The Boiled Guts of Birds

Matt Wanat


Without knowing the relative humidity, Giron could not have known that the heat index that afternoon had reached one hundred and thirty. It did not matter. She had gathered the children in the old aquarium after the eagle took the baby, and they had been there ever since. Augury is easy enough to need in a world of so many dangers, Giron thought to herself. The real challenge lies in the prioritizing.

She remembered talking to her Uncle León one time when she was still a teen. This would have been back when people used words like “refugee status” and “racism” and “civil rights.” She had said something to her uncle, something young and naïve, about “discrimination.” She could no longer recall the specifics, but it had something to do with an Ohio phrase about “geese” and “ganders.” Her uncle told her, “No, that’s not correct at all.” He said to her, “The problem is not discrimination. The problem is that so many people are so bad at it.”

“Incompetent discrimination,” Giron murmured to herself now. Talking to herself quietly, so that the children could not hear her, had become a necessary respite from the responsibilities of wardship. “Poor augury. Bad divination. Wise Old Queen Solomon turns her back to settle an argument among tweens, and the eagle gets the baby!”

Not knowing what to fear, when to run, when to fight—these decisions, which now mattered as something beyond discussion topics, shook Giron, who knew that she was being too hard on herself, but also that she no longer had the luxury not to, that failure to “augur well,” to “prioritize,” meant something a great deal more serious than missed opportunities. As Giron had watched the little one squirm in the talons of the bird soaring out across the overgrown simulated savanna, she had learned that a failure to prioritize is an act of negligence unforgivable in a landscape no longer forgiving. She had learned that failure to prioritize meant death.

“You killed that baby,” Giron said to herself, “with incompetence.”

“No, you didn’t.”

Giron turned, startled by the reply. She had not known as she spoke that Cuyahoga, one of the girls she’d had to stop from arguing that morning, was squatting beside her, panting quietly and leaning spirit-broken and disconsolate against a shattered pane of thick aquarium glass.


The day before, on Giron’s orders, the caravan of children had stopped near the entrance to the zoo. There was a fake boat drifting in the muck of a manmade moat beside ticket kiosks at the entrance gates. The masts of the boat drooped sails and riggings entangled with dead monkeys mixed with the sinewy naked corpses of “Pirates’ Atoll” workers dressed as seamen. Others were dressed as petticoated Victorian captives strung upside down like bluebells. At the stern of the boat, perched upon the carcass of what appeared to be a zebra that had somehow made its way up the gangplank over the brown water, a dozen or more buzzards dined with an eagle. The white feathers of the eagle’s head were matted with dirty blood as it pried hungrily at a strip of flesh lining the striped equine hide.

One of the children screamed at the sight of the travesty, then others started crying, but, as Giron now recalled, Cuyahoga and her friend Tiff just stared tiredly, their minds perhaps computing risk but no longer capable of shock or disgust. Giron thought that Tiff looked Mestiza. Otherwise the girl was dressed like a cat burglar, wearing a black skully and a black cotton turtleneck soaked through with sweat and sticking to her ribs. Rainwater and the blood of the mutilated fell here and there in narrow drip streams down upon the deck of the ship, which as Giron moved closer she could see bore a placard identifying it as the “Niña.”

“On loan from Columbus,” Giron read aloud, then asked Cuyahoga and Tiff if they had ever been there. Tiff said she had. Cuyahoga said she had not.

“Get your gear and let’s go!” Giron called to the other children, and the caravan worked its way through wrenched-open iron gates that glistened with rain.


It was a mistake to enter, Giron thought now as she hunkered with the children in the aquarium. Behind them the city had been burning and the hunting party of Giron and her children had nearly been rounded up by the last wave of hobnailed riot police that passed by on patrol, but the zoo that from a distance looked to Giron like a citadel now seemed just another bombed-out ruin in which to be cornered. The aquarium provided shade, of course, but not as much as the woods had, before it was lost to infestation, and the shade, though potentially lifesaving after the rain stopped and the temperature and humidity again began to climb, was not so much cool as it was less hot. It was, Giron thought, nothing like the cool, air-conditioned version of the aquarium she remembered visiting as a girl. The tanks were broken, and beside some of them nearest the unhinged double service doors, ribs of manatee stood picked clean next to the black stain of an abandoned bonfire which lay upon the concrete like a cigarette burn.

