The other day I was woken from a much-needed nap by a screech. I identified it, instantly, as the screech of a screech owl, for I am ever alert to occurrences of an ornithological kidney. I peered out of the window and spotted the owl, perched on a picket fence. I pranced outside, went straight towards the owl, bunched my fist, and thumped it in what I supposed was its solar plexus. The owl toppled from the fence, looking mightily disconcerted. As soon as it hit the ground, it righted itself, unfurled its wings, and flew away. I watched until it had vanished in the blue empyrean, which in truth was grey and overcast rather than blue, but empyrean nonetheless, and then I returned indoors to resume my nap.
The next day I answered a knock at the door to be confronted by a gangly beanpole wearing some sort of peaked cap with glittering metal insignia pinned to it.
“Interrogative : would you be Mr Key?” he said.
“C’est moi!” I replied, foolishly, for I was in foolish spirits.
“Interrogative,” he said, again, “Yesterday, did you thump an owl, knocking it from its perch?”
“I did,” I said, “It was a screech owl and its screech woke me from a much-needed nap.”
“Interrogative,” he said yet again, and this time I interrupted him.
“Why do you keep saying ‘interrogative’?”
“Don’t get snippy with me, Mr Key, just answer my questions. Interrogative : are you aware that the thumping of owls is in contravention of the municipal bye-laws regarding conduct towards and/or in the presence of owls?”
“What?” I said, so he repeated himself, so I did too, and he was about to rerepeat himself when I flicked at his face a morsel of smokers’ poptart I happened to be holding and told him to go away. This was a mistake. He bunched his fist and thumped me in the solar plexus.
When I was able to breathe again, he helped me inside, and we sat facing each other at the breakfast table.
“A word of advice,” he said, “It is never a good idea to try to stymie the activities of a senior officer of the Civic Owl Squad going about his lawful business. As you have learned. Now let there be no more nonsense from you. I am invested with powers more draconian, more merciless, than you could imagine in your wildest and most sweat-drenched, pillow-gnawing nightmares.”
“Erk-gah” was all I could say, for I was still winded.
“Now. You have admitted to thumping an owl. I have it down on my pocket cassette recorder. Your nap is of no concern to us, by the way. By ‘us’ I mean myself and the screech owl you thumped. Though not present, I can assure you that it can hear every word you say, for screech owls are blessed with a tremendously good sense of hearing. I offer that tip in case you were minded to say something disobliging about the owl when you recover the power of speech. It will be listening carefully to everything you say for several months, until, that is, you have made complete restitution for your thumping.”
“Reugh?” I gasped.
“Precisely,” he said, “Restitution. Every day, for the next several months, you will fill this sack” – at which he whacked a large burlap sack upon the table – “with insects, reptiles, small mammals such as bats and mice and small birds such as wrens and hummingbirds. You will deliver the sack, filled to the brim – to the brim! – every morning at six a.m. on the dot to your neighbourhood Civic Owl Squad drop-in centre. Woe betide you if you fail to comply.”
I wondered for a moment of what that woe might consist, but decided it was better for my nervous equilibrium not to ask.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” said the gangly beanpole, “I will see myself out. And I am sure you don’t mind me helping myself to one of your smokers’ poptarts.”
I did mind – but what could I do?
The next day, after filling the sack to the brim with insects, reptiles, small mammals such as bats and mice and small birds such as wrens and hummingbirds, and delivering it to the drop-in centre, I returned home exhausted and took a much-needed nap. I was woken by a howl. I identified it, instantly, as the howl of a howler monkey, for I am ever alert to occurrences of a simian kidney.
Wasn’t Allen Ginsberg plagued by similar winged pests? I believe he explored this situation in his often-misunderstood 1956 poetry collection, “Owl”