With the demonstrating parishioners in retreat and the boombox off, a quiet settled over the kitchen. Landon turned to his grandmother, intending to get a little enlightenment. He was preempted, knocked back a bit, even, by the depth of a sound that he felt as much as heard. A menacing clunk-slide that dropped on him like an unexpected winter coat. Mamaw felt it, too; she turned her gaze up toward the ceiling.
“They’re in the attic,” she said. The vultures.
“Did the witch send them?” asked Landon. It was the noise; it was too palpable, like the knocking of the plywood door in its frame at her house had been. The witch’s house in Poor Valley. Mamaw nodded her reply before passing her hand over her brow. It was a curiously frail movement. She’d been old as long as Landon could remember, but she’d never seemed fragile.
“I’ll go look,” he offered, turning to go. She didn’t answer. He made his way down the hall and up the steps to the cramped second story of the house. When he was a little boy he’d loved it up here. The steep slope of the ceiling, the faintly papery-dry smell. There was a landing/hallway at the top of the stair, and the door to his father’s childhood bedroom. Landon slept there when he stayed with his grandmother. Now, though, he was more interested in the small door at the other end of the landing. He unlatched the slide-lock and pushed it open. It was small; he had to crouch down, peering through the gloom pent up in the attic.
He smelled the faint, sickly-sweet stench of the vultures. It might have been his imagination, knowing they were carrion-eaters, but he didn’t think so. It didn’t really matter, anyway. He went through the door, half-squatting, carefully feeling the rough wood floor with the soles of his shoes. His eyes adjusted to the dim light creeping in through a dusty bank of small windows. There was nothing up here, Landon was surprised to see. He’d last been here as a boy, and there had been old toys, books, trunks of memorabilia and moth-eaten winter clothes. Now there was nothing, except…yes, there it was, another gentle clunk-slide-scrape. Not as loud as it had been before, in the kitchen. Not as heavy.
Landon peered down the length of the attic to a shadowy group of shapes at the far end. He stayed where he was, still in a crouch, unable to stand completely lest he crack his head on a beam, a rib of the sloped roof. What should he do? The birds were down there, solemnly swaying and shuffling together, four or five of them. Their talons scraped the floor, their feathers ruffled and brushed each other. If he tried to startle them away, they’d probably panic, or, worse, attack him. He didn’t want that in such a confined space. How’d they get in, anyway? There, one of the small windows at the far end was broken out. It was just big enough to admit the largest bird.
One of them moved aside, and then the bird to its right did the same. What…? They were making a space for him, and in case he wasn’t quite getting the picture, the two who had shuffled aside opened a wing each like two butlers extending a blackly clad, welcoming arm to an honored guest. All the birds looked at him, beady eyes gleaming in the semi-dark, shuffling slowly back and forth, foot to foot, feathers rustling, all in a circle around…what? He was afraid to find out. Landon recalled running away from the cobbled-together house in Poor Valley. The woman had laughed at him.”You didn’t even go in!” she’d cackled. He steeled his resolve. This time, he went, feet shuffling across the floorboards, hand patting at the beams overhead. He tried to stop his imagination from offering up suggestions as to what he might find there, watched over by eaters of dead and rotting things.
He made it to the birds, still swaying, shuffling, rustling, and he saw what it was they gathered ’round. It was a huge nest, thickly woven with twigs and small branches, ribbons, scraps of cloth. It would have been pretty, if not for the eerie sentries surrounding it in their faint miasma of carrion-rot. One of the birds chuffed, as if in response to Landon’s thoughts. It cocked its head toward the nest, inviting a closer look.
A vulture is communicating with me, thought Landon. Completely off-kilter, he extended his left hand slightly toward the nest, palm up, as though confirming what the bird had indicated. Should I look in? The bird inclined its head in affirmation. Landon let out a sigh, unaware he’d been holding his breath. He shuffled forward the last inches to the nest and looked into it.
At first he could not make out any of its shadowy contents, but as he gazed they solidified into objects that were all so familiar he softly cried out. There was his Magic 8 ball, lost years ago, its black plastic hide nestled up to an old baseball team sweatshirt. His coach had been pissed when he’d lost that, when, in the eighth grade? And there was his favorite hemp necklace from high school, his nudie magazine he’d thought his grandmother had found and confiscated, even an old love letter from grade school. Lost, all lost things glazed in a patina of childhood memories. He gasped when he saw a picture of his mother. She was sitting on a swing at the park, holding him tight in her lap. He was only three.
“Where did this stuff come from?” He asked, looking at the vulture to his right. It only looked back, its black eyes utterly unreadable. A bird on the other side of the nest turned and shuffled its way to the broken window, clutching the jagged, shard-studded frame of it in its talon-ed feet before thrusting its huge, black body out into the sunshine and beating its wings, hard, to launch out and away. One by one the birds followed suit. Landon sat back on his haunches, watching with incredulity.
“What the hell,” he murmured. He was alone in the attic, with a cache of lost childhood things nestled before him. A welcome breeze drifted through the broken window, eddying the vulture-smell around him.