Like an antithetical cock heralding the arrival of night, a shot – then another – rings out. This means it is time to go inside. Here, night is not the time for those who expect to hear the next morning’s birds – such comforting music they make.
A group of children dance around, as if the firearm was but a song. An irate woman pops her head from beneath the ground, the heavy steel lid held open over her head by a fat, strong arm. The children do not wait for her to bellow before running towards her. One by one, they descend beneath the ground, the steel cover closing over the last.
Dinner is nice tonight. The harvest came in from the greenhouse the day before, so the greens are fresh. Mother even added a handful of blueberries. A boy sits on a wooden stump. His back is against the cold stone wall, eating the salad with a smile on his face, but with the mind behind it lost in thought. Beneath the leaves in his bowl, he finds a few more berries intentionally hidden out of sight of the others. A smile comes to his face. A delicious supper unknowingly commemorating his scheme.
Mother tries to scare them with stories of what lies beyond the ashy fence that delineates their compound. For the boy, these stories only bring forth excitement. Whenever they go outside, he can see things far off in the distance. Tall buildings, with much taller mountains as their backdrop. He can hear the sounds of the wild, creatures with strange calls. Are they birds? He only knows of birds.
Home is safe, but home answers no questions. This cannot be all there is, the boy muses. Curiosity has long since taken hold of the boy, and he, its hostage.
A dark, chalky rectangle is drawn over the young man’s face. It covers both his eyes and the bridge of his nose, but it leaves his brows unsullied. A scowl peels his mouth open. A man lies beneath his legs, looking up at him, trembling. His scalp bleeds.
The man opens his mouth to speak. In a flash, the ragged machete descends and cuts his throat. His words are lost in his blood. Survival was a brutal affair.
The young man crouches. His hands glide over the form of his victim – body still quivering – searching for keepsakes. His clothes were rags, unsurprising that he carried nothing special. A plastic bottlecap, an old coin, and an AA battery. Useless trinkets. He holds onto the coin, regardless. It has not had any worth for at least twenty years now, but you can still flip it to make a decision. Life or death, perhaps?
The air is acrid in the mountains. It’s acrid everywhere else, but the trees, which used to give life once, now hold that aura of death to their chests. Their withered skeletons are everywhere up here. Some pretend to live, standing up straight. Others have given up on that act – fallen to the ground, their arms still outstretched. Despite all the death around, the birds still perch in the trees. Perhaps when the stars align just right, you catch the glimpse of a furry tail disappearing into the fog. The creatures in the mountains are still here, but the air has gotten to them. You don’t hear their sounds in the night any longer.
The young man sits in his shed. His knife whittles at a piece of dead wood as he looks down over the valley. His knife stops. His fingers pick a blueberry from the carved bowl beside him. The taste is a memory. As dead as the world is now, there is still life if you look in the right places. The sun begins to rise. The crows are beginning to wake. They’ll eat off the violent gifts that man left the previous night. A raucous bunch, those birds, but oh, what comforting music they make.