The Shrike was first published in audio on Pseudopod
By the time she’s thrown herself upright and grasped for the remote with shaking hands, it’s too late. She’s seen it. She’s heard the words. Instead, she stumbles for the kitchen sink, feeling her throat clench with acrid, stinging horror. The vibrant green and brown hues of the nature documentary wash the inside of her darkened apartment, sonorous tones of the narration hanging in the air. She tries not to listen as she hunches over the filthy, dish-choked sink, retching and gasping for air, but the words still come. Thorns. Impale. Butcher.
Coupled with ambien and supermarket gin, the nature documentaries had been the only thing that helped her fall asleep for the last month, but that’s over now. Ruined in a single fusillade of frames and words. She shuts her eyes tight, presses her face to the cracked tile of the kitchen counter as sobs rock her wasting frame. Behind her eyelids, she sees what she always sees. Trinity on the spike, wide and terrified eyes going glassy with blood loss as her little mouth struggles and fails to form a plea for help. But now the jagged spar of rusted iron in the little girl’s throat has a name, christened by the late night documentary on the cruel hunting habits of predatory birds.
Shrike. It repeats in her ears, a ringing bell striking midnight. Shrike. In the cold clarity of the moment, she feels a silver thread of relief. She knows the name of the thing, now. It is no longer just a factor, one link in the chain of her fatal, unforgivable mistake. The Shrike is an entity. It is something outside herself she can blame. Something she can hate.
Her guilt gives way to a cold and searing anger, like ice pressed too-long against skin. She relishes the feeling, letting it hone her, giving her purpose. She wakes early and calls the office. Instead of tearfully requesting one more week’s extension, she tells them she won’t be back. Tells them to fuck off and to choke on their performative sympathy.
The thundering pain in her head relents under the onslaught of coffee and ibuprofen. She gets fully dressed for the first time in a week, and goes downstairs to see the Shrike. It’s not far from her apartment. Across Lake Street, and down the sharply slanted private sidewalk, passing from rows of apartments to the lavish houses of Sea Cliff. At the bottom, tucked between two driveways leading to cavernous garages, there’s the little stairway of reclaimed redwood and the sandy public footpath to the beach.
She slows now, twenty meters from the spot where Trinity died. There’s still a ragged strip of caution tape at the bottom of the stairs, and two bright orange traffic cones that mark the point of separation between past and present. She had expected city maintenance workers would remove the Shrike, now that it had taken a life, but they’ve merely put up a meek warning and let it be.
She can see it as she approaches. The sounds of the ocean on the far side of the rise churn with the lazy Monday morning beach traffic. She follows the meandering footpath that bisects the undeveloped triangle of grassy dunes, where the trickle of Lobos Creek continues its polluted babbling, unaware of her accelerating heartbeat. She stops, ten meters from the spot where her child died.
The Shrike, a rusted thorn of rebar, juts up from the sand in the middle of the path. She doesn’t know if it was part of an old building, or maybe a small retaining wall to keep the hillside from collapsing. Any trace of its previous purpose is gone. It must have been longer once, because the end terminates in a smooth plane, where more of the iron was sheared away. The salt spray and ocean air has pitted and scarred most of it, but the flat, angled blade at the tip glints in the pale morning sun.
She used to wonder why it hadn’t been cut shorter, down by the dirt, when she walked by it with Trinity every morning on the way to daycare. For the first few months, she’d held her daughter’s hand as they passed, a queasy, inarticulate sense of dread welling up as she navigated gingerly around it.
She always considered taking the long way down the hill, walking the cracked sidewalks of 25th Ave, just to avoid the irrational sense of danger the tiny iron rod elicited in her. But the footpath through the dunes saved her five minutes, sometimes ten if Trinity was in full magpie mode, stopping to pick up every bottle cap or discarded trinket. So she swallowed the anxiety, and held her daughter close.
