I hit an owl.
The sky was dungaree blue, clinging to just enough light to maintain a horizon where the spikes of pine trees stood like arrows proclaiming, “This way to the exit.” I wasn’t driving all that fast. As soon as I saw him standing like a referee on the painted line in the middle of the road, I took my foot off the accelerator assuming that the sound of the approaching engine and the brightening headlights would motivate him into flight. It did.
He spread his wings and turned to face me. For half a second we were eye to eye. Long enough for me to recognize him as an owl, to see the wide-as-a-saucer circle of feathers around his eyes, to be transported by memory’s subway pass to another time when my eyes met those of another creature and the world fell away. And then he flew directly into the grill.
I gasped, slowed, looked for a place to turn around, hopeful — How can a person be so hopeful? — that he had just been stunned and was even then fluttering drunkenly off to his nest to tell the story. “Honey, you ain’t gonna believe ...”
The headlights splayed out across the road in long white cones and, along the other painted line, the one that divides pavement from ditch, I saw the feathered body, a still shadow. I burst into tears.
It was about time. The last week had been a painful one, a traumatic one. I’d buried two people I love, one a friend of nearly 30 years whose brilliant life had ended far too soon and one a woman whose long and fruitful 91 years had included her claiming of me as one of her own shortly after the death of my beloved Grannie. I had offered hugs and words of condolence, I had held hands and shared memories. At the latter gathering, I’d even stood up in front of everybody, told a story or two, offered some Scripture and prayed. But I hadn’t cried. Not really.
So now I did. And as I sobbed, gripping the steering wheel and blinking rapidly so that I could still see the road ahead, I turned on the owl, demanding loudly an explanation for why he had to fly straight into the car, a reason for why he should have been in the road in the first place, a justification for why he could not have delayed his kamikaze dive for the next inevitable pair of headlights.
Owls, it is said, are the only creatures who can live with ghosts. And they are, of course, purveyors of wisdom. I didn’t really want to think that the women whose losses I was grieving were trying to speak. I mean, that would be just a little too weird. Even for me. Yet, there was something otherworldly about that moment when the owl locked his gaze with mine. It was as though I’d stumbled into a thin place, unknowingly wandered into land equidistant between heaven and earth.
The cellphone dinged. The peculiar ding of a text message. I was almost home. There were no other cars on the road. I slowed to a crawl and looked down at the screen, one hand on the steering wheel, the other trying to get the tears out of my eyes so that I could actually read the words. But the message wasn’t words. It was a photo of Jackson standing in the dim white lights of a just-raised Christmas tree, his 4-year-old hand reaching out to place a candy cane on one of the branches, the profile of his expressionless face all curves and softness. He looked like an angel, all that blondness, all that cherubic innocence.
The tears resumed.
The denim sky was fading quickly, the pine trees fading into darkness. I leaned into the curve that hugs the pond where the Canadian geese gather every morning and I heard the voice of the owl whispering, translating for himself. “Life is tender, sweet girl. Life is tender. It is precious and must be protected, but it is fragile and must not be crushed. Hold it close, but hold it loose.”