A short story by Eamonn McKeon.
On the day they found the Vollycot — the eighteenth day of the second month of the third year — they had left Deborah bent-double in the kitchen, her head rocking back and forth with each stab of pain. She was making a beastly noise. Her legs were sticks, her head a blot, her abdomen a great deathly balloon. They had no choice but to leave her. They had to hunt. This was how things were to be.
Outside the world was cold, colder than could be understood, a coldness that went beyond the weather and the air. After all this time, they had not gotten used to it. On that eighteenth day, as they forded the snow and the vast plains of emptiness, seeking food like toddlers trying to catch flits of light in their palms, Mark snuck a glimpse at his friend of thirty years, and saw, for what had to be the first time, the faint markings of despair on his tired face. They were on the brink of something, and Mark did not want to know what it was.
He thought about his wife. With each crunch of snow under his boots, he thought about the chicken-carcass body that hobbled and writhed about the kitchen floor. He thought about whatever it was that lived and kicked inside her, at this very moment, like something suffocating under a tight blanket. If only it knew, he thought. If only it knew to relish the warmth and tightness of that blanket; to delay and delay its spilling into the blank sprawling world of coldness that awaited.
They had been trekking for an hour, perhaps two, when Mark stopped and looked out into the distance. The snow-stippled wind pricked against their cheeks. Walking was bad; inertia was agonising.
“Think we should start circling back,” he said. “We got water, at least. And I’m sure I might have seen deer tracks back near that quarry.”
“You’re sure you might have seen,” Joseph said. His pink cheeks were curled up tight beneath his eyes. “Spoken like a true politician.”
“Hah,” Mark said. He let the barrel of his rifle fall onto his forearm. He watched as the last glimmers of waning sun broke over his Joseph’s face, turning the thick ashen stubble, briefly, into yellowish embers. “I remember those.” Around him, the white light of day was seeping into the nothingness of the horizon. The half-vanquished land rolled like desert dunes under the sky. Occasionally another house or a building jutted out from the snow and the detritus like some terribly-shaped growth, and here and there you could see a tree or a huddle of foliage sustaining itself madly amidst the plain, but defiant above all this, swelling over all these vestiges, was a growing, insistent blankness, willing all into submission. Mark’s belly roared, but it was a sound inaudible, as all sounds were as an exile of the state.
“Do you remember the time we had you and Laura over for dinner, and she and Deborah had that fight?” Mark said.
Mark and Joseph had taken a long route back and were approaching a frozen ravine. Nothing around them moved; the dead and gnarled branches were pictures on a wall. It was as if the world had momentarily frozen, having been caught in some outrageous act.
“I remember,” Joseph said. A kind of grin flickered across his face, though he kept his eyes sharp and focused on the terrain. He was a brawny man, quiet and severe, and looked always to be on the verge of some grim discovery. It was the sort of look that befell most of the senior Guards, and in over three years of absence it had not even slightly dissipated.
“We ended up leaving,” Mark said. He stopped walking for a second and considered the hard gleaming wedge of ice that ran between the ravine. He chuckled. “We crept out while they were at it in the kitchen. Took some ales and sat by the lake. We weren’t even looking for anything — we were barely paying attention — but you still caught that beast of a trout. You remember?”
Joseph sniggered through his nose. “That thing,” he said. “I still have nightmares about that thing.”
Mark allowed himself to laugh. It was a strange, foreign sound in the stillness and the silence.
“And Laura,” Joseph said, squinting at the faded white sky. “Laura Laura Laura.”
“You miss her,” Mark said.
Joseph huffed, as if the prospect had never crossed his mind until now. “Miss her,” he said. “I don’t know about that. I never saw much point in missing somebody. It always felt like wasted energy. You know, I used to miss people. I’d think about people from Hiraport — and even back when we lived there, you still missed people — and I remember the thinking would take on this realness, this concrete physical pain. Like a weight bearing down on my chest.”
Joseph had stopped walking now. He was staring intently ahead of him, as if the words could only be drawn at this exact time and space, as if each soft revelation was a snowflake drifting upon his face.
