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.
I’m not going to argue with that. Probably they should. But I think about it and I just feel tired, tired all over, aching in my joints like an oncoming flu. Squeezed in the belly; it feels like directionless fear, fear with no immediate cause. Something followed me, I think, and for a moment I wonder if I said it aloud and now I’ll have some explaining to do.
She’s looking oddly at me. But she doesn’t ask me to explain anything. It’s raining when we go back outside. I wave away the offer of a ride. Waiting for the bus, listening to the rain hit the pavement, I discern voices rising to meet me. They sound like rustling leaves. They sound like warnings.
You can’t let something go in half measures. You can’t hang on to only as much of it as you want. That’s not fair, and it’s also not possible. Were you really that arrogant, to think you could? You can beat down the rest of it, shove it in a closet and bind up the door in padlocks and chains. You can cover it with a bookshelf and forget about it all. But that doesn’t erase it. And what you forget can follow you for a long time. Much longer than if you know it’s there.
You got greedy, little-girl-grown-up. Little-girl-in-the-corn. You wanted all the cake and all the eating of it. Wanted the dark without the dreams, wanted it all contained. You got greedy, and now we’re greedy too.
We’re not your raw material, my dearest darling. We are not the stuff of stars.
After a gray morning of nothing much, alone while he’s at work, I go to the front door without being sure of why. The house is empty except for me and increasingly that’s when I’m most comfortable. Anything else feels dangerous. In the early hours of the morning, between darkness and sun, something is pressing its fingers against the inside of my skin. I sit up in bed and look at my arms, and I wonder what I would do if I saw it, my skin pressed upward, a membrane to outline a hand.
The pills on the counter might as well not be there. Sometimes I look at them and I see only empty bottles, and I wonder if maybe I forgot to refill them. If I forgot a long time ago. Have I been taking them? Wouldn’t he have reminded me, if he noticed something was wrong? Has he noticed at all?
On the other side of the closed door, the wind rustles the bamboo and leaves scatter against the house. The stalks won’t bare themselves for the winter but they shed leaves like molting feathers. Standing in front of the door, listening, I completely fail to jump when a thud like a fist slams into the wood on the other side. I turn my head, look at it for a while. Another. Another. It shakes the door in its frame. It sounds like small hands, the hands of children, beating. They want to come in.
What else do they want?
I take a step back, lean against the entryway table and wait. I don’t feel much of anything. After a while it stops. There’s nothing left but the leaves, the wind, the whispering. Through the windows. The skylights. From the rafters. From the bedroom. He’s at work, like he is every day, but whenever I turn my back on anything I feel him watching me.
We’re not going to put up with this anymore.
I open the door the next morning and find wings, legs, feathers, and severed heads. Glassy eyes. Iridescent sheen, spattered with blood. None of it is torn; there are no ragged edges. It’s all smooth, even, as if they came apart at the joints. As if, in flinging themselves at the door, they simply fell to pieces like dolls.
But the door is unmarked.
I sweep them away before anyone can see. My hands don’t shake as I grip the broom. I scatter the pieces at the edges of the bamboo. I’m not afraid, I think, but it’s not that I’m making an effort to keep from being so. It feels like I can’t. Like something is broken in me. I don’t remember what fear felt like. I look up at the bamboo, the tops swaying in the wind, and I wonder if I’m in trouble, and I wonder if I should ask someone to help me.
I go back inside to fix breakfast. He doesn’t notice the feathers still scattered by the front door. Or if he does, he says nothing.
Much later, alone in the house with only a blank page and cold coffee for any kind of company, I wonder if he knows, if he’s known from the beginning, and that’s why he’s not concerned and that’s why he’s not trying to help me. I wonder if he meant for this to happen, if that’s why he brought us here. I wonder how long I’ve really known him; there are things I can’t quite remember. I do the dishes and I finger the edges of the knives as I clean them so carefully and I wonder, if I did to him what I know I could, if I cut, whether he would actually bleed or whether his skin would split and reveal, in the cage of his ribs, the panicked rustling of wings.
You understand, little girl. Running through the corn, through the woods. Letting your feet pound out the patterns of your terror. You understand because we all understand before life kills the understanding, or at least before it sends it to its cave and puts it to sleep. You understand in the way everyone used to understand, that there is always a price. There is always an exchange to be made. In all your stories, all those trades. Little maiden of the corn, digging yourself into the earth. Who made your soil so rich? Who gave you the dark and the moon? You may not remember, but we do.
They used to cut hearts free of chests and lift them to the sky. You don’t get to just stop doing that kind of thing when it becomes inconvenient.
Someone is going to have to pay.
The head of a starling on a plate, that beak open in a frozen cry. Those eyes. They’re holes in the world, spheres of nothing that lead to dark singularities. Move and they move. I didn’t put this here, in the center of the table, the feathers shining emerald and amethyst in the low afternoon sun.
It’s getting darker and darker every day and the wind never dies down. Lift the plate; look at what’s beneath. The day’s writing, but these aren’t words—they’re looping scrawls, scribbles that almost order themselves into shapes, frantic circles that spiral down to nothing.
What time is it? Shouldn’t he be home by now?
Have I always been alone?
