“The Ghost Birds” by Karen Russell – The New Yorker

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

I hadn’t set foot in a school in three decades, and the child in me shuddered. It took us a long time to reach the hollow shell of the gymnasium at the base of the hill. There was a stretch of exposed blacktop with faint yellow markings which might have been an ancient basketball court; this was where we’d be apprehended, I thought, if there were indeed Surveillers. Starling followed me, zipped into her white Tyvek suit with the dull-red face shield that made her look like an astronaut on our own planet; whatever she might be thinking about, it was not the fresh-pencil-shavings smell of September, bound books and bullies and locker codes.

Starling started ninth grade last month. She exists for her teachers as a lollipop-headed projection in the make-believe agora of the virtual high school, a flickery publicly funded arts magnet. Only the wealthiest kids can afford private in-home tutors; my daughter and her moody, multiply pierced friends recite Neruda sonnets into their EduHelmet microphones. Snow days have been replaced by electrical storms at the server farms. Starling’s log-in seems to fail every other week, to her great relief.

“Did you like school?” Starling asked me. I was scanning the windows, wondering what might cause the plants to sway on a windless indoor night. It was a subtle, unmistakable movement.

“I can’t say I did. I was more of an autodidact. I made my teachers nuts.”

My daughter smiled inside her mask.

“That doesn’t surprise me.”

Sometimes I think I should have left Yesenia years earlier. 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 still run with the hypothesis that we could patch things up. I love being a full-time dad to Starling. Loved, past tense—that can’t be right.

Starling claims not to mind “splitting time.” It sounds so violent. I picture her in safety goggles, bringing the axe down on a block of hours. She says she wants us all to be happy. Happiness for all three of us? None of my experiments has yielded any insight as to how this might be accomplished.

The rubble was daunting. We had to crawl on our hands and knees around the broken columns, and it was my daughter who found the hole in the eastern wall that we half-wormed, half-sledded through to get inside, to the ground floor, rousing decades of dust; just when I decided that we ought to turn back, the ceiling abruptly soared away from our heads. “Wow. It feels like someone took the lid off a box,” Starling said. We stood and spun our headlamps through what must have been the school auditorium—I had the exciting, upsetting sensation that we were being swallowed by the school, transported from the building’s throat into its belly via a kind of architectural peristalsis. Above us, the hallways crimped and straightened. I had always intended to call off our expedition at the first sign of danger, but in the putty-gray lighting of our headlamps nothing felt quite real, and it became harder and harder to imagine crawling backward in defeat when the swifts might be glowing just around the next bend in the elementary-school labyrinth. It took effort to imagine that generations of children’s laughter once echoed here. Or birds’ chirping, for that matter.

“Do you want to keep going, Starling?” I asked, and she grunted yes, or possibly the school itself did. The pipes seemed to be running, somehow. Or to be alive with a watery echo. The light was almost nonexistent, and I helped Starling to switch her headlamp to night vision.

“Starling?” I called into the spandrel under the school stairwell where she’d been standing only a heartbeat earlier. “Stay where I can see you. . . .”

Starling decided not to listen. Even as a small girl she had a maddening talent for tuning us out. She’d stare into the sky-blue glow of her Hololite with the lidless focus of a fighter pilot and ignore a hundred repetitions of her name. “Why can’t you be a good listener?” her mother would warble. Once, around age seven, she’d turned our voices back on us: “When you say listen, what you really mean is obey.”

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

First, my headlamp went out. I still have no idea why—I’ve used it on half a dozen counts, and I’ve never had any issues. The pink perigee moon was visible through the windows, floating beside us like a loyal owl. But Starling was by this point a little freaked out. I could understand that, of course. She didn’t want to give me her headlamp, and so reluctantly I let her take the lead. “Look, Dad,” she called, fixing her low beam on two heavy doors. “Seems like something you’d be into.” The doors were bracketed by a beautiful W.P.A. marquetry mural, with two human figures cast as guardians of the portal. A young barefoot girl stood under the tree of life with a dove on one arm, and I swear she looked just like Starling. The wood grain turned an undersea green and mauve as she spun her light over the doors’ engraving: “Send Us Forth to Be Builders of a Better World.”

We reached a stairwell filled with four inches of gray ash; Starling autographed it with her sneaker toe. “Look up, honey,” I said, tipping her chin until the lantern beam reached the far wall. A replica of the chimney rose out of the shadows, and dozens of kiln-baked birds hugged puffy clouds. Of all the things to survive. Ash had buried half the staircase, but some fifth-grade classroom’s ancient mosaic still clung to the wall, sweetly misshapen swifts that retained the doughy imprint of their ten-year-old creators’ fingers.

Next we made our way through the silent museum of the gymnasium, the scoreboard still legible:

SWIFTS 36–LIONS 28

“An unlikely win for the swifts,” Starling mumbled. We paused to take a water break. Most of our supplies were back on the hilltop. I hadn’t imagined we’d spend so much time in the school; had I known, we could have spent the night here, and waited to see if the ghost swifts would leave the chimney at daybreak. Starling wanted to take her mask off—so did I, to be honest—but I thought of Yesenia’s horrified face and said no, better to be safe. We sat on the bleachers and drank through our straws; I started to tell her about the desalination glands that once extracted salt from albatrosses’ blood. “Don’t gulp,” I said, but of course she did not listen, and now her water was gone.

“Oh my God, Dad. 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.”

“Sure I can. Diego.”

“He was my best friend in kindergarten. He joined the Star Guild years ago.”

“Amy?”

“Dead,” she said, with a gloomy satisfaction.

“O.K. I’m not playing this game.”

Starling stood up from the bleachers, wheeling on the court. “Well, I hope we can find at least one swift tonight. Do you know how bad it’s going to feel if we get stood up by eleven thousand ghosts?” She made a face.

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

Her goofy, real laugh was a gift to me. One of the rarest sounds in the galaxy.

We searched the ground floor for another hour. I’d expected an entrance to the boiler room, access to the chimney; instead I found a two-by-two panel in the wall beside the old janitor’s closet, which opened outward like an oven door, and fed into a terrifyingly narrow chute with a ninety-degree bend. The old dinosaur of a steam boiler waited after the bend. Were we going to cram ourselves inside the chute, like a letter through an old mail slot? I couldn’t settle on the best order of operations—if I went first, I might get stuck, leaving Starling alone. But if she went first worse might happen. Only now do I wonder that I did not consider a third option: leaving the building. I swore I could hear a chirping, dim and repeated. “Do you hear them, Starling?” She cocked her head, staring at me illegibly under the headlamp’s halo. “Maybe,” she said at last. “Maybe I do. Should I go in, Dad?”

“I’ll go. I might need you to pull me out if it gets any tighter—”

Decades of dried bird shit filled the chute. We scooped out guano with our gloved hands, watching it crack and plume apart; at last I was able to wedge myself in up to my waist and shove myself forward, holding my breath out of habit, as all humans instinctively do when entering an unknown element. Now I was grateful for the bulky Tyvek suit, which I ordinarily despise. Starling was right behind me. “Wait, honey,” I called uselessly. She grunted as she pulled herself through the chute, and then we each turned a slow circle in the closet-size room. Two hulking steam boilers, unused for almost a century or more, glowered at us. Ancient red-and-green pipes. But then we looked up. Rising for what felt like miles and miles above our heads was the chimney, like an eighty-foot telescope.

“Dad! Dad!” Starling reached both arms into the chimney and closed her fingers around the lowest rung of a rusted maintenance ladder. Our eyes flew up the tunnel together, a heavy dark where no ghosts roosted, hemmed in by blank brick, out the top of which we could see the deep-black sky and the rippling light of stars.

I smiled tightly, trying to conceal my disappointment, because what I saw was only what anyone would expect to see in a decaying chimney: exposed rebar, calcium-eaten brick. Not a single feather in sight. Nothing opaque or glowing, dead or living. The outrageously thick paste of excrement was the only proof that Vaux’s swifts had ever roosted here. The chirping had ceased as abruptly as it had begun. No bodies, no spirits.

“O.K., Dad,” Starling was saying behind me. “I’m feeling a little claustro. Sorry we didn’t find any ghosts. I’m ready to go back now.”

I gave the ladder an inquisitive shake. I thought I might climb a little way up, 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 leaping into view.

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