BY LORI NEVOLE
Read by Lori Nevole
The woman’s beak was the color of South Dakota granite. Her talons curled most comfortably into men’s size 11 hiking boots, which turned her legs into heavy pendulums when she wanted to walk under the pines, and had holes in the heel for her back claw. From time to time she craved the novelty of being weighed down. Her bones were hollow. She hunted at night when the moon bounced the movements of goats, horses, and men into her bulbous black eyes.
Johnny Bartek shot her down with his Browning 12 gauge, crouched in his turkey blind, the same way he’d been hunting for the last twenty years. He caught her at dusk when blue had just frosted over the thick clouds. Her wings sliced a clean cross against the sky above his spot of mountain scrub, and his barrel tracked her true. As the blood pumped out from between her heaving, gray-pink breasts, Johnny wiped brown paint from his face with a bandana.
Her right wing lay snapped beneath her. She flailed widespread talons and puffed out her crown of feathers, thinking frantically of the craggy island of her birthplace, and then of her mother crying out to Zeus as cold storm winds scattered water beads across her dappled skin. Her mother had wailed and the Argonaut lover had hefted his bow. The gales that had always been friends to them whipped into a sudden fury behind the arrow, which thwacked through her mother’s right eye, taking family and faith in one splash of scarlet. Oh, the terror of flight, the desert of ocean-crossing with not even an island for days. The strange comfort of mountain peaks. Now the woman knew the Argonauts of her nightmares had caught her at last in this distant place. Her mind filled with her mother.
Johnny spat in the dead leaves on his way to her. Her talons churned the air more slowly than before. She stared, dazed, at memories. He grabbed her necklace of collected teeth and twisted the horsehair strings to dig them into her flesh.
She had picked off his calves in the past. Last week she killed his good mare, who had spooked and escaped through a weak piece of fence: Star for the white on her head. Star for the smug strut she used when she was showing off for a treat. When he found Star, he couldn’t think of her as anything but it. Goldenrod dripped lush and dazzling over the horse’s body, which had snapped some of the plant stems and caused the bunches to bow. Its ribs were cracked open and its great racing heart had been torn out and eaten. Thick brown tears caked its eye sockets. The sliced skin of its jaw curled back from blackened gaps where molars had once been. Vanilla sweet grass rustled the ears and mixed with the smell of old meat, with the itch of pollen in the cold fall air. Childhood nightmares of the woman in the mountains suddenly meant nothing at all.
Johnny believed in simple sayings rather than divine power: the early bird gets the worm, good things come to those who wait, eat or be eaten. He wanted the horse teeth back. The woman’s skull would hang above his bed. No, his kitchen table, to spark playful disbelief in passing guests. So he decreed.