This Poe-evoking short story was first published in ebook form (no longer available) by Damnation Books back in 2009.
By Joe Nazare
Clad black as tonight’s moonless vault, Deadeye Eddie shimmies his way up into the denuded tree. His slung rifle taps his shoulder as he climbs, while the scales of bark sloughing from the barrel-wide trunk further remind him of the task at hand. Without investing especial significance in the fact, Eddie recalls that the plague on Eldon Richter’s farm started with this very oak.
The story circulating through Allanton all week has old Eldon ambling out onto his porch early last Friday morning, then stopping to crack the night’s sleep out of his back as he surveys his property. But even before his bespectacled eyes can adjust to the dawn, Eldon senses something wrong. Something different about this same vista he’s studied every morning for the past twenty-seven years. He steps off his porch for a much-needed closer view, and soon fixes upon the great oak rooted about twenty-five yards in front of the house. The crinkled foliage overhead looks absolutely leeched of chlorophyll, reminding Eldon of those old horror movies where some terrible shock whitens a character’s hair. Seasonal change couldn’t possibly be the culprit here, only a week into September. Also, Eldon’s seen trees die before and knows the process is gradual at best, not something that occurs overnight. As he stands there groping for explanation, a blast of wind reaches the tree—and disintegrates the former greenery. The leaves crumble like the skin of a desiccated corpse; seconds later only the brown-branched skeleton remains. Damnedest thing he’s ever seen, Eldon swears, unaware that he’ll have to revise that assessment repeatedly in the coming days.
For a whole week now, the weird happenings out at the Richter place have seasoned Allanton’s otherwise bland existence. But tonight—Thursday melding once more into Friday—Deadeye Eddie plans to put an end to the whole mad mystery. Come midnight, the blight upon Eldon’s land is going to be blasted right out of the raven sky.
Only hours earlier, Eddie sat warming a barstool at LeMoyne’s when a clearing throat announced the presence of someone behind him. The satisfaction washing through Eddie when he I.D.’d the attention seeker served as a perfect chaser to his whiskey.
“Heeey. Eldon. How’s it going?” Eddie turned his head and beamed a smirk at the farmer, earning only a thin-lipped scowl in return. Eldon’s Adam’s apple, which looked like a big peach pit sticking out of his tanned, wrinkled throat, bobbed as the man obviously struggled for words. Eddie gave him a few more seconds to find them before prompting, “So what can I do you for?” Though bracketed by empty stools, he did not invite Eldon to sit.
“Hell, Ed, I know we’ve had our differences,” Eldon spoke at last. “And that we haven’t seen eye to eye ever since that dustup over Nora Lee back when—”
Eddie waved the hand not cupping his drink. “Water way under the bridge,” he said. Eldon Richter was sadly mistaken if he thought Eddie still pined for the farmer’s former bride, now nine years dead and buried.
“But I…I need your help,” Eldon managed to finish.
Eddie took his time sipping his whiskey. “What, you got some work needs tending to out at the farm?”
“It’s that damned bird,” Eldon practically spat the answer.
“That blackbird that’s been causing such a fuss every night?” Eddie flicked a glance over at Theo LeMoyne behind the bar, whose responsive grin modeled a near-mouthful of yellowed teeth. “I thought you had the Thibodaux brothers taking care of all that,” Eddie addressed Eldon’s reflection in the stretch of mirror behind the bar.
The tufted tips of Eldon’s ears flushed barn-red. “I’m sure you’ve heard what happened there,” he told Eddie, and LeMoyne suddenly busied himself wiping the far end of the bar with a bleach-spotted dishrag. “So now I’m asking you to come out to the farm tonight.”
“You know, Eldon, if you came to me from the get-go, the whole thing would be over by now.” Beneath this mild rebuke, Eddie delivered a much sterner message. Because this really was the heartburn of the matter, as Eddie’s father used to dub it. Eldon’s initial hiring of Jack and Wilfred Thibodaux was just another backhanded slap in Eddie’s face. Another of the many instances in which he impugned Eddie’s hunting abilities. Gossip flew quick as carrier-pigeon in this town, and Eldon had been known to spout off on the topic of the allegedly legendary exploits of Deadeye Eddie—“the product of equal parts massive ago and natural storytelling flair.”
