(c) Jaye W Manus
Rocky poured the contents of the bucket into the trough. He grabbed a push broom and shoved back an aggressive female so the little ones could reach the food. The female howled in frustration. Drool streamed from her gaping mouth. Rocky kept the pressure on. If he didn’t hold her back, she’d throw herself into the trough and the others would go hungry.
“You do a good job taking care of them, son.”
“Most folks have given up. The howlers are just too much trouble. Worthless eating machines is all they are.”
The man gave the boy a considering look. Rocky grew uncomfortable under the examination. Rocky had invited the traveler to stay the winter. An impulsive invitation born of loneliness and the rare pleasure of having someone to talk to. He wondered if he’d made a mistake.
“I was up north in Denver a few weeks ago. They’ve declared open season on howlers. Just shoot them and be done with them.”
Rocky clenched inside. The man had arrived on horseback, leading a mule. Coming from nowhere, going nowhere, he’d said. Looking for a place to spend the winter, he’d said. The mule’s panniers sported several long guns. The man wore pistols on his belt and a bandolier of ammunition across the chest. Nobody with half-a-brain went unarmed these days. It seemed to Rocky that this man had more in mind than protecting himself.
Rocky glanced at the shotgun propped against the fence. “They have a right to live.”
“Uh hmn.” The man pointed his chin at the males’ pen. “Smart of you to separate the males from the females. Be hell to pay if they start breeding. Not that they’re smart enough to take care of any babies they’d drop.”
Rocky blushed, remembering all the times he’d thrown water on randy males harassing the females. “Sometimes they fight,” he said. “The little ones get injured by accident.”
“Didn’t mean to embarrass you, son. Animals breed. That’s what they are. Animals. Never mind. Real smart of you to put up fences. You got enough food laid by to keep them alive through the winter?”
Rocky sensed deeper meaning behind the question. What meaning he could not guess. He did not want to guess. “Wild howlers pretty much stripped the nearby grocery stores, but I managed to forage a lot of canned food. There aren’t many people around.”
“Do folks passing through give you trouble?”
He didn’t want to talk about things he’d seen men do. Or admit to the things he’d done to protect the howlers. He lied, “No.”
He forced a smile. “I was growing a pretty good garden, but the howlers found a weakness in the fence.” He shook his head at the memory. “I came out one morning and everything was gone. They even tore plants out of the ground and ate the roots. It’s okay. I’m getting real good at hunting.” He pointed at the cook fire where four turkeys roasted on spits. “We’re overrun with wildlife these days. I practically trip over deer, rabbits and turkeys every time I step out the door.”
The man studied the roasting fowl. He looked pretty hungry himself. “You always cook the meat?”
“They get sick when they eat raw meat. I don’t know how to treat them when they get sick. I give them medicine, but sometimes it’s the wrong stuff.”
“So what are you going to do this winter? Way I read the signs, it’s going to be a cold one.”
The man spoke nonchalantly. Weather talk. Nothing about nothing talk. It sounded like so much more, though, and Rocky regretted the invitation he’d extended. He wished the man would get on his horse and ride away.
Rocky pointed at the barn perched on a hill. “I knocked down the stalls and made new walls out of rebar and bales of hay. Tall walls and deep straw should keep them warm. I can’t make fireplaces or use kerosene heaters. I’m afraid the barn will burn down. I can keep them clean and warm. It’s a good barn with a good roof.”
“Smart kid.” The man watched Rocky release the aggressive female. She dived into the trough face first, gobbling like a pig. “Not criticizing, but you’re scrawny. You feeding yourself? Trying to keep howlers alive can suck the life right out of you. Can’t help them if you don’t help yourself first.”
Rocky tugged his sleeves down to conceal his bony wrists. Only a year ago he’d been meaty enough to play linebacker on the varsity football team. Now he was whippy, his muscles like cords. His ribs showed. He couldn’t even remember what it was like sprawling on a couch to watch TV or play video games or even have time to read a book. From sunup to sundown, he tended the howlers or hunted for food or foraged in empty stores and homes and garages for supplies.
“I eat fine.”
“Just saying, son. If it comes down to them or you, it’s gotta be you. How many do you have in these pens? Fifty? Sixty?” He nodded at the house where a lone female was tethered by a dog collar and a rope to the porch. “Plus your pet.”
Rocky bristled. “She’s not a pet.”
The man held up his hands. “No offense, son, don’t get riled. Just saying.”
“I can keep them alive,” Rocky said. “I’ve been doing it a year. I can keep doing it. It’s getting easier because there aren’t so many wild howlers around anymore. A lot died off last winter. I found frozen bodies everywhere.”
He’d seen them shot and bludgeoned, hanged and stabbed, too.
The death toll included his own charges Rocky had failed to keep alive either through their foolish or his ineptness. Every one he’d lost felt like a knife in his heart.
