It was the great number of vultures that eventually led him there. He had been up in the barn loft throwing hay down into the manger through the square hole in the floor. “I love the way it smells,” she had said, as she’d broken apart the flakes of hay with her thick veined hands, spreading them evenly throughout the manger. Rick shook his head as if to shake her out of it. He walked towards the gaping window of the barn loft, through the hay dust dancing in the morning light, and leaned against the edge of it, standing a good twelve feet off the ground. The barn swallows had just returned, and they’d been fussing at him all morning. Chastising him with their chatter. Diving at his head. As a child, in this same barn, he had been terrified of them. Had believed that they would not swerve at the last minute, but that one would instead gouge out his eye with unfathomable accuracy, and without pause continue on its acrobatic flight, his eye grasped in its beak.
“I wish I was a swallow,” she’d said. “They fly south every year because they have to, to survive. The only humans who get to do that are rich or old.” He had laughed when she said it. Pulled her against him and kissed her forehead. He had thought she was joking, but in the end it was the winter that had truly killed them. Maybe it could have worked if we’d gone. Just found the goddamned money and gone back to Texas like she wanted. Left Rob to run the farm and take care of Mom. These thoughts were poison. He knew. Not even the great open skies over Texas could have fixed them. From the beginning they were like two halves of separate broken mugs trying to make their sharp edges fit. Trying to hold water, but always leaking.
He looked out over the farm again, and his eyes carried up to the sky above it. To where the vultures circled. At least two dozen of them. Something big. Deer maybe. He imagined the coyotes took it down but did not eat it, as was their way in the spring when teaching their young to hunt. He was grateful that they had not taken any lambs this year.
“Coming upon him shoveling manure out of the barn she’d start up, ‘Well, you say I’m a made just to fit your plans, but will a barnyard shovel fit your hands?’”
The next day in town at the grocery store he felt as if he had river stones tied to the bottoms of his feet. He had not realized before how much space the absence of something can fill. On the drive home, Loretta, her favorite. “You’re lookin’ at country.” She’d sing it and grin. Looking over the top of her lopsided glasses while she chopped kindling in the fall. When the snows were light and just barely coated the world. When she thought winter would be something fun. Something exciting and new. Coming upon him shoveling manure out of the barn she’d start up, “Well, you say I’m a made just to fit your plans, but will a barnyard shovel fit your hands?” Back then she’d thought life on the farm was novel. Quaint and old-fashioned. Charming even. She thought it would be perfect like in the songs, because in fact she knew nothing about the country except for a handful of country songs. Back before the mud, the ice, the slush, the chains, the constant battle to keep the house warm.
He watched TV all night. Stupid mindless crap, like junk food for his brain or a blinder for his thoughts. He slept poorly. Tossing and turning, and dreaming nightmarish sequences of finding her and Rob in the granary, their deceit all too clear if not explicit. He woke up pissed off, finished his thick black coffee and peanut butter toast without tasting either, and went out to the barn to check for lambs.
Normally, if anything was to go wrong, it was that the lambs came too early. The ram jumping the fence and getting to the herd before time. But this year, they were a late crop. He was not even sure how this had happened. He had felt drugged when Katy was around. The ewes had all lambed but three and he hadn’t lost a single one. There were twelve sets of triplets, late but worth it. None had lambed in the night, so he brought fresh water and hay to the ewes with newborns in the lambing pens, gave them each a scoop of sweet feed, and poured two buckets full into the feeding trough out in the fold for the ewes with older lambs. He watched them eat. Listened to the sound of their jaws crunching through wheat and corn. The smell of molasses and lanolin and grass. The lambs ran in gangs back and forth at the far end of the fold. Leaping and bucking.
“Once you crossed through the brush at the forest’s edge, it was cool and dark inside the woods. Though the spring leaves were not yet full grown, they had already changed the forest. Turned it wild and close. Not the long views and cathedral feel of winter.”
“Rick heard the tires crunching on gravel. Heard them spin out onto the paved one lane road. Heard the crickets, then a bullfrog, then the high lonesome wail of a coyote followed by the eerie yipping of its pups. He was shaking.”
“Get off my land, Don.” Rick pointed the gun at him. Don stared at him without blinking, then got in his car, pulled the door closed, and started it. He leaned out the window before he pulled away. Rick saw concern on his face. Saw that it looked out of place there. Don opened his mouth as if to speak, but retreated back into the darkness of the car and pulled away. Rick heard the tires crunching on gravel. Heard them spin out onto the paved one lane road. Heard the crickets, then a bullfrog, then the high lonesome wail of a coyote followed by the eerie yipping of its pups. He was shaking. He wanted to call Katy. She wouldn’t get it. Any of it. She didn’t understand anything he knew was truth.
He walked out towards the barn, still carrying his gun, and sat, leaning against the old burr oak tree where the kettle of vultures had roosted during the summer he turned sixteen. In the evenings after dinner while his sisters had washed dishes, he would sit at the edge of the yard and watch the vultures as they rode the air currents up and up, circling slowly, until they almost disappeared. Then they would shift their wings slightly and drop down to roost in the upper branches of the tree. Their wings had gathered the air with great gulping noises, and he had envied how they slept there, night after night. A dozen of them or more. Together out in the clear darkness. With the air against the shriveled red skin of their heads. With the great black sky above them. With their feet on the branches of a burr oak tree whose roots ran deep underground. But with the knowledge, too, that in the morning, they had only to lift their wings to soar up over the western mountains and away.
Rachel Garringer grew up on a sheep farm and former commune in Southern West Virginia. She attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she majored in gender studies, labor history and woodcut printmaking. She then attended the School of Honky Tonk Heartbreak in Austin, Texas, where she majored in biking through rush hour traffic with minimal injuries, eating Migas for breakfast, and not getting dizzy while two stepping. Rachel now lives back home in West Virginia, where she works as a youth advocate, makes art, plans her dream farm, writes, and interviews people for various oral history projects. She attended her first writing workshop at the Hindman Settlement School's 2013 Appalachian Writers Workshop. "Vultures" is her first published work.