“There is a place where terror is good. It should remain enthroned as a guard over the mind. If citizens and mortals do not nourish some dread in their hearts, how will they honor justice?” –From The Eumenides by Aeschylus
(Photo by Omar Rodriguez Rodriguez)
As he stepped out of Lucky 13, he heard a flurry of wings behind him and twisted in time to see a gray bird settle next door on the drab Victorian. He couldn’t see it clearly in the deep twilight above the ragged leaves, but it was huge. What the hell was it? San Francisco had peregrine falcons living on a skyscraper downtown, he knew, and probably hawks and owls in the parks and the Presidio, but this bird was much too big.
And its curved beak seemed to be pointing directly down at him. Was it glaring at him? No, that was unlikely. Why would it be interested in him? What could it possibly want with him?
He smiled at his unease and took a couple steps towards the subway entrance on the corner, swinging his briefcase in a deliberately casual manner. The bird leaned forward, raising its wings slightly, as if it were poised for attack.
Birds of prey don’t attack people, he assured himself, unless they are defending their territory or their young, and the intersection of Church and Market was an unlikely place for such a large bird to roost. What the hell was it doing in the city?
“Get out of here!” he yelled and pretended to pick up a rock and throw it. Sometimes this worked with dogs. The bird did not flinch. Instead, it spread its enormous white and black-tipped wings.
So this is what a rodent feels like, he thought and rubbed his mouth. He didn’t dare pass under its fierce gaze, so he ducked back into the bar.
* * *
He ordered a couple of Big Daddy beers and carried them over to his sister, who was sitting at the bar under the intense red lights, her frizzy, brown hair practically glowing. Ellie was surprised–he had insisted it would be an early night as he had to give a presentation in the morning on a new marketing campaign–but she happily accepted the beer and introduced him to the grizzly looking young man she had sidled up to.
“Mack, right? Mack, this is my brotha Alexandros. You can call him Alex or Alexie or Andros or Andy, anything you want except ‘Little Man.’ That pisses him off. And he’s not so nice when he’s pissed off, are you, Alex? He may be a looker with that creamy, brown skin of his and those pale, green eyes, but, wow, what a temper! Still, he can be a pretty decent fellow, sometimes. In spite of some anger management issues, he has a heart of gold. He would do anything for me, wouldn’t you, Alexie? He even helped me pay for a master’s degree in architecture. Lot of good that did!”
“Pleased to meet you,” Mack said with a serious nod, and they shook hands, squeezing forcefully.
“I haven’t seen him in weeks,” Ellie said, taking a long drink, “not since our mother’s funeral, but he invited me to this classy establishment to celebrate. Did I tell you it’s my birthday? Only one more year of my twenties. I’ve got to make it count! And my loving brother took an hour off of his busy schedule to be with his sister on the day of her birth. Isn’t that nice? I guess he chose this bar because it reminds him of his rock ‘n roll days. So what’s up, Andy? You thought of another dirty little secret you wanted to tell me about Mom? Or are you still thirsty, Little Man?”
“No, there’s a bird, a big bird. Outside on the building next door. A predatory bird.” His voice was thick; he knew he sounded silly. “I wanted to show it to you. You like birds.”
“Oh yeah? So, why’d you order us beer?”
Alex felt his cheeks growing hot. “Your birthday was last week,” he said at last, straightening up. “I don’t have to take your shit. Look at you in your ridiculous African clothes, acting all black. We only had one black grandparent, so you can drop your pretensions of being Mother Africa.”
“So says the white boy! You’re one to talk, coming to a bar like this in a suit. Besides, my clothes aren’t African, but I guess the designs are African-inspired. You’re just being an asshole.” She got down clumsily from the stool. “You’ll have to excuse his manners, kind sir. We didn’t have much of a home life. I’ll be right back after we check out this hummingbird or whatever, then I’ll tell you all about growing up with this prick. It’s going to take a while, so you might as well order a pitcher. After all it is my birthday . . . more or less. Well, let’s see this fucker. Come on.”
