When I was first learning how to drive, I had an irrational fear of pigs. At a young age my Grandfather had impressed upon me the fact that, were I to hit a pig with my car while out for a leisurely drive, I would suffer a horrible fate.
“Pigs,” he told me, “are unlike other animals you may hit with your car. A deer, having long legs and most of it’s body mass a few feet off the ground, will pop up over your hood, or, since it’s not very heavy, it’ll bounce off of your bumper without causing too much damage. A ‘possum or raccoon will go beneath your vehicle and you’ll feel a small bump, nothing more. In both of these cases, you’re pretty safe.”
At this point he would pause, and then, staring right into my eyes so I knew he meant business he’d say: “But not… a pig.”
“A pig,” he’d continue, “will not go over your hood or under your wheels. If you hit a pig, you’ll hit it square on. Now, your average pig can weigh anywhere from 200 to 1,000 pounds, and when you combine that with the velocity of your car?” At this point he’d clap his hands together, loud. “Wham! It’s like hitting a brick wall. You’re gone. You’re dead.”
Of course, my grandfather grew up in a rural area of West Virginia, so this makes sense to him. Pigs wandered into the road there and it was a real concern at night that you might go over a hill on your way back from the sock-hop or the hamburger stand and there would be a sow and whammo! Of course, we were all living in Northern California now. I haven’t even seen a pig in years. I rarely even eat bacon. But that did not stop my Grandfather from impressing upon me the grave fate that would befall me if I were to encounter a pig on the road. I would die, is what I’d do.
So when I started driving, I’d watch. Sure, I thought to myself, I’m just being careful. There could be a dog in the road, or worse, a woman with a stroller might step off the curb. There’s no pigs out here, I’d remind myself. But in the back of my mind lurked that pig. I’d see a shadow in the road up ahead and I’d think, instinctually, for a split second, “Pig?!” but no. It would always turn out to be a ‘possum or a fluffy white cat who would look very shocked up until the moment I lost sight of them under my bumper. Just a little “bump” as my tires rolled over it’s poor little skull. No “Wham!” Not even a “Smack!” Sigh. I never hit anything exciting.*
That was, of course, until I hit the zombie owl.
No, that’s not exactly right. Technically, the owl was not a zombie until after I’d hit it and it came back to life, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
“It was on a night just like tonight…” I tell my nephew as I drive him over to my place so that he may escape the wretched boredom that is my parent’s house for a night. I’ve got a fridge full of Coca-Cola and more video games than a grown man should probably own, which makes me a rather ‘cool’ grown-up, in his book. What can I say? My wife tells me I’ve got the heart of a child. Which, I think, really says something creepy about her, you know, sexually. (The pervert.) But I digress.
“…on this very same stretch of road…” I continue, saying it slow, for effect.
He rolls his eyes. He’s a teenager now, so he’s really good at it. “This isn’t the ‘zombie owl’ story again, is it?”
“You just listen, or I’ll take you right to the closest minimum-security orphanarium. And don’t think I can’t explain my reasons to your mother. I’m gifted with words and horribly persuasive.” Oh, he knows I’m joking. I don’t even know where the orphanarium is located. And the paperwork would take SO long!
“And, yes, it’s about the zombie owl. I don’t care if you’ve heard it before. If you want to drink Coca-Cola until you’re silly with sugar and caffeine, you’ll be quiet and let me tell my story.” He rolls his eyes, but waves his hand in a manner that tells me to go ahead with my tale.
“Anyway, like I was saying, night like tonight, same stretch of road, and, oh yeah, around this very same bend! It was two in the morning and I was in my big Chevy diesel pickup truck, coming home from a gig.”
“The truck where you spilled an entire 32-ounce strawberry-pineapple smoothie right into the pocket of the driver’s side door?” He asks, giggling.
“Yeah. That’s the one. Now shut up. Like I was saying, as I came around that bend, right back there, I was suddenly confronted with an image I will never forget. A pure snowy-white owl with a wingspan as wide as my truck stood in the middle of the road, stooped over eating, probably, a person. It could have been a vampire he was eating, which might explain his unwillingness to die. You know, like a transfer of powers where, through eating the flesh of a vampire, the owl gains the ability to come back from the grave? What do you think?”
“I think… that…,” he stalls for a moment, and is, I assume, carefully weighing soda-pop and video games with the perfect opportunity to verbally bash my silliness. It’s a test of my authority. He decides to play it safe. “I think that’s an interesting theory. Yep, interesting.” Well played, young man. Well played.
“Well, anyway, he was stooped over, eating, and when my headlights hit him he spread his wings out to take flight and that’s right when I hit him, head on.”
