Some things happen so quickly that it's hard to figure out if it was a dream or reality. Case in point:
After a long day at work, I was pulling carefully into the driveway at home. I just wanted to go inside, stretch out on the living room couch, and relax. I hadn't done the crossword puzzle in today's newspaper. That and a cup of hot chocolate would do me just fine.
But moments later, I heard a car skidding on the street behind me. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I saw the car slewing this way and that. The street ended a few houses away in a T-intersection, with a wall of evergreen woods beyond the intersection. The car slid right through the intersection and plunged into the woods. I thought I heard the blaring of a car horn.
Forget the newspaper and the hot chocolate.
I ran as quickly and as carefully as I could down the street. There wasn't any cross traffic at the T-intersection, thank goodness, so I ran into the woods, brushing the snow-covered branches out of my way. The snow on the ground came up to my shins. Despite that, the tracks the car had made in the deep snow and the brightly-lit brake lights made it easy to find.
The inside of the car was dark. I couldn't see anyone inside it. I worked my way around to the driver's side and peered inside. The driver's head was facing downward, pressed against the center of the steering wheel. They weren't moving.
Looking around, I found a rock about the size of my forearm. I used that to smash the driver's side window. Shards fell both inside the car as well as in the snow around me. I reached inside, unlocked the door, and pulled it open. The seat belt was pulled forward along with the driver's body. I undid the seat belt, put my arms around the driver's chest, and slowly pulled them out of the car. Putting my ear to their mouth, I was thankful to hear breathing, even if it wasn't steady breathing.
I couldn't do all this on my own, and there didn't seem to be anyone coming to help me. I put my hand into my right front pants pocket and pulled out my cell phone. I dialed 911 and told them what had happened and where I was. They said that they were notifying both the police and sending an ambulance to my location. They would be there as soon as they could. I thanked them, hung up, and put the cell phone back in my pants pocket.
It wasn't easy, but I managed to half-carry, half-drag the driver's body to the T-intersection. Standing at the top of the hill, this neighborhood had never felt so empty as it did now. Everyone was probably inside their homes and might not have heard the car skidding or crashing into the trees. I was relieved to see flashing lights climbing uphill toward me soon after.
The paramedics placed the driver on a stretcher and carried them to the back of their van. They slid the stretcher into the van and shut the rear doors. The police took my statement and thanked me for saving the driver's life and calling 911. I just said that I'd done what anyone would've done in this situation. They accepted that and offered me a ride home, even though it wasn't far from the T-intersection.
Back at home, I went inside. What had happened felt more and more unreal. Had it really happened? It seemed to have, but, like with dreams, it's sometimes hard to differentiate between a really vivid dream and reality.
Instead of grabbing the newspaper, a pen, and a cup of hot chocolate, I went into the kitchen. I stood at the sink, looking out the kitchen window at the backyard. I sighed and took a few deep breaths and let them out. Maybe making some dinner and eating it would help.
I was filling the dishwasher after dinner when I heard a knock on the front door. As I dried my hands with a dish towel, I wondered if it was the police, returning to ask more questions. Another knock. Whoever it was, they weren't giving up. I heard another knock as I walked over to the front door and opened it.
A tall woman in a long, dark-blue winter coat stood on the front porch. She had long golden hair, blue eyes, and a face that looked like it had come out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. She didn't look as though she'd been walking in the snow to reach my house. In fact, I wasn't sure if she was barefooted or not. A barn owl about a foot tall stood on her right shoulder. It seemed to be quite at home there.
“Harold Innes?” she asked.
“That's right,” I said. “Who's asking?”
“May I come in and explain?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes, nodded, and backed away. She walked past me and waited as I shut the door.
“I heard what happened at the police station,” she said. “That was very brave, what you did.”
“You could've waited until tomorrow to tell me,” I said.
“Perhaps,” she said. “But I thought that some recognition might be in order.”
“First, tell me who you are,” I said.
“I am Athena,” she said.
“Nice to meet you, Athena,” I said. “I don't normally get to meet women like you.”
“I know,” she said. “You live alone and have lived alone since your wife died several years ago.”
I raised my left eyebrow.
“I was working at the morgue back then,” she said. “I saw the gurney with your wife's covered body lying on it. I'm very sorry about what happened to her.”
“Is this normal procedure?” I asked. “Or are you just being friendly and neighborly?”
She smiled slightly. “You really have no idea who I am.”
“You said your name is Athena,” I said. “You could be anyone with that name. After all, some parents like giving their children unusual names.”
