Subho, Werewolf Birdwatcher
"Lay off the soju, Subho."
"No really, I barely drank anything last night. Was it you though? For real, come on...you did it, right?"
"Ha ha no. Subs, I totally didn’t. Yeah, I mean, oh yeah, I completely drove all the way to Pohang from Busan last night, broke into your place while you were passed out wasted—"
"I wasn’t wasted last night. Jim, I honestly don’t even—"
"...so you were totally passed out, friggin’ got hammered, yeah, whoaaa. And so I snuck in and stole the memory card out of your...no, ha ha, I guess I straight up stole your whole camera, went out at dawn and went birding and took pictures of...what were they? Daurian Starlings? And then—"
"Chestnut-cheeked Starlings. Breeding-plumaged adults. Three."
"Riiight, right. So I went in and got pictures of Chestnut-cheeked Starlings, then...oh, with your camera, then busted in and put it back and left? Is that what I did Subs? Ha ha."
"So...you didn’t? I mean, I didn’t take them, and I even checked the metadata embedded within the—"
"Oooh, CSI Subho. No, CSI Pohang, starring Subhojit Chaphekar as the computer guy that solves everything with his crazy computer hacking, hacking into the embedded metadata with his crazy skill—"
"Hey look, I did not do these, I did not take these images. I mean, they’re great...sun at the back, pin-sharp focus on the eyes, no wasted shots, the birds don’t seem disturbed by the photographer...I mean Jim, I wish I took these images. It’s a rare record anyway, right? Chestnut-cheeked Starlings on the Korean mainland in summer...means breeding."
"Yep, it does have to strongly suggest breeding. Too late for spring migration, even late ones, and way early for fall migration for Chestnut-cheeked."
Jim, a lanky 39-year-old South African, affected a serious tone in a hurry. He usually did when it came to discussing Korean rare bird records with other members of the Korean Bird Conservation Society, a small NGO that united about a dozen birders and conservationists in South Korea, mostly foreign.
"I think...like...gosh, Subs, I think there’s only been one or two oversummering CC starling records claimed in Korea. I gotta check...(Subho heard a keyboard tacking)...hang on, I can just...yes. Yes. So Roh Myeong Nam, ha ha, that friggin’ guy, claimed one juvenile on Goga Island in July of...2004. July, which means breeding. No picture. And there’s only...one. Only one other claim of a summering bird, also July, on Gangwha Island, in 1998...by some Korean I’ve never heard of...and…no picture! Subs, you’ve really got something there, a really cool record. First properly documented record of oversummering CC Starling for Korea. Well, for South Korea. Do they breed up in the North? Not sure. Send me the pics, man. You gotta write a report today and put it up! This is your best record since those Scaly-breasted Munias you found when you lived on Jeju. Third summer record for Korea those ones?"
"Heh heh ooh, sorry yeah. Second. Y’know, I think this could be better, more important. Cuz they’re, it’s a breeding...they’ve gotta be breeding down there, right?"
"Yes, but Jim, I didn’t take these pictures."
Subho groaned and stretched, then padded his way to the other side of his shoebox apartment and stopped at the footwear area by the door.
"Yeah, Subs, yeah you did, man. You got shit-hammered and went birding and got a sweet bird, sweet record. You’re really—"
"Shit, I...Jim, maybe I...did?"
Subho kicked over his hiking boots with his bare big toe. They were caked in mud, and bits of grass and weeds. He stooped and pinched some of the mud between thumb and forefinger, as if examining an interesting snot formation when no one was watching. The mud was still wet. He noted his ankles were scratched up. He must not have laced up his boots properly. He clomped off the mud then threw them out onto the balcony to dry in the sun.
"My boots are all muddy. I...guess I did? I did go birding." Subho leaned on the door-frame, exhausted.
"Ha ha of course you did, you drunk. Now go out, no, heh heh, take a big ol’ shot of soju first, and then go out and find those birds and get some more pictures. And find the nest while you’re at it."
"Yeah, but I have no clue where they were," Subho muttered, looking through the doorway past the clothes drying on the narrow wraparound balcony, to the shimmering bright green hills beyond.
