Hannah Fisher keeps the curtains closed in every room of the farmhouse night and day. Windowsills are stuffed with juice glasses brimming with seasonal wildflowers: delicate, snow-white Queen Anne’s Lace, purple chicory, periwinkle cornflowers. She’s been working miracles with her monthly budget too, squeezing out extra cash for her husband Rex’s cases of Miller High Life and ingredients to prepare elaborate, formal dinners on the weekends, recipes she downloads on her laptop. If there’s any spare change after all of that, she drives fifty minutes to the Wal-Mart in Scutters Mill and returns home with cases of French vanilla or lavender-scented candles, all shapes and sizes, bungeed into their pickup truck’s rusty, dusty bed.
At first, Rex played along with the dream that Hannah could imbue their rundown, nearly one hundred year old homestead with some romantic ambiance. It’s no secret that neither of them is getting any younger. For Rex’s thirtieth birthday over a year ago now, Hannah had prepared one of his favorite meals. She thought she had done everything right, but the entree turned out tougher than shoe leather. Rex had been so sweet about it, shadowing a quote from his favorite Quentin Tarantino movie: “Goddamn, that’s a pretty fucking good chicken cordon bleu!”
For a while, sexual banter crept back into their lives, keeping company with the creaky, wooden floorboards under their bed. Silly phrases they used to say to each other returned to their memories: Rex, I shaved my legs this morning. You’ll never believe this, Hannah, but my jock itch cleared up overnight. When Hannah finished stacking the evening dishes inside the drying rack and headed toward their bedroom door, Rex would follow right behind her.
Hannah can’t remember the last time any bit of her skin was near any bit of Rex. She can’t remember the last time they celebrated anything or laughed together, either. Rex and Hannah used to make each other hoot and holler all the time. It made the daily chores of running their beef cattle farm go faster. These days Hannah forgets what Rex’s mouth looks like as a smile. She wonders if she will ever laugh like she used to, like they used to. It’s kind of true that your belly jumps up and down and giggles right along with you when you are really joyful and cracked up about something.
Hannah’s stomach is in a constant state of sour swish these days. Whenever she lets something slip down her esophagus, the contents sizzle deep inside her like the Pop Rocks Candy she used to love as a kid. Those little cherry crystals crackled and popped, magical fireworks exploding on her tongue. They still sell the stuff at Wal-Mart. As soon as things start looking up, she’ll treat herself to a packet.
Rex stomps into the kitchen now like he’s already got his heavy-treaded barn boots strapped on. Hannah bites her bottom lip. Rex halts in front of the kitchen sink. The curtains above two silver basins are closed tight as a puppet theatre curtain before the performance begins.
“Jesus!” Rex spews, grabbing and ripping fabric off the window frame. A spring-mounted, metal curtain rod boomerangs over the top of Hannah’s head. She doesn’t flinch.
“Rex! For Christ’s sakes! Your grandmother hand made those. That’s her embroidery you just tore up to smithereens. You beheaded a little Amish boy and his pet lamb. I hope you’re happy.”
Rex twirls around, faces Hannah with a sneer followed by a blank look, as if he’s never seen a wife before, his wife before, or anyone sitting at this Formica table inside the kitchen where he was born and raised.
“Stop closing all the fucking curtains, Hannah! I got to be able to see out to the pastures. You know that. In fact, I am gonna rip down all the window hangings all over this goddamned house and burn ’em in the backyard right now. Solve this little problem once and for all. Jesus Christ!”
Hannah rests her forehead down on the cool table. The table smells like toast, raisin toast. It smells like happy kids, like a pure, fresh air life on a prosperous Hereford cattle farm.
Things are pinging and crashing in the living room. Rex will move to the master bedroom next, two windows in there, then on to the bathroom, one window there. So much for privacy, but no one visits the farm anymore, and the main road is over four miles away. Rex’s brother used to visit every other weekend, but Cash moved to Nashville.
Hannah lifts up her head. It’s no use crying. She has to admit. She’s been closing the curtains more for herself than Rex. This whole situation on the farm has migrated into her brain at nighttime. She used to be able to escape after sundown underneath sheets dried in sweet, country air and a heavy quilt, but not anymore. It’s gotten to the point where she can’t eat or sleep, not like any Hannah she recognizes.
It’s partly Walter Disney and partly Alfred Hitchcock who invade Hannah’s dream state, images from their creative efforts on the silver screen all mixed up, all fucked up inside her head. When Lawrence the rooster sounds off before sunup, because every farm has to have an annoying ass rooster, Hannah pops her eyes open, swallows blood; the insides of her cheeks chewed into raw, hanging flaps she flicks up and down with her tongue all day long, ticking off her chore list.
Hannah swivels her neck toward the open sky outside the kitchen window. She can’t even stop herself from looking out there, so how can she expect Rex to be doing any better than he is. Ah, but this morning’s sky is empty, not peppered with anything. No entity, no hand of fate or toe of Satan, stirring circular shapes around and around up there. No sickening, aerial whirlpool. Hannah gasps, accepting some oxygen into her lungs at last. A sudden rush of air expanding her chest leaves her dizzy.