‘And you know, I think I convinced myself that there was something redemptive about it. That it could lead to something. I truly believed that the more I punished myself for their not being there, the more chance there was that they’d come back. As if the two had any causal relation. When I realised that, when I saw what I was doing, I stopped missing people. I stopped praying. Because that’s what missing people is. It’s praying. Praying for something that’s dead.”
Joseph continued walking. He scanned the trees and the branches. “Laura was always doing that,” he said. “Praying. Not literally, but you could see it in everything that she did. Praying for things. A world where people got along, where you could have dinner parties without somebody breaking down and smashing a glass. That’s why she and Deborah clashed. Deborah was determined. She still is. She knows exactly what it is that she wants. And Laura was always threatened by that.”
Mark thought about Joseph’s words for some time, the ideas twisting and rolling inside his head. “I think you’re wrong,” he said. “I think you’re wrong about missing people. I don’t think that’s what missing people is at all.”
Joseph stopped and turned and faced him. His breath was a blue and constant cloud, obscuring his features as he spoke. “I know,” he said. “I know that you would think that.”
Mark shuffled his weight from one foot to the other. His fur collar stung the back of his neck; he could feel the pink burning of skin. “Go on,” he said. He had never seen such vocal intensity from Joseph before, and something in his pale unblinking eyes whispered the first indications of delirium. Dusk was looming. The world was blurring into a bluish dark.
“You never accepted it,” Joseph said. “This. Our situation. Your exile.”
Mark made to say something but didn’t.
“You’ve been counting down the days for it to go away. Like it’s a bad dream. You think that there’s an end to it. That one day you’ll walk back through the gates of Hiraport, feel the hot sun against your skin, and everything will be as it was.”
Mark didn’t say anything. His nose and lips were twitching against the cold.
“You can’t accept that it’s gone. That there’s no way back.” Joseph rammed the butt of his rifle into the snow, sending a cloud into the air. “The here and now. Deborah. The baby. Hell, even me, if you’re feeling sentimental about it. That’s all we’ve got to strive for. No energy for missing. No energy for prayer.”
Mark shook his head. “You think that’s what I’m doing? Praying?”
“You still think there’s a way back.”
“I have to think that,” he blurted. His voice was raspy and cracked, and it soared and echoed through the valleys. He let himself come down from the excitement, and when he spoke again his voice was measured and soft, as if cautious that something might overhear him. “I have to. You think I can just resign myself to this? Living for the next meal? Living to be cold, and scared, and alone? And the guilt. The guilt-”
“Alone?” Joseph said. His head was tilted, and there was something sad and alarmed in his voice.
Mark squeezed one hand against his brow. “That’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean to say that.”
“You said it.”
“I know I’m not alone, Joseph. I have Deborah. And I have you. And I’ll always be grateful for that. I can never repay the debt for you coming here with me.”
Joseph turned away and continued scanning the terrain.
“Joseph, I mean it-”
“Sh,” he said.
“Sh,” he said again, only this time more forcefully. He was gazing up at a tangled web of branches. “I hear something moving.”
Mark looked up at the dead branches. He saw nothing in their starved gnarled shapes. The meshed tangle beneath the sky harboured no signals of existence. It would offer them nothing.
He considered that Joseph might be seeing things. It would hardly be unfathomable. They were exhausted, and neither had eaten a meal in days. Their hunger had turned into a lightness, and this lightness seemed to sap at the bones, so that something as simple as making a fist or clenching one’s jaw became as gruelling as an intense bout of exercise. This sort of hunger affected the senses.
And maybe it was affecting Mark’s too, because in a flash he too saw something in the trees. Black shapes fluttering. He could not say that they were wings. Birds had wings, and they had not spotted a bird in these parts for over two years.
