Snag Drum has one of his sick headaches, so his son,
fifteen-year-old Ivanhoe, sits behind the wheel of the station wagon. He’s
gunning it along the dirt lane to Pluskat’s, down the gauntlet of
ornamental concrete chickens. The unpainted chickens line both sides of the
road, right up to the doors of Pluskat’s barn, where the fights are held.
Really, it’s the same chicken over and over and over again. Pluskat poured
them himself. The chickens stand better than two feet tall, their high-combed
heads tilted to one side.
Snag groans, half from the nauseating headache, half because
they are late. The back of the station wagon is full of animal cages. The cages
are full of gamecocks. The roosters grab at the wire of the cages with their
hard claws, they drive their beaks against the metal. They’re working to
get at each other back there. Snag and Ivanhoe can’t afford to be late for
the derby. They can’t afford not to fight, not to win. “Go
on,” Snag moans, head in his hands. Ivanhoe takes his eyes off the
road, looks over at Snag for a second, and the station wagon plows into the
left-hand rank of chickens.
The sound from outside the car is terrible: rupturing
concrete, metal pulled screaming away from metal, the front bumper dragged
loose, the smash and tinkle of glass as the left headlamp winks out, then the
right; gush of steam as the aluminum grille tilts sharply back, as the radiator
collapses, as the heavy engine block shifts in its mounts. Pathetic honk of the
horn as it goes too. Rumble of shattered decorative chickens under the tires and
floorboards, thundering against the floor panel of the car as though the pieces
will punch straight through. Roar of exhaust through straight pipe as the
muffler tears loose and bounds along behind them on the soft dirt surface of the
lane. A jagged hunk of concrete jumps up and shaves off the driver’s-side
mirror, clean as a whistle.
And inside the car: Snag screaming Watch watch watch!
up front as he lunges for the steering wheel, and the roosters in the back all
gone mad. Cages sliding and somersaulting, the cage containing the Kelso
Yellow-Leg catching Ivanhoe painfully behind the ear and crashing down onto the
bench front seat, cartwheeling from there upside down onto the transmission
hump. Ivanhoe’s crying out I’m trying! for all he’s
worth as he fights the wheel to the right, but the car will not come over,
riding fast and straight as an arrow, chickens going down before it like
ninepins. It is as though Ivanhoe is deliberately mowing them under.
The car breaks right at last, and the front left fender kisses
a final chicken, spins it neatly in place and tips it over onto its back. They
slalom to the middle of the road, slew to a stop.
Silence. A hubcap rolls past and down the road, moonlight
flaring from the spinner as it goes.
The roosters gawp around them. Snag crouches in the
passenger-side footwell, hands clasped before him as though he’s praying.
Ivanhoe listens carefully for the beat of his own heart. He’s got a
pancake heart, delicate organ always threatening to give out, and if it’s
going to stop on him, it might as well go ahead and do it. Quit now, he
thinks, but the pancake heart labors on.
Ivanhoe wears the fighting cock’s long-knife tied to hisleft ankle. This is the dream he dreams every night, and can never remember. In
the waking world, the long-knife terrifies him. His mouth grows dry as he straps
those three inches of curving oily steel to a rooster’s leg. Here, though,
he sweeps his terrible wings back just to hear the crisp rustle of the feathers,
he cranes his neck to take in the glitter of the long-knife’s keen edge.
He’s waiting on the pit master, and when the call comes he will rise up,
heart hammering his chest into splinters, war cry breaking loose from
Not his mouth, not Ivanhoe’s mouth, with its soft
sensuous lips, a girl’s lips. Lips for which he’s been taunted all
his life: Sweetboy, Sugarmouth. This is a hard beak. Not the wretched
pancake heart, either, Ivanhoe’s flattened heart that limps along beneath
the thin concavity of his breastbone. This rounded pulsing muscle, this
conqueror’s heart hurls him screaming into the air, the long-knife
slashing downward, cutting deep into the dubbed head of the opposing
His burnished feathers curve tight over his body like armor.
He doesn’t have a name in the pit. He is a wicked feathered glasher, a
battle stag waiting on the kill.
He knows the rooster he’s pitted against. Sleek black
cockerel, a hefty Sumatra Game, with the wide breast and strong feathered shanks
of the ground fighter. Tut, his old man’s favorite, King Tut, longtime
killer, eyes like polished quartz stone. Dream-Ivanhoe strokes upward,
he’s swift, an air fighter. He lashes down with the cruel long-knife, King
Tut gaping up, earthbound, wide-beaked and stiff-tongued with fury as Ivanhoe
wings over, the knife strike straight to the cape of feathers at the throat. The
black cockerel reels, he’s necked, he’s finished, he’s
Snag’s out of the car in a flash, pries open the rear ofthe station wagon and begins pawing through the tumbled cages. “Get the
Kelso,” he says to Ivanhoe, who leans down to look at the bent and
distorted metal crate. No way the rooster could have survived the wreck, but
there he is nonetheless, burbling grumpily, full of reproach. He sounds just
like a percolator on the boil. Kelso Yellow-Leg, the butcher cock, whom Ivanhoe
adores. Blinkered Kelso Yellow-Leg, with his blind and ruptured eye.
“Take the Kelso and go,” Snag says. He’s
found King Tut’s crate among the jumbled cages, and he has the black game
bird out, he’s stroking its rumpled feathers. Champion bird. They’re
maybe a quarter of a mile from Pluskat’s barn, and they can’t think
about the car now. They have to get their birds to the derby. Ivanhoe drags the
Kelso’s cage free, knees loose, fingers twitching. The adrenaline of the
crash is hitting him hard, and he wants to sit down. He wants to cry.
