Esther has come with her brother and cousin to fix up their missing grandfather's old cabin in the woods so they can sell it. The cabin brings back peculiar memories for Esther, and the hummingbirds outside are more restless than they should be. Might the birds have something to do with Grandpa's mysterious disappearance?
Esther shrugged. "He disappeared two years ago. That's not the same as being dead."
Chris squinted at her. "The man was seventy-two years old and recovering from a stroke."
"A mild stroke," Harry said.
"Whatever," Chris said. "He was acting crazy the day he left, remember? He even shoved Gramma out of his way when she tried to stop him, and she broke her hip in two places when she fell. Gramma never saw him again after that. None of us did. I say good riddance."
"How can you say that, Chris?" Esther scowled at her cousin. "I thought you loved Grampa."
"Before he lost his mind, yeah. But not at the end. Not when he went into those weird trances and babbled nonsense, like that stuff written on the walls in there." Chris waved a hand at the open door hanging crooked on one hinge.
Harry stood. "I'll go air out the cabin."
Esther and Chris sat silently watching the hummingbirds, or humbenthalos, as Grampa liked to call them. Their wings blurred with the speed of furious flapping, the resulting hum so loud it grated on Ether's nerves.
"I just remembered something else." Chris plucked a twig from the floor and snapped it in half. "Something Gramma told us he said just before he pushed her. He told her, 'I have to go back and feed it.'"
Esther remembered, too, and hearing the words again chilled her to the bone.
Chris studied the busy hummingbirds. "What do you think 'it' was, Esther? And how was Grampa planning to feed it?"
"No idea." But she wondered if the dead animals in the kitchen might have something to do with it.
She stood and wandered to the end of the porch that faced the forest. A dense wall of coniferous trees blocked her view of the meadow a quarter-mile beyond. She knew the clearing surrounded an enormous monolith of black stone with crude but beautiful carvings. She'd only seen it once, when she was twelve and snuck out of the cabin one night to follow her grandfather. He always waited until the children were asleep before going out on his evening strolls, and Esther thought it was because he wanted to be alone while gazing at the moon. But he did more than that. When she caught up to him in the clearing, she found him kneeling beside the towering black sculpture. Grampa chanted in a strange language, saying words that were a lot like the ones painted on the cabin walls. Clouds had boiled overhead, changing colors and melting into each other like a swirling dance that made Esther dizzy just before a sudden burst of green light shot out from the top of the monolith.
The next thing Esther remembered was waking up in her cot at the cabin with Grampa wiping a cool, wet cloth across her forehead. She'd seen his eyes before he realized she was awake, and they had looked flat and empty, his mouth curved down at the corners and slightly open, his upper lip curled in a snarl that showed his teeth. It had frightened her because he'd no longer looked like her grandfather.
Now Grampa was gone. Maybe dead, maybe not. Today the cabin belonged to Esther and her brother, and to her cousin Chris. They'd only come this weekend to spiff it up with a little paint and polish before selling it, despite Chris's insistence that whoever bought the property would raze the cabin. Esther was having second thoughts about selling. There was something special about this place, about the monolith and about the bizarre language on the cabin walls.
"We better get started." Chris stood and yawned. "I plan on leaving first thing tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Esther asked. "You're kidding. No way can we finish by then."
"That's when I'm gone, even if I have to walk back to town. If it's not done by then, tough shit. You and Harry can do whatever's left."
Harry helped Esther bag the animal carcasses in the kitchen, then lugged them outside to bury in the woods. Chris covered the furniture with a canvas tarp and started painting. His brush flung white paint across one wall covered with writing and snowy polka dots splattered the dark green tarp on the floor.
"Whoa there," Harry said, clamping a hand on Chris's arm. "Take it easy."
Chris panted, his flabby belly heaving with each breath. His red hair lay plastered to his forehead, beads of sweat bubbling from an upper lip stubbled with pale whiskers. "The sooner I finish this, the sooner I can leave."
Harry shrugged. "Whatever. Point me to the brushes and I'll help."
His cousin peered down at the floor. "Damn. I left the rest of them in the Jeep."
"I'll get 'em." Harry headed for the door.
Chris jumped in front of him. "Let me. I need to use the outhouse anyway."
"Go for it," Harry said to Chris' back as he rushed outside.
An enormous window of hand-glazed glass framed the scenery beyond the porch. Esther stared out at the frantic hummingbirds, their needle-sharp beaks poking into one flower after another. It was past eight and the sun dipped behind the mountains, casting a sickly yellow glow over the forest trees. The aspens threw long shadows across the grove of wildflowers, seeming to make the hummingbirds anxious but no less energetic.