Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hello, Starling

March may still be a month away, but last month came in like a lamb and went out like a lamb, with nary a lion to be seen. While news of northeastern snowstorms and midwestern blizzards arrives on my doorstep, my doorstep is a balmy 43 degrees and basking in unseasonable sunshine.

My yard seems to think that spring is here already. The maple trees and the lilac bush are pregnant with leaves; early buds are growing round and plump all along their wintry stems. I saw the timid green tip of a tulip peeking from the wet earth like a periscope, as if to verify whether the war with winter has truly been won after so brief a battle. Cornflower seedlings have pushed their way through a blanket of soggy fall leaves, expecting to find daffodils and starlings in their midst.

Starlings did, in fact, arrive.

Last Sunday, as my family stepped out the front door on our way to the car, a flock (or a murmuration, I'm told) of hundreds, maybe thousands, was rollicking in the maple branches and among the spruce needles and along the power lines and in the blue air. They were chirping and hopping and flying in sudden bursts, pursued by unseen squirrels.

The sound of birdsong and rustling wings fluttered down on every side of us—snowed us under—and made us all freeze in our tracks (the only freezing to be found on that January day). The bare trees were unexpectedly alive—not with green leaves but with brown and black wings. It was like a scene from Hitchcock. Or, maybe, heaven. The baby, in my husband's arms, lifted both hands toward the sky and called out, "Daddy! Bird!"

Just as it seemed that spring was truly here to stay, and that life was overcoming death wherever we turned to look, a gust of wind—or the bark of a dog or a stifled sneeze or a rumor—startled those birds from their perches into scattered flight. They fled like an ill-prepared army abruptly set upon by hostile forces; their panicked company dispersed across the sky—all wings and beaks and furious flapping.

But then, a pattern began to emerge from the squawking chaos. Called to order by the quiet authority of some avian general (who?), they just as suddenly spun their tangled mass into a black sphere, and then unravelled again to be knit into neat rows and regiments—rank upon orderly rank of starling hosts. They looped in perfect formation—now east, now west, now dipping, now rising in synchronized flight. Then, as if satisfied by the success of their impromptu military exercise, their general at last gave a command that sent them speeding across the clouds to the Western horizon.

My sons' wide eyes followed them until they dropped from sight below the housetops, to settle in someone else's leafless trees and to interrupt the Sabbath quiet on someone else's street.

Maybe they stopped here merely to rest, on their way to perform great deeds. Perhaps we seemed to be fearsome giants, deterring them from the conquest of our front yard Canaan, and they are now cursed to roam the blue wilderness for another forty days. Maybe they were surveying the land from their power-line Pizgah. I don't know what Jordans they will have to cross before they can finally settle here. Perhaps they have Jerichos to topple before they can call our street "home." I do know that a week has passed, and the starlings have not returned. Not yet. But the tulip and cornflower, the maple and lilac, the lamb and the sleeping lion all whisper that they will.

They will.

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