30 Nov Comer / To Eat
Comer / To Eat
Scott J. Moses
Ezekiel stared over the stillness of the Mexican desert, gun smoke and smelted-iron thick on the cool air. He pressed himself against the dilapidated boards of the shanty and looked to his uncle, who crouched, revolver drawn, peaking around the edge of the weathered shack.
“It’s over,” Smiley said, turning to him. “Your first gunfight, I remem—” he stopped when he saw Ezekiel’s revolver sheathed at his side and placed a gloved hand on his shoulder.
“Have to carry your weight, boy. You owe me.”
Ezekiel brushed his uncle’s hand away.
“It ain’t like you said. This ain’t right.”
Sheardon chuckled, slipping bullets from the slots on his belt into his revolver.
“Well, if you’re so inclined, you can haul yourself back to Chicago when your debt’s paid. Be with him for all I care, the alcoholic widower and his estranged boy, together again.”
Ezekiel gritted his teeth, stepped forward. “Might just do that…”
Sheardon pushed him against the planks of the shack, the boards giving way from the weight.
“Do what the fuck you want after you pay me, but if you linger, you may find yourself with knowledge we can’t let you walk with. Knowledge the law might deem, criminal.”
Smiley pulled the hammer of his revolver back, stared at Ezekiel from below the rim of his black hat, and disappeared around the corner of the shanty.
A slow wind rolled over the town as Ezekiel took in the stretch of gray desert. The flat land strewn with pockets of dried bushes and skeletal trees in the red glow of coming dusk.
I could leave, right now. Just me and my gun.
He shook the thought off, turning away from the open arms of the wilderness, away from freedom. He hadn’t knowledge of how to survive here, not yet, and sure he could run off and die in a medley of ways. Starvation, thirst, bandits, coyotes, but how would that honor his mother? She who watched from heaven or somewhere better, free of disease and the shackles tethering the living to this cesspool world.
He bid farewell to the beckoning desert, brushed himself off, and rounded the corner of the shack to the others, to the aftermath.
The valley opened into the side of the mountain. A gaping crevice littered with a Knucklebones’ throw of timeworn shanties and tents. A poor place, a not-quite-town. Roofs lay parallel with the rocks of the cliffs behind them and repeated themselves in clusters ascending the ravine. The minute structures losing ground to wilderness the higher up the pass they went. A blue-haze set over the townsfolk in clusters at the foots of their doors and windows, staring out at the ones who had killed their not-yet-men, their would-be heroes.
Smiley crouched over a man Ezekiel knew as Allen Woodard, or “The Wolf”. Allen spat up crimson, grasped Smiley’s hand, and the maroon creeping over his belly with the other. A woman in a lawmen’s duster stood over them, her lip quivering beneath a curtain of corn-blonde hair. Pistols still drawn though the fight was over.
Was the infamous Abbie Pain…crying?
“The Twins”, James and Daniel Hendricks, flanked either side of the ravine, repeating rifles still drawn in their leathered hands.
They regarded Ezekiel as he passed. Daniel, with a smirk. James and his mountain-man beard not so much as a nod. They peered into the town, at the folk in their doors and windows, anxious for more vigilantes.
Some men of the village were strewn about the dirt, irons near their cooling bodies. Minutes before, they’d yelled in a tongue Ezekiel didn’t understand, guns blasting into the coming night. They’d been in the trading post where Allen Woodard killed the barkeep, where the Twins set the patrons’ horses loose. They must have tracked them to this village, their village, where they’d thought they’d issue their own justice.
A woman wailed from her window, and but for the whistling wind, her cries were the only sound in the whole of the desert.
Allen Woodard’s hand fell to his chest as his eyes crept shut. Smiley muttered, shook his head and removed his hat, looked up at Abbie. She shook, hands wrenching the revolvers now part of her, and lifted her eyes to the Twins.
“All of ’em,” she said. “All of ’em, here, now.”
They looked to Smiley, who stood, still muttering to his dead comrade.
“Like she asks,” he said, replacing his hat, peering down at the dead who’d drawn on them.
The Twins went to work pulling people from their shacks and tents, corralling men, women, and children toward the opening in the center of town.
