Parenting a three-year-old and a ten-month-old is, by itself, far outside the norm – I mean, how often do non-parents have to explain over the breakfast table that a noo-noo doesn’t spontaneously turn into a willy on your fourth birthday? – but some days are weirder than others. Last Monday, for example: what started as Parenthood quickly descended into Twin Peaks territory…and not the recent disappointing reboot.
After a long day at Peppa Pig World – and if you’ve ever been to Peppa Pig World, you’ll know just how long a day that can be – I cooked some dinner and then tried to get my youngest, Rosie, down to bed. Three-and-a-half hours later, my wife, who has no religious leanings whatsoever, stormed into the nursery, informed me that our daughter is demon-possessed, and demanded I remove her from the house/exorcise her (depending on my mood) since the incessant screaming was driving her mad. This I duly did, strapping her into the car seat and heading off into the vast emptiness of the New Forest.
That’s when things got strange.
It was down a dark, narrow road in the middle of nowhere, the trees meeting overhead and obscuring the stars, that out of the corner of my eye I suddenly caught a glimpse of a round face, big black eyes, brown feathers flecked with black, and – CRACK! – an owl flew smack into my windscreen, with a report like a gunshot going off.
My heart thumping against my ribs, I drove on a quarter of a mile, found somewhere to turn around and drove back to where my headlights illuminated a large brown form lying sprawled across the road like an old burlap sack. Clearly a tawny owl, clearly not moving. The speed at which I’d hit it – 35mph or so – didn’t bode well. Crap, I thought – what are the superstitions about owls? What happens if you kill one? Have I opened a door into the underworld, or something?
I considered my options. I had neither my phone nor my wallet with me, and no torch either. At the very least, if it was dead I could move it off the road; if somehow still alive, I could take it to the local owl sanctuary, though I doubted there’d be anyone there at this time of night. In any event, I had to do something.
I climbed out onto the pitch-dark roadside, and in that moment a deer leapt out of the bushes and landed on the road beside me. I don’t know which of us was more startled, but the deer looked at me, freaked, and threw itself back into the bushes, crashing away through the undergrowth into the night. By this point, I was thoroughly unnerved, but I had to check on the fallen owl.
When I turned back to it, the dead owl was now standing in the middle of the road, staring right at me, its big black eyes shining like obsidian in my headlights. It was only a few feet away and the forest had gone unnaturally quiet. It was horribly eerie, like I’d awakened whatever demonic soul inhabited its avian body.
Nonetheless, I held out my hands and spoke to it in a soft voice. ‘It’s okay, I’m a friend, I just need to check that you’re okay.’
I took a step towards it and it took a step away. I took another step; so did it. And then it skipped, spread its wings and flew into the air. I felt a rush of relief as I watched it go, relief that turned to horror as it shot over the top of my car and then – SMACK! – it flew right into a tree.
As it crashed down through the leaves, making one hell of a ruckus, it managed to grab hold of a branch and ended up hanging upside-down, its wings held out to the sides like something you’d see crouching on a cathedral. Worse, it was now directly above a stream that ran under the road, and if it fell it would surely drown.
But still it stared at me.
It was further from the car, directly to the side so outside the arc of my headlights, but I could just about make it out in the dark. I felt incredible responsibility for this creature, this fellow traveller that I had collided with on life’s highway – literally. There was a steep bank down into the water, overgrown with nettles and thorns, and I thought if it fell I would have to leap into the stream to rescue it.
But then I thought of the baby still refusing to sleep in the back of the car. I thought of the darkness all around, and of the stream that slid silent and black through the Stygian gloom. I had no idea how deep it was, or if getting in I’d even be able to get out. If the owl, in its panic or its malice, would claw me with its talons and tear at me with its beak. If my car would be found in the morning at the roadside, empty, no trace of any of us – just the dusty outline of an owl upon the windscreen.
Such are the thoughts that come to you deep in a forest late at night.
I tried to shoo it away, clapped my hands at it, just to get it to a safer place – it simply stared at me. It let go with one foot, stretched out its leg, flexed its toes, then swapped over, but refused to move. And just. Kept. Staring.
Eventually, I decided there was nothing more I could do. I bid the owl farewell, got back in the car and drove on. But a couple of minutes down the road, I felt an irresistible urge to turn back – I had to see this through to the end.
When I got to the tree, the branch was empty and my heart dropped. I checked the stream but couldn’t see anything. The unknown swirled around me. In the less than five minutes I’d been gone, something had happened. Whether it had burst forth to new life, or fallen into death, I couldn’t know.
I was about to leave when there was a sudden rustle above my head, and looking up I found myself staring into those same black eyes. It was higher in the same tree, on top of a branch now, its wings tucked neatly away as its eyes bored into mine.
We watched each other several moments, the aggressor and the aggrieved, with something like mutual respect – for a short time, though being of different species, our fates had become entangled and we had shared a connection that transcended the limitations of our bodies. I saluted the owl, and I could swear that he nodded at me in return. Our time together was at an end.
And what was more, the baby had finally fallen asleep. I turned for home.
I spent the next ten minutes carefully making my way past ponies and cows and foxes in the forest, my nerves on edge as the darkness pressed in around me. I only had to get home. It was barely a few miles away. I was safe.
But safety is an illusion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement, and slamming on my brakes I caught a glimpse of a round face, big black eyes, brown feathers with black trim and – WHOOSH! – a great big tawny owl flew right across my windscreen. I must have missed it by a foot.
It couldn’t have been the same owl. Couldn’t have been. But my nerves now shot to pieces, I crawled home, hoping beyond hope I didn’t hit anything else.
Maybe it cursed me. Maybe some supernatural power in the depths of its being decided that I should suffer. For worse was yet to come.
I got home, put the baby to bed, and crept into the bedroom. There was my wife lying fast asleep in bed, a thin sheet draped over the curves of her naked form. I wanted nothing more than the peace of climbing into bed beside her and cuddling away the nightmare of the forest.
Slowly, carefully, I eased myself onto the memory foam mattress and – CRACK! – my knee snapped one of the wooden slats clean in half!
‘What the hell did you just do?’ my wife cried, jerking awake. ‘You’ve broken the bed, you’ve broken it! You’re too fat, you’ve broken the bloody bed!’
What I wouldn’t have given to be back out in the forest with that owl…
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