By Casey McConahay
The blades of the windmill were tapered like spear-points. They turned in laggard revolutions. As they spun, they made shadows on the dry, level land.
There were vultures to the east of the windmill.
He went toward the ditch where the birds were. He walked across furrows plowed last autumn, and dirt crunched beneath him. Nothing was planted yet. The field was yellow with butterweed, and he heard the thrum of the windmill, its turbine balanced on the tower like the yellow heads of butterweed flowers atop their hollow, knee-high stems. There were windmills in every direction. They were taller than anything he could see from his land—taller than the silos at the grain elevator or the steeples of the county’s churches—and they were whiter than aglime.
Shadows from the windmill moved in whirling ellipses. Shadows reached the birds at the drainage ditch—turkey vultures with black bodies and bald heads red like something swollen. He was close to the vultures. He walked by a raised tongue of plastic drainpipe, the barguard at the end of the drainpipe like a cage for small animals. He put a hand on the barguard, and when he was near enough to see the gray-brown eyes of the vultures, he extended his arms. He showed his width to the birds.
A vulture shook its dark wings like an answer.
He walked closer, arms raised. The vultures watched him, and after turning to one another as if to reach a consensus, they flew away from the drainage ditch. They looked perturbed, not frightened, but soared beyond where he could reach them. They wheeled not far from the windmill, their bodies chasing the slender, slashing shadows of the blades.
The vultures swooped above him as he came to the ditch, where the grass was as tall as his work boots. The grass was flat where the birds had been, and there were black tufts of down feathers where vultures had rested. The smell of death was around him—hot death, like something broiled in the sun—and he walked down in the ditch, where the water collected.
There were flies there. The ditch-air was rancid.
He stopped near the shallow dirt-brown water. A days-ago rain had made a marsh of the field, but this was all that remained of the rain—this dank swath of fescue: this small soggy ditch.
In the damp of the ditch, there were hog heads.
The tongues of the animals lolled from their mouths. The hogs had eyes like obsidian—black, glistening eyeballs. Their hair was pale-colored, bristly, and there were flies on their skin. Gem-green flies swarmed the pink, exposed meat.
When he backed from the drainage ditch, the vultures returned. They landed near the hog heads, wire-thin feet in the ditch water. He saw their hunched shoulders bob as they pecked at the hog heads.
He heard the blades slice the steady May wind.
. . .
Melody was at the sink. The kitchen smelled like lemon dish soap, and with her wrists in the foam, she told him:
—Not again, Morrison.
He stopped where he stood.
—Take those boots off. They go in the mudroom.
He worked the knots from the laces and threw the boots beneath the hooks that held his coveralls. A clump of mud that dried gray was on the floor in the kitchen, and when he bent to collect it, she took a plate slicked with soap from the dishwater.
—Well? said Melody.
He dropped the mud in the trash can.
—Not a deer, like you thought.
—Not a body?
She stood the plate on the drying rack. Water dripped from her hands, which she held near her waist, damp wrists pressing against the top of her hips.
He shook his head.
—Not a body, he said.
—Then what was it?
He went to the sink. Through the window above the faucet, he saw the windmill, the vultures.
—Hogs, he said. Not bodies. Just heads.
She took a fork from the water and inspected its silver tines.
—Heads? she asked.
—I found them. They were thrown in the ditch.
—More than one head?
—That’s right. There were three.
She cleaned the tines with a dishrag and put the fork in a basket with the rest of the silverware. Then she felt in the water, hands finding nothing but the steel of the sink basin and the top of the drain stopper.
—How’d they get there? she asked. Who’d leave heads in a ditch?
She pulled the drain stopper out. Wrung the dishrag.
He took the towel from the counter.
—The cuts were clean. Like a butcher’s.
—Was it Hal, do you think?
He put the towel in her hands.
—No. I doubt it. Hal sends his hogs away. He doesn’t butcher them.
—Were they his, though?
—I don’t know. They weren’t tagged.
Melody dried her hands with the towel. She wore a worn pair of work jeans, and there were stains on the knees from her work in the garden.
