Fiction Issue - Featherweight
I will not coat this in sugar nor string you along for big third-act reveal. I am only bones.
I mean, am guy, too. Was guy. With flesh and guts and body. But, vultures, they stopped circling long ago. Crows no longer pick at me. Only falcon comes by and perches on rampart every few days now, as if to ponder mortality. But definitely not offer apology. Can tell from his stupid asshole face.
I first came to castle from countryside for work and adventure. Former was awful. Latter brief and violent. Now, sundown, sunup, rain, shine, I hang from turret in gibbeting cage, no doubt with stupid, toothy grin on face. I watch people come and go. Drawbridge goes down. Portcullis lifts up. People go in. Trumpet fanfare. Rootytootoot. Hooves clippy-clop. Clanging metal. Yelling. Huzzah! People leave. Portcullis goes down. Repeat. You get picture, yes?
Gibbeting cage stirs in wind and scrapes against old stonework. Castle workers and visitors look up. Occasionally, visiting child will say "Ewww!" and father will say, "That's what happens when you don't obey," and wife yells "Honey!" and smacks him on arm and I say, "You may all go to hell!" but not really, because I am just bones.
This is not how I envisioned afterlife. But then, did not really think employment at KnightTime Entertainments would end this way, either.
Admittedly, I should have read contract little more closely. But, gah! So boring. Pages and pages. Like iTunes. (I just want Styx song "Come Sail Away." Why do I sign life over for this?) Probably said something about this being possibility. Not in so many words, I guess. "Penalties Not Otherwise Named Herein" or something. (I do not actually remember that part. Am just assuming.) But, no matter. Contracts mean little where family of President For Life is concerned.
Had idea to leave Brovduksch and teach foreign language abroad. Is dream/stalling tactic of university graduates everywhere seeking to find self. I did not care where I found self as long as it was not Brovduksch. Unfortunately, no one outside Brovduksch wants to speak Brovduk. So, here I am in Orlando.
Not Orlando of which you think. Orlando, Brovduksch. Is long story. Loop of Disney movies on State TV was nice for while. And fast food. And Pepsi. But in short, President For Life's plan to rebrand capital and shove tourist attractions into our ancient buildings was not solid strategy. Seats at joust arena in KnightTime Entertainments are only one-third full on good night. Bored locals, few delegations from Turkmenistan and North Korea, and occasional bargain-shopping Canadian tourist sit in drafty castle drinking imported Bud Light.
Star of show was President For Life's favorite nephew, Erik. In previous employment, Erik led one of uncle's Recoöperation Squads as well as disciplinary committee for State tennis team. When tourism initiative made such positions embarrassing to State, in smooth transition Erik applied talents to fake medieval combat. Would put on armor with former Recoöperation Squad drinking companions and then pound them stupid to loud, and also mandatory, applause. Gift shop sold T-shirts with his character, Stygian Annihilator. (I know. It is too many syllables. Is actually one of very few phrases to sound better in Brovduk.) Shop sold action figures of knights. But rest of us in castle were almost invisible. Keep it that way, Iskra told me.
Iskra. Those eyes. I first saw them when she led new employee session in conference room. Felt that she stared at me whole time as if I was only person there. (Were only two other guys, one with ugly birthmark on face. But, still.)
As we filed out at end of meeting, she made show of looking busy. She added underline and "!!!" to where she had written "Maximize Excellence" on whiteboard. But as I passed, she turned and whispered to me, "Stay out of Erik's way." She touched my arm to emphasize this. Up close, I could see that she had faint moustache. It was damp with sweat. She was nervous.
Don't fuck with Stygian Annihilator, she said, eyes piercing mine. She turned away when security guard walked by open door. "Will call you when name badge is ready," she said in brisk fashion. Added quietly, "But seriously, is crazy. Erik is fucking insane."
In retrospect, was absolutely true.
I became assistant to fat and mostly immobile falconer named Genghis and bird named Windrider. (Or, "officially named Windrider," is what announcer tells crowd. But bird actually answers to Bogdan.) Did not really know much about falconry prior to employment. Seemed like fun hobby in Royal Tenenbaums movie on State TV: sit on roof, smoke cigarettes with sister/girlfriend, watch falcon do falcon things. I was to prepare decoy target for bird. Clean up feathers around perch. Push Genghis' wheelchair to edge of arena. Avoid eye contact with knights. Easy and peasy. Unfortunately, actual likeness to Royal Tenenbaums was more like suicide scene with lots of blood running down arms. Bird and I did not very much get along.
When I cleaned bird's area in alcove near portcullis winch, he would hop from perch, grasp arm with talons and peck at hands on broom. Would also shit forcefully in my direction all times he heard me behind him. When Genghis would drink (which was more often than when Genghis would not drink) Bogdan would wait for him to nod off and then squawk. Genghis would wake yelling "No!" and hit me with what he called Bird Stick, something he insisted was standard falconry equipment.
"Later you can move up to something in office," Iskra told me when I complained. "You just have to do this for few years," she said.
But I was not sure if by "this" she meant job of falconer's assistant, or sex with her in electrical utility room, which is what I was doing at time.