The man slipped into silence, leaning his forearms on the fence and watching the milling females and young ones lick the trough clean.
Rocky checked the turkeys. He tried not to think about ovens and microwaves that produced golden brown birds all fragrant and juicy. These were charred black and probably not cooked completely on the inside. Not that the howlers cared. They ate anything they could cram into their mouths and chew. He pulled a carcass off the flames, plopped it onto a stump and used a meat cleaver to hack it in half. The skin was black as charcoal and the meat near the bones was pink and rubbery looking. He grunted in disgust. Other than standing for hours next to the fire, turning the spit, he didn’t know how to cook the birds evenly. Who had time to tend a spit?
He chopped the carcass into pieces then flung them into the males’ pen. The howlers fell on the meat like starving dogs.
“That turkey smells good, son,” the man said. He brought a second bird to the makeshift chopping block. “You saving any for us?”
Rocky gestured at the cook fire. “If I can keep that small one from burning to a crisp, that’s our dinner.”
“Next time you shoot turkeys, I’ll show you how to cook them in clay. Keeps the juices in.”
The man set about preparing canned green beans and canned yams to round out their meal.
After the howlers were fed, Rocky cleaned and refilled water buckets, then threw down fresh straw for bedding. The straw was looking moldy. His supply of hay and straw came from foraging in barns. What he had on hand was at least a year old and he hoped he had enough to last the winter. He looked out over a grassy field and wondered if he could figure out how to make hay.
“So what’s your theory?” The man settled on a lawn chair and drew out a pipe. He packed it with tobacco.
“How this happened. What it means?”
“Everywhere I go, someone has a theory. A government experiment gone wrong. Space aliens shooting ray guns. A sun spot. That’s my favorite. A cosmic joke played by God. Question that bugs me most is why me? Why us? How come they’ve gone stupid as chickens, too dumb to come in out of the rain, but we’re okay. My best guess is, about a hundred thousand folks in North American stayed smart. The rest…” He ruffled his lips. “I figure it’s about the same all over the world. Billions of stupid people. Maybe a million with brains left in their heads. Maybe.”
“Maybe it’ll go back,” Rocky said. “To how it was before.”
“What makes you say that, son?”
Rocky stared at his hands. “It happened so fast. One minute they were fine, then they weren’t. Maybe…”
“Is that why you work so hard to keep them alive? In case God decides the joke is over and makes them human again?”
“They are human! I know they’re stupid! All they do is eat and shit and howl if they get hungry or scared. They can’t take care of themselves or even learn to come when they’re called. They’re still human. They’re people.”
“Is that it? Survivor’s guilt? You feel responsible because you didn’t catch whatever it is that got them?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, before, if somebody got sick or hurt, you just didn’t let them die. If a person was hungry, you fed them. If we start thinking they aren’t human, what does that make us? People take care of people. Even the worthless ones.” Sensing the man’s amusement, or scorn, he hunched into himself. “It’s murder to kill them. They’re helpless. They aren’t even smart enough to run away or fight back.”
“Perhaps it would be a kindness.” He pondered the tethered female, her vacant eyes as expressionless as a doll’s.
“Taking the easy way out, you mean.” He grabbed the turkey off the fire and eased it off the spit and onto a metal platter. He hooked the shotgun under his arm. “Grab the green beans and yams. We can eat inside.”
As the smell of hot food reached her, the tethered female began to howl. That set off the rest in the pens. Tears burned Rocky’s eyes. How he hated that noise. Sometimes they howled for hours, until their throats were so raw they squeaked. He hated the howls. Hated it. He blinked rapidly and sniffed and swallowed until his aching throat relaxed.
The easy way out. To never again have to hear those howls. Never look into empty eyes…
He lit a lantern in the kitchen. He carved the turkey. This one had cooked mostly through. Once he peeled off the blackened skin, the meat was almost tender. It smelled good, too. The man set the table with linens and multiple forks and wine glasses. He produced a package of Oreos. They were at least a year old, but Rocky salivated at the sight of them anyway. He hadn’t seen cookies in months.
The man said, “Eat, drink, be merry.” He opened a bottle of wine.
Rocky arranged steaming green beans and yams and both stringy, charred drumsticks just so on a plate. He added one rock-hard Oreo cookie. “Be right back,” he said.
He carried the plate outside. He was fairly certain of the date. November 24th, the fourth Thursday of the month. He looked up at the starry sky and pondered cosmic jokes. The tethered female made hungry noises as she stumbled on the porch steps. Rocky set the plate on the wooden floor.
“Open season, my ass. Don’t you worry. Nobody is going to hurt you. Ever. No matter what. I promise.”
While she gnawed on a turkey leg, he patted her head. “Happy Thanksgiving, Mom.”