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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Jacobs

The Starling


Twenty seventeen was the year the starling got trapped in the wall. It was seeking warmth from the cold in order to survive. It clawed and fluttered behind the wall and inside my mind. After two days, I took a hammer to the plaster. I must have forgotten birds have wings. I was prepared to reach down and grab the tiny creature, but as soon as I put my hand through the hole, it stuck its head out. Its wings brushed my skin as it flew past me into the kitchen. I opened the window and it flew back into the cold. It flew back in order to survive.

Starlings are mocking birds. They can be taught to speak. They sound ungodly. Like a demon mimicking the voice of a child.

I think it’s beautiful.

After that, it got worse. I know what you’re thinking. What got worse? But if I could name it, I’d be able to control it—like a golem. It is something like air.

I know when a house is haunted because it feels empty even when it is not. Whatever you try to do to make it feel like home, it doesn’t work. If you put a vase of flowers on the hutch, for example, the bouquet no longer looks beautiful like it did in the store. It just becomes another thing for the echos to bounce off of.

But this is not a haunting, no. It is more like the feeling you get when you drive by a shop that sells headstones. All you can imagine is what person, on earth, will have one of these for their markers? It makes you think of illness, accidents, and violence.

But it is not death either. It is like the feeling when you are alone in the ER, and nobody knows you are there, fearing there could be something very wrong with your body. Hours bleed into an eternity, and you wonder if all you’ve ever experienced is sitting in that emergency waiting room. Everything that went before is just a thought, a dream, a fancy. And there will never be an after. When they tell you there is nothing wrong, you think, what about the pain in my chest?

You realize it is heartache.

This is not quite heartache, though. When I say it got worse, what I am talking about is the thing that lives on the other side of hope. As it gets stronger, the hope gets stronger until the hope is overpowered and shrivels like a flower in a drought. But it is not hopelessness I am talking about either. It is more like if you are a statue wanting to be human—so much that you believe you are made of flesh. You dream about it. And you live in the dream. And the more you feel your hardness, the more vibrant and fluent the dreams become. Until one day there is a mutiny you cannot run from, and someone has lopped off your head. There is no more denying that you are made of stone. And now you understand that humans are the enemy, so you do not want to be one anymore anyway. The dreams stop. That’s what this is. That’s precisely it—the stopping of dreams. Or maybe it is not exactly the stopping of dreams, but what enters in their place.

Lately I have been looking at my hands, checking to make sure my fingers are still there.

 

I first noticed the gray color on the foot of the stairs. I did not think anything of it

because the stairs are a whitish sort of concrete anyway. It must be paint, I think. Or weathered. Or maybe it was always here, and I haven’t noticed it before.

Then, the ceiling—which had always sagged—grew a crack overnight. My husband purchased renter’s insurance because of it. I stare at it often. On occasion, I imagine the roof caving in. A giant hole

reveals the sky. In my imagination, years and years of dead critters, bird shit, bugs, leaves and rot come down behind the plaster. It falls on top of me like a message: “After all you’ve accomplished in life—this.”

Every week, my husband measures the crack to make sure it isn’t growing. I am not sure why it matters. It will not change our fate.

It—the thing that worsens—peeks over my shoulder while washing dishes and slithers away out the corner of my sight, like an elusive animal. After a while, it started to grow in my throat. At times I cannot breathe. Sometimes, I want to vomit it out. Instead, I care for it. It became my darling. I covet it and protect it like a mama bear. If you were to ask me why I am like ice, I would answer, “My darling makes me very, very cold.”

I will not tell my husband about it. He would not understand. I won’t tell anyone. It isn’t like a secret, but more like an ancient manuscript written in a language that only I can read.

Then, the gray appeared again in the form of footprints. It looked as though someone with large, bare feet had stepped in paint and into the bathtub. But it was less like paint, and more like gray light. Like an old black-and-white film that had been colorized except for in those two spots. I could not figure out how there were not more footprints. There was no path. It was as though someone had teleported from the outside steps directly to the tub. “Do you see that?” I asked my husband.

“See what?” he said. I wished he had just said no.

“Nothing,” I said. Because that’s all it was. Nothing.

I went to bed that night and pulled the covers up to my chin. Then I pulled them over my face as though I was a child trying to hide. There was someone in the bed next to me. It wasn’t my husband. It was a stranger. And it is still there, night after night. Every night, I stay awake with fear and sleep very little.

