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Christian Roberts
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Art by Gin E L Fenton

The Vulture


Christian Roberts



          To be a vulture!  Soaring on invisible wind currents, looking down with keen vision at your shadow rippling over the terrain below, sampling the air with superior olfaction, searching for the delicious aroma of death wafting up. 


          Such, mused Daniel, must be the life of the large black bird circling overhead.  Lying back in the tall dry grass, he imagined how he himself, laid out like a corpse upon the rounded hillside, might look from the vulture's vantage point.  Like an uncooked slab of meat, perhaps, or an unripe piece of fruit?  Would it remember his location and return in a few days or a week, hoping to find him bloated and stinking, ready to eat?


          Chuckling to himself, he imagined the vulture tearing through his abdominal skin with its hooked beak, tugging on his glistening, fly-covered intestines, plucking out his organs, and selfishly gobbling them up before its comrades arrived.  There were people in Tibet, he'd heard, who fed their dead to the vultures as a matter of religion, that the souls of the deceased might take advantage of the birds' flying prowess to gain a leg up on their ascent to heaven.


          If only he could find the pig.  It was out here, somewhere, in the farthest reaches of the park, shot dead by the rangers in a futile effort to stem the destructive beasts' proliferation.  The rangers left them where they fell, food for the California condors recently reintroduced to the area.  Daniel had never seen a condor, the biggest vulture of all.  If only he could find the dead pig—surely they would come!


          He sat up, ready to continue his search, when the muffled footfalls of an approaching jogger drew his attention.  A young woman in a skimpy exercise outfit came trotting doggedly up the trail below, her eyes fixed on the ground.  Daniel raised his binoculars and spied unseen, his head barely above the tall grass.  Sweat glistened on her bare arms and legs; her buttocks, breasts and ponytail all bounced to her weary gait.  At last she reached the shade of a lone oak not far off and stopped with an emphatic sigh that came floating up the hill.  Her back to Daniel, she bent forward, feet apart, knees straight, and stretched for the ground. 


          Daniel's heart pounded.  The woman's sweat-soaked jogging shorts clung deep inside the crack between her buttocks.  Twin half-moons peeked out, glistening white atop tanned legs.  Finished stretching, she adjusted her iPod and disappeared behind the tree trunk.  Daniel exhaled and dropped the binoculars.  He looked around, feeling guilty, and lay back on the ground. 

          At the very top of the hill on which he lay stood the skeleton of an ancient dead oak.  In the topmost stark branches of this tree perched the vulture.  Daniel raised the binoculars and saw it watching him.  It fluffed its feathers as if in recognition.


          "You lucky bastard," muttered Daniel, staring into the vulture's eyes.  The vulture stared back, unblinking, without a care in the world—no boring job to return to on Monday, no co-workers to criticize its shy aloofness behind its back, no nosy relatives wanting to know why it still wasn't married.  Its eyes were black holes in the wrinkled, red skin of its featherless head.  Enormous nostrils gaped above a cruelly hooked, bone-white beak. 


          Daniel shuddered.  The bird seemed impossibly close, magnified far beyond the binoculars' capacity at that distance.  Never before had he seen such detail.  A single, red-rimmed eye filled his entire field of view.  The park landscape was reflected in it, the rolling hills and valley below, the lone oak and the young woman resting in its shade.  As he watched her through the vulture's eye, she glanced round and removed her sweat-soaked top.


          The pungent aroma of death filled the air.  Instinctively, hungrily, he turned his head into the wind to ascertain its source.  Without realizing it, he launched from the top of the dead oak and soared into the wind.  Panic swept over him as he saw his shadow rippling across the ground far below.  I don't know how to fly, he thought.


          He flapped hard and the horizon tilted first one way, then the other, then disappeared from view.  The sensation of falling gripped him as the ground rushed up, spinning in a blur.  He braced for impact.


          But it didn't happen.  At the last second, the vulture's instincts took over and pulled up with a rustling swoosh of feathers.  Forcing himself to relax, Daniel let the vulture's subconscious do the flying.  He was but a passenger, free to enjoy the flight, looking out on the countryside with the vulture's keen vision.  Fear turned to exhilaration.  He wondered if he was having one of those rare dreams in which he realized he was dreaming.  But this didn't seem like a dream.  He felt too clearheaded, too awake.


