Thunderbird

Thunderbird

“We saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made Us afraid, and upon Which the boldest savages dare not Long rest their eyes. They are as large As a calf; they have Horns on their heads Like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard Like a tiger’s, a face somewhat like a man’s, a body Covered with scales, and so Long A tail that it winds all around the Body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a Fish’s tail.” – Jacques Marquette, Cahokia Territory, 1673

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We have poor family relations in the southern part of our state. And by poor, I mean dirt poor. But not only are they poor, they are the definition of white trash.  The women are all barefoot and pregnant, the houses all a stiff breeze away from collapse. Front yards full of beer cans and rusted old pickup trucks. One of the married couples are third cousins to one another. I'm telling you if you put the whole lot of them in a room, you couldn't find a full time job or a full set of teeth. Get the picture? I'm talking straight up white trash rednecks. 

My dad was ever trying to distance us from them. Its not that he was ashamed of his mother's side of the family, but that he wanted to keep us from the negative influence of their many, many vices. But I loved my cousins, and despite their troubles, they were all lighthearted and kind. After lots of begging and incessant reminders, dad finally called our cousins to let them know we were coming down on Thursday and staying the following weekend.

To me, the three hour drive felt like a full day. I was so excited! I love the outdoors and I knew that our weekend would be full of hiking overgrown trails, fishing and swimming in the river, and general mayhem wherever else my cousins and I found ourselves. The cool nights would be spent around raging bonfires, making s'mores and telling ghost stories.

We arrived on the outskirts of the little town late in the afternoon. "Don't go far." My dad said. "We're going to be eating soon."

"Ok, Dad!" I yelled over my shoulder, already tearing off toward the overgrown field where I spotted my cousins playing. 

"Hey guys!" I said excitedly, as I approached them. They were huddled around something on the ground that I couldn't see.

"What are you guys looking at?"

"Somethin' dead." Jack said, finally looking up at me. "We're trying to figure out what it was." My cousins were pretty coarse. Growing up running around in the woods everyday, they were exposed to a lot of things that I wasn't. My idea of deer, was a cute spotted cartoon fawn, prancing around in the trees with the all the other friendly woodland creatures. For my cousins, deer were skinned corpses hanging by their hind legs in the barn, shortly before they were turned into dinner.

I looked over the shoulder of my oldest cousin, Dave, who was prodding the thing with a stick. The twisted creature looked like it had every bone in its body broken. If it had once had fur or feathers, I didn't know because they were long gone now. It had flat arms that seemed to have no bones in them. Its legs stuck out at weird angles, the knees bent in the wrong direction. My cousin poked it again and the animal inhaled sharply, then gave a short but loud chirping sound. We all jumped back in surprise, Dave cursed loudly. The animal was still again, but now dark purplish blood was draining from its mouth. I took several steps back, shuddering at what I had just seen.

"Yick!" Jack said in a half chuckle. "Well, its sure dead now."

"Can we go?" I asked. My ten year old self wanting to be as far from that thing as possible.

"Yeah let's head down by the river. And don't say nothin' about that little bird, ok? My old man will kick my ass if you come back all messed up over it." Dave said, turning to me.

"You don't have to worry about me Dave." I smiled up at him. "I can take it."

"I know you can bud." He winked at me, and we started toward the trees.

"Are you coming Jake?" I yelled behind me. My youngest cousin was still back by the bird. He was trying to keep his distance but was creeping closer to the thing one the ground, just staring at it.

"Jacob!" Dave shouted.

"Y… yeah?" Jake's eyes flicked up for a split second and went back to the bird.

"Comin' or what?" said Dave.

"Yeah." he paused. "Yeah, lets go." He continued to watch the motionless creature his first few steps before he tore his eyes away, and we were finally into the woods. 

A few hundred yards into the woods, the trees cleared revealing a twenty foot clearing before the bank of a wide, lazy river. As soon as we broke through the trees we began peeling our clothes off. Shirts, shoes, socks, were scattered all over the grass. Jack jumped and tried to pull his shorts off while in the air. The elastic waist band caught on his foot and he landed face down in the muddy bank of the river. The rest of us roared with laughter as we cannon-balled into the water. We looked back to see Jack's grinning face, absolutely caked with mud.

The calm and peaceful river was now complete bedlam. Dave was strong enough to pick up each of us and throw us through the air and into the water. We tried to have chicken battles, but neither Jack or I were able to hold the other up to make the game fair.

We reverted to crouching low and competing to see who could jump the highest, which in turn, devolved into the four of us jumping at will, flailing in imitation of a salmon trying to scale a waterfall.

It was during one of these majestic leaps that I, about to crash through the surface of the water, heard the shrill sound of my dad's whistle. I had already noticed that it was getting late and we had certainly missed dinner back at the house. I stood up, wiping away rivulets of water draining from my hair and into my eyes, expecting to see my father's form, scowling at me from the bank. Once my vision was clear I saw the bank was empty. Aside from our clothes strewn about where we had haphazardly tossed them, there was nothing. I heard the whistle again and whirled around.

