Another Short Story–“The Ghost Birds”

I guess I’m on a roll. Story #2 of as many as I get to–the goal is 100, but chances are I’ll get distracted before I get there. As I posted yesterday, I want to see if I can develop more of an affinity for the short story form. I intend to be fairly random in my selection of stories-I have a number of story collections floating around the house, a subscription to the New Yorker, and access to an infinite number of open access stories on the internet. I hope to dive into flash fiction as well, especially when my time or attention span feel limited.

Story 2 is “The Ghost Birds” by Karen Russell from the New Yorker magazine. It’s probably behind a firewall but there’s not much I can do about that. I haven’t read Russell’s novels but discovered that I own Swamplandia so I will be putting that on the top of my TBR pile.

“The Ghost Birds” is a post-apocalyptic tale set in the late 21st century. Portland is a wasteland, much of the western US has burned and birds are extinct. All of them. The narrator, Jasper, is obsessed with paranormal bird-watching. He and some like-minded people track and monitor the ghosts of birds which they believe still inhabit the earth, migrating and singing as if they were still alive. Jasper is divorced, in part due to his hobby/obsession and has a teenaged daughter. In the story, Jasper takes his daughter, Starling, to view migrating ghost swifts, a dangerous and illegal enterprise her mother does not know about.

The premise of the story is interesting and mindful of the dangers we deal with today with climate change and its consequences and the human-related loss of animal species. Like the previous story I reviewed, the writer does a brilliant job of world building in a very few pages. It’s a novel in a chapter. The writer moves adeptly between the surreal (ghost birds) and the mundane (a father trying to connect with a teenager).

There are some wonderful lines. Here are a few about parenting a young child. “To be a kid requires difficult detective work. You have to piece together the entire universe from scratch. I tried to remember this when Starling turned three and her questions evolved from ‘Who that!?’and ‘When snack?’ to that developmental rocket booster ‘Why?’ No adult is ever more than three ‘why’s’ away from the abyss.” I find this both true and charming.

In a later paragraph, the narrator explains his fascination with paranormal bird-watching: “Who could watch a murmuration of ghost starlings iridesce across the city skyline without wanting to know where the birds are going and why?” How beautiful is that? It’s enough to make me want to set myself up with an electromagnetic field detector and go bird watching.

The story ends with more questions than answers. Perhaps that’s one of my complaints about short stories, that they have to end so soon, forcing a mysterious ending or a brutal one.

Is this story great? I don’t know. I’m still not an accomplished reader to tell the good from the amazing although one can assume that the New Yorker does a pretty good job of this. Was it worth reading? Absolutely, if only for the lingering image of an iridescent murmuration of ghost starlings.

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