On Monday morning, Deputy McAdam drove out to investigate a Social Services report of a theft. He had already met the victim, a Mrs. Wilkins, whose husband had died the previous week, trampled by his horses. Her Rhode Island Reds, six hens and a rooster, had disappeared in the afternoon or evening of the day her husband died. When Pete arrived at the Wilkins' hobby farm, the widow took him to the empty hen house.
"You keep 'em in the coop all the time?" Pete asked.
"No, generally I let 'em out in the morning, and they scratch around in the yard. By nightfall, they all go to roost in the hen house, and I lock it up so nothing bothers 'em. Friday night, I went out to close the coop, but they weren't there. It's never happened before in the ten years we been here."
"You think it might have been an animal? Like coyotes or a fox?"
"No. I told the Social Services lady it wasn't any animal. If something like that caught 'em, there'd be feathers all over the place; not to speak of the ruckus — I'd have heard 'em squawking, for sure. It must have been a person, to just grab 'em and take 'em away like that."
"You got any idea who that might be?"
"How about your neighbors? You on good terms with them?"
"Yeah, we all get along. In fact, sometimes when I had too many eggs, I'd send some over to the folks next door. They're nice folks, an older retired couple, like Dick and me."
"You see any strangers hanging around?"
"You got any other animals?" asked Pete.
"No. He had his horses, and I had my chickens, and that's all. When we had the ranch, we used to keep a milk cow and some pigs, but not since we moved here."
"Oh, there's my cat, but he's still around. I fed him this morning."
"Are there any identifying marks on your chickens? Like rings on their legs or something? If we find some chickens, how are we gonna know they're yours?"
"No. No rings or anything like that, but there's one is missing a toe. It got infected, so I snipped it off."
Pete said the Sheriff's Office would be on the lookout for her birds. He didn't offer much hope they could recover them. If someone had stolen them, they were probably already plucked, cleaned, and bagged up in a freezer.
Pete pondered the case while he drove back to town. Theft was unusual on the little farmsteads in the valley. When the law was called in, it was more often the big feedlots or the vast chicken and pig factory farms. The trouble there was more likely to be animal rights activists. They sometimes tried to film inside the barns or feedlots, or 'rescue' some of the stock.
Sometimes there were protest demonstrations from the same crowd. It was irritating, but since they were mostly pacifists, it wasn't dangerous. None of those groups would have bothered to 'liberate' Mrs. Wilkins' chickens. Their targets were always the huge factory farms. They left hobby farms like the Wilkins' alone.
Pete's mind turned to David, and how everything was getting better between the two of them, but he had been disappointed that morning. When he had checked the shoebox in the garage, it had not been moved, so he figured the boy still didn't know about the vegan shoes.
Pete flexed his toes in the mushroom-leather half boots. They were comfortable. Although they were new, he hadn't noticed any discomfort when he was walking around at the Wilkins' farm.
"I love these things!" said Jude, as he popped a deep-fried pig testicle into his mouth. He and River sat at their usual table in the school cafeteria.
"The old man calls 'em prairie oysters," River said.
Jude guffawed. "Prairie oysters! Fuck man! They taste great. And I can just feel all that ball juice heading for my jizz-berries. You can bring me some any time you have them. Thanks, man." He took the last one out of the bag that River had given him and cut it into small pieces.
"What're you doing?" asked River.
"It ain't proper to just hog all these oysters myself. I thought we might share one with the vegan queer-boy over there. Looks like he's got a thermos of something that needs a little pig-ball boost. We can point out to him that the little piggy that provided this testicle was not killed. It's still alive, so it should be okay for him to eat it."
Jude looked around for lunchroom monitors and satisfied himself that none were nearby. "Okay, we'll go to the back of the caf and then sneak up behind him. You sit down beside him and distract him, and I'll sprinkle this into his food. Don't touch him. Don't even insult him. We'll save that for our weekend meeting with him in the gravel pit, our little barbecue."
