‘Starling Days’: Featured Fiction from Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

April 7, 2020 | 5 min read

In today’s edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, out today from The Overlook Press.

Publishers Weekly called the book a “bleak and eloquent novel,” adding that “Readers willing to brave the darkness will find a worthy, nuanced portrait of a woman’s struggle for self-determination amid mental illness.” And, in its starred review, Kirkus called the novel “Poetic and understated…Complex and resonant.”



Chapter 1

August

She wasn’t expecting the bridge to shudder. It was too big for trembling. Cars hissed from New York to New Jersey over its wide back. That August had been hot, 96° Fahrenheit hot. Heat softened the dollar bills and clung to the quarters and dimes that passed from sticky hand to sticky hand.

It was night and the air had cooled but humidity still hung in a red fog in Mina’s lungs. Wind galloped over the Hudson, pummeling the city with airy hooves. The bridge shifted, the pylons swayed, and Mina closed her eyes to better feel her bones judder. Even her teeth shook. The day’s sweat shivered between her bare shoulder blades. The tank top felt too thin, and the down on her arms rose. She took a step forward along the bridge. The tender spots between her big and index toes were sore from too many days in flip-flops. She took the sandals off. They swung from her fingers as she walked. Under her feet, the rough cement was warm. She wondered about the people driving their shadowy cars. Were they leaving over-air-conditioned offices, or bars cooled by the thwack of ceiling fans? Were they going home to empty condos, or daughters tucked under dinosaur quilts?

The bridge was decked out in blue lights, like a Christmas tree, like those monochrome ones shopping malls put up. Still, it was beautiful. Mina readied her phone to take a picture. She watched the granulated night appear onscreen. Perhaps her hands wobbled, because the photo was a blur. It was nothing she could send Oscar. But she wasn’t sure it was a good idea to send him pictures. Not tonight.

She stopped in the middle of the bridge. Hello, Manhattan. Downriver, apartment blocks spiked upwards. She couldn’t see Queens and the walk-up apartment building she’d grown up inside. Nor could she see the Park Slope apartment, in which Oscar was working late. He’d have a mug on his desk, the coffee gone cold hours ago. The photo of her would be propped up behind his computer. The sparkly stress ball she’d bought him years ago as a joke gift would rest at his wrist. Every hour or so he’d roll it between his palms. When he was working, he didn’t notice time. She was sure he wouldn’t yet be worried. She’d said she was meeting some friends after the tutoring gig. He didn’t know she’d texted the group that she was feeling unwell and would miss movie night. He wouldn’t expect her for at least two hours. No one was expecting her. She was unwitnessed. She lifted her face to the breeze.

The river was as dark as poured tarmac. They said that when a body fell onto water from this height, it was like hitting the sidewalk. The Golden Gate had nets to stop jumpers. She imagined the feeling of a rope cutting into arms and legs. Your body would flop, like a fish. How long did they have to lie there before someone scooped them out? There was nothing like that here. People said that drowning was a good death, that the tiny alveoli of the lungs filled like a thousand water balloons.

She lifted one purple flip-flop and dropped it over the water. She didn’t hear it hit. The shape simply vanished into the black shadow.

That was when the lights got brighter and the voice, male and certain, lobbed into her ears. 

“Ma’am, step away from the rail.”

The police car’s lights flashed blue and white and red. Once she’d had an ice-pop those colors and the sugary water had pooled behind her teeth.

“Ma’am, step away from the rail.”

“Good evening, Officer. Have I done something wrong?” Mina asked.

“Please get into the car,” he said. There were two of them. The other was younger and he was speaking into a radio. It was hard to make out his words over the wind and traffic. Was he talking about her?

“This is a public walkway,” Mina said. “It was open. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Ma’am, get into the car.”

“I don’t want to get into the car. Look, I was just getting some air. I was thinking. I’ll go home now.”

“Ma’am, don’t make me come over there.”

Mina had never been in a police car. She’d read once that the back doors only open from the outside. Who knew what would happen if she got into the car?

The window was rolled down and the cop stuck his head out.

There was a lump on his upper lip, a pimple perhaps. “Where are your shoes?”

“It’s hot out,” she said. “Where are your shoes?”

“I don’t want to tell you about my shoes,” she said. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m an American citizen.”

“Ma’am, where are your shoes?”

She lifted up the single flip-flop she had left. “The other one broke,” she said.

Behind him, other cars continued into the night. Did they even notice her standing in the dark, a small woman with bare legs and feet? She was aware of the bluing bruise she’d caught banging her knee on the subway door. In the shower that morning, she’d skipped shaving her legs. In the beam of his headlamps, could he see hairs standing up in splinters?

“Ma’am, I really need you to get into the car. I can’t leave you here. What if something happened to you?” In his voice, she heard the insinuation that normal women, innocent women, didn’t walk alone on bridges at night.

“I’m fine,” she said.

Mina knew her stubby ponytail was frizzy. Bleaching black to Marilyn Monroe–blonde had taken four rounds of peroxide. Now it stood up in breaking strands. If she’d conditioned it, would this cop think she was sane? If she’d blow-dried it, would he have let her go home? And, of course, there were the tattoos twining up her arms.

“We can talk about it in the car,” he said. His shadowed friend was bent over the radio, lips to the black box.

Mina was tired. It was the heat, or perhaps the wind. So she got into the car. The seat was smooth. Someone must’ve chosen the fabric specially. This must be wipeable and disinfectable. People probably spat on this seat. They probably pissed on purpose and by mistake. Between the front and back seats was a grille. She would not be able to reach out to touch the curve of the cop’s ear or straighten his blue collar. The flip-flop lay across her knees.

The cops wanted to know her name, address, phone number and Social Security. She gave them.

“We’re taking you to Mount Sinai,” said the cop.

“I was just going for a walk, clearing my head. I don’t need to be in a hospital. I was just clearing my head.”

Damn. Repeating yourself was a habit of the guilty. Mina tried to slow her breath.

“See it from my point of view,” he said. “You’re walking alone on the bridge at night. I can’t let you out. I don’t know what would happen.”

Only then did she understand that they must do this every night, drive back and forth across the bridge looking for people like her.

“I have to go to work tomorrow,” she said. “My husband will want to know where I am. Please, please, just let me go to the subway.”

“We can’t do that, ma’am.”

The car left the bridge and fell back into Manhattan. She kept telling them she wasn’t trying to cause trouble. She said it so many times that the word “trouble” began to sound like “burble” or “bubble.” Heat rose in her eyes. She pushed the water off her face.

Finally, they agreed that she could call her husband, and they would go to the paramedics parked near the bridge. If the paramedics said she was okay, she could go home.

“Oscar,” she said. “Oscar, I need you to come get me. They won’t let me leave until you come get me.”

Published April 2020 by The Overlook Press/ABRAMS. Copyright © 2020 Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. All rights reserved.

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