I killed a starling.
Starlings are not a native species in North America. I looked it up. They were brought here from England in the late 19th century and released in New York’s Central Park by a man who apparently wanted to leave England behind, but not the squawky, inedible, insatiable, unsightly starlings. Since then, they have spread from coast to coast and are considered invasive. Nobody likes invaders.
A murmur of starlings had been attacking the suet at my bird feeding station for a month. Five or six at a time squabbled and squawked, pushing each other out of the way to get at the greasy white suet cake while the woodpeckers, nuthatches, finches, flickers and I watched, helpless and intimidated.
The only predators to birds in my neighborhood are the Cooper’s hawks. I’ve found the remains of sparrows and mourning doves, usually little more than a pile of feathers and sometimes the feet. Once I found the head of a hairy woodpecker on the sidewalk. That’s nature being natural. A quick death to feed a hungry mouth. Like eating an apple picked off a tree. A Cooper’s hawk will kill one of its own, the weakest, to reduce competition for food. But it won’t eat a starling. Nothing will.
I have a relationship with the birds. I keep the feeders full. The birds fly to my yard and act the way birds do, mostly like brothers and sisters. I see them squabble sometimes. Other times they feed each other. I watch and snap photos. They thrive and I feel like I’m doing something nice, like a good Boy Scout. But somehow word gets out that there’s suet to be had at my place and the starlings descend on my yard like there’s free beer and a wet t-shirt contest at Freeman Farm.
On a hot, muggy Saturday in July, one of the local clubs, the Middlemen Motorcycle Association, hosted a field meet at Freeman Farm in Wood County. The Middlemen are not one-percenters exactly, but they are definitely not AMA members either. You join by invitation only. But that’s another story.
They charged a twenty-five-dollar entry fee per bike. That included beer, the band, the bike show entry fee, ribs and the wet t-shirt contest. There was a waiver for anybody who wanted to participate in the skilled riding events which offered cash prizes. Music and entertainment were provided by a band that only plays biker bars, club events, and occasional private parties, always under a different name. That day they were called Boogers in Your Soup. They also put on the wet t-shirt contest. A couple of them were Middlemen.
A murmur of Road Hellions showed up from Greensburg, Indiana, which used to be a Sundown Town. After a five-hour ride in the sun, they crowded the beer keg like animals at a desert oasis. The rest of us waited until they got drunk enough to stop pushing people away and fighting amongst themselves. The problem was they didn’t pay. So, Lonny “Glover” Freeman, an ex-boxer, enforcer for the Middlemen, Tuskegee Institute dropout and owner of the farm, had to help the Hellions understand that the beer wasn’t free until after they paid.
There were quite a few slightly drunk club members and friends of the Middlemen standing with Lonny: Big John Brown, Woody, Our Pig, and a Christian bunch called the “Redeemed Witnesses” who looked more beat up and grungy than most of the rest of us. Lonny explained that the Hellions had to pay like everybody else. They didn’t have to return the beer they already drank, but no more until they paid and if they didn’t pay, they couldn’t stay. The Hellions backed down and were walked back to their bikes, tossing side-eyes to anybody that was watching.
One of the Hellions, a nasty thing named Pig, two braids in his greasy brown hair, jeans shiny with dirt so that they almost looked like chaps and a snarled, crumb-littered beard that draped from his chin to the shelf formed by his belly, shoved his way back to the bar and grabbed a beer from the counter. He smelled like Fritos as he brushed past me. Lonny walked up to the six-foot-two bully and punched him hard enough to put Hellion Pig on his back. Lonny plunged his fist in the ice surrounding the keg.
“I said no beer until you pay.”
Hellion Pig looked around confused. He held a filthy dew-rag to his bloody nose as his crew picked him up and walked him back to his ratty, one-bag Electra Glide. Some of them wanted to pay and stay, but the others out-shouted them. They mounted up and a group of the rest of us followed the Hellions to the county line as clouds thickened in the sky. Things like that happen when there’s cheap beer, little or no law enforcement around, and women in wet t-shirts.
Not long after they left, the field events began. Woody and his girl, Wren, won the two-up slow race. On their first attempt at the weenie bite, a thunderclap caused Woody to tap the brake too hard as Wren was standing on the rear pegs to bite the hot dog. She lost her balance and fell backward after bouncing off Woody’s back. Her head sounded like a bouncing coconut when it hit the asphalt.
Reaper, an ex-Army medic was called over. He listened to Wren’s heart and took her pulse. A trickle of blood appeared in her left ear. He seemed to recognize what was happening to Wren but didn’t let on. She lay there for a few minutes, out cold, then she began to have convulsions.
“Call an ambulance! Somebody hold her legs,” Reaper barked, “Try to keep her still. Put your knees on her shoulders if you have to. Hold her head. Bring ice.” He took the bandana off Wren’s head, folded it a few times, then gently worked it into her mouth and held it in place so she didn’t bite her tongue or choke.
