|A Felony of Birds|
Timothy O. Goyette
|Against a Diamond|
It was my thirteenth birthday in the spring of 1932 when the werewolf followed me home and Father said I could keep him. Now, I’m not talking about full moons, silver bullets, or transfiguration, not exactly anyway. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was the best birthday I had ever had. Father had been a furniture maker before the factory had closed. For my birthday he had fashioned a fishing pole from a birch limb, using chicken wire to form and fasten the eyelets. It wasn’t crude at all; he had used his skill to make it look and perform just like a store bought rod and reel. The casting reel was made of handcrafted wooden parts. He had taken me fishing all the time before “The Crash”. My child’s mind couldn’t quite understand why he now had to spend so much more time making so much less money. He spent most of his time making furniture in our barn. He had to gather lumber and wood scraps wherever and whenever he could and had only his few personal hand tools to work with. It now took him much longer to make anything, but he refused to make anything of lesser quality than he did before.
Now that he was unemployed I spent less time with him than ever. Our relationship had become strained and I understood that this was his way of showing that I was still important to him. Even at that age I understood that he had given me more than a fishing rod. He had given me a considerable amount of his time, effort, and skill. So it was with a full heart that I rode my bike to banks of the Wabash River to try out my new pole.
I had hooked my third medium sized catfish and was reeling him in when it caught between some rocks on the bank. I inched down the bank to free it when I stepped on a mud patch, slipped, and slid down the bank into the river. The Wabash River had already claimed many lives even during my short lifetime. I could feel myself being swept and tumbled away from the shore into the irresistible currents. I tried to swim back to shore with little effect. I didn’t know how far I had been swept along but I was already weary and thinking the Lords’ prayer, resigned to accounting to Him soon.
Suddenly, something had a hold of my collar and was pulling me toward the shore again. I passed out from either exhaustion or relief. When I woke again I was lying on my side coughing up muddy water. Then I looked up into the face of the largest, homeliest dog I had ever seen. He stood thirty inches high at the shoulder. His head and muzzle were large and thick resembling a mastiff. The muzzle though was not blunted like a mastiff. It looked more like that of a German Shepherd, though disproportionately large and wide. At a distance of only a foot he was frighteningly imposing. His body was about sixteen inches across at the shoulders and from the tip of his nose to his flank was over five feet. In spite of his size he seemed to be starving as his skin drooped all over him. He was black with gray swatches and three-inch long coarse fur. My first reaction was fear and I glanced back and forth looking for help. There was no one around. I realized then that he must have pulled me from the river. I gingerly reached out my hand to pet him saying “Good boy, good boy”. He began to wag his tail and lick my face. It was love at second sight.
I worked my way back along the bank to retrieve my new pole and bike. After securing it and my fish I rode home to tell my tale, the dog following all the way.
Father had no cause to doubt me and expressed his gratitude by petting the dog and giving him a twice-used soup bone. I, of course, asked the inevitable question.
“Father, can we keep him?”
Father looked grim and slightly ashamed as he sat me down.
“William, I don’t see how we can. It’s been a struggle to feed just your Mother and you lately. Look at the size of him. He could probably eat everything we have as a snack.”
I begged and pleaded, saying that we owed him. My father didn’t deny any of it but was resolute. During the entire time the dog sat on his haunches turning his head toward whoever was speaking as though he understood it all. I finally realized that this was as painful to Father as it was to me and relented. Father said he would try to find someone who could take care of him, perhaps one of the big farmers.
The dog, who had seemed to be paying rapt attention to this exchange, suddenly stood up and ran off in the direction of the woods.
“Perhaps he already has a home and just wanted to make sure you got home alright,” Father said.
“I hope so. That would be nice to know,” I said.
Father and I went into our house to prepare for Mother. She was working twelve hours a day at the big laundry in town. We cleaned the house and prepared dinner every day for her. Father half-joked; half-choked saying it was our duty now that she was the “man” of the family. We were frying the catfish, we had no other meat, and preparing heavily seasoned vegetable soup for dinner when we heard the barking. It was the loudest, gruffest barking we had ever heard. We went outside to see the dog sitting with a pheasant and two rabbits lying in front of him. I looked at Father and he looked back.
“It appears he can earn his keep, so I guess he can stay. Do you have a name for him?”
