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Avian Theories

Learning the ropes of the family business ain't easy. Especially when those ropes are usually used to string up your enemies.

Welcome to the show, little nephew.

Avian Theories by Isaac Kirkman




As the monsoon rains pummeled down, Marcus’s uncle, Antwan, navigated the Cadillac slowly through the barrios, as they made their way to the outskirts of the city. Marcus sat silently. Each time he caught his uncle beaming at him with pride, he would glance up at the mirror to make sure his own face remained cool.

It was his fourteen birthday, his coming of age party, his initiation into the family business.

He took a swig from the pint of cognac; a slow burn spread through him. He wiped his mouth and settled his hands upon the duffle bag in his lap. His uncle smiled, took a few more turns into a dark area fortified with cacti and mesquite trees and turned off the car.

As they stepped out of the Cadillac and into the rain, Marcus held tightly to the duffle bag while his uncle put his arm around him. All night Antwan spoke of teaching him what his own uncle had taught him: the wrist twists for hot dice games; the right application of boot pressure to collapse clavicles; that Santa Muerte could answer the prayers God wouldn’t.

And, above all, he would teach him that emotion and women were more destructive to money than silverfish.

They made their way past the walls of mesquite trees into the moon-lit clearing. Before them bound and gagged, their captive kneeled, his face swollen into abstraction. Marcus’s older cousins, dressed in black masks and hoodies, surrounded them.

Antwan motioned for his nephew to open the bag and set up. Marcus bent down, removed from the duffle bag a makeshift gag made from adjustable leather straps and a hunter's bird caller, and handed it to his uncle. It was designed so when a person was gagged and screamed, the only sound heard was that of a bird.

The cousins took turns grabbing their own bird callers from the duffel bag and proceeded to spread out into different corners of the perimeter. That way, any out of sight neighbors would assume the racket was a flock of migrating birds fleeing through the rain.

While his uncle called the man’s family, Marcus stood between the bloody figure and the open trunk of his cousins’ car, straining to focus on the man’s face. The cognac had his vision contorting. As his uncle calmly said hello into the receiver, Marcus’s eyes slid from the man’s face, a kaleidoscopic of blood and swollen meat, down to his jersey that covered his thin torso.

Which is when he realized their victim was no man. It was a boy. His classmate, Miguel.  
His uncle spoke softly, his voice quivering with restraint. “Our associates have your son and if you do not have the money in an hour we will kill him. You think a kilo can just disappear without being noticed?”

Antwan turned the cell phone camera on, pressed his thumb over the speaker and handed it to his nephew. “Now, here is your moment. I need you to keep the camera on him,” he said, showing his nephew how to point and shoot. “Keep your hand steady. And make sure you cup the top of it with your hand, enough to keep the lens dry but not so much you block it.”

Marcus pulled the hoody over his head, softly sweeping his hair as he did it. He took the cell phone from his uncle. Marcus bent down and positioned the camera phone so Miguel and his father could see each other.

“Say hello to your father,” Antwan said, removing a hammer from the bag. 

Miguel, face too swollen to see, choked up at the sound of his father’s voice. He sobbed, “Dad, Dad, please help me, please…”

Antwan snatched Miguel by the throat and bent his face down into the mud. “That’s enough,” Antwan said. “Anymore and I shoot you.”

As Miguel rose up Marcus wiped the mud from his face with his hand and began to strap the bird call gag around him. Through swollen slits Miguel stared at his captor, eyes widening in recognition and silent pleading. Marcus paid no heed as he clinched Miguel’s jaws together just as the boy tried to speak, leaving only a wheeze whistling through the binding. Then Marcus connected the leather straps around the sides of his face and tightened it around the back until the notches fit snugly.

On cue with the boys’ avian whistle cries, the cousins synchronized their bird callers. A flock had landed. The first blow of the hammer shattered Miguel’s knee into pieces, the second, into dust. A cacophony of bird screeches swelled up through the lightning-ruptured sky. 

With each blow to Miguel, Marcus’s muscles wrenched tighter, his knees sinking deeper into the mud, his hands though remained steady.

Only when Miguel’s body collapsed and his face amalgamated with the wet earth did the blows stop. On the tiny screen Miguel’s father was folded into a tear-shaped prayer, his hands thrusting stacks of cash forward. When Antwan took the phone from his nephew’s hand, the weight of the universe was lifted. Marcus legs felt weightless, but his arms felt like spires rooted in concrete.

His uncle spoke into the phone: “I am glad we could come to an understanding, a car should be arriving any minute.” He snapped the fliptop closed, rolled Miguel’s unconscious body over and removed the gag so he could breathe.

“You did good, Marcus,” his uncle said. “I’m proud. Your Pops would have been proud too.” He flashed a smile at his nephew while he briskly got his things together.

As they left the scene he wrapped his arm around Marcus. “Don’t worry about the clean-up, your cousins have that taken care of.” 

Enthroned in moonlight, they made their way to the Cadillac. Marcus got in, uncertain whether he felt stoic or numb, while his uncle, started the car, clearly feeling jubilant. “So where you want to eat?”

As they pulled away, his uncle turned up the music, and Marcus watched the path to the clearing disappear. As it grew distant, he heard a single gunshot echo in the valley and the sound of birds crying out.



Born in Greenville, SC, and currently living in Arizona, Isaac Kirkman is a student at the Tucson branch of the Philip Schultz founded Writers Studio. He is also a founding member of the Low Writers collective. His brain is what happens when Southern Kudzu crossbreeds with a Sonoran Monsoon.