3:3: “When the Black Bird Circles Back”, by Greg van Eekhout

3:3: “When the Black Bird Circles Back”, by Greg van Eekhout

I watched the bird circle over town, its wings a black shadow in the moon-silvered sky. Father was mayor then, and we lived on the upper floor of the town hall. While the town slept, I would stand at the window in my nightdress, shivering, and gaze out beyond the thatch and clay rooftops, beyond the animal pens and the orchard and the fields, beyond the Wall, to the jagged black mountains on the horizon. So, when the bird came, I was the first to spot it.

After a few moments, I guess the watchmen in the tower saw the bird, too, and they rang the bell. I was ten years old and I knew my bells. There was Fire, which meant we grabbed our buckets of water and sand and burlap sacks. There was Storm, which meant the clouds had formed spirit shapes and we had to take the animals indoors. But the night the bird came, they sounded a bell I’d never heard before, a single low tone that you felt in your chest and in the backs of your eyes.

Down below, grownups rushed out of the houses and into the square. Father was one of the first there, his hair sleep-matted into a crest, white legs sticking out from the bottom of his nightshirt. He was joined by Mr. Cragg, the miller, and his wife May, both of them solid as sacks of flour. And there was tall Doc Gish in his long coat, his face hidden by the vast brim of his hat. They all watched the bird circle in silence.

One of the watchmen came down the tower and trained his long rifle on the bird, but Father put his hand on the barrel.

“Mayor, let him shoot the damn thing,” said Doc Gish.

And Father, with his white legs and funny hair, said, “It’s not open for debate.”

The bird soared in slow, graceful circles. I could see now that it had something in its talons. Something round and yellow, about the size of a muskmelon. Whatever the object was, the bird dropped it, and the grown-ups reached toward the sky. A skull fell into Father’s hands.

The bird made one more circle, then flapped its wings and headed out into the far-away. I watched it for as long as I could.

“Let me see it,” said Doc Gish, and without taking his hands off it, Father showed him the skull the bird had dropped. I saw big, round eye sockets and teeth.

“It’s too soon, John,” said Doc Gish to Father. “We haven’t had enough births. We can’t afford it.”

Cragg spoke up: “You don’t get to decide when we can afford it, Doc. We take the walk when it’s time to take the walk. We pay the price when it’s time to pay the price. Me and my wife, we’ve paid more than anyone, and we don’t cry about it. We take the walk.”

Doc Gish put his hands in his coat pockets and craned his neck. In the moonlight I saw his smile. He wore that same smile when he looked at a newborn and knew it wouldn’t survive the night.

“Mayor,” he said, “maybe we should lose everything. Maybe, if this is the only way to keep it, we don’t deserve what we’ve got.”

Cragg’s wife walked up to Father. “No,” she said. “It’s like the mayor said. It’s not open for debate.” She held out her hands to Father. “Now give me my son.”

And Father handed her the skull.

———•———

The next morning, for the first time in my life, I went outside the Wall. Everybody in town gathered, and the two eldest watchmen pushed open the gates. As soon as we walked through, as soon as we were outside, the gates were shut, and the bars clanked back into place.

Father had woken me up that morning with a kiss on the forehead and told me to dress in the clothes folded at the foot of the bed. I did, and he led me by the hand downstairs and outside.

“We’re going for a walk,” I said. “Aren’t we?”

And he looked at me strangely and nodded. “Yes, Abigail.”

Cragg was there with his son, Robert, and Doc Gish with Michelle, his little girl, and Mr. Tander with his twin boys, and Mr. Yim with his son and three girls. The Yims were something of a wonder in our town: four children, and all of them still alive.

There were fourteen of us gathered outside the wall. All the children in town.

The Rider was there, too, with his apprentice, each of them on a mule.

Michelle, a pale girl with bird-thin wrists asked me where we were going. “Poppa won’t tell me,” she said. It was strange hearing Doc Gish called Poppa. He was Doc Gish.