Standing there now hunch-shouldered, Eldon reached into his denims and unpocketed his wallet. “Just name your price.” His voice sounded stocked with equal parts humility and desperation.
Eddie swiveled on his stool to face Eldon squarely. “Lemme ask you something: how much more do you think I’m worth than Jackass and Woeful Thibodaux?”
“I, I can give you twice what—”
“Maybe a few days ago that would’ve been a fair rate,” Eddie interrupted. “After all the bumbling those two rubes did, I must be worth a helluva lot more.”
The gaunt farmer stiffened, save for the hand shaking the wallet at Eddie. “Dammit, do you want the job or not?”
Motionless on the stool, Eddie inwardly delighted at making Eldon squirm. “I don’t want your money,” he said. “I want something even richer from you. Here’s the deal: after I settle your trouble for you tonight, you’re going to take out a full-page ad in the very next edition of the Allantonian. You’ll announce my accomplishment, extol my virtues. Tell my story for me, since I just don’t know if I have the flair for that sort of thing.”
Judging from his expression, Eldon found this force-feeding of crow about as palatable as road kill. But he nodded his agreement to the terms with hardly any delay. “And you promise to kill that bird?”
“No,” Eddie answered, relishing the confusion that spread across Eldon’s liver-spotted visage. “I think I’ll just wing the nuisance. Then I aim to pick it up, carry it over, and give you the satisfaction of snapping its neck yourself. My satisfaction comes when I read tomorrow’s paper.”
“You understand your window is only between midnight and one tonight?” Eldon was careful to specify.
“Then I’ll be there to put in an honest hour’s work.” Eddie sealed the deal by holding up his glass and then downing the last of his whiskey.
“Fine.” Eldon, who looked drained by the whole exchange, turned to leave the tavern. After a few steps, he stopped and called back to Eddie. “Just do me one favor. I don’t need to kill the thing myself. If you get a clean shot, take it. Far as I’m concerned, the sooner that bird exits this world, the better.”
No one in Allanton had more cause to dread the blackbird than Eldon Richter did. The pestilence left in its wake was limited to his lands, as if the creature were some dark avatar that had surveyed the farm and determined, Let there be blight. Moreover, the bird’s nocturnal visits occurred at a most disconcerting hour, as Eldon slowly realized.
As Eldon informed Jack Thibodaux (who, like a baton-toting sprinter, relayed the story to Theo LeMoyne), he’d been stirred from bed just a little after midnight last Friday by the god-awful racket outside his window. He stuck his head out and spotted the birds flying wildly overhead. Not a flock—they were less than a dozen total, and appeared to be of all different feather. They screeched their agitation as they darted and plunged and soared, and the only sense Eldon could make of the scene was that they all seemed at pains to steer clear of another bird sharing their airspace. That blackbird was a giant specimen—it looked like a hawk covered in soot more than a crow or sparrow—and its cries outstripped the combined efforts of the lesser birds. With a cape-like spread of wings, it circled over the farm, indifferent to the flapping frenzy around it.
Eldon shouted himself hoarse trying to shoo them all off, to no avail. He pulled his head back inside the second-story window and grudgingly waited for the clamor to die down. The noise did abate as Eldon sat in bed listening, the harsh caws of the great blackbird growing more sporadic as the squawking of the other birds petered out. Eldon didn’t note exactly when the last cry was heard, but knew it was past one o’clock when the blessed resumption of silence ushered him back to sleep.
Heading crankily outdoors to begin his work early the next morning, though, Eldon discovered that while the birds had moved on, they hadn’t left his property. Unmutilated yet unmoving, the bodies lay strewn about the farm like a littering of some taxidermist’s best handiwork. Walking about, Eldon spotted several sparrows, a robin, even a blue jay. The blackbird at the epicenter of last night’s squall did not number amongst the dead.
