I was in high school when the Preacher arrived. Revivalist this, born again that. A show, all of it, or maybe a spell. Those long, hot meetings in the army-green tent, women swooning and fainting, my Momma among them. Always the women; the men here aren’t the fainting kind. Preacher always caught the pretty ones, the young ones. I made sure never to fall. Just in case.
It was later that year it started. One by one, families stopped sending their daughters to school. It wasn’t unknown. A lot of young marriages in this town, or sometimes girls would go east, visit an aunt for a while, finish out school there. But this was different. Class sizes were shrinking, mostly just the boys left by the time the school inspector came. Teachers got laid off, classes herded together. It was easy to skip out, take long walks instead.
Then Lucy stopped coming to school. I rang and rang her house: no answer. I took to looping past the farm on days I cut class, glad their dog, Murphy, knew me so well he’d come running up for treats and petting, instead of barking the place down. I got close enough one time to see Lucy’s mother crying, her father pacing up and down, angry. That night, I began making plans.
As time went on, people began noticing the rooks and crows and ravens, stalking the stubbly fields, all the corvids with their curving beaks; cawing and croaking, whirling upwards in great organised flights. Through autumn, as the leaves fell and the birds rose in the air, I hid things I would need in the hollow tree between our farm and the town.
I didn’t know what I was getting ready for, but all anyone was talking about was the birds, and what they were doing to our town, our farms. The crops, people said, the livestock. The birds and their murderous pecking, their unpredictable flights – farmers were angry, but more than that; afraid. Scarecrows didn’t scare. Poison, they ruled out, but only because of the water table, the crops, the livestock. Preacher upped the number of meetings, and every night his words of fire and brimstone poured out and circled the hinterland, gliding through the air and into the homes of those who didn’t attend. How loud it was in the tent. We had brought this plague of birds on ourselves, he roared, and the heat around me made it feel like hell.
As Autumn took hold and deepened, I took to spending time in the old treehouse high up in the old oak, open to the skies like the crow’s nest in a ship. I was first to see the trucks approaching. Not army trucks, but the feel of something military, powerful, frightening. Men. Men with weapons. A hunters’ army of men, and I felt afraid. As I climbed down, the first snow began to fall.
Before a rifle could be raised, I swooped on the hollow tree, pulling my bag from under the crisping leaves, pulling my jacket close against the thickening snow, and running, running, running. There was one bus in the station, belching diesel fumes as it waited for the last passengers to board, and I joined them; ticket to the end of the line, wherever.
Afterwards, some people said that when the first birds were shot, bodies started falling from the skies; the bodies of the missing girls. In my mind, I saw them, Lucy, and all the other ones, falling like the snow, freezing to the ground. I wished I could raise them up, give them voice, give them life, but I was gone. I was long gone on a bus to nowhere, anywhere, the cold white snow falling all around, dancing and swirling. I watched the snow fall as I rubbed the feathers sprouting from my shoulders and soared away into my life.
Fiona McKay lives beside the sea in Dublin, Ireland with her husband and daughter. She writes flash fiction, short stories, and is also revising a novel. Writes with Writers’HQ. Words in various places, including: Reflex Fiction, Janus Literary, Scrawl Place, The Birdseed, Twin Pies, Bath Flash, Lumiere Review. Supported by Arts Council Ireland Agility Award. Tweets about writing at @fionaemckayryan.