“The Ghost Birds” by Karen Russell

“You might be right, Starling. Do you want to take a look? “

I hadn’t been to a school for three decades, and the child in me shuddered. It took us a long time to reach the hollow shell of the gym at the foot of the hill. There was an expanse of exposed asphalt with faint yellow markings that could have been an old basketball court; that was where we would be apprehended, I thought, if there were indeed Watchmen. Starling followed me, donned in her white Tyvek suit with the dull red face mask that made her look like an astronaut on our own planet; whatever she might think, it wasn’t the smell of fresh September pencil shavings, hardcover books, bullies, and locker codes.

Starling started ninth grade last month. It exists for its teachers in the form of a lollipop-headed projection in the imaginary agora of the virtual high school, a state-funded glittering artistic magnet. Only the wealthiest children can afford private tutors at home; my daughter and her whimsical, pierced friends recite Neruda sonnets into their EduHelmet microphones. Snow days have been replaced by lightning storms at server farms. Starling’s connection seems to fail every two weeks, much to her relief.

“Did you like school?” Starling asked me. I scanned 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 more of a self-taught person. I drove my teachers crazy.

My daughter smiled inside her mask.

“It doesn’t surprise me.

Sometimes I think I should have left Yesenia years ago. Sometimes I know I should have fought harder to stay. No scenario seems fair to Starling. Even though the verdict is in and the papers are signed, I’m still running on the assumption that we might work things out. I love being Starling’s full time dad. Loved, past, it can’t be true.

Starling claims not to care about “sharing the time.” It seems so violent. I imagine him wearing safety glasses, dropping 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 have shown how this could be accomplished.

Caricature by Roz Chast

The rubble was intimidating. We had to crawl on all fours around the broken columns, and it was my daughter who found the hole in the east wall that we half-wormed, half-sleigh to get in, down to the ground floor, lifting decades of dust; just when I decided we needed to turn around, the ceiling abruptly moved away from our heads. “Wow. It’s like someone took the lid off a box,” Starling said. We got up and turned our headlamps through what must have been the school auditorium – j I had the exciting and overwhelming sensation of being engulfed by the school, transported from the throat of the building into her belly via a sort of architectural peristalsis. Above us, the hallways creased and straightened. I had always intended to cancel our expedition at the first sign of danger, but in the mastic gray lighting of our headlamps nothing seemed quite real, and it was getting harder and harder to imagine crawling backwards in defeat as the swifts could glow just around the next bend in the elementary school maze. It took effort to imagine that generations of children’s laughter once echoed here. Or birdsong, 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 work, one way or another. Or being alive with a watery echo. The light was almost nonexistent, and I helped Starling switch her headlamp to night vision.

“Starling?” I called out the eardrum under the school stairwell where she was standing barely a heartbeat earlier. “Stay where I can see you. . . . “

Starling decided not to listen. Even as a little girl, she had an exasperating talent for putting us aside. She stared into the sky blue glow of her Hololite with the uncovered concentration of a fighter pilot and ignored a hundred repetitions of her name. “Why can’t you be a good listener? His mother chirped. Once, around the age of seven, she had turned her back on us: “When you say listen, what you really mean is to obey.

I hope you believe me, even though Starling’s mother once told the story of that night as if I were a criminal, using a verb like “kidnapped”, a noun like “danger”. I never imagined that our trip could couple like this.

First, my headlamp went out. I’m still not sure why – I’ve used it on half a dozen counts and never had any issues. The pink moon of the perigee was visible through the windows, floating beside us like a faithful owl. But Starling was a little panicked at this point. I could understand that, of course. She wouldn’t give me her headlamp, and reluctantly I let her take the lead. “Listen, daddy,” she said, fixing her low beam on two heavy doors. “Looks like something you might like.” The doors were framed by a beautiful fresco in WPA marquetry, with two human figures cast as guardians of the portal. 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 shone her light on the engraving of the doors: “Send us to be the builders of a better world.” “

We reached a stairwell filled with four inches of gray ash; Starling signed it with his basketball tip. “Look, honey,” I said, tilting my chin until the lantern beam hit the back wall. A replica of the fireplace emerged from the shadows and dozens of baked birds hugged the puffy clouds. Of all the things to survive. Ash had buried half the stairs, but the old mosaic of a fifth grade still hung on the wall, softly misshapen swifts that retained the pasty fingerprints of their ten-year-old makers.

Next, we walked through the silent gymnasium museum, the still readable dashboard:


“An unlikely victory for the swifts,” Starling muttered. 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 in school; if I had known we could have spent the night here and waited to see if the Ghost Swifts would leave the fireplace at dawn. Starling wanted to take off her mask – me too, to be honest – but I thought of Yesenia’s horrified face and said no, you better be safe. We sat on the stands and drank with our straws; I started telling him about the desalination glands that used to extract salt from the blood of albatrosses. “Don’t swallow,” I said, but of course she wasn’t listening, and now there was no more water.

“Oh my God, daddy. 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 stands, rolling onto the court. “Well, I hope we can find at least one swift tonight. Do you know how bad it will be if we get repelled by eleven thousand ghosts? She made a face.

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

His real awkward laugh was a gift to me. One of the rarest sounds in the galaxy.

We searched the ground floor for another hour. I had planned an entrance to the boiler room, an access to the fireplace; instead, I found a two-by-two panel in the wall next to the old janitor’s cupboard, which opened out like an oven door and fed into a terribly narrow chute with a four-way bend. -twenty degrees. The old dinosaur of a steam boiler waited after the turn. Were we going to pile up in the chute, like a letter in an old mail slot? I couldn’t pick the best order of operations – if I went there first, I might get stuck, leaving Starling alone. But if she left first, worse could happen. It’s only now that I wonder if I haven’t considered a third option: to leave the building. I swore I could hear a chirp, weak and repeated. “Do you hear them, Starling?” She tilted her head, staring at me unreadably under the halo of the headlamp. – Maybe, she said finally. “Maybe I do. Should I come in, dad? “

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

Decades of dried bird poop filled the chute. We picked up some guano with our gloved hands, watching it crack and scatter; I was finally able to wedge myself up to the waist and push myself forward, holding my breath out of habit, as all humans instinctively do when they enter an unfamiliar 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 up through the slide, then we each turned slowly around the closet-sized room. Two huge steam boilers, unused for nearly a century or more, were glaring at us. Old red and green pipes. But then we looked up. The chimney rose miles and miles above our heads, like an eighty-foot telescope.

“Father! Father!” Starling put both arms in the fireplace and closed his fingers on the lowest rung of a rusty maintenance ladder. Our eyes roamed the tunnel together, a thick darkness where no ghosts perched, surrounded by blank bricks, on top of which we could see the deep black sky and the rippling light of the stars.

I smiled firmly, trying to hide my disappointment, because what I saw was just what anyone would expect to see in a decaying fireplace: exposed rebar, bricks calcified. Not a single feather in sight. Nothing opaque or shiny, dead or alive. The outrageously thick dung was the only evidence that the Vaux Swifts had ever perched here. The chirping had ceased as abruptly as it had started. No body, no spirits.

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

I gave the scale a curious jerk. I figured 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 pouncing in sight.

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