Excerpt

Hollow Kingdom

Kira Jane Buxton

August 8, 2019 
The following is an excerpt from Kira Jane Buxton's genre-bending debut novel, Hollow Kingdom. Kira Jane Buxton’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She calls the tropical utopia of Seattle, Washington, home. Hollow Kingdom is about a pet crow fighting to save humanity from an apocalypse.

In the days after Big Jim’s eyeball rolled out of his head, it became clear that I was going to have to pick up some of the slack. All of the slack, in fact. Since Big Jim was so busy jabbing his finger at the  basement wall and doing a stellar impression of a rabid raccoon, I took on even more of the household chores than I normally do. I put clothes in the laundry machine and dealt with Dennis’s not-so-subtle hints at dinnertime when he pummeled his food bowls as if they had castrated him. Filling his water bowl proved tricky for me, so I escorted him to the porcelain throne which was fruitful and utterly revolting. Honestly, the toilet wand has more dignity.

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In the mornings, I waited for the young MoFo with the red headphones to hurtle past on his bike faster than a toupee in a hurricane, for him to use his black-and-white projectile to decapitate another hydrangea flower head. He never came. Neither did the car dealership mailers or the Amazon packages or our Big Butts™ magazine subscription. It was curious. Curious enough for me to contemplate tuning into the goat rodeo that is Aura. Something you might be unaware of—in the natural world, there is an Internet. In English, it would roughly translate to Aura because it is all around us. It’s not the same as MoFo Internet with YouTube crabby cat videos and sneezing infant pandas, but it is similar in that it is a network, a constant flow of information at your disposal, if you can be bothered to tune in and listen. Information streams daily via the winged ones, the judicious rustle of the trees, and the staccato percussion of insects. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a MoFo claim, “Listen to that bird’s mating song!” writing off the feathered kind as licentious horndogs (they are not squirrels for shit sakes). In fact, the birds are delivering information through melodic verse, releasing intricate notes much like how the trees whisper their slow secrets into the wind on the wings of leaves. A torrent of warnings, stories, adages, poems, threats, how-tos, real estate info, survival tips and non sequitur jokes are available for those who tap in. Everything talks, you just have to be willing to listen.

There certainly is a social dating service element to it, but not as much as most MoFos believe. Of course, there are those who refuse to tap in. Like yours truly, who had access to the real Internet and didn’t feel that there was anything to be gained from all the twitter. You know who else never listened? Roadkill. There has never been an excuse for roadkill. Aura sounds with constant stories and statistics about cars and the perils of nearing the great white lines. Warning calls ring through the stratosphere—from green stinkbug to glaucous- winged gull—and still, the idiots who don’t heed end up as curbside tortillas. Sometimes I have the thought that a lot of species are hardwired to refuse to listen to warnings. And that’s how they end up extinct.

I braved Aura. Silence. An Aura silence can be cause for alarm. Either there aren’t enough birds or participating trees around to spread the scuttlebutt. Or everyone is hiding from a nearby predator. A flight around the neighborhood confirmed that the roads around our house were eerily still—no cars zipping below like frenetic jewel weevils. It was as if a Sunday morning had flown in and made a permanent nest. This is when I started to get shivers that felt like an army of mites scurrying through my plumage, and dread spread a dull, hollow ache through my bird bones.

If I’m honest, I had a feeling that something was happening beyond our russet-brown front door, beyond our sleepy neighborhood. Something big and ominous and probably quite shitty, but I didn’t like to leave Big Jim and I needed to lock things down at home and wait until he was feeling better before we decided to face the world together—always together. I checked on Big Jim hourly, bringing him bologna, Funyuns®, and the two Cheetos® I was willing to spare. I even rolled a Monster energy drink down the basement stairs for him. He showed interest in nothing but drooling and scraping his bloody finger across the wall. I brought the keys to his beloved gunmetal-gray Ford F-150 with the keep honking, i’m reloading bumper sticker to see if a ride would perk him up. The silver keys caught his attention for a brief moment, but then he snarled, snapped at me (not verbally, with his actual teeth), and resumed dragging a finger at the concrete. Whatever was wrong with him was serious. When, after several days of this basement weirdness, he hadn’t masturbated or mentioned the state of the economy, I declared a state of emer-Jim-cy.