“AFUERA,” they yelled, firing their rifles, herding the multitude. “AFUERA AQUI.”
Some screamed as they were cast before the dead of their town. Old and young alike huddled together before the aftermath of what was once a roaring gunfight. Their cries and screams dispersed with the blast of Abbie’s revolver in the newfound silence.
She stepped forward, trembled, and lifted her iron to the now dead Woodard, the one Ezekiel knew three weeks and not heard say a word.
“This was Allen ‘Wolf’ Woodard,” Abbie said, shaking. “And your town, your boys, murdered him. He was worth twenty, hell, thirty good folks…he was kind….and I loved him….”
Last night Woodard had cut the barkeep’s throat with a bowie knife. Smiling all the while… but maybe kind meant something else here, where the coyotes and buzzards never went hungry.
“…thirty folks,” she continued, pulling the hammer of her revolver back, eyes on Bill Sheardon. “I wager there’s thirty here, Smiley.”
He sighed, his eyes flashing to Woodard’s still-warm corpse, nodded, then nodded again.
Ezekiel’s heart slammed in his chest as Smiley pulled the hammer of his revolver back, ready to fling death at the crowd. His uncle grieved a horrible man, a murderer, but had shown nothing when Ezekiel told him his sister, Mary, had died of fever in Chicago.
His eyes burned holes into his uncle.
Leave one alive to tell the tale, Smiley had said after that first stagecoach in Texas, revealing what it was they’d actually be doing in the West. A stone grew in Ezekiel’s throat as he stared at Abbie, her eyes filled with tears.
None left alive today, Ezekiel thought. She, they, would kill every one of them.
As the Twins lifted their rifles, Ezekiel’s breath dislodged in his throat. He walked towards the crowd, hand on his revolver. A Colt, his uncle had said. Real good weapon.
The town tensed, and though some were solemn, most wailed into the night holding one another close, bracing for the barrage. Despite the language barrier, they seemed to know that most universal of dialects, death. The Twins paced the villagers huddled there in the dirt, rifles trained, casting glances back at Smiley and Abbie.
Ezekiel centered himself between the gang and those about to die, and released the breath he’d held over the longest walk of his life.
Bill Sheardon looked to his nephew, to his still holstered pistol.
Tears filled Ezekiel’s eyes, and he saw his mother reclining in heaven, looking down on him, smile on her face.
“It ain’t right, Uncle. This ain’t Robin Hood.”
Smiley Sheardon laughed. “Think on what you’re about to do, boy.”
“You’re dead, kid,” Abbie said, turning her other revolver on Ezekiel, who sunk beneath the weight of her iron.
Ezekiel shook, his hand resting on a weapon he’d yet to fire.
Can I be quick enough?
“What would your sister say?” Ezekiel said, eyes burning holes into Smiley across the sea of the dead. “She said you were making something of yourself out here. A real honorable man. What would she say tonight, staring down from heaven, watching you massacre an entire town who’s right to hate us? What would she say if you murdered her boy, after promising him new life?”
Smiley looked to Abbie, and then to Ezekiel, his nephew’s eyes glaring back at him from beneath the lid of a soiled hat.
“Abbie,” Smiley began, lowering his pistol. “We need every bullet for the cross into Texas. This ain’t wise…”
Tears filled her eyes, and she wiped them away with a rolled-up sleeve. Trembling pistols still extended.
“Abbie,” Smiley continued. “Help me with Allen. Help me get him to the horses, so we can bury him proper. He’s getting flies, letting off whiffs for all the coyotes in Mexico. He deserves better than this.”
“You’re damned right he does,” Abbie said, holstering her revolvers, brushing the tears and hair from her face.
She looked to James Hendricks, who’d slung his rifle to his back, already moving to help with Allen’s corpse.
The crowd murmured, still coagulated as Ezekiel looked on them over his shoulder. He made his way to Daniel Hendricks, still between the crowd and the gang. He nodded to Ezekiel, a soberness in his eyes.
Ezekiel walked on and regarded one of the dead villagers at his feet. An old man, dirty and ragged, mangled from where the bullets had bit into his thighs and torso. His head lay back in an unholy angle, skin shining in the pale moonlight. Jagged scars trailed down his eyes and nose, down to his cracked lips. The dead man’s eyes were wide and staring at Ezekiel.
