It’s a terrible road to be running on, I know. The shoulder is gravelly and uneven. Trash is strewn about from the nearby dump. I normally don’t run on roads like this, highways, that is, with a 55-mph speed limit, but here I am, too impatient to stop and wait for the light to turn green. Plus, it’s only a two-laner, and in only a mile or so connects to the quiet country road that will offer a glimpse of the Helderberg Escarpment, a welcome change from my monotonous neighborhood flatland. It’s unusually sunny and warm today, and I want to soak it all in.
That’s when I see it. I only catch it in my peripheral, but, despite being nearly camouflaged, my ocular synapses fire and send a message to my brain before I can even think to think. I stop mid-stride. This happens to me with four-leaf clovers too, but this is different. Unwelcome. I look down. Is it a doll? A stuffed animal? Then closer. It’s an owl. But not just an owl. It’s the tiniest owl I’ve ever seen. So tiny it doesn’t look real. It can’t be more than five or six inches long, with brown and white dappled feathers. The poor thing must have been hit by a car. It looks dead, but maybe it’s just stunned. A friend and I once found a stunned red-tailed hawk in the middle of the road, and after a stint at an animal rescue, it was ok.
I inch closer, cautiously. Cautious of what, I don’t know. I think about nudging it with my shoe, thinking maybe it will stir, but then I see its eyes, fixed in what will now be a permanent wink.
Stop looking at the dead owl on the side of the road. My brain has suddenly changed tack from compelling me to stop to urging me to go. The passing cars are going to think you’re a weirdo.
But I don’t want to leave it here, alone, on the side of the road with the refuse. Aside from the wink, it looks perfectly fine. I think about picking it up. Cradling it in my hands.
Birds carry germs. Don’t.
Germs didn’t stop me from picking up a sick Blue Jay in college that I found lying under a bush, wings spread out unnaturally. But that time it was clearly alive, until it wasn’t. I had taken it to the university vet center in a shoe box and they told me I could wait for the next available veterinarian. It went through death throws in my lap.
But why did you stop me just to leave it? Shouldn’t I do something? Maybe it will wake up.
I reluctantly run on but slow a few moments later when I see an empty cardboard box in the berm. I could put the owl in there.
What’s the point of putting a dead bird in a giant, discarded box? You’re not going to carry it the 7 miles it takes to get home.
But maybe someone can identify it. Maybe it’s a rare owl. Maybe an ornithologist would want to try to understand what happened to it. I momentarily pride myself on knowing the word “ornithologist.”
I keep running and think of my colleague who volunteers for a raptor rehab, the one with the owl tattoo on her inner arm. We had both been growing increasingly worried about Trump getting a second term, especially because it had recently come to our attention how few of our colleagues understood the imminent danger that would put us in. She had wondered aloud if it had been a mistake to have come out, that maybe it would have been safer to remain in the closet. You can not tell her you found a dead owl. That would be cruel.
Ahead is what looks like a maroon-colored, leather jacket, in a heap and covered in dust. I briefly think about putting the owl in it, like the woman who took off her shirt to save the koala during the Australian wildfires.
That koala died too.
I keep running.
* * *
“I saw a dead owl,” I announce to my girlfriend when I get home.
“It was really small. I’ve never seen an owl like it.”
“Did you take a picture?”
“I didn’t have my phone.” I don’t usually carry my phone when I run, but because I’ve gotten lost on a few occasions in the last year, when I have pockets big enough to hold it, I’ve started taking it with me. I don’t like carrying it though. It makes me feel like I’m not a “real runner” anymore. I wouldn’t carry my phone on a tempo run. But the hard truth is I haven’t competed in a decade and with each passing year it’s less likely. I don’t want to accept I’m past my prime. “Besides, wouldn’t it be weird if I took a picture of a dead owl?” I had wanted to take a picture of it, but I didn’t want to admit it so readily.
