7AM and Rusty suppressed a long and jagged yawn. It made his eyes water and the residual morning snot sift down the back of his throat. Rolling the creeper cart under the shady confines of the old truck, Rusty’s mind drifts further and further away with each twist of his ratchet.
“I need you to sing her back to me, Rusty…” the Owl Woman had said.
The remainder of the afternoon spent with the Owl Woman and her ghostly daughter had been awkward and strange and dappled here and there with something marvelous.
“Are you hungry?” he asked the naked woman still draped in his grandmother’s afghan.
She nodded and Rusty made for the kitchen. Discovering the container of cottage cheese his mother had recently deposited in the refrigerator, he scooped a heaping portion into a cereal bowl and retrieved a pear from the mesh fruit basket depending from the cupboard to his left. Removing a paring knife from the cutlery drawer, he began to deftly strip the lime-green skin from the pear.
Sensing a movement, he looked to his right expecting to see the jet haired woman watching him with her golden eyes. There was no one…at least, no one visible. He paused in his work and set down the knife. Turning his back to the kitchen sink he took in the air before him. The little ghost girl was right there, he knew it.
Rusty put out his hand like he would while trying to feel his way through a darkened room. The air about his hand was cold, colder than the air at his back, colder still than the air just a foot to his left or to his right. Rusty pursed his lips, closed his eyes and took in a deep breath.
“When I open them she’ll be right there,” he told himself.
When he opened his eyes he still saw nothing but empty air.
Dawn reached up and placed both her hands around the man’s own, but they could find no purchase against his warm skin. All the same, it felt good just to hold them there and pretend at any second the singing man would give her hands a squeeze.
“She’s right there, Rusty.”
Rusty hadn’t heard her approach, and even though the Owl Woman whispered with a delicate sweetness, Rusty nearly jumped out of his shoes.
Returning to his work like a man caught staring too long at his neighbor’s wife Rusty cored out the skinless pair, cut it in quarters and placed the slices in the little bowl atop the freshly scooped cottage cheese.
Taking up the bowl and a spoon, Rusty turned about once more, his eyes returning to the empty space just above the kitchen floor. Stepping to his left like a newbie just learning to waltz, Rusty orchestrated a brief and awkward half box step out of the kitchen and set the Owl Woman’s snack on the table.
Rusty wiped his moist palms against the belly of his shirt and looked back to the cool air above the linoleum flooring. Watching him with a smile warm as morning sunlight, the Owl Woman swept to the table and sat. “Aren’t you going to eat something?” she asked.
Rusty’s eyes wavered and he reeled his thoughts back into his head. “What? Oh, no, I’m not all that hungry.”
“It’s okay, Rusty. She’s there. Right where you thought. She likes you and says she’s sorry she kicked you… isn’t she?” The woman gave an arch look to the space to her right, paused as if in anticipation of response and then lifted her spoon and took a delicate bite of cottage cheese.
Rusty slid into a chair directly opposite the Owl Woman. Looking her up and down once more there was no doubt in his mind she was a creature of great natural beauty and natural magic.
Anything she’d ask of me, Rusty thought, I’d do in a heartbeat.
“My daughter is trapped in your house and I need you to sing her back to me…”
“How am I supposed to sing her back to you?” said Rusty.
“I don’t know, Rusty. I can’t remember…”
Afterward the two didn’t say much for the remainder of the day and on into the evening, but the Owl Woman’s words rang deep, sending each to meander through their own thoughts. The words rang deep as Rusty put the Owl Woman to bed in his room and took up the afghan to sleep on the couch. The words rang deep as he rose early the next morning for work, and arrived at his family’s auto garage with the dawn.
The words rang deep as Rusty took up his old ratchet and rolled under the old military surplus troupe truck, now the pride of the city fleet, and commenced to change the oil from beneath the big green beast’s belly.
“I don’t know, Rusty. I can’t remember…”
“My daughter is trapped in your house and I need you to sing her back to me…”
His back snug against the creeper cart, his hands on automatic, Rusty thought of his Granny and those soft-edged days spent on her back porch, learning her old songs and the strength of his own voice. To be sure, it was here he’d garnered a taste for the makings of a good song. As a young man, in the safety of his own room and (for a brief time at least) his own home, Rusty had learned something of the soul-stuff one must channel to create a song of a certain loveliness. But a song of such magnitude and magic that it sends little dead girls off to their final reward and appeases a woman with the power to shift her shape from human to owl? Well, that’s a different kind of songwriting altogether.
Looking up into the old truck’s battered underbelly, Rusty stared hard into the pitted metal hide. Directly above his nose a broad vein of healthy red rust had painted its ways across the old engine block. Rusty’s mind began to drift and his focus went soft. That rich red color began to swirl and flow, filling the whole of his vision. He was no longer looking up into the old guts of the truck but down at his own bare feet as they wriggled against grains of raw umber sand.