I had routine. Clean bird alcove. Dress wounds. Meet Iskra in closet. Have lunch. Prepare bird for show. Dress wounds. Show. In show, fake rabbit stuffed with hamburger would eject from hidden panel at arena center. Bird would fetch rabbit. I would take greasy rabbit back to alcove and wipe sloppy hands on rope in portcullis winch before helping Genghis to wheelchair. I did best to stay out of knights' sight. Was not too hard. Falconry demonstration came earlier in show, and I was sure to be clear before Stygian Annihilator entered arena. (Really, name sounds much better in Brovduk.)
Did not, however, plan on Stygian Annihilator entering supply closet.
I do not want to lead you down path of thinking that fucking in closet is what got me killed. Not directly, I should say. While not truly permitted, was too much of it happening at KnightTime to easily stop. Iskra and I most often had to try two or three hiding places to find one not already taken by sex-havers. So, I cannot believe that Erik was surprised.
"Ha ha! Oh, what we have here?" he said to squire flunky, Abukhan. "My mistake!" he said to us, not in convincing manner. Not at all.
"Young lovers!" he continued. "Take note, Squire. Take note of how not to sex!"
They laughed while I try to pull shirt down over groin and Iskra hid behind corner of shelves.
"What do you do at Brovduksch's finest tourist attraction, Loverboy?" Erik asked. "Besides pulling out tiny pee-pee, I mean." They laughed.
"I am," I say and then briefly think of lying. But was of no use. I say, "I am Falconer's assistant."
"Ah, you are Bird-Boy! "He seemed delighted. "Ha! Bird-Boy is Lovebird himself."
He flapped his arms and made squawking noise while thrusting pelvis. Abukhan bent over in yes-man laughter.
"Come here, Bird-Boy!" Erik grinned at me.
I shook head no, as pants were around ankles.
"I said, come here," he told me again, not anymore grinning.
I shuffled toward door, and he grabbed my shirt, pulling me out into hallway. He put arm around my neck and rubbed knuckles on head. Sadly for me, he was still wearing knight gauntlet.
"Ha, you are alright, Bird-Boy!" he laughed while rubbing. "You are buddy!"
"Ow," I reply.
"Make bird sound! Make crow!"
"Ack," I reply, as arm tightened around neck.
"Is worst crow ever!" he announced to couple peeking out of housekeeping closet across hallway.
"Do ostrich, Buddy!" he commanded. But before I squeak out other sound, his cell phone rang.
He shook gauntlet off of free hand and dug around in pockets. Woman's tiny under-thong and key chain with purple rabbit's foot fell out before he found phone.
"Hello? Pyotr! You son of whore! How are you?"
Erik dropped me and snapped fingers, pointing at keys and panties and gauntlet. Abukhan scooped them up as Erik walked off down hall.
"Ack! Ack!" squire squawked at me and laughed as he left to follow Erik. As I touched furrows put in neck by chain-mail, I was not feeling optimism for future.
To be certain, I was no longer invisible to Erik. He would ride through on horse while I loaded rabbit decoy pop-up. Would make obscene gesture with fingers or call out, "Hey Lovebird! When is fuck-closet time? Ha!"
If he saw me after morning Oath of Allegiance, he would grab me in headlock again and pin me to ground, his shoulder in my spine, my head between his legs.
"Mmrrmmph," I would say.
"What bird is that, Bird-Boy?" he would ask. Friends and squire would laugh.
"Please stop grinding me into Earth," I say, but not really. But very much thought it. Then, he would push crotch against me in fake sex, purple rabbit's foot swinging from pocket like pendulum.
I did not just make up that detail as symbolism for time running out. Really did happen. But is also fitting.
One afternoon, I take Windrider/Bogdan out for exercise at lunch. Was pretty day, sun shining through spokes of empty Ferris wheel across parking lot. I buy myself MacNuggetts. Not real McNuggets but chicken (?) bits sold from booth in Orlando Mall Food Court. Is only restaurant in food court now. Set MacNuggetts on concrete barrier in "No Parking Zone" near fancy Italian motorbike. I spin fuzzy decoy on rope, bird gets worked up. Bird goes hunt; I eat MacNuggett. Field mouse in wooded area next to parking lot made horrid death squeak. I reached to re-dip in ketchup. Is when blood-lust crazed bird flips fuck out and comes screaming back.
Bird goes after MacNuggetts and ketchup, which scatter everywhere. On ground. On me. On bike. Bird digs into leather seat cover on motorbike and pulls out foam cushioning looking for more mice/MacNuggetts. Talons on paint job made screechy sound like field mouse. I try to gather up mess and crazy bird as quick as possible. I run into castle and throw bird at perch in alcove. I sit down on winch, bruised, scratched, breathing fast, wiping MacNuggett evidence off of hands onto already greasy rope. You, dear reader, did not need to see rabbit's foot key chain to guess who motorbike belonged to.
"Hey, Bird-Boy!" Erik shouted at me before evening show as I change bandage on fresh beak-gouge in neck. (Again, I would like to place stress on how falconry is not just fun, casual hobby.) He walked quick across staging area in chain mail shirt and riding spurs. He sounded like angry, drunk tambourine.