"Okay, I gotta go," Subho blooped the call to an end, as air raid sirens went off in the village to announce what was surely another "preparedness drill."
"Friggin’ weirdo," Jim sigh-smiled. "Ha, good ol’ Subho."
* * *
Subho runs faster than he has in years. The greenery to his sides blurs into horizontal pastel smears. His vision locks only on what is ahead of him, a constricting funnel, bright, focused, and clear in the center. He leans forward and runs faster still, using his arms first to swat a clear path through the foliage, then to stabilize his inclined upper torso and help propel him forward. His legs are streaks, without feeling, and his fingertips bite deeper into the warm soil as he leans farther still. The green around him turns orange, and Subho is now loping along the path on four powerful limbs. Then the stained glass orange peripherals ebb to a translucent scarlet, as his senses light up in the wake of his quarry. Small. Flying. Meat. He pushes his head down and runs ever faster, his back limbs passing his front ones, in the style of a cheetah. The bird comes into view within his narrow tube of vision, glowing yellow. Faster, faster, get it...bird...he can taste the bird, its tail feathers tickling his curled lips. He lunges forward, an unstoppable force.
* * *
Subho opened his eyes with a grunt. With a rock of his hips he half-rolled stiffly to retrieve his phone from the bedside table.
"Umff...four twenty-three? Aww, fugg."
At that advanced hour of the afternoon, Subho’s Sunday errands were largely a write-off, and he was now genuinely concerned for his health, both physical and mental.
I’m passing out...I’m a narcoleptic, I’m going and...running around the woods...birding...doing some excellent birding, mind you, and now, yup, great, I’m bleeding.
He licked his lips and tasted the crusty dried blood — coppery, just like in the books. He reached up and rubbed away the crimson crumbs with the back of his hand.
"Ow," he winced and checked his lips carefully with tongue and index finger. His upper lip was torn and ragged in several spots, and he had a nosebleed to boot.
"That explains the blood. So, I’m biting my lips now too, eh? Man alive, my mother would freak out right now."
He tried on a cavalier laugh, like the one he’d seen Jim roll out when times got tough.
"Laugh it off, okay."
Subho took a slow, hitching breath, then froze. His boots were back in the tiled shoe alcove, one upright, one lying on its side. Both were covered in wet mud and grass again. His spine tingled fight-or-flight. His eyes scanned the room frantically from the immobile pillbox of his body. His camera was not on the desk where he had left it. After several seconds he located it visually, perched precariously half-off the kitchen counter by the door.
He closed his eyes, then opened them slowly. Before he could think it through, he stalked over and popped the memory card out of the camera, then slid it into his card reader and lifted his laptop open. He remained standing, dancing from foot to foot. Within seconds, Open folder to view pictures popped up.
"Yep." Click. His tongue involuntarily played over his tattered upper lip...Subho’s eyes grew wide in tense anticipation...hour glass...thumbnails, then images flashing into being, two or three at a time. His bottom jaw fell open.
Subho tumbled onto his bed.
"This is...it...is happening again."
* * *
Subho knew that it had returned — the night feeling, the dark walks from his youth. He wasn’t asleep, or dreaming, or having visions. He was deep in memory now, back in India, profoundly in the past. He was 11 again, and he had just found a dirty bundle of five rolled-up 500 rupee notes (rough equivalent of 50 dollars today), trapped under a newspaper in the gutter, on the chaotic streets of Govandi, a dusty, sweltering suburb of Mumbai. The fantastic thing about it was that he had set out that morning with the explicit idea in his head that he would find the 500 rupee notes trapped under a newspaper in the gutter, just like in his dream the previous night. He had even informed his parents of his very peculiar and specific dream, and they’d laughed when he had scampered out on his treasure hunt.
Their smiles dropped, however, when Subho returned 20 minutes later, beaming and waving the rumpled notes around as he entered the modest front yard. It was more money than he had ever held, the equivalent of three weeks’ salary at his father’s office at the train station.
