Haunted by starlings in the dark, a young woman spirals into an altered state of consciousness.
Starlings whisper from the bamboo.
Sometimes sense emerges. It’s nothing but pattern recognition run amok, nothing but old instinct performing where it’s no longer needed, but the experience is pleasurable. If you stand in the driveway at dusk and remain silent, let it settle around you like a gray blanket, then make a single small movement, the sound explodes. They are easily startled. More, they hiss warnings to each other with their wings. They too are governed by instinct. When they come they mark the last days of fall and the first of winter. They do not arrive but with the cold; they bring the chill with them, clinging to their feathers.
They whisper. It’s been like this since we moved in, since the words started flowing again. This house at the far end of the long drive, overshadowed by an entire ecosystem that lost its balance decades ago. It’s full of shadows. I stand beside the car and listen to them as they rustle and flutter and in the end grow still again. I say grow because it’s not an absence of sound but the presence of quiet. It’s a thing in itself, and it swells, blooms like a flower in the dark, feeding on cold night. Stand for a while until the chill becomes too much and overpowers a jacket that’s now too light for the temperature. Inside, into a warm house, but as the door shuts they explode again.
They’re whispering. It’s a single voice made of many. There’s something wistful in it, something heavy with desire. It might be a reflection of one’s own feelings, because this time of year is one of transition and transition always carries a sense of yearning, an ache. One is homeless. One migrates. This is the sound of liminality, and very few of us are comfortable with the liminal.
There are songs of boundary conditions. I stand in the doorway, close my eyes, think about crashing waves and the loneliness of a shoreline. I have been here before. This is a piece of something I was given at birth, at the moment between moments, and will never lose.
But I go in to him, despite the presence of a gentle tugging, a pull back through the door and into the dark. I go in to him, because he’s always been there, patient and generous with both time and space, and because when I can’t remember he does so for us both. He helped me get this far, and whatever the starlings whisper, I do believe he’ll lead me on.
So small in the corn. Late summer, and it’s tall and green. This is a dream of running, this is a dream of fear that creeps up from nowhere, fear of an old nightmare. Begin to run and feel it rise; the sense that there’s something from which to run comes with the act of running. The corn whispers, its leaves stroke your cheeks. You remember this, even if you’ve forgotten you do. There are footsteps behind you, corn husks and dry hay. This was meant to be fun. So many things are meant to be fun when one is small and instead become sources of terror.
The world is wrong when you’re this small. Everything is oversized and strangely shaped. The corn towers and breaks up a sky thrown into sunset reds and golds. You both love and dread the fall. Later you’ll understand this as the adoration of a mad god and you’ll understand how one could fall into that kind of worship. You’ll take it with you and make use of it, and you’ll believe—in the hubris of age—that you can leave the rest of it behind. You can tell these stories and you won’t have to be afraid of why.
Stories of a corn maiden. Her would-be lover, will-be captor blows ice into the world.
These rules only apply in the twilight and after. The truth—one of the rules—is that the starlings are never actually seen. I know they’re there only by the sound. I can’t even say, with any real degree of certainty, that in the dark they still are starlings. I believe in the way that we believe anything when we don’t actually see it—I draw conclusions from the little I do know, and when the conclusions are sensible, or appear to be, I hold to them. But I don’t know, and I have never gone into the bamboo thickets, looking for them. The bamboo is their territory, and I am not convinced, in the face of hundreds of claws, wings, beaks, that I would be welcome.
It’s not that I think they would be easily startled. I don’t think that. That’s not why they burst into sound to answer my own sole-author noises. This, also, I do not know. But I draw conclusions.
Tonight I stand by the car, in the dark, and I don’t go inside to where he waits. I’m late; he might wonder, but now the tugging is stronger than my desire to avoid it, and there is something about inside that seems no safer. I look. I think again of pattern recognition, of the lies it generates, and I think also of certain truths. I look into the shadows and I see deeper shadows, the outlines of shapes and the faint suggestions of a kind of solidity. I see something move that contains things that move. I see a form outlined, and I begin to make out its aspects. Something seizes me, shivers down my legs into my feet, and the whispering of the starlings slips its way into coherence. My hands are bloodless, aching even as the sensation fades.