Hannah doesn’t take her eyes off the blessedly empty sky. This is a rare moment to enjoy and savor. Why is the sky blue? Maybe she was absent that day of middle school. There really wouldn’t be a better color choice. Nobody gets sick of blue. Imagine if the sky was always orange. Blue works best as a background to earth’s life.
Today, there are a few clouds, but clouds are okay. Clouds are supposed to be up in the sky. Hannah glances down at cold, black coffee inside the chipped Scooby-Doo mug her mother-in-law always used. Someone said there were clouds in her coffee. Clouds don’t belong in coffee. Things shouldn’t appear where they don’t belong. Carly Simon must have been having a really rough time when she discovered clouds floating on the surface of her morning brew, fed up with life and Warren Beatty’s ego and who knows what else.
Hannah pinches her eyes tight, wishes fervently that nothing else but shades of the color blue, azure, aquamarine, turquoise, a baby’s blue, any kind of blue, and clouds would ever appear in the atmosphere over the top of the farm ever again. Please, nothing but blue and clouds over these nine acres. Is that too much to ask? Maybe one or two stray hot air balloons per year when the Mifflin County Fair is running would be acceptable, but that’s it, not anything else, ever.
Rex marches back into the kitchen with a stack of curtains and the living room drapes in his arms, wheezing and grunting. His frame in periphery is massive, a boulder of a man who has to duck doorframes to get in and out of rooms in most structures except barns and the Grange Hall. Hannah is not going to give Rex the satisfaction of looking over. She’s not giving him the front of her face today. Instead, she turns her attention toward last year’s calendar under plastic, alphabet letter refrigerator magnets. Steady-handed, she raises Scooby to her lips and sucks in some liquid.
Rex turns and goes out to the backyard with a bang. That should just about do it for another screen door. How long can anything hang on by hinges.
She should probably warn Rex that burning fabric, especially those polyester living room drapes with thermal linings will produce copious billows of noxious smoke. She should close the house windows up too, but the hell with it. It’s the middle of August in the middle of Tennessee and it’s too damn hot. On the upside, maybe someone will think the barn or the silo or the house or the whole kit and caboodle is burning down, and she can invite them to stay for tonight’s featured dinner: Vegetable Tarte Tatin. Hannah gags.
While the kitchen slowly fills with acrid smoke, Hannah considers the details of last night’s dream. All her dreams have been similar lately. They all begin with the vultures from Disney’s movie The Jungle Book: Buzzie, Flaps, Ziggy, and Dizzy, those adorable guys with their shaggy haircuts and Liverpudian accents. Hannah suspects she giggles in her sleep at first, just as the dream gets underway and the feathered quartet exchanges their famous banter: Whach ya wanna do? I dunno. What do you want to do? I dunno. Whach YOU wanna do? Hey! Don’t start that again. Okay, but whach ya wanna do?
This is when Hitchcock enters belly first and all of a sudden the mock-Beatles birds have blood red eyes, growl like wolves, sprout dripping talons and hideous, dagger beaks. Hannah shivers. In the dreams, she searches and locates herself far below, standing in the middle of a cornfield row. She is shading her eyes, looking skyward toward the row of birds, her body no bigger than a black ant on top of a picnic table. When the birds screech and launch, spears sailing earthward, Hannah starts sprinting.
Hannah wakes up running in bed, sweating, her face wet with tears. Outside, she spies the orange tip of Rex’s cigarette. He stays outside all night, wide-awake, sitting erect in a lawn chair, watching heaven, as if anyone can get his hands around heaven.
Last summer, it was Hannah who found the first calf, freshly born and freshly dead in the south meadow. A baby girl, stone still under the weeping willow tree where all the heifers like to give birth. They’ve been choosing that spot since Rex’s grandparents were running the farm. It is easy to see why. The ground stays shady and cool, and there’s a trickling creek. Soft, dense moss grows plentiful. Clover near water is always plumper. Hannah imagines the taste must be sweeter too.
As Hannah approached the south meadow early that morning, her heart filled up with ice water. The mother cow was clearly agitated, pacing around her newborn, mooing strangely, shaking her head. Hannah knew something was terribly wrong. She hit the brake on the tractor and leaped off, jarring her whole spine, not feeling any pain until later when the adrenaline wore off.
Hannah had dropped down onto shaking knees, lost her breakfast. She’d never seen anything like it. The calf’s eyes were pecked clean away. Only thing left were two crimson pockets oozing blood and puss. Something had bitten the poor babe’s tongue too, leaving a hollow mouth hanging open in a horrific way. The hide meant to cover the calf’s backside was torn back. All the rump flesh was gone, deep holes spreading over the calf’s soft underbelly leaking crimson onto the green moss. The poor baby had surely suffered.
Hannah screamed for Rex then, but he was too far away. When she was able stand up, she stumbled to the tractor and went to find him.
Since then, black vultures have killed six more newborn calves on the Fisher Hereford Farm, one not even all the way out of the birth canal. The birds devour the calves while they are still alive, start by gouging the eyes out and move on to the softest parts. Their kind of killing always begins with a blinding. That’s how you know it was them.
