One for the Birds

Cover art © Jay McNelly, 2020 and 2021


If it had been any smaller than a dog, Einar might have passed by the carcass in the woods with little interest. It was rare, though, to find a boar’s head lying several feet from its shredded corpse. The carnage was fresh enough that only a small swarm of flies had found it. Covering his mouth and nose with his cloak, grimy and frayed from being slept in for many months, Einar tentatively circled the body, his blue eyes darting back and forth between the boar and the surrounding undergrowth. Nothing unusual caught his eye; there seemed to be no responsible party or cause nearby. Nauseated, Einar quickly turned back to the path, clutching his sack tightly against his shoulders. This would be something to worry about later, but for now, his thoughts ran in only one direction: home.


--


It was really nothing more than superstition, a ritual from the Old Country. “One for the birds,” Einar’s father had said by way of explanation as he cast half a palmful of seed in a clump at the end of the furrow. After spending his first eight springs helping his mother with the housework and the animals, it was Einar’s first year in the field. His job was to follow his father down the row, treading lightly on the upturned dirt as he returned it into the shallow grooves, covering the seeds and tubers that had just been planted. It was also the first time he had witnessed this ritual. “We give the birds their own seed to gobble,” his father had told him. “In return, they leave the rest of the crops to grow and provide sustenance for themselves the next year, and they bless us and our crops for it.” As they left the field that day, Einar turned around and watched the birds, their forms black and featureless against the fire of the setting sun, swarm the rows of rye, barley, potatoes, and corn. For the next few days as the seeds germinated, Einar would quietly fret that the birds had taken more than their share and that there wouldn’t be a good harvest. But there always was, and Einar would end up feeling a little guilty with respect to the birds.


There always was a good harvest until the summer of Einar’s fourteenth year. That winter was harsher than it had ever been, and the ground had stayed frozen well past the time when Einar and his father typically sewed the first crops. Crouching to feel the cold dirt, Einar’s father’s worried face looked down to the ground and then to the forest. Einar could sense the worry that bore down on his father’s sagging shoulders. That spring, it seemed that the trees rustled more ominously, the night sounds called out more alarmingly, the shadows loomed more threateningly. And when they had finally been able to plant, Einar had wisely held his tongue as his father still made the offering to the birds. Sensing his concern, Einar’s father had looked at the boy with a quiet seriousness: “We must never forget the birds.” But Einar did not think that the birds had honored his father’s faithfulness when the lack of rain withered most of the corn and potatoes and all the rye and barley. Einar’s father had already been an old man when the boy was born, and by the end of the year, trouble had doubled the lines on his forehead.


There was food, but not nearly enough for a family of six. The younger siblings foraged for berries in the woods. Einar accompanied his mother on the long trek to the village to sell her spun wool, but the villagers had weathered the same winter, and scarcity closed their doors. Hunger, disappointment, and the weight of responsibility wore away at Einar’s father until, right after the sowing the following spring, he was laid in a furrow of his own, his son turning tears and dirt over his body.


Einar was left as the oldest male, and though his mother labored twice as much as ever, Einar, through no words or ceremony, felt the weight of responsibility of his father pass to himself. The plan formed quickly in Einar’s mind as there were truly no other options; he would immediately leave home and its familiar hills and valleys to find some fortune or benevolence to bring back to his mother and siblings. At the very least, he would leave them with one less hungry belly.


--


The pack was heavy on his shoulders, but Einar considered it more of a blessing than a burden. He was returning home with something, having left a year ago with nothing. After hiking for several weeks, fortune had favored Einar, and he had wandered into one of the few, small estates in that region. He spent the next many months working for the landowner and his wife, who showed their generosity when Einar left for home the next spring by loading him down with potatoes, salted meats, a loaf of bread, and a small sack of coins. He had barely supped on this precious cargo, parsing out the bread and eating what wild berries and roots he could find on his long journey home.