Eldon donned an old pair of work gloves and gathered up the rigid birds. Straightening up after bagging one of the sparrows in black plastic, he caught sight of the withered oak tree up ahead. Its death confounded him anew, and he stood there squinting at it, groping for a connection that refused to be drawn.
That night the blackbird woke him again. It soared solo this time; perhaps another survivor from the previous night had spread the chirp that the Richter farm was a no-fly zone. Eldon dragged a chair over to the window and sat watching. For some time he struggled to make out the blackbird’s movements against the backdrop of starless sky, his efforts of location aided mostly by the creature’s periodic caws. And just when he thought that he’d finally locked onto the thing as it flew away from the house and high over the distant oak tree, the blackbird seemed to cut itself off mid-cry and faded from sight.
Eldon blinked and leaned forward, willing his eyeglasses to telescope his vision. No use—the bird was gone. Shaking his head, he stood and shuffled back towards the bed. He glanced at the alarm clock on the end table, and instantly shuddered. One digit behind its hourly counterpart, the minute hand pointed straight up at the twelve. Eldon, who hadn’t shucked all of the rural superstition educated into him as a youngster, couldn’t help but think: The witching hour.
So trepidation slowed his step when he ventured outside at sunrise to inspect his land. The dark spots he saw dotting his grass failed to ease his concerns. At first he thought more bird carcasses had plummeted from the sky overnight, but upon closer examination the spots proved to be burn marks. The grass had not merely been blackened in such areas; foot-long ebony amoebas were singed right down into the soil. Their occurrence about the property seemed utterly pattern-less. Each subsequent discovery of the strange markings left Eldon further dumbstruck.
When he moved over to the small pen located midway between his house and barn, he found the single hog he kept there keeled over and stiff as a piggy bank. Its lifeless eyes bulged with fright; its mouth had frozen in a teeth-baring rictus. Grizzled skin clung like shrink-wrap to the hog’s gnarled flesh. The poor thing looked drained of any porcine succulence it might have possessed.
Eldon called Doc Sevino out to the farm later that Sunday morning, but the vet struggled to determine the hog’s cause of death. Thinking less skittishly in the light of day and in the company of another person, Eldon proposed that the blackbird bore some form of deadly contagion. Things had to link back to the bird, the sole constant throughout the past few nights. Listening to this, Sevino wiped his hands absently on his shirtfront and suggested they call the environmental folks down from Tabanga to run some tests at the farm. It would probably be a few days before they got here, though, the vet warned.
As it turned out, Eldon couldn’t wait that long. The next day’s bout of the bizarre did not just include additional brands burned haphazardly into the grounds. When Eldon moved off into his field to tend to his corn, he found more scattershot decay: select stalks sported dry gray husks that drooped like old bandaging around the mummified cobs. To Eldon’s dismay, the kernels nestled in the afflicted vegetables had rotted black and hard as rosary beads.
Now things had gone too far. His meager livestock was one thing, but this corn was his livelihood. Minutes later Eldon rode over to his nearest neighbors and hired the Thibodaux brothers to shoot down the blackbird that very night.
And that’s when the fun got started.
Jack and Wilfred Thibodaux, identical twins right down to the matching beerbellies, proved a couple of Keystone Kops equipped with shotguns; the hunt of the blackbird over the next few nights played out more like a wild goose chase. In each midnight hour (never before or after) the bird swooped about confidently, seemingly always beyond harm’s range. From time to time it would alight on a fence rail or tree branch and taunt the brothers with its stasis, but they still couldn’t target it. They made a misnomer of birdshot as they peppered the side of Eldon’s barn with their misses.
At one point Jack felt certain he had the blasted thing dead to rights. It settled on the A-shaped roof of the well flanking Eldon’s house, with its back turned from Jack’s advantageous position. Grinning with bloodlust, he aimed and fired, but succeeded only in blowing a sizeable hole through the wooden shingles as the bird flew off unscathed.
