He watches the boy on the steep rise above him. He is that boy and he is not. The boy is intent on the sky, a witch’s brew of swirling gray clouds. He is anxious, waiting. The boy. And him. For what, neither of them knows. The air smells not of the evergreen all around but of something foul. Diesel. Fire. A breeze blows across his face carrying a different smell, even more foul. Burning flesh. The boy holds a compound bow, complicated, powerful. An arrow is notched. The boy’s stomach is taut. His body knows something his mind does not, something terrible. The boy watches the sky, and he watches the boy.
The bird appears out of the dark boil of clouds. Wings spread broad, catching the wind. Curling in a wide arc above the hill. The bird—clearly an eagle now—lets out a screech. High-pitched. Then another.
The boy raises his bow.
The eagle circles, near enough that the boy can see details. Golden irises, saffron beak, long, dangerous talons. The eagle cries again.
The boy draws back the bowstring. Calculates trajectory, wind speed. Leads the bird. Takes a breath. Eases it out. Lets the arrow fly.
The great bird twists in an explosion of feathers. Tries to right itself. Begins to plummet.
The boy lowers the bow. Watches an egg drop from the eagle. Watches the eagle in its fall, lost among the evergreens. The boy stands still as death. He feels uncertain, as if there is still more to be done, but what that is he doesn’t know. He turns and stares down the hillside. At the young man who stares back. Him. And not him.
Neither of them understands.
Then the boy on the rise above him sees something, which he senses now at his own back. From the look on the boy’s face, from the way his eyes grow huge, he understands that what is behind him is enormous and terrifying and threatens them both. He feels its breath break against him, hot and hungry. He should turn, face this beast whatever it is, but he’s paralyzed with fear. The boy on the hill opens his mouth to cry out. At the same moment, he opens his.
The sound of their one scream wakes him.
The old man sat on the other side of the fire, listening. Old? He was ancient, with more years behind him than any living thing in the dark of that great forest—turtle, owl, deer, wolf, bear, all were children in comparison. The years, kind to no one, had done their best to weather his flesh, weaken his muscle, erode his bone. His body displayed none of the power and comeliness that had so marked it when the twentieth century was young. Time had etched lines long and deep into his face. His white hair hung over his shoulders in spidery wisps. The weight of ten decades of living had bent his spine, but only slightly. In the firelight, he appeared to be the ghost of a thing, not the thing itself.
And yet the young man who stared at him across the fire perceived only wisdom, only possibility.
“Many times you have seen this vision?” the old man asked.
“Many times,” the young man answered.
“That is all of it?”
The young man nodded. “All of it.”
“The eagle is sacred. Killing an eagle, that is a terrible thing.”
The fire popped. An ember leapt from the flames, landed on the jeans the old man was wearing. The old man gazed up at the stars and didn’t seem to notice.
“Your leg, Henry,” the young man said.
But the ember had burned itself out.
“And so,” the old man finally said, as if speaking to the stars. “Why now?”
The young man didn’t understand the question. “Why now what?”
The old man’s eyes came back to earth. “You tell me.”
The young man knew better than to press this elder, his mentor. He considered his reply.
“Now, because it worries me. It’s a portent, Henry. Something terrible is going to happen. My visions are always about terrible things. I’ve never had one that’s hopeful.”
“They have proven helpful,” the old man pointed out. Then he asked again, as if it were a new question, “Why now?”
“If you mean why have I come to you only now, it’s because I thought I could figure this out on my own. But I don’t have a clue. I need help, before it’s too late.”
The old man closed his eyes, looked as if he were about to sleep. Then, “Too late for what?”
“If I understood the vision, I would understand that.”
“Maybe so. Maybe not. Visions are tricky. They can be the thing itself, or the shadow of the thing.”
“If it’s only a shadow, why does it scare me so much?”
The old man took a stick from the fire, the end still licked by tongues of flame. He moved it toward the young man’s face. The flames came nearer and nearer, until the young man could feel the heat on his cheek, the fire only inches from his flesh. But he didn’t flinch.
“You are not afraid?” the old man asked.
“I believe you won’t burn me. Or if you do, there’s purpose in it.”
“A vision is like that.” The old man returned the stick to the fire. He stared deeply into the young man’s face, his eyes dark, hard, gleaming in the flickering light. “Who is the boy?”
“I’m the boy,” the young man answered. “And I’m not.”
“What is this beast that frightens you?”
“I don’t know. It’s behind me. I never see it.”
“And who is it you are afraid for, Stephen O’Connor?”
“For the boy,” Stephen answered. “And for me.” He leaned toward the old man. “And I don’t know why, Henry, but for you, too.”