I notice that I’m using the pronoun ‘he’ a lot. Who’s to say this beast wasn’t a female? If we’re going by the theory that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, then ’she’ might be a bit more accurate. But that’s just a theory, too.
“He bounced right over my hood, and right by my open driver’s side window, and I could swear I caught a glimpse of a blood-and-gore-encrusted beak and some enormous talons, but I can’t be sure. He crashed over my truck with a few weighty ‘thumps’ and I came to a …screeching** halt. I pulled over and got out, taking my big ol’ metal flashlight with me, to see if, against odds, the owl was still alive and I could put it into my truck bed and save it’s life. I envisioned myself bringing this great big, possibly endangered snowy white owl into the animal emergency room, just in time to revive it. I’d visit it occasionally during it’s healing process, and there would be an article in the local paper, detailing my compassion and heroism. Possibly I’d receive a medal. I’m just saying.”
“Yeah. Right. A medal.” My nephew said.
“It could happen. So, I walked back along the road to the point where I’d hit the thing, and there it was. No, not the owl. A pile of white feathers with blood on them. The owl was nowhere to be found, and neither was the carcass I’d seen it chewing on. Nothing else. I was confused. And horrified. Had it dragged itself away, into the bushes next to the road? Had is flown away on twisted, broken wings? Had a lurking predator made off with the fresh owl and it’s meal? I mean, what the hell had just happened?”
“You’d hit an owl.” My nephew deadpanned. “With your truck.”
“Yeah, thanks. Anyway, I got back into my truck and drove home. When I got out of my truck I had the bright idea to check out my bumper to see if there was blood or anything to prove my story to the wife, any evidence. And there was. Wedged right into the gap between my headlight and it’s frame, there were white down feathers. The frame around the headlight was broken, too, cracked through the plastic. The headlight was fine, though.”
“Well, thank goodness for that.” My nephew said sarcastically. He’s too young to appreciate how expensive a headlight is to replace on a 1985 Chevy truck.
“So, as I was checking out the feathers, I heard the most blood-curdling screech right behind me, coming from the direction of my front door. Then, a sound of something scraping against the wood shingles of my roof, something evil. Then, whatever it was that was on my roof fell off and landed in the bushes. So I did what came naturally to me. I got the fuck in my house and shut the door.”
“Hey, you can’t say the ‘F’ word around me! I’m an impressionable youth!” My nephew said, suddenly paying attention to me after hearing my accidental swearing.
“What are you like, thirteen now? I can say the ‘F’ word, you can’t. That’s life, buddy. It’s a double standard.”
“That sucks.” He replied.
“Don’t say ’sucks’.” I said. Then I laughed. “I’m just kidding, you can say ’sucks’ all you want. I don’t give a shit. So, I got into the house and told your aunt Traci all about it and she listened to the story, half-asleep. She said it probably just dragged itself into a ravine, and she’s probably right. But here’s the thing. Ever since that night, I’ve heard, probably about once a month at least, that hideous screech that I’d never heard before. I can practically see him out there, creeping around in the dark on broken, ragged wings, his rotted feathers crawling with worms, his eye sockets hollow and his beak gleaming and sharp as a razor. He rises every night and roams the countryside, attacking people who resemble me and old Chevy trucks, hoping to one day sink his beak into my throat, and when he eventually does? Then he will finally rest. And I’ll be dead, the only person on Earth to have been killed by a bloody vengeful owl.”
We pull up to my house and my wife hears us and opens the door, creating a golden parallelogram of light that spills out invitingly, with herself silhouetted in the middle. We get out and walk up to the house, my nephew carrying his backpack with clothes and CD’s and teenager stuff.
“He told me the one about the zombie owl again.” He tells Traci, and she rolls her eyes, just as good as he can.
“Again?” she says.
“He’s out there somewhere.” I tell her, narrowing my eyes and turning to stare meaningfully out into the darkness with my arm around her. “Oh, yes. He’s out there. Waiting.”
* Don’t give me that look! Let me explain: I live in the wine country and the roads I use to get to and from gigs and errands are long and windy and just full of cute little woodland creatures harboring suicidal tendencies. These circumstances (combined with the fact that I come home from gigs at 2- or 3- or even 5AM) mean that I run over a couple of groggy little critters every month. It’s a “them or me” mentality. (Or, rather more correctly, a “themselves or I” mentality.) I’m not about to swerve off the road and ram into one of our famous thousand-year-old redwoods, killing my wife and I, while that furry little bastard hippety-hops away to father another few thousand garden-ruining runts.
** Ha! Owls, screeching, you know? ”How does he come up with these?”, you’re probably asking yourself. Magic, my friends. Magic.