If someone isn’t afraid of birds, it’s because they aren’t paying attention. Beautiful, graceful creatures when drifting across the sky become horrible monsters upon closer inspection. Dry, scaly feet equipped with tiny daggers. Sharp, pointed beaks designed for pecking. Beady, emotionless eyes. Their characteristics are remnants of their long forgotten ancestors: the dinosaurs. Few birds actually compose sweet melodious tunes; the majority resort to barbaric squawking or cawing. Most terrifying of all are their aerial capabilities—attacks from the sky! With so many different directions for potential attacks, they are unpredictable.
The second Monday of October was surprisingly sunny and warm, teasing me with promises regarding the rest of the week. I walked along my favorite bit of campus, the curvy, tree-lined lane between Bierce Library and the College of Arts and Sciences Building. The leaves were already changing; a few crunched under my shoes as I walked. I tried to persuade myself to consider the pleasant weather rather than the list of readings, papers, exams, and scheduled work hours, all of which were bulleted on an index card in my planner, waiting to be crossed off. Each week began with an index card, a scheduled plan that would get me through that week and the tasks it required. With my index card neatly prepared and warm weather surrounding me, I was just beginning to believe that the approaching week may pass smoothly by. Before I had the opportunity to believe the potential of the upcoming week, I was immediately distracted by one of nature’s most terrifying sounds.
ARWHH!! ARWWHHHH!! ARRWWH!!
This foul noise was no bird song; it was a battle cry, a declaration of war, and a willingness to fight. I spotted the source of the birdcall; a gang of crows had formed atop the corner of Bierce Library where they seemed to have turned against each other. Their cries filled the air as more crows seemed to join the scuffle. I quickened my pace and tried to prevent my overly expressive face from alerting the students around me to my fear of the winged beasts. Remain calm, I tried to convince myself. Those birds are not trying to get you; they are simply having a disagreement amongst themselves. No need to embarrass yourself. Remain calm, focus on getting indoors. I tried to breathe deeply and ignore the flapping wings and squawking of the crows.
I was not late for class, but I walked hurriedly while trying to appear nonchalant. I was determined to not fall prey to my fear and run to the nearest building. I knew that was what they wanted; to scare me and force me to reveal my toddler-like running style. I have a history of allowing my fear of birds to result in ridiculous reactions. My fear began as a four year old in jelly shoes and a windbreaker. My grandparents had taken me and a bag of bird seed to the park. Throwing the birdseed to the gathering winged mob quickly lost its fun as the number of birds rapidly increased. While surrounded by the hungry mob, I didn’t realize that the open plastic weave of my shoes collected the seed that I dropped; I was convinced that the ducks and geese wanted to eat my feet. I ran away in newfound terror, beaks and bills snipping at my heels. The assaults by birds continued throughout the years, perpetuating my beliefs that birds were not to be trusted. Once at a park, a menacing goose prevented me from enjoying a picnic lunch with my best friend, leaving us to hide with our sandwiches in his car as the goose boastfully hissed at us. On a trip to Paris, my friends and I were exploring the narrow, winding alleys of the Latin Quarter; the beauty and excitement of our adventure was diminished by the discovery of the Parisian pigeons. Every rustle of wings echoed through the alleys. The people sitting in the open cafés crowding the alleyways laughed at my excessive flinching. These encounters with birds and my inability to quietly cope left me determined to overcome my fears. Or at the very least to be inwardly afraid to avoid humiliation. I had to remain calm. I would not let these birds win.
I believe my particular disdain for birds is hereditary, cultivated and passed down throughout generations. In German, my family name means vulture. This translation initially bothered me, as vultures are not exactly noble birds and there is not a distance at which they can be mistaken for elegant. In fact, they are perpetually balding flying trash monsters with terrible posture. It wasn’t until I researched the origins of my family’s name that I embraced its meaning. Various accounts of folklore ascribe the name’s origins to a group of Germans who climbed a mountain and bludgeoned the vulture who had claimed several of their human babies. Those who performed this act of bravery and vengeance were henceforth known by the name of their fallen enemy: Geier. This discovered past meant that my name did not simply mean “vulture,” it stood for a history of the struggle of humans against the villainy of birds; my people’s very identity was determined by their animosity toward the winged scoundrels.