“My father thought it was an appropriate name for me,” she said. “Though he did say that I could be a bit of a headache sometimes.”
“What about your mother?” I asked.
“She was pleased that I wasn't the result of another of his philanderings,” she said. “Something that, sadly, he is still known for.”
I felt like I was being a bad host, even to an uninvited guest like her. “Look – if you're hungry or want something to drink, just ask.”
“No need,” she said. “I just wanted to give you a reward for what you did for that driver after their accident. I believe that you've earned it.”
“Okay,” I said, still not sure if this was some sort of joke. “What sort of reward?”
She reached up to the owl with her left hand, gently stroking the top of its head and along its beak.
“You don't usually have pets,” she said. “But the ones you've had, you've taken care of as well as you can.”
“You seem to know far more about me than I know about you,” I said.
She nodded. “Comes with the territory.” She hummed to the owl and it hooted in return. “A pet might do you some good right now. Companionship. Someone to come home to.”
“What sort of pet did you have in mind?” I asked.
“Sophie,” she said.
“I thought you said your name was Athena,” I said.
“That's her name,” she said, nodding at the owl, “not mine. It's short for Sophia, which means 'wisdom' in Greek.”
“What about her?” I asked, not caring for the language lesson.
“I think she might like living here with you,” she said. “If you don't mind, that is.”
“And I think this joke has gone on a little too far, lady,” I said.
She glared at me. “What joke? And my name is Athena, not 'lady'.”
“Yours,” I said. “Why don't you just go back where you came from and let me spend another night by myself. There's a crossword puzzle waiting to be solved and I was thinking of making some hot chocolate.”
“If you think I'm joking, then you're sadly mistaken, Mr. Innes,” she said.
I sighed. “All I did was help save a woman's life. Nothing unusual. Anyone in my neighborhood would've done it, had they heard about it instead of me.”
“You really think so?” she asked.
She placed her left hand on my chest. Without pushing hard, she easily pushed me back until I suddenly sat down on the living room couch. Her relaxed demeanor was replaced with a deadly serious expression.
“I don't think you truly understand the situation you're in," she said. “I don't do this for every mortal. Certainly not for mortals who think that I'm a prankster like Hermes is. I do not joke. Ever.” A long spear suddenly appeared in her left hand. She poked its point against my chest. “This is not a stage prop. This is a real spear. I can demonstrate that fact if you don't believe me.”
I said nothing.
She whipped the spear around, leaving a jagged scar in the wall behind me, just inches above my head.
I turned to look at it. “I hope you're planning to repair that.”
Her nostrils flared for a moment, and then she flicked her fingers at the scar in the wall. The scar disappeared. So did the spear.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Malaka, but you're stubborn!” she snarled.
“That's right,” I said. “And you can show yourself out. This conversation is over.”
“You won't change your mind?” she asked.
I shook my head.
She scowled and stamped her foot once, hard, on the living room carpet. Then she was gone. Standing in her place was the owl.
“You can leave, too,” I told her.
The owl hooted and then half-walked, half-flew toward me.
“Go on,” I said. “Get out of here.”
The owl hooted again.
“Your mistress is gone, Sophie,” I said. “How and where, I could care less. You should be with her, not here with me.”
The owl didn't hoot this time. She jumped up and landed in my lap.
“I guess I'm not the only stubborn one,” I said and found myself stroking the top of her head.
She seemed to enjoy that and hooted happily.
“How I'm going to take care of you until Athena returns, I don't know,” I said. “How do you take care of an owl?”
Sophie hopped off of my lap and flew down the short hall that divided the kitchen, bathroom, and one bedroom from the home office and the master bedroom. I heard her hooting over and over.
I sighed and stood up. “All right, all right. I'm coming.”
She was standing on top of my closed laptop, pecking it every so often.
“You want me to open it?” I asked.
The owl bobbed her head a few times.
“Okay,” I said and opened the laptop. Sophie backed out of the way a little as I did so. “I guess there are websites for pet shops online. But I doubt that they would have anything for owls.”
I clicked on the icon for my favorite browser, went to Google, typed “how to take care of owls” in the search field, and hit “enter”.
When the first page of results appeared, one thing I saw was: Owls need a lot of space. No cages. Well, I had a fair-sized backyard with trees and bushes. Sophie might like being out there sometimes. She might also find some prey to catch and eat.
What else, though? I wondered.