Three gunshots cracked in the dark. Bits of tree vanquished like falling sand in the branches. The shape swooped to the left of them, and suddenly Mark saw that Joseph was right. It was a bird — some sort of white hawk, with steel grey wings and deep red eyes — and it was darting only a few feet from his head. Joseph swivelled and fired another four shots. Nothing fell. Nothing except flecks of dust and bark and snow from the trees. The bird was gone. Joseph let out an anxious moan, like a child who has just dropped a precious ornament.
Mark was still staring up at the branches, caught in a kind of marvelling incredulity, when he realised that Joseph was glowering at him.
“What was that?” Joseph said.
“I think,” Mark said, nodding slowly, still looking upwards, “That was a bird.”
“No,” Joseph said. “I mean, what was that? It would have been in your sights. It would have been in your sights, if you’d only raised your gun.”
Mark turned to face Joseph. His eyes were hard and glacial and full of muddled, sheepish hate.
“I’m sorry,” Mark said, and then the full weight of his inaction bore down on him. “Oh god, Joseph, I’m sorry.”
Nobody said anything. They just stood there. The air was thickening, the snow swirling against them in a swarm.
Then Mark decided to say, “A bird, Joseph. A bird. It would have fed us for, what, a day? Maybe two? Maybe two if we sliced the meat so thin that we could almost see through it.”
Joseph flicked snow off his jacket. “We need to get back,” he said. “Storm’s coming.”
“A bird. Can you believe it? We’re crying over a bird.”
“I’m not crying,” Joseph said. His voice was quiet and detached. “I just wanted it. We could have eaten it. It doesn’t matter.”
“This is what hell looks like,” Mark said, eyes rooted to the ground.
“Hey,” Joseph said. “That bird was here for a reason. There must be other food sources nearby. We go again first light. We-”
But Joseph started scampering, as if water was running down his leg.
“What?” Mark said.
“God,” Joseph said, and in a second he had pounced on something down by his feet. “God,” he said. “No. There’s no way.”
This got Mark out of his daze. He hurried over. “What? What is it?”
“Look,” Joseph said. Mark crouched down.
Pinned down by Joseph’s gloved hands, its naked, reddish-pink body squirming against the snow, was a creature so rare that Mark had to squeeze his eyes open and shut a few times before he could believe it. But it was there. Wriggling like a trapped rodent — and hell, was it no rodent — was the unmistakable body of a Vollycot — a live one, no less — its deep red eyes firing their exquisite ugliness into the semi-dark.
“You caught it,” Mark said, surprised that he could even form the words. “Joseph, you caught it.”
Deborah could barely bring herself to open her eyes. She craned her neck towards the bag in the strained and tentative manner that a child examines a new food. Mark was holding the bag open for her, his mouth wide with anticipation. Joseph stood a few feet behind, shrouded in the shadows of the kitchen.
Deborah lingered over the open bag for a second or two before falling back against the kitchen wall, into the position she had presumably been in all day. She exhaled. Her eyes were bleary and her lips were curled up.
“Well?” Mark said, lightly shaking the bag.
“Well what?” Deborah said. She spoke with the muddled impatience of somebody who has been woken from sleep. “It’s a Vollycot.”
Mark found himself scraping his feet against the floor and shaking his head. “Yes,” he exclaimed. “It’s a Vollycot. Don’t you see? Don’t you see what that means?”
Deborah didn’t say anything. She let out a quiet, broken sigh, her hands cradling her belly. You could almost hear the pressure against the skin. She was going to burst.
Mark looked around the room, as if seeking an audience with whom he could share his incredulity.
“We need food,” Deborah said. “That’s all we need. We need food.” She petered off into a kind of dose.
As if Deborah’s words were his cue, Joseph strode into the middle of the kitchen and sunk his large hunting knife into the wooden table. “That settles it,” he said. “Two against one. We eat it.”
Mark pulled the bag to his chest and backwards-walked towards the doorway. “We are not eating it,” he said. “Don’t even go there.”
“No,” Deborah moaned. “No, we can’t eat it.” She had a grave expression on her face. “There’s no telling what would happen if you ate a Vollycot. No telling.” Her voice became shrill, and she seemed to spasm against the wall. Mark grimaced. Hold on, he thought. Please, just hold on a little longer. Stay inside a little longer.
