Chapter Two, Part 2
“Hello, Andy.” Grania stepped inside the clinic, pulling her long lab coat around her. Beth would return her rented academic robes on Monday. Her long lab coat was much more familiar and more comfortable. You never knew exactly where, or how, wildlife might try to greet their so-called rescuers.
“Espresso’s on the table, doc.” The big tech smiled his big gap-toothed grin at Grania. A retired rice farmer and Vietnam veteran, he should be sleeping in his bed right now. Instead, he’d chosen to follow his wife, one of the top animal rehabbers in California, and become a licensed vet tech. So here he was, well after midnight, standing guard over an animal carrier in the antiseptic maze of stainless steel and tile, known as a wildlife rescue center.
“Blessings upon you, oh procurer of the nectar of the gods!” Grania made a deep bow and headed for the table. Her long, red hair was still neatly pinned up in a chignon, legacy of the graduation ceremony’s formality. Normally, she’d wear it braided around her head, emphasizing efficiency and simplicity.
He chuckled at her latest sally in their ongoing game of complimenting each other’s coffee, then began to describe the patient. “Owl’s in the carrier over there.” He nodded at blanket-covered lump in a quiet corner of the lab, then went on. “Adult barn owl, maybe a male. Found beside a hiking trail near Redding. Debilitated but showing only a superficial wound on one leg.”
Grania froze, her coffee cup halfway to her lips. Shit, shit, shit. Probably goddamn rat poison or brodifacoum, to name the poison itself. Her eyes met Andy’s. His were just as enraged.
“Rat poison,” she growled.
“Could be wrong,” he offered but with little apparent hope.
“It’s the most frequent cause for barn owls being brought in here. Those birds are the best killers of rats and mice that God put on this planet.” She slammed her coffee cup down, barely managing not to splash it. “But when people get impatient and start poisoning mice, barn owls clean up the leftovers. . .”
“And die from the same thing that killed the mice. Their blood won’t clot.”
Her stomach heaved, thinking of all the raptors she’d lost. “So even a little wound on the leg will kill a fabulous bird like an owl.”
“Police did say that this guy is still somewhat alert. He may have reached us in time,” Andy offered.
“Damn, I hope so.” She stared at the carrier, willing strength into her feathered patient.
“That’s what I always say.” His tone shifted, gaining echoes of the top-notch Marine sergeant he’d once been. “Got the north operating room ready for you. Dr. Driver and my missus are already prepping the south for the coyote.”
Grania smiled reluctantly; he’d come a long way from the farmer who’d wanted to exterminate every varmint who could possibly kill one of his chickens. She finished buttoning her lab coat, grateful she’d at least worn trousers under her academic robes instead of the dress she’d originally considered. They weren’t jeans but they were better than a miniskirt.
She surveyed the equipment laid out; yup, everything she’d need for an intake exam. Then she sorted through the clinic’s gloves bin, found the pair she wanted, and began to pull them on.
“Sure you don’t want the black ones, doc?” Andy asked, narrowing his eyes at her reprovingly.
“Nope. If he’s that debilitated, I want to be as gentle as possible with him.”
“You’re the only vet who doesn’t use them for owls.”
Grania shrugged. “Maybe I’m reckless.”
“Yeah – and vampires fly every full moon. Ready for the patient?”
“Sure I am.”
He gave her a long, considering look, which she met with a raised eyebrow. Yielding to her certainty, Andy produced the animal carrier and set it on the table. He produced the clipboard and stood ready to record the exam.
Grania took a deep breath, centering herself in preparation to deal with the owl, and started the best job in the world.
She peeled back the heavy layers of blanket covering the carrier’s front and the pale, heart-shaped face of a barn owl stared out at her. He considered her for a moment, then hissed at her faintly, as if in greeting.
Grania ignored him. He was completely a creature of the wild. Her job was to heal him and return him there. She wasn’t about to encourage him to stay by talking to him directly, which might make him think humans were creatures he wanted to be around.
She unlatched the carrier and reached for the big bird; to her great joy, he snapped at her. A practiced grab saw his feet, with those razor-sharp talons, wrapped in one of her gloved hands.
Another twist of her shoulder lifted the owl up and out of the carrier, with her arm sliding up his back, as if he was Kermit the Frog and she was Jim Henson.
