When my young tortoiseshell cat, Mitten, drowned in our neighbors’ well, I wanted to have him buried next to my grandmother, Helen, in the haunted cemetery down the county road. But my parents said that the cemetery was meant for people, not animals—so they took Mitten to the Vulture King who lives out in the woods. I’d only seen the Vulture King once, when I was very little and playing by myself down at the lake, skipping stones; the elderly man ambled along the water on the other side of the water, chewing on a rabbit’s foot. The man looked more like an owl than a vulture.
A week later, a raccoon got into our chicken coop and ate two hens and killed six more; feathers danced like snow through the air. My mother, Sharon, discovered the slaughter and cooked three for us and set the other three aside for the Vulture King.
“Why are we giving him our chickens, Mama?” I asked.
“So the Vulture King can eat, too,” she replied.
“Why?” I questioned.
“Because we don’t want him to go hungry,” she answered.
On Saturday, I caught my father, Walter, setting up rat poison and rat traps in our attic, even though we never had seen any rats in the attic before. When I pointed this out, my father said: “Just in case.” I knew then who they were for.
I barely visit my grandmother at the cemetery anymore. The memories are too painful: apple pies; sweet tea; card games; toothless grins; wet clothes scrubbed over washboards. I miss her dearly. But I’m also afraid. He walks the county road, scraping reeking groundhogs baking in the hot sun off gravel. Once, as I was picking wildflowers for grandmother in the nearby fields, he sauntered by and I could hear his bulging stomach growling—the sound was like summer thunder. When he spotted me in the tall grass, the Vulture King called out for me, but I ran home with overwhelming fear pushing me forward; the fear of being consumed, and fear of him knowing my name. Hershel.
The black bear became more courageous as winter progressed; its colossal paw prints fossilized in waves of ivory washed closer and closer to our community. Soon, mothers were worried over their children playing out in the snow by themselves. The fathers met in our basement on a cold night to discuss what must be done, and came to the conclusion that intricate traps must be set around the border to ensnare the beast. My brother, Alcide, was in charge along with several older boys to check them ever so often. Each time he came home, I would beg for the latest news and details.
“Nothing…” he would always grumble.
Occasionally, a lone wolf or a mangy bobcat would cross the wires and rows of metal teeth, but no bear set foot on the sets. Only in the snow beside them.
Just as panic was rising in the community, they caught something other than a canine or feline: the Vulture King. His leg was bleeding pretty badly when I disobeyed my parents and snuck out to see, but a smile was painted upon his face.
“Let me eat in peace!” the Vulture King insisted, and that’s when I noticed the half devoured martin, small and caked in runny blood, ribcage broken and opened like arms welcoming an embrace.
The fathers released him immediately, and the aging man hobbled like a penguin through the snow to the dark woods, leaving behind a trail of red that only attracted more predators. My father and brother empty nets and snares for a week.
The blizzard came after that whole debacle. Four days cooped up in the house drove me crazy. Breaking my promise, I decide to visit my grandmother despite my mother’s warning because I needed something to do. As I practically swam in white drifts, I discovered that I couldn’t find her grave or her headstone, or any of the others within the necropolis. Perhaps they thawed and vanish underneath the snow? Around midnight, when I got back, I told my mother this.
“Wait until spring,” she said. “They couldn’t have gone anywhere.”
I hoped they didn’t.
What did vanish in the spring, however, was my best friend, Patrick, along with four other boys in our community. Everyone blamed the bear. I blamed the Vulture King. How could a bear that tiptoed along our borders as if walking on eggshells take away five rowdy boys and leave no trace of evidence? But the Vulture King patrolled up and down our streets, alleys and backyards daily.
I was also beginning to think that he was the bear all along.
With the help of my brother, I devised a plan to catch him. Near the lake that was now frozen and glassy, I peppered rat poison inside of a deer head. That night, the Vulture King went into a deep sleep. I came out of hiding and, with shears, needle and thread, split the obese owl open and out dripped Patrick and the others. Underneath the goo, I found Helen, my grandmother, unearthed and swallowed whole by the monster.
The memories ignited to life as if they were dynamite.
Hurriedly, I lugged heavy stones and chunks of ice from the banks, stuffed them inside of him and sewed him back up. Just as I finished, he awoke and hobbled after me.
“I’m going to eat you!” he growled. “Every. Last. One. Of. You!”
Trapped, we all had no choice but to cross the frozen lake. We carefully skated across the surface under the ghoulish moonlight while The Vulture
King barreled for our flesh, cracking the ice with each stomp. I wheeled around when I heard a yelp.
“Keep running!” Patrick urged me as I slowed to a halt.
The Vulture King was half-submerged, clawing for safety as the stones dragged him under. I timidly circled the hole, watching down below. He sank to the bottom and drowned.