To add further insult, every bucketful of water cranked up from the well the next day bore an inexplicable brackishness.
The Thibodaux circus of ineptitude might still be running if not for last night’s grand finale. Dashing about in pursuit of the winged shadow,Wilfred accidentally stomped on a hoe that Eldon had left lying around. One of the upturned tines impaled Wilfred’s bare right foot (he’d brainstormed that he could chase the bird faster without his boots on), the metal poking out the top of his flesh like the point on a kaiser’s helmet. He thrashed and squealed like the proverbial stuck pig, and Jack had to call off the hunt so he could deliver his maimed twin to Tabanga County’s lone hospital twelve miles off.
Thus exit the Thibodaux brothers…
…And enter Deadeye.
Eddie’s perched himself on a sturdy limb, a few feet out from the trunk. Legs dangling, he sits facing the egg-white farmhouse, with the cornfield ranging off on his left hand side. The oak’s barrenness enables his circumspection of the Richter property. He scans the night-drenched landscape, well aware that it’s only a few minutes past eleven—if true to form, the blackbird will not be appearing for another hour. In the meantime, Eddie accustoms himself to the bird’s eye view.
Before long he realizes comfort will not be a likely part of this stakeout. The branch beneath him numbs his backside, while his arms and shoulders continue to decry the exertion of the climb up here. Eddie doesn’t have to note the gray woven into the thick mat on his forearms in order to be reminded that it’s been quite a few seasons since he qualified for spring-chicken status.
He could be home right now relaxing in his bed, finishing the Steinbeck book he’s been reading. He could have refused the request to kill the blackbird, taken the old live-and-let-live attitude—would’ve served Eldon right for turning first to Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. But the thought of Eldon being completely—and publicly—indebted to him was simply too rich to resist.
Besides, he has his own reputation to uphold here. All of Allanton knew this was a job for Deadeye Eddie, the man who could pick a bumblebee off a dandelion. Who could shoot the cap off a beer bottle at fifty paces without so much as scratching the glass. Who never once had been known to miss a deer or duck he’d targeted.
It’s a reputation that Eddie relishes and does his part to embellish. He loves recounting to rapt audiences at LeMoyne’s the story of his birth—how when his mother gave her last breaths to push him out of the womb, he came into the world bare-assed but with his face diapered with a caul. His mother’s death in childbirth is the truth, though Eddie can no longer remember whether the caul business was something his father had actually relayed to him as a child or merely a detail Eddie himself had cribbed from David Copperfield. In any event, Eddie swears to his audience that it must’ve been this caul that gave him his preeter-nat’ral ability to handle a rifle. Whenever he sights a bird or animal, he feels like the long barrel of the Remington is a metallic extension of his own index finger reaching all the way out until it taps the creature like an angel of death. It all makes for such a good story that Eddie tends to leave out the more likely explanation that he developed his uncanny shooting skills while hunting religiously with his father from an early age.
Eddie smirks as he sits ensconced upon his oaken throne. He pats the walnut stock of the Remington .22 bolt action stretched across his lap, thinking of what his name will mean to the people of Allanton after the blackbird crashes down to earth tonight.
His anticipation building, he scans the scene from cornfield to farmhouse to vacant pen to sheltered barn. The view is uniformly shadowed, with the exception of Eldon’s home, where warm light burns in the front windows. As his gaze settles back upon the house, Eddie can’t keep the old thought from bubbling up: That’s supposed to be me living there now. Nora Lee’s handsome dowry paid for the land and the buildings on it, and when she herself bought the farm eighteen years later, riddled with cancer, the widowed Eldon had been left in sole possession.
