Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series.
The series features vampires, angels, demons, werewolves, vaewolves and other vae breeds. It’s set mainly in Oxfordshire, England.
This is part of a scene in chapter ten.
CONTENT WARNING: conversation in the context of maternal death, stillbirth.
Context: After a childhood in care, Violet meets her dead mother’s sister who had been told that Violet was stillborn. Aunt Eden is driving them to her home in Oxfordshire for the first time.
When Eden pulled out of my street and onto the main road, it was already dark. Rows of houses flashed by, punctuated by lit windows displaying homely tableaus, like a gallery of yellow paintings. Trying to get out of London on a Friday night was slow. There were so many lights, it was painful to look at: dazzling white headlights like the ethereal glow in paintings of angels, and fiery red taillights like the eyes of demons retreating in the darkness. I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me.
“What is it?” I said, turning my head against the headrest.
Eden grinned. “I thought you’d dozed off.”
“Just listening,” I said.
“One of my students sent it to me.” The music was melodic and ploddy, with pretty highs, like life in the summer. “You like it?”
“Yeah, it’s … mellow. I don’t like tinny music. It irritates my ears. And I don’t like singers that whine or scream or bellow. Or sing in fake accents with fake feelings about inconsequential crap. Or when they sing all the notes just to prove they can. Or worse, when they warble a million notes to a one-syllabled word. There should be penalties for that.”
Eden smirked. “So what do you like?”
I shrugged. “I don’t really go out of my way to listen, you know? I mean, I hear it, I’m exposed to it, but it’s just background. Noisy wallpaper. I think maybe I skipped the music-loving gene when I was born … silent.”
“You were born unable to see too,” Eden said softly. “But that didn’t stop you breaking out the paints, did it?”
“That was years later.”
I’d never been able to describe the way my sight came to me without sounding like I was taking hallucinogenics. I was five when it happened, and my understanding of the visual world was limited. Everything I saw was too much, all of it imagined, rendered with the incomplete knowledge of how colour and form combined. Like a child’s drawing. Things just didn’t look that way anymore.
This is what happened: Colours exploded behind my closed eyelids, swirling like petrol in a puddle, polluting the dark-light reality inside my head. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was worse colour. Formless and toxic. Its boldness frightened me, and I squeezed my eyes shut against it, hoping it would go away. It never did. Then came form, shapes and patterns. They moved. Some drifted, some sped, some spun. All were nauseating. If I’d had access to a camera back then, I could’ve slowed down the world one frame at a time. Nothing stayed still long enough for me to catch it, to really see it. It took only moments to realise what my sight had cost me. The shadow girl. Amethyst.
“They said you painted though, even before you could see. That’s amazing.”
When my brain registered her comment, I said, “What? I didn’t.”
Her gaze flicked from the road to my face. “You don’t remember?” I shook my head. “The occupational therapist sent the paintings to a specialist. He said the only explanation was that the staff must’ve coached you after you got your hearing, but before you got your sight, because the pictures were too realistic. That’s professional speak for, I don’t have a clue how to deal with it because my brain is a wasteland consisting only of outdated information and tick boxes.”
I laughed. “Ouch! What do you have against so-called professionals?”
“Trust me, that is not a topic you want to get me started on.”
“So what were the paintings of? Do you know?”
“Birds,” she said. “Well, the same bird over and over.”
“A starling?” I said.
“Yes. You remember?”
“No. Not the paintings. Just the sound. The first sound I heard was a starling. I mean, I do remember painting and drawing starlings, but it was later. When I could see.”
I didn’t remember closing my eyes the second time, but when I opened them again, London was far behind us. The tightly packed houses had given way to tightly packed trees and hedgerows, and the car lights were sparse. The music had been turned down and Eden hummed gently to herself. Every so often, a break in the hedgerow gave us far-reaching views across darkened patchwork fields, where light trails in the distance showed another road carved into the landscape.
“Where are we?” I said, stretching out my back muscles.