—I had to tag once, he told her. For a day. With some friends.
—Are they metal? The tags?
—They’re just plastic. You have a tagger—a punch tool. You hold the hog’s ear. And they squeal. And they fight.
—Does it hurt them?
He looked at a tear in her jeans—at a window to skin.
—It can hurt. If you miss, it can hurt them. You have to center the tag, but you can punch through a vein. Then they bleed. And the ear gets infected.
Melody put the towel on the counter.
—When we were finished, he said, I smelled like pigsties. Like hog farms. They all had the same smell. Muck to your ankles. Smears of muck on the hogs. I tried to scrub it away. Took a bath and a shower. But I could smell it—that smell—on my skin.
Outside, near the windmills, a pair of vultures like inkblots flew away from the ditch.
—Dawn called, said Melody. She’s coming over tonight.
—Did she say why?
—Something else with her boyfriend.
It was almost twilight.
—It’s the third time this week, he said.
—She’s my sister.
—You don’t like her that well.
—It’s not that.
. . .
Dawn wore sandals and cutoffs and earrings with feathers. She had a dreamcatcher set in ink on her thigh, and tracing the web of the dreamcatcher, she told her sister:
—We always fight. Me and Nick. And he’s gone all the time.
—But he’s working.
—We’re never together. When he’s home, I don’t see him. He’s out in the shop.
—He bought that house, though. He bought it for you.
Melody sat beside him on the sectional. She put a pillow beneath her elbow—a green pillow with fringe along the seams. Dawn told her:
—We don’t go out anymore. Not on dates or vacations.
—We don’t either. And we have fights, too.
He watched Dawn’s hand touch the dreamcatcher. Her legs were on the arm of his favorite recliner, and crossing her legs at the ankles:
—I can’t talk to him, she said. When I try, he gets mad.
—But you leave. You come here. That’s not better.
—If I stay, I’ll be mean. I’ll get angry.
Melody frowned at her sister. Dawn, who looked away from her, touched an earring—a feather. It wasn’t a vulture feather, certainly. Maybe pheasant. Maybe partridge.
She closed her eyes.
—I don’t know what I want.
. . .
He turned off the lamp on the end table. The only light in the living room was the glow of the television set, and as a newscaster reported on a dispute at a city council meeting, he leaned back in his recliner.
Melody was with her sister. They talked in the guestroom, but their voices were soft beneath the noise of the television. He listened anyway. They sounded calmer, he thought. He couldn’t see down the hallway.
His chair smelled like Dawn—like her body.
When the weather forecast started, he heard a door close and lock. He heard a faucet. The loud rush of water.
He reached for the remote.
The weatherman was a slim, balding man in a suit that barely fit him. He stood before a map of the region, and as he gestured with one hand at the lake to the north, Melody sat on the sectional.
—Will it rain soon?
—Not sure. Hasn’t said yet.
The weatherman changed maps. A radar image showed a small green amoeba crawling languidly eastward.
—Morrison, what are you thinking?
He ran a hand along the arm of his chair.
—There’ll be coyotes, he told her. At the ditch.
Melody folded her hands between her knees—between the stains on the knees of her work jeans.
—Dawn’s in the bathtub. She’s staying over again.
—Is she better?
—I think. Just uncertain.
They sat together until the newscast was over. When she stood from the sectional, she kissed him on his forehead.
—Thank you, she told him.
He watched her walk from the living room. He turned the television off, and then the room become dark.
He heard Dawn in the bath. She was humming.
. . .
The fan overhead made a ticking sound. He hadn’t mounted it well, and it wobbled as the blades spun.
Melody was turned away from him, sleeping. Her curled body was sickle-shaped, and the air from the fan stirred her hair on the pillow—made it dance though her body was still.
He looked beyond her, at the clock. Her hips were shrouded by bedsheets. The bump of her hips hid the time.
When he rose, the fan ticked like something caught in a bike spoke. He found his clothes on the carpet. He carried his clothes through the door, and when he left the room, he saw a light down the hallway—a light in the kitchen, where Dawn was. He heard her. He dressed on the way.