As the pockets of sunlight widened towards the edge of the forest, Einar’s steps and heartbeat quickened. He took great pride in knowing he had done what he had set out to do. In the past year, Einar had had to conquer fear after fear as he trekked through new and unknown lands alone. He had cried himself to sleep the first week in the wilderness and again in the servant’s quarters of the estate, thinking of his family, longing to be on the straw mat on his own dirt floor. But there had been much to do and learn in the months on the estate, and he was returning not just with the fruit of his labor but with a mind and body that had been tested physically and mentally. Though he didn’t realize it, those months had pushed out many of the cares and fancies Einar used to have in his head. Nevertheless, he found himself falling into an uneven gait as now giddiness, now anxiety pushed and pulled at his feet. As he approached the end of the woods, he found his excitement being tempered by the question that had gnawed at him during his whole absence. Would his family all still be there and alive?


From the edge of the woods, the path ran gradually up a hill to Einar’s house. As soon as he was ten feet from the grass, he found himself suddenly in a sprint. The house was still there; smoke twisted delicately up through the clear evening sky. In spite of this sign of life, his apprehension grew until, when he was close enough to see his sisters playing by the fire through the window, the door swung open, and he nearly ran into the arms of his mother.


When the joy of being reunited had quieted and as he unpacked his bag and told of his travels, Einar studied his mother’s face. Tight lines that had not been there a year ago ran defiantly across her forehead and vertically above her lips. Her hair, which had always been intricately plated and wound around her head now hung simply down her back and showed a good many silver, wiry strands. For a reason he could not understand, these changes caused a pang in Einar’s heart, and he wished he could somehow undo them. It didn’t occur to him that his mother was equally engaged in examining her son, a maternal pang forming in her own heart as she counted many things in his manner and appearance that were not there the last time she had seen him.


As he closed his narrative, Einar remembered the dead boar he had found in the woods just hours before and made mention of it, omitting the most gruesome details for the sake of his younger siblings. But he had not been cautious enough, or so he thought, for as soon as this bit of information left his mouth, his mother, brother, and two sisters froze and looked at each other. The littlest one started crying, and as Einar’s mother drew the child to herself, she turned to Einar.


“Things have not been well for us lately.” She spoke slowly and quietly. It suddenly occurred to Einar that he had not been greeted by their two dogs or heard the sheep bleating as he had approached the house earlier. His stomach churned as he began to imagine what his family might have been forced to do to survive the winter. But as if she anticipated his thoughts, his mother quickly shook her head and pursed her lips. She stood up and drew Einar to the corner of the house farthest from the children. “As you found the boar–so we found the dogs, just two weeks ago,” she explained, her face pale. “And the sheep, I thought they had run off. We found one slaughtered, and a few days later, we found the other in the west part of the forest.”


Einar struggled to comprehend her words. In all of his life, the only animals he had ever feared were wolves or the occasional boar, both of which were always scared off by the dogs. But between these beasts, neither seemed capable of the type of carnage he and his family had bore witness to.


“Who would do this? Who would be so cruel to us?” Einar demanded, his eyes welling up in exhaustion and indignation.


“My son, I do not think it is any man,” his mother said, raising one hand to his face. She held his cheek for a moment, and she noticed for the first time the fuzziness that had germinated on his face and chin. She turned away toward the window, and her gaze ran down the field, past the furrows, into the murkiness of the night that had already overwhelmed the trees. “Then what is it?” Einar asked. But his mother only shook her head. “I have moved the cow up to the house for the night,” she said. “Surely nothing will come this close.”


Einar had never paid heed to the sounds of the night, but as he lay on his mat in the corner of the house, he stared widely into the dark as his ears drank in every noise: the crickets, the wind, the distant howl of a wolf. But as he listened, Einar became aware of another sound. When it was quite distinguishable, every hair on his arms stood straight, like the coat of a dog when it senses a threat. At first, it sounded like a clicking, but not like any insect Einar had heard before. As the clicking drew closer, it become more metallic, like two axes touching together. Another noise became clearer as well. It was gruff, like the deep calls of a bullfrog, but soft and low, like the snorts of the oxen on the landowner’s farm. The gruff noise moved in tandem with the clicking. Suddenly, a third sound erupted as the cow, which was tied up on the back side of the house, mooed in great alarm, its cries unlike anything Einar had heard out of a cow before. As the three younger children started violently out of sleep, Einar darted to the door. He nearly fell backwards as his mother grabbed his shoulder. Even in the darkness, Einar could see her face was pale. She shook her head. With the cow still crying out, Einar quickly stepped across the house to the back wall and, kneeling, felt along the wood slats for a familiar knot. He put his eye to the crack.


