Prose Header

Starlings in a Distant Garden

by Emily Calvin


You know when you spend hours in a garden full of murmers so loud you can’t hear anything for days after you leave? It sounds like someone has cupped his or her hands over the mouth of the universe and no matter how hard I try to listen, nothing comes out and nothing goes in.

Then suddenly, I can hear everything... every little sound. I can hear Sophia’s last breath. I can hear a tear drop from Jillian’s eye. I can hear my heart pump blood into my brain. I can hear my ancestors and my children screaming. I begin to cry. It all sounds so beautiful and tragic.

I can hear it all so clearly, as if every single wavelength is separated by miles of empty space... as if time has frozen and all sound has distinguished itself while calling out simultaneously. Past, present, and future become one, and I can hear every beat, every chorus, every melody the universe has ever sung and will ever utter.

I reach out and pluck the strings of the cosmos like a guitar, and the black around me becomes red then orange then yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, ultraviolet, and on and on and on.

Everything around me floats. I see Jillian float by. Her black curls splay around her gentle face as she mouths something to me. I cannot make out what she says, and she swallows her words just as I swallowed mine.

What have I done? I have no idea how to steer myself out of this one, and this time I am responsible for the entire planet. Three billion Travelers rely on my guidance, and I have driven our beloved Star straight into a black hole.

I read about dark matter in my pilot studies. Teachers warned me to steer clear of anything that appeared so dark it seemed to swallow all the surrounding light. “How am I supposed to have any clue what that looks like?” I asked.

“You’ll know one when you see one,” my teacher answered, but apparently he had never seen one.

One second I flew the Star toward Parnasiss: a galaxy separated into four sections: dirt, fire, water, and air, and the next second I swallowed my words and watched my fellow Travelers float around me. My teacher told me we would turn into 2-dimensional points and die before we realized where we were. But here we all are, alive, in this black hole. I am the first female pilot and the first pilot to destroy the Star. We’ll never get to Parnassis. I’ve failed Sophia, Jillian, and all the Travelers and ancient Plutonians.

Parnassis looks like the Caribbean, according to Sophia. Sophia always complained about how the Plutonians tried to create a vacation haven out of a ship, but they never quite got the Caribbean the way she remembered it. She had traveled there as a child, and she always spoke of returning one day or going to Parnassis, which provided a much better replica, in her opinion, than the ship. She used to twirl her hair and daydream about the clear blue waters and white sand.

I look straight into the void before me and see the ocean about which Sophia spoke as clear as a hallucinatory lake in the middle of a desert. “Oh Sophia I’m so sorry,” I mutter.

I run to my garden, sit down in the dirt, and cry on the stars. That’s when I hear the voices. At first, I hear all of them at once. All the murmurs and chimes turn to chatter. My mind begins to adjust, and I can understand words, sentences, voices until finally I recognize my Second Elder.

“Sophia? Is that you?”

I can’t believe it

“Yes, my dear,” says a voice beneath me, above me, all around me in the stars.

“But... but how?”

I stand up. I look around. How am I hearing my Second Elder’s voice right now? Where is she? “Listen carefully, Sumbi, we don’t have much time.”

“Okay... I’m listening.”

I grow fearful of her somber tone. “I directed the star that crashed through the engine and steered The Traveling Star into the black hole.”

“But why—”

And where is Jillian? Why didn’t she come back with Sophia?

“I had to. It was the only way I could get you to listen to me.”

She put the entire ship in danger to speak to me? She’s never been so irresponsible. What can this be about?

“Okay, I’m listening. What could possibly be important enough to sacrifice my life and the life of all the Travelers?”

“We are gods, Sumbi.”


“We are gods. All the starlings and stars. We are gods.”

“What do you mean?”

I cannot understand. I will not understand. The starling seeds came from falling stars; everyone knew that. Some fire people used to go to the far ends of the planet to collect the stars that had fallen into fire forests or ice lakes. They’d harvest the seeds, or starlings, from the fallen stars by gathering the flames that shoot from the balls of fire.

Those flames, when planted, grew stars, so the fire people would bring the seedlings back to the village and sell them to the people. Now we still have people who collect falling stars. They go on starling-collecting missions where they leave the ship, enter the galaxy and collect the fire from the stars. I’d always dreamed of going on one of those missions, but I never knew the starlings were gods.