“Go on, go on,” Snag says, and then he pauses.
“Will you be okay?” he asks. “Your heart...”
“My heart will do what my heart will do,” Ivanhoe
says. Suddenly he doesn’t want to sit down anymore, he doesn’t want
to cry. He wants to walk down the road, he wants to disappear into the dark. He
wants to forget about the smashed car and the shaken roosters and his worried
old man and the line of shattered concrete chickens. He wants to leave them all
In the dream, Ivanhoe’s wings turn without warning toheavy sodden cardboard, his fierce green-and-yellow plumage becomes nothing but
candle wax, it smears and drips under the heat of the big sodium arc lamps that
light the arena, leaving him smooth and pink and naked, a dunghill bird who
won’t raise his hackles. Leaving him a weeping frightened boy awake in his
sweat-soaked bed, a boy with soft pouting lips and a tubby belly and ungainly
limbs. Leaving him alone, infused with the squalid flavor of the dream but
without its memory. Leaving him dream-haunted Ivanhoe.
Headlights from behind as Ivanhoe and Snag struggle along theroad. Snag banged his knee against something during the wreck, and it’s
swelling like a goiter under his gabardines, hot and painful, slowing him
dreadfully. The lights come up on them, sweep past, and in the rumble of dual
pipes and the red glare of taillights, Ivanhoe recognizes Billy
Shoemaker’s fancy old Lincoln with the suicide doors. Big Billy Shoemaker,
a high roller, arriving late because, for him, there’s no need to hurry.
The Lincoln halts up the road a way, bangs into reverse, and comes tear-assing
backward toward them. Ivanhoe has to leap out of its path. Billy leans out the
driver’s window like an eager dog.
“Ouch!” Billy says, slamming his hard hand against
the door panel of the Lincoln. “Saw what you did back there. Ouch!
“Can we catch a ride with you, Billy?” Snag asks.
“Up the barn.” He’s got Tut’s cage braced against his
hip. Billy’s face is bright, the skin tight and shiny over the bones.
There’s someone in the Lincoln with him, face indistinct in the dark
interior of the car.
“Chicken killers!” Billy says, reaching behind him
and throwing open the rear door. “Car killers!”
Snag hustles Ivanhoe before him and they climb into the
spacious back seat of the Lincoln. Maneuvering the cages inside the car proves
trying, but at last they’re settled. Billy’s turned backward,
looking at them a moment longer, all smiles. The front-seat passenger is a
girl—no surprise to see a pretty girl in the shotgun seat of Billy
Shoemaker’s Lincoln—a girl Ivanhoe doesn’t know.
She’s staring at him like he’s something from
Mars, so he feels emboldened to stare back. Light dusting of freckles, broad
lineless brow, pale solemn mouth, hair caught up in a red bandanna—but he
knows that hidden hair, he knows its springy, coarse, slightly oily texture as
though his hands are plunged in it at that moment, he knows its scent, like
olives (which he has never smelled, never tasted), its flavor like sea salt. How
could he know that? He blinks as Billy throws the Lincoln into gear, sees that
the girl in the front seat is laughing at him.
“What a strange bird is the pelican,” she says to
“Pardon?” he says.
“Her beak can hold more than her belly
Snag tends to King Tut. Ivanhoe struggles to come up with a
“She’s been saying shit like that all
evening,” Billy says. Then, confidingly, “She’s down from
Irish Mountain.” He pronounces it like mounting. Irish
Mounting. He rolls his eyes.
Ivanhoe knows about Irish Mountain and the people who live up
there. They aren’t like the ones down in the foothills, like Snag and
Billy Shoemaker and Ivanhoe, who don’t dream, or don’t remember
their dreams. Up on Irish Mountain, he has heard, their dreams are an ocean. Up
on Irish Mountain, they swim in and out of each other’s dreams like
When Ivanhoe wakes in the mornings, he struggles to recall his
dreams. Within the dreams hides the answer. It must be there, because it
isn’t anywhere else in his life, it isn’t anywhere else in the
waking world. Not in the gamecocks, not in Snag’s tremulous attention. If
Ivanhoe could remember the dreams, he would know the answer, and from the answer
he imagines he might be able to guess at the nature of the question. The
question and the answer to the question: it’s like the chicken and the egg
to him. He keeps turning the thing over in his mind, trying to decide which
“The pelican in the wilderness,” Ivanhoe says, and
his mouth feels strange to him as it shapes the words. He feels as though
he’s giving the second part of some secret code in a spy movie. “The
pelican in the wilderness, with nothing to feed her birds, wounds her breast and
nourishes them upon her blood.”
The girl’s eyes widen momentarily. He has surprised her.
“Damn,” says Billy. They are at Pluskat’s
barn, cars and trucks parked at rough angles all around them. “Now you
with the pelicans too. I thought you Drum fellows were chicken
“Gamecocks,” says Snag. He hates it when anyone
refers to his precious birds as chickens.
A petit-pointe picture of a Jesus hangs at the foot ofIvanhoe’s bed. His mother made it when he was little, not long before she
died, but it looks much older than that, it looks like something that has
traveled forward from another time. In the picture, Jesus’s chest is torn
open, blood running down, but his face—you can tell this even from across
the room, the detail in the needlework is that fine—is peaceful.