As they were headed towards the exit, a guy came out of the men’s restroom. Alex caught a glimpse of a white mural on the black walls: a busty mermaid on the lap of a man with a skull’s head. For some reason, the mural made him even more anxious.
* * *
When they got outside, the bird was gone. Alex squinted up at the empty roof. Ellie laughed loudly and punched her brother in the shoulder, drawing the attention of the smokers outside. “What’s a-matter, Little Man? You afraid of a little birdie?”
He looked around anxiously. He didn’t think it had gone far. He could feel its piercing gaze on the back of his neck. His stomach began to ache, the way it did when he was nervous. “I thought you’d want to see it,” he said, lamely. “You don’t have to be a bitch about it.”
“Oh, don’t I? Isn’t that my job?”
“Such a cunt. You were always such a cunt to me.” He shoved her, and she sat down heavily on the pavement.
“Yeah?” she said from the sidewalk. “At least until you were big enough to beat me up, right?”
Alex mumbled, “Happy birthday,” and hurried toward the subway entrance, the back of his neck tingling. He glanced over his shoulder at the darkling, blue sky.
“I can’t believe the things you were saying about Mom,” Ellie called after him, brushing herself off, “accusing her of driving Dad to suicide! Seriously? Dad didn’t kill himself; he just disappeared. He abandoned us. That’s all. You shouldn’t say such terrible things about your own mother. You shouldn’t talk shit about the dead. It’s bad karma.”
Alex paused on the steps to the underground, trying to ignore the strangers that were looking askance. “Jesus, Eleanor, don’t be so dense! Why else would he leave all his stuff behind? There’s no other explanation. See you at Christmas.”
* * *
Walking past the tract houses of the Outer Sunset, the fog blowing overhead, he felt a rush of wind and something struck him hard in the back of the head. With a flash of light, he fell to one knee.
Immediately, massive wings were sweeping around his head, a tornado of white and black feathers. Alex flailed his free hand, trying to keep it off of his back, its sharp talons scratching his arm.
(Photo by Ed Hawco on Monday Morning Photo Blog.)
It bit his neck and snarled. He struck it with his briefcase. It rose into the air. He tried to stand up, and it fell on him like a stone, knocking him to the sidewalk, his briefcase skidding across the concrete.
It landed on his back, sunk its talons into his shoulders, and began tearing out his curly hair with its beak. “Help!” he cried, pushing himself up. He struggled to his feet with it on top of him, swaying like a palm tree in a storm. He had to stay upright, or it might kill him. It was strong enough. “Help!”
Somehow he got ahold of one wing. Its beak clamped onto his hand. Something snapped, but he did not let go. He grabbed a scaly leg with his other hand, dragged it off him, and flung it to the ground.
It flew at him, shrieking and clawing at his eyes. He punched it hard in the face, and it ascended. Absurdly, he thought he saw a pair of breasts as it rose over his head.
He dove under a hedge and struggled to pull his cell phone out of his pocket, a sharp pain in his hand. Before he could call 911, his phone started vibrating, a smiling picture of his sister on the screen. “Help!” he yelled into the phone. “Help me, Ellie! Oh, please!”
* * *
Alex was frantically explaining to his sister what was happening when he saw a taxi dropping someone off a few doors up the street. “I’ll call you back!” he said, scrambled out of the hedge, and ran for it, snatching his briefcase off the sidewalk and holding it over his head. The bird-thing slammed into the briefcase as he climbed into the cab and shut the door.
“What the hell?” the surprised cabbie said, turning around to look at his unexpected passenger, bleeding in the back seat. “I’m sorry, sir, but my shift just ended. I can’t take any more riders today. I don’t know what’s going on, but you look like you need an ambulance, not a taxi. You’ll have to get out of my cab.”
Looking fearfully out the window, Alex said, “No, no, no! I need to go to the hospital!” The elderly driver tried to argue with him, but there was no way that Alex was going to get out. “I’m bleeding, you asshole. The only way you’re going to get rid of me is by taking me to the emergency room. Oh my God, look at my suit!”
