|Solitary Wanderer by Vocisconnesse, used by permission|
The following is a long-delayed fulfillment of a story I told my mother I'd write, about a group of birders who disappear in the woods. We were walking in the woods at the time and I thought that was a fun starting point. It goes without saying that none of these birders are anything like any actual people I know, nor is the park based on an actual place. If you enjoy a classic creepy tale, you might like this one.
There had been reports of a rare bird in the area. Not many reports, and not reliable; the observer was someone that none of them had heard of. But even so, the bird was so choice, a “lifer” for each of them, and not seen in the area for over a century, and the day so fine, and the company of their fellows so enjoyable, that they decided to go looking for it.
Six of them exited from two vehicles at the remote trailhead, four men and two women, each toting binoculars and some with field guides, moleskin notebooks, daypacks or water bottles to round out their gear. They did not expect to be gone that long, perhaps until mid-afternoon. The park was large, and the bird seen at the far side of it, but the trail was well-marked and one of them, Josh Morrison, was somewhat familiar with it.
He was the only one for whom birding was profession as well as passion, having recently gotten a master’s in environmental science, and considering pursuing a doctorate in ornithology. But that could wait until later. In the meantime, he worked for a birding tour company, and the satisfaction of actually getting paid to bird, though not paid well, was something of a novelty. He was also the youngest of the group, at twenty-six, but he had been birding for so long that he could not imagine a day not spent lusting after winged creatures.
Before they left the parking area, Becky and Arnold Friend brought out apple juice and a fresh bakery loaf of cinnamon bread, and offered it to the group. They were the oldest of them, a married couple in their late sixties, whose only child, now grown up, was a lawyer who hated birds. They were only casual birders but first-rate community members: organizing the annual bird seed fundraising sale; working on the local birding group newsletter; hosting gatherings and summer BBQs in their spacious backyard, where people could watch hummingbirds battling at the feeders while waiting for their hamburgers to cook.
Everyone took some bread and juice, although they were impatient to hit the trail, except for Andie Kadery, who had not been with the group for very long. There was something a bit off about Andie,. She was thin, thirty-something, with spiky hair that was rarely the same color two months in a row, and tattoos, a lot of them. Today two were visible, a snake twining up her right arm, with its rattle on her wrist and its head nestling across her bicep, and a dove with a bleeding heart in its beak on her left arm. She had only gone out with birding with them perhaps three or four times, and was quiet and aloof; when she did speak, it was always, and only, about birds.
The last two members of the group were Sammy Haring and Peter Duran, both regulars in early middle age, solid but not exceptional birders. Sammy was married, with a wife who disliked being outdoors, and Peter was divorced. Peter was a bit more obsessed with birds than Sammy, but that was not the reason for his wife’s leaving him. Rumor had it that she had gone to California to join some sort of New Age cult, but whatever the reason, Peter didn’t seem that broken up by it. Mostly, he birded, on his own, or with Sammy.
They had not even moved away from the vehicles, and the birds were promising: an eastern towhee sang from the telephone wire running along the road, and an indigo bunting flashed past them before disappearing into the field beyond the trees. A Carolina wren sang shrilly, not too distant, its voice proclaiming teakettle, teakettle, teakettle.
Josh made a quick note of the sightings; if this rare bird panned out, this might be something that the tour company might want to include on their roster.
By then everyone was ready to begin, although the Friends treated these walks more as social occasions. They trailed at the rear, chatting with Peter and Sammy, while Josh and Andie searched seriously for birds. As they came upon a mixed feeding flock of warblers, Peter became more intent as well, and soon everyone had ceased to chatter except to call out the better specimens among the winged jewels before them.
It was a perfect day for a walk, especially with the possibility of the rare bird still ahead of them. Their pace was leisurely, and they covered little ground, although the rare bird had been seen several miles down the trail; but the birding was just too good to hurry.
Around ten, the day began to warm up, and the bird sightings slowed. The trail bogged down at a creek. Normally quiescent, the water surged over the stepping stones that bridged it after the previous week of spring rains.
“I don’t think I can cross that,” Becky said. “I’ll wait here.”
