Short Fiction by Nick Owen
A dry dale. A hidden trench. A scar across England’s breast. Every year, for three lunar cycles, it erupts. Death spews, spitting at grass banks and sky.
You and I call this home.
When the dale’s gods vent, your family lie low until calm is restored. Once the gods are satiated you emerge and prey on collateral carrion. Your brood is not the only ones to benefit from the gods’ penchant for carnage. The grasses absorb blood. Beetles and bugs gorge on entrails. Maggots devour soft tissue, leaving the bones to foxes, and feathers to the wind.
You devoured me once after my limp body had thudded to the ground. I’m a part of you now, just as I am a part of this land.
The gods require only a fraction of what they reap. And yet local villagers feed them relentlessly, wary of reprisals were their morbid appetites to go unquenched. For the rest of the year, the dale’s grasses foam in the wind, growing long like land-borne sea anemones, disguising the dale’s true nature from the ramblers who disturb your nest.
Since settling in the dale you’ve gained weight. Your hunting instincts have waned. With so much free death on offer, you could be excused for wondering why you’d ever need to hunt again. The cattle that graze around your family’s rocky outcrop feel the same. They track familiar worn paths and gorge on the plentiful meadow. Your partner tells you to keep your wits about you, to get out of the nest once in a while and circle a cloud or terrorise a pigeon, ‘But, what’s the point?’ you say. ‘Why make existence tough when it can be so easy?’
She blinks disdain down her beak at you. ‘Will our children learn to fly of their own accord?’ she says. ‘Will you instruct them on the art of flight as you lie here scratching your paunch?’
‘Fine,’ you say, ‘come on kids. Do as your mother says. Stretch those wings.’
They spread underdeveloped plumage, their heads capped with feathers built for warmth rather than aerodynamics.
‘That’s it, come on the lot of you,’ you say, ‘up to the big take-off.’
You hop from the nest, and they follow. Three chicks, off balance, away from their padded nest and attentive mother. You lead them to the large rock that shelters the nest from the gods’ violence. It protrudes some feet above the ground. You bring them to its edge.
‘That’s right, line up,’ you say, as they ready themselves, each sporting feeble wings either side of blubber and fluff. Their spindly legs tremble, struggling with the weight about to be committed to thin air. ‘Three, two, one, fly!’ you squawk, as three bundles of feather flap, tweet and tumble into the soft grasses below. You laugh aloud, barely able to contain the joy that the unnecessarily lofty take-off area, and your chicks’ naivety, has afforded you.
The chicks titter at their own misfortune, happy to be part of the joke. But you sense your partner’s eye fixed on you. It monitors your slothful shenanigans on the warm bare rock. You turn to the nest. She’s not there. She loves to mock you with her games. Your head rotates a full three hundred and sixty degrees, but still, you cannot locate her.
She plummets out of the sun and arrows in for a mock kill. Feathers scythe so close you lose your balance and fall onto your back. You lay prostrate and take a laboured breath as she hovers over you and your offspring, probably wondering whether weeks of tireless feeding have been in vain and that the dale has already sapped her chicks’ killer instinct.
‘They need more food,’ she cries, ‘my children are not strong enough to fly, because you are too lazy to provide fresh meat for them.’
You huff contemptuously. It has been a long time since the dale erupted, but never have there been three such well-fed chicks.
She lands, and your children follow her dutifully to the nest. They mimic her withering stare as they go, a stare that says, ‘Don’t come back to the nest tonight without a fresh kill.’
‘Oh, come on!’ you say, ‘The gods will provide tomorrow, just after sunrise.’
‘I don’t care,’ she says, head held high, ‘bring us meat or you sleep on the rock.’
Muttering, you ruffle your feathers, preen your pride and climb into the sky, glad that the thermals are strong enough to lift you. You are short of practice and career across the turquoise scape until your poise returns, and you relax ready to cast your eye over the rolling Wolds below. ‘Only a large kill will do,’ you think to yourself.
Your partner’s eye refuses to relent, even here amongst the rising thermals and wisps of cloud.
Altitude helps an idea form: The dale is due to erupt, but what if the feast that ensues could be brought forward? What if you had the wherewithal to poach the villagers’ offerings?
You twitch your head in the direction of the low wooden huts where you know the villagers nurture their sacrificial oblations.
You descend just as the day pulls a shadow camouflage over the huts, as though in an attempt to conceal their contents from you.
You land at the rear of a hut. Barbed wire glints on the encampment’s perimeter. The buzz you hear, that I remember all too well, is the fence teeming with electric current. If they catch you here, your partner will be the least of your worries.