Dawn had pickles. Some crackers. A Fresca.
She ate at the counter.
—Is she sleeping?
—It’s late, Dawn.
—You always have pickles.
—Those are hers. I let her get the groceries.
Dawn took a spear from the pickle jar.
—Is it over? he asked her. With Nick?
The pickle crunched when she bit it.
—I don’t know, Morrison. I don’t know what to do.
—What did Melody say?
—She said wait.
Dawn took a sip of the Fresca.
—I don’t want to wait, Morrison. But I’m not sure. Things could change.
—You should do what you want.
—What would you do?
He reached for her Fresca. The can was cool against his fingers, and he drank. It was crisp.
—Maybe Melody’s right.
—Do you think so?
She put the crackers in the cupboard.
—You can’t keep coming here, he told her.
—She’s my sister. I know.
—If you stay with him—
—Maybe I should.
She took the Fresca from him. She drank what was left and put the can in the sink.
—Are you done, he asked Dawn, with the pickles?
He put the lid on the pickle jar. Dawn was turned away from him, and when she reached for the light switch, he put the jar in the fridge.
—Will you come, please? she asked him. Tonight?
He glanced at the dishes in the drying rack.
When she walked to the guestroom, he followed.
. . .
The mattress in the guestroom was narrow and pitted. It was Melody’s mattress—a mattress that had traveled with Melody from the shabby efficiency she’d rented through college—and there were grooves in its center where she’d slept.
Dawn raised a leg from the mattress. It was the dreamcatcher leg. She bent the leg at the knee. He thought it looked like a bridge.
They had the lights on. They’d left their clothes near the door.
Dawn put her head against his shoulder. Her hair felt coarser than Melody’s, and her legs were more rigid, but there were parts of the sisters that were indistinguishable. The differences were subtle things. How their bodies were used. Different sounds.
He reached toward the dreamcatcher. She moved to let him touch it, and as a finger circled the dreamcatcher’s frame, he told her:
—I need to leave soon.
—I know that.
There was sweat on her skin.
—We can’t do this again. Now it’s over.
She took his hand from her leg.
—We always say that, she told him.
—I mean it.
He stayed a while longer. When she hid her face with the pillow, he stood from the mattress. He turned the lights out. He collected his clothes.
He walked through the kitchen, the living room. His home’s rooms were foreign at that hour, and though he knew where the furniture was placed, he stubbed a toe on an end table. He collided with the sectional.
The rooms were red every second or so with the lights in the distance. The lights were mounted on the turbines to alert passing pilots to the windmills, the blades, and they flashed simultaneously as if the lights shared a pulse.
Somewhere in that crimson darkness—somewhere in the cool, marshy damp of a drainage ditch—a set of heads waited rotting for coyotes, for vultures. There were flies on what remained of them, and the heads wore grim, gruesome smiles as they were eaten by scavengers.
The windmills—their lights—shouted redness. There were hundreds of lights. There were lights across his county.
He could not see the lights from the bathroom.
He turned the showerhead on before he stepped in the bath. The mirror steamed as he waited, and when he entered the shower, the water’s heat stung his skin. He stood with his back to the showerhead. Water rained on his body and on the tub’s slick ceramic. It struck the doors of the shower—doors clouded with cream-colored soap scum—and it ran on a slope toward the drain.
He could smell her—smell Dawn—in his hair, on his body. He smelled her mouth. Smelled the scent of her skin.
He touched the soap against his chest. The bar was clean, white, and blocky, but even after he soaped himself thoroughly—even though he soaped every centimeter—he could smell it. That smell. His skin was pink from the scrubbing.
Water fell on his head. On his shoulders.
He used a washcloth. Conditioner. In the morning, he thought, he’d go back to the ditch. He’d bring a shovel. He’d scatter the vultures. Then he’d bury the heads in the weeds.
His skin was rank with the scent of her. He put a hand against the shower door. Water streamed down the drain.
The smell was hogs, he thought.
His skin stank of hogs.
Casey McConahay is an MFA candidate at Miami University. He lives in Northwest Ohio.