“Buho madre, misercordia,” a voice cried out behind them, and Ezekiel turned to an old woman in the thick of the crowd, her hands clasped in prayer. The skin of her face pulled taut. “Búho madre, misericordia para el niño!”
Daniel Hendricks fell in with Ezekiel as they made their way to the horses, where James strapped Woodard’s body to a brown and white mare.
“Mother owl, mercy,” Daniel the Twin said, echoing the cries of the woman behind them. “Mother owl, mercy…”
He looked to Ezekiel. “Mercy to the boy…to hell with the rest.”
He chuckled, slung his rifle on his shoulder, and looked to the stars.
Ezekiel paused, and turned back to the old woman, who was bowed to the cliffs above the village, her hands clasped as she wailed into the silence.
He traced the cries to a pair behind those gathered there. A woman and boy, she in a shawl, he in rags, wool cap atop his head of long black hair. The boy looked up at the woman, hair falling over his face. She clenched her shawl, staring at Ezekiel, and her eyes seemed to draw him in, to calm him. A song his mother sang leapt to mind as he lifted himself on his horse, and as the animal trotted a semi-circle, Ezekiel stole another glance at the village, and though the pair were gone, he felt them watching.
Abbie Pain bit into the leather of her gloves, face flushed from crying. Ezekiel couldn’t help but stare at her across the campfire. Her fury a shadow extended, an entity all its own, livid, visceral, yet to be realized.
She met his gaze, brows furled like some starving dog, and he shifted his attention elsewhere, though he still felt her eyes piercing him.
Flames danced along the side of the mountain, where the vegetation had turned to dirt and stone. The bedrolls at the rock wall, facing outward. One way in or out.
Something leapt into Ezekiel’s periphery and he jolted at Smiley, who offered a strip of roasted hare.
Ezekiel took and ate, his eyes on James Hendricks, who took a place at the fire, propping his shovel against the boulder nearest him.
“It’s done,” James said, more to Abbie than anyone. “The Wolf rests in the earth.”
Abbie spat in the flames. “Mexican earth.”
She trembled, gnawing a strip of meat, and stared into Ezekiel.
“Can’t afford dead-weight, Smiley. ’Specially now we’re one less man, there’s burden to be shared.” She pointed at Ezekiel. “He ain’t been pulling shit. Eatin’ our food, sharin’ our camp-”
“He’s my kin,” said Smiley, who turned to Ezekiel. “He’ll come around.”
Abbie tilted her head, deadpan.
“He will, Abbie.”
Smiley rose, and the flames leapt up with him.
He took a flask from his jacket, held it high, and the others followed suit, all but Ezekiel, he and his fingerful of roasted hare.
“Woodard was a good man,” Smiley said, eyes made bright by the licking flames. “And I’ll miss him…not only as a member of this outfit, but as a friend. To the hope he howls on in the here-after.”
“Allen,” they said as one, all but Ezekiel. He thought of those in the town, kneeling over their dead. Of the old woman and her hands clasped white-knuckle tight. The ones at the edge of the crowd. The boy, and shawled woman, how her eyes drew him in.
Bill ‘Smiley’ Sheardon, leader of bandits, killers…his mother’s brother. The one his pa mumbled about when his ma mentioned him in Chicago, the roaring locomotives shaking the walls of their home. The home where his ma died, where his pa drank away his sorrows, his employment, and his only son. Drank him all the way out of Chicago to some outlaw-filled ravine in Mexico.
See me now, Ma?
A hand on his shoulder.
“Come, boy,” his uncle said. “I need the details of my kin…”
They walked out of camp, past the horses and bedrolls, and up the nearby ridge overlooking the blue Mexican desert.
As the mountain steepened, Ezekiel stared over the valley.
Where do I begin…? How do I begin…?
They broke left to where the cliff flattened out, clear view of the valley and camp below. The desert a canvas, littered with cacti and mangled bushes unseen in Chicago.
An unlit lamp sat at the cliff’s edge, a lighthouse overlooking an ocean teeming with unholy things.
