Standoff (a short story)

The Inquisitor

Too much a creature of urban comforts to ever be called a Nature lover, Henry nonetheless considered himself a Nature liker. And yet, as his eyeballs threatened to dry into powdery husks, he also recognized that Nature had a dark side. And today, that dark side came with bright red epaulets.

In an exchange that may only have been minutes, but felt like hours, Henry held the gaze of his ebon Inquisitor, afraid to look away lest the wraith take wing again, strafing him in violent indignation.

Moments earlier, Henry was taking a lovely stroll along the waterfront, leaving the breezes of the beach for the verdant comfort of the giant reeds and a secluded pond.

His soft-soled shoes barely whispered as he wound his way along the wooden deck that cut a swath across the still, algae-laden waters. Instead, his silent steps were accompanied by the cheerful chirrup of so many sparrows and the steady whine of cicadas complaining about the damp heat.

Merging waters

But as he reached the half-way point, he sensed a change even if he couldn’t yet identify it. The breeze died, the sparrows silenced and the cicadas stilled until all that remained was the low throb of his heart.

And as subtly as the stillness formed, it was macheted by an agonized screech that seemed to quite literally part Henry’s hair.

No sooner had Henry arced through his ducking motion than the demon struck again, piercing eardrum and scalp with equal vigour.

Terror’s impulse to flee was tempered by uncertainty’s steely grip as Henry found himself rooted in place. That something wanted to kill him, he was certain; but the complete absence of movement around him suggested it was all in his mind. His tingling scalp, however, said that whatever was happening was on his head, not in it.

Despite the glaring sunlight that baked the path, trickling tangy sweat into Henry’s fresh wounds, his pupils stretched to their anime widest, searching the chaotic tangle for the slightest signs of movement. He had no reason to believe his tormentor had given up, but all he saw was blue sky, brown tree limbs, green reeds and black water.

Yes, these had all taken on an ominous mantel, but nothing looked capable of launching an attack.

Even as Henry contemplated giving up his search, though, the air was pierced once more with an irritated cry. It was everything he had in him not to turtle.

And that’s when he saw it, the beast with the black eyes of death concealed behind a shroud of serrated alder leaves.

Hunkered down

The expressionless face bobbed lower and turned slightly to its left, determined to take in its quarry. Its oil-drop eye blended almost seamlessly with the void its plumage left in the sky, a puncture of midnight in the midday light. The only break in the evil blackness was a splash of blood red atop its shoulder.

“A bird?” Henry questioned silently, a blush threatening to overwhelm his budding sunburn.

Sloughing his tension like a skin, Henry rolled his shoulders to massage them. That was all the demon needed.

With blinding speed, the creature was upon him again. The flapping wings were matched by flailing arms as Henry swung at his attacker to no avail, his body instinctively twisting as the assailant passed.

It didn’t take Henry nearly as long to find the bird now, the monster standing proudly on an exposed limb, cackling his disdain upon his hapless victim.

“What is your problem?” Henry cried to the skies, briefly silencing the bird, which cocked its head a little further as though contemplating the question.

Henry unconsciously mirrored the action when it squawked back.

Annoyed, Henry turned to walk away but his motion was stopped by a shrill pierce. Spreading its wings, the bird quadrupled in size, a Rorschach nightmare.

As Henry relaxed his muscles, the bird drew in its wings. The stare down began.

Redwing on a reed

Unblinking, Henry met the bird’s gaze with his own, his every emotion reflected in that dead pool of emptiness, that glistening eye. A psychic vacuum, the bird seemed to reach into Henry’s body, threatening to engulf his soul.

Mired in a personal La Brea, Henry could feel his will slowly sink into the sulfurous malevolence. Only ego and will kept him from bowing to the inevitable.

“Look, momma,” a child’s voice squeaked through the tension. “Issa red-wing bla’ bird.”

Out of the corner of his eye, which otherwise remained glued to the bird, Henry could see a small boy trundle down the path, pointing wildly with one hand while waving a camera with the other.

More importantly, Henry saw that the bird caught the arrival as well.

Glimpse

Synchronized swimmers of the air, man and bird vaulted for the boy, whose mother remained several yards away, blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting her budding family.

Every wing beat was matched with a stride, every fluttered feather with airfoiled arm hair. And Henry knew his job was twice as difficult as the bird’s.

Not only did he have to stop the bird from harming the child, but he had to do it without knocking the kid into next Tuesday himself. But one thing at a time.

It is said that when the conditions are just right, you can stop the flight of one bullet with a perfectly timed second bullet.

Henry didn’t know if that was true. Nor did he really have the time to contemplate what conditions such a thing might require.

Pond

All Henry could tell you for certain was that once airborne, a red-winged blackbird is a thousand times more agile than a middle-aged man. That, and it takes about eight days to get the stench of stagnant pond water out of your nostrils.

He has no idea what happened to the kid.

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