Tend to the Dead
J J Stewart
Ned T. Vulture craned his neck and rubbed the side of his bald head against the soft down of his shoulder. He yawned, widely, and settled further into his roost. Spring again, he mused. When had winter slipped behind the hills? It seemed the seasons revolved more quickly these days. Pinwheeling around the valley like a new-born crow. Not like in his youth, when the slow, roasting heat of summer would bake his bones and warm him through the endless rains. When a second’s silence would rejuvenate his energy for an entire week. When his belly, and his nest, were full to fatness.
Now, a single, long nap and he’d wake to a new ring on a tree, his family’s fledglings kiting off on their own, and more and more of himself gone to gray.
It just wasn’t fair.
Everything was moving too quickly. Not just the seasons, which were easier to determine, but day and night and everyone else in the world. Food was a problem. His job was a problem. He never seemed to be fast enough, quick enough, to keep up with the demands of his profession. He could spend hours aloft, his filmy eyes searching and scanning the countryside, and never spot the tell-tale twitches and silences of the recently, or soon to be recently, deceased. Last week, he wouldn’t have eaten at all had his cousin’s daughter not taken pity on him and brought a care package to his home and made sure he was fed. If only more of the youth these days would have more consideration for the elderly. In these modern times, didn’t it benefit both the elderly and the youth to share and share alike? He, to share his wisdom and stories, and they, to share their energy and food? That’s how it had always been. But no, these idiots today weren’t interested in the proper way of doing things. It was all about them. Their needs, their hunger, their… ugh. It made him angry just thinking about it.
Ned sighed, groaned, stretched and cracked an eye. The sun was approaching its zenith. His belly rumbled. If he didn’t get moving, there’d be nothing for breakfast. Nor dinner. It was time, no matter how much he’d rather sit and dream the day away, to go to work.
Hunger twinged at his insides. Food would come, he thought. Today.
And, if it didn’t, death would come in its place. He’d spent his life with death. As the eldest of a family of undertakers, he knew well the stages and the signs of impending death. Today, next month, or three years from now, he would die, his body feeding others in its turn, and his sister would become the eldest until she, too, passed and the next in line took her place. Death was a good employer, and kept his family well fed.
Ned shrugged his shoulders and finally launched himself into the air. It was far past time to go to work.
He wheeled through the thermals over the dry yellow hills, named for the long-lost oak trees that had enveloped them, following the twists and turns of the single-lane tarmac road that carved the wild golden lands into safe, boring subdivisions where people raised their children, drank their coffee, and always left a caution light switched on at night. The road was slick and the air was still heavy from last night’s storm. Storms were welcome events for Ned and his industrious family. Too little visibility, too little access to easy shelter, too many speeding cars full of too-distracted people rushing to the safety of their homes. Commuting from car to home, home to car, to office, and back again. People rushed through storms speeding around blind corners and never paused at the bumps on the road, never once considering whether those bumps were potholes. Or not.
He noticed a shiver in the tall grass halfway down the embankment. He turned, wheeled, and dove, cracking his wings wide just before he landed, settling first one scaly clawed foot and then the other in the rain-dampened dust. One of those bumps that was not a pothole at all, lay, feebly twitching, half hidden in the grass.
“Jack, isn’t it?” Ned dipped his head amiably and cocked his good eye to meet the large rabbit’s white-rimmed, glossy one. “The large burrow three hills away with your wife and very rambunctious large family! I never forget a face! Well, this is a surprise! You are far afield, Jack-my-boy. Whatever brought you all the way out here last night? And you with those cabbages you were so proud of at the last harvest festival.”
The rabbit panted, breath shallow. “Please…” He whispered.
“I just can’t figure it out,” Ned said. He wriggled his head under the rabbit’s torn ear, his sharp beak scraping like stone in the dirt. He continued, his voice muffled from under the rabbit. “There’s nothing out here. Least ways, not for a family man like you. Oh, oh Jack… is that… a hah!”
A snip, an awful, cartilage-shivering click, a full-body shudder from Jack, and Ned scooted out from under Jack’s head. He gulped down the mashed globe that had been the rabbit’s other eye. “Mmmm… delicious. Thank you, Jack. Now, where were we? A girl, Jack? Was it another girl? The only thing around for miles is that dive bar down the road…”
The big rabbit quivered. His left hind foot kicked weakly.
“Not long now, my friend,” Ned hopped awkwardly down Jack’s body to where his entrails peaked through his burst stomach lining. “Don’t fight it, Jack. Best thing for you, in your condition. I’m going to miss your cabbages at the harvest fair, that’s certain.” Ned’s head dipped again, his sharp beak slicing through intestines, spilling steaming offal onto the dewy grass.
A final, high-pitched whistling breath escaped through Jack’s broken nose. His body, clenched tightly against the long night of suffering, relaxed and became limp and empty.
Ned straightened, his face streaked red and black. He stretched his old wings, collecting thin sunlight in his feathers and flapped once, blowing free his friend’s spirit to rejoin the wind that rippled the grasses and leaves.