Among the nonsense scribbles:
Strange, how when we’re children and we’re afraid, we clasp the object of our fear lovingly to the heart of our minds, like we can’t bear to let it go. Part of us tries to distract itself, tries to forget, but a greater part craves the electric adrenaline jolts it gives us. We feel traces of the numinous in terror. Fear and trembling in the face of the dark. Later we forget, but in these moments we are close to the source of a power old as our collective understanding. It demands something and we give it freely. We can’t not. We would never think to question its reality. We don’t need to rely on faith to worship these gods. We have all the evidence anyone could ever want.
Some of us want the light left on. But others of us want to surrender to the darkness. Everyone is eager for us to get over it. What we represent. What we are. What they sense. In our terror we become terrifying. But then we give in to time and we leave it behind, and that part of us dulls. Atrophies. We lose that particular sensory faculty. We abandon. It must hurt, when we do that. At some point, someone might decide to give chase, especially if the right call goes out through the ether.
We never actually thought we were summoning demons.
You only understand this later. You understand this when it’s too late.
They beat themselves against the door. The windows. I turn the lights off and place my back against the wall. The table is covered with those nonsense scribblings that I know are not nonsense at all. I cracked a door open. I didn’t realize. I thought it was just an exercise. I thought these were mines into which I could travel and return again to the light. I thought. I really did.
I have a knife. Pace. I close my eyes and sees rows upon rows of corn and through them the wind hints at wars and rumors of wars inside the head of a child. They cut down the corn before winter came. Didn’t the wind have to go somewhere? Didn’t the starlings need somewhere to nest?
How many of us, walking around and around and not knowing?
Endless feathered bodies, impacts, falling to pieces. What they carry inside, little bombs of blood and guts and bone.
A voice, rising above the fluttering and the cries and the sounds of the breaking bodies. For a moment I think it must be a lie; then I get to my feet and go to the window, pull back the curtain. The dark is heavy outside but the moon has risen—except wasn’t it always there, and only sometimes I could see it?—and the world outside is thrown into cold illumination. I see piles of the shattered bodies of birds, and I see blood staining the concrete and the grass, but most of all I see him, always here, always, standing a few feet from the door, his hands raised and reaching forward.
I can’t see his face. I know, I know, if I could I would see two ink-ball eyes and a beak ready to stab. In the dark, in bed, he was always looking back at me. He was ready. He was waiting.
What do you want?
Come outside, he whispers like rustling leaves. Come outside and run.
I want to. I lean against the wall and close my eyes. I haven’t slept well in days. Maybe weeks. Maybe, I think, I’ve never slept well, and every time I’ve believed I have has been a medicated lie. When I was small I lay awake for hours and poured myself into the dark. Looking for something.
I came close. Once or twice. I heard the voice I’ve been trying to reach. I’ve spent the time since then trying to find it again. I didn’t think. I didn’t think about what might happen when I did.
Pacing the rooms, banging my head against the brick. Alone and not alone; it’s very crowded in here. I’m going outside. We all know it’s coming eventually. Everyone watching with their glistening voids of eyes. I’m going outside because that’s always where I’ve been going, because I’m going to answer, because when you make a deal someone always comes to collect.
At first I can’t see, standing there in the doorway, feeling cold blast through me. There are no more bird bodies sending wet impacts against the house, there are no more cries or hisses or whispers. The night is silent but it’s a silence that threatens to break open. It’s like a cage made of glass, like reeds of it that would shiver and chime at the right sound. Chime and then shatter and scatter their pieces, cut through my face and arms and hands, my neck.
I’ve held on to that blood for a long time. This borrowed skin, these eyes.
I step out into the night and I raise my hands, and he comes for me out of the silence.
His feathers flutter in a sudden breeze. They whisper. His eyes glisten with a sourceless light and his beak is long and sharp. I could have killed him, I think, still and waiting for him. I could have killed him and all the time he was flooding that into me, lying there beside me and stroking me through the hours and the days. The years. Was he sent? Has he always been this way? Or did they take him?
I put out my hands and I feel the smooth, knobbed stalks of the bamboo. Smooth and knobbed as bone.
End it, end it, end it.
He spreads his wings. The world is still absolutely still but for that, but I’m sure I feel thousands upon thousands of eyes watching, boring into me like needles. I spread my arms in mimicry of him, I put back my head, and his beak cuts almost tenderly into me, splitting flesh and cracking bone. There’s very little pain, but everything in me stirs, rustles, hisses at me with a deep, old excitement. I lay my hands on my chest, run my fingers over the slash he’s made, and the world blurs away as he folds his wings around me. I pull. Stretch. I tug apart the cage of my ribs.
Out they come. Two, five, twenty, a hundred. They take to the air, embracing it, and the air around me explodes with wings and delighted whispers.
My knees are weakening but he holds me up, his beak caressing my cheeks, my throat. I feel the bowing of the bamboo. I feel warm slick on my chest. I look down at my hand and I see the glitter of steel, and for a single instant there is light again, my doorway, a figure standing there, eyes wide, shoving himself through and running forward.
No. No, you don’t understand. This is what I owe.
Paid in full, I think, all my starling children around me, bearing me up even as I fall. Running through the corn, filled up with the dark, all us little children who forget and need to be reminded. All us little children haunted, carrying the hungry dark, making of it what we can.
No more making, little children. Run. Fly.
“Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color” copyright © 2017 by Sunny Moraine
Art copyright © 2017 by Robert Hunt