Emperor Starling by Nick Norton
The day before yesterday things were as they always have been. The day before yesterday winds shooed in Racing Pigeons. These birds are fast, and marginally more intelligent than their feral cousins whose feeding grounds we Starlings have the displeasure of sharing. (‘We Starlings’? Good grief, I make it sound as if I submit to that senseless mob, those chattering roosts with their ritualistic dawn and dusk flights.)
The day before yesterday, things stood as always, and I was alone in my epic song, and Racing Pigeons tumbled by. They were lost, circling around in search of a signpost home.
‘Ask me,’ I swing below them, taunting them; ‘Go on, ask me, I know all the slums round about.’
Racing Pigeons consider themselves refined. They are a pampered elite who most certainly will not gladly speak to Starling. Even so, I do know very well the whereabouts of their precious prison. I cannot fathom their insistent returning. I will be free always, I swore it so as an egg. So I race them and I’m sitting above their cage singing, clicking, rumbling, and they blow in exhausted, brwbrwing in joy to see their seed strewn detention hut. They check–in, I fly free.
Mother always said I was an unpleasant little chick. What would she know? Practically naked at the time, my entire brood was down on the ground, having to dig our hungry beaks into the mud before we could properly fly. I saw a cat toy with my sister before eventually breaking her neck, out of the sheer boredom of it I thought. The useless brother wasted time crying ‘MammaPappaMammaPappa’ although it would have been much more useful to stick that beak into a worm and drag it up for the pecking.
‘MammaPappaMammaPappa,’ over and over.
The other sister, so high and mighty she thought herself. So delicately she nipped at the bugs, this other sister reckoned she could attract herself a Baron and still all but nineteen days hatched.
My opinion, then, was that there was only The Court and no Emperor. My sister said this was heresy. There must be an Emperor, she said, for otherwise The Court would have no centre. I was scathing. Has she ever seen a centre? She retorted that when she mates with a Baron she will be brought toward the centre and if I could not find centre then this only meant I was not yet worthy of seeing The Emperor.
The Court is airborne, this means borne of the air, not brought about by some mythological royal. The Court is a network of wind, a breath of dancing wing. I will not fly in The Court for my song is to be epic. The song of The Court is a thread of murmur tied to a cloud.
By twenty one days those who remained of my clutch were flying perfectly. The world unreeling itself for you; all the granular rolled into smooth, swoon, swoop. I loved it. My sister and I stunted together, raced together. Obviously I won every time, yet only just. And then, barely into her adult plumage, my sister flew for The Court as if she belonged. She left me and flew for The Court as if after the sun itself. Ridiculous, and if she met a Baron, I was never invited to any wedding.
But I was going to tell you about yesterday. Now, every city has its Hawk and every self-respecting Starling spends at least a little time Hawk baiting. Good mothers do it in earnest; flash young cocks, trying to impress the hens, use it to dramatize their coming of age rituals. By way of contrast, I do it because I can.
Kestrel, our Hawk, is a disreputable old sleaze, deserving of every moment of harassment. I've nipped his tail feathers, once I almost removed an eye in a single good peck. In short, no love lost, and if I were the oldest, scrawniest morsel on the block, still he would delight in shredding my flesh, I don’t doubt it. Kestrel, you may be assured, cannot catch me. Except for yesterday. Although as I am telling you this, he did not catch me; except it was close.
Normally this is how it works: There is a mild cross wind and Kestrel manages to flop from his nest, a guano smear in the clock tower. Laboriously he scales the wind until able to flap like heck and stay stationary, watching all that passes below. Then he sees me and he folds his wings, and he thinks he has gained the element of surprise, and he swings from out the Earth's sweet teasing pull as if it were a sling shot. But I've got the drop on him. The first rule of living outside the flock is to be aware of everything.
It is said that to be in the hawk's shadow is death, but I sing like a circular saw and the hawk's shadow fell across me, yesterday, and I was barely gliding. He cheated. He was not up in the air at all but brooding on a windowsill, stupid mushroom tongue stuck out, wrapped up tight in his wings. And he launched himself after my tail feathers and he was threshing the airspace above my back with his talons. This was somewhere I have never been before.
I dove left and then right, he was still with me, left again, hard left flying hard over the pedestrianized streets, and I managed to drag out a little space between us. He had lost his advantage. But Kestrel has a hunter's stamina, I'll give him that, he conceded nothing easily. I flew away from the city centre, drawing him from his territory and into my own airspace. Junk yard and council tip, this stretch of industrial estate and container lorry parks. I was tiring but his concentration faltered as he became uncertain of the landmarks. I forced another pulse of speed, darting low over the ring road, and I was out of reach. It was a good chase. Except, I think that the Hawk's shadow has left a stain.
And now, today, here is this doltish pigeon before me. A feral chap insisting it really, really has got a message from The Court. Court knows that I would disdain a Starling, even if a Baron were to approach me as a supplicant.
