The Starlings of Hugo Wolf

By Audra Coleman

It happened one morning standing at the corner of 53rd and College. “There, see, up there,” he said pointing across the street to the powerlines. “Do you see them? The starlings? Perched upon the cables? Do you see how they are arranged? How each is their own little winged note? Quarter notes, half notes, whole notes.” He raised his finger moving it up and down following the feathered notation of each black note. “I know this piece! Yes, I played it once in Warsaw, as an encore,” he said quickly pulling his violin from its case. “Italian Seranade in G. Of course, it won’t be quite the same without the other strings,” he announced placing violin to chin.

The beginning, a festival of lights–all pleasure and drink. Women with lusty breasts smelling of figs, men with the blood of their mothers rushing through their veins, vulgar poems upon their lips. How without warning, the colorful parade of notes turned grotesquely sharp. Gone the frivolity of eager hands slipping between lovers’ thighs. Gone the Adriatic Sea. Gone the Piazza San Marco. How, now, having succumbed to a violent fever, each diseased note writhed in spasmodic fits. How now the Medico della peste’s hooked beak indiscriminately lanced infectious flesh, the dogs of Venice with their long black tongues set to feast. All this before bow upon strings gradually returned to the familiar laughter of released confetti, to the fragrance of the sea, to those eager hands and waiting thighs.

“The melody–it’s charming, quite light-hearted don’t you think? Almost giddy.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said when he finished. “You’ve made that up only to be cruel.”

“No, love, it’s true. Very, very true. I wouldn’t tease you about such matters. You must know that! You, yourself, so avian-like. Your hollow bones would certainly be crushed by such cruel teasing,” he said, brushing my cheek with tenderness. “I would never do that to you. You must believe me. It’s all right there upon the wires.”

“Do you think they know?” I answered as he continued to play. “How he tried to drown himself in the river? How he died mindless from syphilis? Do you think our tiny birds know that? About the asylum in Vienna?”

Before he could answer, as if I had snapped my fingers and said, “Be done with all this madness,” the flock abruptly took to sweeping flight. As one collective dark mass, they whorled above our heads, each flock mate curiously connected to the other in some strange, unknowable correlation. I watched as the iridescent cloud pulsed with enormous expansion only to inexplicably shrink in absolute synchrony to the thinnest of spirals, a twisting helix uncurling in the sky. How they rolled, coiled and swirled before veering east and completely disappearing in a desperate effort to avoid the sad truth of it all.


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