Reflections on Spirit

Note 15: When Talon Is the Only Knife You Know. (10/8/99)

This is a story told by Owl:

No matter how many times that old fool showed up in front of my burrow, day after day after day, as it were, even month after month, I was not going to do anything he wanted me to do. He could ask. He could beg. He could threaten me with the most horrific kinds of retribution anyone could ever imagine, like there was anything on the face of this earth he could do to me or my kind that would render our lives more terrible than they already were, and I simply would not be moved to help him do anything at all. I hated that old freak from the first time I drew his shape, like a broken-down old stump of a wind-blasted tree, into that bird's-eye field of vision in my narrowed hunter's sights. He was too big to eat, of course, and I was content to leave him to the cougar or the bear or the dogs who could make a meal of him if they wanted, but still I harbored so much hate for his being in my field that I meant to do whatever harm I could to him. He was ugly and stupid in his human face and worse even than that in the other forms he took to shake and awe the ones of us who only went around from place to place in single forms.

He came again today to play his game of duck and dodge against the flash my talons made each time the sun broke through the night and caught them with its glint of fire when I tried to strike the life out of his eyes. He always sat down like a stone two feet beyond the range my wings could carry me in soundless flight before the final thrust and rush of power in their beat could taste the blood that always waited just beyond the reach of any talon's strike. He played his silly flute. He sang another senseless chant to draw me out and when I came at him he always ducked and lashed out at my body with his bony hand and flute as I flew past his head. He had the perfect measure of my strike and always managed just to put his eyes and face outside the circle of my claws and beak.

The only time he could not move his head aside in time before my talons struck I found there wasn't flesh enough and bone inside his head to give me purchase from the air that held my wings above the earth. I whistled through him like a spook and came to ground a tangled knot of wing and feather mixed with thorn and leaf outside the burrow where he sat. I thought I had him then because he faced away from me as I approached out of the south. He came too early, well before the sun had topped the eastern peaks, and sat there stupidly and dense for reasons even he could not express believing I had finished hunting for the night myself and waited like a passion bound with rope for him to come and lure me out into the open air. I didn't think or plan the dive that drove me through his flesh, the skin and bone that wasn't there to stop me in my rush to tear the life out of his skull. Instead of blood I tasted sand and nearly broke my neck against the thorns and branches where I came to rest.

He only laughed at me and wasn't even there when I looked back to see what I had missed. There wasn't anything at all, not even empty space where he had been when I began the dive across the sun's first glint of morning light. I thought back then, and still believe, that he was able by some trick of his to make himself appear where nothing was, to be a presence in the empty air by shifting light around the edges of his frame and throwing it some way into the sky like smoke to make his image glow and move around like any other living thing. I moved my burrow twice two times to get away from him. He always found me out again and came back to my earth wrought cave as if he knew before I did where I would come to rest to harbor me against the daylight blindness in my hunter's eye.

His final trickery began one day when morning's light had driven me back down the burrow to a depth where I could see a shadow pass across the tunnel's mouth and hear whatever thing was there to threaten me if I gave up too soon my standing vigil as time's watchman of the night. The old man made me hate the sound of flutes, of other birds who sang a sweeter song than mine, of chants that had some origin in human speech, and so that morning when I felt the first footfalls of his approach (he started out just south of where I lived back then), the first faint trilling of his flute, I knew a chance was coming up the path that ran in front of me to strike another time at everything I'd grown to hate about the old man's being there in time. He had no right is what I think to trouble me the way he did about my duty to perform some task to further him and leave me nothing in return as recompense for all the risk he wanted me to take. I made my choice instead to lash out any way I could to keep my dignity in tact.

I heard his labored breathing coming up the path which struck me false because he never sounded anything like that the other times he'd shown himself in front of me. Ignoring signs that should have brought me cautious to the lip between the darkness of my daylight realm and every breath of morning air I could not see beyond, I settled at the edge to wait as long as it would be before the old man showed his face and opened up his eyes to my attack. He lumbered into view just as the sun broke through the distant bank of summer clouds that hugged the mountain tops beyond the eastern range of anywhere I'd ever flown in search of food. I should have known right then that old men, like the one who taunted me, had come to know my mind too well and could guess beyond a living doubt precisely what I meant to do. I launched myself into the air with screech as loud as any I had ever voiced. The thing in front of me was shocked, as terrified as anything like him could be, but flailed a single arm across his face before my talons reached their mark and brushed me back, away, and to the left as he went down beneath the clapping thunder of my wings. I spiraled back around behind his head to come at him again.

The old man intervened, of course, and stood a ground that interposed himself between the object of my hunt and all the rage that any scent of mammal blood inspires in me. He bent my course away with nothing more substantial than a stinging fire in his look. He made me out into his fool again as well when I looked back to see that he was gone just like he'd never been there in the fight. The one whose blood was drying on the blades I'd slashed him with was standing now dumbfounded by the cuts still bleeding on his arm. He had no clue what kind of thing had come up from the ground to draw his blood the way I did. He could not see me in the sun the old man's strike had put me on. I simply disappeared into the light of day.

When I came back the old man's thing was gone. He mocked me when I touched the ground. He said I'd done exactly what he planned for me to do. My instinct to do harm to him had turned me into just another puppet on his string. He thanked me with a promise to return one day with proper recompense for all the help I'd been. Coyote came to dig me out. He cracked my bones and blinded me with thorns he stuck into my eyes. He left me there to die a harbored death inside a burrow deep beneath the surface of the earth, inside a tunnel down to places never touched by air nor seen by sky, a place where only death can find a living thing to know or hunt. I live there now in perfect peace away from all the screech and howl of earth and light, a place where night sky never ends, where time takes all the spirit out of any need to get from here to there, where nothing like an old man touches me with spite and trickery to get his bidding done the way he did to me. This is a paradise of death where spirits break apart from flesh to start their riverwalk back to a time that never was, back to a time that never comes around again, a place where old man fixes every wing he knows to turn around a night-sky in the dark.

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