Chapter One: Jhator

     Anat found a place on a bare, gray branch of a white pine, a place that had been scarred by lightning years before. She bowed her red, naked head in sorrow and gazed at the young man bleeding on the rocks below. He was broken, his limbs splayed at odd angles. His breath wheezed painfully. He would not live if help did not come very soon.

   Anat knew how these things happened. Even the most wonderful of days could go disastrously wrong. The young man was in no condition to tell her how he ended up forty feet below the trail he was hiking. At any rate, he did not want to talk to her; he could not even bear to look at her. He knew why she was there. He turned his face from her and wept. The scavenger did not need to be told anything. She knew he woke up on an early spring day shining with the promise of summer. He made the spontaneous decision to call in sick to work. No one knew where he had gone. He would not even be missed until the following morning and by then he would be dead. He took a closed path in the state park, so overgrown that he could not see how close he was to the mountain trail's edge until he stepped into open air. He had a cell phone in his pack but he lay on top of it and could not move either of his broken arms. He would only be saved if someone else played hooky that day, took the same forbidden path and chanced to spot him  below the ledge.

     "Can you hear me?" Anat called gently. "I know you are in pain. Is there any comfort I can offer you?" The young man squeezed his eyes shut. Anat sighed. He had closed his ears to her.

     Then, to her surprise, he said, "They'll never find me, will they?" He had opened his eyes again and was gazing up at the slender trees and shrubs that had found meager holds in the cracks in the rocks and threw screens of leaves across nearly every conceivable line of sight. He was right. Even from the air,no one would ever see him. Were it not for their sense of smell, even the vultures would have trouble finding him. He spoke again. "You'll wait 'til I'm gone--until there's no breath, no nothing, right?"

     "We never kill," she replied. "We never inflict pain. We wait with you when no one else will.." He breathed more softly. The sun was starting its late afternoon descent and his pain was ebbing. He was able to accept what was happening to him. While he still possessed understanding, Anat told him, "We are grateful for your gift. We bless you and wish you well on your journey." She thought she saw a glimmer of a smile. And she crooned a strange tune to ease his passing, a song in a minor key so ancient no one else in the world but Anat knew how to sing it.

     The carrion bird kept her vigil as evening threw a shroud of shadows over the young man, until she could see and smell that the young man was no longer alive. Even though she knew the shattered vessel was empty, she still kept watch through the evening and on into the night, now and then humming that first timeless song that would send the soul on its way. Dawn broke and in the growing warmth of the day Anat could smell that the flesh on the rocks below her was a young man no longer. Now it was sacred food.

     The vulture cocked her head and watched the sky. After a while, a swarm of black specks appeared in the distance. In time, the specks took on the exclamation point shape of sable seeds from a milkweed pod. They grew into obsidian chevrons--the familiar v shape of wings lofting on the air currents. Anat's children were approaching.

     Stretching out her great ebony wings, Anat launched herself from her perch and glided easily down to the rock slab. She probed and worked and worried the torn, bloodied clothing, the rents in the flesh. It would be easier for her children to feed thoroughly if she first prepared the gift. Anat was, after all, a very good mother.

     Her children began arriving in twos and threes. They arranged themselves around their mother and around the food. There were so many, the feeding would not take long. Anat was glad. It was time for her to migrate. She would leave this southern mountain for the northeast. It was spring, when the thaw would reveal the winter's toll. Anat would have much to do and.there was someone she had to meet.