He’s a skinny little hillbilly Jesus with bandy legs and close-set eyes
and a clever, foxy face. He’s naked and alone, but he’s not
Around the border of the picture runs the legend about the
pelican. The pelican in the wilderness...Ivanhoe sees it
every time he wakes from the dream, when he wakes to the raucous crowing of the
gamecocks in the chookyard...nourishes them upon her blood. There is no
pelican in the picture.
Ivanhoe wishes his mother had lived, a little longer at least.
He would have liked to ask her what in the world that hanging might signify.
Ivanhoe feels sick in his belly, fixing the long-knife to theleft spur of the Kelso Yellow-Leg as the rooster dances and skitters and kicks,
sensing what’s coming, wattles and comb swelling with hot blood, eyes
capturing and holding the light. The next bout is a Welsh main. That means that
Ivanhoe will pit his bird against another, and the winner of that bout will stay
in the pit against a fresh stag, as will the winner of that bout, and so on, a
total of seven fights. Only the gamest bird can stick it out in a Welsh main
from the beginning, without going under hack or dying.
The Kelso Yellow-Leg seems terribly old to Ivanhoe. Old as
Snag, even older maybe. The Kelso jabs him with the long-knife, drawing blood
from the sensitive web of skin between thumb and forefinger, then stands tall
and looks at Ivanhoe unabashedly with his one good eye. Ivanhoe loves the Kelso
for its game heart and its strong legs and its blinkered eye.
On the ground near Ivanhoe’s feet, King Tut gabbles and
talks. Ivanhoe thinks he’s saying words. What is he saying?
Hogbody. Is he calling Ivanhoe names? Sweetboy. Sugarmouth.
Ivanhoe nudges the cage with the side of his foot but doesn’t dare kick
Snag has gone after the remaining roosters with a couple of
the other men. Pluskat was pissed at first when he heard about his ornamental
chickens, but Big Billy Shoemaker convinced him that it was really pretty funny
after all. He convinced Pluskat that Snag and Ivanhoe got the worst of it, the
front end of their car stove in, their birds rattled, Snag’s swollen knee.
Pluskat, the pit master, can see the humor in that.
“You’ll be copacetic,” Ivanhoe tells the
Kelso Yellow-Leg. He steels his heart. When the call comes, he’ll send the
Kelso into battle. The bird itself wants to fight. It peers nearsightedly around
the barn, searching for an opponent. The barn is tall-ceilinged, filled with
sizzling light, with the odors of cigarette smoke and sawdust and sweat and hot
feathers, the smell of blood. The crowd sits expectantly on flimsy folding
risers or in lawn chairs near the pit’s edge, talking together in low
tones. From time to time, this man or that one will rise from his place and call
to the birds in the pit, shout at the handlers, hands hooked, sawing at the
“You’ve never been much of anywhere, have
you?” It’s the girl, the one from Irish Mountain. She has come up on
Ivanhoe without warning. She eyes the Kelso. “Will he hurt
Ivanhoe holds up his wounded hand. “He might,” he
says, and she keeps her distance.
It’s true that he’s never been much of anywhere.
Never seen anything, really, except for the room where he lives, the thin-walled
clapboard house of his old man’s, the patch of land in the foothills with
its strutting gamecocks, over which Irish Mountain glowers. Never seen anything
but the little tilting chookhouses and fly pens filled with sharp-clawed,
empty-headed, gimlet-eyed fighting roosters.
Over the shoulder of the girl, Ivanhoe can make out Pluskat
and Billy Shoemaker and some others gathered together in a tight knot, arguing,
their faces twisted—but they’re not angry, they’re laughing.
Pluskat claps his hands, and Ivanhoe sees him as if for the first time: a
capering, agitated hobgoblin. The men around him imps and beasts, their mouths
nothing but damp toothy maws, their hair thick and stinking as pelts, their
voices the braying of beasts. It’s because of the girl he can see this,
he’s sure. She’s showing it to him. He’s glad that Snag
isn’t in sight. He’s glad that he cannot see himself.
“I hear you share your dreams,” he says.
It’s not easy for him to talk to the girl—she’s so strange,
and so pretty—but he forges on. “Up where you come
The girl nods. “I could show you the Eye of God if you
want. Up at the top,” she says.
The Eye of God is an Irish Mountain thing, like the dreams.
All his life Ivanhoe’s heard the name, but no one has ever been able to
describe to him what it might be. A wheel in a wheel is all that Snag can tell
him. Like the wheel that took the prophet Ezekiel. A wheel in a wheel, way in
the middle of the air.
“I’d like to see that,” he says.
“You see it, and it sees you,” she says.
Would he like that? An eye like a great wheel, staring down at
him. He is not much to look at, Ivanhoe knows. For the first time it occurs to
him that he might not like the answer, if he finds it. Might not like the
“Looks into you,” the girl says.
“Into and through you.”
Here and there heads in the crowd turn to assess the
girl’s slender form, hard eyes roam over her wide shoulders, down her long
back to her waist—from her waist to her rear to her muscular legs. The
hard eyes glint with appreciation. Ivanhoe wonders how old she might be. He
wonders if she thinks he’s older than he is. He’s sizable for his
age, and consequently clumsy; his coordination hasn’t yet caught up with
“My family’s up there,” the girl says.
“They were scared to come down, but I’m not.”
