There were many names for them, used by them, but only one name which they were called by others, and that was simply ‘those folk.’ This title was uttered darkly, with god-fearing suspicion, and usually in the shadow of a bar when the conversation has worn thin, and the townsfolk need something to talk about other than Mrs. Petunia’s homosexual son (a person they were united by in their revulsion of.)
‘Those folk’ were well known-of but certainly not well-liked. Occasionally they came down from those mountain peaks they rested on, shouting about the wonders of the planet, and on those days the people of the town shuttered their blinds, locked their doors, and forbade children from wandering outside. They crossed their foreheads with holy water and lingered in their kitchens until the danger had passed.
For years and years, ‘those folk’ and their small-town Christian neighbors had been in a sort of war with each other, a war that each side was determined not to lose and that wasn’t really a war, to begin with, rather a splitting crosshair of ideas. Townsfolk would not go near, and therefore ‘those folk’-- or as they preferred to call themselves, ‘Those Who Wander,’ stayed tucked up in their temples and forests. They didn’t need to, really. What they wanted was being brought to them by their neighbors without lifting a finger. They reclined, and performed their duties, and danced in circles around flames, and some of them, when they were deep in the throes of their thoughts, wondered vaguely of what they used to be; but it wasn’t long until they were dragged up and dancing, and they were wild instead, wild and beautifully free.
There are stories, of course. Such things spark the interest of anyone interesting enough to have an imagination. What’s actually true but not fun to think about slips away slowly, until the false tales have filled the minds of every child in the town, and even some of the adults naive enough to believe them.
Children are wonderfully creative, more so than adults, because as a child nothing is impossible yet. I often subscribe to the theory that our dreams are our inner child inside, desiring to scream and laugh and pin what doesn’t make sense together into one big gloopy collage decorated with bits of macaroni from our craft-making days.
Chief among the packs of stories and storytellers was Newt Riggins, who was small in stature, with knobbly knees and a shiny bowl haircut his mother insisted he kept, and a pair of rectangular spectacles that he pushed up his nose before he began a really good bit. He had a bright red spot on his chin that he insisted was a burn from ‘those folk.’ Though a complete liar and a bit of a twad, Newt had the best stories for miles around, and even people older than he would silence themselves to listen when he began.
It’s unclear what Newt was; a bit crazy, perhaps. It certainly showed in his eyes, the way they shone pale silver when he began a tale or was getting to an especially gory part, usually about how ‘those folk’ cut up the genitals of young squirrels to toast in their fires worshipping… whatever they worshipped, it was never very clear. Newt’s only redeeming quality was his abilities with words, but lucky for him they were quite redeeming indeed. He was able to attract a small group of friends with mental capabilities high enough to realize that Newt Riggins on their side was better than Newt Riggins on someone else’s side-- but not quite high enough to exceed Newt’s own cognitive workings.
The story begins one hot afternoon when everything in town has been reduced to putty and people have vanished inside in hopes of drawing cool air from the walls of their homes by shutting the blinds as tightly as if ‘those folk’ were coming again, with their preachings and pamphlets and declarations.
Flies melt and drop in midair, where they get sticky on the petals of wilting daisies. A dog not long meant for this cruel, hot world pants in an alleyway, and people are wringing sweat out of their clothes through the windows. Ice and cool air is a distant dream, seated at the tempting and horribly far snow-topped peak of the mountain where ‘those folk’ live.
Newt holds court under an ugly and twisted apple tree while his friends pant, gazing up at the sky in fevered agony. He isn’t reduced to such configurations. Newt sits upright, recognizing both that it was a more powerful position and that thinking about how hot you were seemed to only make things worse.
“It’s a bird,” he says decisively.
“It ain’t, I’m tellin’ you,” argued Maybelle.
“Got to be,” Newt says. “Can’t think of anything else that would build nests like that. Look, there are bits of string woven in.”
“Mud, too,” insisted Maybelle. “And I know for a solid fact that birds ain’t usin’ mud in their nests. They use sticks.”
“Some of ‘em gotta use mud,” said Ellie, examining their object of interest and poking it with a skinny finger. “How else are they keepin’ their nests together? If I made somethin’ outta sticks, it’s gonna break in a few minutes.”
Cash snorted from where he lay, his arms flung over his head and tickling the stone-hard earth. He was the only one brave enough to lie with the anthills; the others, after seeing what had happened to little Stephie Miller one dark summer day, had chosen to take their chances with the tree. But Cash preferred to think himself a rebel, no matter how misguided this judgment might be.
“You’re a right idiot, Ellie,” he murmured. “Birds weave sticks, cause they have instincts and stuff.”
“That can’t be true, weavin’s harder than it looks and all they got is beaks,” said Ellie, an excellent point in the others’ opinions. Something occurred to her.“And I’m not stupid. Cash, you be a right evil bastard.”
Cash said that bastard was a bad word.
“But you called me stupid, so I say we’re even.” snapped Ellie, a flush lingering in her dark cheeks.
“A bird ain’t smart enough to bind their nests together anyway,” Maybelle said from above, dismissively, flicking a piece of bark at Cash’s ear and missing to her disappointment. “Birds got brains the size of a grape. Ain’t a lot a knowledge packed inside a grape.”
“S’not true,” said Cash, frowning at her over his stomach. “Birds have instincts, that’s what. They know how to build nests. Instinct’s much better than knowledge is, I tell you that.”
“Knowledge gets you to college,” says Ellie.