Go on. Peek between the hut’s wooden slats. That’s right, just wait for your eye to adjust to the dark. Now, do you see them?
Now you see them. Now you see what I once was.
Beasts like me, on their hands and knees, chained either side of two troughs, squawking, in what for you is a mysterious tongue.
But look closer. Though human in form the beasts have patchy plumage. Giant grubby feathers partly conceal agitated and sallow skin. You and your family feed on us Manbirds.
Automated pumps supply the troughs with swill. It smells of fetid turnips. The troughs fill to the point that the Manbirds must choose whether to eat or drown. Some vomit, only to resume feeding. Others emit leg-shaking diar…
Don’t pretend this disgusts you. You’re a buzzard. That’s prize prey bred to slake the gods’ bloodthirst. If this sort of treatment is good enough for them, it’s good enough for you.
You hop and skip round the hut to check the entrance’s lock. What you’ve just witnessed replays in your mind. You hear the whirring pump cease its torture and you are heartened by the knowledge that you could never befall this fate.
Take another look. Yes, go ahead.
Inside, the Manbirds rest. Their sides heave as they concentrate on digestion, haunted by the pump’s whirr and ensuing splatter.
It’s then you notice: The door is unlocked.
You poke your beak into the divide and pry it wide enough to wrap a talon inside. You force your way in. The Manbirds breathe lightly, trying not to draw your attention. A ray of evening sun accompanies you into the hut and teases tender eyes. The stocks that hold the Manbirds’ heads in the trough appear robust, and whereas the door was unlocked, the stocks are not.
‘How am I going to get one of you out of here?’ You say aloud, realising your plan was ill-conceived; that your partner’s demands drove you to something close to madness.
The Manbirds jostle the stocks. An engine rumbles outside. Villagers have come to check on their precious prisoners.
What kind of buzzard allows himself to be trapped? There’s no time to flee.
Boot treads scuff the mud track that leads to the hut. You hop into the shadows of the hut’s furthest corner. The smell of faeces and putrid feed makes your eyes water.
The door opens wide. The reek of raw fear replaces the hut’s stench.
You wonder how your partner will cope with three hungry chicks if you fail to make an escape.
The villagers converse and walk between the troughs, inspecting the stocks one by one, occasionally slapping a Manbird’s cowed head. Were it not for the feathers, it would be hard for you to tell a villager and Manbird apart.
The villagers edge closer to your corner. You huddle in the dark and tuck your beak beneath a wing. You keep watch out of one eye and flex your talons. As a villager looms over you, he pauses and looks from the Manbirds to your gloomy nook.
The pump whirrs.
The Manbirds buck, anticipating the onslaught of another dose. The villager brandishes a cattle prod and digs it into a Manbird’s side. My memories of similar torture are enough to make me wince, even after all this time.
The victim slumps as the prod relents and you see your chance to break free. You spread your wings. The villagers shout. The Manbirds kick shit and dust into the air. They scream the same death-wail I made before you ate me. You half fly and half run, like a migrating goose taking flight after a feed.
The door slams shut. But you’re already clear, soaring into dusk.
Your family will go hungry tonight. A bed of feathers and dry foliage will be forfeited for unforgiving granite, but at least you will wake free.
You stir with the dale. Your feathers and the rock you slept on are covered in a layer of frost. You stretch aching limbs and shake off the dawn’s ice crystal blanket. Below you, the dale’s gods are stepping from their vehicles to take positions by white posts. You know the villagers’ thunder will begin any moment and that soon after the air will be rife with death. Your belly contracts in anticipation. You turn to your nest, expecting to see three pulsing gullets chirping for breakfast. Instead, your partner sleeps alone.
You nudge her with your beak. ‘Where are the kids?’ you squawk.
She is awake in a heartbeat. ‘They were awake all night. I didn’t sleep a wink. Where are they? Did they join you on the rock?’
You survey the nest in vain, unable to answer her. A panic rises, intensified by the sound of growing thunder.
‘No, they must be scavenging in the grass,’ you say. ‘We have to find them! The thunder has started. The gods are ready.’
You both take off. She rises faster than you and screeches, pleading for your young to reply. The thunder grows louder still. It emanates not from the sky, but from the copses that hem the dale. You grow impatient with the weak thermals and beat your wings hard to join your partner, her screeches desperate.
You try to think where they could be. You scour the place you showed them how to dig for worms. You check their favourite bathing puddle.
You fight back the unthinkable: a fox, a weasel, a villager.