But Eddie refuses to let envy green his perspective. After all, he’s turned out alright on his own. He makes a decent enough living trading venison throughout the county, dabbles in carpentry whenever he needs a little extra money. For camaraderie he’s got the folk at LeMoyne’s; for finer stimulation later in the evening he’s got his books. So what was the use mooning over what might have been. Whole endeavor was about as fruitless as Eldon’s farm had proven this past week. Considering which—maybe this was all some grand karmic payback to Eldon for having stolen Eddie’s girl so long ago. Eldon finally getting what he deserved.
Eddie suddenly stiffens, his hunter’s instincts having alerted him to the nearby presence of the non-human. He clicks off the safety and raises the rifle to his shoulder, before he can even discern what’s approaching. His ears pick up low, panting breaths. He peers down at the trio of hounds grouped tightly side by side, looking multi-headed as Cerberus. The dogs’ leashes dovetail into the fisted grasp of the handler who passes underneath a second later. Spotting the familiarly cow-licked top of that person’s head, Eddie thinks, Looks like he found himself some smarter sidekicks.
Lowering his weapon, Eddie watches Jack Thibodaux trek inland from Country Road 17 toward Eldon’s house. Jack marches the dogs up onto the porch and raps on the front door. Eldon answers and the two men converse.
“Now will you get a load of this,” a grumbling Eddie asks of no one. His hearing is nowhere near as acute as his heralded vision, and he can’t make out what’s being said, but he doesn’t really need to. It’s perfectly clear what’s transpiring: that shifty bastard Eldon is hedging his bets by bringing back Jack. Wouldn’t Eldon be thrilled if Thibodaux managed to kill off the bird before Eddie got a chance to?
All at once, Eddie regrets not having brought some tobacco along with him. Not because he hankers for the chew, but because right now he would take great pleasure in spurting the brown juice all over Eldon’s land.
He can only shake his head as he watches Jack accept a flashlight from Eldon and head off around the side of the house. Eldon remains standing in the doorway, glancing warily about the property.
Eddie doesn’t feel particularly threatened by the new arrival, knowing what a lousy shot Jack is. And if those hounds are any reflection of their handler, they’ll be hard-pressed to locate their own peckers, let alone the elusive blackbird. No, it’s the principal of the thing that bothers him. Besides, you’d think Eldon would have realized by now the futility of utilizing the Thibodaux brothers.
You know what your problem is, Eldon? Eddie diverts his gaze from the old farmer to the small flowerbed adjacent to the porch steps, where tulips and sunflowers and chrysanthemums have been arranged in exact duplication of Nora Lee’s annual plantings. You’re one of those people who just don’t know when to let go.
Eddie maintains his monotonous watch, refusing to be lulled by the uneventful nature of the evening. He sits straight-backed and wide-eyed and surveys the graphite sky above the Richter farm. His night vision is at its keenest, or so he believes until the blackbird steals onto the scene. Eddie is hopelessly blind to the bird’s whereabouts, but senses its soaring presence via the disturbance of the surrounding air. Then the creature grows brazen and betrays its coordinates with a piercing caw. Rather than locating the blackbird, though, Eddie dips his gaze toward the curious plop he hears at the foot of the oak tree an instant later. The bird’s toxic excrement has landed with an acidic sizzle, sending up tendrils of gray smoke. As Eddie stares down with nose crinkled and mouth gaping, the blackbird makes further passes overhead, cries out and drops additional guano bombs that burn determinedly into the soil like lye spilled on flesh. A final cry rings out directly above Eddie, who mimics the universal folly of reacting to a “heads up!” warning by looking up. He twists his neck and tilts his chin, thus enabling the stinging splat to make a bull’s eye of his socket.
The impact jolts Eddie; automatically he poultices his right eye with the sweat-slicked heel of his hand. He mewls in anticipation of the agonizing causticity, yet finds himself surprisingly pain-free. His panic retreats when he realizes what actually happened.
Chrissakes, a fellow nods off for a minute, and next thing it’s Attack of the Killer Bird Droppings.