“The murmurs of the starlings are the cries of the gods, but you cannot hear it in The Traveling Star atmosphere. That’s why I had to take you to this black hole. This is the only place in which you can hear and see our true selves.”

“So... all these stars I planted in my garden... they’re all ancestors?”

“Yes, dear. Remember how the fire people planted gardens above the graves of the ice people?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Our ancestors’ spirits, faced without any other choice, wrapped their souls around the starlings and grew into the stars and out of the dirt. Unfortunately, it didn’t provide them the freedom they desired because their roots dug too deep into the terrain. The ancestors, or what the Travelers have come to refer to as gods, have been stuck in the ground and crying to get out for decades, and by planting starlings in gardens, you have been inadvertently keeping them captive.”

Oh my god. What have I done? How is this even possible?

“No! But I’d never do that!”

I start digging at the starling beds and trying to loosen their dirt graves. At that point, all the stars and starlings turn into black birds about four feet tall with no eyes and teeth like stars. They fly to me and surround me. Before I know it, I stand in the middle of a black tornado of gods.

“Free us, Sumbi! Free us!” they call.

Sophia whispers in my ear and flies away.

I scream, run to the cockpit, and push the “Open Atmosphere” button. Thousands of black shadows fly past me and into the sky, through the hole, leaking atmosphere in and out of The Traveling Star. Alarms begin to howl as the planet realizes its danger of losing proper breathing air.

“Sumbi! What have you done?” the Co-Pilot asks through the intercom.

“Quick! Let all the starlings and stars free!”


“Just do it! I’ll explain later! Make an announcement.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“I’ve got other business, and this must be done now!”

“Okay, I’ll inform all the Travelers to unearth their stars and starlings and let them... free?”

“Yes, yes, they’ll turn into black birds and fly out the atmosphere hole.”


“DO IT! I’ll explain when it’s done! I promise.”


“Edgar, do you trust me?”

The Co-Pilot makes an announcement. I look out the window and watch as the entire planet fills with black birds. The sky looks black. The birds cover the palm trees, the pools, the white houses, the black Travelers, and fly out of the planet within seconds. I run back to the cockpit and press “Close Atmosphere.” The window closes, the alarms turn off, and the atmosphere resets itself. I sit down in my chair and begin to cry.


“Yes, Edgar??”

“Do you think you can explain this to me now?”

“We’re in a black hole because the stars are actually our ancestors, or our gods... they’re one and the same. We’ve been keeping them in our gardens as slaves to our own desire for beauty, but they needed to be free to live in the sky. And... the only way they could talk to us was through the black hole because it reversed all their murmurs into words.”



“Yes. I’m here.”

“Listen carefully.”


I straighten myself and clear my throat. “You’re going to have to take control of the ship.”


“Relax. I know you can do it. You’ve been my right-hand man through all of this. You’ve stayed strong. You followed directions, but you also took initiative. You’re brave. You can do this. You know how to fly the planet, don’t you?”

“Yes, but—”

“No. You have to do this.”

“But what about you?”

“I... I can’t stay here anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“Right before our ancestors flew out of our atmosphere and into the sky, Sophia whispered in my ear to meet her in Parnassis. She said Jillian waited there for the three of us to be reunited in the sky.”

“But you tried to go there. We can try again. You don’t have to leave!”

“Yes, I do. I have to meet her there, and the only way I can meet her is to become a star myself.”


Before I let the Co-Pilot respond, I click off the sound, take the secret passageway to the top of the atmosphere, and signal the Co-Pilot.



“I need you to do one more thing for me. Can you do that?”


“I need you to go into the cockpit and push the ‘Open Atmosphere’ button.”

“But then you’ll—”

“That’s an order!”


“And make sure to close it as soon as I’m out. Promise?”

“Captain, I don’t think I can do this.”

“No. You’re Captain now. And you can do this.”

I wait, and the atmosphere door opens. I climb out, and the lack of air stings my throat. I see the door close seconds before my eyes close. When I open my eyes again, I see the Caribbean, and all the murmurs around me sound like beautiful voices. I join in the chorus as Sophia, Jillian, and I form a constellation in the sky.

Copyright © 2012 by Emily Calvin

Proceed to Challenge 498...

Home Page