“The Falcon” by Michael Aronovitz
“It hurts so.”
“Push hard, girl, or I’ll slap you again. The chloroform slowed you.”
“It’s a boy, God bless.”
“Turn him, Belinda. Hold him in the lamp light.”
“What’s that on his back? Oh God! Oh, my holy God!”
“I’m sewing them shut.”
“You can’t. “Tain’t natural.”
“What ain’t? You call what’s in there natural?”
“But that’s fishing line, Rachel. He’s but two years old.”
“The skin’s tough there ‘round the slits. He’ll live.”
“Adam Michael Rothman, you come down off that barrel, now.”
“I’m not standing on a barrel, Mother. It’s your eyes tricking you. Come closer.”
“Down, I say, this instant!”
“Why? I like it. And it feels good to get them air once in a while.”
“Someone might see, God damn you. Through the widow. You’re tossing shadows. And don’t go up to the rafters again, or so help me, I’ll get the short rifle.”
“Wouldn’t I? I’m sewing you up again. And this time I’m using the steel baling twine. Try and stop me, I’ll knock your skull. You gotta sleep sometime, and chloroform’s got many uses, it does.”
On his seventeenth birthday, Adam Michael Rothman set off into the Penn Woods to meet Katie Claypool, because she’d promised to show him her bare legs all the way up to her privates. She was waiting for him in the glen by their sitting stone. A shadow lay across her bosom and her breath was high. The straight black hair she’d been growing since the age of ten was twisted in a long braid down her back.
“Do you want to play Fox and Geese, Adam? Hide and Seek?”
“You wouldn’t hide from me.”
“I would.” She raised her chin. “I’ve just had my bath, and I’m not wearing any undergarments. If you don’t believe me, you’ll have to go exploring up my tea dress.” When he didn’t answer, she pursed her lips. She webbed her fingers down curtsey style in front of her waist, turned her head slightly, and looked up through her bangs and lashes. “But you’ll have to catch me first, Adam Rothman.”
She was off then, running into the dark wood, Adam close behind her. At the peak of the first rise a fallen oak blocked the path, and she angled off right, down the knoll through the wild grass, and then she darted across the creek, toes dancing along the dark, polished stones. Adam splashed ungraciously across, followed her up the short craggy incline, and gained ground along the long floor of pine needles. He reached for her once, grazing the fabric of one sheer, puffy sleeve, and she zigzagged off into the shadows.
“Not so easy for you, boy,” she cried over her shoulder.
“You’re a damned gazelle,” Adam panted. Her laughter painted the darkness in a splash of ice chips and tinsel, and she made for the footbridge, dodging between a pair of birches too tight for Adam to follow her through. By the time he’d skirted to the left and hurdled a thicket, she had made it to the high clearing at the back edge of what had been the property of some rich wholesale grocer a century before. There was a flat square rough with briar where a stable once stood and the petrified remains of a hitching post. In the background was the carriage house, all rubble but for the northwest corner still standing tall like some ancient monolith at the edge of the wood’s darkest border. The moon came through the tangled nest of overhead branches in slants and splinters, and she was waiting there for him, leaning against the old stone well covered at the bottom with moss, and ivy, and vine.
“Want to make a wish, Adam?”
He approached heavily and kissed her. It wasn’t the first time, but it was certainly the most urgent. His hands were on her waist, and she’d indeed shed her underclothes, for he could feel her beneath as if touching her through the thinnest of silks, and when he fondled at her breasts she moved his hands southward where he could get up and under the hem. Then he kneeled, the April dampness soaking through the knees of his trousers, and he was kissing the outside of one sturdy thigh, and then the warmer insides of both, and he caught her fragrance, and buried himself there, making her bite off a screech that led to a husky moaning in the thick of her throat. He wasn’t sure if it was all right to kiss her lips afterwards, but she was on to other business, and his sack coat was pulled off him, laid out in folds behind her to make a buffer against the coarse surface of the well. His trousers were at his ankles.
“Where?” he begged.
“Right there, that’s it.”
“But Katie –”
“You’ve got to push, Adam. It won’t hurt me too bad, and I know you want to.”
“Hard, Adam. No…oh yes! Mighty Christ!”
“Should I stop?”
“God, no. Get through with it, rough if you need to, just finish.”
After it was done they held each other for a moment, heads to shoulders, and he took her face in his hands and kissed her lips and told her that he loved her. She kissed his forehead and said it in return, and then she felt it move. Then thing in his back, and she groped a bit to the left and found its twin.