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Big Jim was in the grips of a medical crisis and it was up to yours truly to make things right again. I felt confident I knew what to do, an innate, natural instinct thrumming inside me. First, I had to make sure that Dennis was preoccupied. After watching him shit into the sound hole of Big Jim’s guitar and then run full steam into the kitchen door, I felt reassured. Exacting his revenge on the doorknob for the attack was taking precedence over anything else. It seemed unlikely that Dennis would venture down to the basement for a while, given his level of focus and typical chokehold on a grudge. Besides, ever since Big Jim’s eyeball fell out, Dennis had steered clear of him. Man’s best friend indeed. More like man’s neediest parasite that would trade you in for a bull-penis dog chewy at the drop of a hat.

Inquisitiveness grabbed me by the beak and wouldn’t let go—if you think cats are curious, try being an enlightened crow.

I flew out the kitchen window, over the yard, and up into a wolf-gray sky above the evergreen line to spy on the general situation. Though Seattle is a city thirstier than most, on this day, the rains stayed up high. Usually, Big Jim and I ride all over Seattle in his truck as he works on various houses and their electrical shitstorms, and we spend a lot of time at Home Depot and the feed store, but I never venture far alone. Today, I had to. This was a mission for Big Jim.

From the highest branch of a Douglas fir, everything seemed quiet except for the prattle of squirrels that I tried to block out (much of what they say can’t be unheard, which is unfortunate since squirrels are five-star sexual deviants). As I neared my destination, I was distracted by an odd scene. Inquisitiveness grabbed me by the beak and wouldn’t let go—if you think cats are curious, try being an enlightened crow. I craned my neck to get a better look and honed in on a topsy-turvy vision. Ten wheels suspended in the air. A rainbow of gasoline, pools of black oil. My mind took its time unraveling the twisted mess in front of me. Green where there should be yellow, yellow where there should be green. I swooped down closer to find an upturned King County Metro bus. The bus had plowed into the side of the Blessed Sacrament Church, smashing right through the red brick ribs of the enormous edifice. When Big Jim has had too much Pabst Blue Ribbon and elects to take an open- mouthed snooze, the TV often spits out religious programs, which is how I know about churches and pyramid schemes. I wait until he’s snoring to change the channel to the History Channel, Discovery Channel, CNN, the Food Network, the Travel Channel, and sometimes Bravo TV, which is how I know a great deal about the superlative ways of MoFos. Big Jim claims to be a deeply religious man, maintaining that his religion is primarily whiskey and women. I saw the connection between the two—most of his relationships were on the rocks.

I landed on an upside-down wheel and gently rapped my beak against the hubcap for comfort. I needed it—something felt very, very off. I peered below. All the windows of the bus were smashed and smeared with red. If there is something to be learned from Big Jim’s horror films, it’s that you should never insert yourself into a precarious situation, especially if you’re a scantily clad blonde with breast implants or a MoFo with black skin—but again, crow, so on I marched. I entered the bus and a heavy foreboding pressed down on my wings. Sanguine smells held the fetid air captive. There were no MoFos in the bus, but I found two purses, a wallet. The shivers came back. MoFos don’t leave their wallets. Up until recently Big Jim went bat-turd bananas without his. A huge clump of hair was stuck to one of the bus seats that hung in rows from the ceiling, and I found a ripped piece of a MoFo’s shirt and an intact fingernail lodged between two seats. The wallet had a shiny gold cop badge in it that brought on an urge to cache that was hard to suppress. I found a paycheck in an envelope, a pacifier, and a book called Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. It looked like someone might have done just that. I left the creepy bus, exiting through the glassless front windshield and into the belly of the church.

The house of worship was cavernous, a vast space with a spire and enormous arched doors. Silence.  When I hopped, my feet clicked and tapped on wooden floors, the parts that weren’t caked in the beginnings of moss or rainwater puddles. I was careful to avoid stepping in rat droppings; that shit spreads disease.