Joseph pulled his lips tight against his teeth. He clawed at his beard. He looked at the bag, which swivelled delicately with each of the Vollycot’s weak kicks. Mark did not like the look in his eyes.
“We are not eating our one ticket out of here,” Mark said.
“Right,” Joseph said. “Yeah. Our ticket.”
“We take this thing to Hiraport and we earn back our freedom,” Mark said. “Are you seriously disputing the logic of that? Do you have any idea how much one of these things is worth?”
“Oh, I’ve got a pretty good idea,” Joseph said. “But see, I also know how much we’re worth. To Hiraport, that is. And the answer is nothing. They’ll take the Vollycot, and if we’re lucky they’ll send us back on our merry way. And if we’re unlucky, they’ll shoot us on the spot.”
“They’re an honourable people,” Mark said quietly.
“You’re willing to count on that?” Joseph said. “And please, tell me, Mark, how you expect the three of us to trek all the way to Hiraport. How you expect us to survive even one night out there.”
Mark shut his eyes and grit his teeth. “We’ll find a way,” he said. “We want it, we’ll find a way.”
“I’m not going,” Deborah said. Her eyes were hard and bright with conviction. “I’m not going back there. Not after what happened. And certainly not with a Vollycot. We all know the stories. They affect people.”
Mark slapped a hand against his cheek. “I see,” he said. “I see, I see. We’ll forgo our one and only chance of freedom because of folklore nonsense, and the fear that we might die on the journey.” He looked at Joseph, and then he looked at Deborah. He looked at her withered, tree-branch body. “Don’t you see? Are you blind? We’re already dying! Tell me you can see that. Tell me I’m not the only one who can see that.” His voice bellowed and rumbled, like a great weight of snow.
Silence followed. Deborah looked solemnly towards the floor.
Joseph walked over to Mark. He placed a hand on Mark’s cheek. He had never done something like that before. The hand was rough and cold. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Mark, I’m sorry.”
Mark took the sack containing the Vollycot to bed with him. Since the pregnancy, he and Deborah did not sleep in the same room; she was restless and agitated, and everything he did seemed to enrage her. She had not forgiven him for what he had done. The agony of her pregnancy just made this harder to hide.
That night, before they retired, Deborah’s pain escalated to a level that he had not seen. He did not know how to respond. He was tired — tired of being useless witness to her suffering, tired of being scolded for every attempt at placation. That night, she said that it burned. “What burns?” he asked, but she just turned away from him, receding further against the wall. Burning did not seem like a promising sign. Perhaps this was for the best.
Deborah desperately needed food. They all did. Hiraport officials had supplied them with basic provisions before the exile: a crate of canned food (which went very quickly), blankets, coats, and rifles, and, crucially, a set of heat stones sourced from deep within Hiraport’s mines, which kept the cabin at an adequate temperature. After all, what sort of punishment would it be if they all froze to death within a day of arriving? They provided them with the bare essentials, and the wintry desert contained just enough food sources to enable a precarious subsistence. The game, really, was cruelty by attrition. The officials rested on the sure-fire knowledge that the human will to survive would trump any higher form of reasoning, that the exiled would stop at nothing to sustain themselves through each blank, formless day. They would punish themselves. It was human nature.
Except now they had a way out. By some miracle, they had been afforded a pathway back. Mark looked at the sack that lay crumpled next to him. Inside, the Vollycot was purring softly.
Mark felt a pang of sympathy for the thing. He wondered if it was afraid, or hungry. He decided to take it out of the bag. He placed it next to him on the bed. It shuffled feebly, before sinking into a position of rest.
Back home, Vollycots were a thing of folklore. It had been so long since anyone had sighted one that most assumed they were extinct, and as such the rumours ascribed to them became all the more outlandish. Mothers told their children that Vollycots were great, loping carnivores which stalked the late hours of the night, feeding on humans who were too disobedient to sleep. One story told of a man who began breathing fire shortly after shooting and eating a Vollycot in the wild. At first this was a wondrous gift, and it brought him fame and wealth. But the man despaired of his talent. He could not kiss his wife. When he accidentally singed her chin while embracing her, he decided he could not take it. He squeezed both hands over his mouth and exhaled as hard as he could, burning himself from the inside.