‘I have a message,’ it coos, ‘from your Emp-er-orr.’
Pigeons! Everything they have to say twice, more. I kid you not. Once, nauseated but transfixed by the horror of it, I observed a pair of Wood Pigeons use up an entire morning in repeating the same lines back and forth, over and over.
‘Ooh I love you Boodeboo.’
‘Aah I love you Borrdeebor.’
‘From your Emp-er-orr.’
‘Heard you!’ I grind.
‘Do you, do you want to hear?’
To tell the truth, I am in two minds about this, only before me I have a good mound of discarded chips. What am I going to do, fly away? Of course not. Yet I'm not about to get dragged into the never–never land of Pigeon talk. I just peck away, give the fatty one my beadiest, and let it get on with it. Eventually it turns out that the Emperor has heard of my deeds and duly wishes to honour me, in person. This sounds, dubious.
I have taken up my post above the junk yard. A landscape, rich, craggy, fantastic. And it is all mine, all for my song. I sing, click, buzz, grind, crash. All mine. The Court may think their streets safe, their rooftops snug, but they live on top of each other, and they live under each other's wing. No room to be free there. It is an old idea, older than rooftops even, to imagine how in discharging on the roost below they have attained some greatness. The greatness of being indisputably nearer the sun than those upon whose roost you shit.
I lash my lyrics together like collapsing scaffolding. Harsh, staccato. And if you dismiss my voice by such surfaces then you foolishly pass over a caressed infinity; song patterns no mere melody can ever contain. And I know she listens. She listens, she comes close... There is a young Starling of astounding beauty living above the bottling factory but I fear that, like my sister, she might flee toward the humdrum Court. What if she imagines herself worthy of a Baron? Oh yes, she surely is worthy of royalty, if only the royalty could ever be as worthy as she. So, my song has some urgency to it, I know she listens.
Today you are right about my song; today all that I sing is crude and pushed together, a badly improvised mound of clicks and hisses. I cannot rid The Emperor Starling's message from my mind.
Initially it was simple, eat chips and forget such nonsense. Why should I care if The Court honours me or no? ‘To be honoured’, is this not tantamount to submission? Was not the invisible and impossible Emperor tricking me into recognising His Authority? An intrigue is set out because He is Absolute and I am absolute proof that he is not. To reject the warmth of the flock is to reject the safe contours of His diktat. You think I sound bitter? On occasions this worries me also. It is not enough to be bitter. Only rage will see you through, only rage will keep the cold and the solitude at bay.
She does not seem to be listening this evening. I miss her eye, the glint of her beak. Yet my song has become troubled and disjointed, why should she or anyone listen?
The message, the message; I’m repeating the message like a cooing fool. And from out the depths of my furious concentration I suddenly discover that, of all things, I am preening myself. This is no spurious run through with the beak. I am trying to dig out the stain. I cannot remove it. Hawk shadow slicks around beneath my feathers, reacts with their natural coloration. I glide down to a black puddle. Floodlights are already ablaze, shadows pinned back into the yard's far corners. The dogs are loose, stalking the perimeter fence in their sagging, resentful manner. All around me there is reflected in the water the magnificent azure of above. And I look at myself: This plumage is a purple green sheen, luminescent pearls across my chest, diamonds down my wings. And my beak is jade, my eyes are black pearl. And today I wear The Emperor's plumage.
The sun is sinking. Soon mauve. Soon royal purple. Soon to send up a twirl of song, The Court is coming together. She shall hear my song, above the racket of the roost; above all else if I have to steal the day star itself, this song will be heard. I fly straight and hard and fast. The Court is a diamond, a circle, a spiral. The court is a cloud, a tree, a host of hills dancing before me upon the magenta waves of a receding sun. My whirling, my rumbling, my song is the torque shading, it is this flight which swings the spiral, the circle, and it is the diamond pulled into a triumphant and visible soul; contour of our epic song. Our wings endlessly turn toward the dance, for this is The Emperor Starling.
Nick Norton's 2016 book, AKA: A Genealogy of the Saddle, is described by the filmmaker Patrick Keiller: ‘A joy to read. Nick Norton’s wonderful book brings a headlong, associative sensibility to the literature of landscape. I wish there were more books like it.’ https://www.bookworks.org.uk/node/1894. Recent prose can be found in Bird's Thumb, Zeno Press, The Fiction Pool, Storgy, The Happy Hypocrite, Shooter, époque press, and elsewhere.
Of his short story Nick Norton says: ‘Emperor Starling begins beneath a memory of Northern city skies. Dusk was once a time of murmuration; sunset, cityscape, huge flocks of birds ever shaping and reshaping the sky. Into this majesty I insert a fable of resentment and ambition, a tale of the struggle between independence and community, between solitude and love. And it made me smile, making this Starling into a punk anti-hero.’