In The Low Country

2 Dec

From the high ground the boy could see across the bay, into the crevasses of the land inundated by the cold, receding December water. There had been a drought that summer. The air smelled like salt and chimney smoke mixed with railroad carbon, and the wind pushed seagulls and herons and mockingbirds off their intertwining courses like some curmudgeonly puppeteer upset with the order of things and pulling defiantly on the strings.
“Tavi.”
The woman’s voice was carried up to the roof overlook by a pernicious gust, along with the smell of polenta and fried oysters.
“In a minute,” the boy yelled down.
“Tavi.”
“In a minute. I’m coming in a minute.”
His voice hurried across the water and faded out into the thin, sharp air reversing the course of the words. The gusts came in like blades and cut the tip of his nose at frigid, right angles. A dog barked. And barked again. The boy leaned toward the water, as if the extra three inches would provide a closer view. The shingled house with the rotund patio on the outer bank belonged to the Oblingers. It was a weird Victorian with windows resembling a cat’s eyes and at night it looked like a menacing bay keeper with glowing, yellow pupils, holding an oil lantern just aside, by his thigh.
“Tavi.”
The boy kept his eyes on the house. He did not answer again. Old man Oblinger opened the door and let the animal out. He was a retriever who nearly dragged his back legs in a sorry attempt at a walk. Oblinger followed just as feebly, leaning his weight carefully on a brown cane. The two of them struggled down the patio stairs and out into the brown grass that led to the water. Seagulls and pelicans began to crash land into the intracoastal waves, in anticipation of a feeding. Or scraps being dumped. The dog pulled himself toward the birds, giving in to instincts while Oblinger hobbled slowly to the shed. The boy watched through watering eyes from the cold lashes of wind snapping down onto the roof overlook. Birds of all sizes were squawking and diving periodically into the water, waiting for the old man to throw down fish guts. The dog pulled himself close to the water’s edge. Oblinger ducked out of the little wood house, holding a long Winchester. He made his way to the animal, coming from behind, agitating the sea birds into a circling frenzy. Floating gulls turned on one another, jockeying for a better spot. The retriever inched himself closer to the commotion, now snapping his yellow teeth, compressing the salty air between the mandibles. Oblinger let the cane drop to his side and took hold of the Winchester with both hands. He pulled back the bolt and the bullet entered the chamber. The dog began to bark at the capricious birds who were squawking a tremendous ruckus and batting the water with their wings. The old man took aim at the animal’s head. Tavi saw the recoil first, before he heard the sound. It was only a millisecond separating the two, but during that span, he was able to see the animal’s head bounce forward first from the violent concussion, then backwards, as the flesh matter ran furiously away in all directions. The birds twitched at the sound of the shot, their wings batting in a strange, tight unison, and took off briefly, before re-settling on the water, complaining loudly. Oblinger’s shot came violently and accurately, with minimal suffering, the boy thought. It was what he was taught by his father, shooting stray pigeons in the barn, in the summer. That a quick, accurate shot is the way to finish any business. Including your own, personal matters and patronage.
“Tavi.”
This time, the boy yelled back while extricating himself from the clutter of seafaring ropes and nets on the floor of the overlook, flying and flapping in the December wind. He looked one last time toward the spooky Victorian as Oblinger bent without haste and grabbed hold of the dead animal by his scruff. The birds twitched and squawked as Oblinger straightened and began to pull the carcass toward the front end of his property.

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