Smiley walked on ahead and the strike of a match illuminated a nearby ridge. Daniel Hendricks took a drag of his cigarette.
“Anything?” Smiley asked.
“Our watch now. Help yourself to supper.”
“Ain’t got to tell me twice,” Daniel said, and started down the path.
He paused, spoke over his shoulder. “That crone had an awful lot to say.”
“How do you mean?” Smiley asked, laying his rifle against the stone wall.
“She cursed us,” Daniel said, smirking. “All of us but little Ezekiel here.”
“You believe that mystical-nonsense?” Bill asked, smiling. “If there were truth to any of it, I reckon we’d have seen it by now.”
“Still time yet,” Daniel replied, walking off. “Ain’t quite April.”
The ember of his cigarette bobbed in the dark, some off-course firefly floating down the ridge. The cliff lit in orange, a man walking through torrents of flame unharmed.
Ezekiel stared out over the expanse and in the stillness thought of his mother, before those last months cooped up in her sickroom in Chicago. Before the blood came up with the coughs. Before the crows perched on the house across the street, peering in through her bedroom window.
As a child, she’d read to him from the Bible while his father stood at the bedroom door. Only now and again a whiskey in his hand, always a smile on his face. His ma had told him all about Bill Sheardon too. How his uncle had up and left Chicago for a life out west. To manage his own trading post. To be an island for those on the trail, where friends were few and threats abundant.
He thought of the murder at the trading post. How Smiley had sat, boots up, reclining at the table while Woodard slit the barkeep’s throat. Bill Sheardon was just another evil in this lawless part of the world. Greed manifested, and yet, he knew his uncle deserved to know what happened to his baby sister.
Ezekiel swallowed, the memory of those last days surfacing like a demon uncaged.
“It all started with the bits of blood in—”
Smiley’s fist caught him square in the face.
He turned and fell, coughed into the earth. Sprawled there, his mouth full of dust and blood, white-hot pain distorting his vision.
“Look at me, boy.”
Ezekiel sat up with a moan, blood and bits of teeth swimming in the hands over his mouth.
Smiley offered his hand, and for the second time that night Ezekiel had the mind to draw his Colt. He thought of death again. Wondering if the fall would kill him. How if he managed the angle right, he’d be rid of his uncle, the gang, his father’s abandonment, of every goddammed thing the world had ever done to him.
“Look at me.”
Ezekiel did, and rose with a grunt. Some semblance of his mother shown on his uncle’s face.
“Those folk in the town are dead, no matter what you or I do. Abbie ‘Pain’ Gates will have retribution. If not today, tomorrow. You signed them extension, and I see the honor in that, but there’s no honor here, son. It ain’t like the cities, ain’t like your Chicago, and when you do what you did back in the village…”
He looked over the horizon, the horses whinnying, the flickering of the campfire in the ravine below.
“Gangs eat their own over something like that. And I thank heaven and hell you didn’t draw on her. Only reason you ain’t dead yet. That, and on account you’re my blood.”
Ezekiel stared back, deadpan, his tongue fumbling with the gap where a tooth once was, remembering his uncle’s letter.
He’d said his group was like Robin Hood, but after three weeks in the grayed blur between Texas and Mexico, they’d only stolen and killed those with barely enough for themselves.
A week ago, they’d hung a man for spitting in their path. They’d taken his shoes, stripped his horse, and left him for the coyotes.
The Wolf gutted that barkeep in the trading post for denying him whiskey, but no, Woodard was kind.
Ezekiel stared at his uncle, whose lips still formed words, soundless, meaningless lies.
Ezekiel spat at his uncle’s feet.
“Betcha wish you’d never written, huh boy? Wish you were in Chicago mourning your ma with your drunk of a pa.”
Smiley withdrew a flask, turned it back.
Ezekiel saw his father.
“But you wrote that letter ain’t you? Said you’d repay it all for the chance to come out here. I done right by you and my sister letting you here with us. You have to start working the debt, not just to repay me, which you fully will, but to give Abbie Pain a reason not to send you to hell.”
Smiley offered the flask, and Ezekiel turned to the horizon wanting to fly.