Giron felt her own terrible hunger and looked up and down the wall where the children sat, lined up like elementary school kids waiting for the water fountain. The children too looked hungry, every one of them ragged and prematurely aged. Some were dressed like kids brought up on hand-me-downs, the colors of their clothing mismatched, the logos and prints on their shirts outdated even before the collapse. Others among the children, especially a few of the teens and pre-teens, looked like Polish or Spanish resistance, with black caps and black t-shirts and a couple with firearms gleaned from suburban homes along the way. But they all looked tired and famished, and Giron could still hardly believe she was gazing upon members of a generation that only months ago had been routinely characterized as “spoiled.”

“Interesting word, ‘spoiled,’” Giron said to herself. Her hunger was now nearly unbearable. She looked through the unhinged double doors, out across the asphalt to where, hardening and deflated, an anteater lay frosted by an army of ants. Just past the anteater lay the naked corpse of a man they had passed on their way to shelter. The children had seen too much of this, Giron thought, remembering the road from the park to the zoo, which had been lined with discorporated exiles from a now-deceased world of automobiles and virtuality. Starved and dismembered in orgies of eating and being eaten, the dead along the road were still fresh, and Giron knew that she and her children had missed the melee by a week at the most.

“I haven’t seen a rat in days,” said Tiff.

From back in memory, Giron heard the girl’s voice calling down to her as if she were in a deep well.

“I’m sorry, Tiff,” Giron replied, pulling herself from the well of her thoughts until she found herself again on the dry land. “What did you say?”

“Rats,” Tiff repeated. “It’s been days since I’ve seen any.”

“The extermination worked,” Giron said, “I guess.”

“Is that why the eagle was with the buzzards?” Tiff asked.

“I’ve seen them do that before,” Cuyahoga said.

“But the rats?” Tiff asked, “Is that why the eagle took the baby?”

A buzzard landed on the naked man out beyond the anteater. Then two more flew over from the cages that once housed bonobos, and soon there were more buzzards, hopping about and flapping and gibbering, it seemed, like they were arguing, filibustering one another over the corpse, which baked in the sun beneath a dead tree and a congress of impatient crows. Giron envied the corvids their murder, their good sense, their recognition of natural order and decorum. She thought of the children days earlier, scuttling around, fighting for scraps. She thought about taking the kids out on a snipe hunt. She thought about looking for some chance at misdirection, then maybe hiding in a storm drain when none of the children were looking. Abandoning them, she would feel ashamed, but she could not bear to see them anymore. Giron then realized that she had not answered Tiff’s question. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed or if it was now too late to answer.

“I don’t know why the eagle took the baby.”


It cooled a little at sunset.

“We’ll have to move at night,” Giron muttered.

Cuyahoga did not hear her. She had not heard anything for hours. Her stomach was swollen from hunger. Her eye was swollen from the altercation with the Miller girl. Tiff did not hear Giron either. For that reason, instead of responding to Giron’s suggestion, Tiff re-entered the community of the audible with a question.

“You were a teacher, right?” Tiff asked.

Giron turned slowly towards Tiff. Giron had been sitting with the shotgun, staring through the double doors for hours. It took a moment for her eyes to readjust to the darkness of the aquarium hall. When they did, Giron could see that Tiff, though decked out paramilitary and far too skinny, otherwise looked like any other ninth-grader from before the collapse.

“Yes,” Giron said.

“What’d you teach?” Tiff asked. (Was Cuyahoga sleeping? Giron wondered. Was she dead?)

“Classics,” Giron said.

“Classical music?” Tiff asked.

“Classical arts and culture,” Giron said. “You know, Greece and Rome.”

“Is that why you said what you said over the gut pile?” Tiff asked.

“Which gut pile?” Giron asked.

“The goat,” Tiff said.

“About the haruspex?” Giron asked.

“Yes,” Tiff said. “About that.”

“Yes,” Giron answered.