“It’s okay,” he said to Wren almost whispering, “Stay here. It’s going to be okay. Stay here. It’s going to be okay.” Then “Shhhh. Stay here. It’s going to be okay.” Like a mantra. Woody held her shoulders. I held her legs. The shaking gradually slowed to occasional mild tremors. It was like Reaper’s mantra worked. Like he had some connection the rest of us didn’t know about. I could barely hear a siren in the distance. I started to relax. Woody eased up on her shoulders. The convulsions stopped. Wren blinked a couple of times. I thought she was coming out of it. Then her eyes closed and she began to take rapid, shallow snorting breaths, like she was asleep and having a bad dream.
“Wren baby, wake up. C’mon little bird. Wake up. Wake up baby. Wake up.” Woody frantically repeated a mantra of his own. He looked at Reaper, but Reaper wouldn’t look up at Woody.
As suddenly as she fell off the back of the bike, Wren stopped snorting. There was silence for what seemed like ten minutes, her breathing was quiet, barely noticeable. Then she took a deep breath. As she exhaled, her entire body seemed to relax, her head dropped back and her eyes opened halfway. She was dead. I felt the warmth in her legs seep into my hands. It felt wrong, like I was stealing something. I let go.
One of the “Witnesses” called Owl, a name he probably made up for himself, said, “God’s will, man. God’s will.” As if he broke a chain on the way to church or his kid got the fucking measles on Easter Sunday. Pompous bastard, I thought. A flood of terrible things attributed to God’s will rushed through my mind. Asshole, I thought. Woody looked up, red-faced, tears on his cheeks and grabbed Owl by the hair with one hand, balls with the other and lifted him.
“God’s will?” Woody said. “What the fuck do you know about Gods will? Fuck you!”
Woody’s mother was killed by a drunk driver. The nuns at school tried to comfort him by telling Woody that God wouldn’t take his mother away unless he needed her in Heaven, that it was an act of God and he had to accept it, that someday God would put someone special back in his life. Woody thought it was Wren. So did I.
Lonny appeared and managed to break the two apart without hurting anybody or ruffling any more feathers in the crowd. Owl said something that sounded like an apology and I thought he was going to try to convince everybody that he was telling the Truth, but he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He limped away with a crucifix in his fist, like he was rearming himself.
I loaded a pellet into my .22 caliber air rifle, pumped it three times, opened the bedroom window and nosed the barrel out. The birds flew away at the sound of the old steel casement window creaking open. Only a few finches and sparrows stayed in place, chirping, shelling seeds and eating them like it was lunchtime and nobody was going to interrupt them.
I was about to put the gun down when a lone starling landed at the suet cake and began to tear into it, greedily swallowing chunks of the greasy white fat as fast as it could fill its beak. I leveled the gun and took aim, not knowing how accurate the rifle might be, or how good a shot I was. It didn’t occur to me that I would miss. I aimed for it’s head.
I told myself as I lined up the sights that I would regret it, that I would feel guilty. But I was still trying to un-remember a bad dream. Wren was trying to talk to me but I couldn’t hear her. I was trying to read her lips, but none of the words looked familiar. The squawking at the feeder woke me. I hated the starlings for chasing Wren away before I could figure out what she was trying to tell me. I pushed the guilt aside and pulled the trigger. The starling fell, flapping one wing on his way to the ground, where he landed upright, but not on his legs. For a second I wondered what the chances were that a dead starling would fall and land on its belly. Then I saw his beak open and close. I could see blood on it. Guilt rushed in. I wished I could take the shot back.
I watched, expecting the see the starling stop moving and slump over dead. But the mute beak kept moving as if to cry out, or to ask what happened: “Why did it happen to me?” Then he started to move about clumsily. One wing was all he could move. He wanted to fly away or do something, anything but die. I imagined the terror I would have felt if, without any reason, I suddenly became impaired in some unnatural way, in pain, and not understanding why I couldn’t just fly away. I was so happy. There was food. I was eating suet. I heard a noise. I want to fly to safety, but it doesn’t happen. I don’t fly. I can barely move. I can’t feel my legs. My beak is full of blood. Why does it hurt so much? I felt horrible—evil.
I loaded another pellet to finish him off and pumped the rifle. But I decided that I might only injure him worse if I missed the mark again and didn’t kill him. I put my pants on to go out and bludgeon him to end his suffering.
Outside, when I looked at the ground below the feeder, he was gone. I stared for a moment, wondering where he went, thinking—almost hoping, that a Cooper’s hawk had seen him and took him for a meal—which would have eased my guilt, or that he just needed a minute to recover and flew away. But then I saw him flop around on the asphalt just in front of the garage door. He was on his belly, just like under the feeder, still not on his feet. There was a shiny puddle of blood. His pointy, blood-stained yellow beak was turned toward the sky and his posture seemed twisted so that his shape no longer resembled a bird. His black shiny eyes searched for a reason. I thought: What have I done? I walked toward him to have a closer look, hoping he was dead. As I approached, he didn’t move except for the weak plaintive opening and closing of his bloodied yellow beak. “Why? Why?”
