Simmons loved to run the river trail past what was normal – season, time of day, duration. If a normal person said the end of October was about the limit for trail weather, she bought ice cleats and made sure to run a 10k in January, shaving three minutes off her personal best. If a man at a gas station remarked on her 13.1 bumper sticker and told her, unsolicited, that a woman should never go running alone, she told him, unsolicited, about the man whose fingers she broke in Tikrit on her second tour. They left the pumps when you mentioned the bodily harm you’d done, the unspoken inference being that I can take your tarsals and metatarsals too, buddy, and turn them into splintered kindling, even if you have a gun rack. She never bragged about her run times, but was certain the longer she was forced to stay on bereavement leave, the more months the army chaplain kept insisting, the more miles she would devour.
This October evening people were sparse on the trail, the shadows of ponderosa pines and Sitka spruce blending into a shared dark, the curve of the river through the boles of the trees a stripe of blue. Simmons was bundled up, everywhere except her nose. The temperature dropped in these parts, long before Halloween. She stopped concentrating on her breathing, and let her body settle into a rhythm. She let the trance of mile two wash over her, and then mile three. The setting sun at her back spilled orange. A speckled king snake darted from the bushes, nearly at her feet. She jumped, and it curled its way back. She craned her neck to watch its S behind her, in her wake.
Around mile four, Simmons got a stitch in her side. She breathed through it, and kept going. She raised her arms above her head, even though that never worked. Not for her. She’d never met a runner who said that helped. If you were a runner, a widow, or a soldier, and met another of your kind, you shared the secrets of small comforts. Her cousin Marteal, whose husband died while filling a grain silo, told her at the funeral for Simmons’ own husband to take one of Matt’s shirts, keep it in a drawer, and when she was worried she’d stopped remembering, to bury her face deep in the shirt and take as many long breaths as she needed. A runner in his 60s, half-bent with arthritis on the trail, had once told her about Glide, a sort of hyped-up Vaseline, and how useful it was to keep thighs from chafing on the long runs, the half-marathons, and the fulls. You and your kind banded together. It was one of the only good human things.
She covered another mile. It was getting harder to see, the orange of the sunset at her back gone, replaced by the palette of a bruise.
Simmons scanned the outlines of the trees in the near-dark for what she’d come to consider her friend. He swooped over the trail, once, and then back again. The great horned owl kept pace with her. It perched on the skeletal shape of a dead oak, very near, and she slowed to jog in place. “Thought I was the only one out,” Simmons said. The owl tilted its head, made her feel as if it were responding to her voice.
Simmons moved on, not wanting to get off her pace.
She wondered why her mind automatically went to “he” when she considered the owl. It bothered her, that gendering in her brain, without her even trying. What was the point?
At mile seven, it was too dark to see even the trail clearly. Simmons fished her lamps out of her belt bag by their rubber straps. She strapped them tight across her knuckles, clicked on the LED lights, each in turn. The glow shone over the trail, illuminated patches of grass, pools of water, a rime of frost.
Simmons picked up her pace. The chill grew quick once the sun was gone. She jogged for another half mile, counted the miles left before she reached the trailhead.
The owl swooped down closer this time, literally right in front of her. It landed on the asphalt in the pool of LED light, wings stuttering and flapping. It had pounced on something. The owl took to the air with the struggling animal in its beak. It perched on the arm of a pine. Simmons shone her knuckle lamps on it. It ripped, and crunched into a nestling rabbit’s bones. It tilted its head back, used gravity to help slide the rabbit down its gullet.
Simmons considered this, the lamps, which she had used for months, always on the same trail at dusk, bobbing with the rhythm of her steps, grazing the underbrush.
“I’m the bait” Simmons said, addressing the owl. The owl, finished with its meal, tilted its head and observed her in the same, still way. “I’m the bait,” Simmons said again, though she knew now that it was pointless and human to say anything at all.
The sound behind them, from the woods opposite the river, started small like the patter of rain that starts a storm. Simmons thought that it was rain. For a brief instant, she remembered being in kindergarten, their teacher telling them to all slap their palms against their legs, to drum against them in unison, and then to snap their fingers. All the small hands on all the small legs, the small fingers snapping to make their own magic, sound of rain. The noise from the woods swelled, took on a different quality. When the first wave of birds broke through the trees, she couldn’t even tell what she was looking at.
Hundreds of owls, like her friend, were the least of it. A wall of magpies – there is no other way to say it – made her lose her footing, the blur of white and black tricking her vision. There were hawks, and osprey, gulls and pigeons. Simmons darted over to the trunk of a spruce, and wrapped her arms around it. She held it tight, thought of the Hitchcock film, felt like she might go crazy. The wall of birds stripped the vegetation. She could hear the rustle of needles, the snapping of bark, the deafening sound all of the screeches, the cries and the wings. She kept her eyes scrunched shut.
The noise died down, moved off into the distance. It moved down to the water, she thought, and then further. Simmons willed herself to breath slowly, to stop gasping in order to fill her lungs. She opened her eyes. She waited and listened even longer, until she was sure they weren’t coming back.
Simmons stepped away from the tree, bent over at the waist, held her thighs and bent down. She walked to try and calm herself, the rubber of her brightly colored shoes scrunching on the newly fallen bed of needles. Needles covered every surface of the trail. To her horror, she saw the owl. It had been torn to shreds by the other birds. She prodded it with her foot, and it looked ragged, its bones splayed out at unnatural angles. What had just happened? She looked around her, forward and backward on the trail, past the small circles of light provided by her lamps.
Sarah – for that was Lieutenant Simmons’ name, what people a long time ago used to call a Christian name – would never be able to explain what made her turn from the trail, to face the direction the birds had come from.
The light that split the woods was so bright it left her blind for several minutes. The sound that accompanied the light made the fillings in her teeth rattle, and the small bones in her inner ear hum. Somehow she knew, even in that moment, even on that first day they arrived, that her kind would be running for a long time, maybe forever. It has been so long since she had felt connected, had considered herself truly a part of, and one of, the creatures of the world.
Something followed from the woods. Unearthly lights.
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