Her hands went up to her mouth, yet she didn’t scream, and when he went to take her hands in his to make the prayer shape, she let him.
“I’m different,” he said, “and all the time I’ve known you I wanted to tell you. Mother sewed them in when I was little, and she thinks the skin grew over them like scars.” Hair fell across his eyes and he shook it away. “But there ain’t no skin covering. I have slits, roughened around the edges, and what’s inside I’ve trained myself to hold there. But when I get excited, and I mean really excited…” He stopped. Couldn’t go on.
“They move,” she finished for him. She unbuttoned his shirt. Slid it off. And then he let them come free.
There was a wet suckling sound, steam coming up, and they rose from behind him, dark and oily, and he made them spread and made them work, and he rose off the ground before her.
When he descended, he let her touch them. They swore they would love each other forever.
What they didn’t see was the figure hiding behind the remains of the northwest corner of the carriage house, breath making a thin vapor upon the air, half-lidded eyes staring through a pair of octagonal nose-pinch glasses with no sides to them.
“Where you been?” Papa said. He was at the table, papers before him. Light from the oil lamp
played off his thick face, the soot of the iron works cleaned from around his eyes, nose, and mouth, the rest of him dark as the corner shadows. Katie put her hands behind her back, stuck out her bottom lip, and blew upward to fluff the hair from her forehead.
“I was in the wood,” she said. Papa took off his cap and rested it on his knee.
“You’re not to go in there. Nor the train station, we discussed this.” He rubbed his nose with calloused hands, clean at the knuckles, filthy beneath the nails. “And you’re not completely dressed.”
“Papa!” she said, eyes widened, nostrils flared.
“Jonathan Claypool, that’s personal to her.” Mother came into the room, one of the twins in the cradle of her arm. “I’ll speak to her myself –”
“No,” Katie said. “Jean Marie lost Baxter again, gone into the wood all barking and loping after a field rabbit. She called to my window, and I only had time to throw on a dress, ask her.”
“Sit down,” Papa said.
“I don’t want to.”
“Sit, Katie. I need to speak to you of adult matters.” Mother had come forward and taken a chair. Katie shifted her eyes back and forth between them both for a moment, came forward, and sat quietly. Papa cleared his throat for a speech, and being that he was a man of few words it was going be dire news, Katie knew.
“Thorndale’s closing down,” he said. “Lord knows I’ve put my time in. Most of the boiler plates ‘round these parts and five states south bear the iron run through my shift.” He took a deep breath. “Today, a new man, Jacob someone, a puddler’s helper was taking out a buggy of hot coals. He slipped on a plate and fell with the buggy tipping toward him. Lucky it had a crust on, or else he’d have been covered with live cinder. Still burned him bad. Broke his arm and both ankles too. I think that was the final straw for Mr. Bailey. We’d been working for wages cut by twenty percent anyway, and there’d been too many accidents, too much liability, let alone the lack of contracts. We were told at the end of the second shift that the doors will be closed by December. All to be left are the muck rollers and furnaces.”
“You already take most my wages. And Mr. Drake won’t let me work overtime until I’m eighteen, ‘cause of some stupid new rule. You want my allowance too?”
Papa looked at his hands making dark shapes before him.
“I ain’t talking about the spice factory, Katie, Lord if it were only that simple.” Mother leaned forward, the baby’s tiny fingers twisted into a lock of hair that had come free down her cheek.
“Things are changing, dear, you’d best understand it.”
“Sarah, let me finish –”
“But if you’d just let me explain to her –”
“Quiet. I’ll handle this.” He looked up, eyes firm.
“I want to talk to you about Ezra Fletcher.”
“What about him?”
“He’s taken a liking to you.”
She jumped to her feet.
“He’s fifty years old!”
“Forty-five. Sit down.”
“I won’t! What are you saying?” He looked over at mother, and she nodded him on with her eyes. He tapped the table lightly with his thumb.
“You’re to be wed. It’s a favorable match. By the time you’re thirty, he’ll be gone and all he has will be yours. You’ll be of middle age, but then you can do as you please. The decision’s been made.”
She had her arms rigid at her sides, fists tight.
“But Papa, I don’t like him! He’s spindly and crooked, and all those times I went to his store he was eye-balling me over the edge of his glasses, looking at my bum when I bent over to get the molasses, or staring at my bosom when I stretched sewing fabric across it, even when I was eleven. He’s lecherous. And he’s been waiting for his chance, don’t you see?”
