On an August morning in the summer of 1960, a man dressed in black shattered the kitchen window at the Peterson home.
The house was empty. Major Peterson was at the base, writing a report on the importance of preparedness in the peacetime army. Mrs. Peterson was shopping for groceries. Their daughter Tracy was doing volunteer work at the local hospital.
Billy Peterson was the youngest member of the family. He was ten years old. Like the rest of his family, Billy was not at home when the man in black shattered the kitchen window.
Billy was pedaling his bicycle down Old MacMurray Road.
Billy was pedaling very fast.
Billy’s Daisy BB gun was slung over his shoulder, and he was wearing a small army surplus backpack.
There were only a few things in the backpack.
For one, there was a blackbird’s nest. In the nest were three eggs.
And there were two more things. Two items that, just like the backpack, had once been the official property of the United States Army.
One was a canteen, which Billy had filled with gasoline siphoned from his father’s lawnmower.
The other was a hand grenade.
The man in black had a pet of sorts. A blackbird which perched on his shoulder.
A blackbird with a BB hole in its chest.
But the bird did not seem inordinately bothered by the injury. No doubt it was well-trained. It did not make a single sound. Its head mirrored the movements of its master’s, searching here and there as the man in black explored the empty house.
But in the view of the man in black, the house was not empty.
In his view, he was surrounded by the Peterson family.
In his view, they were all around him.
Mrs. Peterson’s coffee cup stood abandoned on the kitchen counter, bearing a stain of frosted pink lipstick.
But the man in black passed it by.
The scent of Tracy’s girlish perfume drew him to the upstairs bathroom. He touched her uncapped perfume bottle, touched the damp towel Tracy had abandoned on the floor, touched Tracy’s soap, touched the heap of girlish clothes she had tossed in the laundry hamper.
And the man in black left the room.
He followed the track of Major Peterson’s bare feet on plush new carpet until he came to the major’s walk-in closet.
The closet held many uniforms. The man in black ran his fingers over these.
When he was done, he did not leave the closet.
Instead, he bent low and spun the dial on a safe which Major Peterson had bought at Sears.
He spun the dial with a calm sense of surety.
The numbers clicked into place.
The man in black opened the door.
There were many valuable things within the safe.
But the hand grenade was gone.
The mouth of the cave gaped wide.
Billy knew that it was a mouth that could not speak.
Shivering, Billy stared at it. He did not want to look away.
He could not look away. That was what he had done just the other day. He’d been staring at the mouth of the cave, staring into that black mouth that could not utter a single word, when his buddy Gordon Rogers said something stupid.
And, just for a second, Billy looked away.
Just for a second. Just long enough to give Gordon Rogers a poke in the ribs.
And when Billy looked back, a man was standing at the mouth of the cave.
A man dressed all in black.
Billy swallowed hard, remembering.
He wished that Gordon were here.
Maybe, in a way, he was.
No. That wasn’t right. Billy knew that he was all alone now. Gordon was gone—as good as dead, really. And no one stood at the mouth of the cave.
No one stood there dressed all in black.
No one said, “Don’t you know that caves are dangerous?”
No Gordon to answer, “If caves are so dangerous, what’re you doing in one?”
“Guess,” was the single word the man in black whispered, but there was no one to whisper it.
No one but Billy.
He stared at the mouth full of nothing.
“You’re a mining engineer,” he guessed.
But no one shook his head, as the man in black had done.
“You’re a spelunker,” Billy said.
And no one laughed.
“If you want me to ask, I’ll ask.” Billy said. “What are you?”
“I am an army.”
“An army?” Billy shook his head. “You’re just one guy!”
“I am an army, all the same.”
“From where, then? You don’t look like a Ruskie.”
“I am not from Russia.”
“Then where are you from?”
The question hung in the air. The mouth of the cave yawned wide, but there was only silence.
The man in black was not here.
So he could not answer, “I am an army . . . from hell.”
Being an army was an occupation fraught with hazards. Violence was often unavoidable. People lied. And reconnaissance reports were sometimes less than accurate.
For example—there was no hand grenade in Major Peterson’s safe. Which meant that there was no shiny hand-grenade pin to be had.
But the man in black found many other attractive things in the Peterson house. Things that could be of use.
He found Billy’s baseball. The one with pretty red stitches sewn with surgical precision.
He found Tracy’s jump rope. Tracy had abandoned it long ago, of course. But not so long ago as she might have wished.
In addition to these things, the man in black found a towel used by both parents. The towel was the color of skin, and it bore telltale smudges of Mrs. Peterson’s foundation cream, and from it Mr. Peterson’s hair seemed to sprout, for just this morning he had trimmed his moustache before departing for the base, and the bristling hairs had adhered to the towel.