‘Hunter’ seemed appropriate but too ordinary. I went to the dictionary Mother had insisted I needed for my school studies. I found that ‘Nimrod’ was a synonym for hunter so Nimrod it was.
That summer passed pleasantly enough. Nimrod became my constant companion, playing, fishing, and sleeping with me. He would take off into the woods on the command ‘Hunt’ and would always come home with two or three samples of small game in that huge maw of his. Father said he must have been trained to hunt by someone. Perhaps someone who had passed away and left Nimrod to fend for himself until he saved me. Nimrod’s unusual abilities, pleasant disposition and appearance caused him to become a minor celebrity among the locals, but even Father and I were surprised to find how unusual he was.
Father had never really been a hunter but come fall he was determined to bag a couple of deer to prepare for winter and supplement our small crop of vegetables and corn. Grandfather had left him a fixed sight 30.06 hunting rifle. We, Father, Nimrod and I, went hunting one
brisk October day. Father had spotted a six point buck and missed his first shot sending the buck racing off. Nimrod took off after him. We quickly lost sight of them. We followed in the general direction trying to call Nimrod back. Nimrod finally emerged from a thicket with his jaws clamped on the back of the buck’s broken neck. He dragged that two hundred pound buck as though it were a rabbit. He dragged it all the way home. Two days later we went hunting again. Father left his rife at home, just pointed to a deer and said ‘hunt’ to Nimrod. The results were the same. Father told me we should keep that to ourselves.
Thanks in part to Nimrod; we were better off than many of our neighbors. Another reason was Father’s family had owned our land for three generations, so we had no bank mortgage to keep up, only property taxes. Since our family had never been farmers we had never had to go into debt with the bank. Father had Nimrod bag two more deer which, after butchering, we drove around one day distributing to those less fortunate than ourselves. We arrived home to find Mother standing on the porch with the rife pointed at two scruffy looking men and a dandy in a vested suit at the bottom of the stairs.
“What’s going on Mother,” Father said.
“These men are trying to take our land,” Mother said.
Father walked up nose to nose with the dandy. “This land is owned free and clear and I owe the bank nothing.”
“Of course sir,” he said. “I’m afraid your missus misunderstood me. Allow me to introduce myself.”
He handed my Father a printed card that read ‘Montgomery Banks Inc. Investors.
“I wish to buy your land, sir. And at the pre-crash market price I might add.”
“That’s generous, I’m sure, but I don’t have a mind to sell this land at any price. Sorry you wasted your time. Good day to you sir.”
“Perhaps you’ll allow me to explain. I will shortly own the land on three sides of you. I need this land for reasonable access to the main highway.”
“I know everyone who owns those parcels. They won’t sell their land any more than I will.”
“I afraid it’s out of their hands. I am buying up their loans from the bank and I’ll foreclose as soon as that is final. That’s not as heartless as it sounds. I’ll still be paying them two bits on the dollar of the current market price. They’ll be out of debt with money in their pocket to start over.”
“I’m sure you’re a fair and reasonable businessman. However, in making your plans you have assumed that I would sell. You have assumed wrong. I wish you well in your business venture and I wish you good day, sir.”
“Well, think about it sir. Perhaps we can come to terms before I begin building all around you. Once I start the value of your land will go down. You won’t get the price I’m offering now out of goodwill.”
“Mr. Banks, if you wish to convince people of your good intentions you might wish to reconsider appearing on decent folks land with gutter trash like the Simon brothers in tow.”
“Hey!” said the larger of the scruffy men as he approached the porch. Mother raised the rife to her shoulder again and he backed away.
“Listen, Mister you can’t talk about us like that.”
“Billy Simon, your granddaddy, your father, and your four brothers have all been brawling drunkards, braggarts, and livestock stealing, bullies. Your family is the disgrace and shame of the south county. Don’t think by coming to the north you can go unrecognized.”
“These men were recommended to me as reliable guides,” Banks said. “I don’t know about any of that other.”
“Oh yes, they know their way around other people’s property all right. Right into the chicken coops, the livestock pens, and if no one is home the pantries and sock drawers also.”
“That’s enough,” Billy Simon said. “Lady if you can shoot an unarmed man, that’s fine. Otherwise I’m going to knock out some of your man’s teeth.”
Billy began to strut up to Father. Father stiffened and clenched his fists. Nimrod, who had been sitting swiveling his head as people spoke, now bounded between Billy and Father. He lowered his massive head, bared his fangs, and began a low pitched, menacing growl.
Billy backed away again.
“Okay, okay, but this isn’t over. It’s personal now. You too hound, I’ll see you again.”
“Shut up and get in the car,” Banks said, walking away. “Think it over sir, you can’t stop progress.”
“I doubt whatever you have in mind is any kind of progress that anyone around here wants,” Father said.
The men drove away.
Later, after dinner, we settled in our living room and prepared to listen to our favorite radio shows. I mentioned to father that I had never seen a man that smiled so much while he talked as Mr. Banks had. I had secretly been impressed with his clothes, manners, expensive car, and seeming importance.
“Do you think that’s a good thing?”
“He might have gotten mixed up with the Simon brothers by accident.”
“When I show you all my teeth what do you think of?”
“That you’re pleased or happy about something.”
“And if Nimrod were to show you all his teeth?”
“I would think he wanted to bite me.”
“Well, that’s how some people smile, trust me. When you’re older you’ll learn to tell the difference. Bring the dictionary, I’ll show you something else about this man you’re impressed with.”
“I didn’t say I was impressed with him.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“This Mr. Banks thinks because we live out here in the country that we are ignorant,” Father said, flipping through the dictionary. “He thinks he can throw his contempt in our faces and we are too dumb to see it. Here look at this.”
I looked at the word Father was pointing to.
Mountebank: Quack, Charlatan, One who shams
Synonyms: deceiver, dissembler, faker, fake, imposter, sham, humbug, phony, four-flusher
“Montgomery. Monty for short. Do you see?”
I did and felt embarrassed.
“Now don’t be like that. Mistakes happen to learn from. If you already knew everything we wouldn’t need this dictionary and your mother and I would be out of a job. What would we do then?” Father said with a grin.
I smiled back. Once again Father had taught me something without making me feel small and had gotten me to smile in the bargain. I enjoyed the radio more than ever that night.
The next few weeks went by quietly enough. There were articles in the paper about Mr. Banks’, or whatever his name was, development project. Our targeted neighbors had protested to the bank. The bank replied that if he came up with the money they were obligated to sell the loans. There was an interview with Mr. Banks. He stated that his resort project would bring prosperity and jobs to the county. The editorials said we didn’t need rich folk coming out here with all their fancy airs and such. That most of the prosperity would be for Mr. Banks and company. The promised jobs would be as paid servants on our own land. Where would it end? Would there be more resorts? And the traffic? Would fancy racing cars run down our children and livestock on a regular basis? And so on.
I knew this was important stuff that might change life, as I had known it, but I had other things to do. Since I was not a farmer’s son and had done well in my studies; I was going to start high school. Nimrod and I spent as much time together as possible before the long winter curtailed our fun.
Late one night Nimrod awakened me by standing over me and swatting my face with his paw.
“Hey, cut that out.”
Nimrod began to whine; at least I think it was whining. It was a sound I had never heard him make before and that’s as close as I can come to describing it.
“What boy, what is it?”
Nimrod leapt off my bed, went to my window and let out a low growl.
I went over, opened the window and stuck my head out. I saw and heard nothing.
Nimrod went out of the window and I followed. The dark in the country then was as dark as dark can be. I was used to seeing by starlight and followed Nimrod into the woods. About fifty yards in I could clearly see the six men moving towards my house with kerosene lanterns while I remained invisible to them. It was Mr. Banks and the two Simon brothers that had been here before. The other three were undoubtedly the rest of the Simon brothers. I noticed they each had two kerosene lanterns apiece which I thought was odd. I squatted down by Nimrod to listen to them.
“Now don’t get carried away,” Mr. Banks said. “Just start the fire at the back and sides of the house. I want them to be able to get out. Suspected arson I can get around. Murder would ruin everything.”
Nimrod lurched off toward them barking. I saw Billy Simon pull a pistol out of the front of his pants.
“I’m gonna take care of that mutt first,” Billy said, moving toward the sound of the barking.
He raised his pistol and fired. Nimrod gave out a yelp and turned back toward me. When he got to me he was panting heavily and I felt a thick wetness on his side where the bullet had grazed him. I was frightened for Nimrod and myself and began trying to pull him back toward the house. It was like trying to pull over an eighty-year-old oak tree, no give at all. I reached down to pet and reassure him when I felt something strange. The loose skin on his body was inflating like a balloon. I realized that his panting was somehow forcing air into his loose skin. His head began to swell pulling his lips back to reveal the true two and a half-inch length of his teeth. As his legs swelled the skin pulled up from his paws to expose three-inch claws. All of his fur began to project straight out from his body. This only took ten or twelve seconds. Nimrod now appeared to be half again as big as before. I was frozen, unable to think what to do. The men were now moving our way and once again I was afraid in Nimrod’s presence. Nimrod crouched down then bounded up. He was straight up on his hind legs when I heard a snick of bones clicking. The bottom joints in his back legs had locked leaving him standing like a bear. He stood a little under seven feet tall now and looked even larger than his two hundred pounds.
He snarled and growled rushing toward Billy who was still holding his pistol out. Nimrod charged out of the dark slashing at the pistol, knocking it away and mangling Billy’s hand. Before Billy could react, Nimrod sank his claws into his shoulders, pulled him close, leaned over him, and trapped Billy’s neck in his jaws. He lifted Billy off the ground and shook him with his muzzle. I could hear when his neck snapped.
The rest of the men got there in time to see Nimrod drop Billy’s limp body. With blood dripping from his claws and fangs Nimrod flung his paws to the side, then let out a bloodcurdling howl. The kind of a howl that must have once sent primitive man scampering for his cave and fire.
The men were frozen for a second then they dropped their lanterns and fled into the dark. I was relieved when Nimrod did not pursue them. If the bloodlust had driven him to kill those who were defenseless and fleeing I don’t know if I could have accepted him again as my friend and companion. The howl completed and the threat passed Nimrod dropped to all fours and began to make sighing sounds. His skin deflated and aside from the blood he returned to his usual appearance. He hobbled back to the house with me, seemingly exhausted.
I awakened my parents and told them the truth but not the whole truth. I couldn’t bring myself to outright lie to them but stepped sideways a little by saying that an animal had attacked and killed Billy. Father never probed further though I’m sure he knew and felt as I did. Nimrod had defended the direct attack and let the others go. I guess he felt if I could live with that so could he.
The Sheriff was fetched at dawn. He attributed Billy’s death to a bear attack. He wasn’t that concerned considering that their intentions were evident. Mr. Banks was found unconscious in the woods. While the Simon boys were used to running in the country dark, Mr. Banks wasn’t. He had run headfirst into a tree and had a concussion. He was taken to the county hospital and kept for observation. When the Sheriff went to arrest him the next day he found that Mr. Banks had revived, checked himself out, and absconded for parts unknown. Likewise, the remaining Simon brothers had departed the county, both south and north, never to return.
Life went on. Nimrod lived another five years without a repeat of the incident. He seemed to slowly lose vigor and died peacefully in his sleep. My parents lived another twenty years. True to their close bond they died within days of each other. I’m thankful that Mother, always the cheerleader for learning, lived to see me awarded the first set of letters behind my name. Doctor of Biology. Since then I’ve also been a professor of Biochemistry, and oddly enough, Anthropology. I’m a very old man now sitting on the porch of the house I was born in. I can see all three graves from here.
Late in my career I disinterred Nimrod for some bone and marrow samples and took measurements. I can tell you that he was at least a hundred and fifty calendar years old when he died. Beyond that I can’t say. I can only imagine what he must have been like when he was young and vital. His massive skull had a brain cavity only slightly smaller than an adult human. These days I could try to backtrace the evolution of his DNA from these samples or at least let others explore that, but I won’t. I know what would be concluded. An evolutionary dead-end. A failed experiment of nature. Interesting as a freak, but not important. I won’t do that to my friend.
I sit here and wonder though. In the dim past when man was first making alliances with other creatures, could Nimrod’s breed have been the first to develop an affinity with man? Could they have shared the fire and the fruits of the hunt with men, until they inadvertently frightened their companions more than the other predators did? Were they then driven out and hunted themselves? Did they become solitary and rare, watching longingly from the dark as other canine breeds maintained and strengthened their bond with man? Was Nimrod’s breed the seed of legends and B movies?
I wonder, but maybe that isn’t important. Maybe what’s important is that Nimrod, perhaps the last of his breed, did succeed in bonding with a human family and maintaining that bond until his death. He was successful in spite of his grim appearance and his darker nature. Even in spite of our species’ darker nature.
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