Dina carefully stacked three apple boxes one atop the other. Tilting her face toward the barn roof gutter, she could hear the “chirrr, chirrr” of the baby starlings in their nest. The mother starling fluttered in with a fat worm in her beak; pandemonium broke out in the nest as the youngsters vied for succulent bites.
As the mother bird flew away on a mission for more worms, Dina grabbed her opportunity. Perilously balancing a rickety apple picking ladder on the topmost box, she held her breath as she eased herself up the ladder to the barn eaves–and the nest.
Dina thought her heart would pound its way out of her chest as she cautiously reached in and gently scooped up one of the baby starlings. She ignored both its furious pecks with its soft beak and the instant stream of bird lice that swarmed up her arm as she gingerly groped her way back down the ladder, dropping to the ground from the top of the third apple box.
Only then did she risk taking a look at her prisoner.
It was a “she,” Dina decided, whether it was or not. She did not know how to tell the sex of birds. But it did not matter, because it was a “she.” And her name was Samantha. She was just beautiful. She had black and tawny speckles all over her, a beak and legs of bright yellow, and the inside of her throat was bright yellow too. Dina knew this because Samantha was straining her neck toward Dina, beak as widely open as it could go, and chirring insistently.
“Oh my,” said Dina softly. “Looks like you’re hungry. What shall we feed you? I don’t have any worms just now.”
So Dina took Samantha home and made her very comfortable in a shoebox lined with cotton wool. She went downstairs and made her way into the kitchen. She did not have to tiptoe because no one else was home.
In the fridge she found what she was looking for: a partially used can of dog food with a plastic lid on it. Using an old butter knife she scooped some of the evil-smelling dog food into a tiny bowl (normally used for dipping sauces), found some toothpicks, and ran upstairs to her room under the eaves of the ancient house.
Samantha was still chirring away, more insistently than ever, mouth stretched wide open, eyes bugging out of her head. Dina carefully gathered a small ball of dog food on the toothpick (she had previously learned by means of tragedy not to give too much at one time) and popped it into the little bird’s mouth.
The birdie gobbled it greedily and opened its mouth for more.
“Just one more bite for now, little Samantha,” whispered Dina. “We don’t want to overfeed you.” The bird swallowed the bolus of food and screamed for more, but Dina put the lid of the shoebox on, already bored with plenty of air holes. “You take a nap now. I’ll be back later with more food, just like your real mommy.” Dina stashed the dog food under her book shelf and left in search of supplies.
Her first stop was the Portuguese chicken farm down the road, for some lice powder. She hurried back with it and dusted the poor little bird well. It coughed and spluttered, and there was an exodus as the lice jumped ship, and much slapping and squishing of bird lice for a good ten minutes until they were all gone. This exhausted Samantha’s energy supplies and she required another feeding.
The next day was a school day. Dina carefully slid the shoe box containing Samantha into her school bag, walked to the bus stop, and went to her seventh grade home room. She hid her satchel under her seat. Her seventh grade class changed classes every forty-five minutes, so she had about five minutes each time to rush to the bathroom and feed Samantha before she got hungry and started yelling for food.
By some miracle, she was able to pull this off for some weeks. By some other miracle, she managed to hide Samantha from her mother, that is, until Samantha fledged and started fluttering around Dina’s room, pooping wherever she went. There was a moment of truth, where Dina’s mother found the shoe box nest, and feathers everywhere, and bird poop everywhere, and there was yelling and tears.
But luckily Dina’s mom had a soft spot for animals, and agreed to allow Dina to keep Samantha as long as she cleaned up after her. Dina was so relieved that she instantly agreed, even though cleaning was all the way at the end of her list of fun things to do.
So it was that Dina and Samantha were out in the open now, and could do things together and not always have to keep secrets. In fact, Dina’s mother agreed to feed Samantha while Dina was in school, so Dina wouldn’t have to risk getting in trouble.
Dina played the flute. Samantha loved to hear Dina play. In fact, she loved to sing along. So it was that one day Samantha flew up and lit on the end of Dina’s flute, accompanying her with starling trills and twitters, and getting her toes caught in the keys.
The two of them also loved to take long walks in the woods together. Samantha would perch on Dina’s shoulder (or head), and Dina would walk along the path in the woods behind the house. Then, if Samantha saw something interesting to her, she would fly off to investigate. Dina never got worried, because Samantha always came back, to perch once again on her hand or her head.
There were always cats around the house, either the ones that belonged to Dina’s mother or the ones that just lived at the farm. And dogs too: Dina’s yellow dog, and the big brown dog next door. All of them seemed to know that Samantha was part of the family and not “fair game.” Often when Dina wasn’t home, Samantha stayed in the screened-in porch, and she was always there waiting when Dina came home, and greeted her by lighting on her head and pulling on her hair, as if looking for lice!
Summer came, and it was time for Dina to make her annual pilgrimage to visit her cousins in New York. She had done this since she was a young child, and it was a yearly ritual. But this year was different. Who would take care of Samantha? She certainly could not go to New York!
Dina’s mother volunteered to care for Samantha in Dina’s absence. Dina felt secure because her mother had taken care of the little starling when Dina was at school, and she knew what the bird ate, and her schedule. So off she went to New York, feeling confident that everything would be fine.
She had a great time with her cousins in New York. They had a lot more money than Dina’s parents. They went to Broadway shows. They went to Times Square, and Madison Square Garden where they saw the Rockettes. They ate food from vendors on the street and got awfully sick, and then the next week they did it again and didn’t get sick. They watched Howdy Doody on the gigantic color TV (Dina’s parents had a black-and-white TV, and it was tiny).
Soon it was time to go home. Dina had been thinking about Samantha on and off, but had been distracted by all the fun things there were to do in New York, so when she spoke to her mother on the phone she never even asked about Samantha, and her mother never mentioned the little bird.
After a long bus ride Dina was home. Her parents picked her up at the bus station. It was about an hour’s drive from the bus station to home. Now there was plenty of time to talk about what Dina had done in New York, what adventures she had had, and how much she had grown, and how becoming her new haircut looked.
They drove into the dirt lot that served as a driveway, and Dina jumped out. She couldn’t wait to see Samantha. She opened the screen door to the porch and looked around. No Samantha. She rushed upstairs to her room. Samantha’s shoebox-nest was empty. It looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time. She tore apart her room, calling the starling’s name: “Samantha! Sam! Where are you?”
At last she raced down the steep and narrow stairway that connected her attic bedroom to the rest of the house. “Mom! Mom! I can’t find Samantha!” She panted.
“Oh, honey,” her mother said nonchalantly, drawing on a Marlboro, “Samantha flew away while you were gone.”
“Flew away? What do you mean? Samantha would NEVER fly away.”
“Oh, I guess when she realized you weren’t here, she went to find her family.”
Twenty years later, Dina learned the truth. Her mother had left Samantha in the screen-porch with one of the cats, and when she next looked, there was only a pile of black and yellow feathers where once her Samantha had lived and breathed.