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“Hello?” I asked, committing the number one horror film faux pas. “Is anyone there?”

The inside of the church was damp; water had collected in pools on the floor, let in by a hole in the roof. Moss and weeds were elbowing their way through hairline cracks. I could hear the near-silent screams of bustling termites devouring the bones of the place. Peeled plaster had fallen like snow in piles on the damp ground. White poop spackled the cracks, though I couldn’t hear the inane gibberish of a single pigeon. They had long since flown the coop.

A fake MoFo in a loin cloth stared down at me from a wooden wall. He had a headband made of barbs that looked fairly uncomfortable. Even though I knew he wasn’t real, I gave him a nod of solidarity, wondering what crime he’d committed to deserve being stapled to plywood.

Then a smell found me. The unmistakable smell of death, acrid and ripe. Tension clouded the air, the kind that follows eruptive violence. The kind that’s too heavy to drain itself. I found the source of the smell. Draped across the wooden benches ahead of me was a bull moose. His gargantuan bough of antlers weighed down a blocky brown head that hung over the edge of a seat row, half a tongue lolled from a permanently open mouth. His fur was sticky with red and something had eaten most of his entrails and removed one of his legs. A quick scan confirmed that the missing leg wasn’t in the church.

“Hello?” I asked again, before realizing I was literally asking to join ranks with the moose and the hole-punched MoFo. There was a predator nearby. One that hoards moose legs. Fight or flight is sort of a  rhetorical question for me. I took to the air, soaring above the benches and unlit candles, whizzing past stained glass windows and through the hole the bus made. MoFos clean up after themselves. They don’t leave holes in churches and wallets and baby MoFo stuff in upside-down buses. They don’t allow moose (mooses? meese?) in churches. Or predators. If Big Jim knew there was a predator near a house of worship, why, he’d grab Sigourney Weaver and track down that sum-bitch. Sigourney is his Marlin Model 336 lever-action rifle, named for its sexy streamlined appearance and no-nonsense attitude. I steadied my breathing and flapped my wings harder, determination propelling me to finish my mission.

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No one seems to understand that your species is an accident of birth. No one understands that I should have been born a MoFo.

The Yoshino cherry tree I sat on to scope out my destination provided little comfort. I was feeling unnerved, on edge, and a tremble seized my legs. I couldn’t shake the shivers as well as they were shaking me. Walgreens looked much as it always had, but lacking its harried hubbub, the tumult, the purr of automatic doors. And a feeling wouldn’t leave—the feeling of a glassy fishbone lodged in my throat. The feeling that I was diving into danger. I was preparing myself to do a flyby of Walgreens when—BAAAAP!—a mighty force smashed into my left wing, punching me from the cherry tree. I cried out. Free falling, I shook my head, spread my wings, and caught a pocket of air, righting myself and launching back upward to face my attacker. He stared at me with beady black eyes and let out a succession of warning calls from the back of his ebony throat. He lunged, snatching at my wings. I darted in the air to avoid him, his horrible screeches clawing at my brain.

Shit. A college crow.

Since they never travel alone, I was immediately accosted by this crow’s turd waffle of a wife who dive-bombed me, yanking at my flight feathers. She perched in my cherry tree, unleash- ing a verbal assault. I won’t repeat what was said because, frankly, even Big Jim might have blushed.

“Leave me alone!” I yelled at Bonnie and Clyde. They continued spitting hideous insults at me, calling me a traitor. The male pelted a bottle cap at me before taking off, laughing, into the tree line. At this point, I was feeling for Tippi Hedren and could’ve really used a beer. Big Jim is always talking about boundaries, about sticking to your own kind and keeping everyone out of your business. I often fantasized about erecting a giant aviary over our house to keep all the pests out.