On the far bank, a little ways downriver from us, a boy maybe a year or two younger than me, stood at the edge of the trees. He looked as surprised to see me as I was of him. It looked like he had just stepped out of the trees, saw us and had taken a step back to run away. He was a little bit crouched, and had one leg was cocked like he was ready to take off in a sprint.  I noticed then that there was another face peeking out from behind another tree. A girl, maybe Dave's age, examined us with wide eyes. Though they were far away, I could tell the boys clothes were dingy, worn and covered in dark stains. Their skin was very tan, or maybe brown in color, it was hard to tell in the dusk light. Their eyes wide at the shock of seeing us, were rimmed with a white paste or paint or something. By now, my cousins had noticed what I was looking at and had joined me in staring. I lifted my hand and gave a timid wave to them. The boy's arm moved in response, but he stopped short of waving.

"Let's get back to the house." Dave spoke up. "We are already late." On the way back, Dave explained that an Indian reservation began on the other bank of the river. While there were many Native Americans, in their family line, my cousins parents had some prejudices against them. I was told for the second time, not to mention what we had come across that day. 

When we arrived back we were met with dark looks from our parents who were already sitting around the fire. My uncles and aunts had already drained several beers and after giving each of their kids a swat as they walked past, told them to go eat and come back by the fire. As I got close, my dad noticed my messy wet hair and my body covered in river mud and he just couldn't hold back the laugh.

"Did you have fun?" he asked.

"Yeah!" I said, running past to grab the plate my dad had made for me. I burst excitedly with everything we had done. I didn't need to be careful not to mention the bird, the events at the river had driven it completely from my mind. I was on a roll with my story when I blurted out something about the "indian kids" at the river. My cousins groaned, my uncles shared a look, I flushed, embarrassed and upset with myself for forgetting to leave that part out. My uncle had been drinking, but he wasn't drunk yet, so fortunately, instead of bursting into a tirade about the, in his words "lazy indians" living off the government, he instead began the scary story telling.

"Ya know, them Indians have tale about a monster what hunts the woods in these parts." He said. "They call it, the Thunderbird. It's a big ol' beast that lives in the clouds. It can shoot lightnin' with it's wings, and is so big, it can swoop down a grab two grown men up in each claw. They say nothin's safe from the bird. Even if ya dive under water, it'll shock ya limp with it's lightnin', scoop ya up, and swallow ya whole! But that's only if yer lucky. If ya ain't lucky, there's a much worse fate in store for ya. it'll pick ya up and carry ya back to its nest and feed ya to it's babies. They'll rip your skin off one strip at a time and tear you apart while you're still breathin'."

It wasn't his best story. I had heard something about this before, so it wasn't exactly new to me. He had a great hookman story and lots of ghost stories that always kept me up at night when we were there. I wasn't the only one rolling their eyes when he wrapped up his story.

"They say the beast is still out there, hibernatin', and its unholy brood with it. Waitin' for the day the world forgets it's there." The stories continued for another two hours before my constant yawning spurred my dad into calling it a night.

"All right," he said, "time for bed."  We headed back to the pop up camper we had hauled from our house. I loved that rickety old thing. It was smelly and uncomfortable, but I made some of my best childhood memories going on trips and staying in the old camper. I had already heard all of the stories of the night so I wasn't scared, plus I was exhausted from the pandemonium of the river, so I had no problem getting to sleep. As I was slipping into unconsciousness, I heard an animal shriek in the distance.

I dreamed about the boy from the river. He was in the same spot as before, but was sitting cross legged on the ground. His wide eyes were now barely open slits. His face was covered in war paint and he was perfectly still. I walked through the water slowly toward him until I reached the opposite bank. I dropped to all fours as I stepped out of the water, crawling toward him, eyes transfixed. I crawled until my face was inches from his. His shoulders rose with a deep breath. His eyes shot open. They had no iris, only wide pupil against milk white. It let out the loudest, high pitched scream I had ever heard in my life, and at the same instant, transformed into a child sized version of the little broken bird we had come across when I had first arrived. Dark purple blood draining from his mouth onto the ground around us.

I woke with a start, I was alone in the pop up and the sun was up.

Our second day was a blast. We tore up the empty fields on four wheelers driven by our fathers. We sat by the river, fishing while we had lunch, taking breaks for tag and hide and seek in the trees. By late afternoon our dads packed up their fishing tackle and headed back home. We were all halfway up a tree when they walked past us, telling us to be home sooner tonight because they'd like to have everyone together for dinner.

A while after they left, I heard a familiar whistle. I looked out across the river and Jack tapped me on the shoulder.

