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Muscle and Might

— Another Misadventure of The Broken Boys —

The boys started climbing at first light. In the crisp air, their breath had the thickness of fog. They huffed heavily, eyes on the ground, already weary of dragging their shadows. The plan was to hike the ridge and obtain a bird’s-eye view of the forest and whatever lay beyond, though what they hoped to gain from that outlook remained undetermined. This was during the troubled days, after the forgotten years, before the dreariness of nowadays changed everyone’s way of thinking.

Roughly an hour into the climb the boys discovered the carcass of a wolf in a patch of high grass. The poor dead creature looked as bad as it smelled. A thousand flies buzzed, darting in and out of the corpse like bees working a hive. Only the wolf’s head was recognizable. Some of the boys suggested hacking it off and taking it as a trophy. The matter was debated and nearly put to a vote until someone noticed the cavities of the wolf’s eyes swarming with maggots. The sight was horrifying, though the boys had seen worse.

Nevertheless, a dead wolf was troubling. There might be others, alive and hungry. Like boys, wolves traveled in packs. Sometimes as many as twenty wolves hunted together. The boys had learned that such warnings shouldn’t be ignored, so they aborted their mission, deciding to seek higher ground and a better view another day.

In twos and threes, they scrambled, hurrying back down towards the woods, which the younger boys called the Forest of Forever, because the trees never seemed to end. They scrambled down a gravelly slope that rolled into a weed field bordering the beach. Before stepping onto the sand, each boy removed his shoes and socks.

Shoes in hand, they spread out, walking side-by-side rather than in their usual formation of one after another. They did this mainly to avoid having sand kicked up into their faces. But this haphazard configuration was uncomfortable because no boy appeared to be in charge. This made the group feel less like a band of adventurers with a chief and a pecking order than a scattered disarray of barefoot heathens searching the beach for bits of buried treasure. As usual, they were doing a fine job of getting no place fast, while finding nothing, and leaving long rutted trails behind. Eventually, they’d run out of beach and be forced back into the forest.

They were making reasonably good time, when one boy cried out, drawing everyone’s attention. Clutching his foot in his hands he began hopping about, howling.  It seemed like an act. The howl had a false note. The whole thing felt like a gag.

Then the boy lost his balance and flopped ass-first into the sand. His howls turned to sobbing as he examined his injured foot. The others crowded in and saw their fallen comrade sitting in a rut of his own footsteps. Beside him, arranged in an odd shape, was a cluster of small bones.

As it happened the bones were the sun-bleached remains of an eagle, but there were no feathers or claws or other clues to indicate what creature this might have been, and none of the boys knew what he was looking at. All anyone understood was they had found “another dead something,” which was not an uncommon occurrence.

As they studied the bones, a dark band of clouds moved in over the horizon, which meant a storm was building. White crests were already curling and crashing against the rocks. And as the boys considered the displaced bones they could feel the spray and taste the salty air.

One boy stepped forward and dropped to his knees for an up-close and personal inspection, then he stood up and pointed at the sea with one of his shoes. He said the bones were from some kind of sea creature and no one argued with that. Another boy leaned down and picked up one of the bones and held it like it was a pistol. He pointed it at the sun. 

“Bang,” he said. “Right in the eye.”

Another boy dug up the skull and shook off the sand. He blew through an opening but the skull made no sound, so he tossed it to another boy who caught it above his head in one hand and flipped it behind his back to another boy who fumbled the catch but held on, trapping it against his ribs. Then he immediately spun and whipped a side-armed throw at the horizon. But there wasn’t much arc on the toss and the skull landed well short of the water in a pile of seaweed.

“Nice throw,” someone said and the older boy said, 

“Shut up. You don’t know what I was aiming at.” And once again, with nobody in charge, no one was in any position to argue.

Wind gusted in, lifting sand, irritating eyes, and the boys turned their backs to the ocean and covered their faces. 

When they looked again, they were already moving. There was no discussion about what they’d seen. No boy expressed any gratitude for what he had been a part of. Even the oldest boys were too young to appreciate the power and glory the brittle bones represented.

An eagle’s bones are deceptively small, predominately hollow, and rather unimpressive. The skeleton of an adult eagle weighs under a pound, while its feathers weigh twice that. The bulk of the bird is muscle. Eagles are mechanisms of might – strong, streamlined killing machines capable of taking down an animal ten times its size. One could, for instance, singlehandedly kill a wolf. Or a boy.

Death hides ten thousand secrets but guards few more fiercely than the ferocity of living eagles. Luckily, the boys possessed a few secrets of their own. Often in dreams, they possessed giant wings that allowed them to soar, gliding high, while watching everything they knew, everything they loved, alive or dead, turn smaller until it disappeared.

Bob Thurber is the author of 6 books, including Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel. Over the years his work has received a long list of awards and honors, appeared in Esquire and other notable publications, and been included in over 60 anthologies. Selections have been utilized as teaching tools in schools and universities throughout the world. Bob resides in Massachusetts. He is legally blind. For more info, visit: BobThurber.net

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