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The Christmas Vulture | Audio*Read By Janice Herbal
By James S. Dorr
James Dorr's current collections, DARKER LOVES: TALES OF MYSTERY AND REGRET and STRANGE MISTRESSES: TALES OF WONDER AND ROMANCE, are available from Dark Regions Press, while other work has appeared in ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, NEW MYSTERY, ABORIGINAL SF, FANTASTIC STORIES, DARK WISDOM, GOTHIC.NET, CHI-ZINE, ENIGMATIC TALES (UK), FAERIES (France), and numerous anthologies. Dorr is an active member of SFWA and HWA, an Anthony (mystery) and Darrell (fiction set in the US Mid-South) finalist, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a multi-time listee in THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR.

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       It was her second favorite night of the year, the Friday night that fell just before Christmas. She cruised the highways leaving the city, her black vulture wings blotting out the moon, as scudding clouds moved in to add to the darkness. A turkey vulture, she had a well developed sense of smell, more so than her sisters that preyed above plains, or desert, or plateaus, that flew in the daylight and used their keen eyesight to mark the dying. Sniffing, she sensed that a light rain was coming, a layer of moisture to freeze to ice on the road.
       She was, despite this new mechanical age, a daughter of Isis, both ancient and modern. She was a force of nature, for was not death still a natural part of life? Thus she herself lived on death, she and her broodlings she left behind in her nest, out this night circling to find food that they might grow strong and graceful, just as she herself had grown.
       Gasoline, fraying tires, these were things that she smelled. These were smells of Christmases past and present. It was her second favorite night of the year because this was the night of office parties, celebrations held in the metropolis that spewed out cars filled with tough, wizened executives headed for hidden chateaus in the country with tender young secretaries perched, dreaming, in seats by their sides.
       Which would it be this night, the Christmas vulture wondered, the tough or the tender? The latter choice would be for sake of her nestlings' still fragile young beaks -- or did she dote on them, perhaps, too much? The tough, then, would be for age, for tissues in some cases already half-rotted, flesh with a character imbued through years of life?
       Such were decisions a mother must make.
       She circled higher. The Christmas vulture was good at her trade, having fed many such broods in the past. She knew how to discern hopeful situations, the subtle wobble of cars, their drivers drunk. The sway of top-heavy vans, overloaded, tires slipping on curves.
       She needed these things, she knew -- that extra sense to be sure she was there first when, joy upon joy, an accident came about. Other vultures, she knew, patrolled also. Humans did so as well: police, EMTs, Coroners' Departments who collected flesh too, but ultimately buried it in the ground, wasting it. It was as if they would throw life itself away.
       She did not understand this disrespect of the dead.
       Dangers, however, of humans with guns, of eagles, of fire -- fire that would sometimes envelop a crashed car before its contents could be removed -- these things she understood. These were reasons why one might hurry.
       Thus she was first when, brakes screeching, a large black SUV plowed through the median, striking a compact sedan in the lane beyond, crushing it, crumpling it. The SUV ended up tangled itself, on its side, in the wreckage --
       The Christmas vulture swooped -- no time! No time! The smell of gasoline. Hot rubber smoldering.
       Quickly she stooped to the smaller car first, the one that had been headed into the city. Its contents appeared to be an adult male and female. She tore a bite first of the one nearest to her.
       Then, in the back, something moved!
       Stopping, she peered past her prey of the moment, to see, dimly, a tiny girl, thrown sideways on the seat. It was breathing softly -- it still lived!
       She was, first, a mother. She knew it was wrong, but instinct guided her strong, hooked beak to snag the child's jacket, pulling it forth past its bleeding, dead parents. Some primal urge guided her, as a mother that must protect any child, to transfer it carefully into her talons, then lift it with her to cross the outside lanes, finally depositing it safely on the grass at the road's side.
       Now she had to work all the faster. The first, smaller car was already burning. It was already too late for its carrion. However the second, the SUV, its right side door sprung open, had spilled part of its contents, a skull-crushed young woman, her evening gown bloodied, halfway out on the highway.
       Even as she watched, flames leaped from one vehicle to the other.
       No time! No time! The Christmas vulture stooped down to the woman's arm, tearing and yanking, slashing at tendons. No time! No time! Flames came near as, finally, she tore it completely off.
       Half backing, half fluttering, with the entire arm clutched in her beak, the Christmas vulture regained the grassy berm, seeing as if in the corner of one eye the child she had rescued beginning to come to. She saw the child sit.
       The child began to cry!
       As a mother, she knew what had to be done. Her own brood was healthy, well-fed and strong from her forays on past nights.
       But this child was hungry.
       As clumsy on foot as she was graceful in the sky, the Christmas vulture hobbled to where the child sat, shrieking, and dropped the freshly torn arm in its lap. Then she backed away once more and, flapping her great wings, she took to the air.
       She circled once, peering down at the now-quietened little girl, then, taking advantage of an updraft from the blazing, ruined cars, she spiraled high, quickly. She saw red and blue lights flashing in the distance, heading swiftly toward where she had just left. She realized their presence would slow down traffic, lessening her chances of finding another crash this night to feed her own children. Nevertheless somehow, within her, the Christmas vulture knew all would be all right.
       After all, her experience told her, in only a few more nights from then it would be New Year's Eve.
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