I get my phone and google, “small owls New York.” I find several pictures that look like the owl I saw. I hold the phone up to her. “Maybe it was this.” I show her a picture of the Northern Saw-whet owl, also known as the Little Owl. “Or this.” I switch to the Boreal owl, even though the website indicates the geographic range is wrong. Boreals live mostly in Canada and we seem too far south. Plus, it looks like the Boreal’s talons are covered in feathers and I think my owl had bright yellow talons. “My owl,” as if it’s mine. But now I don’t know if I’m correctly remembering what my owl looked like. How could I already be forgetting?
“It wasn’t a Screech owl.” I explain I’m familiar with Screech owls. One used to nest near my apartment every fall. I didn’t know this at first though, not being able to discern the sound or where exactly it originated. It sounded like crying. It sounded a bit like a loon but also a bit like locusts. I can’t remember how I discovered it was the “whinny” of a Screech owl—imagine a bird imitating a horse whinnying and this is exactly what it sounds like—but I do remember that once I realized what it was, I wanted to “talk” to it, so I put my computer against the window screen and played it over and over. I was disappointed when it didn’t whinny back to me as I thought it would. I looked closer at the sound I was playing only to realize I’d chosen a territorial call. I didn’t hear the owl again that season.
“Maybe it was. . . .”
“I don’t want to see any more owl pictures. I have to work.”
“Ok. I should work too. I’m so behind.”
I spend the next hour or who knows how long—time is not really my forte—looking at owls on my computer, going back and forth between the Saw-whet and Boreal on the Audubon and Cornell websites. The Boreal, it turns out, winters as far south as New York, so it’s not out of the running. Both are the right size—little. From what I can tell, they have similar plumage, though the Saw-whet has a striped pattern to the Boreal’s spotted one. All I can remember now is that my owl looked more white than brown. I think. Maybe I’m wrong. It was so tiny and delicate. The Boreal gets its name from the arctic region it typically inhabits, the Saw-whet for the sound it makes. Apparently, someone thought the Saw-whet owl sounded similar to a saw being sharpened on a whetstone, hence “saw whet,” but that seems to me violent and, frankly, wrong. I find an audio recording. To my untrained ear, it’s less saw and more like a miniature garbage truck backing up. Beep beep beep beep.
It’s the descriptions of each owl that really get to me though. Audubon says the Boreal is “a rather mysterious owl of dense northern woodlands” and “easily overlooked.” The Saw-whet is described as, and I’m not making this up, “a round-headed little gnome.” I imagine my owl as a gnome. It fits. “Avoiding notice,” Audubon continues, “is a task at which this owl often succeeds; it is overlooked in many places where it occurs.” I feel an instant kinship with the Saw-whet. Maybe because being overlooked feels passive. Avoiding notice requires purpose and deliberation. The Saw-whet is trying not to be seen.
I tell my girlfriend that maybe I should go back and take a picture. I don’t say that I need to know which owl I am. We’ve been together for years, she and I. We used to argue repeatedly about the distinction between privacy and secrecy. My position was that valuing your privacy was not being secretive. Her position was that we weren’t really a couple if we didn’t acknowledge it outside a “safe” few. We stopped arguing when she started working at a job where many of her coworkers were “conservative,” and she didn’t know how they’d react or what they’d think of her. It was, I suppose, her first experience with what I’d spent my life doing: deliberately trying not to be seen.
“Do you want to go now?” She’s humoring me, but she’s sincere. She knows I get sucked in sometimes. That I get so obsessed with something I can’t think of anything else. And that she’s going to have to listen to me talk about this for the rest of the night and probably the rest of the week. Or longer. Most likely longer.
“It’s too dark.” It’s dark at 4pm these days. I hate it. I keep saying I’m going to move to Yuma, Arizona, but I never do. “And there’s nowhere to pull over safely. And I’m not even completely sure where it is.” I think about going now but I know it would be foolish and dangerous. I say maybe I’ll go tomorrow.
“It probably won’t be there tomorrow.”
* * *
The next day I drive to Elm Avenue Park. I pull into the parking spot as three people are getting into their car in the adjoining spot. They aren’t wearing face masks. I clock the Trump 2020 sticker on their bumper. Once the doors are shut, I get out. I have my mask in my hand, but I don’t put it on. I don’t want to deal with potential conflict, and besides, their windows are shut, so I figure I’m safe even if they have COVID.