“Goodbye, Jack,” he said. “I’ll swing by your burrow this afternoon. Wouldn’t want your family to wonder. It’s terrible when families are left wondering.”
The sun continued rising as Ned continued with his work. High above him, he could dimly see the black silhouettes of his extended family turning through the sky in patient circles. Ned snapped and tore and swallowed as quickly as he could manage before hunger overcame his family’s sense of respect. The younger generation could fend for themselves, he decided, his earlier thoughts on community forgotten as he shoved his belly full.
Orla, Ned’s cousin twice-removed landed with a whump of air at the other end of the body that now only vaguely resembled Ned’s neighbor. She reached out her leathery neck and sliced through the tendon holding the foot to the leg.
“This is my undertaking,” Ned snarled through a mouth full of fat. “I found him. He belongs to me. Go find your own neighbor.”
Orla flipped the foot deep into her mouth and swallowed it whole. “We’re family Ned,” she snarled back. She snaked her head quickly into the corpse’s belly cavity, pulling back something that burst, spilling something thick and steaming over her chest feathers. “You’re too old to return Jack to the earth. You need our help.”
Ned grunted and grabbed one ear that was still attached and tried to drag the body away from his cousin. “It’s mine!” He growled. “It’s mine and none of you can have it!”
Orla stepped back from Ned and his prize and shook her head at him. “I’m ashamed of you, cousin,” she said. “You are too old, and too stubborn, and even when we help you when you are starving, you’d still keep everything for yourself. That’s not how community works. That’s not how family works.”
“It’s how my father behaved. And his father. And it’s how your father behaved, too,” Ned retorted.
“Well, it’s not how we behave now,” Orla snapped. She raised her head and screeched out to the black figures still circling above. The figures spiraled lower and lower, quickly landing in the dry grass around Ned. “Now,” Orla said. “You, Ned, can either share the task at hand, or you can clear off to whatever barren nest you are currently calling home. You’ve already eaten more than your share, so it shouldn’t be any hardship. Which will it be?”
Ned hunched his wings at the nephew or niece closest to him. “Don’t you dare!” He exclaimed. “I am the eldest! I decide how the family business gets run, not you! I am the one who everyone has to obey, not you, Orla! Not you!”
He kicked out at her, tripping on his own claws. He lay on his back, his tail feathers smacking against pools of slowly clotting fluids and his legs kicking feebly against the sky. Orla, and her two youngest peered down at him. Their bald, wrinkly heads craned over Ned as he thrashed upside down in the dirt. The youngest, Albert, casually reached out a clawed foot and placed it over Ned’s wing joint.
“It’s about time you useless kids did something right,” Ned croaked. “What are you waiting for? Help me up.”
Albert hesitated and then gripped Ned’s wing firmly in his sharp claws. He pressed the wing firmly into the earth. Ned felt the sharp prickles of broken grass and jagged pebbles dig into his pinions. He tried to roll and bash this ungrateful whelp with his other wing. Therese, Orla’s second child quickly seized his other shoulder and forced him backwards. Ned struck out at them with his beak.
“What’s going on?” He demanded. “Let me go! Orla! Take your brats to task. This is no way to treat one of your elders! How dare you treat me like this! After I found breakfast for all of us? After all I’ve done for you? Get off of me!”
Orla cocked her head at Ned and sighed deep in her throat.
“Ned,” she said. “Great uncle. Times move on. And if you can’t move on with the times…” She sighed again. “Perhaps it’s time to downsize the family business. Time to move in a direction that suits our modern times. And our current community.”
“What are you talking about?” Ned demanded. He struggled to turn over, to move, to see the world right side up. “We are what we are, Orla. We tend the dead and, in turn, we thrive. It’s who we have been and who we will always be. What do you mean move in a new direction? We live as we’ve always lived. Let me go!”
“We do tend the dead,” Orla agreed. She shuffled her bulk around so that her heavy claws rested against his heaving chest. “But the way we do, and how we go about sharing those duties, and food amongst ourselves, needs rethinking.”
“You do what I say!” Ned shouted. “Just like you did what my father said. Just like you’ll always do! Now let me go, or I will eat your eyes and leave you crawling on the ground for the coyotes to find!”
“That’s the problem with these modern times,” Orla said to her children. “There’s just too much famine and not enough feasting. We must all take care of each other if we’re going to survive.”
Orla raised her head and the morning sun glinted dully on her black beak. She struck. There was a slice, a whistling shriek, and then the insects resumed their morning chatter. Albert and Therese slowly stepped back from the old wings stretched loosely on the ground.
“Albert, call the others,” Orla commanded. “There’s work for everyone this morning.”
The sun continued to rise and, slowly, the nearby road hummed as more and more cars flung themselves grumpily towards commutes and deadlines. In the whitened sky, black shadows circled in twos and threes before landing heavily on the small embankment. The community that works together, thrives together.
J.J. Stewart is the pen name of a writer who has spent far too long on airplanes and far too little time standing in fog. They live with their partner, two cats, and unquenched dreams of perfect gardens.
They have previously been published in Blink Ink journal.