Subho flinched on the bed as he recalled the unholy beating that had followed at the hands of his father, while his mother held him down.
"Thief! You little thief! We never raised a thief! Where did you steal this money from? Oh, my sweet Vishnu, how did we go wrong and raise a dirty lying thief?"
Subho’s grandmother yelled from a back room, "Wait, it’s not his fault, he is like his grandfather, remember what he is, a Yaksha can’t—" but they ignored her screeching pleas. Throughout the beating, Subho had pulled back into his mind, recalling the money dream, how clear it had been, how easy the money had come to him. A mantra of sorts sizzled through his thoughts, even as the bamboo switch rained cracking pain upon his backside and hands: "If only I could know exactly where and when people would lose money, I’d never have to work a day in my life...just follow them...pick up their money...find it in my dreams..."
Soon thereafter, all sparks of such an unconventional business plan were smothered when he was shipped off to the notoriously strict Shri Bhavan Preparatory School in the distant Uttar Pradesh countryside, at a cost that must have consumed a decent bite of his parent’s savings, he calculated much later in life. The discipline there was harsh, no time for daydreams. The 24/7 pressure to become a worker drone commandeered the pubescent hormones that flooded his system, and molded him into a studious, albeit timid and uncreative, member of Indian society by the time he graduated at age 19.
Subho cupped his hands over his face. He felt painfully insecure, an uncomfortable sentiment he hadn’t grappled with since the days before the dreams began all those years ago. Subho was again finding treasure in his prophetic dreams. But not without cost, he noted with disgust, as a fresh double-barreled nosebleed erupted, and he again tasted blood in his throat. He plugged up his nostrils with toilet paper sausages, tied his boots on tightly and tucked his pants into the tops, no scratched-up ankles this time, then lay back down in bed. As his eyelids drooped in the bright early evening sun, he licked his lips rawer still and flicked though his Birds of Korea field guide, pondering which rare bird he wanted to find next.
* * *
Dr. Neal McCann, the English 50-something director of the Korean Bird Conservation Society, whispered in reverent, if suspicious awe.
"It’s like he knows just where these bloody birds are going to be. Exactly where they’re going to be."
"I told you something crazy was up. Like, I was joking that he was going out drunk and doing it, finding this shit, because first he said he didn’t remember taking the pictures, and—"
"And now he does remember taking them, hmm?"
"Yeah, he says he must have taken them, but is this legit, Neal? Do you think these records are real, possible? Or is he stringing up old pics he got in India or Malaysia or wherever? He’s done a few birding trips down there, he totally could’ve gotten some of this stuff down there. I mean, White-bellied Green Pigeons? Nesting? In Pohang? There’s been what, like five, six records for them ever, in all of Korea, and those were all vagrant birds, single birds?" Jim pondered.
"You said the metadata on the images matches up to the date? I don’t think you can fake that, I mean, he is in Korea right now, correct?"
"Yep, I Skyped him this morning. He was in his apartment, he’s definitely in Korea. Maybe he hacked the metadata? He’s a smart computer guy, maybe he did that."
Neal and his protégé Jim huddled over Neal’s laptop, scrolling through Subho’s latest astonishing bird news report from Pohang.
"I don’t get it," grumbled Neal, "That patch he lives in hasn’t ever yielded records like this before. I mean, I’ve birded there a dozen times over the years. Park Kyu Shik lived there for a decade and never found anything like this. This is unprecedented. It really is like he knows just where these impossibly rare birds are going to be. Where did you say he found these pigeons again?"
"Nesting pigeons, Neal. He found nesting White-bellied Green Pigeons. Another first confirmed Korean breeding record."
Neal sighed. "Yes, I know. How many is that for Subho now? Crazy records. In just the past month?"
"Five. No wait, with the Black Drongos from Tuesday, that’s six. Did you see—"
"Yes," Neal sighed harder, almost comically, "I saw the images. Perfectly lit, should be on the cover of the bloody Fortktail. Yes, I saw them."