Thanks to the cloudless sky, the moon illuminated the knoll on which the house was situated. Einar could only see the legs and belly of the cow, and he watched it strain forcefully against its lead. The noises were close, but Einar could see nothing unusual in the darkness.


Then three things happened at once.


Abruptly, the scene in front of Einar went completely dark. For a split second, he was confused, but in the next moment he jumped back, nearly knocking his mother over, as he realized that something had moved between his eyes and the cow on the other side of the wall. His heart nearly burst through his chest as, in the same instant, the cow screamed a terrifying, primordial scream. For a moment, Einar could hear nothing except the throbbing of his blood pumping through his ears. Einar, his mother, and the three wakened children sat silent and motionless. As the adrenaline subsided, Einar slowly crawled back to the wall and put his eye as close as he dared. He could see outside, the grass and the post the cow had been tied to. But the cow was gone. So were the strange sounds.


--


Einar held the rope in his hands. As soon as the morning sun had dispelled most of the darkness, Einar and his mother cautiously walked outside and circled the house. The cow was gone–completely. They had expected to find it in the same condition as the other animals, but all that was left was the tether, which looked like it had snapped close to the neck of the cow. The frayed ends told one half of a story of panic and struggle; the strange prints on the ground told the rest. The grass on the back side of the house had been tramped down, and in the dirt closest to the wall that Einar had been looking through, there were tracks: two sets of four thick lines, as if a man walked across the ground with his knuckles, dragging them jaggedly along. Though he did not know what it was, Einar felt in his stomach that his mother was right and that whatever had been on the other side of the wall last night was unhuman.


Although he had only just returned home, it was decided almost immediately that Einar should leave for the village. It would take the better part of the day to get there, and he would have to stay the night and return the next day. With the terrible memory of the previous night so fresh, Einar was frustrated with his mother’s plans. “If I leave,” he argued, “and that thing comes back again tonight, who will keep watch? Who will defend the house?” But his mother insisted. “We have survived this long. Surely we will be fine for one more night. But we will not survive all this summer waiting for our crops to grow with no animals and little food. You have done so much to bring us these silver coins–what good is it to keep them? Should we not exchange them for food?”


Reluctantly, Einar left with an empty pack and the coin purse. His journey took him back through the woods, and for the first few miles, he retraced his steps from the day before. As he neared the spot where he had found the dead boar, he was surprised to be greeted with no stench. It was gone. The only reminder of that gruesome scene was the bloodied dirt and few remaining bits of viscera. The absence of corpse sent a cold shiver down his spine.


The path broke free from the woods about three miles from the village. Taking advantage of the shade while he could, Einar made his way down to the bank of the creek to drink. As he sat back on his knees, wiping his face, Einar rested for a moment and looked around. He ran his fingers through the sand beside him – and froze. The pattern of his fingers had interrupted the pattern of four even, jagged lines that ran in two sets down the riverbank. Instantly, Einar scrambled up and sprinted out of the woods, not stopping until he was quite conscious of the sun beating down on him, and realized he was in the open plains.


--


Barns, pens, and houses scattered the mellow hills that gathered around the valley where the village was situated, as if the excess of local civilization had rolled down the slopes and collected in the lowlands. Einar’s path ran down one such hill, and below him a dozen domiciles sat in a broken circle, like a ring of stones organized by a child playing at shapes, and people like ants milled about, busy at one thing or another. Here Einar was at ease, knowing that he had only to ask for what he needed, and a kind mother or greyed grandfather would direct him towards the household where he could barter for whatever goods they were willing to part with. Even in times of scarcity, the villagers were kind. But Einar did not have to ask, for as soon as he entered the ring of houses, he spotted a gaggle of chickens strutting behind one abode. His mother had decided chickens to be the best investment, as they would quickly produce eggs that could be eaten or grown into more chickens; that, and it was still unlikely that the people here would have any surplus wheat or other crop they’d be willing to sell. Another animal, however, drew Einar’s attention away from the fowl. Horses were not as common as donkeys and oxen in the countryside, and Einar marveled to see one here. For a moment, his thoughts wandered from his objective, and he pictured himself upon the dappled, grey-and-white steed before him. He recalled the image of one of the landowner’s sons galloping across the estate on a similar beast months before; he remembered watching the two of them sprint down through the valley, a single entity of power and resiliency. The owner had just come from the chicken coop. “A beauty, isn’t he?” he said, smiling at Einar. “A bit hard to ride with my old bones, though. I’d be willing to sell him to you.” Einar shook his head and half-smiled, wistful and a bit embarrassed. At that moment, the man’s wife’s head appeared out of the door. Einar remembered this couple; when he had passed through the village a year ago, they had advised him on which direction to travel. The old woman had not forgotten him either. “Ah! Look at you!” she exclaimed as she hobbled out of their home. “You look well, certainly better than when we saw you last year!” she said kindly, briefly recalling the circumstances of Einar’s last trip. He briefly explained how his travels had led him to the estate and that he was back now with money to purchase animals for his family. He did not tell of the strange and horrific things that had made this trip a dire, frightful necessity.


