This all began one lovely day in May as I walked the flowering roadways of Akron, Ohio. On the sidewalk of Portage Path, a street named after Native American lore from the local past, heading toward Market, which runs through the heart of our small-town city, I saw what looked like an enormous chicken coming toward me. My mind told me it could not be a chicken that large, at least the size of a man, so I took my glasses from my shirt pocket thinking it must be a man dressed for a costume party or some sort of promotional advertisement.
With my glasses on, the chicken idea faded away. A powerful-looking man came toward me, yet the sensation of having seen feathers coming off him remained, putting my mind in a quandary as to what I had seen without my glasses on. I took them off, and he took on the aspect not so much of a chicken as a very large bird coming toward me; glasses on, both man and bird.
If costume it was, I simply could not tell where bird left off and man began. I laughed, an expression of nothing so much as shock, and thought of saying something like, “Quite a costume!” His forbidding demeanor made me hold my tongue. A tingling fear crept up the back of my neck into my scalp. He had heard my laugh. The glare he threw insinuated that something about me had rankled him. Perhaps I had breached an unknown rule of etiquette by recognizing that this man looked like an immense bird—a black and white or gray and white bird, lots of white on him at any rate. The bristling power exuding from his body frightened me, and for good reason.
As he came abreast, and I say this with certainty now, he pecked me on the top of my head. My knees gave out, and as I went down, he pecked me again, where the neck meets the shoulder. A profusion of blood ran in my eyes, obscuring my vision, and then I could see no longer because I had fainted dead away.
Previous to that moment, I had been walking past a series of brick apartments, each bearing the name of the building on the lintel. I was told a young woman in Betty Anne had been looking out her window and called emergency, for which I am eternally grateful. Never identified to me by anything but the name of her building, this Betty Anne reported to the E.M.S. crew that a large man pounded me on the head with something unknown. She suspected a two-by-four with a nail in one end. A second blow, as I have said, struck my neck. The viciousness of the attack shocked her so badly she also fainted on scene.
The ambulance took me to nearby General Hospital, where I received stitches in head and shoulder. When I regained consciousness, I learned I had been given a tetanus shot and put on intravenous antibiotics and morphine. Betty Anne’s story became definitive. I had no memory whatsoever of that which had transpired between the time I absent-mindedly walked Portage Path, enjoying the lovely weather and flowering trees, and the moment I woke in the hospital.
When I went home, my head still hurt like the devil, and so did my shoulder. The pills they sent with me did indeed relieve pain but made me dizzy and constipated. As days and weeks progressed, they reduced the amount of oxy until I was on pure Tylenol. Shortly after, I switched to Advil, which had the effect of reducing the swelling as well.
In those early days, I took to downing shots of vodka before bed. I kept it in the freezer for the texture and body it seemed to give the vodka. Wild dreams ensued, many of which involved birds. I had no idea why birds played a significant part in my dream life, but as memory returned, I began to understand.
My wounds healed. I felt stronger and had no more need of pills or vodka, but the dreams of birds remained constant. My appetite, repressed by drinking and the drugs, came alive in a craving for fish, and, in particular, ocean fish. Fresh water fish from river or lake would certainly do, but cod and salmon, grouper and tuna steaks set me salivating.
I felt myself thickening through the shoulders, elsewhere as well, though I gained very little weight in fatty tissue. I worried that infection had set in, but my doctor ran tests and assured me nothing in my blood work, x-rays, or my appearance suggested anything like that. She worked on my shoulders and arms a little and asked if I had adopted a new workout regimen.
I told her I took long walks every day, as always, and worked my arms with small weights, five pounds each, but, otherwise, had changed nothing in that regard. She mentioned I seemed to have gained some muscle mass, and this encouraged me to up the weight of the dumb-bells for my arms. I began running rather than walking. The results were astonishing, beyond anything I could have imagined, and this, in turn, encouraged me to increase my efforts.
I did not cut my hair because of the head wound, and as it healed I saw no reason to interfere with the growth. Strangely enough, white streaks appeared in the black, particularly around the wound. The hair on my arms grew longer as well, and the white mixed in the black there caused a certain alarm. I hesitate to use this word, but it had taken on a feathery texture.
