You Shall Not Remember
Us As Such
It was out along Cold River Road where I first encountered that owl. I’d finished up my shift at Green Mountain Power and it was getting dark–was getting darker, in fact, earlier each day that time of year–and other than the Chevy the road was empty and unlit except what little of the asphalt and the trees alongside it my headlights could illumine. To come upon the owl then as I rounded the bend near mile marker 14, crouched upon the yellow line with wings folded and head cocked to the side, gave the impression that this bird was there in anticipation of my arrival at that exact point along my route home. That I didn’t immediately drill my boot into the brake or bare down on the horn in surprise, but instead merely decelerated and carefully advanced like we’d agreed I’d simply try to steer around it–like this moment had been planned out in detail beforehand–speaks I think to the general lack of rational thinking that had already begun to overtake most of us by then.
What I mean to say is the owl didn’t suddenly fly off or even swivel its head around in curiosity at the lights now distinguishing its shape from the darkness. In fact, it maneuvered itself to a position in front of the truck, and while it did strike me as somewhat odd–the intent, meticulous exertions of what I had no real reason at that point to perceive as anything other than a wild animal–I do not believe this struck me quite so odd as it should have. It’s likely you yourself have since experienced something similar and are familiar with the disconnect which I am attempting to describe.
Even when that bird began to back down the asphalt with a precise, evenly-spaced series of hops I did not do whatever the levelheaded thing in such a situation would’ve been to do. I kept my foot pressed lightly to the gas, allowing the Chevy to roll slowly after it–as if I was being beckoned by this creature to continue in the direction in which I had already been driving–and so in this way followed it along the length of Cold River Road until we came to the entrance of the gravel drive leading to my home. There, we both halted.
That this journey was far longer in duration–if not outright laborious in pace–than it would’ve been under less irregular circumstances certainly occurred to me and yet hardly any other thought passed through my mind in the hour it took to navigate a mere six miles except for that which concerned the owl’s head. Once or twice its wings were seen to extend as though to balance its body in its reverse progression, and its talons could occasionally be heard to clack upon the surface of the asphalt, but never did its head turn in the direction of myself or the S-10 retained in its convoy. Whether the owl was simply keeping watch for whatever might appear behind it or was deliberately concealing its face–as such a notion suggested itself–I did not know. Truth be told, such reasoning seemed beyond my capability. I had fallen into a sort of stupor, made manifest in the glassy eyes and pale, inscrutable face I glimpsed in the rearview mirror and which so many of us have since adopted as permanent expression.
So benumbed was I that I hardly noticed when the owl finally took flight. Really, it was little more than a flash beheld in the Chevy’s lights of great black wings plying against gravity’s strain. In fact, the faculty of retrospect is likely all that affords me the ability to recall such a detail. At the time it almost seemed the owl was still present–albeit shed of observable form–and for many minutes more I remained in the idling truck until a station wagon appeared behind me and stirred me to turn in the direction of the house. Dimly, I thought to myself how exactly I should relate the particulars of that long, strange drive to Ginny and to Kevin, too, if my son wasn’t still at school rehearsing with his fellow Tri-M Society members.
Here, again, was I at the behest of the irrational. While there are those of us who have since recognized the foreign nature of such thoughts–if not the apparent calculation involved in their very conceiving–at the time I chalked it up to a lapse in memory. What I mean to say is that as the gravel skittered beneath the S-10's tires, further stirring me from stupor, it came to me that Kevin had left for Boston that past August to begin his first year at Berkeley and that after an excruciating struggle the pancreatic cancer had claimed Ginny’s life nearly two years prior.
As I parked the truck at the end of the drive and climbed from the cab it then came to me that no species of owl I knew of–neither the barn owl rather common here in Vermont nor even the great horned owl I had on occasion spotted during the hikes the three of us used to take along Wheeler Pond Trail–would have the capacity to behave in such a manner as this creature or–more to the point–have been visible to me over the hood of the Chevy approximately 40 inches above the asphalt it had traversed. On the contrary, not once did it seem in danger of disappearing from my field of vision. No, not until the instant it chose to. All of which is to say it was only as I stepped back to blink confusedly at the S-10's dimensions that I understood whatever had conducted me here had been roughly five and a half feet tall.
Sure, this struck me as odd–that this so-called bird could be like that of an average-sized man or woman–and yet once again not so odd perhaps as it should have. Even now, while I am able to infer that very little of this could logically be the way I’ve described it, I do not feel the sensation of awe or alarm I suspect might be appropriate. This is of the same strain of disconnect of which I spoke earlier and to which we seem to fall victim more and more each day to the point where often we come to know the very wrongness of a thing while simultaneously not knowing it at all.
