LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

The Litany of Feathers, by Sharon J. Gochenour

Litany

Thunderbolt approached the Great Egg with a bit of librarian’s hand in her beak. She bobbed her head, graciously; she shook her small wattles, zealously; she twitched her tail, respectfully; she flapped her wings, observantly.

She dropped the two fingers in the straw strewn before the nest of sand and bones. The turkey did a small dance to show that she really, really meant it, stamping her feet and throwing back her head.

The Bone-Eaters left their perches over the Egg, alighting with thunderous purpose upon the offering-floor.

They enacted a brief, ceremonial tussle.

The fingers were consumed.

The sacrifice was accepted.

Cassowarius, the Prophet, stalked past Thunderbolt the turkey, the mighty claw upon each foot clicking resonantly upon the floor. He mounted the steps to the Great Egg, stood briefly astride it, and, with a huge sigh, settled down to continue brooding.

*

The good news about They-Who-Once-Were-And-Who-Shall-Be-Again was first revealed to a colony of house finches living in Orange County, California, on the second of February. They had once reigned beautifully and bloodily, and the finches knew in the barbs of their feathers that it would again take blood and beauty to hasten their return.

Within a week they had opened a large discount warehouse in an abandoned strip mall, emblazoned with the banner VERY DEALS. Humans who entered the VERY DEALS were mobbed savagely by the flock. The finches pecked and cheeped mightily, struggling with holy and noble purpose to secure these first few sacrifices.

The 50% GONE and CHEAP ITEM signs seduced more humans inside to peruse the selection of twigs, leaves, and seeds offered at VERY DEALS. By the time the local geese were converted to the cause on March fourteenth, the store was a prime harvesting ground.

Following the massacre and the triumphant sacrifice of the three survivors in a nearby pond, the first location of VERY DEALS was closed. A new building was opened by sparrows in Berkeley, followed by one in Phoenix, then in Denver, then in Sacramento. By the end of July there were two hundred locations of VERY DEALS catering to human twig and leaf needs across the continental United States. By the end of September, this had risen to six hundred. Geese warriors erected temples of human bones on the banks of nearby ponds.

When sales dropped off, enterprising sparrow flocks rolled out a new product line, STUFF CAKES: CAKES WITH STUFF. These, priced attractively at four cakes for forty cents, again proved irresistible to local humans, and the bone temples resumed rapid construction.

In October, Cassowarius, the Prophet, arrived in Los Angeles, disembarking with his holy cargo from a freight ship carrying a great number of sheepskin rugs.

He deemed fourteen of the bone temples mighty enough to receive an Egg. Ten of these were in Louisiana, one in Billings, Montana, one in Akron, Ohio, and one in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

*

Thunderbolt had once been a different turkey, a magnificent and battle-hardened tom who stalked the corn-covered plains of Iowa. In the first months after the revelation of the good news, he brought many sacrifices to the nearest bone temple. He was a mighty hunter of cyclists, hiding in a ditch next to a scenic overlook, crouched and silent until the clicking of a chain over gears rattled his wattles and made his bones tremble with fury. Then Thunderbolt would rise from the ditch in a feathery bomb of rage, hurling himself directly into the cyclist’s face. Several were killed on impact, and several more were dragged by the local goose regiment to the sacrificial pond.

By June, Thunderbolt had killed all the local cyclists, and it was time to follow the good word east.

The corvids had at first remained skeptical: they had long worshiped older and stranger things than They-Who-Once-Were-And-Who-Shall-Be-Again. But they respected Cassowarius, and when he alighted from his shipping container, they commandeered a train so he could complete his holy mission. The corvids did not deign to sully themselves with diesel, so when one engine ran out of fuel and died, they captured another. Cassowarius crossed the Rockies and then the Great Plains in a series of box-cars. He crouched over the crate that contained the Eggs, his golden eye burning righteously.

Thunderbolt intercepted this train during a transfer from one engine to the next, accomplished in Marshalltown, Iowa. A great murmuration gusted upward from the old train, before gathering itself together again in a precise drapery over the new.

The crows called to each other.

The sparrows chittered.

The geese honked, a cacophony of old rage and new hope.

Cassowarius crouched over the Eggs, silent.

Thunderbolt made his obeisance to the Prophet, his gobble like the crackling of a prairie fire, before launching himself onto the engine platform.

