by Christopher Stanley
An American robin perches high up on the corner of the Pennsylvania State Memorial, twitching his head this way and that to observe the field below. As the raw morning sun chases whorls of mist to the horizon, he sees earthworms churning up the field with their fat, writhing bodies. Millions of them. Morning-hungry, the robin doesn’t know where to feed first. Only when he senses the arrival of other birds does he flap down for his breakfast.
At the top of the memorial steps, Maia and her grandmother hold the leather-bound book between them and read aloud. They aren’t dressed to draw attention. Maia’s blonde bob brushes against the collar of her gilet; her grandmother’s burnt-charcoal plait is tied with a bow of black ribbon below the waist of her jeans. If it weren’t for the look of murder in Maia’s eyes, they could almost be tourists.
Hard as the robin pulls, the earthworm won’t yield. Other birds flutter down in their thousands to join the feast. Cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds seesaw as they try to prise their prey from the ground. Slowly, they all sink into the mud. The robin’s beak disappears and then his head. He flaps his wings uselessly until the air is gone from his lungs.
Maia’s voice grows louder and more determined as other predators arrive. Cats and snakes snap their teeth into the dying birds, only to find that they, too, start sinking. They struggle and thrash but soon the field is still. Not for the first time, Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg National Military Park reeks of death.
And then something pushes up through the ground, rising above the carnage.
An arm, a head, a wing.
Maia was already annoyed as she waited for her grandmother outside the Adams County Courthouse. Above her head, the American flag struggled against the wind, a reminder of what was at stake. In recent months, she’d marched in support of minority groups and offered pro bono representation to immigrants and refugees. She told herself things couldn’t get any worse but every day they did. And now her grandmother had summoned her to Gettysburg. She didn’t want to be here, there was too much to do back in Boston and she hated leaving Fatemah behind, but the note said to come urgently.
“Have you been practicing?” asked her grandmother as they entered the courthouse. “Of course you haven’t. Not since your parents passed away. Not that they let you practice before.”
Maia followed her grandmother through room after room, from floor to floor, until they ended up in a mildewed cupboard lit by a naked tungsten bulb. On the wall was a single oak shelf containing a dust-furred, leather-bound book called “American Incantations.” Her grandmother licked her fingers and flicked through the pages until she arrived at a chapter called “Gettysburg.”
“Read,” she said.
At first Maia was distracted by the blood-speckled lettering, but soon the phrases began to seem familiar. “…a new nation, conceived in Liberty…engaged in a great civil war… from these honoured dead…to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…”
She raised her eyebrows. “The Gettysburg Address was a spell?”
Later in her hotel room, she fidgeted angrily on the bed. She wanted to speak to Fatemah, to be soothed by her lover’s voice, but the phone line was busy. What her grandmother was proposing was unconscionable. “We’ll keep protesting,” Maia had argued. “It’s better to fight in the courts than the streets.” But her grandmother believed the time for peaceful protest was over. The spell was their only hope.
She turned on the television, only to be confronted with images of a mosque being squeezed by fingers of fire. She closed her eyes and prayed for sleep, but the news wouldn’t go away. Stories of Muslims detained in holding pens, awaiting deportation. The virulent spread of racially-motivated murders and the savage retort of the firing squad. Bodies hung from lampposts or dragged bleeding through the streets. And Fatemah. Sweet Fatemah. With her cocoa eyes and vanilla lips, Fatemah was the only thing that made sense in the world. Maia watched as her lover was stripped, beaten and bound atop a burning pyre of hate and censored literature. She awoke screaming Fatemah’s name and vomited until only darkness remained inside her.
“You read the spell,” her grandmother said, her black, silk dressing gown flapping like the wings of a bat. “It’s shown you the future.”
“They burned her like a witch. We must stop them. We must crush them now.”
Her grandmother smiled and nodded.
On Cemetery Ridge, Maia watches the creature unfolding towards the sky. It stands at least ten feet tall; a man-shaped monster of mud and feather and bone. His head twitches this way and that as fifty thousand others just like him rise up from the ground.
“The golems of Gettysburg,” says Maia.
“If this doesn’t work,” says her grandmother, “They’ll come for us. They’ll know what we are.”
The creatures take to the sky, their wings pounding like canon fire as they fly south to Washington and the White House.
“It’ll work,” says Maia. “And we shall harvest the bones of everyone who stands opposed to democracy, to freedom, to the idea of an America for all. Pennsylvania Avenue will run red with the blood of the unworthy. For we are many, we are unstoppable and we are coming.”