Yuri stood on the porch and listened to the women chant. It was rush week, and the sororities on either side of his fraternity were performing induction rites on freshman girls. The words must have been about sisterhood, but he couldn't make them out. The sound of women's voices, rising from locked houses—it filled him with shame, because he was 20 years old and still a virgin. But he liked to listen. Despite his shame and his rage, there was a vision that came to him when the chants were at their loudest: the white underside of a feminine arm, reaching out of the darkness to pull him in.
Yuri's problem, he knew, was cowardice. He had been on the verge last year, with a Phi Omega girl—she had been naked, holding him. But he had been too frightened to do it. There was a pulsing fear inside him, a second, artificial heart; he didn't know how to make it stop. It wasn't just girls, either. He was the worst player on the Rugby team, because he was a coward. His passing skills were acceptable, but when a halfback from the other side tore through a ruck with his elbows out and the ball tucked into his belly, Yuri could only throw himself at his knees, skimming off of him. He would fall to the side and turn to watch his man soldier down the field. Got to make that tackle, his teammates would say, gently, patting Yuri on the back. Then they would kick the dirt out of their cleats, sniffing in disgust.
Cowardice with women and cowardice with the enemy—these were his two ongoing failures, and they fed off of each other. They made him repulsive to himself, made him small and self-protective in the crucial moments, made heroism impossible. Now he wedged his half-finished beer between the cushions of the couch on the porch, because somebody would discover and appreciate it. He went inside, to look for Aaron Zarwan. He had decided to seek Zarwan's advice.
Zarwan, or Z-Man, was in the kitchen, heating kale. He was both a Rugby player and a rower, six-foot-two. He was the best front on the Rugby team, capable of flying great distances and landing on another man's thighs, making him collapse like a marionette.
"Dude," said Yuri, quietly, so that no one could hear, "I need your help. I'm just sucking at Rugby so hard. I don't know what to do but keep working on my tackles, and no matter how much I practice, I still fall on my ass when it comes to the actual game."
Zarwan stroked a cheekbone. "I don't share what I'm going to share with just anyone," he said, finally, "but I can feel a desperation vibe, and no brother of mine should give off a desperation vibe, because it'll make us all look bad. Girls can sniff that shit out."
"No worries," said Zarwan. He turned off the stove and put the lid over his pot of kale. "Let's go for a ride."
It was a crisp fall afternoon. They drove in Zarwan's blue Saab through the valley, into the hills where the trees had started to turn red. They climbed a dirt road that showed them views of all Amherst, and up another, and up a long, gravel driveway. The sound of wind in dry leaves eclipsed the sound of wheels on dry road.
They went around a bend, and Yuri saw an old brick house, with a balcony made of white wood, and white trim around the windows. The lawn was the lush full green of high summer. The trees that surrounded the lawn were also green, a ring of summer in the fall woods.
A birdbath stood surrounded by tiny black birds. They made a high soft cry, and the cumulative beating of their wings was a downy sound, like the sound of getting into bed. Zarwan stopped the car at the line where the gravel became grass. It was only as they reached the overgrown brick path that led to the porch that Yuri saw the dog. It looked half Doberman, half coon hound. It rose from a sunbeam reluctantly, on worn knees, beating its tail against the ground.
"That's Shuck," said Zarwan.
Shuck stayed on the porch.
Yuri asked whose house it was. The witch's house, Zarwarn said. Yuri smiled, thinking it was a joke.
"Fucking stop grinning at me," said Zarwan. "This is a fucking serious thing. If you tell anybody about this I will fucking end you."
"Sorry," said Yuri.
"No worries," said Zarwan. "Now, do you want to be a better Rugby player?"
"You don't even know how hardcore I want to."
Zarwan cleared his throat. "This is a secret that has been passed down from generation to generation of Alpha Chi men. If you want the witch to give you power, you have to give her your smell." He pulled a rag from out of his back pocket and gave it to Yuri. "Take this rag and come for a run with me. When we're sweaty, we'll stick the rags in our armpits and wipe ourselves down with them. When the rags are full of sweat, we feed the sweat to the birds."
