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In groups of three or more – in trees, on fence posts, and at the edge of fields – vultures slouch like somber, black-robed monks.

 


OUT IN THE AIR



GATHERED AT THE POND

Order of the Vulture

Chapters: I | II | III | IV | V

by Jerry Murley

Not long ago, as a fine mist drifted close to the surface of the glistening creek water, the young road-walkers came across the eviscerated corpse of an adult possum lying sideways in the center of the road. The possum had met an untimely end during the night. In the cool of the fall morning it would take awhile for the vultures to get wind of the opportunity.

Bulward, Gandy and Bullfrog could see the unfortunate from the pond. They pondered the possum's demise and speculated on when an unruly vulture or two would circle the area and begin the sky burial of the deceased. Bullfrog wagered that the vultures would wait until mid-afternoon but finish the job quickly with their typical gusto. He was much delighted at the prospect – at the vultures' fever at finding fresh kill, followed by their skittish frenzy over getting their share while dining in the middle of the road and trying to avoid mishap themselves.

There is one group of animals with which the other animals have little interaction, save for the ultimate commerce. From their usual exalted vantage point, vultures are not menacing to the other animals in that they threaten or portend calamity, but they do exude an unappealing presence, if not dominance, in their large numbers and their penchant for sticking together.


In groups of three or more – in trees, on fence posts, and at the edge of fields, intermingled with the cows – vultures slouch like somber, black-robed monks. Their movement on the ground is an inefficient and awkward hop. Their effort to flight when startled is overly noisy and strained. In contrast, their gliding flight while circling high in the sky on patrol is silent and effortless.

Vultures stoop stiffly on their perch, as if to fend off the touch and gaze of their fellows. Periodically they twist their bodies to service an itch. In direct sun or summer heat, a few sway slightly or stand rigidly for long periods with fully outstretched wings as they air themselves in a slight breeze. Though they crowd an area, vultures keep their distance when not vying for prime position at a feast. They roost in a row at some remove from one another for long hours. Vultures inhabit their individually defined space with a strict regimen of little or no interaction whatsoever with their own kind or any other living being. They rouse from these individual cells of isolation, this transfixed state, at the whiff of a newborn at first breath or the fallen, long after the last gasp for life.

The big vulture is always plentiful where there is exuberant new life and steady aging. Wherever the natural cycle of life abounds, the vulture stands in waiting. Wherever the ecology is healthy or rotting, the vulture serves.

During a severe drought several summers past, deer in the vicinity of the pond began to die – to waste away in large numbers. The creek was bone dry for weeks on end. Mercifully, the substantial vulture population in the area cleared the carrion in short order, sparing local inhabitants the unbearable stench in the hot, blazing sun and still air.

The wiseacres at the pond enjoy poking a bit of fun at the vultures for their tribal aloofness and eating habits. In his usual, low-down, sarcastic approach, Bullfrog says, with a deep, drawn-out chuckle, "They eat like there is no tomorrow on a meal that was too old yesterday. You'd think they feared death was leaving the area on holiday."

On the rare occasion when vultures near the pond and are provoked by the likes of the bullfrog, they boast about their contribution to keeping the environment clean and healthy. At such times, sensing the disapproval others have for their culture, vultures haughtily reproach the other animals gathered at the pond about "the deplorable hygiene of the lower animals." Touting their own habits of quickly dispensing with the animal decay of nature, they hold themselves and their practices out as "examples of service to the health of the community and to the natural charm of the locality."

One day, the animals at the pond and the young road-walkers witnessed an event that temporarily altered their view of the vultures. A mature vulture, who had been in the area for years, severely wounded his wing. The vulture was so hobbled by the injury that he could not fly and could barely drag his weakened and contorted body away from the road-walkers, feeling threatened by their proximity. The sight of the poor, crazed bird softened the view that most of the animals and the road-walkers generally held of the species. To see the mighty so far fallen and helpless was a sobering and humbling sight for all. Soon he would be food for his own kind. Such a scene, contrary to well-established pattern, engendered much sympathy in all.

Animals ruled much by fear and frenzy are risible and indiscriminate in their behavior. They are not so much feared as pitied – and avoided. Bullfrog is of another order. Perceiving himself to be relatively safe and free within the confines of his pond, he proudly accepts his lot. He sniffs and emits his slow, low, contemptuous and mocking croak at both the hopeful and the dreadful concerns of such animals. Though neither an inspiring nor a consoling figure himself, he is at least consistent and harmlessly ridiculous in his delusions. But even for the cold, toothless bullfrog, the sight of a once-free animal helplessly flailing is a different matter altogether. Even he gulped hard as he witnessed the doomed vulture struggling in confusion and panic on the ground.

The whole distasteful business about the dead possum and his final disposition set the animals at the pond that day into an uncharacteristic fervor about vultures and their purpose. As humorless as Bullfrog can be at times, he is no match for the utter expressionlessness of the vultures. They are a dark background to a generally colorful array of being in the environs of the pond. They are a world unto themselves. But their numbers draw continual attention and comment. Gandy and Bulward shrug them off as necessary and harmless but generally uninteresting. "I wouldn't want to eat from their cookbook," Bulward said. "They can be rather rude about jumping into the herd after a calving. I wish the would keep a little more distance and be a little less pushy." Bullfrog groaned, "The pack of them certainly darken the sky, but as long as they don't get near the pond and harm my ways, they are free to their own unsavory doings."

The animals at the pond sometimes express similar notions about the crows. But the crows are so laughable in their recklessness that none really equate them with the standoffish vultures. This day, Bullfrog tossed his favorite epithet at the crows, who were newly arrived to pester the pond denizens: "Hey, junior, I thought for a minute that you were a shriveled-up version of your black-sheathed, foul-mouthed cousins. But no, on second thought, the vultures are much quieter and more seemly than crows."

In no mood for useless name calling or productive debate, this time the crows didn't take the bait and settled instead for simple slander of those not in attendance. The older one said, "Wherever they congregate, the vultures drop their odious piles of gop all over the place. They don't care about anything but their selves."

Gandy cast a barely perceptible smile on his long, knowing face, saying, "That's a bit harsh, lads. I am glad someone is so willing to consume the refuse and disease of this world. Though how they endure and digest the mess that they relish, I do not know." Bulward took a slow, shuffled step forward and added in his deepest moan, "They have their place, I agree. But I prefer to have my dealings with the living. Let the undertakers do their work. For all their worthy service, they certainly deserve the company that they keep."

 

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