* * *
Subho’s hands sting, and he’s sprinting through the dream-hazed underbrush again. Branches hit him in the face, scratching hot. He’s running on all fours again, but not with the abandon of his previous forays. He can slow down if he wants, stand upright on his back limbs for brief stretches, look around, remember details. He is learning how to navigate, take control.
Big green and red gazebo...cliff...careful...hurt hands...down the cliff...hang on to the trees...the nest is here...get...the bird...running fast again...big animal...cow, goat...yelling...Korean man yelling...why...make him stop...run...yelling...
"If only I could know exactly where and when people would lose money, I’d never have to work a day in my life...just follow them...pick up their money...find it in my dreams..."
* * *
The man pounded on Subho’s front door, repeating: "Hey, open the door foreign guy, heyyy, open the door foreign guyyy!" in his baritone Korean rumble.
Subho shot upright. He had slept on the floor, apparently. Fresh blood trickled from his nose, coursing through the canyon of congealed blood on his upper lip and cheek. He licked his lips, freshly shredded, great.
"Hey, foreign guyyy," Pound pound pound.
"Yeah yeah, okay okay," Subho replied in creditable Korean. He stood up and went to the sink to splash water on his face, no reason to answer the door covered in blood. His palms burned, ripped up. The cliff. His fingertips were also bloodied, but...was that blood under his nails? Hot panic.
"Hey, foreign guy, police here, open the door now for the police!"
Subho scraped under his nails. The blood...not mine? Shit. Something tickled his peripheral vision as being out of place. Subho glanced over at the floor, and saw a large dark brown ear that looked like it had once belonged to a small horse, or perhaps a goat. His stomach solidified, and felt like a bowling ball in weight and density.
More pounding on the door. Muffled, urgent conversation between several men right outside.
Subho stood over the ear and squinted. It was jagged where it would have been once attached to the animal’s head, the seam colored the dark ochre of coagulated blood.
A new voice at the door. His boss.
"Subho? Hey Subho? Hey, we are coming inside."
Without thinking, Subho picked up the ear with his thumb and fingertips, and flung it at a narrowly opened window. The ear wobbled in a frisbee trajectory, hit the window frame and fluttered straight up in the opening of the window in slow motion. It landed back down on the sunny sill, clear for anyone in the apartment to see.
The sound of jangling keys made Subho’s testicles rocket up into his lower abdomen. His eyes bounced around the room in search of an escape. A key scraped into the lock and someone tried the doorknob.
I’m dead. Wrong key! You have five seconds left, Subho.
Subho grabbed the corner of a pillow and lunged across the room. Another key grated home into the lock, and he saw the inner lock turn. He whipped the pillow at the window. The door opened. The pillow struck the window sill dead on, sending the ear spinning into the herb garden below. Subho’s momentum carried him forward towards the door, inches from it as it swung open. He licked his lips and extended his right hand with the follow through from the pillow toss, and shook hands with the first man through the door, his boss.
* * *
In the half-second that it took to shake his boss’ hand, Subho took in the other two men: a grey-jacketed police officer, and a visibly angry old timer. His thoughts, however, were 1.4 kilometres away. A flipbook of paused images played back behind Subho’s eyes.
Running, that gazebo, falling, sliding, ripping hands, the bird, oh, is that my camera? I’m a cheeky one. What bird did I get now? Running again, fence, yelling, animal yelling, attacked me, hands, on animal’s face, those funny rectangle eyes, bulging, what am I doing...what did I do? Yelling man, running, scrambling straight up a cliff, hello gazebo thing again....
"Huh? Hey? Subhojit, I was telling this officer that uh, we never have any trouble with you at work. I tell him you good Indian guy. No big drinking, or the crime and trouble in the bars, eh? Like other Indian guys, eh?"
Subho’s boss, tall, shiny-faced Mr. Rhie, was really singing his praises. Never seen him do that before, ha ha. The young cop stood between him and the angry old man, who assumed the "hold me back" posture several times, forcing the cop to lazily fake restrain him with one arm. The two men pleaded their contrasting accounts of Subho’s character to the silent cop, who gave off the unambiguous vibe that he’d rather be anywhere else just then.