And then Pluskat, the pit master, calls the bout, the Welsh
main: no more time for conversation. Ivanhoe wants to ask her when she’ll
show him, how he might get there, to the top of Irish Mountain. If he were to
decide to come. He wants to ask why she has come down to the foothills, what her
family is scared of. He wants to ask if she was serious, what she said. He casts
around for Snag, to get him to corner for the Kelso, give him another minute or
two with the girl, but Snag’s not back from the wrecked station wagon
“Pit your birds, gents,” Pluskat bellows, and
Ivanhoe’s obliged to climb into the arena, the Kelso Yellow-Leg clutched
in his outstretched hands. The butcher cock has seen its opponent now, and
it’s vibrating, light-feathered body thrumming with tension. The Kelso
Yellow-Leg feels like a running motor in Ivanhoe’s grip.
Irish Mountain was once an island, eons ago. An islandthrusting its green bulk up above the savage waters, and the valleys below the
mountain nothing more than lightless airless rifts in the ocean floor. The
foothills where Ivanhoe lives with Snag and the fighting cocks, these were the
heights of the ocean floor. Dwelling place of the unthinkable Leviathan, and God
moving dolefully above the gray roiling surface.
At the cement works, the quarriers dynamite the rock, peel it
in great slabs from the quarry walls, and fossil-pictures of ancient fish and
mollusks and whatnot float mutely to the surface—Ivanhoe has seen
them—and then the quarriers grind the rock down to gravel and the gravel
down to grit and sand. His old man Snag grinds fish into a rich stinking soupy
paste, to feed to King Tut and the other gamecocks. The fish keep them strong,
keep their feathers glossy and supple and impermeable. Snag feeds them grit,
too, and small stones, for their gizzards, so they can digest their food. Where
a man has teeth in his head, a chicken has stones in its gut.
Somewhere in the midst of the Welsh main, Snag returns withthe other birds—the dignified Harvard Whites, the high-priced Blacksmith
Hatch, the scalawag Racey Mugs and Cottontail Shufflers, the single ancient
Claret Roundhead, which fights with the gaff—and his breath is bitter, his
face distant, features blurred and muzzy. He’s been drinking milky potato
liquor in the back of the borrowed pickup truck, nestled among his birds in
their bent cages, nursing the hurt of his wrecked car, his aching skull, his
wrenched knee, the jibes of Pluskat, who won’t leave him alone.
“Chicken killer!” he calls out from the middle of the pit, must have
picked it up from Billy. “Car killer!”
Snag is usually gentle with Ivanhoe, almost courtly; mild
toward his stable of battle stags. The pit is life to him, it’s the entire
world—he’s a little man with hardly a possession to his name, but
his birds are well known in the foothills, respected and feared, especially the
dreaded black cockerel King Tut. If men know him at all, it is because his birds
fight until they die, they strike and strike and strike until their hearts give
out. But tonight Snag is on fire, he shouts at Ivanhoe, he screams at the Kelso
Yellow-Leg as it struggles through the endless numbing bouts of the Welsh main,
as it is wounded and comes on strong and is wounded again. “I’ll put
you in a pie, you whoreson!” he shrieks at the bird. “I’ll eat
you for my God-damned supper!”
Into Ivanhoe’s ear he whispers, in a voice unlike any
the boy has heard from him before, “Get your ass in gear, hogbody. You got
a car to pay for.” He casts a look over at Pluskat. “And a bunch
of”—here his speech becomes deliberate, as though he’s
delivering a message even he does not fully comprehend—“custom
handmade ornamental poured-concrete fowl!” He spits the last
Pluskat laughs, overhearing, and the Welsh main continues.
Ivanhoe scoops up the Kelso and blows on his comb to revive him, forces open his
beak and spits into it. At the last, it’s only a couple of weak dunghill
birds that the tired Kelso faces, and the lean old butcher cock takes them down,
one after the other, indomitable Kelso Yellow-Leg drives them into the dirt of
the pit and crows over their corpses. Snag stands to one side with King Tut
(whom he calls Tut-Tut like a pet, Tut the lizard-cold death dealer) cradled in
his arms, speaking to the black cockerel in sighs.
Ivanhoe hoped to look for the Irish Mountain girl after theWelsh main, but Snag will not let him leave the pit. Ivanhoe has never pitted
more than a couple of birds during a derby. Tonight, every bird in their stable
passes through his bloody hands. His pancake heart works vainly in his chest,
his breath hitches, his vision dims. Sometimes they win. More often they
Ivanhoe stumbles as he follows the birds around the periphery
of the little arena, stepping on the roosters in his exhaustion. Pluskat
harangues him, mocking him for his short wind. Sweetboy, he calls him,
and the crowd laughs as though this is an act, as though it’s part of the
show. Sugarmouth, and Pluskat smacks his lips deliciously at
The dead dunghills stack up at Snag’s feet. Again and
again he passes new birds over the pit barrier to an exhausted Ivanhoe. All
their roosters are dying now—some tide has turned against them, inexorably
against them, and they will be left with nothing. The look on Snag’s face
is blank. Once he winks at Ivanhoe, who stands with a slender Racey Mug dangling
dead from his fist, a long slow wink, as though half of Snag is falling asleep.
Hogbody! someone in the crowd calls out.
At last, it’s the final bout of the night, and Ivanhoe
holds out his hands. This time, though, the bird is King Tut, and Snag shakes
his head. He will pit Tut himself. He steps over the barrier, and Pluskat comes
to assist him, takes his elbow and helps him, even reaches out a hand for Tut
when Snag’s battered knee threatens to give out. Snag snatches the bird
back, finds his footing, and enters the ring with his head down, his shoulders
The crowd’s out of their seats, they press against the
barrier, faces dark with desire. “Tut!” they call. They have wanted
to see this bird, this legendary Sumatra Game, all evening. They have traveled
from all over the foothills to see the black cockerel fight. “King
Tut!” they shout. It will be King Tut against one of Pluskat’s
champions, a rainbow-colored Poland Titan with a spray of wild feathers at its
neck and a vivid eye, a young bird that’s been making a name for
Ivanhoe, paroled, leaves the pit. He’s weaving. He
can’t make himself care about the final fight. He wants to find the girl.
