Something bizarre happened to me yesterday. It was so strange that I haven't been able to fully process it even 24 hours later. It involved an impossible feat of physics, coincidence, and a brutal exercise in perspective. See this picture of my car's grill, noting the 2" x 4" openings in it? Hang onto that image because it is pivotal to this story.
But first, I need to tell you that it's been a difficult few weeks. The end of March, my sister announced that she and her partner of 17+ years are divorcing. He's a good guy. We love him, and of course we love her. My nieces are grown, but this still affects them. These sorts of lifequakes stir up unresolved family issues and arguments, too, at least they do in mine.
On top of that, my writing retreat business folded before it even got started. After five months of working like mad dogs with only a handful of sign-ups, in early April my partner and I made the difficult decision that it was not the business for us.
Finally, my first and probably only nonfiction book releases in two short weeks. In it, I step out from behind the cloak of fiction to share how I turn my life into stories. I LIKE THE CLOAK OF FICTION. That's why I write novels and not memoirs, for the love of Pete. But the fact-to-fiction process has been so transformative for me, so healing and so much the seeds of great writing, that I can't keep it to myself. Sharing it is the right thing to do, just like the TEDx was the right thing to do, but I've still felt like a naked freeway turtle for weeks now, that sensation growing stronger as the book's release date approaches.
So I've been on edge lately, pessimistic, overwhelmed, imagining something good just around the corner that'll make me happy, promising myself life will get better soon. (That's Minnesota optimism. You can put up with really cold winters if you spend your time thinking about summer.)
That's a recap of my recent life up until yesterday, which is where the weirdness begins. Yesterday I was traveling the three and half hours south from my in-laws to my parents. I was driving fast, but not too fast. My mind wandered as I drove. I unraveled the guilt I felt for not spending the previous day with my kids, with Z only home from college for three days and X stressed from the family changes. I worked through plot holes in Mercy's Chase, the next thriller in my Witch Hunt series. I daydreamed about the honeymoon Tony and I would finally take when we saved enough money and carved out enough time.
I was mostly feeling relaxed when I crested that hill to discover a flock of pheasants on the road. I gasped. A car was coming toward me and the ditch to my right was steep. I had to stay in my lane. I slammed on my brakes, but it was too late.
Have you ever hit an animal with your car? It's one of the top five worst sounds in the world. It's visceral. It's hollow and solid and feathers and bone. It's pain and you created it. I sucked in my breath and my eyes shot to my rearview mirror. I grew up in the country and I knew the rules: you never leave an animal to suffer. Please be dead please be dead please be dead. Except...I didn't see a carcass on the road. My stomach dropped. This could only mean one thing: the pheasant must be hung up somewhere on my vehicle. I drove a few hundred feet and parked on the shoulder, scanning the ditch for sticks. I was almost in tears because if I had to remove that poor creature from my car and then put it out of its misery with my bare hands...well, I couldn't think about that.
And for one sweet minute, I didn't have to. When I stepped out of my car and walked on trembly legs around to the front, I saw no bird. No feathers. No sign of an accident. I dropped to all fours. The pheasant wasn't under my car either. I stood, glancing all around. I felt a little dizzy. No way way had I imagined this. I leaned against my car to catch my balance.
That's when the flapping began. The pheasant was trapped behind my grill.
Like some rural David Copperfield, that bird had squeezed his chicken-sized body through one of my grill's 4" x 2" openings while the car was traveling at 60 miles per hour. Not possible. (Let me share the photo again here so you can see how not possible this was.) THERE WAS NO WAY A PHEASANT WAS TRAPPED INSIDE OF MY CAR STARING AT ME THROUGH MY GRILL LIKE MY OWN PORTABLE ZOO CREATURE. Except that it was. I popped my hood, felt the seams along every inch of that grill, scoured the wheel wells and underbody, searched for any other possible explanation, but there wasn't one. The speed and angle must have been freakishly perfect.
What do you do when you find yourself on a lonely country road with a huge wild bird trapped in an inaccessible part of your vehicle? You get in the car and start driving, that's what. And then you call your husband who is 40 miles behind and to the east of you and has no suggestions off the top of his head but to be fair this was new territory for both of us. We agreed to meet 25 miles south where his road and mine converged. It seemed like a solid plan until I'd driven all of two miles and started crying. That poor bird. He must be terrified. I couldn't drive slower because then he'd have to suffer there longer, but I couldn't speed because the radiator would heat up faster. Every turn of my wheels was torturing this creature.