"Geeshikya waygookin akma!" The man spat, and Mr. Rhie began to give a running translation of his slurred invective with a sigh, in spite of his knowledge that Subho spoke solid Korean.
"Son of a dog bitch foreigner devil, he attacked my goat and killed it! Right in my son of a bitch field, and...and he was running like this, like an animal, like a son of a dog devil."
The old man stooped over and did a decent job of miming a four-legged animal, loping a quick circuit around the small apartment. At this, Mr. Rhie turned to the cop with suspicious, raised eyebrows, and performed his own mimicry, placing his thumb to pursed lips and taking slugs from an imaginary bottle. The old farmer did in fact smell thickly of soju, the 20% vodka that was Korea’s beloved national addiction. Concentrated soju seeped from the pores on the man’s face, which was contorted into a mask of naked contempt.
"And he...I’ve seen him before you know, this monkey devil. He ripped off my goat’s ear. I’ve seen him before, he, he came and stole my wife away, the devil, this fucking monkey devil."
The farmer kicked a chair over amid a fresh flurry of profanity, and actually did need to be restrained this time. Mr. Rhie and the cop bulled him back towards the door with straight arms, palms on his chest.
"I know you’re a devil monkey, foreigner, I saw you run like a dog, I’ll, I’ll kill you with my shotgun! You fucking dog baby—"
The threat of death by gunshot provoked a stronger reaction, and the two men, with the cop doing the heavy lifting, locked up and twisted the man’s arms behind his back and bum-rushed him outside. A classic Korean shouting match ensued down in the courtyard for several minutes, before the old drunk staggered inches past the goat’s ear that lay conspicuously among the garlic shoots. He shuffled homeward, still spewing high-pitched and colorful threats.
By the time the cop and Mr. Rhie came back, Subho’s mind had cleared, although it didn’t take much conniving to solidify his defense. The old farmer’s performance had been more than enough. He was demonstrably a crazy old drunk, and he’d probably sliced off his goat’s ear all by himself, that case wouldn’t be a hard one to argue.
Mr Rhie had already clued into this defensive tack. The cop was smiling and laughing when he re-entered Subho’s apartment. This was a sign of unease in Korea, a display that often served to confuse newcomers to the peninsula.
"Subho, this is the same farmer who yelled at you when you walked down the road when you coming to work? He’s crazy guy, Subho, I know you didn’t kill goats," his boss gushed, as if a proud grandfather at a Bar Mitzvah.
"Yes Mr. Rhie, that’s right. He...did he just say I killed his goat and was running like...this or something?"
Subho did a comical stationary mime of the old man’s demon monkey run routine, careful to do it clumsily, so as not to demonstrate an over-familiarity with the motion. Everyone chuckled at his performance.
"Don’t worry Subho, we know that’s a crazy, crazy guy."
Mr Rhie briefed the cop on how the farmer had hated Subho from day one, and how his land lay astride the one small road that ran between Subho’s apartment and the medium-sized factory that in which cell phone speaker subassemblies were assembled. Subho was the daytime quality control manager there, in charge of a team of Indian and Sri Lankan engineers. When he noticed Subho pass by his land on his daily foot commute, he took issue with the dark-skinned foreigner, accusing him of a varied and imaginative array of transgressions, culminating with an apparently successful conspiracy to steal away his wife two months earlier.
The poor woman had in fact left him and gone back to live with her extended family on the small island off Incheon where she had been born, after enduring over 35 years of a particularly heinous brand of physical and mental abuse. Since her departure, the old man had become dramatically more unhinged than was his norm. If he was awake, he was drunk.
The cop, with an apologetic wince-shrug, talked directly to Subho in simple Korean.
"Okay okay, I’m sorry, okay? This man is crazy. He...not his fault, he very, very sad, so drunk. I’m sorry."
Then, to Mr. Rhie, "And he can’t have his shotgun, we will keep it. It’s all okay."
In Korea, some farmers were permitted shotguns to keep "dangerous vermin" at bay (usually delicious vermin such as waterfowl and deer), but they had to be locked up in the local police station before nightfall.