It’s a sin, child, his mother said. God would avert himself from you.
Seemed God already had though, when he allowed his mother to be afflicted with something so wretched, while all those murderers and rapists still drew breath.
Ezekiel felt Smiley’s hand on his shoulder, thought of clamping down on it, taking them both for that tumble he was considering.
“You won’t find work without me,” Smiley said. “You’ll die alone on the street of some village, like your crone back there.”
“We all die alone,” Ezekiel said, thinking of his mother and her bloody coughs. Even with the turn of the century on their heels, they hadn’t the means to save her, and so she died there, with him by her side, both so alone.
Smiley scoffed, and turned the flask back, “Cryptic as she ever was…”
His uncle turned away, sniffed hard.
“…she pass peaceful, quiet?”
Ezekiel saw her, pale as snow, a husk of the woman she’d been at the end, and opened his mouth to speak, but the dark figure crouched on the next ridge stole his words.
Ezekiel stumbled back, his foot toppling the lantern at his feet. Pebbles crumbling along the ridge away from them. Someone running close to its edge.
Smiley took up his rifle from the rocks and peered out at the nearby cliff.
Whispers rose around them and Smiley held out a hand, eyes on his nephew. Wait, he mouthed, and cocked his rifle, disappearing around the bend of stone.
Ezekiel drew his pistol and struggled to pull back the hammer. He was shaking, breath frothy in the Mexican cold. The valley was quiet, quieter than it had been. He couldn’t hear the camp’s chatter. The occasional whinny of horses.
The valley was black below him, swallowed in rising darkness.
“Madre búho honra los gritos de la vieja…”
Ezekiel whipped around, revolver extended in the darkness, more and more of it coagulating over the canyon. He leaned against the mountainside, his Colt swaying. Whoever was there would have to come directly.
He peered into the thick dark, rocks scampering in his periphery. Ezekiel spun around and lowered the Colt when he saw a boy at the foot of the path. He wore a frayed bandana around his neck, wool cap atop a head of black hair. He was lanky, all bone, his clothes torn and caked in dirt. The boy brushed the hair from his face, and the moon shone on a pair of diagonal scars, from his eyes to his lips.
A shroud of darkness fell over them, the deafening gusts of wind born from the flapping of enormous wings. Ezekiel dropped to the ground as debris clattered around him. A vast shadow blanketed the stars before descending into the depth of the valley. Ezekiel held his hat down from the wind, and raised his pistol, expecting a hell that once seen could never be unseen, something that would haunt him until he saw his mother again.
“La bruja te llama,” the boy said, hand outstretched. “Ella te llama, tu madre.”
Ezekiel caught movement on the path above, the tapping of debris falling down the ridges higher up.
“Ella te llama, tu madre,” the boy said again, stepping closer, hand still extended. The desert was silent, smothered in an unholy shroud. Night’s creatures hushed in reverence to what he could only assume was death itself.
Ezekiel’s stomach churned. He looked to the boy.
“I don’t understand.”
The boy cocked his head, the moon illuminating his scars in glittering lines. He lurched backward, eyes on the stars, his long black hair trailing behind him. His eyes rolled back, milky white, and with a rush of wind, he lowered his head. Something squirming around in his mouth.
He gagged, spat it on the ground between them, and it scurried off before Ezekiel saw what it was.
“Mother…calls…you,” the boy croaked. “Your mother…calls.”
Ezekiel jumped as gun blasts erupted from the camp below, the ravine filled with yellow bursts of light. He huddled against the underside of the nearby cliff, the screams of the horses and gang burrowing into his cupped hands. He curled into a ball, eyes shut-tight through the hell in the canyon below.
He waited a small eternity, counting in his head to one hundred, two hundred, three hundred before the screams tapered and the roaring guns ceased. He opened his eyes to the darkness, the lights of the valley smothered if not stomped out. He counted in his mind to two hundred before sliding out from the cliff’s overhang, the revolver heavy in his trembling hand.
He rose to his feet, considering the climb and the possibility that Smiley had found safety from death’s descension among the many cliffs.
His heart slammed in his chest and his breath quickened. A numbness fell over him, and he leaned against the mountain struggling to breathe from the wave of prickling needles.
