The starling was a ball of broken feathers rolled into an overflowing gutter. All night, Dex and I had sifted through the debris—twigs, leaves, the remains of bubble mailers and takeout containers—that gathered at the storm grates, where garbage was woven by water pressure into something the opposite of a nest. The storm surge and its destruction was the least of our problems, but tending to the small creatures that were swept away during a manifestation was sometimes the most we could do.
“Did—did she escape?” I looked up into the sky, which was a clearing patchwork of black clouds cracked with sunlight. The kind of clouds we’d come to call “angel wings.”
“No,” Dex said, “it’s a coincidence. Look, there’s more over there. They didn’t take them.”
I followed Dex’s gaze to the parking lot across the street. There they were, a bobbing and scuttling group of little black birds making cheerful robot noises, the bright spray of the universe folded up with their wings. Starlings. Pests by all definitions of the word. Of course they would be left to us.
“Jane, give me your bag.”
“What? Why?” But Dex had the little bird in their hand, already wrapped up in a wad of tissues they probably had in their pocket for just such wildlife-related emergencies.
“I can’t, Dex. I have to go to meeting. There’s no time—”
“I know.” Dex side-eyed me and then sighed. “I’ll go with you, ok? I’ll wait outside and maybe God will tell you what to do with this thing.”
“It doesn’t work that way, I know.”
We walked into the old city in silence, beneath trees that seemed to strain in the wet heat of early June. Dex spared only the briefest of glances as we passed their usual metro stop. But they were still holding the bird in the open front pocket of my bag and I was glad they were with me.
I left Dex in the garden outside, chose a seat at the back of the meetingroom, and pulled the high-frequency plugs from my ears. I’d put them in three days ago, alerted by the high-pitched hum that a storm was coming—that they were coming. There were millions of us who could hear them in that way: not enough to communicate but enough to know when to take shelter. Not enough to save whoever or whatever they’d decided to take away with their fury of wind and rain and wild electrical arcs, but enough to mourn an abstract loss in advance. When it first started, my meeting had asked me to tell them when the hum started, had asked me to come to the house and sit with them in an impromptu meeting, to pray for the soon-to-be-lost. To listen with my ears turned to angel frequencies like I could hear anything over or under that high-pitched hum and my hammering heart. But they soon knew that I had nothing to contribute beyond the welling of terror that we all had in those early days.
All I could hear now, at the back of the room, was the quiet rustling of folks settling into their seats and the deep resonant breathing of those already sunk into silence.
I palmed the earplugs and tucked them into my pocket, craning my neck to see into the garden where I knew Dex would be. If I shifted in my seat I could see them, sitting on the old grey wooden bench, cupping the bird on their lap. It was hard, in the context of Dex’s delight, not to read the bird’s open beak as a smile, nor read love into the creases at the corners of Dex’s half-closed eyes. But maybe they were both dehydrated.
Across the room, a woman named Kat rose from her seat and looked in my direction for some time. I knew her thoughts were not on the dappled sun on peony leaves, or the storm-flattened flowers, or even Dex sitting on that soggy old bench. She had that look about her. Like she had stared an angel in the face. Like she hadn’t quite survived the experience.
Kat was new to our meeting but she’d been to meetings before, when she lived on the West Coast. I hadn’t yet had much of a conversation with her—after meeting when folks took up their tea or coffee or whatever was hot that day, the elders gathered around Kat, the circle so dense it was impenetrable. From my outsider’s vantage, I imagined them laying on hands, cooing over the broken woman. I couldn’t remember if they’d ever been that way with me.
“What sound does the Light make?” Kat asked, looking at no one. She paused for a long while and I thought I could hear Dex in the garden, speaking in the high singsong voice reserved for small, injured animals.
“We know what sound the darkness makes. We know that darkness is accompanied by the wind shredding the leaves from the trees. Crackling electrical arcs. But mostly, the darkness is quiet. It’s the quiet after it’s all over and we are left to figure out what has been taken from us. The moment that opens like an abyss. The moment before the screaming starts. What sound does the Light make when our world is full of such dark silence?”
When Kat resumed her seat it was like the whole meeting collapsed with her. We were decentered, off-balance, trying to do our best by her, to hear her words and resist the urge to jump up with words of placation or curl into self-soothing. We were a part of this new world. Let us sit with it. Let us sit in it as its new silence surrounds us.
I’d heard some things about Kat and her life before she came here. I’d even searched the net for her name, her meetinghouse, and found a picture of her and a dark-haired child on bicycles. Another picture at a community garden potluck.
The net confirmed that the angels had descended on the coast and had taken children born in 2016 just like they’d taken the polar bears, the eastern bluebirds, the black and yellow swallowtail butterflies, wreath lichen, salmon—even the farmed ones—and so many others that I’d forgotten their names because what could I do with that loss? I certainly couldn’t carry it.