“Now, all men look,” Papa said, “they can’t help it, and I’m sure he never meant nothing by it but making sure you weren’t about to tip over a lamp display or knock into the crockery.”
“I won’t do it,” she said. “I’m supposed to have say-so.”
“You will do it. There’s no choice.”
“There’s always a choice.
“Not this time!” He’d let his tone heighten, and Katie backed up a step. He regained his calm, turned his hands to her, palms up.
“Katie, be reasonable. Times are bad. We ain’t had a boarder for half a year, and next winter’s gonna be colder than the last. The twins can’t lay quiet before the fireplace, it’s too dangerous. Now, I can put in cast iron radiators and fuel them with a good coal-fired basement boiler, but I can’t afford the initial installment of the ducts.”
He looked at mother and spoke this bit at her, as if they’d rehearsed it together.
“Ezra Fletcher can give you comfort in his place up on the hill there. And he’s promised me a job at his brother’s sand quarry, washing, drying, and screening. It’s a living, and it’s done. Take me for my word, I wouldn’t decide this unless I’d put my prayers to it.”
“But my heart is saved for another.”
Now Papa stood, tall and thick.
“I don’t like him,” he said darkly. “His mother is mad, and his father is always off at the tavern. There’s unhappiness in that household; I’ve walked past and heard the yelling. And they know nothing of the farming they’ve undertaken. The main house is falling apart, its chimney leaning, and the yard’s overrun with rank weeds and pigs. It’s no place for a girl.”
“But I love him.”
“Not anymore, you don’t.”
A knock came at the door then, and Katie went to it. A stiff blast of wind came in, and a tall, thin-faced figure stood in the frame, bent over a bit, gray waistcoat, close-set eyes, small beard twisted to a point.
“Speak of the devil,” Katie whispered. He removed his octagon shaped nose-pinch eye glasses and slid them carefully into his pocket.
“I wish to have a word with your father.”
“Fine,” she said, “but I wouldn’t marry you even if you owned the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers!”
She flounced to the stairs under the baleful glare of her parents, and Ezra Fletcher stepped forward. His eyes looked nervous, but his voice held steady.
“I must tell you what I have seen,” he said quietly. “In private, with all due respect.”
Mother took the baby away, and the two men had a whispered conversation before the cold fireplace. It intensified, almost turned to blows, and after the door slammed shut on Ezra Fletcher’s exit, mother came in to see what was wrong.
“Bring my daughter to me,” were Papa’s words.
He’d said them straight through his teeth.
Adam Michael Rothman swore to himself that the second time would be slower, more meaningful, more for her pleasure if he could make himself last. He crossed the creek and retraced their steps from the night before, pine needles making soft melody beneath his boots, birches pressed close like lovers. He hoped he didn’t have to wait for her, since she’d be so lovely on his approach there in the high clearing, like a painting crafted in shadow and moon. There had been no ribbon left on the yard pump, their signal to abort, and he was not disappointed when he crested the rise.
She was there by the well, hands folded before her, black hair loose and flowing in the night breeze.
“Darling,” he said, and he approached, and she held her hands out to him, and he didn’t see the bruises on her face or the tears on her cheeks until it was too late, when the dark figures came from behind the trees at the edge of the clearing, her father stepping around the northwest corner of the demolished carriage house, club in one hand, burlap sack in the other.
“Get her out of here,” he said softly, and Ezra Fletcher led her away down the path.
Adam made to run off, but there were more of them than he’d first thought, and he was grabbed from behind and shoved over to the well. Someone clenched a fistful of his hair and pushed his face hard to the stone, breaking off a tooth that went half down his throat, cutting more and more inward each time he snuck a swallow, and through it all he only wished to be granted the moment he could cough it loose or choke it down. There was a rain of blows, and the yanking and ripping of his coat and shirt. Cold, gloved hands reached inside the slits in his back, and while a few backed off refusing to touch him, there were those who continued, muttering the name of “Holy Jesus” over and again.
They snapped the left wing off at the base of the humerus, and the right halfway up the ulna, the point of the second digit piercing one of them through the palm, sending him shouting and cursing and shaking it like a snake was attached. For poor Adam, it was a thick swirl of pain and black and dark red. There was an argument among the men to end it quickly and a stronger argument that claimed murder was a sin before God, and if he bled out, he bled out, but they were to steer clear of the brain, the heart, and the jugular. One oily voice protested that they would be caught and tried, and the more guttural tone Adam recognized as that of Mr. Claypool said they had to make it look like ritual, like them zealots up in Coatesville did to them other Jews.