“Oh, we will certainly sell you some chickens. And why don’t you stay with us the night?” the woman said, squeezing his hands. Einar’s face reddened at her grandmotherly affection, but, grateful for the offer, he agreed, and she went back inside to make a place for him to sleep. Not needing to follow her immediately – there was still light, and he had already accomplished his task – Einar took a moment to stroll around the other houses. Most of the adults were busy in the fields or in the houses, and the youngest children in the settlement played with each other in the dirt and grass. But one solitary little girl caught Einar’s eye. While the other children ran amuck, she stood by the doorway of the adjacent house, bent over, scratching in the dust with a stick. Einar walked over to see what kinds of things she was drawing. The girl had made two sets of four straight lines, close together. In between the lines, she had drawn a bird.


Einar blinked. He felt as if it was winter again, and he had fallen through the ice into the creek. The little girl finished, smiled at him, and skipped away. Shaking, Einar spun on his heel and quickly entered the old couple’s house.


“Our goats and cow, they were…killed,” Einar blurted out abruptly. He did not know how much more he could explain without sounding outlandish. He wasn’t even sure why he was trying to now. The old man and woman had not heard him come in and looked at him in surprise. “Killed?” the old woman returned softly. Einar nodded. He watched the woman’s expression change from confusion to an almost terrifying seriousness. A moment passed before she carefully asked, “You have sowed your crops for the year, yes?” she asked. “My mother sowed them while I was gone,” Einar said. The old woman stared at him intently. “Did she leave any for the birds?” Einar didn’t know what to say. He had never heard any other person, even his mother, mention this practice. “I–I don’t know,” he stammered. Both the man and the woman had stopped what they were doing and looked at him gravely. “You must never forget the birds,” the old man said. His eyes were locked onto Einar’s.


The latter was too stunned to say anything, his thoughts tripping over each other. There were so many questions to be asked, but the one that called out the loudest in his head was exactly what the old woman asked–whether or not his mother had forgotten the birds. He started to feel ashamed that he hadn’t thought to ask her about this when he returned home–but why should he have? What did he know about the consequences of not leaving the seed? How did he know that it ever had any true affect to being with? And what could it have to do with the alien, violent creatures that had been terrorizing his family? The last few days had held far more mystery than reason. The only thing Einar was sure of was that his mother had not left the gift for the birds. This was the only possible reason for–for what? Einar could think of nothing else. Nor did he need to question the old man and woman any further, in spite of wanting to find out everything they knew. There was only one thing to do, and Einar prayed he would have the time to do it.


“May I buy your horse?” he asked. The old man nodded, understanding Einar’s plan as the youth quickly counted out all but one of his coins. Without another word, Einar raced outside, untied the horse, and leapt on its back. He took a deep breath and tried again to picture the landowner’s son riding across the fields. As soon as his heels touched the steed’s side, it took off, Einar clinging to its back.


It had taken him the better part of the day to walk to the village; he could only hope that he would make it home before dark. Einar had no desire to put himself at the mercy of whatever was in the woods at night, but beyond that, he knew he had to make it home that very day for the sake of his family, let alone his own safety. He only rested the horse at the stream twice. Riding was easier than he had imagined but also more jarring on his body than he expected. Thankfully, he had spent much time in his short life tending to animals, and the horse seemed to agree with Einar’s leadings as it pounded the dirt path with its hooves.


