The vulture man swoops down from the sky just as the sun begins to set. The three of us are so preoccupied by the heat that we don’t notice him until he lands in a cloud of dust. He conceals his wings behind his back as we scramble to our feet, but there is no mistaking him for anything but a corpse-eater. There’s nothing here for you, Ella tells him, nudging a stick into our campfire. That’s not true. Our campground is full of dead things, rusted cars, and empty tins. This is his feeding ground. The vulture man takes a step towards us. His jacket hangs limply around him, his pale hands hanging from the cuffs. A half-hearted wind brushes against our faces and brings a stench with it, the smell of a dead animal hidden somewhere in the dry leaves. Every summer, the vulture men awake briefly from their slumber to eat their fill. This year they flooded the skies one early spring morning, unable to return to sleep because of the relentless heat. They eat everything; dead people, dead thoughts, dead dreams. Sweat slides down my neck and puddles in my bra. The vulture man eats up the remains of our conversation, plucks the words left unsaid from the dry air and tosses them down his throat. Another breeze arrives, carrying the smell of asphalt and gas, the smell of the city, of living people. There are no vulture men in the city, only out here, where dreams dry up on the vine. The vulture men relieve us of the dead hopes we squirrel away, snatch up parts of us before we are done mourning them, and leave us to bake under an angry sun. The vulture man turns to me, his black eyes boring into my own. I wonder what dream of mine he will take, what dead ambition he will pluck from my mind. Let me sit with you, he croaks. Please, I’m tired. We stare at his drooping feathers and thin fingers. He looks exhausted, as if the prospect of staying awake until the heat breaks fills him with dread. His shoulders curl with the weight of the dead, his bald head glistens with sweat. He looks as though he would rather be asleep, would rather be anywhere other than this damn desert. Maybe he wants to leave as much as we do. The three of us exchange glances and make space for him next to the fire. Ella hands him a marshmallow. The vulture man eats it raw, as he does everything. The stars slowly appear above us, pinpoints in the dark sky. The vulture man does not speak. Instead, he snaps up our forgotten words, our meandering sentences, our restrained jokes. He eats them politely, delicately. He doesn’t ask for seconds. The fire chews up the sticks and he stuffs the charred stubs into his beak like candy. When the last of the marshmallows is gone, the vulture man gets to his feet. He bows his head, as if in thanks, and spreads his greasy wings. We watch as he vanishes into the night sky. When we speak again we speak of the future, because nothing else can make us forget the heat sticking to our chests. Our dreams mingle with the fire and make our eyes sting. We watch as they sprout smoky feathers and float into the sky, overtaking the vulture man, outnumbering the stars, alive in the impossible heat.
Noa Covo is a teenaged writer. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Jellyfish Review, Okay Donkey, and Waxwing. Her microchapbook, Bouquet of Fears, was published by Nightingale and Sparrow Press this July. She can be found on Twitter @covo_noa.