Adam Marek’s first story collection, Instruction Manual for Swallowing, was published by Comma Press in 2007, and nominated for the Frank O’Connor Prize. In 2010, his short story ‘Fewer Things’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Sort Story Award. His stories have appeared in Prospect magazine, Stinging Fly and Riptide, and in many anthologies including Litmus, When It Changed and The New Uncanny from Comma Press, two Bridport Prize collections and the British Council’s New Writing 15. He has also recently been awarded the 2011 Arts Foundation Fellowship in short story writing.
Photo © Andy Hay
The Stone Thrower
Hal was awakened by a brief expletive from one of the chickens outside. And then there was another, coupled with a dull thud. Out of bed, Hal stuck his head into the hoverfly graveyard between netting and pane to see that in the enclosure directly below the window, two of the chickens were dead.
And then a third fell. Right there as Hal watched. Something had shot down from the sky and smacked its head against the chicken wire, felling it with a squawk. A black pebble. The kind Maddy and his boys were collecting from the lake shore just yesterday, right outside the holiday house they’d fled to. Now, the other stones in the pen, the ones that had killed the first two chickens, were conspicuous beside them. Three stones, three dead chickens.
Hal followed the line of trajectory back, all the way across the other side of the lake, where there was a person, a male, young. His white t-shirt was vivid against the dark wall of conifers behind as he curled his arm, winding himself up onto his back foot. He uncoiled with a co-ordinated swish that took in the whole of his body, terminating at his fingertips. The pebble he threw only became visible at the top of its arc, as it rounded against the brightening sky. Its descent was invisible, until it flared into being again, upon the head of chicken number four.
Now almost half the coop was killed.
These were not Hal’s chickens, but while he rented the house by the lake they were his charges. Indignation took him outside in his pyjamas, stopping only to plunge his feet into the still-damp boots that waited by the porch door with their tongues out.
‘Oi!’ He yelled, with his hands cupped either side of his mouth. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ The other side of the lake was far, five minutes in a row boat or a 10-minute walk round the side, too far to think about chasing the kid off.
Again the boy cocked his arm back and threw. Hal retreated to the porch, imagining what havoc a pebble lobbed that distance might wreak on his skull.
Hal heard the whistle of the stone displacing air as it shot into the coop and struck the back of chicken number five. The remaining four hopped up against the wire, all in the same corner, as if once there had been a door there.
Hanging on one of the hooks in the porch, alongside musty raincoats and propped oars, were Hal’s binoculars. Watching the boy, he did not feel the sense of invisibility and omnipotence that he felt when watching the redstarts and flycatchers in the woods behind the house. Instead, he felt an increased sense of vulnerability, as if he were physically closer to the boy, and therefore an easier target—if there were such a thing as an easier target to this demon who’d felled five chickens with five stones from an impossible distance. Impossible, because he’d thrown stones from the shore himself, with his boys, on several occasions over the last week. There’d been no attempts to throw stones to the other side because it was inconceivably far. They’d thrown only for the pleasure of throwing.
The boy looked only a year or two older than Joseph, the eldest of his boys, maybe eleven or twelve. He moved with a disquieting confidence for a child. His hair was long at the front, a ridiculous blonde fringe that hung over his right eye, all the way to his mouth. He stooped again, and the range of his spine stood out all the way down his back.
When he stood and threw, the thrust of his out-thrown arm, the coiling and uncoiling of energy in his form, was breathtaking. Here was art. Prodigious skill, and in his face an Olympian’s focus. Not the snarl Hal had expected, the kind of wonky facial arrangement that the local yahoos presented when they goaded him from the bus shelter on his trips to the chemist. This boy looked like a good boy. He was clean, and were he in a playing field hurling baseballs, his fringe tucked inside a cap, would be a magnet for admiration.
The sixth chicken fell.
‘Will you stop for God’s sake!’ he yelled from the porch. ‘I have children in the house. I have a sick child. This isn’t our house. These aren’t my chickens.’
There were footsteps on the stairs, and then the inner door to the porch opened. It was Maddy in a pair of Hal’s pyjamas.