Adam wanted to choke out that his mother was from Ireland and didn’t that count for something, and that’s when they threw him to the ground. There was a muffled clacking from someone fishing in the burlap sack, and Mr. Claypool pinned him down, knee to the chest. Then he had a pair of tin snips, and Adam punched upward and grazed Claypool’s cheek, and after a struggle, Claypool gripped him hard by the throat.
“Son,” he said gently, “you’re keeping me from doing my business. I’ll put you up in the better light and be quick about it, but you’ve got to lay still, now, and be a good boy.” Adam closed his eyes in surrender.
Claypool and a few others hauled him up and thrust him back upon the lip of the well, this time face up, and they held him while Claypool carefully put the blades of the snips up into Adam’s nostrils, then squeezing fast, severing his septum. Adam winced, but did his best to do as he’d been told, even through the gory part, where the blades bunched up just pinching shut the nostrils instead of cutting through, and Claypool got both hands in on it, forcing the shanks through the webbings, waggling hard back and forth, half cutting, half ripping, then jamming the small shears upward, crotch open, popping the cartilage and tearing loose that last piece of spongy bone at the top.
Adam’s world was swabs of grays by then, but he heard someone say he looked frog-like, and that the fingers and toes still had to go, and that he was supposed to be unconscious by now.
In the latter half of the rough surgery, Adam Michael Rothman finally passed out.
By the time they took his eyes, he lay dead.
They were tired and sweat-drenched and blood-covered, and half down the path to the birches,
a hand fell on Claypool’s shoulder.
“Did you check his pulse, John?”
He shoved the hand off and fought back a shiver.
“You sure?” They’d made a small ring now, blocking the way. John Claypool turned, pushed through them, and trudged back up to the clearing. And there lay scattered the results of their grisly work in the pale, cross-hatch spill of the moon: a farmer’s sack coat rumpled next to two broken wings, base bones angled, jutted up like fractured Chinese architecture, dark feathers soaked and flattened, a litter of digits, one boot laying on its side, blood-stained down the side of the well in half-dried streams following the rough contours of the mortar lines between the field stones.
And no corpse.
Adam Michael Rothman had vanished.
“And ever since then, these woods have been haunted.”
“That’s it?” Kyle said. Brandon had been doing his best straight scary face.
“Yes. And every twenty years or so, someone goes missing back here. Never any evidence left, just a witness or two that sees a figure dart between the trees, or a shadow pass overhead.”
Everyone kind of shrugged, and Brandon poked the fire with the knobby stick he’d found down by short ravine choked with elderberry and pricker bushes. A burst of sparks twirled up toward the sky, which had gone all but dark between the pitch and cast of surrounding trees.
“But what happened to the father?” Melanie said.
“Yeah,” Krista added, “and how about the perverted old store owner?” Robbie leaned forward and gave that crafty, goofy grin he was known for.
“I’ll bet he broke a hip fucking her on their wedding night!” He rolled back in peals of laughter.
“Pig,” Valencia said. She adjusted the rubber band at the back of her braces, and tried to turn her marshmallow. It slid off the stick and hissed into the fire.
“He got them all,” Brandon said, even though they all really knew it was over, the best part at least. Here, he was just making up shit as he went. “He killed Ezra Fletcher that following year when the old geezer went out to the privy to take a dump, and he got John Claypool when he went hunting for deer the next winter. All the body parts they cut off Adam Michael Rothman grew back on him bigger, thicker, tougher, more like his ‘bird’ side. But even turned ninety-nine percent beast, he never went back after his Katie for revenge because of their promise to love each other forever.”
He dug in the fire for a moment, the reflection of it dancing in his eyes.
“And you can bank on the fact that he never forgot how he died, the torture,” Brandon continued, “the disfigurement, the idea that he was surrounded by human treachery his whole life. And no one but Katie Claypool was exempt. No one. And she knew it when she got the general store, when she remarried, when all those long years made her old and bitter and twisted with guilt. She lived until 1975, always rocking on her porch, warning anyone who would listen about the betrayed, angry spirit lurking around up here in the woods.”
“It’s a good story,” Ashley said. She stood up and brushed off her butt. Her shirt had ridden up a bit, showing off the new dragon tattoo she’d gotten a few weeks ago, snaked there along her hip and the right side of her belly. The guys were all staring out the sides of their faces.