There was some talk about shifting the car-pooling arrangements so that she wouldn’t have to wait, but Arnold rather wanted to see the bird, and Becky insisted that she would enjoy the rest as it was at least a couple miles back to the car, and she was no spring chicken, and as she seemed quite cheerful about it, Sammy declared that he would benefit from the rest as well, and would wait with her.
“We can make it there and back in an hour if we hurry,” said Josh, and he, Andie, Arnold and Peter splashed their way across the stream. As soon as they were out of sight, Sammy took advantage of the opportunity to fish a pack of cigarettes out of his cargo pocket and indulge. He had told everyone that he quit, and after two triumphant months was too embarrassed to admit that he had caved, especially as Josh and Peter had always found the habit annoying; but Becky was such an old friend that he felt comfortable in front of her.
“I hope they’re not too long,” he said, inhaling blissfully on his Camel. “Jackie invited her parents over for dinner and I said I’d help clean up before they came. I don’t want to end up in the doghouse like Peter.”
“Peter’s wife didn’t leave him because of the birding,” Becky said. It was probably her greatest weakness, but she was a terrible gossip. “It was because Peter’s gay.”
“Are you sure?”
“He told me so himself.”
“I didn’t see that one coming.” Sammy thought about all the time that he and Peter had spent alone together birding or hiking, and decided that it didn’t make a difference if Peter was gay or not. Anyone who could identify the birds like Peter could was given a free pass.
As he ground out the cigarette butt and tossed it out of sight, the air was suddenly filled with birdsong, a piercing, beautiful song that he had never heard before. It sounded almost like that of a wood thrush, but with more melody...no, it was like a meadowlark, if only a meadowlark were a baritone instead of a tenor....
“I’ve never heard anything that lovely,” Becky gasped.
“Do you think it’s the bird?” Sammy speculated. “It would be funny if we’re the ones who ended up seeing it.”
They both stood up, and Sammy was so excited that he didn’t notice how Becky’s face blanched upon rising, and she tottered a few steps. He waded the stream and dashed down the trail, assuming that she was right behind him, although if he had thought about it, he would have remembered that she had not been spry enough to dash for several years.
“There it is!” he cried, feeling a bit foolish when he realized that he was speaking to himself. He raised his binoculars, brought the bird into focus, and realized that he was staring at a black-billed cuckoo, a nice enough bird, but nothing extraordinary, certainly nothing worth abandoning a friend over.
And the birdsong had faded; in fact, the woods seemed quieter than they should be on a spring morning. There was something a bit heavy about it, and he felt as if he had not only been rude to abandon Becky like that, but had actually left her in some sort of danger. He knew this was silly; he had been gone perhaps five minutes, ten at the most. But still, it was with some urgency that he turned around and jogged back along the trail.
It took him a few more minutes to realize that something was wrong; he had merely rounded a bend or two after splashing across the creek, and yet the water was nowhere in sight. The trail petered out into a sort of swale, with water oozing up over the tops of his shoes as he staggered forward into the nettles.
He turned around to retrace his steps, but could not find the trail at all. This is why I don’t go walking in the woods by myself, he thought, trying to deny the beginnings of panic that he could feel quivering about somewhere beneath his solar plexus. He paced back and forth along the edge of swale for a good half hour or so before he realized that would have to risk the good-natured mockery of his friends and admit that he had gotten lost in the most ridiculous way.
He fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone, intending to call Becky and reassure her that he was just a few minutes away from her along the trail – provided he could find the trail again – and to make sure that she was all right. The phone rang a few times and then that most pure and beautiful song played achingly through the tiny speaker; and after that, the signal seemed to drop entirely, and the phone went dead.
Josh, Arnold, Andie and Peter had not kept the quick pace they’d intended. The day was just too beautiful, with too many things to pay attention to: a summer tanager foraging in the leaves of an oak; a patch of rare yellow ladies’ slippers beside the trail; a glimpse of a red fox trotting away from them. Arnold and Peter began to feel guilty about leaving the others behind, and after another hour or so, they stopped to discuss just how much further down the path the rare bird was said to be, and how much longer they should continue to pursue it.
“It’s eleven o’clock already,” said Arnold. “Becky’s a patient woman, but I don’t think she’ll want to sit around all morning.”