The college crows are the largest murder of Seattleite crows, and they roost nightly on the east side of the University of Washington’s Bothell campus. They are also a giant troupe of swamp donkeys. UW Bothell is essentially an enormous frat house for a bunch of elitist toot cabbages. Every night from fall to late spring, the sky pulses with blue-tinged midnight wings as thousands of crows head over to meet on the UW buildings and then roost at the campus’s neighboring wetlands together. MoFos find this fascinating and mystical. I think it’s rude to take up all that airspace, but there you  have it. I’ve never been to the campus since I’m unwelcome, so I can’t tell you what goes on there. My guess? Preening, bragging, and beer pong. Generally, when I go about my business, I’m ostracized by the local crows—the “real” crows—and called an asshole for my close affiliation with a MoFo. Name-calling happens through Aura, sticks and stones are thrown at me and my mother is described in colorful ways. Mostly, I let it slide off my feathers, but when I’m physically attacked for just being who I am? Sometimes that really bothers me. No one seems to understand that your species is an accident of birth. No one understands that I should have been born a MoFo.

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With my tormentors out of sight, I focused on plucking up the courage for my mission. I inhaled a deep breath and took wing, levitating over the empty parking lot before lowering down to the automatic doors of the Walgreens. They whirred open. Fluorescent glare illuminated the aisles. I perched on top of a Dos Equis man cardboard cutout to survey the scene. As in the church, everything was far too quiet. Too still. A low growl rumbled, reverberating through my feet. I hopped nervously on one foot, craning to find the source of the growl, thinking of the moose’s missing leg. Another low growl sounded out, startling me. I flew up and perched, straddling Lucky Charms and Special K, and from there I could see the culprits. Four MoFos were gathered around a blood pressure machine, swaying and drooling. An ad for the shingles vaccine hung nearby. I immediately recognized the greenish tinge to their skin, the odd twisting of their joints, the pouring sweat, red raw eyes and bloody drool. They all exhibited the same craned-forward neck, like curious vultures, hunting for satiety. Blackened fingers repeatedly jabbed at the screen. They too had whatever was ailing Big Jim.

I decided to conduct an experiment, fear be damned. “Hello!” I squawked in perfect English. No response. “Hello there!” A goddamned talking crow and not even a raised eyebrow. Seriously? The world had gone to shit. They continued staring at the glow of the inbuilt screen, which was playing a movie about heart wellness. Obviously, they missed healthier days.

Then a smell found me. The unmistakable smell of death, acrid and ripe.

Listening for any change in their actions, I got back to my mission, picking up a plastic grocery bag, swooping behind a ransacked counter under a sign that said “Pharmacy” and filling the bag with the medications I thought sounded helpful to Big Jim. E-Mycin, Keflex, Lasix, Prilosec OTC, Monistat, Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs, and Summer’s Eve all sounded effective and surely a combination of them would cure Big Jim. Walgreens had come through for us before. I felt positive, important—a fella with a purpose.

Lifting the plastic bag proved very difficult, but by flapping in determined, energetic strokes, I was able to take a low flight. I lifted up over the ailing MoFos, above the red and pink aisle of Valentine’s candy, heading toward the automatic doors. Just as I neared the glowing green exit sign, my plastic bag tipped and the Summer’s Eve box slipped out, clattering down onto the cashier’s scanner with a loud beep. And then all fucking hell broke loose.

The four MoFos by the blood pressure machine let out a skull-shattering scream. I heard them pounding the ground, running at full tilt toward the cash register. Two MoFos I’d missed in white lab coats vaulted from behind the pharmacy, sprinting like racehorses from the flaming hot cheese-hole of hell. Necks craned, fingers pointed, blood drool flying. And I, partly in panic and partly because I have butter claws, dropped the damn plastic bag. My medications—Big Jim’s lifeline— exploded across the cash register with a spidery clatter. I dove down, flicking the pill bottles back into the bag. One, two, three, Lasix, Prilosec, No7 Lift & Luminate Triple Action Eye Cream . . . The MoFos’ screams were nearing, their feet hammering the ground; one knocked over a Seahawks display, sending beer sleeves, slippers, Russell Wilson figurines, and mugs airborne. Porcelain flew, shattering against the rows of wine bottles, which burst and bled across white tile. The doors whirred. Two more MoFos wearing green Taco Time aprons stood in the pharmacy doorway, raising craned necks to the ceiling. They emitted a brain-bursting primal screech, their hands twisted like the branches of winter trees. Keflex, Paxil, Monistat. The two new MoFos started to run. The four blood pressure MoFos rounded the end aisle, seconds away, eyes like a forest on fire . . .