Eddie shakes his head and snorts, scoffing at his own foolishness. He doesn’t make too light of the moment, though, since he gradually wakens to the change in his present environment. It’s nothing he can put his finger on, but he senses it nonetheless. A coldness has settled onto the farm, a chill unrelated to fluctuations in Fahrenheit. The very atmosphere seems hushed, has the same muffled aspect of a scene during snowfall. But there’s nothing tranquil or picturesque to be found here, no pristine whiteness blanketing the Richter acres. If anything, Eddie’s impression as he studies the nightscape is of a thick coating of coal dust, of volcanic ash.
He continues his narrow-eyed circumspection, struggling to comprehend this perceived pall that has fallen over the farm. His own breaths (which do not plume before his face, despite the frigidity) sound distant in his ears. Then, like a pinpricked balloon, the pressurized quiet pops, and is superseded by a welter of noise—by the screeches of the blackbird as it marks the onset of midnight.
Either Eldon and the others have misrepresented the bird’s behavior over the course of the past week or the bird is especially vocal tonight. Its shrill cries peck at Eddie’s eardrums. Still, he is too disciplined a marksman to be distracted. He raises the Remington as soon as the flapping wings distinguish themselves against the heavens’ less-pitch backdrop. He lowers the rifle just as quickly when he gleans that the blackbird does not travel alone.
Eddie isn’t sure what to label them, doesn’t know if “ghosts” is the appropriate word. The airborne figures are neither transparent nor aglow. Their outlined forms seem incredibly tenuous, though, reminding Eddie of those brown moths that turn into a dingy smudge upon the slightest touch. He counts a dozen of them total, male and female, young and old. They all appear not so much unabashed by their nakedness as oblivious to it. They ignore both their own condition and each other as they cast pining looks at the tangible world.
The figures face and drift in various directions, but seem jointly linked to the blackbird like some uncanny kite-tail. As the bird soars through the night, it snaps the invisible tether taut and drags the twelve humanoids in tow. That’s when Eddie grasps the nature of the blackbird and the business it transacts.
This avian creature migrated along the most extensive flyway imaginable, guiding the spirits of the recently deceased into the afterlife. There’s a fancy word for such a conductor, Eddie knows, but it clings to the tip of his tongue like a piece of hair. Psycho-somethingorother. For some strange reason, that orchestral march always played at high school graduations rings in Eddie’s head as he strains to come up with the rest of the folkloric term.
Still, the answer eludes him, and meantime more perplexing questions arise. Wasn’t the ratio all backward here? Wasn’t there supposed to be a whole bunch of birds, such as whippoorwills or sparrows, trafficking in a single departing soul? One thing is certain: this blackbird has no easy task of keeping the multiple spirits in line. The group shows an extreme reluctance to vacate this plane of existence. They push themselves earthward, angling down like parachutists, but are yanked back up before making landfall. Occasionally, the blackbird picks up the slack a second late, and a single figurative heel grazes the grass carpeting Eldon’s property. Vague foot-shaped brands singe the lawn at those exact spots.
Meantime the soul of a young girl beelines toward the porch-front flowerbed, her pudgy pseudo-fingers grasping for tulips or sunflowers or chrysanthemums. She is choked off just before reaching her goal, but the stalks wilt and the bulbs shrivel in her brief presence anyhow.
When the blackbird passes close by the house, a trio of souls is drawn to the light shining in the upstairs windows. The figures stretch as far as they can, and manage to palm the white façade of the house. A tortured creaking sounds, and flecks of paint flutter like spurious precipitation from the promptly weathered wood.
Eddie observes all this with saucer eyes, and sees much more in retrospect. The scattered puzzle pieces from the prior nights cohere as he visualizes what must have happened to Eldon’s hog, to his corn, to the hapless birds that crossed paths with this ravenous crowd. In their desperate desire for life, the souls have a pestilent effect on whatever they focus on. Their dead touch is contagion; their mere presence can snuff nearby vitality.
