“Get ready. Get ready—”
Beau snapped the flag right, left, right again, and then dropped it flat to the side of the pit.
“They’re looking good.”
Beau did it again. Right. Left. Right. Down.
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Chris crouched next to his father, knees aching, finger on the outside of the trigger guard.
Beau had the call to his lips, the big man’s cheeks puffing like Dizzy Gillespie’s as he blew— “Hu-WUP, Hu-WUP-WUP, HU-WUP-WUP!”
The geese answered with single honks, and Beau dropped to a crouch, holding the pit’s camouflage cover up an inch or two to see out. Chris heard a whirring buzz and caught a flash of brown through the slats as the birds flew over. He held his breathe and reached up and pulled the slats tighter together.
The geese honked again, and Beau answered, “Hu-WUP, HU-WUP-WUP, HU- WUP-WUP!”
Beau grinned. “They’re locked up—get ready.”
Chris stared at the narrow slash of sky between the slats, waiting for the birds, waiting for Beau’s word. He heard his father shifting on the balls of his feet, readying for that lunge out of the pit, something neither of them had really mastered.
He glanced at his father and his father smiled back and pushed his shotgun’s safety “off”.
He always did that a moment earlier than Chris liked.
Chris edged the barrel of his gun up between the slats, knowing he’d had that exact thought every time they went hunting, and for a half a heart beat he was out of that thoughtless awareness where the world was only the wet clay smell of the pit, and the dry scrape of his father’s boots on the plywood floor and the light through the slats. Instead he was aware that this felt normal, like before, and it had been a long time since he’d felt like that and then the goose honked and he was just a man with a gun hiding in a hole in a field again.
Chris was up, the geese coming in huge, flaring cruciform in the weak January sun, and he covered one and his father shot and the bird was punched one way as he pulled the trigger and punched the bird back the other way, and it never failed to be like that, they always locked up on the same bird, and now the other bird was wheeling around the way it’d had come, ungainly but deceptively fast, wings beating double time and Chris fired but Beau was already blasting away and the bird folded in the air and fell boneless to the cornfield.
“Ooook,” his Dad said and smiled and Chris smiled back and slapped his arm above the elbow.
“All right!” Beau laughed, eyes shining in that too red face. He grabbed for Chris’s father’s hand and pumped it twice. “I’ll go get ‘em.”
Chris thumbed the safety on his empty gun, barrel still warm and leaned it against the pit’s wall next to his father. “I’ll get ‘em, I need to stretch my legs anyway,” and pulled himself out of the pit before the big guide could put his gun down.
“Suit yourself. You outta take your gun, that one you an’ your Dad shot look like he still got some life in him,” Beau said, nodding towards where the bird lay belly down in the corn stubble, wings broken, but head up amoung the decoys.
Chris took the gun and headed for the goose, pulling a shell from the pocket of his camo windbreaker and turned the gun on its’ side as he loaded, the mud sucking at his boots as he weaved through Beau’s decoys.
The goose ignored Chris. It didn’t try to get up, though he wasn’t sure it could, and as he shouldered his gun he wondered, not for the first time, if they felt pain the way other animals did. The goose was clearly shot to shit, both wings broken and sticking up like those of a crawling bat, but otherwise it looked so relaxed it might have been sitting on a pond.
Man, these birds are funny Chris thought, and shot it.
“You know I haven’t even seen that many geese this year,” his Dad said as they turned onto Route 20.
“Yeah I believe it.”
“This weather,” he said and waved a hand at the open window, where outside some green already showed in the fields and ditches.
“January,” his Dad said again and Chris nodded. “I’ve got this weather app on my phone, checks the weather for the whole fly-way. You know there’s no snow from here to the Canadian border?”
“Banner year for those upstate New York boys though. I guess if they can’t ice fish at least they got our birds to shoot,” Chris’s Dad smiling when he said that. “That Beau’s all right.”
“Yeah he is.”
Chris drummed on the steering wheel as they went, keeping one eye on the rearview for cops, the other on the roadsides as the farm fields gave up the fight and grew shaggier and the spaces between hedgerows got smaller and smaller.
“You know he called me and said ‘Mr. Patterson we ain’t got no geese, so it’s up to y’all if you still wanna come out.’ Not a lot of guides’d say that. Got to him some credit for that. ”
“Yeah, you do,” Chris said, forgetting the rearview now and watching for deer as briar choked forest rose up on either side of Route 20 . His Mother had once hit a big doe out here and then hit another with the loner while her car was getting repaired.
He winced a little, that nasty tug coming out of the blue like they always did. He looked at his father. His face seemed drawn up a little tighter, like maybe he was thinking about the same thing.
A pause, not much of one, but one all the same.
His father stayed silent as they followed 20 out of the woods and back into farm fields, small white placards marking every tenth of a mile.
Chris felt his screw up like lead in his guts. Too blunt by half, a God damn lurch instead of the compassion the old man deserved. Chris winced again.
