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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."