He wants to hear about the dreams. He wants to hear about the Eye of God. He
spots Big Billy Shoemaker in the crowd—the girl is not beside
him—waves at him to get his attention, ask him where she has gone. But
Billy has fixed his handsome face on the fight, his pupils dilated, his jaw
moving up and down, his throat working. He’s shouting “Tut! King
Tut!” like all the rest.
Disaster. King Tut is defeated. King Tut is dead.
Ivanhoe remembers. For the first time, waking in his room wellbefore dawn, he remembers his dream. Remembers wearing the long-knife, and the
strength of his wings, and the power in his heart. He remembers cuppling King
Tut with a savage blow to the head, Tut reeling and falling. He knows that he
killed Tut. It was not Pluskat’s young Poland Titan. It was
The hillbilly Jesus looks at him from the petit-pointe sampler
on the wall. The pelican in the wilderness...
He decides then that he will climb Irish Mountain. There, he
can leave behind Ivanhoe of the foothills, he can leave Snag and the beast-men
of the pit and the stinking chookhouses and Hogbody and Sweetboy
and his pathetic pancake heart behind. He will leave the waking world behind, he
will leap and slash and fly, his heart will pound in his chest without pain,
without leaving him breathless and weak. He will be whole.
Ivanhoe wakes with the first crowing. It’s the KelsoYellow-Leg calling him, always the first. Soon the others will respond, those
few that are left, and it will be a small cacophony amongst the chookhouses, but
for now it’s the lone clarion voice of the Kelso, and it sounds as though
the Kelso is calling his name into the glassy morning air: Ivanhoe!
No worry about Snag rising today, even with the clamor in the
yard. Snag was broken, sodden and stumbling, openly weeping when they finally
reached home in the back of Big Billy Shoemaker’s Lincoln. Snag is
flat-backed in his sagging bed. Ivanhoe would be surprised to see him before
He steps from the house, takes his first look of the day at
Irish Mountain. It looms over him, steep faces gray in the dawn light, summit
wreathed in angry clouds. Between the hill on which he lives and the mountain
proper lies a narrow valley with a shivering creek at its bottom. Drum’s
Valley, they call it, he and Snag, and Drum’s Creek, because there is no
one around to call it anything else.
He trots across the chookyard. A once-powerful Harvard White
lies stiff and dead on the floor of its pen. Poor little man—but that is
how it is with these birds when they’re wounded, they live or they die,
they have a game heart or they don’t. The Harvard White’s feathers
stick out awkwardly in all directions, still glossy, still carrying the deep
sheen of a diet rich in shell corn and pulped fish.
The other pens are empty. No fractious Racey Mugs, only a
couple of sharp-voiced Cottontail Shufflers remaining. No more Blacksmith Hatch,
no aged Claret Roundhead. One chookhouse slightly larger than the rest, its
boards more tightly fitted, its floor cleaner: the house of the black cockerel,
the brutal Sumatra, King Tut. Empty.
“Ivanhoe!” He whirls, caught—but Snag is not
there. His eye falls on the lone occupied chookhouse behind him, and the rooster
within. It’s the golden butcher cock, the Kelso Yellow-Leg, unblinkered
eye fixed on Ivanhoe, neck outstretched, beak wide. The cock trumpets, and this
time its voice is just a rooster’s voice.
The Kelso Yellow-Leg. The good old Kelso will make the perfect
companion on his climb. The bird crows again, and in its cry there is to
Ivanhoe’s ears the sound of pure delight. It turns a circle in the
confines of its cage, waggles its small head, fluffs its feathers so that it
looks twice its size. Admirable Kelso Yellow-Leg!
Ivanhoe quickly has the Kelso out of its house and into one of
the small carrying cages, slung from his left hand, and they’re walking
together toward the shallow draw that leads down into Drum’s Valley, where
he will cross Drum’s Creek and begin the arduous trip up Irish
Ivanhoe reaches the low shoulder of the mountain withsurprising ease. His pancake heart, usually so troublesome, vexes him not at
all. The Kelso Yellow-Leg shifts its weight from leg to leg to keep its balance
in the cage that swings by his side. Ivanhoe glories in the privilege he feels
in the spacious understory of the forest. It’s all virgin hemlocks in
here, friendly creaking hemlocks, each tree standing in its own little clearing,
and all around them thick hedges of waxy rhododendron and blooming wildflowers.
Great black bees bobble their workaday way from the bell of one flower to the
petals of the next.
Thick green light filters down through the dense canopy of
leaves, vegetable light filling the clearings, bathing the air around him. This
is what he imagines it must be like to walk along the bottom of a shallow sea.
He has rubbed his skin with pennyroyal plant, so mosquitoes do not plague him,
though they shrill in his ears and buzz his head, and the sharp singing of their
wings makes him wince in anticipation of stings that don’t come.
He bats his hands at the swarming insects, and they scatter
only to collect again, hanging in the same spot in the air. Pushing through a
close-grown rhododendron grove, he steps out into a large clearing. At its
center, a vast hemlock, its trunk, its branches twisted and humped and corded
with age. A skeleton hemlock stripped of bark and clothed all over in soft green
moss. How old must such a tree be, to have grown to such a fantastic
“Mister,” Ivanhoe says, addressing the tree. He is
surprised by the smallness of his voice. The Kelso Yellow-Leg falls silent, and
Ivanhoe finds himself desperately hoping that the bird will stay that way. He
feels tempted to drop down and kneel before the hemlock, with its green-draped
branches thrust out toward him.