His father shifted again in his seat.
“Yeah, I’m all right.”
A massive combine had turned onto the road and was heading their way, jacked up on tires taller than the truck they were riding in. Chris edged the truck over and cut his speed a little.
“Jesus. I’ve never seen one that big.”
“Yeah that’s the New Horizons’ standard issue. Deere makes them special. And, only for New Horizons.”
Chris slowed the truck to a crawl and pulled over onto the shoulder to let the massive thing pass, the guy in the cab looking down at them but not so much as nodding.
His father nodded.
“How much land they own down here anyway?”
“Eh,” his Dad coughed, “from the double woods on down to Shipsmen’s creek. Except for Van Owen’s of course.”
“Well I imagine it beats the land going to a developer.”
“I guess it does.”
Chris caught a good look at one of the signs as he slowed for the turn for his father’s place.
“NEW HORIZONS AGRICULTURE INC. PATENT #5554465-AJ-67742”
“What are they growing?”
“Corn. Comes up fast, supposed to be real cold and insect resistant. Of course, not that the cold matters much when we can wear T-shirts in a goose pit in January.”
His father’s place stood on a low rise, a large early 19th century farm house, a disordered pile of almost 200 years of additions and renovations, with a pole barn and a milking parlor behind the house that were rapidly being consumed by some kind of vine. Beyond his father’s place the land fell away into the Van Owen’s fields which continued for a mile and change to the next hedge row. As Chris pulled up the drive toward the pole barn he was struck by how damn alone the place looked now.
They worked side by side, the way they always did, the truck pulled half way into the barn so they could use the lights, the geese laid out on the tail gate of the truck, Chris plucking and breasting the birds, his father doing the fine work on the breasts.
It was good and it was more of that normal creeping back into their lives, the way it did and you didn’t even notice, until you did and then you almost wanted to write it down.
Chris passed the breast fillets he’d removed from the first bird to his father, and his Dad took them and began to nibble away with his knife, racing his eyes against the growing dark even with the flood lights. Chris took a Natty Bo from the case and cracked it.
He leaned back against the truck bed and took a pull, scanning the tall yellow grass in the Van Owen’s fields. Used to be he’d see some kind of hawk out there, smaller then a Red Tail, working just a few feet above the grass, flashing blue and grey as it dove and wheeled on whatever it was hunting out there.
“You still get those hawks out there?”
“Not many this year,” his father said without looking up from his work.
“You ever figure out what they were?”
“You know I haven’t, some kind of kestrel I think, or maybe a Sharp Shinned.”
Chris nodded and took another pull. The weather was throwing him off. It was January 21st and 65 degrees at 5:30 at night. The sticky air said the field should be alive with birds, Purple Martens and barn swallows and the mystery hawk, while the frogs and insects sang to bring on the night. Except the fields were empty and the only sound was his father’s knife sliding on the cutting board. He didn’t like it.
He turned and put the Natty Bo on the tail gate and grabbing the goose’s cool, leathery feet, rolled it onto its’ back. He knew the body would be much warmer than those little dinosaur feet. It’s been a bit of a shock the first time he breasted one and the meat had steamed in the cold air. Not like cleaning a fish at all.
The bird’s grey breast feathers were spattered red and black with blood. It was what you got when two guys shot the same bird, Chris thought, hoping there’d be enough meat to make a meal, otherwise he’d feel bad about killing the bird.
He wound his fingers into the breast feathers and in three pulls the breast was featherless. He took another pull from the Natty, his fingers leaving blood and tiny white under feathers on the can. He grinned a little at that. More normal, but before he could lose himself again to that microscope effect of going over every little action that joined the present with the past for good or bad, he put the beer down and picked up his fillet knife.
He prodded along the breast bone, the dimpled grey skin hot, the BB holes ugly and puckered, but not as many as he’d initially feared. All the steel thrown at the bird, and now only a handful of tiny holes. It went like that sometimes; he’d cleaned birds that were soaked with blood and when he’d got the feathers off there wasn’t a mark on them.
He slipped the fillet knife in and cut back along the breast bone towards the bird’s feet. He dropped the knife and got his fingers under the skin and pulled back, the coppery and vaguely sea weed smell of goose blood hitting his nose and he stopped.
“What the hell?”
He grabbed the knife again and began making quick cuts along the breast, tissue parting and the fillet coming free—
He gagged and dropped the knife, leaving the fillet half out, flopped over the goose’s wing.
He heard the gravel crunching as his father leaned in over the bird, and his father said, “I don’t understand.”
Understatement of the year, Chris thought as a smell hit him, cloying, ammoniac, wiping out the good clean smell of goose blood, replacing it with something he’d never smelled from an animal before.
“That’s not the intestines,” his father said, not really to him, just talking it through.
“No, I don’t think that’s what that is.”