All three laughed affably, if stiffly, and started to backslap their way towards the door. The cop was halfway out when he held up the "Oh, I almost forgot" finger and stepped back in.
"Sorry, but I have to ask – uh...did you kill the farmer’s goat and rip off its ear? Sorry, it’s...I have to ask—"
Subho straightened up and deadpanned: "Yes, I did, then I ate it," and pantomimed the unmistakable act of relieving a goat of its ear. The cop shot Mr. Rhie a nervous glance for an extended, uncomfortable heartbeat, before Subho burst out laughing, and the other two followed suit.
"Ha ha, no, I did not kill that man’s goat and cut off its ear."
Seconds after the door closed behind his visitors, Subho staggered to the sink and vomited into it, a hearty stew of undigested hunks of red meat, ragged clots of fur, and several feathers. He then raced over and made jittery preparations to check his memory card, wiping vomit from his sleeve.
"Note to self, dispose of severed goat ear," he sighed aloud.
"Now, I guess let’s see what I photographed this time."
* * *
Subho was once again 11, sitting on the floor outside the common room in his parent’s house. He often eavesdropped on his parents and grandmother, and he overheard many things an 11-year-old shouldn’t know, and couldn’t understand.
The hidden story of his family, as he knew it, was that before moving to Govandi, the Chaphekar family, relatively well-off and respected in the community, had been known as the Oberoi family where they came from in the far northern state of Jammu. The Oberoi family had been of the lowly Sudra caste, one grimy step above untouchables. As members of this caste they were destined to toil intergenerationally as unskilled workers, with no chance of respite, even well into in the 20th Century. That had been the case until Subho’s grandfather, originally a porter with the 36th Division of the British Army during The Second World War, was able to change his family’s social footing by way of his bravery. During a skirmish with the Japanese at Hill 180 in Burma, he had thrown down the 60 pound pack he was lugging, picked up a fallen soldier’s Lee-Enfield rifle and acquitted himself well, firing four well-aimed magazines into the charging Japanese, stalling out their attack. The British Captain, who he had dragged to safety under heavy fire, was in fact a former high-ranking colonial official, with the power to change a family’s history, name, and even caste, with the stroke of his gold Sheaffer fountain pen.
What Subho never heard, because it was never discussed in his house, was that several months before all that, his family had been driven from their hometown in Jammu by a mob of farmers, intent on lynching his grandfather. He had been caught in a chicken coop, surrounded by dead birds and gore, in a copper-eyed trance. The townsfolk were convinced he was a Yaksha, one of the mischievous werewolf-like nature spirits of Indian lore. Subho’s grandfather managed to spirit his family out of town, and they escaped a dubious fate at the hands of the frenzied throng by mere minutes, then fled south by train.
* * *
The vibrations from Subho’s phone woke him on Jim’s 6th attempt to contact him. He remembered very little from his latest dark walk, but what he did remember, he didn’t like. More blood in my mouth. My back hurts.
"Hello." Subho rasped.
"Subho, there you are, mate. Look, I’m here with Neal, and he wants...hang on—"
"Subho, hey, we just saw your latest report, and...I just, it’s fantastic, Subho, an incredible record, again. You really are having a good month out there in your patch. So look, I hope it’s not too last minute, but we’re on the road right now, heading to Pohang, and we were hoping you could show us your...finds. Especially the nesting Chinese Blackbirds, and the Bee-eater that you just posted about. Incredible, Subho. Amazing image you got, too. You’ll see I’ve made that the new banner for the website. First Korean record for that species, as I’m sure you’re aware, and—"
"Um, okay. When will you be here?"
"Oh, uh, well we just passed Gimhae, so it should be about 20 minutes if Jim keeps up his mad pace."
"Alright, call me when you get here." Bloop.