          Left to its instincts, the vulture zeroed in on the dead pig for which Daniel had been searching.  It lay some fifty yards off the trail on the far side of the hilltop.  Even from such a height, Daniel could smell and see its bloated carcass clearly, could see the flies swarming over it and the maggots writhing in its hollow eye sockets.  Nausea overcame him as he imagined gobbling up the rotting flesh, his head covered with crawling, buzzing flies.  He wondered, would the vulture eat the maggots, too?


          No, he thought, as forcefully as possible. 


          The vulture changed course.  Daniel wondered if he could direct the vulture's higher consciousness even while leaving its low-level functions, like flying, alone.  Higher, he thought, and to his delight the vulture ascended.  It was the best of both worlds—his own consciousness superimposed on the vulture's brain.  As long as he didn't try to micromanage the vulture's motor skills, it would safely follow his mental instructions.  He gazed out at the vista of summer-brown, tinderbox hills and distant smog-covered city, pale blue sky and cotton-ball clouds.  To be a vulture, he thought.  Higher!


          The vulture flew higher still, rising on a cushion of warm air without once flapping its wings.  Its perfectly-tuned physical condition made soaring as effortless and comfortable as lying in bed.  The only sound was of the wind rushing over its feathers.  Far below lay the dead pig, Daniel's own body, and the lone oak beneath which the young woman was hidden from view.  Daniel recalled the reflection he'd seen in the vulture's shiny black eye, of the woman removing her top.


          There, he thought, looking at the tree.  The vulture tucked its wings and swooped down in a dizzying rush.  The woman stood in the shade with her hands behind her head, holding her blonde ponytail out from her skin, bare breasts turned toward the breeze, eyes closed.  With the vulture's sharp vision Daniel ogled her plump nipples and smooth-shaved armpits, pug nose, and full lips.  Circling around behind, downwind, he caught a whiff of her sweaty, faintly fishy odor, along with a trace of perfume or shampoo. 


          Closer, he thought, and the vulture glided in closer.  Its instincts fought against coming too near a potentially dangerous predator, but Daniel insisted, closer.  It was a little like climbing a tall ladder or riding a roller coaster, when his conscious mind fought for dominance over his irrational, instinctive fear of heights.  Yet now his instincts were those of the vulture.  His fear of heights was gone, replaced by fear of the young woman.


          A wine-stain birthmark covering one side of her face marred her otherwise beautiful features.  He hadn't noticed that before.  What a shame—she'd have been a knockout if not for that ugly blemish.  He wondered, was that why she was all the way out here by herself?  Was she lonely?  Passed over because of her flaw?  Self-conscious and shy?  He longed to tell her how beautiful she was.


          He landed on a weathered fencepost directly in front of her, drinking in the creamy skin of her breasts, her pink nipples, her blonde hair blowing in the breeze.  The stain on her face that made her undesirable to better men would deliver her to him.  He resolved to approach this beautiful girl.  Her birthmark made her approachable.  Where other girls were self-assured and intimidating, she would be shy and accessible, grateful for his attention. 


          She opened her gray-green eyes and met his gaze.  He was afraid she would be embarrassed, bare-breasted as she was in front of him, but instead she crinkled her face.


          "Ew," she said.  "What an ugly bird you are."


          Daniel was taken aback.  Who was she to call him ugly? She, with that disgusting stain on her face?  No longer the shy wallflower, she became one of them. 

Angry, he launched from the fencepost and flew straight at her, veering off at the last moment.  Her startled shriek followed him as he glided away downhill. 


          Rising on the fresh ridge-lift, he soared higher and higher.  The rugged terrain below appeared nearly flat.  To the west a blanket of dirty gray fog covered the coast; to the east, far off beyond the Central Valley, the snow-capped peaks of the Sierras shimmered like a mirage. 


