Murmurations, by Jacob Powers

Photo: ©
Written by Jacob Powers

They sat at the table nearest the feeders. Though the season was slipping from spring to summer and many birds had already found their preferred meals for the hot months, an occasional chickadee or crippled jay visited in the early morning. They would soon be left empty, as policy forbade filling feeders when ants and chipmunks were the only beneficiaries of the seeds.

Listen to this: there’s an island of plastic in the Pacific that you can stand on, and your shoes and your socks and your toes will remain as dry as a bone for as long as it doesn’t rain.

She leaned forward and peered through the window. Sunflower shoots poked the damp lawn beneath the feeder. A heavy fog hugged the row of white pine near the drive, and she grasped for a memory of an earlier day.  It was Reid where she woke before dawn, where she watched the cold fog of the bay burn away to unveil a bright beach, absent of footprints and the rainbow umbrellas of tourists. Or maybe Popham. Or maybe just a book, briefly remembered.

Listen to this: there is a volcano underneath one of those parks out West that can explode any minute and wipe everything out. Including us, over here.

The eggs were runnier than she preferred, but the coffee tasted fresh from a new can. Besides the man shuffling, pounding, and reshuffling his stack of papers on the table, the eating room had a quiet hum to it, as no one had yet turned on the TV for the morning stories. The man took a slice of toast and sopped up the yolk on his plate.  He peered at a page through his round and spindle-wired glasses. The only expression she ever saw him wear was one of dread, as if constantly witnessing the arrival of death as one car slammed into another.  She watched the feeder. There was barely any seed left.

Listen to this: there’s a crowd of folks out there who want to destroy all the corn in the world. They claim we don’t need it. They claim we will be better off without it. The scientists and the food industry tend to disagree with that account, though.

He was one of the few people who said things to her. The others could barely keep their mouths closed. They stared a hundred yards beyond wherever they set their eyes and downed bouquets of colored pills.  Not the cornflower blue or dusted dandelion ones though, as she took them daily and felt nothing. Placebos. False truths. 

Listen to this: a sheet of ice broke off in Antarctica and is bobbing up and down in the Atlantic, like an ice cube melting into oblivion.  This one will hit us first. The volcano people will be fine, for now.

A bird landed and picked a seed from the feeder. She caught a flicker of its tail before it disappeared around the window’s edge. Below, a chipmunk stuffed its mouth full of old seed. The man coughed into his napkin and stuffed a couple of sheets of paper into a manila folder marked Urgent. What will it be, then? Fire or water. Choking on plastic or starving in forced famine. All, or some, or none.

Listen to this: there’s a fellow out there who’s this close to successfully converting salt water to potable water. We would be able to drink every ocean, every sea, whole. But would become of the reefs?

A woman stopped by the table and asked if there was anything else they needed. It was difficult to tell who—Alice. Karen. Janet?—each wore an ivory colored smock and hair tied in buns so it wouldn’t fall into plates as they bent low and spoke loudly into patient ears. She motioned for her coffee to be refilled, and the aide turned the TV on as she left. Waves of hostility rolled through its speakers and into the room. The man tugged at his hearing aid.  She was surprised to see that others had already been wheeled in, cups of pills sitting next to untouched eggs. Mahogany. Lime. Cream. She closed her eyes. Who had taught her color?

Listen to this: We’ve got enough nukes to wipe everyone out seven times over, but we don’t have a single tool or system or program that can stop a meteor from crashing into the earth. A bullet from the galaxy will pierce its heart. Not good for us.

Outside, the jay limped across the lawn, clipped this spring by car or bike or fellow bird. The groundskeeper once tried to catch it with gardening gloves, but it took to the air and crashed into a thorn brush and stayed there the rest of the day. It stopped at the base of the feeder, where only hulls remained. The bird cocked its head toward the feeder and then the window, looking at her, though probably only seeing the reflection of the world behind.

And listen to this: spring comes earlier every year, but frosts still visit. They freeze the buds off trees. Soon lilacs will no longer bloom. Soon apples will be a commodity, like vanilla to French trappers.

She painted. The colors of the pills, contained landscapes of small inlets and unmanned shores. But when? Her hands shook as she reached for a packet of half and half. At night, she tried to dream in youth, an unmeasurable time captured in a photograph taped to her bedroom mirror. Thick plastic frames. Diamond earrings. An unwavering confidence set in a tight, guarded smile and burned hazel eyes.  She used to fall asleep to weather reports and WLOB after nights of fitful painting. The man pounded his stack of papers against the table.

And this: they have a machine in a mountain in China that could create a black hole from a single atom. It would gobble us up. We would become nothing.

She poured the cream into her cup and watched it swirl until nearly consumed by the coffee. Was it weather reports, or tide charts?  WLOB, or WCLZ?  Nights. Days. Both. She tried to stir up an anchor, a certainty, but nothing answered.


A sharp thud interrupted the TV’s blare. The man blinked. They searched the room. Bright banners swept across the TV. Drooling mouths, hazy landscapes. Aides meandered from one table to the next with refills. Coffee, pills, eggs. Had anyone else heard it? The man turned to the window and pointed to a small stroke of blood and beyond, where the jay sat against the shepherd’s hook that held the feeder, as if sunning itself, wings broad, motionless. The man was silent. She murmured each detail. A shepherd’s hook, a jay, an injury, bike or car, no seeds, death by window, deception.  She repeated them again, then again, beads threaded and connected to twine, so as not to look in vain for the bird tomorrow, so as not to mistakenly ask Alice or Karen or Janet what the groundskeeper had done to it once caught. Her throat tightened. She dropped a spoon in her cup, and the coffee bloomed. Pale wheat. Summer straw. Umber. The man looked at her.

Listen to this: every day another one of them is wiped away, crumbs on a countertop. Pesticides. The heat. Sometimes their shells are as thin as paper. When I was a child, I woke up to tens of thousands of them singing just as the sun cracked the sky.  I can’t hear anymore, though.

Tens of thousands, singing. A canvas of black. She looked at the man and spoke in waves. She was no more than 25, on her own. Starlings from the Old World, weaving the air above her apartment before a summer storm. They’re songbirds, though most see filth, nests untidy, feathers slick with oil in the hot months. But up close, with shifting light, a play of color. Mulberry and fern, spots of white to be later filled in. She watched as tens of thousands filled the sky. A quiet dance, without casualty, without loss. The man shuffled through his papers, but she continued. As she sat in her apartment that night and mixed colors, she tried to capture the moment, hoard it, force it on blank canvas, black spots on iron clouds. She tried for days, but it never came, and she soon moved on to other paintings, contained landscapes, small inlets, unmanned shores. But she remembers them, pulsing and swirling as rain tapped the ground, as the storm settled in, as they stretched and pulled past the tree line, guiding each other toward open sky. Tens of thousands of them, partners swarming in mystery, now gone.


Jacob Powers received a BA in creative writing from Grand Valley State University and an MFA in fiction from Boise State University. He served as the contest coordinator for the 2007 Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories and as editor-in-chief to cold-drill magazine. His story, “Safety,” was awarded Second Place in the 2010 Narrative 30 Below Contest, and he has previously written bar reviews for Grand Rapids Magazine. After a spell in Florida, he now resides in Maine with his wife and two children, where he works online in the Liberal Arts department at Southern New Hampshire University.