‘I see them,’ your partner screams as she tears past you. You follow her lead, to the wooden bench where ramblers sit and feed. Your flight unfolds in slow motion, as though the air itself grows in density, in anticipation of the coming onslaught.
The thunder crackles.
A wave of Manbirds stampede from the trees, pursued by villagers, beating undergrowth and shouting themselves hoarse, eager to drive their offerings to the dale’s mouth.
The Manbirds and their deafening wail bear down on the seat and your oblivious children. They are practising flying, jumping from the seat, their wings sustaining flight only for a second before they drop to the grasses below.
You draw alongside your partner in the air and zero in on the seat. You reach them just as the Manbirds breach the dale’s rim and pour into the trench.
You and your partner usher your children behind the seat and shield them with your wings, two with her, one with you. You watch in horror as the Manbirds labour into the sky, no rhythm or method to their flight, their untrained wings failing them. The grasses around you strain for blood, like desiccated weeds reaching for rain. Liquid shit rains down as the Manbirds come face-to-face with the erupting dale.
The ground shakes.
Blood vessels cling to your partner’s eyes, preventing them from bursting clear of her skull. She braces for the end to come. You are powerless to help her. Without your rock for cover, you and your family are at the gods’ mercy. The bench gives little protection.
Manbirds thud to the floor. Their bones crack as they hit the earth. The grasses are not so soft when you fall from a great height. One lands on the seat and snaps in two on the backrest. Your partner squawks and you realise too late that she intends to flee.
‘No!’ you cry. ‘Stay here!’
But your call is ignored. You will not be heard over the slaughter. Your partner clutches your chicks in her talons and takes to the sky, dodging a falling Manbird who lands face first on a cattle track. She rises through a crowded sky, as though using the Manbirds as steps to the clouds. You close your eyes and for a moment all you can feel and hear is your chick’s heart, pounding in time with the gods’ rapid fire. You hug her close and pray the gods will spare you.
Your father’s heavy body lies on top of you. I will miss him, the big lazy bird. While you were unconscious I crawled from your father’s nose and entered you via your tear duct. I feel, as you do, your father’s dead weight threatening to squeeze the air from your lungs. A warm liquid soaks your feathers. The ringing in your ears is dying down, to leave nothing but the familiar sound of the long grasses swaying in the breeze. The smell of fresh meat makes you hungry and nauseous in equal measure.
You crawl clear of your father’s body. Your feathers are soaked red. You squawk at your father’s limp form. His beak is open. His eye is closed. You have only ever known him to be strong and imperious, either perched on his rock or patrolling the sky.
What will you do now? Might you flee this place? You should. After what you’ve just witnessed, how could you not?
You nuzzle your father’s cheek and squawk again. The now still dale echoes your squawk back at you.
You call for your mother. It’s the first time she has ever failed to answer. You go lightheaded. Your heartbeat refuses to slow. In your distress, you see the dale for what it is.
You realise what it is to survive.
Food is everywhere, buzzing with flies. One lands on your father’s wing and you wave it clear, only for another two to take its place. Crows circle overhead, for some reason reluctant to feast on the stricken Manbirds. You imagine for a moment that your presence is enough to deter them, but when you turn to face uphill, you see that your confidence was misplaced.
Bared teeth, fleshy gums and an erect white tail tip greet you. One of the gods’ hounds stalks you. You spread your wings, as your mother would do, and hiss. The hound puts a paw forward and drops the severed Manbird wing he’d been fetching to his master. He barks. His breath smells of poor blood.
He pads another step toward you.
You know you must fly.
You turn down the slope and sprint past the bench. You hear the hound pant, closer and closer. You pitch forward and spread your wings. You skim the grasses. They try to suck you back to the land, a soft landing and certain death. You extend your aching wings further. You flap. You strain.
You marvel as you lift clear of the hound’s gnashing jaws. The slathering beast looks to the sky in disbelief.
The dale’s gods leave in their glimmering and smoking vehicles, seemingly satisfied with the villagers’ offerings. Lame Manbirds wail, their shredded and broken bodies concealed by the foaming grasses.
Unable to bear the duress of your first flight any longer, you land heavily on the rock where your father loved to watch you fail. You cry, knowing you will never have the chance to make him proud.
There is no sign of your mother or siblings. You cry because you are alone. But buzzards don’t cry for long.
A Manbird is splayed where your nest used to be, rendered faceless by the gods’ projectiles. You perch on the Manbird’s head and tear a piece of flayed skin clear of what was once its nose. You swallow it whole. You choke momentarily on the flesh. Then you go back for more.