Rex and Hannah corral as many pregnant heifers inside their barn as possible, but the barn is a small one. All of them don’t fit at once. Beef cattle are large animals. If only they could afford to build a bigger barn, but they can’t.
It wouldn’t save all of them anyway. She reminds Rex over and over that even on nearby farms with bigger barns, there are plenty of dead calves. You never know exactly when birth is coming and cattle have to eat and get fresh air sometime.
Whenever Hannah has a chance, she googles and reads more than a person would ever want to know about the habits of black vultures. They are a whole different story, not at all like the common turkey vultures that have always been around these parts. Turkey vultures consume the dead. Black vultures come for the living, not the dead.
Hannah informed Rex that hanging up dead, black vultures might keep the live ones away. She’d helped him strap body after body to fence posts, bright orange wire reflecting sunlight all over the farm, but the effigies had only worked for a week or so. The birds stopped noticing their dead comrades, so Rex and Hannah gave up.
No one really knows why the black vultures have arrived in Mifflin County, or where they came from. There are plenty of theories rolling over these pastures, spilling through the soft divides between private farmland, but answers to those kinds of questions won’t change anything. No one knows what to do, not the veterinarians, the local government, the Department of Agriculture of the State of Tennessee.
Coughing, choking, Hannah stumbles outside. Rex has left a smoldering mess in the backyard fire pit. Thick, grey smoke is floating away rapidly, traveling high above the house chimney, barn roof, silver-topped silo. A strong, locomotive of a wind has been chugging all morning, transporting the smoke cargo in the direction of the main road. If this force of nature keeps up, people stepping outside of the buildings along the Main Street of Scutters Mill at lunchtime will witness a smoke signal.
Rex’s figure, straight-backed in the driver’s seat of their biggest tractor, splits a sunny, green-coated horizon in half. He’s heading toward the south meadow. The sky out that way is in motion again, little black specks circling, circling: skydivers of death, killer raptors, merciless beasts multiplying, burgeoning, growing stronger and more resolute with every passing day.
Hannah brings her hand up to the base of her throat, tries gripping back the sobs about to erupt from there, but she is powerless. She always is when she spots the vultures. She heaves, gasps, and even though there is no sense in crying, she can’t help it. She wails.
Rex’s howl comes back to Hannah’s ears now, a noise from a body who is Rex, but this isn’t Rex’s voice. Rex named this howl his “war cry,” but the tone sounds more like the time Hannah’s cousin Jem accidentally shot himself in his own foot. Hannah had been the only person with Jem that day. They were both nine years old. They weren’t supposed to be messing around with the hunting rifles. Hannah had passed out cold.
Soon, Rex’s gunshots will echo across these fields of nothing but a memory of peaceful intentions. Some migratory bird act limits how many black vultures a human being can blast out of the sky in one day, but Rex has long forgotten about limits.
Hannah knows it’s no use. Rex can shoot all day and all night if he wants to. She could join him and they could bring down twice as many, bury themselves in stiff, feathery shapes, but it wouldn’t make any difference. That’s like thinking you could bottle up the ocean temporarily and clean the sandy bottom. The birds are going to keep on coming and coming.
It’s all killing around here now. There’s nothing left.
Sometimes, in Hannah’s dreams, she stops running and turns around in that cornfield, opens her arms and her eyes as wide as she can and surrenders. It feels good when the birds plunge their beaks into her eye sockets and warm liquid, thicker than tears, streams down her cheeks.
Hannah grabs the newest firewood first, the pile most recently chopped and stacked for the woodstoves. Green wood makes dense, grey smoke. Soon, Hannah has created an impressive, milky sky full of destruction, the flames curling, leaping, the roar muffling Rex’s gunshot echoes. She touches her fingertips to her forehead, her face hot as the fire. When a spark lands in her hair, searing her scalp, she crinkles her nose and reluctantly brushes it away.
A swirling red and blue light pops up suddenly in the distance, out by the windmill. The shape of Sheriff Trotter’s olive green sedan crests the top of the hill. Hannah knew someone would alert the sheriff if she got the fire really going. She knew the sheriffs drive out to make sure everything was okay.
She should have thought of this smoke signal idea herself, but she didn’t. Her heart has been so stubborn, fighting the idea of stranding Rex, leaving him out here all alone without the truck, no way to get into town when he needs to. She’d considered asking Jem to show up at the farm and get her, but she kept stalling, giving everything more time, hoping for a change of luck, that packet of cherry Pop Rocks.
Hannah ducks back into the house, snatches her handbag and her laptop from the coffee table.
Jem won’t mind if she sleeps on his basement couch. She’ll pay him rent. They’re always looking for dishwashers at the nursing home in Scutters Mill or maybe she can land a waitressing job at that new 24-hour truck stop near Lincoln Falls.
She’ll call Cash and tell him to get home A.S.A.P.
She’ll convince Cash to throw her clothes into some free boxes from the liquor store so she never has to come back.
Hannah bursts through the front door and begins running barefoot on bare earth she can no longer call home.
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