The man in black bunched the towel between his large palms. Then he twisted it, as if wringing it out.
Bunched again. Twisted again.
He worked faster and faster. Strange shapes appeared in the material. Shapes vaguely recognizable, but only for a moment, and then they were gone.
A nose. An eyebrow.
A woman’s cheek daubed with foundation cream.
A man’s graying moustache.
The man in black smiled as he wrapped the baseball in the towel and snared it with the jump rope.
Then he wrung the towel again, quite viciously this time.
Soon the towel began to bleed.
Blood spattered the carpet as the man in black crossed Mr. and Mrs. Peterson’s bedroom.
Soon each and every drop had been wrung from the towel.
The man in black shattered the bedroom window.
No one noticed.
No one was home.
And the neighbors, the man thought with a wry smile, had flown.
Billy was about to unzip his U. S. Army surplus backpack when something moved within.
Billy gasped. The canvas material seemed to pulse before his eyes. He watched it, but he couldn’t move.
Until he heard the sound.
A faint cracking. The same sound Billy heard every morning when his father tapped a spoon against his soft-boiled egg.
Billy knew he had to move quickly. He unzipped the backpack. He snatched at the nest made from Gordon Rogers’ Slinky and Mrs. Rogers’ measuring tape and Mr. Rogers’ toupee.
He spilled three eggs from the nest.
Immediately, he spotted the crack in the biggest egg.
Another peck and it widened. Yet another peck and the crack was a hole.
One more peck and something pink showed through.
Something pink inside a blackbird’s egg.
Something as pink as Mr. Rogers bald head.
The hole in the egg was very tiny. Not nearly as large as the mouth of the cave. But the mouth of the cave was silent, and the hole in the egg was not.
“Billy,” a voice whispered from within. “Don’t . . . please, Billy. For God’s sake don’t . . .”
It was a tiny voice. Not like Mr. Rogers’ voice at all.
Another tiny tap, like father’s spoon at the breakfast table.
A crack rippled across the surface of the second egg.
The smallest egg.
“Billy . . . “
Billy jerked the canteen out of the backpack and doused the nest and all three eggs with gasoline.
The box of safety matches was in his pocket.
Soon they were in his hand.
Soon the nest was a funeral pyre.
It crackled and crackled. Blood boiled in the eggshells and sizzled away to nothing. Mrs. Rogers’ measuring tape and Mr. Rogers’ toupee were crisped to fine ash, and soon all that remained of the nest was Gordon’s charred and blackened Slinky, which didn’t move at all.
Everything was quiet again.
The man in black screamed.
Sparks erupted from his shoulders and ignited the blackbird’s feathers and the bird screeched and took wing and crashed to the ground in a flaming, twisted heap while the man watched in agony.
But he did not watch for long. Fiery tongues leapt from his trouser cuffs and licked at his ankles. He ripped off his burning coat and tossed it in the corner. Hurriedly, he worked at the metal buckle of his flaming belt, his fingers blistering at the touch of hot metal.
And then, just that quickly, the fire was gone, and he scooped his winged companion from the floor and smoothed its black feathers, and he knew that there had been no fire at all.
No. That wasn’t quite accurate. There had been a fire. It had not been here, however. The fire had occurred elsewhere. The man in black and his winged companion were only being informed of it.
Reconnaissance. Sometimes it was unreliable, and sometimes it struck a little close to home.
The man in black picked up his coat, absently plucked lint from the sleeve, and slipped it on. The blackbird regained its perch on his shoulder.
The man sighed. The boy was not stupid. That much was certain.
In point of fact, the boy was very smart. But Billy Peterson was not nearly smart enough to tangle with an army of one.
The simple truth of it was that Billy had appeared at the Rodgers’ household at a most inauspicious moment. He had seen the blackbird lay three eggs in a nest made from a Slinky, a measuring tape, and a man’s toupee.
And he had heard the man in black utter words over that nest.
The same words the man now uttered over a nest made from a bath towel, and a baseball, and a length of jump rope.
A nest like a hundred others, all across town.
Billy stared at the blackened remains of the Rogers’ nest. The eggs were cracked and open, like broken black cups. The things that had grown inside were dead. That was very good.
Billy loaded his BB gun. He did not feel like a murderer. Still, he felt he should take the scorched nest to the cemetery and bury it.
Maybe he should do that with the pink bird, too.
Billy had noticed the bird just this morning. He had watched it take flight from a nest on the Jefferson’s roof, tiny veined wings fluttering.
The pink bird was hard to miss.
And the sounds it made. A series of shrill skreeghs.
Well, Billy had never seen a pink bird. Never heard one, either. Maybe it was a pet. Mr. Jefferson had a daughter who went to school with Billy. A sharp-tongued girl named Joleen who hated Billy. Maybe the bird belonged to her.
The pink bird came straight at Billy. It dive-bombed him, circled high and came at him again.
Usually Billy did not shoot at birds. Old bottles and cans were his favorite targets, maybe a discarded monster model now and then. But when the pink bird came at him a third time, he shot it out of the sky.
Wounded, the bird crashed to the ground. It beat the dirt with one broken wing, unable to right itself.
Billy approached the bird cautiously, because now he recognized the sound of its skreegh. Now he recognized its words.
“Billy . . . Billy . . . Help me—”
He nearly screamed. The pink bird was some kind of freak. He stared down at it. Angry blue eyes stared up at him. Human eyes.
The pink bird was not a bird at all.
It had no beak. Only a mouth.
“Billy . . . I need to get to the mine . . .”
The bird had Joleen’s mouth . . . and Joleen’s voice.
Though it was not really like Joleen’s voice at all.
“. . . the mine, Billy,” the voice said. “I have to go. I have to fly . . . follow the trail . . . follow the others to the black river . . . find the home of the three-headed dog and . . .”
Billy was frightened. He wanted to run.
“Billy, you little—”
He ran faster. He outran the awful thing’s words.
Billy ran all the way to Gordon’s house. He did not notice the broken pane in the kitchen window. He burst into the house without thinking.
No one seemed to be home.
And then Billy heard a voice coming from upstairs.
The voice of the man in black.
The day before, Gordon had said that the man was only playing a prank to scare them away from the mine.
The man did not sound like he was playing a prank now. Gun in hand, Billy crept upstairs, following the man’s voice. He could not understand everything the man said. At times the man whispered too low for Billy to hear. Other times he used words that Billy didn’t understand.
But Billy understood most of the words he heard. Most importantly, he understood what a soul was.
He’d heard his parents talk about souls taking flight to heaven. He’d never heard them speak of souls taking flight to hell, the way the man in black did. Normally, Billy would have thought that such talk was a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But when Billy looked into Mr. and Mrs. Rogers’ bedroom and saw the nest with the three hideous eggs and the big ugly blackbird perched over them, he was so frightened that he might have believed anything.
The bird saw Billy before the man did.
One quiet clack of its beak and the man in black turned to face the boy.
He smiled at Billy, winked at the bird.
“This boy is troublesome,” the man said. “Kill him.”
The bird’s black wings flapped like torn shadows as it rose from the bed.
Billy pulled the trigger and a BB punched the creature hard in the chest.
The bird dropped to the bed.
The man in black screamed a harsh, “No!”
Before the word was out of the man’s mouth, Billy had grabbed the nest. He charged downstairs and ran all the way home.
He noticed many strange things as he ran. He saw many broken windows in his very quiet neighborhood. He spotted many tangled nests resting on the rooftops.
Each nest was a crazy quilt of everyday items. Clothes and ribbons, telephone cord and clothesline, sharpshooter medals won in battle and bits of dismembered dolls long buried in sandboxes and weatherbeaten cowboy hats worn by boys who rode wooden ponies. But one thing was the same—every nest that Billy saw cradled one blood red egg for every occupant of the house on which it perched.
Billy wondered what would happen when those eggs cracked open. He remembered the things the pink bird had said. “. . . the mine, Billy. I have to go. I have to fly . . . follow the trail . . . follow the others to the black river . . . find the home of the three-headed dog and . . .”
The mine . . . a trail.
A black river and a three-headed dog.
A trail to hell.
And a pink bird. A creature that carried Joleen Jefferson’s soul.
There was no nest on Billy’s house. This was a good sign. Maybe it meant that it wasn’t too late.
Billy got a few tubes of BB’s from his room. Then he opened the safe and stole his father’s hand grenade.
He pedaled to the mine, all the while telling himself that he was crazy. He didn’t want to believe that there could be other things like the pink bird. But when the egg in his backpack started to crack, and when he heard another voice, the voice of Gordon’s dad . . .
Billy held tight to his BB gun.
He watched the skies. There were no birds at all.
He listened. Not a single chirp, or caw, or skreegh.
Billy managed a deep breath.
By the time he gulped it down, the sky was alive with sound.
The sky was a rich red scream.
Hidden by the surrounding forest, the man in black watched the cave.
The blackbird sat heavily on his shoulder. Sharp talons speared his flesh. The bird’s blood dripped down its thin legs, between its talons, soaking the man’s clothes, mixing with the blood that flowed from the puckered wounds it had torn in the man in black’s flesh.
The man in black did not mind the pain. He was an army. Armies engaged in war. There was pain in any war.
