Watch Like Blackbirds by Alec Montalvo

art by
Srinivasan Venkataraman

Loudly the Red-winged Blackbirds reigned atop the pylons of backcountry Mississippi. They periodically strode north among the powerlines that tore through the trees. It was a gray morning when the hunters passed beneath them. They held their rifles at their sides by the mid-barrel, their steel-toe boots pressed against the dead grass that painted the landscape in a familiar dry yellow. They’d just begun their trek and the blackbirds remained guileless. Today, a man was going to die.

The Father and The Boy walked side by side through the country. Every so often, a familiar utterance would escape from the throat of the boy. The utterance was something The Father was accustomed to hearing for the past sixteen years. He never realized until now how loud the utterance could be in such a desolate place. The utterance, somewhere between a hiccup and a groan, would release unexpectedly in the past, not loud enough to impede a conversation, but noticeable enough to be heard at churches, movie theatres, and Sunday family dinners. Frustrated, The Father considered the utterance was perhaps being timed to scare off any game that they would come across, surely hindering their chances of a score. But he knew that wasn’t the case. He shook away the thought, he knew The Boy couldn’t help himself.

As they continued forthright through the land, The Father spoke, “I know passin’ a football in the yard wasn’t much to your liking, I hope we can find your niche out here huntin’ jus’ you n’ me.”

The Boy, unresponsive to the comment, dazedly lifted his chin and looked at the pylons once more and saw the blackbirds watching over them.

“Birds.”

The Father ignored the comment as they pressed through the dampland. “Boy, you ever feel like me n’ you should find somethin’ we can both enjoy doing together?”

The Boy let out another utterance, walking forward, still looking upwards, his eyes frantically searching the sky.

“…Well, that’s what––that’s what this is all about, that’s all.”

The Father and The Boy pressed on. In the silence, The Father reminisced about his younger expectations of fatherhood. He used to daydream of having those future father-son quality moments. He wanted to fill the gaps of what he lacked when he was a child himself. The only quality time he ever had was wrapped in cigarette clouds, technicolor television sets, and the scent of stale beer escaping his father’s mouth.

This memory was interrupted by their first sight of game. It was a deer grazing the dead grass about forty yards away, half covered by green shroud. He quickly grabbed The Boy by the back of his collared shirt and pulled him down, hushed him and whispered, “Quiet, quiet, take a knee and hold up your rifle like this.”

The Boy mimicked The Father’s actions and held the rifle up in the direction of the deer, but his eyes quickly drifted away from The Father’s positioning and onto something else. The birds, the pylons, the sky, the grass, birds, sky, pylons, grass and grass again.

“Alright look down the lens, I’m goin’ switch the safety off for you.”

The Father gently positioned himself behind The Boy. They both held the rifle, The Father aimed the rifle for his son and put his hand over The Boy’s trigger hand.

“Alright, take the shot. Just pull the trigger.”

The Boy lost focus again and quickly began to glance at how the dead weeds seemed to wrap his boots. He noticed how the harder he pressed his weight down to the ground, the more dead weeds would curl up around his boot.

The Father aggressively but quietly said, “C’mon focus! This is our chance, look at the damned deer and pull the trigger.”

The Boy began to slowly squeeze the trigger, surrounded by The Father’s arms. An utterance was released from his throat. Triggered by reflex, the shot was wasted and the deer ran off. The sound was exponentially louder than the usual utterance. The Boy looked up at the sky again to watch the birds take off from the pylons and across the sky. The Father, frustrated, readjusted his hat.

“Hey, hey, that’s okay. That is okay, hunter’s don’t make all their shots, that’s part of the game!” He put on a forced smile and picked The Son off the ground and motioned for him to keep walking, forgetting to apply the safety back to his weapon.

The Father remembered the outbursts The Boy would have when he was younger. The outbursts would arise from nothing and escalate to head pounding against the carpet of their living room. He remembered bringing him to playgrounds to meet other children, and how they would slowly disengage from him. He remembered holding him still on the pews at church. He remembered stabbing steak with a fork, and feeding it to his fourteen year old son, and then manically trying to retrieve the meat that had become lodged in his uttering throat. These outbursts with time shrank into an utterance, an utterance that encompassed everything, a small noise that squeezed its way through The Boy’s vocal chords, and released itself into the air.  A reminder of the past, every time. The Father reflected on how his dreams of being a father had become compromised, and how he became no more than a caretaker after his wife gave birth. He wasn’t even sure if The Boy really knew who he was half the time. Would The Boy even realize if he were to just disappear?

They continued to walk further across the backcountry. Not a word was spoken, just the familiar utterance that escaped The Boy’s mouth every so often. The Boy was expectedly distracted by the dead logs and yellow weeds. He noticed how the dirt on his hands formed a pattern. He noticed how the breeze whizzed passed his ears, tickling him slightly. The gray sky began to melt into a hot blue day as the hours trickled on like the sweat across his brow. He noticed Killdeer birds atop of some logs that formed the landscape they trudged through.

The Boy spoke, “Birds.”