My alarm grew as I came to believe that my legs had grown longer. Though I had become proud of my body, I had convinced myself that my increased strength had more to do with the fact that I had become a physical workout enthusiast. No longer did I need glasses to see at great distances. And my thinking seemed sharper, more acute, more directed toward goals. One day, as I stepped from my shower and stood before a full-length mirror on my bathroom door, I saw that I had become a powerful figure, adorned all over with feathers that extended from my arms like the sleeves of a wizard’s gown. Memory returned in a flash. I saw the man-bird of Akron who had inflicted wounds that sent me to the hospital as if he stood before me—in the mirror!
Without dressing, I ran to my laptop computer, situated on a table in the kitchen, and typed Big Birds in the search engine. I went through hundreds of images to find anything like the man-bird I at last recalled. I found no photographs resembling him, but I went through waterbirds and hawks and eagles to arrive at the osprey. That, I realized, was the creature I had seen at a distance, coming toward me on the sidewalk: the man-osprey.
I watched videos of osprey catching fish in rivers and streams, lakes and in the ocean, duly impressed by their skills catching unimaginably huge fish with a simple dip in the water and a wild rising to the nearest rock or tree, where the raptor tore it open and consumed the catch. I learned Native Americans attached osprey feathers to fishing spears, or dipped spearheads in osprey blood in hopes that the magical abilities of the bird would influence their fishing. Following this thread, I read about their tradition of shape-shifters, the so-called skin walkers, but soon lost interest in anything but what had happened and what would become of me.
It dawned on me that my increased appetite for fish might have to do with the pecking I received from the man-bird. I considered it to the good that I had been pecked by Osprey-Man, rather than, say, by Eagle-Man or Hawk-Man, as those in our region feed on small mammals: rats and mice, rabbits and opossums, squirrels and chipmunks, the very thought of which turned my stomach. An osprey’s diet centers around fish. I like fish. I had even eaten raw fish, and though I would miss the sauces and seasonings, not to mention heat, that serve up human fare, I knew that I would not do well on rodents.
While I became increasingly aware of changes in body and mind, no one else seemed to notice. I ran into a woman I once dated at the grocery store, in the fish section, and she commented I was looking rather hirsute. I thanked her, and when I got home looked up the word, only to discover it meant hairy. Though my hair now came to my shoulders, and my beard had come in quite full and shot through with white, I kept both neatly coiffed. I came to the conclusion that she had used the word hirsute not as criticism but as simple descriptive.
Studying myself in the full-length mirror, I saw a creature not so much overgrown with hair as overgrown with plumage. What baffled me most at this point was that no one seemed to notice this but me. I would think I stood out as an anomaly among men. Perhaps good manners prohibited others from commenting on my feathery penumbra, and I recalled that if I had observed such manners, I would not now find myself in this predicament.
Beyond plumage, I had increased in stature and musculature. Comparing pictures of myself pre-pecking, I clearly saw I had been smaller and skinnier. How could no one notice a rather heavy set of feathers growing off my arms and back. I had become bird and none noticed the transformation. I called my friend Eric, who I had worked with on a somewhat daily basis before being granted medical leave from the university due to my hospitalization. Accustomed to coffee with Eric on a regular basis, I set up another such meeting, with the express purpose of assessing his reaction to my new self. I begged him to be perfectly frank and not spare my feelings in any way.
He said I must be aging, as I had some white in my hair. Older, I pressed him, is that the only difference you perceive? He stuck out his lower lip in appraisal and finally said, No, nothing in particular. I appeared in the flush of health following my mugging. Mugging, I said, is that what you think happened to me? Well, he said, wasn’t it?
Exasperated, I stood. Do you find no discrepancy between present appearance and how I looked, say, six months ago? He shook his head, though he added that if I had changed, it might have been so gradual he did not notice. I had always been taller than him, broader as well, but I looked fine. No problems he could see. Was there something he had missed? When his wife got her hair cut short he had not noticed for weeks. Have you been working out?
More pointedly, I asked if he noticed anything feathery about me. Feathery? Listen, Walker, he said, I can’t say I have noticed anything feathery. I would tell you if such a thing occurred to me, but until then I am at a loss to answer your questions. At last, I had to take it on faith that Eric was not simply being polite, and that he actually saw no alteration in me. When I got home, I took off my clothes and stood once more before the mirror, and what I saw was an enormous bird, an osprey to be precise.