Gas-X, Dulcolax, stretch mark serum, Summer’s Eve. That’s it! I hoisted the plastic bag into the air, narrowly missing swipes from the Taco Time MoFos, who lunged, their mouths freeing strings of blood that whiskered the register in sticky crimson threads. I huffed it higher into the air above the commotion, as below eight unhealthy MoFos clamored and writhed over the top of the cashier scanner, jabbing at it with their fingers and saucer eyes. Then, in unison, they raised  their  gnarled arms to the ceiling. I flinched, almost dropping the bag again. They formed a circle around the scanner that beeped. Simultaneously, they began smashing their heads onto the scanner. Bash,  thump, smack, harder and harder. Blood and pulp spurted, brain bits flew. The bashing continued.

I battled through the doors and away from the unpredictable MoFos, seeking refuge and a break in a nearby evergreen. With one plastic bag handle safely looped over a branch, I settled and took stock of how close it had been, how I was nearly snatched from the sky. No MoFo had ever shown any sign of aggression toward me before. What would they have done if they’d caught me?

What was happening to the MoFos? Hopefully, the answer was in my bag of goodies and I’d start with Big Jim, nursing him back to health with all my Cheetos® if necessary, and then we’d jump in his Ford F-150 with the Glock and the weed in the glove compartment and we’d set to fixing the other MoFos in the neighborhood who weren’t feeling well. We’d fix it alright, because what would a world without MoFos be? The thought made me nauseous, gave me goose bumps, which is a stupid expression because geese are a crass bunch of douche McGoos.

From my vantage point, I saw someone I recognized at the base of the evergreen. That unmistakable blue rinse of curls and the  polka-dotted  rolling  shopping  bag.  Thank  heavens! It was Nargatha. Nargatha—whose mother must have had acute indecision, christening her after a bonkers blend of Agatha, Margaret, and Narnia—lived three doors down from Big Jim and me. She was eccentric and so old the Seattle Fire Department was once called to put out her birthday candles, but she’d always been good to me. Sure, she talked to me like I had irreversible brain damage, but countered this by always having a sampling of animal crackers on hand. Big Jim liked how she always brought us Fireball whiskey if the Seahawks won. Looking down at the tiny figure with the pearly blue curls and the tennis ball–yellow trench coat, I felt a pang of relief, my chest filling with warmth. I darted my head side to side to get a better look. Closer inspection revealed that she was eating Triscuits.

Triscuits is her miniature schnauzer.

My stomach did a loop de loop. I watched from the evergreen for a few moments, hardly believing what was happening, until it became too much to stomach. No one deserves to become an hors d’oeuvre! Least of all her loyal and beloved Triscuits! Reeling, I accidentally let out a caw of horror.

Nargatha’s searching eyes were the color of a cardinal. Scarlet wet strings hung from her mouth. I watched in horror as her head twisted 180 degrees. Then a bone in her neck cracked like the sharp snap of a branch, and her cranium inched its way around to 360 degrees. She looked up at me, drooling blood and her noggin dialed all the way the fuck around like a goddamned barn owl. Nargatha screeched like a desperate raptor, causing three squirrels to silently scatter to safety. Panic squeezed my trilling heart. Squirrels are never silent, those smutty nut-goblins. They are only quiet  when their lives depend on it.

Triscuits. Nargatha was eating Triscuits. The next thought I had made me regurgitate a Cheeto®. Nargatha had what Big Jim had. Nargatha was eating Triscuits.

Dennis. I snatched up the plastic bag, pointed homeward bound, and flapped like hell.

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Excerpted from Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton. Copyright © 2019 by Kira Jane Buxton. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.




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