He stumbled over a large stone. The rifle went off. The bullet hurled in The Father’s direction. The Boy laid face down in the dry weeds. The rifle, horizontal above his outstretched arms before him. The birds in the field took off once again, and the pounding steps of nearby game could be heard trailing away further and further into the distance.

The Father charged at The Boy on the ground. He picked his scrawny body up by the back of his collared shirt.

He shouted, “You and your malfunctioning skull almost got me killed! Do you even understand what could have happened?”

The Boy’s eyes didn’t know what to focus on, he saw the birds fly away, the dirt on his shirt, the sweat on The Father’s face. Birds, dirt, sweat, shirt, sweat, birds, dirt. He felt the pressure of The Father’s grasp on the back of his neck. Loud noises from The Father’s mouth. The Father grabbed The Boy’s cheeks and squeezed his face.

He looked him in the eyes, shouting “Do you see me now?”

He picked up the rifle, engaged the safety and shoved the weapon back into The Boy’s chest. He then turned away and began to walk off momentarily before coming to a halt. He took a deep breath in and exhaled with pressure. He turned around to face The Boy who was now looking at the ground with the rifle in his hands.

 “Let’s go home. If we just follow the pylons back we should be back in time before it gets dark–easy.”

The Boy looked up at the pylons.

“Let’s just get goin’.”

The Boy, still looking at the red-winged blackbirds spoke,

“Birds.”

“Yeah, I know. Birds. Birds birds birds.”

The Boy followed closely behind The Father. He noticed the yellow and brown trim of his bootlaces. How they wrapped one another, hugging effortlessly. He tried to follow each lace with his eyes up the boot, but he kept losing track and starting over. Every so often, he would have to catch up with a quick sprint to not fall too behind. He recognized the sky. He recognized it everyday and everyday it touched him. His eyes were looking straight up again, counting the clouds and finding the patterns of the world.

The two hunters headed back through the country. The Father remembered how hopeful he and his wife were before having their first and only child. He felt the cool breeze nights on their front porch, wrapped in moonlight, a tobacco pipe, his lover cuddled in his arms on their porchside bench. He remembered the nights smelled greener then. They used to smile about the thought of a child, the happy family they wanted to be. He remembered what it was like before she left, and before The Boy.

The Boy let out an utterance, and the memory faded.

Frustration set in while the sun continued to beat down on them both. Of course, he couldn’t help it, The Father thought. Maybe if he just went away for a while my wife and I could rekindle. Maybe he would be better off somewhere, like a place for people like him? A place where he could get the help he needs. Maybe just one day without–

The Boy let out another utterance, and then another bullet.

The birds of the pylons scattered again into the sky while The Father turned around to find The Boy in the dirt. There was a bullet wedged above The Boy’s knee and blood began to pool, corrupting the dry yellow weeds to crimson. The Boy held his leg in his hands, saw the birds again, the blood, the gun, The Father, the gun, the blood, the birds.

“Jesus Boy, ain’t got the sense God gave a piss ant, whatja do?” The Father called out.

The Boy let out another utterance followed by, “Birds.”

“Okay look, you’ll live, we just gotta get you outta here, alright, I’ma pick you up now, Ima…I’m goin’ have to carrya.”

But when The Father reached down to pick up The Boy, he twisted along the dirt and released a shrill shriek. He rolled away across the dirt, tracking his blood further across the ground and over his legs. The Boy would not be touched. The Boy caught the birds circling back to the pylons.

“Birds.”

“Look, ain’t nobody in these parts and its goin’ get dark soon, either you let me pick ya up or I’m goin’ have to leave ya here, jahear?”

The Boy let out another utterance.

The Father, increasingly frustrated, reached again for The Boy. He managed to pick him up this time but The Boy twisted himself out of his grasp and hit the ground. He let out another shriek, and the birds stayed put.

 “Well whadya want me to do? I’m tryin’ to help you!”

The Boy let out another utterance.

“Look, I’ll come back. You’re goin’ have to stay here on your own a while until I can–”

The Boy lifted his chin and looked up again at the pylons, the birds, and then back at his wounded leg.

The Father didn’t finish. He instead picked up and slung a rifle over each of his shoulders.  He too then looked up at the towering pylons. He won’t even know I’ve been gone, The Father thought. He just had to follow the pylons. He saw the birds shift across the wires above and the sun was sinking closer to the treetop line. He turned to follow the pylons under the gaze of the blackbirds, releasing himself from a place he would never return to.

In the corrupting dusk, the blackbirds gathered closer to one another on the powerlines. They loomed above The Boy, and in the encroaching darkness of the coming night appeared to him as one. The Boy let out a familiar utterance no longer audible to The Father.  He watched The Father shrink in the growing distance between them. In the darkened blur, the rifles beat against The Father’s back in a rhythmic pattern, like wings.

He then spoke, “Birds.”


Alec Montalvo is a High School English teacher and poet. He holds his Bachelors and Masters in Creative Writing, has been featured in Inkwell Journal, High Shelf Press, and elsewhere. He was a finalist in the Kallisto Gaia Press Contemporary Poetry Chapbook Prize, and runs a Dungeons and Dragons role playing campaign as a Dungeon Master. Talk writing on his Instagram @AlecIntheInk

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