Josh consulted his notes, and a park flyer with a crude trail map that he had folded in half and stuck in his pocket. “The bird was seen by the river, which we should get to in another half a mile or so.” But Arnold, taking the map, shook his head and said that the legend had it clearly marked as another two miles at least, which was too long to keep Becky waiting.
Josh tried to control his impatience. People sometimes told him that he was too obsessed by birds – even other birders were known to have said this – and he knew that this was one of those occasions. The right thing, the courteous thing to do, would be to go back with his friends and return on his own later in the week, for the bird, if it really had been sighted and was, in fact, still in the area, might well choose to remain another day or two; and even if not, the bird would not be offended, or inconvenienced in any way, by his failing to see it.
But still. A “life bird,” and an extreme rarity at that. He did not want to turn around until he had exhausted every last chance of seeing it.
“I should head back too,” said Peter. “I’ve got work to do in the afternoon.”
They looked at Andie. Since she was the other driver, Josh hoped that she, too, would choose to call it a day, but she just shrugged. “I’d like to stick around for a while. Do you think you could all squeeze in with Josh?”
Josh made his decision; there was no way he was going to risk Andie’s seeing the bird, while he waited impatiently for his next day off. “Do you mind giving me a ride?” he asked Andie.
She shrugged again, a weird contorting motion that was not quite normal, and said that would be fine.
Josh handed his keys to Peter. “Take my car. I’ll have Andie drop me off at your place when we’re finished.”
With their dilemma solved, Arnold and Peter turned back, leaving the other two to wander farther along the trail into that numinous morning sunlight, beneath a spring time sky that seemed almost painfully blue.
Arnold and Peter did not make the best time on their return trip, for Arnold was a steady walker but not a fast one, and the trail was a bit more uneven than they recalled from their trip out, but that was not surprising, as the trail on just about any trip is more arduous on the return.
It was almost noon when they got to the creek, and the area where they had left Becky and Sammy to wait for them. Neither was present, although a dropped cigarette butt indicated that Sammy had gone back to his bad habit.
“They must have decided to wait by the cars,” Peter said. “There’s a picnic shelter and an outhouse there; maybe that would be more comfortable.”
“I shouldn’t have kept Becky sitting by herself for so long,” Arnold mumbled.
“Well, she was with Sammy. And it’s a very mild day. I’m sure she’s fine.”
But to assuage his concern, Peter volunteered to call Sammy and let them know that they were coming back. He had not been alarmed when Becky did not answer, as the Friends only had one cell phone between them, and stubbornly managed to forget it half the time when they went out. They often managed to “forget” to check their e-mail, too, as they had been quite pleased with the twentieth century’s progress, and saw no need for any more.
Sammy’s phone did not ring, nor did it offer to let him leave a message, and this did alarm Peter a bit. There were many reasons it could happen—a pocket of bad reception, perhaps, but the area they were in was not remote, and Sammy always had his phone with him, and always answered it. Even in the middle of dinner, even at work or a doctor’s office, he picked it up. This lapse was the first inkling Peter had that something was wrong, but he ignored it, and said, trying to sound cheerful, “Well, on to the parking area.”
As it turned out, Arnold had not been paying any attention. He was a few feet down the trail, kneeling awkwardly over the ground. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” he asked, turning and holding up a long, glossy black feather. “What kind of bird could this come from?”
“An eagle?” Peter said hesitantly, but he knew right away that no eagle had left that feather. Approaching, he added, “Is it even real?”
The feather was over two feet long, with a shaft the size of a pencil. The barbs stitched it together into an unbroken expanse of unvarying black. Arnold tilted it back and forth in the sunlight, but not the slightest trace of iridescence could be seen to shimmer along it.
“There’s more,” Arnold said, gesturing to the ground, where a half dozen of the feathers lay scattered. Then he looked a bit forward, and groaned, and it was upon hearing that noise that Peter knew that things were not right and would not be right for them ever again.
He followed his gaze, and saw, discarded beneath a shrub, Becky’s unmistakable glasses with the rhinestones in the corner. There was no other sign of her.
Josh and Andie had just reached the river when Josh’s phone rang. He was tempted to ignore it, but seeing that the caller was Peter, he flipped it open and snapped, “What?,” not caring that his impatience with anything coming between him and the rare bird was showing.
Peter babbled for a while about giant feathers and people disappearing and Becky’s glasses on the trail, and Josh kept trying to talk sense into him – was there any blood or other sign of violence? Was there any sign of Sammy? Shouldn’t they go back to the cars before they decided to panic? And as for the feathers, they must have fallen off of another hiker’s shirt, some sort of fashion accessory, since no bird on earth had three foot long feathers. But finally he recognized that he was being a jerk, and his friends, foolish as they were, needed him.
“Keep heading for the cars,” he said at last, “and I’ll catch up to you. I’m turning around now.”
Andie was standing alongside the river, balancing on two rocks along the bank, and glanced at him quizzically.
“There might be something wrong with Becky,” Josh said. “I have to head back.”
“I’m sure she’s fine.”
“Are you coming?”
“No, I’ll just drive back on my own. Sorry you missed the bird.”
He almost tried to persuade her to come with him, but she seemed capable, and it would be a shame if none of them got to see the bird. So he wished her good luck and turned around, walking swiftly, and then, bit by bit, increasing his pace until he was jogging, then running as quickly as he could over the uneven ground. Why had he thought of his friends as foolish? He had known them for years, and they were as sensible and ordinary as anyone he knew. They didn’t panic for nothing, or wander off and get lost in the woods. If Peter sounded alarmed, it was because something alarming had happened.
As he ran along, this seemed so obvious to him that he was angry at himself for doubting him, and for being so focused on birds that he allowed them to split up. As a fledgling tour leader he knew better—the safety of the group came first. The desires of the guide came last. And even if this was not an official tour but a mere group of friends out for a walk, Josh was the one who had suggested it, organized it, mapped it out. Whatever bad thing was happening, it was at least partly his fault.
He kept running until he had to stop to get his breath back, then staggered forward, kicked the pace up to a jog again. He slogged through the creek, and did not see the feathers that Peter had talked about, or Becky’s glasses, but perhaps they had taken those with them.
It seemed to be hours before he emerged at the trailhead, sweaty and gasping, his heart pounding in his chest at the unaccustomed exertion. He could see the cars, side by side at the edge of the small parking area, but no people.
“Hello? Peter? Arnold?” he called out, and then wished he hadn’t. It seemed to him that it was better to remain unnoticed. He held up his binoculars, and scanned the picnic area, but there was no sign of them, or of any movement whatsoever.
And then he looked at the cars. They were both covered in black feathers, which rose and fell slightly in the wind as if the cars were living creatures, exhaling. He did not want to get any closer, but he knew he owed it to them to follow it through to the end. Slowly, he walked towards the nearest vehicle, and with one sudden movement, pushed the feathers off the windshield, even though he knew what he would find within.
Andie continued to walk along the path by the river. She was glad to be alone now, having formed, over the course of the morning, an intense dislike for all of the others, for any other people at all, in fact. She had been mostly solitary her whole life, and although in the past that had bothered her, she now realized that, all along, it had been her strength. She alone had not turned back. She alone had been chosen.
Any sense of time seeped away from her. She let her binoculars dangle carelessly in one hand, and when they began to feel heavy, let them drop. As the trail meandered further and further into the forest, she found herself humming tunelessly, almost babbling, like a child or a madwoman.
Oh, I’ve always been mad, she thought, but it’s OK, it brought me here. I just don’t want this to ever end; I want to walk on and on down this trail, and never have to go back to being myself again.
Then she heard the singing. It was like the chorus of a hundred unearthly birds, only with tones so pure and beautiful that hearing it was almost a form of cruelty. At first she wanted one last chance to run, but isn’t this what she had come for? This rare creature who had not been seen in a century at least?
The creature was rushing for her, not a bird after all, but a heartless winged creature, its feathers as black as the void and the look on its face that of pure hunger.
Andie threw out her arms before it, and shouted, “I’m ready!”
There was a pounding of wings, and darkness, until finally she could no longer hear the song, or anything at all. For the space of several moments, silence filled the forest. And then, one by one, the birds began to call, the squirrels to chatter, the insects to buzz. The wind rustled through the treetops, and no living thing remembered that six people had walked across the land just that morning.