“Nah,” says Cash. “That’s instinct. College gives you the knowledge ya need, once ya get there. But not me, I’m plenty smart already.” To prove his point, he turned and spat into the grass.
“You disgust me,” Maybelle said primly.
“What’s the point a school, then, if all we need s’instincts?” Ellie asked.
Cash said he reckoned it was grown-ups’ way of getting them out of the house so they could do important grown-up things children didn’t need to be there for. “It’s all a sham,” he said, “so the parents can do taxes an’ dust your room an’-- an’-”
“Make babies,” suggested Ellie.
Maybelle wrinkled her pretty little nose and Cash asked how they did that.
“Dunno, but I reckon they gots to at some point, right? I never seen my parents make a baby while I was home so prob’ly while I’m at school.”
“Yes, but how?”
“I suppose it must involve both parties, somehow,” Newt said thoughtfully. “A man and a woman. Two forms come together to create one in a way imbuing the man with equal responsibility for a child, so he’s checked by his conscience from running off and abandoning the baby. Probably a messy experience. Maybe they chop off their own limbs, sew a few things together, then stick it up the woman so she can give birth.”
The others fell silent at this extraordinary announcement, but Newt returned his serene little gaze to the snowy mountains of ‘those folk.’
Cash took up the reins.
“My mum ain’t missin’ limbs, though.”
“Maybe she used to have a bunch, but they were all gone for children.” Ellie mused, plucking at a piece of crabgrass dying in the heat.
“Need a lot a limbs, then,” growled Cash. His mother happened to be the resident pregnant woman. There’s one in every town: the woman who has about a hundred squirming kids running around and no explanation of a father. Cash had about nine siblings that he knew of.
“Oh!” Maybelle said eagerly. “Maybe a lot like birds! The mummies and daddies jump around or somethin’ an’ the big belly is the egg waitin’ to be laid, now that makes sense.”
Cash and Ellie considered this, then Cash nodded his satisfaction. “Makes a lot a sense to me, I reckon.”
“Why ain’t mummies and’ daddies buildin’ nests then?” Ellie frowned.
“Maybe they do and we just don’t know about it,” Maybelle murmured.
There was a hushed silence in which all four children resolved to check for birds’ nests when they got home.
Newt spoke up again. “They worship birds on the mountain.”
Everyone looked at him eagerly.
“S’true,” said Newt, striking a formidable figure nestled in the crook of the apple tree, bowl haircut gleaming in the sunshine. “Birds are beloved on the mountain, the same way Timmy loves that parrot he has. Up there they preen the feathers of every songbird that passes by and keep baskets of bread on hand for when the crows are here ‘nnouncin murder. The same way Timmy feeds his parrot bits of crackers and tries to train it to take messages, that’s what they doing with their birds. Really, Timmy belongs up there.” he added mockingly.
“Why, though?” Maybelle asked, but quietly so as not to interrupt.
“Cause war’s coming,” breathed Newt, his grey eyes alight. “Third World War, ‘n all that. Those folk on the mountain know about it since mountains are so high up and they can see everything from up there. They can see the peoples in China amassin’ their big bombs, and they watch the Brits training up soldiers and they can see the Russians sending out services to spy on everybody. Those folk know everything.”
Cash frowned at a patch of dust in front of him, thin boy legs crossed. “Why do peoples always wanna fight?”
“People are people,” Newt answered, shifting in his tree crook, which was beginning to get uncomfortable. “To satiate our own egos and reassure ourselves of our own power, we take it out on our neighbors and make them fear us. Fear is safer than friendship because it stands no chance of being broken by someone else first.”
Cash mutters that that seemed like a silly reason.
“The birds love the folks on the mountain, cause they think they’re really nice an’ all that,” Newt continues. “But all the folk on the mountain want to do is to use birds-- train them-- cage ‘em up real tight and keep them to deliver messages when the End of Days comes by. Because there'll be a bunch of people stranded all over and humans need a way to communicate with each other. So all they’re doing is getting the birds ready for a great war destined to wipe us all out forever.”
“Huh,” says Ellie. “I didn’t know peoples were gonna be wiped out forever. Is it gonna happen soon?”
“Soon enough, I reckon, the day that China decides they’re sick a making everything for everyone else,” shrugged Newt, climbing higher from the fork of his tree branch. His skinny legs disappeared into the canopy of leaves above.
“Newt,” shrilled Maybelle. “You best not be fallin’ from there, I ain’t catchin’ yah, and your mum and dad are gonna be real mad if you break somethin’!”
“Oh, hush your mouth Maybelle,” Newt answered vaguely from somewhere above them.
Maybelle glanced furiously at the other two for help but they simply rolled their eyes at her. She could be annoying to hang out with, but she was also clever and pretty and had a lot of friends and in the trenches of elementary school, she was a good ally.
All of them were, really. In another world without Newt Riggins in it, the other three might have been destined to a future other than following someone else’s lead. It’s nice to imagine that world: Cash would have been the ringleader to a group of boys who enjoyed picking on Maybelle and her friends, Ellie would hold the record for the fastest sprinter in the school if she tried out instead of listening to tales of birds on the mountain. When ‘those folk’ came knocking, the other three would regard them with interest and make up their own stories, which while not as good as Newt’s would have been perfectly acceptable.
But now, instead, Newt Riggins stood at the top of an apple tree, hand resting on a branch, high up but not the sort of child who had a fear of falling. His small face was turned towards the mountains; his brain, large for a little boy, was churning and considering and coming up with new ideas.
Birds, he thought, considering the idea. It had potential.
He sniffed and climbed back down.