Mark Edward Hall
The day: cold. November, gray. Vagrant spears of melancholy light piercing heavy overcast, pressing down, stifling.
The house: bright white, an impressionist’s painting; skeletal swamp willows. The river: wide, smooth, reflective, below island’s eternal evergreens.
Obsidian eyes, watching.
The man: hunched, lurking, glasses trained, patient, waiting, moving forward a careful step at time; watching.
“Do you see them, Alden?”
A contemptuous flap of a hand. “Shush! You’ll scare them.”
“It’s not as if they can hear us from this distance, you know.”
He lowers the binoculars, shakes his head, sighs. “I’m not taking any chances.” His whisper is shrill, impatient. “Do you understand? Not before I have a chance to photograph them.”
“Why did you drag me out here then?”
“To observe, not to flap your gums.”
“I can observe perfectly well from the house, thank you very much, and at least in there I can talk if I so desire.”
He ignores her insolence, sorry he had dragged her along. “I just don’t understand it,” he says. “I’ve gone through that book a hundred times and I’m completely baffled. There isn’t a species that even closely resembles them. And I don’t know of one single example in the northern part of the United States that mate this time of year. Most birds migrate in the fall and the ones that don’t have all they can do to survive. They don’t mate in November. It’s insanity.”
“What makes you think they’re mating?”
“You have to see for yourself.”
Obsidian eyes, watching.
“I swear, Alden, you’re becoming a fanatic about this. They’re just birds.”
“No, they’re not just birds, Rachael! There’s something . . . different about them. Something . . . totally weird. Look for yourself.” He thrusts the binoculars at her. She takes them, albeit reluctantly, giving a small exasperated shake of the head. Stoically resigned, she puts them to her eyes and focuses.
“Another baby disappeared last night,” he says conversationally. Rachael stiffens. “This one on the south end. A little girl. She wasn’t in her crib this morning when her mother went in to get her.”
The glasses go askew and fall from Rachael’s eyes. “I’m having dreams,” she says. “That I’m alone. That you and Billy are gone. Jesus, Alden, what’s happening to us?”
“I don’t know, but I’m worried about Billy.”
“I don’t think I can take much more of this.” Her hands are shaking. She is having trouble holding the glasses. She tries to give them back but sees that he is busy forming thoughts.
“The FBI’s been called in and there’s a manhunt going on. They say if something doesn’t turn up soon they’ll do a house-to-house canvas.”
“Yeah, well, that’s good, isn’t it?”
He looks pensively back toward the island, staring at the huge nest at the top of the dead white pine.
“You are scaring the shit out of me, Alden.”
“I can’t believe you’re not concerned. Rachael, babies are disappearing from their cribs.”
“I know! Jesus, I am concerned! Just as much as you. But I will not buy into your obtuse theory.”
“It’s not obtuse. The problem is, you just don’t take me seriously. About anything!”
“Listen to me, you stupid man. I take you seriously when you make sense. You’re not making sense now. There’s some kind of nut on the loose and he’s the one taking those poor children. Not some . . . figment of your idiotic imagination. Don’t you think I’m scared for Billy? Just as scared as you are?”
He nods but she can tell he’s hurt.
He turns back to the nest. “How is this nut getting into these peoples’ locked houses, pray tell?”
“You’re taking about birds, Alden. Listen to yourself. How do you think they’re doing it? Down the chimney, like Santa Clause?”
He gives his head a rueful shake. “I don’t know. It’s just a feeling.”
Rachael shivers. “In any case, Billy’s sleeping with us again tonight.”
“You bet he is.”
She feels suddenly all weepy and weak. Puts the binoculars back to her eyes and scans, picking up the nest and holding for a long moment, trying to steady them. “It looks like a nest of ordinary eagles to me,” she says finally.
Alden grabs the binoculars away from her. “They’re not eagles! Jesus Christ, Rachael, don’t you think I know what eagles look like?”
He shakes his head, finding no words to convey his exasperation.
“You really are scaring me, Alden.”
“I know what I’m seeing, Rachael. For Christ’s sake, eagles don’t nest this time of year, and neither do ospreys. As a matter of fact, ospreys migrate. The nest is full of young birds. Didn’t you see their little bald heads in the binoculars?”
“No, I didn’t see! I didn’t see anything except a big empty nest at the top of that dead pine tree. I swear, mister, you are losing it, and you are scaring me.”
“I don’t believe you can’t see what I’m seeing.”
“You and I look at the world differently, Alden. We always have. You see flying saucers and I see weather balloons, you see ghosts, I see smoke, you see a pony, I see a stall full of horse shit. You’re a dreamer—”
“I’m a romantic.”
“Whatever. You should have been a writer, you know, with that imagination.”
“Say what you want, the disappearances didn’t start until that nest appeared.”
“Oh, Alden, grow up. I’m not going to listen to this garbage a moment longer.” Rachael turns and stomps toward the house.
Obsidian eyes, watching.
“I’m not suggesting anything,” he says later, trying to make amends. “It’s just odd, that’s all, don’t you think?”
She looks pensively at him. “What’s odd is that you’re making some kind of twisted connection between the disappearing children and that stupid nest.”
“There are five now, Rachael. Count them!” He thrusts his hand out, emphasizing his five fingers. “All from this town. No one else is losing children. I’m just looking for a logical explanation.”
“I’m going over there, tonight.”
“I want to see for myself.”
“Maybe, but at least we’ll know, won’t we?”
“You’re going to climb that tree at night.”
“It has to be done.”
“No it doesn’t, Alden!”
“Yes it does!”
Rachael runs an exasperated hand through her hair. “If you ever breathe a word of what you’re about to do to anyone, I swear, I’ll deny any knowledge of it. Do you know why? Because they’ll lock you up and throw away the key. And I never want Billie to know what a screwball his father is.”
“So, what do you believe, Rachael?”
“I told you. I believe a sick, perverted human being is taking those children, period!”
The night: scudding clouds. Moon. Canoe on river; paddle rippling; calm water.
He climbs the familiar branches of the familiar tree, the mewing bundle strapped to his side.
The nest: tiny bleached skulls, bones, the new offering.
“I was trying to tell you, Rachael,” he whispers, as he places the child in the nest. “But you wouldn’t listen. Now it’s too late. He twists his body, falling forward, arms outstretched; a perfect swan dive toward the dark forest floor. Eagles pounce, shrieking.
Rachael exits the house on a run, screams echoing across calm water: “BILLY! Dear God, somebody help me! BILLLLLY . . . !”