As the sun began to set, the light in the forest weakened, and the pleasant rays started to fade into cold shadows. Einar’s stomach churned, and he instinctively leaned closer to the horse’s neck to stroke its head, as if to calm his own anxiety. Though it was a blur, Einar saw the creature out of the corner of his eye the same time as his horse. He managed to grasp its mane tightly as the horse, spooked by the form that had come up too close and too quickly, plunged off the path and crashed through the trees. Einar looked to either side as he tried to guide the panicked beast back towards the path–he could not afford to get lost now. He dared not look behind him. Home was just a few miles away, and this gave Einar a bit of courage as the pair continued to race against the night.


When they reached the bottom of the hill, Einar leapt off the panting horse, immediately falling for not being used to riding, and awkwardly tripped his way up the slope and straight through the front door.


“Mother!” he cried, panting. His mother had been pouring water on the ashes in the fireplace, and in her surprise at seeing Einar, she nearly dropped the kettle. “Did you leave seed for the birds?” he demanded, but his mother only looked confused, trying to understand how and why he had returned a day early. Einar grabbed her shoulders and stared wildly into her eyes, fighting to control his voice and speak clearly. “When you planted the crops this year, did you leave one for the birds? At the end of the row, as father always did? Did you leave seed for them?” His mother shook her head, trying to understand his question. “The last year had been so bad, I didn’t want to waste any,” she said, not understanding why she should feel guilty for her actions. Einar yelled in frustration and began tearing around the house. “What! What are you looking for?” his mother cried, and the younger children shrank into a corner as Einar’s scrawny body knocked against the table and the hearth. “Seed! Help me find seed!” Einar shouted, running out and around the house to the cellar. He threw the doors open and nearly twisted his ankles hurtling down the stairs. His mother followed close behind. Einar’s actions, though erratic, were too intentional, too desperate for her to distract him for one second. She went straight to the barley basket where she knew there was a palmful of unground kernels, the crumbs of last year’s pitiful harvest. She shook these remnants into Einar’s hands, and he ran up the stairs and made for the furrows.


The dusk was finally turning to darkness as Einar hastily cast his meager offering at the end of each row. It was just a few seeds, and Einar hoped it would be enough. As he grabbed the horse’s reins and to lead it up the hill, the stars were beginning to appear in their places above him. Einar glanced to the forest and then the field. Everything was still. He led the horse to the back of the house where the cow had been and tied it loosely to the post, hoping that it wouldn’t wander off, but soberly deciding it should have the chance to flee if necessary. As he entered the house, Einar looked once more upon the field. In the dulled colors of the night, Einar watched as first one, then three, then a dozen, then a flurry of birds, almost featureless in the growing darkness, appeared out of nowhere and crowded the ground at the edge of the furrows. For a moment, Einar’s heart swelled with joy; in the next, his focus returned to the impending danger as the birds dissipated. He stepped inside and barred the door behind him.


Without a word, Einar’s mother handed him a sickle that she had taken from the cellar. She held onto a staff Einar’s farther had carved many years ago. Together, they took up garrison in front of the window while the children huddled by the fireplace. There was no pretense of sleeping tonight. Einar’s mother had been much younger than his father when they were wed, and though she was older now, years of caring for her family in a remote land had packed her full of strength and tenacity. It did not matter how much a staff would do little against so enigmatic a foe; she would do what she must. Aside from a few embers in the fireplace, the small house was completely dark, and as he stood by the window, Einar’s eyes slowly adjusted to the nightscape. It was another cloudless night; the grass on the highest points of the landscape glimmered in the moonlight like minnows in the stream, and portions of the dirt path glowed faintly, an uncanny arrow pointing to the woods that had always seemed as mysterious as any other forest but, until lately, were never so ominous.


As he waited, Einar thought back to every spring planting with his father. Einar had never asked about the practice of leaving seeds for the birds even though he didn’t understand it then. And even now, it still made little sense, but this was the first year they had ever failed to leave anything for the birds, and it was the first time Einar had seen or heard of anything so terrifying as what he was, at that moment, preparing himself to face. He wished his father were still alive–maybe he would be able to explain all of this. Maybe Einar would be able to return to the village and ask the old man and woman. Maybe the strange beasts–and here Einar doubted for a moment if they were even real, for to this point, he had still not seen one outright–would forget about them, would cease to exist as they had seemed to his whole life so far, and would never return to their homestead. But the night soon proved otherwise.