He focused on his mother’s face, on her light green eyes, and the way she’d cup his cheeks when the fear came and talk it back into the abyss. Fear was an ocean which rose with unpredictability, making it hard for him to keep employment. Another reason he’d left Chicago, not that he’d needed much prodding.
A verse of Psalms, his mother’s voice.
“Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.”
He stared into the blue night, his mother looking down on him. She always watched from heaven, and he wouldn’t break her heart by playing coward. So he lit the lantern with the matches from his pocket, tightened his grip on the Colt, and crept the descent back into camp.
Hugging the inside of the ravine, he slid around the entrance in the gorge overlooking their camp. The horses were gone, and Ezekiel shone the lantern on the trees where they’d been tied. Raking slashes marked the tree nearest him, the one beside it cleaved in two. The jagged shafts splintered upward, black feathers the size of knives strewn about it and the desert brush. Ezekiel swallowed, and crept to where they’d toasted Woodard, the remnants of still-burning embers huddled in the pit they’d dug, the wisps of smoke strung up into the blue night.
The horses, Daniel…anyone?
A gurgled cough behind him.
Ezekiel turned, lantern and pistol rising as one. Daniel Hendricks knelt in his own filth and blood, two gaping slashes traversing the distance of his shoulder to his stomach. He held his belly with both hands, coughing blood as he groaned. Ezekiel stepped closer, and Daniel wheezed.
“She…cursed us…brought them…”
Two dagger-sized talons slammed Daniel face down in the dirt. They curled into him, black-tipped spears piercing his shoulders.
Ezekiel hefted the lantern, revealing the blood-sprayed face of a woman, tan skin and high cheekbones, parallel with the tops of the trees floating in the darkness. She swayed in the moonlight, staring down on him, jagged scars from tear ducts to lips.
Her brows furled, and the talons dislodged from Daniel, who pooled in the dirt. Her face drew close to the Twin as she skulked over him, and the light shone a neck and torso flush with dark feathers.
Ezekiel screamed, scampering back as she stepped forward. An enormous crow with the face of a woman, wings where arms should’ve been. Enormous talons thumping the ground, kicking up earth as she pulled herself near him. She moaned, stretching her neck to the sky, folds of skin splitting along the scars of her face, a massive black beak writhing out. Her eyes fell on Ezekiel as the ashen spear opened with the crack of a downed tree, clear-liquid seeping from its tip.
He sprawled back on heels and wrists over the smoldering pit, kicking up embers, vision of the demon distorted with burning tears.
She stepped forward and he fired, slamming the hammer back over and over as he mashed the trigger. She convulsed once, twice, and paused, and though humanity was masked beneath that hulk of black bone, he knew she was smiling.
Ezekiel held the empty revolver before her, an atheist with a crucifix. He wept as her talons pressed into the smoldering embers. Her eyes emptiness incarnate.
He missed his mother, Chicago…his father. At least the drunken beatings were something familiar. An unfortunate yet expected occurrence in the world he knew.
Ezekiel clenched his teeth, looking up at the towering crow-woman. The drool collecting in the dirt mere feet from him. She spread her wings, pressing their tips into the rocks above his head. The shell of darkness encapsulating them both. The only things in black those eyes, staring from the horizon he knew was his death. The dark blotted out the stars, moon, the face of his mother in heaven. Hope if he’d any left, smothered.
“I saw the west, Ma,” he said with a whimper. “I saw the west…”
A sky of blazing stars rolled out before him, and the moon shone brighter than it had in the history of its birth.
He squinted in the light, covered his face, glimpsed the silhouette of a child.
“Madre lo quiere,” the boy said, his neck craned to the crow-woman engulfing him.
She kicked her legs and the earth tremored. She moaned to the sky and bent low to him, beak opening, the drool inches from his bare feet.
He rose on his toes and the woman recoiled, shook out her feathers, and retracted her wings. She glanced at Ezekiel, and drove her beak into the corpse of Daniel Hendricks, yanking the Twin up the path.
Ezekiel watched her disappear beyond the rocks and vomited in the dirt between his knees. The boy looked down, held out his hand.
“Madre,” he said, lifting Ezekiel with ease.