Thinking of my embarrassing reactions in the past, I saw this as an opportunity to rise above my fear, to be as brave as my Geier ancestors, and to defeat the birds once and for all. An intensified round of squawking grabbed my attention and I turned my head in time to see several of the crows as they set themselves into flight. As the crows took off, it became clear that the crows had not been quarreling amongst themselves. The crows were being attacked by something bigger than all of them combined. The crows I had feared only moments ago joined me in my terror as a monstrous creature appeared over the edge of Bierce’s roof preparing to launch into flight. Hellbird. Its impressive wingspan and powerful stance commanded respect but was only met by fear as he swooped down from the roof’s ledge. Resolutions of my bravery evaporated.
Aerial attack!!! As Hellbird swooped I saw its taloned toes outstretched, readying to attack. I realized too late that I had power-walked directly into the line of fire, unwittingly taking the place of the crows at the frontlines. Paranoia be damned, Hellbird was coming for me!! Having deprived myself of running when I first sensed danger, I was left with the only other weapon in my arsenal: the opossum reflex.
In the split-second it took Hellbird to reach me, my opossum reflexes had taken over, abruptly ending my frantic pace. Generally reserved for moments requiring hand-eye coordination, the violation of my personal space, or unexpected social encounters, the opossum reflex leaves me immobile, petrified until the perceived threat has passed. This is how Hellbird saw me as he descended towards me, scaly feet reaching for me. I stood completely still—shoulders raised uncomfortably high, elbows pressed into my sides, trying to be somewhere Hellbird was not. I saw the gray blur of his feathered wing just before my eyes snapped shut, completing my opossum impression. Just hold still, REMAIN CALM!
I felt the swift whoosh of wind pass me as I stood there, my hair blowing with the immediacy of Hellbird’s wing. I turned my gaze towards the gargantuan creature who had just landed in the ivy covered slope not three feet away from me. He stood there with his body still in the direction of his flight, looking over his back at me with his cold eyes. Majestic. Powerful. Arrogant. Menacing.
I felt my lungs expand, and I turned quickly back to see if anyone had seen the air raid I had just survived. My eyes locked on a girl I recognized from class, also on her way to the Arts and Sciences Building. She stood there wide-eyed, mouth agape, eyebrows raised in disbelief. Before I could fully comprehend that others had not only witnessed this encounter, but had stopped in their tracks (and become opossums with me, perhaps out of solidarity), my feet were released from the opossum enchantment, and I ran. “Hey!” I heard the girl yell, but there was no reasoning with my feet. I ran past the three Grecian pillars, of unknown purpose, sprouting out of the garden. I turned right, and scuttled towards the door. Just before I got to the door, the girl caught up with me, still wide-eyed. I knew that my face was advertising the terror that I felt, but I couldn’t help it. “Are you okay?” she asked. As I struggled to get the door open, I tried to explain to her, “I just have to get inside” but I couldn’t quite form the words. Once safely inside the lobby, I tried to restore my face to a less terrified expression, but if it wasn’t fear, it would very likely be tears. I looked over at my classmate’s face to see a mixture of awe, incredulousness, and concern. The planner, safely tucked in the bag hanging at my side, had failed to shield me from the dangers of a chaotic world overrun by winged monsters. My best efforts to establish order are never enough.
“I really don’t like birds,” I tried to explain, “and it’s only Monday.”
My brush with Hellbird left me a renewed respect of the unpredictability of life. Ultimately, we are at the mercy of chaos. But this did not result in some embracing of a “go with the flow” lifestyle. I don’t know what I was supposed learn from my meeting with Hellbird. The experience was nonsensical, leaving me both terror-stricken and without explanation. His attack, though unwarranted and deeply unnerving, served as a reminder of who I am: the daughter of a bird hating people.
Jaclyn Geier is a recent graduate of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program where she studied Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband Alex and their two rescue pets: a nervous dog named Mia and a confused cat named Nora. Her writing has appeared in The Devil Strip magazine.