As Trinity sprouted, long and lean, she chafed at her mother’s hand holding. The girl ran ahead on the familiar route, leaving her mother racing to catch up. And when the weeks grew longer, and the money stretched thin, sometimes she was still hazy and headachy from the night before. The whispering dread of the anomalous metal spike subsided in the fog, and she let Trinity run ahead, calling out at her to be careful, but too far away to stop what was coming.
It’s taller now, she realizes. Not by much, just enough so that someone who’d obsessed over its presence would notice. For one oily moment, she imagines that it has grown, fed on the blood of her child. Her knees go soft. It’s more likely the sand beneath it has shifted, the frame of reference changed, but… She has to take a step back to keep from pitching forward. She can feel the hungry gravity of the Shrike.
A thrill of elation whispers through her endocrine system. She was right. The Shrike is more than old detritus at the hinterlands of city and sea. This is something wrong.
That’s the moment she starts to make the plan.
Her apartment is between the hardware store and the Shrike, so she stops in for a drink of water. When the glass is empty, she fills it with gin, and drains it again.
The two more blocks to the little hardware store slide by in a dizzy glee. Her cheeks hurt from grinning. The utter hopelessness of the last month has evaporated like the late summer fog. She can’t bring Trinity back, but she can fix the mistake. She can balance the scale.
She fills a basket: a metal cutting hacksaw, a pair of bolt cutters with absurdly long handles, a folding shovel, and a box of mints next to the register. She drops it all on the counter, too hard, and it clatters and nearly tips over.
The clerk, the same elderly man with thinning black hair that has manned the register for the past five years, recognizes her despite the sunglasses she’s still wearing. He lights up, his wide smile showing three silver crowns. She grins in response, both from reflexive politeness and the lingering manic glee.
“Ah!” he exclaims, pulling the heavy metal tools out of the basket and passing them in front of the humming scanner. “Got a big project planned?”
She just keeps grinning from behind her mirrored lenses. She doesn’t know what to say. Her teeth grind, the enamel threatening to give, but she keeps grinning. The clerk freezes for a minute, unsure of how to reclaim the script.
“Where’s the little one?” he asks, as he rings up the mints. “Don’t often see the two of you-”
“It killed her.” She blurts it out, the words slippery and half-formed. She regrets saying it the moment she sees his face go slack, but it’s too late. She doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know how to escape the awkward moment, so she thrusts out her credit card and grins harder.
It’s silent in the store now, as other patrons turn towards her or pointedly away. Near the front of the store, a police officer has stopped shuffling through packages of batteries to turn and look. His brow furrows as his face slides into a theatrical mask of concern, worry, and sympathy. The familiarity of his worthless, insincere expression fills her throat with anger and shame, and she feels her legs tense with a sudden rabbit urge to run.
The clerk is still staring, silvered mouth half agape. It’s the look of a man who has heard an offensive joke he’s not sure if he can let go without comment. She pushes the credit card down into his hands, the feral rictus of the grin feeling like an implicit threat on her own face.
He places the tools in a bag, and slides her the receipt. Neither of them make eye contact again.
She meant to go straight to the Shrike, but the queasy interaction with the clerk has stolen some of the electric current from her limbs. She walks the two blocks east to the little market, and selects a modest sized bottle of gin.
Back at the house she decides it would be wise to go out after nightfall anyway. It’s hot in a way that only September in San Francisco can be. When she moves, she’s covered in a thin film of clinging sweat, and only stillness stops the flow. She draws the blinds and cranks up the air conditioner she never uses. She waits.
An hour later, someone knocks on the door, a sharp authoritative rhythm. She doesn’t even consider answering it.
She hadn’t fallen in love with the infant at first sight, like everyone had told her she would. In the small hours of the first few mornings, the strongest emotions roused in her by the mewling, mindless grub had been an intertwined spiral of guilt and resentment.
But when the hormones had shifted her brain chemistry into timeworn channels, the biological urge to protect her child felt close enough to love. She’d watched Trinity unfurl from a thing into a person, felt a numinous joy as the child blossomed into consciousness right in front of her. A delicate, self-assembling, glass construct of innocence and desire emerging from the fog.
