by Lindsay Dick
It started with the ants: black bruises of glistening, fragile bodies, spurting up from cracks in the sidewalk and undulating endlessly over the pavement. They were everywhere. The soles of your shoes would be slippery with ant guts by the end of the day.
Scientists smugly offered up several hypotheses for the cause: industrial fertilizers, water contamination, global warming. People started finding carcasses strewn in the alleyways behind their houses and in their own front yards—possums, rats, stray dogs devoured alive by the seething hordes of miniscule insects. Local news stations urged residents to not leave children or small pets unsupervised outdoors.
Next were the birds. At first, people dismissed it as unrelated and made wry references to the only Hitchcock movie they had ever watched. Then a toddler at a playground in Charleston was snatched off the swings by an immense gray pelican, “rabid-looking” according to the bystanders quoted in the paper. After that, the Hitchcockian jokes were met with frowns in polite company.
You would see clouds of birds sweeping in concerto across the sky, like waves of volcanic ash taken up by a violent wind. Reflecting uneasily that it seemed early for migration season, you would stand side-by-side with others, gazing up in apprehension. And you would run for cover with these same people, startled into flight as pairs, trios, quartets of birds dropped from the sky in feathered clots, squawking and flapping, one body indistinguishable from the next. Some would continue to rip the beaks or wings off their dead comrades even after falling to the ground with a dull thud.
Rodents, cats, dogs, pigs, horses, and other large mammals had their turn. Ranchers and farmers reported what could only be described as “mass bestial suicide”—limbs, hooves, and teeth littering overnight the muddy wrecks of barnyards and pastures. Entire rural communities sank into economic depression as their livelihood literally tore itself to bits. The feds put a ban on images from the slaughterhouses in the Corn Belt, but employees sold their cell phone pictures to the media, and, morbidly curious even after everything, we all saw them one way or another.
The first reported human incident was in eastern Colorado, an isolated town in the vast, barren rain shadow of the Rockies. A woman at a grocery store wrenched her five year old son’s arm clean off in the frozen food section, and was restrained before she could bash her infant daughter’s head into the concrete floor. The following cases came in quick succession, but in widely disparate areas of the country. It did not appear to be spreading in any recognizable, predictable pattern. It jumped haphazardly from place to place, hitting some harder than others, although eventually, it got to all of us.
It was painful to watch the people on the streets below, writhing and snarling and devouring each other alive, piece by piece. Mind-numbing to watch your neighbors, friends, spouses, children, succumb to the rage, eyes rolling back in their head, froth lacing their hot black lips. To have to push them down the stairs or out the window before they got to you.
But the worst sight was the birds. Perched on rooftops and ledges, they gazed down at the carnage below, silent and calm, as if committing to memory for posterity’s sake this pulsating loss of life.