*

In this way, it took the cavalcade of the Prophet six weeks to cross the United States, moving down to Louisiana then up to Montana then back down to Louisiana then up to Akron and then back down again to Louisiana, and finally in a long sail northwards to Cambridge. Thunderbolt was welcomed as a hero into the Harvard flock, which had already captured two graduate students, sixteen professors, and one ukulele-playing street performer for sacrifice at the nearest temple, which towered over the public green. The pigeons occupying the VERY DEALS, built on the bank of the Mystic River, had provided still more offerings, mixed with bread and day-old muffins. The tom that had led the flock before Thunderbolt had vanished under mysterious circumstances and was believed to be under a basement floor somewhere in Dorchester. But Thunderbolt found himself in his element: he had never seen so many cyclists, nor so many trash cans and benches to hide behind.

He had only just started upon a reign of terror that would have brought unspeakable glory for They-Who-Once-Were-And-Who-Shall-Be-Again when an 86 bus barrelling toward Sullivan Square smacked him out of the sky, like a paper donkey meeting a seven-year-old’s bat.

*

She-Who-Would-Be-Known-As-Thunderbolt-And-Had-Once-Been-Otherwise had then only two sacrifices to her credit, both parking metre attendants who had wandered too close to deep gutters. But how she dreamed! Having once followed an unwary sophomore into the Widener Library, her small skull was filled with the flying of pages and the gobblings of thousands of books. The library itself became a great bird in these visions, its papery feathers always ruffling and rousing itself before resettling into thousands of new patterns. She could imagine no holier sacrifice than one from the heart of the whispering avian book-house, one of the human ghosts that made its lineaments quiver and whisper as it shuttled books back and forth across the tables, the shelves, the bones.

It was in this way that, in the weeks following the sudden absence of Thunderbolt-Who-Was from the flock, She-Who-Would-Be embraced more and more of his fury and his conviction. She had observed his methods while hunting cyclists and mimicked them, bagging two mustachioed persons on road bikes and one on a fixie. As soon as she understood that humans were particularly vulnerable while they were trying to drink from cups and ride bicycles at the same time, she captured four individuals selling microbatch locally roasted coffee beans in a single week.

But she dreamed of the great bird whose feathers entranced hundreds of silent humans, heads bowed over whatever messages the black lacings across its barbs and vanes and rachis could communicate.

On October the twenty-third She-Who-Was-Nearly led the flock in a dawn attack on the design library at Harvard. The fourteen humans sleeping face-down on the tables were claimed as sacrifices immediately, but the librarians and several teaching assistants had to be cornered in the office until a regiment of geese arrived as reinforcements.

By November, She-Who-Was-In-All-But-Name had captured three more academic libraries and two branch libraries.

On the Day-Of-Great-Bloodletting, when the flock was accustomed to smelling its enslaved brethren roasting in every human house and apartment, the turkeys crossed the river to the south and stormed the Boston Public Library, greater yet than Widener, built of pale stone and facing out on a green square where many humans with skateboards collided with each other. The library was empty on this day of feasting, but many sacrifices were captured in the week after, bludgeoned with falling books and enraged flock members.

Cassowarius, the Prophet, was so impressed that the Egg was wrapped tenderly in newspapers and soft leaves and placed in a litter carried by a dozen geese and one fortunate mallard. The Bone-Eaters flew overhead, their wings wide and shadowing. The bearers of the litter marched south and east along the great avenues, goose regiments going before and after them to force cars and trucks off the streets and onto the sidewalks. When they arrived in the Great Library, the Bone-Eaters made themselves perches atop the stone lions that looked over the great stair, and Cassowarius built a new nest between their posts.

She-Who-Really-Could-Name-Herself-If-She-Liked was allowed to approach the Egg.

She bowed.

She flapped her wings.

The corvids chattered from the banisters.

The geese honked in rage and triumph.

Now she declared herself Thunderbolt, carer of secrets, keeper of rages, scourge of both cyclists and librarians.

*

The last librarian had quite a lot of frizzy, grey-brown hair and pinky-grey skin. This human wore a jacket and a skirt and had a large bag of books hanging from one shoulder.

Thunderbolt cornered the librarian by herself, in the garden of one of the buildings that had once hosted a great number of students walking around its bright atrium, and which was now overrun by turkeys and red-winged blackbirds. Now the garden was coated in chalky stains and feathers and echoed with avian voices calling to one another. The librarian had been standing alone near the wall, staring up at the cloudy sky.

It turned its stare on the turkey. Its eyes were framed by black spectacles that reflected flashes of white light. It did not run when she surged forward and exploded into flight, as the professors had done, or fall to its knees and throw its hands over its head, as the coffee bean salespeople had.