There were also captives. They flew above the man’s head now, following him to the cave. Hundreds of pink things born of the blackbird perched on the man’s shoulder. Hundreds of them flapping overhead, screaming in fright as their blue-veined wings drove them toward a horror they would never escape.
Hundreds of souls bound for hell.
Hundreds of captives bound for a world of pain.
This was a small town. Nothing more than a trial run. The man in black would have liked a larger challenge.
Still, there was the boy to consider.
After all, he had wounded the blackbird.
And he still had his BB gun.
Yes, this was indeed a war.
In a war, there was pain. In a war, there were captives.
But there were also casualties.
Billy stood at the mouth of the cave. He fired the gun again and again and again. The pink things plummeted from the blue sky and crashed to the earth. Many of them screamed his name as they fell.
The voices were all at once familiar, yet unfamiliar just the same. Voices that had encouraged Billy and comforted him and taught him many things. His little league coach’s voice, and his piano teacher’s voice, and the voice of the man who sold ice cream from the back of a battered truck on summer afternoons.
Not all of the pink things screamed his name. Many darted past him with only a flutter of leathery wings, while others shrieked miserably as they disappeared into the black pit.
Billy could not shoot all of them. He could only fire the gun so fast.
Tears burned his eyes and his aim was poor.
Still, Billy tried his best. But the mouth of the cave was open, open so very wide. The other day, the silence of the open mouth had bothered him. But now it did not. Now he understood it.
The mouth was not open to speak.
It was open to swallow.
Billy reloaded his gun and continued firing.
Soon he stopped crying.
Soon his BB’s were gone, and the sky was a pink canvas of writhing, naked wings.
Soon the man in black strode through the dark trees that ringed the cave.
Billy watched the man smile. Overhead, the souls of Billy’s friends and enemies and people he had never met and would never meet raced past him like some strange airborne river.
Billy dropped his rifle and raised his father’s hand grenade.
The man in black’s smile did not falter.
“I’ll stop you.” Billy screamed above the deafening pink scream. “I’ll stop them. Don’t you think I won’t.”
“And you’ll do it all by yourself,” the man said, still smiling.
The man chuckled. “Then you too are an army of one.”
“Sure I am.” Billy bristled at the man in black’s mocking tone. “I am an army of one. Just ask your bird.”
As if on cue, the bloody creature tumbled from the man in black’s shoulder and dropped lightly upon a blanket of small pink corpses.
Tiny bones crunched underfoot as the man crossed the pink blanket. But he never looked down. Not once.
Cool air rushed past Billy, sucked into the cave like a breath. He retreated into the darkness of the cave, a torrent of pink things choking past him overhead, the grenade gripped tightly in his hands.
The man in black was silhouetted against a pink sky, sunlight flashing through a thousand furious wings behind him, nothing on his shoulder at all. He said, “The time has come to discuss the terms of your surrender.”
Billy pulled the pin from the grenade. “I’ll see you in hell first.”
“If that is the way of it,” the man said, “then I imagine that you will.”
The mouth of the cave was silent.
The man in black said not a word.
Words were useless in this land of shrieking souls.
The man looked to the trees. Dark, gnarled branches, heavy with tortured pink things.
Each one, waiting for him to move.
Each one, waiting to follow.
The man brushed dust from his dark clothes. Still, he did not rise from the rock on which he sat. The exploding grenade had torn the rock from the collapsing mouth of the cave like some great broken molar.
And now the mouth was closed.
The man in black’s master would feast no more today.
But this knowledge did not trouble the man in black, for he knew well that there were many other caves in this land.
So he sat upon the broken rock, and he listened to the pink things screeching in the trees, and he watched the skies.
Soon enough they came. Four of them, flying from the west.
Three landed in the trees. Their screams sliced an awful counterpoint to the cries of their cursed brethren.
The fourth broke off and flew to the man in black, who raised a beckoning hand.
The creature landed on his shoulder, its small talon’s scrabbling over his flesh for purchase.
The man in black stroked the tiny thing, for this creature was different from the others. Once, twice, his hand traveled its trembling body. Pink skin smooth under his fingertips . . . then black down . . . then stiff black feathers . . .
The man smiled and closed his eyes.
In his mind’s eye he glimpsed a brave boy framed by the ravenous mouth of a cave. And then the mouth closed, and swallowed, and the brave boy was gone, torn to shreds by granite teeth.
And now there was a blackbird perched on the man in black’s shoulder.
“What are you?” the man asked.
The brave boy answered in a voice that was all at once familiar, yet unfamiliar just the same.
“I am an army.”
for Bill Schafer
© 1998 by Norman Partridge.
Originally published in Imagination Fully Dilated,
edited by Alan M. Clark & Elizabeth Engstrom.
Reprinted by permission of the author.