A birdbath. Hmm. Don't have one of those. But I could improvise one. There was a small table in the backyard with a chair near it. I could put the improvised birdbath on the tabletop. It would have to be big enough and deep enough for an owl the size of Sophie.
Good grief. I'm making this sound like I'm going to keep her as a pet for the foreseeable future. Surely Athena, or whoever she was, would be returning soon enough for her pet owl. People don't just give owls as pets (except for the parents who bought owls for their children who were fans of Harry Potter, I reminded myself). Owls were wild animals. They weren't tame.
But Sophie certainly was tame enough. Maybe that meant she had spent a lot of time with Athena, wherever they normally lived.
Food. It seemed like owls preferred rats and small birds. Where in the world was I going to get those?
I typed “owl food” in Google's search field. It came back and gave me several possible places where I could buy what Sophie liked to eat. I wasn't exactly keen on buying dead rats and small dead birds and bringing them home in a shopping bag, but she had to eat something until Athena returned for her.
That night Sophie tried to get me to open the bedroom door, pecking on it repeatedly. But it didn't do any good and we both slept alone.
The next morning, once roads were cleared of snow, I went to the store I'd seen in the Google results. I bought a first installment (and hopefully only installment) of food for Sophie and a birdbath. When I returned home, she was waiting for me. She flew over to me and landed on the rolled over “handle” of the bag of food. She definitely knew what was in it and kept hooting as she tried to get access to the bag's contents.
“Be patient, Sophie,” I said. “Birdbath first, then food.”
At least I didn't have to improvise one. This one was just the right size for her. I cleared the top of the table in the backyard of snow and placed the birdbath in its center. Then I filled it with water. The owl flew over to it, landed in the water, and happily bathed herself.
“While you do that, I'll get your meal ready,” I told her.
She hooted at me and continued her bath.
I found a large mixing bowl and placed several of the dead rats and little birds in it. Not the most pleasant and appetizing of sights, but I reminded myself that this was for an owl, not for myself. I carried the bowl out to the table in the backyard.
Sophie finished her bath and happily attacked her first dead rat, tearing at it with her beak and talons. She used her wings to keep her balance as she ate.
I cleared the chair of snow and sat down. “You seem to be easy to take care of, after all,” I told her. “Your diet isn't filled with anything expensive. This might just work out for the two of us. At least until Athena returns. If she returns.”
Once she finished her meal, Sophie walked over to me and jumped onto my chest. She rubbed her cheek against my face.
“Okay, okay,” I said, trying not to laugh. “I do like having you around. I just never expected to have an owl as a pet. They always seemed too exotic for me. You seem nicely down-to-earth.” I stroked the top of her head and her wings. “To be honest, I wouldn't mind if Athena never returned for you. I'd like you as my very own, Sophie.”
She hooted happily.
Back on Mount Olympos in Greece, what looked like a wall frieze went dark.
“Mission accomplished, daughter,” Zeus said. “Well done.”
“It would've been easier had he been female, Father,” Athena said. “You males, mortal or immortal, can be so – so -”
“Ornery and stubborn?” he asked.
“Exactly!” she said. “I mean, look at Paris. You'd think with the golden apple of Hesperides, he would've been satisfied. But he wasn't. He wanted more. So he kidnapped Queen Helen of Sparta and took her back to Troy with him.”
“I don't recall that she dragged her heels too much,” her father pointed out. “No more than your mortal acquaintance did. A little persuasion can go a long way.”
“At least this time it won't cause any wars,” Athena said. “And they are definitely happy together, and getting more so all the time.”
“You gave him a gift of wisdom,” he said. “Wisdom accompanied by love, affection, and companionship. Something he has been in sore need of, whether he realized it or not.” He looked at his daughter. “One question remains.”
“And that is?” she asked.
“Will you miss Sophie?” Zeus asked.
“Always,” she said. “I have other owls, of course, but she is definitely my favorite.”
“And yet you were willing to part with her,” he said. “She will never be with you again.”
“He needed her more than I did,” Athena said simply.
Zeus smiled at her. “Indeed he did.”
When I went to sleep the second night, I'd intended to sleep alone again. But Sophie wasn't having any of that. Once was enough for her. She curled up next to me, tucked her head under one wing, and seemed to fall asleep.
“Good thing you're not nocturnal”, I said softly. “I'm not much of a night-owl.”
One of her eyes opened. She gave me an indignant look and hooted in a way that sounded like, “And what's wrong with night-owls?”
“Nothing at all,” I said. “Sleep well, Sophie. I hope you have happy dreams.”
She hooted softly and we both fell asleep.