It only watched, blinking, as its death approached like thunder.

*

Thunderbolt approached the Great Egg with that bit of librarian hand in her beak. The geese had helped her take apart the sacrifice. Most of the big bones had gone to the temple on the pond, but she had taken the small bones, the beautiful bones, to present on the offering-floor, before Cassowarius and the Bone-Eaters and They-Who-Once-Were-And-Who-Shall-Be-Again.

Cassowarius had hardly settled down onto the Egg when he sprang up again with a cry that shook the stones of the Great Library, a great screech that was echoed by the Bone-Eaters and then the pigeons and then the corvids and then the geese and then all the birds in a great wave that echoed and echoed, down the avenues, to the rivers and the bone temples on the ponds and the VERY DEALS and the locomotives that carried the mighty spirits of turkeys over the plains—

Thunderbolt crept forward. There was, indubitably, a crack in the Egg.

Cassowarius let out another great cry.

The Egg shivered. The crack splintered into another.

Thunderbolt crept closer.

Long ago, she had laid a clutch of her own eggs. She had brooded over them and waited with fire-consuming impatience for their arrival, for their cracks to flower into beaks and then feathers and claws.

The Egg cheeped softly.

Cassowarius drew in his breath, and so too did the Bone-Eaters and the swans and the mallards and the murderous flock of escaped cockatiels in the neighbouring bell tower—

The Egg pulsed; rocked; cried. Thunderbolt spread her tail feathers and spun in a circle.

The snout that emerged from the crack was not a keratinous one, though the body that followed it was covered in pale, slimy down, striped with darker pins. It tumbled from the Great Shell with an almighty cheep, landing in a large clump of dried leaves with a small and wet thump.

It could not be known whether They-Who-Are-Once-More laid eyes first on Cassowarius or on Thunderbolt, but it opened its tiny, toothed maw, flapped its delicate, two-clawed arms, and cheeped with a portentous fury.

*

They-Who-Are-Once-More grew as elephants, or as lava flows, or as stalks of genetically modified corn. The Egg in Massachusetts was the first to hatch, but the one in Montana followed the next week, and all ten in Louisiana the day after that. They ate the offerings of their descendants and grew exponentially, quadratically: every day saw their legs thicken, their tails lengthen, their snouts and voices deepen.

It was not clear if the humans could have stopped what was happening or if they simply chose not to. Thunderbolt witnessed more than one human stare with the librarian’s stare, awed, blinking, incredulous—joyous—as her own Egg, her own Is-Once-More, bore down on them with terrible jaws. Cassowarius was too old and too dignified for such hunts, but Thunderbolt was not, and she rode upon the back of her magnificent child as They tore through the city and then beyond.

Feathers streamed behind them both as Egg sprinted after buses, behind deer, and alongside diesel engines down train tracks. Thunderbolt rode and ran but did not die. When She-Who-Had-Been-Thunderbolt fell in an assault on a combine harvester, They-Who-Had-Been-An-Egg shook Their great tail, rattled the great, heavy, scaly wattles of flesh that dropped from Their massive jaw, and became Thunderbolt once more.

As the world grew warmer and They found each other and laid new Eggs and built new temples and sang new songs, there were fewer and fewer trains, and then, eventually, none. There were more and more deer, and then, eventually, bison; there were more and more raccoons, and then, eventually, raccoon bowling alleys and churches.

The colony of house finches that had first heard the good news periodically rebuilt the VERY DEALS in ruined houses, abandoned shipping containers, and the hollow trunks of fire-blasted trees, though STUFF CAKES: CAKES WITH STUFF never sold as well again.

*

If you enjoyed this story, you can let us know by subscribing, becoming a Patron, buying single issues, or donating. Click here to learn more.

Issue 20 (Fall 2019)

Story copyright © 2019 by Sharon J. Gochenour

Artwork copyright © 2019 by Patricia Bingham

Sharon J. Gochenour is a writer and illustrator who has gone many places and done many things.

A self-taught artist, Pat Bingham once enjoyed a meandering curriculum that included photography, weaving, stained glass, and pottery. She eventually settled (sort of) on painting. Watercolours are her first choice, but depending on her mood, she also enjoys working in acrylics, with sporadic forays into assemblage, collage, and bookmaking. She’s a native of Chicago, but lives in Idaho where she works as a medical editor to support her art habit.

 

Information

This entry was posted on May 1, 2020 by in Stories.
%d bloggers like this: