Michael C. Keith
Blessings on your young courage, boy; that's the way to the stars. —Virgil
Peru's legendary Evil Bird circled above Papa Cezar's tiny cottage until the noonday sun began leaning to the west. The black-feathered predator knew the old man was inside and wished to take him. Little Mateo Calvo waited with rising apprehension for it to swoop down to the roof of his godfather's house. When it landed, he knew his beloved padrino would begin his trip to the netherworld and he would never see him again.
The thought made him very sad, so when the ugly harrier began its swift descent Mateo made his move. He dashed from his family's dwelling with his loaded slingshot. At the moment the reaper fowl was about to touch the roofs clay tiles, the ten-year-old released the slings leather pocket containing a stone and struck his target with a deathblow. The bird's body zigzagged to earth, landing a few feet from its young assassin.
"Mi hijo!" screamed Mateo's father, Juan. "What have you done? To interfere with the devil's messenger puts a curse on the family. The oldest of us will now die. Poor abuela is next. You have brought death to mi madre!"
Mateo stared at the lifeless heap of feathers as his father ran to his side.
"This is very bad, mi hijo. You must take your weapon and go to your grandmother immediately. There you must wait for the next pájaro to come and shoot it as you did this one."
"Will it remove the curse on grandmother, papa?"
"Yes, son, but it will cause a new one."
"And who will it fall upon, papa?"
"The next eldest of the Calvos."
"Who is that, papa?"
"Me, Mateo," answered his father grimly.
"No, I will not do this if you will be cursed."
"You must, mi hijo! Go now before it is too late."
"But, papa, I can't . . ."
Go!" shouted his father, pointing in the direction of his grandmother's house, which stood three kilometers down the riverbank.
Mateo reluctantly obeyed as his father watched him move away. While running along the edge of the Rio Urubamba, an idea occurred to him. If I kill Evil Bird that comes for grandmother, I will then destroy the one that comes for father. The plan filled Mateo with solemn resolve, and he hastened his pace. When he reached his grandmother's adobe, the devil bird was already circling overhead.
At the moment that death swooped toward the site of Mateo's loved one he aimed and fired his slingshot, killing the wicked pájaro.
"Mi nieto," called his grandmother from the door of her adobe.
"I must save papa now!" replied Mateo, turning and running back to his village.
When he arrived home, Mateo spotted Evil Bird hovering nearby. He raised his slingshot and drew back its elastic. The instant the airborne menace made its dive he fired and, with his usual precision, killed the predator.
"Mi hijo!" shouted his father. "You have saved your father and grandmother. Now you must spare the lives of your mother and sister, for the flying beast will seek their souls."
Mateo sighed in despair. "When will this end, papa? I cannot continue forever."
"Evil Bird will never rest. It will pursue the lives of all our family and then all of our friends, and the friends of our friends."
Soon another feathered reaper appeared above the Calvo's dwelling and Mateo took aim, killing it. The second its body hit the ground, another appeared and Mateo repeated his deed. By day's end, he had struck down ten more winged demons over the homes of relatives and friends.
"No mas, mi padre," he gasped, falling to the ground exhausted.
"My brave son, your task will never end. You have been damned for killing the devil's helper."
"So someone will die then . . . because I cannot go on?" mumbled Mateo, despairingly.
"Death will always find its prey. Come, home, mi hijo."
Mateo tossed his slingshot to the ground in defeat, but then he had a thought that gave him relief from his horrible burden.
"Yes, father I will come home."
"Such a brave young man you are," said his father, placing his arm around Mateo's narrow shoulders.
It is the only way, thought Mateo, entering his house just as the bird of death appeared above it, preparing to claim its next victim.
About the Author
Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir, three story collections, and two-dozen non-fiction books.