The Music from the Lighthouse — an excerpt

The AVA (the independent newspaper of the Anderson Valley) ran the following excerpt of a chapter titled Flight in the January 28th edition:

As though a lost feeling insisted on literalizing itself, I’d somehow turned off at the wrong exit along the I-290 near the Massachusetts Turnpike. Then trying to backtrack, I lost my sense of direction. My throat tensed in anxiety and feeling the shortage of air, I pulled over on a residential street and rolled down the window.

Naturally, the GPS in the rental didn’t work. Though I could have waited for another car, I knew my way; I knew exactly where I was going. But, in truth, it had been more than ten years since I’d actually driven to Maine. The sun was sinking now, and I removed my sunglasses through which everything had begun to seem dark and foreign. Of course everything still seemed dark and foreign. I didn’t know where I was or how I’d gotten there, metaphorically or otherwise.

But I have got a good old-fashioned map.

I remembered the road atlas along with a little story the rental agent had confidentially shared. Someone had left the dog-eared dated pages behind in a car. After almost totaling it and then being released from the hospital, he courteously had it towed back to the rental garage on the promise of returning it. The agent who told me the story, laughed while chivalrously offering the map book since I didn’t want to wait for a car.

Cheerful guy. Maybe he doesn’t actually like his job.

I thanked him for the map book then silently cursed him for telling me about the crash. But then, how could he have known I’d developed a keen imagination for fire, disaster, damage, decay, or death—and little else.

The paper crackled as I turned the large pages, a sound I’ve always loved; something familiar. I was nevertheless kicking myself for not taking the Downeaster. Taking the train had always been so pleasant. Though, that was mostly because my father picked me up at the station. I missed him with a sudden intensity, recalling how touching it was to see him waiting there, happily impatient. That sort of comfort, the ease of knowing my arrival was so warmly welcome and expected, was missing from my current travel options. I had once been so comfortable in my skin, in my life.

Yes, I’ve paid attention to exactly where I am, exactly where I’m going.

As I looked for my position on the map, something in motion above left patterns of flickering shadows over the page. I sat still and focused on the movement I heard and felt, realizing it was massive. In the split second before looking up, I knew what I was hearing—the whoosh of hundreds and hundreds of beating wings. A huge flock of birds was overhead flying in rapid, fluid formation—a dark cloud of morphing shapes expanding and contracting in the early evening sky.

People had come out of their homes to watch the spectacle. When I stumbled out of my car gazing up, a man across the street spoke to me.

“Isn’t that a sight? Those are starlings.”

“And so many!” I said.

“When that many fly in formation, they say it means a storm is on the way,” he said. “At dusk they’ll come to roost in the trees near the pond behind you.”

I looked behind for the birds, voluble but barely visible, in the trees. A group lifted off in sync and fused seamlessly into the greater mass performing aerobatics in the sky.

Starlings have made appearances in Shakespeare and the literary works of other eighteenth and nineteenth century writers. Upon hearing a voice in a Paris alleyway the wandering narrator of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy discovers a caged starling, which he imagines is crying for help: “I can’t get out. I can’t get out!” The starling so keenly awakens his compassion that the narrator reflects at length on liberty, imprisonment, and slavery. And, both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens refer to this passage; it clearly resonated as the Age of Reason ushered in the Romantic Movement when feeling and emotion had begun to acquire as much value as intellect in light of sweeping industrialization then and its impact on nature.

Mozart brought home a pet starling, dazzled with the bird’s uncanny ability to imitate musical notes and human voices. The details of the story vary, but it goes something like this: he had walked the streets of Vienna whistling the melody of a new piano concerto when one day he heard some of its notes whistled back by a starling in a cage at a street vendor’s pet shop. He bought the bird and entered the purchase in his expense book along with a line of notes almost identical to the main theme in one of the movements of his newest work. Mozart’s new pet, Vogel Star, became his constant companion for three years. And, when the starling died he wrote a poem for the elaborate funeral he gave it.

One little starling.

Above me were hundreds and hundreds of starlings, en masse and in flight—a murmuration, as it’s curiously termed. The onlookers created their own murmuration, a continuous hum of oohs and ahs, as if viewing the brilliant streaking lights of a fireworks display. A spectacle more impressive for being alive, the dark mass offset the dusky blue sky with one and then another collectively molded Rorschach shape, with each bird flying wing to wing only a few inches apart, never colliding and perpetually shifting direction as a single unit in motion. New, smaller groups of birds continued folding into the larger mass, and the shapes they formed grew larger and seemingly more complex: an expanding then breaking heart; a circle, half of it dropping down and the other pulling up into a question mark; a falling teardrop, splashing into a wake of fluid rings; a fish leaping up and merging back into its sea. For several minutes I was transported, soaring along with them, but the spell was broken with feeling and emotion crash landing alongside intellect.

I knew a few other things about them. An eccentric entrepreneur, who introduced the European starling to America in the 1890s, released a few in Central Park as a romantic gesture to populate it with every bird mentioned by Shakespeare. The small population multiplied exponentially, and starlings swiftly became invasive—tormenting native species, pushing them out and taking over like European colonists. While starlings can control insects, they’ll also devour whole groves of fruit. In large masses, they can decimate a small vineyard in a single day, but they’re not only a looming threat to winegrowers, orchardists, and crop farmers. An approaching cloud of them is what every pilot fears. When more than 10,000 starlings flew straight toward a plane taking off from Boston’s Logan Airport in 1960 all four engines were abruptly clogged. The plane crashed and nearly every passenger died. Yet I’d been marveling over their agility, grace, and intelligence.

What I discovered in those lost moments was equally beautiful and menacing, but the mass of birds was a specific reminder of something ominously relevant to me—the one story I’d ever left unfinished, in all its conflicted, chaotic absurdity. I had written a starling into it.

And I’ll be leaving that little detail out of my memoir.

Whenever I thought of starting over and moving on to anything other than this story, some forgotten aspect of it seemed to rear its head and mock my failure. Why hadn’t I followed through on deleting and burning the manuscript? I somehow never did, thinking it would rise again like a phoenix from its smoking ruin to haunt me. These thoughts only strengthened my resolve to be done with it and finally move on, to get back to serious writing and forget this failure, which was, of course, the reason I’d stopped writing.

For their finale, the mass of starlings spread out like a long slithering serpent, and then split into two dueling serpents that chased each other just above the horizon line. Before sunset, the birds loudly came to roost nearly all at once in the copse of cypresses by the pond, which sagged heavily, poignantly, under their weight.

When I got back in my rental car, I immediately recovered my location on the map as though it had all been a momentary blind spot. The entrance to the interstate was literally around the corner. I found myself heading back into my uncertain future at the end of the twilight hour when the sky was no longer completely light nor yet completely dark, but very deep blue. As I drove back into the blue, I thought of the poem that Mozart had written for his beloved pet starling upon its death, and the strange requiem inspired by the bird.

Here is my poetic farewell, my requiem to an unfinished story: Rest in peace, forever lost and read by no one. And stay the hell away.

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