The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Starling Witt

Monique found a fledgling Sunday, hopping at the bottom of the basement stairs behind her shop.

Monique is the poet, artist, Standing Rock veteran, and all-around bad-ass Latinx dynamo behind The Skullery Maid, a vintage furniture and clothing shop on Troost Avenue south of Rockhurst. My new apartment sits above her store, one of two nestled in the second story of a line of century-old brick storefronts. It’s part of the charm.

“What do you know about birds?” she asked as I returned from Mass by way of the grocers with sacks of essentials in my fists.

She recounted how she and Gazpacho—her rambunctious shepherd-lab mix—arrived earlier, as usual, opening the front door then letting ‘Pacho out the back so he could take care of his business as she puttered inside the store.

It was not long before Pacho’s incessant barking drew her out of the store. Now, Pacho is no Rin Tin Tin. If he were a human child some school psychologist would have long since prescribed Ritalin. But he normally quiets the barking when Monique scolds him. Two or three times.

This morning no scolding was stern enough to quell his bark. Exasperated Monique stepped out back. Pacho stood over the basement alcove, looking down, mounting a valiant final defense. Monique looked among the few dead leaves and discarded tarp littering the concrete landing in front of the basement doors for the source of the dog’s agitation. And there, at the very bottom of the stairs, stood a petrified ball of gray fluff, beak skyward.

It stood like a statue. It was so still she thought it must be surely dead.

It peeped.

Monique descended the steep concrete steps to scoop up a very-much-alive fledgling bird. She brought it up the steps and turned six-years-old, with the baby bird we all rescue when they fall from their nests somewhere civilization has made inhospitable. She fetched an empty box from the store and brought it out back for the bird. She put it on the ground. She put a bit of water in the bottom of a pot for him, too. Maybe she could raise it until it was big enough to fly on its own. People do it all the time. Just look at Buzzfeed.

When I got there I wondered why she hadn’t put a handful of grass in the box. I was nine.

Her description of finding the bird sounded familiar.

Much earlier that morning, Leon and I had taken our walk around the neighborhood. It had been a delightful stroll, with Leon satisfying his curiosity about what other critters—wild or domestic, human or otherwise—had passed that way since our last circuit, and me marveling at the birdsong ringing from the verdant dome spreading over the quiet street one block over.

When we returned home Leon plunged headlong beneath the other tenants’ van, tail wagging like a whirligig. He couldn’t squeeze his rear haunches under, but not for lack of trying.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “There’s nothing under there for a puppy.” He was not dissuaded. I looked to see the object of his obsession. There was something under there to interest a puppy. Silhouetted beneath the undercarriage was a tiny chick, beak pointed upward. It was immobile. I thought it was dead.

“Leave it alone, Leon. Let’s go inside.” He followed, pouting.

I realized the foundling Monique showed me must have been the same bird. He was older than a chick, with immature feathers rather than down, and a garish yellow beak like an Emmet Kelly mouth. When he flapped his wings they seemed just flimsy membranes jutting out of his spine.

Fledglings always look like ‘raptors to me. Velociraptors, not birds of prey. We were pretty sure this one was a starling, which is far from my favorite bird. But this one was a cute little fella and I was willing to do what I could to help.

Doing a quick web search for advice on raising baby birds—there are, after all, a million YouTube videos—persuaded me our best course was facilitating a family reunion. The sources told me parents will be looking for a lost fledgling, that they can hear one crying for food within a two block radius and respond. “They say to put it on a branch and leave the area, that the parents will find it.” Monique seemed disappointed. I admit it would have been more fun to raise him to full starlingdom and have him bouncing around behind us in the yard.

“I’m gonna call him Starling Witt,” I told her. (There is a local artist/musician named Sterling Witt who pops up in the Venn diagram of people Monique and I know.)

“Oh my god, that’s hilarious.”

The Middle: Lost & Found Again

I went to an open mic Sunday night. The Skullery Maid closes at 8. When I got home I had a message from Monique. She had placed Starling on a branch a couple times, but he kept falling off.

I went downstairs and walked around the back hard, neither finding nor hearing him.

I sighed. It had been a long shot. Nature works the way nature works and most of the young of most species die before maturity and that’s why so many are born. Because nature weeds us out. Still, it was disappointing.

Monday Starling made a reappearance. Monique spotted him at the bottom of the stairs. I retrieved him and put him on a low branch. He toppled onto the ground and waddled toward a patch of ivy. It’s hilarious watching flightless birds navigate a suburban back yard. Starling wasn’t laughing.

Once he was alone in the yard a cautious adult starling flapped to a landing with food in its beak. Maybe he would make it after all.

Monday evening he was missing again. Hiding from the humans, probably. Even hippies and Water Protectors are alienated from Nature, despite our best efforts.

Tuesday morning Starling was waddling around the fire pit. One last time I lifted him to a low-hanging branch. He clung tight to it with his little talons. He held on well over an hour. I went back upstairs, to give his folks a chance to take him home, sporadically looking out the back door to monitor his progress. The last I saw he was still clinging to the branch.

That afternoon I asked Monique if she had seen him. “No.”

“Maybe he managed to fly away?”

It was Pacho who discovered Starling’s lifeless body on the grass, insects swarming over it. We exhaled our final sigh of disappointment.

“Should we bury him?” Monique asked. “We named him, we should probably bury him.”

“We could build a pyre.”

“You think?”

That’s what we did: piled dead twigs and branches in the circle of stone that makes a backyard fire pit, placed Starling’s body atop it, and set it aflame. The twigs caught and the fire burned and the last earthly remains of young Starling Witt returned to the cosmos.

Monique started to sing. It was a beautiful rhythmic melody. The words were First Peoples’.

The words’ vibrations permeated our tiny circle.

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

“At Camp. Standing Rock.”

“How does it translate?” knowing that translation is always imperfect and some languages have words impossible to translate.

“It’s an ancient Lakota prayer. Invoking the ways of the Grandfathers. Right Spirit. Right Path. That kind of thing. I don’t really know a funeral prayer.”

It seemed a fitting send-off.

*proofreading edits: ‘Latinx’ spelling corrected, ‘the’ added to 6th paragraph, errant ‘/’ removed after Standing Rock at the end

About Mark Matzeder

By education a filmmaker, by trade an electrician, by avocation a writer and sometime scholar. Occasionally I wring an essay out of some observation I have made or experience I've had and share them here. Sometimes I'll share short fiction. Sometimes a poem. But mostly it's just my spin on this strange trip.
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