At Green Mountain Power the next day during lunch Barry told us how he had returned home the previous evening to see balanced atop the utmost point of his roof a tall, slender woman clad in ragged garb–black against the inky hues of winter’s twilight–whose contours suddenly shifted, arms and shoulders broadening to ludicrous proportions, before she was lifted from the gable by some unknown force. It was, of course, a bird: an osprey, Barry thought, though he couldn’t explain why it should appear at his house so far from any body of water where it’s diet of fish might be found nor why it shouldn’t have migrated south as its species is known to do. He could not really think clearly at all, overwhelmed as he was by the certainty his family was in danger–and yet when he charged through the side door there they were, wife and twin daughters on the couch watching Extreme Couponing.
It was then Helen told us that around three that very morning she had awoken for no reason she could recall and seen at her bedroom window a long, white, preposterously thin visage she eventually discerned as that of a bird. An egret of some sort–or so thought Barry, who seemed now to consider himself an ornithologist of sorts. In any case, Helen laid there for a long while, gaze locked to that of the egret’s tiny black pupils in a way she couldn’t quite make sense of when factoring in the darkness of the room or the distance between bed and window. Then, abruptly, the bird was gone. Helen, as though by command, returned immediately to sleep. C.J., visibly excited now by the opportunity to share his own story, told us he had awoken early that morning with the urge–a compulsion really, he said, as if trying out a new word he had recently learned–to rise from bed and look out the window. There in the backyard of his step-dad’s house he saw eight or nine vultures–turkey vultures Barry surmised–clambering around the rusted snowmobile engines and rolls of chainlink fencing as if deep in exploration. After a moment these vultures ceased clambering, their heads twisted around, their red faces and yellow beaks were brought to bear upon C.J. there on the second floor–C.J. swore to this, claiming the pre-dawn granted a certain visibility–and then he, too, returned to sleep. A voice had told him to do so–C.J. swore to this also–and he awoke two hours later on the cold hardwood floor beneath the window. That so few of us seemed unmoved by mention of this cryptic voice I think disappointed C.J. Indeed, the voice was never once remarked upon–just as each new outlandish development in our current predicament has gone largely unremarked upon.
As for me, it hardly occurred to me to tell my coworkers of the owl. I’d almost forgotten the experience entirely by the time I clocked out that second evening, returned home, microwaved a bowl of soup, watched a rerun of Longmire, and then–overwhelmed by an exhaustion disproportionate to the relative ease of that day’s work–climbed into bed still clad in jeans and GMP polo. It wasn’t until I came to hours later I recalled the owl with any kind of lucidity and it was, I quickly determined, due to the sharp, distinct sound of talons clacking.
Propping my body up against the pillows I was able to see it–the owl that is–hopping backwards down the hallway. In my stupor I had left the kitchen light on and the grotesque size of the creature’s body was explicit even in silhouette–even before it halted at the bedroom door and filled its frame. The fact I wasn’t overcome by the sheer incongruity of the situation–nor its apparent dreadfulness–is only reasonable when one takes into account this was merely the first of many such encounters that have since become commonplace for most of us.
Really, all that troubled me was the fact that the owl’s head was still cocked to the side in such a way it truly seemed its face was being hidden from me–and no sooner did I have this thought then the head twisted in my direction and its features were described briefly in the gleam of the kitchen light. Instead of the severe black beak or the great yellow eyes I expected it was the face of a woman I saw. In fact, it was much like Ginny’s face had been prior to her illness, complete with high flushed cheeks, thin pink lips and pale green eyes cast downward as if in apology that this phantasmal approximation of her countenance should merely render matters more uncertain. Only then did I feel what might be considered emotion befitting this scenario, and it was simply grief, and it was so immense I must once more credit the faculty of retrospect for the ability to recall what was then said.
“You shall not remember us as such,” a voice was heard to say, though the face remained immobile. “You shall remember us as the winged and the beaked. You shall remember us as the feathered, the light-bodied. You shall remember us as that which can take to the emptiness of air and return to solidity when we so choose,” declared this voice, and in my estimation we have been offered little in the way of explanation to cause us to think otherwise.
About the Writer
Stephen Langlois is a writer of the fantastic and absurd. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Portland Review, Monkeybicycle, Matchbook Litmag, Maudlin House, Necessary Fiction, Pacifica Literary Review, Profane Journal, Big Lucks, and glitterMOB, among others. He is a recipient of a NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Center for Fiction as well as a writing residency from the Blue Mountain Center. He also hosts BREW: An Evening of Literary Works, a reading series held in Brooklyn, and serves as the fiction editor for FLAPPERHOUSE. Visit him at stephenmlanglois.com or follow @stphnlanglois.