The Sluagh by Kendra M. Pintor
“You’re looking through the hole in your father’s shoulder like it’s a spyglass.” Thus begins Kendra M. Pintor’s flash fiction piece, “The Sluagh,” a sophisticated, compact gem of speculative horror. In her author’s note, Pintor explains that in Scottish Gaelic folklore “the Sluagh, or Sluagh na marbh, are the hosts of the unforgiven dead.” In this piece, the Sluagh appear as shapeshifters, by turns monstrous birds or flesh-eating holes, and the narrator watches in helpless horror as her father is eaten alive.
Tethered by realistic sensory details—a basement that smells like “laundry and incense,” a backyard where “the scent of chlorine mingles with barbeque sauce”—the speculative elements of this piece enable the reader to access its mythic qualities, opening space for connection and identification for any reader who has lived the pain, horror, and tender vulnerability of watching a loved one self-destruct.
“He’s coming undone right in front of you, smiling, asking if you want a wing or rib.” In this piece, the strange marries the quotidian, deepening the story’s resonance. We know our readers will enjoy this vivid, haunting, heartbreaking flash piece. —CRAFT
You’re looking through the hole in your father’s shoulder like it’s a spyglass. Or a kaleidoscope. Except, it isn’t either of those things. It’s a long, dark tunnel, and the other side isn’t magnified or broken into crystal fragments. It’s just a hallway. Wrapped in tweed wallpaper and red shag carpet. Mahogany doors with brass handles. Family photos encased in mismatched frames. Décor your parents picked out together. How did your father get this hole in his shoulder? You ask him if it is like that one time a pipe fell on his foot and his entire toenail peeled off his skin as if it were merely coming unglued. He laughs, shakes his head, and tells you this is nothing like that. Your father lets go of his shirt collar, covering up the coin-sized cavity. When he stands his head becomes shrouded in darkness. Many years later, when you remember this moment, you tell yourself it was the last time you saw his real face.
Sweltering summer heat tastes like backyard sugarcane and Mickey’s malt liquor, a sip stolen in the garage where it smells like laundry and incense. Behind the house, the scent of chlorine mingles with barbeque sauce. You go out back and join your sisters in the pool; your father is outside, grilling. His shirt is off. You can’t stop staring. There are two new holes. They sit together, side by side, like a pair of hollow eye sockets. They stare right back at you. Smoke rises off the grill and funnels through your father; flames cook the tender meat. His skin starts to peel, the flesh around the wounds rolling back like water-damaged wallpaper. Blood leaks out over red charcoal embers, sizzling until it’s black. He’s coming undone right in front of you, smiling, asking if you want a wing or rib. Large green leaves fall into the pool. You blink, shake your head. When you look up, you are met by a thousand beady, black eyes. Perched in the branches of the avocado tree. Watching.
Grandpa dies. Your father starts drinking. A fourth hole appears, larger than the rest. It is raw and misshapen. Blood crusts the skin, and the tips of your father’s fingers. This hole is tender. It is homemade.
You lie in bed. In the next room, your parents’ television replays the title screen music from the DVD your snoring father left in the player. You pad down to their room and peek through the door. Television light accentuates the lump of your mother’s body, alone in bed. Your father is in the recliner. A sparrow sits on his shoulder, pecking at the nape of his neck.
Come breakfast, the bird is still burrowing deep beneath your father’s windpipe. It’s pecked all the way through, and peeks from a hole where your father’s neck meets breastbone. When your father leans too far forward, blood spills all over his eggs Benedict, mixing with the hollandaise sauce. Blood pours over the nesting bird, soaking its feet and feathers, but it doesn’t budge. Your mother’s only acknowledgment of the bleeding is that she hates having to clean it up, grumbling as she makes her way out to the garage for a bundle of paper towels. Shadows softly gather outside. You can feel something watching you through the kitchen window: there is more than one standing in the backyard. Giant birds with arms and legs. They stare at you, at your father. Turning their heads from side to side, one eye at a time. Their beaks are cracked, made of bone. Crooked talons in place of toes.
When you can’t take it anymore, you corner your father in the kitchen. You bring up the holes. You hold a mirror up to his face. You point at each of them. Counting out loud. There are twelve total. Three along each shoulder, one he made himself. Three more in his throat. Birds roost there, picking bits of his flesh from their feathers. He’s got a hole in each hand, a hole over his heart. It’s the newest. The biggest. You watch the birds flitter around inside, perching on his arteries, pecking at the tender red pieces. Your father blinks at you, his eyes shoved so far back inside his head it’s hard to tell if they are still hazel like yours, or if they’ve soured to black. How did you get all of these holes, Dad? His mouth pulls into a tight frown. He turns his head right, then left. He stares at you with one eye at a time. He starts to flap his arms up and down. The little birds begin to flutter in and out, agitated. Your father opens his mouth. He tries to speak but squawks instead.
It is difficult for you to remember who left first, you or your father. The beating of wings is all that’s clear.
Some nights, you recall what it was like to look through him. You remind yourself that the holes were hollowing him out long before you were born. This doesn’t ease the guilt as much as it should. Giant birds visit you at night, their talons hooked through the holes in your father’s shoulders. They hold him against the outside of your new bedroom window. He taps a crooked finger against the glass until you wake up and realize it’s just a small bird, pecking at the screen. Some nights, you let the bird in. It brings you pieces of your father. Sugarcane. Bottles of malt liquor. Fresh soil. Barbeque sauce. Gifts that burrow inside and cause your body to ache. Three years later, he sends you only one letter. He tells you about life in the sky. He tells you about the monsters. He tells you that they’ll never let him go.
KENDRA MARIE (CRAIGHEAD) PINTOR is an emerging author of strange fiction, with poetry appearing in Sagebrush Review, The Offbeat, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and others. Blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, Kendra’s writing style favors eerie, atmospheric language that seeks to combine the mundane with the magical until both worlds are irrevocably intertwined. “The Sluagh” is Kendra’s second work of fiction to be published, following her short story, “The Mahanas,” currently available via the “Amuse-Bouche” series from Lunch Ticket.
Featured image by Viktor Talashuk courtesy of Unsplash