As birds do (1)
By Stephen Thom
How will you live?
As birds do, mother
The crow / makes wing to the rocky wood
Guerrero State, Mexico
Charlie cracked the window. He flicked his fag. The bird mask stared back from his lap. Its empty eye sockets bore silent witness. The jeep bumped. The doors shook. The wheels spritzed mud. He squinted out. It was dark. Sheet-black dark.
Tree-lines tore by. Crooked branches. The dirt track churned beneath. The view shifted. Mountains. Rural sweeps. Dead corn fields. Decrepit farmhouses. Rickety huts. Peach trees. Mango trees.
He cracked the window down further. The jeep reeked. Six men. Six smokers. The trip crew/hatchet men: James 'Turk' Tenco. Bobby Pertini. Himself.
The Mexicans. He hadn't pinned the names down yet. They were vouched for and assigned at the Sierra Madre end. They'd been waiting at the airport. A fat, moustached guy drove: Orzua. Two skinny chumps: Arenas/Alvarez. Or the other way round.
They hit a rise and swung down. Turk swigged from a bottle. He sweated. He leaned on the dashboard and scoped. At least fifteen cartels operated in these mountains. Brutal stories. Brutal tactics.
The jeep spluttered. Poppy fields spread out below. Sharp peaks hemmed them in. Orzua pulled over. He killed the engine. They rustled in the dark. The Mexicans whispered. Bobby cracked the door and swung out. He rapped the window.
Charlie hitched the bird mask over his head. He clambered down. His feet sunk into mud. Bobby rummaged in the back. He slid cloth from a stacked pile. Pistols. M14s. Pumps. He selected. He divvied up. His bird visage swung between them.
'Stick to the fence. Stick close. You all know the route. You all know the markers.'
The air felt humid and sticky. The Mexicans whispered. Bobby's beak swung.
'Shut it. Any shit and I cut your balls off.'
The Mexicans shut it. They shouldered their backpacks and guns. They descended. They hugged the fence. Charlie scoped the fields. A sea of red flowers. A million stars in the sky.
Six bird masks in line. Six beaks cutting the night. Fires burned to the right. They passed the compound. They passed the outhouses.
Turk scouted ahead. They heard movement: muddy schlepps, cracked twigs. Vague shadows. They heard the muffled thwumps of a silencer. Turk's bird-masked face gestated from the dark. He urged them on. They passed uniformed bodies. Fencing sprayed red.
They cut off the main road. The path thinned. They cut between fields. Charlie lifted his hand and trailed the plants. Tapped recently: the bulbs bore the harvester's horizontal slices. His fingertips caught sticky white liquid seeping from the incisions.
Tree circles. Steel bunkers. Charlie felt tremors in his hands. Everything was quiet. The bird masks edged forward. It was a dream. It was an insidious dream that bled and bound their five disparate selfs. Brought them to this ungodly plateau.
He stopped. The fat Mexican had paused in front of him. The fields rustled. Sounds: hissing. Scuffling.
Turk and Bobby appeared. Beaks swung. They dragged two scruffy men in tanktops. Their hands were clamped over the men's mouths. The men cried. Their eyes were wide. Turk groped. He twisted his gun round. The men thrashed. The silencer dull-popped twice.
Bobby gestured. They hit the ground en-masse. They elbow-crawled. Steel walls loomed. Toxic smells: the lab. Pass. The second bunker. An open window. A box of light scored the field beneath. Charlie's face was drenched inside the mask.
Yammering inside. Bottle clinks. Guttural laughs. So close. Beaks scraped the dirt. Arenas/Alvarez/whoever the fuck coughed. Bobby hissed. Chairs screeched inside. Bottles smashed. Turk swore. Bobby twisted round. He flapped a signal.
The bunker door flew open. Bobby aimed up. He rattled off rounds. A face exploded. Bobby and Turk rushed the door. Shots drilled. The Mexicans spilled in after. Charlie followed. He shook. He struggled to control his bladder.
Horror scene: four tank-topped men on the concrete floor. Heads caved in. Bone chips. Wild red spatter. Bobby tore his mask off. He dripped sweat. He sucked air. He bent double, dry-heaved, and swore. He pulled himself up and shot Arenas and Alvarez. Orzua reeled. Bobby spat.