It came to a head when I smelled burning feathers and thought to myself, That is the unluckiest bird in the world.
I couldn't drive like this for another 23 miles, not with that poor animal suffering. There was a closer town due east. Going there meant I'd miss Easter dinner for sure, but I had no choice. Ten minutes later, I found myself pulling into a gas station, wondering if I should park with my pheasant facing toward or away from the store. I decided on facing. He flapped when I walk by.
Inside the gas station, I spotted a couple farmers talking. "Hey," I said, "I've got an odd situation and I'm hoping you can help?"
They gamely followed me outside, and in true Midwestern fashion, did not lose one ounce of their cool. "Well I'll be damned. That's a full-grown rooster you've got in there." They chuckled. They told me maybe I'll have pheasant for dinner. They looked every inch on my car and came to the same conclusion as me: the only way in was through the grill, and the only way out was by dismantling the front bumper. I didn't have the tools. They didn't either. They pointed me toward the police department. The situation could only grow more surreal if one of them took to the air himself.
At the police station, Officer Jeff didn't bat an eye when I told him I got something weird to show him—you really do need to visit Minnesota—and as soon as he lay his eyes on the pheasant, he jogged back inside to grab a pair of gloves, some tools, and spent the next 20 minutes wordlessly removing my bumper. The longest sentence he strung together came after I ask him what the plan is if we get that poor bird out. I was not looking forward to seeing the shape he was in. He was surely broken every which way but Wednesday. Probably the tight space between bumper and the radiator was the only thing holding him together.
I wanted the officer to tell me that he'd do what needed to be done. Instead he said, "Hopefully, it'll fly away."
Officer Jeff, for all of his quiet capability, is clearly a dreamer.
The top seal of the bumper was finally off. Jeff directed me to pull the lip of it forward and down, keeping out of sight because if that pheasant had one ounce of sanity left, he was going to hide from humans. Jeff was using a thin, orange stick to guide the pheasant from the space behind the headlight. I was still 99 percent sure this bird was never coming out and I was going to have to sell my car when a big pile of pheasant poop dropped near my feet, I heard a glorious mad fluttering, and that bird took off. Like, IT FLEW, low and wide, that graceful aerial path unique to the pheasant, most of his gorgeous tail feathers still intact. He disappeared over a hill into the nearby woods. I let the bumper slam back, ignoring the deep indents it left in my fingers. Jeff and I were standing side by side, hands on hips, watching the pheasant fly.
"It's an Easter miracle," I finally said. We both laughed.
He reassembled my bumper. Just another day at work for him. I thanked him profusely. Tony pulled up four minutes later and huged me. There were a couple of those soft, poofy under-feathers stuck near my engine, but no other evidence. We piled into our cars and drove to my mom and dad's, where everyone held Easter brunch for us. The food was cold, the company good, and I couldn't stop thinking about that bird. He'd survived a collision with a car at 60 mph, had broken no bones as he slid through the tiniest of holes, and avoided being cooked alive on the radiator as we'd driven another 13 miles.
He was the luckiest bird in the world.
I'd thought the exact opposite when I'd crashed into him and driven him on a hot, unwilling tour of the back roads, but I'd been wrong. I know life is about perspective, but it's a hard truth to remember. Thanks to the pheasant, though, there was no missing it yesterday, and I began to realign my own perspectives accordingly. My family shake-up sucks right now. It really does, but it's an opportunity for my family to clean out some calcified garbage. I lost $5,000 and hundreds of hours trying to start that retreat business, but in the process, I remembered that I'm on this earth to be writing, not travel-agenting and marketing. More importantly? I realized that I've been living my life in the future for years now, waiting for the money and the time to finally enjoy myself. The time is now, always, and it was worth $5,000 and hundreds of hours to learn that (I hope it's cheaper next time I have to re-learn that, which'll probably be in a few weeks). Also, thanks to that damn pheasant, I booked two trips yesterday, one of them my honeymoon, a year after my wedding! And finally, my book, Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, my super-personal how-to guide that comes out May 1st. Well, as my friend Aimee wisely said, for good or bad it's no longer my book. It now belongs to whoever reads it. I hope it brings them what they're looking for.
I'm smiling as I type this. I'm the luckiest bird in the world.