If I laugh it isn’t because I’m happy. I think people only laugh when they need to. Like when they’ve had enough of not laughing. Or some people are always laughing and making jokes because deep down inside they are too serious. And they don’t want anyone to know that they think of death often. For me, laughing is a fortress and within it I am free to go mad. My smile tricks people. It makes them think I’m lovely when I am the opposite.

 

Now it is winter. The cold seeps in through the cracks in the beadboard like tiny hands stretching toward me and pinching my skin. We don’t turn up the heat. It is a waste. I used to hate the cold. I am accustomed to it now. I touch my face to make sure I’m not dreaming. It feels rough.

I turn around. I do not see it. I only feel it expanding out. It is not nothing. It is like air. It is like a haunting. It is like death. It is like heartache. It is like hopelessness. It is like the thing that replaces dreams when they stop—but it is none of these things. It is much, much worse. I am choking. “My darling. My darling,” I say. I cannot breathe. My husband asks me what is wrong. I caw the word in a low eerie whisper with a bit of a whistle, “Nothing.” He leaves the room. I begin to doubt my memory of the starling flying out of the window.

It had flown into my throat. It is mocking my thoughts.

There are mice living in the oven. All three cats are lined up in front of it, waiting for one to emerge. The mice do not come out. I have only ever seen their tails escaping into the vent. I sometimes think it is not tails I see, but giant spider legs.

I am concerned there is a very large spider living inside of the oven.

I become hungry for it.

 

“What should we have for dinner?” My husband asks me. I do not speak because of my darling. I’m afraid of what I will say. Of what it will say. I write down on an old receipt: Pasta. My husband looks at me and looks at the paper. He walks away, his face gnarled with scorn. I have done something wrong. I look at the paper. It does not say Pasta. It says: Worms.

I decide to go into the living room and read my book. It is about a ten-year-old girl trapped in a cave. She is trying to make a fire by hitting rocks together because she saw it in a movie. She creates an imaginary helper named BoBo. I put the book down and look out the window and think, BoBo is not real. It is not BoBo who helps her, but she who helps herself. I become sad because I know that she will not succeed in making a fire. Bobo fails her. My husband interrupts my thoughts. “The crack has grown a centimeter,” he says.

I do not care.

I look in the mirror. The gray has attacked my hair. For the first time since twenty seventeen, I panic. I dye it with box dye. It works.

“Your hair is gray. What happened?” My husband says. I look at my reflection in a butter knife. My hair is black.

“No. It isn’t.” I slam my fist on the table, tired of the lies. For the first time, I think I might want to kill him. The violence does not bother me. I glare at him and look down at my plate of worms. They squirm around each other like they are one entity. I try to grab my fork, but when I look down at my hands, I see that my fingers are gone. I slurp the meal directly into my mouth. My husband is disgusted. He grabs my plate and throws it across the room. The worms scatter. “I am not cleaning that up.” I say.

I go to the bathroom and the entire bathtub is gray now. Because he can see my hair despite the dye, I say to my husband, “The bathtub is gray,” hoping he sees it.

He corrects me, “The bathtub is white.” I am confused and alone. He spits in the sink without rinsing it. It is a message. He is angry with me. My darling is growing bigger now, and it is becoming more and more difficult to breathe. My coughing is more violent, but my darling does not come out. I think about reaching down there and grabbing it, but my hand is too large and my fingers are gone. I am followed by the thing that is becoming increasingly worse. It expands like an uncomfortable silence as my darling grows. Its density increases like the yearning of a house after many years abandoned.

I stare at the ceiling again. The growth of the crack is more powerful than a clock. I am relieved to know that time is passing. My husband does not speak to me unless to inform me of whether or not the crack has grown. I have started to care about the length of the crack. When it does not grow, I am afraid.

Today, the entire bathroom is gray. I have not left the house in three days. I am uncertain if the patch on the outside steps has become bigger. I feel that it has.

My husband arrives home from work. I do not tell him about the bathroom. He approaches me as I stare at the crack in the ceiling again. He asks, “What do you want for dinner tonight?” I do not mean to open my mouth. It just happens.

In a high-pitched, sibilant voice, I ask, “What do you want for dinner tonight?” I gasp. “Darling, hush!”