Chris’s throat was dry. He wanted a drink but he wanted to wash his hands more. That ammonia smell was rising and he wanted to cover his nose but he thought about the blood on his hands again and stopped.
His father had picked up his knife and was easing it into that dark, scaly mass that he’d found in the goose’s chest.
It definitely wasn’t intestines. As his father slipped the thin tip of the blade under a scaly coil, parting some type of membrane that shone purple like motor oil in a puddle. Chris knew he’d never seen such a thing and thought no one had or it’d have been all over the news.
His father fished the coil loose and Chris almost lost his Natty Bo. His Dad had found a head. A triangular head, eyes like tiny marbles, filmed over, the little mouth bulging with teeth.
“Jesus Christ,” Chris said.
“Now look, maybe it ate this…snake,” his Dad said like he knew everything he’d just said was wrong, even down to calling the thing inside the goose a snake.
Chris didn’t correct him, didn’t point out the “snake” was big around as his middle finger and could never have gotten down the bird’s throat. Just let him work it out, he thought.
His father pushed the tip of the blade in under the snake-thing’s jaw and pulled back, slow, and the snake came loose of that ball, and Chris didn’t look too close at what was left in the bird but thought he could see another head, maybe two, still in that ball of coils.
“Jesus Christ,” now his father saying it.
Wings. The damn thing had wings. Or maybe fins, but some kind of appendage, leathery, folded flat against the body.
“I-look, I guess we’d better call somebody,” his father said, and Chris nodded.
His father turned toward him, his face whiter than the sweat plastered hair on his head.
“Maybe we ought to wash our hands too.”
Beau Harding couldn’t believe it, his truck swerving, getting away from him a little as pulled on his seat belt.
He rolled the window down and steered with one hand, truck swerving again on the dark road as he wrestled the gumball onto the roof and turned it on, painting the hedge rows and the fields blue as he buried the gas pedal. He hit the corner of Route 20 and took the turn a little too fast but managed to hold on and already he could see smoke blotting out the stars.
He raced along 20, the scanner barking, calls for the trucks out of Chester Town, still no mention of survivors.
Survivors, his clients from this afternoon, the Pattersons.
He pushed the Dodge harder and turned on the high beams. An orange glow was flickering between the trees on the west side of the road, the glow getting brighter and redder as Beau neared the end of the woods, driving as fast he could where he never would have before.
Used to be there were too many deer in these woods but now it’d been months since he’d seen one out here.
Now out of the woods he could see the whole scene, the old farmhouse on the hill engulfed, the hose trucks deployed but clearly unable to keep up, the ambulance and a few cop cars on the edge of the ditch. Flames burst from the second floor windows to lick at the roof, the reds and blues of the sirens almost blinding as he swung the Dodge into the driveway and onto the lawn.
Buck threw it in park and looked up, his eyes snapping to a roar so loud he could hear it over the scanner and the shouts and the sirens, the old brick chimney collapsing in on itself and to be replaced by a gout of yellow fire.
He grabbed his fire coat and slid out of the Dodge, the sound draining to nothing as he crossed the lawn, the Rockton boys working the hoses, water arcing to the flames in the too warn January night—Beau’s eyes going from crew to crew, the county Ambulance doors open, Rich Parker, Sue Brandon, and Johnny Bingham, all watching the fire in their gear but not doing anything, because there was no one to save.
A hand was on his chest and sound returned.
Dougie Bishop, the Rockton Sheriff had one big hand on Beau’s chest. The doughy cop looked bad, soot on his face, his Smokey hat gone, his thin hair plastered to his scalp with sweat, his face a shifting mask of purple and pale, pale white.
Beau didn’t think that was a trick of the flashing lights either. He thought maybe Dougie might give the Ambulance kids something to do before long.
“They still in there ain’t they Doug?”
Bishop nodded, breathing hard.
“Near as we can tell. The old man’s truck and the son’s car are both still out back the pole barn.”
The fire flared so bright Beau was forced to look away, and the roof went with a groan. Shielding his eyes against the glare Beau took a step back as around them men shouted and radios were hollered into.
Bishop took a step closer. He put his hand back on Beau’s shoulder, pulling him closer.
“Beau—you took them boys hunting today right?”
“See anything unusual out there?”
“N-no—like were they arguing?”
The Sheriff’s grip eased, and he looked almost calm for a man with a fatal fire burning behind him.
“No, no. You think one of them set this?”
Bishop’s shoulders relaxed and he almost looked relieved. There was something like a smile on his face.
“Nah, nah. Had to be sure though you know? Probably somebody forgot to clean they chimney out but all the same we’ll probably need you to make a official statement. It’s a damn shame about these boys, but these come-here’s, they don’t know a thing about living in the country.” Bishop shook his head and behind the fire roared and raced along the walls of Beau’s client’s house.
Beau nodded. He didn’t like the look on Dougie’s face one bit, but he kept nodding along all the same.