And then she’d watched her die on the thorn. Watched every delicate coil and loop of her daughter’s mind undone all at once, a knot slit open with a sword.
She wakes with a start. The clock bleeds red numbers, 12:51 AM, and her head is throbbing. She fills the dirty glass with water, drains it, and fills it with the last of the gin. Then she pulls on a thin coat, and hoists the hardware store bag over her shoulder, and heads out into the cooling night to kill the Shrike.
The Shrike is lit up as if the night knows well who rules this place. By day it’s just the detritus of decades of careless urban planning, but under the stars, all pretense is gone. It’s the tooth of something malefic beneath the skin of the city, reflecting more amber streetlight than its rust-pitted exterior should allow.
Her manic courage vanishes, splashing against the ground like a punctured amniotic sac. It’s looking right at her. She knows the thought is absurd, even for all the framework she’s built around the finger of rebar, all the hate and anger and guilt she’s projected on it. But it is aware. It sees her.
There is no momentum now. No tug. No feeling of righteousness. She has to pick up each leaden foot and drag it forward. The air grows thick as she approaches. The distant sound of the waves vanishes, as if the tides have stopped to watch. For the first time since she named the Shrike, something cuts through the grief, through the anger at herself and the mindless cruelty of physics. Terror, cold and oily, seeps in through her skin and clenches at her lungs. Her heart skitters. The eyeless face of the Shrike still glares at her, but now it laughs with a lipless mouth. A low, arrogant chuckle like shifting sand and creaking metal.
She shakes her head so hard that her teeth crack together, and stomps the last few meters across the sand path. She starts to hum, a thrust of breath through clenched jaws. An insipid, looping melody from Trinity’s favorite TV show. And then she’s there. Close enough to touch the thing that killed her little girl.
She drops down to her knees to look up close, and to quell the sudden fear that she might pitch forward. The pull of gravity tilts at an angle here. She feels the cold, atavistic hunger radiating from the Shrike like a radio broadcast in her fillings.
She tries the bolt cutters first. When the metal blades encircle the Shrike, she expects a swell of power and satisfaction, but instead she feels clumsy and weak. She can’t find the right leverage, the right angle. She squeezes the long grips but the blades only dig shallow divots into the old iron. She tries again and again, leaving parallel gouges across the base of the Shrike, the rust stripped back to reveal gleaming iron strength.
The blade of the hacksaw won’t bite. It slips and skitters across the surface, barely leaving a mark. She sucks in a deep breath, hums the little tune as loud as she can with her jaw set tight, and presses harder. The blade snaps with a musical twang.
She tries to remove the curled wreckage of the blade, but as her cold hands fumble for the release in the dark, the serrated metal catches on her hands and bites deep. Blood spatters on the sand, tapping out a steady beat. She jerks her hands back, half in instinctual self-protection, half to keep the Shrike from finding any more nourishment in her pain.
She sucks at the sliced fingers until the flow ceases. It’s right next to her as she squats in the sand, just a thin rod of metal. But it seems to tower over her. To dwarf her tiny presence like an ancient tree. It’s not her imagination, she realizes. The thing has grown, even since earlier today. Her blood has watered it, twice now, and it will grow more.
In the silent dark, she dreams of leaving. Standing up, leaving the pile of tools, and walking home to her bed. Tomorrow she has an appointment with a therapist. Tomorrow she can wake up clear, relishing the clarity of a headache and the morning sun. She can forget the Shrike.
But that’s a fantasy. She can’t leave anymore than she can reach her hands into the sand and pull Trinity back from the earth. She unfolds the shovel, and begins to dig.
The cuts on her hands open up, and blood slicks the handle. She knows she’s feeding the Shrike, but what’s a little more blood when it’s already gorged itself on her life. She’s a half meter down, and the iron roots of the Shrike keep going. It stands, erect and mocking in the wet pit, twice as tall now. She wraps her hands around it, feeling an electric frisson of revulsion with the touch, and tries to pull, but it’s rooted too deep in the earth. She continues to dig.