Yuri was scared and confused, but there was no arguing with Zarwan, who tackled so hard in practice that guys stayed curled into a fetal position on the grass until Coach whispered soothing words in their ears. Whatever power was working for Zarwan, that was what Yuri wanted. So Yuri ran with Zarwan down the dirt road through the golden foliage, then back to the ring of summer green. He ran hard, and then he and Zarwan took their shirts off and put the rags in their armpits and collected the sweat from their bodies, and Zarwan took the rags and squeezed the sweat into the birdbath. The birds dipped their beaks and drank the sweat.
No sooner had the birds begun to drink than a slender arm in a green silk sleeve, its hand in a white lace glove, emerged from the balcony, holding a large wicker basket. Whoever owned the arm pushed the basket off the balcony and eased it to the ground, by means of a thick rope tied to the handle.
When the basket came to rest on the porch beside Shuck, Zarwan looked at Yuri and nodded. Yuri went up to the porch and looked in the basket. Inside was a pie. When he picked it up he found it was warm. He took it back to Zarwan and they sat on the hood of the Saab and ate. The meat in the pie was like a stringy kind of chicken, and when a black feather stuck in Yuri's teeth, he understood that it was made of the little black birds. The arm pulled the basket back up, and vanished into the darkness.
"The witch is kept alive by the sweat of young guys," Zarwan explained to Yuri in the car, driving back down through the hills. "Nobody knows how she does it, but the pies will make you brave."
"What does she look like?" asked Yuri. "Like, green?"
"Nobody knows," said Zarwan. "She won't come out of the house. And part of the deal is, never try to go in, it'll make her mad, and then you might ruin it for everybody else. She's been making Alphi Chis better at sports for like a hundred fifty years. It's passed down from senior to sophomore, like what we're doing now."
"How do I know if it's working?" asked Yuri.
"When you no longer play like a vagina roving around the field," said Zarwan, "that will indicate that it's working."
That Saturday, there was a Rugby game against the University of Connecticut. Twice, Yuri cut across the field to make a tackle that was not even within his area of responsibility. He dove through the air like a cat, pinning down the biggest Connecticut fronts, sauntering away with his head down, ready for more. After the game his teammates grabbed his neck in the crooks of their elbows and scratched his head. Coach held up his arm at the barbeque and called him Most Improved. He made eye contact with a girl in yellow shorts.
The next week, Zarwan took him back to the witch's house, and they ran and mopped their sweat with rags, and squeezed the rags into the birdbath. The birds drank the sweat, and the arm in the silk gown came out of the balcony and lowered a pie in the big wicker basket. The leaves had deepened in color through the hills, turning orange and crimson. But the circle of green around the house was still the green of summer, dewy and buzzing with flies.
After the next game, Yuri made out with the girl in the yellow shorts, and a week later he lost his virginity to her. He lied, saying he had been with six girls. He liked to have sex, but there was something about it that disappointed him. He had wanted it to feel like being pulled into a hidden place by a slender arm. Like running into the dark, or being dragged into the dark.
And Rugby—it had once seemed to Yuri that the other team was an extraordinary machine that wanted to rip you apart with coordinated gears, and that this forced you to become swallowed into your own machine, a gear among gears, a weapon in the hand of a god, and that this was the essence of the game. Of all great games. But now, without his fear, Rugby was a series of tasks. He wrapped up men larger than himself without any rumination whatsoever, and because it was easy he stopped caring whether or not he won. What was the point of a sport, if it didn't terrify you? He became bored. He wanted to be scared again.
He began to hate the witch. Why wouldn't she come out and discuss the process by which she endowed the bird pies with power? Why wouldn't she show her face, let them in the house? Did she ever give any thought to the integrity of the great game of Rugby, which Yuri now thought of as his lost love, forever ruined? Did she understand that by making Zarwan so powerful she had compelled him to seek Zarwan's help? She was a monster, a temptress, she was murdering him.
The next week he went with Zarwan to her house, as usual. It was colder now. The trees of Amherst had lost most of their leaves, and yet the circle of green around the witch's house remained. Whenever brown shriveled leaves blew onto the summer lawn, the little black birds took them in their beaks and returned them to the forest floor.
