‘The Ghost Birds’ by Karen Russell

It’s 2081. Some years have passed since the ‘Great Death.’ Even so, “still-burning fires” encircle the ruins of Portland. The wealthy live in “domed compounds” (my partner, the kids and I spent a rainy afternoon at the Eden Project recently; we stood on the tread of a metallic, zig-zaggy staircase, next to a sign which warned you about the time the queue was likely to take, due to the over-populated dome, waiting for the troop of people who had already gone up, to descend from the high-point of the tropical rainforest viewing balcony…). The “domed compounds” tuck in like “bubble-wrap” on the smouldering, scalded earth. Everyone wears “respirators”. Oxygen has been commodified. School? Of the permanently virtual kind. Starling – the narrator Jasper’s daughter, expertly characterised as a no-nonsense teenage girl – acquires knowledge via “the blue sinkhole of the Hololight.” “Your eyes cannot distinguish between a digital hallucination and a real ghost,” Jasper says. “A critical window is closing.” Even though living avians are long extinct, engulfed by the burning carbon sinks, Jasper is fanatical in his pursuit of the ghosts of birds – snowy owls and nightingales, tundra swans and geese – which are sometimes detectable to the human eye, or if not, to Jasper’s spectrograph. His singular wish? To take his daughter to Chapman Elementary School, the location of a recent sighting of a flock of paranormal swifts. On arrival at the abandoned building, a tomb of ash and dust, father and daughter read the engraving on the school’s door: “Send us Forth to be Builders of a Better World.” The ending – part thriller, part numinous elegy – is dazzlingly, achingly memorable.   

First published in The New Yorker, October 2021, and available to subscribers to read here. You can also listen to Karen Russell reading the story here

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