“My…my mother is dead…”
The boy took his hand, tugged.
The light of the lantern revealed blood in trenched lines dug into the path up the canyon, bits of flesh and cloth littered throughout each crimson gulley.
Ezekiel lowered the lantern as they passed the crow-woman heaving Daniel’s shell up the trail, her dead eyes sliding over him as she wrenched the Twin up the pass.
The boy motioned him up, and up they went, deep into the flat cliffs and ridges frayed with shadows, following the moonlit trails of red veins intertwining throughout the incline. A trail littered with remnants of camp. Strips of torn cloth, buttons, a boot, a belt, one of Abbie’s revolvers, and the severed leg of a horse overrun with flies, the buzz of their wings the only sound atop the flattening peak.
Pockets of men and women stared at them as they passed. Some bowed while others rose hands to the shawled figure at the cliff’s edge, looking over the whole of the desert below. She turned, smiled, and folded her hands before her. The edges of her shawl fluid in the breeze, a rosary of small bones and feathers adorning her neck.
The boy’s eyes beamed as she bent to meet his gaze. She cupped his cheek, whispered something low, and he giggled. She chuckled as she rose from him, and turned to Ezekiel and the gun in his hand. He tossed the iron aside, and someone collected it from the dirt in his periphery.
“Aceptas esta ofrenda?” she said, lifting her head, her black eyes catching the moon’s light.
He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Her lips formed a smile, encompassed in dimples, her dark skin lined in the same scars as the others.
She closed her eyes, inhaled.
“Accept…your mother?” she said, lifting her hand in offering.
He thought of Chicago.
His father hurling curses from the street.
How he fled from him, lungs burning.
The glass bursting at his feet Pa’s final farewell.
A barkeep’s throat slit in a saloon.
An old man swaying from a rope somewhere in Texas.
His mother’s last breath.
The churning smoke of the locomotive a tundra consuming the horizon.
Blotting out the sun.
Blotting out the face of God.
His mother’s visage distorted.
Her words muffled.
Ezekiel wailed there in the woman’s arms, shaking as she cooed in his ear.
He looked into her eyes, so dark…black…beautiful, and nodded through his tears.
She smiled, and cupping his face kissed him. And as his eyes opened so did his lips over the black of her beak, his mouth filling with warm liquid.
It tastes, sweet, he thought, and drank it down.
She withdrew from him, and Ezekiel felt the pull of the boy’s hand in his own. He turned to those gathered there, shrouded in moonlight, shimmering scars in lines down their faces. Daniel’s corpse sat in a heap before a naked woman, whose eyes Ezekiel knew well. She watched him as she did in the camp, those same dead eyes stemming from a face he knew hid more. She lifted her hand to the Twin’s corpse and stepped backward, melding in with the others.
Ezekiel turned to his mother and she smiled. The bones of her rosary jingling in the breeze. “Comer,” she said again, lifting her hand.
The boy tugged Ezekiel to Daniel, and knelt before him.
“Comer,” the boy said, giggling, shaking.
Liquid oozed from his scars as the skin curled upward, the point of a beak pushing out from his dust-caked face.
As the boy tore into the Twin, Ezekiel surveyed those watching them. Their mouths crimson, blood-stained from Abbie, James, and the horses in heaps before them.
Ezekiel drew close to the corpse, and loosed tears as the beak pushed out from his face. The corners of the folded skin brushed the soft area beneath his eyes, drying his tears as he moaned into a night full of stars.
Blood steamed in the cool mountain air and sprayed his face as he dined with his family.
Ezekiel strained to remember his birth.
When he’d first sucked in oxygen laden with greed, hate, treachery…tainted and unforgivably human.
Like Woodard, Abbie Pain, The Twins, his uncle, his father…his mother.
He smiled in his mind at the thought of his uncle alone in the wilderness.
Sometimes we eat our own, Smiley, but you already knew that.
Run, Uncle…you best run…
Scott J. Moses is a Baltimorean writer of horror and dark fiction. His work has appeared in STORGY, The Cabinet of Heed, Coffin Bell, and elsewhere.
Twitter/Instagram: @scottj_moses / www.scottjmoses.com