The starlings are doing a shitty job of keeping a secret. Several pairs spent the weekend fashioning nests in the fir trees just north of the house, and now, that work complete, the males are passing time till the eggs hatch by picking fights and beaking off, darting into and back out of the thick branches like darning needles shot through a sock. They trill at the squirrels barking from adjacent branches and dive-bomb the mailman, skimming his shoulder when he pauses nearish their nesting spot and bends to tie his shoe.
The birds remind him of a book he once read where everyone started going crazy or getting sick or committing violent crimes because of starling lice. Or something like that. He can’t quite remember the details but remembers they were awful and has carried a dread of starlings ever since, their brown-blue feathers oily and slick, beaks releasing songs so down and dirty not even Tom Waits could croak that way. And all that time they spend drilling for dinner in the lawns up and down his route, gagging bugs down their gullets, savouring worms turned inside out.
His dislike of starlings is at odds with the reverence he feels for things that fly. Airplanes — noisy, terrifying, impossible to comprehend. Insects — creatures reduced to the most pragmatic of parts: some armour, some guts and a membrane to hold the other bits aloft. And birds. Once, he scooped one from where it lay stunned in the road, and the idea that he was cupping a dinosaur in his hands was too big an idea for him to hold onto for very long before he had to let it go.
All day, he lugs sacks of mail for a wage and an equal weight in his own thoughts for free. Well, not for free, precisely. He knows his thoughts exact a toll and fucking tire him out like no bag of letters ever could. Sometimes, he thinks his work inappropriately solitary, thinks that with a few nattering colleagues or consistent interaction with clients, he might lighten up. Might become a man of action: less think, more do. Other times, he folds his hands in gratitude for the privacy his day affords, feels deliciously invisible walking right onto other people’s property, no questions asked.
Their business is his business until he places it into their mailboxes, and he plays a little game where he reads the return addresses, green customs stickers and packing slips, trying to guess what’s inside. Sometimes he even gives the cartons a light shake. Treating mail marked “fragile” like shaking a baby, something everyone knows you’re not supposed to do, but maybe just a gentle one that no one notices would be ok. Next to babies and parcels stuffed with glass, birds top his fragile list, metaphors and industry handling birds like dainty things. Feathered balloons that nature sling-shots across the sky. Down pillows, puffy jackets and blankets, everything we make from birds designed to protect us against something awful by being fluffy and tough.
Despite the solitude of his days, and let’s be honest, most of his nights, once, the mailman was in love. Once, he let go of his privacy and his mailbag and his routines long enough that someone crept into his life to nest in a nook of his heart. And, when she stuck around long enough that a special occasion arose, he understood the importance of giving her a special thing. The sort of thing other people ordered from remote and thoughtful places and which he carried up walkways to deposit in mailboxes beneath starlings’ nests out front of their homes.
The most precious thing he could imagine gifting was a tiny bird in a delicate cage, but somehow this, like the starlings, had an awful, dark side that he couldn’t quite shake. Would she understand that he had presented her with a metaphor for all the things he could never explain and which words would belabour until they were clumsy and plain? Or, would she mistake this tiny, pretty creature as a portent of what he hoped she would become to him — a thing held back from the thing that made it special in the first place?
As the occasion approached, in addition to his bag full of mail and his brain full of thoughts, he lugged a struggle between faith that a bird was so right and worry that a bird was only, completely, wrong. Worried he would deliver the wrong message, exactly the opposite message he intended, he thought and thought and over-thought the whole thing until the occasion passed without anything passing from his hands into hers. As if he’d forgotten out of inconsideration when really all he did for weeks and days and weeks after those days was consider the event and the bird and what to do about it all.