My husband steps closer to me, looks into my eyes, and says, “What the fuck is wrong with you lately?” He leaves the room, heavy-footed. I hear him throw or break something at the other end of the apartment. I walk into the bedroom. The mirror is shattered. I look at my reflection. It is not so much that I am broken, as it is that there seems to be more of me than is necessary. Too many eyes. I tell myself this was an accident. I pull a black, shiny feather from my mouth.

This morning, as usual, the stranger is there, but this time it fills the room. It follows me as I walk into the kitchen. I do not think it is everywhere. Rather, it is as though I am inside of my own atmosphere. It no longer peeks over my shoulder, or scurries away from me, because I exist inside of it. My darling scratches at my throat. I cough up blood and more feathers. I have an even harder time breathing. I think I might die if my darling does not leave me soon.

I am sitting in front of the stove with the cats waiting for the spider to emerge. I am ready for battle. The crack grows, little by little. By March, something exciting happens. My husband says, “I think the ceiling is sagging considerably more now.” My eyes alight, I spend an entire day fixated on the damage.

The robins start to nest in the hole on the side of the house that will never get fixed. The landlord does not fix things. The hole is right below the window frame. The white cat tries to stick his paw into the crevice in the wood from the inside. I feel the fear of the birds, and I begin to dread all three cats. They look at me now with hungry eyes. They wait for my darling. The rest of the time, they sleep as though they are innocent.

The crack has grown significantly. It is shaped like a giant, half-closed eye or a bad gash—wide in the middle. It is only a matter of time.

I go outside for the first time in four days. There is no fresh air, and I do not feel free in the space around me. It is filled with the thing that will soon become the worst. A neighbor says hello and starts a conversation. I smile, swallow and pray for her to go away. “How have you been?” she asks.

Great. I answer. Except I do not say it. I smile a little larger and nod. Finally, she leaves. I let out a sigh of relief while my darling releases a soft squeal. The gray is conquering more things. The sycamore tree—doused with a bucket of colorlessness. A streak across the neighbor’s front lawn looks a bit like field marking. The mailbox has been tainted by it. I have no reason to be out here, so I turn around to go back inside. The entire building is gray. I do not understand how this is happening. I do not care to know why. My darling is hungry. It pecks at my uvula, mistaking it for a worm.

The pain is terrible.

I walk into our building hoping it is only the outside of the house that has lost its color, but I know the opposite is true. I ascend the gray stairs, open the gray door and enter the gray room. The white cat scurries by with a baby bird in its mouth. The calico bats around a terrified mouse. The surrounding pressure prevents me from weeping. I stare at the ceiling. The crack has become a hole. A sliver of blue peers through it.

In a world of gray, it is the most beautiful sight.

My husband comes home from work. The dishes are not done. The floor has not been vacuumed. The bed is not made, and supper is not prepared. He emerges from the bedroom, livid—stepped in spilt water with a freshly socked foot. I am preoccupied with the ceiling. He stands in front of me, as he is wont to do. He does not speak. He is a very large cat. I no longer fear being eaten. He swats at me with the strength of a lion. I try to shield my face with my fingerless hands, but my arms do not move. I am paralyzed—a carved replica of myself. He swats again, rendering me headless.

The ceiling collapses. A storm of rot descends toward me, then—black. I am no longer distinguishable from the debris. My darling pokes its tiny noggin from the stone hollow of my throat. To my delight, I now see with its eyes. I hop upon the edge of a neck which is no longer mine. I wonder how to escape into the blue through the unclimbable air. Then I remember:

Birds have wings.

Inside my fortress, I go mad. Or maybe this is happiness.


 

Elizabeth Jacobs is an artist and writer hailing from Boston, Massachusetts. She has a BFA in painting from Massachusetts College of Art, and an MA in Mental Health Counseling from Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. Her artwork has appeared in local exhibitions, and has been published in the French magazine 3e’Millénaire, Emerson College’s Thread, and most recently in Broken Antler Magazine. On her fortieth birthday, she decided to be a writer. She loves channeling unreliable characters struggling with the conditions of reality. In her spare time, she operates Mystic Blue Studio, where she practices energy healing, reads tarot, paints and makes jewelry out of antique buttons. She currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island with three cats, an unreasonable amount of plants, and one husband.

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