"You were outside at lunch. You see what happen to my motorcycle?"
"Which is yours?" I ask, stalling for time.
"Which ... which one? One with two fucking wheels is which one. Is only motorcycle out there."
"Was it stolen?" I ask hopefully.
"Was torn to pieces with bird shit and blood all over it is what."
I marvel at life Erik must lead to automatically assume blood. Ketchup, I correct him without thinking.
"Sorry. Was clearing throat."
Erik put face in mine. He smelled of cigarettes and sausages and schnapps.
"I will show you, Bird-Faggot. You may watch out, but it will do you no good. You think you have eye of falcon. But I have eye of hawk. Of eagle. Also, uncle is President For Life, and you are fucked."
He rattled off across arena, having made compelling argument. I was truly fucked.
That night, falconry demonstration was shit from opening cue. Bogdan stumble-hopped from Genghis' arm to ground and lazily wandered at his feet. Genghis snapped fingers, and I bring him Bird Stick, which he used to prod Bogdan forward. Bird waddled toward target at center of arena. After several hops, he flapped wings in low-to-ground mockery of flight. But he had no interest in prop bunny stuffed with hamburger. Was already stuffed with MacNuggetts and foam cushioning. Genghis sent me out to retrieve beef-bunny and listless Bogdan just as frantic stage manager yells into radio for knights' early entrance.
As I stooped to pick up bunny, knights ride out in hurry, some still closing lids and putting on gauntlets. Sound man was late with opening fanfare music. Erik assumed it was second fanfare for Stygian Annihilator and charged out on heels of other knights. He dismounted to bask in cheers, but cheers were less than usual. Most cheering sounds are normally from same miscued CD.
This is when bird decides to really fuck me over.
Bogdan flapped wings and struggled low through air, landing at Erik's feet. Everyone watched as bird twitched and retched and puked purple rabbit's foot out onto shiny knight-shoes. Did not help that miscued CD played cheering noises right at very same moment.
Erik stared at shoes. Bird, feeling much better, took off for perch on portcullis winch. When Erik looked up, he saw me. Seems like two seconds later that he was on horse, charging.
Erik screamed something. Was maybe "Mothershitter!" but was stressful moment and I am not certain. Was too stunned to run at first, and then it was too late. Erik raised sword. I tried to draw weapon to defend myself, but Falconer's Assistant's tiny dagger is really just handle attached to empty scabbard and stuck on belt for show. Like to think I tried to go down fighting, even if it looked like frantically trying to remove belt and pants.
I saw crowd stand in excitement. I saw knights remove helmets to watch. I saw Iskra screaming something from edge of arena. I saw bird ignoring everything and pecking at perch on rope. When I heard cheer from crowd, I assumed was for very realistic special effect of Falconer's Assistant's head leaving body in geyser of blood.
As you might guess, timing is only difference between fake, entertaining swordplay and real, bloody swordplay. Timing, good or bad. Had been while since Erik swung sword in fight that was not planned out. Was also maybe still drunk. We each realized he missed at same moment. When he started to circle back, I run for castle gate.
"Come back, Buddy! Just want to talk!" Erik yelled as horse charged up behind me. I did not believe him to be sincere.
I run. And run. But, was like slow-motion. Like running in bad dream. Was 10 meters from gate when horse rumbled past.
Erik pulled reins, turning horse on drawbridge. He climbed off and walked back toward me, his wrist spinning sword in figure-of-eight move. His face twisted in well-rehearsed sinister smile.
"Going some," he said. "Somewhere" is what I assume Erik meant, but this is all he got out before portcullis fell, pounding him into ground like giant trip hammer. Audience applauded impressive realism of stunt.
Shock gave way to relieved surprise. When bird flew from winch and landed on my shoulder like friendly goddamn parrot, relief gave way to realizing that I was trapped in castle with feathered murder weapon attached to me. Realizing gave way to dark nothing when security goon hit me over head with truncheon.
And now I am dead, as I mentioned.
Erik received hero's funeral, and State buried him in his armor. Rumor was he could not actually be separated from it.
I faced secret trial and met with unsurprising verdict. Now, I am only creep-show decoration for tourists and grim warning to castle staff.
I wish I could say my legacy is within Iskra now. That I could say maybe what she screamed that night was that I would be father. That she carries my son. My son who will help take back Orlando for Brovduk people. But, it has been some time and she is still skinny. So.
Those eyes only look straight ahead now. Or at ground. Every day, Iskra hurries past, never looking. But new Falconer's Assistant? He cannot stop. Brings bird out for exercise, and whole time, he looks at me. Nervous. Why? Bones will do nothing. Should be watching bird. Bird is asshole.
Jack Walsh is the Emmy-winning director of the American Public Television documentaries "Cosplay! Crafting a Secret Identity" and "Four Days at Dragon*Con" and the co-producer of the PBA30 food show "Get Delicious!" His writing has been featured at Scene Missing, Write Club Atlanta, True Story!, the Atlanta Fringe Festival, DragonCon, and on WABE-FM (90.1).