          He recalled how the vulture had looked through his binoculars.  He was an ugly bird.  The girl hadn't meant to insult him.  It was a natural reaction, the same reaction he himself had had.  He thought again of her bare, white breasts, the seam of her shorts lost between the twin moons of her buttocks, her birthmark.  Her comment meant nothing.  He wasn't even a bird, after all—he was a man. It was time to return to his man's body.


          Descending, he was surprised at how unfamiliar the terrain looked.  How far he'd drifted in his consternation!  For a few minutes he wondered if he might have gotten lost, and what would that mean?  Finally he spotted the skeleton oak on the hilltop. 


          His own body was gone.  Flattened grass marked the spot where he'd lain, but the only other sign of him was his discarded baseball cap.  The vulture!  Just as he had commandeered its body, it must have commandeered his own. 


          Then he saw, at the base of the dead oak, his shirt.  Beyond that were his shoes, and then his pants and underclothes.  You fucking vulture, he thought.  What the hell are you doing?


            The scent of death wafted up and he remembered the dead pig.  There, squatting naked beside the rotting animal, was his own body.  He swooped down and landed heavily nearby.  Bloody gore and crawling, buzzing flies covered his body.  It stuffed a fistful of putrid flesh into its smacking mouth, then plunged its hand into the rotting guts to pull glistening intestines out like a giant worm. 


          It looked up at him—his own familiar face, smeared with blood and filth—and belched.  Daniel recoiled.  It was too hideous to bear.  Fly away, he thought, but all of a sudden he felt himself being drawn back against his will.  He clung to something threadlike inside the vulture's mind, but the force increased, ripped him away and sent him tumbling down a black tunnel like a spider sucked into a vacuum hose.  Then he was back inside his own body, watching the vulture flap strenuously away. 


          Flies swarmed over his bare skin.  He felt them crawling on his back, his face, his genitals.  Flinging away the rope of slimy intestines, he brushed frantically at the flies, spitting pig-flesh from his mouth.  The stench overpowered him.  His stomach churned and he spewed up huge, undigested chunks of gore and still-writhing maggots onto the rotting animal.  What seemed like a million flies, roused by the disturbance, rose in an angry buzzing cloud.  Falling back, he sprawled in the dry dirt, heaving the contents of his stomach all over himself, coughing and retching until he passed out.

          He awoke with the sun baking his tender skin.  Struggling precariously to his feet, he tried to recall where he might find his clothes. A noise from the direction of the trail drew his attention.  He looked up to see the girl walking toward him through the tall, dry grass.  


          No, he thought, dropping to his knees, temporarily out of sight.  She mustn't see me like this.  He scrambled backwards, crab-like, through the scratchy grass until a thousand needles stabbed him from behind.  Spinning round, he found himself up against a wall of thistles.  His heart pounding, he looked left, then right, searching for someplace to hide.  Panic rooted him to the spot with a dreamlike paralysis.  He turned slowly back around.


          The girl stood just beyond the pig, staring at him, her red-stained face blank.  Daniel tried to speak, to explain, but the words stuck in his parched throat and all he could manage was a rasping, croaking sound.  He held his hands out, palms up, pleading for help or sympathy or something.  Her expression remained fixed, unblinking.  If she was horrified or disgusted she didn't show it. 


          She was naked.  A triangle of pubic hair, a shade darker than her ponytail, drew the hungry flies.  Stunned, Daniel forgot his own shame and embarrassment.  She stood there for a moment, then dropped to her knees.  Plunging her hand into the pig's carcass, she ripped out a bulbous dripping organ and stuffed it into her mouth.


          Daniel watched, transfixed.  Then he smiled.  Looking up, he saw the vulture far above.  Climbing, diving, spiraling, swooping, it played on the afternoon breeze in a most unvulturely way.




Christian Roberts is a retired electrical engineer and former US Army Ranger trying for a second career as a writer.  His short story, “R.I.P.,” won first prize in the Olympiad of the Arts contest in Santa Clara, California.  His work has also appeared in Fusion Fragment, The Cynic Online Magazine, Short Fiction World Magazine, Tryst E-zine and Sinister Tales magazine.  Christian currently lives in Coyote, California.

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