Now Yuri found this unnatural summer infuriating; it was a disgrace to Alpha Chi that the witch defiled the landscape, while he and Zarwan went on eating her pies. He needed to see her, to ask her his questions, tell her to her face what she had destroyed. He knew what he was going to do. When he and Zarwan went to take their customary jog around the property to work up a sweat, he told Zarwan that he was feeling weird, and needed a moment to himself. He was going to take his own path through the woods.
"Be careful, Yuri," said Zarwan, and then became self-conscious. "I mean," he said, "don't fuck anything up."
As soon as Zarwan had disappeared around the bend, Yuri marched up the overgrown path to the house, onto the porch where Shuck lay resting. Perhaps it was the artificial courage from the bird pies that enabled him to do what he was doing, but he didn't care. He would see the witch, confront her, make her deny all Rugby players her pies. He scratched the black fur above Shuck's nose and knocked twice on the heavy white door. Shuck began to growl. It was a low, strong, growl, perfectly self-assured. Yuri took a deep breath and knocked more forcefully, five times. Shuck's growl sunk in pitch and then rose back up until it opened into a bark.
I don't have much time, thought Yuri to himself, before he bites. He held the white doorknob with both hands and began to push, to see if there was an old rusted lock that he could force. He could feel something begin to give way, a creaking in the doorframe, when Shuck struggled to his feet and threw himself at his leg.
Yuri was expecting this, and Yuri was fast. Shuck's jaws only took off the better part of the left leg of his jeans, never leaving so much as a scratch on his flesh. Yuri ran into the forest full speed, and Shuck was an ancient dog; Yuri gained ground. Shuck barked continuously, so that all the farm dogs in the hills over Amherst began to bark with him, and all around him Yuri could hear a chorus of dogs, at once uglier and more heartfelt than the chants of the sorority girls in rush week. He was scared, but so excited to be scared that he opened his mouth and let whatever sound would come out come out, and this was what losing his virginity was supposed to have been, and this was what Rugby had been once, running into the mouth of darkness. He turned to see if he could still see Shuck's shadow, but he had pulled far ahead. He could run forever like this. The birds sang softly, like the movement of a symphony written to follow the barking of the dogs, and he knew great happiness, the glory of defiance, until the first bird descended, to pluck out his eye.
Yuri thought it was a coincidence at first, a strange accident. But when the black cloud thickened around him he knew the witch's birds were out for blood. They took bits of his flesh in their beaks as he fell. He struggled under the beating of the little wings, with birds in his mouth and in his eyes and tearing out his hair.
When Yuri was dead they flew back to the witch's yard, and Shuck followed his scent to his body. Shuck dragged him back to the witch's porch, and the gowned arm reached out of the dark to lower the basket. It took Shuck no time to drag him into the basket and curl him up so that he fit inside, but it took the witch a minute to pull him up to the balcony, even with her unnatural strength.
When Zarwan returned with his rag of sweat he saw Yuri's sneaker bounce over the lip of the balcony and into the darkness. He carefully squeezed his rag into the birdbath, where the birds drank his sweat as if nothing had happened. The witch's arm came out and lowered the basket to the porch. Because he hated losing, more than anything else in the world—that was the difference between him and Yuri—Zarwan walked up to the basket, took his pie, and walked back to his Saab. That day, he ate in the car, with the doors closed.
The next week he came back with a different sophomore. Meanwhile, the witch ate Yuri slowly, for while the birds drank the sweat of the young men and the young men ate the pies full of birds, the witch needed to eat the bodies of those who were truly brave. Otherwise she would die. She gnawed Yuri's bloody bones in her stained gown, as the Alpha Chi Rugby players who ate her pies maintained the University of Massachusetts Amherst's prominence in the Division II Northeastern Rugby Conference. The team even had a winning streak; it was described in a number of student newspapers as an "empire" and a "dynasty." Eventually, it reached the American Collegiate Rugby Nationals, which were held that year in Tampa.
Benjamin Nugent's memoir The Shapeshifters is forthcoming from Scribner. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, and his non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Time. He's an MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a recipient of the Iowa Arts Fellowship.