As the cawing blackbird continues to trumpet its arrival, Jack Thibodaux races around to the front of the house. His upright flashlight beams wildly back and forth through the darkness like some spastic spotlight. He cannot keep pace with the dash of his three hounds, so he relinquishes the leash. The snarling, slavering dogs chase nonstop after the low-flying blackbird. They all yelp and pull up lame, though, when the petting hands of the trailing souls brush across their backs. Eddie can almost hear the grind of their bones as the dogs are rendered instantly arthritic.
Spurred by concern, Jack sprints over to his whimpering canines. They only snap at him, though, distrusting his human touch. Eldon, too, it seems has been drawn out by the blackbird’s din, and now rushes over to the spot where Jack squats. Eldon whips his head around, as if wondering where the hell Eddie is during all this ruckus. Then he cranes his neck skyward, and squints through the wire-rimmed glasses that haven’t quite corrected his nearsightedness. Jack looks up as well, and as both men focus squarely on the gliding blackbird, Eddie brims with insight.
Neither of them can see the spirits the blackbird hauls.
Hmmph, maybe his old caul story rang true after all. But regardless of the cause, Eddie takes special pride in his exclusive vision. He deems it a providential gift, believes he alone is meant to deliver the blow that knocks the blackbird into the beyond.
The blackbird gives him the perfect opportunity to do so when it swoops down onto the stone rim of the well stationed off to the side of Eldon’s farmhouse. The bird poises there facing outward, having incidentally dunked its twelve caudal appendages into the well’s water like some grotesque teabag. “Gotcha,” Eddie proclaims even as he raises his Remington into position. His left eye winks shut as he sights the easy target, and a grin spreads across his face. He relishes the fact that a single blast from his gun will provide the kill shot that all of Allanton will marvel at.
But before Eddie’s brain can fire the impulse to his trigger finger, the bird launches itself again. It’s a black arrow zipping through shadow, and Eddie loses immediate track of his prey. When it reappears a moment later, Eddie flinches, and his rifle jumps right out of his grip and clatters onto the ground below.
The blackbird shares the same branch as Eddie, less than a yard away. The yoked souls have gotten tangled higher up in the oak like tempest-tossed pages of newspaper. Their blighting touch couldn’t do much more damage to the already deadened tree; the only effect Eddie detects is a faint crackling of the wood reminiscent of kindling in a hearth. No, it’s the bird that seizes his attention and fans his unease. He fears he might follow his rifle’s lead and take a flying leap from the tree if this eclipse-dark creature beside him suddenly decides to croak “Nevermore.”
The bird remains mute, just perches there with its chest puffed out in falconine splendor. It stares unblinking at him with black bead eyes. Its solemn countenance mesmerizes Eddie. He senses a strange gloom suffusing him, tainting him, leaving his insides as tarred as a chain smoker’s lungs.
Then Eddie gathers himself, shaking off such dismal rumination. He reminds himself who he is, and what he’s done. Without a doubt this is no ordinary bird, but he is no ordinary hunter. So what if the sneaking creature disarmed him—he’ll just reach out and wring its plumed neck with his bare hands.
He moves with a predator’s deliberateness. The blackbird starts squawking the instant he extends his arms, yet does not take flight. For all the noise it now makes, the bird appears oddly unruffled. Its cries seem to signal anything but distress.
The rush of approaching footsteps intermixes with the bird’s steady cawing. “Jack. Over here. C’mon, will you forget them dogs,” Eldon stage whispers below. Instinct prods Eddie to call down to the farmer and convey some key instruction, but he fails to do so. He’s too busy locking gazes with the static blackbird. Its utter lack of urgency befuddles him. Why the weeklong delay—why hasn’t the bird conducted its ghostly train to nether-nether land already? Wasn’t such loitering counter to the thing’s nature, its ungodly mission? What on earth, literally, was it waiting for?
Eddie’s perplexity is short-lived, though. Barely has the last question crossed his mind when all thought is scattered by the stray bullet trenching into his brain.
As the shot echoed and the body plummeted, the migrator gave a final, triumphant caw and winged off into the black hole of night.