She doesn’t hear the polite call of the officer from behind her, doesn’t see his flashlight as it waves across the sand. She’s too caught in the rhythm of digging, revealing more and more of the Shrike with each thrust into the earth. Each centimeter revealed is a validation. The deeper it burrows into the dirt, the more she knows she’s not crazy.
He reaches his hand out onto her shoulder. She screams, swinging the shovel up in an arc. He jerks back, not far enough, and the sand covered blade slices across his forehead. A flap of skin peels back, blood misting the night air, and he drops the flashlight as he raises his hands in defense. The big, black light rolls into the hollow at the base of the Shrike, backlighting it like some foul monument.
The cop wipes the blood from his eyes and she watches in horror as he flicks it into the pit, straight into the belly of the Shrike. She takes a step back. His eyes lock on hers, rimmed in blood and narrowed in frustration. One hand is on the grip of his service pistol.
“Miss, I need you to drop the shovel and put your hands on your head,” he says. She complies, letting the folding shovel fall. He relaxes, relieved at her compliance, and he half turns towards the pit, eyes casting about for the flashlight. She freezes, the moment on a knife edge, unsure of what comes next.
“I tried coming by earlier today to check on you, after…” he sighs as he steps closer to the Shrike. “Some of your neighbors have been worried about you for a while.”
He bends over, reaching into the pit.
“You can’t be out here in the middle of the night, just-”
He slips, one foot sliding on loose sand, and she knows the gravity of the Shrike has him. She reaches out.
She wants to tell herself that she’s going to grab him, to pull him back.
But that would be a lie.
She pushes. Pushes him down.
The Shrike bites deep into his gut. He’s almost silent as he falls, just a brief, shocked exhalation. The iron glides up inside him. She can see the Shrike twisting, unmistakably alive and sentient, bending to find the cruelest path through his insides. He gasps as it punctures his lung, his body weight and her hands forcing him deeper onto the Shrike’s thorn. It plunges through his heart until the hungering tip grinds to a rest on the bones of his ribs.
He wraps weak and trembling hands around the Shrike as blood cascades down into the maw of the pit. His eyes, glassy and fading like Trinity, tilt up to her. She holds him, pressing him into the Shrike. An offering. A plea.
His last breath is a wet mist in the air, eyes fogging over as they mutely beg her for an explanation. She has none. There is none to give.
She waits with him, kneeling in the pit as the Shrike drinks deep.
She keeps digging.
The dead man balances in the air, on the tip of the Shrike, as she descends beneath him into the mouth of the earth. The iron shaft of the Shrike burrows deep into the ground, and she follows it down, meter after meter.
There are more dead down here, impaled on the great thorn. Centuries of dead. Skeletons with ragged bits of clothing and flesh clinging to bleached bone. Fresh kills that twitch and gasp. She continues downward.
A great iron tower of dead, sunk beneath the ground. Each one a tragedy, a gaping unhealed wound in the world of the living above. Each one a meal for the insatiable Shrike.
She knows what’s coming. This deep, the red walls of the pit breathe, a slow exhalation of the Shrike’s innards. It’s not the bottom. The Shrike has no end, no terminus, but she has come deep enough.
Trinity, as fresh and warm as the day she died, is speared on the thorn. There is no going deeper. She has fed the Shrike, and now it shows her what she wanted to see. She came here to kill the cruel thing, but now, deep beneath the earth, with the devoured all around her, she sees how foolish that thought was. She might as well have tried to kill the sky.
She curls up on the bleeding soil, wrapping her body around Trinity, around the thorn, and struggles to stay awake. Fatigue seeps into her bones. High above, through the narrow aperture, the sky turns the color of a livid bruise as the sun rises. The dawn light silhouettes the dead officer at the tip of the thorn. The hole above is shrinking, the earth closing like jaws. She shuts her eyes. She hoped to feel some measure of relief, some sense of accomplishment before the night ended, but instead she feels nothing. Just an exhaustion like brutal gravity.
As the sky vanishes above, the Shrike swallows her for good. She wraps her arms around the dead child, and hums the simple little tune.