At the same time, I saw my own body, in new and improved form. Bird and man at once, I thought, man and bird. I had become the birdman of Akron. Or, since I had seen one other, I edited that to say I had become a birdman of Akron. I had not seen another before or after, but, lacking further knowledge, I believed that I should call myself a birdman of Akron.
I pondered whether the changes might or might not be entirely mental, that is, in my own perception of myself. I thought back on my regained memory of the first sighting of the original birdman, and I did recall that I could not decide whether he took the shape of man or bird, and that when he passed, he seemed angered that I could see that his form was not entirely natural—thus, the pecking. I could say firmly, without a doubt, that the birdman’s beak had possessed the reality of a sledgehammer. The fact that he had torn open head and shoulder demonstrated he did, in fact, exist as man and bird, bird and man.
I moved on in my investigations, wondering if there were not beneficial aspects to this possession of dual citizenship in the clans of man and bird. Then it struck me like a thunderbolt: would it be conceivable that I could fly? Excitement boiled inside me. How could I say I could not fly if I never examined the possibility?
There is a forested area nearby, beyond my favorite little lake, where I have been known to hike with pack on my back, eating lunch in the woods among forest creatures, passing hours lost to the bliss of the natural world. If I pass beyond the lake and through the rim of woods, I have, at times, come to lovely and expansive hills and valleys, wetlands as well, and, since I had never seen another soul in this particular region, there I might engage in the experiments which would answer, once and for all, the question of flight.
In the beauty of early autumn, the leaves barely touched with primitive color, I made my way through sweet-smelling branches. I got an early start, as I knew it would take a good two hours to emerge onto open country. The slight chill invigorated my senses. My body came on high alert. I recognized the signs: excitement was upon me. The phrase that occurred to me again and again was this: If birds can fly, then why can’t I?
Why did I have feathers if I could not fly? I stood on a hillside, looking into the shallow valley, flapping my arms exultantly. I ran, raising and lowering my arms, down into the valley, back up the next hill. At some point, I realized that if I wanted to fly, I would have to free my feathers. I shucked my flannel shirt, my t-shirt, and stood bare-chested to the lovely chill. Thus unfettered, I ran and flapped, flapped and ran. I took off shoes and socks, yanked off pants and underpants. If anyone saw me, yes, of course, there would be repercussions, even legal procedures. My job at the university would be in question, but stakes had never been so high.
And this time as I ran, I took flight. I soared over hills and valleys, the little lake I had come to love. I caught the wind and circled high above the world. Exhilarating, yes, but I also had the fear that I would suddenly lose this ability and plunge like Icarus, or that I would become flight-mad and lose my bearings. Could I find my clothes again if I wandered far afield? I circled back, and circled back again, until at last I came down to dress myself like a normal heathen, in shoes and socks, underpants and pants, t-shirt and flannel overshirt.
I hiked through the woods, past the lake, got into my car and drove home with my senses heightened to the point of hysteria! I could not wait to get aloft again, though I realized I could find danger in the daylight. The next night I took the same drive, made the same hurried hike through trees to open country, where I shed my clothes and took to air. It was indeed chillier, but once in the air, I forgot all restraint. I caught the wind. I flapped my wings to rise higher.
Beneath me, wetlands reflected like twinkling stars and moon. I flew on, toward the city where everything I knew lay sleeping. I circled over my small-town city and homed in on my own house, the house in which mother lived and died, where I moved in my last years to take care of her, before she left it to me. I lit in the front yard, shivering my wings back to my sides, standing before my own house naked to the moonlight. I rushed inside, threw myself on my couch, thrilled to the point that when I remembered my clothes still on that hillside, I knew that I would fly out tomorrow morning to pick them up.
Right now, I was tired beyond reckoning. I slept the sleep of the happily exhausted. I might have inherited the house from mother, but flight—that I inherited from the birdman of Akron. So much yet to explore. Someday I would pluck a walleye from Lake Erie, lift an enormous trout out of a river, pluck a salmon from the sea, and at some point in the distant future, when I reached expanses undreamed of by human mind, I would find another who recognized my difference. It had occurred to me if there were indeed other birdmen, I would find them, and if birdwomen, I would find them as well, and if not, I would pick myself a likely lady and peck her in the head and neck. Soon, it would be time to found a family of my own, and become the lord and lady of the roost.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well two collections of stories, Private Acts and Killers & Others (2020) and a chapbook of flash fiction, Shutterbug. He has also published stories in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.