Reluctantly, the driver put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb. Looking grumpily in the rearview mirror, he asked, “What happened? Did you get mugged?”
“It was a bird, a big bird. It attacked me.”
“A bird, huh? Jeez, why don’t you smoke another one of those LSD cigarettes?” He shook his head and made a right turn. “I really don’t know why I bother.”
Was it a bird? Alex wondered, blood trickling down his back. If not, what the hell was it?
* * *
The woman at the front desk of the emergency room had a hard time believing his story. She suggested a crow. “Crows sometimes attack people. The fear of the moment might have made it seem bigger than it really was, you know?”
“It was not a crow. It was white with black-tipped feathers.”
“My aunt was attacked by a crow. It scared the hell out of her. She thought it was a demon or something.”
“Can I please speak to someone who knows what they are talking about? I’m bleeding.”
The nurse, as he viciously scrubbed Alex’s wounds, suggested a mountain lion. “That would make more sense, considering these deep puncture wounds. I don’t know any bird that can make cuts like these.”
Alex pointed out that a mountain lion in the city was even more unlikely than a bird of prey.
“California is full of mountain lions. One attacked a man in Cupertino just last month, almost killed him.”
“Mountain lions don’t fly.”
Alex closed his mouth tightly, so that he would not say something he would regret. His stomach started to hurt. The nurse irrigated his wounds thoroughly, swabbed them with disinfectant, and saved the swabs in a biohazard envelope for testing.
The doctor, when she finally saw him, didn’t have much to say about his story. She told him that they had contacted Animal Care and Control, but there were no similar occurrences on recent record. Then she asked him if there was any domestic abuse at home.
Alex laughed. “Not anymore.”
She put two stitches in his head, set the bone in his hand, and gave him a shot for rabies as a precaution since they could not isolate and observe the animal. She told him he would have to come back in three, seven and fourteen days for more rabies shots. “As a precaution,” she said again.
* * *
Ellie was in the waiting room, reading Scientific American, when he came out. “Want a ride?” she asked. “The nurse said you may have a concussion. We are supposed to watch for signs like dizziness or double vision. Jeez, looks like you’re missing some patches of hair. I’ll drive you home.”
“What took you so fucking long to get here?”
She dropped the magazine on the end table. “What took me so long? Seriously? I’ve been sitting here for an hour and a half waiting for your sorry ass. I’ve learned everything there is to know about black holes and tyrannosaurs. How about a ‘Thank you, kind sister, for coming to pick me up’ instead?”
He didn’t say anything, just rubbed his mouth, and she led him to her battered Volkswagen beetle, even opened the door for him. He couldn’t help looking at the shadowy treetops as he got into the car.
“Well, what happened?” she said, as she pulled out of the parking lot. “I couldn’t understand anything you were saying on the phone. It didn’t make sense.”
“The bird I saw outside of Lucky 13 attacked me. It must have followed me somehow. I don’t know how. I think it had breasts.”
She stared at him, then said, “While I was waiting for you, I found a guy on LinkedIn who looks like Dad. The name is similar, you know, like he Americanized it. I’m going to write him. It might even be him this time. Wouldn’t that be something?”
“Dad is dead, and you know it. Mom drove him to suicide. Or worse.”
“And now she’s dead too, so don’t talk about her like that. You’re giving me a headache. We’re all that’s left of this pathetic family, besides some relatives in Greece we’ve never met and a rapist grandfather, who says he’s born again. We’re it, the two of us, Alexie. Let’s try to get along. Please?”
“Ellie, why did you call?”
“Why did you call when you did? You know, it helped me. It helped me to hear your voice, helped me calm down a little, so I could figure out what to do.”
She shrugged. “I wanted to apologize for being rude, you know, for laughing at you. I know that makes you mad. And I wanted to thank you for the birthday drinks, so . . . thanks.” She smiled at him, then honked at a homeless woman, shambling across the street.