The Vollycot beside Mark was about the size of a small dog, and though its face was wrinkled and bizarre, it hardly aroused feelings of terror. Its alabaster horns and tusks were so petite as to be endearing, and its eyes, though a deep, liquid, lidless red, were strangely neutral and mute.
The reward for finding a live Vollycot was so exuberant that it became a sort of joke amongst Hiraport’s citizens. Children would go on Vollycot hunts as part of their school festivities, and adults would hide stuffed toys vaguely fashioned to look like the creatures in areas of woodland. In Mark’s lifetime, he had never seen or heard of anyone finding one. The reward now would be staggering.
Mark could not sleep. He knew that Joseph would be in the kitchen, brooding. He placed the Vollycot back into the bag, and carried it with him to the kitchen. This was something they needed to talk about. They had no idea how long a Vollycot could survive in captivity. If they were to travel, they had to leave imminently.
Joseph was sitting at the kitchen table, his chin resting on clasped hands. “I knew you wouldn’t be sleeping,” he said. “I know you too well.”
Mark pulled up a chair opposite him and placed the sack onto the table. He watched as Joseph tried his hardest not to look at it.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier,” Mark said. “About Laura. I think you’re right. I think Laura was too idealistic.”
Joseph didn’t say anything. He just kept staring ahead. The skin around his eyes was dark.
“She wanted things she could never get,” Mark said. “Vague things. Concepts. And so she was always disappointed. Do you think I’m like Laura?”
“You’re nothing like Laura,” Joseph said. He spoke as if spurning a serious allegation.
“I know,” Mark said. “What I want is real. It’s not abstract. It’s out there. Hiraport. You know we could get back there, Joseph. You know the Vollycot has changed everything.”
Joseph closed his eyes.
“I miss my home,” Mark said. “I miss the sun. I miss the sound of kids. Bustling streets. I miss the ale and the lakes and the taste of good food. I miss you, Joseph, and I miss myself, and I miss Deborah. You said missing people is liking praying for the dead. Well maybe our prayers have been answered.”
Joseph’s eyes were still closed. The Vollycot purred, the sound low and wistful.
He opened his eyes and considered the surface of the table, as if pondering over its blotched surface. “Do you remember how it felt?” he said. “The moments leading up to it? Those long, aching seconds where it became an inevitability?”
Mark sat back in his chair. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Tana,” he said, and as he said it Mark’s insides seemed to curl up, like paper shrivelling in fire. Joseph smiled. “The President’s daughter,” he said, as if announcing her entrance.
“Joseph,” Mark said. “Let’s not.”
“I want to know,” Joseph said. “I want to know how it felt. Was it the wrongness of it? The near certainty of punishment? You knew the penalty. You knew the penalty could have been death. You knew exile was a light punishment. And yet. And yet and yet.” Joseph spoke as if he was alone in the room, musing over some whimsical curiosity.
“It was a mistake,” Mark said. “A moment of madness.”
“A moment?” Joseph said. “A moment? So there was no build up? You didn’t spend days, weeks, maybe even months playing over that exquisite, tortuous possibility in your head? The feel of her, the weight of her, the taste of her skin against your lips? You were on fire, Mark. Be honest. You were burning for months and months…”
“This is not relevant now,” Mark said. “Joseph, you look tired.”
“I’ve never been as awake in my life,” Joseph said. Outside, the wind was howling, and tiny flecks of snow jabbed at the windows. Joseph’s body seemed to be simmering, as though in great discomfort, yet his face spasmed with a sort of crazed delight. “I think,” he said, voice trembling, “I think I know how you felt. I don’t want to leave, Mark. I came with you all this way, and I’ve stayed with you. I’m not going to let you leave me.”
