The red plumage of the mother cardinal streaks across the cloudless blue sky. She glides effortlessly, wings spread, over the full, green foliage of the Black Hood Forest. Warming her small body in the beaming sun, she raises a fiery, mohawked head. Her tiny beak clamps a fat, juicy earth worm, pulled recently from the loose soil below. It writhes wildly.
Tending to usually not venture this far away from her recently hatched nest, she was left with little choice but to go against her maternal instinct this morning. Over population and excessive competition for food forced the bird to venture further out from her usual hunting grounds and into the Black Hood Forest. Still uncomfortable with leaving the nest unattended too long, the young mother flies as quickly as her wings permit. Her long, thin claws tighten around the squirming, mucous drenched ends of the worm. Recalling the struggle, the fight before her victory, left her feeling invigorated. The amount of attention her nest demanded lately was like a noose around her neck. Motherhood might as well had tethered her to the ground. Hunting made her feel whole again. This was as her gods intended. She was a predator, not a caretaker to six starving heads who did nothing but whine loudly until fed.
Sometimes they were so loud she wished they would have never been…
Even now the earth worm struggles with a voracity she's never experienced in such common a prey. A defensive struggle was expected. Most of the effort is usually spent attempting to pull away from her grip. This worm took a more proactive approach. Its wet and slimy body actually struck at the bird, like a battering ram. Startled, the mother cardinal retreated and watched her intended prey from a hidden vantage point among the trees. She noticed something abnormal about it. It was oddly larger and fatter, the coloring slightly off. It was as if the blood coursed closer to it's surface, redder than any of the other worms she's ever caught. Stranger yet was the way it twisted and twitched in odd extremely slow than impossibly fast waves of motion. The bird tilted her head inquisitively transfixed by the ethereal dance. She was mesmerized.
She wanted this worm.
She had to have this worm.
Something hot trickles down her throat. Something dark. Strong. A chill shudders through her feathers and her head spins. Her small body stumbles in the air but she quickly catches her balance. Shaking her head she regains her composure. The motion fills her mouth with a deliciously sour taste.
This worm will make a more than sufficient meal for the nest.
The mother cardinal maneuvers past a welcome sign overlooking the only main road leading drivers into the town of Ashby: Population 5,120. Nearby, a car horn blares obnoxiously at the intersection of Woodsborough and Palmer, bursting the idyllic hum of nature.
A fragile old woman, her back hunched over by age, holds up traffic as she struggles with a grocery cart in the middle of the street. One of it's small, plastic wheels jammed into a tight crack in the cement. Wisps of dull, white hair loosen from a long braid falling down her back and float in the air. She tugs on the handle bar with as much strength as her tired bones would permit.
Running over a hill of freshly cut grass a little girl stretches her small arms towards the mother cardinal flying in the sky above. “Birdie!” she joyfully shrieks. “Look, mommieee!” The mother loosens her hold on her eight year old daughter's hand and she rushes ahead, mimicking flapping wings and trying her best to keep up with the bird.
“Not too far, Emily,” the human mother calls, waving at the Mexican gardener manicuring the lawn around Saint Rita's Church. “Hola, Jose.”
The gardener politely removes his sweaty base ball cap and tilts his head towards the young mother. “Good morning, Mrs. Parrish.”
Emily notices the old lady distressed over the cart in the street and hurries towards her. “Ma’am, do you need help?” she asks. Her genuine concern apparent on her small, rounded face. The old woman turns her head towards the girl slowly. Her gaze is unfocused, confused. The years have worn away most of her features leaving behind a mask of age. The old woman's face softens, her frustration melting away. Somewhere in the dark recesses of her mind, in a foggy place she hasn't used in some time, she recalls a daughter she once knew. A lifetimes ago.
The fresh, green smell of cut grass wafts in the air and somehow mixes pleasantly with the aroma of rising dough from Mrs. Nottenberry’s bakery in the center of town. Father John adjusts the baseball hat covering his neatly trimmed reddish brown hair. His fit body forged from a lifetime of active living filled out his maroon and white track jacket nicely. He had long, muscular legs poking out from a pair of slightly too short khaki shorts. Playing football in college on a scholarship, he decided to join the monastery right after graduation. Now, at twenty six, Johnathon Peter Richards returned home a couple years ago to the town of Ashby to teach at the catholic school he himself attended for fourteen years.
Father John reaches for the whistle held by a laniard of maroon and white emblazoned with “Saint Rita Vocation” around his neck. He lets out a shrill, high pitched whistle. “The three P's!” he demands assertively.
“Pure minds! Pure hearts! Pure bodies!” Ashby's boys little league baseball team chant, running laps around the diamond.
In a nearby bungalow, in the neighborhood bordering the west side of Freedom Park, a young housewife enjoys the warm breeze in her recently remodeled kitchen. She smiles when she hears the boy’s chant faintly riding in through the open window. Sipping her sweet, hazle nut coffee from the “World's Hottest Mom” mug her husband bought at the hospital gift shop the day she gave birth and fondly remembers making sure to walk her dog through the park every afternoon during the boy’s baseball practice as a young girl. Even then she knew she loved Mike. Unfortunately it took Mike her coming back from fat camp and spending years exercising and starving herself down to a size he would find just as beautiful as she believed he was for him to take another look at her. She still found herself giving in and overeating once in awhile, but she picked up enough tricks and habits to successively purge her body of any pesky unnecessary fats and sugars. These binges have become more frequent lately, mostly brought on by pressures from Mike to lose the baby weight. He suggested she try her best to lose it as quickly as possible.
