Taking Flight: Teaching Starlings to Talk
Please join me in giving a big warm welcome to fellow author, A.L. Lester, who’s dropped in today to celebrate the release of her fabulous new short story, Taking Flight: Teaching Starlings to Talk, and to tell us a bit about the story’s background.
Firstly a big thank you to Addison, for inviting me to visit today! I’m here blatantly pimping my new release, Taking Flight, which is out today, Tuesday 13th July!
Taking Flight is based on a tale from The Mabinogion, about Brânwen, sister of King Brân of Wales. Her brother marries her off to Matholwch, King of Ireland, but the marriage goes bad for complicated reasons to do with her step-brother mutilating her husband’s horses. Once Matholwch gets her home to Ireland, he banishes her to his kitchens. She tames a starling and sends it with a message to her brother for help. I’ve made the Brânwen character a trans man called Gwyn; and he extracts himself from his own difficulties with the help of Darren Starling.
It’s a tiny bit of the whole legend, which would be impossible to fit into a short story. The tales in the Mabinogion tend to be very complicated and pretty dark. They were handed down orally in Wales until they were written down in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The bit that fascinated me most about the legend was the part where Brânwen teaches the starling to talk and sends it for help. In European culture, this seems to be A Thing. There are lots of stories about talking starlings. The most well known is probably Laurence Sterne’s account of a captured bird he met in Paris in the eighteenth century, which could say “I can’t get out! I can’t get out!”. He goes on to use the story as an allegory for slavery and who knows whether he really met a starling or not? But the story of the talking starling is embedded enough in the general consciousness for it to be a realistic tale.
Mozart also had a starling as a pet. He is supposed to have found it in a pet shop in Vienna. There are two versions of the story. The first is that he heard it singing some of his music and bought it. And the second is that he visited the shop regularly and taught it the music before taking it home. Some of his childhood letters are filled with enquiries about his birds at home, so I can see him hanging around in pet stores talking to random starlings as a bit of a break from composing!
So, there seems to be a long history of people in Europe taming starlings and teaching them to speak, from Brânwen onwards. There’s a place called Brânwen’s grave in North Wales that is a Bronze-Age burial mound and if it has been associated with her all this time, then it’s a very old tradition indeed.
Here in the UK, starlings are seen as a great nuisance. They descend in huge flocks and eat crops; and my Mama is currently extremely cross that every couple of days a dozen of them arrive with a huge clatter and clean out her bird feeders, scaring off the smaller birds. Of course they also fly in the huge murmuration clouds that are so beautiful to watch and they are beautiful, with their blue-green-purple speckled plumage. I think that was why I was so fascinated with that part of the Mabinogion legend. Starlings are so commonplace. But they are so beautiful and so clever.
Initially I tried to make the starling the main character, but it just didn’t work and I found the whole thing flowed much more naturally if I used Brânwen/Gwyn’s point of view. Darren, my starling character, helps Gwyn but doesn’t rescue him. Gwyn rescues himself.f
Finally, here’s a YouTube clip of Stella the Starling talking to her human friend.
Gwyn Mabler is on secondment at the Kings of Ireland Hotel at Tara. He and his brother Brân are in the process of buying the place and Gwyn is getting to grips with the everyday running by shadowing the current owner, Mal Reagan.
Gwyn’s an idiot, though. Mal made it clear from the start he’d like to get Gwyn in his bed and after a couple of weeks of pursuit, Gwyn gave in. Mal was hot and pushy and just the kind of dangerous to pique Gwyn’s interest. He honestly thought Mal knew he was trans.
Since that horrible night, Mal has had Gwyn ‘workshadowing’ Chef in the deeply unhappy kitchen. He doesn’t want to go home and cause a fuss that might make the sale fall through, but when a huge row breaks out over a flour delivery and Mal backhands Gwyn across the face, he finally decides enough is enough. With the help of Darren Starling, one of the line-cooks with whom he’s formed a tentative friendship, he leaves.
During the two-day journey from the middle of Ireland home to Wales they have plenty of time to exchange confidences. Could the delicate pull of attraction between them grow into something stronger? Is it safe for Gwyn to out himself to Darren? Will Darren want to go out with a trans guy? And how will his brother Brân take Gwyn’s arrival home with a stranger?
A 14,500-word short story in the Reworked Celtic Myths series.
Buy Taking Flight
About A. L. Lester
Ally Lester writes queer, paranormal, historical, romantic suspense and lives in the South West of England with Mr AL, two children, Morris the badly behaved dachshund, a terrifying cat, three guineapigs, some hens and the duckettes.
She likes permaculture gardening but doesn’t really have time or energy these days. Not musical, doesn’t much like telly, likes to read. Non-binary. Chronically disabled. Has fibromyalgia and tedious fits.