"Yeah, we'll introduce the little queer to what's called a spit-roast."
"What's that?" said River.
"I'll tell you later," said Jude as he stood. "Let's go sprinkle a little chopped pig nut on the vegan-fag's lunch."
David walked home from the school bus stop near his house. He was deep in thought about River and Jude's harassment at lunchtime. They hadn't touched him, but they had sneered and dumped something on his lunch. He'd almost finished the lentil stew his mother had made, so he didn't care much about putting what remained into the garbage. What bothered him was the same as the last time the pair had bullied him, the hatred.
He realized he hadn't been diplomatic. He had said, "What is it with you guys? What's the matter with you?"
Jude had answered "There's nothing the matter with us, queer-boy. It's you who's fucked up. You got a bad case of fairy-itis, of queerfulness, and we wanna help you get over it. Just eat up this pig ball we brought for you. Then you'll start turning into a real boy." He sprinkled some chunks of meat into David's thermos.
"Just go away and leave me alone."
"We was never here," Jude had said. They had staggered away then, elbowing each other and laughing.
David decided there was no point in telling his mother. She got steamed up when he told her about the first incident. Although today's bullying was milder, she would likely report it to the school if she knew, but the school year was over in four days, so why bother?
Four days didn't seem like a long time to put up with River and Jude, but four more days without seeing Zhiv seemed like an eternity.
Once David was home, he dumped his pack in his bedroom and changed his clothes. He took his phone and the bird field guide down to the kitchen. With a box of rice crackers and a jar of peanut butter to snack on, he sat at the kitchen table. Using the field guide to birds, he tried to identify those he'd photographed on Sunday.
His mother came in from work shortly afterwards, made herself a cup of coffee, and joined him at the table. "Okay, let's see what you got," she said.
On his phone screen, he showed her the bird he was looking at. "I got some of them identified, but there's quite few I don't know."
"I know that one," she said. "That's a Spotted Towhee."
David scanned the index in the field guide and found the page with a picture of the Spotted Towhee. "Yep. That's it. Thanks, Mom." He scrolled past another few pictures. One caught Doreen's eye.
"Hey, go back to that one," she said.
"It looked like hummingbirds."
"Yeah, it was hummingbirds, Anna's Hummingbirds," said David. "I already identified them."
"There was one picture of them, three of them sitting together. Looked real cute. Let me see that one."
David brought up the photo of the three hummingbirds perched on Zhiv's toes.
"That's an amazing photo," she said. "How did you get so close to them?"
"The birds are real real tame up on the mountain. They're not very scared of people."
"It looks like they're sitting on someone's foot, on the toes?"
"Oh, yeah, I took off my shoes and was doing a little wading," said David.
"The pics are real good, David. It looks like you were only a few feet away."
"Yeah, my phone camera has a kind of telephoto zoom, so it looks like I was closer than I was."
"Uhuh," said Doreen.
They looked at the other birds David hadn't been able to identify and found them in the field guide. Doreen was happy that she remembered more about birding than she thought. It brought back some treasured memories of her girlhood. She said, "Your photos are really good, all of them, but especially that one of the three hummingbirds. Can I see it again?"
David scrolled to the photo of the birds sitting on Zhiv's foot.
"That's a wonderful photo," she said. She held the phone sideways and reverse-pinched the photo to enlarge it. "Yeah," she said. "You could blow that up and get it printed. I bet it would win a prize in one of those photo contests. I've never seen a photo of three hummingbirds sitting on someone's foot. They look so happy — something about the way they're holding their heads…"
"Oh, I didn't think anything about it," said David. "I just pointed the phone and clicked the shutter icon. It's no big deal."
"And all the other ones all seem to be posing on the same rock, way up high somewhere. You can see the whole valley below."
"Yeah, I like to climb up high on the mountain. I was just sitting there having my lunch and every time a bird came by and sat on that rock, I snapped a photo. I think they were hoping to get some crumbs from my sandwiches or something."