The hemline of the woods was distant enough that the trees were a single murky cluster in the dark. But the longer Einar stared, the more he began to think that the darkness itself was moving, swirling around in indistinguishable forms and shapes. At first, he thought his eyes were growing tired, and, leaning the sickle against the window frame, he used both hands to rub his dusty face. When he focused again on the horizon, he saw them. In the farthest illuminated part of the path, Einar could make out large forms running towards the house from the forest. As they grew closer, he saw–was it a glint of metal?–dragging across the ground where feet would be. The rest of the beasts’ bodies remained dark and indistinguishable. Einar did not need to see more detail to be affected, for he found his knees buckling and his heart pounding. If he had looked at his mother, Einar would have seen shaking hands clenching the staff, her pale face also riveted on the distant activity outside. But Einar did not take his eyes off the beasts, even as they approached the bottom of the hill. He thought he could make out ten different forms, each larger than a man. Einar took the sickle in his hands again and gripped it tightly.


The closer they came, the more Einar let himself admit that a sickle and a staff would do little to protect the family. The horse would surely be taken first–or, if they were fortunate, would whinny and run, providing a distraction–before they broke through the window or busted through the door.


They were now at the crest of the hill, and Einar could hear the familiar clicking and grunts. Thirty yards from the house.


Einar swallowed hard. Twenty yards.


He thought of his father, bending over the rows of wheat; he saw his sunken face on his deathbed.


Ten yards.


There was a sudden change in the scene before him. Whereas the creatures had been swiftly closing in on the house, the were still moving, but coming no closer. He could see their outlines jerking violently, as if in a crazed dance. This terrified Einar even more than their approach. Though the infinite forest made a poor background, Einar noticed something. He caught the outline of a bird diving from the sky into the group of beasts. And then he saw another–and another, and another, until the conglomeration of beasts and birds before him was one dark mass, barely illuminated by the moon. From every corner of the heavens, from the woods and the fields, the blackened shapes of birds came flying at full speed and rained down upon the beasts. Einar strained his eyes–was the mass beginning to fade? Indeed, the entire group of creatures was moving towards the woods. Like a whirlwind, the birds swept the beasts back, torturing them with beaks and wings and talons. Even through the window and walls, Einar could hear the percussive sound of wings beating against the strange bodies of the beasts, whose low, gruff bellows began to grow fainter. Einar and his mother watched the mob disappear as gradually as it had appeared just minutes earlier. A few more moments passed before Einar unlatched the door and, still clutching the sickle, boldly planted one foot on the ground. Nothing remained before him but a few plucky crows hopping around the house on the ground, tilting their heads now towards Einar, now towards the woods. All was quiet.


--


Smoke from the chimney signaled life and breakfast to Einar as he took his time walking back up the path to the house. As soon as the sun was fully up, he had, wielding the sickle, bravely walked down the path to (but not in) the woods. Just ten yards from the door, Einar saw much what he expected; the dirt and grass were disheveled with signs of a fray. Tufts of strange, brown fur still connected to bits of flesh littered the ground with blood trailing nowhere in particular. The rest of the path to the woods was scuffed, and every now and then, Einar recognized the four-lined trail of the beasts. At the edge of the woods, he stopped and scanned the trees. There was no sign of the strange, horrible creatures or even of the massive assembly of birds that had driven them away. The woodland sat before him as it always had, tranquilly lit by persistent rays of sun that parted leaves and limbs to bathe the forest floor, washing away the memories of what had traveled in and out the past few days. Einar gave a half smile and turned around.


Before he drew close to the house, Einar veered off and walked towards the field. A small bird that had been ambling down a row of corn was startled by his presence and flew off. Again, Einar’s thoughts wandered to his first memory of planting this same field with his father. He pictured the old man’s cracked, thick fingers dropping seeds into the dirt all along the rows. He held out his hand, imaging in his own palm the portion for the birds that his father poured out at the end. He could picture his father’s face turning towards him, smiling and saying softly, “One for the birds, Einar. We must never forget the birds.” Einar gazed upon the furrows, eyeing row after row of tiny green stalks. There would be a good harvest this year.


 

© Eliza McNelly, 2020 and 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eliza McNelly with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Cover art © Jay McNelly, 2020 and 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the artist and/or site owner/author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jay McNelly with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.