Outside a brouhaha erupted around the dead man’s corpse. Two large turkey vultures argued over dibs and while they were at it, one of the crows grabbed a strip of meat and flew with it across the hot asphalt and directly through the double doors into the aquarium. The crow landed beside Giron and Tiff, then looked at them as if it were about to talk. It cocked its head and studied the leader of the caravan, the younger women, the row of semi-conscious children. Giron held tightly to the tactical grip of the shotgun. Behind her she could hear Cuyahoga stirring, as well as the little boy, the one called Demetrius, who Giron knew carried a revolver in his purse.

“Demetrius,” Giron said. “Don’t shoot the crow.” She did not look at the boy, but she knew what he was thinking. “The riot squad may be right outside.”

A shot would give away their position.

As Giron warned Demetrius not to shoot, another fracas erupted, as if to confirm her prediction, a squabble out of sight beyond the bonobo cages, but still within earshot. Giron figured it to be just beyond the entrance gates. There was shouting and the clattering of boots, and then there was rifle and machinegun fire.

“Stand down!” Giron said to the line of children. “Silence.”

The crow jumped backwards three hops, still holding the strip of human flesh. Giron pulled her knife and listened. Out beyond the bonobo cages rose indistinct hollers and more rifle and machinegun fire.

“Should we stay, or should we go?” Giron asked aloud. The crow looked at her quizzically, pondering its reply. It had backed up to the double doors.

Then as suddenly as the gunfire, the eagle was there, grounded and ferocious at the threshold of the aquarium. Hankering for the piece of meat, the eagle chased the crow across the concrete floor. The crow dropped the meat and flew into one of the broken tanks. It hid there in a nook of artificial coral. The eagle grabbed the meat and ate, ignoring Giron, ignoring the kids. Giron sensed suddenly the alert presence of Demetrius. She could feel the boy’s excitement, and the terror and excitement of the other children all down the line. Giron dare not look at them. She dare not take her eyes off the bird of prey, which tore hungrily at its loot. The shotgun now lay on the ground, and Giron knew that this was for the best since outside, beyond the bonobo cages, a report from a sidearm ended the screams of one of the wounded in that fray.

“Ma’am?” Demetrius asked quietly, but Giron did not answer. Giron did not turn to him. Instead she grabbed the outstretched wing of the eagle and sank the knife into the raptor’s breast. It clawed her horribly. It bit her. And then it died.

Giron stood lacerated, stained with her own blood, and tossed the eagle out onto the asphalt beyond the double doors. Then she looked back down the line of children, saw wild hunger written in their eyes. Giron’s knife dripped blood. She turned towards the double doors, walked through them into the hot sunlight, knelt on the asphalt, and began dressing the dead bird.


Listening for the riot squad, Giron and her children ate the bird, but they left the chunk of human meat. They left the human flesh for the crow, who came out from behind the coral and cautiously supped. And for the buzzards, which sat watching from outside, Giron and the children left the bloody feathers and a pile of eagle guts cooking on the hot asphalt just beyond the doors.

Her chin bloody, Tiff smiled at Demetrius. She smiled at Cuyahoga, who sat eating with the Miller girl.  

Tiff turned to Giron and asked the teacher, “Should we stay, or should we go?”

Giron did not answer. She was quiet. She was listening for the riot police.

“Well?” Cuyahoga asked, impatiently.

Giron walked over to the double doors. The sun was going down, but even in the gloaming, the ground still burned. Giron stared down into the boiling guts of the dismembered raptor that had killed a helpless child. Then she looked east into the darkness creeping its way out from behind the cages.

“Poor augury,” Giron murmured to herself. “Bad divination.” She looked back into the gut pile and tried to concentrate, to get her priorities straight.  

Behind Giron, back in the aquarium, the children sucked the bones. They watched Giron through the double doors. They sat and watched the crow, which stood across from them, against the broken glass wall. The crow chewed on a discarded scrap of eagle wing and awaited the woman’s answer.




Matt Wanat is co-editor of Breaking Down Breaking Bad (2016) and The Films of Clint Eastwood (2018). A scholar of literature and cinema studies, with interests in place-based sustainability and popular genre, Wanat’s essays and poetry have appeared in Western American Literature, Journal of the Midwest MLA, The Wayfarer, south, and several collections. He is an associate professor of English at Ohio University Lancaster.