Sensation returned as a result of actively seeking out pain––of finding the places where thought latched onto the full reality of what had occurred. Kyle willed himself to connect with the dull ache of broken bones, the jagged flare where rock incised chest and forearm. Having been given a chance to embrace the light, reach a state of nonexistence, he’d turned away. Earthly suffering his only reward. Samsara.
As he took stock through a fury of nerves, Kyle focused on the exact place where the pain stopped. Despite its intensity, it not seem centered in his neck or head. Through protective instinct or sheer luck, he had hit the bottom in a defensive pose, his extremities buffering the skull. Kyle channeled his remaining energy and willed movement. The pain was everywhere as neural pathways reconnected with actual muscles and sinews, damaged nerve impulses, and mapped the true extent of his injuries. It was an act of utter bravado, this connecting with his physical self in the face of deeply embedded pain. The tortuous process of achieving phantom movement, when even full movement would not save him.
The vultures took unblinking perches in his peripheral vision. They waited him out as they did rabbits, coyotes, the injured and infirm. Standing sentinel, edging closer, no longer so patient––arched necks and beaks poised for the exact moment they could.… Kyle blinked and raised his head in protest, hand shooting out in a shaky simulacrum of defense. His feeble movement, a display of diminished capacities, had exactly the opposite intended effect. The largest vulture stepped to the foreground, flanked by two others, giving an appraising look. The talons tentatively prodded his wrist, the beak tugging gently at first at Kyle’s forearm and then inward with surprising force. There was a ripping inside him, a sensation of scissors digging into the skin and scraping through veins and tendons to reach bone. That light through the tunnel, the easy way out… he knew in that instant he should have taken it.
The bald head lurched between preened feathers as swallow was completed, throat cleared, beak poised for a second bite. A turn and a shriek, as the vultures dispersed in the air. A condor, spread full wing, was beating, beating the earth. The vultures and condor took to the sky like arial fighters, a startling upwelling of commotion in this place of finality. The lightening-fast melee left the largest vulture sprawled on the ground, nursing a gimp ankle. The other vultures settled on the ground and turned sideways, falling back.
Kyle’s gaze lifted to a sun that gave intimations of eternity, of the end of life and its intricate seasons of suffering, reprieve. The thought occurring that there was one remnant of hope, a reason for being. However brief, the melee in the air could just have caught the attention of the person who set out that thin trickle of smoke last night. It was just possible that….
The much larger condor now took its rightful place over Kyle’s body. Nudging the wrist with its beak, it examined the chest––returning to the wrist and tearing off a small piece, tasting. A thin trail of skin hanging off its beak, the condor came eye to eye with Kyle, the beak prodding, ascertaining whether he posed any threat. Determining that he did not, the condor took a step back and pointed with his beak at the throat, at the place where Kyle would bleed out quickest. As if to say this is what I will do for you, so that you no longer suffer. The condor was clearly a god of mercy and Kyle gave himself to the void.
At the very moment when life should have run out on a desolate landscape, the birds scattered and Kyle sensed a vibration behind him, from a direction he could not see. The one-two pattern was unmistakable, the sound of human feet. They thudded to ear level and stopped, his chest turned over, his head falling back on cradling fingers. Through eyes that could not quite focus, he made out a pair of jeans that extended to the breadth of a woman’s hips.