With the launch of our new journal, Stilts IV, just round the corner, we’d like to introduce you to the people whose work makes this edition so damn good. Today, meet author Jennifer Mills.
Jennifer Mills is the author of novels Gone and The Diamond Anchor, and the collection of short stories The Rest is Weight. Currently she’s in Beijing, working on a new collection of short fiction, studying Chinese, and having adventures.
In Stilts IV, Jennifer listens for the possibilities of faith when flocks of birds start dropping dead from the sky. Here is an excerpt from her piece, ‘Flock’.
The die-offs started six years ago. The mall was still open then, billing itself as a major retail destination. It had these glass panels in the ceilings. The birds burst open on impact, terrifying shoppers. You can still see the marks from here; nobody bothered to clean them.
Some blamed the mall’s lights. Some thought it was radiation, or an atmospheric poison. As you can imagine, the retail experience suffered. The mall closed its doors soon after the second die-off, citing environmental concerns, and opened a bigger complex with the insurance. But the die-offs kept coming, and not just here; all over the world it was raining birds. Flocks were falling into industrial estates, sheep paddocks, mountain ranges and suburban streets. Their bodies speckled fields and highways, roofs and backyards. People photographed their tiny corpses, wings spread out like cemetery angels, and for a short time these photographs won awards, but soon they began to seem clichéd.
In those early days, everyone wanted to know why. Some blamed botulism, weapons testing, seismic activity, fracking. The mass death of seabirds over the Pacific, an interspecies die-off tens of thousands strong, was thought at first to have something to do with Fukushima. But it was hard to pin down causes and accountabilities. Whole species of evidence were swallowed by sharks, eaten by maggots, or washed up uselessly on beaches. The air was a complex international problem and it was hard to ascertain its borders. Inquiries recommended further inquiries. The die-offs provoked their fair share of Fortean theories and interactive infographics. But no one had a solution.
For a while the state and corporate-funded inquiries fuelled a rapid growth in ornithology and its attendant disciplines. With enough cash thrown at the problem, many of the die-offs were found to be explicable, at least in isolation. Some flocks were shown to have caught rare viruses from eating diseased fish; others had demonstrably died of exhaustion during a long migration (their usual landing habitats were constantly under threat). No one could prove the incidents were related, that they formed a pattern, although plenty tried. We made endless spreadsheets, drew lines on maps, sent surveys around the world to collate global data. But if there was a link, no one could see it yet.
The sky is a death trap, the atmosphere hazardous. But that isn’t what’s killing the birds, or not directly. No, the problem with the birds is their culture. Their culture’s dying.
We were careful, at first. Flock leaders, we called them, vanguard birds, or speech makers-we talked about it as a singular role, though it was a post that many birds took on and abandoned. The ebb and flow of a flock of galahs is really leaderless, emergent. But certain birds were more likely to take up the position mid-flight.
It was me who began to refer to these leaders as priests. Priestesses, because most are female. I meant it flippantly, a shorthand, but the idea caught on quickly, the way a chant will catch fire in a single voice and spread rapidly through a crowd. And soon this concept formed the core of our modelling.
Analogies are powerful temptations. We have to be vigilant not to impose our own patterns of thought and value on other species. My ex-flatmate David, a gangly marine biologist obsessed by octopuses, told me that if cephalopods devised a test for intelligence they would ask how many colours you could project with your skin, what sort of spectrum you could perceive. If there was such a test, humans would fail. By their standards, we’re retarded, he said. I wondered what the birds’ test would be. What sort of intelligence they mastered that we had never considered. Watching them twist and bicker in the air at cues I couldn’t then discern, watching the whole mob turn and change direction as though with a single thought, I felt I could never guess at what connected them, what sort of trust or need or signal. But Dr Marigold could. She could pin it down and measure it. I would have followed her to the end of the world.
It turned out to be one of science’s great lateral what-ifs. From Dr Marigold’s longitudinal studies into bird language had come theories about poetry and song in brain development, the role of proto-art in culture, and then speculation that these large flock gatherings, with their chants and repetitions, might echo some of our own. She never said this to me-I read it in the introduction to her book-but Dr Marigold was raised a Quaker. She claimed to be a rationalist, often told me that science was her religion, but I suppose the framework was still there, because it all came out in her writing: the importance of meetings, togetherness, song. She evolved a sort of social network utilitarianism, the benefits of communion and so forth. She followed the thread, and was as surprised as the rest of us when her modelling held up against the evidence. It seemed insane. We thought we knew the rough limits of bird intelligence. We thought it was an absurdity to talk about galahs as though they had faith.
Before the die-offs, it would have been.