“Considering your ...history,” he was quick to remind her.
Just three months after giving birth she was almost down to her pre-pregnancy weight.
“Almost,” Mike liked to remind her.
Hearing a faint knock, the young mother momentarily wonders if her husband forgot his brief case again. Not likely, she thought. The knock was way too polite.
“Just a moment,” she calls out, lifting the baby out of the vintage bassinet the couple received from Mike's parents the day after they announced the pregnancy. She balances the child against her hip and greets the friendly looking delivery man. “Oh perfect,” she beams, signing for the two year anniversary present she ordered online for her husband. “I was worried it wouldn’t come in time for dinner tonight.”
A slow growl rumbles distantly over head. “Oh no,” the housewife cries looking up into the darkening sky. She requested the same table on the outside patio where Mike proposed to her when making the reservations for dinner tonight. The local weatherman guaranteed a perfect summer evening.
A crooked spear of lighting stabs the sky and storm clouds roll in turning the clear blue sky ominous. A thunderous boom claps and a downpour of rain lets loose over Ashby in an instant, as if summoned.
Squeals of laughter from the baseball team break the sound of steady rain pattern. “Make up practice tomorrow,” Father John calls out to the dispersing boys. “Weather permitting.” The young priest uses his clipboard to shield the rain but quickly gives up.
“I gotta take a shit,” number eleven tells number eight before running off.
“Rubio!” Father John calls but his ignored by the boy. Just like his fucking brother.
Number eight rushes after his friend. “Hey, wait up!”
Father John stretches his arms out to his sides and rolls his head back. He's soaked. The rain washes over his body, his face, his sins. Opening his eyes he brings them up towards the heavens. “Forgive me father. What have I done?”
* * * *
“YOU CRAZY CUNT!” Mrs. Parrish screams, lunging into the intersection. She darts towards the old woman battering her eight year old daughter’s fallen body with the bar from her broken shopping cart. Tripping over one of it's green, metal legs she tumbles into scattered groceries broken in the street. Somehow the entire cart fell apart in the old lady's hand, giving her a convenient weapon for her unexpected assault. She feels the wet stickiness from the carton of eggs that broke her fall and brings her hand up to her face where the broken glass from a bottle of orange juice gashed her cheek almost completely through. Emily balls up her body protectively, using her arms as cover for her head and face. Her screams are agonizing as the cold, metal bar cracks her hard against the thigh, breaking the child’s femur.
“What did you do, Laura?” the old woman repeats maniacally. “What did you let him do to you, you fucking dirty whore!”
Back in the bungalow the pretty, young house wife grunts in a guttural way Mike has never made her. Her back is pressed against the freshly painted living room wall, her long and slender, once rounded, legs wrap around the delivery man’s naked waist. He pulled her night shirt up over her breasts and cups the bottom of her tight ass,. The delivery man has the other against the wall for balance as he pounds intensely into her. ACoach Father John, he likes to remind everyone during practices and games. She makes guttural, almost animal noises. Mike has never made her sound like this.
Reaching for the broken glass from the dropped package, the baby brings a jagged piece to his mouth. Neither the mother nor the delivery man care enough to turn their heads when the baby starts crying.
* * * *
Number eleven leans against the counter of the bathroom in the field house impatiently. Not even the new portable gaming system his parents rewarded him with for making honor roll was entertaining enough to wait this long to get home to the grilled cheese and chips his mother always had waiting for him after baseball practice.
“Come on! What the hell's taking you so long?” he asks, furiously pressing buttons on his video game. “Did your butt eat your jock strap or something?” No response. “My dad's not gonna be waiting forever. If you take any longer you're just gonna have to walk home in the rain.” The stall in front of him opens but he doesn't look up from the small game screen. The two boys are in the same fourth grade class. They have been friend's since they were in preschool together at Saint Rita Vocational. Number eight walks out quietly.
“What the hell, man? You changing your panties? What'd you get a big ole' period stain on 'em? I'm so fucking hungry. I'm just not gonna be sitting around waiting for you to...”
Number eleven's brain registers the pain from the wooden baseball bat, swung with unusual strength from an eight year old, cracking against his skull before the blackness of unconsciousness pours over him. Number eight barely acknowledges his friend's twitching body and reaches for the portable gaming system, stepping over the spreading pool of blood forming around the boy's head.
“Have you seen Edgar?” his father asks him outside from the dryness of inside his SUV.
Number eight shrugs, putting the game system into his back pocket protectively. “He said he was hungry and was gonna run home,” he answers.
“Can I get a ride home?”
In the large tree over looking the church, the mother cardinal lands on her nest and shakes off the excess water from her plumage. Her babies chirp hungrily, stretching their thin, fleshy necks towards the writhing worm held in their mother’s beak. The mother tilts her head inquisitively before devouring the entire earth worm on her own. It was everything she expected it would be.
The chirping becomes more demanding. Louder. The noise is almost unbearable to the mother bird. She looks down at her nest one last time before cracking her sharp beak through a soft undeveloped skull, instantly killing one of her babies. She repeats the process five more times before settling into the nest. The murdered bodies of her young surrounding her as she rests.