They Who Keep the Sky

by Travis Chambray

“These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.”
– Revelation 11:6 King James Version (KJV)

The vultures were preparing to attack again. I first saw them while dragging myself out of the fuselage, as they flew above the boiling smog created by metal laid smoking on the ground and trees rippling with flames. Something was wrong with my leg. Forced onto my belly, I hauled myself between clumps of fire, using the small army knife I retrieved from my jacket—before it had burned away—as a stake. Beyond the clearing, a rim of dense undergrowth stood quietly, the deep shadows gathered there were cast with an infernal glow.

There were other passengers sprawled along the charred grass. I did not realise some were alive until a boy dashed screaming for the jungle and three vultures tackled him to the dirt, a dense black mound like flies congesting inside an open wound. One vulture yanked at the exposed entrails of a groaning man, its mouth stuffed and dripping with blood.

I managed to crawl unnoticed towards the jungle. The first of the cool, leafy shade had thrown itself over me when I saw her on the far side of the clearing. My wife. Her legs were ravaged with fire. She convulsed in the dirt either in a futile attempt to extinguish it, or her body was simply shaking in the flames like a doll. I crawled to her. Not to save her; in my shock I needed her recognition, even if only in the mask death used her face to wear. I came close enough to smell the burning flesh. To hear the crackle of her skin as it blackened. I was my body’s length away from her when two vultures swooped down. They folded their wings and began to peck at her upturned face. I could see the shape of an eyeball bulge against the tight pink skin of one’s neck before it disappeared.

The other vulture broke away, hobbling towards me. I brandished my knife, shouting. It considered me. Finally, it turned back to the corpse. There were others now. They stared at me even as their heads bobbed and tore the steaming flesh with their beaks.

Daylight faded, and the screams of the dying with it, until the only sound left was the monotonous drone of fire as I moved deeper into the undergrowth.

I sat in the jungle that night, one hand gripping my knife handle. The low moans of nocturnal predators became my own thoughts. I knew my only chance of rescue was in open land. A few hours later, when the moon was a silver ribbon trailing along the thick canopy, I realised why they were attacking living animals. Water. The drought extending seasons made even those sentinels of rot desperate for water in any vessel, in any form.

I waited for death. But sleep waited for me. I closed my eyes.

The dream was this:

An enormous silhouette, distinguishable only by its feathered edges, hunched above all the cosmos as if it were nothing but a hollow perch. Its voice croaked beyond the endless chasm of space, into the small bowl of my skull.

Hear me, mortal.

My wings divide the bound flesh of all worlds and their dead from the blue heavens above, they extend into the void of creation itself. Heed the call of the One. You have fought as a blind impulse to live. A slave to your own beating heart. Yet you will lie down like all others of time before you have done and shall do after you. You shall be the food of the enslaved as they too will eventually be for others. Defy this and suffer the rash and plague of a world not given unto you but only bequeathed. Die, and live in the realm of the eternal. No body, mind, nor spirit shall haunt you.

It flapped its great wings, rearing, and lunged for me.

I awoke.

It was morning. A thick, humid steam had sprung up in the new heat. It wafted along the jungle floor, obscuring my shattered leg. I crawled towards the plane.

I made my torch from the fallen branch of a rubber tree and a steel bicycle wheel, daubing the end with gasoline from a salvaged can. When the helicopter found me, I was walking again with my new splint—limping, yes, but walking, holding my torch aloft, as the vultures shrank away like so many shadows.

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