We each had a backpack containing hard rolls of bread wrapped in cloth, dried pears, small lumps of salt, and jars of white cream — a sun ointment that smelled of agave. We also had skins of water, and the Rider told us to drink only when he said so.

“Everybody stays together,” he barked. He was looking at Doc Gish when he said it.

And so we set out, walking behind the Rider and his apprentice, away from the town, toward the black hills on the horizon.

———•———

After a while — an hour, perhaps eight hours, I didn’t know — my legs ached and my feet burned. My tongue felt like wood, and only my deep fear of the Rider kept me from sneaking a drink.

“Abigail, look.” Father turned me around and pointed me back toward town. It was so far off, now. So small and pretty, like a sliver of my mother’s china.

“It’s a miracle, Abigail. It’s a miracle that such a fragile thing survives in the middle of all this.” He swept his arm in a gesture that encompassed the wasteland. “But you can’t take miracles for granted. It’s the kind of thing you have to tend. Lose sight of that, and it goes away.”

———•———

On our third day out, the Rider’s apprentice died. Sundown had brought aching cold, and an easterly wind came blasting across the desert, vicious and free. The men were stacking rocks to build a shelter when the apprentice let out a short scream.

He looked to the Rider, his cheeks red as though embarrassed. “Something bit me,” he said.

The Rider scanned the ground, and then his eyebrows went up suddenly. He made a motion and there was a knife in his hand, and he threw it to the ground.

I never got a good look at the thing that killed the apprentice.

Doc couldn’t help him. We left his body beneath a mound of rocks and built camp somewhere else, even though it meant more hiking in the cold.

“Peter’s mother is past child-bearing,” Doc said to Father as we set up camp. “Won’t be another to replace him.”

Father said nothing. He stacked rocks.

“And even if there were another,” Doc Gish said, “that’s not really the point.” He handed father a stone.

———•———

We walked more the next day, cutting our hands as we climbed over piles of charred, twisted metal. We crossed a river of sluggish water the color of rust. We walked, and my back hurt and my legs hurt and my feet bled, and we walked.

On the fourth night, I hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep, even as tired as I was. I snuck away from Father and went to see Doc Gish. I found him sitting watch on a rock at the camp’s perimeter.

“Hey there, Abby,” he said as I approached. In the darkness, I couldn’t see his face under the brim of his hat.

He had something in his hands, which he put in mine.

I ran my finger along the edges of the narrow, slanted eye sockets, the blade-sharp cheekbones. I let the long canines almost pierce my thumb.

“This isn’t what the bird dropped in the square,” I said.

“Nope. Found it here in camp. Things get buried, things get revealed. It’s the way of wind and sand.”

I thought about our town. Until we’d started walking, it had been the center of the world, all I knew. It seemed so far away now. Just a little cluster of buildings, a tiny thing surrounded by the rest of the world. It could get buried like a skull in the desert. Of course it could. The realization was like ripping away a scab. Of course it could.

“What is it?” I asked, indicating the skull. “A sand wolf?”

Doc Gish took the skull back from me. “Not a sand wolf. We really don’t have a name for them. Isn’t that funny? All we surrender, and we don’t even have a name for them.” He tilted his hat back and looked at me, and I turned my head away from his smile. “You really want to know, Abby?”

I nodded.

“Good for you. Most people don’t, but it’s good to know, even if it isn’t easier. You’ve always been one to see, always looking out into the far-away. You’re more like me than your old man that way.” He tossed the skull into the sand. “There used to be thousands of these damn things. A long time ago. We lived in bigger towns back then, and the creatures lived in the nooks and crannies. Dark places, where we couldn’t see them. They hunted us. You know how a sand wolf hunts a goat?”

I didn’t, really.

“It was like that. But then, during the sick years, there were as few of us as there were of them. They couldn’t hide anymore. We went after them, and they went after us, and before long we would have wiped one another out if it hadn’t been for the arrangement.”

I was going to ask him what he meant by arrangement, but then someone said Doc Gish’s name. We both turned toward the voice. It was Father.

Sand crunched under his boots as he approached. “Go back to your shelter, Doc,” he said. “Your watch is over.”