Once they leave, I put on my mask. I have my phone in hand, which is annoying, so I tuck it inside my running bra, which is only slightly less annoying. I feel embarrassed. For carrying my phone. For the fact that I’m going to take a picture of a dead owl. But I’m also excited. Excited is not the right word. Nervous. Worried my owl will be gone. Worried it will still be there.
I run through the park, passing the empty tennis courts and soccer fields. I’m thinking about the election, and how there were a few days last week, after a Biden-Harris victory seemed real, where I felt my neck and back loosen and my jaw unclench. When some degree of pain is a constant, it’s always a shock to feel, well, fine. To be able to take a full breath when you didn’t realize how shallow your breath has been for so long feels like a superpower. All around the world, people have been dancing in the streets, having socially distant neighborhood celebrations, taking deep, collective breaths. It’s important, essential in fact, to take the victories where you get them, to celebrate when you can, especially when you know the road ahead is anything but easy.
Election night, a friend texted me distressed. She thought it would be a landslide. That it was only a few angry people making a lot of noise. She didn’t understand how so many people could support someone so vile and hateful, someone so intent to do harm to so many, someone so utterly lacking in empathy. She wanted to know if it was going to be ok. I tried to be reassuring but realistic. Biden was going to win, I told her, partly to reassure myself. But it was never going to be a landslide. Black and brown folks have been telling us white people for literally ever that it’s always been this bad, and now is our chance, our obligation, to truly confront it.
What wasn’t said but understood between us was the question of how close we were to danger. Or rather, were we going back to being in the kind of danger we had gotten used to not being in or would the danger be even worse? And deeper down, had we ever gotten used to not being in danger?
I’ve long believed the danger you see is not as bad as the danger you don’t, but I’m starting to think I’m wrong. Or maybe not wrong completely but that I’ve fundamentally miscalculated. And that seems to be part of the problem. Always calculating. Always on the lookout for imminent danger. Trying to blend in when you’ll never blend in. But what good is it if you see danger everywhere? What price do you pay for avoiding notice in order not to be hurt? I sometimes wonder what it would be like to walk down the sidewalk holding my girlfriend’s hand and not to scanning every movement, hoping I don’t get it wrong. I know I’m too small to do much if it came to it, so most of the time I’d just rather stay home. And then I feel ashamed that I let the mere possibility of a threat dictate my life.
* * *
From the soccer fields, I find the end of the fencing and make my way to the highway shoulder. I keep my eyes peeled. A 16-wheeler speeds by and blows my hat off. I hurry after to collect it, barely noticing how close to me the next car is.
The first thing that looks familiar is the cardboard box. I stop. I scan the area. I’ve gone too far. I run back the other way. Nothing. I turn around again. I look in the grass and near the fences and into the fields. Nothing but bits of trash.
This time when I see the box, I keep going. I see the jacket and keep going. I pass the old farmhouse with the crumbling front steps. I keep going. A truck approaches and I put my head down and bend into the oncoming gust. I make a right turn onto Orchard and see the outline of the Helderbergs.
The leaves are off the trees. There are only dead sunflower stalks left in the field with the handmade sign that says, “Don’t pick the sunflowers!” In Japan, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, millions of sunflowers were planted as an inexpensive way to remove radiation from the soil. The roots absorb the radiation and transfer it to the stems and flowers. If you didn’t know, you’d never guess that they’re toxic. I stop, take a picture of the sign, and keep running.
Allison V. Craig writes academic and creative work and teaches writing and cultural studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, and Empire State College, respectively. Her book, Introduction to Feminist Thought and Action, co-authored with Menoukha Case and published by Routledge, is the winner of the 2019 Outstanding Book in Humanities and Social Sciences and 2019 Outstanding New Textbook in Social Sciences. Her poems, “Dark Reaction,” “Elemental,” and “Walking Among the Dead,” are forthcoming in Alternating Current’s The Coil.
featured photo by Hilary W Clauss (cropped from original)