“Mister,” he says again, and it feels to him like
the right form of address. “Do you know the girl who lives up in here
somewhere? Talks about pelicans?”
No response. It’s too paltry a question. Such a tree
must stir itself only over questions of significance. Ivanhoe might care about
the girl, but clearly Mister does not. Perhaps Mister does not care about people
at all. This place is empty of men, but it’s not at all
empty—it’s the opposite of empty, filled with something that presses
invisibly against the eyes, something that begs to be seen.
“Do you know about the Eye of God on top of the
No response to this either. Clearly, Mister disdains the Eye.
Here in this clearing, among all these lesser trees, Mister is a god
“Mister, do you dream?”
Nothing. Ivanhoe is beginning to feel a bit desperate. The
tree is ancient, its roots sunk deep into the unyielding flesh of Irish
Mountain, it has eaten the minerals and the water of the mountain, it has
breathed this air for—what? A thousand years, or a thousand thousand,
it’s all the same to Ivanhoe. He can think of only one thing that might
break the awful silence of the skeleton hemlock.
He holds out the carrying cage before him. “Mister, do
you want my chicken?” he asks.
Still nothing. Ivanhoe gasps with relief. He will not be asked
to give up the Kelso Yellow-Leg. Not yet, at any rate.
The earth shifts beneath him, and he stumbles, sinks to one
knee. The Kelso gives a startled squawk. The earth continues to roll queasily,
and Ivanhoe goes to both knees, drops to all fours like an animal. It’s
his pancake heart quailing in his chest, it makes him thick and dopey, it causes
the world to swim before his eyes. The pancake heart flutters again, and he
slips onto his elbows, his belly.
“Mister,” he says, and his voice is a whisper.
“Can I lay down here a minute? I’m awful tired.”
No reply to this request either, but Ivanhoe decides that in
this instance he will take silence for assent. He crawls to the tree, wriggling
like a newt, sets his cheek against its cool, moss-covered flank, and
And dreams of the girl. She stands in the clearing, beneaththe gargantuan hemlock. At first he thinks that she’s wearing a cloak made
of some strange, shifting fabric. Then he realizes that she is nude, her body
covered with twittering birds. Gorgeous little cedar waxwings, glossy and smooth
as water-polished stones, perch on her shoulders, cling to her arms, her hair,
her thighs, the taut skin of her stomach. The waxwings push themselves against
her. They knead her flesh with their tiny claws.
“Having nothing to feed her young birds, the
pelican...” she begins, and then falters. She brushes at the birds on her
head, her shoulders, her chest, and they cloud around her. She flutters her
hands at them. “...Her bill can hold more than her belly can.” She
bares her bosom, and her face is placid. Ivanhoe’s terrified that
she’s bleeding, that her ribs will be exposed, a terrible rent in her
flesh, blood bubbling forth. There’s no blood, though. What she offers him
is her soft breast. What she offers him is the freshet of her milk.
When he wakes, it is afternoon getting on toward evening. Thehemlock towers over him, its attitude unreadable in the creeping dusk. He takes
stock, finds that his heart seems to be keeping steady rhythm again, and rises,
bracing himself against the knobby trunk of the tree. “Thanks,
Mister,” he says, and goes to the carrying cage where it lies on its side
in the clearing.
“You okay?” he asks the Kelso Yellow-Leg, and the
rooster gabbles indignantly. It must be hungry, Ivanhoe realizes, but he has
nothing to feed it. He feels a bit hollow himself, and for a moment he considers
heading back down the mountain, returning to the foothills and the game farm. A
mockingbird cries from the branches overhead, its voice the voice of Snag, angry
He will not go back to that. Nothing for it but to continue
up. On to the summit. “Goodbye,” he says to Mister, touching his
forehead respectfully. In the lowering darkness, does the tree make a nearly
imperceptible gesture, does it lower one of its limbs in quiet salute? Ivanhoe
Staggering through a bog of deep peat, a bowl carved into themountainside by the movement of some ancient glacier. And what bounty has sprung
up in the wake of the glacier’s passing! Cranberry vines, thickets of
swamp rose and speckled alder, sedges and flowers: swamp candle, damp silky
orchids, trilliums, lady’s slippers, jewelweed glittering among the tough
grasses, even carnivorous sundew, its leaves covered with sticky hairs. The
pennyroyal seems to have worn off, the mosquitoes pestering Ivanhoe
unmercifully, and he wishes the insect-devouring sundew plants good hunting. The
cage bangs painfully against his hip with every step he takes.
“Where are we now, Kelso?” he asks the bird in the
cage. A narrow stream winds its way through the bog, and he is thirsty, but the
peat has stained the water the deep brown color of strong tea, so he does not
drink, following the stream toward its source in hopes that the flow will
Which it does, at the edge of the bog, half a mile on. Golden
trout hang nearly motionless in the cool current, their red-veined tails waving
lazily to keep them in place. Their lipless mouths gape. Ivanhoe tries to think
of a way to catch the nearest of them, its dark bulging eye rolling toward him
as he kneels at the bank of the stream but not seeming to take him in. Even the
fish gruel that Snag feeds the game birds would taste good to him. Ivanhoe
plunges his arm into the water, wets himself to the shoulder, fingers closing on
nothing. The trout and its brothers scatter into the small rapids just
Ivanhoe makes do with water. Handful after handful of cold
water, until his belly is full and tight. He offers a cupped palm of it to the
Kelso Yellow-Leg, who refuses even to look at him. The rooster is rumpled, dry,
weary, furious. It would die of thirst rather than take a drink from
Ivanhoe’s hand. Ivanhoe briefly regrets having brought it along, toys with
the notion of turning the bird loose to fend for itself on the
mountain—but then he would be alone.
