee was visible through the windows, hovering beside us like a faithful owl. But Starling was a little freaked out at this point. I could understand that, of course. She wouldn’t give me her headlamp, and I reluctantly let her take the lead. “Look, Dad,” she cried, staring at her low beam on two heavy doors. “Sounds like something you would like.” The gates were framed by a beautiful mural in WPA marquetry, with two human figures molded as guardians of the gate. A barefoot girl stood under the tree of life with a dove on one arm, and I swear she looked like Starling. The grain of the wood turned an underwater green and mauve as she twirled her light on the doorways etching: “Send us to be builders of a better world.”

We came to a stairwell filled with four inches of gray ash; Starling autographed it with the tip of her sneaker. “Look up, honey,” I say, tilting my chin until the lantern beam hits the far wall. A replica chimney emerged from the shadows and dozens of baked birds hugged puffy clouds. Of all things to survive. Ash had buried half the staircase, but the old mosaic of a fifth grade classroom still clung to the wall, gently misshapen swifts that retained the pasty fingerprints of their ten-year-old creators.

We then cross the silent museum of the gymnasium, the notice board still legible:

Swifts 36–THE LIONS 28

“An unlikely win for the swifts,” muttered Starling. We stopped for a water break. Most of our supplies were back at the top of the hill. I hadn’t imagined that we would spend so much time at school; if I had known, we could have spent the night here and waited to see if the ghost swifts left the chimney at dawn. Starling wanted to take off her mask – so did I, to be honest – but I thought of Yesenia’s horrified face and said no, better be safe. We sat on the bleachers and drank through our straws; I started telling him about the desalination glands that once extracted salt from the blood of albatrosses. “Don’t swallow,” I said, but of course she didn’t listen, and now there was no more water.

“Oh my God, dad. You know the difference between a Buller’s albatross and a Salvin’s albatross, but I bet you can’t name three of my friends.

“Of course I can. Diego.

“He was my best friend in kindergarten. He joined the Star Guild years ago.

“Amy? »

“Dead,” she said with grim satisfaction.

“OK, I’m not playing this game.”

Starling rose from the bleachers, rolling on the pitch. “Well, I hope we can find at least one swift tonight. Do you know how hard it’s going to be if we get caught by eleven thousand ghosts?” She made a face.

“Oh, believe me,” I told him. “I know.”

His goofy, true laugh was a gift to me. One of the rarest sounds in the galaxy.

We searched the ground floor for another hour. I expected an entrance to the boiler room, access to the fireplace; instead I found a two-by-two panel in the wall next to the old janitor’s closet, which opened outward like an oven door and fed into an awfully narrow chute with a bend at ninety degrees. The old dinosaur of a steam boiler was waiting around the bend. Was it going to pile up in the chute, like a letter in an old mail slot? I couldn’t settle for the best order of operations – if I went first, I might get stuck, leaving Starling alone. But if she left first, the worst could happen. It’s only now that I wonder if I haven’t considered a third option: leaving the building. I swore I heard a chirp, faint and repeated. “Do you hear them, Starling?” She tilted her head, staring at me unreadably under the halo of the headlamp. “Maybe,” she finally said. “Maybe I do. Should I come in, dad?

“I’m going. I might need you to pull me off if it gets any tighter…”

Decades of dried bird shit filled the chute. We dug into guano with our gloved hands, watching it crack and crumble; I was finally able to wedge myself up to the waist and move forward holding my breath out of habit, as all humans instinctively do when they enter an unknown element. Now I was grateful for the bulky Tyvek suit, which I usually despise. Starling was right behind me. “Wait, honey,” I called unnecessarily. She groaned as she pulled herself down the slide, then we each spun a slow circle around the closet-sized room. Two huge steam boilers, unused for nearly a century or more, glared at us. Old red and green pipes. But then we looked up. Soaring what seemed like miles and miles above our heads was the chimney, like an eighty-foot telescope.

“Daddy daddy!” Starling reached both arms up the chimney and closed her fingers over the lowest rung of a rusty maintenance ladder. Our eyes roamed the tunnel together, a heavy darkness where no ghosts perched, hemmed in by rough brickwork, from the top of which we could see the pitch black sky and the rippling starlight.

I smiled narrowly, trying to hide my disappointment, for what I saw was only what one would expect to see in a rotting fireplace: exposed rebar, calcium-eaten bricks . Not a single feather in sight. Nothing opaque or shiny, dead or alive. The outrageously thick paste of excrement was the only evidence that Vaux Swifts had ever roosted here. The chirping had stopped as abruptly as it had started. No bodies, no minds.

“Okay, Dad,” Starling was saying behind me. “I feel a little cloistered. Sorry, we couldn’t find any ghosts. I’m ready to go back now.

I shook the ladder inquisitively. I thought I might climb a little higher, to investigate – sometimes a ghost bird is camouflaged in dense shadow, waiting for living eyes to strike it like a match head and send it bounding into view.


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