After work one day, I lay on the couch beneath the picture window. Outside, the Siberian elms tossed their uncombed heads in the wind. They were deeply involved in their dance, their limbs stirring almost down to the trunks. Their leaves showed a bright and beetle-eaten green that had no power to filter out the sun. I came close to a warm drowse, and probably would have succumbed except that a detail of the skyscape framed in the window above me was gradually winding its way into my consciousness. In the blue above the elms, four or five birds soared. I could see only an arc of what seemed to be a great circling flight. They were large birds, black, or dark enough to look black in silhouette.
I focused on one of them through his slow arc. The tips of his wings divided into what looked like fingers: they were vultures. The turkey vulture flies low when it’s looking for the smell of ethyl mercaptan, the cabbagy smell of the newly dead.
I lay back and watched them. I didn’t recall seeing them before in my little Oklahoma town, though the open country was another matter. They wheeled in a tilting disk of flight, like plates on a pole in a vaudeville routine. I wanted to know what they were circling.
“I’m going to watch the vultures,” I said to Tracy. “Want to come with?”
“That’s all right,” she said.
After searching out my car keys, I was off. I inched toward the center of the vultures’ flight, craning my head out the window to keep my bearings, stopping frequently. The vultures wrote a tilting cursive O. Their transcription of the pattern was slow and seemed to slide over the invisible textures of the air. Either the circle shifted, or it was so ill-defined to begin with that I couldn’t get centered under it. I parked on the bricks of Main Street and got out to look.
“Some bird’s going to doody in your mouth,” someone said beside me. It was someone I’d known, vaguely, for years, the sort of acquaintance you have in a small town, one to whom you have never been introduced but who feels free to speak familiarly to you. He looked faded, which must mean I hadn’t seen him for years.
“Vultures,” I said. “Trying to figure out what they’re circling.”
“Looks like they’re circling the shopping district of our fair city,” he said, setting his tinted glasses a little higher on his nose. “So much for rebuilding downtown.” He stepped into his pickup and pulled away from the curb, leaving me to admire his exit line.
I see them now and then, eating shattered turtles from the road or fussing with the carcass of a raccoon. Sometimes I’ve even seen them standing on the shoulder as if trying to hitch a ride, watching the cars pass with black eyes, their naked heads more like candle drippings than flesh.
On the drive home one day, I spotted a congregation. I wanted to know what they were up to. I pulled over carefully, right into their midst, and they yielded place reluctantly. One of them hopped from the ground to the top slat of a tin gate. Most of them kept their places, as if waiting to see whether I’d just move on. Only when I stepped out of the car did they yield and take to the air. I could see them circling—some of them far above, their fingered wings marking their silhouettes; one much lower, circling behind some elms, close enough to show the raw hamburger color of its head. The one on the gate eyed me for a long moment. Then he dropped toward the ground, opening his wings as if with an afterthought, and suddenly was up and gone.
It was only after they’d moved that I could see what they’d been eating. It was a deer, mostly gone: rib cage; feet looking clubby and strange where they lay disarticulated and tangled in torn grass; most striking of all, the head, perking up as if to listen like living deer do. It looked at me with hollow sockets.
Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016