This week’s short story comes from the very talented J. Eric Laing, whose Cicada was one of Kirkus Review’s Best Indie Novels of 2012.
Gathered Together | J. Eric Laing
The black birds gathered. And gathered and gathered. They culminated as one, a conjoined scream of feathers. Their assemblage could not be described as a murder or conspiracy, however, since too many grackles of oil slick plumage darted and beak dodged among the crows, and here and there even a fool finch flitted in as well.
Shouting and shuffling, they came. Came and some brave perched. The best and boldest settled and consorted. Iridescent feathers and eyes bright as sweating glass beads. Heads cocked first to one side and then another as they sized one another up and weighed the coming thunderhead. An unending jostle and fight. Flight, what had given them power over all other beasts of earth and water, was a last resort as they bickered over the thing on which they fed. Fortunate for the lot, their brethren the turkey buzzards were still far away concerns on high, having not yet gotten wind of the body.
Soon those wise birds would ride the fast incoming front and sail off, vagabonds of the sky sea, always a wing ahead of the storm.
The boy smiled his crooked smile to know the pellet had found its mark. The victim was one of the larger crows and though the wound was mortal, the bird refused to let it take him right off. It stumbled and side stepped, using a wing like a crutch to right itself before pitching forward to die beside the armadillo it had been feeding upon.
The boy wasted no time. In heated earnest he began pumping the pellet gun rifle to charge another round. The birds, perturbed only momentarily by the distraction of the crow’s demise and the boy’s hurried actions, quickly forgot both and carried on with their carrion buffet.
Hugh Prescott Preston, Jr. settled once more and chewed his bottom lip as he drew another bead.
So many targets. But so fast and nervous each one.
His words were a hiss. “Hold still you little fuckers….”
Far off across the manicured lawn behind him the groundskeepers were rushing to put the mowers and equipment onto their truck while their supervisor barked and pointed to the great grey and black broiling cloud rolling in like a quilt to put the world to bed.
Hugh loosed another pellet. But the finch he had sought was too nimble and the pellet flew wide. Just the same, a grackle behind it was struck dead.
“Yes!” the boy shouted with an ugly glee.
It was a last straw. Between the shout and the clouds, the birds decided as one—as birds are wont to do—it was time to depart. While they did not all follow the same direction, they did rise and gather into groups to go their own ways, six finches, four crows, three grackles. And all fled the storm.
Hugh cursed. He rose from his hiding spot and cursed again. The wind was fast and at his back; it saved him from the stink of the armadillo carcass and so he considered going over to kick the two birds he’d managed to kill.
Across the lawn, Nicholas Reed, the supervisor of the groundskeepers, spied the boy and raised his hand to call after him. He meant to warn the boy of the storm gathered over them now.
Even as he did, and even as the first fat rain began, pelting the earth as if angry, Nicholas’s words were cut short by a ferocious rip of lightning that tore the world as a child might rip a pretty drawing in two.
Where it came from the heavens was hard to say. Its termination was far easier to describe.
“The boy,” Nicholas Reed told the deputies and then repeated himself in stuttering words four more times that afternoon, “it, came for him…he had that pellet gun…it came for…called down…it hit and horrible, everything…horrible. Oh God, horrible.”
Against his mother’s wishes, but by his father’s demands, Hugh Prescott Preston, Jr. would be buried on the family estate on the very ground—the precise spot, no less—where he had been struck dead. In preparing the site for the funeral, the grounds keepers, already put off to be busy with such grim business, were left even more troubled by the odd assortment of animal remains they found collected there beneath those trees at the edge of the lawn—two dogs, an armadillo, a cat, two possums, a grey and brown husk of something none among them could identify, and at least six birds. Nicholas Reed directed the men to stop crossing themselves and to leave the macabre menagerie as they found it.
After the grave was dug he sent them back to the maintenance house with permission to have a few rounds of beer before they would need to return once the service was completed. He waved off one of the men when he stopped to collect the shovel Nicholas had taken up.
The truck trundled off. Nicholas considered each horizon. He was alone. Overhead, as if all too aware—and they were—the turkey buzzards had returned.
He looked down into the open grave. Yes, deep enough.
Nicholas sighed as he stepped into the tree line to gather the first of several small bodies he would see go into that grave this day
J. Eric Laing was born and raised in the South but now lives in Manhattan with his wife and their two wonderful boys.
He is the author of five novels: Cicada (Kirkus Reviews ‘Best Indies of 2012’), Seep, The Night Watch, Scissors & Tweed, and The Crooked Man’s Mile. He has also published two collections of short stories: Shorts, and Songs to Whistle While Cleaning Up Blood, as well as a novella, Once Upon a Tin.
He will be publishing another collection of stories, The Never Read Pages, sometime early next year.
To read selected shorts from the upcoming collection or to learn more about his published work and get contact info, please visit:
On Amazon: http://amzn.to/1MsmBMq