Doc Gish put his hands on his knees and rose to his full height. “Keep seeing what you can see, Abigail. Look at something long enough, and you’ll see it for what it is.”

His shoulder almost brushed against Father’s as he returned to the center of camp, ending his watch.

———•———

Later that night, as the others slept, I saw them on the horizon. Twelve shapes, cloaks billowing behind them like smoke. They seemed to float over the ground.

I rose to my feet and took a step forward, and then Father was there with his firm hand on my shoulder. The others awakened and gathered.

Plumes of dust trailed behind the twelve, lit by flashes of lightning, green and gold and purple in the sky.

Soon, they stood at a small distance, towering, their faces the color of moonlight, diamond eyes sharp and glittering. The creatures shone like polished knives while we huddled together in the wind.

One of them glided towards us, stopping a few dozen yards off. Father met him in the middle distance. The creature parted its thin lips to speak, and in a whisper that carried, it said, “Are you the same one as last time?”

Not animals, then, I thought. And with that they went from being frightening, like a sand wolf, to something I could hate.

“No,” said Father. “That one died a few years ago. I’m mayor now.”

“I’m sorry,” said the creature. “The differences among you are very subtle to our eyes.”

“Let’s get this over with,” said Father.

The creature nodded. It parted its cloak, and from the shadows emerged three small, white shivering things. The creatures had children, too. Their arms were twigs, their eyes white and enormous.

The tall creature said something to the small ones in a language that sounded like singing, pretty sounds, and the small ones stepped forward, gazing up at Father.

Father had a knife. He grabbed one of the creatures by the chin and pushed its head back roughly. He slid the blade across the creature’s throat. Blood fanned over him. He let the creature fall to the sand.

Knees and thighs and belly soaked with blood, Father rejoined us. The tall creature followed him.

It approached me. Putting a cool finger to the side of my neck, the creature smiled and I saw its teeth.

“No.” A single word, softly spoken.

Then, a loud crack that rolled over the desert.

I turned and saw Doc Gish, belly-down in the sand. There was a pistol near his shuddering hand. His face was turned to the side. The handle of Father’s knife stuck out his left eye.

Father put Doc’s still-smoking pistol in his backpack while Michelle knelt at Doc’s side, her hands fluttering over his body as if she wanted to touch him but didn’t know how.

Father spoke to the creature. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He acted on his own.”

“We will take this one,” said the creature. He put his hand on Robert’s shoulder.

Cragg the miller screwed his eyes shut as the creature pulled Robert toward him. Robert shrieked. He kicked sand and spat. He clawed at the creature’s hands, drawing pale blood. Just before he disappeared into the creature’s cloak, Cragg opened his eyes. “Thank you, boy,” he said.

And then Robert was gone.

———•———

Days later, when the town once more appeared on the horizon, it looked like a sliver of bone.

“It’s a garden,” Father said. “Thing with gardens is, you have to tend them.”

———•———

Cragg had maintained a stoic silence on the way home. In later years, when I’d encounter him in the street or when buying my flour, I would sense in him a peculiar kind of pride, even superiority.

There was none of that in Father. One night, just a few weeks after we’d returned from the walk, he came into my room to tuck me in, and I found myself holding him, comforting him.

Michelle, Doc Gish’s little girl, lived another eight years. There was a sickness that struck down most of the town and she tried to use the powders and oils in Doc’s office. She read all his notebooks and even went out beyond the Wall with the Rider for a time to talk to the wise men of the trade caravans. But in the end she failed. We lost many adults and more than half the children. Michelle got the sickness herself and died without a trained apprentice to take her place.

Still, we live on.

I am grown now, married, and I have a son, Thomas. I have been mayor since Father died. I may be the last mayor this town ever has, and it will be my fault.

The bird came back last night and dropped a skull into my hands.

My backpack sits by the doorway. It contains crackers and dried fruit and salt lumps and sun ointment.

It contains my Father’s knife.

And also Doc Gish’s pistol, loaded with bullets fashioned from my mother’s silver teacups.



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