"Yeah?" said David. He picked up the field guide and his phone and started to get up from the table.
Doreen took a deep breath, and said, "I don't think you've ever lied to me before."
"David stood stock still for a half a minute and then said, "No, I haven't. That's probably why I'm not very good at it, but I can't tell you the truth right now, so please don't ask. I promise, as soon as I can tell you everything, I will. I can tell you a bit. It's wonderful. It's beautiful. There's nothing bad about what's happening, nothing I'm ashamed of. It's all good. You don't need to worry."
David sat down beside his mother, and she put an arm around him.
"But I will worry, Honey, if I don't know what you're doing. You're my baby, and I love you so much."
"I know, Mom. That's why I didn't want to tell you anything until I could tell you everything. Please trust me."
"Whose foot is that, in the photo?"
"That's part of what I can't tell you, because it's not my secret. It's his."
"As soon as I saw it, I knew it wasn't your foot, but it's a boy's foot isn't it?"
"Yeah, he's about my age, same size as me. He goes barefoot all the time, and those hummingbirds love him. That's why they look so happy to be perching on his toes."
"Okay, Honey. I'll try not to ask any questions. But I want you to promise to tell me what you can." She pulled him tighter against herself. "Like, did you really eat that big tub of leftover potato salad all by yourself?"
"Nope, I had help. He helped me, but it was so good, I could have eaten it all by myself."
"I wondered about that," said Doreen.
"Mom, I'm sorry I lied to you, but I'm glad you didn't let me. You always make me feel good. Always. Now that you know I've got a secret, we can talk around it. I don't think I could have lied to you for long — it makes me feel too bad. I hate it! And I'll tell you everything I can, whenever I can, because you're the best, and I love you."
They sat together in silence for a minute. Then David said, "Mom, if I tell you a tiny little part of the secret, do you promise you won't ever tell anybody? And you won't ask me for any details?"
"All those birds I photographed — I just told him I wanted to take some photos of birds, and he called them, Mom. He called them, and they came out of the forest. Then he asked them to sit on that rock, and one by one, they flew down and posed for me. The hummingbirds just sat on his toes because they were waiting their turn."
"He called them."
"And they came?"
"Have you ever heard of Francis of Assissi?" asked Doreen.
"No, who's he?"
"Oh, it's just an old story about a man who talked to birds."
Charlie settled himself in the lawn chair with his shotgun across his lap and a cold can of beer in his hand. He was feeling peaceful and satisfied because he was about to solve the crow problem. He planned to knock off a half-dozen today. If the rest of them didn't get the message, he'd blast a bunch tomorrow and every day after that until they understood.
Charlie finished one beer and pulled another out of the cooler beside his chair. A goodly number of crows had arrived, but he wanted to wait until they all were there. Before they took off for their night roost, he'd let them have it, both barrels, blam blam.
Jim Marsden heard two gunshots as he walked into his house after work. He greeted his wife, and they heard a lot of yelling coming from the direction of Charlie Baxter's place. Charlie was their nearest neighbor. Two hundred yards of pasture separated their houses. When the yelling rose to screaming, Jim decided he should go over there to see if everything was okay.
Charlie was writhing on the lawn in front of his house. A deck chair lay on its side nearby. He was moaning and shouting with his arms over his face. Many crows hopped around and over him. Several were pecking at his arms to get at his face. Jim ran to him, and the crows jumped back.
"It's okay, Charlie," said Jim. "Let me see." He pulled Charlie's arms down. Two bloody holes gaped where Charlie's eyes used to be. Jim pulled his phone out and called 911. Then he waved his arms at the crows. They croaked and cawed, then flew away. "Help's on the way, Charlie," said Jim. "We'll get you fixed up okay."
"I can't see," Charlie moaned. "I can't see."