If I ran, I would want to run faster. I suck in a breath and I turn toward the house. I won’t run. Eyes are the pressure of hundreds of tiny fingertips, moving over me. I won’t run.
There were always shapes in the dark, little girl. You forgot your own monsters but they’re still waiting. Listen: They’re calling. They’re lonely. You ran, and running was love, the rhythm of your feet and heart; your running was a song. We showed ourselves to you. It was all we ever wanted. Your heart in your throat but no further; we didn’t want to take it from you. We come back to you now, with the cold and the dark. Won’t you come to us?
We were waiting for you in the corn. Every year we were waiting, to play.
Anyone who says they aren’t afraid of the dark is lying. I truly believe this.
I have trouble sleeping. The pills for that are helping less than they used to. I talk about it later, trying to make people understand: My head is full of voices, all vying for attention. The dark clears away everything that surrounds them during the daylight hours and they rush forward, beating at me. Sitting at the kitchen table in the sunlight, coffee, trying to explain. He sits across from me, listening. I think. I say, It’s always been easy for you; you never have to try. Lying beside him at night, consumed with jealousy. I can’t sleep. The voices are so loud.
They turn my head, like hands framing my face, to look at him. My hands are shaking, clenched fists. Here is what they’ve said, what they say now: You could kill him, cut his throat. Cut it to the bone. Go to the kitchen, get a knife, do it. It wouldn’t be that difficult. He would never see it coming. By the time he was awake enough to stop you it would be too late.
I don’t want to. It chokes me. I turn away, get up, look for light. But I think, sitting at the kitchen table and listening to the whisper of the starlings, that it’s a great wonder that there isn’t more murder in the world. All these thoughts, waiting in the shadows, solidifying into facts. Those people you sleep beside: Do you realize how much trust that is? How much you trust them? It would be so easy. I don’t know why every bedroom wall isn’t painted with blood.
In the woods, you always moderated your pace. You knew what would happen if you failed. We watched you from the branches. We loved you so. All of us, our waving and undulating selves, extruded from your temporal lobe, emerging from your head like steam. We sprang from you fully formed, and we found better-defined forms of those forms. We became and it was all because of you. Don’t you see? We loved you like a god. We watched you, came to you in the night, plucked at your blankets and prayed for your gifts. We never could make you scream; it would have been a feast. We gave you so much in spite of that. We never asked for much.
Stand in the dark and we’ll wind ourselves around your hands and seep, like water, into your skin, and our long journey back to you will be ended.
I remember the worst of that early terror was that I would open my eyes in the dark and see a face very close to mine. Inches. Its appearance changed but the greatest part of it was the suddenness, the closeness. In my nightmares things moved in ways they shouldn’t. Stilted, jerking, too fast. People were like broken marionettes. I used to wake when he shook me, and after nights of waking came the doctor and the pills, and him holding me in the dark, whispering, You’re safe, you’re safe, I’m here. For a while things were better. Now, beside him, I lie awake and stare at the open bedroom door. It’s like a wall of dark, and I feel certain that any moment something might emerge. Something might be there, and then I would blink and it would be next to me. It would be staring at me. I shut my eyes. Open them. Nothing is there.
The window is slightly open, admitting the cold. I hear the starlings whisper. Don’t you love us? Don’t you want us anymore?
Well, don’t you? Don’t you remember how alive we made you feel? Don’t you remember that?
I call up a friend of mine and we have coffee. She says, I haven’t seen you in weeks, what’s going on with you? I shake my head and stare down at the wood grain, the spoon, a drop of bland pumpkin spice trickling down the cup’s side. There are a lot of things I could say. That I’m swinging wildly back and forth between not writing at all and writing thousands of words in a sitting, none of which make any sense when I read them later. That I haven’t slept in almost a week. Or it feels like I haven’t. That I slip in and out of something somehow more and less than a doze, and I don’t like the dreams I’m having. I’m not certain they’re dreams.
I could say that I think I’m haunted. I think something found me.
Just unpacking, I say. The place is indeed full of boxes. The walls are bare. Sometimes I imagine building a cardboard fort, something to hide in.
You both doing okay? Managing?
I know without needing clarification that she’s asking about something very specific, which she’s far too tactful to mention, and suddenly I regret this plan of action. I nod.
Well, you look kind of awful. We should have you over. Both of you.