'I said shut it. I said no shit.'
Turk nudged the door. His beak dipped in the gap. Lights strafed the field. Fires in the distance. Shouting. Dogs barking. Turk wobbled.
'Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck... '
Bobby shrugged his backpack off. His slid crowbars over the floor. He pointed.
'Turk. The crates. Quick. Charlie. Snap the fuck out of it. You, fat fuck - the door.'
Orzua hit the door. Charlie and Turk hit the stacked wooden crates. Nailed planks. They worked quick. They wedged. They snapped. They heaved. Bingo.
Bundles. Bricks. Wax bags, folded and taped. Stamped.
They bagged up. They crammed. They shook out fresh bags. They crammed. They weighed themselves down. They ran.
The path snaked back through the fields. Torchlight knifed through the dark. The moon strobed far above. A dog ran slavering from the dark. Turk shot it. They sprinted. They hit the main road. They hugged the fence. Charlie threw up as he ran. The bags cut into his shoulders. They staggered up the slope. Headlights flared behind them.
They hit the jeep. Turk cracked the doors. He took the wheel. They loaded the dope and bundled in. Turk screeched out. Mud flew. Bobby twisted round in the front seat. He shot Orzua. Charlie caught a red face-load. Bobby rummaged for a bottle underneath. He swigged and drooled, eyes wild.
'Fat fuck. Useless fucks.'
Charlie scoped the rear window. Headlights bore down on them. Turk floored it. Bobby rolled the window down full. He swung his knees onto the seat and craned his upper body out. He aimed low. He peppered the oncoming vehicle's wheels.
They heard rubber blow. Metallic screeching. The headlights behind them veered and angled right. Charlie pressed his face to the rear window. He heard a crunch. He saw flames.
Bobby slugged shots. The jeep hurtled down an incline. Turk wrestled with the gears. Clunks. Rattles. He swore. They slid wildly. Bobby swore. He banged the dashboard. He screamed. He leaned and seized the wheel. The jeep careered. Trees loomed. Branches rattled the windscreen. They dipped. They rolled. They spun. Glass spidered and shattered. Charlie smelled smoke. He saw his home. His garden. His mother. He hit the ceiling. He blacked out.
The obscure bird / clamour'd the livelong night
Charlie blinked. Spots danced across his vision. He blinked again. His hand slapped a trunk. His fingers gouged wet bark. Strange lights dipped through the trees around him.
He rose. He tripped. He vomited. The jeep was upended behind him. It was empty. He spat and clung to a branch. His legs wobbled. His head throbbed. Torchlight cut through the trees.
He ducked down. He scrabbled through undergrowth. He pawed through muck and mush. He hit a track and ran.
Trees pressed close. The lights faded. Branches drew skewered calligraphy through the night. Charlie lurched. His chest stung. His joints ached. He kicked through heavy foliage. He waded through ankle-deep mud. He spat and shivered and swore. He wondered where Bobby was. Where Turk was.
The trees thinned. He hit a steep slope. He descended, swaying and skittering. He loosed mini-rockslides. He fell. He scraped and gouged his arms. He staggered on.
A line split the landscape beneath. A railway line. A small hut below. A station. The slope levelled out. He stumbled onto the platform.
It was quiet. His feet echoed on the concrete. The line beneath disappeared into the horizon. It split rolling black hills. He turned: a small bench under the roof of the hut. Two figures watched him. He scratched his cuts. He backed off.
A man rose from the bench and approached him. He was suited. He wore dark glasses and carried a radio. He looked Charlie up and down. He removed his glasses.
'What are you doing here? This is a private line.'
Charlie shuffled. He was caked in dirt and blood.
'I need to get away,' he coughed. 'I need to... where do these trains go?'
The man cocked his head. Charlie glanced at the hut. A skinny woman in a heavy overcoat sat with her head bowed.
'This is a private line,' the man repeated. His radio crackled. He eyed Charlie and moved away.