Onward, following the stream because he doesn’t have any
better guide. It’s been a wet season, and the stream is high between its
steep banks, tumbling over itself in its rush down to the flatlands.
“Don’t be in any hurry,” Ivanhoe tells it. The thornbushes
that grow along the water’s course tug at the legs of his pants as he
Soon enough he finds himself at the edge of a wide pool. He is
so tired that he actually stumbles into the pool up to his knees, almost sets
the cage in the water. He puts it down on the pool’s bank. The rooster
regards him balefully with its one good eye. “Ah, you’re all
right,” Ivanhoe tells it. He wishes desperately that he had some dry shell
corn in his pocket. Anything. Chickens, even stout battle stags like the Kelso
Yellow-Leg, cannot go long without food and drink. “You’re
okay.” He ducks his head beneath the surface of the water, to refresh
Under the water, the world is gray and cool and nearly silent,
and he stays there a moment, bubbles trailing upward from his nostrils and the
corners of his mouth. He floats, his heart straining, his lungs bucking against
the pressure that speedily builds in them. If he stays this way, he will drown,
or his heart will seize up on him. He waits a long moment, the whistling of his
blood’s need for oxygen growing in his ears, to see what will
The gray lifeless bottom of the pool. The swift ticking of
blood in his ears.
Ivanhoe bursts from the water, nearly weeping with relief as
air fills his lungs. He shakes his head, flinging droplets from his hair, and
finds himself confronted with a waterfall. Twenty feet high, the cataract drops
its riches into the upper end of the pool, cloaked by hepatica and trailing
vines. At its apex hang thin tongues of polished sandstone, as sharp as spears,
the water that spills off them a shimmering filigree of silver and air. The
sound of the falls is more like music than like roaring water.
Can Ivanhoe recall his mother at work on the petit-pointe? Theneedle, darting quick as a dragonfly, pricks her finger, and she brings it to
her mouth to suck the pain away. A drop of blood on the point of the needle,
blood in the weft of the cloth.
The waterfall pounds Ivanhoe. He’s underneath thecataract, behind it, and it crashes powerfully down on his shoulders and head.
The falls stand before him like a curtain, and he finds himself reluctant to
part the milky sheet of water. What lies out there? Vines and clematis, the
clear pool, the bog and the hemlock forest beyond—but what if all of that
is gone, or changed in some inexplicable way? He’s sure that the world has
contracted down to this one place, the hollow opening (like a tomb) in
the rocks behind the waterfall and him within it. He shivers with cold as a
shadow, a human shadow, passes ghostlike across the face of the water.
And she comes. He hasn’t dared to hope for such a thing,
not since he set out in the morning, but there she stands, under the falls with
him, the water plastering her hair—it’s no longer obscured by the
bandanna—to her shapely skull. She’s dressed as she was at
Pluskat’s, dungarees and a workshirt, wringing wet. She smiles at Ivanhoe
as though she’s unsurprised to find him there. He can make out the
pleasing shape of her breasts, her nipples, through the soaked material of her
shirt. He thinks of his dream beneath the hemlock, imagines her suckling him,
grows excited, his breath short.
Then she is next to him, subjecting him to brutal scrutiny.
Her warm breath touches his cheek. They are nose to nose, and as he looks at her
he discovers that it’s uncannily like looking at himself in a mirror. When
his eyes dart to the side, hers do likewise. When he steals a look down at her
body, she takes in his. A drop of water depends from the tip of her nose, and he
feels a bead forming beneath his as well. He laughs.
“I’m dreaming again, aren’t I?” he
asks. She shrugs her comely shoulders.
Ivanhoe thinks hard. He stands within the penumbra of the
falls, near the top of Irish Mountain. From the falls flows a nameless stream,
and the stream must empty into Drum’s Creek, which rolls past the game
farm into the Seneca River at the mountain’s base. The Seneca flows to the
Kanawha, which runs to the broad sluggish Ohio. The Ohio empties into the
Mississippi. The Mississippi in its turn empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and
the Gulf into the Atlantic Ocean. And all the oceans of the world open one into
“I’m dreaming,” he says.
And discovers himself clothed in shining feathers, plumage
that effortlessly turns aside the water that spills down over him. He feels the
battle stag’s heart beating within him.
The girl regards him warily. He fixes her with a golden eye,
clacks his beak. He is strong and proud and barbarous. She takes a step back.
“Will you hurt me?” she asks.
“I might,” he says. Her teeth chatter slightly,
but she gives no other outward sign of discomfort. Her hands hang at her sides.
Her skin, where he can see it, is dotted with a pleasing constellation of
freckles. Droplets of water gleam like pearls her hair.
“Turn around,” he tells her, his voice half human,
half a bird’s croaking caw. She turns and he drinks her in, the athletic
set of her shoulder blades (so like undeveloped wings), the aristocratic curve
of her spine, the soft, shadowed hollow at the small of her back. He imagines
sipping water from that hollow.