Something glimmered in Joseph’s hand. Mark realised he was holding his hunting knife. He had unsheathed it. Mark was still trying to process the words he had just heard, the words that were locking everything that had come before into terrible clarity.
Joseph was not finished. Mark got the sense that his friend was freeing himself of something; his whole person blazed with the rapture of confession. “Those times we spent by the lake,” he said. “Do you have any idea how I savoured them?” He was rolling the knife in his hands, the blade glinting in the half-light.
“I looked forward to those moments,” he continued. “And I mourned them when they were over. And you had no idea. You had no idea at all. Did you?” A searching, almost helpless desperation took over Joseph’s face, then, as if he was hoping that Mark would prove him wrong.
“Joseph,” Mark said. “I don’t know what to say.”
“We were both so busy,” Joseph said. “All the time.” He chuckled, the sound jarring, violent. “But we have all the time in the world now. Time for you. Time for me.” His lips curled into a smile beneath his beard. He fondled the handle of the knife.
Mark looked around the room. He had to look somewhere. He looked at the pale walls, and the cold blue light that diffused like seeping water through the small square windows. He wondered what Deborah would say about this. At this thought, a shot of panic coursed through his body, like a great, choking heartbeat.
“Deborah,” he said. “She was in here. Where is she? Is she in her bedroom?” He considered the knife in his friend’s hands. Surely he wouldn’t? Surely, all this time, he had not seen her as a rival?
“Deborah’s gone,” Joseph said. He spoke as if he was making a casual observation. “She was determined, that woman.”
Mark stood up, his hands squeezing the edge of the table. “Where is she, Joseph?” he said. “Where is she?”
“I just told you. Gone. She went out into the snow.”
Mark pulled the sack to his chest and scrambled towards the door. Joseph stood up and blocked his way.
“What are you doing?” Mark said.
Joseph stood over him, impassive, his deep-set eyes blue and luminous in the dim. Only now that he was an obstacle and a threat — how absurd, he thought, how ridiculous — did Mark fully appreciate the man’s physical ascendancy.
“You didn’t stop her,” Mark said.
“Why would I stop her?” Joseph said. “It’s what she wanted. If she had wanted anything different, I would have stopped her.”
“Why would she want that?”
“She was burning, Mark. Don’t you remember? The pain she was in. She was burning.”
Mark stared out through the window. He saw the great rolling plains, the vast stretches of white against the blue-tinted night sky. Nothing moved — nothing except the snow, its hard, unremitting wall, streaming down like blood from a severed artery. Deborah. Somewhere out there was Deborah. Mark turned towards his friend, face quivering.
“You’re going to get out of my way,” he said. He shuffled, ever-so-slightly, to his right.
“But why would you remember?” Joseph said. “You didn’t want her. Not really. So how could you keep track of everything she did and said? And you know what — it’s ok. I felt the same way about Laura. It’s hard to keep up the performance.”
Mark nodded lightly. He crouched slightly towards the corner of the wall. Joseph didn’t notice. He was caught in an unseeing bout of concentration.
“I remember everything we’ve ever said to each other,” Joseph said dreamily. Then he became assertive. “This is what’s going to happen. We’re going to eat the Vollycot so we can live. And we will continue to live. The two of us.”
Mark grabbed the heat stone — a thick, greyish slab — and hurled it at Joseph’s head. His friend’s head snapped sideways and cracked against the door frame. Mark’s fingers were scalded. He stepped over Joseph’s writhing body and darted out into the snow. His eyes were red and hot with tears, and he could barely see what was in front of him.
He waded out in search of Deborah. In search of his wife. As he walked he whispered her name, a muted prayer in the gusting whine of wind, in the soft dying wails of his breathing. He had the Vollycot pressed to him. The snow came down. All about him was the blank and barren whiteness, the red, bitter cold, the vengeance of a land where nothing bloomed. The sky blurred down into the whiteness in vague, weeping streaks.
And hovering over him, just out of his sight, was the white hawk.
It was there for a reason.
Read more about the author Eamonn McKeon HERE.