His heart did a flip-flop. Looking up, he discovered he once again stood on the red plain. The strange stars overhead twinkled against the obsidian black mantle, the crimson backbone of the far hills hemming the horizon.
Sensing movement over his shoulder Rusty swiveled about in the sand. Yards and yards away stood a column– its boll thicker than a redwood, its surface blacker than the night skies above and etched with electric blue symbols. Over its surface, the winding azure runes pulsed and flickered like LEDs on an ancient substation, powering this dark corner of the universe.
Rusty scanned the massive column and felt his jaw drop. Raking his eyes up its length he noted how it rose into the darkness and out of all sight. Where the column pierced the sky he saw nothing but a sward of blackness, absent of even a single alien star.
The incandescent blue radiating from within the tower gave a grand pulse and the sound of beating wings filled Rusty’s ears. In the half-second it took to look over his shoulder Rusty found two giant owls were bearing down on him. Rusty’s heart nearly broke through his throat. The mighty creatures were similar in form to his recent houseguest, but much, much bigger–their bodies like ash-colored torpedoes, their wings the breadth of condors and their eyes like great golden temple gongs. They sped toward the tower as though in answer to a silent summons.
Flying wing-tip to wing-tip the mighty birds swept toward him, each wing-beat throwing up a cloud of crimson dust. With no time to duck, Rusty threw his arms over his head but the owls passed through him as if he were made of air. And perhaps he was. He lifted his hands and watched as red grains swirled and drifted through his splayed fingers.
Turning about he watched slack-jawed as the great birds made their approach to the tower, dropping their talons like landing gear. Setting their wings in tandem, the birds lifted upright and with each wing-beat their long blade-like feathers receded into lean, graceful arms of pink flesh. Talons became delicate human toes attached to long, slender legs and their large, round faces shrank and elongated, rippling into brows and cheekbones yet retaining their eyes of molten gold.
Even with their backs to him, Rusty easily recognized the taller of the two now-naked women. The one on the left, her dark hair flowing about her shoulders was clearly his Owl Woman. The other was more of a mystery. The shape of her nose and the curve of her cheek bore a slight resemblance to the other, but she was clearly younger, clearly more of a girl than a woman…clearly the other’s daughter.
The other woman would have been Dawn, had she lived to adolescence.
Against the base of the great black tower, the two pink forms stood out in bright contrast against the crimson sands. Shoulder to shoulder the women devoted the whole of their attention to the glowing tower. Wave after wave of flickering pulses danced up and down the rune-etched surface of the tower only to suddenly wink out as though their fuse had been blown.
The tower’s black surface became translucent and Rusty felt as though he were staring into the depths of a deep, still pool. From deep within the tower’s core a golden light began to radiate, filling the whole of the column’s interior. Rusty watched in silent awe as black figures formed and the cast of the god’s own shadow play took to the stage.
Painted on the golden backdrop by an unseen hand Rusty saw silhouetted armies massing, ancient cityscapes rising only to collapse under a shadowy onslaught. Over the city skylines white points of light drew together in familiar constellations, the constellations tilting and joining in the shapes of animals and humans and things with tentacles and things with wings. And all the while the city-forms and people-forms below rose and toppled, clashed and collapsed–climbing and then crumpling, again and again.
Throughout the dance of destruction and rebirth, Rusty took notice of a tiny, constant image. It crouched and shuffled, leaping over the piled corpses of fallen armies and through the crumpled skeletons of fallen cities. The owl women took note of the scampering form as well, tracking it across the ever-changing tableau. It was small and hunched, bunch-backed like an ape but moved with the sinewy stealth of a lizard.
In an instant the two women turned to one another, gave a brief nod and raised their arms skyward. Rusty blinked and the women were owls again. They took to the air, straight up the boll of the tower, weaving about one another like leaves guided by a river current and made for the dark void far overhead. In seconds they were but silver-gray dots, and in another few they were gone.
Staring up into the blackness, Rusty’s focus became soft once more. He clenched his eyelids in an effort to sharpen his vision, and felt the air about him become congested. Opening his eyes he once more stared into the rusted underbelly of the City Works truck, his nostrils filling with the odor of old motor oil and acetylene, his ears jabbed by the bark of the his uncle’s air compressor.
Rusty had been changing the oil on cars since before he could legally drive and his tools were nearly extensions of his own flesh, but when something thick and hard struck his exposed foot his socket wrench flew from his hand like a thing on fire. “Hey Rusty-saurus what’s the fuckin’ hold up?” barked his Uncle John applying the steel toe of his engineer’s boot to the flat of Rusty’s foot once more.