He pressed the radio to his ear. He gestured to the bench. The woman stood and walked to the edge of the platform. The line rumbled. Headlights gleamed in the distance. Charlie fidgeted. He shrugged his backpack off. He removed two dope bricks.
'Please,' he said. 'Please, I have to get away from here.'
The suited man clipped over. Charlie shoved the bricks into his hands. The man examined them. He looked back at the woman. He drew his palm across his brow. The train screeched in.
'Fine,' he breathed. 'Fine. Stay close to me. Do not go anywhere near her.'
The train ground to a halt. The man strode across the platform, muttering into his radio. He ushered the woman on. He ran back to Charlie. He punched a door button. The doors hissed open. He bundled Charlie in. He pulled him through carriages. They were empty, dark and dusty. Windows were smeared with dirt.
The man flapped at drapes and pushed Charlie into a booth. He pressed him down. He was sweating. His radio spat static. He waved the dope bricks.
'These are valid for four stops,' he whispered. 'Four stops. That's far enough. It'll get you away. I know these hills. The fields. You'll be away. No further. Do not go anywhere near her.'
The radio fizzled. A ghostly voice. Words: 'Clear. Clear. Clear.'
The man prodded Charlie in the chest. He held up four fingers. He backed out through the drapes. Charlie slumped and breathed. His hands were shaking.
The train hissed and pulled out. Charlie closed his eyes. He caught images: caved heads/blood/red flowers/a woman in a heavy overcoat. His thoughts looped. They drifted backwards. They found places before there were poppy fields and dope bricks. They found his garden. His mother.
He fell asleep.
The train rattled him awake. His eyes were sticky with sleep. He had no idea how long he'd been out. He scrubbed grimy streaks on the window and stared.
Rolling purple hills. Rolling purple hills. Two moons hung in a silver-grey sky. He squinted. There were strange objects in the sky. Strange purple hoops.
Charlie swallowed. He placed his hands on the table and felt the train's vibrations. He bit his lip. His head swam. He tried to piece events together. He wondered, briefly, if he were dead. Some horrible uncertainty sat within him. He grabbed his backpack. He ducked through the drapes and paced the empty carriages.
Darkness. Empty seats. Dusty tables. He passed a rusted service trolley. He punched buttons and slipped through compartment doors. He avoided the windows. He avoided the weird landscape.
The woman sat alone at a table. Her face was gaunt. She looked up with sunken eyes. Charlie slid in opposite her. He coughed.
'I was... I was supposed to get off after four stops, but I fell - I fell asleep.'
The woman blinked. She drew a cigarette from a packet and lit it. Her voice was soft.
'You're far away.' She coughed and flicked ash. 'You're far away now. This is our place. We're not supposed to see you. We're supposed to be separate.'
She coughed again. 'How did you - '
Charlie leaned forward. He frowned.
'What do you mean, 'our place'?'
The train lurched. Charlie glanced right. He caught a strange purple object in the sky. A metallic hoop.
The woman smiled. She balanced her cigarette in a ashtray. She unbuttoned her overcoat. She stood and shrugged it off. She wore a dirty sleeveless dress. She was frail. Her arms were sticks. Two vast, tattered wings spread and rustled behind her.
Charlie gaped. He clutched the table. Smoke wreathed from the ashtray. Feathers loosed and floated to the floor. The woman smiled sadly and sat.
'This is our place,' she said. 'There isn't many of us left. We're kept separate.'
The train juddered, screeched, and ground to a halt. The woman gathered her overcoat. She stood and motioned for Charlie to follow. They walked down the aisle and stepped out onto the platform.
Purple hills rolled away beyond them. Charlie followed the woman. They stepped off the concrete platform and into soft purple sand. He bent to peer at it. He clutched a handful and let it spill through his fingers. Purple dust. The colours jangled. They sent his head spinning. It was as if he had stepped into a painting. He straightened and ran after his companion.
They descended into a valley hemmed by hills. Flocks of skinny winged people in ragged clothes wandered over the sand. Charlie watched. He felt profoundly sad.
A wiry woman spread her wings, hop-skipped, and lifted into the air. The wings were patchy; skeletal in places. Feathers blew down. The woman spiralled through the ash sky towards a metallic, purple hoop.