* * *
Subho was breathing heavily by the time he finished his desperate scramble up to the gazebo. It sat at the highest point of the ridge that dominated this corner of Korean countryside, and was the nexus of several steep hiking trails. Ignoring those, Subho instead slid down a rocky talus slope — the one from his dreams, his dark walks. After a treacherous slide, Subho landed in a small clearing, amidst a cloud of dust. He pushed through thorny scrub for 50 metres, and knew precisely where to find the Chinese Blackbird nest. He leaned up and peered in the nest, and his darkest apprehensions were confirmed. A confusion of eggshell shards, dried yolk, and several sets of tiny, mangled legs bore witness to the ugly truth that he had eaten the first and only clutch of Chinese Blackbird eggs known to have been laid in South Korea.
"I ate them," Subho whispered, and fumbled further down the slope towards home, in a stupor. It’ll be quicker if I cut though that farmer’s fields, the old bastard.
* * *
"Oh-ho, so now here we are, ehhh?" The farmer slurred in Korean, then cocked back both firing levers of his antiquated shotgun and leveled the piece at Subho. Apparently the policeman hadn’t gotten around to revoking his firearm privileges yet. Bureaucracy sure moved slowly out in the countryside. The weight of the barrels caused him to take a stagger-step forward. He was profoundly drunk, well into his third bottle of soju of the afternoon.
"So you think you can just come on my land and kill me? You monkey devil foreigner. I will kill you, you dog-baby devil!" The old man’s finger tensed over the trigger. The air raid sirens squalled to life again in town, which elicited a glance from the gunman. He let the barrels droop by several degrees in doing so, which was a big mistake.
Subho’s spine lit up with a spurt of bestial adrenaline. He burst forward on all fours, and closed the distance between them so fast his limbs blurred. The old man looked up with a start and loosed both barrels instinctively in a blinding thunder. The sharp recoil shoved him backward, and he swung his free arm for balance like a capering Buster Keaton. The edge of the bird shot salvo clipped Subho’s left arm with a meaty thump, but didn’t slow him down. He was on the stumbling man quickly. Subho swung his forearms like clubs and knocked the shotgun out of the farmer’s grip with such force that both bones in the old man’s right forearm snapped like chopsticks with a loud snat. He fell on his rear, howling in shock when he saw his exposed pink-white radius, and the hand that flopped uselessly against his elbow.
More air raid sirens picked up the rolling wail of the first, their combined drone echoing an urgent menace across the hilly agricultural land. Thunder grumbled in the distance from different directions, loud enough to be heard over the sirens and the farmer’s panicked squeals.
"I bet you won’t cry werewolf again, hey old man? Look at me." Subho crawled up to the man on all fours, the raised hackles on his hairy back visible through his t-shirt. The sobbing man looked away and held his good hand up, both in a vain defensive gesture, and to spare him from having to look at the snarling apparition that advanced on him. He begged for mercy, spittle foaming at the corners of his trembling lips.
Subho stood over the man, licking the short fangs that protruded through his upper lip. His phone rang. "Neal and Jim are here," he told he farmer, licking his lips. "I wonder if they will appreciate that I’ve eaten up all the rare birds. Funny, huh? I photographed them, then I ate them up." He gave a shrill laugh and reached down for the farmer’s throat.
A blinding pink ball blazed on the horizon from the direction of Busan. Well, from the direction Busan had been, before the two man crew of a North Korean mini-submarine on a one-way mission had detonated a 25-kiloton thermonuclear bomb in the trendy Gwanganli Beach area of South Korea’s second-largest city.
The farmer and Subho both turned to watch the ball widen and dance towards them. Grey-green-orange shockwaves bounded closer through the valleys, flinging 100-foot pines into the air like toothpicks.
Subho flopped down next to the farmer and patted him on the shoulder.
"I really did not see that coming," he flatly chuckled.
Subho experienced no great flashbacks or revelations in the seconds before the howling shockwave hit, but rather a profound and weary sense of relief. He closed his eyes as the blazing orange winds shredded them both away and swept north.
Matt Poll has spent the past decade in South Korea, and has written a raucous memoir about the challenging life of a foreign birdwatcher there. He is also working on a series of stories that explore a murky realm of supernatural birding.
Matt's bird blog.
Published by permission of the author.