‘Get back upstairs!’ Hal said. ‘There’s a crazy kid out here throwing stones.’
‘Throwing stones?’ Maddy came fully into the porch, rubbing the heel of her palm in her eye.
The seventh chicken was struck in such a way that a flurry of feathers sprang out from the point of impact on its lower back. Its last cluck was a deflated wheeze.
Now the remaining two were hopping from one corner to the next, frantic, bobbing their heads forward, stepping round their fallen comrades.
‘Don’t go out there!’ Maddy said as Hal flung open the door and bolted outside. Across the lake, the boy passed a pebble from right hand to left. Hal ran, and while he ran he threw his hands up into the air and called out ‘stop!’ once again. But the boy did not stop.
‘Get in here you idiot!’ Maddy said, her head venturing no more than an inch or two outside. ‘Have you called the police yet? I’m going to call the police.’
While Hal’s fingers were on the latch of the coop, he saw the boy throw. Hal flicked the metal hook from the eye. The chicken wire bit into his fingers as he lifted the door to swing it open. He scampered back to the house and was at the porch door when he turned and saw the eighth chicken fall, twitching. One of its legs kicked a regular beat in the dirt. It managed maybe ten of these kicks before a second stone smacked down straight on its head, making its legs buck up off the ground.
‘Is the number for the police still the same on a mobile?’ Maddy said.
The boys were on the stairs now, and Maddy yelled at them, ‘get back in your room! Keep away from the windows!’ But the draw of her panic brought smiles to their faces, widened their eyes, quickened their footsteps.
Hal barked with exasperation at the last chicken, whose timid evacuation of the cage was happening one slow strut at a time. Hal’s shouts did nothing but force blinks out of its dumb face.
Again the boy stooped.
Hal ran out, leaping from side to side, corralling the chicken into the corner where the coop butted up against the house. Inside, Maddy held the boys back with her outstretched leg while she translated this event into terse statements of fact for the emergency services operator.
The back of Hal’s neck prickled, sensitive to the stone’s accelerating descent. He raked his fingers through the soft dirt and flung a handful of powdered soil and tiny stones to the left of the chicken, causing her to flap and flee, stranding herself in the corner, head pushed up against the house. And it was here that Hal seized her, throwing the whole length of himself into the dirt.
With the chicken squeezed between his two palms, he rolled onto his back, pivoted on his backside and was up and out of the way just as the stone hit the spot where he’d been less than a second ago and bounced up against the white-wood panels of the house.
Inside the safety of the porch, the boys were amazed at the sight of a chicken alive indoors. Hal held it aloft, his pride immovable under the blizzard of Maddy’s curses.
‘Are the police on their way?’ He asked.
‘...such a moron, thick as pig shit,’ Maddy continued. ‘Risking your life for a goddamn chicken. The boys and me alone in the house...’
‘Who’s out there Dad?’ Joseph asked. ‘Are the chickens really all dead?’
‘All but this one,’ Hal said, holding it up again. The chicken’s neck was fully elongated, its head swivelling left and right, eyes rapid-blinking, a camera shutter to take everything in. Hal looked out the window, at the boy across the lake, but only just glimpsed him walking away before the window exploded inwards.
The boys screamed. Something flashed across Hal’s face. His whole world shattered into bright fragments for a second. They were stunned by the sound of shards striking floortiles. Hands and arms flew up protectively, backs turned away from the window. There was blood. And all the while, he held the chicken high, his arms maintaining their stalwart position against the chaos.
Only when all the glass had fallen, and the clatter was ended, could Hal comprehend the scene. The faces of Maddy and both boys were spattered with blood. He felt something well up on his eyebrow and drip down onto his cheekbone. The chicken was decapitated, still kicking between his hands. Its blood ran down his arms, gathering at his elbows.
They were each stranded in a sea of glass, Maddy ordering them not to move, she and the boys barefoot. Their walking boots were cups for long and wicked splinters.
Outside, the boy was gone.
©2011 Adam Marek
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Instruction Manual For Swallowing at Comma Press
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Interview on short story writing with Marek in Thresholds