by Gregory Lee Sullivan
One night, Old Amos had a vision as he rotated a goose he’d shot over a crackling fire. In that vision his people were busying themselves with eating. But what they were eating in the dream turned out not to be the wild geese Old Amos had been lugging back so often lately to their camp to provide them meals, but bald eagles. Even his sons were in the frightening vision, eating the eagles raw, sucking the bones. They plucked away at the black and white feathers that had made the bird so iconic in America and easy to identify, and when they got to the skin, they sunk their canines in deep. His own sons.
People in the nearest town called Old Amos’s family “Wilkersons,” and they referred to them as such as though they were a distinct group somehow trapped in their isolated stretch of North Georgia pine forest. Those very same people made up elaborate tales about this new race. How they named their babies after only University of Tennessee quarterbacks, Heath, Peyton, or Tee, from the time when that school had been a near-dynasty, whether boy or girl. None of it was true. Old Amos had never even liked UT.
In Ancient Egypt, the first god to appear to man was a great bird perching on the new land that had risen from deep, murky water. The bird, Bennu, was the deity credited with creating the Egyptian universe.
Old Amos wasn’t shooting geese anymore with his rifles after the dream. He’d grown tired of them. Nor was he poaching the red-tailed hawks from down off the forgotten telephone wires along the rural county highways nearby. Instead, he was shooting almost exclusively at the sandhill crane. “The sirloin of the sky,” many call them.
Whatever Old Amos called things, or so it’s been said, it’s what they were to be called forever. “Sandhill crane,” he uttered just once, face down in a bog, smashed on cheap bourbon, intense pains shooting in the one tooth that always ailed him. So the creature, which possessed a body not much bigger than a duck’s, but adorned with gray feathers and a red crown atop its small head, awkwardly large wings, and thin, goofy long legs dangling behind whenever it soared through the air, would from then on be sandhill crane throughout the universe.
The Wilkersons were indeed strange long before the people of the closest town exterminated them. You could say they just stayed in the woods too long. Maw Maw Wilkerson was the meanest of all of them. On a good day she looked like Granny from Beverly Hillbillies, shriveled but spry, dumpy in the ass, a crazed look in her eyes, and on a bad day you didn’t even want to get near her.
Maw Maw cooked nearly everything in bacon fat. She made a fine poke salat, if that were possible. But if there was something she could really cook up, it was game. And if she put food on your plate, Jesus, you’d better eat it!
In the cultures of Finland, Estonia, and even much of Southeast Asia, it was said that entire worlds hatched from out of eggs, which would seem to posit something very large, something entirely different from what people here knew. But a similar wisdom still comes up in kitchens every day.
The boys were something else. Randy Boy was a pig. Guess it was Maw Maw’s cooking that made him so fat. That and he just sat in front of the antenna television all day eating potato chips.
Ricky Boy was the wild one. He wore shiny, long alligator-skin shoes that one of his uncles always laughed at and called roach killers. Ricky Boy’s favorite thing to do was get drunk on ‘shine or high on something and push his fat brother around in a wheelbarrow, calling for anyone, whoever might be out in the woods, to put down their guns and watch his freak show fat brother squeal from joy.
Even when the boys were teenagers, Maw Maw would still beat the shit out of them with a switch. She’d hit them for anything. She’d even hit Randy Boy for when she’d catch him eating her crabapples from off the tree. “You know I was gonna make a crabapple pie out of those damn things,” she’d say. “You love those damn pies, but you’re so fat, Randy Boy, you eat all my ingredients before I can make you what you love.”
All around the world there are tales of extinction. They are, perhaps, the real universal stories. These apply to the dodo, the pink-headed duck, the Eskimo curlew, the Carolina parakeet, the paradise owl, and so many others.
If Old Amos were around, had he not been killed off, he would surely wonder what would become of the sandhill crane he named, the bald eagles of his dreams, and his football teams. How were they doing? How would they all do in the days still to come? Those were big questions. Of course, he is a man of a different time now.
The problems came when the Americans began having the same dreams as Old Amos. Where the Wilkersons would climb the tall pines out in their woods and fling weighted nets over low-flying eagles. The dreams got progressively worse. In them, the Wilkersons began to also smoke the eagles over great fires and dance with glee. And all around the manmade lake and even in the distant towns you could see smoke rising from the forests and, in extreme cases, smell eagle meat in your own hair.
The Wilkersons called these dreams the people were having “American Dreams.” What’s stranger is that the Wilkersons once had thought they were Americans, too. But whenever one of them would go into a Citgo or somewhere, it was quite clear that they were not Americans. They wouldn’t make eye contact or anything. And at some point, the people knew they had to kill every last one of them, even Maw Maw. And their name, if that matters to you, had not even been Wilkerson. That was an invention of the people in the Citgo.
The Magyar people told tales of a giant bird (an eagle, falcon, or hawk) which led their first king west into Hungary, where he founded their proud nation. The Magyars looked upon the giant bird their king had followed as their mythical ancestor.
It was a bird that brought Old Amos to the Citgo for the first time, too. He was out hunting one particular crane that had managed to separate itself from the rest of its flock. It hobbled pitifully due to an injury from a glancing shot from one of Old Amos’s rifles. Both Old Amos and the bird had got down to the part of the lake where the Citgo was with Old Amos chasing it. Had Amos come there to conquer the Americans who were pumping gas, smoking, and buying fish bait? At first, no one suspected anything one way or another. Old Amos reluctantly let the bird go when he saw strangers staring at him. He didn’t want to be mistaken by the strangers as a poor sport for shooting a wounded animal, even though it’d been himself who had wounded it, even if it meant starvation for his people.
Old Amos had an odd-looking face. A noticeable scar up above Amos’s lip made it look as though he’d tried to bite a worm off a hook. Whenever Old Amos would go inside the store in the few years that followed his first coming, he heard a kid inside the Citgo whisper, “Here comes Fishhook Man.” Old Amos was the size of two Citgo cashiers. He didn’t like going into the store, but once he’d gone in that first time he couldn’t help going back.
Old Amos was executed in an old-fashioned way, strung up on a gallows tree. He wasn’t the first to have it done to him, but his death was supposed to be the symbolic one. He was the fierce hunter of his people. His very last thought on this earth was one where he tried with great effort to conjure up the image of Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple from the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show. Had he ever even seen it? Or had people just talked about it so much over time that he’d thought he had? Meanwhile, his executioners would soon wonder why no birds came to the execution site that day to circle above the killed man’s body.
Numerous myths have linked birds to the arrival of life or death. With their power of flight, they were seen as carriers or symbols of the human soul, or as the soul itself, flying heavenward as a person died. A bird might even sometimes represent the soul of the dead and a deity at the very same time.
A strange-looking man walks into a Citgo. He asks for red worms, a dip can, and some Hustlers. His dollar bills have worm dirt on them from when he’d opened the lid and counted the worms in the store before making the purchase. Then he remembers he forgot something and buys a container of eggs. He hadn’t brought a list with him. Meanwhile, a sandhill crane limps back into the woods, hobbles some, and then soars off in flight over the lake. Even as it flies, it does so skittishly, with an internalized memory of past gun blasts rattling through its ears like a bad dream, and it gets so scared sometimes it has to shuts its eyes.
Gregory Lee Sullivan’s fiction has appeared in The Collagist, New Mexico Review, Drunken Boat, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He recently completed an MFA at Rutgers-Camden. Before that, he worked as a newspaper reporter in Georgia and Tennessee.