“Be right back,” she said. She had to “wee,” and she wasn’t going to do it too close to the campfire. Too easy for Brandon, or Dana, or especially Robbie to get it on a cell phone and post it on YouTube. They’d title it, “Squatter’s Rights,” or something that would really make Daddy proud. She side-stepped down the short incline, and walked a few paces along the path, almost tripping and taking a header when she bumped her toe against an overgrown root raised there like some corroded old vein. She found a thick bush, made her way behind it, dropped her drawers, and went right there in the shadows.
When she’d finished and pulled everything back together, she looked for a pile of leaves to hide the tissue under. Too dark. She got out her cell phone, aimed it at the forest floor, and hit the red button. The pale wash of light exposed dirt channeled and sloughed by past rains, twigs, patches of short weeds. She turned twice but saw nothing but a grainy flash of bare ground and foliation, and then her phone went dark. She hit it again, and moved a bit south away from the path behind her, then a bit west, then a tad east, through stands of intertwining elm, tufts of ragweed, snarls of thorn. There was a waist-high stone wall over-run with hard vine and thistle, and the light went off once again.
Hell with this, Ashley thought. She dropped the damp tissue there on the ground, and turned back the way she thought she had come, in the direction she thought would soon yield the glow of their fire up on the hill.She bumped into something. Hard.
“Ow!” she said, and her voice deadened in the stillness around her. She felt at her forehead, already knotting with the bruise, and hit the button on her cell phone.
She had bumped into a birch tree, pressing close to its twin.
“No way,” she whispered, turning in the opposite direction. She would not run, she told herself, despite the mild state of panic that was rising in her. The light went off, and she hit it back on, and before her was the upper end of the creek and an old walking bridge, and Ashley let out a short scream and ran in the opposite direction, her thoughts a collection of confused jolts and starts that came together in bright red to remind her that the order and chronology and logistics were wrong, that according to the story she’d just heard, dead opposite the leaning birches was the floor of pine needles, then the lower part of the creek with the dark polished stones and the path beyond that led out of the forest, and she was climbing and moaning, and gaining footholds in nettles of roots, and she was lucky her cell phone didn’t go tumbling off in the darkness.
She gained a crest of sorts, and she pressed on the light.
Before her was a flat square covered with briar and milkweed, and the petrified remains of a hitching post. The northwest corner of the carriage house had eroded and crumbled down to the height of about four feet, and the well still had ancient trails of blood stains ghosted and shadowed down through the crevices.
Ashley about-faced immediately, and tore down the path as fast as she was able. She slowed when the light cut off, and she hit it back on again, chest heaving.
She was back at the well, two feet from it now. She was crying, moaning, and she looked at the phone so she could call her mother, and there was a red bar across the top of the display claiming, “No Service.”
There was a sound, hollow and echoing, coming from deep inside the well. Ashley backed off a step, and the cell light cut off, and the sound before her grew there from within the bowels of the earth, and it was surfacing, and it was the furious sound of beating wings, and she hit the light button, and the stone structure erupted with a flood of barn swallows and sparrows, vomiting up into the air like hornets, and she fell back and struck her head upon the ground. Her last vision was one of inverted vertigo, the shapes above her fitting into the spaces between the branches and blotting out the night sky.
When she woke, she wondered how much of it was a dream. She blinked. She was lying down on what still felt like outdoor terrain, dirt was in her hair, but above her was a perfect sort of darkness, like velvet. Her breathing was in her ears, and she wondered if there were actually enough barn swallows and sparrows to fill every nook and cranny of the forest canopy, and she pawed along the ground and found a small stone. She sat up slowly and then underhanded the projectile as hard as she could. It hit something up there, and plunked back down beside her.
She understood when the great eyes opened, straight above her, devil’s blood orange, coal furnaces slanted like oil drops, and then there was movement to the east and the west, and at the farthest periphery of her vision she saw stars cut off by the gradated edge of a wingspan that measured fifty feet at the least on both sides. The wings lifted, made gargantuan tent-shapes at the carpal joints, and then thrust down with a massive whooping sound as the Falcon of Penn Wood knifed in toward its prey.
|Michael Aronovitz’s stories have appeared in Black Petals, The Turks Head Review, Death Head Grin, Lost Souls, and elsewhere. His story “How Bria Died” appeared in Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2011 Prime Books, and could be read before that in Weird Tales (the Uncanny Beauty issue). Aronovitz’s first novel, Alice Walks, is due for publication through Bad Moon Books in 2013, and his first collection, Seven Deadly Pleasures came out through Hippocampus Press in 2009. He is a Professor of English and lives with his wife and son in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.|