“Why 2016?” Dex asked when I met them in the garden with the cup of water I knew they would want. The question came after I told Dex everything I knew about Kat and explained the strange woman’s ministry. This was a game we played, Dex and I; whenever they came to meeting with me I’d share anything that was spoken out of the silence and Dex pretended that the message was actually from God.
It had taken Dex some time to understand my adopted family. At first they had assumed the Friends to be some kind of nostalgic throwback hiding from the world in an inherited house in the old city behind the wall—or maybe a religious cult. Many still spoke with a strange deference even when they used the same words as everyone else. “It’s because they’re speaking to the god in all of us, you know?” I’d told them. “They’re careful to remember about it.”
Dex had wrinkled their nose when I’d said this and I’d let it go. I remember that conversation well because it had been only a month after my mother, a climate refugee who had long overstayed a visit to distant cross-border relatives, had been deported. I remembered everything from that time as if I was tallying what I had left. It was two months after I’d met Dex, who’d had a different name then. They were my only friend and I didn’t want them to think I was more trouble than I was worth.
In the garden, with the little bird in their lap, Dex held their palm still enough that the bird could drink before the water ran through their fingers.
“Why do they choose any year?” I asked, eager to fill Dex’s silence with my words. “We don’t know. My mom used to say that 2016 was the last good year. ‘The last good time to be alive,’ she said. But she didn’t mean it, not like that anyway. Maybe those kids were being saved for something. Or from something—something they’re too good to experience? I don’t know.”
Dex hummed in unconvinced contemplation and tilted their head toward the starling, whose throat feathers rose and fell as if producing a sound I couldn’t hear. “I think she’s going to be ok,” they said, pouring more water into the cup of their hand. I didn’t know if they meant Kat or the bird. It didn’t matter.
I couldn’t shake the oddness of one particular omission: when a disappearance was announced, the reason was always absent from the news report. So I scanned the feeds for who or what was gone after the storm and wondered if these names, dates, and locations were indeed the result of manifestation, or a new pandemic they weren’t telling us about, or another rash of suicides.
Clicking and whirring, the starling hopped about in the box Dex and I had found in the meetinghouse recycling bin. The bird had shaken its wings straight, pulling each feather through its beak to remove the dirt, leaving only scattered stars on an oil-spill background. I’d lined the box with some of my mom’s old t-shirts. I’d set them aside days after her deportation, after the Friends told me to stay in the upstairs apartment for as long as I needed, proffering vegan casseroles and lab-grown barbeque. Tucking the t-shirts into a bag, piling up her books and favourite mug, I was paring her remnants from the core of my life so that I might feel ready to leave this strange and lovely nest she’d made for me, to go into a world far from the one she knew.
Someday I would be motivated to find something even half as good on my own. But today, downstairs, on the main floor of the meetinghouse and out in the garden, the grief artists were doing a walking contemplation while wearing GPS trackers, transmitting traversed space into the shape of lost biomass. One kilometer for every ton. From thought and feeling onto the dynamic web, mapping loss and the negative space of hope with their feet.
I put the lid on the starling’s box, muffling the bird’s constant chatter. When a knock at the door cut into the room, the bird flapped against the cardboard.
“Hey,” Dex said, stepping past me into the apartment. “I saw that woman downstairs. Kat.’
Dex collapsed into the soft cushions of my sofa, but then leaned forward to peek inside the box. “She’s cutting apple slices in the kitchen. For the death nuns or whatever. The biomass folks. I asked her for a glass of water before coming up here.”
“How’d she seem?”
Dex shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Maybe a bit less apocalyptic than you described before. Pretty normal.”
“Apocalyptic could be normal.”
“Could be. Should be, sometimes.”
We fell into a warm silence, both of us on the couch, staring at the cardboard box and listening for movement. Dex sniffed and pulled something out of their pocket. A tissue with something wrapped in it. Four apple slices positioned to look, at first, like a whole apple.
“She gave these to me. To give to you. Said you need them too.”
While I chewed an apple slice, Dex slid down to the floor and sat cross-legged in front of the box. When they lifted the flap, the starling fluttered up to the edge of the box and then hopped down to perch on Dex’s knee. With its head tilted to the side and throat feathers pulsing, the starling trilled, its voice flying over the octaves, mimicking the sound of car alarms, high-heels on a sidewalk, and a high-pitched hum that sent my heart racing and my hand in search of earplugs. Eyes half-closed with delight, Dex held out their finger and coaxed the creature into their palm. “These things can talk, you know. They’re great mimics.”
“Yeah. Always listening, apparently.”
The starling stretched its wings and fluttered to the floor, where it strutted around as I’d often seen starlings do. Her glossy black eye turned to us and I knew that this animal had been selected. Maybe not by the angels, but by someone or something else. I knew it with the same certainty that I knew that Dex and I had created a living bond in caring for the bird. A living bond with its own tender language that would speak to the silence after the storm.