After helping to clean up the kitchen and supper dishes, David went upstairs to shower. Pete and Doreen settled down in front of the TV. It was a hot evening, so when David came down later, he was only wearing his pajama bottoms. He wedged himself between his parents.
Doreen leaned over her son and sniffed his hair. "I love it when you smell soapy-clean like this," she said.
"Don't get all gooey," said David. "Let's just watch this show, okay?"
An hour later, David hugged and kissed his mother in their usual good night ritual. Then he crawled over and sat in his father's lap, facing him. "Dad?"
"What?" said Pete, encircling David's waist with his arms.
"I really like it that we're eating vegan now. I know it's probably hard for you. But I have a favor to ask."
David wrapped his arms around Pete's neck and snuggled up against him. "I want you to get some vegan shoes to wear."
"Vegan shoes! Humph!"
"Dad, it's part of the vegan lifestyle, you know, and there's lots of different kinds now, some that even you would like."
"Even me? What does that mean? Like I don't know about good shoes?"
"No, Dad, just that you always wear the same kind of shoes no matter what other people are wearing."
"I don't know, David. I'll have to think about it."
Doreen turned her face away. She had seen the shoebox and the chalk marks, and she knew it was Pete's idea of a subtle message, Pete's way of saying he loved David, without actually saying it. Doreen guessed that David also had seen through Pete's little subterfuge. He was just teasing his father. She forced herself to concentrate on the TV. If David kept wheedling Pete, she knew she would burst out laughing or pee herself.
"They've got some nice black ones that look just like your regular shoes," cajoled David.
"Really? But, aaah, money's tight now, you know."
"Dad, they don't cost any more than regular murder shoes," said David.
Pete was running out of excuses. "Well, I don't really need any shoes right now."
David pulled himself on top of Pete, so his mouth was right against Pete's ear. He said, "Is that because of the vegan shoes you bought on Sunday? You and your shoe box in the garage, and the chalk marks on the workbench. You must think I'm really dumb. You think I don't know you? You're my dad — probably the best dad in the world."
Doreen burst out laughing.
Pete blushed bright red and pulled David into an even tighter hug. "You twerp," he said.
"You father of a twerp," said David. He kissed his father's cheek and raced upstairs to his bedroom.
Doreen slid over on the couch and leaned against Pete.
"What are you laughing at?" said Pete. He put his arm around Doreen's shoulders.
"You guys are so funny," she said. "I saw the shoe box and the chalk marks too, and I knew that was your way of sending a message to David. As soon as I figured it out, I knew that David would have figured it out too. He's at least as smart as we are, probably smarter. So, when he started in on you to buy some vegan shoes, I knew he was just winding you up. If he hadn't stopped playing with you when he did, I definitely would have peed myself."
"How did we get such a great kid?" said Pete.
"Dumb luck," said Doreen.
She watched TV then, without seeing anything. Five minutes later she said, "He took some great bird pictures up the mountain yesterday. Really amazing. About fifteen different kinds of bird." That was as much as she could share with Pete, though she ached to talk about David's secret.
"Is that a lot?" said Pete.
"Yeah, for a first day out bird-watching, it's amazing."
She knew David was an unusual boy, more intelligent and perceptive than most. She trusted him to always do the right thing, but she worried. He seemed to be into something so extraordinary it beggared belief. Either that or he was hallucinating. The photographs she'd seen suggested something that challenged belief. She had spent a long time observing and trying to get close to wild birds. She knew that to take so many close-up photos of different forest songbirds, in one day, was nearly impossible.
Then there was the photo of the hummingbirds perched on that kid's foot. Hummingbirds don't do that — but the photo said they did. They sat on the foot of that mysterious boy up on the mountain.
Later that night, she was able to lay her worries to rest. She recalled how the hummingbirds had appeared to be happy. It was in the way they held their heads, a hint of a mysterious smile in their dark eyes. Someone who could make hummingbirds happy had to be good.
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