A millisecond later and Rusty saw the old and tarnished drain plug drop from the corroded underside of the truck and felt the sting as it bounced off his forehead. All else was a tragic blur—the pock marked and rusted oil pan snapping loose from its moorings and a veritable soup tureen of filthy petroleum cascading over Rusty’s face, eyes, mouth and upper torso. Hearing the clatter and subsequent sputter, Uncle John took his nephew by the ankle and jerked him into the daylight.
“Jesus Christ on a rickety crutch, Rusty, what the fuck you doing?”
Uncle John had never been a patient man. He and Rusty’s father had been raised by a taciturn mill-worker of Norwegian descent who seldom suffered fools and suffered his family even less. He’d passed on a hair-trigger temper and sense of humor that showed its face on alternate Sunday and Friday afternoons when the pubs threw their doors wide. But Uncle John had his moments, and after he’d married, started a family of his own, sent his kids off to college to only return home one evening to divorce papers and a closet half empty of his wife’s clothing, he’d had to make a choice; soften his gaze upon the world or wind up the sour-eyed and rotten-livered clone of his old man.
Rusty spat black oil and sat up, draining a black slick into the lap of his coveralls. “Sorry Uncle John– looks like the thing was rusted clean through at the hinges. It just came loose.”
“You were under there so long, you’d think you were giving the damn thing an appendectomy for God’s sake. Now look at you,” Uncle John was still barking, but there was a glint of mirth at the corner of his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Uncle John.”
“Don’t apologize to me. Now we gotta replace that pan and your old man’s not gonna be too thrilled.”
Uncle John handed Rusty a faded red cloth from the workbench and Rusty began the near impossible job of removing the oil from his face and hair.
“Good God, you look like a cormorant after the Exxon Valdez.”
Uncle John propped his meaty hands on his hips and glanced around the shop, sucking on his back molar, the one that had been giving him the gripes for the last week, and then turned back to his gooey nephew. “Go on, get out of here and get yourself cleaned up. I’ll explain it to your old man.”
“Thanks, Uncle John,” said Rusty as he made his way to the back of the shop and the big pump bottle of grease cutter.
Forty minutes later, and Rusty was steering his Datsun flatbed back onto SR-99, heading back to the Little Gray Town and home. On the radio Freddie Mercury and David Bowie singing about being under pressure and how we should all give ourselves one more chance and why can’t we give love that one last chance?
He loved the song, always had. It spoke to fears and pains and longing he knew all too well, but the song was distracting and one chorus in he snapped the radio off.
The Datsun hummed along beneath him as he passed acre after acre of green, hip-high wheat and barley. Although the truck was a few years older than he, it ran like a dream thanks to his tender loving care. His window down, the wind snapping across his forehead, he drew in a deep cool breath and let his eyelids slide half-closed.
This time around the vision of the red plain didn’t rattle him. If anything it felt natural, like he was supposed to be there. Watching the two women and the shadow play unfold across the towering column was not some kooky daydream filled with bizarre symbols–no, the vision was pretty clear. Carrie and her daughter were owl people and the underlings of something…really tremendous, and for whatever reason they’d been sent on a mission.
Why the mother and daughter had wound up living and dying in his home he had no clue, but the trance had given him some much-needed clues and, God help him, those clues made a certain amount of sense.
He leaned his left arm out the window and lightly hooked his fingers to the top of the doorframe where it met the roof to the cab. He cracked his neck left, then right.
Growing up around automobiles, Rusty had always found a certain musicality to a well-tuned engine. It was a subtle music, neither orchestral nor riotous, unless you were dealing with something of tremendous horsepower like a hemi or a semi or his uncle’s vintage military half-track and then it was an all-powerful cacophony more times than not. But that fine purr of smaller pistons? Now that was a mild, almost soothing kind of underscoring.
Rusty listened to the sound of the gentle mumble beneath him once more, feeling the constant vibration of the motor hum up through his feet, along his thighs and up into his abdomen. He set his mind around the sound’s sensation and took hold of it like a happy thought. He took the sound and set it in a corner of his mind and left it there.
Looking out the open window he could hear the hush of wind over the healthy emerald stalks and took a taste of that sound as well.
An old Ford pickup came barreling past in the opposite lane. He took a slice of that sound for safekeeping.
Nearing the outskirts of the Little Gray Town, he took in another long, cool breath.
There was an aura of blue comfort in the sound of air whispering through his nose and into his lungs. Squirreling it away he draped it over the others he’d collected, there in the back of his mind.
Pulling up to the curb outside his bungalow he cranked the Datsun’s parking brake into place. That was a great sound too, he thought, I’ll keep that one as well.
He looked up at the bungalow’s windows. The Venetian blinds were half closed, but he could see a warm, amber light from within even through the afternoon light. He smiled. He was home, and there was actually someone to come home to. If that touch of joy only had a sound, he’d swipe that too.