This must be the answer. This is why he has climbed the
mountain, to be here, to be strong beneath this waterfall with this girl. One
leap, one stroke of his powerful wings, and he will be on her, he will pin her,
drive her down before him, clasp her to him with his sunset-colored pinions,
thrust himself upon her, tear her clothes from her body, force himself inside
her. He has seen Snag’s gamecocks satisfy themselves on the hens so. How
many times has he seen it? And she will deny him nothing.
Screaming. Not the screaming of the girl. She has turnedentirely around now, she has shown him her whole self, and her mouth is closed.
The screaming comes from outside the enclosing waterfall. It is the crowing of
the forgotten Kelso Yellow-Leg.
Ivanhoe shudders. The voice of the Kelso comes from without,
but it’s loud, it comes from within too, it caroms off the stone behind
him and the water before, it’s coming from somewhere close by, it’s
coming from him, it’s coming from Ivanhoe’s own chest. The crowing,
on and on, tears itself from his lungs, from his panicked heart, ascends his
burning throat, issues from his open, upthrust beak. What a noise! The Kelso
Yellow-Leg asks, and Ivanhoe answers.
The torrent of the falls washes the feathers from his body,
sweeps them away. Each feather wrenches itself from his flesh with a flare of
pain, a flare repeated a hundred, a thousand times over in an instant; they rip
themselves free and drop down and float in the water at his feet. Each feather
leaves behind it a small, hot bubo, a tiny crater welling with his blood for a
moment, before the trickle of blood, too, is washed away. The feathers are
going, his head is stripped bare, his shoulders and his back, he watches in
horror as his long gangling arms reveal themselves beneath the molting feathers
of his once-powerful wings. Down his body the terrible sloughing-off goes, like
fire down the trunk of his body, along his limbs, his buttocks, his soft belly,
his thighs, his groin, until he is freezing, naked before the girl.
“Keep your eyes open,” the girl says. “I
want you to see this.”
The beak is the last thing to go, the sharp beak, it gives a
liquid shift like a loosening tooth, hauls itself awkwardly away from his face,
the pain unbearable but somehow beautiful too, as it pulls free of its
moorings—agony to feel it go, eyeball-rolling, wailing agony, but he knows
there will be relief when finally he sheds it. It hangs sideways for a moment,
like a cheap mask whose string has broken, and then at last the beak tears loose
entirely, first the bottom half and then the top, splashing into the
feather-strewn water at his feet, bobbing obscenely there.
What next? He feels terribly small, terrifyingly fragile. What
will go next? He raises his face as the water crashes down on him, fully alert,
and waits on the final dissolution, joint separating from joint, bone from bone,
sinew from sinew, flesh from flesh, until there is nothing left. The crowing of
the Kelso Yellow-Leg continues, but under the waterfall there is only the sound
of Ivanhoe’s frightened weeping.
Looking for his vanished boy, Snag hobbles as far asDrum’s Creek. He sits on the bank and, wretched, stares into the purling
water. His own strained face looks back at him from the dark rippling surface.
Then, crossing his image, a sudden flash of color. And another. A dozen, a
hundred. Where could they come from? A raft of brilliant color passing him on
the stream, numberless at first, and then fewer, and fewer still, only a couple
wheeling past in the swift current, one. Too late, Snag thinks to put his hand
out, take up one of the dripping feathers. They are past him, they are
Naked under the sky. She has led him here, stripped and frail.She climbed before him, nude, up the foaming cataract, the bird in one hand,
cradled against her ribs, her naked feet sure as a mountain goat’s on the
slick outcroppings. The sharp rocks cut his feet as he climbed, and he was
deathly afraid that he would fall.
She has brought him to the glade at the brow of the Irish
Mountain, brought him to the very center of the Eye of God. He’s stretched
out there in the predawn dark, and she’s beside him. He wants her with a
fierce ache, but his thin hide is unbearably tender with his recent flaying, and
for the moment their skin touches only lightly, at the knee and the wrist, along
their forearms. The cool breeze that sweeps over the mountain summit blows a
strand of her hair across his lips, and he tastes ocean foam.
No way for Ivanhoe to know it, but the Eye of God on which he
rests is in fact the ruined hulk of a three-hundred-foot-wide transit telescope,
erected on the mountaintop by scientists from the National Radio Astronomy
Observatory, to listen to the radio signals that emanate from the energetic
cores of quasars and pulsars: imperceptible entities a universe from this
deserted place. Abandoned now. He would not care if he did know. All he knows is
that it’s a gigantic tilting dish of steel, its white paint peeling from
almost two acres of surface. It’s smooth, and he’s lying on it with
Around them, a couple hundred yards below the peak of Irish
Mountain, an unbroken floor of clouds stretches away like the ancient ocean in
all directions to the horizon. The foothills are invisible beneath them, as
distant as the celestial bodies that the Eye of God was intended to spy out.
Undetectable: the chookyard, the foothills, Pluskat’s pit, Snag, and all
the rest of Ivanhoe’s old life, the entire waking world, drowned beneath
the cloud sea.
All drowned but the Kelso Yellow-Leg, a bit the worse for wear
but apparently in good spirits as it works its way along the scaffolding at the
edge of the great radio telescope, ululating and chuckling. It fixes its good
eye on Ivanhoe and the girl, who seem to be falling asleep beside each other.
Soon they will enter each other’s dreams. Soon her family will come, the
fearful ones. The others will come in due time, but for now it is only the girl
and the half-grown boy Ivanhoe, and that it just fine with the Kelso Yellow-Leg.
That is all right by the indomitable old butcher cock, who clings tenaciously to
the curved perimeter of the Eye of God, who ruffles his golden feathers, who
crows his defiance into the face of the rising sun.