I grabbed a pipe and stood over the voiceless, agonized bird and drew back to whack him in the head like I was hitting a golf ball. I swung and missed completely. I could see a feather on his head twitch from the wind off the end of the pipe. I swung again and again and missed again and again. I felt worse each time I missed for prolonging the poor bird’s suffering by my own incompetence. I could have stomped on him, but that seemed too violent and would have felt malicious, vengeful. I don’t like to think of myself that way, especially when I already feel guilty for having done something terrible.
His beak continued to move as he bled on the driveway. I finally hit the bird which caused him to slide and roll a few feet away where, to my amazement and distress, he continued to struggle, now twitching one wing as if to fly to safety, trying to be whole again, to find the suet, still opening and closing his beak “Why? Why?”
I moved closer, gripped the pipe tighter and swung. This time I connected. The starling skittered across the driveway. He lay on his back, wings spread like he was soaring, beak part-way open and motionless. He was dead. I got a work glove and picked him up with my left hand, the hand that had not pulled the trigger or guided the pipe. The innocent hand.
Because the accident happened at an uninsured event, and because it happened as the result of a motor vehicle being operated off the road and in a manner that was not consistent with the way the vehicle was designed to be used—and because the accident was caused by thunder, which is, like lightening, an act of God, there was no insurance money to pay for a proper funeral.
Wren’s family couldn’t afford much. We, her friends and Woody’s, kicked in and with a little help from the Middlemen, who are affiliated with Engram and Son’s Funeral Home, the largest dead drop in Wood County, gave Wren a nicer funeral than most of us get. Woody, Wren’s mother Dusty, and her brother, Bran, witnessed the cremation and took possession of Wren’s cremains the next day. Woody wears a heart-shaped locket around his neck with a pinch of Wren’s ashes inside it.
I realized when I picked the starling up that the body in my hand was the warmest it will ever be. It was the warmth that dissipates into the air, into a bed, into the asphalt, into my leather work glove, after death. The last sign that there was any life in him. I felt terrible. I didn’t kill him in self-defense or to protect anyone I love, or because I was hungry. I killed him because I could, because I decided it was time for that little bird to die.
I tossed the starling unceremoniously into the garbage can, sorry for having done him in and sorry for causing the suffering of an innocent creature who had done nothing to deserve such a terrifying early death. I threw the glove in after him. For no good reason, I ended a life that was innocent. I dwelled on that thought for a minute. Then, I had what the nuns in school called an epiphany. I am no better than God.
The rest of the starlings had returned. They picked away at the suet and scolded and thrust their beaks at each other like before. Maybe the one I killed was part of a different group, I thought. Maybe he won’t be missed.
Of the hundreds of bikers gathered at that party, there were only a few of us who missed Wren. After the ambulance took her body away, the rest of them, including the Christians, stayed until the beer ran out.
The suet was almost gone. I heard the thump and lug of a bike coming up my driveway. It was Woody. He rolled up next to me and killed the motor as he flicked the side stand out. He sat in the saddle and looked at me quietly for a moment.
“Looks like you just rolled out a bed, Jethro” he said. A Gypsy girl I met called me Jethro. I made the mistake of telling Woody about it and the name stuck. It’s better than “Short-Barrel,” which became “Short-Pipe,” and worse after that, which is what happened to Stubby. Nobody wants to be called “Stubby.” All he did to earn that name was run sixteen-inch drag pipes on his Sportster.
“You could say that,” I said. “You’re up early. You know it’s Sunday, right?”
“Yeah. Couldn’t sleep. It’s a year today, Jethro. Believe that?”
I didn’t realize it was a year to the day since Wren died until Woody said that. I wondered if that’s why I had that dream. I wondered if Woody had the same dream. I wanted to tell him about it, but I thought that if he did have the same dream I wouldn’t want to know it. And if he didn’t have that dream, bringing it up wouldn’t help his state of mind, which at that moment was probably fragile if he couldn’t sleep. I wanted to tell him about the starling. But he already had death on his mind. I didn’t need to make it worse.
I said, “No shit, Woody. A year already? That’s something, huh? Seems like—”
“Yeah. Yesterday. C’mon I was just gonna make coffee.”
Woody followed me into the house and sat at the kitchen table. I could see he wasn’t high. He fiddled with the locket. I wasn’t sure what to say. I focused on the coffee, wishing I had a percolator so I could kill more time and fill the silence with some noise. Woody stared at the floor like he was focused on something. I washed two mugs and put one under the pod holder and hit the button to brew. I was about to ask if he wanted a shot in his coffee. My grandpa used to do that after Granny died.
“I had the most fucked up dream this morning,” Woody said.
I put a cup of coffee in front of him, poured two shots and wondered what kind of dream I might have next year.