"Over there." He whispered, putting the side of his face right up against mine and pointing. I saw movement at the tree line, a little upstream of us this time. The four of us clambered down the tree and ran to the river bank. There were five kids this time, looking at us from just inside the treeline. Two of the faces looked like they could have been the same as the day before. The boy was definitely the same. He was wearing the same dirty and stained clothes. His eyes were the same too, wide open, except when he blinked. Approaching them less cautiously this time, we were directly on the opposite side of the river them, and since the river narrowed at this point, we could see their faces much more clearly than the day before.

They stared back intently. Their expressions were blank, save for the wide staring eyes giving the appearance of shock. All of them seemed to be silently opening and closing their mouth. They would occasionally bob their heads up and down or to the side as if trying to see through branches, though they stood with a clear view at the very edge of the clearing. It looked like they might be drooling. They looked… hungry. We watched as the boy and girl stepped fully into the clearing.

We recoiled in shock and disgust. They had their arms down at their sides, reaching nearly to their knees, but where they should have ended in hands, they ended in dull points. They glided slowly toward us allowing us to see more clearly, the arms didn't end in points stretching down at their knees. Those were elbows.

Out of my already wide open mouth began a wild scream of utter horror. Jacob was screaming too, while my other cousins Justin stood frozen in terror.

Our shrieking screams startled the kids across the lake and they looked about nervously. The girl turned sideways and that's when I saw that her knees were bent the wrong way. Three image of the broken baby bird flashed into my mind. She pranced around anxiously like a stork and began to whistle.

The whistles came in short bursts, but you could tell they unnerved the other kids as well as us. Her panicked walk carried her to close to the boy and she stepped on his foot. He erupted in angry, pain filled chirps, and his neck… flared. Have you ever seen a chicken that is afraid or angry? The feathers on it's neck puff out to make it look bigger. Imagine having a Christmas tree, wrapped tightly with human skin. That was his neck. A tiered series of taught skin folds flared up from the girl as well as she looked down at him and hissed. The kids in the trees began honking, chirping, and hissing. It was so loud it hurt my ears.

We turned to run but the ground dropped away from us. I have never felt an earthquake before, but I imagined that is what had just happened. The Earth felt as if it had just jerked violently in the wrong direction. The lurch was followed by a constant rumble. We each rolled into our backs to see the forest across the river was swaying. Then it began to rise up. Bigger than could even be possible, the forest began to lift. From one end of my vision to the other, trees and boulders began sliding away. Sideways and backward off a dark mass.

If the kids were making noise now, we couldn't hear it. They were looking back and forth between us and the swelling mass behind them. They hopped and flapped their… arms. Aside from the vacant, staring eyes, they exuded a combination of joy and anticipation. At the center of the ever growing mass, another mound rose, and inside the darkness of the new growth, two huge eyes opened. No Iris, only large black pupils against brilliant white. It unfurled massive dark wings that enveloped the sky. They extended over our heads and blotted out the late afternoon sun.

My dad and uncles burst through the trees. They grabbed us by arms and shirt collars, dragging us back through the trees. We made it back to their ramshackle houses and jumped into our vehicles. My dad started his truck and punched the accelerator. A maelstrom of stones were thrown through the air as the truck launched out of the gravel driveway. I looked out the rear window and watched as the behemoth crouched back down to the Earth.

Over the next few days the world stopped. Airports closed worldwide. Reports rolled in, confirmed with video evidence as well as military reports. As soon as it had appeared, the creature was gone. Drones, fighter jets, helicopters, and eventually ground troops scoured the area for weeks. Images taken from above showed a crater, a massive hole containing a clear indentation of the body of… something. Some called it an angel, others, the devil. Discovery channel was having a field day, marathoning Ancient Aliens and virtually bathing in increased ratings.

A slowly growing circle of reports appeared of strange children being spotted in trees or on top of buildings. There were reports of animal attacks, the victims were found eviscerated and eaten. All were believed to have been consumed alive, leaving long blood trails as they tried to escape. One man claimed that two winged children had tried to carry him away, but had dropped him, breaking his leg, and he managed to survive by crawling into a storm drain. The doctors who evaluated his wounds determined The puncture wounds in his arms and shoulders were caused by some kind of bird of prey, but there was no identified species with talons that large. The reports continued, and became more frequent

The government brought our camper back a couple weeks later. A gift in exchange for me telling them anything I could about that day. 

"I'm sorry that you saw all that. It must have been frightening seeing such a big monster." The kind, uniformed man had said. He came in the Humvee that had towed our camper home. They had been escorted by a another of Humvee full of soldiers.

"It was, but that isn't the scariest part." I replied, turning my eyes away, remembering the day.

"What do you mean?" He asked with a puzzled expression.

"When my dad was pulling me away I tripped on a root and he dragged me backward." I began meekly. "I was looking back and saw that there were more bird children in the trees. Many more than we had seen at first."

"How many more?" He asked, leaning forward.

"Hundreds of them."

Submitted January 13, 2019 at 02:30PM by Patrick_M_McGinley

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