She held him out at arm’s length to look him over.
Dark brown eyes stared straight back at her. Then the barn owl shrieked, like a querulous old man clearing its throat. Greetings, ancient one, he announced.
Grania’s heart stopped and she nearly dropped him. He was talking to her? Impossible!
She’d heard a great many owl calls, more than one in the middle of the night. She understood perfectly well why most haunted house stories were thought to come from barn owls hooting at humans. She’d looked owls in the eye before and known that they were considering her every bit as much as she was studying them. But she’d never before thought that one was talking directly to her. Owls simply did not do that.
She barely managed to regain her grip. Her breath whistled out, as if to say, Who?
The barn owl stiffened, as if disgusted by her incomprehension. He cleared his throat again, like a soft cougar call. You. You are the ancient one, who has been guarded by the wise one.
A conversation? She was having a conversation with a barn owl?
This time, Grania held on to him and even managed to grab the back of his skull with her forefingers. Held this way, he wouldn’t be able to sink that deadly beak into her through her glove.
“You got a problem with the owl, doc? Should I call Dr. Driver to help?”
“No, no problemo, Andy.” Grania smiled at Andy. It felt like a grimace to her, but it seemed to reassure him. “Just making sure he’s got no big neurological problems.” Like talking to me.
She studied the feathered beast warily. He watched her silently and blinked once again, like a professor waiting for a student’s slow response. Maybe the rodenticide was having an unusual neurological effect? No, hissing that sounded like human speech wasn’t anywhere in the avian medical literature. Heaven knows, she’d treated enough rat poisoning cases to know that body of literature.
Folk legends began to run through her brain, such as hearing a barn owl at night meant something weird was about to happen. Poltergeists, people called barn owls.
She kicked herself mentally. Just do a standard examination, Grania. Pretend everything’s normal and soon it really will be. Gross examination first, for things like head tilt, wing damage, eyes. You’ve done this a thousand times before; you can do it now.
She cleared her throat, somehow still holding the owl, and began the first step in a blessedly familiar examination ritual.
A glance at the mirror over the lab sink showed the barn owl’s reflection. Dammit, why did he look quizzical, as if she was disappointing him?
He hissed at her again, almost sweetly. It sounded nothing at all like a typical barn owl call, which was usually compared to a mountain lion’s howl.
He was the best-behaved barn owl she’d met, since she fell in love with that great horned owl at the age of three. That enormous owl had been her very first friend other than her godfather. He had talked to her every night at sunset, as he sat on a tree before starting the night’s hunt. She’d taken a lot of flak for her obsession from the other kids in the orphanage. So she’d studied him and his brethren harder, hoping to explain him better. Hoping maybe the other kids would understand her, and her passions, a little better. And accept her a little bit. Like that had ever happened.
She lined the barn owl up straight and true, to see if any part of his body was leaning. While considering him, she absentmindedly hooted back at him, in a great horned’s call.
The barn owl hissed again, emphatically repeating his original call. Greetings, ancient one.
Andy dropped his pen.
She choked, her fingers slipping off the back of the owl’s head.
He glared at her. For an instant, he could have bitten her through her glove.
Then she recovered her grip.
Why the hell was the owl repeating the same call? About an ancient one, as if he was talking about reincarnation?
Utter nonsense in more than one way.
He hissed again, a commonplace barn owl call.
She hissed back at him, trying to mimic his call. Greetings, brother of the night.
Somehow he gave the impression of settling ruffled feathers and relaxed against her palm.
Grania forced her mind back to her job. If she didn’t, this owl would die. She cursed her own selfishness and laid him down to palpate him, the next step in the formal examination. She had to save his life.
Resting her fingertips lightly on his belly, she closed her eyes and focused hard on the barn owl. The ancient fan whirred overhead then faded into obscurity.
Slowly his abdomen came into focus before her mind’s eye. Blood was hemorrhaging into his stomach, where a mouse’s last fragments rested. Not too much blood though.
Thank God, he showed so much spirit. They’d reached him early enough to save him. With Vitamin K, a lot of TLC, and some luck, he’d be flying again soon.
Excerpt from Bond of Blood by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2006 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved