The Intrepid Starling

Chapter 8: A Murmuration

When Sam opens the jeep door a few days later, she sees that the furrowed brow Benjamin last wore is smoothed by solace. 

“My boy is up and at ‘em!” he announces gleefully.  She is thrilled at the news and equally happy to have her driver back.

“Hallelujah!” she claps her hands together in earnest.

“Hallelujah!” laughs the driver.  “You’ve been goin’ to one of our many churches now, have you now?  Been moved by the spirit?”

“Only a dose of liquid spirit now and again,” Sam teases, remembering his joke, and Benjamin gives her a high five.

“Now, to the Animal Farm is it?”

“Onward.”  Sam confirms with a wave of her fist forward and Benjamin mirrors her movement.

 “But first,” he points his finger skyward, “to the patty stand.”

“To the patty stand,” she agrees with another wave of her fist and Benjamin lets out a whoop.

 In the shop, the savory pastries in the warming case remind Sam of her abuela’s empanadas, only flatter and more yellow.

“Now,” Benjamin begins as they take seats across from each other, greasy paper bags in hand.  “Have you heard about the great debate over which is better—Tastee or Juici?”

“Pardon?” Sam blows on the hot envelope of dough while her stomach growls.

 “Why, It’s a countrywide discussion!” Benjamin gingerly picks up his own lunch.  “These are Tastee patties, but their rival is Juici.”

“Aha,” Sam considers. “Well, let’s see if they live up to the name.”

The hot filling scalds her tongue and she waves her hand in front of her mouth to cool it.  Benjamin reaches across the table to wave a napkin and enhance the futile effort.  This only makes her laugh and makes things worse.  One would think she’d learn a little patience after all those years in her grandma’s kitchen.  

After a moment she finally savors the buttery crust and minced beef and gives Benjamin a thumbs up.  The patty has lived up to its name. 

“One more vote for Tastee, then,” he nods knowingly. 

 

With full stomachs, they climb through the warm air past a small town and along the mountainside.  Children in uniform wave to them while holding their own small paper bags for lunch. 

“Oh, yeah man.  Students love patties!” Benjamin affirms when Sam points it out.  “They are cheap and filling.  The perfect exchange for pocket money.”

After a few more turns, they reach a long driveway leading to a grand colonial house.  “Now, I should tell you, this isn’t exactly a farm like you might have back home,” he says to set expectations, “but it is a beautiful place.  They keep hundreds of birds here. They’ll eat right from the palm of your hand.”  He holds out his own to demonstrate.

Two women emerge from the house to greet them.  “Benjamin! Welcome!” says the older one extending her hand.  She is what he might call fluffy, with khaki trousers hugging her in and perfect white teeth smiling between two soft round cheeks.

“This is Miranda,” Benjamin introduces her to Sam and the woman, in turn, introduces the girl standing beside her. 

“And this is Rachel,” she beams with no effort to hide her pride. “She’ll be taking you on the tour.” Miranda gives her petite companion a side hug and the girl in starched khakis extends her hand shyly.  “Rachel’s here doing research for her senior thesis at university. When she was in high school, she visited for the first time and fell in love with every feathered thing in this place. We’ve never had anyone here who knows so much about our winged friends.  If you’re lucky, she may mimic a peacock call for you.”  Miranda laughs and Rachel’s downward-looking grin shows she’s both embarrassed and flattered by the attention. “Are you ready to meet our flock, Sam?”

“Absolutely,” Sam follows Rachel as they leave Miranda and Benjamin to chat on the porch.

Her driver is right. The place doesn’t feel like a farm but a refuge—not only for animals but visitors, too.  Its shady hillside is speckled with exotic flowers and the horizon is filled with green mountaintops.  It is quiet but for birdsong and rustling leaves. There is a settled feeling here as though the air itself hasn’t been disturbed for years. 

As they walk past large enclosures, Rachel narrates the avian gallery with tender authority.  She pauses for Sam to photograph a strutting chicken with a crown of delicate white feathers.  With its unruly hairdo it reminds Sam of Beaker from the Muppets.  

“We call this one the Rasta fowl,” her young guide informs her. “Doesn’t it look like he has a lovely set of dreads? Sometimes he’s timid because those feathers block his vision,” she explains quietly as she crouches to look him in the eye, “but he’s a sweetheart.”   

At the end of the pathway they reach the main holding area and step into a squawking symphony hall. The soaring space is nearly three times their height and filled with trees and shrubs.  Parakeets and parrots flit across the branches while doves and chickens strut across the ground.

Rachel gently releases a small pile of seeds into Sam’s palm. Within seconds her hand is heavy with four birds perched across her fingers and wrist to share the communal feast.  Her entire arm vibrates with their nudging and pecking.  It’s like a miniature cocktail party with everyone vying for passed hors d’oeuvres.  When a fifth bird lands, they jostle each other to make room.  It is ticklish and Sam can’t stop laughing at their frenzy.  Rachel, her own hands covered as if by thick, feathered gloves, is also giggling.

“Which is your favorite?” Sam asks.

“Of these? The parakeet.” Rachel studies the blue and green birds on her hand.

“And your favorite bird of all?”

“The starling,” Rachel answers with reverence.

“Really?” Sam is startled by her answer.  Of all the magnificent birds of prey or species with rainbow plumage, Rachel prefers one of the most simple, ubiquitous birds.  She could have said vultures or pigeons and Sam would be equally surprised. “Why a starling?"

“Have you ever seen a murmuration?”  Rachel’s eyes grow wide with the thought. Small flocks continue to swarm her arms, but she is no longer thinking of the birds in this cage.

Sam hesitates for a moment.  She’s heard the word before.  “Is it when a group of them moves across the sky together?  They almost look like metal shavings following a magnet, don’t they?”

“Yes!” Rachel’s timid shell crumbles as she speaks about her passion.  “Yes, that’s exactly it.  I watch so many online videos of those formations. They look like a massive jellyfish pushing across the sky, or a tornado or blowing smoke. Or a flying dragon! They are so mesmerizing,” she looks back to the birds sitting on her arms, “They are so beautiful. Whenever I need a study break I watch those videos.” She lowers her arms gently until the birds lift off and then steps carefully over a chicken to refill Sam’s palm.  “Isn’t it amazing what thousands in flight can do? All together, they create something wonderful.”

Rachel crouches down to feed the larger birds pecking at dropped chaff.  “Do you know something else? Starlings are one of the most adaptable avian species.” She looks up at Sam. “They nest in every habitat, from the Arctic to the equator. That’s also why they live so close to humans.  Starlings don’t mind roosting in a little nook or cranny of a barn somewhere.” Rachel stands to coax a few of the birds from Sam’s hand to her own and lighten the load. “Sometimes they even move into other birds’ nests. Everywhere is home for a starling.”

Sam smiles at this notion. How magically small the world must feel when home can be anywhere.

“Oh, and their feathers!” Rachel interrupts Sam’s thought with more praise for the bird. “Some almost look like fish with their shiny purple and green feathers.  Maybe that’s why they move like schools of fish when they fly together.” She laughs softly at her own observation. Sam smiles. It is clear the young researcher has found her niche.

 

It’s dusk when they return to the parking lot and Miranda is there with fresh coconuts.  She slices the tops off and inserts straws into the warm, sweet water. “My boy picked these just before you arrived,” she presents them proudly.

Yes. This farm is very different than any Sam knows back home.

With night falling, Benjamin reminds her they have another stop before the day is over. “This adventurous spirit wants to take a dip in the glistening waters,” he tells the others, pointing to Sam. 

“Oh, you’re going to see the bioluminescence,” Rachel claps.

“My children love that place,” says Miranda.  “Last time we visited, they brought home a bottle of the water and shook it up every night for a week to watch it glow. They thought it was better than television.”

“It really is amazing,” Rachel agrees and reaches out to shake Sam’s hand goodbye.

“It was such a wonderful tour,” Sam thanks her and then shakes Miranda’s hand. “Thank you for sharing this remarkable place.”

“Our home is yours,” Miranda assures her. “You are most welcome any time.”

 

“When you get out of the water, you might glow in the dark,” Benjamin jokes as he helps Sam into the boat. “No more need for a night light.”

“Wish me luck.” Sam is too nervous to joke back.  She is about to swim in dark water lit only by a sliver of moon and microscopic marine creatures. There is little that makes her squirm, but the idea of swimming in a black lake turns her bones to jelly. She’s been promised by everyone it will be worth it. She hopes they are right.

A young family of four are the only other passengers.  The son, about five, shares Sam’s nervousness.  “Mum, will the water be warm?” he asks in a British clip.

“Yes, darling,” she strokes his hair. “As warm as the ocean.”

“It will be like swimming in a giant bathtub with sparkly water!” the older sister promises him. 

The captain of the tiny vessel welcomes them aboard and offers a terse explanation of what they’re about to see. He knows he’s not the show they’ve come for.  “This is one of the best places in the world to see bioluminescence,” he tells them. “These waters are full of very tiny creatures that light up when they’re tossed about. Just look.” He points to the back of the boat where the motor is stirring up the water.  The waves rush out from under the boat in plumes of glowing blue.

Sam has heard of this phenomenon, but to see it for herself is pure magic.  She’s as giddy as the children.

“Look, dad!” the girl is beside herself. “It’s like the pixie dust on Captain Hook’s ship.”

“Are we going to fly, mum?” the boy asks.

“No, angel,” the mother assures him. 

“But you can swim soon,” the captain chimes in as he slows the boat.  In just a few moments, they are in the middle of the small lagoon. “Is everyone going in?”

The father, fully clothed, politely shakes his head. His children are already at the boat’s ladder.

The sister goes first, her lifejacket tight around her chest.  “Ooh, Charlie, it’s lovely,” she promises her brother. “I’m like a glowing mermaid,” she sings, waving her arms through the water.

Charlie steps gently off the ladder and begins to kick his legs. “Look, mum! I'm glowing like a Christmas tree!” he squeals.

“Are you coming in?” the daughter asks her mother.

The mother steps back from the ladder. “No darlings, I think I’ll just watch you. Mum gets scared when she can’t see what’s in the water.”

“But if you’re scared of what's in here, why are you letting us swim?” asks the girl, twirling like a glow-in-the-dark ballerina.

The mother laughs. “Mum just isn’t as brave as you sometimes.”

The little girl stops swirling and directs the same question to Sam. “Are you coming in?”

Sam looks around at the other adults. “You only live once,” the captain says with a trace of daring in his voice. 

She takes a deep breath.  What did her server say all those weeks ago in Morocco?  The sunlit patio feels like another world now.  Life is too short. You must to do stupid things, he’d told her. 

Then, she thinks of her guide Mark at the Blue Hole jumping from the treetops. She reaches back in time to borrow some of his confidence.

“If I’ve made it this far, I better get in, right?” Sam says with a nonchalance that belies her trepidation. Both of the children nod encouragingly, stirring up two sparkling haloes in the water beneath their chins.

The little girl was right.  The water is warm. Sam tests it first with her toes and then slips into the inky blackness. If fear is going to show up tonight, she’ll take it by the hand and swim with it. There’s no other choice.

She pushes away from the boat and splashing children to float on her back in silence. Her arms and legs glide through the water like she’s making a snow angel. Cloudy blue light bursts below her with every movement. Slowly, her anxiety is replaced by wonder. Here in the glowing water she feels swallowed up by the night—rocked in a cradle of glittering black to match the sky above. 

Her mind wanders back to Morocco and the moments spent under twinkling desert stars. Her father’s words whisper across the small, dark waves. It’s all there—a whole spectrum within you. She can feel it now as she straddles fear and awe together.

Then, Rachel’s words from the afternoon echo softly in her mind.  Everywhere is home for a starling. Sam considers this notion as well. One thought leads to another and she reflects on the Jamaican homes she’s explored during her time here. She’s taken by their fluidity, the way they bring so much of the outside in. Somehow, they succeed in straddling sunshine and shelter, open nature and boxed-in space. If starlings can make home anywhere, so too can we, she thinks. Igloos and adobe, castles and cabins.  We have the whole spectrum within us.

“All aboard,” the captain’s voice wakes her from a reverie and Sam looks up to find she’s alone in the water.  The two children are already out and wrapped in plush white towels.

She hurries to the ladder, but pauses for a moment to watch the iridescent water slip down her arm as she reaches out for the first rung. Small beads of shimmering liquid trickle from her palm to her elbow. It looks otherworldly. It reminds her of the characters in the movie Avatar.  

“She’s braver than you, mum,” Sam hears the little boy say as she settles into her seat, “staying out there all alone like that.” Then he looks across the boat at her.  “You’re intrepid,” he tells her with childlike certainty.

The mother smiles at Sam. “It’s a word from his spelling list this week.”

“I’ll take it,” Sam reaches across the bench to give him a high five. “You, too, my friend, are very brave.  I’m very impressed.”

“Thank you,” the little boy blushes and Sam can feel her cheeks warm, too. They both know the exchanged compliment is only half-merited. It wasn’t fearlessness alone that led them into the water, but curiosity, too, and the desire for adventure despite a serious bout of apprehension. They were all there, so many feelings swirling in and out of each other like starlings moving through the sky.

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