Murmurations by Simon Sylvester


Elise rose, with some difficulty, and crossed to the window that made for an entire wall of her apartment. Far below, distorted by the distance and the glass, cars trickled on the Avenue. Elise hadn’t been downtown or even downstairs for several years, but she didn’t miss the bustle. It was peaceful in her apartment. The deli delivered twice a week, her cleaner came on Tuesdays. She spent most of every day alone, but she was never lonely with the birds.

The apartment shifted with the tiny sounds of paper — rustles, smooth as whispers — the smallest creaks of unfolding creases. Every shelf and every surface teemed with her creations, from the simplest of cranes, folded without thinking as she waited for her coffee, to lifelike intricacies that took days to complete, folding, unfolding, retreating and folding again, finally hatching into kingfishers or long-legged herons, swallows in swoop, peacocks fanned with feathers, parakeets with their wings in coloured chorus. They gathered in murders, wakes, springs, flings, gulps, scolds, pantheons and charms. They gathered in a folded murmuration.

Even as she looked down on the city, Elise was overtaken by the sense that the birds were waiting.

‘What do you want for, my darlings?’

They were skittish on their shelves. They didn’t move, but she always knew when they were nervous.

‘So maybe… maybe a little fresh air.’

She struggled with the window latches until the noise of the Avenue spiralled up, muted by distance into flurries of sound. The air was clear, so high in the city, but she imagined the smells of long ago, car exhausts and popcorn, garbage and falafel. She slid the windows all the way open. Updrafts billowed through the room, eddies sending the birds into gossips. They rustled together, rubbing paper wings, chattering like telegraph wires. Stirred by the air, they began to twitch for the edges of their perches. They gathered at the clifftops of their shelves, and sized the distance of the drop. Exhausted by her struggle with the windows, Elise reached for her chair and slumped into it, needing deep breaths, deep breaths, and watched as a paper bird teetered, heartbeats balanced on the very edge, heartbeats, and then tumbled from the shelf. He was a finch, dusty and bullet-headed, folded long ago. He fluttered and spun and dropped — and then, a shaving from the floor, found his wings, found his strength, and zipped in dizzy loops upon the ceiling.

‘Oh my darling,’ said Elise. ‘My pretty, pretty darling.’

The other birds hummed to see the flying finch. One by one, they took courage. They shuffled, they shivered their wings, and they launched. There was a second of silence, as they fell, a blink of flight and not-flight, and then countless paper feathers crafted shapes from the air. The apartment exploded with the chaos of wings, birds flocking into dozens, hundreds, thousands, murmurations making shadow shapes against the walls and windows. They made a river of paper in the air, a whirlpool — they spiralled in a bellow, a billow, a roar.

Elise barely needed to breathe anymore. Light flickered on her face as the birds riffled circles overhead. They made the sound of endless pages.

The windows were open. Why wouldn’t they go?

‘Why don’t you fly, my darlings?’

And again, she thought, my birds are waiting.

Then she understood.

‘So soon, my darlings?’ said Elise. ‘So soon?’

Each word scratched. Her heart was a clock.

‘Ah,’ she said, her words lost to the tumult of paper, ‘I see it now, my darlings.’

With an effort, she released the arms of her chair — and her feet lifted from the floor, feathers stirring in the breezes. As she lifted, the birds skitted closer, vibrating with their rapture, brushing folded feathers on her cheek, wings flitting in her hair. She weighed no more than a sheet of paper.

Elise felt herself unfold and refold, taking the shape of something new, a creature with a quiver for a heart. She looked around. She chirruped. She hopped up, stretched her wings and gave her shapes to the murmuration. And at last, moving as one, the birds poured from the open window, out into the city, and they barrelled on the updrafts, and they flew.





Simon Sylvester is a writer, teacher and filmmaker. His debut novel, The Visitors, won the Guardian Not The Booker Prize. He has been working on the second one for too long.

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Image: Lily Vasquez