“About twenty minutes from home, maybe less.”
“What’s that?” I asked, nodding at a huge cluster of lights ahead in the distance.
“Oxford. We’ll be turning off in a minute, so we won’t go through it, but I can take you in the week if you like.”
“Yeah, alright. I suppose it’s much nicer than where I live.”
“All places have their charms. Besides, being with the right people can make the dullest of places brighter.”
“Leia’s moving to Cornwall. School will suck without her.”
“Oh, Violet, I am sorry.”
“S’alright. We’ll still be able to talk. It won’t be the same but …”
I stared blindly out the side window, shortening my focus to track the droplets of rain that raced down the glass. I listened to the sound of the engine, soft and puttery, with a slurred rumble beneath it. It sounded like a bored fish lounging on the back of a sleep-drunk bear. The backs of my thighs had gone to sleep.
“Listen, we’re nearly home. If there’s anything you need to know, I’d ask now. Seth and Archer have taken the twins camping for the night to give you some breathing space. It’ll just be Dad, Magnus and Glenda, but even so, we might not get to chat later.”
“That depends who you ask.” She shook her head. “She’s my best friend. But if you asked her, she’d say she was the housekeeper.”
“So, she isn’t the housekeeper?”
“Oh, she is. It was the only way she’d agree to stay with us. She’s not happy unless she’s earning her keep.”
“Right. So, there is something I wanted to ask … about my mum.”
“Do you know why she ran away from home?”
“Yes, but it’s not a pretty story.”
“My life’s not a pretty story.”
“Alright. But tell me if I get a bit TMI. I’m a very blurt it all out sort of parent. I don’t believe in coddling when it comes to the truth.” I nodded, warming a little at her use of parent, and she continued. “As I said before, Dad didn’t know if Amy was his or not and my mother kept us away for a long time. The purple eyes are a genetic trait from Dad’s family, so the moment I met her, I knew she must be his child. Amy’s step-father, I only met a few times, but he seemed a nice man. He committed suicide when Amy was fifteen. My mother blamed Amy and she ran away.”
“Why did she blame Amy?”
“When I confronted my mother, she told me that her husband was in love with Amy, that he felt guilty about his feelings for her and killed himself. I don’t know how true it is, but I don’t think Amy did anything to encourage it. She was just a kind person, everything my mother wasn’t.”
“And you don’t know what happened after she left? You don’t know where she went?”
“There were rumours. I checked them out myself, but they never led to anything. I even hired someone to look for her, but every lead turned up cold.”
The roads were so quiet and dark now that only the dipped beam of the headlights lit the way. Up ahead, the glow of a fox’s eyes reflected back at us before it dashed out of our way. We turned left into a road full of little cottages, some with B&B signs outside. A post office, a butcher, a corner shop and, at the end of this rare cluster of life, a village pub stood, muffling the voices within its ancient walls.
“This is us,” said Eden, pushing the indicator stick up.
The car swung to the right into a barely noticeable gap between the trees. A statue stood on each side of the narrow road, partially covered by greenery and glowing eerily in the darkness. A long drive stretched out ahead but there were no lights, no house. We drove past several fields, and down an avenue of trees. The road was so bumpy there, that Eden and I bounced in our seats. Eventually we turned onto a small wooden bridge. I looked down into a stream that glittered in the moonlight. The car slowed again when Eden turned onto a gravel parking area surrounded by a high hedgerow on three sides.
A stone building towered above us on the fourth side. Most of it was covered by some kind of plant, but it was too dark to tell what it was. A downstairs window held a faint glow but there was otherwise no sign of life.
When I stepped onto the gravel, the chilly air wrapped around me, but instead of feeling cold, I felt comforted. The rain had sent the ancient pulse of the earth to the surface. I felt it beneath my feet. The air was tangy and charged with the scent of storms and well-fed trees. I felt them stretching towards me, to welcome me home.
Pinterest board for Paper Starlings.
The source image is from makamuki0 on Pixabay.